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.