Monday, May 12, 2014

Mugs for Thought

I received  a great email this morning. It was from a horse owner who has some very minor behavior problems with her horse, but is feeling, correctly, that they unacceptable.

Her scenario began like this...the horse, who lives in a stall-with-turnout type of situation, was standing in the cross-ties. He had not been turned out yet.

There was a young girl from the barn standing next to him, stroking his neck.

He was staring off in the distance --I'm guessing, with his head up and a fairly rigid stance-- and ignoring the child.

The owner came up to put him on a lunge line and get some of the sass off him before turning him loose. She placed her hand on the opposite side of his face and he slung his head in irritation.

This turned into a pissing match between them. The owner feels he should tolerate her touch wherever and whenever he gets touched. So, she continued to touch his face, he continued to evade.

Eventually, she gave up, took him outside and lunged the crap out of him. Lot's of speed transitions, stops and turns etc.

In twenty minutes he was hot, tired and completely submissive. He had his head lowered and was asking for affection. The owner was still fired up from the behavior in the barn and didn't want to return it.

Part of her irritation comes from feeling like she has to stomp all over him to get him to respect her. He will refuse to be affectionate and obedient unless she has worked the crap out of him. Then he will behave for a few weeks, then it builds again.

When he is sweet, he is incredibly so, she knows it's in there.

Before we get into my analysis of this situation, I want to share something I have learned about myself in the last few years, but have only come to embrace instead of ignore in just the past few months.

I am an extremely empathetic person. I am not sympathetic, not even a little. Other beings emotions, fear, stress, anger, happiness, contentment, all cause a physical response in me. I'm not going into detail, maybe someday if you're interested, but what this does, is make me very good with animals and very awkward with people.

With people, their words often don't match the emotion they're emitting, and all I hear is Waa waa waa. Kind of like the adult voices in the Charlie Brown cartoons. My daughter will be the first to tell you she feels I rarely hear her, but she knows to her core, I always feel her.

It might give some insight on the weird ways I respond to you at times. It's hard for me to find the correct response to things when I am only reading the written word and not pairing it with a physical presence.

Anyway. These are the words from our conversation that help me read this situation.

For her horse:
"Thousand mile stare.
"...flung his head in irritation.
"...he had a lot of energy.
"...and of course, at the end of it - his head was lowered and he was all "I love you, hold my head."

For herself:

"So I got pissy...
"... we had a little bitty stupid war while he was in crossties 
" me trying to get him to submit to a head hug just for one moment...
"...was just a flat out asshole to him..."
", I just worked him HARD.
"He was letting you touch him, but he wasn't really letting you do it - it's why he had his head high in the air and was ignoring you (to the little girl)."
"And I know that what I did was what he needed, and I can't force him to be something he's not.
"Sometimes I just want to give my horse a hug without establishing dominance first."

First and foremost, understand there was absolutely no abuse in any way shape or form here. When the owner talks about a war, she is not talking about hitting, or jerking or anything, just insisting the horse tolerate her touch.
When she says she worked him hard, she means she exercised him until he was compliant. 

This owner was very close in many ways to reading the situation and handling it correctly. But. You know me there is always a but. This can be completely a non-issue with a few tweaks in perspective.

This is how I would see and handle a situation like this one. We'll pretend he is mine.

My horse is thinking about stretching his legs. He has left the stall and knows he gets to move. Horses are all about movement. The anticipation is overwhelming. It's all he can think about.

He is a well mannered horse, with lots of pent up energy. Just to make sure he stays well mannered, I'm going to work around the barn, while keeping an eye on him, until I see him physically relax in the cross ties. Then I'll take him out for some exercise.

The little girl approaches and starts petting his shoulder.

My horse looks far and away, and stiffens. He wants to run. He is too well mannered to shake off this annoying child, but his tension is mounting.

I am proud of his patience. In order to reward him I tell the kid, "My horse isn't in the mood to be petted right now, maybe you can come see him after he's had some exercise and is happier."

Keep in mind, if she was a kid I was in charge of I'd say, "Why are you touching someone else's horse? Don't you have a stall to clean?"

Once my horse has relaxed and is looking around, mild eyed, I would saddle him, put the lunge line on him and we would go work. 

Our work out would be focused, he would not be allowed to buck, snort around, bolt, nothing. He knows this, because I saddled him, and we don't screw around under saddle. (This is another training post).

Once he is relaxed, calm and behaving well, I'll know he has his head back on straight and I'll let him rest. 

He'll be warm and affectionate. I'll reward him by scratching a few sweet spots, then caress his head, an area he's not comfortable with me handling, making it part of a positive experience.

I'll unsaddle him, scratch him again, take of his head gear and walk away. He'll approach turnout at a walk.

Here's my agree and disagree.

I agree 100% that my horses need to let me handle them when and where I need to.

I never take it personally when a horse lets me know they are uncomfortable with certain spots. 

To my mind, the gelding was completely focused on getting out. The cross ties were stopping him, the child was stopping him, he was ignoring the restraint, but letting his anxiety build. When his owner approached with yet another restraint he objected. Nobody was hearing him.

When I was little, I didn't want to kiss Grandma when she first arrived. It wasn't personal. I adored her. It's just that she was squishy and smelled funny. After we had hung out for a while and she had told me her latest adventures, I forgot she was squishy and kissed her happily. She still smelled funny, but it didn't matter, because she waited until I remembered she was someone I wanted to hug.

The aunt that made me kiss her anyway? I never got past how much I hated her spiky mustache. I dutifully kissed her, but my only memory of her is being poked by those black, bristly hairs on her upper lip.

I teach my horses to be handled during specific exercises, not in response to negative behaviors. I wait until they're ready to give me affection. I insist on good behavior. 

I don't allow myself to become angry with my horse. It's not that hard, because I never take things personally. I look for reasons to help me know how to shape behavior. 

Don't get me wrong, you'll hear me gripe and complain to high heaven....but not at the horse.
When it comes to dominance....

No horse wants to be hit, smacked, jerked, kicked or run until exhausted. Not a single one. No horse is happy because these things happen, they are only relieved when it stops. 

You guys know I take the "boss mare" position with my horses. They have to do what I say. I also strongly believe I need to hear and respect my horse.

I agree the horse should not have slung his head.

The difference is, I would try not to set him up for failure. How? By using the approach I described above. 
He would not have gotten the turn out he so desperately wanted until he earned it, by being calm and relaxed. I would let him sort that out himself. I wouldn't be sympathetic to his anxiety, but I certainly wouldn't be picking a fight with him when he only had half his brain working.

I know that as soon as he learns his anxiety doesn't get him anywhere, the better we both get along.

By approaching my horse like this, I stop the gradual build to misbehavior. I'm still the boss.

I'm not saying I haven't had many a "Come to Jesus" meeting with my horses. But it's rarely more than once.

"Wait," some of you are saying, "she said the horse became soft and compliant after she got after him."

He certainly did. Because he finally got what every fiber in his being was screaming for, some exercise.

However, this good, well-mannered horse isn't done with his tension, his anxiety in the cross ties, or slinging his head.

Because, in his mind, the way he finally got his person to understand how much he needed to move, was by being fractious in the cross ties.

Her anger confuses him, maybe even frightens him, but he is learning to tolerate that in order to get what he needs.

As usual, the Big K, in two simple sentences, made this clear to me.

Several years ago, we were sitting on our horses and letting them air up. Sonita would grab at the side of her bit, I would pull it out and growl at her, she's do it again, and then I would too. I don't know how long K watched this back and forth, but finally, he said, "Janet, you two are bitch slapping each other like a couple of queens in a gay bar. Either ignore it or fix it, you two are driving me nuts."


  1. As usual, a very well thought out post with a healthy dose of common sense. Love the Big K's advice given at the end. I love reading your blog Mugs, please keep it up.

  2. That has got to be the best Big K quote I have read so far!

  3. I've found that if I see behaviours as a challenge and react accordingly they turn into one, whereas if I see them as a minor miscommunication and explain or ask again, things don't escalate and I am much more likely to get what I want fairly easily.

    The approach your correspondent described (without the lunging, but with the insistance on respect) caused me to go from having a pretty nice relationship with Jerry to one that was increasingly difficult and dangerous; since I've gone to rewarding the behaviour I want and trying hard to see things from his perspective, things have improved hugely between us.

  4. Okay Mugs.. the sentence below nails me.. have you found some reading that has helped you explore this about yourself? Anything you can share? Please :)

    I am an extremely empathetic person. I am not sympathetic, not even a little. Other beings emotions, fear, stress, anger, happiness, contentment, all cause a physical response in me. I'm not going into detail, maybe someday if you're interested, but what this does, is make me very good with animals and very awkward with people.

  5. Frances - I have opened a can of worms, I knew I was doing it, but I haven't figured out yet how to have a discussion without opening myself up to trolls and casual looky-loos. Let me think on this a bit, I won't forget you.

  6. Clancy- Yes. I have three things in mind when I work with horses.
    What I want.
    Where the horse comes from.
    What is acceptable behavior,and what isn't.
    I work within that triangle.

  7. I really appreciate this post. Sadly, I am overflowing with empathy and sympathy. It has taken me a lifetime to find middle ground and sometimes I still struggle.

    When I first got into horses, my empathy and sympathy often blinded me. I ignored dangerous behavior because I could feel how upset, anxious or stressed my horse was. I tried to soothe and bribe my way through unpleasant tasks and often told myself, well, it's not her fault. It may not have been her fault, but I certainly wasn't teaching her better when I let her get her own way all the time.

    Then I had a come-to-jesus moment with myself. I realized that there was too much likelihood that I would end up dead or injured, and the only person who would be interested in my spoiled, potentially dangerous mare was the meat man. I had to admit that she would be one of thousands of ill-behaved, untrained horses at the auction if I got hit by a bus on my way to work.

    So I toughened up; a lot, and drew a very strong line that I was the boss always. And I certainly didn't always set her up for success, I didn't know how, I just knew that I couldn't let her get away with /anything/ anymore. You could have been describing me in the round pen lunging her for slinging her head.

    Now, I look back and see that turning point a little differently, and I try to always set my horse up for success, don't sweat the small stuff, and listen to her when she talks to me. She still has to do what I say, but I've become okay with letting her have an "appropriate" opinion.

    I worried a little that I have been backsliding, but I'm not cut out to be a dominatrix, so the hunt for the middle ground continues. . .

  8. great post. i'm also one of the legion of people dealing with some of this with my hot, spooky thoroughbred. trying to leave the emotions out of it, trying to set him up for success at home, and every time we go to a horse show where he has to deal with all the exciting new things that entails. read this interesting article and am thinking about all the things it implies:

  9. Great post and solid insight into the horse's thoughts. Even better insight into Big K's thoughts - love it! Having read all the Sonita stories about how she loved to rattle her bit, my guess is you did not fix it?

    Amy in Ohio

  10. Anon...Yes, I fixed it. Rolling her roller...yes...grabbing the shanks? No. It was a matter of conscious correction over mindless arguing.

  11. After reading this post, I too wanted to mention the post in Mo's comment above... food for thought.

  12. Haha love that quote at the end. Definite food for thought in the rest of this. I have some of the same battles with my very stressy, easily excitable welsh pony. I know that although he's better than he was I do sometimes manage to inflame things when he's having a bad day. I wish I could find a magical "remove emotion from this" switch although I'm currently seeking ways to remove some of the stress from other areas of life so hoping that should help a little.

  13. I've come back to this post 3 times to comment. Each time I end up reading again and my comment no longer applies.

    Gonna have to chew on this one and how it applies to me and my bad horses.

    No they aren't really bad, I just like to call them names when they aren't looking. :-)

  14. Thanks for the thought-provoking post Mugs, I appreciate your insight as always, and it's making me think hard about my current puzzle.

    Right now I'm working on re-starting a mare that just does not want to be touched. When anyone tries to just rest a hand on her (back, loin, belly, flank, or hindquarters) she shivers, then wrings her tail, then stamps, then swings her head, and finally jigs away sideways. But it's not that she's not friendly; she walks up to me in the pasture, if I turn her loose she follows me around the arena and she will come up and rest her head on my shoulder if I stop. She also sometimes leans her shoulders into me, which I find less cute. The chiropractor could not find anything physically wrong, and I should hear from the vet this week. Except that this week she is in heat and practically begging to be touched by anyone, particularly on her hind end.

    I keep swinging back and forth between whether her problems are physical or mental/emotional. I guess I'll have to see what the vet says.

  15. I'd love an elaboration on what you did differently to fix Sonita's bit-biting. I have similar bitch-slapping arrangement with my rather hot, impatient TB and pawing.

  16. Okay, I too zeroed in on the paragraph:
    I am an extremely empathetic person. I am not sympathetic, not even a little. Other beings emotions, fear, stress, anger, happiness, contentment, all cause a physical response in me. I'm not going into detail, maybe someday if you're interested, but what this does, is make me very good with animals and very awkward with people.

    I have read it over and over. I get it. Really really get it. Especially good with animals and very awkward with people. I know this may sound pathetic but it is so nice to know there are other people out here like me. I have learned a lot from your blog. I look forward to learning more. Thank you.