Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Picking a Fight

by Laura Crum

Joy said something in a comment on my post titled “Gratitude” that got me thinking. I hope I’m not misquoting you terribly, Joy, but it was along the lines of the idea that a horse that you’ve owned awhile will inevitably begin to reflect your own issues, and thus give you an opportunity to work on them. This thought interested me a lot, and I began mulling it over in regards to my horse, Sunny.

I’ve written a lot about Sunny on this blog, and in my latest book, “Going, Gone”, so many of you probably have an idea what this horse is like. But, to summarize, I bought Sunny a little over two years ago because he is a very reliable trail horse, and I wanted such a horse to give my young son a steady lead on the trails. I did not think of Sunny as a horse I was buying for myself when I bought him. I thought of him as a family horse, one my husband, and perhaps my son, could eventually ride.

Well, my husband obliged me by riding the horse twice, and then pointed out to me that he had never wanted a horse and preferred to walk. I, on the other hand, began using Sunny regularly, as my little boy and I were both very interested in trail riding, and Sunny was far better for this than my usual riding horse, Plumber. And virtually the first thing Sunny did was pick a fight with me.

I order to understand this in context, you need to know that I had known Sunny, in a roundabout way, for two or three years. I “knew” him as a gentle, bombproof horse that anyone could ride, and who had been reliable on a lot of trail rides. But I hadn’t been around him that much. Imagine my surprise when the “gentle” horse turned his butt to me when I went to catch him and popped his back feet in my direction, threatening to kick me. He didn’t get anywhere near me, you understand, but the gesture was plain.

OK. I beat his little butt up and caught him and that night I called the previous owner and said that I would have to return the horse if he kicked (we had an agreement that I could return the horse any time within the first thirty days). I told her that I was buying him as a gentle family horse and that kicking was not OK. No horse that I have would ever theaten to kick me. I was concerned for my son’s safety…etc.

We had a long discussion about Sunny’s kicking behavior. The upshot of it was that Sunny had never once hurt anyone. He did offer this behavior from time to time, usually with a new rider, and he had only connected once, and never left even a mark that time. Based on this info, I kept Sunny and decided I could deal with his little issue.

This issue turned out to be much more “global” than occasionally threatening to kick. Sunny would also threaten to bite while being cinched, attempt to step on your foot when being saddled, move into your space on the leadline, and balk and crowhop in an attempt to thwart his rider while being ridden. In none of these gestures was Sunny particularly serious—he was just testing. In essence, he was picking a fight to see who would be boss.

At this point you may be wondering what in the world I saw in the horse, and the answer is that I sometimes wondered myself. Sunny was also somewhat rough gaited and not terribly well-broke. But he was a great trail horse. His little “pissant” attitude translated into a calm, cold-blooded, level-headed confidence on the trail. He wasn’t bothered by much of anything. He’d seen it all—from wild animals, to traffic, to mud, to surf, to switchbacks and sidehills, and none of it bothered him. He was a willing trail horse for the most part, able to tackle anything; he gave my son’s horse an absolutely steady lead, and he allowed me to relax and keep my attention on my kid. Such horses are not easy to find. Thus I put up with his quirks, though to begin with I bemoaned them.

Why, I would ask, does this stupid little horse have to keep trying this crap? Because he did keep trying it. No matter how often I kicked his butt—and I always won, Sunny was really no challenge for any halfway experienced horseman—Sunny persistantly tried his dominance games again and again. He seemed to like being defeated. At first I found it annoying. After awhile I got curious.

My curiousity really got piqued when I (briefly) turned Sunny in with my son’s horse, Henry. Sunny’s owner had reported that she kept Sunny turned in with other horses and he was always “low man”. And, at first, it seemed to work out fine. Henry was easily dominant—end of story.

Except that Sunny wouldn’t let it be. Every day or so, he’d mount a sneak attack on Henry and try to kick him or bite him when Henry wasn’t paying attention. Henry, rightfully aggrieved at such insubordinate behavior, would lambast Sunny, and Sunny would retreat, defeated. But he always tried it again. I got tired of all the bite and kick marks on Sunny’s shiny gold hide and I worried he would get hurt. So I kept the horses separate after that. But the message was plain. This was Sunny’s behavior pattern with horses and people.

I began to wonder what it meant, what Sunny really wanted. The horse was always very interested in me; he followed me around the barnyard far more than the other horses did. He nickered when he saw me. He gave every sign of enjoying our new partnership. And he continued his dominance games. For the first time it struck me that Sunny wanted me to “beat him up”, that he was happier after I did this, that it made him feel secure. He picked fights on purpose so that I could continually reestablish my alpha horse position—just as he had with Henry.

I tested this theory once in awhile. Some days I’d get Sunny out and feel him crowd me just a tad as I led him through the gate, and even though he hadn’t done much of anything, I’d work him over a little with the leadrope and back him off the top of me. Sunny would make submissive mouthing motions and be good the rest of the day. I had satisfied his need.

Well, this was Ok as far as it went—I somewhat understood my horse, but it still left me just a tad bit aggrieved. I wasn’t sure I wanted a horse I had to beat up all the time. However, Sunny did what I needed him to do, and I became more and more fond of him, and just accepted my role. And Sunny’s dominance testing became more and more minor and token—very symbolic—he no longer offered to kick or bite, he allowed me to worm him without much fuss (compared to twenty minutes of sillieness when I first got him)..etc. All was well. And then I read Joy’s comment, and a whole new idea hit me.

I can be a fairly confrontational person. I don’t hang out with other people a lot, and when I do, I try to be very respectful of their space and their right to their own ideas. But God forbid anyone should not be respectful of me and my space. I am nobody’s yes man or doormat. The minute I feel I’m being condecended to, or manipulated, or in any way infringed on, or when I see someone trying this sort of thing on an animal or a kid, the you know what really hits the fan. Because I am not likely to be subtle in my response. I will either walk away and be done with that person or situation, or I will let them know, very directly, how I feel about said situation. As Mrs Mom said to me once, I’m a “shoot from the hip” type of person. I thought it was a very accurate comment. And after reading Joy’s comment, I wonder if Sunny didn’t come to me as a way to work on this part of my personality.

Sunny seems to need me to confront him and set boundries. As fond as I am of him, I am still required to set him straight on a regular basis. Maybe I should regard this as an opportunity rather than a burden? This is kind of a new thought for me, but it does resonate. So I thought I’d ask you all—have you experienced this sort of thing with your horses? Do you feel that you somehow get the "horse you need" rather than exactly the horse you want? What’s your take on it?


Mrs. Mom said...

Your Sunny and My Sonny have a lot in common ;) Are we nuts for hanging onto them? (Rhetorical I already know the state of my sanity.. or what's left of it.)

EcoLicious Equestrian said...

great post! there is no doubt my horses (and especially my 5 year old filly that I had from a baby)teach me a lot about myself and often mirror my "dysfunctions" - both physical and emotional...
for example: I am an ADD and so is my mare (when I exhibit my ADD behavior), she makes me stay present, grounded and focus solely on her, if I don't do it I won't get anything out of for my gelding - he teaches me confidence, he challenges me on regular basis, but with each challenge we move forward - both him and to recap in my opinion our horses are in our lives for a reason...

Laura Crum said...

Mrs Mom and Ecolicious--Do you suppose Sunny is in my life so I have something to legitimately "beat up", thus I don't need to put that energy elsewhere? That seems kind of odd. At the same time, Sunny is clearly very attached to me--and I am very fond of him, but he requires his little "beatings". human standards this might not be considered a very healthy relationship. But from my observations of horses, its pretty normal. Curiouser and curiouser...

Shanster said...

Interesting thought for sure. I know I am quite the opposite of you Laura and tend to be very NON confrontational - probably pretty submissive in general and a people pleaser.

If people begin to walk on me or take advantage I just move on. I don't really shoot from the hip. I may gently say something and if they don't listen or otherwise ignore my request, I move away from that person and spend much less time with them.

The same translates into my riding. I was talking to a good friend and she thought my issues with Rosso are because I'm so non-confrontational. I think she's right.

I just got back from a clinic today with my mare Sera and I heard more than once that I needed to be more aggressive in my riding. I'm NOT AT ALL aggressive... persistant yes, patient yes... aggressive? Big sigh, not a chance.

I really, really struggle with that as I do in everyday life. And curiously enough find myself gravitating to strong personalities... dunno if I'm trying to LEARN from them or what?

Dunno what my answer is - keep trying and keep trying - shrug. Interesting!

Shanster said...

Oh - Laura - did you see my last comment under your escape post?

stilllearning said...

I do believe that you get the horse you need to teach you whatever lessons you need to learn, at the time you need to learn them (usually analyzed in hindsight, of course). But I'm starting to realize that horses sometimes find the owners THEY need, too. Maybe Sonny needed you more than you needed him?

The older I get, the more I find that things are woven together in life in ways you wouldn't have predicted. It's not always logical.

I'm glad that you & Sunny found each other, for whatever reason.

EcoLicious Equestrian said...

here is a theory (if I am totally off the base have a chuckle, ok?)...maybe your lesson is how to confront "in style" without hitting the fan?

on another note - EcoLicious Equestrian has recently launched an earth & health friendly fine line of equine grooming products - I'd like to offer to your readers our customers favorite - De-Stress Intensive Restructuring & Detangling Treatment - maybe you'd be interested in running a contest where your readers can win it?

Anonymous said...

I think what you say can be very true. My Dawn is a challenging horse for me precisely because she and I share many of the same traits - very strong-willed, want to lead and not follow, trust our own instincts over those of others, are sensitive and reactive, good at figuring things out but sometimes figure them out wrong and will stick to that no matter what - I could go on and on. Hmm, I may have to do my own post on this as it's such an interesting topic!

Laura Crum said...

Shanster--Too bad we can't combine our personalities--"we"d probably be pretty balanced. I know my straight forwardness is a result of how I was raised...ya know, the old "conditioning". I used to be really too tough on my horses--I'm much mellower now. But Sunny just seems to require this.

stillearning--Sunny has a good home, at any rate, with someone who loves and values him. I guess that's all a horse can ask for. If he wouldn't keep testing me, I'd be glad to stop smacking him. But for whatever reason, he has to keep trying it.

Kate--I thought it was interesting, too--Joy was the one who brought it up to me.

Ecolicious--Maybe ask Jami about the contest. And yes, I smack Sunny in an effective but somewhat perfunctory way now. There's not much emotion in it. Perhaps that's what I'm learning?

And Shanster--I did see your comment, and I could not get my dumb computer to go to your blog. I will ask my husband (who is much more techie than I) to help me go there this evening. But thank you for reviewing my book--I will get there yet to read the review.

Laura Crum said...

Shanster--Got there and read your review. Thank you--I'm glad you liked the book. I will try to leave a comment on your blog if I can convince my recalcitrant computer to behave and interact nicely with blogger. Hmmm...maybe my computer is a bit like my horse. Sounds like you had a great clinic with Sera. I dunno--maybe you were just agressive enough. Anyway, thanks again for the review. Cheers--Laura

Topaz said...

I have no doubts that Penny Pony and I needed each other and were meant to come together. She needed someone to spend time with her and give her a job. I needed something with a good brain that would up my broken confidence. I would have never thought a green pony would help with that, since it's the opposite of what is most often recommended. But, its worked for the two of us. Since I've been training her (with help from my trainer, but I've done all the riding) every accomplishment is mine too. I can't begin to tell you all how much I needed proof that I'm doing good things. I love the moments where everything comes together and is lovely, especially since not so long ago she didn't steer or anything. In our lesson on Monday she picked up the canter as soon as I asked and stayed the same speed the entire way around the arena. I taught her how to do that, though it helps that she's naturally awesome. We never cease to amaze the ladies at the barn with how far we've come in the last few months. We started as a confidence-broken person and a barely saddle-broke pony with people issues. Now in three weeks we're going to our first horse trial in the pre-competition division (walk-trot dressage test, ground poles cross-country, cross-rails stadium.) I didn't think at the time I got her that she was really what I wanted, but she was absolutely what I needed. And at this point we're so connected I wouldn't sell her for any amount of money.

Joy said...

I read this this morning and thought about it all day. I reflected on horses I've known and how they changed me. It's clear to me that horses are intuitive. They are never wrong about what we are feeling. Even when we lie to each other as humans about it. "how are you?" "I'm fine, and you?" "oh I'm fine" uh huh

Example, I went to the barn one day a few months back very upset and was trying to feel anger instead of feeling my true feelings of sadness. I got out Willie, saddled him up and took him to the arena. Every single time I took him into the lope he bucked. Not the I WILL get you off of me buck, but not the fun dolphin buck either. He was as pissed off as I was pretending to be.

We ended our day early and both were relieved.

I take care of a friend's horse, Jimsey. This is The Perfect Horse. No doubts about it. He reads each and every single rider perfectly and I noticed, interestly, reflects their emotions. Immediately. But in a hugely kind way.

They are so sensitive, our horses.

And yes, they will mirror us if we are willing to look and notice.

I had this exact conversation with a barn friend a month or so back. Yes, sometimes you get the horse you want. Sometimes you get the horse you need. Sometimes, magically, the horse you want is the horse you need. And sometimes, sometimes, your horse gets the human it needs. I have seen it time and again.

I have a good friend, a young lady who starts colts. She is amazing. She worked with my own Willie when he was only 3, before I owned him. She agrees with me on this. She said that she's probably ridden 250 or more horses/colts and they have each one changed her. Some in huge ways and some in very subtle ways.

I think that this is the gift they give us. If we will listen, and look and just pay attention, we will grow. And maybe (hopefully) become better riders and horsewomen.

I am constantly amazed by these generous creatures. And I have been changed forever by a select few who were generous enough to give to me and show me a pathway to that change.

This is why I started my own blog. I had to write down what Willie has done for me. The biggest thing is learning to live not one day at a time but one moment at a time. Mindfulness. Being present.

I'll stop now. I could talk about this for days and days.

And Laura, Sonny got the human he needs. I look forward to your insights in the future. It interests me very much.

Mikey said...

I think there's a lot to be said for strong leadership. One of you has to be the strong one, and that *should* be the person. It's a very interesting concept you've written about, and I do believe that horses can teach a person dang near everything you need to know about yourself, if you're paying attention.
I have one mare who's very dominant. Came out of the auction 10 yrs ago, skinny with huge attitude, ran me right out the pen with teeth bared, no fooling. I wasn't going to quit trying, but I felt a bit out of my league.
One day I was showing my mom where NOT to touch this mare (on her fresh brand that she came with) and that old girl nailed me. I touched her at the shoulder, her hind foot came up and double tapped me in the back of the thighs. I never moved or flinched. Mom gasped "Are you ok?" and I was. But at that moment, that mare realized that I just might be tougher than her. I didn't react like another horse would, by moving away. I just took it and continued on like nothing happened. It was a pivotal moment between us and things got a lot better after that. A new respect was forged. Today she's a kind eyed spooky old boss mare who gets ridden once a year whether she needs it or not. (the vet recently referred to her as ancient and told me I should really considering collecting old cars instead) But there's a lot of love there, after working thru the leadership issues.
Excellent post!!
PS - my daughter saw your book on the site and said "We have that book!" and I said yes, Laura Crum wrote this right here (pointing to the post) AND this book. She then wanted to know ALL about you and Sunny :)

Mrs. Mom said...

Well Laura, sometimes I htink my Sonny came into our life not only to get me back on the horse track (after being a broodmare myself for our boys,) and to remind me of a few things:
1- Calm consistency does wonders for horses and kids
2- being Boss Hoss is a GOOD thing (so that the 1100 pound Boss Wanna Be does not run me into the dirt)
3- He Makes Me THINK.

Nothing much with this horse has been straight forward. Nothing. Everything- hoof care to riding- has been from a different angle with him, and he has broadened my horizons tremendously.

Maybe your Sunny is there to keep you on your toes, too? He sure found you for a reason ;)

(Yes, I know.. sounds a little "out there" to say our horses found us, but I really think our critters DO find us, as we need them to.)

Laura Crum said...

Topaz, Joy, Mrs Mom, and Mikey--Thank you, your comments were a joy to read. It is really fun to have this kind of a dialogue with such insightful horse people. I have come to believe we get the horses we have for a reason--I guess I'm just trying to work out what it is that Sunny is here to teach me. Whatever it is, I'm open to it. Its "sunny" today and my son and I are off to go gather cattle and ride at the roping arena for the first time this spring, so Sunny and Henry will get a bit of work. Thanks again for the great comments.

Laura Crum said...

Oh, and Mikey, tell Mercy I said hi. I have so enjoyed the photos and stories of her on your blog, especially the last bit I read about your long, hard ride fixing fence. Tell her my little boy and I just got back from gathering the cows on our horses. Nothing like so big and wide open as where you are, I'm afraid. Here where I live gathering the cattle just means herding them into the roping arena from a fifty acre pasture. Nothing fancy. But fun, anyway. Especially when they run off and hide in the redwood forest (!)

HorseOfCourse said...

I don't know if the horses come into our life with a purpose, but I do know that they have an impact on us, just like people do.

I had a post a while back on my daughter's pony, Charlie.
He is such a charming horse normally, but he played up with a girl that rode him twice a week.
As Sunny, he just has to test out things.
But it makes one think, doesn't it?
It's like when we were teenagers, and assessed every new teatcher to find out if this was one to play tricks on or not.

Susan said...

Could Sonny's behavior be the result of an expectation coming from you? We have a lot of "children are naughty and have to be disciplined" beliefs ingrained in us. I know I've had this come up in my life and it reminds me of my parents' behavior.

HorseOfCourse said...

Hi Laura! Thanks for visiting! The post was back in January (The character of a horse), you can find it here:

Laura Crum said...

Susan, That makes sense, but none of my other horses test me in this way--only Sunny. And Sunny tries the behavior on other people...and horses. I also totally did not expect him to act this way...I thought he was a lazy, gentle horse. So i'm thinking that whatever is happening here, it is arising at least to some egree from Sunny. Of course, I probably react to it more than his previous owner--by what I could see, she either ignored/was unaware of a lot of what he does. I am very aware of a horse stepping into my space...etc, and I recognize the game Sunny is playing, so that creates a different dynamic than if I just ignored him or didn't realize what was happening. I do require my horses to behave with proper respect--its a safety issue. Therefore Sunny and I have our routine.

Horse Of course--Thanks. I enjoy getting your insights about horses. I'll try and find out about Charley and his "stuff".