And yes, this is a donkey. There is no better trainer for a human who wants to work with horses. Look him in the eye. You are out-matched in strength and wits. Don’t just lay your ego down. Lay it down, walk over it a few times, and then spit. If you feel confident that you’ve succeeded in defusing your ego, then repeat the process until you stop judging. Quantify nothing.
Next, commit to using all your senses. Put your brain on mute, and instead of intellectualizing, become aware of what you sense. Breathe in, as if the air is fluid and nourishing. Is a part of your body tense or painful? Send breath there and allow relaxation to melt your stress. Soften your eyes and let your peripheral vision inform you. Listen for small sounds. Be still and focus on the present. Sure, thoughts will flit through, but let them pass. Be. Here. Now.
Does this meditative part feel tedious? It matters because our senses are pitiful when compared to horses. Their eyes, their noses, their hearing, their sense of touch, are each better than ours. And if that isn’t enough, their response time is significantly faster than ours. So this is us; the only chance we have of being a worthy partner to a horse is to learn to pay attention to the physical world and communicate in that realm.
Now fast-forward through your slow preparations: you’ve given him time to volunteer to be caught. The grooming session was curry heaven and he’s warmed-up and feeling good in his skin. And finally ready to learn. The next part–what you are planning to train–actually doesn’t matter much. It could be on the ground or mounted. It could be working with a simple obstacle, fine-tuning your riding position for jumping, training a spin or a flying change of lead. Something as advanced as a piaffe or as introductory as teaching a weanling to pick up his feet.
To begin, cut the task into tiny, bite-sized pieces and pick a piece to start with. Let’s assume he has no idea at all what you are asking for, because it’s more fun. Then ask your horse to engage with that small part. If he only acts remotely interested, give him a huge reward/release. All of a sudden he’s wondering what he did for all this praise and it’s game on!
If you ask again, and get a good answer, another reward/release. If he responds differently (notice I didn’t say wrong?) then no correction. Just take a breath and ask again. Give him time to choose the right answer. Check your focus and let your energy be calm. If he slows down his effort too much, percolate your energy up a bit. If he is reactive, fussy, or trying too hard, then exhale and slow everything down. Trust that he’ll come back to you, because we have to offer the thing that we want to train.
It’s our nature to panic when a horse’s energy spikes, but flat-out refuse to take that cue. Exhale again, even slower. Most of all, keep your mental focus on your horse and ignore the goal. Losing your connection with him is like a game of bait and switch; if your focus flicks away from your horse, there is no reason to expect his attention on you will be any better.
Now for the donkey information: they are wicked smart and you have to be agile if you want to keep up. But if you can reward him for thinking about doing the task, before the task is completed even, then you are rewarding him for effort, for listening. If you can see his eye, or feel a slight softening of his will through the saddle, in the second before he begins to do the task, give him a huge reward. Too many times we drill and drill and the joy of learning becomes drudgery and repetition. In other words, horses can get donkey stubborn for being used like a tool without a thank you. When you think about it, it’s demeaning. So sometimes reward the try, and call it a day. The real win is that they want to do a thing for us. A positive release for his intention is enough. Chances are that he will do the entire task next time, faster than expected, and somehow doing the right thing has become his idea.
This part seems almost unfair: the difference between training a horse to resist or try harder is usually just a scant few seconds. When you think of it that way, it’s impersonal. It isn’t about blame. It’s the timing that’s off. Just as he’s preparing to do the task, we ask again louder, and the result is that his effort gets interrupted. In other words the conversation between you gets sticky. Things can come apart when the rhythm of the work is broken, so the first thing to repair is the fluid conversation between you and your horse. No task is more important than your horse. Focus again.
How you can tell it’s time to stop is that your horse is happy and you both want more. Now walk him on a long rein, and enjoy the moment. But that doesn’t mean stopping the conversation. Focus on this part with all the energy and attention that you did the original task, because it’s just as important. Engage your horse in conscious relaxation. It might be the most important thing to train anyway.
I want to be with the crazy, psychotic one with spurs, said no horse ever.
I want to be with the slow-witted one checking her messages, said no horse ever.
Humans are so hopelessly human; so addicted to punishment, as if pointing out the problem is the hard part. It isn’t. But if you still feel that need to show him who’s boss–fine. Dominate something that will benefit your horse; dominate your own emotions and breathing. Listen less with your mind and more with your senses and then model the behavior that you want your horse to have. Leadership means kindly disciplining yourself first and setting an example.
Earn the respect of your horse by putting him first each and every moment. From that centered place of awareness, good training flows effortlessly. Because we aren’t really training the horse at all.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.