Thursday, August 20, 2009

horses and discipline - bits and pieces from here and there

This week I read a post from someone experiencing difficulty in re-training a horse she'd acquired expressly for the purpose of learning all she could about working with horses who explode into fits of bucking. She had made tremendous progress - the horse had come to respect her, trust her, and all the ground issues had resolved. She realized however, that she had been holding back with one particular thing under saddle because she knew it would trigger the explosion, and the day she asked for it, the horse ended up unseating her, for the first time.

She posted wondering if she had made a mistake in taking this horse. I read on for the comments, noting that my impression of her summary of working with the horse was one of admiration. She had made much progress with almost all the horse's bad habits. She had earned the horse's respect and trust. And she had gone to the really tough place, and hit the rough spot with this horse - and then stopped to question herself before moving on. Assessing what happened and why, questioned her own part in what happened, in order to make the best decision for herself and the horse.

All of that made me think WOW. IMO, she was getting close to a break-through.

In the many comments that followed, there were only two people who shared my perspective. Everyone else encouraged her to either sell the horse or have a "come to Jesus" meeting over this issue, or have a cowboy do it for her.

I've read this kind of thing before, but never in a scenario where a really good horsewoman/rider took a horse on purposefully, did great work, and then hit one rough spot and needed some support to continue. I was shocked that most of the readers seemed to only see the one moment in the one ride where the root of the problem was faced, and chose to focus only on that.

She clarified a number of times but no one really shifted in their advice. There was no credit given for all the progress. The horse was either irrevocably "broken" - OR - needed "breaking."

This was a horse who couldn't be ridden with a whip - and yet had come to the point of trusting her so much she could carry one. And many advised that she needed to use the whip hard enough to "matter."

I was at such a loss for words I couldn't comment. The lack of insight into discipline, punishment, and the effects of such on an obviously traumatized animal astounds me still.

I also read a different post in a different place about how to deal with horses who bite. This was not a horse who pins its ears and comes at people, out for blood, but a horse who reaches in while being led and takes a nip.

The bulk of responses offered that the poster needed to make this horse think it was going to die the next time it offered to bite. Those were literally the words chosen - the horse needs to think it's going to die.

I suggested that using the handle of a whip, positioned so the horse will poke itself when it turns to nip, works well and without the drama or the "game" aspect that often comes into play with this kind of behavior. And further, that getting quieter, not louder, can be very effective with this kind of thing.

There is so much advice out there about being the alpha - with horses, with dogs, with children. And much of it involves being meaner and tougher and harsher than the most dominant behavior we encounter.

It makes me wonder how much of this has anything to do with genuine observations about the nature of our relationships to horses and dogs and our kids. It seems to have more to do with our need, as humans, to dominate the things around us.

Where does that come from?

As I typed the last line I felt something tickling on my shoulder. When I looked down at it, I saw one of the much-loved ballerina spiders who live with us. They generally stay in corners, up high, and rarely come anywhere near me. This was, in fact, the first time one has ever touched me. My reaction? A loud "aiyyy" sound and an instantaneous knocking off of the spider. Both based in fear, because although I love these ballerinas, I still have a deeply-rooted fear of spiders and can't tolerate one crawling on me.

I think the human need to dominate is probably based in fear, which rarely gets addressed. There's usually something around to be dominated, and we're sanctioned to act out aggressively in these contexts, where being big and loud, taking the alpha role, is the right approach. The right thing to do.

What if we choose, not to get bigger and louder, not to scream or jump and strike out, but instead to get quieter, more centered, more observant, and respond from THAT place?

What if we looked deeper into ourselves and asked what I am afraid of?


I've had comments turned off most of this month, and while I've gotten back to posting here, have not yet decided if I can return to posting and responding to comments the way I did before. I love the comments, and I love responding to each one, but I have needed a break from that.

Today, I'm interested in what you think, and I'm turning comments back on for a bit to see what you have to say.


jme said...

firstly, let me say i completely understand about wanting comments and wanting to respond but not always being able to! i've been in a similar situation of late...

really well said. when i hear stories like this, it makes me wish i could be there in person to witness the behavior and offer some kind of support. it sounds as if this rider is taking the right approach to this horse, and i wish i could tell her to stay on that path, no matter what all those loud, angry voices might say. i also wish i could offer some helpful advice that might get her past this last issue...

i can't tell you how many times i've had people tell me one of the challenging horses i'm working with needs to be sent to a cowboy to have the shit kicked out of him. funny, but most of the 'problem' horses i've had have come to me from those very same 'cowboy'-type trainers where either the problem started in the first place and/or no one was able to fix it!

and yes, i completely agree that fear is the root cause. it is the underlying, unacknowledged cause of so much of our own behavior - socially, politically, religiously, etc. (my inner anthropologist chiming in ;-) and, as a prey animal, fear is so much the hardwired response of the horse to the unknown. it is always the first place to look when encountering a problem. and as the leading partner in the horse-human relationship, it is our responsibility to realize and control our own fear so that we can recognize and assuage that of the horse, earning and maintaining his trust.

i've always tried to approach the horses from the perspective that 'it is never the horse's fault.' even though sometimes it IS the horse, there is always something i can do better, make clearer, be more understanding of, etc. etc. and it's my job as the trainer to figure out what that thing is, no matter how long it takes, how many things i have to try or how many times we have to start over after a setback - and no matter how may times i may hit the dirt in the process!

because i am aware that the horses are involuntary partners in our riding, i have to approach any problem as MY problem, not the horse's, or training becomes a contest between horse and rider rather than a partnership - and an unfair contest at that. i think when the horse starts looking like an opponent, we need to step back and not only ask WHY, but also reassess what it is we're getting from riding in the first place. there's a whole can of worms just under the lid of THAT question...

sorry, i didn't have much time to organize that thought very well, but i'm sure i'll be back to add my 2 cents again!

Grey Horse Matters said...

Great post with an interesting perspective. I do believe that whoever this girl is she should step back and reassess what she has already accomplished and what else she needs to do to move forward. Even if moving forward involves moving back to the horses and her comfort zone and revisiting what has already become progress.

I have a real problem with sending a horse to be 'broken' or 'learn some manners' and have never resorted to that sort of thinking. I believe that most of the negative comments are based in the culture of being the 'alpha' and having your horse submissive or downright afraid of you for your training to go anywhere. I'm sure that personal fear is a big part of this sort of behavior. If we are fearful of our horses we can't expect to have a partnership with them and if we resort to bullying tactics, eventually I believe we will not only be hurt but we will miss out on one of the most wonderful friendships we can have with an animal.

I hope some of this makes sense to someone besides me. Anyway, I do agree with both you and jme wholeheartedly. My wish list this year would include the hope that people would educate and investigate for themselves how horses and other beings think and behave and why. Wouldn't it be nice to not just give pat answers based on the old training methods and myths that have always been used by 'great-grandpa' the meanest cowboy there ever was.

billie said...

Thanks, jme and grey horse - as usual you both give me more to think about (and cause me to regret not having comments on for the past few weeks...:)

I think you'll both enjoy the article I just linked to by Sylvia Loch.

Maddy said...

I want to start by saying that I unfortunately know little to nothing about horses but I do love them.
My gut tells me you can break anything with a whip but it doesn't mean it's right.
I was deeply moved when I read the book and watched the Horse Whisperer video years ago.
I loved his methodology and how he incorporated it successfully dealing with very trouble teens on his ranch.
There is something to be said for discarding "the whip" and using more humane approaches when dealing with animals, and children.
I love Temple Grandin's books for the simple reason that they make sooo much good sense. One does not have to be aggressive or mean to get the point across.

billie said...

Maddy, I agree about being able to break just about anything but that doesn't make it the right thing to do.

We (the generic "we") seem to be very short-sighted about what we lose in the longer term when we break the spirits of children, dogs, cats, horses, etc.

I've seen horses that are empty - they have been broken to the point they simply stand there and let you do whatever you want with virtually no interaction or response. And I guess it's true that they're reliable in the sense that they won't ever do anything unexpected.

But I want Keil Bay to pin his ears if something hurts him, and to bang for his breakfast when he's hungry. It's part of who he is, and I have no desire to extinguish the personalities of the horses who live here.

It is always interesting to me how much my work with children and my study of developmental psychology informs my understanding of horses.

I am sorting through a lot of books this month and came across all my Alice Miller titles. Much of what she wrote about how our society deals with children holds true for animals as well.

I think as a culture, we can't grow much further until we look at how we treat our children and our animals. I'll stop now before this turns into the longest comment on the planet. :)