After my last article exploring the natural horsemanship training method of “making your idea the horse’s idea” and why that smacks of manipulation to me, I decided to try to elucidate my method of horsemanship training – or rather, non-training.
So here’s the thing about collaborative exploration with an equine as a “training” method: It’s really hard to quantify and I can’t break it into Step 1, 2, 3.
Because it needs to remain spontaneous, responsive and fun.
As soon as no one is having fun (me or the horse), I stop. And just hang out, or go do chores instead.
I am in the leadership position only in the aspect that I am the one who knows the things my horse needs to learn to be able to function smoothly and happily in this human world. And that is my entire agenda – aside from fun purely for the beautiful, sparkling sake of fun!
Does a horse need to jump to be able to survive happily in the human world? Nope. But is jumping fun? Well, that’s for me and my horse to decide. I have 2 horses who love to jump and 2 who only jump when needed (fallen logs, the creek, etc.). So no two horses are treated alike, or learn quite the same way – because FUN is a very personal, subjective experience.
Here’s an example. Here we have Irelynn, who is emptying the dregs of a hay net into the slow feeder. And then she notices that 2-year-old Montaro (the dun, semi-feral Fjord/Belgian who only discovered the fun of halters and lead ropes a few months ago) is interested in what she’s doing.
ALERT: 5 Minute Fun Collaborative Learning opportunity!!
So Irelynn thinks it is funny to put the hay net on his head! Montaro says, “What’s that?” but keeps chewing and then drops his head to get more hay. Watch Irelynn’s body language – note how she is smiling, relaxed, giving him his space to enjoy or reject the game. Her body (and her voice) is asking, “What do you think of that?”
Montaro says, “Whatever!” and goes back to eating. So Irelynn then takes the hay net and rubs it on his back:
Then she leaves it there – look at Irelynn’s body language again. She is chuckling, “What do you think of that mister?” Note how much space she gives him (permission, freedom from expectation). She is really enjoying this and he is responding, “You’re kind of weird, but okay, whatever turns your crank.” His energy and body language is relaxed and positive. His younger brother Jax, beside him, is likewise completely relaxed and enjoying himself.
Next, Irelynn rubs the hay net down his legs – not all his legs as if it were a chore, but just the legs she feels like rubbing. Keep an eye on Audelina, the big Belgian behind Montaro…
Oh look, Audelina (3 years old, also semi-feral who recently discovered the fun of halters – they lead to adventures and fresh grass!) has decided that there is definitely some fun going on and she comes over to investigate:
Now Aude gets to enjoy the fun too:
Irelynn offers the hay net to baby Jax, but he is not interested at all. No problem! She goes back to Montaro and voila – we have a saddle pad with some jangling hooks, that hugs his torso. We slide it off and on a few times, draw it over his bum. No biggee. Because the whole collaborative learning session has been FUN and lasted about 5 minutes.
Contrast Montaro’s experience and progress in 5 minutes of fun collaboration versus this horse at a colt-breaking clinic learning the same thing:
Because here’s another fact about learning: Stress slows down and even stops learning. Repetition is stressful. Boredom is stressful. Pressure is stressful. As soon as it stops being fun, it starts being stressful!
Please note that I’m not wholesale bashing natural horsemanship training methods here. Those methods can be very useful when you do not have the time to develop a relationship or rapport with a horse – when you do not have the time or space to be in ease and flow.
I’m simply contrasting the two and offering up another alternative to consider; for those of you who do have the time and desire to listen to your horse and enter into an authentic, intimate friendship with your horse.
Attend a Colt-Breaking Clinic OR Hang Out and Have Fun!
Next, Audelina presents another opportunity for a 5 Minute Fun collaborative learning session with me.
Audelina has come over to the side of the barn where Irelynn and I are filling another hay net. So I climb up on the old cattle trough and reach over to rub and scratch her back. I start by leaning my weight on her back as I rub down the length of it. She’s enjoying that and I’ve done that twice before over the past couple of months.
So today I say, “Hey Aude, how about I put my leg on your back?” I swing my leg slowly up and rest my calf on her back. I am balanced so that I can remove my leg in an instant if she gets scared or doesn’t like it. I continue to rub and scratch her:
Now I’m scratching towards her bum – this shifts more of my weight onto her back and she can also feel I’m moving around her back. Of course, I’m maintaining my own balance so that I can quickly remove my leg if she decides she doesn’t like it, “Do you like that big girl? Does that feel good?”
Now Audelina is turning her head to look at my boot and rub it with her lips. I reach down to rub her with my hand as well and show her my face on that side of her body, “Look Aude, it’s my stinky boot! Does it taste good? Are you my sweet girl – ohmegosh, look how bendy your neck is!” After investigating, she goes back to stealing hay from the net Irelynn is filling.
And then I get off, before she asks me to. I want to end the game while she’s still enjoying it – while her total experience has been positive, interesting and fun. And yet again, this entire collaborative learning session took, oh, about 3 or 4 minutes. And when the fun is over, it’s time for some smooching!
I will not even attempt to ride Audelina for another 4 years yet – until her bones harden. But long before that, having me sit briefly on her back or her butt (her preferred spot for me to sit!) will be as natural to her as getting her butt scratched. There is no “breaking the horse” it is a total non-issue. Why? Because of 5 Minute Fun!! No agenda, no training schedule, just playing around as and when it arises. That’s as good as it gets in my book 🙂
For some reason, each collaborative, fun learning experience tends to last 5 minutes or less. I have no idea why. But maybe horses, like humans, have a very short attention span – then they lose interest and it ceases to be fun. The maximum learning takes place during fun! This is true for adult, teen or child humans and not surprisingly, it’s the same for horses, dogs, birds, etc.
Aren’t we blessed?! No more tense, laborious round pen training sessions – yay!!
Emma Massingale, in the film No Reins, No Rules, No Limits says the first thing she did with her new herd of Connemara’s was just hang out and become friends. As the friendship evolves, Emma says the horses show her what they like to do and she follows their interests or desires. Even when she’s teaching them a new trick (that she finds really fun) she says, “The horses put their own interpretation on something I’ve taught them to do.”
You see, this is not ‘me boss/leader, you take direction/instructions’. This is a collaborative process where both human and equine bring their own interest, ideas, enjoyment, humor and comfort levels to the process.
5 Minute Fun collaborative learning arises spontaneously from whatever is happening at the moment. When you release yourself into this idea of collaborative fun, you’ll be amazed how your inner child comes out to play.
Here’s a short, 2-minute video showing what this looks like in action: