Horse of a Different Color

I got my start with horses in a world of “make them do it” horsemanship. I heard a lot about making the horse respect the rider. Crops and whips were used as both aids and punishment. Side reins were used to hold the horse’s head in position, and there was a lot of talk about driving aids, pushing the horse into the contact, and setting the hands. Any reluctance or unresponsiveness by the horse was to be met with a sharper or secondary aid to get the desired response NOW.

For nearly my first thirty years of riding, that was my foundation. Over time I moved away from a lot of the harsher components of it, but like many of the people I grew up watching and learning from, I remained quick to frustration and anger when things didn’t go the way I wanted or expected with a horse. For the past almost twenty years, I’ve been learning from people who have a different approach to horses, one that is more relationship-based than demand-based. When I started actively learning a softer way with horses and that anger came up, I directed most of it at myself, for my inability to just stop reacting that way. The horses didn’t care much who I was mad at; they just knew that I was mad, and that the energy I was projecting wasn’t safe to be around.

When I was in my early twenties, I read a book by a respected animal behaviorist who was also a respected trainer of dogs and horses. When she died in 2001, the New York Times obituary referred to her as someone “who saw human traits in pets,” which was not how scientists were supposed to think then (it probably still isn’t). She was much more aware than most trainers and scientists of the time of animals having intellect and emotions, and what she called a moral sense. As a trainer, she also wrote about being given “crazy” horses or dogs to work with and acting crazier than they did so that they had to pay attention to her. At the time, as something of a specialist myself in “crazy” horses (i.e. the horses I usually got a chance to work with when I couldn’t afford a horse that had decent or no training), this made sense to me. Now, it does not. For me, anyway, this approach was just another variant of the old methods: obedience, discipline, correction. Even well-intentioned trainers still use language like this.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why we deal with horses this way. When “I say, you do, and do it NOW” is the expectation, what’s behind that? Far more often than I ever want to admit, it’s about fear. “I say, you do” feels like it keeps me in control. I think there’s a human belief that if we are afraid of something, and we can make that something or someone afraid of us instead, we will be safe. We can try to convince the horse that we are scary enough for it not to hurt us – without going so far that we convince it we are scary enough to attack. Horses are flight animals, but if given no choice, they will fight. When we are afraid, we make bad (and sometimes dangerous) decisions. When we are afraid and we don’t want to admit to or show our fear, we make even worse (and more dangerous) decisions.

Recently my wise friend, horsewoman Anna Blake, posted a brilliant blog in which she said “Level ground is needed for trust. In the beginning, it feels like chaos to breathe instead of intimidating.” I don’t want any kind of tattoo, let alone one with a whole lot of words in it (ouch!), but that sounds like a good choice so that I can look at those words every day. What does it feel like to put myself on level ground with someone or something I believe can hurt me? What does it look like for me to pause, breathe, and choose my next action with deliberation and kindness, instead of reacting in fear and anger? What happens if I start by extending trust, instead of withholding it?

Also: none of this is about horses.

Getting to Know You

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It was love at almost first sight.

Scout, still a puppy himself, was not convinced when we came home in the middle of the night with an eleven week old ball of fluff and put it in a crate in HIS house. I imagine if he could have, he would have said what my sister reportedly said when my parents brought me home from the hospital wrapped in her blankie which my father had grabbed on the way out the door: “What is THAT in my blanket?”

Scout spent some time barking an alarm, and some more time grumbling, but it was late, so eventually he slept.

The next morning quickly became Christmas in early May, as the possibilities of having a younger brother began to dawn on Scout. They have been best friends ever since.

Dog best friends means a lot of playing and a lot of loving, but it doesn’t mean no fighting. Scout is more than twice Boo’s size, and a full year older, but they take turns being the bully in their own way. Scout loves to chase anything he is (or isn’t) allowed to chase, and when he is thwarted from his preferred target (No, you can’t chase the horses. No, you can’t run after those deer.) he turns his attention to Boo. 110 pounds of intense dog running at you at top speed is an intimidating proposition, and Boo knows how to make himself as small as possible to prevent an actual attack.

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The flip side of this bullying usually happens when Scout gets the giant dog zoomies. Boo is also very fast but his legs are much shorter, and he gets frustrated and annoyed when he is left behind. He is a herder, though, and he knows how to cut corners. When he catches up to Scout he throws himself against Scout’s side until he rolls him over (though there is some evidence that Scout throws himself to the ground).  In either case, it often ends with a lot of hackles raised and one of us having to separate the dogs until everyone cools down. 

We manage a lot of things about our dogs to maintain the peace. We feed them all separately, in closed kennels. We have a dog yard and an auxiliary dog yard, so if they are not playing well together outside we can separate them and they can still be outside in a safe space. The auxiliary dog yard is also farther away from the horses, so we have somewhere to put Scout to avoid having the horses ramp up his stress. The dogs are not allowed on “our” furniture, and though they have sofas of their own in the basement, we keep an eye out for anyone who is guarding a sofa, or a toy, or one of us. We also keep an eye out for when they are peacefully sharing space, and we give out lots of treats for good behavior.

Even with all of that, they can and do find things to disagree about. Sometimes it’s just that something that’s fun for one dog isn’t fun for the other, or something that was fun at first isn’t fun any more. I understand all of this. It works the same way for the humans in the house, whether there are five of us or, as now, just two. And not all of us have someone around to separate us when our hackles go up about something and we start picking on each other.

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This year has been a tough one for relationships. Most externally imposed boundaries have been eliminated. We don’t have travel, or going to an office, or even going shopping as artificially enforced time apart. It can be hard to find things to talk about when we’ve spent all day on top of each other and we already know everything the other person did. Especially this year, a lot of the things to talk about from the outside world are scary or irritating or contentious. Just like the dogs, it’s easy for one of us to get sick of something the other one is doing, or for one of us to get irritated at something else and then take it out on the closest person.

I once read a novel about a marriage counseling service that sent a linguist to live with a struggling couple on the theory that the root of their problems was in the words they used to speak to each other. I don’t disagree with this (and it was a great premise for a book), but I wouldn’t mind having a good dog trainer in the house on some days. Not for the dogs – for us.

Rose and I have been together for 27 years, and we know by now that in every relationship there will be times you and your dearly beloved will drive each other completely crazy. Mostly we can laugh about it, and we are also good at finding activities we enjoy doing together. I feel like this year has made us better at both things. Sometimes, though, it would be nice to have someone else to read the warning signs for us, and put us in separate yards. Or better yet, someone else to note when things are going well, and to offer us a cookie. 

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