Training without training – the Zen Paradox

When it comes to horses, the biggest challenge people have is ego, their own ego gets between the horse and them – it has often been said that “broken people make the best horsemen”.  Certainly, that was a theme of the movie Buck.  Buck Brannaman had a less than ideal childhood that resulted in harsh treatment by his, apparently, drunken father and his removal from his father’s custody.

The Dorrances:

Some folks have suggested that Tom Dorrance may have been autistic, but I have never heard anyone suggest that his brother Bill shared the same affliction.  Perhaps folks are romanticising how the Dorrance’s were able to develop such insight and understanding into the true nature of horses.  It seems all of the Dorrance boys were pretty skilled in horsemanship, and they all shared similar talents.

On the other hand, assigning the label “autistic” to their uncanny ability to get along with a horse may be a way for some folk to excuse themselves for their own inability to achieve similar results.   The Dorrance boys shared a passion for horses, as well as other animals, and stockmanship, including braiding and craftsmanship.  They were dedicated to understand their horses and work with them, in accordance with each horse’s natural tendencies and inclinations.

Awareness or mindfulness:

Mindfulness is a real thing, these days, we all bumble through life chasing dollars, acquiring stuff, and trying to get ourselves noticed as unique, clever, smart, witty, intellectual or whatever.  Along the path we often abandon our humanity in exchange for our perception of success.  People who don’t follow the traditional path to social success are often labelled, rightly or wrongly, to excuse their differential path.

Horses are important to humans, they have been for thousands of years, for work and for pleasure, for war, for transportation and so much more.  A hundred years ago they were our main means of land transportation.  A hundred years ago we had a better understanding of them, of what they are, how they think and react.  A hundred years ago we got around horses a lot more, certainly out of necessity.

Today, we are all on the clock, we have expectations, sometimes unrealistic, and always with a sense of immediacy.  A colt is sent away for thirty days of training and the expectation is that upon his return he can be ridden over hill and valley and safely negotiate our passage across streams, stay calm in the face of predators, dogs, and other animals.  Somehow, if we don’t get the desired results, as is human nature, we blame the trainer, the horse, yes, mostly the horse.  But we never look at the man in the mirror.

Training without awareness:

Yet, aware or not, every time we interact with horses, we are training them, effectively training without training.  We are either training them to do what we want them to do, or we are training them to do something else.  When you approach your horse do you extend your hand for them to sniff?  Seems innocuous enough, we do it with dogs – we are taught to extend the back of our hand, held in a fist, towards a strange dog before we engage with it.

Many folks extend their hand palm up towards a horse’s muzzle, in some cases offering it a treat, a carrot, sugar cube of something else enticing.  Pretty soon when the horse sees a human coming it will reach forward with its muzzle to check to see if there is a treat, it may even start to frisk the person, after all the last guy kept pulling treats out of his pocket.

The horse is simply following the path of least resistance – think about this in terms of pressure and release, this is a huge release, for doing nothing but checking.  The horse figures “I’d better check everyone; I might be missing something”.  A lot of folks love that, it is cute, sweet, loving, friendly, whatever.  While others see it for what it is, “bloody well annoying”.  If you can’t walk your horse past someone without the horse frisking them, something is not right.

Inadvertent training:

I once watched as a lady was trying to bridle her horse, every time she would try to pull the crown piece of the bridle over the horse’s head the horse would move its head up and away.  Her thoughts were that the horse was in pain, perhaps he had a sore ear.  She asked me to have a look and see if I agreed, I watched for a moment and said “you just trained him to do that” – she got mad at the very suggestion she may have been the cause of her own frustration.

I asked if I could try, she said “sure”, no doubt expecting me to get the same result.  I raised my hand towards the horse’s ear, he started to move away, instead of stopping and taking my hand away, I stayed with him, resting my hand on his neck behind his ear, as he moved his head trying to escape, I just stayed there until he stopped moving and allowed me to rub his ear.  In a few minutes he had no problem at all with me touching him and pulling his crown-piece over his ear.

The problem was simple, he had learned that if she reached for his head and he moved it away from her, she would leave him alone and stop reaching.  The horse had learned this strategy to avoid other things too.  He wasn’t being mean, or trying to frustrate her, he was just looking to be left alone.

Most of our problems with horses aren’t really problems at all, most relate to a lack of awareness or mindfulness, and the recognition that even in the most mundane of situations we are teaching the horse something, even when didn’t set out to.  If we can just get to where we recognize that horses are not like us, and to where we can see them and understand them for what they are, horses, our relationships will improve.