Sunday, May 04, 2008

One Step Forward

Today, I will admit, I didn't entirely feel like going out to the stable. I was a bit groggy this afternoon and more interested in a nap then two 20 minute drives sandwiched around a frustrating session with a poorly behaved horse. But, I know the more time I can spend with Steen right now the better, so I roused myself and headed out.

The horses were in a grassy pasture again. Steen watched me as I approached, but didn't come to the gate for me. I had to go to him. He didn't make any attempt to get away once I reached him, and willingly let me halter him. Then, however, after following me a few steps back towards the barn, he didn't want to go any further.

Well, I've been reading a lot about natural horsemanship lately, and have come to the conclusion that there is a little bit of a paradox involved in the whole philosophy. On the one hand, they stress doing everything without aids or aggression, pointing out the truth that a horse ultimately cannot be forced to do anything, and devices and techniques that cause pain will also cause fear and a scared horse will only get more scared by pain, not less. However, all the "games" you play with a horse in natural horsemanship programs come down to dominance. They teach you to use "horse language" to persuade your horse that you are the leader and it is really in his best interest to do what you say without questioning.

I've been going around coaxing Steen into everything he's uncomfortable with for a week now and I can't help but notice sometimes coaxing involves giving in in a way that is hardly dominant. I know from watching his former owner handle him that Steen is one of those horses (and what horse isn't, really?) who will misbehave if he thinks he can get away with it, and what more, he's been getting away with it for a very long time.

So, today I finally got after him. Not circles, no soft voices, no backing up, no games. I smacked him on the butt with the heavy end of the lead rope and told him in no uncertain terms that he would follow me.

We got out of the pasture and to the lawn where we had our trouble yesterday. I knew Steen wasn't actually interested in grazing because I'd been watching him in the field before I walked to the gate, and he wasn't eating but just standing there in that lazy horse way.

When Steen stepped foot on the grass though, he stopped again. This time, I really got after him. A few harsh words, another thump or two, and lo and behold, he followed. He followed right next to me the rest of the way to the barn. Twice I felt him start to slow his walk, but told him no, and he gave it up.

But when we got to the barn I was already doubting. Had I been too harsh? Was he going to be afraid of me now? Imagine my astonishment when I draped his lead rope over the pipe at the edge of the arena and he dropped his head and stood there quietly as if the dancing horse I'd had on a 12 foot line yesterday didn't even exist. He stood like that while I brushed his body. Then I led him around the arena. I'd make him walk, stop, drop his head, turn left, turn right, do it all over, etc. Then I went back to the edge of the arena and he stood quietly again while I brushed out his mane, etc. Then I started leading him around the arena at a trot. He started and stopped with me perfectly, and started to drop his head of his own accord when we stopped.

We did this five or six times. He showed not the tiniest hint of interest in fidgeting his way over the horses in the stalls he can touch noses with from the arena door, or knocking buckets over with his nose, or pulling the blankets off the arena railing (all things he was doing yesterday). He also never once called out for the rest of his herd like he's done every single other day I've worked with him. He just stood there like a normal horse and let me groom him.

I am certain I could have saddled and ridden him. But I didn't. I kept the session short and positive. He lead beautifully back to the pasture and now I'm looking forward to going out there again.

I guess it is just difficult to find that very fine balance between too gentle and too dominant, and sometimes a little bit of a firm hand will go a long way. Let's just hope this one step forward isn't followed by two steps back...

2 comments:

  1. I like to think of working with a horse as a partnership, and less as a hierarchy. I know that most people tell you to "be the dominant one", but that's not always the best solution. Sometimes you need to be in charge, and sometimes the horse does. The tricky part is figuring out when each is appropriate. (Also tricky is teaching the horse, who's probably used to the "dominance" method as well.)

    As for taking charge, a horse is a big animal. A smack on the butt or neck is a pretty minimal thing for them. I wouldn't worry about it.

    If you haven't already, I might recommend reading The Tao of Equus by Linda Kohanov. It's not really about training, but she has some neat idea about horses and how and why they think as they do.

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  2. Thanks for the recommendation. I'm pretty much reading everything I can get my hands on at this point, so I'll look that one up.

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