Giving Up the Fight

A while ago, we bought a horse named Whiskey. Whiskey belonged to one of the guys who worked for us in the cattle operation, and we’d been watching him for about three months, as he negotiated his part-time job as a working cow horse with a beginner rider. He seemed like a patient and kind fellow, so we offered to buy him, intending to use him as a school horse and an “extra” horse if Glenn or I needed one.

Whiskey’s history was unknown, and that’s not really terribly important anyway, because somehow the horse manages to tell us about everything we need to know over time. We humans like to have our curiosity satiated so we can make up some elaborate fictional story about our horse, but I don’t think they actually care a whole lot about that. Whiskey was about 14 years old and according to the dentist, he’d never had his teeth done in his entire life. According to the chiropractor, aside from a bit of mid-back soreness from poorly fitting saddles, he felt remarkably good for a “horse like him.” According to the vet who vetted him, he’s “made it this far without a lot of help, so obviously he’s a tough one.” According to the farrier, it’s a miracle that Whiskey is sound on his severely scarred front foot. So that’s the sum total of what we knew about Whiskey.

The thing about Whiskey that was interesting is that in his time with humans, he’d learned how to fight. Now, by fight, I don’t mean anything aggressive. He was beautifully mannered and liked people, generally. But along the road, in his life with humans, he had learned to “fight”. He had learned to resist requests, say “no” and generally disagree with the human. This is not natural in most horses, but it is pretty common in people, strangely enough. We humans tend to make others in our own image.

Now, I didn’t believe that Whiskey “wanted” to fight or resist, or whatever you wanted to call it. I believed that he LEARNED how to do that because he got releases, relief, and peace (eventually) for doing it. Therefore, it had become a learned behavior. Some people would call him “a pig” or say that “he’s just trying to get away with being lazy.” But really, all he was doing was doing what had benefitted him in the past. He was a horse of good character who had inadvertently, though his interaction with not-very-skilled people in his life, learned how to resist. He was a good example of a typical “backyard horse” off the open market.

So I looked at Whiskey as a delicious project, horsemanship-wise. You see, I’ve struggled with fighting with horses for a long time, and I’ve been working on it for a long time. I grew up in a culture where our trainers would routinely tell a student to “get mad at him”, “don’t let him take advantage of you” and “don’t let that witch win!” So I guess you could say that I was taught to get emotional and fight with horses. When I discovered horsemanship over 20 years ago, I knew that one of the things I would pursue and ask questions about was just that, how to take the fight out of me.

I won’t bore you with that whole VERY long and convoluted story. Instead, I want to give you some suggestions for practical ways that you can deal with yourself and your horse next time you feel a fight brewing.

So what is this “fight” I’m talking about? This is when we say to our horse, “Hey, could you (insert skill, movement, etc here)?” and he appears to “say” something like, “NO! And you can’t make me!” or “Well, let me think on it for a while and I’ll get back to you, but likely not”, or “I’d rather do THIS (insert different, possibly opposite skill, movement, etc here)!!!!!!” I’m not talking about green horses who are confused, horses with physical issues, or troubled or scared horses.

Whiskey appeared to be the “No, and you can’t make me” type. His first response when asked to do something was usually silence. He “ignored” us and just waited for us to go away, get tired or lose interest. This is any horse’s lowest-technology form of “resistance” or fight, and they learn it when people don’t have the ability or skill to be effective and finish what they start. If, when Whiskey “ignored” us, we got bigger, harder, faster or in any way “insisted” that he do what we asked, that’s when he just got stuck, shut down and refused to try anything. Just. Not. Doing. It.

Obviously, at first, riding or working with Whiskey was a bit of a trial. He would refuse, and I would fight the urge to “make” him do it. But I knew ultimately, I’d have to get him to do what I asked, or I was just perpetuating his belief that he could refuse and wait for me to go away or change my mind.

So I called on my study of Ray Hunt’s work, and I devised a plan. When Whiskey resisted, I would make a sticky-note in my mind and make sure I (eventually) completed what we had just started. Then I would start looking for an opening, a side or a back door past his resistance that would lead us to the thing I wanted. I would strive to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult (but not impossible). I would try to get my idea to be his idea. I would be particular but not critical. I would control my emotions.

Here is a good example. A student was riding Whiskey and she had asked Whiskey to sidepass to the left over to a gate, so she could start practicing working a gate. Whiskey refused. So my student asked harder, bigger and faster. Whiskey dug in his heels, shut down and refused to budge and offered to take whatever she thought she could dish out. After all, the bigger she got, he knew, the quicker she would tire physically and quit. The fight got pretty established before I interrupted my student to see if we could find another way to get Whiskey to put more effort toward what we wanted. Goodness knows, if he put half the effort he was putting into fighting toward sidepassing, he’d be all the way across the arena!

So I asked my student what she was looking for. “For him to sidepass to the gate.” Okay, good. Why isn’t that happening? “He’s stuck. Nothing is moving.” Okay, good. But what, on a horse trained this way, can you ALWAYS move? “Um….. the hind end, but that’s not what I want.” But it is. The hind end is half of a sidepass, which is more than you have now. And he won’t fight with you about moving the hind end. He can’t. Pick up your rein, bend him and bump his hind end over with your leg. Then ask for sidepass again and if he resists, just calmly step his hind end over. Do that until he offers to take the “good deal”, the request to sidepass a couple steps and be done. Within a few minutes, I kid you not, Whiskey was sidepassing willingly to the gate.

So here are my suggestions when a horse offers to fight like this:

1. Have a mantra to say to yourself as soon as you feel a fight brewing. For me, it’s: “You cannot make me fight. I have the bigger brain. And I can have someone bring me a sandwich.”

Let me tell you what that all means, and then maybe you can come up with a mantra that means something to you.

“You cannot make me fight,” reminds me that I am responsible for how what the horse does makes me feel and act. He is just doing what he thinks will benefit him, and it is not personal. It would be my choice to fight.

“I have the bigger brain,” means that I need to be smarter in this situation, not bigger and stronger. I still have to tell myself to use my brain first, body second sometimes. This also reminds me to touch base with the “Ray-isms” that direct my work and philosophy.

“I can have someone bring me a sandwich.” I have a friend who road bikes, and he once told me that when I ride my bicycle, I should never pedal harder than I could keep up for 20 minutes. Period. I apply that to my horse work in that I generally try not to use a level of pressure that I could not keep up for longer than the horse could resist it. So I could, literally be working on something and waiting for the breakthrough, and have it take so long that I needed a drink and a sandwich. That’s fine. But I’m not going to end with the horse saying “no”. I may have to accept “I’ll try” and go work on it again and again until I get a “yes”, but I’m not going to quit on “no”.

2. Make sure to remember what you were asking the horse to do when you got sidetracked with the “fight” feeling or actions. You will need to return to this somehow, or to a piece of it.

3. It is going to be obvious what the horse can’t do right then. You will know what he is refusing to do. But work hard to find what he CAN do. Which foot ISN’T stuck? Where CAN he move forward? Sometimes this can lead to some very creative thinking on our parts on how to turn something the horse CAN do into the thing we want or asked for. Once we learn how to do this, it’s kryptonite to these horses who have learned to fight. Masters can take literally anything a horse CAN offer and turn it into what they want.

4. No matter what, make sure the horse finds PEACE and RELIEF when he makes a try in the right direction. He should feel friction from us if he is not trying, and relief when he is. We must make sure that there is no resistance from US as he moves toward what we want. These positive tries can be quick, fleeting and unexpected, so we have to be ready to provide peace and relief when one happens. The less skilled we are, the slower we should keep our interaction. More experienced horsemen can speed things up and not miss a try.

5. Breathe. We will think clearer, control our emotions better, and have better timing if we’re breathing. And we’ll last longer physically too.

6. Do NOT see any of these interactions as a “win” or a “lose”. If we are partners with our horses, then if one of us “wins”, we both “win” and if one of us “loses”, we both “lose.” It’s not about winning and losing, it’s about us learning how to work effectively with horses, and about horses learning how to succeed in the world they have to live in with us.

7. Know how to break a skill down if need be. Divide the greater tasks into smaller pieces if necessary. It’s all about “what happens before what happens happens.”

Whiskey ended up turning out pretty well for us. He worked as a school horse for us for over a year and a half and he did pretty much everything we asked him to do. When my best friend needed a horse for her husband to ride and to pony her colts off of, it just seemed like to perfect a match to pass up, so he went to go help out there. 

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