Winter finally came and we are buried in the tundra for now. This gives me a little time to share some of the recent experiments with the Hope Horsemanship (HH) herd.
I wrote last time about my true choice experiment (Illusion of choice). I’ve been tagging it #nohalters. Thankfully this time of year there isn’t much need to force anything, and general maintenance I have been successful to take care of without a halter. (I realize as I write that this, I should pause to remember this is a positive thing, because one should not assume to be able to basic care, hoof maintenance, blanketing etc without and halters or lead ropes).
Through November and December I’ve been able to spend time almost every day with the herd usually between 1-3 hours depending on my own schedule, the weather and what presents in real time.
Here are some notes from my learning process…
Everything MUST to be centered around what makes a strong relationship. Having an activity to do together helps get started, but if you were going on a date and your plans were interrupted by weather, or a lost reservation, or a headache, it would be ridiculous to try to press forward with no regard to the reality of the circumstances. The point is not so much WHAT we are going to do, but WHO we are with.
I think this is a radical idea to most people who have horses- including if I’m candid- me. Most of us make the plan then go get the horse and run forward not really wanting to hear if for some reason it isn’t working for the horse. So this experiment is to see what would happen if I began to behave like I care more about the relationship that anything else– than my end goal, than what things look like were anyone observing, and even than the horse herself [for example even if I know a storm is coming through and I’d prefer Wyoming to have a blanket – for her own good – if she says NO WAY loud and clear and I can’t convince her otherwise except by force… then no blanket.] I will risk the repercussions and what damage control or inconvenience has to be done physically now in order to preserve the relationship.
I am goal and results driven by nature. I know what I want and I can make a plan to get there. This is straight line predator thinking. All HH students, even the youngest, know that horses are prey animals. So predatorial processes are not going to make the horse feel good on a deep level (which eventually lead to stress, unwanted behaviors, ulcers, and other injuries). Now I go with a flexible plan. I bring a scattering of concepts or ideas to work with or a hypothetical end goal. If I have a hypothetic end goal I begin with the very smallest step toward that goal- lets say there might be 25 steps to getting there- it’s likely I’ll end up on step 3 on a good day (there was a time come hell or high water I would be sure we got the goal done that day). I’m flexible and open with both who and how I work right now in my herd.
Some days I’ve had ideas to try with Khaleesi and found that Wyoming was completely interested in doing something and so I’d work with her and may or may not get to much time with Khaleesi.
Sometimes that has flipped and I’ve had something to follow up with Wyoming and Khaleesi has made a point to head straight for the pen area waiting for me expectantly. Hope often waits curiously in the wings but she is never pushy about getting a turn with me. Part of her healing process is that she doesn’t always have to be in the middle of things. She can watch on the outskirts and I look for golden opportunities to play with her when she is curious and the other horses are distracted and won’t come in an pick on her.
The reframing of success for me is that I spent time and learned things about my horses that I might not have knows before. Success is that I am more observant of what is actually happening, not only what I’m trying to make happen. Success is that I responded to my horses instead of only telling them what to do. Success is that I was able to set aside my predator nature for an hour and my horses notice and respond with acceptance and invitation to be with them now.
I’ve tried to sort out what makes each horse feel good. Wyoming was easy- she LOVES the metal curry brush. Some days I think I brushed on her for 45 minutes and she still didn’t have enough of it.
Hope likes the metal brush but she really prefers light massage. If I approach her in the field and she’s grazing and I run my hands along her muscles not too much pressure she will stop eating and go into the zone.
Khaleesi is the toughest- I cannot find anything she really likes except to be left alone. Ok, I could clarify she has come to like my presence but she’d prefer I just be present and don’t touch… brushing, rubbing, petting, all those will send her walking off, but if I just stay nearby she will graze toward me. I think she is trying to teach me that time and patience is her language that leads to trust.
The only love language so far for K that I can use to get her motivated to communicate is food. Which is my least favorite. All horses have a food love language! I avoid it as much as possible with Wyoming because it doesn’t take much to turn her into a thug. I could use it with Hope more, but the other horses tend to come in and try to interrupt creating more complex conversations than I’m looking for right now. Since K is the herd leader no one interrupts us when we are talking, and she gets motivated and curious if I am offering hay pellets.
In some respects Wyoming has been the most fun for me because she is so sensitive. I prefer to invite the horses into the square cattle pen that I can close off or at least make partly closed off. I am serious about them having the choice so I like to leave the gates cracked just enough that they have a defined space with me, but they CAN leave should they choose. Some days I leave the gate wide open.
Inviting Wyoming to dance, I find she reads my mind, her direction changes and response to energy is really dynamic and fun, but also being the passionate one she is quicker to disengage and be bothered by something and walk off. I also find she is likely to re-engage the quickest. If she doesn’t like something and leaves me, if I allow her the moment to take a break, she often comes back on her own to give it another try.
Early on Wyoming wanted to be with me, but if I asked her to do anything at all she would pin her ears and walk off. When I discovered her love language, I was able to brush on her, then ask her for a hind end disengage and then go back to brushing and she thought “that isn’t so bad…” then I’d ask for something else, then brush more, now we can do a fair amount of things and if she gets a little flustered or uncertain I can switch to brushing her and she stays with me on her own. The love language isn’t only motivation, but it’s something that switches the brain to stay open to thinking and learning and not closed off to only flight or instinct.
Hope is convinced her safety is in the herd and it’s tough to convince her a human has much value. She is willing to come watch in curiosity if I’m working with another horse, but it’s harder for her to come in alone especially if the other two move off and graze a ways out. If I want to work with her I will still occasionally use a halter because this horse struggles with too much choice and freedom yet, and the halter she understands more. I will take it off once we go into the pen and she has enough curiosity to try. Once she is engaged she connects quickly and easily and will stay hooked on almost indefinitely. She is desperately looking for a good leader.
Below is a nice sequence from a day Iva spent with Hope engaged in my experiment. They have a lovely connection!
Khaleesi has shifted the most dramatically. The starting point with her was she refused to be haltered three weeks ago unless I forced her. She is well “trained” and respectful and I can always insist, but I want more than . At first I simply went to see if she would accept my presence at all- she did but it was more toleration than acceptance. I began only spending time with her in the field on her terms and spent hours in this effort. Finally with the help of experimenting with her love language of hay pellets, I could interact with her in the field and she would quit grazing to see what I was asking and play along.
Eventually she came into the pen area with me, but the first time she did, and the gate was open I was surprised at what I got. She stood zoned out with me in that pen for 30 minutes. I couldn’t “ask” her anything. Just sit with her quietly as she would come in and out sometimes shaking her whole body and licking and chewing and then going back into this far away place.
I had to go teach that afternoon and didn’t want to just walk away from her like that, and was worried I might have to. Thankfully she came back and I was able to invite her to walk with me through the gate to leave the pen together which seemed a good way to end that day. I think it blew her mind that I brought her into an enclosed space and then not demand anything, but just stay with her. It kind of blew my mind too. Gradually we began to dance more.
Her zoning out times were shorter each session. With her my end goal of the experiment was would she let me ride her? No halter, bridle, lead rope, just her picking me up and saying yes.
The answer was clearly NO for a time. Under saddle, I can hold her reins or the lead rope, get anywhere a step or two off the ground and she will pick me up. But not under saddle and with no lead rope it wasn’t about the training, it was about the choice.
We did some fun ground work, I got on the fence and invited her in to pick me up. She came to me, but would not line up for me to get on.
This went on a few days with me always asking toward the end and…
And yet because my success was not defined by meeting this goal, but in fact at the moment success was really determined by the ability NOT to meet the goal and still tell her she’s fabulous and walk away, I felt the time together was amazing. She was seeing over time that I truly did want to break off the predator nature she was used to dealing with in me.
Finally one day before the winter storms slowed down everything, I had brought the mountain block into the pen and worked with her at liberty around the steps and then she did line up. I shifted weight and rubbed her and checked in again, and she seemed to say:
Yes. Go ahead.
And so I did climb up there bareback. She walked around the small area a moment and I just rubbed her to a stop. You don’t have to do anything else today than this, just stand a few moments quietly while I sit here and say
So we did. And then I slid off and said Thank you again. Gave her a rub and we called it a day. No big ride up the mountain, no work on trotting or self carriage… just a thank you.
And so this winter I experiment with what I would look like to my horses if I weren’t a straight line thinking predator. What if I truly could learn to meet them where they are, gain their trust, and the invite them to dance with me?