Eye Contact

20160417_153304I gave Nevada a bath the other afternoon. By the time we finished and I put her back out in the pasture, it was getting late and the sun was low in the sky, giving everything that lovely golden glow. From way down by the road, clear across the geldings pasture, I could see Nevada’s coat gleaming copper-bronze. She looked so beautiful!

I wanted to get a photo of her, and I wanted to get it from the side, so that the light would reflect off her flanks. I kept walking back and forth, the length of Midnight’s paddock—quite a distance!—but all I could see in the viewfinder was her blaze. That seemed so odd!

After a couple of trips back and forth without getting a single shot of her standing sideways, I finally figured out what was going on: Nevada, across the pasture, was playing her version of Carolyn Resnick’s “eye contact” game, which she enjoys and is VERY good at: She was keeping her nose facing me, with two eyes watching my every move, no matter where I went.

Of course, by the time I figured that out, she had quit doing it, so I was able to get the photo, sort of…but the sun had gone behind the clouds.

Smart horse, with a sense of humor.

Courting Nevada

20140417150946 (8)The vet came out to see Nevada the other day to check out some possible causes for the violent itching that she’s suffered from, off and on, as long as we’ve had her. It wasn’t pleasant for her—it involved shaving squares on her neck, skin scrapings, worming, shots. She stayed calm and willing during the interaction, which seems amazing but is normal for her.

The next afternoon I went out to the pasture to get her. True to form after an unpleasant experience the day before, Nevada let me know she hadn’t enjoyed it. She’s always been this way—never complaining during whatever the not-fun event is, but being hard to catch the next day.

This time, she came to me in the pasture, all right. She quickly checked me over to see if I had dinner or treats (nope). Then she was willing to follow me, without a halter, to the gate of the summer pasture and go through it into the winter pasture. Once there, though, she wouldn’t stay with me—she trotted off toward the main gate to the barn and arena area, where I usually feed her before we work on anything. I just let her go.

When I didn’t follow her to the gate, she watched me for a while (I was walking the other way, pretending to ignore her). Then she ran back toward her girlfriends, whinnying. I didn’t chase her, but just kept on pulling weeds and “ignoring” her. She stopped near the fence between her and her buddies and started grazing.

I’m beginning to enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to get my horse to want to follow my lead, especially when they’re “not in the mood,” distracted, or disinterested, without resorting to making them do it in the natural horsemanship way. That way is effective, all right, but this one is way more fun. “Courting” is a great Carolyn Resnick concept; Linda Salinas, one of Carolyn’s certified trainers, has a blog post on the topic here.

So I decided to court my mare.

After pulling weeds at the other end of the pasture for ten minutes or so, I walked slowly toward her, stopping every time she twitched an ear or looked up at me, in order to show her that I understood and respected her boundaries. She didn’t move her feet.

Finally I worked myself around to the front of her and went up and said hello, offering my hand. She snuffled me willingly enough, but she went back to grazing, and I backed away. A few minutes later I greeted her again, and again backed away. At that point she started slowly and casually taking one step at a time toward me while she grazed, and each time she did, I backed up an equal amount. I wanted to draw her to me, but not in an obvious or insistent way. This felt respectful: I wanted to wait until she was ready and wanted to come to me.

Finally she put her head up, looked at me intently for a few seconds, and walked over so I could put her halter on. It was her idea at that point, not mine, and after that there were no problems between us.

It was such an interesting and rewarding experience. It felt like a real conversation: She got to tell me how displeased she was with what had happened the day before, and I could respond that I understood and didn’t blame her for it. Once she felt “heard,” she was willing to come to me. I’m certain that’s not exactly how Nevada perceived it, but I do believe her version wouldn’t be too different.

It feels like magic to relate to my horses in this way. There’s no confrontation, no force, no “well, that’s fine, but you have to come with me.” They always have the option to say “no.” Sure, there are times (vet visits, for instance) where I will have to override their wishes, but that won’t be a problem, because in the majority of instances, they get to choose. I can always pick a different game, or a different approach: one that will be easy and fun for them to get involved in.

I’m so happy about the way Nevada and I handled this situation. I think it will make a big difference in our relationship, and that’s wonderful!

“Leading” Galahad

20150421 G 5 piles (9)Yesterday afternoon I wanted to work with Galahad in the west pasture—the one they are resting at the moment. Open space to work, and no other horses to try to eat his treats. I brought him in at liberty, with no halter to control him. That meant that there could be no “cheating” on my part. This was about me figuring out a way to get him to want to walk with me over to the south fence where I had set up the little piles of hay and soaked grass hay/alfalfa cubes (this time of year, the horses have ZERO interest in plain hay).

I knew he would be very happy to work with me over by the fence once he discovered that there were yummy hay cubes involved. The challenge was to get him to walk with me over to that area instead of going where he wanted to go: to the main pasture gate and out to where I usually feed and work with him.

When he first followed me into the west pasture, Galahad immediately started walking toward the main gate. I stopped him (which he does willingly) and asked him to walk with me toward where the treat piles were set up. He followed for a few steps, then refused and put on his “stubborn face.” That’s the expression he often uses when you first ask him to do anything that’s not his own idea.

Galahad isn’t categorically unwilling to do what’s asked, by any means. The thing is, if he perceives it as an order, he will almost always balk and get sulky. I really believe that’s a leftover response to the way he was trained initially, by the so-called “trainer” who was his original owner (yes, the one who starved him nearly to death). My own trainer used the same kinds of Natural Horsemanship methods (though with way more skill and understanding), and Galahad seems to think that anything that seems like “training” and not “fun” is something he needs to refuse, if he can. “No” is his default setting.

That’s why Carolyn Resnick’s methods work so very well for this horse: One of the most important ideas in her method is to make the training fun for both horse and human. Galahad responds to that beautifully!

(Disclaimer: I am NOT certified by Carolyn Resnick, and anything I talk about or show here is MY INTERPRETATION of what she teaches, not something she has approved. If you like what you see, I urge you to take one of her online courses, or go to a clinic like the one we’re offering this June here in Missouri with Certified Master Trainer Teddie Ziegler.)

So my task yesterday was to figure out a way to make Galahad WANT to walk with me instead of checking out each pile of poop on his way to the main gate. It was a fun challenge! I’ve got a little video clip of the process–quite by accident, and only because I had the camera running when I went to get him. Watch it full-screen if you can.

The first thing I did was walk away and ignore him for a while. He knows he needs me to open the gate, so he stayed pretty close. I just hung out, following him slowly but pulling weeds and doing my own thing, not pestering him. I tried catching his eye and drawing him to me, but he was having none of that. Too “natural horsemanship” for him. I needed to be more subtle.

I also knew that if I tried too hard to influence WHERE he walked right then, he’d take off at a trot and head directly for the main gate. So I just waited. After a while I went and stood beside him, letting him look around and graze. When I could feel his attention shift to me, I moved a little ways away from him and resumed pulling weeds.

It took a while, but he had turned his body and was keeping an eye on me. I continued to wait.

Eventually, he moved closer and I was able to call him over. I wanted to use a draw to get him to walk with me, not to push him, but I was on the wrong side; so after a while I moved carefully to his other side, turned slightly away from him, and he came along with me. Yippee! Still had to be careful, though, and wait when he stopped to look at something or other. But suddenly he was willing!

Times like this, when all the study and observation I’ve done pays off, are just magic. Even such a little thing as this is so special to me, because it means that the bond my horse and I have, the relationship we’re building, is growing. My Galahad loves me, there is no doubt, in the way horses love. But horses are not dogs, and “obedience” and “leadership” have different meanings to them. How amazing it is to know how to time my requests just right and express them in a language that he understands, so that he’s willing to follow my leadership!

So yesterday turned out to be a fun game for both of us, just like Carolyn suggests. No pressure, no time frame, and staying very much in the moment. Woohoo!

Wow…. This is a dream come true for me.