Manners: The habit of treating everyone with respect. What we hope parents will instill in their children so that we don’t have to call in Nanny McFee. And the thing that we try to train into our horses so that someday when someone else rides them, no one has his/her face bitten off by an over-exuberant pony. And of course, even if you have never been around horses before, you may be able to guess what kinds of manners we like to teach our horses. No kicking or biting. Don’t step on my feet. Don’t eat the grass with a bit in your mouth. Please refrain from bucking me off. Do not pin your ears back at the horse next to you when we are working. Don’t bolt across the pasture with the small child on your back. When I’m leading you, do not take off in front of me and drag me along. Do not run me over to get at the grain bucket when I’m trying to feed you. Essentially, Say “Please” and “Thank You.”
But what happens when “Please” and “Thank You” just don’t quite cut it? More importantly, what happens when “Please” and “Thank You” don’t mean anything?
When I was in college, I had a roommate who I loved very much, and she was raised to be very polite. She said please and thank you for everything, which was great. The problem was that after a while I discovered something curious about her: “Please” and “Thank You” didn’t actually mean anything. They were just words coming out of her mouth. “Please” sometimes translated to “Give it to me now because I already expected to have it” and “Thank you” was just a hollow response. Now remember, I love this roommate dearly. But I think that because she had never wanted for anything in life, she didn’t really have any deep appreciation for what she was given. “Please” and “Thank You” were nothing but words, with no honest feeling behind them. Essentially, the manners that she had been taught were not much more than a learned response to a situation.
You remember Little Joe? Cute little pony, part halflinger, supposed to be a kid’s horse, still bucked me off four times in the course of an hour? He’s the sweetest little pony, and he has grown so much in such a short time that I am frequently boggled and astonished. But I struggled for quite a while with him to hold a conversation, and I think that it’s because when he was initially trained, he wasn’t trained to have a conversation with a person, he was trained to give a response. When he was trained, no one was listening to him, no one was paying attention to what he had to say about something. His discomfort didn’t matter: what mattered was that he obey right now, instantly.
For example, let’s talk about the Down Under method of lunging, which I am quite certain he was trained with. Here’s how it should have been working:
I guide him through a circle with a whip. When he’s ready to give me his full and undivided attention, he should turn in toward me and stop while facing me, allowing me to approach and give him love.
Here’s what was actually happening:
I started to guide him gently through a circle with a whip. He saw the whip, bolted across the round pen, nearly slipped and fell in the mud, almost crashed into the fence, and then suddenly froze and turned in, staring at me with nostrils flared and eyes wide. When I tried to approach him, he startled away from my hand and then froze again, thinking that if he moved he was going to be in trouble.
Do you see the problem? We’re getting the same response both ways: he stops and turns in. Either way, I guess you could say that I have his attention. But even though he was giving me the “correct” response, it was exactly what I DIDN’T want. He had been taught that his side of the conversation didn’t matter, and so he had essentially shut down and was falling back on a trained response: one that was useless and potentially dangerous to both of us.
I don’t want a response parroted back at me. I want to be able to hold a conversation.
As I started working with him, I found myself saying the same things over and over again: “He’s not a bad horse; he’s actually really sweet.” “He’s just scared of everything, it’s like he thinks everything is going to eat him.” “I feel like whoever trained him initially just trained him to have a specific response.” “It’s like he doesn’t know how to have a conversation with me; he just keeps doing what he thinks I want.” “I don’t think whoever trained him really ever listened to him and what he had to say.” And Amanda, being a good teacher, nodded and said, “You’re right. So what can you do as you work with him to start changing that?”
So I thought about it for a while and then went to work.
A little while later Amanda came back out to the barn after taking care of some business (which took her a good hour, probably), and saw me standing in a stall with Little Joe with the bridle and surcingle and side reins and halter on. Thinking that we had just finished lunging, she said “How did it go?” and then just sort of smiled when I explained that we hadn’t actually even gone to lunge yet: that I had just been in the stall with him for the last hour grooming him all over and flapping all of the jingly tack in a calm, rhythmic manner until I could see that he didn’t think that it was going to eat him anymore.
The next time I came back and we did that whole routine all over again, except that this time it went markedly quicker. He was starting to have more interest in what hay might be left behind in the stall than what jingly stuff I was swinging around. This time we went to the arena, and before we started lunging, we just walked around the arena together, practicing a method called “heeding” (which may be one of the best training techniques I have run across). For the first few times around the arena, he kept trying to dodge back behind me and hide away. I put him between me and the fence and made my goal to stay next to his shoulder. And then he stopped suddenly, thinking that I would keep walking and he could slip into his learned response of hiding behind me.
I stopped with him.
He looked at me, and I kid you not, I could see the wheels turning in his head as he considered what had just happened. He decided to experiment with this.
He started forward again.
I started with him.
After a few steps, he stopped suddenly again, this time just to see what I would do.
I stopped with him.
That was when it clicked for him, and it was incredible to see. I think for the first time he realized that I didn’t just want a learned response from him- I genuinely wanted to hear what he had to say. The fact that I took the time to respond to him instead of the other way around let him know that he had some power in this relationship too. And that led to an almost magical transformation.
Little Joe was no longer scared. His ears went forward, his breathing slowed, his steps became more fluid. He understood that we were just walking together and just talking and listening to each other. And that changed everything. No more trying to hide ten feet behind me. No more bolting away from the whip. No more senseless turning and freezing on the lunge line. No more acting like I was a demon trying to chase him down and eat him.
Now I grant you, it’s not a complete transformation. When he’s not quite sure what it is going on, he still tries to find the response that he thinks I want. He’s still a bit bothered by mounting practice, because that’s a time when we’re all still scary cougars trying to eat him. Honestly, I don’t ride him much because, ummm, I’ve gained a lot of weight, and I don’t want to break him. But he’s been developing in leaps and bounds.
So far, the crowning achievement came when one of our 4-H girls (Miss M) came out to ride Bonnie, who she has always loved more than any other horse. Because she’s small and light, I asked her to come help me with Little Joe. I had her catch him and groom him and get him ready to work, and she took her time and he was gentle and they were both listening really well to each other. So we went out to the arena together (supervised by Amanda), and we did some mounting practice. When Miss M got on, I started to lunge them, and this girl started to go through and do some different warm up exercises. Little Joe was a bit bothered by some of them, still thinking that her hands going toward his head meant that she was a cougar trying to jump on his face. But we all just walked and practiced, and after a little while, Joe calmed down. He stretched into the side reins. He started chewing on the bit. He started to enjoy having Miss M rub his neck and butt.
We were all ecstatic.
The next day Miss M came out again, and she was excited to work with Little Joe. So we did it all again. This time he was a little bit quicker to trust us to not eat him, and we were able to do a little more, like trot on the lunge line and start introducing some leg aids. After 45 minutes we stopped (I was running out of new ideas), and Miss M said “Are we done already? I don’t want to be done!” Bear in mind that it’s about a hundred degrees down here, and 45 minutes on a horse in the Louisiana sun is usually more than enough to drive us all to giving the horse a break.
So I took her off the lunge line.
Now in case you think that I’m an irresponsible teacher, I did NOT take them off the lunge line and then just leave a student with a training horse while I went off to eat ice cream or something. I stayed with them, I walked with them, and I told Miss M that she probably should just practice walk and halt transitions off the lunge line (no trotting or cantering today!), and I gave her some advice as they made their way around the arena.
THEY. ROCKED. IT. Now Miss M doesn’t even want to ride Bonnie anymore: she just wants to ride Little Joe.
Amanda came to watch and said (and I’m treasuring this, by the way) “I’m not sure who to be the most proud of: You, Miss M, or Little Joe.”
Honestly though, I don’t feel like I can even take credit for everything that has happened (Which is obviously why I wrote a full blog post talking about all the great things I did). The only thing I did was open up a possibility for Little Joe, which is that he is being heard.
He did everything else by himself.