Today I am diverging from the usual subject matter in recognition of a special anniversary. It has everything to do with horses, and yet is not about the horses. Twenty years ago, on this date, escrow closed on a small blue house on two and a half acres. At age sixty, my mother became a home owner – something she never expected to be. Not only that, but seemingly against the odds, she got the very house that she wanted.
A recent Facebook conversation about positive reinforcement led to someone asking a question about one of my favorite fallacies – if you comfort a fearful or spooking horse, aren’t you just reinforcing the fear? I first encountered that idea when I started training our dogs, just over twenty years ago. My experience with a variety of animals told me that was a silly idea – and the more I’ve learned about how brains work, the sillier the idea gets. So, how do you handle the fearful equine? As with all things related to horses, techniques are numerous – and I’ve probably tried them all at one time or other – but some are definitely safer and saner than others.
It was, admittedly, probably not the best choice. Due to weather and the holidays, Noble had been idle for a while. With his paddock now mucky, even the newly emerged grass does not tempt him to go out into the field beyond. So, he sulks in his stall and has temper tantrums – though far fewer and less volatile than in winters past. But today the sun was shining, and we had no specific agenda, so I decided to get him out for some quality time. I failed to factor in the North wind that was building – and that is known in the valley to set even the most level headed horse on edge.
Five years ago, today, we set out on the three hour journey to pick up the colt of my dreams. More than just a dream, he was something out of a long held fantasy – and someone was giving him to me! I am not the person who ever wins the raffle, or finds a random twenty dollar bill, or attracts a wealthy benefactor. So, from the beginning, I was waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop. But the day was here, and we were on our way.
It seems the ultimate sign of caring, to say that we love our horses. Yet, I watch as people who say they love their horses treat them in ways that do not reflect that sentiment. Even riders who create obvious pain in their horses are defended, by their fans, with the statement that “They love their horses!” – as if that makes the blood in the mouth or on the sides somehow okay. Of course, for those who have either lived through or witnessed abusive human relationships, you will recognize that this is frequently the claim of the abuser toward the abused. And, of course, many people love their possessions – their car, their home, a piece of jewelry – is this the sort of love people have for their horses?
Are you in search of a leader? Have you waited your whole adult life for someone to tell you when to wake up, when to eat, and when to move? Do you long for the ‘security’ of never having to think for yourself again? I will not dismiss the possibility of someone answering “Yes” to those questions – but I’ll wager that the vast majority of people are making faces and thinking “Of course not!” when reading them. Yet, the majority of those people have probably bought into the idea that their horse is looking for a leader, that they even crave leadership. It is that very premise that is at the foundation of so many modern training programs – and it is just as crazy to assume your horse wants that as it is for me to believe that is what you want in your life.
My first horse sport was Eventing. It was a growing sport in our state, and its lack of formality appealed to the university crowd I grew up riding with. Wicki came with miles under his girth, and was a great teacher. When I outgrew him, the plan was to get a younger horse that I could take further. Enter Ben, a perfect candidate for a successful Eventing career – great temperament, very nice movement, and a jump that felt it could clear the moon. But talent is only part of the equation. Ben was a horse with very definite opinions, and my attempt to make him an Event horse left me with a mystery that lingers to this day.