By Mark Goss
Ego and Fear
I witnessed a couple things recently that made me think about how we relate to our horses and how our horses think about us. Most riders want their horse to be their friend. But, often we don’t treat them that way. I think many people don’t think about how our actions impact the horse’s way of thinking about us. We need to try to understand just how much impact our actions have on our horse’s relationship with us.
The first thing that started this train of thought was when a horse that I know to be outstanding mentally and not in the least cranky or obstinate just walk away from his owner when the owner had turned away for a couple minutes. Now this horse did not run away but just walked away casually. He was haltered and was dragging a lead rope. When the owner realized the horse had left him he yelled, “Whoa” and other words in an increasing volume to try to arrest the horse’s movement. The horse, of course, paid no attention because he was focused on the hay pile just 20 yards away.
The owner did not run after the horse but was in a hurry to catch up. The horse made it to the hay pile and did what he had planned by taking a big bite out of a bale. When the owner arrived the horse made no effort to move away from him or do anything but chew that hay. The owner grabbed the lead rope about two feet down from the halter in his left hand and the end of the lead rope in his right hand. The owner began to jerk on the lead rope with his left hand to move the horse back rapidly while smacking the horse on the shoulder with the lead rope end. After the horse moved back a ways the owner seemed satisfied that he had taught the horse not to walk away and led him back to where he had been.
The second thing to start me thinking in another direction came yesterday when I was at a calf sorting. I got paired with a lady who came over and told me her horse was afraid of other horses coming directly at her horse. So we decided that I would try not to let Frank look or move directly toward her mare. It seemed to work real well for her horse. But, as we were sitting outside the pen waiting for our turn another horse got loose from a fella (in itself a great story) and ping ponged around the group. This ended up with the lady’s horse pretty concerned and turning in tight little circles. The lady was holding pretty tight to her reins while turning the horse and seemed to be pretty intensely focused on not dying. The horse eventually calmed down and quit turning those tight circles all on her own. The lady only let go of the reins after the horse decided to quit.
These situations made me think about how we build trust and confidence with our horses. The first situation got me to thinking, “Gee, what do you suppose that horse thought about that guy when “out of the blue” he started whacking and jerking on him?”
The horse was doing something the owner thought was a grievous error, but the horse probably thought was a good idea. The horse meant no harm; he wasn’t running away and in fact, just stood there and waited as the owner walked up. But, the owner let his ego cause a problem that never existed for the horse; that the horse had done something wrong and done it in front of the owner’s friends. That horse may have known it was wrong to walk away, but five seconds into the walk he forgot it was wrong and focused on the hay pile. The owner did not forget and he was sure going to show that horse the error of his ways.
Now, it was wrong for the horse to walk away. But, if you think about it in the context of the horse’s mentality the owner’s correction was untimely and rude. First, the problem was not that the horse walked away so much as the horse embarrassed the owner. Well, horses have no ego so the horse wasn’t trying to embarrass the owner because the horse doesn’t think like that. The only thing he was thinking was about the hay pile.
Secondly, the time for correction was when the horse shifted its weight to move away. After that, it was of no use to try to correct the horse. When the owner corrected the horse at the hay pile he was thinking he was fixing the problem of the horse leaving him. In the horse’s mind he was whacking on him for chewing, because the horse lives in the moment, not the past and not the future. You have about five seconds from the time the horse makes a wrong move to fix it. After that the horse has forgotten the transgression and moved on. The best deal for you is to just move on too. Getting angry and smacking the horse might make you feel better but it will do damage to how your horse relates to you.
Think about it this way. When the owner was coming to the hay pile in an aggressive and loud manner, the horse probably is wondering what the problem is. Heck, he wasn’t doing anything wrong, at least in his mind. So, when the horse was grabbed up and whacked on he can’t figure out what he is doing wrong. He will start to think that it may not be a good thing when the owner approaches that way and start to relate that behavior of the owner with bad times. That will lead the horse to try and avoid bad times (we all do). That avoidance behavior will quickly lead to the horse moving away from the owner whenever the owner displays that aggressive and loud attitude toward the horse.
So in trying to fix a problem the owner may be creating just the problem he is trying to fix. What would be the best solution for the owner? Well, in my experience, the owner had only one choice at the time. He should have just walked over, picked up the lead rope, talked nicely to the horse, petted him all over and walked him back over to where he had left. This would have done a couple things. First, the horse would have continued to think that being with the owner was a good place. Second, the owner would have had lower blood pressure and made his horse trust him more.
We can’t build trust in our horse without leaving our egos at the door. Horses don’t think like us. They just don’t think, “Watch this Roanie, I am going to make old Jim Bob really mad, hee, hee”. They don’t plan the future or even think in the future. They don’t know if there is a future, so how could they act out in a way that is spiteful? I won’t get into all the troubled horse issues that are caused by people. Just suffice to say that 99.9% of trouble horses are that way because of some problem created by and related to people.
Whacking on your horse at inappropriate times is just wrong. In my opinion it is wrong to whack on your horse just about anytime. Brushing, petting, and generally telling the horse how great he is is never wrong. If you find your temper getting out of control take a deep breath and think about the good times you’ve had with old Dobbin. Then fix the problem rationally and calmly.
The lady with the mare that was afraid of approaching horses could have made life much easier for both her horse and herself if she had thought about a couple things. First, the horse is fearful. Therefore, the horse will try to avoid anything that scares it. When the horse got scared and tried to get away from the scary situation the owner tighten up and applied pressure to the bit (a short shanked leverage bit) and hurt the horse’s jaw. If the owner had thought about how this affected the horse she might have chosen a different way. When the horse got bothered the owner got bothered and reinforced the horse’s fear. The horse is probably thinking, “Man, I got scared and my owner is scared, so this is a crisis of which I need to take control to save myself.”
Now, of course, horses don’t think in those terms, but you can bet the horse knows that the owner is as scared as she is. She just doesn’t realize it is for another fear, death or injury of the owner.
So, how do we fix the fear? Well, in this case if the owner had thought about what her horse needs, trust, she might have fixed this problem real quick. When the horse got bothered the owner could have just sat there calmly and petted her horse and spoke confidently to her. That is what she does when the horse is not bothered so it is a good place for the horse. The horse would start to associate the calm demeanor and voice of the owner with a good situation not this fearful deal she perceives. By being calm she can show the horse that the horse is the only one around here that thinks there is a problem. She also shows the horse that she is not going to let something “get” her.
These two situations just reinforce the need for the owner or rider to be sure to make the horse believe that being with them is the best place they can be. This will build trust and confidence in the horse and quickly lead to improved communication between the horse and rider. If the horse can’t trust you to keep them safe then they will take it upon themselves to do so. That leads to horses that pull away, run away, and act out in stressful times.
Remember, the horse decides what’s stressful, not you. You might not think anything of a waiving branch ahead, but the horse could see death from above. If you take hold of the horse’s mouth hard and yank on him and talk aggressively and whack on him for being so danged stupid as to be afraid of a danged old branch that is nothing; well, you just reaffirmed his concern with that branch. When he saw it as a threat, you came through with pain. That was just exactly what he thought was going to happen. What do you think will happen the next time he see something that he perceives as dangerous? If your answer is a rapid retreat, you’re probably right.
If the horse doesn’t think you can or will protect him, he will leave the area with rapidity. You have the option of holding on. Recognize that he sees death from above and help him to understand you won’t let it get him and he will soon just walk on by. A bit tight perhaps, but not in a dead run.
The Getaway Knot
There are lots of knots that can be used to tie your horse in your trailer or to your trailer. But, there is one knot that has some significant advantages over the others. That is the Getaway Knot.
The Getaway Knot, also known as the Bank Robber’s Knot, allows a horse to be tied without the tag end of the lead going through the tie eye. It allows you to untie with one hand and to untie without having to follow the rope up through the eye and grab it as it comes through.
If your horse were to pull back and struggle or slip and fall you can get them out of the wreck without getting yourself between the horse and what they are tied to.
To tie the Getaway Knot is super simple. First, make a bend in the lead rope about four feet from the where it attaches to the halter. Pass this bend through the tie eye, pulling it out about eighteen inches. You will have to let some of the tag end of lead rope slide through to keep a good loop in the rope and not bring the horse’s head to close to the tie eye. Remember, do not put your finger through the loop at any time, hold the rope between our thumb and forefinger as you pull on it. Now, on the part of the rope between the halter and the tie eye make a “nine”, that is, make a circle in the rope with the part going to the halter on top of the rope going to the eye. Drop the loop coming through the eye into the nine and slide the nine up to the eye. That is the Getaway Knot. Fast and simple. To untie the knot just pull on the tag end of the lead rope.
If you have a horse that chews on the lead or can figure out how to untie the knot (mine does it quicker than I can tie it) you will need to make a second “nine” in the tag end of the rope and pass the loop down through it and snug it up to the other “nine”. By the way, you may recognize these “nines” as upside down half hitches. To untie this form of the getaway knot just pull on the second “nine”.
Study the pictures and you can see this is a simple knot to tie and untie.
Let me add some editorial comment on halters and lead ropes. Many people use the flat nylon halter with metal hardware along with a short six foot or so cotton lead rope with a metal clip. It is my experience that this setup is a wreck waiting to happen. The metal parts of the halter and the metal attachment clip can, and often do, break if the horse pulls back or slips and falls putting significant pressure on the halter and lead rope. This is dangerous as the horse learns that he can get loose by pulling back heavily. It is also dangerous to the horseman because there is no warning when the halter parts break and the horseman can get run over.
In my experience a rope halter with a twelve foot tree braid nylon lead rope, attached with a knot and not a clip, is the safest setup to use. I have seen very few real good horsemen and working cowboys using flat halters with metal parts or cotton lead ropes. Just my opinion.