Today we look at a question from a reader:
Hi! I just want to say how incredible it has been reading this book. I have had only trail riding experiences with horses and didn’t understand much about horses until I read this book. I have always had a love for horses but never knew the amazing qualities and minds they possess. Incredible. I also had never been able to have a horse to call mine until my mom rescued 4 this past year. My parents have a 600 acre farm in WI and after the incredible adoption stories and experiences they have had with the 4 they rescued, they are meeting with someone to turn the farm into a horse and farm animal rescue.
One of the horses has its own special place in my heart. His name is Major Yoda and is a spotted palomino quarter horse. He is 8. He came to the horse rescue we adopted him at completely scared to death of people. It took a month for them to have him get near a person and they suspected he was either abused or rough handled. He had been at the rescue for 3 months and when my mom and I went to see him, he was hesitant but I just felt some connection to him. Since then he has still been very wary around people but we have made sure to see him in the pasture and give him the life he needs. Just recently we have had him go to a natural horsemanship training facility and I am beginning to question whether it was too soon. His trainer has had to change her program for his needs because he us just so afraid. She completely quit her round pen part with him and is taking time in the pasture with him to get used to her because it has taken 45 min plus to catch him. I go every single day to watch his training, video him, I can catch him very easily when the trainer isn’t around and the feeding guy also can, but when the trainer goes anywhere near him he runs. I hate seeing him so stressed and I am wondering if this is a normal reaction to the training process? From what I have watched with him in the round pen and her training him, I don’t know what to think. Her wand she has done what she calls “spanks” if he doesn’t listen after the 3rd time. She does ask, request, demand and then the promise is the spank by the wand/whip. Is this normal? He is just so afraid of it, is it still the best approach, for an abused horse, to do that? I just want to learn anything that could help. Thank you so much.
Thank for your heartfelt question. You have asked some fundamental, important, and perceptive questions.
So let’s start with the first thing: thank you. Thank you and your family for opening up your hearts, homes, and farm to rescue horses. The world is a better place for the room and space you have made for these wondrous creatures.
One of the points I made in Zen Mind, Zen Horse is that we relate to horses energetically, intuitively, and emotionally and you have done just that for Major Yoda (he may be in line for a battlefield promotion to the rank of Lt. Colonel).
I think it is very telling that he will come up to you and the gentleman who does the daily feeding but not the trainer. Every horse has a very different starting place. Major Yoda needs to start at a very low, peaceful energy. This does not sound like a horse who needs a whack or a slap. He needs to learn that he can trust human beings to teach him, not hurt him. People fail to understand that we need to make it as easy and effortless as possible for the horse so he can figure out what we are trying to teach him. So I would stop “training” your horse for now.
He needs to get used to you and the tools you will use; namely, your body position, your lead rope, and–later–your training wand. He has to learn that these are things that will not hurt him. That they are your tools. Nothing more. Extensions of your hand.
Start very slowly. Let him learn you can move all around him, pick the lead rope up and down, let the rope touch him, let it slide along him. Turn it in a long, slow dance. Savor it. Then do the same with the wand. It may be that you stand away from him fifteen feet away and just hold the wand. You need to find out where his comfort zone is located. From what you are telling me this is not a horse that needs “one, two, whack.” First, it’s never one, two, three. It’s always one thousand one, one thousand two, then increase the energy. One thousand one, one thousand two, increase the energy. A hot-blooded horse may never need so much as a touch with the wand. They are just hyper-sensitive. A cold-blooded horse may need a lot more energy.
The biggest rule to follow is the: no rule works all the time. What does work is this: every horse is different and each a different starting point. Some horses start off so sensitive that one needs to apply the energy more than twenty or thirty feet away from them. Some wild mustangs can be started off from more than fifty of a hundred feet away. We would never hit them. It would only make it harder from them to ever learn from us.
Your instincts are right on. Back off. Start very patiently and slowly. It’s much more important for Major Yoda to learn that you are not the sort of human being that will dole out physical punishment. You’re his partner and you can go as slowly, peacefully, and gently as you need. The problem with energy is people need to learn to dial it for each individual horse.