2014-06-03_17-41-12_601Summer weather here in Missouri is definitely not a favorite of mine. I do not function much at all when the temperature and humidity are up, so not much “training” gets done. That is, if you’re looking for training as in “directed activity outside the pasture.”

Feeding, sometimes, gets done outside the pasture, but mostly not. Walking around outside the pasture sometimes happens, but not often. There are too many days where I do a “drive-by” feeding: mix the food ahead of time and run by the barn to deliver it to each horse, along with a dose of fly spray and a quick check of each one’s physical condition.

The only other interactions are sitting around watching the horses, walking slowly around the pasture with the herd, or standing next to Galahad while he naps. This is his favorite summertime activity other than eating. Sometimes he will pester me into standing still and letting him nap with his head on me.

Yesterday it was miserably hot—mid-90s with the dew point in the 70s. The trimmer came to check Galahad’s hoof (he developed an abscess in his right front foot a couple of weeks ago), but we managed to find a shady spot to work in. Afterwards, in between bouts of grazing on a line, he came over and napped for a bit with his nose buried in my armpit.

Hmmm…. A curiously intimate moment, for sure, and strange from a human perspective. But it’s pretty heartwarming, too, given that the first thing he does when he goes back to the pasture after an absence of more than a few hours is to roll luxuriantly and get the good herd-smell back onto his body. My smell apparently is good and comforting to him.

Is this “training”? I think so: It’s relationship-building, for sure. And I’m happy that he’s developed that kind of trust and comfort in my presence.

The Benefits of “No”

Galahad is DONE (1)Galahad and I had a really great time the other day in the jump arena. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing—some ground poles were still in place from the jumping class, it was a relatively cool day, and there were no other appointments on my schedule.

I asked him to walk on a loose lead over the poles one at a time. That was scary, he said, but he could manage it.

I asked him to sidepass over one of them, but he declined; too scary. Now, this is a “trick” that this horse learned when he was three, so it wasn’t new to him, and he’s been in this arena many times before. I doubted that “scary” was his real reason (see below). He said he would paw at it. He would sidepass in front of it (so he could keep an eye on it, one supposes), but otherwise it was too scary.

Then I asked him to walk over a set of three poles arranged a few feet apart; he said that was WAY too scary. But he offered something else: What he could do, he said, was walk between them, up one way and back the other. This was entirely his idea, since I was still mentally focused on motion over them and wasn’t guiding him at all.

I love his creative “solutions.” It’s just one more example of his overall willingness and desire to work with me.

I didn’t press the issue—I just wanted him to have a good time. After a while I let him prance and dance off the lead, and gave him lots of treats. He went back to the pasture reluctantly; I love that he’d rather be with me than with his buddies (and no, it’s not just the treats!).

Some of my natural horsemanship friends are questioning me about “letting Galahad get away with” refusing a request. “That’s not how you do it. You need to apply increasing pressure until he does what you’re asking, then release!”

That’s the received wisdom, and it’s an effective way of training a horse. Clear communication with your horse, in that school of thought, includes communicating that there are unpleasant consequences for saying no. If that kind of training is done well, it produces a horse that quickly complies with whatever you ask. The horse trusts the handler, if it’s done well, because the communication is “fair” and there is no misunderstanding.

I’m good at those techniques. They resonate with me. I was raised that way by my dad, who insisted on instant obedience—or else. There was never any confusion in my mind about whether or not to obey because I didn’t dare to question him. There was always that “or else” hanging in the air between us, right up until the day he died.

Problem is, those techniques don’t lead to the kind of relationship I want with my horses. Sure, there are times that he must obey me, like when the vet or the trimmer comes to work on him. But for the most part, I want Galahad to be able to tell me what he likes and what he doesn’t like, and I want to be OK with that.

Liberty trainer Farah DeJohnette has a blog post on this subject—you can read it here. She explains the rationale very well and suggests some questions to ask when a horse says no:

I want horses to tell me No. I want them to tell me what they like and what they don’t like. I want to be able to accommodate their desires because I am going to request that they accommodate mine. If a horse is traumatized, the No is the best way to build that trust back up in humans.

These are the a few of the questions I ask when I see a “No” in a horse:

I ask myself, why is that No there?

Why did you feel like you had to say No?

Are you uncomfortable?

Are you afraid?

Are you Confused?

Are you unsure?

Are you used to being over pressured?

It may be none of the above. It could be simpler or more complex.

A lot of the time, I believe that Galahad refuses a task (especially when it’s something he’s been taught) because of the last reason she gives—pressure. In his early life, Galahad was pressured into performing. I know I’ve done that to him at times, especially in the beginning when I didn’t understand natural horsemanship very well. Galahad has never reacted well to pressure. He shuts down; even though he may perform the task, there’s “nobody home” behind those eyes.

Here’s a little video clip that will show you exactly what I mean. I had been asking him to do some simple groundwork routines because I wanted to polish up his manners on the lead line, and I was using the standard natural horsemanship techniques. He did what I asked, but nothing more. Once I actually noticed his mental/emotional state (I’m kinda slow on the uptake sometimes), I thought I’d take off the halter and ask him to touch the mounting block with his foot. Usually, he enjoys that and will get pretty enthusiastic about it.

That day? Not so much. Take a look: He’s DONE. As a video, it’s kind of funny, but it gives you an idea of just what a horse that’s accustomed to too much pressure can look like. It’s taken me a year to get past this issue with Galahad—that afternoon was the first time I had seen him this way in a VERY long time, and I don’t want to see it again, ever.

At this stage in his training, I’m perfectly happy for him to say “no.” As we progress and his willingness increases, I’ll be able to make requests without him shutting down, because he will have come to trust me enough.

Meanwhile, I have an increasingly happy horse who loves my company and is happy to do more and more playful activities with me. That’s plenty for us to go on!


Snapshot 1 (6-8-2013 1-23 PM)

Had a lovely afternoon on Wednesday. Galahad, when he first caught sight of me coming through the fence, galloped over. It was clear that he was really glad I was there, and happy to come over and greet me. I squirted him with some fly spray and we chatted for a couple of minutes. Then I walked off. He followed me for a ways, then trotted back to the other geldings, who were standing in and around the shed.

He went back to his herd the same way he had come to me—happily. It was obvious that he really liked going back to the herd. The key word is “happy.” It wasn’t that he was just going back to the herd because that’s what he was supposed to do, or that he just kind of wanted to, that he didn’t have anything better to do. He went back to the herd the same way he came over to see me—he was happy! He really liked being with his herd—he exuded happiness.

Then a few minutes later, one of the horses took off at a walk toward the water tank (with a planned stop to check on me, which I discouraged with a wave of my reed). The other three followed—and again, I could feel how happy Galahad was to be in his herd, to hang out with his buddies.

I begin to see what Carolyn Resnick’s method is after. There will come a point where Galahad will be happy to do whatever activity I want to do, too. With his herd, it doesn’t look like it matters to him in the least what they’re doing. Eventually that’s the kind of feeling I’m going to have with him. It’s really beautiful to watch, and I’m excited to look forward to that.

It will take time, but however long it takes, it will be so worth it! He and I have years. There’s no rush.

Galahad is my teacher

Galahad 1 by Aiming High PhotographyAn interesting late afternoon with the horses. I spent some time with Nevada, who’s just a sweetheart: she hangs out with us, content to just stand around if that’s what we’re doing, or to trot around or do groundwork or (especially) eat grass.

Galahad’s a harder one for me to understand, or so it sometimes seems. But I think it’s just that Galahad has so much to teach me, instead of the other way around. I need to learn from him, instead of beating myself up about it when things don’t go as I plan.

This afternoon I had him in the small indoor arena, supposedly just to hang out (I’m starting a Carolyn Resnick course this month). But I started out by trying to round-pen him in there, which Nevada does easily, probably because she thinks it’s fun. Galahad has been round-penned a lot, and it has NOT been fun, by and large, so he’s not as willing.

After a while I remembered that my original idea had been to just hang out with him. Oh. Yes. Forgot that part.

Galahad kind of wandered around the arena, checking out the “messages” left in the sand by other horses, hanging his head over the fence and watching horses and people outside. He did come over to me a couple of times, checking in. But not often enough to satisfy me, I guess.

He came by when I knelt down and started scratching the sand with my hand—he wanted to see what I was up to. Then he left, which was fine. I went over and sat on the mounting block for a while, and he came over once.

As I write this, I’m noticing that what actually happened was not what I initially remembered. The way I remembered it, he totally ignored me. Um no, it wasn’t like that.

I mean, really! What do I expect from him? Can we say, “unreasonable”?

I started walking around the arena, pretending to pay no attention to him, and he was standing looking out over the gate to the outside. I walked past him and away, with my back to him. Then I heard what I thought were a person’s footsteps, and I swung my head around to see who had dared to disturb our space.

The sound was actually Galahad’s footsteps, following me. But he stopped instantly when I swung around. The message I unintentionally sent, oh so clear in horse language, was “Stay back. Don’t bother me!” The equivalent of swinging my head with my ears pinned.

I was so disappointed with myself! That wasn’t at all what I had in mind! There was no way to take it back, of course. I kept walking, but he didn’t follow any more.

I immediately started beating myself up about it, and I know he felt that disappointment. Nevada can deal with me when I’m like that: she just lets it blow right on past.

But Galahad is the most sensitive soul I’ve ever encountered, and his ego really isn’t all that strong. Galahad isn’t like Nevada. He worries. If I’m disappointed, he worries that he’s done something wrong—he has no idea what, but he expects to be blamed.

That’s another remnant of his unfortunate experiences as a youngster before he was rescued. And even our first trainer, successful though he is, used methods that demand pretty much instant obedience, not thinking about building up the horse’s self-confidence.

And then there’s me: I took to those early training methods so well because they are exactly what my dad would have used. That’s how I was taught: obey instantly, or face the consequences. Dad’s love was conditional on my behaving in a way that he could approve of, and preferably in a way that made him look good. So I get it.

The hard part is realizing how much of that internalized, patriarchal, “Arthur” energy I still have inside me, and how far I still have to go to learn what it’s like to express unconditional love. I would love Galahad no matter what he did, but he has no way of knowing that, and until he does know that, we can’t have the kind of relationship I’m looking for.

So he’s shown me, once again, exactly what I need to learn. And I will learn—but it’s going to take a lot of time and patience. I’m hoping the new course will help me develop better habits and learn to be patient and loving not just with Galahad, but with myself, too.

The real student here is me, not my horse.

[Note: This lovely photograph is by my good friend Aimée at Aiming High Photography.]