Men Have Forgotten This Truth

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The information in this post

has been incorporated into my series on horse training.

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My pieces on riding are difficult to write without my equine companion’s horsey input. Before I ever hit the publish button on my wordpress blog, we would go out with him at liberty, and give my ideas a test run. If I was right on the button, Domo was chipper and cooperative, bouncing about, demonstrating both the implications and the elaborations of my requests.  If I was off base, however, he would suddenly transform into Bartleby the Scrivener.

Bartleby the Scrivener is the protagonist of one of Herman Melville’s short stories. A clerk in a small office, he goes through life, indeed to his very grave, declining all offers of all kinds with the polite and impenetrable comment that he would prefer not to. When a horse suddenly decides that they would prefer not to it is because we, the human, have left them unsure of what we want, are giving contradictory messages, or we are totally blind to something that is obvious and fundamental to the horse.  Insecure foundations and incomplete instructions make for uncooperative horses.

Domo’s tolerance for my efforts to figure out what I had left out, glossed over, or misconstrued varied.  I could not bring notes along as, like most horses , he found paper good to chew on, rather like gum for humans, I think.  Added to this issue was his conviction that any tool I had around, he could and should use better than I did, which meant not only were pens and pencils fair game, but all electronics.  I don’t have many photographs of him as his effort to share the camera nearly destroyed it, while his opinion of my keeping the camera to myself resulted in this image:


So when I was problem solving, I would have to go through my thoughts in my head, checking them off kinesthetically as I acted them out. If I was reasonably focused and on the right track, Domo would hang out with me, usually making the bare minimum of responses, often with one back leg cocked, and his head, ears, eyelids, and lips drooping further and further down the longer I took.  If I started to get pushy or derailed, he would quirk an eyebrow, twitch an ear, or offer the swish of a tail, even a lazy wave of a hind leg as a hint to get back on track or occasionally back off entirely.

On the few occasions where I thought I must be right and tried to make him do something instead of figuring out how to ask him he was utterly censorious. He would resort to raising his head high, inverting his neck, pinning his ears back, rolling his eyes, and if that did not get his message of offended disbelief at my discourtesy across, showing me his backside and stomping off in huff.

Since I wanted to keep his goodwill, following baseball’s three strikes and you are out was a good guideline. The first try he and I were both figuring out what we were doing, the second try, I was fine-tuning my request, and on the third try I had better be quick, clear, and clean if I wanted a consistent response from him.  He made the difference between consistency and repetition crystal clear and simply refused to allow me to go about repeating the same behavior while expecting a different response.

So I about fell of my chair when I recently read an article on clicker training that warned would be trainers that they should expect it to take 60-80 repetitions for the horse to understand what the trainer wanted.  Having worked with semi-feral horses, foals and young horses, abused horses, and as a veterinary assistant with horses in dire need of emergency care, I can say that I have rarely been in a situation where I had the leisure to make more than a couple of tries before getting it right. Even when I had the luxury of time, repeating the same old same old was clearly counterproductive.  Of course, there are many activities from feeding to picking hooves to leading to mounted work that are constantly repeated over time.  Consistency in those requests pays off in cooperation.

My point is that asking a horse to pick up each foot so you can clean it every day is more of a daily ritual, which is of a very different intent and very different kind of repetition than picking up one foot 60-80 times in one day. Horses are flight animals, hard-wired to respond to change.  Repeating the same action over and over at best leaves the horse with the same impression we humans get from sitting beside the bore who drones on and on, repeating the same story over and over again.  While we might tolerate such behavior if we have to, given a choice, most individuals, horse or human, will ignore or avoid both the person and the circumstances.

The article did give me some perspective on why the trainer who sent Domo up to me warned me that he was first and foremost a working performance horse, and most definitely not a pet. He was a particularly intelligent, sensitive, contemplative, athletic  being, who required an equally alert, sensitive, and responsive human partner.  The current fad for ‘desensitizing’ horses seriously backfired in his case as repeating the same incomprehensible acts over and over only more and more violently just made him more and more reactive. I suspect that one reason he was labeled a difficult horse and beaten on before I got him stemmed in large part from his inability to tolerate the relentlessly sloppy, vague, and/or erratic behavior all to prevalent among the humans around him.

I am hesitant to acquire another horse, partly because I have to stabilize my health and finances first, but partly because it takes not just an intense commitment and oodles of time and energy but a special horse to develop the kind of relationship that developed between Domo and I.  So for now, I’ll give writing about how our kind of connection comes about a try, and take some small liberties with Saint-Exupery’s ‘ Little Prince’ text while following his chapter on taming as my guide.

The little prince went away, to look again at the roses.

“You are not at all like my rose,” he said.

 “As yet you are nothing.

No one has tamed you,

and you have tamed no one.

You are like my horse when I first knew him.

 He was only a horse like a hundred thousand other horses.

But I have made him my friend,

and now he is unique in all the world.”

And he went back to meet the horse.

“Goodbye,” said the horse.

 “And now here is my secret,

a very simple secret:

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly;

what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

“What is essential is invisible to the eye,”

 the little prince repeated,

so that he would be sure to remember.

“It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

“It is the time I have wasted for my rose–”

said the little prince,

so that he would be sure to remember.

“Men have forgotten this truth,” said the horse.

 “But you must not forget it.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery


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