“Even a thought, even a possibility can shatter us and transform us.” -Friedrich Nietche
When I was hanging out with Little Love in the arena the other day, one of the other boarders was riding her mare at the other end. That end of the arena is known among the horses as the “freaky corner”; lots of strange and spooky noises, definitely something to be very suspicious about – especially during winter.
The mare at the other end definitely was aware of the corner; she was shying away slightly every round at the trot. The lady rode her horse rolled in fairly tightly: turning the mare’s head in and out, left and right, obviously trying to keep the horse’s attention on the rider. The mare’s tail twitched periodically as she eyeballed the corner.
She had a Pelham bit in her mouth and because of prior issues with “headshaking”, the owner didn’t use a nose band on the mare’s bridle. This allowed the horse to open her mouth as much as she wanted, which she did. I could hear her teeth clonking together and her lips flapping and the chain on the bit dangling when the horse fiddled with the position of the bit. After 10 minutes of work, I could see that nothing much had changed, apart from the fact that the mare was getting more and more reluctant to move forward.
I worked with Little Love in hand, trying to ignore the emotional message this mare at the other end of the arena was sending out to her rider. My heightened awareness in situations like these gives me the worst of all feelings: the feeling of utter helplessness. I have learned that trying to interfere is not an option, at least not when the subject is a person who would never dream of taking advice from someone like me. Silently I contemplated leaving the arena.
It was then, after rounds and rounds of mouth opening, tail twitching, sucking back and trying to stop, that the mare exploded. She rushed forward, performed two massive bucks which launched the owner in the air. Once the woman was airborne, the mare stopped in her tracks and let out a deep sigh. The owner landed on the ground on all fours while the horse stood still some five feet away. Little Love, standing calmly beside me turned to look at me and chewed as if she had been expecting the tantrum all along.
Fortunately the lady was all right. She took a few deep breaths and got back on her horse, her mouth pinched in a tight line. I tried to talk with her then, to see if I could help, but she was not up for a conversation and dismissed me completely. I left the arena shortly after.
Later, when I saw the woman in the barn, she felt compelled to explain to me why her horse had behaved so badly.
“She doesn’t want to work, that’s all,” the owner said. “That’s why she spooks in the corner. She never spooks when I’m not riding and even with long reins she’s ok. But the minute I pick up the reins, she pretends to spook. It’s just the mare’s way of trying to get out of work. She does this all the time. And did you see her? The second she got me off, she stopped. She’s not really afraid in that corner.”
I marveled at the woman’s logic, but even more I marveled over the fact that I might have spoken those exact words not so long ago.
“Oh yeah, my horse is lazy, he’ll do anything to get out of work. Like pretend to spook.”
Sounds so logical. That’s what human’s do, right? We don’t want to work so we do other things, procrastinate on watching television or pretend to be busy with something else. Sort of like spooking at the corner, in a way. And perhaps this is a valid theory. Perhaps horses talk to each other and say: “Hey, just keep spooking in the corner, it freaked out my rider so bad that she took me back into the barn.” And I know, horse’s can be inventive. After all, their DNA tells them to preserve energy for when they really need it.
But something the lady said kept echoing in my head: “She’s not really afraid of that corner.” Now that was a valuable observation. If she wasn’t afraid of the corner, what was she afraid of? Because – undoubtedly – something was bothering the mare.
I used to be one of those riders who had a solution for every problem. My horse’s mouth was open: I strapped it shut with a noseband. My horse spooked in the corner: I rode it for an hour on a small circle until we were both blue in the face and over the spooky corner. My horse was lazy: I gave him a few smacks with the whip to get him moving. He bucked? He got smacked again and ridden for an hour on a circle until we were both blue in the face. All this worked to some extent, because horses are that way, they are compliant and will work with you, even -and often especially - when you are being a bully. I still can’t believe I was so absorbed in fixing the symptoms that I never stopped to think of the causes. But I also can’t believe how much my thinking has changed, how much I have changed.
Why is equestrian problem solving mainly based on solutions that work for humans only? Why didn’t I, as I was strapping a horse’s mouth closed, or whipping it into submission, think of how it felt to the horse? Surely he still wanted to avoid the bit by opening his mouth, but no longer could. Surely he was trying to communicate something valuable to me, which I ignored. Why are so many problems in the horse world solved with this “out of sight, out of mind”- logic? People are so fixated on what the horse looks like, that they forget to think what the horse is feeling, experiencing, thinking. Even when they are spelling it out in capital letters.
So many other areas in our lives take pride in a holistic and comprehensive thinking, why not do the same with horses? We use lateral problem-solving all the time. If the horse’s mouth is constantly open, why not, instead of strapping it closed, ask: “Why is it open?” If a horse is constantly bucking the rider off, why not research the possible causes, instead of jumping to conclusions. According to my experience horses don’t act, they react. If we give ourselves the right to own these beautiful animals, it is our duty to discover what they are reacting to, it is our duty to listen to what they are saying.
Learning starts with awareness. If you aren’t aware of what you are doing, it is impossible to change your behavior. Sometimes awareness hits you in the head like a ton of bricks, but usually it creeps on you slowly. I can’t exactly pinpoint the moment the seed of awareness was planted in me, it may have been the moment I tried to bitless bridle for the first time. Or, perhaps there had been a seed or two even before that. All I know is that that little seed snowballed into something absolutely enormous. And that ball is still rolling, that plant is still growing.
I tried my best to talk to this lady who was bucked off about the different possibilities for the mare’s behavior. I’m not sure how much of my ideas penetrated her mind, she seemed pretty stuck on her own theory on the mare’s unwillingness to work. When horses demonstrate unwanted behavior, suggestions of for example removing the bit are usually met with horrified looks and even hostility. And I fully understand why; my solutions are hardly mainstream and they require the rider to question a whole array of beliefs. Most people aren’t ready for that, at least not right away. But I know from personal experience that the seeds for change get planted over a course of time. And every little seed counts. You never know which one will grow a plant.
PS. Unfortunately, riding related accidents have not been yet studied in relation to tack; researchers also tend to look for other answers to the horse’s behavior – the ground, the weather, the rider’s skills level – even the breed of the horse. I find this amazing. After seeing the positive changes in so many horses when removing the bit, I believe a great number of horses are suffering from the tack they are using. Most suffer in unnoticed “silence” but others are more outspoken. If you want to read more about this, go to: http://www.bitlessbridle.com/dbID/390.html for a great article by Dr.Cook.