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

Monday, November 10, 2014

George's Practice

Our new barn in Texas boasts a 60' Round Pen.

Now, a round pen is a useful accessory, and I'm glad to have it, but not nearly as glad as I once would have been. On account of, thanks to Ms. Spilker, my horses no longer really have to do anything they don't want. So, pretty much, those round-and-round-we-go-this-way-then-that-at-this-speed-then-that-stop-only-when-I-tell-you days are over.

What we do we instead, you might ask?

Well, here's something George has been working on, and the round pen was part of his equipment.

Our formerly aggressive horse, George, hates for you to stand by his shoulder and ask him to move it away from you. At one time, such a heinous suggestion might have elicited the threat of a bite. At the very least eyes would narrow, ears would pin back, head would snake - drama drama drama.

I've backed off more and more to the point where I'd be standing about two or more feet away, gently just point a little finger at his shoulder, and whisper, "Georgie pie, would you like to move over maybe just maybe?" Even this would cause the smoke to start coming out of his ears.

He'll move over if you ask him other ways, but that shoulder spot is super sensitive, and it just irks him no end.

Well, the other day we were in the round pen. Sometimes when we go in there, George'll go, "Oh yeah, I know what we do - I'll trot round this way, and then I'll trot round the other way once or twice, and --- that's enough now! What else shall we do?" And of course I don't make him go around any more.

So we might do a little shifting his quarters over, and maybe backing up a bit (all at liberty). We might visit other ways to ask him to move his shoulder, or we might just stand still together. The nice thing about a round pen is that the horse and human are contained within a limited safe space, both free to come together or separate as each desires.

The other day, in the round pen, after a few preliminaries, George came up on my right side and stopped with me in the BAD SPOT next to his shoulder. (Normally he likes to put me by his waist.) Then he reached around away from me and bit himself. After a moment, one of us moved away. But immediately he returned to the same position and did the same thing - tensed up and reached round to bite himself.

This continued several more times. I really didn't say anything - I just stood there and let George use me to probe his fears. He kept returning to the dreaded spot, biting himself each time.

Finally, after several tries, when George came up beside me, he sighed, settled, and dropped his head. Here he is. All his own work.

Later that day we were all out in the field together. When I headed back to the gate, the horses all came with me, and George walked beside me, shoulder to shoulder. He's a fast walker, and after a while I couldn't keep up with him and fell behind. I thought he'd keep going, but he stopped and turned back to look at me. When I caught up, he nudged me with his head, and we set off again together.

George's work is a witness to how seriously a horse can approach his life, his relationships, his fears. George seems aware of the conflict that sometimes exists between his own inner demons and an ideal peaceful world. He faces that disconnect and seeks ways of reconciliation.

I've been enjoying the educational author Alfie Kohn, who has written many interesting books, including one called Punished by Rewards. I believe it's obvious that using negative reinforcement to "train" George to give up his hostile ways would pre-empt and stymie his own dedication to self-improvement. But observing George practicing in the round pen really brought home to me (again) that to offer positive reinforcement is not necessarily benign; it can trivialize and distract from a person's accomplishments and efforts. If I were practicing a difficult piano piece and finally mastered it, how inappropriate and beside-the-point it would be for my teacher to say, "Good job! Now you can have a cookie!" Punishments and rewards are for work that others are making you do.

When my friend who gave us George first encountered him, he was an angry young horse called Buddy. I feel that back in his early, early days, before whatever happened that turned him fearful and mad, there must have been something about him which made the person who named him think of him as a "buddy."  I changed his name, because I call every male animal and every little boy "buddy," but I hope he is re-discovering his original self, which does indeed seem to be a true friend.

George and his sweet friend Rose

No comments:

Post a Comment