Horses Can Think for Themselves

Both on the ground and under saddle, horses are expected to follow a human’s lead. Human does something and horse reacts in a way human wants, horse gets rewarded. Human does something and horse acts in a way human doesn’t want, horse gets corrected. Horse learns to do things human wants. This is a very black-and-white version of a very complex conversation between two species and I think some horses are capable of problem-solving beyond just reacting to a human. If horses weren’t smart enough, humans would have given up trying to domesticate them for riding, working, and companionship long ago.

Genius, right here

What does Eli do that makes me think he can think for himself? In our Saturday lesson he backed himself off the jumps without me doing very much at all other than staying out of his way as much as possible. The less I do, the more he shines over fences. He is learning that I am learning to make his job easy. He is learning that I will be there with my leg most of the time to support his efforts. He is learning distances and getting them much better than I ever will. He is learning from gridwork. Is he idiot-proof? No. But is he getting amateur-friendly? I think we are headed that way for sure. Although I couldn’t get him to land on the left lead, we did get a left-to-right change which is his harder side. I was so surprised! But happy. The more chances I give him to do something right, the more he responds positively. The “simple” theme continues. (Maybe I will actually get media of it next weekend.)

Human makes a bad decision. Pudgy bunny hops anyway. (5-12 Photography)

Even on the ground–probably more so than under saddle–Eli is behaving like regular sweet gelding and a pet. Don’t get me wrong–if a stranger invades his personal space unless a treat is immediately forthcoming he will pin his ears and bare his incisors, but all very lackadaisically. His aggression is nearly non-existent. I give him chances to do the right thing and it may take him an extra second or two, but he complies eventually. This is most illustrated by the wash rack. The wash racks are a step up from the aisles and are probably a bit spooky to a horse unfamiliar with them. For whatever reason, Eli needs a moment to think about how to step his hind feet up into the wash rack EVERY TIME. He always walks half way in and stops. No idea why after doing this hundreds of times he still needs an extra second, but I give it to him anyway. He steps all the way in with minimal drama, and I really didn’t have to do anything. Maybe some other people would get impatient with this and expect him to walk right in, and who knows what tricks or methods people would use to get him to walk right in, but I don’t much see the point of all that because he does walk in eventually. His terms are fair in my mind. Why pick a fight about something the horse isn’t sure about? Why not reassure him instead that this is no big deal?

Eli, by far, has taught me more about how horses learn than any of my other horses. This is partly because I am paying attention to it more with Eli–my other horses didn’t come with the baggage Eli came with as they were all 3 or 4 year olds. With Eli, it hasn’t been so much about teaching what to do as it has been about undoing some aggression to see what’s underneath all the reactiveness. I ignored so much of his weirdness early on and I think that has been the most powerful communication between us–I don’t draw attention to things I don’t like. Instead, I ignore them and go about my business, establishing a routine that Eli can count on. Yes, of course, I reprimand him for kicking out directly at me, but he does that so little now, and the last few times he’s bitten me were more like a foal nibbling a pocket for a treat, not aggression. But he has gone from a horse that couldn’t stand still to be groomed to one who stands for grooming and loves being curried (because ITCHEEEZ).

Thinking about all this didn’t come out of the blue–I think about this kind of stuff frequently. So when I found a “position statement” on social media related to horse training, I read it because that’s what I do. I am not very familiar with the International Society for Equitation Science, but I am learning more about the organization by exploring the website. I am fascinated by their position statement on dominance and leadership concepts in horse training. It’s not exactly a quick read, but I am pleased to find an organization that treats the relationship between human and horse as a science, and cites studies related to the topics they pursue. I am still digesting the import of the position statement, but I found a lot of things that ring true for me in my experience. Especially toward the end of the article, this:

“Some horse people believe that, to get the ‘respect’ of a horse and make the horse obey orders, the person handling it must be the ‘alpha individual’, i.e. in the top position of the social hierarchy. The person must be the dominant part of the relationship and the horse the submissive one. Even if horses had a concept such as ‘top position’ in a hierarchy, it is questionable whether that hierarchy would even include humans (McGreevy et al., 2009). Undoubtedly, part of the reason for these and similar beliefs is anthropomorphism (i.e. our tendency to transfer human characteristics such as respect and authority onto the horse). This attitude often does more harm than good (see McLean 2003 for examples).”

Be there carrots or lions in yon woods?

Why not allow our relationships with horses to have a novel language, not one dependent on the way humans think horses communicate with each other? My horse does not think I am a horse, nor do I want him to think that. My horse comes from a long line of animals domesticated for work and sport, and most definitely recognizes humans as agents of both good and bad things, like grain or whips–that is the very nature of domestication. We can communicate with horses in a language unique to the horse-human relationship, one that evolves over time, one that is informed by evidence-based, peer-reviewed concepts and methods, one that makes no anthropomorphic assumptions about a dominance hierarchy. Eli doesn’t walk into the wash rack because I’m the alpha. Eli walks in the wash rack because I give him a chance to.

Commitment

What does it take to stick with horses? Anyone reading this already knows how unforgiving, tragic, and even ruthless riding horses can be. Horses are, for one thing, expensive. They come with no guarantees. Too many times, riders end up with unsuitable horses, for reasons ranging from the horse’s soundness to the rider’s skill level to the pair’s suitability for a chosen discipline. The first obstacle to get across is very often a rider’s own ego. Get the right horse for the job!

This post assumes you already have the right horse for the job, so that rules out a lot of people to which this post would even apply. But let’s say you’ve got the horse and you’ve got the desire and horse and rider are well-matched. Success should follow, right? Nope, it’s not automatic. It takes commitment. What does it mean to be committed to horses?

1. Love
If you don’t love horses, and love riding horses, why in the world would you do this? Perhaps another word to use for this feeling is passion. (Or possibly obsession?) You have to love horses to commit to horses. You have to love the horse sport, whichever discipline, to commit to the sport. You have to gain emotional energy from being around horses. Maybe you have a day every so often that horses drain you instead of buoy you, but on balance do horses lift your mood and your spirit? Even if things aren’t going your way? If you find yourself blaming everything on the horse, I personally cannot characterize that as love. I don’t know what to call it, but it’s toxic. Passion means putting the horse and the horse’s welfare first and drawing strength from elevating the horse above the rider’s circumstances.

2. Dedication
Do you really want to do this? Are there days you think about quitting, only to resolve to come back the next day with a fresh mind and body? Do you think of yourself as crazy for spending so much money and expending so much emotional energy on an animal that just wants food, shelter, and amusement? An animal that is capable of very creatively injuring itself, sometimes catastrophically? An animal that can get sick with all kinds of things and may or may not recover? If you lost the right horse, would you lose interest in the sport or would you search for the next right horse? In the face of all this, do you remain determined to wake up every morning and ride?

3. Self-preservation
Even on the right horse, running yourself into the ground will be more detrimental than helpful. First off, don’t practice so much that the horse starts to hate his job, or worse, starts going lame from overuse. You need to stick around to take care of the horse, so you had better take care of yourself, putting yourself in a position to take care of the horse to the best of your abilities. Don’t forgo safety precautions. Learn the proper way of doing things because very often it’s proper because it’s the safest way of doing things around horses, for both horse and the handlers.

4. Ambition
George Morris often talks about how important ambition is in a horse sport. I used to think it didn’t apply to me, because I had no immediate goals of competing, moving up a level, or making a living out of horses. I have since come to realize ambition is much simpler than all of that, and does apply to me. Ambition is the desire to improve and the desire to do the things it takes to improve. The second part of that is key. You can’t just say, “I want to get better,” and proceed to do nothing different from the day before. And if you don’t want to do the things it takes to get better, you will not get better.

5. Work
Attempting to stick to a rigid schedule in the equestrian world more often than not comes off as a joke. That doesn’t mean you can’t fit in the work. The days you can ride, ride. Practice what you need to practice, from serpentines to holding a two point to cavaletti and everything else you could possibly work on while riding. Be smart about it, and reward the horse for success. If Eli gets something right once or twice, I reward him and very often end on a high note such as that. If you can’t ride, there are plenty of other things you can do. Maybe your horse threw a shoe? Practice wrapping up a hoof. Maybe it’s raining? No doubt your tack could use a thorough cleaning. Maybe you’re out of town? Plenty of books about horses available, take a few with you and look them over during downtime.

Am I telling you commitment means adopting horses as a lifestyle and not simply a hobby? Yes, that is exactly what I am saying. How committed are you?

 

Not a Minute to Spare Over the Weekend

The blue flags can only mean one thing!

I did a lot of horsey things over the weekend, and also some family things (because Mother’s Day, duh). I didn’t do a great job of documenting any of it, mostly because I stayed on the move constantly all weekend. I think it’s a balance to the desk job taking up a little too much time lately — I fit as much fun stuff in as I can on the weekends without trying to wear myself out completely.

sunset from patentlybay on Vimeo.

Horses all day Saturday, and horses all day Sunday. But that’s what everyone does, right? It’s nothing to pat myself on the back about, especially because it significantly benefits my mental health. Why wouldn’t you live this way if you love horses? I would do it seven days a week if I could. (Except that with preexisting conditions, employer-sponsored health insurance gets REAL important.)

The well-seasoned horse show families bring shade and beverages.

Do you fill up your spare time exclusively with horses? Would you ever consider a horse-related professional position?

Never Ask

I read some equestrian news yesterday that Sinead Halpin retired one of her top mounts, and she quoted her husband, Tik Maynard, as saying, “A great horse would jump through fire for you if you asked, and a great horseman would never ask.”

I can think about this for hours. It might be one of my favorite lines I have ever read about horses, and one of the truest things I have ever read about riders.

Don’t ask horses unfair questions. A great horse will do anything for you because you haven’t ever asked an unfair question.

Don’t ask horses to do more than you would expect of yourself. If you want to work your horse hard on a regular basis, be in the right shape to keep up with his fitness.

Don’t ask a horse to take care of himself until you have taught him to and given him the confidence to follow through with getting both horse and rider out of a jam. If you point a horse at a fence he’s never seen before and he goes, it’s because you have allowed him to practice over many kinds of jumps until he got good at it and now he has the confidence in himself to know that he can jump this new jump, too. If you point a horse at a fence he’s never seen before and he stops, it’s because you have failed at your job of giving him the confidence to succeed over any fence you want to point him at.

trot interrupted from patentlybay on Vimeo.

(perfectly boring trot video for no reason)

Don’t ask a horse to take care of you until you have committed all of your necessary resources to taking care of him. He can’t take care of you until you give him the best possible life available. He won’t take care of you unless he trusts you. You are responsible for earning that trust and never betraying it.

Riding with Uncertainty

A more accurate title of this post would be “riding whilst uncertain about something outside of riding that could affect my riding.” But that’s too long. I’m going for a little practicality here.

Anyone getting on a horse is probably comfortable with a moderate amount of uncertainty (or just stupid, either way) because of the nature of horses. Is he going to spook at that pile of poles the ninth time we trot past, after trotting past eight other times without incident? Is he going to step on a rock and come up lame from a stone bruise that later abscesses? Am I going to see a stupid distance and fail to make a decision so that my horse stops and I end up picking splinters out of my teeth?

We of course also ride with uncertainty about our own skills and abilities. Is my horse not getting his leads because I suck at it? Or is it because he hurts? Or maybe he doesn’t care even if I am asking correctly? Or maybe it’s Tuesday?

We even all experience a little bit of daily uncertainty about whether we will be able to afford this sport for much longer or at all. We sometimes question whether the time we put in is worth the stress these animals can cause us. We spend too much on vet bills, we try to fit square pegs into round holes, we try to get better every day even in the face of setbacks in communication, health, finances, the wrong tack, daylight savings, or footing.

The view may change but the perspective will not

Personally, I have already worked through a lot of this uncertainty — I am comfortable with my shortcomings as a rider, knowing that I try to improve every time I get on my horse (plus he keeps improving, too, so that helps). I am comfortable with horses being unpredictable. I accept that my wallet is not a good match for equine pursuits but I will pursue regardless. The uncertainty I am not comfortable with, that I am facing now, has to do with my health. Specifically, my vision. I’m losing it, apparently. And not in an “I just need a stronger prescription for eyeglasses” way. Totally annoying.

The first thing that comes to mind is always the worst case scenario and I don’t think that’s me. Not yet. I can still see, I just have a blind spot that will probably never go away. I don’t know how much or if this will change over time. The vision loss I have experienced thus far was not even obvious to me until I went in for my regular annual eye exam and once the eye patch was over my right eye during the visual field exam I noticed that there was something very, very wrong with my left eye. “Like, whoa, that is fucked up” was my first thought. I didn’t think much about it after that and just let my eye doctor tell me about the possibilities and request more diagnostic exams for me and prescribe me some eye drops.

And then I got to the barn. It kind of hit me then. What will the barn be like if I can’t see? What will riding be like? No, I will not give up riding no matter how much my vision dwindles over time. It may not even get all that much worse with treatment. But if I ever lose so much vision that I have to change how I ride or which horses I ride–what will that be like? How much vision loss is enough to say “no more jumping”? I even think that if I could, I’d trade my hearing to get my vision back. Which is a selfish and childish thing to think, but really, I don’t need to hear anything else ever again. However, I need to see.

perspective from patentlybay on Vimeo.

This isn’t even that much of an issue yet, but the uncertainty about how long my vision will last makes me consider the future in a much different light. There are plenty of people with far worse conditions who ride in the face of disabilities and adversity no matter what. Seeing them do it — I know I can, too. Not riding is not on the table.

What uncertainties related to riding have you grappled with?

A Mental Health Day

Self care. We have all heard or read this phrase. We’ve encountered it in the layers of Facebook pop-psych click-bait, also in more clinical settings, and even casually dropped from the lips of a suit in line at the Starbucks around the corner from the office. We are all under societal pressures: we’re Americans, and we do anxiety like no other nation. Self care comes in when you need a day to yourself away from all the anxiety, or even an hour, indulging in hot cocoa, or a pedicure, or a trip to the dollar store for stupid pet costumes. Self care in America, to a certain extent, means consumerism. It means drink more artesian water. It means take a hot yoga class at the studio that just opened. It means gather ye rosebuds from Home Depot. It means spend money. Why? I don’t know.

I am not going to say I have found a new path of self care that involves spending no money, because my self care involves horses, and horses eat gold bullion and crown jewels. They sleep on platinum pharmaceutical patents. We tack them up in rare earth tax returns.

I am going to say, self care sometimes means taking care of something else because doing THAT makes you feel better. Taking care of my horse makes ME feel better, and I would rather this than have a stranger shred my feet with hot bubbling water, emery boards, and orange sticks. My me time is Eli time. He gets apples, grooming, exercise, and a good roll and I feel recharged.

What do you do for self care? Are horses or any animals a part of it?

Concentration

Have you noticed I like to overthink things about horses on Thursdays and Fridays lately? Here’s the next installment of me being a headcase …

One thing crucial to riding horses competitively is a rider’s ability to concentrate. Zeroing in on what needs to be done in the saddle takes a body awareness, focus, and connection to the animal that no other sport requires. Developing and maintaining a high level of concentration while in the saddle takes years of practice, but sometimes a rider has a natural focus, an instinctive aptitude for being present in the moment while riding such that every other care, from job stress and taxes to what to eat for dinner, falls away.

I have tried to develop this aptitude over the years. It starts with learning and internalizing the basics, strengthening the leg, developing an independent seat. Develop a sense of comfort in the saddle regardless of what the horse may do. Beyond that, it takes mental acuity and focus, and ability to independently control every single body part, down to the pinky fingers. Once all that is established (which in me is still a work in progress) then a rider can focus on the horse: developing gaits, moderating pace, strengthening, conditioning, and training. Often, horse and rider are learning at the same time. The rider’s brain and the horse’s brain have to be in concert to make progress in any of these things. Short of being an “animal communicator” or psychic (*cough*), this trait takes a lifetime to develop, so feeling inadequate is second nature to many riders. But the good stuff has to become second nature, too.

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Here, I am concentrating on staring at my hands.

When I am on a horse, I am pretty much focused on the horse. It is one of the few times I have no issues staying mentally present. I think it’s true for many riders–while mounted, the rest of the world disappears. But harnessing that focus to accomplish what I want while riding? That is significantly harder to tack down.

Last night, I rode Eli after he had 3 days off and a few days without turnout. He had an excess of energy even though the day had been warm and he still had a little mud on him from turnout exploits (you know … bitey-face, the pawing game, rolling). I could tell he was in a good, receptive mood–the tenor of his grumpiness fluctuates from truly grumpy to playfully irritable and last night he contented himself with halfhearted nips and lazy tail swishes while I groomed him and tacked him up. These are good signs.

Under saddle, he displayed a boisterousness but nothing too unmanageable. This is where the concentration part comes in. When Eli gets energetic, staying focused on the horse is more about survival than accomplishing particular exercises or working on the quality of his gaits. I have no problem staying in the moment under these circumstances. I ride according to Eli’s body movements and adjust my own, reactively. There is very little that is proactive about what I am doing to ride Eli–it’s more like convincing him not to buck the entire time, and most of the time he doesn’t. My concentration is spent trying to get him to concentrate. I basically end on a note of relaxation and obedience to reinforce that’s what he’s supposed to do.

But what about when Eli comes out of the stall relaxed and obedient, and I am not spending the ride working to get there? First, this is the horse I hope to have in my lessons, and on those days both my focus and Eli’s centers on what the lesson is about. When I have this horse, but not in  a lesson, this is where the holes in my concentration feel exacerbatingly cavernous. Like, shit, I actually don’t have that much focus when tasked with moving Eli’s training forward with exercises, movements, and developing his gaits. The solution is more practice, and the longer Eli and I work together, the better I get at concentrating on riding and training the horse, not just keeping the horse from being unruly. I try to think of how my body is responding to Eli’s manner of going. I try to create a suspension in his gaits that is a step beyond natural. I teach myself patience by taking trot jumps. I reward Eli for listening and trying, and make a huge deal out of him when he does what I have asked, which enhances our communication over all.

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How many things am I doing to make this happen, yet also some of which may be incorrect? How many things is the horse doing (none of which would be incorrect because the horse is never wrong)?

My shortcomings are clear to me, and I know how I can not just mitigate them, but foster skills to overcome and even rid myself of these shortcomings. The brainpower this takes, for me however, is immense. I recognize that the same is most likely true for Eli. So we take small steps during the rides when we are both receptive to hearing each other, and try not to undermine progress by letting emotions cloud our judgment. Reflecting on all this, I see that my concentration is inconsistent, but not stagnant. Will I ever get to a level of concentration where not only am I in the moment, but every move is precise and effortless? Uh, no, probably not. I think very few people ever do. But trying to get there keeps me motivated like nothing else.