When people hear I live in Colorado they often get a romantic look on their faces. I shake my head, “It’s not that Colorado.”
It’s February on the High Plains of Colorado. Due to low precipitation and an elevation of almost 7000 feet, the High Plains experience gusty winds and extremes in temperature. But at least the soil is poor and only grows sparse prairie grasses that maintain a dead tan color for what feels like eleven months of the year. It was below freezing every day this week, except for the day it was sixty degrees. Winds gusting to forty miles per hour brought both the warmth, and the following ground blizzard.
I could tell you that I know it’s spring because there was a slight moisture in the last snow or that the light pretends to linger a moment longer at night. The real first sign of spring comes from my elder Llama, whose age in equivalent human years is three hundred seventy-five. (375!) She initiates a moany-growling sort of lap dance with another female Llama. Soon after, the horses all seem to contract an equine version of Seasonal Tourette’s, erratic spurts of lousy behavior. Our most stoic gelding and our spayed mare began a romantic interlude. Meaning they are backing up and double barreling each other through fence panels. Then, walking the sting off and coming back for more. Meanwhile, I loosen my muffler and take off one of my hats so I can do my impression of a chaperone at a high school prom. Ah, Spring. I’m not in the mood but their deep instinct to procreate must be acknowledged, even respected.
This time of year, leading horses can seem more like flying kites. Most of us have been taught to pick a fight with frantic horses; facing them, jerking ropes and yelling, “Whoa!” followed by a few expletives. Maybe chase them blindly backward. The horse might freeze for a moment, but then you ask for a step and he explodes again. It might make for a good show for ranch tourists but it’s high time we recognize that punishing a horse who is already in their sympathetic/flight response is a foolhardy from a human, also in their sympathetic/fight system. If you believe in domination training, you’ll need to say no in a hundred ways as you demand behavior that’s the opposite of his flight instinct.
Do we let them harm themselves or us because we are affirmative trainers? Does it mean we are sacrificial lambs to their worst instincts? Are you kidding? It’s our job to buy hay and that means self-care comes first but we don’t have to alter training methods to stay safe and help our horses. Common sense and a bit of discipline (of ourselves) would be a big help.
It’s all about space. We don’t want the horse on top of us. When they come into our space, we were taught to make THEM move. Often when we’re nose to muzzle with a horse they seem to freeze with that deer-in-headlights look. Pause and take a moment to see it from the horse’s side: A human might do anything. You might poke him with your pointy finger or you might straighten his forelock. You might flail your arms desperately and shout, “BACK!” or you might tickle his muzzle. And just below the surface, we usually give another level of mixed messages with our emotions. No wonder he looks at us that way. If I play kissy-face half the time and then flap my arms, yelling at him. Conflicting cues! My consistency isn’t better than his.
It’s a revolutionary thought, but how about we get out of their space? We seem to have the wits to not step in front of a speeding car, why would we block the escape possibility of a flight animal? Besides, we have more leverage from the side. Instead of an aggressive face-off, we could step out of their space, releasing them. A release is a reward and we haven’t betrayed their trust with punishment for the crime of being a flight animal.
Effective training is done on quiet days. We teach the sweetness of peace rather than the anxiety of war. We show them how good space feels by example. We stand at his shoulder because standing in front of them puts us in their blind spot and is more aggressive. Shoulder to shoulder, always at least three feet away from his head. If you are dying for a cuddle, you can rest your head on his butt. We need to show consistency in our own spacing all the time in preparation for “spring-like” events. We need to claim this space when breathing in the pasture, when grooming, or holding for the farrier. We must consistently stand with our own autonomy and ask that they do the same. Confidence is the finest gift we can give horses.
If things do come apart, we can’t tell them everything they do is wrong. Saying “no” gives no information about what they could do. If you believe leadership means safety, we must find a way to stay on their side. We have to be drawn to their fear rather than repelled by it.
First, give up the notion that horses have human logic. Reasoning with a hysterical toddler doesn’t work either. It doesn’t matter what you think, it matters what the horse feels, sees, hears, smells.
Complacency is a luxury we may not have with horses; their response time is seven times quicker than ours. So, we train ourselves to listen and stay focused in-the-moment, just like a horse. It isn’t that you anticipate, so much as notice the first calming signals, a bit of ear or eye tension, while responding with an exhale. When his energy jumps, I can let him move and release it. I can use a rope long enough that I can keep out of his space, leading at his shoulder but still wide away from him, watching with my peripheral vision as I hold a good forward pace. I can’t calm him immediately, but I can lift my energy to match and participate by moving on with him. If his energy is fearful, I’ll make mine courageous. I’ll be red-hot in oneness, each sense plugged in and firing. I might even say, “Good boy” to remind him who he is. Soon, I can take long steps and short steps, evolving the conversation and he will begin to respond. Then we can talk about coming back to his parasympathetic/restorative system.
It can’t be wrong for a flight animal to move. We forever tell horses to calm down and we aren’t being fair. We need to use positive ways of releasing energy, instead of asking horses to be lapdogs. Horses gotta move and our job is to find a way to facilitate that safely in our domestic world. When the horse feels safe, of course, he’ll stand quietly. That’s his nature, too.
Do we look silly standing around breathing with horses, a few feet away, on a cocked hip? Some think it’s bliss-ninny laziness. The truth is, if we do it right, we’re having a conversation about confidence; that’s serious training for Spring.
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
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