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.

Nevada….

20150706093440(1)It wasn’t quite as hot yesterday as it has been lately, and a thick overcast helped a bit, too. It was nice to be able to head for the pasture with Nevada’s feed pan and not feel overstressed from heat before I even climbed through the fence.

The mares were huddled in their house, avoiding the ever-present flies. I could see Nevada’s white blaze from quite a distance as she watched me, wondering if it was worth coming out to see me. I had left the feed pan by the fence, so she didn’t know it was there.

I was in no hurry—it was pleasant just watching them and listening to the birds. Eventually, she shouldered her way through the other mares (Nevada always commands the best spot, way in the back) and stepped out. Everyone else followed, and then one of the other mares headed off, away from me, to graze near the south fence. Nevada stopped and looked at me. I asked her twice if she was sure she didn’t want to come with me, but she turned away to follow her friends.

There was a time when I would have been disappointed by this, and would likely have tried to beg her to come with me; I might have gone to get her with a halter. Yesterday, I just walked away from her when she moved off.

It’s a wonderful thing to build the kind of relationship I now have with my horses. They feel comfortable saying no when they want to, knowing that there’s no punishment for expressing an opinion. There may or may not be consequences to their decision, but it’s never punishment. The “worst” that will happen is that they may have to move their feet when they’d rather stand still, but that’s as far as it goes.

The benefit for me is huge! When the horse does something I ask, I now know without a doubt that it’s because they are willing to do it, and it’s not that they feel coerced, or fear punishment. And even more important, they say “yes” way more often!

So yesterday I just went partway across the pasture and hung out, watching bees and wasps, pulling a few weeds, and listening to the birds. It was lovely and peaceful. I could see Nevada watching me, and sure enough, after a few minutes she ambled over to see what I was up to.

Eventually she noticed her feed pan across the fence. That got her attention! She started walking that way, but stopped when she noticed I wasn’t following. I waited a minute or two, then asked her to walk WITH me, not ahead of me, over to the food, and she did.

NO fuss, no effort, nothing but a pleasant interaction between friends. How wonderful is that?!

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!