Sunday, July 26, 2015
...On Teaching Swagger
The other day, in a rare moment of what people that don't own horse farms call “sitting down” between morning chores and afternoon hacks, I perused some of my favorite online equine-centric forums. As I’ve said before, I’m always interested in becoming a better horseman, and there is a wealth of knowledge out there that I am happy to absorb without bothering with trial and error myself. Often there is news of a sale on breeches, or a discussion of the veterinary treatment du jour, or some horse care issue that is debated to the point of the equestrian equivalent of a Twitter war.
Sometimes I come away with useful knowledge. Very rarely do I come away with an epiphany, but the other day I did just that. In a thread about absorbing knowledge from many riding disciplines, “NancyM” wrote:
“I apply a lot of what I learned in thirty years of working with racehorses to my basic horsemanship…Keeping things fun for the horse. Letting a horse be himself, express himself, have opinions. Working with the horse you have, not trying to force a horse into a cookie cutter mould.”
I nodded along as I read. This is how I’ve approached my horses as well.
I continued reading:
“An old friend of mine from many years ago slapped her racehorse on the neck affectionately as he squealed at her in play... ‘He likes himself’ she told me with satisfaction. I like my horses to like themselves too. I like them to think that they are the fanciest horse they have seen all day.”
This was the epiphany. I’ve never cared if a horse liked himself - I’ve never even thought about it in that context. I’ve cared if he’s happy; if he’s healthy and comfortable. I’ve cared if he likes me, or his job. It never occurred to me to want him to like…himself. What an epic fail on my part.
I am usually not a froofroo, anthropomorphizing, whispering horse guru. Still, I have learned over the past few years that overall health and performance are strongly correlated to a horse’s general happiness and state of mind. When I acquired my four-year-old, 17.1HH, mostly-unbacked, freshly-imported warmblood last year it took about two days for me to realize that if he wasn’t pleased I was either going to figure out how to make him happy, or I was going to the hospital. Although he had been largely untouched, a couple of attempts had been made to ride him in Europe, and judging by the first several times I got on him, they didn’t go well. Although I technically ordered a horse that had been lightly started, he simply didn’t take to the cookie-cutter training routine like most other horses do, and I realized that I didn’t just have to train this horse - I had to retrain it.
Little known fact for those of you that have been following the Megatron saga from afar: I got on him the third day I had him, and I didn’t get back on for two-and-a-half months. This horse had a level of fear that made him dangerous, and he internalized it in a way that made it impossible to predict. Throughout those terrifying fledgling weeks of training, I had incredible support from my husband who never once made me feel bad about importing a Decepticon sight-unseen, along with a bit of help from professionals and a lot of help from a really wise team-roper. The photos have yet to surface, but my first thirty rides were in a roping saddle in a small medical turnout. Surprise!!!
And you thought he was named Megatron because he’s big…
Once the riding became safe-ish, my trainer and I started working on trying to get Megatron to enjoy his job. While sensible, he is also sensitive. He will tolerate being pushed too hard, but he will remember it the next day. Sometimes this is good and we’ve taught him something. Sometimes it’s bad and we've scared him, but the more we work together and the more he trusts me, the less I see of this fearful horse.
My trainer and I have spent months trying to figure out how hard to push him. The first three lessons I had with Greg were literally trying to get Megatron to trot with his ears forward so that he wasn't always so focused on his rider. That’s it. My friend, Alia, acquired her young horse around the same time I got Megatron, and that same week that I was trotting oddly shaped “circles” and celebrating every time his ears flicked forward for a stride, she was jumping small courses on hers.
Some serious patience (and physical therapy) was required on my part, but we got through those initial stages of training. Because Megatron was so stressed by a rider, I spent a lot of time trying to make riding fun for him despite the fact that many of our adventures were terrifying for me. We went on trail rides, we jumped stuff, we went on lots of field trips, and then we took the entire winter off to decompress. I have spent hours upon hours of my life devising a tailor-made program to make this creature enjoy his. He is allowed to have opinions. He is allowed to say no. He is allowed to dictate the pace of his training. But never have I considered that he should like himself.
And how does one teach swagger, anyway?
I’ve had horses that are proud of themselves, but to be candid, they’ve all come that way. My husband’s horse has a distinctly cocksure way of carrying himself when he knows he’s done a good job. He likes himself. And no one is going to tell my retired gelding that he’s not the fanciest horse in the neighborhood. No one. But Megatron isn’t proud. Even when praised (abundantly and often) his response is simply more of the desired behavior. Please believe that I’m not complaining about that, but…he certainly doesn’t have any swagger. In contrast, Alia’s five year old is the equine Kanye West. They are both very talented despite being naturally inclined to be different so I rarely compare, but it does leave me wondering if I’ve missed an essential step in this process. I’ve done a great job of making Megatron confident in me, but I’m just not sure I’ve done a very good job making him confident in himself.
Am I anthropomorphizing? Sure, but if you’re one of those people who thinks horses are organic robots that have no opinions you’re probably no longer reading this anyway. So my new goal is to get this horse to like himself, and although he’s not the extroverted type to squeal in excitement, I am fairly certain that as he learns, becomes confident in his job, and saves me from my amateur self a few thousand times, some semblance of pride will develop.
There were times last year when I thought this horse would never let me sit on him. But then he did. There were times when I thought he would simply never, ever have a right lead. But then he did. There were times when I thought he’d never be able to go out into a new ring and jump new fences cold, or change leads, or deal with the traffic at a horse show. But then he did.
So I have faith that someday Megatron will like himself as much as I like him, and I’ll look back on this blog and say, “But then he did.”