We’ve all seen it. Someone holding a lead rope and hyper-stimulating a young horse with a stick until he shuts down, et voila, a tame horse. Or someone in spurs climbs on a young horse in a round pen, runs him through the gaits, pulls back to get a stop, and hallelujah, a trained horse. Or someone who lunges a horse at the back of a trailer until the horse, exhausted and in pain, goes into the trailer, because we make the hard thing easy. Easy for who? Well, horses have learned something, but it’s about humans. As if frightening a horse takes a measure of skill. As if punishment created willing partners.
One more thing we’ve all seen. Someone else who pays the full price on a horse, just to “rescue” it from a life of brutality. Only to bring it home, a few thousand dollars later, to find out that rehabbing isn’t as romantic in real life. Only to find that the base of those behaviors is more than bad training and there are pain issues underneath that may or may not be easy to diagnose. Yay, those are my well-intentioned clients. Raise your hand if your ears are burning.
We either overestimate the brutality and the horse comes around quickly, and we get to think we’re geniuses. Or we underestimate the damage done, and things go the speed of dog hair on a fleece jacket and we feel like we’ve failed the horse. The same hands go up.
It isn’t just new horses. Just to make things more nebulous, I’ve known well-trained horses who trailer loaded perfectly until the day they didn’t. Calm horses who stood still for the farrier until they stopped. Good horses who seemed perfect under saddle until they weren’t. A training issue appears where there wasn’t one before, apparently without reason.
We certainly do have a training issue. It’s ours, though. We think training is a logical, quantifiable, and finite experience, as stable as a can of beans in the pantry. This horse was trained to cross water, we reason, so we get the can of Water Crossing down from the shelf and open it up, suitable for any water, any time of day, any season. Then we’re surprised when the horse who will cross a stream on a trail ride, won’t put a hoof in a mudpuddle that has a rainbow of oil slime on the surface after a thunderstorm.
Maybe the horse is head shy. We know better than to flood the horse with torment, so instead, we try the opposite. We relentlessly fuss with the horse’s head passively. Not that this approach has ever worked for flies either, but still we fuss, in hopes of making the horse less fussy. Sometimes we lose patience and push, we reason that we have a reason for our inconsistency, but then we’re practically back to square one. We’re frustrated as if losing the progress we’d made was something we owned on a shelf.
We cart out all of our human logic and sort through it to understand the horse’s problem. But that’s the problem; horses don’t live and act with human logic. We know this because we have all tried training approaches that make profound sense to humans but totally fail horses. That is the other half of the equation. We are trying to re-train ourselves as we are re-training horses and in the process getting an up-close understanding of what didn’t work, and even with all your love, it’s still not working.
A horse’s fear won’t be healed by repeating the activity to “desensitize” the horse, even if our intention is good. More of the same intimidation isn’t the cure, it’s how they got that way. Understand that the behavior is there for a reason that helps the horse. It might be a wrong reason for us, but the horse believes survival depends on it. Nothing less than survival.
Ouch, the horse sees us as one of the monsters. It isn’t about us or our inability to control what others think. We reason the unreasonable, but it still hurts.
They say you have to hit rock bottom to change. And yes, we might hit a few false bottoms before we really hit hard enough to understand the difference between our idea of training and the arduous task of changing an ingrained habit. Habits are like icebergs, the largest part below the surface. It’s a relief when we finally accept there will be no faith healings today. Inconceivably, it’s even a bit liberating.
Let it go. As much as it’s our heart’s desire to heal the horse, we have to let our importance go. We can’t make a horse trust us any more than that dominating trainer could before us. There is no can of Peace or Confidence on the pantry shelf. The memory of their first trainer never leaves, any more than we can forget being bullied as kids. If we remember those dark emotions, expect no less from a horse.
Instead, get comfortable. Both partners need seasons ahead to build new habits. Eventually, the old memory finally fades, replaced by consistency and kindness recognized in horse time. In hindsight, we smile at our naive notion that a location change would be enough to change the nature of a horse. We aren’t less enthusiastic. It’s more about making friends with the passing of time. The other word for that is finding patience.
First, the horse needs to feel safe. Not frightened and not shut down. We can’t train this part; the horse has to get there in his own time. Our skill is less important to the horse than his own resilience. Can we trust the horse to do this? We still ask questions about mud puddles and halters over sensitive ears, but rather than forcing an answer, can we stand back and allow the horse time enough to build the inner confidence to answer? Can we let him heal himself? Even when change comes so gradually that it’s hard to quantify and put on that damned shelf?
Eventually, we get patient or the horse gets to a mature age or both, and the problems slowly resolve. We don’t remember a particular day of enlightenment. It was more of a long slow sunrise, with pink and yellow against a blue sky. We forget those long dark nights of resistance. We’re part of a community that cares less about what a horse offers us and more about the welfare of horses. We will always ride in the light.
With respect for my clients, especially those in our online group who started in the online school two long years ago, and who are reaping the benefits of patience and acceptance, please stand tall and raise that hand again. Take pride in your progress as well as theirs. Horses also let us know when we’re getting it right. We can trust that, too.
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward. Scheduling clinics for the fall in the Midwest and Eastern states now.
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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.