first date with a cowboy

Murray and I had our first horsemanship lesson on Monday. It was incredible and emotional and horrifying and challenging and amazing. I’m going to do the best I can to cogently put what we worked on and learned down here, but four days later I’m still having magical realizations about what we did, so I’m guessing I’m going to miss large pieces. This is post is long and filled with verbal diarrhea. There’s no way I can sum up our 90 minutes to one, three, or even six main take-aways. I could probably do 10…. maybe.

I’ve never had or sought out horsemanship lessons before for…. reasons. Reasons that range from good to uninformed. To keep it short, I basically didn’t seek out or attend horsemanship lessons for three reasons.

First, there wasn’t a good/quality/reputable horsemanship person who was accessible to me. There was a guy who came to a dressage barn near us in California, but whenever he was in town I seemed to be gone. Plus, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the horses at the barn that he was supposedly working with, which didn’t encourage me to change my plans to be in town for one of his clinics. For what it’s worth, my thoughts on that trainer have since changed.

Second, I’ve seen a lot of people take the lessons they’ve learned at horsemanship clinics and then do really weird shit with them. Everything from unintentionally train their horses to ignore them to beating their horses over the head with flag sticks. I realize it’s not entirely fair to judge the teacher by the many idiot students that exist in this world once they leave the instructor’s supervision. But as someone who knows a little something about teaching humans, it’s hard not to look at people whapping a horse in the face with a knotted lead rope and expecting the horse to magically know that it means “back up” without wondering how good the teacher is.


i am just the best teacher
(this post will be speckled with hardly-relevant media because I didn’t get any of our actual session)

Third, I know how Murray does with pressure/release training and it’s not well. I also know that I suck at pressure/release training because I don’t understand the timing. I watched a lot of Elisa Wallace’s mustang training videos this year, and I was like “wow, she’s great at this, but I have no fucking clue how she’s doing it”. This made me think that pressure/release training with a stranger — a man, no less — would not necessarily be a great training avenue for us.

Despite all my trepidation, I was very interested to see how Murray would do with this cowboy. I know he could be better behaved, and while clicker training was very helpful for a while, we have definitely hit a plateau there (the fault is mine, as I’m terrible at training duration). So if there was another tool that I could use to install better behavior in my horse, I was wiling to go with it.

I got Murray in from the pasture and was just about to pick out his feet when Dave showed up in the barn aisle. It was a perfect storm of things, really: Murray was wearing his blanket for only the second time all year, the tractor and muck cart were right near the grooming area, and a strange man was hanging about. Murray, predictably, was not really interested in standing still. I had ditched the treat pouch to avoid unnecessarily distracting my horse.

Over the course of picking out his feet and taking off his blanket, Dave asked me a few questions about Murray. What was it that Julie was concerned about specifically? How would I describe the horse’s behavior?


ermmmm….. his behavior is hilarious?

Dave wanted to change Murray over to a knotted rope halter, and stepped over to him to do it. Murray threw his head up in the air and his little feet went jigging all over the place. Dave grabbed a hold of the lead rope so Murray couldn’t rip free, and did something — I didn’t really catch it — that resulted in Murray uneasily but quietly standing between Dave and the wall, still tied. A minute later, Dave changed the halter out just fine.

I put Murray’s boots on, and Dave made the rhetorical question, “This horse has problems with confinement, doesn’t he?” I agreed and elaborated — does better outside than inside, doesn’t do well with pressure, etc. We moved outside to do some work. He talked about Murray’s wide eye and upper eyelid, and commented that since Dave first showed up the upper eyelid had disappeared but Murray still wasn’t “relaxed”.

I don’t recall exactly what Dave did first, but he started by explaining to me that he was going to “do a lot of things” to get Murray to move his feet a lot. In my mind I was like “but I want him to move his feet LESS not more”. But Dave continued to explain that it was about teaching Murray to keep his feet and body within a rectangle that we prescribe. For Murray the rectangle is pretty big, but it still needs to be there. When Murray got out of the rectangle, Dave just “got in his way a bit” to put him back in the rectangle. Getting in his way meant waving the lead rope at him or flagging the whip in the area Dave didn’t want Murray in. One time, when Murray insisted on coming forward even though he hadn’t been asked, Dave waved the lead rope hard enough to get the knots moving on the halter on Murray’s face. Murray took a step back, and Dave immediately stopped.


reward: grain on the bobcat floor

We talked while he did everything. A major thing that I don’t get about horsemanship of this style is what the “reward” is. You wave your whip at your horse, and if he does a thing you stop waving it. But what if he doesn’t do the thing? Then you start punishing him for not doing the thing?

The reward, Dave said, is being left alone/ignored. It still doesn’t make sense to me. But there my horse was, standing quietly and still, perfectly happy to be near us but being left alone. Dave said it was just like clicker training, but there’s no click. And you have to pick your criteria and set the learner up for success. Dave went back to the example of when he’d touched Murray earlier. A lot happened when he walked up to Murray — his feet got skittery, he tried to run away, and he put his head up in the air. All of those were contrary to the goal of getting the halter on. What was Dave’s first priority there? I guessed getting Murray’s feet to be still. Dave said no, just touching the horse was his priority. As long as Murray showed some sign of accepting the touching without fighting it (in this case, I think he put his head down just the tiniest bit? or maybe strained less?), then Dave backed off and stopped trying to touch him.

The learning paradigm is the same as it always is (ABCs). You do a thing — wave a whip, kick with your heel, give a cue — that’s the antecedent. That’s followed by a behavior. If it’s the right behavior, you stop doing the thing. There’s the consequence. If it’s not the right behavior, you keep doing the thing until you get an effort close to the right behavior. Dave just put it together in this pressure-release system in such a way that the horse had a lot of success because he rewarded tiny efforts at first, and had a good concept of how those efforts should add up to a behavior. He also emphasized that when this horse doesn’t do the behavior he doesn’t need more pressure, he needs more time.


needs more time is an idea I’m familiar with….

We also talked about general horse behavior. Who’s the boss? The horse leading the group. Great, so what if someone else tries to get in front of the boss? She/he gets in their way. Right, so all you have to do is get in his way a little bit. And sometimes you have to follow through, but if you’re consistent, that isn’t often.

Dave waved his whip at Murray in different ways to get Murray to move away from it. He could move Murray’s hind end and shoulders independently, which was pretty impressive. And then he put the whip against Murray’s body, which Murray was pretty uncomfortable with at first. But it was a great demonstration of the principle.

First, when Dave approached Murray’s body with the tail of the whip, Murray stepped away. Dave kept the whip moving toward Murray’s body in a parallel type of way until Murray stood still and let Dave touch his body with the whip. Dave took the whip off. Next, Dave did it again. This time, Murray immediately let Dave touch him with the whip but also leaned into the whip a little bit. Dave didn’t take the whip off until Murray was standing upright and not leaning on the whip. Dave rubbed the whip around on Murray’s withers a bit. Then Dave did the same thing on the other side.

Murray’s leaning into the whip was so subtle. I didn’t even see it. And Dave was like “The whites of his eyes are gone, but he still hasn’t sighed yet, has he?” At one point, Dave moved each of Murray’s hind feet just by looking at them. That’s the kind of stuff that makes this seem like black magic.


I trained my horse to wait at the mounting block, which is almost like magic

Eventually, it was my turn to lead my horse again. We started with Murray and I standing with about 5 feet of rope between us, and Dave told me to walk him up the path a little ways. I stepped backward and started walking (backward, so I could see Murray). Murray’s head jerked up and his got all upside down as he started walking. Dave paused me and asked me what had happened, and what I did to ask Murray to “go”. He had me hold my end of the rope and demonstrated my version of “let’s go” and his version of “let’s go”. His version was quiet and smooth. He told me to use my whole arm to smooth out the transition, and to lift my hand a little to indicate to Murray “pay attention, something is happening, let’s go.” The same thing with “stop” — lift the hand to let Murray know that he needs to come back to planet Nicole because I’m about to stop.

As we stood and talked about that a bit, Murray came in a little closer to me than Dave wanted. And then he started yawning. Like huge, ridiculous, clown-horse yawns that I have seen this horse do maybe a handful of times ever. Dave was like “he’s much more comfortable with you than me. He can understand me, but he prefers you.” Which was a tiny bit of salve on my wounded horse-owner-ego at that point.


this one time he yawned during a massage….

During this chat, Murray reached down and started eating grass. I popped his head up, and Dave pointed out another mistake I was making. Sometimes you need to punish a horse. But in this case, Murray was doing what he wanted because I hadn’t told him what to do — walk with me, or stand with me. I’d stopped getting his attention. So the next time he put his head down to graze I asked him to walk a few steps with me and stand in his box again.

At the end of our session, Dave ground tied Murray and talked about how Murray should respect the lead rope on the ground as much as he does the cross ties (haha, joke’s on him, he respects them the same!) or a straight tie. Murray stood right there, totally still. Then Dave instructed me to walk parallel to Murray and take his front boots off, and Dave would do the same on the other side. Of course, Murray immediately backed up like “woah what the hell are you people doing to me”. Dave didn’t get angry or big or harsh or annoyed. He just took the lead rope back up in his hand and invited Murray to walk back forward into the rectangle, then dropped the lead rope again. Then we approached to take the boots off, and my horse stood like a ground tied rock.

Dave walked us back to the pasture and helped me “teach” Murray to turn around at the gate for me so I don’t have to go into a muddy pasture. It wasn’t perfect and it took 3 tries. Dave then told me that while Murray was standing there at the gate, I should leave first. It was a good sign that Murray wanted to be with us, but we needed to be the ones to end the game.


byeeee, felicia….

There was so much to digest here. So many things I skipped over — I didn’t even get to the leg yielding and side passing stuff we worked on, or changing sides and speeds while walking. It was all to teach Murray about respect of space, and teach me how to “get in his way” correctly while showing Murray the right thing to do.

Two huge standouts were pressure and punishment. It’s like since Dave talked to me about those things, I can see all the ways that my use of those two tools left Murray confused in the past.

Murray doesn’t know how to handle pressure. I know that, I’ve known that for a long time. Trainer J identified that at our first vet visit. Dave figured it out within a few minutes of watching my horse. I thought that because Murray had never been taught how to handle pressure that this type of pressure-release training wouldn’t work for him. But in a way it’s perfect for him (if done perfectly), because it shows him that there’s an escape from pressure (one that does not involve running the fuck away).

All of those times I was going around and around and around in circles in the barn aisle trying to get my horse to let me do his girth up? He was trying to escape pressure (that part I knew already, I’m not totally incompetent as a behaviorist!). And in response I either added pressure (jam the girth up quickly), added punishment, or both. Until we started clicker training, I never taught him that there was an “out” from that pressure. The “out” was standing still. Because once he stood still, I never took the pressure — the girth — back away from him. I usually just did the girth up. Absolutely, some of the pressure in this system was coming from Murray internally. But that was still pressure he didn’t know how to deal with.


lol who is punishing who here?

Punishment is intrinsically linked with pressure, because punishment is a pressure. I figured out a while back that punishing horses while riding was pointless (and mostly seemed to reflect me having a temper tantrum). But on the ground, I would still punish him for things he did without guiding him to a better behavior. When he walked too close to me, I would smack him back: just “DON’T walk on top of me”, but no guidance as to where he should walk. When he wouldn’t back up when I asked him to with a light halter pressure, I’d go straight to jerking on his halter. Sure, they are both cues for backing up, but one is much bigger and more punishing.

And these are both things that I already knew, but didn’t do consistently, for some reason. Like, sometimes I did them. And sometimes I didn’t.

Dave told me to watch a lot of horses and riders for my homework. Watch people handling horses and see what’s working and what’s not working. Some of what I do works, and he doesn’t want me to throw that stuff away. But he does want all of the stuff I do to become more effective, and more consistent.

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