Thursday, October 15, 2009

Humouring your horse

I got thinking a few days ago, after being frustrated at one of our Thoroughbreds for wanting things his way, for being so independent – what is it that makes me think that things have to be my way? Why my way and not his? Because I pay board on him? Because he’s “mine”, because some money changed hands? What’s he care? It really hit me today that he has no reason to want to, or have to, do things my way all the time. What gives me the right to impose my will on him? He’s a living, breathing, thinking being too, with his own ideas and wants and needs. It really impressed upon me that I really have to earn the right to ask him to do what I want, the right to be his leader.

Someone commented a couple weeks ago, after a particular blog I wrote, that I might allow my horses to “dictate” what we do. I’ve thought about it since, while working with our horses, because there have been times recently where I’ve worked in such a way with our horses where someone could misinterpret that I am allowing our horses to have all the control. Some examples:

I couldn’t get our newest herd member, a formerly abused Paint, to work in sync with me – he was fearful, wanted nothing to do with me, and was intent on leaving, particularly while playing the circling game. So instead we played the circling game where he wanted to – close to one of the barns he wanted to walk through to return to his buddies and grazing in the pasture. Once I got him working with me though, I took him back to where I wanted to play, away from the barn and in an open space (so no fences to help us out). I compromised a bit, causing him to willingly compromise for me only shortly later.

The Warmblood mare I am currently working often loses focus and is not as attentive to learning when asked to work in the outdoor ring. My compromise is therefore that we learn in the indoor arena, where she has greater ability to focus, learn and succeed, then take what we’ve learned outside. Work with what she can give (inside) initially, then increase the challenge when she is ready by asking her to then focus and learn outside.

One of our Thoroughbreds would pull back and paw when tied, working himself into a lather and becoming increasingly anxious. So I stopped tying him - for awhile. I worked hard at teaching him to release better to pressure and to be better collected emotionally and mentally - to be a calmer, braver, smarter horse. With prior and proper preparation, I then was able to resume - this time successfully (ie, no pulling back or pawing) - tying him.

During my liberty groundwork with our Quarab, I was trying to get him to do a specific task – instead, he gave me something else. He side-passed beautifully for me down a fence – at liberty. Hey, not what I was asking for, but I'll take it! I changed my body language appropriately and we side-passed in either direction down the fence. Now that we had the side-pass down, I re-asked him for the original task, keeping in mind the body language he had understood to mean “side-pass”, and making sure to communicate more clearly. It worked, and he gave me the double-spin I had originally been looking for.

I guess you can call it what you want, but I do allow my horses to have a say in what we do – it’s a part-ner-ship, after all. If I cater to them a bit sometimes, they are more willing to cater to me. Getting a horse to do what you want, willingly, is (relatively) easy. Establishing a work ethic in a horse who does not have one is even (relatively) easy. Getting a horse to do what you want, with exuberance, is harder and is the ultimate goal in my program. As Jonathan Field says, "take all the ropes off your horse and you know what you have". I should be able to take all the ropes off my horse and have him continue working with me in partnership - happily. He should actively seek me out. This takes work to accomplish however, and often involves some compromise as you increasingly earn the right to ask whatever you can dream up, of your horse.

Liberty work allows for expression from the horse – it’s the ultimate level of partnership. Your horse has to want to work with you, else, with no ropes to hold him in place, he is just going to leave. So you learn to work with your horse, allowing him to have a say in what you do as well, to express himself. The more you work with him, the more he works with you. Like Parelli says “you do a bit of what your horse wants, maybe he’ll want to do a bit of what you want”. Take what your horse gives you, work with him in a manner where he wants to offer up different things to you, then take what’s given and mold it. Pretty soon, you can ask your horse anything, anytime, and he will give it to you willingly.

Do I allow my horses to dictate everything? No, there are boundaries. There are times where a horse must be pushed, where he needs to be firmly guided and shown he can and should do what you're asking. Same as teaching a person - there are times to push a student and there are times to back off and return to that task later. You also need to make it fun to that student, which might include asking them what they want to work on today or what they want to do just for fun! If a particular horse really doesn’t want to be ridden and is excessively difficult or resistant, I’m going to a) respect their wishes and b) ensure my safety by not swinging my leg over. They've already made it clear to me on the ground, why would I ignore their wants and swing my leg over anyway? Doing so could cause them to escalate. If a horse is acting dangerous under-saddle, yes, I am likely going to get off. I don’t like getting hurt, especially if it is pointless to do so, if I can accomplish the same from a safer point (on the ground). Why would you get on a horse, or continue riding a horse, that is clearly not giving you permission to be on their back, who is telling you “no”?! Its 1,200lbs of pure muscle! Instead, I prefer to work with a horse in such a way that it wants to be ridden, to the point where, eventually, he never says “no”, and instead he always says “pick me, pick me!” when I go out to catch a horse to ride. If you become too frustrated with a horse because they won’t do what you want (for whatever reason), walk away – dealing with a horse while frustrated is inexcusable, we have to have the discipline to either not get frustrated in the first place (by arming ourselves with knowledge – but we’re human, so there are times where we will be frustrated), or to walk away and re-evaluate what we’re asking, how we’re asking it, etc. If it takes working with a horse in a particular area to get them to work with me, I am going to do it, so that I can then take that partnership we’ve built to ask that horse to now work where I want to. As in any relationship, there is a lot of give and take. It is not that a horse should "get their way” permanently, but you can back off a bit, better prepare them for what you are expecting of them (set them up for success), then eventually re-ask at a better time. This way their dignity is preserved and they want to work with you... respect is offered both ways.

Some won't agree with my take on training, some prefer a dictatorship or some variation thereof or between - so take my advice or leave it, but consider it. Personally, I don’t feel it should be all about us – this is another living, breathing, animal that we’re expecting to work with us, one we often rely upon and one whom we often also place at risk… shouldn’t it be about them too? I have a great respect for my horses – their dignity, their wants, their needs – are paramount to me. Wouldn't you do the same in a human relationship, with your husband or wife? Why would your horse be any different?

On a related (but seemingly not) note, check out the Parelli Liberty (Beyond the Round Pen) and Collection DVD’s – they were inspiring and really taught me a lot. They are what really got me thinking further on the above and inspired me to write this blog post.


CurtsBooks said...

Nicely written. There is a line between the horse dictating to the person and the person listening to the horse. It is a difficult line to describe and sometimes difficult for an observer to see. But in my journey of horsemanship, I've seen that the best horsemen, regardless of their discipline or background, "get it".

Equus said...

Thanks, and you are so absolutely right!! Couldn't agree more :)