Say hello to Mr. Mustache. That’s what I call him. He was relinquished to Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue and my barn was his first stop. To say he didn’t get out much is an understatement. He’s six and this is his first time away from his mom. With very minimal handling in the past, he isn’t all that attached to people but at the same time, not really wild. He has a lot to teach me.
When he first came he seemed extremely distracted. Even after a couple of days to relax, his eye was small and he didn’t care to connect. It was kind of like the thing the popular girls used to do in my high school: Look right through you while scanning the room for someone interesting. Do you know that invisible feeling? Only in this case, he banged his jawbone on my skull in the process. Should I punish him? It’s very rude.
One of the best lessons I know about training horses I learned from a puppy back when I was nineteen. She was not house-broken when she came to me and I was patient. I watched and took her into the yard at the right times, I rewarded her for a job well done. She learned fast and didn’t make mistakes. I was some dog trainer, housebroken in just a couple of days.
In the evening we took long walks and she always wanted into the yard as soon as we got back home. I didn’t think much of it. After all, it was nice to not have to pick up after her on the stroll. When she was almost two, we headed out for a road trip in my old VW bug. I stopped after a couple of hours, she didn’t need to relieve herself, so off we went. The same thing through the day and by evening she still hadn’t relieved herself and I was really concerned. I could see she was stressed. Did I need to get her to a vet?
When she finally relieved herself, she acted so guilty, so nervous that I still worried about her health. Eventually it dawned on me that while I thought that I taught her to not urinate in the house, but what she actually learned was to use our back yard, and without that specific back yard, she was undone. She wasn’t wrong, surely not disobedient, but we had a difference of perception that mattered all of a sudden. She spent the rest of the trip learning to pee in other people’s yards and I learned that training is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get. (with apologies to Momma Gump.)
It might be more important to listen to the conversation in training, rather than just focus on the cue and result. Acknowledge the individual and keep an eye on the big picture.
Back to Mr. Mustache. Is his problem a lack of respect for my space? Or is he like most horses, just giving me an honest answer? Maybe what he has learned from people so far is that they are pushy and it makes him anxious to be around us. Yes, he was in my space but as I watched him, he was a bit shut down to humans all the way around. He was resistant to leading, he didn’t want to be touched and his tail was totally off limits. Maybe his problem was the opposite, he had been pushed away too often.
I think I have to buy the right to correct a horse. To just march into a pen and start being aggressive shuts horses down, just like getting flipped off by an angry driver in rush hour traffic doesn’t inspire better driving. First I have to establish a relationship. There has to be some shared focus or why should he care about our conversation in the first place? Most weanlings are born with a curiosity about humans that Mr. Mustache seems to have lost. I won’t punish him for that.
“The basic techniques, or what they call basics, are more difficult than what comes later, that is the Trap of Dressage. Correct basics are more difficult than piaffe and passage.” -Conrad Schumacher. I love this quote because what we do right now is always more important that what we might do in the future.
I think Mr. Schumacher was probably referring to forward motion under saddle, but how I translated it to Mr. Mustache was grooming. We started very slow. The curry was too much at first but by the time I finally brushed his tail, we might as well have both been quoting Shakespeare for the elegance of language we had gained. Now his eye is big and soft all the time. He meets me at the gate and by the time I finally put a surcingle on him in the round pen, he could breathe, relax his poll and stand confidently outside of my space.
There are as many training methods as there are riders and as many individual answers as there are horses. If a horse doesn’t answer your question correctly, you could always try asking a different question. To yourself and your horse.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.