We’ve had a lot of company at the farm lately. Sometimes I take them into the family pen. The Grandfather Horse is there with his goat, Arthur. Edgar Rice Burro peers from under his eyebrows as he begins the suave stroll over. Bhim only inches forward, carefully calculating distance. Clara is always working her plan for world domination. In this case, she has to hurry to make it look like it was her idea to walk over in the first place. Then Nubè, unassuming, hyper-sensitive, and over 17 hands materializes over my shoulder like a shadow. Grace keeps to the outskirts where she’s most comfortable, watching for a gap to fill. She’s the most common target of Clara’s ambition.
Once we’re all in the pen we do my favorite thing: Mill around and just be there. Maybe lay a hand on a shoulder and breathe. Edgar will re-adjust his backside a few times for the scratching convenience of newcomers. There are some sideways glances, as the introductions are made and compliments are exchanged. Voices are low and eyes are soft. Mainly we’re just tail-swooshing each others flies off and listening to the wind in that time-honored herd sort of way.
The only thing that separates me from the animals is a lot of words, so when I’m not talking much, the gap closes really quick. –Brian Andreas
It’s about then that a visitor always apologizes to a horse for not bringing carrots. It’s said with good intention. They think that a soft muzzle exhaling is asking for something but the horse is just sharing breath. I tell her that they aren’t looking for treats; she doesn’t need to buy her way in. She’s fine just as she is.
(Yes, you heard right. I don’t give treats as a habit. Every time I try to write about it, I get a lot of criticism, but I think I’m just not explaining it well enough. Here goes.)
Relationship is never about treats. Give as many as you want. Horses will respond with individual honesty; some will walk away, some will get aggressive, and some horses will show signs of anxiety that frequently get mistaken for affection.
Back in our pen, the horses are being with us by choice. No one is in need or lack. There’s no exchange of services. Everybody is just who they are: Equals. The other word for that is Release.
The first time I read that the best treat for a horse was release, I thought it was the most inane idea. It hurt my feelings. I wanted his reward to be obeying me like a robot minion. How could he possibly want a break from the white-hot glare of my co-dependent love? How could a partnership with a horse possibly work if he had any other option? (Oh, ick. Is that Sting singing If You Love Somebody Set Them Free?)
But I was selling myself short. It was my own leadership that I didn’t trust.
If we had carrots that day in the pen, everything would have been different. I’d have to watch the Grandfather Horse. Back in the day, he was violently pushy. The treat rule was never by hand, always in the bucket. Carrots are a little too precious to him. If Clara sees them, she’d have to chase Grace even farther away. Nubè has a long ulcer history; he’d be frantic with anxiety. Bhim doesn’t care about treats, and Grace gets the fear cue. Even Edgar, left to his own thoughts might give up the moral high ground and roll you around in the dirt until your pockets are empty or you’re undressed, whichever comes first.
And I would have failed a bit. It’s my job to keep everyone safe and in a heartbeat we’d lose that zen. Begging for treats isn’t a way of showing affection to a human, and that stomping and nipping is anxiety. Yup, if we’d had carrots, we’d need to be on the other side of the fence.
I explain to my visitor that in my barn, that sometimes treats are a distraction, like a chatty waitperson when you and your lover are having a romantic dinner. It changes the story. I want the relationship to honest and freely chosen. Sure, it takes more time to connect without the treat. You have to breathe slowly, and catch his eye. Then let the silence and your heart do the rest. Linger in that quiet place. Horses want leaders who bring calmness and safety. There is no sweet shortcut to trust. You have to put the horse first for so long as long as it takes, until he knows he can depend on you.
A carrot is quick exchange, without connection or intimacy. Carrots can be a little like whips; they’re shortcuts to communication. We go to them too quickly to get a result fast, instead of training understanding. Lol and ttfn speed up the conversation but the substance is lost.
You see, we’re all equals in the herd until Warren Buffett arrives. Or Scarlett Johanssen. (or in my case, Ruth Bader Ginsburg)–and then the herd goes nuts, embarrassing themselves screaming and jumping up and down, hoping to get the attention of someone with… so many carrots. If the horse shows more anxiety than confidence, treats aren’t doing their job.
Does it take a treat to get near your horse? Is a treat a minor aid for training? Or is it like a post-game celebratory high-five? It isn’t enough. Consider developing a high-value treat within yourself. Let it make him confident and strong inside. Give him the ultimate reward; Release. Breathe. Peace.
Partnership is where altruistic reason exists in both partners. The confidence that comes with working together is its own reward–call it herdship. Let the carrot be an afterthought confirmation if you like, but now and then, give your horse a chance to show you his loyalty. Let him choose to volunteer.
The day will not be won or lost if you feed carrots. What matters to your horse is that your leadership skills eventually become even more dependable than his sweet tooth. Bribery will never take the place of trust. Because when push comes to shove and he’s scared out of his wits on a trail ride, or when the range fire is coming and he has to get in the trailer right now, or when he’s hurting, in pain from an injury, and trying to hold it together until the vet comes, all the carrots in the world won’t make him feel safe.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.