Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Singing in the Rain... or Not

There are few things more soothing than waking to the first spring thunder storm that is slowly making its way across the landscape. Low, continual and deep rumbles are interspersed with resounding cabooms and sharp cracks. There are the brief flashes of light with the following ripping of the sound barrier, a crack that shakes the windows and leaves one wondering what got hit so close by. The rain is a constant, socked in and soaking the earth. The sounds are very hard to inspire one to get out of bed. The safety of the flannels and pillow lured me into repeated snoozes until finally I could stay there no more and I got up to see what the rainy day would bring. After coffee I figured the horses might like their breakfast, albeit later than usual, so I donned my long rain coat, my snowy river felt hat and pulled on my water proof tall boots and headed to the barn.

I fed the first group, letting them into their stalls to get out of the rain for at least part of the day. The last to be dealt with was Cistine, whose paddock has no shed roof for shelter and so she was anxiously waiting for me to come rescue her. I grabbed her halter and set out into the rain to bring her in. I stepped forward through the fence line to put on her halter and she stepped quickly away from me. This repeated several times. The problem was, she apparently just didn’t like my hat and coat, and she decided that she just absolutely could not be caught and haltered. I could get face to face with her and she would reach up and bite my hat and then reach down and bite at my coat, but I could get not closer to her. After a few unsuccessful attempts to reach over her neck to get the halter strap around her, that were met with her head going straight up and her walking backwards, I knew the game was on. This issue of not being caught, was what the new focus of my day was going to be about. It was the principle of the issue, she didn’t like my garb and wasn’t going to play put on halter and go in to the barn, like she has done every day of her entire life. The choice was to leave her in the rain with no food or use the moment as a lesson of sorts. I chose the later.

Years ago a fellow named Monty Roberts brought a really old school method of breaking horses to the mainstream with a book and videos and such, and he called himself the “Horse Whisperer”. The techniques of his method went way back to very early horsemanship and were based on principles of the psychology of prey animals and how they react to being pursued. The idea of it was that one would chase the horse, and direct its movement until the horse finally gave up its fear and began being curious about the pursuer to the point where the horse turned to the pursuer and gave in and “joined up” with the pursuer. This point of acceptance in a horse is a huge break through when the training process is going on. It goes to the core of the relationship that is forming at the beginning of the training and sets the tone from then on. Breaking a horse can certainly be done by other methods than going to this end but it is a very fast and definitive moment that some horses really need to become solid partners with their riders, especially ones with strong opinions, like whether they like your rain coat and hat or not. So standing in the pouring rain with an empty halter, I realized that this was to be my expenditure of time and effort for the next minutes, or however long it took to win the game. “Oh boy”, I thought, but somewhere I had known this moment had been coming and I resolved to see it through.

I began with approaching her with the halter and if I reached to put it on her head and she even flinched away, I would make her move away from me. I kept her moving across the pasture, back and forth, cutting her desired paths off and sending her where I wanted her to go. She did not want me on her left so that was where I concentrated my body language, pushing but watching for signs of submission on her part. There was no room for almost here. This was a clear line drawn, that only a willingness to be haltered was the answer, and patiently I walked behind her, back and forth, back and forth.

Over head the skies were still rumbling and the rain was steady. An occasional flash of lightening would elicit a,”SHIT!” from my mouth and a involuntary cringe in an expectation of becoming flash fired by a direct strike of these bolts. Fortunately none struck so close that I did not mange to survive to write these words but at one point I seriously questioned my sanity for the sake of an issue with a stubborn mare, and on ward I trod relentlessly pushing this silly beast. The dogs watched this parade from the safety and dryness of the barn and did not give their opinions of the scene nor of my apparent total lack of sanity.

She kept an ear on me at all times and would periodically act like she had tired of the game and was ready to stop. As soon as I raised my hand off she went shaking her head and narrowing her eyes in a peevish way. I wondered at just how long this was going to take, but the choice to stop and pick it up another day was not an option.

At long last she began chewing and making mouthing type movements which I took for a good sign as all good herbivores do this to indicate their lack of interest in eating another critter and to hopefully avoid being eaten as well. She began stopping more frequently and would put her nose to the ground, also a good sign, but still held out when I went to halter her and moved away. Two full hours of walking in the pouring rain in a spring thunder storm following an opinionated horse, finally came to a close and she dropped her head and stuck her nose in the halter. She then reached over and took another half hearted nip at my hat to let me know she had relented, she was hungry and wet after all, but she still just did not like that hat and didn’t want me to forget it. She quietly walked with me to the barn and I fed her her long awaited breakfast after she had rolled in the dry shavings to get the ichiness off. I left her to her meal and went back to the house for dry clothes and more hot tea.

I returned after a few hours to turn her back out, the rain having mostly moved on and thunder quieted. I did wear the hat for curiosity and when I walked into the stall she immediately reached up and grabbed my hat with her teeth. She did not move away tho this time when I reached up to the side of her neck, as she had done for the previous several hours. I took the hat off, let her smell it, and then placed it on her head and she was fine with it. I guess as well as the new shape, the wet smell of felt must have been strange enough to cause the holdout.

Who knows with horses, what they will be freaked out by and behave so adamantly about. How can you possibly know what to school them about until you really need to school them on it? How do know which buttons will do what until you push just the right one? You can’t, and that is why horse training is never in a straight line. It requires a whole bunch of patience and a willingness to do stuff like walking for two hours in the rain dodging lightning bolts to make a point. But my still damp hair will straighten back out eventually, my clothes are in the dryer, I have a new cup of tea brewing, and tomorrow is just another challenge waiting to happen in horse world. Silly critters, they are.

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