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

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Dominance Revisited

I've been looking back over old posts. Seems I used to fret over the concept and practice of "dominance" a lot. We've all read about herd hierarchy, alpha horses, speaking a language horses can understand, the horse respects the one who can move its feet, and so forth. The technique of "join-up," I believe is predicated on the practice of asserting one's place as a higher-ranking herd member.  On the one hand, Imke Spilker was leading me away from dominance, and on the other hand, received wisdom, and Klaus, were leading me back towards it, or towards a version of it.

There's been a good bit of water under the bridge since I first started blogging, and somehow I don't worry about dominance any more. For one thing, I met someone (now a friend) who actually spent time at Klaus's estate in Denmark, and she assured me that - no - we don't have to be Klaus. Au contraire. We have to be ourselves. For another thing, I've tried at least to take Imke's advice to allow the horse to be my teacher, and the horse doesn't seem to be super-impressed by any displays of dominance I can muster. And I'll admit it does take a bit of mustering on my part. 

I'm not much of a leader, or a boss. But on the other hand I'm definitely not a doormat. And somewhere in learning that about myself, I discovered that the horse doesn't need me to be a Klaus, or a fake horse, or a herd leader, or anything at all except myself.

I believe horses understand very well that human beings are not the same thing as a horse. That we have our own way of doing things. That we cannot be herded and dominated, but at the same time, we can be trusted to suggest things that are worth listening to for their own sake. Not because the safety of the herd is at stake, not because the food supply is being safeguarded, not because the strongest is the best one to breed the mare - we act for our own reasons that have nothing to do with hierarchy. Reasons that the horse is happy to consider. We think the horse is purely pragmatic and that we must talk to it in a mechanistic language of survival, but the horse is idealistic and delights in a world beyond that of daily necessity.

I think of George and Bridget, who jockey for position in their little herd, George always vigilant that Bridget shouldn't topple him from his position as first-in-line-for-good-things. When they were turned loose together the other day in the round pen, the place where non-survival values predominate, they beat their swords into ploughshares and stood together quietly and amicably for the very first time.

Not being dominant doesn't mean being dominated. A lesson that the whole world needs to learn. I think more and more of us are catching on - it's the zeitgeist. There's a good book by Mark Rashid called Horses Never Lie: The Heart of Passive Leadership which talks about the way a non-dominant horse can win the respect and cooperation of a dominant one. And I just finished a book called It's for the Horses by Dutch Henry, a book which made me happy, as it's the first time I've read a book by a man which goes as far as I would hope in its advocacy for non-coercive human/horse relationships.

In the horse world, respect is often thought to be the flip side of dominance - the one dominated respects the one who dominates. Why would horses be so different from us? I certainly don't respect a person who tries to dominate me, but rather the person who is polite, considerate, and respectFUL. Someone like George in fact.

And for this episode's pictographic content, here is Bridget on the trail with me on board, following our little buddy on his trusty steed:

More Riding

I love going for a ride. I really do. Of course hanging out with the horses on the ground is fun and satisfying too. But I do love riding, and there it is.

I wasn't sure I'd be able to do much riding anymore. It's not always obvious whether the horse is 100% behind the project or if you're projecting your own wishes onto the situation. Several years ago I decided that if it's not what the horse would freely choose, then it wasn't worth insisting on. Because what's the point otherwise? I want a friend who enjoys our activities together and not a servant who conforms to my wishes.

So how do you KNOW whether the horse is really on board?

Well, how about if you put the horse into the round pen and he/she goes over to where the saddle is hanging on the rail and tries to pick it up?

Works for me.

Bridget has been doing very well on the trail, and I decided that the time had come to see if she and George would enjoy riding out together. So the plan was for Claire-the-barn-manager and I to give it a try. 

As often is the case, either the two of them had read my mind or they were the ones whose idea it was all along - because when Claire and I arrive at the pasture, George and Bridget come marching over side by side (they who never walk together), while Rose stays away. We lead them up to the barn and turn them loose together in the round pen. As they are often very rude to each other (and George can be extremely threatening to Bridget), my plan was, if necessary, to enforce good mutual manners in the round pen by means of the lunge whip. But they both seem to have decided that the usual laws of nature do not apply inside the round pen. They converse together amicably, and even stand close to each other without twitching, kicking, squealing, lunging, or otherwise tweaking out.  I've never seen them act like this before. Amazing

Then they both make beelines for their saddles.

Still at liberty, they're tacked up, each free to walk away as often as they like in the middle of the process. (Occupational hazard = occasionally saddle may fall on ground; but that doesn't happen today.) I've finally (FINALLY) gotten into my head that George does not wish to be "trained" nor is it necessary to train him. It's ok to ask, and it's ok to ask more than once, as long as each time you accept "No" for an answer. If he's free to leave in the middle of being saddled, he stays benign throughout - no ear pinning, no stink eye, no grinding of teeth. Just a happy George. Even fastening the second side of the girth elicits no negative reaction or emotion. 

Once the saddle's in place, I feel a surge of energy from him. Happy energy. So I ask if he'd like to go around the pen - yes, he would. I sense a canter coming on, so I ask if he'd like to run. He doesn't need to be asked twice, and off he goes, cantering and bucking around the circle. It's a joyful movement - playful and exuberant - and his face is soft. Claire saw him bucking in the field earlier today. I've never seen him buck in the round pen before, and it's very rare for him to buck in the pasture. I point this out to show the confluence of human decision and horse mood/response. You never know which causes which, or if it's one thing.

Clare mounts Bridget, and I climb up on George in the way which currently works for us, i.e. I place the mounting block beside him and step up, he walks off, I reposition the block and step up again, he walks off, etc. - maybe five or six times. No attempt to do anything different - just reposition, try again - no recriminations, no clever techniques, just keep asking politely. He remains sweet and calm, and then magically on the next attempt, he stays put, and up I get.

A happy trail ride ensues. What bliss. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Further Adventures with Bridget

How do you get a Bridget to go forward?

Answer #1:  If the Bridget is not used to a rider and legs, even a little amount of pressure will cause a Bridget to go, "Yikes! What was that?!" and walk forward.

Answer #2:  When the Bridget is used to the rider and legs, pressure will cause the Bridget to turn her head all the way around to inspect the leg closely, asking, "What is that annoying thing you're doing with your foot?"

Answer #3:  After you've spent several intervening days pondering the issues posed by Answer #2 and how you're going to induce the Bridget to proceed forward without resorting to Old Fashioned Means, the said Bridget will have solved the issue in her own little head and will walk forward on your first or second request.

Why does a Bridget approve of being ridden?

Because when the Bridget is being lead around, the human on the end of the rope is very slow and boring.

Because if a Bridget is turned loose into the wide world, it's TOO SCARY to go across the farm to the far side all by herself and See What's There.

Because when the rider is up, Bridget can go ANYWHERE SHE WANTS, and her buddy has no option but to accompany her at a reasonable pace and without being slow and boring.

When does Bridget's rider get to lay down the law?

Sometimes Bridget's rider says, "No More Eating!" Bridget will toss her head and maybe say a bad word, but then she's like, "Oh ok, whatever."

Sometimes Bridget's rider says, "Slowly please!" Or, sometimes, "Stop!" Bridget will accommodate such requests without demur.

Sometimes Bridget's rider will say, "Let's make a circle here, just for - y'know - like, practice." Bridget will get into the spirit of this somewhat willingly-ish.

Sometimes Bridget's rider dismounts, takes the saddle off, gives Bridget a shower and then tries to take her back to her pasture. Bridget usually says, "No, no, no, no, no, don't want to." So it might take a loooooong time to get her back there.

Why does a Bridget walk away when you appear with the halter?

Aha! We have a rather different answer to that now. Now what she's up to is getting away from George before she's confined at the end of a leadrope and at his mercy. (Mea culpa? Should I make Bridget feel safer?)

How do you know this?

Because, while I suspected this for some time, it was confirmed the other day when I appeared with the halter and she walked away from me across the field toward the other gate. When I caught up with her, she stopped. Then, just to check, I left her and walked the rest of the way toward the gate. She followed me and then was totally fine with me putting the halter on. And today, when I appeared ditto, she did the same thing and was thoroughly put out when I took George out instead of her.

Why does Bridget have a gash under her arm?

Because that George lunged at her, and she wheeled around to get away, and there was a fence in the way, and she reared up and came down with one leg in the fence. She is almost all healed.

Here is a fun item Bridget found one day while exploring with a rider.
(Sorry, I don't  think the video works - but you get the picture.)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Second and Third Rides

Bridget has remained leery of the halter, and the other day I was feeling quite sad and that I had screwed everything up. However, the horses were so sweet and affectionate when I left the halter lying on the ground that I couldn't be too down. RIDING looms like a sort of huge obstacle for some reason. I can't even bother to find all the words to express how this comes to be - but I feel it's to do with a fear that being ridden is something the horse would not choose to do on his own. 

Here's a convoluted anecdote which sort of expresses how this loom-large aspect can distort one's view of reality:

Once upon a time, George used to be really aggressive, and he would bite people and threaten them. This was the Main Feature of George and one which had everyone jumpy. So he comes to live with us, and he gradually becomes less and less aggressive, but it's still there - out there in the universe, lurking. The other day, I read a sample report by Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling about a horse who is part King and part Child. It sounded a lot like George, even looked rather like him. The owner's trainer had warned her that this horse was liable to become aggressive. KFH said to put such thoughts far away, as you don't want to raise a specter which then cannot be put to rest. He also said that this is a horse who is unlikely to ever cause anyone any problems.

And I was like lightbulb moment. George never causes anyone any problems. He is unfailingly courteous, considerate, and affectionate - gallant even. Yeah, he still doesn't like his saddle put on. But he's never tried to dump a rider, or kick someone, or take off, or rear, or do any one of a number of things that a horse might do. And he hasn't offered to nip someone for a long time. It is time to put the specter of George's aggression to rest. It colored all my thoughts of him, and continued to make me fearful of some kind of bad reaction well beyond the time when he was likely to actually do anything. This is a horse who doesn't cause trouble.

Same thing with Bridget. She doesn't mind giving me piggybacks at all. She had an extremely adverse reaction to having her head messed with, and in my angst-y way, I immediately went to the default hand-wringing position of "Oh no, she doesn't want to be ridden, what shall I do, maybe it'll never happen." Which of course IS always a possibility. But apparently not in this case.

The saddle arrived. An 18" Wintec, from which I extracted the medium gullet and into which I put the extra-wide one. Cos that Bridget is, well, extra-wide. I sat it on the rail of the round pen, got Bridget (who was still not eager to be gotten) and then set her loose in the round pen. We were hanging out, doing a little of this and that, when the trainer joined us and asked if Bridget had shown any interest in the saddle. As if on cue, Bridget walked over to the saddle and nudged it with her nose. We saddled her up, leaving her free to come and go as she pleased. But she stayed put. I put some reins onto her halter - no more messing with stuff on her head. I got up. We walked around. All was serenity. And it really helps having a three-year old child in the ring - keeps the mood light. 

I go to the barn more than once a week, but we have one day scheduled to work with the trainer. Today was that day, and when I went to get Bridget, she was happy to see me, walked away when I tried to put the halter on, but accepted the second attempt. She's spooky walking along the wooded path away from the pasture - perhaps she has seen the cougar that I saw the other day. But the round pen has become a safe space for her, where she becomes relaxed and confident. After a few minutes, our trainer said she'd like to see Bridget walking around the rail quietly, so I invited Bridget to come do that with me, but instead she made a beeline for the saddle and nudged it. So we put it on, and I climbed aboard, and then we had a quiet time pottering about, Bridget following the trainer, or wandering off on her own, or stopping at the mounting block to allow the little boy to hug her face. She turned around to inspect my foot. She rested one hind leg and dozed for a minute.  We scratched her ears. Everything felt nice and safe and cozy and friendly for her.

I'm heading north on a 3-week hoof trimming trip, and I've asked the trainer to - not work with Bridget - but take her out and bring her up to the round pen and hang out and put the saddle on. I said I want Bridget to be able to say no and refuse, just as the human has the right to do the same. Also I want her to be able to make suggestions and have them accepted, even if they're not strictly with the program. 

The head thing started, I believe, on her trip down to Texas. She was never in the least head-shy, but when she arrived in Texas, she didn't like having her halter pulled over her ears. The lady who transported them is lovely and I'm sure would never be rough or impatient. But they spent two nights at horse motels en route, and it could be that someone there manhandled Bridget when putting her halter on. So I think persisting with trying to "desensitize" her to the bridle was not a good idea. Today, after I snapped her reins onto her halter, she balked a little at first when I went to put them over her head, fearing that there was going to be some interference. She still loves to have her ears rubbed and scratched vigorously though. She's no fool - she knows the difference.

I think the trainer enjoyed our no-stress, non-training hour. She had a good idea - let's put random stuff into the ring for Miss Curious to inspect. Here's hoping the two of them will have fun together while I'm away. 

She loves the boy.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Staying Close

Well, it finally happened - I rode Bridget! Rising seven, and me still on the ground; something had to change. I'd been putting off taking that last step of swinging my leg over her back because of wimpiness really. Unlike a great many horse people, I am risk-averse. My daughters have become too busy and important to help with the task of spotting Mum while she does kooky and age-inappropriate things with horses. However, the opportunity to get something going presented itself along with our recent move to Texas, where the horses are boarding again. The barn manager is a professional trainer and instructor, and I decided to ask her to help me with the transition from on-the-ground to on-board. She and Bridget like each other, so I put aside my misgivings about working with an unspilkered (Communicative Horses) trainer and decided that if I wasn't willing to enlist someone's help to Move On, I would remain forever on the ground.

So I ordered a test ride saddle, stuck in the extra-wide tree, and pretty much up I got. It all went very smoothly. The following week, the test saddle having been returned and the new one not having arrived yet, we did some ground work, involving free lunging and trying different bridles. 

And then this week for the first time in her life, Bridget was not very keen on having her halter put on. She did let me, but walked away twice before doing so. Not a good sign.

So needs must break it to our trainer that we're going to have to do things differently. Quite right, of course. But I felt I had to try and let someone do things in a more conventional way to see the result. Maybe Bridget would have been fine with it. It was good to find out for sure. My intention was to trust someone who is trustworthy and be willing to relinquish, to some extent, my own control over the situation. But the proof is in the pudding, and the pudding didn't want her halter on. There's no way to let someone into this gently - you have to just say it: the horse gets to say no, and if she really doesn't freely choose to do this, then what's the point?

After I said my crazy things, we spent an hour in the round pen - me, the trainer, a three-year-old boy, and Bridget, who was at liberty. We (mostly me and Bridget) worked on shoulder yielding and backing and turns on the haunches and forehand, and standing by the mounting block, and putting reins over her head. She was free to walk away, but she kept coming back for more. remaining placid and content throughout. Toward the end of the time, she came and stood by the mounting block and kept putting her foot on it. That's Bridget - she wants the human role in the exercise. She would like to be the one climbing on the mounting block - it looks like fun. Anyway, she was keen to be in the centre of things, making suggestions.

Riding is such an intimate activity. Why is it that we start by keeping the horse at a distance? We send them away from us to the rail and don't allow them to come close. We use commands and instructions which operate like a remote control device - how often has one read in horse classifieds the term "push-button"? As we sit on the horse, all the distance of the lunge line is present, holding us apart still, and the remoteness of our control remains even though we're in close contact with their bodies.

Horses love intimacy. Not the sentimental kind involving kisses forced upon them. But an intimacy where you share your thoughts and listen for theirs. Intimacy can remain over a distance or be lost in close proximity.

I've sort of done our trainer out of a job; although her expertise is still very reassuring, it's no longer the principal driving force behind what we're doing. However, I'm still glad to have someone around for moral support (I've been doing this on my own for so long), and it'll make me feel safer when I'm riding. Also Bridget loves the company. Two people to hang out with, and no George to chase her away and take them for himself. 

The saddle will arrive soon. I'll keep you posted.