Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The Art of Processing

Connecting with Your Horse

The linked article is an oldie but a worthwhile re-read.  Nothing has changed since 2011 when it was written.  Nothing has changed in the thousands of years since man and horse first formed an alliance.  Consider it a reminder that, despite how it sometimes feels, there's more to your relationship with your horse than just getting his feed bucket filled on time.

It's been a long, sub-zero winter, so I've had more than the usual amount of time to spend observing the horses and pondering the observations.  I've noted that every day is the-same-yet-different for a horse.  The weather doesn't seem to affect them as drastically as it does us (maybe it would if they had access to catalogs full of those adorable packable down jackets), but other things affect them more.  It was a tough winter for the scavengers and vermin in my  neighborhood, and the opportunistic dining of some of the larger ones gave the horses cause for brief consternation.  Not worry.  Not panic.  Just a moment's pause while they weighed the danger of becoming the next meal for a bear or a couple of coyotes.
My choice to tack up Dakota (right)
led to a jealous tack-bomb by Leo.
No question what he was thinking.

I've learned to let the horses tell me when there's danger afoot.  They're far better at it.

Without much riding going on and a lot of handling in the barn and outside, they also have adopted a more human-centered behavior pattern.  Dolly, the solitary mare, has made the biggest shift.  Herd leader and cathected object of all the Boyz, Dolly has traditionally (for her entire 10 year tenure here now and before her absence) been a bit of a wanderer.  At least I thought it was she doing the wandering.  Now that the other mare, Pokey, who seemed to be rather innocuous and held what I assumed was a lowly level of power in the herd hierarchy, has passed on, I find that Dolly is actually a homebody.  She will lead her guys to the farthest reaches of the pasture, but only briefly.  I can count on her to return to the area nearest the barn and house at least once an hour.  There's no searching for the herd with Dolly in charge now.

Zip has made a huge paradigm shift.  He's lost the adolescent need to torment me.  He has always been a horse of strict adherence to routine, and change comes hard to him.  He's not entirely settled in the new pattern even though the change is his choice.  I was able to get a clear view of his mental processing a few days ago.  In the pasture he has long held onto a routine surrounding my approach with a halter for a workout.  For 19 years it included his coming to me as if he were delighted to see me, only to veer off and hide behind Dolly or talk Dakota into staying between us.  This isn't a lengthy game, and it's grown shorter over time.  But for the past few rides, he's come to me, started to go past me as usual, then stopped, backed up, and put his head in the halter.  Three times isn't true change, but it's evidence of learning.  The most recent episode was particularly interesting as he nearly forgot his plan and so had to stop short and look me right in the eye.  I could hear the gears grinding in his brain.  He made sure I noted that he could have run past me, that he meant to stop, and that he was sure this new plan was a better one.
Note the gloves on his ears.
Zip will go along with anything if
it means a few minutes of human
Very intriguing to watch.

This morning I had Leo explain to me that he had gas.  If he'd stared at me any harder, my hair would have melted.  No kicking or biting his side or other colicky gestures accompanied the stare.  His buckets were empty and there was ample manure on the ground.  He simply refused to eat and just stared.  Good Owner that I am, I grabbed the thermometer just in case, and applying it to the appropriate orifice, released a gust that blew my hair back.  He said thanks and ate his breakfast.

Dakota has chosen to spend some time standing with his forehead pressed against mine.  I have no clue what he's thinking, but each time he does that, he follows it with a day or two of being glued to my heels.  He's always been a good boy, but sociability has not been his strong suit.  Nor has Dolly's, so her recent choice to walk with her nose in my palm was a little surprising.

Duke never stops talking to me, so there's rarely reason to wonder what's going on with him.  He's verbal to the extreme and has a bunch of behaviors that clearly underline what he's feeling and what he wants.  But after this winter, he, too, has become almost unnaturally chummy.  In part I credit that to my kind-hearted Barn Brat, Melissa, who spent some very cold hours just fussing with him.  He's hard not to fuss with, cute as he is.  And he fully appreciates all the Human Time he can get.

So the processing continues into the spring.  Taking the time to just be around horses is vital to developing an understanding of them and a bond beyond food-source/hungry beastie.  Beyond rider and mount, beyond caretaker and patient there is a place where we stand on level ground and look each other in the eye and say, "Hey!  How're you doin'?" and get an answer.

One of the horse mags recently ran a piece on horses as pets vs horses as athletes, as if there were truly a difference.  I suppose, to a point, there is, as there will always be owners for whom competition is the endgame, and all the rest is left to grooms and stable hands.  But for a horseman it's all one, and so it should be.

Spend time watching, listening, and processing the lives of your horses.  It's momentous, I promise.

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