The opinions expressed in previous entries may or may not express the current opinion of the author.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

In Angustias Deducta

This title is in honor of Jenny of Finland, to whose blog describing her interesting Icelandic mare, Olga, she has given the Latin title Pari Passu - Aequo Animo.

The title above is the Latin translation of "in the horns of a dilemma," but I think the Latin gives a much more accurate spin to the situation - translated exactly, it means "drawn (or lead) into the narrows." I like that better. To say I am on the horns of a dilemma implies a static position, trapped like a fly on a web. Much better, although perhaps equally uncomfortable, is to be in the process of being squeezed through a narrow passage - rather like the camel entering through the eye of the needle ... to heaven? Or it suggests being carried down a stretch of river where the water speeds up as it passes through narrower banks -the two sides, rather than forcing you to choose between them, together squeeze you toward calmer waters.

Here's the thing: I see two different approaches to dominance with horses.

All (that is all who count!) agree that if the horse says, "No," and wants to withdraw, the courteous thing to do is to graciously allow the horse to refuse, to let him go, or to suggest an alternative activity.

However, there seems to be a difference of approach when it comes to another kind of dominance. Not the kind of domination which appoints itself absolute master of the horse, but a horse-y kind of dominance which declares, "If I say move, you move. If I say back off, you back off."

On the one hand, we have Imke Spilker. The horse I'm thinking of appears in her book Empowered Horses. I think his name is Max (think, because I have given away both my copies of the book). He became very threatening and aggressive at a certain point in his recovery from oppression. As I recall, Spilker responded to his attacks by apologizing, asking him nicely not to kill her, and feeding him as many treats as he wanted. Pretty radical, huh?

On the other hand, we have Resnick and Hempfling, who say that dominance is an important component in gaining the horse's trust. Hempfling does his hypnotic approach, compelling the horse to move by his awesome presence (aided by a long stick, which he keeps on the ground at all times). And Resnick, who seems a bit more like the rest of us, shoos and chases the horse. She also carries a long stick, although without wielding it obtrusively.

My mind being in a state of pupation (is that a word?) on this matter, I'm assembling a list of pros and cons to help me sort out my thoughts.

CON, i.e. relinquishing the idea of trying to show dominance toward the horse:

1. Max (if that's his name) became a dependable, expressive horse who would safely carry riding students.
2. My first horse - a misanthropic Highland pony - trampled all over me (figuratively speaking). I did not have enough experience to assert myself, and basically adopted the same approach as Spilker with Max - please don't hate me, here's a treat. Gradually, by some mysterious process, he became very fond of me, and we developed a cordial, egalitarian relationship.
3. I forget where I read it (possibly Journal of Ravenseyrie - anyone?) - but there is a certain type of irenic non-alpha horse which the others will follow basically just because they like her. She can't steal their food, but she can make suggestions the others will follow. I know from my limited experience with sheep that the lead ewe was not the alpha ewe - she was the most intelligent, outgoing and, well, likeable one.
4. Spilker knows whereof she speaks.

PRO, i.e. it is helpful to the horse if you establish a certain kind of dominance:

1. I get the impression that Gus has somewhat lost interest in me as a person since I've given up insisting on him working if he doesn't feel like it. I've always let him refuse to come with me, but if he did agree (which was most of the time), I used to ask him (politely) to stay focused and work with me.
2. My Highland pony's girl-trampling tendencies notwithstanding, in hindsight I do believe (although I can't be sure) that he would have moved away from me in the field if I had approached him and told him to.
3. "Herding" horses does seem to help win their trust. I have found it to be very helpful in getting hard-to-catch horses to approach me. After being, not chased, but herded around, skittish horses will approach one confidently.
4. Hempfling and Resnick know whereof they speak.

It is likely that it is not an either/or dilemma, and that part of what I have to learn is how to recognize this.


  1. Hi June,

    I love this. You are articulating my thoughts exactly! I am a big fan of Hempfling and Carolyn Resnick, but recently read Imke which has thrown me into confusion.....I have two ponies at home. Rosie, a little one, 'the origin' I think, by Hempfling's classification, who really responds to the totally egalitarian approach. And Ben, a pushy, dominant cob, who challenges me daily about dominance, and responds very well indeed to being herded. And when he comes round and his head goes down, in no way does he look defeated: or if he is, maybe it is a 'defeat with honour'.

    Fascinating stuff! I came across your blog via Journal of Ravenseyrie by the way.


  2. Hi, Maire -
    I've seen your comments at Ravenseyrie. Thanks for looking at my blog too!
    I'm glad you're having the same questions as me. Rosie sounds like Chloe.
    I think there are some human people too who mind being bossed around, and they are not necessarily very pushy people either - I find that I really hate being pushed, but I'm not a pushy person. Whereas a person who was more able to control others might mind less being controlled themselves. Does that make any sense?!

  3. Yes I think it does. When Ben decides to head off with a toss of his head, that is a challenge to me to respond. And when he comes back to me, his face is open, his eye is bright, and his ears soft.

    I tend to read too much, but the questions are so interesting. However every time I find the answer in the pony in front of me, in the moment where there is no book or opinion, just what is between us.


  4. Thank you June for mentioning my blog, I feel honored!

    My thoughts about dominance:

    I believe (as many of those above mentioned people also tells) that horses see right through us, our intentions. If our intentions are pure, they will act as we ask them to.

    I just read again one of Hempfling's articles in Horses for Life, where he speaks about leadership. It is often taken with force, and by a person who would not be able to deal with it in nature. Leadership is something that most horses will be delighted to give away, when they feel you are up to the task. One has to be ready to take responsibility for all needs, safety included.

    After doing some kind of herding etc., is it really the horse that gets more trusty, or is that person maybe feeling more secure and therefore more "grounded" > trustworthy?

    With Olga, I am aiming to be so aware of everything, that she would feel she can trust me with taking care of her safety and secondly, I'm trying to be so much fun to be with that she chooses to spend time with me :) So I am hoping to be like that gentle leader, whose 'wisdom is silent'.

    (Ok once again these are just random thoughts provoked by your text :)

    <3 Jenny

  5. Jenny said, "After doing some kind of herding etc., is it really the horse that gets more trusty, or is that person maybe feeling more secure and therefore more "grounded" > trustworthy?"

    There's probably a lot in that, and I think I'll do a blog entry on the topic!