By: Warren Bengtson
The Unintentional Creation Of A Perfect Storm
When two or more parties are in close and continual relationship, differences of opinion and conviction arise that must be resolved if that relationship is to succeed. There is the occasional point of contention that defies resolution for various reasons. In handling and training our horses, genuine points of contention are real, rare, and constitute a crisis. However, if we are experiencing frequent points of contention with our horse, something is terribly wrong in our horse-handling philosophy and practice.
Real points of contention are so serious they call for an immediate and decisive intervention that will create a clear, unequivocal resolution and not leave the horse wondering about anything. However, the vast majority of transactions that characterize the horse-human enterprise are incremental in nature and constitute a process.
With us there is a difference between deep moral convictions and the intense demand to get one’s own way. Whereas our horses get caught between survival and entitlement. Contentious issues can get very messy when we can’t separate excuses from reasons and perception from reality. The bully handler will push the horse into a survival mode while the bleeding heart will allow the horse to discover its power over people and become a spoiled brat.
The chronically dysfunctional relationship is usually characterized by excuses that we hide behind, so we never have to deal with the entitled horse or the reasons we spoiled it. It is not negotiable that your horse crosses the stream or gets in the trailer. What is negotiable is how we convince the horse that it can and it must. An intense refusal to cross water or get in the trailer becomes a point of contention that cannot be ignored or avoided, as both are entirely reasonable expectations. Our job is always to motivate and convince our horse that what we expect is possible, safe and inevitable.
Ultimately, something’s got to give, because if a horse is confused long enough and badly enough there will be a breaking point. When wires are tight they break sooner, with greater force, which is one reason some horses, and some people will have a frustrating relationship. Likewise, if a horse is worked hard enough and long enough, its body will begin to break down.
Just because a horse can perform a particular feat doesn’t mean its body can tolerate years of excessive physical stress. Unfortunately, our personal pleasure has sent many a horse to an early demise. Some have taken what you just read to the opposite extreme and regard their horse as fine china to be looked at but never used. They have over-reacted to the money/fame folks who use a horse up and throw him away like a pop can.
When we get stuck in an extreme mind-set, we will tenaciously hold our opinions until a crisis creates a breaking point that pushes us, or enables us, to see past the end of our nose. Bullies need to soften up and bleeding hearts need to toughen up. Either way, our horse is stuck with waiting for something to give, and for us to break out of the box we chose, or were taught. A breaking point is a strange creature that can snap us out of our paranoia or paralysis or push us deeper into the boxy thoughts that brought us to that point.
As with everything in the horse-human enterprise, breaking points can explode, or are avoided, according to our own correct diagnosis of fear. Defiance and confusion followed by a resolution calms the horse’s mind (and ours). Fear and confusion usually are expressed reactively, but defiance is most often expressed rationally. A rational horse should never be treated like a reactive horse and vice versa.
This is well illustrated in the two types of halter pullers. There is the deliberate, rational, defiant horse that has discovered its power to break loose and is rather proud in doing so. The reactive halter puller is mindlessly explosive and has no idea why it feels compelled to break things. There is no hope for this horse until it learns to pause and consider. That will be the basis for devising a way, or a system, that will help the horse think instead of explode.
The longer a horse stays reactive the more likely it will figure out nothing can hold it, and it will have become rationally reactive. It is like a mental illness requiring therapy and rehab. How that is done will depend on your competence, your facilities and your horse’s personality and mindset. That said, there may be some reactive pullers that can never be completely trusted.
Let’s look at another situation that has all the makings of a perfect storm. Some horses ridden by some people get resentful of what they have to deal with in the show ring or arena. If the horse is quiet and strong-willed and the soft-spoken, timid rider on its back is tentative and “patient,” the perfect storm is brewing, and a point of contention with its breaking point will come. The horse has concluded, for reasons entirely its own, that the show ring or arena is boring, or the dumbest thing it has ever heard of.
The horse has no personal interest in investing compliant energy in an enterprise it sees as pointless. Because its strong will is hidden in a calm disposition, the rider can’t believe there is any reason for trouble ahead, and soon discovers there are two horses in the same bridle. The first is cooperative when it gets its own way. The other is sullen and defiant when things don’t suit it. The second horse is double-minded.
The rider has unwittingly been allowing the horse to resist in small, seemingly insignificant ways, not realizing that each incident is adding to its resume, while gaining confidence in its ability to intimidate and control. That rider is a classic enabler of a horse developing an addiction to its own self-centered agenda. Whenever the horse needs a fix, the enabler makes sure it is available.
The enabler doesn’t really want to comply with the horse’s demands, but is afraid of the tantrum it will throw. The monster of defiance is alive and well in this horse because it has been well cared for and protected by a very sincere but confused rider who could have starved it, or killed it, as soon as it showed its ugly face, but couldn’t, or wouldn’t.
The horse finds itself caught between the rider and the monster and has chosen to cooperate with the monster. Like us, a horse will keep doing what works. This horse has joined forces with the monster of defiance and the rider really needs help. Maybe all the horse needs is a vacation from the arena with its unappreciated expectations. Four or five trail rides may just give the horse a fresh taste of the positive relationship that is available to all horses and their riders.
Another vacation might be to include a stint at trick training. If that appeals to you may I suggest Allen Pogue at www.imagineahorse.com. His brand of trick training is not silly and demeaning but can be a welcome relief for a resentful horse and a frustrated rider. It will be helpful in establishing or reestablishing a solid, trusting relationship.
A solid relationship is not characterized by an intense quest for happiness or the creation of a friendship. It is about instructive and corrective transactions that give a horse the security it instinctively craves. It’s the leadership of a human that understands the negative influence of fear, defiance and confusion, and also knows how to neutralize everything that keeps a horse from focusing on our agenda. Timely, appropriate affirmations with legitimate, caring corrections and the wise, constructive use of cause and effect will deliver the happiness and friendship that horse and rider can give each other.
Serious points of contention will be rare when we have our priorities straight and have been consistent in all of our handling practices. Bullies don’t want friendship to exist between them and their horse because they believe a friendly horse is a spoiled horse. The bleeding heart believes that doing anything that is not superficially friendly is abusive. The balanced horseman knows how to relate to and communicate with the horse in complete clarity while caring about and appreciating the personhood of the horse. Boundaries created convince the horse that they’re protective rather than entrapments.
Extremes in the matter of expectations are the perfect set up for points of contention (the perfect storm). Placing excessive expectations on a horse that it is not prepared for create fear or confusion. It may become defensive or even mad. In any case, if the issue is not corrected or resolved, that horse will become resentful. It becomes trapped in a situation it can’t get out of and is forced to endure a dilemma in which it has no input. The horse will eventually do the same thing we would do. When forced into what it views as impossible, its reactive instincts are going to explode. Storms have a way of wrecking things.
Conversely, if we have very low expectations for our horse and communicate with it by way of affection, treats and kisses, there will be no problem as long as it is a pasture ornament. But, if you decide to take your horse on a trail ride with any degree of difficulty, you are likely to come home in a body bag. You set it up for failure, and after the wreck has used its energy, you will be fortunate to get back to camp in the same shape you left. Most points of contention can be traced to little or no planning, or preparation, otherwise known as foresight. It’s like us getting a new job but nothing that is expected of us is explained, and the next day we are fired for incompetence.
The horse-human enterprise is bedeviled with surprises. We owe it to ourselves, and our horse to give our relationship a foundation that can withstand the unexpected. Because we have assets and liabilities just like our horse does, we have to manage them in ways that give us a chance to connect with our horse. We don’t condemn our horse for the liabilities it was born with and we don’t condemn ourselves for ours, but we begin to dull the sharp edges of all personality quirks that hinder the relationship. If we are willing to persevere in that endeavor, liabilities will either disappear or lose their negative effects.
When somebody says, “I love my horse,” we have a crisis of definition. Does that mean we are mesmerized by those big brown eyes? Does that mean we want our horse to be happy all the time in all situations? Does the horse like us for who we are or for the treats we provide? Do we like our horse for who it is or for the personal fulfillment we receive? All four of those points can be based in sincerity, but while we need to be sincere (serious) in our pursuit of relationship and horsemanship, sincerity alone is helpless to resolve points of contention and keep us out of the perfect storm.
Just my opinion…