It has been an interesting week with Coffee – but it provides a very good illustration of the challenges we have when working with horses, and the decisions we have to make in how we react to those challenges. The wrong reaction can easily escalate an otherwise innocent situation into one that degenerates into fear, anger, stress, or a host of other negative emotions. It is for you to judge whether my reaction was the right one.
The week began with Coffee being in a particularly unusual mood. Even before I took him out for a ride, last weekend, I noticed that he was hyper vigilant. Noble, too, was standing at high alert – both gazing toward the back of the property. There was nothing I could see, nor hear, that would be causing this behavior.
I decided that perhaps some play time was in order – perhaps he was just feeling a bit boisterous. So, out we went, and play he did. We returned to the barn to tack up. Under most conditions, I probably would have climbed up without lunging – but he was still in a highly vigilant state. So, we did some light lunging, waiting for him to relax. He was obedient, but still distracted. This was all very strange for Coffee, usually our Mr. Laidback.
I decided to climb on and just to some walk work. He was obedient, but clearly tense, seemingly on the lookout for a troll to be lurking in every shadow and behind every tree. I reached a point where his attention lasted more than a few seconds, and called it quits for the day.
The next day was the same story. He left the barn, head high, slightly snorting as he went. He was obedient but distracted on the lunge, so I gave him another chance to play. He did, a little, but came back to me in short order. So, I climbed aboard and got a repeat of the day before – on constant watch for those trolls to leap out. When I gave up, again after getting some obedience, my mom said “He’s just taking advantage!”
There you go – the standard human reaction is to assume that the horse has a plot behind their behavior. You hear it with many of the Natural Horsemanship style trainers – the horse is trying to dominate you, control you, or just plain get away with something. Many trainers advocate pushing through such moments. You get advice that ranges from round pen work, to riding the horse well forward until they tire of it, to pushing them into lateral work as a way of getting their attention.
There was a time when I subscribed to that view. I have tried all of those things, with mixed results. If it is a mild distraction, lateral work (provided they know it) can have its place. But I had a very clear lesson from Dani, when she nearly went over backwards as I tried to push her through a day like Coffee was having. I decided, on the spot, that there had to be a better way to approach those situations. From then on, if she was having a tense, hyper vigilant day, I would scrap all of my plans and be satisfied if I could get a quiet walk circle with her full attention.
You know what is amazing about “giving in” that way? It changes nothing! The next day, if Dani was in a better place, we’d pick up exactly as if the previous day had never happened. In fact, it actually made our relationship and trust better when I began to take that approach. I never again found myself in a place of confrontation with her.
On the third day of Coffee’s week, it was mom’s day to ride – and she felt exactly what I felt the two days before. Wisely, she worked on getting his obedience and then decided that was enough. Was this somehow going to be a pattern with him? I felt it wouldn’t – we just didn’t know what was causing it, or when it would end.
Mid-week, the old Coffee magically reappeared. With no change in the environment, that was discernable to the humans around him, Coffee was back to being relaxed and calm. Mom had a nice walk with him, followed the next day by a nice ride. I rode him yesterday, and it was a world away from last weekend – he was fully attentive and engaged in the process. Then there was today.
I took Coffee outside to groom him, and he again left the barn with head held high and snorts coming rhythmically. Was this a repeat of last weekend? It was chilly and the wind was stirring, but I pressed on. After an obedient, lunge session, I could tell he was still on edge – so I gave him some play time. What would I find when I climbed back in the saddle? Would it be the same tense horse I sat upon last weekend? No. Today was like any other day when he’s just feeling playful. We had a lovely ride – better, even, than the day before.
So, what happened last weekend? We will never know. The only other time I’d seen him that hyper vigilant was when a coyote went through the barnyard. But could that have been it for three days in a row? Or was there some disturbing noise we humans could not hear? Such is the mystery of working with horses – there are questions to which we will never have answers. Still, nothing was lost by giving him the benefit of the doubt that he was in fact disturbed by something, and not making any demands that might escalate his tension.
As humans, we tend to make a lot of assumptions about the behavior of others – whether horse, dog or human. How we react to those assumptions can dramatically affect any relationship we have with the other individual. I have found that I do much better if I give the benefit of the doubt that I do not know what lead to the other’s behavior – unless or until I have proof or confirmation in front of me. Admittedly, I am better at that with animals than I am with humans, for I have found humans far more likely to be trying to cause me harm – but I keep working on it. If we all did that, wouldn’t the world would be a much kinder place for everyone?
Be good to your horses!