Learning from Fiction

I watched the trainer swing the rope rapidly in the direction of the young horse on the other end of it. The horse darted here and there, his hooves tap-dancing in the sand as he tried to figure out what was being asked of him. His expression reflected fear and confusion as the dance went on. The owner stood by the side, listening attentively as the trainer explained the purpose of the exercise, which amounted to not letting the horse get away with something – exactly what was as unclear to me as it seemed to be to the horse. Eventually, as horses will do, the young fellow figured out what would stop the rope swinging and began to barrel around the trainer, leaning in, legs flying out on the circle in that special state of unbalance only created by humans. This seemed to please the trainer as the horse went into a frantic autopilot mode.

I later watched as the owner struggled to repeat the trainer’s actions, leading to something resembling a game of Pong. On the way home, my mother brought up the scene with the young horse. We talked about how uncomfortable it was to watch, the young horse unable to focus and learn with the adrenaline pumping rapidly through its body. In the middle of the conversation my mother asked a question that led to an interesting discussion. Her question – didn’t any of the modern riders grow up reading books like Dark Sunshine?

It may seem an odd thing to link a training discussion to fiction, but it actually raised some interesting questions about approaches to horse training – and what authors of the past seemed to know that trainers of today miss.

My mother was once a horse-crazy girl who was also a bookworm. When, as an adult she became the mother of another horse-crazy girl, she made sure that girl also had access to a library of equine fiction. Among my favorite books growing up were those that centered around a human developing a bond with a wild or abused horse who no one else could touch. Often the human was an outsider as well – something I could relate to throughout my youth, adding to the appeal for me.

Whether a sweet story like Dark Sunshine or The Black Stallion, a more rough and tough tale like Smoky, or the rather violent Western I once picked up that centered around a sorrel mustang mare – all share the same basic formula. The horse is usually isolated, whether in a corral (Smoky) or a canyon (Dark Sunshine) or on an island (The Black Stallion). The human involved is often also experiencing some sort of isolation, whether actual or social. They set out to befriend the horse, often through a sense of empathy for the animal. This process is always done through time, patience, and slow work. The hero often spends time just sitting near the horse talking to it. The eventual result of their effort is a strong bond between horse and rider.

Of course I am not advocating isolating horses in order to bond with them. The part of these repeated themes that we focused on, in our conversation, was the slow methodical work each of the main characters put in to win the trust of their wild and/or emotionally damaged equine companions. Of course, stories written for youth can be expected to take such romantic approaches. What horse crazy kid isn’t won over by the thought of bonding with a wild horse? What struck me, as we discussed these stories, was that even authors of macho, testosterone-laden Western novels recognized that the best way to bond with a horse is a slow, methodical, patient approach.

Most of us at least claim that we’d like the sort of bond with our horse that is illustrated in the novels of our youth (assuming you were a horse-crazy kid who read such books). So, how do we get so far away from the ideals these books illustrate into such training methods that clearly and overtly cause our horses stress? It’s not that we can look to them for training tips, but their message of making your horse a friend should be what we aspire to. We should always strive to model the patience and empathy of the humans in these stories.

My latest retraining project is Chase, a mustang recently added to our little herd. He came to us with a history as a ranch horse, but with a healthy skepticism toward human beings. Even being haltered was something he wasn’t sure he should accept. The scars on his mouth and body reflect interactions with humans that make his skepticism understandable. His attitude is such that I could certainly push him around and he’d generally comply – but that is not the relationship I am seeking. The horse-crazy girl at my core still wants that friendship.

It is clear that his history of handling mimics what I described in the opening. His idea of lunging is simply running around me until he is told to stop. It has taken a great deal of work to get him to listen and interact with me, rather than simply reacting. In those moments when I inadvertently trigger a past experience, say when I get slightly in front of him while trying to lunge in a straight line, the tension that results is palpable. In those moments I encourage him to stop, even coming up to me for reassurance, before proceeding again. Imagine how the rope-swinging trainer must view those moments? Such spoiling and allowing him to manipulate me must lead to a spoiled, ill-mannered horse! And yet, it really doesn’t. It never has. The authors of those books were right – its the slow patient approach that wins the trust of a horse.

Most of us grew up fantasizing about having that special bond we read about in our favorite horse books. It is to the mutual benefit of ourselves and our horses if we keep those in mind. You do not have to romanticize your horse – he is still a horse. But the authors of those old stories got a lot of it right. Keep in mind the images those stories conjured up the next time you try a new technique, or watch a trainer handle your horse. Do you see a horse slowly learning to trust a human? Or does he look more like Smoky in the hands of the horse thieves?

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