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Gentleness

Posted by vwkoch, 25 February 2013 · 1,828 views

One of the most important things I teach my horses is how fragile I am.  Many trainers who work from the dominance perspective shudder when I make that statement.  They believe that you have to be dominant to your horse to be safe and that dominance involves convincing the horse that you’re stronger than it is.  My perspective, though, is that you simply need to persuade your horse that your lead is worth following, and then it will defer to you.  Your horse can be willing to defer to you without having to believe that you’re stronger than it is, so if you work from my perspective, you’re free to let the horse know you’re fragile.  If the horse knows you’re fragile, and it cares about you, it will then be careful not to hurt you.  In my opinion, if the horse and I are BOTH looking out for my safety, then I’m twice as safe as if everything depended just on me.

I have many ways of teaching my horses to be gentle.  For example, my current pet horse is allowed to use me as a scratching post after I take off her bridle and before I put on her halter.  However, if she pushes too hard, that privilege ends, so she has a pretty good idea of just how hard she is allowed to push while scratching.  If she accidently steps on my foot, I yell at her, which she considers to be punishment, so she’s learned to be careful where she puts her feet.  If she wants to graze while I’m sitting on her, she bumps the bit.  If it’s just a bump, I usually let her graze.  If she tries pulling, I don’t.  So, she’s learned that gentleness is rewarded and being rough is not.  I don’t actually set out to teach “gentleness.”  I just insist on “good manners”, and over time, my horses generalize what “good manners” means.

“Good manners” means different things to different people, and it also means different things to different horses.  When they are applying their own judgment as to whether a new behavior might be acceptable or not, they may come to different conclusions --- and their conclusions may be different from mine.  In my experience, encouraging my horses to use their own judgment with regard to how gentle they need to be means that they are usually MORE careful than is really necessary.  There have been times when my horses have refused to perform behaviors that I have indicated are acceptable but which they have decided are too rough.

For example, I feed pieces of carrot to my horses as rewards.  With my stallion, I would hold a whole carrot with just a small part sticking out from my hand, and he would break off that part as his reward.  When we got to the thick end of a big carrot, he would have to work pretty hard to break off a small piece.  One day, I put a carrot in my mouth and offered it to him to see what he would do.  He refused to have anything to do with it.  Apparently, he assumed that he was expected to break off a piece, and he felt that doing so was too rough a behavior to perform that close to my face.  Nothing I did would persuade him that it was okay to take that carrot.

My current pet mare, on the other hand, regularly takes pieces of carrot from my mouth.  Because she is very timid, I guessed (when I first got her) that breaking off pieces of carrot on her own would be too rough a behavior for her to perform willingly until she gained more confidence, so for her, I have always cut the carrot up into pieces beforehand.  When I offered to let HER take a piece of carrot from my mouth, it was actually far more intimate than what I had offered my stallion (because he had a whole carrot and she had just a small piece), but taking it did not involve any roughness --- she did not have to break off a piece, just take the whole (small) piece from my mouth.  Because she could not see the piece of carrot when she reached for it, she solved the gentleness problem by putting her upper lip just under my eyes and her lower lip just under my chin, then closing her lips until she found the carrot piece.  She took it very gently, but she slimed my whole face.  Being the weird person that I am, I took the sliming as a challenge, so we continued to practice until she could take the carrot without touching my face.  By then, it had become a part of our routine --- which continues today.

However, I also have an example of when she, too, applied more caution than was necessary when it came to being gentle with me.  Tori and I sometimes play fetch, and she prefers playing with a Frisbee.  Unfortunately, her original Frisbee disappeared one day, and until I could get her a new one, I decided to use another one of her toys for fetching.  This toy is a “bumper” toy used to teach dogs to retrieve --- a bumpy orange rubber thing shaped like a corn cob.  It is about 3” in diameter, so she’d have to open her mouth pretty wide to hold it.  I wasn’t sure she’d be willing to do so, so when I pulled it out to play fetch, I first just offered it to her to see what she’d do.  She made a half-hearted effort to take it, then quit.  In the hope that asking her to pick it up and hand it to me would get her more motivated (because she knew she’d get a treat in exchange), I next tried putting it on the floor.  At that point, she readily picked it up and handed it to me.  What was the difference?

Rather than taking the whole thing into her mouth, what Tori does is to push her mouth against the toy until she can grab hold of it by the bumps, without having to open her mouth wide enough to engulf the whole thing.  In order to grab it that way, she has to push on it pretty hard.  I think the reason she won’t take it from my hand is because she feels it is too rough to push on me hard enough for her to grab the toy.  Once I put it on the ground, though, that problem was solved, and she was quite willing to participate in playing fetch with the bumper toy instead of the Frisbee.  She still prefers the Frisbee, however, and now that we have a new one, we’ve gone back to Frisbee fetching.  If you want to see her playing fetch, check out .

Many trainers who work from the dominance perspective insist that horses must be micromanaged; that is, they should not be allowed to do anything the trainer hasn’t asked them to do.  Taking every bit of control over its life away from a horse is very poor for its mental welfare, and I prefer to promote good mental welfare in my horses.  I also prefer for my horses to be able to think for themselves, because sometimes, their answers to a problem may be better than mine.  All I ask is that they defer to my decision if I think my answer is the better one.

When I see evidence that my horses do indeed think for themselves, it makes me very proud and happy.  It especially pleases me when that evidence also shows that they are looking out for my safety.  Even when I think that they are being overly cautious, I respect (and appreciate) their determination to be gentle around me.  I WANT them to know that I’m fragile and to treat me accordingly.  They can know the truth and still be willing to defer to me.  I don’t want their compliance to be based on fear of punishment.  I want it to be based on respect for my opinions, not respect for my (imaginary) strength.  My horses are not my slaves --- they are my friends.  They’re careful not to hurt me because they care about me and they know that I’m fragile.  Having both of us looking out for my safety makes me twice as safe as if everything depended just on me, but more importantly, my horses and I SHARE control, which is how things should be.  In my world, horses are “people”, too.




April 2014

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