Sunday, June 16, 2013

Bonding with Your Horse

Mugwump Chronicles is a blog about a trainer's experiences and this post got my attention.  It is a conversation the trainer had with a client after a bad fall.  The client (Tim) was upset because he felt the fall happened because he hadn't bonded with his horse.  "She doesn't even try to bolt with you," Tim said. "It's like she's tricking me, she likes you better. Tally wants to be your horse."

The trainer tries to explain that it isn't an issue of like, it's an issue of trust.  And that what she's done in her work with the horse (Tally) has been about developing that trust.  She also addresses the issue of bonding with Tim, when she says,
Where we get in trouble with our horses is when we assume they react and think like we do. We're being unfair to them when we mix up our translation of love with theirs. The concept of bonding is a prime example. It's pretty clear to me Tally thinks you're one of the best people she ever met. She also knows that's exactly what you are, people, and that she is a horse. She will never, ever be confused on this issue.
Another insight that she has about bonding is,

The phrase "developing a bond" had long been a pain in my butt. I kept running into this line from more and more of my customers. For the most part, I heard it from new horse owners who thought it would be a good idea to buy a two-year-old for their pre-teen daughter, so they could grow up together, or from total green-horns, who were convinced, after watching a few GaWaNi Pony Boy videos, they could start a colt by themselves, as long as they properly bonded with their horse's spirit. Then they would adopt a mustang. Then, there were my favorites, the "I'm too afraid to ride, so I'll bond instead," folks.
Her words really got me thinking about how I feel about my horse now and about what I wanted from my past relationships with horse.  I have definitely gone through a time when any time my horse reacted badly, I was hurt because I thought that meant this horse didn't like me, that all the work we'd done together was meaningless.  And I think I have been one of those people who thought that "bonding" with the horse was something that I was supposed to do and that if the horse misbehaved, there was something wrong with me.

And, to be honest, there was something wrong with me.  The something wrong was that I mistakenly believed that horses are capable of the same type of bond that a human mother would have with her child or a sister would have for a brother or a friend would have for a friend.  That isn't to say that I think horses don't form bonds with each other or other species.  They do.  But their bonds are different.  Horses are prey animals and humans are predators.  The differences in our fundamental nature must translate into differences in how we see the world around us, including different species.  And, I was placing too much importance on those stories that are out there.  You know the ones where a horse supposedly did something on purpose to save its rider or its owner.  I'm not trying to say they didn't happen, but I'm not convinced that they happened for the reasons most people think they do.  I'm not sure that we can ever really understand the innermost workings of the mind of another species, no matter how much we study them.

And it occurs to me after reading this trainer's thoughts that I have changed the way I think about my relationship with my horse.  I no longer expect him to like me.  Of course that may be because I own a horse who is the equine equivalent of a black lab.  He seems to adore all people and attention and I have no need to convince him that spending time with me is fun.  It's a given.  But now, I spend a lot more time working on myself than I do my horse.  When I'm in the arena, I think about the aids I'm giving and my horse's response.  If it isn't what I wanted, I rethink the aid.  Was it clear enough?  Was it consistent with the last time I gave the aid?  Do I even know what I'm looking for in the response?  I rarely think anymore that my horse isn't listening or that I need to spend more time in the round pen doing join up or hooking on or whatever it's called these days.  Not that joining up is necessarily bad - I haven't formed a complete opinion on that yet.  It's just that I don't think in terms of bonding and the horse liking me or even me liking the horse.  It's more a matter of, "How are we working together?"  If there is stiffness or a lack of response from the horse, it just means that I need to help my horse understand what I want in a better or different way.

But before I go patting myself on the back for my new enlightened attitude, I do want to say that I have so much farther to go before I reach the point where my horse truly trusts me.  Every time my horse refuses to cross a creek or go over a log or interact with a scary obstacle, it sends a message to me that my relationship with my horse still needs to grow.  That there is still work I need to do on myself so that I can convey the confidence and the skills I need to convince my horse that he can trust me because I'm not going to ask him to do something that is going to hurt him.

And you know what?  That's OK with me.  Because much like any relationship with a spouse or a friend, we should be working at it every day.  I think Donna Snyder-Smith said it best when she said, "Endurance riders travel from dawn to dusk in the company of a creature who offers strength without brutality, companionship with criticism, and beauty without vanity."  An animal like that deserves more than just someone who is fun to be around.  He deserves someone who is worthy of his trust.  And someday, I hope to be that person.

1 comment:

  1. Hear hear. I think the greatest disservice we can do to ourselves is to believe that horses think/feel the same way we do. My horse doesn't love me like my human friends love me, and that's just fine.