If there is one thing I have maintained since my youth it is the ever-present concern over how my horse is feeling. Along the way I have been told that it doesn’t matter. I have been told that I cannot possibly know how my horse is feeling, even as I was sure I could (and science is now proving what my instincts and experience told me). I have been judged as moving too slow because it was important to me that my horse stays ‘with me’ in the journey. Through it all I tried my best to respond to my horses’ feedback. I have been rewarded by many great equine friendships and relaxed willing partners. I do not regret my approach, but willingly admit that it can sometimes become a trap of my own making. This is a tale of just such a situation.
When Chase first came to us he had what one friends called a “skeptical” attitude toward humans. He bears the physical scars of mistreatment and he showed signs of the psychological ones as well. It is challenging with such horses, since past experience will color everything you do with them. You have to find a balance between convincing them to try and showing that you will listen to their feedback. In the beginning I tend to ask very little, since I cannot be sure yet that any “No” I get isn’t simply tied to past history. As we go along, and I get some willing cooperation, we can move into more of a learning phase.
With Chase initially he was just quiet. He’d stand with no expression, or he’d turn inward when you tried to get personal, like scratching is withers. As he came out of his shell and began to communicate more you could begin to see clear differences between his happy engaged self and his unenthusiastic or upset self.
By this year, when we started back to work after Spring replaced Winter, things seemed to be going well. We were still mainly doing groundwork at that point, but I’d started tacking him up to aim toward riding again. It was about the third or fourth time I saddled him up that he stepped back from the hay net and stood looking disgruntled (for lack of a better word). His expression was a bit reminiscent of the early days – ears out and a bit blank. I worried a bit the first time this happened, so I kept an eye on him for any signs of physical discomfort. I didn’t notice anything unusual, other than this attitude at being tacked up. We kept it light and I hoped it was just a passing thing.
The next day, he assumed that same stance almost as soon as he was in the grooming area. In between the two times he’d behaved in his normal way about everything else – normal activity, appetite, etc. This seemed to be associated strictly with preparing to go work together. I began to worry where I was going wrong with our activities. For four or five days this pattern repeated. I tried mixing up our activities. I tried looking for subtle physical signs I was missing. Was it me? Was it the work? Was something wrong? This was one of those times when you really do wish they could explain to you. Just about the time I was really beginning to despair that I’d somehow turned him sour, suddenly everything turned around. How that happened was a lesson in how simple the answer may actually be.
At the end of that week we got a new batch of hay. The other horses had depleted the haynet in the grooming area, so I refilled it before I got Chase out. He walked right up to the net and began to munch. He was relaxed throughout grooming and saddling. My content Chase was back – and all it took was to give him better hay to munch! Apparently his dissatisfaction was with my dietary choice, not with me or the work. I couldn’t stop shaking my head at myself and all those days of second-guessing, over analyzing, and worrying.
Such is life with horses! If you are one who tries to do your best and tries to read the signs when things are going right (or wrong) you will likely have your own moments when you overthink things. We worry when things aren’t right and we want to ‘fix’ them. We look for signs from the horse to indicate where a problem may be – but sometimes we may just miss the most obvious answers in front of us. I chuckle when I think how frustrated Chase must have felt that I was not getting his very clear message about sub-par hay. I can happily report that I have been doing better on that front, and our year has gone quite well since my moment of getting stuck in overthinking.
Be good to your horses!