Stepping up as a leader

Recently I was with a student and her horse. This horse has had quite a journey; from being a natural introvert, not prone to much forward and also quite shut down, to a confident, almost cheeky, engaging friend with masses of try.

My student, like me, is also a mixed methodologist. She mostly uses passive leadership to set the tone, and clicker training to add enthusiasm. She also uses negative reinforcement where she needs to. They are an amazing team, working on a well rounded education together.

This particular day we were planning a lesson together. The horse was standing close and mouthing things in an attempt for bonus attention points, variously picking up a brush and other nearby objects. Her objective was to engage her human, hoping for some clicker action. Now this behaviour may not that desirable, but as a contrast to the blank eyed pony she used to be, this gentle playing is wonderful.

However we were deep in discussion and weren’t ready to change the subject, but we both knew to play with the horse that shows up. Instead of saying no, the student gave her horse another job to do, which was to back away a little and wait. The backup was treacle sweet and slow, the wait was not happening, instead turning into a creep forwards and more mouth. A few repeats and clicking for waiting ensued.

I noticed the quality of the backup. If it was going any slower it would have been going forwards. We spoke about the quality of the exercise. The human cue was soft and slight, and the response was there, but in super slo-mo, and the minimum amount of distance – literally three steps and halt, quickly followed by stepping forwards again. Clicking for the ‘wait’ didn’t help as she still came in for her treat, or if her human beat her to it and delivered would still creep right on back afterwards.

I diagnosed that the horse had slowly reverse trained her human to release for slighter and slighter ‘tries’.

Horses being pattern animals, the mare had developed a pattern that had her boomeranging back in from the world’s slowest slightest backup, every time.

In working on improving the backup and the wait, the student worked on upping the quality by setting a different criteria from ‘release for the slightest try’ to ‘release for slow and right’.

Step one was improve the backup from the ‘treacle two step’ to a steady backup (that had more than three steps), and then the wait.

The horse was quite welded to her pattern. So to interrupt it, the student upped her cue to get a snappier response. We broke the pattern. The cue escalated, became R-, but I could tell it was a reluctantly offered, and the horse certainly could tell. The horse responded eventually, after trying to continue her normal effort only, then through resisting passively, then through crookedness (shoulders getting out and stuck) until finally we got what was required; by being calm, persistent, and instantly releasing for each improvement. Eventually we got a solid five steps back and wait.

Because we had used pressure, the student then waited for the lick and chew which would signify a reset to calm.

It didn’t happen. Instead, the mare started looking not exactly shut down, but not unlike the blank dead eye that the used to be. Was she zoning out?

While what we had originally wanted was a polite wait, we knew that how the horse felt about it was a bigger training point than the exercise itself, and we didn’t want to shut her down again. So we waited.

And waited.

The mare seemed fairly disconnected compared to all the prior ‘look at me’ that had been going on, but she was still blinking…and thinking?

Then my student asked ‘do you think she’s figured out that when I use R-, I will stop and wait for the lick and chew before asking anything else, and therefore she’s holding it back?’

I had never considered this before, but I had just about opened my mouth at the same time to ask ‘is this getting better, or worse, or is something else going on?’

Now I don’t know if my student was correct, but it kind of had a ring of truth to it, I liked it, it probably isn’t common but knowing this smart pony, maybe it was a possibility. Also, one thing that tends to trigger a reset (lick and chew/sigh) is authenticity- and as the student was speaking, the mare gave the slightest secret lick and chew, inside her mouth, no tongue.

Maybe coincidence? Or not?

My own thought was also that we hadn’t actually used that much pressure. Perhaps the mare simply hadn’t actually had the sympathetic nervous system triggered, so therefore had no stress response to release? This horse trusts her human.

Everything we do is based upon confidence, communication, and mutual respect.

By mutual respect I mean leadership; though I expand that to include passive leadership which also, when appropriate, includes occasional ‘followship’.

It’s my conviction that the part of the equation that is called ‘feeling for the horse’ includes us synchronising with them, before expecting them to respond to us. This conjoins the trust, and communication, and mutual respect.

The backup had been slow, but we identified that the sticking point was actually the shoulders. The forehand yield was poor to both sides, and therefore, naturally, also in the backup.

We were reminded that a week prior this same horse had taken fright and shied sideways into me with her shoulders. No one died, or were even hurt, that time, but that is a clue to how things can go pretty bad if your horse doesn’t think your important enough not to run you over!

Trust and communication were well installed.

This meant that the third part of the equation- that of mutual respect- was where we needed to work.

We tested it out, and sure enough, the shoulders were stuck against steady pressure, and also against rhythmic pressure at close quarters.

My student was not as practised in technique, and I was also wanting to show the effect of clear intention, so I demonstrated using rhythmic pressure from a greater distance to get an appropriate response. It worked, instantly, as I fully intended owning that bit of real estate that the shoulder was set upon, no one got hurt, and we got a good yield and an instant, overt lick and chew. Not only that, but the entire expression and attitude changed. She gave great focus. She flowed forwards into a send. She was moving with power in all directions. She was with us, focused, and fully expressing herself through movement.

My student stepped up, and not only got the same result but also tried and mastered a couple of other new (to them) patterns that both include a lot of backup and shoulder yields. A lot of drive, in other words. R-.

The horse was riveted by her, had a great expression, and with a bit of persistence was licking and chewing while actually performing beautiful rhythmic backups, turns, and circling. Overall she looked like a fulfilled horse, doing what they are designed to do, which is to move!

So what was going on?

Why was this different to the prior attempts?

The difference was being effective enough to be understood, and understood enough to be effective.

This mare already knew the cue to back up and to yield her forehand. If she didn’t, it wouldn’t have been fair; and she would have needed a different criteria to actually teach the move which would have been ‘release (or reward- depending on whether using R+ or R-) for the slightest try’.

But she had moved beyond that. Now we wanted duration, and more effort put into the task rather than into how to change the game.

I’m not saying that improving the task (in this case ‘back up’) couldn’t be taught using R+; but that the principle of yielding to appropriate pressure which was behind the non compliance needed to be addressed.

Why?

If you ask ‘move please’ and the answer is ‘no, why should I’ and you’re on a road and a truck is about to hit you, then you’re not safe. The world is full of unexpected pressure. Sometimes the horse’s instinct is the best answer; but sometimes it’s only going to get them and us in deeper trouble and we need to be able to prevent that to stay safe. Unfortunately, if you never get to practice being assertive and your horse never gets to practice being responsive, then by the time the emergency happens it’s too late.

An interesting thing happens to we gentle souls when we discover the ‘no-pressure’ methods; positive reinforcement, reading calming signals, synchronising, and passive leadership.

It resonates with gentle souls, and reverting to R-when we need to can feel awkward and diffident.

I think that our horses read us like books. Our intention, our emotions, and our commitment to our actions are very clear to them. I have noticed in myself that if I am alone with my own horses or working with a student one on one, it’s easy to do things. I switch between modes and my horses switch with me, without taking offence or advantage. It’s just life. I am free to act naturally, and if I flow, they flow.

If, however, I’m in front of an instructor or a critic, then the horses might not be so responsive. They feel my hesitation and either hesitate themselves or start playing their own games, depending upon the horse that has shown up. If we are questioning ourselves, the first thing that has to happen, for a horse, is that horse questions you too- and someone needs to be in charge. It’s a biological imperative for a horse to have someone lead; and if there’s only two of you and you’re not stepping up, well there’s only one other alternative.

Horses love positive reinforcement- we all do!

It’s motivating, fun and fulfilling.

Sometimes however we need to step up and say ‘I got this’. This is imperative, because horses react by instinct.

Safety first; then comfort, then play (dominance games) then food/motivation.

Our currency needs to speak to the rung on which that horse is standing in every moment, and while it is possible to condition a horse to do the right thing despite the world going mad around him (consistent training, great timing, and power of patterns giving sense of comfort and control) one day may come where circumstances are so far out from the norm that the horse cannot associate his conditioned responses to the situation at hand.

Good leadership definitely includes ‘feeling for the horse’ and ‘feeling together’- which adds up to being considered a good leader to willingly follow. It also includes being decisive, and being worthy of regard- it’s mutual. If your horse runs me over, then I’m not worthy of her regard, right?

Also good leadership means teaching your horse the appropriate response to pressure. Life is full of pressure and if we don’t teach our horses how to yield then we are setting them up for a train wreck one day.

Good leadership is not being a bully. Is it the act of a bully to stop a child running into the road?

When safety is an issue, you need to know that your horse knows the appropriate response to pressure. Teaching this helps a horse think through a problem when it’s occurred under stressful situations as well as when all is calm.

I know of another horse/human partnership that is a beautiful friendship. She is as gentle with her horse as you can get. However she seldom gets to ride out because she can’t get her horse out the gate, he grazes and meanders and turns around and goes home repeatedly. At the halfway mark he becomes a freight train and blazes past the others on the ride at 90 miles an hour. That horse has a totally immovable shoulder. He has barged over people going through gates and riding out with them doesn’t happen any more with me because I had my knee (and my horse’s side) crushed by this horse suddenly barging past more times than I like to admit before I gave up trying.

It’s more than setting boundaries around your personal space. I have no problem giving ground myself out of good manners. Sometimes you need that horse to move NOW and if you never ever practise that, how do you think it’s going to work out for you when you really need it?

Plenty to lick and chew on there!

The Beauty of Badassery

Being a Badass Beauty

Liberty!

If you ask me, I’d say it’s the best fun you can have with a horse. To me, nothing is more inspiring than having your best friend gallop towards you because you called her. Dancing with shadows and play- spooking, impulsion games, punching the air with the power hoof, free choice in a big open area.

‘When the ropes come off, all that’s left is the truth’. Pat Parelli.

We all do it. Every time you interact with your pony in the paddock, even if you’re just catching him, you are playing a liberty game right up to the point that you put the halter on. However going out to play with no intention of haltering up provokes a different sort of magic.

How interesting are you really? How engaging? Does she want to play with you, or does she walk away? Sometimes she may run away, and that’s okay- it’s not freedom if there’s no risk. Her free choice.

Anyone can make a horse do something. To have a horse want to do it for you is an entirely different conversation.

So what sort of conversation is it?

It’s a conversation of Focus and Feel, Timing and Balance.

It’s a conversation about choices.

Opinions. Freedom. Moods. Pace. Honesty. Letting go of control. True expression.

It’s a conversation about Play.

How do we humans define Play when it comes to horses?

Play, like all the word symbols we use, is no simple singular thing. When referring to horses, it can be used in a few contexts.

Play is the third tier in the horse hierarchy of needs. If he can play, then you know that he feels safe, and that he feels comfortable. If safety is an issue he will not play. If he feels constrained by discomfort, or even the threat of it, he cannot play either, though I do know that some master horse sages can teach a horse to find the freedom within a set of proscribed movements; the option of choice is an imperative to call it true play, in my opinion.

To a horse, Play is a serious business.

Why do baby animals play? We do it to socialise, to practice for life. During play we discover things about ourselves and others. We find our imaginations, and we use them to test each other. We find our strengths and our weaknesses. We find our standing in our social hierarchy.

There’s that word again- hierarchy.

Does that word trigger you?

If it does, then likely you are a fairly evolved human being. We who value freedom for all don’t tend to like that word much. It draws up images of Nazis, of imposed rule, authority, of the haves and the have nots. It’s not pluralistic, egalitarian, or fair.

However it’s also a fact of life. Freedom to play still occurs within the parameters of our biological settings, and in nature, hierarchy is a naturally occurring phenomenon.

There are two types of hierarchy. What we commonly call dominance based hierarchy is imposed from without. A military structure of obedience or else. It’s power taken by someone who has the gun, or the ability to take away your freeedom to punish and control you. It’s racism, sexism, slavery, oppressive and always has two things in common- the controller, and the controlled. The controlled are resentful and miserable.

Up until very recently, I would have equated ‘domestication’ with this as well. But while it can fall into this definition, it actually doesn’t have to.

There are definitely times that we need to control our horses, in order for us both to survive. True liberty play is not one of those moments, and natural hierarchy allows for that.

However what is the natural hierarchy?

In nature, there is sequence. Look at our bodies. It is a structure only because of hierarchy- if we didn’t have hierarchy we would not exist in this beautiful organic form- we would instead be a heap.

In scientific terms, the hard eye of outer truth, our body is a collection of organs, which are in turn a collection of cells, which in turn are a collection of molecules, which in turn are a collection of atoms, which in turn, are collections of a few sub atomic particles and a lot of space.

There are rules that are inviolate. No cell can be an entire organ. No atom can be a molecule.

There is also the rule of numbers- there is always more space than particles. There are always more particles than atoms. There are always more atoms than molecules. There are always more molecules than cells…you get the picture.

That is a natural hierarchy; described from the top down and back up again in the eye of the hard science. It’s measurable. It’s true. It is defined by the fact that the top is made up of the rest. It doesn’t subjugate or overwhelm unless it’s a cancer. It is the result of the group, the many become one, with beautiful natural order.

What about social hierarchy?

Because of the various Nazis in our history, we who abhor dominance based hierarchy tend to shy away from this concept. I think here we are capable of confusing natural hierarchy and our fear of imposed control takeovers.

In quantum physics, there is a state called a tangled hierarchy. When you look at a herd of horses, you see something that seems to fit this description. There is usually a leader, who leads by going somewhere, and the rest follow. There will be a best friend of the leader who gets to share her everything, but who gets pushed off the best grass patch by a third horse, who is in charge of three others who all drive a straggler around, except for that horse there on Tuesday because they were scratching, and oh the third horse who is in charge of the fourth but yields to the straggler. There are skirmishes and sort outs, but ultimately the aim is peace and a balanced herd.

There may be a class bully. He might by rude, pushy, even violent. If his violence is unbalanced and surmountable, he will be driven away by the herd until he learns balance, or dies. If he is insurmountable, he will be a bully, and he will be lonely, as bullies always ultimately are. No one will want to hang out with him, but he may still have his uses. Being able to drive others is a skill; a stallion does it to protect his herd from other breeding males and from predation. He will round up the stragglers and keep everyone together and safe.

In play, we practise at leading and following. We flash our credentials for each position, and we take turns. In play, we find out who the leader is today, and who the follower is. We try on hats and we swap roles.

Play also has another vital function. Another subset to its repertoire.

When horses, and humans, are stressed, they only have three options. Flight, freeze or fight. These options have functional and dysfunctional forms. It’s dysfunctional if it doesn’t serve its purpose; which ultimately is to protect the individual until he is safe and can return himself to a normal state.

A dysfunctional stress response is one that is inappropriate for the situation, or that goes on too long, outliving it’s usefulness. No one enjoys a state of stress.

I know a horse who suffers from being herd bound, or ‘barn sour’ some call it, or ‘destination addiction’ as Warwick Schiller coined it. It’s a horse who wants to be somewhere else. This horse is extremely attuned to her own herd, and every horse in every field that she can see from her pasture. If the skewbald over in the far right corner of her vision leaves his place, she panics. This horse has never touched noses with her, but he belongs in that field three fences away, and she will pace and call and pace and call until he comes back, or until she is forced to accept a ‘new normal’.

During this process, she is a nuisance and she upsets the balance in her own herd. So the head gelding in this particular group will get after her. ‘Go away with that stupid behaviour’ is his message. ‘You’re upsetting everybody’.

Her prolonged stress response of Flight is dysfunctional because it is serving no purpose in helping her return to balance or keeping her safe. There is one other vital marker of dysfunctional stress response. That is, the victim of it is alone in her distress.

So along comes sensible gelding, and he starts chasing her. She runs. He chases. He will bite her if he catches her, he doesn’t want that unbalanced energy anywhere near his herd, so she runs now to get away from him. He chases. Suddenly, the same action- Flight, has become functional. It has a purpose- to save her from the long yellow teeth of the law.

In essence, he has joined her in her flight and she is no longer running alone. Eventually, he will be satisfied and now they can both stop running. She’d forgotten about the missing skewbald for now.

Lick and chew.

Balance is restored. No one likes a stresshead.

We are reminded that Flight is more than a stress reaction, it’s something we can use to escape an aroused Fight response when you know you’re outplayed, and it’s something the other guy can use to keep up with you, teeth snapping, until you yield enough to satisfy him.

Yielding is a functional form of stress relief.

So that’s an example of the stress response of flight going from dysfunctional to functional.

How about Fight?

Fight is probably the rarest horse stress response, usually only pulled out if there is no choice of Flight or Freezing is not an option for that horse. In most cases it is functional- charging the predator and killing it can save your life or that of your foal. Burros, donkeys and mules are great at this. They evolved on mountains, where Flight is highly dysfunctional- you can’t run because you’d fall off a cliff.

Don’t mess with burros, donkeys or mules. You need to be smart, not forceful.

Other times it kicks in are biologically driven motives around sex. Boys will be boys, and battles for the right to breed are a pretty common way to fight off the hormonal frustration.

When Rage is awakened in a horse, you are left in no doubt. If you ever hear a horse scream at you in pure rage, it’s possibly the last thing you’ll hear.

Fight is pretty hard to be dysfunctional with because by definition it’s hard to fight alone, you need a protagonist, but it does happen. Have you ever seen a lone horse digging with both front feet in fury and frustration? That is about as mad as a horse can get, and it’s heart wrenching to see. No one wants to feel like that.

The functional form of Fight, is Play.

Play is where horses sort out their social standing, and turn dysfunctional stress responses into functional. It’s also fun. It’s give and take, give and take.

At liberty, we Play with our horses. We follow, we lead. We drive, we draw. It’s reciprocal. That means that the horse also gets to follow, and lead, and drive, and draw.

Here he is practising at being a social creature with his human. A new dynamic- it’s fun. We play, we pretend, we take turns.

For years I have been playing with horses. Eventually I came up against a worrisome (to me) obstacle. That obstacle was expression. Why is it that whenever we play at liberty, at some point we always get what one of my clients calls ‘Poopoo face’ from our horses? The flattened ears, snake neck, steely glint eye? There is often head shaking, and snaking, squeals, and ‘I’m gunna getcha’ looks. All overt signs of what? Aggression? Defensiveness?

This bothered me a lot for a long time. Horses don’t lie, and I am a bit practised at reading horses. On first look, it looks like that horse is annoyed, irritated, a range from sulky to furious. Then it changes. The charge softens, the ears stand up and up close we know she is happy to be with us, she says so.

Usually the poopoo face comes out when being backed away, circling, sideways, and stick-to-me (running together with your horse at your shoulder)

I felt it was me. Why am I upsetting my horse so when we do this? Why do I get a sour face circling at liberty, when she circles with softness and grace on line, at distances up to 45’ away on my longest lariat, and has soft, attentive ears?

The answer is, from the horse POV, this liberty deal is real play. Play is practice for social standing, in a low key reciprocal way. It’s also the functional form of the stress response that we are practising.

Several things are going on when my horse is playing the badass.

In play we take turns at leadership. That means that when I’m playing ‘stick to me’; she’s playing ‘driving game’. She’s driving me from behind, and when you’re being the driver, you don’t prick your ears.

When I’m backing her up, or asking for sideways, she is concentrating on where she is going- she needs to look to see and that requires ears that go back as well. When I draw her towards me, sometimes it’s ears back- is she charging? No, she’s playing at charging; she’s arrived, her expression changed to bright and pleased about four strides out before she stops in front of me.

At liberty we take turns at leadership, followship, and together we practise fellowship. Another way to look at poopoo face? How about expressive? Exuberant?

I love it when my horses play at being badass! Horses are dynamic, they don’t stand round in the wild with pricked ears all day because they are free. They use that freedom to play, and play is practice for life, and life includes the skills of the badass. It’s ok to do this. More, it’s necessary for horses.

They don’t necessarily need to play it with us, but if you have the skills to protect your own bubble well in place, this shadow boxing with your badass beauty, taking turns, reciprocity, can deepen your relationship and regard for each other.

I don’t mean get in a physical punch up! We don’t play those games- there we draw a line and we take care of our own threshold carefully. It’s all Feel from a distance.

It’s currently a few weeks out from the 2018 Kaimanawa Wild Horse muster, where for the first time in their lives, around 170 horses have lost their true liberty forever. These horses would starve if left to breed and overpopulate, so every two years we humans bring in the excess that the land cannot sustain, and we do our best to home all of them.

Mostly this means yards, trucks, loss, grief and pressure for these horses. However, in pockets around the country, we are finding humans sitting in fields, experimenting with thresholds, meditating upon grass, breathing in sync, and waiting. The horse in these pockets is in charge of the timeline, and the thresholds. He is a prey animal and he knows the top predator when he sees it. To feel safe, we need to show him that we understand his signals and respect his boundaries. Then he can relax, knowing he has some sort of control button, and then he can become curious instead.

I am thrilled to see this silent movement, Facebook videos of firsts-first look (he looked at me! He was actually confident enough to look at me without fear!) first approach, first grass taken from a hand, first touch. Reciprocity is crucial to this process, if you choose to do it.

The wild one is in a state of fear and grief. He is alone in his distress, and he needs company to become functional again. In this gentle, unobtrusive way, a connection of trust and communication is forming. When it’s robust enough then play becomes possible. Now I don’t know if many people (maybe three I can think of) who could play actual badass leadership games with a fresh wild stallion and survive. But if you are with a wild horse who from thirty metres away raises her head and thrusts a nose in alarm at you, and you retreat a few steps and turn away, you are already starting this subtle game.

I hear gasps of horror. You moved your feet? Isn’t that a bad thing?

It depends, I think. If that horse is so scared if you that she can’t even look at you, she needs to know she has some control and we provide that with reciprocity. We model overtly that we see her signal, and honour the threshold. With that simple gesture and response, we show the horse that we understand, and care enough to respond. Approach and retreat. This is about developing trust and communication. Leadership comes later.

Once the gentling is in place, and he feels confident that you would never harm him, then you get your turn to be the leader. This is advanced stuff and any human doing this are top students in horse university, but it is possible if you have the focus, feel, timing and balance to create that trust, confidence and mutual respect that we need to proceed to partnership with our horses.

Those wild ones know this game well. You are with a master player. He knows peace, he knows balance, he knows when to practice followship and he knows when to bring out his badass.

One day if you are worthy, you will be able to play leadership games with this horse. You will be able to show your badass without scaring your horse.

Journey before destination.

Note: this is play, but not a game for new players. Horses are serious about play. If you have any boundary issues of your own between you and your horse, like crowding, nipping, pushing on you, then you need to sort that out, seriously. There is a video on YouTube which shows a young girl getting kicked in the face while playing at liberty. People have died doing this, so when it comes to leadership games, make sure you establish the rules and you both stick to them before doing this. If you’re not sure, then you are not safe. Up your game before playing with the big boys, have your own threshold set and know it is honoured by both of you. Reciprocity.

Let’s talk about Love

Do our horses love us?

“The horse is a great equalizer, he doesn’t care how good looking you are, or how rich you are or how powerful you are – he takes you for how you make him feel.”

— Buck Brannaman

The difference between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not kind’

Darwin; ‘the descent of man’.

I was listening to a conversation recently, where a very knowledgeable horsewoman (who I respect deeply) was describing a way of achieving something with a horse; and finished rather whimsically ‘..and your horse will love you’. She then paused, and added ‘well of course they don’t really love us, but you know what I mean.’

‘Hang on a minute’ I thought, but the moment passed, and we didn’t get to discuss that little aside more deeply.

So let’s talk about Love. Real Love.

I always knew I ‘loved’ horses. I was obsessed with them as a child, all I wanted was horses.

However for many immature years I did not treat the horses I owned as individuals that I Loved. I loved the idea of horses, but I didn’t really even know who those real, flesh and blood horses were. They did not usually measure up to my dreams, which were selfishly all about what horses could do for me, although I didn’t realise it at the time. In return, the horses hid themselves from me. At best, I was a problem for them to solve.

Brutal honesty? It was a typical master/slave dynamic, and the individual riding school horses, and later my own first ponies and horses that I interacted with, usually could not hope to live up to my childish expectations of unearned regard. While I dreamed of harmony with horses, the reality was better described as a nightmare, at best, hit and miss, and overall largely frustrating for all of us. I was variously coddling, clingy, demanding, needy, forceful, and chauvinistic. It was, I thought, the horse who needed training, or adjusting, or to change his ‘attitude’. I was also in deep denial about my own skills, attitude and understanding.

You don’t treat someone you actually Love like that, right?

In return, my horses would be hard to catch, resigned, ‘shut down’ or defiant. I would blame them for being variously:

‘naughty’

‘misbehaving’

‘disrespectful’

‘crazy’

‘lazy’

‘ignoring me’

‘rude’

‘dirty’

‘stubborn’

…the list goes on.

But really, what I was doing was projecting my personal, in the moment misinterpretations and assumptions upon the motivations of the horse.

And that, I later learned, was anthropomorphism.

For many years since, I have espoused the wisdom of not projecting human thoughts and emotions onto animals.

Anthropomorphism is not considered cool in most enlightened horsy circles.

I have heard countless people being corrected for ascribing ‘human’ emotions to horses since I learned not to do it myself.

But…are we really so certain that horses do not ‘feel’ Love?

The projection of our own personal feelings and ascribing them to our horses is rightfully not fair or accurate. It is equally unfair to project our own emotions and thoughts upon any other person or animal. However it is, to my mind and to my heart, hugely unjust to take this legitimate correction of ‘projecting personal emotion’, and extend it to presume that horses do not feel ‘Love’ (and other emotions) at all.

Why?

Firstly; to me the obvious reason; which is an intuitive one when it comes to the word ‘love’.

When I first started practising partnership/relationship based training my horses changed. For the first time, they were being acknowledged as individual, thinking beings themselves, and were now allowed to have opinions without unjust reactions on my part. I learned to say ‘how interesting’ and to read undesired behaviour as feedback, instead of immediately blaming and/or correcting the horse. Their responses became a puzzle for me, I needed to use my imagination and empathy to try and set them up so they could find success. This on turn changed how the viewed me. I ceased being a problem to solve, and instead they found me setting puzzles for them, and my horses became puzzle solvers themselves. In the process, they revealed themselves as the intelligent, intuitive, playful and curious beings that they are.

As our relationships deepened, they started to trust that there was always an ‘out’ from any dilemma. Using good techniques with very clear principles always held at the forefront, and despite my many mistakes along the way, my horses felt empowered to search for the release from any pressure, or the reward for anything well played. The ‘seeking’ mode was activated in my horses, superseding the prey animal instinctive reactions and replacing them in our times together. This seeking mode, along with its cousins care, rage, lust, play, fear and panic; are common to horse and human alike.

This deepened as my journey expanded, my feel and timing improved, and as I learned and gained knowledge and experience with teachers both human and equine.

The wild horses showed me explicitly about Love. I have watched and cried as a mustered wild mare grieved over her aborted foal, and I know that my Feel for that grief gave her the motivation to reach out and touch me, a human, for the first time in her wild life.

Grief is the price we all pay, ultimately, for Love.

It’s what we have in common that matters, not our differences.

The equine brain and the human brain have much more in common than not. The most important difference is that we have a prefrontal cortex, and much of the human brain is used for language and fine motor skills, while most of the horse’s brain is used for analyzing information received from the environment. This is why the cerebellum is much larger (relatively) in the equine brain than in the human brain.  This is the part of the brain where the integration of sensory perception, coordination and overall motor control takes place.

However, the part of the brain where emotions are correlated is a very ancient part of the evolutionary structure, and horses definitely have an amygdala and hippocampus structure just as we do. We have the seat of our emotions in common.

So what is Love?

First of, it’s a word, and words are interpreted differently. We need to remember that what one person means by the word is not necessarily the same as another’s interpretation. This is where I think most misunderstanding occurs, between people and our symbols. Horses don’t have words, so it’s much simpler and more direct. You feel it, or you don’t.

I really feel that horses probably are much better at ‘Love’ than we are. Their brains go straight to the source. Thy aren’t confused by symbols and interpretations and logic. Love is not a logical process. It’s a feeling.

I think when speaking of Love as meaning unconditional, appreciating, and caring deeply about another, that the brain mode which scientists call ‘care’ (another label) covers it. The instinct to nurture. Friendship. Reciprocal esteem. We hold that in common.

I think that underlying truth applies to us, and to horses. All the human confusion between romanticism, attraction, possession, desire, lust, parenthood, the unmet needs of children projected upon pets, and the various stages of care as expressed by men and women and every other iteration of the immature needy creepiness that we sometimes project, is far more likely to be less ‘love’ than that simple purity which horses express for their young, their mates, their herd, and, yes, when we nurture it, to us.

Who are we to determine the depths of anyone else’s relationships? When in a relationship, you know if the feeling is reciprocated. If you don’t, then the relationship you have is not a mutual one, and you are objectifying your partner, horse, child, …victim? For without a doubt there are people who claim ‘love’ while actually experiencing possessiveness, or indulging in romantic fantasies about idealised partners who are nothing like that in reality, and who may be entirely oblivious to any feeling of reciprocity.

When my horses see me, their response is usually positive. If they are calm and happy they run to greet me. If they are tired they will nicker and wait for me to join them in the slumber fest. If they are scared they will include me in their alarm, and be mightily relieved if I can check it out, walk out the stress with or for them, and they will believe me when I say ‘it’s ok’. They know I have their back.

Love is not ownership, it’s not a right, and it can only be given, never taken.

It’s a heady claim I know. It sounds childishly naive, and I expect that in many cases the claim ‘she loves me’ is exactly that naivety.

But I feel that is true only if your definition of Love differs from mine.

Lick, lick, lick…

Licking, and licking, and licking…

 This is McCoy on his pedestal.  Not licking a human, just the air in this instance.  However, People Licking seems to be becoming a thing.  What is with that? 
I’ve had a few people mention this happening after they have waited for a ‘release of tension’ response from their horse. Often it’s a horse that has been living in tension a very long time, and has been in a state of ‘shut down’.
 We at the frothy edge of horsemanship are familiar with the idea of ‘licking and chewing’. Obviously horses do this a lot, and for many different reasons, but as a direct response to feeling safe after an experience of stress, it seems that this is definitely one of those times too.
 Whether we are aware of it via our own first hand sense of what is going on, or via the senses of teachers we trust who observe and share, or via studying the science that backs up what is going on when a horse ‘licks and chews’; it’s generally agreed that this is often one sign, however you put it, of a horse emotionally rebalancing itself.
 There are a few famous sayings, which are possibly misinterpreted sometimes.
 ‘Eating humble pie’.
 ‘Digesting a thought’. 
 ‘Processing’. 
 ‘Thinking.’ 
 ‘Learning.’ 
 The science says that when a horse has experienced a stressor of some description, he reflexes into the Sympathetic aspect of the Central Nervous System (that which activates flight/flight), and saliva production stops as a part of this.
Makes sense to me.  I know that ‘dry mouth’ feeling myself.
 When the ‘all clear’ is given, the Parasympathetic System kicks back in and the horse can relax again, the saliva comes back and the horse ‘licks and chews’.
There are a few theories and interpretations around this; including newer knowledge of the Reticular Activating System and it’s role; and which system ‘owns’ the freeze response, but finer tweaking aside, for the lay person like me, ‘it’s a thing’.
This process can be seen to begin with a few involuntary twitches of facial and body nerves, lip quivering, sighing, mouthing, and even full on yawning, eye rolling, and sometimes even laying down.

However, I have seen and heard of an interesting extra development. The horse starts licking the human. Sometimes obsessively! The longer he licks, the wetter the human gets. Then you’re in a sort of timeless no man’s land, which can stretch and stretch the moment, trapped standing there while an apparently blissed out horse licks your sleeve.

What’s going on? Is this helpful? Or not?

Is it a part of the let down, or does it interrupt it?

 I recently spent some clinic time with Elsa Sinclair of Taming Wild. Her Freedom Based Training compliments everything we do with horses; and dovetails nicely with the Anna Blake calming signals that I also learned more about on Anna’s recent ‘Relaxed and Forward’ tour in NZ.
 Calming signal from Katie-Kai. Time to wait, and breathe.
Both Elsa and Anna are amazing, and I highly recommend.
 Anyhow, one of the many things Elsa said was that we usually ‘stay too long’.

Elsa will take up one position, match and mirror the horse, breathe, wait to see if it’s getting better or getting worse, and when a change either way occurs, change it to suit.

 Eg with a wild horse. He will either get better (show some sort of positive change via the recognisable twitches/licking/yawning; in which case time to try another spot or distance) or worse (show aspects of flight, freeze or fight- in which case it’s over threshold and need to reset at a distance/spot so that he feels safe).
 One key factor at this clinic was that when the release happens we need to get out of that spot.
I think the idea behind this is that if the let down response is an indication of feeling better, then the horse will associate you with that feeling. If we hang around, the tension might build again. So leaving that space when the horse releases, as in ‘my work here is done’, leaves the horse with a pleasant association of your being present when the stress dissipates.

It doesn’t necessarily mean leave altogether. It might mean just changing the subject, picking a different place to stand, or a different distance from the horse.

This of course ties in with many aspects of good horsemanship; but mainly zeroes in on ‘Feel & Timing’.

 This ‘licking the human’ thing that is occasionally occurring though, does put the human concerned in a bit of a quandary.

He’s still ‘licking’ so is he still ‘processing’? It’s gone on a while now. Is this helpful, or is it a displaced behaviour or some aspect of dysfunction?

 I’ve been mulling this a while, and just based upon my own experiences and what I have learned I have a bit of a theory. Or maybe it’s a hypothesis! I could be wrong, I could have entirely misinterpreted my teachers (please remember that- all this is merely my interpretation and opinion) and I’m still open to changing my interpretation, but I think it’s worth discussing.
 You see, after the Anna Blake clinic, I was able to solve a long standing problem with my ‘overly licky’ puppy. While maybe not directly related to the same problem in a horse, someone might see a correlation and join some dots with their own ‘licky’ horse.
The dog, Poppy, still a puppy really, is 12 months old and has a slightly nervous feel around strangers. She was a rescue, and weaned very early too. I got her at 12 weeks of age after she had been passed around a few fosters. She’s a gentle dog, orally fixated (carries toys everywhere) and quite confident now in herself generally and in the pack.

However she has not yet gotten over her slight wariness of strangers, and with people she knows and accepts, she is a chronic licker.

I put up with it but I didn’t like it, so eventually found I was constantly telling her ‘no’ and even pushing her off me…not fun for either of us.

 Something Anna Blake had said about ‘some calming signals actually demonstrate how the horse would like us to behave’ gave me deep pause.
 The mirroring that Elsa models is something horses crave from each other. Elsa explained that doing anything alone when you’re a herd animal is dysfunctional. To best make it functional (as in a useful behaviour to dissipate stress) you really need company.
So relating this to the Tom Dorrence quote:
 ‘Feel of the horse’

(Read the horse accurately and gauge how he feels)

 ‘Feel for the horse’

(Act with empathy- ‘match and mirror’? That’s how another horse does it)

 ‘The horse feels back to you’
(he notices he’s no longer alone in how he feels) 
 ‘You feel Together’
(it’s no longer dysfunctional, because you joined him, so the horse can start with you from a base of calmness)
 Thinking along these lines also started me considering it from another point of view- the human side of the deal. I’ve spent a lot of time matching and mirroring. I’ve seen how the horses respond positively when you join them in their behaviours.
What about using the signals they understand to encourage them to join us in our behaviours?
 I have seen my super calm Senior Dog, Fred, use calming signals to diffuse not only attacks upon himself, but also to break up spats between other dogs. Once, he stood up and calmly inserted himself, side on, soft bodied, between my then 11 year old nephew and a fully grown Great Dane who was getting a bit possessive over a toy.

Dogs ‘get’ that universal ‘turn side on’ gesture for calming others.

 ‘See,’ says Fred, ‘behave like this.’
All these thoughts led me try the universal calming signal of deliberately and silently just turning my head to the side when that long puppy tongue headed my way.
 Well! It was a miraculous and instant game changer.
The puppy veered off, and she sat looking at me a short distance away. By using this signal in subtle ways to encourage approach but discourage tongue, I can now pat and play and cuddle with Poppy without being ‘washed’!
 My theory is that the pup ‘washing’ is actually anxiety.

I feel that her original fear of strangers seemed to mitigate for her when she was licking them (probably initially simply because patient and kind people tolorated it?) and so, in her mind the licking was responsible for giving her some control over the situation (‘while I lick, time stands still, the human doesn’t hurt me, and all is well…I can be safe but only while licking). In other words, anxiety held in check.  Could it be that the licking itself was an extreme calming signal that morphed from a displaced behaviour into a soothing mechanism for both the situation, and the self, for the pup?

 In other words, she created a self soothing pattern that LOOKS like ‘licking and chewing’ (or the dog equivalent of a quick lip-lick) but actually is serving a different purpose- a preventative of anxiety building behaviour rather than the actual physical response to a real flip to the parasympathetic mode?
 Mammals are pattern animals. We all do it and we tend to fall into patterns to self soothe in times of stress. Like many of the ‘stable vices’ we hear about- not so common here in NZ as most horses are kept outside in groups, but a very real displaced behaviour that helps a horse self soothe, such as weaving, cribbing, and wind sucking.
 It’s also a bit like how, when reinforcing desired behaviour in a horse (positively or negatively- it applies to both) the horse can often associate a totally random behaviour with the release/reward.
 Eg click/treat for getting on pedestal; horse happens to lift foreleg as the click sounds, therefore ‘go on pedestal’ cue becomes ‘go on pedestal with a leg waving’ cue in the mind of the horse. (No accident I mention this!)

I think it’s quite possible we accidentally train a lot of behaviours.

Interesting huh.

 So back to the licking horse; I don’t have the answer, but I have a list of ‘perhapses’.
if I’m onto something here, then perhaps the best way to avoid it is ‘do less sooner’ and get out of range before it becomes an established pattern.
 If the pattern is established, and the timing doesn’t work out for you to beat the lick outta there, perhaps try the turning aside of your head and waiting.
 Or in some cases remove yourself from reach and wait may be necessary. Stand behind a fence.  Use protected contact.
 Perhaps the answer is to try the same position at greater distance, then thinly slice the distance until you can get the real let down in close quarters without the obsessive lick?
 Perhaps a combination of all. Or perhaps something else entirely.
 What I would not do, because I have tried this with horses (and my pup) and it does not help, is push the horse away, or use an elbow to ‘block’.

Blocking is something horses do themselves, granted, and it’s good and sometimes necessary in the case of aggressive behaviours, but licking is not aggressive, and it’s easy to just end up with a wet elbow if all the horse is craving is to lick what he can reach! Also blocking is itself often too aggressive- a passive aggressive ‘see what happens in my space’ which could undermine all your work if what you are dealing with is really anxiety, as I believe is the case with my pup and possibly some horses.

 Food for thought!
Apache and McCoy, mid lick.

Experience is the Sum of our Mistakes

‘Experience is the sum of our mistakes’.

This gem of a quote was one of the pearls of wisdom from the super instructor, Russell Higgins.

I’d like to elaborate on this.

No matter how savvy you are, how much you know, and how much you do around horses, there will always be mistakes. No one is perfect, or precognitive (or at least perfectly precognitive!)

Being savvy is about knowing where to be, when, why and how, and like a horse, knowing what happens before what happens, happens.

However we all make mistakes. And thinking logically, we know that being around horses is inherently dangerous, especially when we are unaware of all the potential ways things can go wrong.

But even if you’ve years of experience, and know well what could happen, just because you’ve been doing it for a while does not mean you won’t screw up royally, at least occasionally.

Its actually quite possible to do things badly your entire life, if you won’t learn from your mistakes. Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect!

In fact, if you work with horses professionally it’s probably much more likely to get yourself in trouble, because the ways things can go wrong are infinite, and professionals don’t usually get to work with the easy horses. You are always, always facing yet another horse, and yet another opportunity to balls it up.

Like being more likely to be involved in a crash if you work as a full time driver over thousands of km; you may drive better than many, but every km still contains a risk.

How many times have I stood in the aftermath of a big mistake, rolling my eyes and thinking ‘I actually know better than this!’

Wearing my retrospectacles, I can look back upon many personal doozies that I know should not have happened. I’d like to talk about two standouts; both involving trailer loading/unloading.

Trailer loading is an art form. It can be sketchy, or it can be a masterpiece, no matter what your ‘method’ may be.

This blog is not about method, so please put that aspect aside when you read this. It’s about being mindful.

The first incident was with a student who had come for a lesson with her own horse and trailer.

That little mare did not want to load up after our lesson. It was getting late, the lessons had gone on longer than planned and dark was looming. There was also a child with us, and responsibilities for my student to get on with. We needed the pony to load.

First mistake- we left it too late to start.

Second mistake- we assumed that because the pony always loaded, we wouldn’t have a problem.

Once the mare said ‘not likely’ I offered to help. I’ve loaded a lot of horses, including this one, and I thought I probably would be more effective sooner, because of that.

Another assumption! Not to mention a tad arrogant. Had I butted out, its quite likely that my student would have come up with the solution that eventually saved the day much sooner herself, as she knows how food motivated the horse is!

The float was parked on a wide grass verge but it was not far off from the roadside. It’s a quiet road- a dead end; but still I had a niggle that said hmm, would be best to move this; but I didn’t act on it.

Another mistake.

This pony is not usually unconfident about loading. She’s had problems in the past but they were more about responding to a send forward than being scared. I assumed her reluctance here was the same deal, and used the technique that ‘always worked’ which was busy outside, rest when thinking about getting in.

At one point, she overshot the ramp and the verge to the side and momentarily was on the tar seal- and her foot slipped. I noticed and thought ‘ok best be careful’.

The next mistake! I should have thought ‘this isn’t a safe set up’ and actually moved the float, right then and there.

Then it happened again. The mare went wider, a foot met the tarmac, a slight skid occurred. It was less drastic this time, but instead of taking the hint, my thought was ‘this will work, I’ll just not let her go wide just there’.

Slow learner! Like I thought I was in control of the situation, right?

I was already feeling uncomfortable about it, my subconscious was hard out firing flares up from the basement, but time was ticking obliviously on, and this had worked before…

I should have listened to my gut.

This little mare had got to the point where she would go and stand on the ramp but no further, so I set it up that she could choose to go in or pass it by, and because she was typically quite confident, I was still treating her like we normally would. The game was ‘go in, or I’m going to playfully tag this spot behind you if you choose to pass it by’. This was sort of working, to the point that she would choose the ramp and a rest about half the time. Then it happened. She ‘passed it by’, I tagged the ramp behind her, and she got ‘playful’ back,aiming her butt to kick out at me in passing.

I couldn’t blame her. I had started it! However my self-preserving instincts kicked in and I automatically stepped forward to tag the foot coming my way and ‘finish it’ as well with a flick of the string.

She did what trained horses usually do, and went to yield her hq- and we ran out of grass. She was suddenly on the tar seal, and her back legs slipped out from under her and she fell on the road.

Thankfully, luck was with us and she was not badly hurt. She had though scraped her hip. I felt terrible, I was completely responsible, and we were very, very lucky the horse was ok.

She loaded quietly after that, with her owner in the float holding a bucket. Much less drama and I was kicking myself. Why did I not think to just suggest that in the first place? Was it pride, some sort of chauvinism about ‘doing it correctly’ while actually dropping the ball entirely? Pride before a fall..?

There were so many ways I could have handled this better. This was before we had a good alternative strategy to pressure/release training confidently installed as well. Today that student, that mare, and I myself are better educated in positive reinforcement for example. That method with a confident, food motivated horse ended up being a far superior ongoing choice for that mare especially.

Much licking and chewing on my part after that incident. However, plainly not enough. The next incident was just a couple of months later, and whilst it was a different scenario, different horse, different person, and a truck instead of a float…there were many similar themes.

I went in my truck to pick up a horse for delivery to a nearby clinic. The TB mare lives locally, and originally was going to be walked to the nearby venue, but had suffered two abscesses recently and so I was asked could we truck her round.

We also had a timeline- I had another horse to go fetch after this one. First mistake.

At loading, the area outside the truck was sharp metal gravel and we were very aware that the mare was still a bit tender. The owner couldn’t move her around on it much in general, much less now in terms of approach and retreat, because of the sore feet.

Second mistake. Set up the environment so you can do what you need to.

In approaching, the mare told us she was not keen on just getting in. She had been in the truck a couple of times previously and loaded and travelled easily. Today though, she was showing signs of lack of confidence.

Third mistake- we assumed today would be the same. Is this starting to sound familiar?

For whatever reason, it wasn’t. The mare did not actually take long to load, but in the back of my mind tickled a little thought that she definitely wasn’t happy about it. She was not feeling safe, and it was obvious. No amount of buckets would have worked in her case, because she was not at all calm. I myself would have liked to do much more subtle approach and retreat outside to raise her confidence before asking her to load, but the ouchy feet and the gravel allowed minimal outside movement, we were on a schedule, this was purely a truck loan, not a training session with me, and I had other horses to collect.

Everything was low key, at a walk, no dust flying or undue pressure.

I had actually worked with this mare before. A couple of times, I have ‘squeezed’ her between myself and an obstacle, and she had tried to shove me with her shoulder. I knew she has this tendency, and that it was a work in progress. I should have paid more attention.

This was another mistake.

She loaded after about 10 minutes or so. She went in, with momentum, in one go. I didn’t step up and do what I normally would, which would be to take her out and do it again until she was able to load completely calmly.

I knew she was a bit tight. But we had jobs to do, and we closed the door.

Third mistake!

On arrival a few minutes later (literally a couple of km away) we opened the door to see a sweaty, frozen horse. Another sign of how stressed she was.

My truck is an angle load so she was facing outwards and to the right. As it is my truck, I knew the best way to undo and safely get the partitions out of the way, so I went in, undid the side bar, put on a long lead rope ready for the owner, and unclipped her from the truck tie, and stepped aside to the far left of the ramp to allow room for her to unload.

She had the entire width of the ramp in front of her to walk out.

There were people I knew there, and for a moment I took my mind off the horse, the owner, and the situation to greet them.

Last mistake!

The mare panicked. She ignored the open expanse of ramp in front of her, and her beckoning owner at the foot of the ramp, and instead bounded right at and over me. Perhaps she thought of safety in numbers, and I was in closer proximation at that point than her owner, as I was tucked inside the truck at the top of the ramp and her owner was at the foot. Whatever, I was thrown off the truck, onto my hands and knees on yet more metal gravel as she bowled right over the top of me, bouncing off her owner as well for good measure, and was away.

We were all incredibly lucky. The horse and owner were unhurt, and I was only scraped and bruised myself.

The picture I chose shows a similar move by a kaimanawa mare disembarking from the same truck. In that case, curiousity had gotten her in the truck in the first place- she had broken into the front yard, and (typical Kai) had gone exploring. The dramatic exit that I caught on camera was initiated by the inexplicable (to her) appearance of a casual Dalmatian strolling by wearing a bucket on her head…now that was a severe error in controlling the environment!

So what have I learned?

  • Always set them up for success.
  • Always ensure the horse is calm.
  • Always be open to using different means if it would mean the horse is calmer. In the case of the first pony who was not usually worried about loading, had we offered the bucket first we would have avoided the entire drama.
  • Never just shut the door because the horse is finally in!
  • Don’t leave it until it’s too late to take the time you need.
  • Don’t make assumptions.
  • Like many things, until they happen to you, the risks do not always seem real.
  • Always pay attention to my intuition.
  • Always set up the environment as best as possible before I fetch the horse.
  • Never stop paying attention.

Experience is the sum of our mistakes!

Katie-Kai: Home

Katie-Kai has been here since just before Christmas. She’s a pony who arrived with several buckets of worry.

She was worried about ANOTHER new home (she reckons she’s had a few); new herd, and worst of all, new people.

She tried very hard to be a good pony, and yet was so worried that she might be punished that she flinched at everything we did. She was especially scared of humans carrying anything that looked like a stick.

She was scared of getting her legs trapped by anything.

She was terrified of bits, and worried that I might make her wear one.

She was worried about her feet, because they still hurt from the laminitis that could have been the end of her had she not been rescued by (hero!) Tracy of Kaimanawa Krazy.

She didn’t want to be caught, and whilst she could be eventually (helping hard to catch horses is a special hobby for me, like trailer loading) she was so skeptical and over humans that she gave feedback the only way she could. She ran away. She startled at things.

She still had a delicate tummy from the starving condition that she had been saved from, and the stress. Even a little bit of time without food could mean it would hurt again.

She snatched at food all the time, and even at humans. She was so worried about being starved again- snatch all you can right now, because there’s no grass allowed for laminitic ponies, and she did not trust humans to remember that she needed access to hay all the time to stop her belly pain.

She would snatch and flinch. Snatch and flinch.

She even worried she might be hit for trying to eat.

We gave her food.

We listened to her troubles and slowed everything down.

We found the best herd who accepted her and allowed her some respect instead of bullying her.

We gave her time.

During this time we spent a little bit together, when she could bear it, and never asked for more than she could willingly give. She came for a couple of walks with me. We explored the beach.

Eventually, each new day she started to trust us more.

A couple of days ago we had two visitors. One was a young girl. Instead of running away, Katie-Kai came up to her. Of her own accord. She looked hopeful. Optimistic instead of fearful. The girl looked back, let Katie touch her with her muzzle, and stroked her gently.

We had a problem with our water supply. It comes from the farm next door, and being the highest point in the system, any leak anywhere means we run out first. The farmer found several small leaks, but there was a big one still on the system because we stayed dry for several days. I welcomed the rain as it meant that at least our horse troughs were full, but we were having to bring water in for the house. The farmer was stumped. He couldn’t find the leak.

Yesterday, during a break in the ex cyclone Gita weather, I decided to take a horse and go looking myself. I had an inkling that it must be leaking into the creek, because despite the rain, the farm drains really well and the farmer could see no telltale pooling.

Katie met me at the gate. A volunteer.

Katie carried me carefully around the farm. She got to pick at grass while I looked and listened, following the creek. In the silence we shared, I heard the telltale chuckle of water where it shouldn’t be. It actually sounded like muted cicadas, barely discernible over the creek. Where was it?

Katie waited for me while I searched with my eyes, staring at a point in the creek, and finally saw an eddy that shouldn’t be there.

Katie waited while I climbed down the bank and across the knee deep water, and she kept a careful watch while I delved into the thick plants clinging to the far side bank. About a foot under the green mat of eucalyptus scented weeds I found it! A fair torrent hiding in the shrubbery, pouring down the bank into the creek below.

Katie celebrated with me! We shared an apple.

Katie carried me to the farmer’s shed way up the other end of the farm and we showed him the way back to the cheeky leak. She waited while I helped him.

Katie didn’t neigh for other horses, even though they were calling for her. She didn’t try and run away while I tore through shrubbery on the wrong side of the creek from her. She didn’t flinch when I got on and off as I searched. She walked out willingly. She trotted confidently to the far shed. She has never set a hoof on this neighbouring farm before. It was interesting. Different. She was calm, connected, responsive, and curious.

Coming home, the grass opened up before us, smooth and damp, and I asked her if she would she like to canter. You know what? Maybe she would!

A calm, smooth, completely loose rein to her halter, she carried us safely home.

Nuts, and BOLTS!

A bolting horse is a terrifying experience, and so it should be.

I can remember once, a long time ago, asking my wise instructor: ‘what do you do when a horse bolts?’

He paused. His reply was very clever. ‘Look down at the saddle’, he said. ‘You’ll notice that somewhere between the pommel and cantle, there’ll be a nut loose in the saddle’.

Funny guy! And ouch! Bang on the money.

His meaning, as I took it, was that I was the one in control, I set up the situation, and I had to take responsibility for how it turned out.

Riding horses has an inherent risk. We know this before we start. We are putting our bodies on top of 500kg prey animals, and horses are horses, we can’t blame them for acting under instinct- instinct is a lot older than we are in their psyche.

Any healthy horse, no matter what his advert says, can and does kick, buck, rear, and bolt if he is given the freedom to do so. That is a part of being a horse. That he doesn’t under saddle is a big deal, but instinct has a flashline to his go button, a superhighway in the brain built by millions of years of evolution as a prey animal, that gives priority to safety, every time. The moment he thinks he is not safe- and horses can think that a lot- the adrenaline is ready to fire,. We have a tough act to follow- we need to make sure that we are a go to instinctive source of safety/calmness for that horse as well. Can our horses override the need to flee to accept the potentially claustrophobic alternative of bending to a stop before it’s too late?

We are talking emergency brakes. Your lateral flexion and hindquarter control may be great at home, or from a standstill or walk, or even trot and canter; but how is it when he is overexcited, adrenalised, or frightened?

This morning I was riding my friend, mare Magic, through the sand dunes. It was windy, and spooky. Magic shied at a couple of things but came back to me immediately each time. When we emerged into the beach she scooted forward in a mini panic for whatever reason; and within three strides she was easily disengaging, turning, blowing out and soft, then ready again in a few seconds to head off again calmly. No panic, no fight, no tantrums. We were able to get up, and come quickly back down to calmness, our baseline requisite.

It wasn’t always like this. It was actually quite a breakthrough.

Magic and I have had our moments. I have owned her since she was 8 months old, she is now 11, and she has always been an interesting horse for me. She is self confident, sensitive, and opinionated.

But self confidence is not all there is to it.

There are 5 areas of confidence.

They are;

confidence in self;

herd;

environment;

the handler,

and in learning.

Magic is brave, but can be environmentally spooky. Also, because she is self confident, she is not the sort of horse who is generally looking for leadership. She is well trained in that you can pick up a rein and she’s soft as you’ll let her be, but in the past I had inadvertently created a bit of a problem.

Because I ‘knew’ Magic was sensitive, and that she was responsive because I had trained her to be, I expected this under all circumstances.

So what happened was that she wasn’t actually always soft under the duress of spookiness or a heightened adrenalin burst, and I wrongfully got righteous and critical about it.

I would bend her, she would resist, we would spin and argue until I outplayed her. Sometimes this meant getting off and groundwork, but it was always an argument, and not an ideal way to stay safe. She would be frustrated and stressed, and so would I.

She is not overly difficult, and it never happened often enough or ‘big’ enough to bother me, which possibly made it worse, because we got to practice mild forms of it a lot-bad idea!- and hey, if you know you can regain control, that’s enough for many of us until we can’t.

Magic would comply all right, I never ‘lost’, but we would have such a grouchy ears and a sulky face. It wasn’t prolonged fear; it was a resentment that superseded the initial behaviour trigger. As I grew more aware, I started to realise that actually, maybe I had ‘lost’ a bigger prize.

The good old one one rein stop has saved my bacon a few times with this horse, but it was upsetting that she plainly felt I was not helping. Her reactions seemed to say; ‘I was scared, but I don’t need you and you’re annoying me and making everything worse, get off me so I can deal with this by interspersing staring, and running away’.

Today’s ride was a complete contrast.

So what has changed?

I have. I have continued to learn and grow, and now I know better. I know how to prepare my horse so she is able to respond to me under worse .circumstances.

It will always be different for every horse, but I believe that every element that can exclude a horse from appropriate response to pressure is a vital one. In Magic’s case, it was attention, and priorities.

As a self confident horse on the lookout for danger, she puts energy into scoping out the countryside. I need to be able to interrupt that pattern before she fixates on a distraction from the job at hand, and have her happy to check in with me.

I started at home with exercises that gently and non offensively ask her up bring attention back to me as soon as she went ‘on guard’. It’s not about staring at me, or my egotistically demanding , but just asking for awareness. It was the very least I could do to get her attention, then leave her alone. Lifting the rein, touch her neck, make a noise. Noticing her signals. Maybe looking at what it is too and sighing. Breathing together. It’s a two way conversation.

I extended this outside, and built in little impulsion games of focus, as in ‘follow my focus now to this obstacle over here by the nice grass, then stop, wait, and I will cue you to eat.’ I used positive reinforcement as well as release, because she is a smart thinker most of the time and very food motivated. I showed her it paid to pay attention, and while, to start with, such a tactic would never supersede a panic, it helped chip away at myelinating that new superhighway brain access I was working on for attention to me.

It’s not what happens, it’s what happens before what happens, happens.

The ideal picture for Magic right now under saddle is flicking ears. I don’t say ‘don’t look around’ but I will say ‘remember me. Think about me. Follow my focus’. Her ears still have to look here and there, but so long as they are also checking in on me, we have softness and we have response and we have no brace. Zero brace means we have no bolts, and no bolts proves there are no nuts loose in the saddle!