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No poking

Every morning I give some additional fodder to the horses. They get crushed, soaked linen seeds mixed with minerals. The horses are eager to get their food bowls, but I expect them to behave. I only give them the bowls when they calmly stand still waiting for a moment. No poking, no begging, no tail whipping, no restlessly moving around. These rules are clear.

I think that the question is how I show these rules. As we have already established mutual respect with the horses, there is no need to enforce my rules with a threat of punishment. If Velmu tries to poke my shoulder with his nose, I don't say like "Don't you dare to touch me, or otherwise I'll make the hell fall on you!" Yet, I'm not feeble and insecure like "oh please don't poke me... it would be so nice if we could just stand here peacefully, and I love you, so why are you poking me, ouch, please ... uh, oh, here is your food, but next time please no poking, please?". It is just enough to show that I have my personal space around myself, and when I'm holding bowls of food I don't enjoy anyone inside my personal space. A small gesture with my head or shoulders is usually enough to communicate the size of my personal sphere to Velmu. Similarly, Raiku sometimes gets slightly annoyed, provoked or nervous, especially if I ask her to back away. Sometimes she whips her tail, or even makes a small kicking gesture with her hindleg. If, in such a situation, I would already punish her for ill behavior, it would be a signal for her that the situation actually is somehow uneasy, and it is not allowed to show her emotions to me. So, I allow her to show her insecure restlessness, with my own body language showing that everything is OK - which, pretty soon makes the horse to calm down. This way she learns than whenever she gets nervous, she can find peace and safety in my presence.

There is no trick here. I just have to be open and honest. I mean, if I actually felt threatened of Velmu's poking or Raiku's tail whipping, then my body language would already tell it to the horses. If I then tried to conceal my true feelings, trying to display strength when I'm afraid, it would easily make the situation more difficult. The horses would feel even more uneasy when they sense a contradiction between my body language and true feelings. And especially Velmu would be quick to find out that my gestures don't actually mean a thing, and he would just walk into my space, get his bowl of food and leave me alone. Similarly, if I were nervous and hurried, it would be useless to wait for Raiku to calm down - sensing my restlessness she would just react to that, saying to me like: "Hey just drop the food bowls and we all get out of this annoying situation as fast as possible. Like now, drop the food bowls now - this is getting really irritating!". Well, actually, sometimes I do feel extremely tired or hurried. When that happens, I might just choose not to give the additional fodder at that moment. Or, if I have a full day or work ahead and I can't postpone giving the fodder, then I just take the bowls farther away from the horses, drop the bowls on the ground and go away before the horses come to eat.

Well, the same principles apply to riding. If Raiku refuses to go where I ask her to go, I don't train her with pressure or threatening. Applying pressure is a simple training method, which works - nothing wrong with that. Like, if a horse refuses to go forward, the rider might tap her hindquarters with a whip - at first softly, and then with constantly increasing strength, making the horse feel uncomfortable. And the instant the horse takes a step forward, the pressure goes away. This is way the horse learns to avoid pressure by doing what she is asked to do. And failing that, the rider might need to more clearly threaten the horse with a punishment like "now if you don't move, I'll bang you with my spurs and hit you with my whip, so that you remember who is the boss here." That works too, in most cases. It just is not my way. I admit that I'm still learning how to clearly and cofidently use my body language when riding. And that we need more ground work with Raiku, to make the riding easier. It is a slow way, but that is my way.

When Noora Ehnqvist visited my place for the first time, I had problems with trimming Velmu's hooves. He was constantly pushing and pulling, trying to get his leg free. I could use a rasp or a knife only for a short period, then letting his leg free, and then starting over again. Watching that Noora said; "Well, you know, your horse doesn't see you as a leader. You have to start with that." Sure, and I already knew that I don't want to show my leadership by beating or otherwise threatening the horse. Nor feeding carrots when he raises his leg - that would just teach him to perform a trick, not to co-operate with me just because of my friendly authority. So, what and how to do then? After thinking about the issue, and attending more of Noora's clinics, I once again understood that it is not the horse who fails to respect my supposed leadership. It is about me being still too depressed and insecure about myself, and the horse clearly seeing that and behaving accordingly. Slowly I began to find ways out. I felt my confidence growing. And no tricks needed - the more I recovered from my depression, the more my body language showed fearless, soft, focused and loving presence. And that is what Velmu likes. It is okay for him to let me hold his hindleg, when he feels that he is safe and secure with me.

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Nice story, it reminds me of a documentary I once saw of an American horetrainer who tried the 'soft' approach when taming wild horses. He was really looking like the average though redneck but underneath he had a really loving personality. At the end of the documentary he succeeded in taming a wild Mustang [after a very long period], and then this though looking guy just cried tiers of joy. Nobody had believed he would succeed in this. As you say, bodylanguage was a big part of it, he said something like you should make all your movements quite direct/steady and confident-looking. [He used a horse pen so a horse could run away [but in a circle at leisure], so he would approach them again everytime they got calmed down [so they knew he was the safe-spot.]] Just animal-psychology, not hard to understand, but to really win an animals trust is a major achievement and can only be done when you're really in balance with yourself.

ok though is ment to be 'tough'

I like your reflections at the end on depression and body language, and how animals pick up on all that. I found it insightful as well as something I could relate to.

Nice! Personally I feel that when I'm reflecting or writing about horses, I feel it is not just about horses. I've been pondering about writing an entry (or two) about these connections, or how I feel that learning to communicate with horses is nothing but a part of a bigger picture. Anyhow, I'm glad to hear that my writing have been interesting enough to read, and providing inpsiration to other areas of life too. =)

It's good to see that you trim your horses' hooves yourself. When we brought Ruby the wild horse in, we had to do her hooves and after a couple of weeks Linda got her to lift her feet for trimming before she tried haltering her. There is a lot to be said for trust :)

Sounds really good! As I've been working with domesticated horses only, I can just remotely imagine how it would be to start with an adult wild horse.

As with all horses, they can have various personalities. Ruby was chosen for her conformation but also her curious and interested outlook when we initially interacted with the herd in the wild. She wasn't what most people would consider the most beautiful horse, but she's powerful and very calm. Beauty is as beauty does. We really, really, really like her and it appears the feeling is mutual.

Indeed! Any co-operation work better if partners of co-operation are not chosen by looks but by mutual sync of personalities. And that goes both with the horses and us humans =)


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