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Thinking Outside the Stall and Other Lessons I Learned from My Horse
By CHERYL KIMBALL
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2004 Cheryl Kimball
All rights reserved.
Open-Minded Does't Mean "Sucker for Anything"
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I had always considered myself open-minded. But I hadn't really thought much about what that meant until someone suggested I was close-minded when it came to horsemanship.
On a damp March day in 1991, I took a riding lesson at a local stable. I was looking for something physical and animal-related to add to my life. The lesson was entertaining but not compelling enough to draw me back.
Two months later I stopped by a former riding buddy's place. The first thing she asked when I walked up to the door was "you wanna buy a horse?" I chuckled but throughout our visit her question stuck in my mind like a dream that you can't quite shake. Do I want to buy a horse? My friend, a great salesperson, even saddled up a couple of her riding horses and we went for a short ride.
The rhythmic clip-clop of the horses' feet plopping along the back road was relaxing, and it was refreshing to be outside in the waning sun of a spring afternoon. When we finished, I took another peek at the horse for sale.
That week, I found myself doing some research about the current expenses of owning a horse. Then I did some soul-searching. Did I really want the responsibility of a horse? Was I willing to add commuting to a boarding barn to my schedule? I had a pretty cushy lifestyle; did I really want to shake it up? I guess so. Within a month, Bud was mine.
The key to my plan, however, was that my new life with horses would be different from my old life with horses. There were many things about that former horse world that I did not like. The frustration, for instance, of getting a horse to stand for the horseshoer. The way horses bring out my lack of patience, especially when I need to do something like load them in a trailer. And especially the dreaded chain lead rope.
One way that many horse people use to attempt to control horses when handling them is a lead rope with a several-inch chain on the end that wraps around the delicate part of the horse's nose before clipping to the other side of the halter. This chain, when snapped, is supposed to add some control. It always makes me cringe, though; I suspect it damages the horse's nose, and it's questionable whether or not any real control is gained with this chain. But I had used one of these chains on my first horse, and I used one for the first few months I had my new horse, simply because I had no idea what else to do. That was, until I signed up for a clinic on starting a young horse under saddle that changed and saved my horse life.
The clinician presented to the two dozen or so participants and a couple hundred spectators a way of handling horses that worked with the horse's natural instincts to make teaching things and presenting new things to the horse easier for both horse and handler. A horse's instincts are many—the supreme concern with self-preservation, the need to flee perceived danger, and the strong preference to get along, expend as little energy as necessary, and avoid confusion and chaos as much as possible.
This clinic taught me to work with the horse where it is at, use the horse's natural instincts when you can, and try to open the door to the response you want from the horse and shut the door to the response you don't want. And the tools you need are simple: a halter, lead rope, bridle, a saddle, and an open mind.
For several years, I hung around only with other like-minded individuals. However, I have never been much of a group person, so when I felt like I had some basic skills down and that I had reasonable control of my horse's feet, I ventured out into the greater horse world and rode with people outside of my circle. And this is where I encountered the idea that I was not very open-minded about horsemanship. And, you know what, it's still probably true.
The horse world is full of gimmicks—reins with elastic ends that give for you instead of the rider having to learn to give, different bits with little gimmicks that are said to work miracles to change behavior, training methods that involve clickers and treats. I have never denied that any of these things work—they sure do. But I adamantly believe that using these gimmicks does not represent good horsemanship. I believe that many of them skirt around hard work and make a mockery of the horse. The horse is an incredible animal that is willing to interact with the likes of humans. I believe those of us who choose to interact with horses (it is certainly not the horse making that choice!) are obligated to treat them with respect—which includes expecting them to treat us with respect.
And so I remain somewhat close-minded, I guess, in that I have found one way of working with horses that gives me criteria to use in assessing other methods, and it has served me well so far. I've saved a bundle of money not buying the gimmicks. And I'm dedicated to the idea that to have deeper relationships, you need to do the hard work, to get beyond the physical, beyond appearances. But I've come to realize that I am also open-minded in the sense that although everything I do when I work with a new horse has to fit into a certain criteria, I am open to all sorts of things within those parameters. If something doesn't work, I try something else—that fits within my criteria. And that holds true with every aspect of my life, whether it is spirituality, business, or just watching television.
Anger and a Half-Ton Horse
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Getting angry with a horse is like trying to fight a forest fire with a squirt gun—there is no question you are out powered. A horse's reaction to human anger goes in a couple directions: she gets defensive or she gives up in defeat. The first is something you probably don't want to experience, the second is downright depressing.
For the everyday horse owner, anger often arises when we can't get a horse to do something we want her to do—stand still while the farrier works on her feet, go through a puddle, get in a trailer, stand to be mounted, stop grazing along the trail. Even aged horses who have been taught the behaviors we want them to have do not necessarily continue with them when they come into the hands of someone who does not know how to expect these things from the horse. Horses will always, almost without exception, work their way up or down to the level of their handler/rider. The less-skilled rider would do well to up his or her skill level. Novice horse owners often think that horses should simply understand these things. Many times they simply don't know what to do to help the horse understand, which leads them both along the ugly trail from frustration to anger.
When we get angry, our horses seem to get fearful. Something about anger in one being seems to bring out fear in other beings. Despite the psychobabble about how anger can be a good thing, in my experience anger rarely, if ever, comes from a good place or has anywhere good to go (except perhaps to loosen frozen lug nuts on a flat tire when you are perched on the shoulder of a dark road). I don't believe horses return anger in response to anger. I believe that they get confused when their handler is angry simply because they don't understand what the human is asking of them. An angry human can be very unclear to a horse—anger steals the preciseness of our timing and consistency, two essential keys to a horse's comprehension, and offers up only confusion.
A horse who perceives danger in your anger will become defensive—if you provoke a horse to the point where that natural self-preservation instinct steps in, he will strike out with his front legs, swing his rear at you and kick, or even lunge with teeth bared. None of which is any fun to be on the receiving end of.
He doesn't care if you are the person who has fed him every day twice a day for two years or has brushed him or lovingly cared for him when he was sick or injured. Self-preservation in the prey animal trumps all. If you are his caretaker, it may take quite a bit more pressure for that self-preservation to kick in, but when it does the horse is not analyzing who you are and how many times in the past you have been nice to him—horses live in the moment, and moments that call for self-preservation draw upon every defense the horse has.
The horse who responds in defeat to constant anger is a sad, depressing sight. Most animals, especially prey animals, have a built-in mechanism that shuts down their senses in order to not suffer physically. As a result, of course, they suffer mentally and become disengaged with the world around them.
But physical abuse is far from the only way a horse can be abused. I would go out on a limb and say that most abused horses are not extremely physically mistreated but mentally abused—they are not beaten and their lives are not threatened, but they are always in a state of worry about where that next sharp spur or stinging whip or jabbing bit is going to come in. They may be drilled and drilled and drilled with "schooling" to compete in a horse show. The horse doesn't care about this but, in their get-along kind of way, many horses tolerate this drilling day after day after day. They do this by checking out mentally and just going along physically with what their handler wants them to do. I think we all can recall feeling like this in school!
In the right hands, a mentally abused horse can be rehabilitated but many just check out for life. The kindest thing may be to let him simply hang out in peace for the rest of his days; the very least you can do is give the horse something else to do than what he was doing, something to give the horse purpose in life.
When I attended my first horse clinic at age thirty-four, I got pretty angry with my young horse as I tried to do the things the clinician showed us. Despite my good intentions, my horse was running me over and paying no attention to me at all. No, I wasn't beating him, but I was clearly angry with the horse. And I wasn't the only one. I heard the clinician say, "I see some of you have the ability to get pretty angry with your horses. I could have some fun with that". I could envision him giving us more and more complicated things to do until my horse and I were wound up into a red hot fireball.
I was quite certain the clinician meant that if he "had fun" with my anger with my horse, our tasks wouldn't get any easier—and I wasn't having much fun to begin with! From that moment on, I attempted to control my anger—that's not to say that it hasn't surfaced over the years, but I am aware of it and can more quickly get it in check. And the more I learn about effective teaching, the less I find anger arises—not only with horses but in my whole life. It starts to go back to that "make the right thing easy" concept—if you work on trying to open the right doors, anger doesn't have to arise. For instance, instead of arguing with your husband about the house being dirty, talk through the ways you can both contribute to keeping the house neater. Not getting to anger in the first place paves a smoother way.
Create the Life You Want
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A friend recently told me about the difficulties she and her boyfriend were experiencing in their relationship. She thought they were on the verge of breaking up. I commented that, judging from the times we had spent together, their relationship seemed worth working on. And I said that after nineteen years with my husband, I knew that it is possible to have a comfortable, non-tumultuous relationship. My friend replied, "You're lucky."
Yes, I suppose there is some luck involved. I feel fortunate and grateful for our life together, but nineteen years of a strong relationship comes from a lot of hard work, not luck.
In order to have the life you want, you first need to know what that life is, then you need to create it. Step by step. Creating your life is hard work. It's easy to get off track or to start to think you want a different kind of thing than what suits you. It's also a lot easier to give up on the life you want and simply settle for the life you get.
My horses helped me create the kind of lifestyle I have always wanted. First, having horses got me to work toward having a suitable home where I could keep them myself. That led to the purchase of our ninety-acre farm. This was not a home choice that came out of the blue. When I was a kid, we drove several times each summer to our camp on a lake. Along the country roads that wound their way to our camp, I would gaze longingly out the window at the farm houses we passed—sturdy barns, porches, beds of flowers hugging the foundations. My cousin lived in a place such as this. I loved to visit her and her brothers and their pony. The farm we bought when I was thirty-six years old was like buying a piece of the childhood of my imagination.
Because horses require a considerable amount of time—at least two hours a day maintenance if I don't want to be buried in manure, plus whatever riding time I am willing to give them—I tend to be home a lot. When you have a ninety-acre place with riding trails and a lake with a semi-private beach around the corner, staying home is not a hardship.
In order to be able to fit in that two hours of maintenance and ride, I decided I needed to be able to work from home. I now work from my office in the carriage house writing and editing books. This was not something that happened overnight—it was only after several years commuting to jobs in the book publishing industry and writing dozens of articles at night and on weekends that I was able to mount a successful freelance career.
Working at home itself requires an immense amount of discipline. I need to sit at my computer if I have a deadline, even if the sun is pouring in my windows, begging me to come outside. I need to market myself. I've had to write books on topics I wasn't necessarily passionate about in less time than I would have preferred in order to build relationships and get future work—and to pay that old nag, the mortgage. And sometimes those books led to dead ends. No relationship was built as intended, and I had to work hard not to get discouraged. In a roundabout way, my horses also taught me persistence.
Through it all, I had a general plan. I have deviated from the plan several times, and I alter the plan as my career and interests mature and change. But the horses in the barn offer a framework for my life and my lifestyle. And sometimes divergences are thrown in the way—illness, death, tragedy, or an opportunity that can't be passed up but doesn't really fit the master plan—and you need to draw on your imagination to continue to create the life you want within that divergence.
I am often asked how I can stand being so "tied down." It's as if people think I've accumulated horses without realizing it or against will. I created this life, it didn't just happen. I knew exactly how I wanted to live, and I went about creating it. And whenever I walk into the corral and interact with my horses—which is every single day—I realize how important this interaction is to me, how privileged I feel to be comfortable around horses. If I wanted my life to be different, I would work at creating a different life.
Sometimes the Walk Is Faster Than the Trot
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A concept that is emphasized by a lot of clinicians I study with is "sometimes going slow is the fastest way to accomplish what you want." The horses themselves have proven it time and again.
Time is a human invention. Horses use time as well, but their concept of time is dictated by an interior clock, not by an artificial one tacked to the wall. While hunger pangs and the physiological need for the equine digestive system to have food constantly traveling through it control "feed time," my horses also seem to have certain times when they settle in a patch of sun or shade, cock a leg, take a nap, or head over the hill to check out the grazing possibilities there. They don't need a clock on the wall to tell them to do these things, their inner clock knows. We humans have inner clocks, too. Our challenge is to listen to our inner clock more often instead of getting hung up on the one on the wall.
Many times people try to teach a horse something—as small as a specific maneuver to as grand as saddling them and riding them for the first time—with the pressure of time bearing down on them. A classic scenario for getting a young horse "broke to ride" is to send her to a professional horse trainer who typically has organized her or his business around a "ninety-day program"—a program designed for the expediency of making money, not for the good of the horse. At the end of three months, your young horse comes back ready to ride, show, and whatever else you have planned for her. If a horse doesn't fit a trainer's ninety-day program, it is often condemned as dumb or unathletic or even a rogue and accompanied by the recommendation to sell the horse and get a more suitable one.
The best trainer is willing to abandon "the program" and work with the horse as an individual creating a goal for a particular lesson and taking whatever time is needed to accomplish that goal—or even changing the goal if something else comes up. How many times have you tried to fit something into an artificial timeframe? Maybe it's dieting, maybe it's writing a book or teaching your child golf. Unfortunately, we can't avoid time constraints but when we let things take the time they need we avoid spending more time fixing things later.
Excerpted from Horse Wise by CHERYL KIMBALL. Copyright © 2004 Cheryl Kimball. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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