On his visit this week, our farrier declared to my mother that Noble “needs manners!” This declaration followed an ill-advised decision to disregard my mother’s advice, ignore what has worked in the past, and have his assistant catch and hold Noble. The result can best be described as a wrestling tango. In spite of the last several visits, in which Noble was a perfect gentleman for his trim, this one event was enough to declare him ill-mannered. Human memory is so short!
This is not the first time someone has declared Noble ill-mannered. Nor is it the first time that someone has attributed his tendency to be mouthy to our “bad habit” of feeding him treats by hand. The problem with all of that is he has good manners with us, and his only mouthiness with us is toward things – the rope, the fly mask … really any inanimate object he can grab with his mouth. No, my colt’s problem is not that he is ill-mannered, or that he gets treats. His problem is a lack of generalization, and the fact that “manners” means different things to different people.
Early learning is always contextual – understood in the place and conditions of the initial learning. A behavior has to then be repeated in different conditions – new place, new person, new lighting, etc. – until the behavior becomes independent of the surroundings, people, weather, etc. In my experience, this is at the core of many “problems” people have with their horses – the horse that loads in the trailer at home, but won’t load at a show; the horse who performs well for one rider, but seems to be unwilling to do the same movements for another. I could go on with a long list of situations where horses get blamed for being “difficult”, when in fact they view the situation as a brand new, unknown experience. They are not unique in the need for generalization.
I first learned of this concept when I took my dog, Brita, to puppy class (many moons ago). Our trainer cautioned that we would need to train the behaviors in several places, because what the dogs learned there would be “new” at home. She was aware that I’d trained Brita for some tricks, and asked that we perform one. Sure that I would prove her wrong, I asked Brita to “sit pretty”. My genius of a puppy looked at me blankly! We did eventually get it, but I was still surprised that what was so immediate at home caused her pause at a new place. To complete the experiment, I tried what we learned in class as soon as we got home. It was as if we were starting over – though the trajectory to confirming it was admittedly shorter.
The other issue with this judgement of Noble’s manners is that each person has their own idea of what “manners” are. Sipping from your bowl is normal in one society, but the height of barbarism in another. Smiling when you meet someone is considered the polite thing in the U.S., but viewed as looking a fool in other countries. Manners are specific to societies, and even to households. On a recent social visit, our veterinarian declared Kenzie rude because she got on the furniture without permission. In our household, the furniture is as much theirs as ours – but we teach them “Off!” for those times when they need to move. Are her dogs more “polite” than ours, just because she has a different view of manners?
For me, Noble stands quietly in the cross-ties while being groomed. He’s even standing quietly around the clippers. On the last several farrier visits, he stood like a perfect gentleman, munching hay while each foot was trimmed in turn. Is it bad manners just because I offer a “bonus” to my horses while they are having their feet done? Apparently for my farrier it is; yet, my veterinarian swears she can get through many otherwise squirrely procedures by allowing horses to munch their way through them. Who is right? Just because Noble was difficult for two “strange” men, who handled him in ways he’s unaccustomed to – yet he stands like a rock for me – does that truly make him ill-mannered?
Finally, I want to tackle the myth that feeding treats makes a horse mouthy. I’ve fed my horses treats from my hand for nearly forty years. I’ve heard all of the cautions about it giving them bad habits – it’s a bit like saying that your child will learn to bite your hand if you give it a cookie! No, your child never did that – but you probably also taught them, consciously or not, how they were to take the cookie from you (no snatching, please!). I do the same with my horses. Have I been nipped in an anxious attempt to grab the treat? Yep! But that is instinctively answered by a swat on the nose, and that is generally enough to extinguish that behavior, because it never gets confirmed. Have I been pestered by a nose to provide a treat? Sure – but they never get one. Only noses that keep to themselves are offered a treat from my hand. The result is a barn full of non-mouthy horses who politely take nibbles from our palms … with the one exception.
There is no denying that Noble is mouthy – but then, he was born that way. When he was just a week old, the mare owner warned his breeder that he was very mouthy. He comes from a long line of mouthy horses. His great-granddad was gelded in his teens for grabbing his owner by the back, lifting him off the ground, and throwing him like a rag doll. For all the time I knew that horse, he’d put his mouth on things … that was the first time it was a human, but that was enough! Noble attempts to mouth everything. It took more than one swat, but he now keeps his mouth to himself around me. My mother is well on the way to having the same result (generalization!). However, the men simply tried to keep their parts away from his mouth – but he’s pretty persistent and rather quick. Lesson: just avoiding a mouthy horse only makes the game more fun!
Noble’s life has been arguably sheltered. Before he came here, he was handled by only one person. For nearly two years, I have been the one to do most of the handling, with my mother having taken over since my accident in August. Although he is still better for me, for some things, my mother has made great strides in getting him to listen to her. But he is still the equivalent of a thirteen year old boy – not always the most pleasant beings! Age and experience will bring even more improvement to his “manners”. Until then, if he needs a familiar human and a snack to relax him for his trim, I don’t think that’s a bad trade-off.
Be good to your horses!