The dream of a common language

Today our new barefoot trimmer, I’ll call him Bob, came to trim hooves and meet our horses for the first time. It’s always nerve- wracking for me, mainly because there is no common language with which to discuss horse behavior and training. It is a delicate dance to meet someone for the first time, respect their learning and experience while also setting out boundaries for how you want your own animals to be treated.

I was particularly worried about this in the case of Tarot, who is untrusting of anyone new. I had already planned to have him sedated for his first few farrier appointments so that he can enjoy the anti-anxiety properties of the sedatives, and not become even less trusting of people than he already is. He does let me near his body, and allows me to handle his legs, but it’s a skill he will need to learn to transfer to someone new. It takes time, whatever time he decides, not the minutes or hours that humans tend to offer. Last night at dinner, I was dreaming about a trimmer who I could call up and say, “I have a mustang who I’m still working on body handling with. We work at liberty so I know he is truly relaxed and choosing to be a part of this handling. I can work around his entire left side and handle down to his fetlocks, but I’m still working on handling past his withers on his right side. Since he is still not completely ready for handling by me, I’m choosing sedation initially to reduce anxiety and avoid losing ground on the training we’ve already accomplished.”  Simple, right?

It would be simple if the real issue in the horse world was only that we use different jargon to explain the same techniques. But the real issue is that misconceptions about horse behavior abound and the science of learning is not common knowledge. I am a bridge-builder and a peacemaker by nature but I am also unalterably firm about protecting my animals from un-needed stress or bad handling. So how to navigate the line between making people feel comfortable and valued while advocating for my horse who does not deserve one more confusing or fear-inducing interaction with any human?

I made a deal with myself: I would let the trimmer go in the pasture and meet Tarot with Tarot loose. If he could get Tarot to stand quietly and accept his being near, I would halter him. Now, I didn’t expect Tarot to stand there at all, but I thought it would at least give Bob a chance to meet him and make a judgement call on his own.

I should mention Bob ended up doing a great job with our other horses. He was relaxed, easy-going and comfortable with all of them. He did a lovely job trimming their feet, no one was stressed and I was really happy with the entire process. He is a patient man, comfortable in his skin with clean clear energy. I was not worried about letting him meet Tarot.

I offered Bob a few treats to take in to Tarot, but  he only wanted to use his body and space, ” just like another horse would.” I pointed out that it was likely Tarot didn’t think he was a horse, especially with the walking on two legs. He laughed but I couldn’t convince him to use the food. Tarot did reach his nose out to sniff his hand, I gesture I promptly clicked and treated, but nothing beyond that cursory investigation. Tarot was careful to stay frontal to Bob and to put his body behind mine when possible. No surprise. Bob then asked if I would halter him up so he could move him around a little and see what he could do.  I explained to Bob that I had just re-trained the halter behavior and it would be a betrayal for me to take this behavior I had built, then use it to hand Tarot over into a situation where he felt unsafe and fearful. He looked honestly surprised but then quickly recovered and said, “Ok, that sounds reasonable, we’ll just find a time where we can get the vet out and use the sedative then.”  Lots of points in my book!

Bob IS unusual in how relaxed and easy he is with horses, but he is not unusual in the belief system he has about training. The common wisdom of Pat Parelli which seems to have saturated the entire horse world, that the only way to communicate with horses is through taking up their space and rewarding them through rest, “just like another horse” has become a near religion. Of course it’s good training to use modes of communication that are ethologically appropriate for the species you are teaching, but it’s not the same as them actually believing you are of a different species. That takes it too far.  Tarot, who grew up wild, has no illusions about any human being a horse, no matter how savvy.  These systems people use are made up negative reinforcement,  positive punishment, and poisoned cues. But none of the horse whisperers are teaching the science, they’re only selling the magic. It’s a disservice and a cause for much misunderstanding. Learning can feel like magic – but if you are going to wield a spell you better understand it’s scope AND it’s limitation.

As for Tarot, he’ll be re-introduced to hoof care with the benefit of some sedation. Of course we are constantly working toward him accepting handling and new things, but I promised him I would honor his body language and his emotions, and through that, his soul. It’s the only road to trust.

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