Thursday, April 05, 2012

in brief, a mini-rant on managing spooky horses

I just read a post on a forum in which someone suggested that in dealing with spooky horses, we must "make them touch" the thing they are afraid of.

All I can say is this: how many of us humans are afraid of snakes, spiders, lightning storms, tornadoes, roaches, fire ants, etc.?

Is our approach for our friends, family, children, and our SELVES to insist that we go touch that which we are afraid of?

In most cases, of course not. In at least some cases, the fear is actually healthy and keeps us safe.

As a therapist who has worked with a few phobic clients (I venture that this might be similar to a spooky horse, or close enough for a comparison), progressive desensitization is a slow, gradual, gentle way to assist with managing phobias which interfere with daily life.

Why in the world do we think it's okay to make a horse touch something it's terrified of, as a matter of course?

Have you ever seen someone ride a horse almost into the ground to wear them down so they can get the horse to cross/touch/pass by something that has spooked the horse?

99% of stupid things we inflict on horses would be tossed in a flat second if we first inflicted them on ourselves.

Think about it.


Kate said...

Whenever I see or hear the word "make" I already know that things are being taken in the wrong direction, where human ego and power are all that matters.

There are very effective ways to deal with spooking and scary objects that don't involve "making" but instead involve leadership, trust and rewarding the try.

Grey Horse Matters said...

Absolutely right. There's no way in the world someone could get me to touch a snake (poisonous or otherwise)or a mouse or rat. Sorry I don't want to be desensitized. I've got along this many years without having to face my fears, no sense trying to get over them now!

In my mind when a horse is spooking at something it's for a reason. The fear may be unfounded but it's real to them. When I have a spooking horse(and Erik was the king of spooks) I just get calmer and quieter and talk low and slow,sometimes trying to pet them softly and they usually will come round. I find that after a while if it doesn't bother me they get more comfortable with the offending object too.

Matthew said...

I came across an enormous, shiny and healthy black widow spider this weekend. Should we "make" someone with a spider phobia touch it?

billie said...

Kate, I think of it more as partnership, but I'll write more about that another day!

billie said...

A, we worked with a trainer one time who said she deals with spooking at a specific object as a fear issue that requires partnership and trust to work through - by asking the horse to do some very small things like simply stop and look (from afar) at the object, then at some point leg yielding one step in the direction of the object, etc.

Eventually you work up to passing by the object if in fact it's something you might encounter and need to be able to safely walk past on an average ride.

A few years back my daughter had a private blog for her work with Apache Moon and one post was about desensitizing him to the big black and white umbrella we have. I photographed the entire process and it was really incredible to see how he managed his fear when it was respected. We started with the umbrella in the arena, closed and lying on the ground. She let him approach it at his own pace and comfort level, then walked him past it, then mounted and rode in big circles that gradually got closer. Eventually he walked up and smelled it, then pawed it.

We progressed from that flat, folded up umbrella all the way to me walking around with it open and spinning, and by the end of an afternoon he was taking the edge in his mouth and getting under it with me. It was pretty amazing. But there was absolutely NO pressure on him to do anything. And we followed the exact same pattern with each new "presentation" - so he was able to predict himself what each next step would be, and build on that first good outcome.

Equally fascinating was the response of the rest of the herd here - they all came to the arena fence and watched, completely mesmerized by what we were doing. And by the end of the pony's work, I could walk over to the fence and they would stand beneath the umbrella with me - they had watched the pony's work but did not need to go through all those steps themselves to learn that it was just fine.

The idea of making, or even leading, seems unnecessary when one engages as a partner and lets the horse/pony/donkey have an equal say in what happens next.

I think of it as asking a question and letting the horse answer. And respecting that answer even if it doesn't suit our goals for the time together.

In fact, sometimes having rigid goals defeats the whole purpose, because the horse knows that and feels the pressure.

I want my horses to WANT to be with me and to CHOOSE that over other things they are free to do.

What happens when they choose is infinitely better (imo, with my horses) than when I push them or lead them to do what I want.

billie said...

Matthew, exactly. Some of the things we expect horses to tolerate are in fact things they should maintain a healthy fear for.

We try to "bombproof" them and then complain when they get into things they shouldn't and end up hurting themselves.

A mixed message, for sure.

Victoria Cummings said...

You are so absolutely right about this! It's interesting that Siete has never spooked at anything. I credit this to how carefully I've always introduced new things to her and how she has always been treated with kindness and respect. Silk, on the other hand, does spook - usually when I am nervous about something or when she wants to get my attention. She doesn't do it often, and I'd never think of trying to make her confront whatever it was that startled her. It's always got more to do with what's going on with me than it does with her being afraid of anything. What you did with the pony and the umbrella reminds me of some of Linda Tellington Jones' exercises. I love that the rest of your herd wanted to come stand under the umbrella too.

billie said...

Victoria, what a wonderful experience you have had with Siete - being able to know, since her very birth, exactly what has happened all along the way and in fact to ensure that bad things don't happen.

I find it interesting to look at the horses who live with me and to compare how they react to potentially scary new things. Keil Bay can spook with the best of them, but for him it always feels like a sort of selective spooking that gives me a chance to practice my skills in the saddle. I can count on the fingers of one hand how many times he has spooked with me on the ground.

The thing about Keil that intrigues me is that he can spook at the silliest things - but his trust of the human is pretty much beyond reproach. So it's easy to work through things with him.

Salina is not naturally spooky but she will spook sometimes and I think mostly because of her missing eye. She requires a very specific method of being handled in order to settle down. If you are calm and centered, so is she. It is so easy to escalate her by getting overwrought. I suspect in her case she was more of the personality of Keil Bay when younger but being a mother to many foals,losing her eye, and being transported from Germany have taken their toll on her trust. She demands to have her eye on things at all times - not so much literally but absolutely figuratively. She almost never lets go and relaxes.

The closest she comes is when she gets groomed in the barn aisle or gets a massage. And even then it's hit or miss depending on the energy on the farm.

Cody seems almost to have had his spook surgically removed. Actually, that reminds me that I have a new post to write about Cody so I'll save what I was going to say here for that.

The pony - he definitely has a spook and he is a bit harder to work through it - he requires time and total release of all pressure,as we did with the umbrella and with repairing his bad loading experience years back.

I guess the bottom line for me is that many of the tricks and techniques one sees that are used are in many cases based on what is good or convenient for the humans and not what works best and with the least stress for the equines.

But what I am learning over time is that doing things the quiet, slow, longer way builds something that is utilized again and again in the future. As you have done with Siete - and you can always count on it once it's there because it has to do with trust and respect and that particular horse's need and personality and uniqueness.

I watched the movie Buck a few nights ago and although I found it inspiring in many ways I was not fond of seeing the jerking of horses' heads with those rope halters nor was I impressed with the colt starting footage. I just think it's insane to take a young horse to a strange place with a bunch of other young horses to be started in that short a time.

I'm all over the place with this comment! Probably need to channel some of this into individual blog posts. :)

Victoria Cummings said...

I think what you're saying about Salina is really interesting - and totally understandable. How did you come to own her? I don't think I've ever heard that story. I do agree with you about these colt starting clinics. Even though it's Buck or used to be Ray Hunt, the idea of doing that to a young horse - bringing him/her to a strange place with a bunch of other people and horses and only taking a day to prepare to get on and ride - it's so different from what I did with Siete. And by the time that Siete was being ridden, she was so non-plussed by it that she looked like she had been doing it for years. Every day, I am reminded of how blessed I am to have such great horses. And you are too!

billie said...

I was horse browsing online late one night and saw her photo. She had her head cocked to one side and looked like she was asking me a question and waiting for an answer. :)

As it turned out, her atlas joint was stuck from tilting her head due to the one eye - she no longer does that tilt b/c we have the chiro out regularly.

Anyway, I went out to meet her and although she was very distant and not exactly what I expected, it was so clear to me that she was meant to come live with us. There is absolutely no question that she has taught me more than all the horses here put together. And although she is not snuggly or affectionate the bond I have with her is incredible.

I've written this before but she is the heartbeat of November Hill. She is so attuned to everything - which given her age and her one eye and arthritic knees seems all the more incredible.

She has come to allow some affection over time, and it's all the more precious to me because it is not given lightly or easily.

Love Siete's being nonplussed by being ridden - that is how it should be.

For awhile when I was young I was often asked to get on young horses for the first time - I was lean and long-legged and very quiet so I guess a good fit. Mostly it was bareback and shockingly (not so at the time) there were no helmets involved. I just climbed up on the fence and slid on. Never had a problem - these were all young horses that were bred and raised and treated well from birth, and this all happened right there where they'd grown up, so nothing stressful at all about it.

I should say - wrt Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman - that what they do is vastly better than the standard way of breaking that one reads about and sees where things are abusive and rough and the spirit is broken - so I applaud that they have moved so many folks beyond the barbaric methods - but there is, imo, so much further to go.