I am learning a lot by working with my young horse, Jubilee. It surprises me that it is not much different from working with my late wolf dog, Maia. I have to always be aware. I have to be a confident leader. Shoulders back, eyes looking where we are going, and my breath in a steady rhythm.
Jubilee, like Maia, has an instinctual memory of all situations good and bad. Maia in her older years once fell off my bed at 5:30 a.m. From the next day forward, Maia would wake up at 5:20 a.m., jump off the bed, sleep through 5:30, and then ask for me to help her back up on the bed at 5:45 a.m.
The other day, I scolded Jubilee for pushing and nipping me. I popped her a little with the lead rope (pulling her head quickly down), gave her the evil eye, and asked her to back up three steps. Ten minutes later, as we were walking by that very same spot, she became nervous. I made no big deal of it, though I didn’t like the fact that because I scolded her she didn’t like that spot.
As a positive companion animal trainer, I am a firm believer in never hitting an animal. Though now in the horse world, I see even the most positive trainers and experienced natural horsemen and women smack a horse’s leg for fussing with it or for kicking out when the trainer is trying to pick it up. I have heard that one should bump a horse in the nose with a fist if the horse goes to bite; or pop the lead rope if the horse is dancing around inappropriately. I have seen some humane trainers take a training wand and pop the horse’s chest or nose with it to stop them from pushing forward. I have not felt that any of this actually physically hurts the horses, who are much more forceful to each other in the pasture. These gentle smacks and quick pops are believed to create boundaries, respect, and discipline.
Jubilee’s reaction to the spot where I scolded her sticks in my mind. “What is kindness?” I ask now. Are all these experienced horsemen and women, who I look up to, who I know are kind to animals – are they wrong?
Yesterday, a farrier (hoof-trimmer) came to work on all the horses’ hooves. There was a lot going on in the barn. Some of the horses were stressed and were calling for each other. Jubilee’s friend was pacing and in a thick lather of sweat. There was a lot of noise from the farrier’s truck. I was asking Jubilee to stand still in a barn she does not visit frequently. She was fussing, by throwing her head a bit and moving and kicking out at the farrier as he was working on her. She was not being dangerous, just unsettled and annoyed.
When she kicked out, most other kind horse people would have slapped her on the thigh to get her to stop and think for a moment but this man held steady. “Whoa, girl,” he said. He stroked her a few times. He did not ask too much of her and praised her immediately when she settled for even a moment. He was extremely patient as he kept to task, staying at the same pace (and taking deep breaths often), but then he asked his assistant to finish her hooves and he took over Jubilee’s handling.
He pulled her head close to his side and looked at her. He had his other hand in the crease of her shoulder. Jubilee calmed down and relaxed. She stopped fussing and paid attention to her handler, and his assistant finished the job on her hooves.
Later, I asked this farrier about the way he handled Jubilee and why he did not smack her when she was fussing. “I am the same way whether you are there watching or not, even with the most difficult horses. You must be kind at all times. You never hit a horse,” he said. “A horse never forgets.”