Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Henry Speaks

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?”


Funder said...

The first real trail riding buddy I ever had was an old-time horseman. Sounds a lot like your uncle, but with gaited trail horses instead of working cowhorses. At first I thought he was SO hard on his gelding, but then I realized the horse absolutely thrived under his care. I learned a lot from James, but most importantly for a new owner I learned that horses do not want to be your friend, at least not like kids in kindergarten do. You have to establish boundaries.

Champ "talked" more clearly than any horse I've ever met. No doubt what he wanted. Dixie has decided I'm trainable, and she's finally started talking to me. I still think we are partners, not friends - we stick together and do what we need to do because it's better to be a team.

Mmm, talking example: last weekend, for the first time ever, Dixie swung her butt to me and very clearly asked me to scratch it. She is remarkably un-touchy so I got a little teary that she'd asked me to do that. :)

Francesca Prescott said...

Yes yes yes! You are so right; horses do speak if we listen. I'm often surprised at how many "professional" horse people don't make an effort to listen to their horses. On the other hand, there are also people with less so-called "professional experience" around horses who "get" horses instinctively, and when you witness that it's quite magical. We have a new groom at our stables, a Tibetan refugee who fled his country to Nepal on foot two and a half years ago (he walked for 27 days over mountain passes,swung across rivers, etc.), managed to get a passport (or at least some sort of official document) and flew to Paris where he lived rough for a while before finding a centre for refugees who got him a job in a big equestrian facility in the Alps for a month. From there, he somehow found his way to our stables. This man had been brought up surrounded by animals: yaks, buffalo, horses, but of course, as you can imagine, the way they looked after work horses in Tibet is totally different from the way we look after our sports horses. In fact, he must be blown away by how much our horses are, well, mollycoddled! But although this man has yet to learn all the details involved in our horses' daily routine (leg protections whenever they are turned out, blankets, fly hoods, infra-red lamps, etc etc), he talks to them. He reads them. He has a beautiful rapport with them, knowing what they need, even whether they are in pain, and if they are, he even seems to know where the pain stems from. And he's such a lovely, smiley, generous man. He's quite fascinating.

As for the other point you made, about noticing a shift in a horse's behaviour, my answer is definitely yes. When we found Kwintus in Germany he looked sad. If ever a horse looked like he needed to be loved, it was him. When he arrived in Switzerland he was intially a little lost, but soon became used to my daughter and I, and always nickers on our arrival, trots up to greet us if he's in the field. He's even said to look a little miserable if we don't go visit/ride him. He's a horse that thrives on attention; he's kind of like...a big dog! I've often said he'd probably enjoy coming home to sit on the couch and watch television with us. I think he and I even have the same sense of humour.

And yes, this is definitely the type of horse that suits me. My previous mare was aloof and independent; she didn't enjoy being brushed or stroked. She wasn't kind and...smiley like Kwintus. I loved her, of course I did, but I never felt the same connection I do with Kwint.

I loved this post, Laura. But then, I love all your posts :)

Francesca Prescott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Francesca Prescott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Francesca Prescott said...

My lenghty comment repeated itself a few times for some obscure reason, so I deleted the extras.

Laura Crum said...

Funder--I agree, the boundries come first. I wrote this post the way I did partly to show that I knew all about how to set boundries before I even began to work on trust/affection between myself and my horses. Unless you can set the boundries and be clearly and comfortably in charge, you will not be able to have a good relationship with any horse--and you will almost inevitably be putting yourself at some risk. So I am not denigrating what my uncle taught me. Merely saying that after you can set effective boundries you can try to achieve affection/willing partnership. And that this is more real and possible than many old school horsemen suppose.

And I totally relate to getting a little teary when Dixie asked you to scratch her. I got a little teary when Henry greeted us so eagerly at the equine hospital. Henry is an "untouchy" horse, too--he shows affection in being eager to greet us and be caught.

Francesca--I definitely think Kwint would be my kind of horse. And your new groom sounds fascinating. How is Kwint doing after his dental surgery? And I'm glad you enjoy my posts. I always enjoy yours, too.

Jan said...

Laura, this was a fascinating post! I too have been around horsemen who treat their horses well, but with a workmanlike attitude, no emotion allowed. And I too have wanted more of a connection that that, with my horse, and have thought a lot about the difference in attitudes towards the same animal.

Your question about talking horses - yes! My horse talks to me, and yes, either he does it more now than when I first got him, or I am now listening and hearing him better. One example- my horse is not very vocal, rarely nickers to me when I approach him, etc. We have done clicker training to get him to stand still when mounting. I reserve a special cookie treat for mounting. Now, as we prepare to mount, I bring the cookie out of my pocket, and he looks over my shoulder at that wonderful pocket with the delicious cookies. As we walk up to the mounting block, he now nickers, and does a slight dance, in anticipation. As I line him up, I give him the cookie and then step on the block, and he doesn't move a muscle. Telling me, oh, yum! I'll do anything for this cookie! (smile)

Anonymous said...

Mocha was pretty standoffish when I first got her, and she pretty much kept her interest and affection for my trainer and his wife (and she still holds them in high regard). But as she got used to me and my way of doing things, she became much more expressive, to the degree that she's a favorite with the college classes and with visitors because she's so social.

Actually, the social aspect is what she seems to like about horse shows. That last show seemed to have flipped a switch in her, because she's a lot more aggressive and on the muscle in workouts. It's as if she's figured out what all the training is for now, and she likes it.

And Emmy, the big matriarch at the barn, is very expressive and vocal, especially at feeding time.

FYI, it was funny watching Mocha fiddling with the empty treat bin the other day. She knows the connection between treats and the container, and was trying to figure out how to get some of the chaff out of the otherwise empty container.

Joy said...

Very interesting post! I'm glad Henry is now talking with you guys. He's found his home.

My first horse was an OTTB mare. She was angry and hateful when I got her. She and I went through a huge and wonderful learning process together.

Fast forward to 5 years together. One day, a huge limb from the tree beside her stall fell off and bent the back panel. The stable owners decided to cut down the tree that day. Which they did. With chainsaws. With her in the stall.

She was a drama queen and I do believe she enjoyed being very worked up all day that day.

When I came that afternoon all the noise and work was already over (or I would've pulled her out of the stall much earlier. thanks for letting me know people...)

Her next door neighbor was her beloved Frio, an old, tough, ranch/rope horse. Amazing guy. Across from her was a new guy to the stables, my trainer bought, Baileys. A gorgeous paint who had come a very long way in just a few months. He had obviously been tramautized at some point.

First Baileys very clearly made eye contact with me and seemed to try and tell me something. Ritzy, my mare, just keep snorting and pacing like the world was coming to an end and HURRY UP.

Frio just looked in my eyes and sighed.

I looked at Baileys again, and Ritz, and then Frio. And then I heard in my head, as loud as a shout, WATER.

They'd turned the waterer off when cutting down the tree in case they hit the line and they forgot to turn it back on.

I turned the line back on and heard Baileys sigh and go back to eating. Frio stood and waited while Ritzy drank up and then he had his turn (they shared an automatic waterer).

That was very definitely communication from all three. It happens a lot more now.

Willie talks to me all the time. When I got him, he looked at me like I was crazy the first time I scratched his neck. Now I can touch his whole body and he loves to be groomed and scratched. And he always talks. Like a huge red pig sometimes!

Laura Crum said...

Joy--I love your story about the water. It is amazing what you can "get" from horses if you open your mind up to it. I don't talk about this so much because I'm afraid I'll sound too much like Joan of Arc (this is what my husband says). In Henry's case, he actually spoke with a nicker to ask for a drink, which I found very sweet--and nobody could accuse me of being totally kooky if I recounted it. I love your stories. Willie is a lucky horse.

Joycemocha-- I love hearing about Mocha, too--you guys have clearly done a lot together. It is fun to watch how horses try to figure things out, as you say, and certainly I have learned that they are far more intelligent than I was told by the old school horsemen I first learned from.

Jan--I really believe that horses do start "talking" to us more as they begin to trust that they belong to us and we care about them. I have seen this over and over again. I don't think I'm imagining it.

Alison said...

Laura, enjoyed your post and all the comments. Not on the exact subject, but I babysat a friend's mare this summer, and she and I never warmed up to each other. She was a bully to my two horses, and my sweet gelding had nips all over him. When she left (none too soon) my two hollered for a few minutes then we ALL breathed a big sigh of relief and are much more relaxed and happier! Those horse/horse dynamics can really upset the grain bucket as well as the human/horse communication as all of us know who care for more than one.

Mrs. Mom said...

Well Laura, I'm just now getting around to catching up a bit. I think you and I have touched base on this subject a bit in emails, but in case my memory is mistaken (which it often is these days,) I'll yammer a bit about Sonny Bunz again.

When Dear Husband and I first met Sonny, he was nasty. I did not like him one bit. He would bite, pull, kick, try to strike, pin his ears, and in general act like a giant slug with a p!$$ poor attitude all around. He was not by any means, a nice horse.

And he was only just 3 years old.

He came here for physical rehab -- to try and get some of that muscle pain worked out. His attitude slowly started to change. After eight or nine months he returned to his owner, and back to a lesson program (yes- a three coming four year old horse, in a lesson program, teaching young beginner riders. Does not make a whole lot of sense to ME..but..) Anyways--

Sonny returned, this time for two years.

When he returned, he was miserable, biting, pinning his ears, and just a general slug again.

By the time he left though, he was bright, happy, easy to be around and had much better manners. He was much easier to ride, stood well for grooming and tacking, and was even starting to behave nicely for hoof care.

He nickered to us in the mornings, and was quite fond of Cub. In fact, Cub could step out the door and call to Sonny, and Sonny would call back and wander up from the back of the paddock to see Cub.

I hear through the grape vine that he is currently being leased by a teenage girl, who has hopes of showing him this fall. He is known for his happy personality, willingness to work, and for being a calm, responsive ride.

And he sure got to be a "talker" once he realized someone really was going to listen to him.

Great post Laura! Big rubs to all your crew from me please!