Nube: An Iberian Stall Toy for the Donkeys

Daryl, Daryl, and their other brother, Daryl.

In the first months after coming to our farm, it was a simple schedule for Nube:  wrestle, eat, sleep, repeat. The horses were kind, but it was mutually agreed they could do without Nube’s adolescent fart games. 

It was great news because fart games are the bread and butter of donkey life. I’d given the donkeys some great toys in the past but nothing this cool. Their very own Iberian Sport Horse. Wrestle, eat, sleep, repeat. 

They couldn’t leave him alone, or vice versa. It was hard to tell. Wrestle, eat, sleep, repeat. Nube napped in a dogpile of long ears. If horses could drool, he would have and when he woke up, he had grown. It must have been physically exhausting to have all those cells running wild inside and donkeys running wild on the outside. Wrestle, eat, sleep, repeat all over again, but a little taller.

Naturally, Nube turned into a donkey. What choice did he have? He became more independent, and curious, and best of all, he developed a wonderfully strong topline from playing tag with friends who were shorter than he was. It was all those hours hot-rodding around in a forward long stretchy trot with a smattering of donkey hair in his teeth. There’s no better work for developing a dressage horse.

When it came to the work that I did with Nube, it was more about what I didn’t do the first year. I didn’t work with him for more than ten minutes. I didn’t pull on his face. I didn’t tie him to a fence. I didn’t groom him every day. I didn’t ask him to leave his new friends. If I picked out one hoof, maybe two, I didn’t do more. I asked him for less than I needed so he could offer more if he wanted. I flatly refused to see anything as his fault. I said YES! because confidence must always be the top priority, not training. Besides, he cantered straight lines doing tempi changes out in the pasture, he didn’t need that explained.

Mostly we practiced calming signal conversations. Since he was two months old, it had been our only language with each other. Nube was the kind of brilliant youngster who learned fast and begged for more. If there had been one of those “gifted and talented” programs in the barn, he would have been at the head of the class. Another trainer might have pushed, mistaking his enthusiasm for maturity. I knew that would be a mistake, his confidence was a new habit and partly hollow bravado. He needed more time to trust himself. The faster young horses learn, the more tempting it is to do too much. No one wants to quit when things go well, I sure didn’t, but this colt mattered. No excuses. 

Horse training is simple, we collect good experiences for the horse.

It wasn’t about control or what I could make a horse do. If this was going to be a partnership, we had to practice the fine art of peaceful persistence from day one. We had a life ahead and this fundamental learning would be the bedrock of how he would feel about the world.

All trust is based in consistency. I chose to hold an affirmative demeanor while Nube and I were together. Emotional self-control around horses is a choice. We can be self-indulgent with our emotions, or we can be there for the horse. Patience is a choice as well. It isn’t easy but it is that simple.

It wasn’t that I actually had those skills with humans, but I could play the part of a person who was a little better while in Nube’s world. Nube came first. That’s what it would take for the kind of relationship I wanted with him. I could obsess or scheme or worry all I wanted while in the house, but on his time it was the all-Nube channel, all the time. It was not about me.

From the start, Nube matched my stride more precisely than others horses I’d known. I don’t use whips or sticks or wands or any other creative name meant to disguise a weapon from the one holding it. What we did early on wasn’t liberty training and I deserve no credit. Horse herds instinctually move in synchrony, as schools of fish or flocks of birds move in unison, and unless humans have messed them up, it’s natural for horses. Moving is calming, I was a safe place, and matching strides was the most normal thing for him. 

Every breath brought him closer mentally. It’s the most effective cue possible, and anything more would be too much. Breathing was our connection when I visited him before he was weaned and something we did consciously as he died. Breathing is the most primal calming signal.

I always stopped sooner than either of us wanted to and left him hungry for more conversation, praise, and curiosity-engaging affirmative work. I didn’t give him a hand treat once over the next twenty years and he trotted to me if I was in eyesight.

We started with a mounting block early on. I want to train him that humans use them so that they can scratch horses better. It wouldn’t be long before he came at a trot and parallel parked in position, but in the beginning, I was a scratching post.

After a few minutes there, he did some walk/trot transitions off my breath, me in the center, and him on the rail. Then an inhale to a canter, and he’d arch his neck and lift his shoulders. His hind end engaged, he’d rise to a gallop on the long side. An exhale and he was walking again, still on the rail, while I hooted and cheered. Babies should get used to cheering crowds right from the start.

I called him from the rail and exhaled for a halt, still maybe fifteen feet away. I needed a minute to think. We’d done the usual stuff and I was desperately searching for a new idea. We might have both been thinking, “Now what?”

His ears were up, his focus was intense, and his energy hot, but I wouldn’t let him rush me. Enthusiasm is a runaway as much as fear. I needed time to think so I averted my eyes. I probably exhaled to slow things, and I might have glanced at his left knee for an instant.  I mean, just a flash.

That was when I saw the very start of movement in one hoof. As fluid as T’ai Chi, he filled his right front leg with more weight in slow motion, and his left fetlock softened and floated up. Deliberately, with his ears forward, he balanced to steadiness and lifted his hoof forward and up as high as his shoulder in a long arc as if offering his hoof to me. He stood that way, his eyebrows were curious and his eyes warm and round.

Was he giving me an answer to a question I hadn’t asked? Or maybe I had?

To myself… do you think we over-cue much, Anna? Breath and intention were my cue for engagement. I was an accomplished rider, but I’d need better self-awareness to keep up with this horse before we even got in the saddle.

No worries though, I had a donkey-wrestling, fart-game-playing colt to bring me along.

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Affirmative training is the fine art of saying yes.

Anna Blake

23 thoughts on “Nube: An Iberian Stall Toy for the Donkeys”

  1. What a profoundly moving story of how exceptional Nube was, and how deep your connection with him was. Knowing he was in pain must have been so devastating for you; letting him go, the ultimate act of love.

  2. “Horse training is simple, we collect good experiences for the horse.” You sure said a mouthful here, Anna. Seems to me to be true, or sure as heck should be, of our interactions with every single species on the planet, including other humans. So simple. So sadly not the case. I’ve taken to living by the motto “we’re just walking each other home” and this one is a good reminder of how. Thanks, as always! )Bean says hi!! I keep thinking about Preacher curled up in your lap…being addled sometimes is backing into a good thing LOL. Lessons at the other end of life!)

    • Thanks, Paula. I wonder if we are the only species that makes things harder than they need to be? Thanks, Paula. That’s what we do at the Barn School, walk each other home.

  3. What a wonderful read. You were both so fortunate to come to each other at the right time in both of your lives. Special. Both of you.
    Thank you for sharing the stories of your memories of your wonderful partner, pet and friend.

    • Thanks, Sueann. He was a wonderful, and very special to me. But he is all horses and this is how I work with them. It’s Affirmative Training in story form. You know, with donkey wrestling.

  4. Hi Anna, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article and visualizing your words. You present some of the most important concepts for all of us horse peeps. Thank you. I’m sad your FB account was hacked.

  5. I can’t help but wonder what Nube – or any of your “trainees” – would be thinking as you interact with each other: “She doesn’t look like me at all but does all the right things that has me moving with her in synchrony.
    What’s up with that?!”
    Thank you, Anna. This one was a joy to read.

  6. Between the story of Nubes start and now the boxed set of Bhims training videos I think we have the master class on calming signals in the making.

  7. This is such a lovely piece, Anna. I am so very appreciative of your sharing with us the early days with Nube and the lessons he was teaching you along the way. What a fabulous horse !

    • Thanks Sarah. He was special but also ordinary in the way all horses are if we listen. But this is just the beginning of our story,. Such good memories

  8. Anna, I had to read this one a few times because there was so much value here. The words that keep returning to my thoughts are “I asked for less than I needed so that he could offer me more if he wanted. I know that I always have a plan when I have the time to spend with my horses. That in itself is not entirely a problem, but I think that I will try to keep in mind a phrase that an old friend of mine used to say, “let’s help something good happen”.

    • I think so many horses are just on the brink of a yes, when we change the question. I agree, Laurie. Thanks for commenting.


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