Thursday, October 22, 2009

IT’S NOT THE BIGGEST, IT’S THE MEANEST: talking horses with people who don’t know horses.

I got into a discussion the other day with a couple of my Ol man’s buddies.  You know how it is with buddies - they are always up for a chat.

Jim Bob -yes there is a buddy called Jim Bob - says he sometimes feels like he should hop on and go for a ride when he’s out there working, or waiting to start working, or supervising the working.  He sees me out there with them and it looks so great.  Then he talks himself out of it.  

Then the other buddy - we’ll call him “Keef”, he looks like a Keef- tells us a story about his first horseback deer hunting trip.  His friend gave him a big thoroughbred $50 ex-racehorse to ride.  “Um, nice friend,” I commented, attempting sarcasm.  You know, like who needs enemies, that kind of thing.  (Honestly, why do people put first time riders on half-trained horses????)

Well, Keef described this wild ride.  The friend headed on out his horse expecting Keef to follow on his unruly wild beast.  “I had the reins in one hand, and the rifle in one hand, and my third hand around the saddle horn...”   He was desperately trying to hold this horse down to the ground, but all he got was that “bouncy speed.”  I knew what he meant and I could picture it: big long legged horse with his head cranked back to his chest at a big frustrated trot.  I haven’t had any experience with racehorses but based on what I’ve heard, they know one thing other than how to behave in a barn, and that one thing is RUN.  

From what I have experienced, if any horse is determined to run, I don’t care how strong the bit in his mouth is, or how strong the rider, he’s gonna run.  

“Finally, I had the rifle in my right hand,” he says, and I’m thinking the worst, “and I started with it right here,” hand beside his knee, “and I swung it right over like this and-” he made a quick stop motion in front, “Bam, right between the ears.”

What do you say to that, eh?  

Keef raised an eyebrow.  “That sure as hell smartened him up.”

“Well of course it did,” I says.  “He’s not gonna misbehave once he’s had his brain rattled like that.  You’re out hunting deer and he’s seeing little tweeting birds circling his head!”

It got a laugh, but I have to put in a defense for the horse.  “It’s a respect thing.  He figured out that you weren’t playing around.  That’s just the extreme case...”

I tell them about this annoying, seemingly harmless habit my gelding has.  He likes to stand with one hoof rested.  It looks like nothing, but it’s a pain.  Try getting a saddle on straight when his back is tilted to the side. More importantly... it’s disrespectful.  He’s being lazy and ignoring me when I ask him to stand up straight on both hooves.  It’s not too much for me to ask.  And when I request that, I expect him to comply.

Seems like nothing, but I think it’s little passive-aggressive tricks like that which eventually lead to me landing on my friggin head.  Which I do not want.  

I want his respect, willingly and unquestioningly.  

After saying this in much less words, Jim Bob looks at me with concern.  “Horses seem kinda mean...”

“No, not mean, just... they have to know who’s in charge, and they’ll be fine with it once you tell them where it’s at, they just have to know.”

“That’s right,” says Keef.  “They have to know who’s boss.”

How many times have I heard that in my life?  It’s true, no denying.  BUT.  It’s so often mistaken as brute force, as a hostile relationship, and I don’t have the physical strength or emotional hardness to do things that way.

Then I remember that I’m an instructor now.  There are standards I have to uphold.  I have to sound knowledgeable.  And, you know, I really like horses and I want to stick up for them.

“It’s not about strength though, it’s all attitude.  You go anywhere with horses and 90% of the people are women my size.  Like, I don’t have the brute strength so I have to outthink him, and when he respects me he trusts me.”

The men nod like they’re getting this.

I continue.  “Like, if you look at a herd of horses in a field, all one horse has to do is put her ears back and nip, and all the other horses get out of her way.  It isn’t about size either, because sometimes the smallest horse is the boss.”

“Yeah.  It’s not who’s biggest.  It’s whose meanest.

Ah yes, my speech has been completely misunderstood.  Again. Wherever you find horses, you’ll find humans who just don’t friggin get it. 

A horse is a big animal, obviously, and anybody who can bend it to his or her will is admired by other humans.  Sadly, too many humans do not understand how it’s achieved.  How does she do that, when she’s only 110 lbs?  How can she manhandle that big horse?  She doesn’t.  She gives him the message the very first time she comes into contact with him.  

Hey horse.  Nice to meet you.  Get your shoulder away from me and don’t step on my feet.  There, now we can be friends.  Except for that. If you push me or drag me I’m gonna get after you like your mama did and then you won’t do that again. Ok?  Yup.  You are my friend.  

And she can convey that without saying a single word.

How do I tell this to a bunch of dudes in their 50s and 60s, guys who have worked outdoors, built things, raised kids, punched the clock, and know stuff and about stuff?

I smile.

“Well...I only have to be mean once.”  

These guys know, because they work across the yard, and they see me out there regularly with my horses, that it’s pretty lovey dovey out there in the corral.   They know I don’t spend every ride wasting my breath yelling and cussing at my horses. They see my horses doing pretty much what I ask them to do, even if I have to ask harder one more time.  

When Keef whacked his horse with the butt end of his rifle, it was the last time he asked.  He did not have to ask anymore because that horse probably was scared to blink the wrong way.  Effective, okay, but I sure as hell do not intend to carry heavy objects around to whack my horse with!  I know for a fact that you cannot love or sweet talk your horse into being nice to you, but I also know they work better for me if they trust me to be in charge without beating the hell out of them.

My horses are so far from perfect.  I’m even farther from perfect - I know I have a lot more to learn about riding, horse training,and teaching, and horses in general.  But I’m not big, and I’m not mean.  Looks like I’ll just have to go on demanding their respect and earning their trust!


Heidi Willis said...

Well, that just sounds an awful lot like raising kids!!!!

You know, I just finished my good things post and I was all feeling emotional and I came here.... and you didn't help me out of that!

You write about this stuff so beautifully. Even those old crusty horse-beaten men. By golly - I can even see this scene in a movie someday.

Which reminds me... you still writing RIDE? :)

JKB said...

I knew a guy named Jim Bob too! *hee*

And you're exactly right. Teach them right from the get-go that you mean business and it's a heck of a lot nicer.

Although I gotta stick up for my off the track TBs...as long as they've had some time to get their brains back together, and a little ground work, you can do almost anything with them. We had polo, dressage, hunter/jumpers, western stock, cattle horses...you name it.

(Uh, I guess you can tell I'm a big fan of OTT TBs huh. LOL!)

Happy Friday!

Paul Tee said...

I hear you: you are talking yourself into becoming a horsewhisperer.

I agree with Ms. Willis. Like raising kids, love em, but the first responsibility is to be a parent. Be friendly, firm and consistent. My kids taught me that ... and a 120 pound male dog who could tear me to pieces, but in the end had to accept me as the Alpha dog. And let me tell you, dogs can smell if you are afraid or unsure, and won't tolerate false bravado.

But we believe what we are taught or learned by experience (particularly through mistakes). So I can easily raise a glass with Jim Boob and Keef, and wag my head in agreement at their 60 years of wisdom. Then when the conversation gets to one-up-on-you, I'd tell them how a horse ran away with me, even though I squeezed the heck out of it with my legs, and raised blood welts on my hands from pulling on the reins.

Heidi the Hick said...

Heidi, yep, kids and horses... they all need to know where it's at!

That's the thing I love about animals and kids are the same: they function on honesty. And they don't take a whole lot of BS!

Although ya gotta love those crusty ol fellers too.

As for RIDE, I wish I could say I'm really working on it but it's been hard with the move and all. It is definitely rattling around in my head. It'll happen.

Jen, I'm glad you put in a good word for the ex-racehorses. I haven't worked with any, but I've seen the best and the worst. Best, the Thoroughbred at the saddle club show taking the wins in the hunter ring. Worst, the runaway taking off with the white knuckled teenager.

I think you nailed it: give them time to settle and do the work with them. I think it helps to have the ability to figure out what the individual will be good at too. I think all horses deserve a chance!!

Paul, that wild ride of yours - that's what I'm talking about... you poor guy! I'd have given you a nice calm horse who would have been a little more forgiving! But you survived, so at least you can play the one-up game and tell your story!

"Won't tolerate false bravado" Yes. You have to really believe that you are the Alpha Dog, or Boss Hoss, or whatever. Parent. Right?

Horsewhisperer? Horse crooner? Horse sweet nothin talker?

mugwump said...

Where it gets hard is when you work with trainers who use the "whack with a rifle butt" method.
These can be successful trainers, smart trainers, established trainers.
They also tend to be vocal. They attract the people who want this method to be the right one too.
So our job as trainers, as I see it anyway,is to learn how to overcome this kind of thinking.
I think you're on the right track.
When these guys see you having better success without the whacking, maybe, just maybe, they'll remember it when they see someone using the rifle butt method, (or are tempted to use it themselves) on another horse, or dog, or child.

Heidi the Hick said...

Mugwump, I hope so. I really really hope so.

And I'm glad you came over to read this because I believe this is a topic you've run into many times before.

Your last line really says it all.

Four Dinners said...

Jim Bob??? Good grief....sounds like The Waltons....(actually I quite fancied the older girl...er...thingy
er...what the hell was her name???)

Anyroad. Horses are indeed somewhat large. You need to treat them with respect.

Not that they care mind...they still bolt and charge off down the beach in Malta with you hanging on for dear life and the saddle wasn't put on properly and you end up rotating around the horse until you are hanging upside down on its neck as it careers down the beach and the instructor can't help you 'cause he's fell off his own horse laughing at this extraordinary spectacle and you find yourself nose to mouth with said horse and you try saying "Excuse me, would you possibly mind stopping?" and it makes a strange noise and stops (which is probably very nice of it) but it stops so suddenly you carry on - now in mid-air as the horse is no longer in the equation and, fortunately, you land in a sufficient depth of sea water that you don't end up in a wheelchair and you wonder why the hell you ever tried to ride a bloody horse in the first place!!!!

Beautiful animals mind....but in my case...possibly more safely from a distance...

marsh to the fore said...

I would love to see you with your horses. It has to be a lively sight.