Wyoming is in boarding school this month… For various reasons she is in a field by herself temporarily (about a month) and though at first it was a necessary transition, I quickly came to see it as an opportunity to spend some focused time with her while she wasn’t “on the job” with a herd. For the month of October her only friend (though she could see other horses not far across a driveway) was… me.
I “gave up” on Wyoming in the late spring when a follow up trailer loading event went sideways and ended us both almost really injured. I had severe rope burns on my hands to remind me of the epic failure to communicate and she was temporarily hung up on a door hinge– which could not have felt good — though the wild one didn’t seem the worse for wear. One good thing about a mustang- I don’t think you can actually kill them.
I gave the work with her a rest and began looking for ways to dig myself out of the doghouse of stupid, deaf (to horse language), untrustworthy human and spent some time dabbling in positive reinforcement. I think this was a really helpful step in our relationship. In positive reinforcement (R+) a major pillar is choice, and I began to give her total choice to work with me or walk away. I used hay pellets as a reward and she’s on massive pasture so she wasn’t starving for dried up grass. She was suspicious at first but Khaleesi helped me out by loving the classroom so much Wyoming couldn’t help but want to get involved.
I used R+ to reintroduce the halter in the field and a new fly mask and we had a lot of fun with touching various objects and learning to learn with hay pellets this summer. I also began to get more serious about the idea of “thin slicing” my way to a desired behavior. As a goal minded person I naturally break down things into steps, however I tend to start small and then as things begin to work, I make impatient leaps. I began to see that horses- this wild red head in particular- needed a lot more small steps all the way through the process than I was willing to give her. This took A TON of time I didn’t want to admit could possibly be necessary.
One day I wanted to trim Wyoming’s feet and thought inside the barn would be easier. It’s a large roomy barn with huge doors and she had been in and out of the old barn more times than I could count, yet she would NOT enter this barn. It was this moment I began to see more clearly from her perspective. Khaleesi or Hope would enter about any barn I asked them to, depending on the space they may pause or need a smell or a look, but Wyoming was very suspicious of this space even though she had walked by the doorway to be fed for months. I found this interesting. The fact that she might be wary is understandable, but she was 100% not entering this space.
Let me make clear a vitally important assumption: She was not “being an idiot” and she was not “acting stupid” or “refusing” for the sake of being difficult, she was not “being mare-ish”. If I believed any of these things things forward progress would be practically impossible. I know this horse is none of those things, there was a reason she would not enter that barn, and instead of slamming her through that “gate”, wisdom necessitated that I find out either why, or how to change her mind.
In truth she didn’t have to come in, I have worked on her feet in the yard already. The barn was only marginally easier for me. This meant I had no goal that was more important than the curiosity of why this particular horse would be unable to walk inside a barn. Forgetting about her feet I began to experiment with inviting her closer, then inside and observe as she would try, focus her attention past the doorway and disappear into a deep processing time for minutes on end. I could tell she wanted to do it, she was willing, but there was something that had her convinced it was possibly a death trap or maybe a time machine in the least. I kept this simple, I asked her to stay focused on the barn entrance and only added minimal pressure if she turned her focus elsewhere, and I found over time she began trying to cross the threshold on her own.
I think about 20 minutes went by with what seemed like zero progress but I observed a lot of deep inner processing often with her head down nose brushing the threshold, and just stood there with her curious. After probably 30 minutes she was taking a step or two in and then backing out and trying again. I think it could have been 45 minutes before she willingly walked into the barn, looked around, turned around fully to investigate and began to get comfortable.
What fascinated me is I didn’t have to pressure her to walk in. She knew it was what I wanted even as I stood quietly occasionally gently lifting my lead rope arm. When she was ready she began doing it herself- taking steps in and then steps back out then immediately trying again until she could manage to get all four feet into the building. It was completely calm and even fun. She wasn’t panicked or stressed. I saw that if I simply gave her the time she needed to process (it seemed like eternity in comparison to other horses) she would figure it out and she would comply.
Even more intriguing was the next day this same entrance took almost the same amount of lead time. Where I’d have thought she might pick up closer to where we left off, she spend about 20 minutes again processing the open barn door. Day 2 I might have taken 10 minutes total off the process. Day 3 still better but not by nearly as much as I would have expected. Each day was progress, but surprisingly for me how many steps back we would have to restart.
It became perfectly clear this is how I was going to work the trailer. Only at that rate it could end up being 2 more years! The good news was I’d already given up, so two years from now is still an amazing improvement on never!
Not long after I was able to invite her into the barn without trauma and confusion I decided to begin with the trailer. This isn’t a cavernous new barn, it was the baggage box! We have not racked up good associations with the trailer so I felt it was likely we’d be behind the zero.
The first day over the summer of remedial trailer loading, it took an entire 90 minutes of her processing, standing outside, occasionally trying to evade to even begin to come up the ramp. After 90 minutes If I remember correctly, she came up the ramp and agreed to put her head in the trailer. In case you’ve never watched paint dry, I’m about done after 5 minutes. An hour and a half is eternity. And then I think she put on a foot or two so not even all the way on the trailer, but I was determined to see where this rabbit trail would go. Two things I observed:
- This was very non-stressful, she wasn’t upset at all.
- She was completely engaged the entire 90 minutes even if she was standing with everything still and processing for many minutes at a time, she didn’t not try to eat grass or ignore the work. She was invested.
Over the couple of months I’ve come to appreciate the value of understanding threshold in a much more subtle way. I think everyone can appreciate the concept, and everyone who has worked with a horse probably would say of course they understand threshold, yet my guess from knowing a variety of horse folks that it probably has a different meaning to each person. I know a few people who can see the threshold from well in advance of it in very subtle signals like a tightening of the skin or a change in the jaw (and they respond accordingly- you actually get negative points for knowing subtle threshold signs and blowing by them!), and I know some people who are aware of the threshold because they are now on the ground and the horse is up a tree or gave them a kick out before running off. For some people it takes injury to the person or the horse to realize that’s where the threshold, well, where it “was” because at that point you’ve blown past it, in fact probably blown past a few of them.
Yep, I know that person. I am her sometimes.
Most people are probably a little like me, most of the time somewhere in the in-between. I think it’s more valuable than we give credit to- recognizing thresholds sooner and finding ways to help the horse through the gate instead of blowing through them with force until someone, or the horse, is hurt.
With Wyoming, and I think this isn’t completely unusual for horses, you can bust through some of the early gates with a moderate amount of force because the creatures at heart are so generous and willing. My lessons with this mare is that I’d think we were doing pretty well and finding success together and then over time it would start to go backward. I’ve begun to suspect that I missed the early “gates” and she wanted to work with me so she would try, but something wasn’t addressed properly and we would eventually come to a gate that she just couldn’t keep going with me through and then we’d come apart.
Also I think there was a certain amount of pressure I let get to me that this mare had some kind of reasonable time line and I was so far outside of what was reasonable that I must be completely ineffective… if I would just stop playing around and push through, get it done, we’d “move forward” and I wondered if maybe that was right? Could I be wrong? Certainly. I tried it with riding her and pushed through some pretty intense rodeo action, and I tried it with the trailer which could have had us both really hurt but for the grace of God who seems to want me to learn these lessons alive to encourage someone else to maybe try a different way.
What if we really did begin to love the process? What if we began to slow down and ask the horse: are you ok with this? and then care about the response especially if it’s “no, not really” and then what if we began to offer support and help even if it meant the only answer that would really solve the problem would be the gift of time? The most valuable thing we have… so valuable we rush through and force our horses often to get onto our timeline so we can do the things we want to do with the horses. What if we entered their world more often and really listened when they needed time to process, time to heal coming back from an injury more slowly or gradually, time to trust us, time to believe that we are actually asking, time to even answer us?
What if we didn’t blow through the gates by force as long as we could get away with it?
So many people I know say they enjoy the time with their horse, but when I look closer at my own behavior and I suspect I’m not alone… that really means I enjoy the time the horse does what I want her to (perform, trail ride, even get on the trailer). What my month of solo time with Wyoming brought more to the surface was that I wanted to enjoy the time I stood with her while the paint dried. I wanted to give her the gift of standing by her side when she stood on the trailer ramp for the 25th day and put her head down to process the idea of going into the box. To encourage her when she began to look around, but to allow her to decide when she’d go in, and to trust that she was giving me her best.
Wyoming does go on the trailer now and it doesn’t take an hour, sometimes 5-10 minutes lately before she’ll put all 4 feet on. She only stands quiet for a limited time depending on how deep in she goes, and I don’t close her in yet. It’s clear to me she is not ready to be locked in. But she is very calm about the whole thing and enters and exits without stress and anxiety. She is begging to trust me again.
I don’t know what the next steps will look like, I’m finding them as we go. But for this mare, I’m going to trust that the process will continue and someday she will ride on the trailer without the stress and fear that had her lathered in sweat that last time I got her on over a year ago. That process was a little faster but it was not nearly as honoring to her own unique thresholds and took advantage of her generosity and her try. I got it done but it only ended us up eventually backward and almost hurt.
I hope I’m taking this lesson and applying it to my slightly easier creatures. I’ve been working on asking Khaleesi for permission for a while now and not forcing things on her even though I can. I try to balance that out with the reality that she’s a working animal that sometimes has a job to do, but I don’t use that card any more often than I have to, and if I find myself getting there too often I have to step back and ask why?
Hope is more tricky because she’s been forced into so much over her life she doesn’t always engage in bothering to answer. She’s been trained to comply and go inside herself and shut down for survival. She has a lot of brace mentally and physically we are trying to release and free up for her. She’s starting to come out more and more and that’s a fun process to see. I love that the very easy and kind kids’ lessons are part of that story!
It seems to me this is something that can continue to improve regardless of what level and where we are with our horses. I sense I’m getting a better feel, but I have far to go. And for anyone with multiple horses I think they have unique tells of when they are coming to a gate that isn’t free. It’s nice to have a horse that is super vocal about it, but most people don’t really want that horse! Often the cues are much more subtle.
The next challenge becomes what to do. Horses and human both share a benefit from growth, we do want to go through the gates! However we have to find a way to support them in the growth. I think sometimes even acknowledging and letting them know you’re with them is a great start. There is no one answer that fits all, but isn’t that exactly the process we can enjoy? Getting to know this unique creature along a lifetime of communicating and experimenting and listening along with guiding or asking them to come along with us?
Is there anything better than that?