The Illusion of Choice

I ran into a friend recently who asked: are you riding a lot lately? I had to answer honestly: no. Oddly I felt like I had to clarify the answer to explain, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time with the horses, but no… I’m not riding.

I have pressed into a season where Khaleesi is getting some rest (MENTAL), Wyoming as I mentioned recently is in “restart” mode once again (EMOTIONAL), and Hope has had a bacterial infection that seems to be resurging leaving Iva and I sensing she needs to have some down time to heal (PHYSICAL).

Wyoming in the pen
Hope in the field

Horses have three major systems and it seems like I have all of them operating slightly out of balance in some form in the HH herd. What a neat opportunity, and a perfect time (early winter) to step back and ask: what can I learn from all this?

In years past I would have been bemoaning having 3 horses and none of them in a riding state at the moment, but today I see opportunity.

In my last blog I recounted Wyoming’s highlight reel and I continue to press in creating relationship with her. I have always believed that the challenges I have with Wyoming would make me a better horsewoman, and what I learned with her would bring me improvement in my already solid relationship with K. Today I wonder if in fact, maybe I have that backward.

Khaleesi is the favored one. The chosen. She is the mare I cut my teeth on what it’s like to start a horse from almost untouched. She and I have grown together from not being able to lay a hand on her to competing in 50 mile distances. On our best days I can think things and she does them while riding. She is a stunning creature of strength and balance with a good mind. I appreciate her input and try to at least take her suggestions as a factor as we work together- often she has very good ones. We’ve been in some pretty tight situations over our years together, and I trust her with my life. Yet the more I examine our connection- which is pretty solid- I realize it’s much more like a business partnership than that deep thing I long for.

In this season of giving her some down time to (you can read about this in my last greento100 blog “Rest Reset”) I only bring her in for more necessary things- which occasionally includes going in a pen to graze and hang out while I work with Wyoming. I can always “catch” my horses at least right now, but Khaleesi knows the difference when I communicate we have business and I’m haltering you versus I have something I’d like to do and am willing to have a conversation about it. When I offer more conversation, she has let me know recently that if I’m asking, then no, I’d prefer not to do whatever it is on your mind today thank you very much.

She isn’t rude about it. And I can insist and get it done. But it brings me back to the age-old question: doesn’t a horse always prefer to graze and be with the herd if given the choice?

Well, I have a little time this season. Maybe I can dig into this a little deeper. Maybe I can answer it at least for this horse.

And so I began a new experiment… without a tool of control (halter/lead) or a lure (hay pellets/treats) can I bring her into the pen and convince her to carry me around in there of her own choosing?

Can I go from a solid partnership – the illusion of choice – to a new layer of real choice where at any time she can disengage and leave without any adverse consequence?

I went out with the halter and no real plan… well that’s not true. The first day I had big plans. I cycled through plan A, plan B and plan C before I began to see the depth of the truth.

I had spent about an hour with the herd in the field, my curiosity at first would she choose for me to put on the halter? I was certain I could tell her that’s what we were doing and she would comply… but tolerating and choosing are not the same. She took the opportunity to kick up her heels and push the herd around the large field letting me know that her choice was not to work with me. So now I needed to begin trying to change her mind. I continued my human attempt at conversation with her where she would disengage with me but I would try again. Like unsuccessful courting… however her range of how far she would push the herd began to diminish until at least we were working in a smaller area.

I had danced my way clumsily into her space and began to get a real honest moment with her where she would go still and relax and accept me there – when she would turn toward me slightly and even take a step in and finally there was a moment where she would stand calmly and accept that it’s likely I’ve earned some right to her time after an hour of waiting her out I saw her give up and accept that this WAS going to happen…

And I stood next to her quietly and still, and then… walked away.

I did not even put the halter on her. This was not part of my plan at all.

I recently had a conversation with Katy Pistole who has a transformational approach to horses and humans where she reminded me: keep in mind that you must get away from seeing success or failure in an interaction with your horse based on their performance or what you “got done” in the session. I already believe this with my entire mind. My mental system concurs, but the truth is deep down I didn’t know HOW to live this out. What a strange thing it is to find out you are believing one thing in your mind but you can see the reality is that you don’t believe it in your depth of being.

I was ok with changing the goal post either direction as I sort out how things are going, but this was removing the goal post and the ball. What then are we doing out here?

And I knew: it would have looked to an outside eye like I walked around my field unable to catch my horse for an hour, apparently “gave up a failure” and yet something vitally important had occurred in that time.

Instead of answers I had even more questions.

How do I keep conversation with this horse going…I don’t have a lead rope, a halter, a stick, even a limited space pen where she doesn’t have 6 acres to leave into? Will she always walk away from me or ignore me without some way to connect us physically? How can I keep her interested in a connection with me with NO tool and NO lure (food)? Is this a stupid idea? What conversation should I even try to have? What are we even communicating about? Where can I get better equine language skills? I am not very non-verbal naturally – is there any hope for me?

And yet, I was willing to try. And on the next day a few changes had already occurred. First she never ran off at a trot from me, and though she has a huge field she stayed in a relatively small area. Her retreat zone was already smaller in perimeter than the previous day.

Also, she allowed me the space next to her much sooner and was relaxed about it, but I still felt more tolerated than welcomed. She gave me access to her “on” side where I normally would prefer to put on the halter sooner as well.

There came a point I considered quitting for the day. I had seen improvement, but I was coming up short in the conversation department. I didn’t know what else to do, so I found myself standing quietly near her, on the off side, mind wandering a bit as she grazed… what next? I got nothing. And just then, she took a step toward me and began to nibble on the halter almost as if to have me open it up. Which I did.

Then things got interesting.

She began exploring the halter, and when I’d offer it open to see if she wanted to put her nose in it she would turn slightly away.

Ok. So you want to talk about it, but aren’t looking to put your head in there quite yet.

Then I started to go off the map for me, and began change the conversation completely.

Let’s talk about the illusion of choice for a moment.

I have learned a fair amount of horsemanship that using concepts of training the horse. I have worked with shaping a desired behavior with pressure release horsemanship and also with positive reinforcement (clicker/treat) training.

In either branch of “training”, as K began to show interest in the halter I “should” reward her. Either by removing pressure/punishment release (remove the halter when she shows interest and keep it steady there when she turns away from it) or by click/treat reward to encourage learning and conversation about the halter.

I have trained my horses to be pretty good at being haltered in both branches. I worked on asking her to lower her head into the halter with pressure-release as our foundation of horsemanship, and this summer I experimented with Positive Reinforcement (clicker/treat training or R+) and could take the halter out, stand a few feet away from the horse and if they knew it was “game time” the horse would walk over to me and put their head into the halter. Fun.

Today as I was having a truly honest and open conversation with my lead mare, I considered an option I have not tried before: when she turns toward me and the halter, offer it more; and when she turns away, let it go and release.

My brain began spinning as we experimented. This is essentially rewarding the horse for evading the halter. IF we are training or shaping behavior. What if there was another option? What if I really wanted to switch to trust, conversation, and freedom? If that were the case could I be rewarding her for an honest response? Now I’m in the weeds and I’m not quite sure the terrain. Yet deep down I know I want this relationship to be built on choice, but a really good illusion of choice seems to me the best we have in the other systems.

Pressure-release says to me You get to choose as long as you choose what I want you to choose!! Great job getting the answer right! I will release you, and when you do something super amazing I will reward you the highest reward I have: I will walk away and leave you in peace. And even though R+ puts the foundation of the work in choice… we don’t reward a horse for leaving us, walking away, or making a “wrong” choice. I like this game of learning approach for some things, but it becomes a bit of a problem when I run out of hay pellets. This system is better at choice because we find out when our own request/behavior is so undesirable to the horse they walk away even in the face of getting cookies. Also I do believe this system in the long run can make a horse feel pretty good about being with the human if done well, but there’s a gap after the cookies before the honesty really comes to the surface… and in the end neither are truly freedom and choice.

** Let me clarify I don’t think shaping and training are bad things. Probably they are even necessary — but are they limited to anyone who has the deep dream of more? Who wants to dance instead of train? Who wants the horse to operate as one with them together? Yes we can train horses to do those things but what we really want is partnership and in shaping and training only are we kidding ourselves by creating an illusion of what looks like total connection?**

This has bothered me at the core for a long time. Training by pressure-release and R+ are better than some old school methods of violence and force toward horses- yet there is something richer I keep feeling is missing.

I want deeper.

So the other day I took a plunge and decided to STOP shaping and training Khaleesi, and begin to build a different kind of relationship with her that could very well backfire on me completely at best, and depending on the horse, possible even become dangerous (not likely with K).

Back to the field experiment…

Khaleesi explored the halter with me on the off-side at first and if she turned her nose away I removed the halter and when she turned her nose back toward me I presented it again. I opened the noseband and she even began to put her nose slightly into it and then wiggle around.

Like someone trying to communicate in a totally foreign sign language I thought: she wants me to put this halter and lets go do something? Maybe she’s wondering where my leadership is and why I’m standing around like I have no plan? and so I began to bring the poll piece up over her head… and then she would remove herself and I always removed the halter and let her choose when to re engage.

We did this a couple times and then she zoned out, looked straight ahead and yawned and chewed and twisted her tongue practically in a loop as she considered the unexpected thing I was doing.

Next she offered to reposition me on the on-side. This whole conversation continued until I was offering the halter to her with my arm already raised and she could dip her nose through my arms into the halter with my arm over her neck ready to close the poll section over her head. She would lift her head up gently and I would release the poll section and let the halter drop down. She must have done this ten times to check and make sure I meant it. It was like she didn’t really believe that I would let her release herself even from when I had the poll section through the loop- at ANY MOMENT girl, you can say: no thank you.

This seemed to blow her mind. If I stepped back a moment she stepped closer to me. She wasn’t grazing, she was engaged in this conversation. Finally she stepped away and began to graze a moment. This was ok, it had been over an hour of field work and the last part of the conversation seemed really deep to me. It touched things in my own heart that I would need to process too. So I slowly stepped away and began to walk back to the barn.

As I looked back I saw she had taken a few more steps toward me and was still looking intently at me. I paused, I squatted down where I was and waited. After a few moments she crossed more than half the distance between us and then stopped again- intently watching me.

I waited a moment, and then walked over to her. She greeted me with her muzzle to my hand, and then she returned to grazing, and I walked off to the barn.

I have struggled with the idea of solid leadership versus listening to the horse and getting with the horse so that they can get with you. I’ve heard more times than I can count that if you don’t “be the boss” — or at least in a way I prefer to think of it “be a good leader” then you are both just going to be confused.

I think there is important truth in this. I do need to lead the conversation, however as I consider the greatest leader ever… the God who created the universe and the horse and me, I see that He tells us that great leadership is always in service. And we must serve in love. Love is patient, kind, does not demand it’s own way, is not arrogant, it is not frustrated, irritated or resentful… love rejoices in truth. Love bears all things. Love believes and hopes and endures.

Is it possible to lead a horse this way? Some parts are obvious. Leave your ego at the door and choose humility. We know patience is vital with horses. We know being mean, mad, annoyed or frustrated will kill our ability to work together with them. Everyone I know believes kindness is important… but, does not demand it’s own way?

If God is love… does HE NOT demand his way? Wait. Have I ever considered this as a truth? Doesn’t God actually demand we do things his way if we want to have relationship with him? Certainly he has a higher plan available if I will trust him. Just like I have a higher plan available to K if she would trust me. Horses love to graze and be with the herd, but I also believe giving them purpose is good for them, and I’ve felt her come alive in race day and sink into deep consideration when we find new balance together in the arena. Things she can’t do on her own with the herd.

Now as I’m leaving the field my analytical mind begins clicking new gears. God doesn’t just love the world, God IS love. And then God gives us the definition of love in the famous love chapter (1 Corinthians 13). If these things are true about love… then they HAVE to be true about the character of God himself!

Khaleesi will do just about anything and pretty willingly, but there is a part of her that she holds back. I do not have her heart, her complete trust, her spirit (or soul.. whichever is the inner being of an animal which is different from a human). We are a strong business partnership, but we lack the intimacy of a deeper connection.

She is my mirror. The hang up as I gaze into that mirror in the field this week is that I also lack trust in intimacy. To be clear- we are not called to deep intimacy in all our relationships, but there is a calling from the heart of the creator of the universe to us to let him in- all the way in- to the deepest part of ourselves… and yet it takes time and trust to get there and intimacy cannot be forced, it must be given. Similarly Khaleesi will have to choose if I am worthy of that deeper layer of her freedom, and I will have to prove my own heart of love for her.

Maybe this creature, this gift from the creator will help me understand and change that in a way that is healing in my own heart. Maybe HE is trying to tell me something, about how I hold back layers from his own heart of love. Probably there are changes in me that must happen before Khaleesi will sense the security and worthiness in me.

The story is not finished yet. I don’t know if I’m on a ridiculous useless tangent or on the road to something magical. I’m going to take a chance and see where the path leads.

And so to the field I go…

Published by JaimeHope

Violin teacher and endurance rider living in a rural mountain county - one of the least population dense and without a single stoplight.

2 thoughts on “The Illusion of Choice

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