by Laura Crum
I was raised to look at horses in a certain way. My team roper uncle taught me much of what I knew and he treated horses in classic “cowboy” fashion. From an early age I knew how to feed a horse to keep him at an appropriate weight and energy level, I knew about worming and floating teeth and shots and what a colicked horse was and when to call the vet. I could tie a horseman’s knot and a bowline; I could saddle and cinch and bridle a horse using correct, safe procedures; I knew how to pick feet and when a horse needed shoes. I knew not to tie a horse with the bridle reins, I could ride a horse that was a little snorty, and I was very familiar with moving cattle on horseback. My uncle was a good hand and took good care of the many horses he traded and roped on. They were not thin; they got vet care; they lived in decent corrals. My uncle was capable of breaking and training a colt to be a good rope horse, and I helped him with these projects and learned a lot.
Here’s what I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to “read” a horse, to understand what he was thinking. I didn’t know how to pet a horse so the horse enjoyed it (this has a lot to do with reading a horse—not all horses like to be petted and most horses have specific things they like or don’t like). I didn’t know how to achieve a relationship with a horse where both the horse and I were happy and enjoyed each other. I didn’t know how to help a horse become confident.
My uncle did not concern himself with whether a horse was happy, and would have scoffed at such a notion, just as he scoffed at making pets of horses and/or being fond of them. He did not pet his horses or feed them treats. He demanded complete respect and obedience at all times. From him I learned how to make horses do what I told them, but not how to make them work willingly and enjoy what they were doing.
As an adult it frustrated me that I did not have the kind of bond with my horses that I had always hoped to have. I moved away from my uncle’s way of seeing things, though the skills he taught me have remained very useful. But I was interested in connecting with my horses, and I was fond of them, and odd though it sounded to one who had been taught as I had been taught, I wanted them to be fond of me.
And I learned how to do this. I learned by watching my horses and I learned from others, primarily my friend Wally, whose horses always seemed to be content, work well, and be fond of their owner. Wally used his horses pretty hard and yet they didn’t seem to resent this. He had far less behavioral problems with his horses than my uncle did.
As the years passed, I became quite adept at “reading” a horse, and I learned the important skill of being able to sort out the horses I could forge a good relationship with (in a way its like dating and marriage—not all horses work well for all people—you need to be aware of what personality type works for you). I was able to feel happily connected to the horses that I rode and cared for, and I could tell, because I had learned how to do it, that they were happy with me.
What I did not do is buy into someone else’s system. I did not embrace natural horsemanship or clicker training or Tom Dorrance or Ray Hunt or any of the many “clinicians” who followed in their footsteps. I never attended a single clinic. I paid attention to my horses and I spent lots and lots of time working with them, riding them, caring for them. And I paid attention. I rode with various trainers; I rode lots of horses. And I paid attention.
These days it comes quite automatically to me to know what my horses are thinking and feeling. And it pleases me to see that the three horses I work with regularly are quite content, happy to do their job, and fond of us. (This can also be said of Wally’s gray horse, Twister, who lives on my property.) Yesterday I got a concrete example of this that tickled me so much that I just have to write about it.
In my last month’s blog, “Don’t You Miss It?” and the comments that followed, I talked about teaching my son to work cattle on Henry, his retired rope horse. Yesterday we finally got a chance to do this, and my kid “drove off” on a couple of steers up at the roping arena. No, Henry did not work like a cutter, but he will watch a cow, and my son had fun, so it went well.
When we were done, and after we had helped the ropers run the steers through a couple of times, I walked over to where we had tied Sunny and Henry and took them to get a drink. I untied Sunny and led him over first. It was a warm day and he was obviously thirsty. When I led Sunny back and tied him up, Henry, who had been watching, nickered at me.
My son and I grinned at each other. “Henry’s saying he wants a drink, too,” my kid said.
And he was. Quite clearly Henry had watched me give Sunny a drink and was now telling me, “My turn. I’m thirsty, too.”
This was simple and obvious to both me and my son and it wasn’t until later, when I started to think about it, that the layers of meaning sunk in. Because Henry had comprehended exactly what I was doing and he spoke to me. He believed I would understand him and I did. (And yes, Henry was thirsty—he drank deeply.) But this process is one that my uncle and his sort of horseman would have totally scoffed at and quite literally disbelieved in. In their book, horses don’t talk.
Now the funny thing is, my uncle owned Henry for four years. He treated him as he treats all his horses—he took good physical care of him, but was very strict (some would say harsh) in the way he handled him and made no attempt to understand him or show him affection. When I bought Henry from my uncle, one of the things that my uncle mentioned to me was that he could never get Henry to drink under saddle. This worried my uncle because like all knowledgable horsemen, he knew it was important for a horse to drink regularly if he was working—especially on a hot day.
Well, I treated Henry the way I treat all my horses, which is quite different to how my uncle treats them. My horses are not allowed to get away with any poor behavior, but I concern myself with their feelings, I note what they like and don’t like, I care about them. Henry, for instance did not like either petting or brushing (and still doesn’t, though he will accept such with reasonably good grace); he was a willing, reliable riding horse, a bit lazy, and a real chowhound. Within a short time Henry was willing to drink under saddle, and as the time passed he became more and more expressive. He nickered when he saw me or my son, he came to meet us when we went to catch him. This became dramatically obvious when Henry had colic surgery. I will never forget the eager nicker with which he greeted us when we arrived at the vet center to see him the day after his major surgery. Still shaky, but bright eyed, Henry nickered a greeting when he saw us and then walked eagerly by my side as I led him out to graze. Henry knew he belonged to us.
And now, after three years with us, this stoic old rope horse who once would not even drink under saddle, asked me to give him a drink, in perfect confidence that I would hear and understand. It tickles me.
I’ve had a similar experience with Sunny, who after three years here has gone from uncooperative (willing to kick, nip, balk and crowhop) to totally cooperative and free of these vices. Sunny is now easy to catch, load, put fly spray on, and give wormer to—and he was mighty reluctant about these things when I got him and put up some pretty determined fights. Sunny “talks” to me all the time, and he looks really content. Wally has quit calling him “Small Nasty” and now pets him fondly and calls him “Little Yellow”. Sunny has become one of the family. He knows he belongs to us and is loved. Sunny and I are happy with each other.
So, here’s my topic for the day. Have any of you experienced this sort of a shift in a horse? Where a previously uncooperative or uncommunicative horse, through becoming happy and loved, opens up and becomes both communicative and cooperative? And do your horses “speak?”