My journey with horses has been longer than many people’s but only a fraction of the length in terms of experience, knowledge, and insight of the horsemen and women I admire most. The road on which I have been traveling has had its share of potholes, dead ends, and detours, but it has also taken me through beautiful countryside and countless wilderness areas I would never have seen on any other route. Traveling hasn’t always been pretty and in some instances it has been downright ugly, but it has never been dull. In early May the road took a sharp but life-changing turn…
Along with many other horse owners, I regularly groomed my horses in their stalls without a halter and lead rope, thinking it was safe. But I found out I was wrong. My normally very level-headed, easy-going, gentle yearling spooked while I was grooming him in his stall, crushing me against the back wall, snapping five of my ribs cleanly into ten halves – not his fault; mine. I had forgotten the most important characteristic common to all horses. A horse, no matter how gentle, seemingly safe, calm, well-trained is still a flight animal. When fearful they will run away or at least try to run away, sometimes blindly. Horses will run through electric fencing, barbed wire, across traffic-filled roads, and down steep ravines in their attempt to find safety. So why wouldn’t a horse in the “safety” of his stall, spook? I put “safety” in parenthesis’ because a stall seems safe from our human perspective; not necessarily a horse’s perspective. I attended a seminar in July by Dr. Robert Miller, a retired veterinarian and originator of what is known as “imprinting” foals, at the Northwest Natural Horsemanship Center in Fall City, WA. Dr. Miller has written several books on Natural Horsemanship, horse behavior and psychology, and of course foal imprinting. Through his experience of handling thousands of horses as well as other animals Dr. Miller has devised several guidelines for safe horse handling. He demonstrated some of these and talked about others during the afternoon of the seminar. He advised strongly against working with a horse in a stall without a halter and lead rope as it is potentially dangerous. There I sat, still uncomfortable from my not-yet-healed broken ribs, a splendid example of how not to keep yourself safe when around horses. The discomfort from being embarrassed was nearly as bad as from the still-healing broken ribs. The sweltering heat that day combined with no ventilation didn’t help either.
I made several other mistakes with my yearling, leading up to the accident. I had handled him at his birth and regularly after. I attribute some of my yearling’s calm attitude, level-headedness, and easy-going nature to having desensitized him. It had helped remove some fear inherent to most horses. Unfortunately what I didn’t realize is that there are two parts to imprinting: desensitization and establishing a respect for personal space. Also essential to the second part of the process is teaching the newborn horse that humans are his leader. Dr. Miller emphasized that the second part of the process is so important it is better not to imprint at all than to do just the first part but not the other. The result of doing that is dangerous as it creates a horse that is not fearful or nervous but is still pushy and disrespectful. I had not “imprinted” my yearling at birth but some birth complications required that I handled him shortly after he was born. This partially desensitized him. The great part about that is that he is not afraid or nervous of me at all and will tolerate all kinds of new experiences as long as it’s me who is working with him. He trusts me; I have been part of his world since he was born. I guess I am kind of like his auntie. My colt has been great when introduced to new experiences such as being sprayed with a spray bottle and a hose, as well as having his mane trimmed. He also pretty much halter-trained himself. He will come when called out in the pasture and is always friendly. The down-side is that he is pushy and obnoxious; not so much with me but definitely with other people.
My yearling has always had pretty decent ground manners, probably a lot due to twice daily handling. So actual ground work training with him kept getting left on a shelf in lieu of what I considered more urgent training issues with the rest of the other horses. As they say, “hindsight is 20/20”. There is a common opinion that a horse should not receive “training” until it is two years old. To me this is the horse version of not teaching a child the alphabet, never explaining how letters sound, and never reading to that child. What a disadvantage that child is at when trying to learn how to read without that basic foundation. Is it then a big surprise when that same child not only can’t read at age 10 but is also not interested in learning how and on top of that doesn’t like books? Another way to look at it would be to never teach your child table manners nor how to use a knife and fork and then expect your child to figure out how to eat with an array of silverware at a large wedding reception at age seven.
My first project after the accident was to start ground work with the yearling. As it turned out he has been a quick learner, is pretty good at focusing considering his young age, and he seems to enjoy our sessions. Working with him now takes priority. I regularly remind him who is in charge and reinforce the meaning of respecting personal space. Despite being cute and small(er), my yearling is no lap dog and nor do I want to have a 750 lb “dog” on my lap. Two things have really stood out with our “training” sessions. One is how quickly horses learn at a young age. They are like sponges. And the other is how important it is that what is taught is reinforced and reinforced again and again and again.
The human in this story has learned that one bad experience is worth ten, twenty, or maybe even fifty “successes” in terms of teaching power. I no longer groom my horses or do anything else with them in their stalls unless they have a halter and lead rope on. Lesson learned. I do some ground work with my yearling everyday even if it is only a small amount at turn-in and turn-out time. Lesson learned there too. I remind myself on a daily basis, every time I am around a horse, mine or someone else’s, gentle or not, trained-to-the-eyeballs or less so, calm or otherwise that horses are flight animals. Big lesson NEVER to be forgotten. Maybe every turn in the road I am traveling on my journey will be somewhat life-changing… let’s hope so; preferably though without getting broken in the process…