- Understanding Your Horse
- Overcoming Fear & Building Confidence
- Being Comfortable & Competent With Your Tools
- Being Comfortable In, And Respectful Of, Each Other’s Space
- Leadership & Knowing How To Direct Your Horse
- Putting It All Together
Prior to moving to Colorado, my husband Gary and I did quite a bit of sailing. Living in Washington State’s San Juan Islands, we would spend a month or two each summer sailing into British Columbia’s Gulf Islands or around Vancouver Island. As part of our annual maintenance, the 50-foot high mast needed to be inspected. One of my roles was to be hauled up to the top of the mast in a bosun’s chair to inspect the rollers, lines and other rigging at the top. Occasionally my husband, safely on the boat’s deck, might yell up a warning when another boat sped by the docks, “Boat wake coming!” at which time I would be sure my legs were securely wrapped around the mast and I was hooked on at one or two points. When there wasn’t boat wake to deal with, I had my camera with me to snap a shot of anything of interest from that vantage point.
Let me just say, right off the top, that I am not generally a fearful person. Nor am I given to crying about it if I get myself injured. Quite the contrary. So it took me by surprise when something happened that changed that.
Before I had my own horse, I was helping a friend with her two young Friesian mares. We were taking them for a walk with lead lines and halters. My friend was out in front, walking faster than I was. The mare I was walking with, Sissel, became agitated when the others disappeared ahead of us around some trees and bushes. Sissel decided that I was walking way too slowly and decided to leave me behind, too. As Sissel walked ahead of me, I asked her to walk on around me in order to regain my leading position. We had done this a few times when I suddenly got cow-kicked right in the thigh. I never saw it coming and didn’t even see it happen.
Now, up until this point in my life, I had never been injured by a horse. I was absolutely stunned and couldn’t help the tears from squirting out of my eyes and down my cheeks. While my thigh ended up with a very impressive black and blue mark, what really hurt wasn’t my leg—it was my feelings. I just couldn’t believe this gorgeous creature, whom I had grown quite fond of, wanted to hurt me.
I recognize now that this horse had no trust in me or respect for my leadership and that I had not read her well enough to realize the extent of the fear and self-preservation that was building up within her. And, unfortunately, my friend didn’t appear to be any more aware of what was happening than I did and probably wouldn’t have changed what she was doing even if she had.
Regardless, I had never felt fearful of horses before this event. I was now, and I needed to figure out a way to “get over it.”
It wasn’t long afterwards that I finally got a horse of my own and also read Dr. Stephanie Burns’ book, Move Closer, Stay Longer: Don’t let fear keep you from getting what you want, doing what you want, and going where you want to go. Fear, according to Dr. Burns, “… is responsible for your safety and ultimately your survival… The problem [isn’t with fear, it] is an inability or lack of willingness to take action.”
What I learned from Dr. Burns, and Linda Parelli who had enlisted Burns’ help with their program, is that we all have comfort zones. Within our comfort zones is everything we are comfortable with. Learning occurs outside of our comfort zones, in the learning zone. The trick with learning and enlarging our comfort zones is to increase what we’re comfortable with incrementally so that we don’t end up in the panic zone. If we end up in the panic zone, then it’s likely that instead of enlarging our comfort zones, we will end up reducing it.
As Burns points out in her book, “You cannot rightly be called a wimp when you avoid or delay activities that scare you.” Some people simply choose to avoid doing anything that scares them, or their horse, and that is certainly an option. But that choice eliminates any opportunity to learn or do anything, or go anywhere, that is new. And this is why so many individuals are opposed to embracing or even trying on new concepts—they are very happy in their comfort zones, doing and thinking what they always done and thought, in order to avoid fear.
Learning and growing with horses was far too important for me to just stop where I was. That just wasn’t an option I was willing to consider.
In order to overcome my fear of picking up my horse’s feet—or to “move closer and stay longer”— I started by touching him where he and I both felt comfortable and that was anywhere from his nose to his hip, just not anywhere on his hind legs—which was my threshold. So I began by petting him along his shoulder and back, making my way to his hip then sliding my hand down his backside just about four inches, resting there a moment, taking a few breaths, and starting all over again. Each time, using approach and retreat, I would go a little bit further and rest a little bit longer. After a few days of this, I worked my hands all the way down both his hind legs where I was finally able to rest my hands on his hooves.
By gradually increasing where I felt comfortable touching my horse—in effect, moving and then bypassing my threshold— he and I both finally got really comfortable with me touching his legs and picking up his feet. I even had my farrier show me techniques for holding his feet with my legs so that I was able to remove a shoe or do some filing if I needed to. We even do leg stretches now where I am definitely in a vulnerable kicking zone, and that takes a lot of confidence and trust from both of us. My comfort zone got a lot bigger!
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And if you have a really fearful horse, one of the easiest things you can do for him, to start with, is to establish reliable routines in a calm, consistent environment. Mark Rashid talks about this a lot in his books when the “old man” would bring home a fearful horse. The old man wouldn’t attempt to do any kind of handling or training until the horse got comfortable with him through his feeding and chore routines. And that sometimes took a couple weeks. Only then would he start incrementally adding on, slowly increasing the horse’s comfort zone with the people, horses and things around him.
This strategy works well for building confidence and trust for your horse with your tools and with obstacles such as trailer loading. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Be sure to read next week’s installment.
- Stephanie Burns, PhD – Move Closer, Stay Longer: Don’t let fear keep you from getting what you want, doing what you want, and going where you want to go. While she talks a lot about being with horses, this book is a fantastic learning tool for non-horsepeople as well. It’s part of “Burns Method, Accelerated Adult Learning.”
The Art of Trailer Loading – continued
- The Art Of Trailer Loading: Building Block #1: Understanding Your Horse
- The Art Of Trailer Loading: Building Block #3: Being Comfortable & Competent With Your Tools