by Laura Crum
I’ve owned my little palomino horse, Sunny, for two and a half years. He’s always been a reliable trail horse, but when I got him, he was pretty ornery—would offer to kick, crowhopped at times…just little stuff, but annoying. It took twenty minutes of struggle to give him a paste wormer. And he hated fly spray. Didn’t matter how I tried to apply it, with a rag, on my hand, etc—he hated the smell and threw a hissy fit every time. After a couple of go rounds I just rolled my eyes at him and let him fight the flies.
Over the time I’ve owned Sunny, I’ve dealt with him fairly, but firmly. I’ve written before about his little dominance games and about how I regularly have to smack him around with a leadrope. Slowly the dominance games have lessened—he no longer offers to kick, he’s easy to catch, he virtually never balks or crowhops. He loads in the trailer without his characteristic hesitation, and the “see if you can make me” look. He’s just more cooperative overall. My friend and boarder, who is an experienced old horseman, advised me against buying Sunny—Wally didn’t care for Sunny’s cold-blooded ways and cranky attitude. He calls the horse “Small Nasty”. But even Wally said to me recently, “That horse has changed. He’s cooperative now.”
Well, Sunny is still Sunny. He’s no cuddlebug. I take him for granted and have always enjoyed him, but I didn’t think he’d changed all that much. And then…
Last week, on worming day, Sunny took his paste wormer with zero fuss, just like the rest of our horses. Wally and I looked at each other. “Wow,” we said. “he has changed.” But, of course, I had insisted Sunny take his wormer every time and made it plenty hard on him when he resisted. Sunny is a smart horse. He had learned not to bother with the resistance. In essence, I’d trained him to take the wormer.
But here’s the clincher. Yesterday, when we headed out on a trail ride, I fly sprayed Henry, who suffers terribly from flies. Sunny never seems to mind the flies and hates fly spray, so I just don’t bother with him. But lo and behold, though I was applying the spray right next to him, Sunny didn’t flinch. So I turned and sprayed some on Sunny. He wrinkled his nose but never moved.
Now this was really interesting. Because I have never made any effort to get Sunny over his fly spray phobia. None. I just quit fly spraying him. So, unlike the wormer, I didn’t train this behavior out of him. I could tell by his curled nose that Sunny still didn’t like the smell—he just didn’t choose to fight me.
Wally grinned at this. “That horse is choosing to be cooperative now,” he said. “He really has changed.”
Sunny looks good. He’s slick and shiny and seems to feel good. But more than that, I think he’s happy. Why? I’m not sure exactly. I keep all my horses in a way that’s meant to make them happy—they have lots of space to move around, they can socialize with their neighbors, I try to get them all out regularly and either ride or turn them out to graze, I never ride them so hard that its unpleasant for them, I feed them three times a day on average to keep them from being too bored (better for their health as well). In essence, I try to fulfill their basic instinctive needs as horses even while keeping them in captivity.
Then, there’s the emotional part. I only own gentle horses that I am very confidently in charge of. I never, ever waver on the who’s the boss front—thus I think my horses feel safe. They know I’m the leader. Also, and this is a subtle point—I don’t train on them. All my horses are broke horses. I insist on obedience at all times. But I’m not trying to teach them anything. We both accept that the other knows his job. I occasionally remind them (more often in Sunny’s case) who the boss is. That’s it. I don’t dink around trying to make them walk faster or stop prettier or some such thing. I don’t pick at them.
I guess what I’m thinking is that Sunny is happy with his life. He’s accepted me as the boss (took awhile and he still needs reminding). But he is demonstrating that he can choose to throw in with me. I find this interesting.
Because I did not train Sunny to accept fly spray, his willingness to tolerate it represents something different that what I am accustomed to believe about horses. Like most folks, I guess, I used to believe that we taught our horses to do things by training—sensitizing or desensitizing, or whatever you want to call it. Negative reenforcement or positive reenforcement supporting some behaviors and punishing undesirable behaviors. But what about the idea that we can treat a horse in an appropriate way to establish ourselves as the leader, and then expect that the horse will throw in with our lead? That a horse can simply choose to obey because he trusts us and accepts our leadership?
Since Sunny already had a strong aversion to flyspray, his choosing to tolerate it because I seemed to want him to was a particularly strong statement. It said a lot about a horse’s ability to choose. It made me rethink some of my basic assumptions.
So now I want to ask you all, some of whom are far more accomplished horsemen than I am---Have you noticed this phenomena? Have you seen a horse choose to throw in with you, as opposed to being “trained”? Any thoughts?