When it comes to training animals (or writing books or teaching children or pretty much anything, really), sometimes the usual parameters just don’t work. We know they work in a large number of cases, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be usual. But then comes an animal (or story or child or pretty much anything, really) that doesn’t Do normal.
The great universal They will tell you that “every animal is an individual,” but when it comes to the actual training, that individual is expected to fit into certain parameters. And respond in certain ways. And if it doesn’t, it must be either your fault, for not doing it right, or the animal’s fault, for not fitting in. Actually questioning the parameters (or the cultural assumptions or the educational theories and praxis or pretty much anything, really) is much less likely to happen.
Most animals manage to cope with the usual ways of doing things. Those ways may be flexible enough, or the animal is, that sooner or later, the desirable results happen, and the animal is considered to be appropriately trained and socialized. Even when the methods are less common or less quick-and-easy than usual, they still fall into a certain spectrum, and in general they work.
That’s been true here, too. Most of my horses have responded well to “classical” training, and found it generally congenial. Any wobbles or bobbles have been my own, and I’ve done my best to own them.
Then there’s this horse:
Highly intelligent. Wonderful mover. Beautiful example of her breed (said the judge from Austria when she was evaluated for breeding). And a complete stumper when it came to trying to get her trained.
She clearly wanted to be ridden. She pitched fits when I rode someone else–when she was all of three days old. She bugged me to work with her, pushing her nose into the halter meant for another horse, and following us around with great determination.
But the usual methods Did Not Work. She grew roots when she was supposed to go forward. She melted down when she was taken out on her own. She bolted and kicked when pressed, however gently.
One memorable session with a fairly gentle trainer resulted in her attempting, the next time, to fight every move we made. The next trainer, more aggressive, “got after her” in the course of a weekend, and handed me back an unridable mess. A dangerous, unridable mess.
These weren’t horribly abusive trainers, though the latter was a piece of work in quite a few other ways. They were just doing the usual thing, and expecting the usual response, which added up to a little initial resistance (based on misunderstanding mainly), then capitulation, followed by acceptance and cooperation. This mare’s brother had handled it quite acceptably, we thought then, and managed to be a ridable horse.
She wasn’t having any. I started to call her “my autism spectrum horse,” because she had a number of stereotypical behaviors in response to stress (teeth-grinding most notably), and she acted as if the world in general was a stressor. Things coming at her too fast, too hard, too strong. Reacting a little too strongly to stimuli, being a little too pushy, never quite mastering the concept of dialing down her strength to accommodate the fragile human. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t learn, it’s that she couldn’t seem to get it. Everything with her was just a little off scale.
The usual resort in such cases, especially in a breed in which there has been some notable prejudice against its mares, has been to put the mare to work making babies with stallions of much more acceptable temperament. But even if the economy had not collapsed and taken with it most of the market for this rare breed, and even though she’d proved with younger herdmates that she would make a wise and nurturing mother, my gut said not to do that. Wait, let her recover from our inept attempts to train her, and find another approach.
Which she managed to do herself, one day when a new teacher came to help a boarder learn to relax in the saddle. The idea was to get the boarder doing some yoga on horseback, and the teacher was both a horsewoman and a yoga instructor. That happened with another horse, and went well, and is another story. But afterward, while we were talking, with me asking questions about this new thing I didn’t know anything about, this happened:
The thing about yoga, or this kind of yoga at least, is that it comes from a different direction than horse training in the West, and a different tradition altogether. It’s not so much about doing as about being. Breathing and balancing and finding the calm in the center.
Which horse training is about, too, really, but when a trainer approaches a horse, she approaches her actively. We are going to learn things. We are going to do things. I have an agenda. The horse may change it, and I will always pay attention and adapt and let the horse tell me what she needs. But I am still in Do mode.
This horse got her gut full of Do between gentler trainer who tried to do well, and not so gentle trainer who was going to make her cooperate or else. For that particular brain wiring, with the world already coming at her with a whole lot of Too Much, active training was overkill to the point of not being able to cope. Even a wise trainer who truly Got this kind of hypersensitive horse, and whom this horse’s brother absolutely adored (and still does), was just a little too much Trainer Do for her.
So. We shifted parameters. We went away from Trainer Do. We let her tell us what she wanted–first choose her teacher, then tell us when she was ready to start doing actual, individual sessions.
It took a few years. But her breed is long-lived and as one very famous Trainer Do said, “We Have Time.”
She did yoga in the herd. She oversaw our Warrior sessions, especially. She helped raise her younger herdmates. She asked for in-hand work occasionally, and sometimes the saddle, but riding never quite jelled–and I wasn’t going to force it. That would fry her conclusively.
Finally, last week, she was ready. She didn’t end up being ridden; she kept going to the mounting block, then veering off it. Which was all right. She was happy in saddle and bridle. Her groundwork was impeccable. She just couldn’t get far enough past the memories of Do to be able to trust that we’d really, this time, changed the parameters.
Teacher had a most interesting diagnosis. “Most horses,” she said, “are presumed to live in the present. They have amazing memories, so the past is always with them, but the general belief is that everything for them is Now. But this horse has a concept of Future.”
Talk about shifting a profoundly basic parameter and root assumption about how horses think. This one has always wanted to be ridden–but the concept of having to learn how has been the problem. It’s as if she can see ahead to herself as trained horse, but she can’t wrap her brain around the idea of training as a process.
Her herdmates have mostly been hardwired, this breed being designed that way, but they accept training willingly and have a high tolerance for repetitive exercises. They’re highly sensitive and quite opinionated and you’d better ask nicely, but Trainer Do makes perfect sense to them.
And here is one who is all set to head out on the trails–but can’t actually cope with being Out There, and hasn’t got the concept of balance under a rider yet, either.
Parameter shift. Let her set the pace. Let her ask, rather than doing the asking. Be still; breathe. Have patience. And talk to her, because whether they’re picking up body language and subtle cues or actually picking up words, these horses respond extremely well to being talked to.
As I said, she wasn’t ready for the riding part. But she got her saddle and bridle back and discovered how to be soft in her whole body, for the first time in her life, and she was happy. She even, at the end, once unsaddled, led us up to the parking lot to say goodbye to her teacher, which she has never done in her whole life. Never led, never forged ahead.
She weirded herself out quite a bit. Got anxious. Herd was so far away. Ground her teeth. Rolled her eyes. But didn’t erupt, and didn’t lose control of herself. Then spent the whole rest of the day, and much of the next, in a meditative state–off a bit with her cousins around her, mulling over her lessons. Because horses are marvelous latent learners and great processors of data, and this one had a whole new world to process.
New parameters. New ways of thinking and (dare we say it) doing. We’ll be going places now, I think. With her leading, because the usual way, with the human in charge, is not her way. She’ll have to learn about keeping the human safe, and about letting the human call at least some of the shots, but that’s not too hard for her to understand–she’s raised young horses for years.
It’s going to be interesting. I’m looking forward to it. She is, too, I think.