Tuesday, June 8, 2010


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?


Linda Benson said...

I'm laughing as I read your post, Laura. Maybe Sonny is part donkey (no offence intended.) That is exactly the way donkeys learn. They watch everybody else get brushed, pick up their feet, get fly sprayed and wormed, get the halters on and off. Then when they 'decide' everything is on the up and up and it won't hurt them, they make up their minds it's okay and do what you want. Once they finally get on board with you, they are very tractable. Perhaps you should check Sonny's bloodtype *kidding* LOL

HorsesAndTurbos said...

The first time I rode Starlette alone on the trails, I was worried that if we passed a group of horses, she'd act up and want to go with them.

When we did meet a group, we stepped aside so they could pass, and then we merrily went on our way...Starlette didn't even glance back at them.

Made me feel really good...she chooses me over other horses :)


Laura Crum said...

Linda--That's funny. I call Sunny my "little yellow mule" because (though I have very little experience with donkeys and mules) he reminds me of one. He's smart and thoughtful in the same way, not inclined to panic and very often looks as if he is pondering things. His ears are a little long, too (!)

Jackie--I know what you mean. If I'm anywhere near the barnyard Sunny will leave the other horses and stand as close as he can get to me and just watch me. He's always done this and it used to puzzle me, because, as I've said before, he wasn't particularly fond of being petted or fussed with, and often acted quite cross grained when I actually caught him. Now I think he is just truly interested in me, which included plenty of testing to be sure I was the boss of him, but also includes being perfectly comfortable on solo trail rides. Like Starlette, he'll choose my company over other horses.

Mrs. Mom said...

Sounds like a Paso Fino mare I had the pleasure of starting under saddle a while back now. Smart, SMART mare. I loved her to bits. She had "issues" about having her feet and legs handled, and was a Royal PITA for trims. Instead of focusing on her feet and legs, I worked on The Horse. Never once asked her to give me a foot- just asked her for her cooperation learning to be ridden.

Her next trim, she stood, and fell asleep. Farrier couldn't get over it, kept asking what I did. All I did was ride her some....

My Sonny sends you Ga-style TLC ;) Give your guy some rubs from me, for taking such good care of you!!

Anonymous said...

I find my horses doing things I never taught them to do, just because I ask - I think it's a matter of trust and communication. For example, I've taught Maisie to ground tie but not to just stand saddled and bridled as I wander off somewhere - she just stands and looks at me as I walk around the ring arranging things.

Also, sometimes things that used to be problems just go away as the horse understands that our requests are reasonable. Mark Rashid has a story in one of his books about a mare that wouldn't tie - she would break things to get away. Instead of trying to solve the problem, he just stopped tying her. Then, a number of months later, he tied her and she had no problem with it and never did afterwards. I think her understanding that she could cooperate and do what was requested without fear turned things around.

Very interesting post - thanks!

HorsesAndTurbos said...

When I met/bought Starlette, I was told she didn't like people. Well, I've come to the conclusion she didn't like the "trainers" she had and how they forced her to do things instead of letting her figure it out. She never had a chance to like people.

Since I was learning to "reride" our first two years, I didn't force her into anything, just was happy to be with her. I think that made all the difference in the world.

It's funny to see her watch the house for me, and head to the barn if I go towards it at all. She watches for my car to come in, and this year gets excited when I start doing things with the truck/trailer.

Sweetly, she was nickering like crazy tonight at me...I honestly think she thought we were going trail riding again (it's pouring rain).

I do love that mare!


Shanster said...

Hi Laura! I do think horses decide they can trust us and then they choose to obey.

Sera's trail ride the other week was a perfect example.. she'd only been on one other trail ride several years ago with 3 calm QH... she was a complete butt... squealing, kicking, bucking, rearing, jigging sideways down the road. I stayed on and tried to keep her on the aids... tried to keep her focused on me... I didn't make it such a negative experience for her that I would consider her trained for trails. I'm just NOT at all that aggressive of a rider.

Then this past week or whatever I thought I should try it again. She spooked once - half heartedly I may add - at some pronghorn skittering away. She was calm, level headed and in one area when I was very uncomfortable, she remained perfectly willing and not a hoof out of place.


I suppose it's all the riding and clinics and shows we've been to in the meantime? I like to think it's trust and the partnership we've developed that allowed this to occur.

She also wigged out at the vet a couple months ago tied to the trailer...when I came out she'd hit the end of the leadrope using a tie blocker that will feed out if they pull back? Had flipped over and was flailing around... the minute I came out of the shop where the other horse I brought was being attendted to by my vet...Sera stopped flailing. She was on her back, rope around her back leg and she just stopped. I talked to her calmly... got her untied, untangled and then asked her to get up... she could have really injured herself but I like to think the trust in knowing I would help her saved her from herself?

Dunno. It's hard tellin' not knowin'. And so far she ain't talkin! :)

I was super happy to read this post about Sonny... what a great thought and what a very nice yellow mule you have!!!

Laura Crum said...

Thanks for your comments, Mrs Mom, Kate, Jackie and Shanster. Its interesting to see that you've all experienced much the same thing. At least I know I'm not delusional(!)

And yes, Sunny is doing great. We went on a glorious trail ride yesterday, with my son and his horse, Henry, and my friend Wally and his horse, Twister. All three horses behaved impeccably, despite being suprised by a coyote and having to push through the very overgrown trails. It was really a great day and I was so happy with the horses. And the horses gave every sign of being happy with the day as well.

Joy said...

timely post! recently, my very non cuddly horse has become somewhat loving. He's not a "face love" kinda guy but he's been giving a couple of people face cuddles. And he will let me love on him a bit before he says ENOUGH.

To keep me down to earth, he pretend bit my hand last night and got the wrath. He seemed to really enjoy the rebuke and was very affectionate today. It's crazy!

He's definitely changing with age.

Laura Crum said...

Joy--What is it with the "enjoying the rebuke" thing? That is exactly Sunny. He is not above the pretend bite, and then, after I beat him up, he is always very sweet and genuinely affectionate and seems happy. I know I've posted about this before, but it still seems odd to me. Its interesting that Willy is the same way. Sunny is not "cuddly' either. But he's just the horse I need and I'm very fond of him.

EarnMoney said...

I like horses!

Anonymous said...

With regards to "enjoying the rebuke" I wonder sometimes if horses are like kids and just need to know that the boundaries are still there, that the rules are still the same and that they can trust us for that. The happy comes from knowing they are safe with you and that you are still in charge.
Although sometimes with my gelding I think it's an ADHD flashback :)