|Dakota: "What are you not getting about 'leave me alone?'"|
Finesse and the Thinking Horseman
Here we are back in Gift Horse Land. With the Holidays upon us, and horses cheap or free all around, new horsemen are bound to follow. Give the kid a pony for Christmas and watch the hysteria. Joy to the world!
But while you're at it, especially if you're not an experienced owner yourself, there's much to be learned about how not to un-train that well-trained animal lurking in the shadows eating the bow off its tail.
Of all the very important primary lessons all horsemen need to master, somewhere near the top of the list, bolded and bulleted, should be “Pick Thy Battles Wisely”. Starting something you can’t finish, launching an argument you can’t win, is an absolutely sure way to cause more problems than you can shake a crop at. If you can't beat 'em, finesse 'em.
Every horseman eventually hears the rule that one should always end a lesson on a good note with some acceptable behavior on the part of the horse that can be rewarded by the trainer (even a very small trainer) before the two part company for the day. Often this means giving up for a time on mastery of a complex behavior and settling for one small part of it. An inch is as good as a mile if it’s all you’ve got. If Muckraker is willing to put one foot on the trailer when yesterday he refused to look at it, you’ve won a small victory, and that is to be celebrated all around.
But the battles that many riders choose are so lopsided in favor of the equine that one must stand back and wonder “What is that person thinking?”
Scenario I: Most often the rider is thinking about how stupid he looks to the throng gathering at the rail to witness his failure as a trainer, a rider, and a human being. This is a very bad place for a horseman to go. Sure, we horse people like nothing better than to watch and laugh at someone else’s bad decisions. It’s how we learn and how we feel better about our own mistakes. This habit only becomes a problem when the horseman in the spotlight takes seriously his or her need to look impressive.
Psychologists call this “negative self-talk”, this moment when we absorb the disapproving looks, words and gestures of other people and internalize them, adding our own pile of baggage to create a monster. “She said I’m an idiot, that no one with a brain would let a horse get away with ____________. She must be right. I am an idiot! I need to be tougher. I’ll show this horse who’s in charge around here!” The snowball gathers momentum, and soon horse and horseman are engaged in a pitched battle that can’t possibly turn out well because the focus is all wrong.
Scenario II: Sometimes the horse person is in the throes of Famous Clinician Fever. She’s gotten a set of DVD’s for Christmas or perhaps has spent some in-person hours watching an un-broke colt be saddled and ridden in under 20 minutes. Aflame with dedication and the passion of the insane, she heads for the barn where she will whip her recalcitrant mare Cheesequake into shape using all the techniques she thinks she learned. She’s missing vital points, but she won’t know that until she’s lying on the ground furious at her laughing equine buddy and hoping someone's cell phone has bars in the indoor..
Scenario III: Often the horseman is simply in a bad mood, and Mudbug has gotten on his last nerve. A bad day at work can easily mutate into a bad horse day. The horseman arrives at the barn, hoping to regain some semblance of sanity through a calm hack on ol’ Mudbug, but MB has other plans. He’s grazing in the pasture with his buddies, it’s close to dinnertime, and he is looking forward to nothing more than to be left alone. Horseman grabs a lead and tries to drag Mudbug toward the barn, and Mudbug resists. A fight ensues. A 200-pound horseman can’t possibly manhandle a 1200-pound Mudbug into the barn, so guess who wins.
The trick to remaining on the high side of this crazy business is to plan ahead and be flexible. Keep in mind that every time you interact with your horse, you are teaching him something and learning something. What you teach him may not be your intended lesson. Mudbug undoubtedly learned that he can drag his human companion around the pasture at will. Cheesequake learned that interactions can be scary and confusing, so she won’t likely be as willing to play the next time her human wants to test out new learning experiences. Your horse may learn that he doesn’t have to get on the trailer, that you can’t hold him if he runs through the lead, that you are soft and squishy and fun to toss around, or that his four feet, planted firmly, trump your two and all the maniacal gestures and foul language you can muster.
Go see your horse in a calm frame of mind. If you’re too angry or frustrated with your life to be rational and relaxed, you don’t need to do anything more than give him a carrot and watch him play in the pasture until you’re feeling better. If you’ve got it in your head that you can bully your horse into behaving the way you want him to, you are doomed. Finesse, dear horse friend, is the answer, and that only comes with total focus and an accepting attitude. A battle lost is an okay thing if something positive comes from it, but a battle avoided is even better. Aim for controlled, simple interactions, and let what happens happen. Opt for safety over style and sanity over the applause of your friends.
If Mudbug doesn’t want to play today, change the game. Make him think it’s his idea. Grab him by the collar of his curiosity, and he’ll be putty in your hands. Turn off your ego and set a spell. It’s win-win kind of day.