Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Doing Less To Get More:

This pose is what is known as FFA or Full Friesian Alert. Sure enough, a moment later, Kanani kicked up his heels and was out of there!


What if you had a friend who only came around when she wanted something?

And when she comes, all she pretty much does is boss you around? Even if she gives you treats--which start to look a lot like bribes since you have to perform first to get them--and even if she does pleasant things like groom you and brush out your snarled hair (plus some unpleasant things like sometimes giving you shots or nasty-tasting medicines)--wouldn't you start to wonder if she's really your friend or not?

Is she the one you would pick to hang out with? Would you drop everything you are doing in a heartbeat to come running every time she calls? (Especially when you know she's just going to make you work for her?)

What if she almost NEVER plays with you or just keeps you company and all it really comes down to is just WORK, WORK, WORK--stuff you might never do on your own, like trot in perfect 20 meter circles or walk calmly past scary things?

From a horse's point of view, this is pretty much what they know of us, their human "friends." Amazingly, they still tolerate us. They do what we want--mostly anyway--even if their hearts aren't really in it. But trust us? Walk calmly out of a burning building with us--or even just calmly past a mailbox they've never seen before that reminds them of a fire-eating dragon?

In an effort to have the best possible relationship with my horse, I am following the advice of renowned horsewoman, Carolyn Resnick, who spent years studying wild horse herds and how horses form bonds or friendships with other horses. Aside from pecking order in a herd, horses DO pick their friends--the ones they feel safe with and most want to be with. These are the ones they go out of their way to hang out with. Their "friends" become their passive leaders, the ones they will follow anywhere--to the next patch of grass, to the waterhole, to wherever, no matter if it's a new, strange or even scary place.

We're not talking the alpha horse here,the one who runs around chasing other horses away from food and water every chance they get, sometimes biting and kicking them and generally making life miserable. Alpha horses are respected but rarely liked and trusted. Most humans dealing with horses fall into the alpha horse category. We command respect, but not trust, and we only rarely become beloved, sought after "passive leaders."

According to Ms. Resnick, if I want to move into passive leader status, I must spend time just hanging out with Kanani. Time where I don't ask him to do anything, send him anywhere, or require anything of him. In fact, I must ignore him and let HIM come to ME and DECIDE that I am the sort of horse he wants to hang out with and willingly follow.

I am advised to take a book and a chair into a big pasture or arena and just sit there and ignore my big, nosy friend. Horses usually need quite a bit of time before they become curious enough to approach a human, sniff 'em and check 'em out all over. Not Kanani. He already has an over-abundance of curiosity and has followed me around since day one. However, when I take him into the big arena, he still spooks at puffs of wind, noises from the field next door, axis deer jumping around on the other side of the fence, the ironwood trees rustling....whatever. Although he will quickly return to me, he still feels the need to whirl and run when something scares him. It makes no difference if I speak soothingly to him or not.

Ms. Resnick claims that such spookiness means that Kanani has not yet accepted me as a passive leader who can protect him by my very presence. He still needs to discover that he can be out there with me and TRUST my signals--my calmness in the face of scary happenings. He has to learn that he need no longer worry about his surroundings because I'm in charge of "worrying" and moving us to a new place if we're in danger.

So guess what? I am adopting yet another strategy that surely looks ridiculous to other humans. (If there are any around.) I am sitting alone reading a book in the big arena with Kanani while he convinces himself that I am a leader to trust.

It's called "doing less to get more."

Once he accepts that he can be out there with me--withOUT spooking--he will be ready for the next step, taking my direction while we're out there, letting me ride him, etc. in a nice, calm, quiet manner. FFAs will be a thing of the past.

I LIKE the idea of allowing a horse to train himself. Once he learns to look to me for reassurance in the spooky arena, he will do the same everywhere else. If I don't spook, he won't spook. That's the theory, anyway.

Interesting, eh?

(And maybe life-saving since I have been known to get thrown off spooky, bolting horses in the past!)

Kanani checks out my chair and book just prior to tipping it over.

As I sit in my chair trying to read, Kanani looms over me--and keeps watch on our surroundings just in case something bad is out there! He intends to see it first.

Have you ever had a horse read over your shoulder?

Kanani did relax long enough to munch a bit of hay along the fence line--at which point I tried to sneak away and put my camera in my car. Alas, he wasn't relaxed enough to stay there and eat but thundered after me and stood by the gate awaiting my return, leaving the rest of his hay untouched. (Sigh...This may take longer than I think!)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Body Language 101:

A backwards kick can convey many messages. I think the kick in this photo conveys sheer exuberance but it could mean a lot of other things. (See below)

As sensitized as I am becoming to horse language, I did not approve of the way Kanani barged into the run-in shed a few days ago headed for the hay net I had just filled. After all, I was still standing in front of it fastening the clips. In his enthusiasm to get to "his" food he easily could have run me over and never noticed.

It was the perfect opportunity to try out a little horse language of my own. I instantly decided to behave like his Mom--or the head mare in a pasture. Presenting my hind quarters to him, I made backward kicking motions with my legs.

Was he ever surprised!

It was much more effective that if I had held up my hand and shouted no--or even smacked him for barging into my space. (Most good horse folks will tell you that smacks should be a last resort in a dangerous situation and may even anger and accelerate aggressiveness in some horses. And on no account should a horse be hit in the face. That can cause REAL problems!)

Snorting in surprise, Kanani spun around and raced to the end of the paddock. He did bang his head on the wall as he spun. But hey, he would have done the same if I actually had been another horse bent on disciplining him for rude behavior.

The second time he returned he was much more respectful but still high headed and nervous. So I sent him out again in the same way. I never said a word or touched him. I just presented my hind quarters and repeated the same horse-like backward kicking motions. (Luckily, no humans saw me or they would have thought I was totally nuts!)

The third time Kanani returned, he came like a well-chastened youngster, which is to say S-L-O-W-L-Y, head lowered, licking and chewing. This is universal language from a junior horse acknowledging the authority of a senior horse. It means: "I'm sorry. I'll behave now. Please let me join you and I promise I'll be good."

Only then did I allow him to approach and "share" MY hay as any good, benevolent leader would do.

Following this "attitude adjustment," Kanani has been super respectful of my space. He has not once offered to hurl himself toward his food whenever I am nearby. Instead, he now waits to be invited. And he seems even more determined to stay glued to my side and be my best buddy.

All because I set aside human nature for a few minutes and tried speaking to him in horse language!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Dancing With Kanani:

My handsome dance partner is focused on something he's not too sure about. If I'm reading him correctly, he's trying to decide if whatever interests him is a threat or not!, what can I do to set his mind at ease?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

After many years playing with horses, I have a bag full of tricks and techniques designed to help me convince a horse to do what I want. They work pretty well--except for when they DON'T work. As almost anyone who dreams of "dancing" with a horse can attest, tricks and techniques are not a substitute for speaking fluent "horse."

I need to know how to "read" my horse because horses never lie. Their body language can tell me exactly what they are thinking/feeling if I know how to read it properly. Of course, I also have to know what my own body language is telling my horse! And then I have to know how best to use my body, mind and emotions to influence my horse to dance with me.

What I have learned so far is that there is ALWAYS more to learn.

Yes, I know the basics--but it's the mastery of subtleties that separates the gifted dancer from the clumsy hoofer. It's what truly allows a predator species (me) to climb on the most vulnerable body part of a prey species (the back of my horse) and perform a dance of grace and beauty, seemingly effortlessly, to our own special music.

Now, I know how to get a modicum of respect and be the dominant horse telling Kanani what to do, when and how to do it. (I learned all this a long time ago in a round pen. And I know almost all the cues that supposedly work when riding. Heck you can read about 'em in a book. Sort of like how you can learn how to be a good parent or a golfer from reading books. Right?)

The thing is I also want to earn/keep Kanani's trust and maintain our friendship. I want him to continue to want to be with me and be my buddy. I want him to WANT to dance with me. And that's not so easily accomplished.

Here's what I know: Just like people, horses really don't like being dominated. Over time, a dominated horse can become dull and resentful. He may even embark on a course of continual, escalating challenge. In a dominance relationship, partnership/friendship definitely flies out the window and pretty soon, the horse will run and hide every time he sees his human coming. Someone--probably the human--may even get hurt settling dominance challenges.

Now, I don't want to be a pushover either. When a human behaves submissively, often unwittingly, and relinquishes leadership to the horse, even a well-trained horse can become pushy, spooky, flighty and in charge. Not only will he NOT do what his human wants, but he will be afraid to even hang out with his human because the human doesn't offer security. And horses--being a prey species right down to their bones--most of all want to feel safe and secure. Even the most dominant horse still has a little foal inside him that wants a leader to look after him and make him feel safe. That way he doesn't have to be scared and on alert all the time. (Bullies usually are scared to death at heart!)

To complicate matters, every single day that I go see my horse, I find a new horse waiting for me. And I'm a new/different person. While we both remember things, have developed habits and "know" each other, we still change from day to day--and on any given day, one of us could be having a really bad day and be in no mood whatsoever to be in partnership and "dance" together.

So I am brushing up on my skills and (yes) reading books, watching DVDs, etc. where the horse whisperers of the world--or at least the self-proclaimed gurus--are supposedly sharing the subtleties of communication I yearn to more fully master. Since I left the horse world some years ago, I am happy to report that horse training has continued to evolve and progress toward a more compassionate, benevolent and informed leadership role for humans.

A few enlightened gurus are even going back to the old ways that indigenous peoples who first tamed wild horses had to master. They are closely studying how horses talk to other horses and what even the slightest move, stance or gesture means to a horse. And it is really coming home to me that EVERY move I make means something! As does every move HE makes.

If I want Kanani to truly dance with me--and LOVE doing it--while we both endeavor to keep from stepping on one another's toes, achieve unity and maybe even progress to fine art, I need to master ALL those moves and what they mean.

I can't ever forget that Kanani's toes are lots bigger than mine. (Which is to say that I have more to lose than he does if I fail to master fluent horse!)

The dance classes are well underway and progress reports shall be forthcoming.

Kanani's ears are back, "listening" to me. That's a good thing. But why on earth am I leaning to one side, potentially throwing him off balance? Not a good move for a dance partner. Aaaargh!