So far my greatest teacher has been my mustang mare Wyoming. I’m a “goal oriented” type and tend to be good at moving forward toward progress. Of course our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses; with Khaleesi, this goal setting personality and refusal to quit the relentless march toward progress paid off. I started her with the very limited tools I had, and though it was a bit messy with holes here and there, today she is a fine partner and my go-anywhere trail companion and endurance horse.
However with Wyoming….
I have gone forward, sideways, backward and in circles with her and this has created much confusion for me. I can’t understand why it seems impossible to build on any kind of foundation with her. Each time I make a kind of breakthrough, at some point it goes sideways, and then often backward and I find myself in some negative momentum place farther back than I was before.
Of course along with this goal orienteering mindset comes stubbornness and refusal to give up so I tend to take complete failure as a minor set back. I lick my wounds and try again, willing to learn what it was in me or my approach that caused the crash. Each time I find opportunity to grow.
And with her… lots and lots… and lots of opportunities to grow.
I have had this mare riding miles on trails successfully (or so it seemed) only to have her eventually begin a habit of laying down on me that got so quick and subtle she’d outsmart me even when I was ready for it… she carried me along at a great walk and trot only to eventually start a bucking fit whenever I asked for the trot- of course I did all I could to rule out pain or physical issues – I found the way I was asking (which was mostly with my energy!) was apparently offensive to her sensitive mare system. I began to have great success loading her on the trailer until she broke two welds on my butt bar and chest bar- once she went underneath the chest bar to exit the front human door in order to escape the pressure she felt.
Well meaning friends when they hear some of the stories helpful suggest things that… Yes. I’ve tried that… is probably the answer.
Is she aggressive and dangerous someone asked of her recently?
No- actually she’s about the friendliest horse I have and she loves to interact. She wants a job, just apparently not a job that I’d like to see her engage in! She’s like the brilliant kid who wants to play and design video games when I’d like to see her just engage in some kind of standard boring gainful employment. Regardless, the truth is I adore her. She’s beautiful, bright and friendly, and surprisingly willing.
Yes. Willing- despite all I’ve said I think it’s her willingness to try that might be the downfall. I can see her want to try, but something in her eventually just can’t. And then we get into trouble. Once the pressure builds… the expression of it can be… wild.
I began to wonder if the murmuring peanut gallery might be right. What if I’ve refused in my natural relationship non-violent horse training attempts to simply get it done. I mean she is a horse right? There comes a point when the spoiled child has to comply, for everyone’s sake. Maybe I just refuse to close the deal with her. Like an irresponsible indulgent parent?
I decided that trailer loading and taking a ride up to a friends nearby farm to do a little fun work then come home would be the test. I was able to get this mare on the trailer (blood sweat and tears included) to move her, maybe it was time to build on this with a purpose- turn the trailer into the adventure box! Not just an exercise.
If I look back on how well riding out the bucking to go on a trail ride worked for me (I’m not afraid of her, she isn’t trying to kill me… yet the bucking did end up escalating to rearing and trying to bite at my foot when I ignored her, stayed calm and simply asked her to get over her concerns and go on the trail… Just riding her through it was not the best answer to that question.) ….. so if I were to l look back on how that closing the deal worked out for me with her in other situations I might have thought differently. But I am stubborn and somehow we both are going to have to learn.
The short of the story is we did not load the mare and go work at my friend’s property. I ended up with the second broken weld, terrible rope burns (yes gloves would have helped, I hate gloves) and thankfully though it seems she made it clear she would chose to the death rather than comply, the horse did not die, and if she hurt herself it seems nothing long term.
That day was a low point for me, but in a moment of slight danger to herself, me, and my trailer, I was certain of a few things now that I might have suspected before, but I knew them in that fleeting moment:
- This horse was not ever going on this trailer by any kind of force. She’d only get on when she decided to on her own.
- I hate the term “breaking” a horse… but if ever I was tempted to consider that breaking was necessary this might be the moment.
- I wasn’t sure I could cross that line, but felt fairly certain if I wanted to I could not do it with this horse- I did not have the tools, and regardless if given the option she would die first.
- Nothing that had worked for me with other horses was going to be the solution to working with this horse.
So. I released her from her precarious situation she’d gotten into. I calmly decided to accept failure for the moment and walked her back to the field and left her tied to a tree for a while giving me a chance to think and do some barn chores. She waited there mostly patiently and eventually when I had finished the things I needed to do, I set her loose.
What would I do with her I wasn’t sure, but even in this there must be some good. I was at ground zero. I had nothing to offer except surrender. Everything was on the table… shoot her? leave her as a pet? enjoy her antics as a pasture ornament? Get into liberty work? Learn the classic lesson of failure? There are just some things no amount of tenacity will solve?
Though I don’t need her to be a solid riding horse, I have seen she is not really a pasture pet. She isn’t looking for a life of early retirement. She’s too engaged. I just was missing it. Missing what?
As I thought, prayed, and talked this out with a friend I heard that still small voice reminding me of the well timed interview I’d just heard the day before. The interview I almost turned off because I found it to be a little too fringy. It was with a young woman who loves mustangs and had found success working with the ones hardest to gentle and train. She eventually went from wild horses to working with zebras and found them to be even more difficult to work with in traditional pressure release horsemanship. She explained that at least wild horses come from a domestic equine genetic line, zebras do not. She had to find a different way to get to both the zebras and the particularly challenging wild horses.
Maybe there was a reason that interview came at exactly this timing. Maybe the lady who can work with the mustangs other saw as ‘untrainable’ and undomesticated zebras had some things I might be open to hearing now.
So I began a dig into the world of positive reinforcement and it’s been quite a mind shift. I’ve only started dabbling and learning and I’m so far from being an expert I’m hesitant to even talk much about it yet. It feels like entering an alternate universe for me and one I’m not certain how to navigate, not certain how the world works, not certain how long to spend there, and not certain how to exist in both somehow. I don’t see myself leaving the pressure-release horsemanship system (negative reinforcement) completely– especially because horses use pressure release in their own language, and horses living alongside humans need to understand giving to pressure so we can work together for the horse and human’s best interest.
Yet there are things I’m beginning to seeing this alternate universe that are sucking me into a vortex that is all at once exciting, fun, and a little frightening. For today I can say the horses respond to it quickly, they have a lot of buy in, and I can see how giving them more choice is both scary to a control freak human like me, but empowering for them in a really beautiful way.
I woke up one morning recently with the whisper asking me: What makes you think if you allow them more choice they will choose not to partner with you? They are horses, they are looking to connect and partner…
And true enough, I’m already seeing them choose to do things I want them to do – better than my pressure release techniques ever worked. Wyoming is coming around a little slowly but she is definitely responding. Considering what we went through and the breech of trust I caused it’s a testament to her generous equine heart that she is still willing. And Khaleesi is eating it up literally — I can hardly work with any other horses without her trying to cut in and join the game for herself.
In fact when I go to the classroom my greatest struggle at the moment is not wanting to close any horse into the area so they get the total choice of leaving when they want to, but I have to close OUT the other horses because I can’t work them all at once and it’s like kids trying to break into the school room for their turn in class. It’s a little overwhelming actually.
I am seeing more and more opportunity and possibility each day with this and it’s engaging and invigorating work… it’s downright more FUN than any way I’ve worked horses before. I can see how it becomes a way of life, and the proponents of this “method” explain that it
- Gets horses to learn how to learn and enjoy the process more.
- Is a cleaner learning process for the horse to know when an answer is correct so they can learn more quickly with less frustration.
- Associates the human/handler/rider with positive activities as opposed to just work.
- Empowers the horse to have more control and choice which tends toward them offering more to the process and the rider, not less.
- Creates better relationship for the long term (yes, at first the horse is excited for the treats or the food, but I’ve read that over time that association becomes greater than just reward but the time spend together is enjoyable for both and that deepens more than simply the food/reward which is a starting point)
It is way too soon for me to share advice or direction for someone else in this realm. I am certain I will find some pitfalls and I am trying to learn what I can so I fall into less of them. I don’t know if this is a helpful process for every human and every horse or if there are specific situations that will benefit more, but for the moment, just a few weeks of dabbling, my horses are changing. The changes are good, but also I find myself a little freaked out… by this alternate universe. The unknown.
Ironically I began this process for Wyoming, but it’s been K that has had the loudest response. I’ve come to the barn to find her standing in the classroom as if waiting for me. I’ve finished with her and given her an extra treat to end the session and 10 minutes later still found her waiting in the classroom for me. And she’s so quick to learn that I have struggled to keep up with her challenging her with new parameters and ideas.
Wyoming is smart, but she has needed (not surprisingly) to exercise the right to engage or disengage. I think this is the most important thing to her for now so she will work with me then decide to walk off and eat some grass. I don’t chase after her, I just watch her a while and wait. She always wanders back over and re-engages. This cycle will continue until I disengage and walk off putting my “tools” away. And ironically sometimes at this point Khaleesi is still waiting in the classroom!
Hope gets the least time though I still work with her. She is the most withdrawn and she will engage a minute or less and then stand deep in though processing. She will come out and re-engage, but I have to make the puzzle super easy to solve for now, she has little threshold for wrong answers or me changing parameters. She is more like the shy kid who needs a lot of confidence building with easy questions. If I shut her into the classroom and the other two walk off too far she can’t “stay” with me. She is incredibly herd bound for safety being the lowest and least confident horse. Finding a place she is comfortable, feels safe, and keeping the other horses nearby if they aren’t engaged can be tricky. I can see she won’t let down her guard and trust easily. Yet when I can find a way to work with her a few minutes at a time she responds and engages.
Each of them is unique. The more I work with horses, the more I see that though there may be answers that work more often than others, the real answer on how to connect is varied as the horses and humans creating the equation. The real answer truly is: it depends. Working in this universe gives me so much more feedback because they can walk away, so I have to find ways to help them be successful, not too challenged but not bored, and see if they have gone toward fear or stress (which shuts down learning) or can stay in curiosity mode.
With Khaleesi at the moment I am finding ways to apply the positive reinforcement to almost everything from haltering to standing while I tack up, while I mount at the block and even when I choose a trail she doesn’t want to go up… I can help sweeten the deal turning almost anything into a puzzle she begins to look at it differently.
I’ll keep you posted here as I play around with these concepts and let you know what I find. If you’ve used positive reinforcement training let me know how it’s going (or gone) and how it’s worked for you!