This past weekend was filled with horse fun. On Friday I spent the day job shadowing farrier Jen Swartz. Saturday was a day of natural horsemanship with Stephanie Lockhart, and Sunday I went on a trail ride with my new friend, Nicky.
Friday I met Jen at the Cambridge Park & Ride and we were off on our Rt 15 trimming tour. We stopped at 5 barns and trimmed 7 horses, 6 of them were returning customers and 1 was a new customer. The new customer was at a barn near Jericho Center; the customer was leasing a big Thoroughbred named Bravo.
The word bravo has a couple of meanings, the first being to shout an approval for an excellent performance; the other meaning is that a bravo is a villian, or a hired killer.
I wish this horse, Bravo, was appreciated by the people at the barn, and that they saw him for the horse that he was, a dark, tall animal of prey that would give you his trust and confidence if you allowed him to do so, if you respected his dignity. Would offer you gifts that make your heart swell with pride and your eyes fill with tears of joy.
But, alas, the people at this barn were the opposite kind of horse owners who did not appreciate the horse for the magnificent creature that he is, who would rather use force and intimidation to “discipline” the horse (even though prey animals don’t understand discipline–they may respond to the pressure of discipline but what you get from your horse after “discipline”, especially harsh discipline, is a horse without a soul). It was kind of ironic that Bravo’s trainers were true to the opposite definition of his name, they were the villains and he was the one we were cheering for, hoping that he would come through in the end and conquer the villains. I’m not sure that this story ends well for dear old Bravo, though, and I do feel like I let the horse down by standing on the sidelines and averting my gaze.
It is strange to me that many horse people prefer restraint to patience and passive persistence. It’s almost like getting the job done by force, because it may be faster, is more important than respecting the horse and taking a bit of extra time to work through the kinks. Getting the job done by restraint will not be effective in the long run, and will only make things worse next time, whereas patience and proper techniques (such as approach and retreat–acting as a horse would act) will help the horse to understand that we can be trusted, that we are not trying to kill him, and it will build the horse’s confidence rather than breaking it down.
It is disheartening to me that many horse people and even higher education institutes advocate “authoritative tones” (yelling), lip chains, and twitching to restrain a horse and get the job done. It seems a bit backwards in these times to still revert to such outdated and harsh methods of horse training.
Instead we can use our understanding of horse behavior (how would a horse act with another horse?). We can understand that horses are prey animals and we are predators; hence, we DO NOT think alike. We can use approach and retreat and slowly get more of what we want through building the horse’s trust and confidence. And we can learn about phases of pressure. We can start thinking and behaving more like a horse to get the results that we want rather than acting like predators and forcing the horse to do what we say.
For example, what would we do if we wanted a horse that is comfortable with being touched on the leg to pick up his foot? It’s better to start with Phase 1 pressure, a suggestion of picking up the foot, rather than going to Phase 4 pressure and applying a lot of force to pick up the foot. It seems almost silly to have to say, first suggest and then work your way up the phases, but our direct line thinking (we think of the outcome and getting from A to B as fast as possible) causes us to apply more pressure than necessary; however, if we are aware of the phases of pressure, and if we remind ourselves to slow down and take a few seconds with each phase, we will have a horse that will eventually be able to lift his leg by knowing our intent, and we may never have to touch that leg to pick it up again! That is the magic of horses. Once they understand what we want and respect us for respecting them, they will offer amazing things.
Bravo was a brave boy who got the short end of the stick, who was stuck with people who treated him more like a slave that a magical creature that deserves much love. I hope that the future shines for him, that life looks up, and that he finds a human who knows how to love him, and in time maybe he will forget.
When his halter was removed and he was returned to the pasture, Bravo ran uphill to his pasture mates, shook off the dirt and grime of human interaction, and rolled. That is the memory that I try to keep in mind when I think of this brave horse.