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

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Ride

April - what a lovely spring-like word, reminding one of singing birds, and blossoms, and fresh new leaves. Tell that to Pennsylvania, where I was greeted last Thursday morning by a thick layer of wet snow covering the still-bare trees. But Mississippi, now that's another story. I've just returned from a weekend in Jackson, where the verdure was dazzling to behold, and the air was filled with the scent of flowers and mown grass.

The main purpose of the journey was to visit college kids. However, a trip to the area could not be complete without a pilgrimage to our old barn, most especially to catch up with human friend Judy and horse friend Gus. So on Friday morning I donned my boots (taking up inordinate amounts of space in my little suitcase) and headed up to our old haunts.

The weather was perfect for hanging out with horses - clear, still, and mildly warm. My friend fetched in her Thoroughbred mare and started preparing for a ride. Now, my friend thought it would be nice if I went for a ride with her, so she told me to go get Gus. Naturally, I very much wanted to see Gus, but knowing him, I wasn't sure if he would be up for a ride. Apparently he has been ridden off and on since I left, but Gus has Views about things.

I took a halter and went out. Gus came up very amiably and seemed happy to see me. He even expressed an interest in the halter and poked at it with his nose. But when I put it on and invited him to come along, he - in his inimitable gentlemanly way - informed me that this was not on his agenda for the day. He even gave me a tiny, careful, little nip on the hand.

So I said, "Gus, old buddy, today we are not exercising that option. Judy is up in the barn, and it would be disappointing for her if I didn't join her on her ride. So, pretty please? Do your feet hurt? Is that it?"

By means of coaxing and cajoling, interspersed with expressions of sympathy for his potentially sore wee tootsies, I got him to move a few steps at a time. Finally he stopped dead and emphatically pawed at the ground with first one foot and then the other. This was his way of saying, "Let me spell this out for you - there is a lot of clover growing here, and I feel it my duty to stay and eat it - someone's got to keep on top of the situation."

So I said, "Oh, sorry, I see - it's not your feet - you want to stay and graze. Please, let's go though, because I'm only here one day, and I think it wouldn't be polite of me to not ride when I've been invited." And then Gus walked forward cheerfully and followed me into the barn.

When we were all ready, we went out to the arena. I lead Gus to the mounting block (not being nimble like my friend, who levitated onto her tall mare without any help). He was distracted by the food growing at his feet and kept repositioning himself. But as Gus understands Human rather well, I asked him to please stand still for me on a loose rein while I got up, and afterwards he could eat for a bit. So he did.

After a little grazing, I asked him to please stop. Then he got all fussy and peeved, but I told him we just had to behave ourselves and he didn't have to move or anything, but could he please just stand still on a loose rein and not eat. And then after standing for a short while, I suggested we might move forward. So we did.

In her heyday, our old mare Misty would go out into the arena with me and enter a zone of calm attentiveness, her ears flicking back and forth, listening to me and to her own body. She knew I would let her stop when she asked, but she would often be willing to go for an hour before stopping. I believe she enjoyed the experience. Gus, on the other hand, thinks the whole arena thing is dumb. I've had lessons on him, when he has stayed focused, but I feel that part of having an official lesson is eliminating the option of really listening to the horse. Gus is not an angry or insecure horse - if he sees that the human means business and that he really has no choice but to buckle down, buckle down he will, with a pretty good attitude. But Gus knows I'll listen to him, and so he makes it clear that this is a Waste of His Time.

Gus believes reins are for chewing on.
As a visitor, I felt I had to be on my best behavior, so Gus and I sort of walked a little, stood a little, grazed a little (be careful no one's watching!), and walked a little more, until my friend and her mare were warmed up and ready to head out on the trail. Phew.

At first I thought I should work with Gus as I used to, asking him to bring his weight back a little, soften a little, bring his back up. But he's out of practice, and he fussed, and I realized: gee, this is supposed to be fun, why should I get on his case when I'm only here for one ride? So we walked along any old how, trying to keep up with the longer-legged mare, who kept circling back so we wouldn't be left behind.

Then my friend suggested we might t-r-o-t. Gus's default trot is a heavy-on-the-forehand, out-of-control-feeling, rushing trot, which is good for neither man nor beast, and particularly not good for a combination thereof. So I made him do what I call (and he probably feels is) the sissy trot. Once we had that established on a loose rein (after some objections from Gus), I realized that if would stop poking his nose to the right and leaning his shoulder to the left, we might manage to morph the sissy trot into a much faster, but still nice, macho one. And so we did!

And once Gus had that under his belt, he re-discovered his good jog, which is a light, airy, loose-necked jog, enabling him to keep up with the mare's long-strided walk.

And so back to the barn, where Gus received treats and accolades from me, before being released to his important grazing.

Gus in the middle distance
I could have insisted on working in the arena, but once we were out on the trail and starting to trot, making improvements in Gus's carriage was no longer a matter for idle tinkering, but a matter of necessity. What's more, at that point, Gus had a real desire for forward motion, and I could negotiate meaningfully with him - "I understand - but if we're going to do what you want, we have to make some adjustments." And then when the adjustments were made, he could see and reap the benefits.

I don't know about the moment when I insisted on bringing  him out of the field. I think it was the right thing under the circumstances. But what if he were my horse? Would I always let him stay and eat clover and get fatter and fatter as the summer wore on? (Although if he were my horse, I wouldn't have any clover available to him in the first place.) Would he sometimes want to come out for a ride? Maybe if he knew I wouldn't make him work in the Dumb Arena, he would be keener to come. Maybe if he got fit, he'd even enjoy a little arena time after all.

One thing I'm sure of: in the months since we moved home with the horses, I have learned a little bit more about how to have a conversation - how to ask-not-tell, how to take the horse's views into consideration without giving up my own agenda completely - a little bit more about when to give in and when to persist, and a little more about trusting the horse. Only a little bit, mind you. But that's something.

I miss this guy.


  1. He seems like a very interesting sort of fellow. My guy is with him though, he also thinks arena work is stupid. I try to tell him that he needs to work on bending and circles to stay supple but he just doesn't see the value of it.

    I'm glad you had a nice weekend with your friend. I bet it was nice to have some pleasant weather for a change.

  2. June, I am quite ambivalent about always listening to the horse's "no". Sometimes if I did we would get nothing done, and often, once we get past that no, Ben really enjoys it. Tricky.

    The problem is that horses exist in a human world, with all the restrictions that imposes including a restriction on roaming. I think that is why, in my experience, once they get past that sticky leaving home time, they can relax so much and enter a zone when riding out. I think they need to really walk out, as their ancestors would once have roamed long distances.

    I do think that they do appreciate our reaching towards understanding them however. The dialogue is important and occasional no's on both sides are part of that.

    I love the look of that trail.

  3. Yes, it is a little tricky, isn't it? I got Gus to come with me using ask-don't-tell, which is sort of a compromise between completely allowing him to say no and forcing him to come with me.

    If one agrees that the horse is "always allowed to say no," which I do in principle, I guess nevertheless this doesn't mean you can't keep pestering until he says yes. It just means not saying, "Dammit, you'll do as I say." They're very accommodating.

    Just in the last little while, I've felt sort of empowered or something - I feel like I can have certain goals. I feel better about this.

  4. From your own blog, Maire, it seems that you do LISTEN (why are there no italics available in the comment boxes????) to the no, but you don't always AGREE (ditto) to accept the no. I think it's important to listen to the no and consider it - not just dismiss it out of hand. I think the horse is amenable to having his no rejected, as long as you seem to have heard him.

    The trails at that barn are beautiful!

    Smazourek - does your horse appreciate the arena work after getting over the "hump" as it were - does he resist at first and then get into it?

  5. June I can really appreciate how reading Imke Spilker turned your approach towards horses on its head. It certainly did with me. However, when I first completely went with the "no" and agreed to it, I realised that there were areas where Ben was always saying no, to the trailer for instance, or an automatic response to being caught. I was told he was impossible to catch without a bucket when I bought him. (Don't you hate the word "bought" in connection with horses, as if they were a new pair of shoes, or a bike?)

    Anyway, that forced me to rethink, or Ben would be munching away and doing nothing. I don't have rules about the "no", however. I do not have a rule that says "thou shallt always obey me" and likewise I do not have a rule that says "I will always cave in to you". What Imke's book has done for me is free me from rules. I was always told that rules and consistency were a must with horses. My consistency now, my "rule", is to listen - both to Ben, to myself and also to what is in-between us.

    It is all learning and unpredictable which makes it fun. I am interested that you say you are feeling empowered. I wonder how your herd will pick up on that, because they do pick up on everything, don't they?

    What a long comment. I feel a new post coming on...

  6. Oh goody - I'm looking forward to that new post!

    Yes, I think Imke says: "The horse is always allowed to SAY no." Which is different from "The horse is always allowed to refuse." In the old days, I would take the horse's merely saying "no" as an offense, however minor. Then I read The Book, and was helpless in the face of the horse's "no"! Now I've moved on to another phase - I accept that the horse does have the right to express his negative opinion. I will then take that into consideration. He takes my views into consideration. And then we come up with what's next. At this point, it's most helpful for me to think of it in terms of "ask-don't-tell." (That's Widdicombe, isn't it?) So although I may choose to override the "no," I'm doing it by persistent asking (sometimes accompanied by undignified cajoling and whining, especially in the case of Gus!)

    With Chloe, it was very important to always agree to her "no." It was the only way to win her confidence. Now, however, it's ok for me to badger her a little bit as well.

    Yes! I hate the bought word in connection with horses.

  7. But I think that initial phase was helpful - a phase when I felt as if I'd lost all expertise, that I didn't know what to say to or do with the horse. I think the advice to offer the horse the chance to come out of the field, and then let it free if it turned down the offer, was also very helpful. Yes, it meant there were days when Gus stayed in the pasture. However, there were days when he chose to come out, and allowing that once-taboo option was quite liberating. And with Chloe - when she finally started agreeing to come out, she'd turn around and go back immediately. But then when she saw I was going to let her go back, she'd turn around and come with me again. I would have missed all that if I hadn't been willing to accept her decision to not leave. But, like you say, I guess all that interaction was perhaps less to do with a new rule - "The horse gets to say no" - and more to do with a willingness to listen. I do have a rule at our house, though: "Chloe never has to do anything she doesn't want to"! Except refuse to go back into the field when I want her to!