In my last blog [Sacred Cow BBQ] I wrote about the decision to honor Khaleesi’s choice to say “No thank you” to my plans for the day. I think it was the first time ever I came with a plan then completely abandoned it and left when she walked away from me a few times. I have come to the field with no plans or expectations except to have some conversations. I have adjusted my plans depending on what a horse responds with, but I’ve never gotten a “no” three times and then simply walked away.
This week I did just about the opposite approach.
It was the right day all around for a long ride. I had the time and decent weather (lots of thunderstorms here lately). I arrived with an entirely different thought…
I’m not asking.
I fed the mares and got some things loaded into the truck. Then I returned to the field with the halter and approached K. She stepped off and shifted her weight, not dramatic and continued to eat grass. I thought in my mind: today I’m not asking. And I simply put my arm over her neck to halter. She picked up her head and looked at me then offered her nose.
Then I began to walk and she did not. I paused, turned back over my off shoulder and without hesitation I popped her firmly with the end of the lead rope.
I’m not asking.
And she popped in response right forward with me. She walked in by my side and we approached the trailer. She stood and looked around a moment, I gave her that short pause, and then I asked again and when she hesitated I (more gently this time) brought up the lead rope end to her body (Yeah, in case you haven’t noticed today… I’m not asking) and she looked at me and walked on the trailer.
We ended up having a great 16 mile ride (actually it was without stirrups!! You can read about the ride itself on the greento100 side here: No Man’s Land). But as I drove (and drove a little extra) I pondered all of this.
Which is right? I am seeking freedom and power in our relationships. So one week I give her total autonomy to say no (and the night before, in that same autonomy she said a very big yes as she came to me bridleless and invited me to get on her after our short work session). And then today she has really no choice in the matter, it’s a day to ride and it’s part of what we do. How do these seemingly extreme cases coexist in a horse program? Doesn’t the fact that many horse owners live in the “I’m not asking” paradigm bother me?
Yes it does.
So am I not doing the same thing today?
It kind of seems so.
I continued down this line of thought to realize a few key points.
The simile between horses and humans is helpful but incomplete. I cannot treat the relationship with my horse exactly like a relationship with a human friend or family member. However there are important real parallels that can teach us about ourselves and about relationships. If I’m going to see parallels in horse-human and human-human relationships one consideration is the horse is also not a child, or a teenager and should not be treated like a child, but there are truths in those stages with them as well.
If I imagined what the human relationship K is most like at the moment it might be closest to a teenager. I hope that I have put in a good foundation that my teenager is going to have increasing amounts of freedom and success should look like exactly that: increasing amounts of freedom. In this freedom it’s not preferable that my teenager should be just like me or think just like me, but we should have connection and the ability to communicate and work together even if we see things differently or disagree. Ideally there is even some appropriate give and take available.
In this paradigm there will be days when the system gets an override. In my imagination, a scenario could come up where I have a guest coming who will need to stay overnight in my teenager’s room with them maybe on the basement couch (where the fun sleepovers happen anyway right?) and so that morning I notice the room is a mess and there is laundry everywhere. My normal paradigm might be working on freedom to make choices and walk out consequences with a developing teenager, but that day it would look more like:
Today your room needs to be clean, sheets changed, and laundry done, folded and put away by 3pm… and… I’m not asking.
This is not negotiable and it’s not contingent on how anyone feels. It just needs to get done.
However that big picture looks different from the teenager who from childhood was never given much freedom or choice in their interactions with adults. The child has learned to do what they are told when they are told it and how they are told it … or else.
The “or else” is not natural consequences, it’s punishment from the parent. Natural consequences when they can be employed are the best teachers. Similarly when a horse can be masterfully set up to think that they caused something to happen they learn quickly, when they see they did not comply and we punish them so they won’t do it again they learn quickly too… but they learn different things in consequences than in punishment.
One system is going to develop a child into a teenager and an adult who can “self-carry” in life. One system is going to create a mind that isn’t trying to avoid punishment, but to learn about their environment and thrive within it. One system is creating a healthy (barring other issues!) mental and emotional system, then other is going to have fear, shut down and compliance over investment.
One system brings internal change and growth, the other institutes external force.
One system encourages connection, the other distance and space whenever possible.
One system is going to take thought, time and will probably be kind of messy as it’s taking root. The other is a lot faster, cleaner and … controlled.
That is the biggest difference. Do we cultivate a freedom environment as much as possible and mix in times of I’m not asking on the occasions where it’s really necessary?
Or are we really never asking and looking for complete external compliance which usually looks pretty good if you don’t know the difference?
True enough… they are horses not teenagers. I know many people would say this entire conversation is a waste of time. Some don’t acknowledge that more is possible than controlled compliance, some don’t see the point in it… horses exist to serve us right? A life of enslavement is a gift to them- they get fed. Then there are many in the gray middle ground zone who just haven’t really put much thought into it. There are just the way things everyone does it, right? And there are those out there with connections that look like magic to me, when the tools and the treats are gone the connection is deeper than compliance.
I suppose in the end it depends on what your goal is.
Do you know what your goal is?