You read that right. I’m afraid of my pizza cutter. Laugh all you want, but you’ll understand the relevance if you keep reading. Years ago, I got a fancy new Pampered Chef pizza cutter. One of the first times I used it, I made a mistake in taking the cover off and it sliced the bejeesus out of my finger. I maybe should have gotten stitches, but I’m a stubborn fool and pretty much felt like since the finger was still attached, it was fine. It took weeks to heal, kept busting back open and bleeding-fingers are the worst place to have cuts. I think about that literally every time I use the stupid thing now though, and it’s been probably over 10 years. I think about how it cut me, but I still use it. I have come to understand my mistake and that if I use it correctly it won’t cut me anymore. I learned from my past experience. I moved on.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. This is a blog about horses, why is this lunatic telling me about a stupid pizza cutter? I’m not here to read about how she doesn’t know how to appropriately use kitchen tools. Well, my misguided use of kitchen tools isn’t really the point here. The point is, fear from past experience is a real thing. When you are afraid of something, it affects your decision making and it alters your future choices. Sometimes permanently. Horses are not different in that regard. Helping your horses learn to move past or work through the things that “cut” them in the past, the things they fear in the present, or both, is what training horses is all about. Help them to learn. Help them to move on. We just have to try our best to maintain good judgement and hope we do not become a thing that “cuts” them too.
Horses are inherently flight or fight animals. They have an instinct built in that tells them if something is scary, to just run away as a first resort. If they can’t run away, their next instinct is to fight. The hurdle for us as trainers (or in my case, an amateur just trying to do what I can) is that we must find a way to teach horses that the things they think are scary, are actually not. To build a rapport with that animal so that they know you are not asking them to do things that will put them in danger. My opinion may not be the most highly sought after opinion on horse training, but I think this starts with trust. If your horse does not trust you, how can you expect it to “walk through fire” simply because you asked it to?
Exhibit A, I offer you Duke. He is absolutely not the bravest creature that ever walked this earth. Bless his heart he’s afraid of his own farts. I do think he is very talented and very special, and because of that, he was pushed to be something great before he was ready. Since he has a very high flight instinct, he was labeled a jerk, a no count asshole, difficult, and those are the nicer terms. He was not given the time he needed to mature, and some horses just take longer (cough cough FIZZ). Since he has arrived at my house, I have spent quite a bit of time offering him love, patience, and understanding. I have spent time learning his favorite places to be scratched, rubbing on him, telling him he’s a good boy, and making him feel safe just being around me. It’s been more than a month and we still have good days and bad and I expect that will continue. Possibly always. However, I did this with Fizz when he first came into my life and that horse WOULD walk through fire for me if I asked him to. Back then, I was just so happy to have a horse of my own that I enjoyed spending time “hanging out” with him, I didn’t realize this would be invaluable to our relationship as horse/human. So, I feel this is an important step to take with Duke also.
I can tell his attitude is slowly changing. This isn’t to say that he wasn’t ever offered love or understanding, but having someone spend that extra time just being near him, working around him in a way that shows them your intentions don’t need to be questioned, maybe doing things that are not quite “normal” just to give a reference point for trust. You may not think so, but that is also training. For example, I have “brushed” Duke with a broom several times. At first he thought I was coming to beat him to a bloody pulp. Now, he thinks it’s fun and tries to eat the broom. I drop things around him on purpose. He has stopped reacting to this now. I put strange things near where we work on purpose. He eventually stops snorting and running sideways. I am not gentle in the way I move around him, I am clumsy and flail things around and make a lot of noise simply to show him noise isn’t the enemy. Does he still react? Yes, but it is a simple head raise and ears pricked forward and maybe a slight body twitch as opposed to a running backwards or sideways, into whatever is in the way or over whoever is in the way like it used to be.
Yesterday, we did ground poles in long lines. I walked him back and forth and he walked right over them with me beside him on the first try. Not even a slight side step. Then I left his side, went into lining him as I normally would, and asked him to move over them without me. You would have thought the things grew legs and were standing up ready to take him down. So I went back to his side and we did it together. We had to keep going over and over them, with me gradually moving away each pass. By the end, he was going over them on his own. I wouldn’t say gracefully… but give him a break, it was his first try. He did good enough, he tried and that’s all I can ask of him. But it showed me something, he trusts me. He thinks if I am there doing it, he is OK to be doing it too (at least from the ground). It showed me that I need to work on his confidence, and that if I am asking him to do something alone, it is still OK to do even if I’m not right there.
Horses do talk to you. You just have to know how to listen.