She’s Tomboy. I don’t write about her often enough; she’s a little more serious than my corgi men. She’s a Briard, a French herding breed that has a very protective side. Tomboy appointed herself my personal bodyguard when she was a tiny pup and has done a flawless job of guarding and herding me for twelve summers. Her commitment is fierce.
On that particular day, I was having a party on the farm. There were lots of dogs running and Tomboy broke up a few light dog altercations but mainly she had my back. Relentlessly. Then the guy arrived on a motorcycle.
The guy was dating a friend and we were all welcomed him because of her. I’d met him and his dogs previously. He made sure everyone knew he was a man of great faith. He had two yellow labs and every time he came close, they both hit the ground and rolled belly up. I took their opinion into account as well.
He parked his bike and walked toward me, and quietly, Tomboy moved from behind me to block his path. She just put herself between us; no growl, just a watch. The guy took a step to go around her but she moved to keep her position. Then he told her to lie down, but she stuck to her spot. He said something I didn’t entirely hear, while smiling at me, and it dawned on me that he was going to roll her.
Wikipedia’s explanation: “An alpha roll is a technique used in dog training to discipline a misbehaving dog. It consists of flipping the dog onto its back and holding it in that position, sometimes by the throat. The theory is that this teaches the dog that the trainer is the pack leader (or alpha animal).”
Rolling a dog is a controversial technique, but in our case, it was black-and-white-wrong. She wasn’t disobedient; she didn’t trust him. She’s always been a good judge of character so I believed her. But he had no right to punish her in the first place, so I got between the guy and Tomboy, because I have her back, too. I asked him to stop. He started to explain to me what he was doing was helping me train my dog. I said, “She’s doing her job.” I thought about his dogs and stood my ground. “Back off.”
Like most of us, my charming hostess thing only goes so far. And this guy was an arrogant jerk, but we commonly see riders like this in the horse world. They confuse leadership with belligerence. And yes, professionals do it as well. The belief is that if we show weakness the war is lost and the animal will be spoiled. Worst of all, it negates the horse’s intelligence. Lots of us were started with this method with horses. I certainly was.
It’s obvious that this guy had no right to correct Tomboy, but when do we have the right? Even with our own horses and dogs, when is the most effective time? And when are we taking their behaviors too personally and missing the message?
First, if you are embarrassed or frustrated or mad, just take a break. Emotions are selfish; it’s not about you. I’m always surprised when people think that their horse has a vendetta against them, when the simple truth is that behavior isn’t personal. Is your horse healthy? Could he have ulcers? Is he hungry? Set him up to succeed by making sure he is ready to learn.
An animal can’t learn if they are afraid–obvious and simple. It’s the reason we harp on about relaxation in dressage. Sure, they can learn fear and distrust; the guy’s labs were proof of that. If we walk into a pen like a Neanderthal with a club, we’ve lost already. We have to define ourselves as a leader, yes, but someone who inspires confidence and safety. In other words, we have to evolve out of the old model if we want a better response.
On any given day, I believe we have to buy the right to correct a horse. How else could it be meaningful? It can be as simple as asking for his eye or acknowledging a calming signal. Especially with our own horses, let them volunteer. Don’t do it for them. Allow them to participate by coming to you or lowering their heads–engage them. If catching is an issue, then that’s the place to start healing old experiences. If your horse acts like you’re a predator, take the cue. It’s the starting place.
Never underestimate the power of touch. Current research says that horses prefer a scratch to a pat as a reward, but I prefer a flat hand laying still. Connection with a horse is as simple as touch and as intimate as breath. It’s enough.
Then ask for his best work by communicating with subtle clarity. Consistently. It sounds idiotically simple but we train response or resistance. Dullness or energy. If you don’t like what your horse refects back to you, take him at his word, and negotiate with the new information. See yourself as intelligent.
The positive model of training has lots of gray area. If the horse is spooked and distracted, he won’t always hear you whisper. Sometimes you might need to give him a bit of a startle to get his attention. The art is to be able to adjust your cues without emotion. If you have to be loud, do it just once, and then get quiet and find a way to say good boy in the next minute. You want the first thing he hears to be a reward. Be generous, work toward a tendency of patience, and then when you make the inevitable mistakes, he will show you that tolerance as well.
Finally, humor me with one more photo of Tomboy. I was having a sick day, lying on the couch dozing, and she was on my chest. This is my favorite photo of Tom. She was keeping an eye on me because I was sick.
Loyalty…Partnership: they’re words we value and always our goal–but we can’t demand them or coax them with cookies. They’re a gift, given in exchange for respect.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.