I believe that any training done before delving into our relationship with our horse as it manifests at liberty, is a waste of both our natural talents. You see: horses and humans alike are social animals, leaning towards empathy and communication. When we jump into training before giving ourselves and the horse a chance to develop a feel for each other’s uniqueness, we are missing out on great opportunities for easy learning.
Pilar came to a basic clinic of mine and then asked me to come visit her horses. She had a little country house a couple of hours away from Bogota, and three or four horses she would sometimes take on trail rides during the weekends. The land was mostly steep hills of grass taller than a man, shaded by tall, cloud forest trees. Following my instructions, Pilar had cleared the flattest area to make a place of contemplation for her horses and herself. We
Capitán was scared of humans. As soon as we were within earshot, he lifted his head high up, and stared at us. After we’d spent some time with him, he relaxed somewhat. But then, the caretaker’s voice was heard in the distance, and his head sprang back up. Capitán was the last one in a line of “problem horses” that had crossed paths with Pilar over the years. What really worried her was a behaviour that -at first glance- had little to do with trust. Capitán had developed a dangerous habit under saddle. After they’d left the house on a ride, he would spin around violently and hurry back. He did this at one precise spot on the road, a hundred meters from the gate. Then at another, thirty meters farther. If the rider managed to overpower him on both those spots, he would afterwards go on for the ride and not do it anymore. Pilar was no longer able to control Capitán, only her son could ride him through these two spots, and that only by following Capitán’s initial rollback and making him turn again and again until he was facing away from the house, then pressuring him on. And all this wrestling was changing nothing in Capitán’s behaviour.
On that day we focused only on interactions at liberty that would help Capitán forget his fears and cross over to the realm of relaxation and optimism. This involved some slow, gentle approaches from the front, to let him know that we would not enter his space uninvited; some extremely gentle herding, to show him that he need not flee a human who asked him to move; and a liberal amount of pause, before each interaction, in-between interactions, and whenever else we were not moving. Most of the session we spent sitting down and sharing our presence with him. He was so sensitive it only took two or three moving interactions for him to understand our intentions. We could clearly feel that, in order to come through to Capitán, we had to go about it with utmost gentleness and attention, so as not to damage his budding threads of trust. I did not feel that day was the day to saddle him up and deal with the issue directly, but I felt they could do with some guidelines for when they got down to it.
Based on their description, I recommended a progressive training approach be taken when had a better feel for Capitán through their time spent at liberty. On the first day, Pilar’s son -who did not fear Capitán’s reaction- was to ride him up to just before the first place where he turned face, then praise him and give him a treat, dismount, lead him right back to the house and call it a day. They were to progress in this manner, praising Capitán for every little bit he went forward frankly, and substituting his association of those two spots with conflict for one with effortless accomplishment, praise, and goodies. It sounded like a good plan (and, for certain cases, still does).
I heard from Pilar several weeks later. The weekend after my visit had been a bank weekend. She spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday hanging out with Capitán in her newly-cleared pasture. She had taught him to push a ball around with his nose, she had sat with him and read. She had taken a nap on the ground, and he had stood dozing over her, his nose just above her shoulder. On the Monday, she felt like taking him out on a trail ride.
She saddled up, rode him herself. They left the house, went past one, then two spots where something used to happen. And nothing did. They had a lovely ride.
I don’t know what it is about sitting still and letting nature work with us. But we don’t need to know for it to work :).