Sometimes I’m convinced I’m getting softer and more woo-woo when it comes to horses as I get older.
I wish I had another lifetime ahead of me to learn about them, or that my 56-year-old body and mind had the fearless and athletic approach of my twenty-something self.
Still, no regrets. I’ll take my slightly arthritic knees and my creaky neck with my more open-minded brain and experience all day long. (I feel the same way about going back to my high school years, for the record. Thanks, but no.)
I’ve made so many mistakes with horses, and I believe Dunkin came along to teach me a big lesson. (Don’t they all come along to teach us something if we’re paying the least bit of attention?) It took me a while, stubborn as I am, to learn this one.
Dunk, you see, is no fan of transactional relationships. The old quid pro quo where one exchanges, literally, “this for that.”
In my defense, a transactional relationship with a horse is more benevolent than what I was originally taught.
Mike, the Marlboro Man cowboy who taught me to ride when I was seven years old was more of a Dictator type.
“He doesn’t want to work so you have to make him!”
Or, when a heel nudge to ask for a lope didn’t work?
“My grandmother can kick harder than that!”
In Mike’s defense, I was probably a pretty passive rider, and of course a tiny, rank beginner. But the theme of the lessons was clear. With your little personage and your parts, you make the horse do what you want.
Over the years, my riding became more nuanced, thank goodness. I had a horse of my own, Benny, and I got more and more fascinated by how little I could do to get a response, the correct response, to a request.
I learned, too, that I was responsible for my own timing and position and that it was only fair to the horse that what I ask be a fair question, and that even if the horse didn’t give me precisely what I asked, I should reward the try.
Still, it was all about me asking, and the horse responding. Transactional, by definition.
I’ve repeated many times over the years that I think it takes a year to get to know a new horse. Since I’ve almost always found myself with green horses, my expectations were always quite low with regard to what the horse knew or understood. It was a matter of taking it slowly, making investments in the trust and the relationship, putting “pennies in a jar” and ensuring that I never ran a deficit in terms of asking too much of the horse relative to what I’d invested.
Dunk was different, however, right from the get go. He was 12 years old, already trained and experienced and a successful endurance horse. He is, in fact, the first made horse I’ve ever purchased, aside from a couple who found themselves to me because they had a problem of some sort.
From the get go, it was clear that Dunk had opinions, and a few quirks. He was not the pushover type, particularly on the ground.
I made the mistake of jumping right into a transactional relationship.
I come with a cookie, you come and put your head into your halter.
I say whoa, and you stop, and I release any pressure and say ‘good boy.’
You walk alongside me at the pace I set and I don’t hustle you along or touch you with the whip. When I stop, you stop.
If I ask you to travel slower, or turn left, you say yes and I, for my part, ride quietly and softly and I say thank you but mostly I leave you alone and do my best to be a fair and equitable partner.
Looking back at it in retrospect, it’s almost a bit embarrassing.
Dunk obeyed me, but he certainly didn’t seem to like me.
And because he didn’t like me, I wasn’t always so sure I liked him.
On paper we were doing just fine. Conditioning, schooling, competing, checking the boxes.
We hit a couple of behavioral speed bumps that were a bit disconcerting. Someone suggested to me, someone I trust, that maybe it just wasn’t a match.
In my heart and deep in my horseperson’s brain, I knew this relationship trouble was on me. What I’d been doing was not working, so as the one in the relationship with higher cognitive function (most days) it was on me to find a different approach.
So about a year ago, I pressed a reset button.
What did that look like?
For starters, I tried to be someone Dunk would enjoy being around, who wasn’t just there when I wanted something from him.
I grabbed a camp chair and a book, and I’d sit in the paddock, soaking up the sun and offering up scratches. Iggy, recovering from a check ligament injury and a horse who for some reason adores me despite myself, was immediately up in my face, hoping for a cookie, but really just content to stand beside me. To be in my presence.
Dunk, the herd boss, would chase Iggy away from me, but then walk away. He didn’t want Iggy to enjoy my company, it seemed, but he certainly wasn’t interested in taking his place. After sending Iggy away, he’d return to his hay, ignoring both of us.
This went on for days. I’d sit for ten, twenty or thirty minutes, then fold up my chair, take my book, offer a kind word and a pat to both boys, and leave. I asked nothing of Dunk.
Dunk could be difficult to catch. It was never impossible, he never left me stranded, but I’d gotten into the habit of locking him in the paddock, approaching with the halter and a cookie and if he ran off, I’d use the lead rope to ask him to circle, this way and that, keep his feet moving, until such time that he decided that getting caught was the best option.
I changed that up. I tried daily, or more than once a day, to simply approach him, halter in hand and a cookie. If he turned away, so did I. If he approached, he got a cookie and a kind word. Sometimes I put the halter on, sometimes I did not, and often I put the halter on, gave another cookie, immediately took the halter off and walked away. I went about all of my chores in and out of the paddock with my halter and lead rope slung over my shoulder, cookies at the ready.
He was now a horse who was sometimes getting something for nothing.
It got to the point that he’d approach me as I sat in my chair reading, first just in my periphery and then an immediate retreat. Then he’d stand for longer periods beside me, or find a place to graze relatively close by.
Since I obviously wanted to continue riding while working on this relationship stuff, I would still catch him to do so, but sometimes I’d tack him up and untack him and turn him back out. No riding. Or brush him without tacking him up. Or just stand with him and use some of the massage or stretching techniques Beth taught me. Once or twice I collected him, put him in the horse trailer with a snack, then unloaded him five minutes later to turn him out again.
Pennies in a jar of a different sort, I suppose.
I’m a busy person, we all are, but in my busy-ness I’d short changed a relationship with a horse who was not interested in tolerating a quid pro quo type of relationship.
[For the record, I’m not saying that quid pro quo relationships, or transactional relationships, are wrong. I have them with vendors, and contractors and my clients. My life is filled with them. I do not, however, have transactional relationships with my friends, my family, or my husband.]
Riding itself became a little different as well.
After I was settled in the saddle, I’d drop the reins to the buckle and simply ask Dunk to move off, without providing any direction about where to go. At first Dunk seemed a little baffled about being given the option to choose where to go, but he was quickly emboldened and took me out on curious adventures to parts of the yard I had never explored before. He seemed curious to see places out of sight of his paddock. There was little pattern to his choices, and it got to be a fun question to ask – “Hey, where do you want to go?”
Sometimes he’d go back to the gate, or to the paddock alongside Iggy, and come to a halt. I’d gently pick up the reins, ask him to back up or side pass right then left a few times, then invite him to walk away again, to explore once more. He did, and opted not to go stand by the barn again.
Out on our trails, I allowed him to choose the turns, and after 15 minutes of warm-up walking, I’d ask him to head back to the area of the yard where we’d school circles and such, and at that point, I’d just quietly remind him that I’d taken the wheel. I’d pick up the content, ask for a more engaged march, some flexion, a bit of bend. He seemed more than okay with that, having had the chance to drive a bit.
I hauled him out to Hitchcock Woods solo multiple times, taking my time, and quietly tacking him up, asking him to be still to be saddled, still to be mounted, nothing but time, then we’d walk and trot and canter, him picking the trails sometimes, me picking them other times. What was remarkable, however, was that at the end of every ride, approaching the parking area, he’d ask to turn away, to continue. Sometimes I’d let him, but more often than not, I’d laugh and pat him and dismount, give him a cookie and call it a day.
If he spooked, I laughed. I relied on my oh-shit-strap to stay out of his mouth or off his nose and the less I reacted to the days he was “look-y,” the more quickly he stopped seeing monsters. If something was scary, a deer taking off or a fox squirrel scampering up a tree, or another horse suddenly appearing on a trail ahead, I agreed with him, “yes, that was scary, Dunk, I agree.”
I do want to be clear about something. I didn’t become entirely namby-pamby about his behavior.
Dunk had some quirks that required addressing and firm boundaries. He needed to learn that running or pulling backwards was not the right response, ever, when tied or in hand. He needed to know that getting on the trailer was not optional, nor was dancing or fidgeting around when being tacked up or mounted. But I got smarter about setting the boundaries and better with my timing. I set him up to succeed most days, and could more quickly catch a moment where I could see an over-reaction might be coming.
Was it Mark Rashid who said that horses are more than willing to participate when you invite them to a fight?
If I just paid close attention and used a word or a little signal to express that I was aware that he was contemplating a decision, then wait, his focus would almost always come back to me.
It’s a process, of course, and I’ve found I’m being more accepting of a moment of “good enough” when insisting on perfection might end badly, or be interpreted by Dunk as inviting him to an argument.
There’s plenty of work to be done. When he’s wound up, like at the start of a big ride, or on the ground at a vet check, his anxiety translates to pushiness, which is one of my least favorite quirks. So we’ve had a few line-in-the-sand moments there where I don’t think anyone around would have accused me of endless patience.
When it comes time to catch him, Dunk has a sixth sense about my plans to trailer him. I plan early, give myself all sorts of extra time, and the less time crunch I feel, the more quickly he puts his head in the halter and takes his cookie. If he opts to run around a bit, I’ve found that the time goes just as quickly if I ignore him. I think now of that time as him blowing off some pre-trailer ride anxiety (certainly understandable) rather than a lack of cooperation.
I like him better that way, and I think he likes me better that way too.
Some of our best bonding moments have come traveling alone together, camping in a pretty remote spot in the mountains, wisely making good risk choices about how to ride and where. He seems perfectly content having only my company, nickering and talking to me any time I come into sight.
This might just be because of the cookies, but I swear these days he likes me too.
This morning I planned to ride, so went to the paddock in riding tights and boots with his halter. He readily walked up and put his head in the halter.
So I gave him some pets and scratches, a kiss and set him loose.
Sometimes I like getting somethin’ for nuthin’ too.
Coming soon: Endurance and the Fine Art of Failure