In my last blog about Pendle, which you can read here, I shared how combining habituation and daily remote food delivery can quickly create relaxation and foster curiosity during the taming process. Using these passive strategies allows the horse to approach when they are relaxed and ready for further learning, rather than forcing them to accept touch before they would have chosen on their own.
When we last left her, Pendle was actively approaching to investigate me AND very much looking forward to her daily tub of grain. It was time to see if she was ready to accept food from my hand.
Aside from the advantage of being able to actively teach skills once direct food delivery is available, the horse also furthers their own desensitization to humans by touching the hand for longer and longer to acquire all of the grain. A useful side process!
First lessons using food are simple. Touch a target. Follow me. All initial lessons are done through protected contact (with the horse behind a fence), so the horse has the choice to interact or not. The behaviors themselves, of standing quietly near a human and choosing to follow out of interest, continue to work on the horse’s overall relaxation around humans. In a way, they are done in service of that goal. Yes, they also teach rules around food, and what humans might reinforce, but their big picture value is still in fostering relaxation.
With Pendle, all of her caution, all of her wildness melted away at once. I was standing right next to the fence, and I felt an intuition that if I touched Pendle, she would not move away.
I was right. Unlike other “first touches” where the horse pins their ear, or stomps their foot or stands tense but still, Pendle relaxed into the touch like she had been tame all along. I felt the whole universe in than moment, yielding, melting like spring snow into the possibility of soft black earth. Consent. This won’t matter to everyone. For some, obedience is enough. It’s functional, it’s safe and if the horse stands to accept touch because they feel there are no other options, that is ok with them.
But for me, in all relationships, consent matters.
I talk about all the science: habituation, classical conditioning, operant learning, not because I’m obsessed with deconstruction, but because it is knowing your process that allows miracles. Learn the rules so you can forget them. Then, re-explain them so others can learn them and forget them too. Everything on this gorgeous earth follows a law: ethology, learning, the turn of the earth itself. It’s not romantic, but it is the elegant skeleton that underlies it all, including the transformation of a horse from wild to tame.
To me, tameness isn’t a set of skills. It is it’s true dictionary definition, tame: an animal not dangerous or frightened of humans.
I am not looking for a replica of tameness.
I am looking for the true beast, quiet, centered and unafraid.
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