Talking to Horses

About a year ago I started taking horseback riding lessons. Yet it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I could clarify what I really want out of my time with my horses: how to talk to them.

margskip8_29167657915_oThe moment of clarity came during a trick clinic. That is, an all-day affair where each participant worked with her horse on fundamental training principles with fun payouts–the tricks. Getting the horse to “smile,” or step up on a small block, or hug you. I was having the time of my life and we didn’t spend a single moment on horseback. It was the engagement with the horse, his interest in what was happening, the painstaking process of figuring out how to elicit the correct behavior that I loved. The conversation.

When I returned to horses as an adult, remembering only my confidence with them when I was younger, I was shocked to find how much I had changed. Sense of my own mortality, etc. I thought confidence would return as I spent more time with them both on the ground and in the saddle. Some has, for sure. But I realized at that trick clinic that I needed a tool set. Techniques for dogs don’t necessarily translate to horses; body language has different meaning; predator and prey cannot be equated.

Quarterhorse standing with two front feet on a block
Skippy is a bit clumsy and it took him ages to figure out this particular “simple” trick, but we got there eventually!

I feel like I heard a new language for the first time at that clinic and have been trying to practice ever since. My teacher always says that she doesn’t whisper to horses, she listens to them, and while I have intellectually understood the difference I feel like I’m just starting to understand what that actually means now. And although I’ve got a long way to go, it’s astonishing how much more confident I have felt simply having that insight and a new tool set.

Last week, I had the opportunity to take another “language lesson” with the same trainer. This clinic was divided into trick training for the first half and versatility for the second–that is, intentionally pushing your horse’s limits in order to build up their confidence and deepen the trust which is the focus of all training.

Skippy on a seesaw
The seesaw! Please ignore my posture, which is awful. Also he tried to eat the giant inflatable monster in the corner.

I got off easy for the second part. My partner for the event–as for the first one–was a hunky AQHA named Skippy who could be the dictionary definition of “bombproof.” At one point, I was riding him while holding a veil over his head, asking him to walk over a mattress and through a fence of pool noodles (at one point, while two hula hoops hung around his neck), and he acted like we were taking a Sunday stroll through the park. We had to work through a few tough moments, like walking onto and over a horse-sized seesaw or finding a giant plush iguana on the ground where there hadn’t been one a moment before, but on the whole our conversation was more like easy bantering than a debate.

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If only you could see his “yeah, whatever” face. Image c/o Kasandra Olson.

My second trick training clinic left me grinning like an idiot and reinforced how right this system felt to me. Of course, not all horses are the same, and just as with humans, you can’t have the same conversation with two of them. I was riding one of the most reliable horses at the barn the other day, an expert lesson horse who could do what I’m asking her with her eyes closed. But she spooked.

All of a sudden I couldn’t even remember how to have any conversation, let alone what language it ought to be in. So I panicked and dumped myself off onto the sand. She looked at me, I looked at her, we both felt a bit ashamed of ourselves. A few moments later the source of the spook ran by, and let me tell you, it was the most terrifying chipmunk I have ever seen. So yeah. The confidence recipe includes a hefty proportion of practice and I’m far from that magical threshold.

This spring, I wrote about being an adult beginner. I was out for 6 weeks as a result of the fall that prompted that post; then I traveled for a month during the summer; and lately, I haven’t been riding much as we’ve been busy moving the barn to new facilities. Honestly, I don’t feel a lot closer to answering the questions I posed to myself back in May. However, through my first few falls and scary moments, through a sticky hot summer and a hell of a lot of hard work, I can now say (with a certain amount of pride) that I have been sticking to it. Talking to horses will take a long time to do well and I don’t know if I’ll ever be fluent. Fortunately, though–time I’ve got.

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