December 14, 2010
Energy and Intent copyright (c) Robin Brueckmann 2010 At the barn where I board my horses, there is a new boarder. I mean new in every sense of the word. She is a beginning rider, and has not been around horses very much. Her reactions are colored by her dogs rather than any experience with horses. She is leasing a ten-year-old quarter horse gelding named Sandman, who is a pleasant fellow, generally ridden western-style. Margaret rides him in a western saddle. But all is not well in Sandman-land. Margaret is timid and unsure of herself. She does not know what to expect from this easy-going horse, and consequently he is unsure of her. He won't stand still when she grooms him. Margaret ties him to a post with a long lead line, and she ties him low on the post. Sandman is a cribber, and he cribs while she chases him around the post. Generally, the people I deal with as clients have much more experience with horses, but there are a lot of Margarets out there, too. I step in and help Margaret learn about horses, even though she is not my client. She needs help, and is grateful. Horses are not dogs. They don't think like dogs, and they don't react like dogs. Horses are prey animals, and their first instinct, when in doubt, is to run away. If Margaret acts like a predator, moving quickly or unpredictably, Sandman is unsure if she is a predator, and he startles. This startles Margaret, and sets a chain in motion of the two of them scaring each other. It takes time for Margaret to learn how to move more slowly and predictably around her horse. Margaret generally arrives at the barn around 9:30, when I have already worked with two horses. Yesterday, she came a little earlier, when I was playing with my two-year-old, Whoopee, in the round pen. I suggested that she watch what I was doing. She was interested, and watched carefully. I narrated what I was doing. I have been working Whoopee in the round pen for about three months. I have taught him to turn towards me when he changes direction, rather than turning to the outside as any sensible prey animal would turn. I had Margaret watch my body language and energy intent as I had Whoopee trot (clucking to him) and canter (kissing for canter). I reinforced each directive with a longe whip. Whoopee is a pinto, and he has the fortunate markings of a clear line between white and black spots right at the girth line on both sides. When I keep my body behind this line, I send Whoopee forward. If I step in front of this line, he stops or turns toward me, rolling back over his hocks. After a number of changes of direction and transitions between trot and canter, I call him toward me by backing and beckoning with my hand. He walks in toward me. Our next exercise is for him to do a turn on the forehand around me. I call his head and neck toward me while pushing his quarters away with the whip. Margaret watches, fascinated. She is amazed at how responsive he is, for a two-year-old. Actually, he is responsive for a horse of any age. I suggest to her that she come into the round pen, and send him out with her body language. It's a chance for her to practice clear intent on a horse who is demonstrably responsive to it. Margaret comes in and takes the whip, and I step outside the round pen. Margaret is tentative with both her body language and with the whip, and Whoopee stands and stares at her, unresponsive. I coach Margaret into more effective body language, and eventually she gets him to trot around. Margaret has a hard time keeping him going. She uses different vocal signals than Whoopee understands, and he does not understand her when she says, Go out, Giddyap. She keeps getting in front of the girth line, so clearly demarcated by his spots. Her movements are tentative, unclear, confusing. Her energy is passive. She shifts the whip to the front hand unconsciously, and Whoopee stops and just looks at her. Gradually, she becomes more confident and has better success. When she loses clarity in her body language, Whoopee tells her he's confused, and he thinks she wants the second activity, so he just circles her in a turn on the forehand. I go back into the round pen, to get Whoopee forward again. He believes me when I indicate something. My energy and intent are much stronger than Margaret's, and I point this out to her. She sees the difference, but she needs practice. Her confidence will improve with experience and practice. She has been playing with Sandman in the round pen, and she is more confident with him since she knows him better. I hope that she is able to apply what she has learned with Whoopee to her interactions with Sandman, to keep her safe and give her positive experiences. Her learning curve is still very steep, and every day is better for her. Watching Margaret interacting with Sandman reinforces to me the importance of using personal energy for positive results. Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer from National Geographic Channel, talks about using your energy to affect dog behavior, and it's just as imperative for working with horses. Cesar talks about using calm, assertive energy to help dogs behave in a predictable, civilized way Horses, as prey animals, are incredibly sensitive to their surroundings for survival's sake. Using active body language, and calm, assertive energy tells the horse that he should take some action. Passive body language indicates to the horse that everything's fine, don't change what your're doing, ignore potentially scary objects or movements. The work I am doing in the round pen with Whoopee has nothing to do with traditional longeing, although I will do that with him, too. This work is about teaching this young horse to look to his rider, or handler in this case, for instruction and verification. I want Whoopee to learn at this tender age that I am a good leader, that I will watch out for wolves and keep him safe from becoming lunch for some predator. This learning will serve us both well in years to come. Any time we are interacting with our horses, we are either leading or being led, in the sense of looking-out-for-wolves. If I prove to be a good wolf-looker-outer, the horse will trust me no matter what happens around him, or what scary objects come into his life. I can't desensitize my horses from every possibility that may occur in his life, but I can teach him where to turn for guidance. That's my most important role in my horse's life, to be a good leader for him. That does not mean domination but just clear leadership. When we observe horses interacting with each other, it's easy to see how they communicate. Most of the communication is visual, with body language. That's built into the horse's survival instinct, to watch fellow herd members for information that leads to continued survival. The lead mare uses her head and neck to direct her mates, pinning her ears or biting if that is ignored. Horses demonstrate affection toward each other by mutual grooming. We don't want to be the recipients of such mutual grooming because it feels to us like biting. Instead, we teach our horses that our version of this is grooming with brushes, or patting or rubbing. That is a secondary reinforcer; patting or rubbing is not a primary, or instinctive, source of affection from horse to horse. Margaret is slowly learning how to present herself as a good leader. She still tries to use her dog-skills rather than her new-found horse-skills, and it will take her time and diligent practice before she reacts and interacts with her horse in horse-friendly body language. She is smart about it, and is seeking information and training from professionals as she follows this new path. All of us can continue to learn more about communicating more clearly with our horses, and it's a rewarding project to pursue for a lifetime. Horse communication was not invented by the Natural Horsemanship practitioners, but their popularity and success has brought it to much greater awareness. These practitioners have helped clarify and codify these techniques, and have made it much easier for newcomers like Margaret to understand and apply useful communication skills in a way that horses already understand, because they are based on information that horses use to communicate with each other. It's useful to utilize natural horsemanship techniques to supplement classical training. Once you become familiar with using your body language in a horse-friendly way, classical training makes even more sense, and you will be able to clarify your communication skills and use of your body language for ever-lighter aids. Be open to new ideas, and pay attention to what your horse is telling you!