Eve, The Mare With a Purpose

Eve, The Mare With a Purpose

 

Many years ago when I was in my 20’s, I was doing work experience in western NSW. I spent some time with an old bloke who had about 25 ponies. He had a contract with the local government to clean out water channels along remote country roads using his horses. For six months of the year he and his ponies would be busy dredging the channels to remove silt, carcasses and weeds. My friend lived in a tin shack on some scrubby land he owned, while the ponies lived in a single herd, free to roam the nearly 800 hectare pasture.

 

He had them pretty tame and they would gallop up to him when he whistled. It was a sight to see 25 horses galloping at full speed towards you. The first couple of times, it made me wish I were on the outside of the fence in case their brakes failed.

 

My friend and I would sometimes saddle up a couple of ponies and ride around the flat, dry country to check fences, water or just watch the birds and wildlife. How the horses tolerated the saddles we used is a testament to their amazing nature. They were more like medieval devices designed to extract confessions from suspected witches during the inquisition. My bum still hurts just thinking about them.

 

I usually rode the same horse on these outings. It was a nice little mare called Eve. However, she had a strong tendency to constantly want to head back to the other horses. Even when riding with my friend, Eve was drawn to the herd.

 

For awhile I didn’t mention this and just maintained enough forward to block her from thinking too hard about her mates. Then one ride when we had stopped to have a cuppa (tea), Doug asked me how I was getting along with Eve? I told him she was a super pony and I really liked her, but she was always fixated on getting back to the herd.

 

“Uh,” Doug said. “Wonder why? So why don’t you let her?”

 

“But Doug, if I let her go back to the herd won’t it just make her more determined next time?” I asked.

 

“Maybe. But aren’t you curious what’s so important to her about the other horses?”

 

I thought it was a strange statement. What’s so mysterious about separation anxiety?

 

Doug told me to let her go and see what happens.

 

“She won’t get you in trouble. Just steer around the trees and slow down just as you get to the gully. Then on the other side let her go again. There’s fences all around the property, so she won’t go too far.”

 

After we finished our tea and saddled up again, we rode towards the far boundary. I kept a loose rein on Eve as we walked along. Soon she started to slow her feet, but I pushed her forward to keep up with Doug’s horse. Then she gradually veered to the right. I sat quietly and didn’t interfere. Eve walked a huge semi-circle until we were facing the other way, in the direction of the camp.

 

Eve’s walk livened up a little, but it wasn’t rushing – just more freedom. She handled the fallen logs, the gully and the huge stands of blackberry bushes without changing rhythm. Eve didn’t even seem to notice that Doug and his horse were way behind in the opposite direction.

 

We had been walking for about twenty-five minutes, when I heard a call from one of the herd horses. Eve picked up a slow jog. Within four or five minutes I could see the herd off to our right through the trees. At first I thought Eve hadn’t seen them because she kept straight with her ears pricked forward. So I picked up a soft feel on the right rein to point her towards the horses. Now I knew she had seen them, but she didn’t seem interested. As soon as I released the rein, she wielded in a left arc to be on the same path as before. Where the hell was she going?

 

Shortly after passing the herd, Eve began to trot faster. Soon she was cantering a good pace. There was nothing in her path, so I saw no danger in letting her explore her thoughts. As she picked up her pace I realized how straight she was moving. It was as if she had an important plan that just had to be carried out with precision. I hadn’t a clue where she was going or why, but I was reminded that Doug told me “… why don’t you let her?”

 

Eventually, I saw the boundary fence coming up. I had hoped that Eve saw it too because she didn’t seem to be slowing up. As the fence got closer I began to argue with myself whether or not I should pick up the reins and stop her. However, it wasn’t necessary because within about twenty metres or so Eve slowed to a trot and then a walk.

 

She continued straight, as if expecting the fence to give way. Then she chested the fence and stopped. Eve’s gaze was fixed into the distance. I didn’t know what she was looking at, but it seemed that the object could have been across the ocean. In between her puffing, she gave a couple of calls and waited for an answer, but none came.

 

I sat there and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Eve stared off into the distance for perhaps ten or fifteen minutes, then turned and picked at a clump of grass. I dismounted and we walked back to camp.

 

Eventually Doug appeared and asked how we went. I told him about the trip and how Eve stopped at the fence and just looked.

 

“You know, she has done that ever since I had her, which is maybe six years now,” Doug said. “I don’t know why she does it. But something really important to that mare is somewhere out there in the distance. I’ll probably never know what’s so important, but I wish I could fix it for her.”

 

It was at that time, I knew I didn’t really understand horses as well as I thought I did. I had been around a lot of horses. I had helped a lot of horses. Yet I still come across ones I can’t work out. I thought being with the herd was what was important to Eve. I figured her problem was just common, garden variety, every day separation anxiety. But I was wrong. I arrogantly assumed wrong.

 

It’s easy for me to think I know something about horses when I’ve started and re-educated so many. People come to clinics and thank me for my help and keep coming back for more. People follow me on Facebook and buy my Walt and Amos books and write such nice things about me. It’s not hard to start to believe the nice things people say are true. I begin to think I know what I’m doing. But then a horse like Eve comes along once in awhile that makes me realize I’m a bloody idiot.

 

Thank goodness for the Eve’s of the world.

If Horses Were People

 

 

Parting Company The Right Way

 

I was asked to write suggestions for solving the problem of a horse that runs off the instant the halter is removed.

 

In some ways this relates to the article I wrote on June 16 about people asking themselves “why would he” when a horse has a habit that they don’t like.

 

The long-term solution to solving the problem of horses that rush away or even just wander away as if they have somewhere important to be when they are released back into the paddock, is to ask, “why does he?”

 

The answer is always because the horse believes there is a better deal somewhere else other than with the human. It maybe that it wants to go back to the herd. Or perhaps it is desperately thirsty and needs a drink. Or sometimes they feel an urgency to roll to relieve the sweat and itches. Or it could be that the human has encouraged the habit because they have always turned to leave instantly the halter is taken off. Or sometimes it is because we just don’t offer them a reason to stay with us and at the same time feel okay about it. Each relationship between human and horse is different and each person needs to decipher the specific causes in their own circumstances.

 

In my ideal world, I’d like to think my horse is happy to hang with me even when the halter is taken off. I want the connection I have with my horse to remain strong until it is mutually agreed to break it. By that I mean, my horse stays with me until I make a clear gesture that I am leaving. My horse should not come with me and it should not rush off. It’s like two mates saying “see ya later.”

 

I think the two most common causes of horses habitually rushing off are (i) anxiety to get back to the herd, and (ii) people creating the habit of abandoning their horse the moment the halter is removed. In both situations, a horse’s thought is leaving even before the halter is untied.

 

In either case, the way to address the issues is fundamentally the same. Before taking the halter off, ensure your horse is mentally focused on you and is soft in its thoughts. This might require doing a little ground handling just before the halter comes off, until the horse is focused and soft. I often find tipping the thought to either side to disengage the hindquarters a particularly useful exercise. But as I have said many times, it is not the exercise that is important but the quality/softness of the exercise.

 

At each stage of removing the halter, check in with the horse to see that it remains focused and soft. If at any stage resistance has crept in, don’t progress with removing the halter, but instead do a little ground work to regain the focus and softness that was lost. Whenever you sense your horse’s thoughts stray, stop what you are doing and reclaim the focus and softness that is needed to ensure your horse stays with you.

 

Even when the halter is off, try to keep your horse’s focus and softness. I do this all the time with my own horses. When the halter is taken off, I might put my arm over or under their neck and disengage their hindquarter or ask them to take a step back with my hand across the bridge of their nose or I might side pass them with a hand touching their shoulder or I might do all of those things one after the other. I don’t walk away until I know my horse is with me and feels okay about that. I’ll even walk with my horse sometimes to where it wanted to go, and along the way I’ll do a few little exercises to ensure the focus and softness is not lost.

 

Some horses have such a strong thought to leave that it is impossible to hold them once the halter is untied. In my experience, this mostly happens because leaving at a high rate of speed has become a well-ingrained habit. In cases like this, it can help to put two halters on the horse. When you think your horse is focused and soft and you think it is time to remove the halter, make sure your lead rope is clipped to the underneath halter. That way, when you remove the top halter and your horse tries to rush away, you can remind your horse its thought should remain with you. I do not recommend that you put the reins over the neck to hold a horse that might run off. There are so many ways that can go wrong.

 

I have found that when I do a good job of teaching my horse to keep its thoughts with me, even when I remove the halter and try to walk away, it will follow. So it is important to be clear when this meeting of the ‘mutual admiration society’ is over. Often times, I will actually direct my horse’s thoughts away from me and add a little energy to encourage its feet to catch up. Notice I said “direct.” It is important that you don’t drive a horse away by “shooing” it or chasing it or flappy things at it. You don’t want to be the thing the horse is trying to escape. Direct it’s thought first and then ask the feet to follow.

 

As I direct the horse to be somewhere else, I turn and leave with a purpose, as if I have a phone call to make. I only do this in the initial stages to give the impression that I am leaving and my horse has no reason to think back to me. In a short time, it becomes unnecessary for me to walk away at all, because just directing my horse to leave is enough.

 

I know some people don’t think very much about how they part company with their horse in the paddock. If you are one of those people, I would urge you to give it a little more consideration because how your horse dismisses you or sticks with you is indicative of the relationship you have.

 

And if that’s not important to you, then talk to a friend of mine who had her hand broken by her horse rushing away when the halter came off.

 

Nevertheless, as the cartoon shows, not all habits are unproductive!

                                                     

Horse Jumping After Losing Bridle

 

The horse loses its bridle, but keeps jumping to have a clear round.

 

Show A Horse What You Want Them To See

Show A Horse What You Want Them To See

 

There are people who make a living out of pretending to be and feel something that isn’t real. They’re called actors. Their job is to make us believe that the words they say and the feelings they emote are real, when they are not.

 

The good ones sucker us in, even though we know it is make believe. They have the knack of adapting their posture, facial expression, rhythm of their speech, intonation of the voice, gesticulations and energy to convince us that what they feel, do and say is believable.

 

I think of this anytime I hear somebody say, “You can’t fool a horse. They know when you know and they know when you don’t know.” I read this once again just a couple of days ago.

 

Horses are not psychic. They don’t read beyond what is there for them to see. Whatever a person presents is what a horse sees and interprets. They can’t tell that you’ve had an argument with your spouse or that you are lacking in confidence or that you have a secret plan, unless you present that to them.

 

I believe that just like acting, a horse person can learn to present to a horse what they want the horse to see. It’s a skill that is learned, just like all the other skills a good horse person must acquire along the way.

 

On the one hand, trainers and clinicians are telling us that we should leave our emotions outside of the arena and that how we feel has no place in working with a horse. Yet, on the other hand they tell us that a horse can read us like a book. If that is true, what is the point of trying to hide our emotions?

 

If you examine it carefully, training involves us always asking a horse to learn something they don’t yet understand. If they understood it, we wouldn’t have to teach it.

 

At the start, horses have no idea what the end point is of anything we ask. Initially, they neither know the purpose or at what point we will stop presenting an idea, until it’s over. It is only with repetition and when the association becomes solidified in their minds does understanding and clarity creep into their thoughts.

 

That means they have no idea if we really know what we are doing or not when we first present a new idea. It is only later when things work out well for the horse, that they possibly gain some minute confidence that we knew what we were doing all along. Even so, when they are search for an answer, they have no idea if we know or not know, what we are doing because they don’t yet know the correct answer to our question. Until a horse works out the response that gives them comfort, for all they know, all that pressure we applied could be because we have lost our marbles.

 

Just because we may be unsure, we don’t have to represent a lack of certainty to a horse. It is important that part of our journey to improve our horsemanship is to also learn to convey what we want a horse to see. A horse can’t see what we don’t present.

 

All I can say about the trainers that believe horses can read what we don’t show them is that it is probably a good thing they went into the horse industry because they probably would have stunk as an actor.

 

I think this calls for a quote from one of the greatest comic geniuses:

 

The key to success is integrity. And if you can fake that, you’ve got it made – Groucho Marx.