Fighting Our Nature
We may think that we are real Horsemen. But are we?
Personally, I had learned the most important, basic principle of dealing with horses, not before I embarked on my journey with them, but after making many mistakes. My purpose in life now is to spare the new horseman of the world from making similar mistakes, The mistakes that take a toll on our horses, creating man caused bad behaviors.
This excerpt from my book “The Horse Listener” introduces basic important principles of understanding the nature of horses. It is my hope that these principles will result in our saying “we are a real, true horseman”. As a result, we will not have to apologize later to our partner, the horse.
The seasons come and go in Central Oregon. It was a big contrast to Southern California. Fall brought the winds that dried and blew the leaves off the trees giving me plenty of work to clear them. Winters would bring snow and cold intermittently. The lack of humidity allowed for outdoor living to be more comfortable when it was cold. I often found myself outside in near-zero temperatures without bundling up. But when the winds came, I soon learned to layer my clothing. We would see the snow that was in the field blow into drifts. Spring would come with signs of green grass starting to sprout. Snow flurries often lingered into June at our elevation.
But when summer came, I was out with my horses. Mom always had enough work around the ranch to keep me busy. I had to work off the extra cash she had put into the purchase of our Miya. Mike continued to drive, delivering hay to his regular customers. He entrusted me with his chores while he was gone. I happily obliged so I could spend more time with those two new horses. Visits from the veterinarian and my biology classes at school had awakened in me a curiosity about all living things. I asked my vet a lot of questions. One day he asked me if I would be interested in becoming a veterinarian someday.
“Really? Me?” I said. Well, that started it.
I had my counselor in school guide me in a course of pre-veterinary studies. My mother and Mike were very enthusiastic. I decided to concentrate on horses as my specialty. But, I learned I had to study large and small animals as well. My special friend Shirley started to occupy my time at school and at my house with my horses. Her family became very influential in my life. I learned about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Mike mentioned that Jesus and his atonement for our sins contributed to ending his depression.
My life was busy enough already with all my activities. Now I had to be educated about that wild filly across the street. Mike asked me to sit with the horses in the paddock and to start approaching Sissy, then walk away from her to show we were not going to eat her. As Mike said, she slowly started to let me get near her and touch her. I would walk away again as I did before. He did not want me to pressure her. One time when I had touched her shoulder, she turned and looked at me instead of turning away. I started to scratch her, and she turned up her lip and made a funny gesture with her mouth. Kash was next to her, and she started to scratch her shoulder.
“Wow,” I told Mike later.
He said that she was starting to accept me into her herd. Soon, Sissy was letting me touch her all over her body. All the while not arousing her instincts. I was starting to learn the subtle language of the horse. Mike was pleased with our progress.
I asked Mike about haltering Sissy. He said he wanted to teach me some things about the way horses react instinctively to our handling. A horse’s first desire in life is to survive. Whatever they do is a result of this instinct. He said a horse will react by pulling away when they are restrained, like a rope around their neck, they would pull against the rope to try to flee from you or push against you when you corner them or fight to get away from you. He called this flight and fight instincts. We, as predators do the opposite. We grab hold of our prey and hold on tight until they stop fighting. In order for us to successfully partner with a horse, we need to unlearn our predator instincts. Horses need to unlearn their instincts in the way they react to us. But, it all depends on us to educate ourselves and our horses in the way we react together. First, Mike wanted Sissy to trust us. I had already established that with her. We were accepted into their herd. They then can eat in peace and have fun with us in their world as we teach them how to live in our world.
Mike put me through a process that taught a horse to accept the concept of a halter. A halter has a purpose, to restrain a horse and help us control his movement. But, a horse’s natural reaction to the restraint is to pull away or fight it. He taught me a way to teach a horse to be restrained without the fight or flight instinct being aroused. First, when I was touching and scratching her, if she reacted to my touch by moving away, I would release any pressure in my touch. When she was in my space, I would start softly pushing against her side and increase the pressure. When she moved away instead of against me, I would instantly release the pressure. This next part was exciting. I would grab her mane, which was long like her fathers, and pull on it softly like it was a rope and increase the pressure until she moved, then instantly release the pressure again. With her mane on both sides of her neck, I grabbed both sides of her mane around her neck and alternated the feel of a rope around her neck and a push like I was pushing her out of my space. Mike noticed I had gotten this far with her and he saw that I had accidentally gone to the next step. Sissy moved her feet toward me when I pulled on her starting softly like I did earlier and instantly releasing the pressure when she stepped over. That was exhilarating to me. She was so smart to learn so fast. Mike reminded me that I had taught her to react differently to my touch. I had not reacted like a predator by instantly holding on tight when she pulled away. I changed my reactions, and she changed hers also. We learned together. With the slightest try from her, I would reward her with the release of the pressure. Soon I was able to touch her face and around her muzzle. Since time was not an issue here, Mike made it apparent that we would take it slow. He has a principle he goes by that he learned from his mentor: Never use force or become angry. Always be patient and never push too fast or too insistently. And on the other hand, don’t allow the horse to become bored. This was a step-by-step approach. Setting up the horse for success with everything he learned and giving him the foundation for the next lesson in his life.
One day while feeding the horses, I was in the paddock with them when Sissy pushed me away from the food as I was feeding her. I told Mike about this, and he taught me another great lesson: respect. He reminded me of the lesson of the alpha mare. Sissy was the Alpha to me when she pushed me away. Kashahrah was being pushed away also by Sissy.
“Why?” I asked Mike. “What was happening?”
He sat me down and we observed them as they interacted with each other. Sissy would push Kash away, and then Kash would ask to join her again with Sissy obliging. We soon saw them grooming each other contentedly. Sissy was the alpha now, completely. Mike said that I am also being pushed away like Kash was.
“Does Sissy respect you now, Mathew?” said Mike. “Can you move toward her to move her away from you when she is too close?”
“I do that, and she responds with her ears back.”
“Okay, it’s getting late. Tomorrow we will tackle this issue. I want you to ponder this and come up with an answer for me when we meet again.”
I went home and told my mom about this, and she grinned knowingly as I ate my dinner and went off to bed. My mind was busy as I attempted to drift off to sleep. What Mike asked of me was difficult. I was so nice to Sissy, and she still pinned her ears at me when I asked her to do something. I felt bad in my spirit. I wanted her to be nice to me. After all, I was taking care of her, and I was supposed to get her respect and thanks for all I have done for her, right? I tossed and turned all night thinking about this.
Thankfully it was Friday night, and I did not have school the next day. I was up early and got my own breakfast. I quickly went out and took care of my Miya. I looked at her and asked her if she could answer my question for me. She has been so good to me. I just did not understand what was happening. Soon I was knocking on Mike’s door.
“Hi, Mathew. It’s early, come on in and sit down. I’m just getting up myself.” Mike beckoned me to have something warm to drink on this cool autumn morning.
I accepted with thanks. I started to open my mouth when Mike just said to hold on to that thought until we could join the mares outside after breakfast. I was about to explode, but Mike’s calm demeanor helped defuse me. How could he be so calm and collected I thought. From what I had learned about Mike’s past, I understood where he was coming from. We went out the back door to hear whinnies coming from the barn. Our horses were eagerly anticipating their morning rations. Mike asked me to go ahead and prepare their feed and to take my time in doing so.
“Okay, now go in with the feed and present the food to them,” Mike said.
I was not looking forward to this because of the reception I’d been getting from Sissy lately. Mike persisted in his guidance.
“Go ahead,” he said.
As I got into the gate, Sissy approached me and pulled the flake of hay out from my arms. Mike said to leave the feed there and come out so that we could discuss what had happened.
“Now, what just happened there?” asked Mike.
“She was really rude and pushy and did not have any manners. If I did something like that at home, my mom would have given me heck.” By that time, I was red in the face.
Mike just let me calm down and in a soft voice explained to me the difference between how horses and humans treat each other.
“Do you remember what we saw when we watched their behavior last night at feeding time?”
“Yes, I do. Sissy taught Kash to stay away from the food until she let her back to it.”
“You are very observant. Now, if you were like Sissy, what would you do to teach her to stay away from the food until you were ready for her to eat?”
“I would do the same thing she did to Kash. I would tell her to respect my space.”
“Interesting,” Mike said. “Respect your space. How will you do that?”
“Well, first I would go in there and push her around with a stick.”
“Now Mathew, consider what her motivation is right now.”
“She wants her food, and that is all she is thinking about right now.”
“You are half right, but we need to approach this in the right timing. Let’s start with her respecting your space. When Sissy was a foal, she had a mother that was her teacher. She learned how to interact socially within the herd, and her mother was her protector. First thing in her mother’s mind was to protect her newborn foal from danger, to teach her to survive. If her mother saw her going toward something that was dangerous, she would rush over and head her off and force her to move away from the danger. As precocious foals often are, they venture back over to the danger, not listening to their mother. This time Mom is very insistent in her discipline, and she may use a swift kick or a bite on her butt to motivate her. When the little filly tries it again, she just has to look at her or swish her tail to get the desired response. Have you ever approached your relationship with Sissy in the manner that you were her mother or in other words, the alpha?”
“No, I haven’t. But I can see your point. My mother doesn’t have to use her actions twice to get a response from me, I can see how it works here with these girls.”
“These horses desire protection and safety above all else and will gravitate instinctively toward that. Your mother wants the best for you, Mathew. The alpha or mother mare wants that for their foals. In a loving manner, they dole out their discipline to their young ones. The social order of the herd is established with all members. You noticed that Kash was allowed back to eat eventually and they were seen grooming each other afterward. An alpha will let them back into the protection of the herd because the banished horse is so desirous of safety that they will respond to the directions of the leader willingly. That is an important concept Mathew. As you do the same with Sissy, you must let her back into your graces when she asks you. You need to be firm with her and resolute with a strength of mind. Those are the attributes of a leader. But love is equally important. The integrity of our relationship is based on trust and respect. You have established trust with Sissy so far; now she needs to know that she can trust you to protect her. We have our horses in our care, and supposedly, we have the knowledge to protect them from harm. It is not in their nature to thrive in our environment without our direction. That is our responsibility to provide protection like the alpha will do for their herd members in the wild. She will gain respect for you that way. What you will experience will be the most gratifying experience you will ever have with your horses. Trust and respect where you and your horse will learn from each other. Would you love for your horse to protect you as well as your horse being desirous of your protection?”
Mike and I sat and watched as our beloved mares munched happily. Mike often said that he was like an Italian mother that was always happy to see her children eat. I laughed and said I always like to eat so that my mother would always be happy. We both laughed. Mike asked me to come over later when the horses had eaten, and their minds would be open to something new. With that, I hurriedly went over to see my Miya and tell her and my Mom all about what I had learned.
After a good lunch, my mother wondered what the rush was all about this morning. She again nodded knowingly as I excitedly told her about my new understanding. Mothers are like that. It has taken me years to understand just why, but I am doing the same thing with my charges in my Sunday School class now. I would just nod knowingly like my mother. I asked her to come over with me this time to see the progress we had made with Sissy.
“Of course I will, Mathew.”
The wind was starting to come up this crisp fall morning. We bundled up, exited the door, and ran across the street. Mike was waiting outside with the horses doing his daily chores of picking up the manure from the paddocks. We both peeked around the corner not letting Mike know we were there. I noticed that he asked Sissy to move and she did the same thing with him and put her ears back. All Mike had to do is glare at her, and she turned around and faced him with her ears pointed toward him. She would follow his every move with her attention directed toward his way. I also noticed that when she complied with his body language, he would relent and let her relax.
He told her, “It’s all right now. You did what I asked.”
“What a great opportunity we came right at this moment,” Mom said.
“Did you see that?” I said. “She would not do that with me. I think this will be the time to apply what you learned this morning and now from Mike.”
I shared with Mike what I had learned by watching him just then. “It is like magic, but I know now what you are talking about. Is she like that just with you, or will she be like that with me?”
“We will see, Mathew. All horses adjust to their apparent leadership. Now is the time when she has no other desires to distract her, you need to go in there and interact with her. But first, look at me when I talk to you and notice how my energy level increases or decreases.”
“Wow, you are intense right now, and I can feel it. Your facial expression didn’t change any, but I felt your energy level increase. I was sure glad when you let down that energy level. It was making me nervous.”
“Your body language is connected to your energy level. Sissy can feel that like she can feel that fly on her back. You must be aware of your energy level because she is aware of your mind and what your intent is by your body language. I don’t want you to wait for her reaction to you like she did before. I want you to go in there with the intent in your mind that she is going to respect your space.”
“Okay, here goes.” I went in with the girls and did what Mike told me to do.
It was amazing the response I got from both of my charges. They both looked at me with their eyes wide open. I moved, and they moved. I was worried, though, that I was too intense, and I let down my energy level, and the horses responded with a big deep breath. I went over to the fence, and Mike just shook his head without me even saying a word.
“Amazing, huh?” He said that they read my body language that I had radiated because of my intent in my thoughts. “Now, go over there with the same understanding and after they move for you like you want them to, give them the reward they deserve for doing so. Notice what a change you will get in their demeanor.”
I approached the girls this time with the same intent and got the same reaction. This time, I rewarded them by letting down my energy level. Mike had said,
“Pressure is the motivator and release of the pressure is the reward.”
Sissy let me touch her and give her a good pet. Sissy followed me all around the paddock. Kash, having experienced this before, just went on with her business. I had not established dominance over Sissy, but she willingly accepted me as her leader.
“It is exhilarating isn’t it?” Mike asked.
“For the first time, I know what you mean Mike.”
Mike thought it wise to let this sink into me and our charges for now. “Be mindful of the lesson you had just learned while you are caring for them. Remember trust and respect.”
I have learned that these little, but important lessons in our life with horses build a successful partnership with our horse. And as Mike said in this story,
“Be mindful of the lesson you had just learned while you are caring for them. Remember trust and respect.”
Why Not Read the Whole Book?
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