It seems that all the time, I’m thinking about and discussing what we are trying to cultivate in a horse when working with them. I say things like “directing the thought” and “being soft” and “taking an interest.” But what does that really look like?????
Tonight my husband, Tye, came in with a story that really struck me as what this philosophy is really all about. So I will brag about his creativity for a moment! I’ve been giving Tye regular lessons with his young mule, Slim, who is about ready to get going under saddle. Slim, however, would really just like to party all the time. Who can blame him? Tye’s recent challenge has been that Slim would prefer not going back into the pen after a session (Tye may be the only person in equine history to have an animal that will run to him to be caught, go wherever he likes, and then throw a fit when it’s time to go back in the large pen with the other horses!). There is green grass and way more to do outside his paddock than inside it, so Slim wonders what the point of going home really is?
As anyone who has ever played with a mule before knows, when a mule gets a thought, it gets a BIG thought. And if you match that big thought with any sort of muscle, well, good luck to you. Tye spends his days with tractors and hammers, and was unpleasantly surprised to find that Slim didn’t really care how hard he pulled on the lead. Slim was staying at the party, not going home. Last weekend, I demonstrated to Tye how I would handle this. I spent time getting Slim’s thought to go forward, regardless of what happened with his feet. Every time his eyes got bright, his ears went forward, and he showed a glimmer of interest in the right direction, he got a pet. The take home message for Tye was how little strength any of this required on my part, because I was cultivating the thought, not the feet. Before you know it, Slim walked quietly and purposefully through the green grass and into his pen. I think Tye could have killed me!
Instead of domestic dispute, though, Tye thought on it. When he next went to practice the reentering the pen, he said there were a few times he almost got in a fight, but was able to work his way through it. But then something magical happened (at least magical to me…I don’t think Tye or Slim would describe it as such!). Tye said he was reaching a point where he wasn’t sure what to do. So he swung the big gate shut to take Slim for a little walking break. When the gate swung shut, it bounced a bit off the post, and caused a vibration, which caught Slim’s attention. Slim became very curious about the vibration, and was looking right at the gate Tye wanted him to go through! So, in a stroke of what I would call genius, Tye pet him. He asked for him to go towards that interest, which Slim did. He opened the gate a bit, and Slim got worried about going through, so Tye shut it and caused it to vibrate. He repeated this. Each time Slim got worried about going through the gate and leaving the party side of the fence, Tye would vibrate the gate, Slim would get interested, and Tye would pet him. He said before he knew it, Slim was walking through the gate just as nice as can be! No fighting necessary.
I think this is such a valuable lesson. It shows that none of this situation had to do with Slim’s feet, or Tye’s strength. Just where Slim was interested, and if he was allowed to pursue that interest. Tye did exactly what I had done. He cultivated an interest until Slim wanted to pursue it. While I made a bit of noise or put a bit of a feel on the rope, Tye just slammed a gate so it vibrated. No difference. They all caught Slim’s attention. Tye probably was smarter about the situation than I was, because he didn’t have to work so hard to catch his attention, or worry much about timing, because he noticed something that did it easily! So here, Tye used the mule’s ability to have a big thought to his advantage!
When we are working our horses (or mules) it is so important to remember that if they wanted to, they can do everything we ask of them. But why would they want to? Just like Slim wanted to stay out in party-land (i.e: not his paddock), every moment a horse is alive they have feelings, desires, and ideas. Why fight that? Isn’t that what we love about them? I know that the reason I choose to ride horses and not a motorcycle is because I absolutely love the emotions, the tries, and the intelligence that radiates from a horse. It is simply a matter of making the ideas we have, their ideas. We have to direct their thoughts and change their feelings, so that they can take an interest in what we would like them to take an interest in. This isn’t something that can be done with force, because this is something that is willingly given by the horse. You can’t force me to be interested in something. You can force me to do something, but not to be interested in it. I have to have a reason, a motivation, a desire, in order to be truly interested, and not simply obedient.
I don’t know why the vibrating gate was so fascinating to Slim, and I hope in the future if Tye continues to cultivate this, the gate won’t need to be there. Slim will decide that whatever Tye suggests is interesting, truly is interesting, just because he trusts that Tye knows what he’s talking about in that department. That’s really what my goal is every time I’m with an animal. For them to feel confident enough in our relationship that if I suggest they take an interest in something, they are excited to do it, and their effort is genuine.
Our animals must freely give their thoughts to us, because they cannot be taken. So it is up to us to figure out how to be important enough, interesting enough, and trustworthy enough, to deserve them.