Listen First, Train Later.

Photo by Patrick McMahan

Photo by Patrick McMahan

The first time I met him, he was two months old standing in a stall with his mom. He was bright and intuitive, an Andalusian/Appendix cross and soon, my 50th birthday present to me.

We did it all right. I worked with him lightly over the next months and we got to know each other. The breeder did a slow-motion weaning process that was less stressful. We took our time and prepared ahead. I was actually aware that over 60% of foals develop ulcers when they are weaned.

When the day actually came for the colt to travel to my barn, I hauled a peaceful gelding up to keep him company in the trailer. We arrived early in the day, did a quiet job of loading the colt and took an uneventful hour drive back to my home barn.

The colt made friends with a donkey first, but everyone liked him and there was no drama. We spent the first afternoon exploring, friends dropped by, and he got hay snacks through the day. Everything was perfect.

That night I called the breeder to let her know we had arrived safely and settled in. I praised the colt for being brave and managing the day so well. I told her I was surprised to see him be so food aggressive at dinner time and she said that was odd, he hadn’t been that way in the past. We both did a phone shrug and I thanked her again.

The next morning I set about training some table manners. I asked him to step back and he pinned his ears, and we worked from there. He was a very smart horse who learned quickly. In no time at all, he was much less intimidating around hay and I was feeling great about my training skills. That was just the first time I didn’t listen to this colt.

This is going to sound very obvious, but still, here goes:

Horses don’t speak English. They speak Horse. As the theoretically more advanced species, it’s up to us to learn their language. The primary way they have to communicate with us is through their behavior. If we judge every behavior as bad or a training issue, we aren’t listening as well as we could. My new colt told me in the clearest way that he could that food hurt his stomach, that he was in pain, but regrettably, I trained that symptom away.

And just as obvious, training away a symptom is not the same thing as healing it. It doesn’t address the actual problem so it will pop up again as another behavior and the miscommunication plants a seed of mutual confusion or maybe even distrust. Everyone tells me that their biggest goal is to have a better relationship with their horse. The best body position in the world will never take the place of a good ear.

Just to be clear, it is never okay with me for a horse to have bad ground manners and be dangerous, even if they are in pain. Part of the art of training is finding a balance of respect and honesty. If that’s working, a horse shouldn’t have to fight to be heard. If we listen to his small voice, or even just acknowledge it, he begins to trust us. And conversely, if we discipline a horse every time he tries to tell us something, he will shut down or go nuts. Just like we do in real life.

Think of being with horses as a game of Charades. Their team is up and instead of categories like movies or book titles, they act out a behavior for us to guess the meaning. It might be a limp or excessive spookiness, or head tossing. We check for physical causes, then emotional ones. If we are brutally self-honest, we check to see if our horse is mirroring our own fears or anxiety. It’s confusing and our perception might be challenged. That’s why training is an art, remember?

“The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.” -Elie Wiesel

Once you have listened to the message, then by all means, train away. Positive training is a calming gift. It is a way for a horse to find peace, a way he can know where he belongs in a chaotic world.

Too many times, we identify our horses as having bad human habits: “He is just being lazy.” “He’s crazy, he’s seen that a million times.” “He’s a nervous Nelly, he just wants to run all the time.”

Our first imperative in working with horses is always their well-being. Horses live in the moment and their reality is physically sensed through their bodies. Good riders calm their own brain chatter and get present in the moment. We will get better results if we listen with an open mind and not just treat our horses like badly behaved boyfriends.

The gift that comes with bad behavior is a chance for positive leadership. It’s a chance to reward his vulnerability and honesty with compassion rather than punishment. Lots of us didn’t grow up in homes that ran by these rules, and the help we give our horses heals a bit of us as well.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

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