To Trick? Or not to Trick?
I've been thinking a lot about the direction my work with horses has taken these past few years and how fascinating the journey has been.
One aspect that I am thrilled with, is how I've been able to lay dormant the natural competitor and teacher in me and be patient about "advancing" or reaching any particular goals. Instead I've approached horsemanship in a more holistic way--thinking about the well-being of the horse, the inside of the horse, the outside of the horse, dressage, liberty, Feldenkrais, fun, trail riding, technical work, relaxation, stimulation; I’ve also continued to work on the inside of me to help the horse....yes, the list of "to do's" to improve myself and my horsemanship is, thankfully, endless.
I always engaged (or wanted to engage) with horses in harmony, in "connected-ness" and for this I was often made fun of, scoffed at, or misunderstood by humans (horses seemed to love me), but when I finally got to ride and train my own horses, such non-believers could no longer deny the magic of what they were experiencing on my horses or seeing me do with them. More importantly, I began to realize that I had it in me all along to connect with horses in harmony; only my own fear, inexperience, and the ignorance/ridicule of others had held me back.
Without any prior knowledge of “natural horsemanship”, groundwork, horse-keeping, proper equitation, I built a safe, happy, healthy herd with which we experienced mutual pleasure, security, and love for more than a decade. We galloped on trails with no contact, three in a row for safety—no other horse (usually carrying one of my children or a beginner rider) was allowed to pass me and my horse; the three horses would graze without bridles or ropes in any wilderness that we picknicked in, often getting half a mile away from us, but would run back with my call for us to mount up and head home; they lined up to be tacked up with no halters or ropes, and on command would run 200 yards from the barn to the front of the house (where freedom and green grasses were only a dozen strides away) yet they would wait on the driveway for 20 minutes or more for me to get my boots on, get a drink, gather up my kids, and come out to mount up and go!
I knew I was a good, clear, fair leader, but I still had so much more to learn, and learn I did with the help of dozens of fabulous mentors and dozens more peers. I could have easily followed only one person and become a master of their techniques, but that never rang true for me. I am much more of a lifelong student, an explorer of truth, a seeker of knowledge, and there is truth and knowledge to be found in many places. And this has served me well thus far.
So what am I showing in the video clip at the end of this post? Well, it is a clip that looks like I am teaching my horse a trick.
You heard that right: a TRICK! ME!!!
May not seem like it, but tricks have not been up my alley and have never really interested me either to watch or to do. I mean, I could, like many other people, teach my horse "tricks" just "because."
But I always like to ask the question "Why do I need to do this?" before asking anything of my horse.
In particular I ask:
Do I plan to perform and amaze crowds with this trick?
Does my horse want to perform and therefore need to learn this trick?
Does the trick have any inherent usefulness to the horse either mentally or physically?
Does this trick further strengthen our bond and our communication?
Any "yes" answer will give me the green light to try something even slightly “trick-y”.
For example, you have never seen me “lay a horse down,” because I have yet to find a “Yes” answer for any of the above questions when it comes to asking my own horse to "lay down" on command. I understand that this maneuver might be absolutely necessary and even therapeutic for certain horses. It is certainly wonderful as a performance trick—I mean, it wows me, no matter how many times I’ve seen it done. I just don't feel any one of my horses needs it for their own good, for our relationship, or for my own glory. If I did, then I would have strived to get it right to help them do it! As is, they lay down all the time, as soon as they are put into the arena or the pasture, and usually as a warmup to stretch out their backs before we tack up.
So, long story long, in this clip my daughter and I had decided to try to train Maia to do a "sit on the hay bales" trick. Why?
Well, at first, our motivation that day was due to seeing her so excited to stand on the mattress and experience it; she was very engaged and happy, so we wanted to “see if she could do something more advanced and new.”
We also had that motivation because we know in general that Maia is supremely eager to learn new things, especially if treats are involved. (So, this means the answer is Yes” to the question “Does the horse want to perform and therefore need to learn this trick?”)
The beauty is, as we start with step 1 for this trick, getting her to lean on the hay bale with her back legs, it becomes supremely obvious that there are many other wonderful side-effects for Maia in completing the task.
Her posture becomes proud, her pelvis tucks under, her belly rises, her neck arches!!! This is everything we want in collection, in physical fitness, in body consciousness!!! (So now, we can say the answer is “Yes” to the question “Does this trick have any inherent usefulness to the horse either mentally or physically?”)
There was no stress involved in her trying this trick because she has been slowly prepared for success over several years of slow, conscious training, and because it really was her choice and pleasure to go for it!
And I now know that, whether or not we ever complete this as a full “trick” where Maia will sit on a hay bale, it won't matter! Because just asking her to lean on the bale not only began the building of the foundation for doing the trick at some point but in the meantime it was a wonderful physical exercise for Maia, creating an energy of pleasure (with the verbal and physical treats), and imbuing her with a sense of pride and accomplishment at doing something new and strange. She also seemed to delight in being the talented center of attention! See for yourself!