Friday, August 21, 2009

I Punched a Horse, and the Transmission of Learning

As some of you know, our mare Dawn has some issues around remembering that people are nearby when she wants to interact with other horses. This has led to people being bitten, and in my case, kicked. This is very much not OK with me, so I have been very strict with her lately on remembering that there is a person nearby, on the lead, in the pasture and in her stall - so in the pasture, if she wants to drive a horse that I'm with - not OK - I chase her away. If she pins her ears in the stall, I have her move away and don't leave the stall until she puts ears up. Same when I'm feeding - no ear pinning or menacing glares. Her ulcer symptoms at feeding time, including teeth scraping on the wall, have abated with the U-Gard, so she gets no free passes. And touching her body is now less of an issue, but again, I have zero tolerance for ear pinning or any other sign of aggressive behavior.

I'm particularly careful when picking her feet since getting kicked. She's always been a bit "snatchy" with her right hind - she tends to want to pull it away. This was the foot I was kicked by. She's getting regular chiropractic, so that shouldn't be an issue, and we believe she has no other pain issues - I think it's just a habit. Tonight when I was picking her feet, she tried to pull the foot away (I'm not a big fan of getting into a wrestling match by holding on for dear life) and made a kicking motion at me - somewhat half-hearted - if she'd really wanted to kick she could have - most horses move too fast for most people to be able to react in time. But since it was an aggressive, possibly unsafe gesture, I instantly gave her a quick, hard punch in the hindquarters. I wasn't trying to hurt her - just make it very clear that the behavior was completely unacceptable. She didn't seem concerned, and we went on to do more handling of the foot without incident.

I'm not a big believer in physical discipline for horses - I think in most cases it isn't very effective and often causes more problems than it solves - but in cases of personal safety where I can react instantly, and not excessively, I do tell the horse in no uncertain terms, but without emotion, that the behavior is not OK. One thing I have never done, and don't believe I will ever do, is hit a horse in the face or the head, or with an object, and I never punish a horse with the bit - there are other ways to deal with biting and other aggressive behaviors such as moving the horse away that are effective without doing potential harm to the horse and its training. I do not punish horses for behavioral problems such as bucking, rearing, bolting or failure to understand or follow my directions - there are often either underlying physical or pain problems involved or the horse needs to work through something or figure out what is being asked and certainly does not deserve punishment.

* * * * * *

Now on to something completely different.

I've been doing this blogging thing now for about 7 months. There are some aspects of it that trouble me. One of the most important things to me in my horsemanship is the personal learning and experience I have had the privilege to have through working with and directly observing excellent horsemen and women. My most significant learning experiences have been with Mark Rashid, and I hope to have the opportunity to work with him, and other superb horsepeople in the future. But it's true as well that I've also had the chance to ride with and observe other good horsepeople, and to read and learn from many excellent books and articles - and blogs and blog comments - as well, and to learn some things from my own experiences and from watching the experiences of others. I hope to have the chance to learn many more things from horsepeople in all disciplines who work effectively with the inside of horses - not just applying techniques to the outside of the horse - using non-coercive methods.

But sometimes I am troubled when I write about what I have learned, or am trying to learn, or what I am working on with my horses. I worry that I cannot convey my experience in a way that can be fully understood by others - this is both a question of the quality of what I write, and also in how one's words can just not communicate what we really mean - it's the imperfection of the written word. I try really hard to write in a way that says what I mean in the clearest way possible, but I often feel as if what I write falls short of what I want. There's a second question of legitimacy as well. I cannot by any stretch of the imagination call myself a horse trainer and wouldn't think of doing so - I do try to work conscientiously with my own horses and to honestly describe what I do, and to comment on others' blogs in the best and most helpful way I can, but I often worry that what I write is a pale shadow of the real thing and puts me in the position of offering advice or examples that may be inappropriate or even unwanted. I also do not want to misrepresent what I have learned from the outstanding horsepeople I have seen and worked with - I can't purport to say in a particular case that I am accurately relating what I have heard or seen, or that they would do what I do or agree with the way I think about things.

In summary, I'm not really sure about all of this - there is a strong tradition in horsemanship of the personal, direct transmission of the "learning" from teacher to student down the generations - that's how Mark Rashid learned from the Old Man - and I think that's the real way to learn in the most rich and effective manner - it's in the personal relationship and give and take between teacher and student that the true learning is passed down. It's interesting that Harry Whitney has to date refused to write any books or do any videos - but that of course means that those of us who haven't had the chance to work directly with him would have no access to his teachings except for the fact that his students have written about their experiences with him. I hope to ride in, or at least audit, a Harry Whitney clinic some day to have the direct experience.

There are traditions in both some martial arts disciplines and schools of religion, including Buddhism, that true learning can only happen through direct interaction between teacher and student, and that attempts to formalize/write down the teachings lead us inexorably into the error of "systemizing" and ultimately possibly making dogma what really shouldn't be formulaic.

But that's an ideal I don't think most of us can adhere to, and I expect to keep trying to write, as well as I can, what I'm doing and experiencing with my horses, and hopefully not descend into formula or dogma. But I also think I'll always be aware that there may be something missing . . .


  1. Ok, getting into your horse's head. Your reaction to Dawn was great. If she had kicked at another horse, that horse would have responded with a kick. Works for me.

    I have discovered a good, so far, tactic to deter biting after years of trying just about everything else. When Kenny Harlow was helping me back Tucker, Tuck kept trying to bite him and he grabbed Tuck's nose and kind of pinched it in an almost "twitch." Problem with that is that for me, Tucker is both too quick and too all for me to reach his nose if he tries to bite. (Kind of a colt thing he never grew out of. Some horses are like that.) He might snap when I am adjusting his blanket, for example. I kind of make my fingers stiff and "bite" him with my hand, on whatever part of his anatomy is close to me. Just one, quick "bite" with no other nonsense except, perhaps, my saying, "No bite." He does not seem to get the least upset and he stops the bad behavior at once.

    There is nothing wrong about your expressing your training ideas and recounting your experiences. What I particularly respect is that you are constantly evaluating each strategy you try and always seeking a better way to accomplish something for you and your horses.

    Have faith in yourself. You express yourself very well as far as I am concerned.

  2. Kate, I agree with Jean on punching Dawn. That's as close to responding with a kick as we humans can get, I think.

    And I absolutely agree with not using physical punishment in the instances you described. I worry even if I have to use the bit more than usual because Panama isn't listening. I can't even imagine purposely trying to hurt a horse's mouth.

    As for blogging... I agree with Jean, I think you do a very good job of getting your point across. I like reading your blog because it makes me think. I don't necessarily agree with everything you say, nor do I take it all at face value, but you often bring up things that I hadn't thought about or offer another way of looking at something. Whether or not it's traditional or complete, I appreciate your blog for its ability to keep me thinking about what I do and why I do it!

  3. Kate. First off, correct me if I'm wrong, but your main concern with making your thoughts and actions public is that others may take it as advice and apply it to their own life/horses? If that's the case then sadly it's all to often the case that horses are subjected to clumsy, inappropriate and sometimes abusive training becuase someone has watched a DVD or read a book. You cannot be responsible for this. I agree with Jean and Katharine. You communicate really clearly and well. I really enjoy reading your blog and I admit that I find it useful too. But what I do is entirely my responsibility. This phrase encapsulates what I think about you. What for me comes shining through! "work effectively with the inside of horses - not just applying techniques to the outside of the horse - using non-coercive methods" Please don't stop!!

  4. Kate I enjoy reading your blog and your journey with your horses. I don't take it as you trying to give advice at all, but more of someone clarifying their thoughts and experiences through the written world and then sharing those writings with people of similar interests. I think you have a clear and elegant writing style that I envy.

    As far as punching Dawn that is exactly what I would have done. That is exactly what a horse above her in the pecking order would have done. When I observe the herd dynamics here, which I do every day, I notice that horses are not hesitant in the least to mete out what looks like a severe punishment for failure to move out of the dominant horse's space for example. The 'punishment' is always swift and severe, but then done and over extrememly quickly and everyone is friends again. Unlike us humans they don't tend to put emotion into the reprimand so much as just making their point very clear.

  5. Ditto to the comments above. I think several have stated far more succinctly than I what I might have said had I responded earlier!

    Thanks for the comment and description of your tack-watch practices. I can definitely say you're far more conscientious than 95% of the horse people I've ever been around. I suspect most of us tend to let things slide a bit more than we should, and probably our horses (and ourselves, in the long run) tend to suffer for it.

  6. I think you get your point across very well. I enjoy reading your blog even if I don't get to it everyday.

    As for Dawn, I would have done the same thing. A lot of people would disagree with punching a horse but if it's warranted after unacceptable behavior there is nothing wrong with it. If you watch how horses interact with one another in the field it's easy to see that justice on the spot is quick and much more direct and sometimes painful.

  7. Kate, I think you have a very good blog. I particulary enjoyed the pieces you wrote on the Mark Rashid clinic. It was a great way for you to share your experience and at the same time as you write about it the thoughts and ideas become more firmly entrenched in your own mind. Your blog often has me thinking of different things or how I have handled issues in the past and form one horseperson to another it is nice to read your thoughts on not just the hows but also the whys.
    You may not hink it comes out perfectly reflecting your thoughts and ideals but it comes pretty darn close.
    I enjoy your blog very much and I hope that you enjoy writing it!

    As far as Dawn goes I would have done the same thing, in fact I have done the same thing with Fawkes, he has a hind left that can get swinging and sometimes a good smack is the only thing to make him snap out of it and respect my space. I believe that I usually make my hand smart quite a bit more than his well muscled hindquarters anyway!

  8. Keep up the good work, Kate!
    I like your blog very much. Not only because I share much of your values, but also because you make me think.
    I am impressed about all the details in your posts, and how you are able to remember it.
    Blogging is a fantastic way to share thoughts, and personally I love it - how marvellous to be able to share experiences with people all around the world who are interested in the same thing as ourselves.
    Thanks for sharing yours!

  9. That's one of the great things, I think, about the horse-blogging community - there are so many different ideas to read about and process. You seem to be worried that people will take your words as advice - but surely that's a good thing: I like to read lots of methods and take what I like from each. For example, I personally would never use Parelli training or follow any of the Parelli methods religiously, but I think there are elements of the way the Parelli techniques deal with horses that are interesting and things that can be learnt from it.

    I like the way you write and the way you convey what you are learning. After all, we're all learning from horses all of the time and we just try to write about it in the best way we can! Keep it up!

  10. Darn, my well thought out comment didn't post.

    But I want you to know that I used what you taught me to get my bad loaders to load - making the change from move or else to your choice.

    It's subtle and all in the energy of the moment. And it worked. And I wouldn't have got it without the way you communicated it.

    (as for striking a horse, isn't more like what the dog whisperer does - you know, just breaking the energy up and saying, "remember, I'm in charge here and pay attention"? I mean it's not like you can deliver the power of a kick or bite really.)

  11. Kate;

    As far as I'm concerned, your writing transmits well on our frequency....I get exactly where you're going.

    I second Melissa's comment regarding your discipline. On the rare occasions that we find discipline necessary, we don't hesitate to get after the horses and we try to do it exactly as it would happen amongst herdmates....short, sharp, hard, consistent and to the point. If the behaviour in question repeats itself, we do exactly the same thing again until the point is fully brought home. Even the most stubborn usually get the message by the second or third time.

  12. I love reading your blog, and I love reading your comments on mine! I think you are thoughtful and insightful, and you take the time to try and understand where your horses are coming from. That's exactly what good horsemanship is all about, as far as I'm concerned! This is a journey, and a very enjoyable one at that. I love that we can all share our experiences on that journey with each other via the blogs. I think it's a new way for horsemen and horsewomen to connect with each other and better understand our own animals through our shared experiences. I think you should keep blogging! :)


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