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Posts Tagged ‘horse training’

I had an epiphany today.

It was my second day of training for a new job, and we were role-playing and running mock situations. When I was presented with the information in a step-by-step manner and given a chance to practice things until I got them right, I excelled, and felt eager to learn more.

When I was asked to do things for which I felt insufficiently prepared, where I wasn’t sure I knew the correct way to act, and where I didn’t have a good foundation to draw upon, I not only felt slightly panicky – I also felt resentful. My voice rose about an octave and my words in asking to go back a level and start from a place I understood were rushed and even quavery at times. I knew that if I was pressed to go further into more complicated scenarios without getting a chance to feel secure about what I had to do thus far, I was going to have a mini-meltdown, and that my behavior wouldn’t be attractive or appropriate.

I was fortunate that the two times in the last two days I had these reactions, my trainer listened to me, and backed off. I was relieved that my increasing discomfort was both noticed and addressed without censure. And given the opportunity to learn at my pace and in the way that felt best to me, I performed beyond my trainer’s level of expectation when we returned to the advanced scenario.

Afterwards, I thought: This is how the horses feel. This is the same chain of actions and reactions, the same emotions, the same principles at work. I get it.

So many times I understand something on an intellectual level without grounding that knowledge in a viceral way. I am then unable to use the concept with consistency, since I don’t own the knowledge. I don’t feel it; I just think it. I grasp it, but I can’t live it, since it isn’t a part of me.

And then, after floating around in my mind for ages, I will experience something that allows the empathetic part of my self to come forward, and suddenly I get it, down to my bones.

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I’ve been sidelined for the last month with a knee injury. Since I was initially on crutches and couldn’t drive, my visits with Mojo were few and far between, when either my mom or my lovely boyfriend took pity on me and drove me to the stable. Of course, I couldn’t lead Mojo or do groundwork, so they not only had to drive me, they then had to put up with me telling them what to do (control queen) while they handled my horse. I am obviously indebted to them both.

Mojo seemed to miss me, which was nice, and wanted more affection than he usually permits. The day I was able to hobble without crutches, he walked very slowly with me leaning on him, as we did a slow-motion version of our usual jog at liberty around the arena together. It touched me deeply that he put his normal exuberant boisterousness aside and tuned in to my level of ability. Although he is known to be quite the tester, he seemed to understand that I couldn’t participate in our games, and he never put a foot wrong. God bless that horse – I love him so.

I’ve been off crutches for two weeks now and my mobility has improved to about 80%. So my beloved quarter horse has decided I don’t need any more freebies. Yes, he seemed to say today, you’re agile enough to play, so guess what? I’m going to make you work for it.

My boy needs a tune-up.

I’ve always been envious of the people I’ve known who have been able to just hop on their horses after a lengthy hiatus and ride off into the sunset with no fuss and no drama. More than envious – incredulous. Maybe their horses are ancient, or maybe just better trained than mine – I don’t know. What I do know is that Mojo is not like that. Not at all.

It takes approximately three days of not working with Mojo before he starts to subtly press the boundaries of our relationship to see who’s in charge. Three weeks? Hah! He’s been in blissful full-turnout mode, with only himself to answer to, and you know? He kind of likes it that way, and isn’t too quick to give up his autonomy.

Now, to be fair, if he’s consistently worked, he’s very easy-going. By Sunday, he’ll be all ho-hum about lunging and whatever else I ask him to do. But today? When I pulled him out of his turnout pasture and said, Hey buddy, it’s time to get back to work? Right.

Nah. Can’t really see the benefit in that, thanks. I mean, I do like you and all, and I’m glad you’re feeling better, but I’m thinking that eating grass beats trotting in a circle any day. And why would you want to put us in the indoor arena when it’s a perfectly nice day out, anyway? Not to be rude or anything, but I’m going to have to exercise my executive veto here.

Mojo being Mojo is never bad – he’s not a jerk. He’s just very stubborn, and totally convinced that his opinion weighs in just as much as mine. I’ve learned through our time together that, although I don’t like to argue with him, it doesn’t pay to back down. I have to hold my ground until he respects my request, or it just reinforces his conviction that he should have his way. I love his self-confidence. I also value obedience, and when I ask him to stop, or to back up, I don’t care if we’re next to a field of oat hay (we were) or if the field is full of saber-toothed tigers (clearly not) – I expect him to do as I ask. Period. And we are not quitting, and he is not getting one blade of grass, until he does.

Once Mojo realized that the reward for good behavior was the oat hay he was so keen to obtain, it was easy. But getting that initial obedience was a drawn-out process. Just like Mojo, I was rusty and less effective than I’d like, which prolongs the debate. When I finally led him back to his turn-out pasture, he didn’t even stick around for belly scratches. He just walked away with nary a glance, as if to say, I’m in my pasture now and I don’t have to listen to any more of your crap. I’m going to eat grass and so be it.

It’s the first time he’s ever done that. A year ago it would have hurt my feelings. Now I just laugh – he’s true to himself to the end.

And tomorrow will be better.

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This is a post that may piss off a few people. While I am certain that there are many working cowboys, folks who were raised on ranches, and even those who just choose to wear Wranglers who are incredibly compassionate, intelligent, and competent in the care and training of their horses, there’s also a saying in my part of the world: He’s not a horseman, he’s a cowboy. It means lack of finesse, use of force, and taking shortcuts. It means an attitude that says the horses are an object put on Earth for our use. Is it a stereotype? Yes. Is it also often true? Yes. Please keep in mind that anyone can be a cowboy, in this sense of the word – you see it in all disciplines. A dressage queen can be a cowboy if she’s ruthless in the use of the double-bridle in order to force her horse into the correct head-set and rushes his training in order to show at the level she desires rather than the level for which he’s physically and mentally ready.

I’ve read a few blogs recently that suggest that the only correct way to teach and/or discipline your horse is through riding, that a good rider is also a good trainer, and that someone who can stay in the saddle is far more worthy of our respect than someone who does excellent groundwork, for example, but is still learning to canter. I have to disagree, and not just mildly. Riding is only one part of horsemanship – an important part, to be sure, but despite outward appearances, just because someone is an excellent rider doesn’t mean that he or she truly “knows the beast.” And unfortunately, because we all tend to gaze, starstruck, at someone with riding skills far above our own, it’s easy to miss this lack of skill in other areas until a situation comes along that is so blatant in the lack of care and understanding of the horse that we can’t pretend otherwise.

I have a friend who can ride a horse like nobody’s business – I mean, there’s almost nothing this person can’t do on horseback, and fearlessly, to boot. He was raised on a ranch in the midwest and has had his butt in a saddle since before he could walk. Every job he’s ever had has been riding horses in one capacity or another, including race riding. He’s got some of the best qualities of a “cowboy” such as fabulous manners and a great heart. He’d do a favor for a stranger. But when it comes to horses, force is what works.

Now, that by itself isn’t enough to get me up in arms. Everyone has their own training techniques and beliefs and it’s pretty much a sliding scale, in the horse world, of how much force is appropriate. If I have to up the level of my “ask” to “tell” by escalating the amount of force I use when I tap my horse with a whip, I will, and I feel fine about it. On the other hand, I will not kick him in the stomach to correct him. To me, that’s a pretty obvious range of force, but I’ve seen greater, and I’m sure you have, too. At any rate, whether or not I agree with such techniques as kicking the horse in the stomach, tying his head to the stirrup and making him run in circles, or tying him up for hours without water (and I don’t), these aren’t the kind of things that make me crazy. Some people have made very good arguments for why and how these techniques work and at a certain level, to each their own. You can’t fight every battle and it’s probably not my place to do so, anyway.

BUT…. when someone ignores all advice, seeks no help, and refuses to do even the basics to care for a horse with an injury out of pride, ignorance, and ego – that is not okay. Not even remotely. And this same friend (who has recently been downgraded to an acquaintance since the treatment of his horse makes me ill) has literally put his $15,000 horse in danger of permanent lameness due to his own lack of care and unwillingness to listen to anyone, including vets, on the seriousness of the issue. Simply because he has spent his entire life with horses and can’t admit that he doesn’t know it all, no matter how talented he is in the saddle. Ego, ego, ego. It may literally cost this horse his life.

And it just goes to show that, while you can be both, there’s a difference between a horseman, and a cowboy.

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