Chinooks – the Alberta foothills crazy heating system that load up temperatures sometimes twenty, thirty degrees at a time – have hovered around this week, melting snow, but now we have ice sheets everywhere after puddles freeze solid overnight. Working horses is tricky, lumpy pastures underfoot with frozen tussocks, hidden slide spots and watering late one night – ouch! –as I hit-the-deck two buckets full down by the barn.
So, it’s the small things to work on for the moment. My pet hate in life is horses that don’t load (in rural areas it’s important they do, in case of emergencies such as wildfires to move them out and away and, accidents too that need veterinary care located miles away). So it’s been more practice with Mops on trailer loading and unloading.
He still gets claustrophobic occasionally when the partition moves up close and personal on my slant-load, so I’ve been feeding and haying him in there (his very favourite occupation) and he’s looking at this crazy mode of transport with markedly more enthusiasm!
That and the feet picking up and getting trimmed, tapping with a hammer (useful for getting ice blocks out too, he couldn’t believe his eyes on that one), and sliding bridles nonchalantly on and off in different locations, as he had a near death experience one day when I began bridling away from the barn. “No!,” he exclaimed, “We always do it here!” I sighed and we do it everywhere now – with the bits heated up beforehand. The last thing I want is his tongue freezing onto metal, he’d never forget – or forgive – that idiocy.
And, on that subject, a friend slid me a recent article with comments by animal and behaviour scientist Temple Grandin (and author of Animals in Translation, 2005), which reflects on first-time trauma incidents. Animals never really unlearn a traumatic fear, she feels, and I’d agree with that. Her description of a horse having a bad experience on its first ever trailer loading, what she calls a sensory based negative experience, will always be there; you may get it manageable, but under adverse conditions, the memory will always trigger back to that horse’s first unpleasant impressions – and you’re back to square one.
Equally she advocates avoiding creating fear memories, which if you’re working and training with young horses, really resonates with me. The amount of horses that come here with real baggage and where I grind my teeth in exasperation at someone’s unwitting ignorance that’s created a lifetime problem. What she’s saying – and again I agree – is absolutely never use punishment to teach an animal new skills.
For horses, claustrophobic situations are perhaps the worst, where it’s frightened and can’t get away, so ‘breaking’ tactics of halter starting a horse by tying him up, even worse, ‘sacking him’ out at the same time is guaranteed to cement, forever, that traumatic fear memory. I know; the leopard spotted appaloosa The Fox came with just that baggage, you couldn’t even throw a saddle blanket on the corral fencing 20 feet away in his early days and ropes, halter ropes, any rope, were terrifying to him. He’s acceptable now, but he’ll never have the complete nonchalance the others in the home herd exhibit.
So yes, there are certain situations working with youngsters – and training times with older animals – which are could-be-tricky potentially dangerous moments that carry lifetime legacies. We had one horse in that wouldn’t unload, which sounds amusing, but if you’re taking 20, 30, 40 minutes to step down, it’s not. As a youngster, we found out later, he’d banged his head unloading his very first time. If it had happened his 20th time (?) he might have shaken his head, but forgotten the experience as not one counting of any real importance.
And why I take the small steps of warming a bit and putting a bridle on calmly in different places seriously. And why choosing to have the patience of a stone generally working with horses is another good life lesson. I remember schooling a pinto saddlebred cross that highlighted so many blonde moments that I finally understood why people are phobic about riding mares. She and concentration weren’t close friends! Riding her alone in a lovely airy indoor arena one spring afternoon you could say exasperation was gaining the upper hand – and frankly, unusual with me schooling horses, it’s just not my style. An odd little inner voice irritatingly slid in from somewhere. “Would you,” it questioned, “ride your best horse the same way?” Eeeargh, I thought, ‘drat whoever you are,” before dismounting and walking around five minutes or so, getting a sense of humour back into perspective.
Hopped back on and we had our best trot-out ever, bend, rhythm, the works. Ah.
Next week, we start to learn about the art of driving, and all those new words for tack and saddlery, recommended authors and clinicians, trainers too – tune in for more adventures.