The old horse trainers will tell you that training isn’t just something you go out with an agenda to do for X hours per day, X days per week. Training is everything you do with and around a horse. Every interaction. Every word and movement. And it adds up–both the good and the bad.
I think this is a useful life lesson. Every little thing you do has an effect on everything and everyone around you. Whether you set out deliberately to Do Something, or just happen to be in a particularly nice or particularly cranky mood, the way you approach your animal/job/writing/younameit will shape what happens right then, and what will happen going forward.
If you’re very tired and the horse is picking up your tension and you smack him at just the wrong moment, you could make him head-shy for days or weeks or even permanently. Or if he’s been a PITA about something you want him to do, but you’re feeling mellow this morning and you don’t ride his butt about it, but shrug and Let It Go, lo and behold, there he is. He was butting heads with you all this time, but the one time you don’t butt back, he doesn’t, either.
That revelation has come to me many a time, but I had it again the other day, moving stallion, high with spring hormones, from his turnout to his stall for the night. He was pushy and pull-y, sidling and throwing his head, but I just didn’t play into it. Instead of hauling back on the leadrope and setting myself up to go dirt-skiing, or pushing my elbow against him to get him out of my space, I just…didn’t. Went soft. Relaxed my arm and hand. Left a small amount of slack in the lead (not enough that he could break loose, but enough that it wasn’t exerting pressure on his head through the halter) and made a zone of mellow around myself and kept walking calmly forward.
He was still a bit snorty and he sidled a bit, but he didn’t pull, he didn’t lunge ahead, and he left the light contact the way it was. Stood reasonably quietly at his stall gate, too, while I undid the halter for him to go in.
That needs reinforcement, probably for weeks or months. But it saves wear and tear on the human and the equipment, and over time, the horse will learn to chill as well.
Same with the dog. He was a foundling with zero socialization; he was expelled from Basic Manners class for being completely unable to deal with a room full of strange and not always mannerly dogs. His response was to bark incessantly, which in retrospect I realize came from his German Shepherd ancestry–police dog wants to police all the other dogs.
So we slunk home and regrouped and connected with a private trainer (who also teaches yoga), and we had a weekend with a visiting friend from the show-dog world as well, and we persisted. We took him in for “brain surgery” (and oh lord when I came to get him, they all knew who he was, because he had been screaming nonstop since he woke up; they were convinced he was a complete lunatic), and once he’d recovered from that, he had actual brain cells to spare for training.
And we persisted. Every day. Every little thing. Came the time when I started to think that maaaaayyyybe he could go off leash around the five acres, rather than being tied in his “grounding spot” in the middle of the barn while I worked (because he hated to be shut in the house with me outside). We worked on our obedience and we worked on our heeling and we worked on our callbacks. And little by little he got to be a Free Elf (he even got a sock to play with).
There were backslidings. The day he took off down the road with a new friend, a neighbor’s dog being walked on lead, he took a while to come back even with me hunting and calling; and when he did, he looked as if he’d lost an eye. He’d whacked it hard and ended up with inflammation in the cornea. One fund drive and many hundreds of dollars later, he’s down to eyedrops twice a day, and his eye is not only still there, it’s clear and the prognosis is excellent.
And so are his manners off leash, as well as his manners for his one (1) eyedrop every twelve hours. His callbacks since that one incident have been just about perfect. Utter triumph this past week: two strays in the driveway, dog in horse turnout, male stray offering some aggressive body language, female offering invitations to play. I called my dog and he came. At a full-on run. Sat, waited, got his treat. Stayed at heel when I went back to barn chores.
And now we work on the herding-and-chasing instinct. Sit, Wait, horses run out from stalls to turnout, Sit, Wait, treat.
Every little bit. Horses know their routine, too, and go where I point, because I’ve been doing it for so many years. And they all come to their specific names, again because it’s been an ongoing thing.
It’s amazing how much can happen without your even realizing it, because you’re persistent and consistent and you know what you want out of the deal: nice, cooperative, attentive animals who are safe to be around, but who also enjoy the interaction. That’s a happy dog bounding up to me as I do the rounds, getting a pat or a treat, then going off to attend to business–within safe boundaries. And those are happy horses following me around, keeping an eye out for my human squishy-smallness, and lining up for shoer, vet, or training.
Every little bit, every day.