I’ve said it before: While growing up, I saw She Wore a Yellow Ribbon more often than I saw my relatives. My father oversaw the TV and he liked real men like Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, and John Wayne. (I’m sure you can guess what he thought about James Dean.)
Later, like lots of us, I bought the notion of a strong, silent leading man when it came to movie star crushes. They had square jaws and walked with a swagger, always a little mysterious. I should stress here that they were acting. It was my mid-thirties before I connected the crash between my taste in movie idols and my constant whining that the man I was dating wouldn’t talk to me. Duh.
It took longer for it to dawn on me that my horse was stoic, too. His resistance wasn’t easy to read. He hid lameness and acted tough. He did what I asked, even if it was too much. Neither of us wanted to admit that we probably held a grudge. We liked each other, so instead it was more like passive aggression on both sides. Truth be told, you can’t force a horse talk to you anymore than you can a man. In hindsight, I think some of our training problems were more from ulcer pain than anything, but again, he didn’t give me the usual signs that a more reactive horse might have. I’m still apologizing for that.
Disclaimer: I am extremely aware that trainers love to classify horses into personality types that over-simplify horses, so it’s easier for novice horse owners to make assumptions. None of us are that easy to pigeon-hole.
Instead, I consider most horses on a continuum, one end being stoic and the other end being demonstrative. I deliberately choose these vague words, give lots of room for individuality, and always remember that it isn’t that some horses are more sensitive than others; they just express their emotions differently.
That said, people like stoic horses because they seem quiet and easy on the surface. They’re commonly lesson horses, therapy horses, and kid horses.
Here’s a definition from Dictionary.com– Stoicism: the endurance of pain or hardship without a display of feelings and without complaint. Synonyms: patience, forbearance, resignation, fortitude, endurance, acceptance, tolerance.
Does this definition make you a bit sad? What sounds heroic in a movie character is kind of soul-killing for a creature as beautiful as a horse. If you are a dominating rider, you might want that kind of hostage mentality, but if you are hoping for an equine partner, this is leadership without heart.
Old timers had another word they used for stoic horses who seemed almost too easy to read: Counterfeit. They looked like the real thing, but there was something not quite right.
It isn’t that stoic horses are dishonest; they’re subtle communicators. If our cues get loud or inconsistent, he just tucks inside of himself. It isn’t disobedience so much as self-defense. He could look well-trained, but his eyes are dead. You might want to think everything is fine but as time passes, and he gets more withdrawn. He might drop his head between his knees in submission; he might look like a push-button pleasure horse on the surface, but he gives you none of his heart. He doesn’t want to try. Maybe you’ll call him lazy and kick harder, but louder cues will just shut him down more. If you are honest, it feels more like coercion then partnership. (Don’t even dare consider spurs.)
Then it happens, just like the big bloody shoot-out at the end of a western movie. After he’s taken all he can, a stoic horse might explode with emotion. The rider says, “Everything was just fine but suddenly, for no good reason, my horse just started bucking.” Or worse, all the light in their eyes finally goes totally black and they just lose the will to live, looking years older than their age. (Not that it’s my business, but if this is your goal–a blindly obedient, soul-dead ride–then please, don’t have children.)
How to best partner with a stoic horse? First, don’t minimize his intelligence. Especially if he’s a draft breed. Assume he hates being under-estimated and talked down to just as much as you do. Breathe yourself quiet. Show him respect and don’t interrupt his thought process. Wait for him to volunteer. Listening will require better patience and effort; stoic horses aren’t as blunt as demonstrative horses. Rather than bullying him through work, let him be who he is and answer in his own way. Yes, he will answer eventually, but you don’t get to be the boss of that. Allowing that horse to volunteer is your single goal.
When he gets the answer right, or even partly right, reward him lavishly. Let him know that his input matters. He might act a bit like the shy kid who blushes when the teacher praises him in class. That’s how you can tell it’s working.
Now the tendency of your work together is starting to shift. Instead of being a robot, he might even offer something more than you ask for. Yay, and don’t you dare correct him for trying too hard. See the big picture: He’s learning and shaping his behavior is much more important than demanding perfection.
Nurture this little sprig of confidence. Reward him with a big release. Like that same shy school kid, he doesn’t want to be hugged until he faints; instead slack the reins or the lead. Release! Let him stand on his own feet and feel pride in himself. Pause. Let his introverted bravado bask in the broad daylight. Then reward that; thank him for his honesty.
The day will come when the two of you will be together and you’ll show him a challenge. Just reveal it; nothing more. In your quiet mind, you’ll hear him say, “I got this.” You’ll feel him breathe; your legs expanding with his chest as his steps out.
Confidence is the greatest gift any rider can give their horse. Period.