It’s a thing called a Barn Visit. I offer them to clients mainly, those I’ve worked with online through the pandemic. I’m an expensive visitor but on the other hand, it’s a private clinic that kind of redefines intensive. Training is so individual that meeting the horse and rider on their own land can be a real advantage for each of us.
The client horse is a Haflinger, a small draft horse who doesn’t like to be haltered, can be challenging to lead, and tends to counter-bend. He is also kind, polite, incredibly smart, and if anything, he tries too hard. A bit of a paradox, he’s one of those horses better in the saddle than on the ground, which tells us a lot. His foundational training, before my client owned him, isn’t quite solid.
We talk about the anxiety he shows in his flank at the four o’clock position, and in his muzzle area. We know part of the puzzle is a history of gastric issues and she is working on that. I’m impressed. My client has eliminated most of the counter-bending brilliantly. We make a plan for the day: She has a new bitless bridle to fit to him and try out. I do just what I always do. I want to return his calming signals and prove that I’m no threat to him either.
Haltering is the heart of so much of what we do with horses; it’s when horses surrender their autonomy to us. It’s foundational but easy to get complacent about. My client wants to help her horse in a kinder way but he is still a prey animal. As loved as he is, he struggles with people close to his head. We had a slow conversation about his anxiety. We gave him time to soothe himself.
We had two sessions the first day, both went well. Under saddle, he was a bit confused by the lack of a bit and by me beside him, but we walked on and he found his balance. Forward is the miracle cure. We gave him the last word. His calming signals were eloquent as he processed his day.
This is the moment I’ll remember: The gelding was passively resistant, not bad but worried and reluctant. After answering a few of his calming signals affirmatively, giving him time to think, he turned to me and offered to take the halter. His eye was steady and calm, he volunteered three times. Moments like that last forever.
Mister, my good dog, and I had dinner in the Rollin’ Rancho down by the barn. I sipped some wine while watching the sunset, and a herd of elk wandered up the meadow, grazing the pasture. I love my job.
The alarm went off at 4 am but I was already awake, thinking about writing. Mister is a late riser, so he rolled belly-up and sighed. Sometimes relationships work that way. I made my coffee and got to it, writing until a 6 am online lesson with a client in Sweden where it’s the afternoon.
This time it’s a sweet young draft horse who had been asked to think a little quicker than he wanted to and my client has slowed it all down. She shares a series of videos and I give some input and ideas going forward. In the last video, she tried leading him from behind in a neck-ring with his head totally free. The horse’s movement with no halter is stark and dramatic. So much freer, the horse lifts his shoulder and the first stride out is a huge soft step, his neck long and his head naturally on the vertical. My client’s done good work, he wears his new confidence with softness.
Both horses share anxiety about their heads, but it’s always true. How we let horses know we are predators is by over-managing their heads on the ground and in the saddle, destroying their trust, and at the same time, giving ourselves a false sense of security. Calming signals fill that gap. Horses are absolutely intelligent enough to know that we can leverage them by pulling them off balance, and so when they submit to a halter or bridle, it’s a pretty sacred moment.
My text notification dings. “Anna, call me before you go outside.” Huh?
Then, “Anna, the wolves killed an elk in our pasture so stay close to the barn if you take Mister out for a walk. Game and Fish is coming to remove the carcass shortly. This may change our plans.”
This is recent, it’s happened pretty close by, and the wolf had passed yards from my trailer. I don’t wake up Mister to tell him because like I say, he sleeps in. I slip outside and we go up on the house deck to survey the scene. Wolves had pushed a small elk against the perimeter fence and brought her down.
As we’re standing there the wolf comes back for a second pass at the carcass. He’s magnificent, black with a light-frosted silver sheen. His mask is bloody red. As massive as a German Shepherd but he leaps a fence as light as a rabbit. You can’t mistake him for anything else. Coyotes have a way of slithering and stalking but this predator carries himself differently. You can see him push off from his haunches and launch himself across the ground, fit and strong. So handsome, this guy stands on all fours and watches us watch him. He doesn’t look away.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department has been actively involved tracking packs in the area and they quickly arrive. Not everyone likes wolves, so it’s touchy, but they are friendly and informative. They pull into the pasture and I got Mister out of the Rollin’ Rancho and I walked him a few steps down the road toward where they were picking up the carcass. We weren’t at all close but he jumped back and forth and lifted his nose high in the air. He didn’t make a sound.
They use a winch to load the small elk carcass on the back of the truck. The wolves brought the elk down from behind, later I’ll see white fur at the scene, but now, from this distance, I can see a huge red circle where the wolves had begun to disembowel the elk… at four o’clock on its flank. Horses know that spot.
We look up the meadow and the first wolf is heading back again, with two wolves following. The Game and Fish people shoot a couple of rounds into the air, hoping to frighten the wolves back toward their usual less-populated territory. The sky is filled with vultures floating in arcs over the site, as if tracing the circle of life. Nature is beautiful even now.
And there’s still a hole in the fence, one of the broken posts was thrown into the road. It feels good to drive in a t-post, just to right something. My client and I work together quickly; she says it’s now more of a “psychological” fence. We’ve done a temporary job, finished with twine, as one does. It’s an unusual use of my skills but our day is off the rails and we don’t know how the horses will be.
We have just had a visceral lesson in the predator/prey dynamic. We can’t be complacent today even if we wanted to. We think about canceling the session but decided to go just step-by-step slowly. We’ll listen to her horse’s calming signals and let him tell us.
The horses and donkeys should have been turned out by now, but they have been spectating all morning. Her horse lets us know it’s a brand new day. He’s bright and alert, interested in us, and calm. It’s as if the events of yesterday were bigger than those of the morning. It was just us humans who were reeling at the blood and carnage.
We’d spent the last day talking about how deep his fear of controlling his head is, how restricted he felt in halters and bridles. He seemed different after a night to process yesterday’s lesson in patience. Perhaps he’d gained some confidence. Not entirely solid, but he was leading us from behind on this one. My client trusted the bridle, and so did her good gelding. They had a brief but breathtakingly beautiful ride.
It was a barn visit we didn’t expect and all the lessons were valuable.
I go meet Mister for supper and then he leans into a nap before bed and I reflect on my day. The elk didn’t return but I’m full of awe for horses who find a way to trust us, fear always in their minds as their nature demands. Horsewomen have a special understanding of both sides, predator and prey. Not denying either, we work for the place in between where we can be partners by choice.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward, now scheduling 2022 clinics and barn visits. Information here.
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.
32 thoughts on “A Barn Visit and a Fresh Reminder About Predator and Prey”
Wow, what an amazing story, Anna with a wonderful moral to the story. Please enjoy your time in AZ, and I agree, wolves are magnificent looking creatures.
If we are around animals, it’s always worth listening. Thanks, Michelle
What a perfect illustration of the predator/prey dynamic at work. Sometimes mother nature just smacks us up alongside the head with it. It is easy to romanticize nature when you live in a city far from the reality. The truth is that nature is brutal in it’s beauty. Horses know this, it is we humans that need reminding. Thank you for sharing this glimpse into the natural world and reminding us of where a horses fear comes from.
It was a great smack! Thanks Peggy. You would have loved him.
Love it…can’t wait to meet you this weekend and dive deep into your work.
Thanks, Vicki. I’m inspired; I will rant a bit!
I loved EVERYTHING about this post!
Beautiful lessons, beautifully written.
Even more beautifully demonstrated. Thanks Deb
Fascinating. We have wolves too but are more likely to run into bears, especially this time of year, just as mother moose are giving birth to their calves. Moose often have twins but only one usually survives spring’s hungry predators. The horses are familiar with moose that sometimes share their pasture, but bears get their full attention. Thankfully we haven’t had one in the pasture (that I know) but we do run across them on the trail. The critter that makes my mare truly fear for her life, though, is a porcupine. She got a nose full of quills as a youngster and now the suggestion of one puts her into full flight mode.
I love the comment about women having a special understanding of predator and prey. Bill and I have been discussing this. As we get older, he is understanding more what it’s like to feel vulnerable and how that colors one’s perception of the world. Thanks as always, Anna.
What a great comment. Bears have a particular smell but porcupines, yes! Interesting conversation for sure. I have it with myself ! Thanks, Kaylene
Visual Virtual walk about using words.
My favorite language! Thanks Kimberly
Wow. Following Closely.
What a remarkable account of how you started your day, Anna. And then, “It’s as if the events of yesterday were bigger than those of the morning.” Lesson learned, and remembered. You both must have been so proud!
I’m always amazed with how ‘giving the last word’, letting them think, grows overnight! I was gobsmacked.
I love this writing- precise and utterly clear imagery! Thank you! Here in France it’s a bit tamer, but we do have lone wolves and I have been privileged to see their tracks while safely perched on my horse’s back… such a wonderful feeling of close but safe. I like what you point out about the head thing…one of my guys is a previously badly treated gipsy cob, he is lovely when ridden but impossible to lead by his head, he just gives me an intelligent glance and turns away until the rope touches his shoulder… “My 600kilos to your 50?” he silently shows me… I have to tell other people who lead him to just let go and not resist if they want unburned hands. He is a gentle little giant and I am not going to try and change this behaviour, I just change what other people expect from him instead. I think having been badly handled around his head he just needs respect and no reminders of the old days. He loves carrying newbies on his back, you could go to sleep and let him take you home but forget ‘ground work’! He ain’t afraid of wolves or wild boar, just people with lunge ropes 🙂
What a good listener you are. Groundwork of a certain sort particularly destroys horses. Ths little giant has found safety… and good luck with changing what people expect! We’ll both be working on that. Merci, Lucy
This post gave me chills.
Lucky you Anna – getting to see wolves in action. There are a population of resettled (and incredibly endangered) red wolves in a nearby refuge on the mainland. Keep hoping to lay eyes on one at the handy “wolf crossing” areas when passing through.
I’m reminded of a memory from trail guiding back in the day. The local deer population are notoriously skittish when we humans bumble around. (except when you seed the yard with leftover Halloween pumpkins lol) However – a string of twenty horses carrying twenty riders can pass within a few feet of a group of does and fawns, and the deer barely look up from their feeding, which then tempers the reaction of the horses. I always felt like I had equine camouflage.
Yes, the horses aren’t afraid of their normal environment… just us! Thanks, Christian. You would have loved him.
How can I learn more about calming signals?
Hi. I write about them often here on my blog, I teach courses here: https://relaxedandforward.mn.co/all-courses and I give clinics. Some other trainers are starting to include versions in their work as well. It changes everything! Thanks Claudia.
I’m a regular reader and just have to comment on this essay. How beautifully expressed. I was taken on a journey with you through it all. A wonderful evocation of predator and prey. My consolation is that, as you say, as horsewomen we understand both sides.
Thanks for commenting, Máire. And for reading along. From a writing standpoint, I wanted to get this right because it was so meaningful to us.
Thanks, Sandy. So did I.
Another super article – felt as if I was there!!
A bit late chiming in but somehow this wonderful post got past me. Thank you Anna, I thoroughly enjoyed it! And I enjoyed it without tears or an ounce of guilt! Thanks to you, when riding horses that I’ve just met, I am ultra-respectful of their head on the ground and I always give them their head from start of the ride. I give them the benefit of the doubt right away and I honestly can’t remember ever being sorry I did.
YAY, and thank you. The benefit of the doubt. Were there any truer words?