Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Buddy bound

Last night, Michael and I were hanging out at a local bookstore, and I was flipping through a book by Cherry Hill: How to Think Like a Horse. (I love Cherry Hill's books — this one didn't seem like one I needed to buy, but I'm checking it out from the library to finish reading it.) At one point, Hill was describing the behavior a buddy-bound horse will exhibit — e.g., whinnying to his buddy on trail rides if he loses sight of them — and I thought, That's how Panama behaves toward ME.

He really does. Instead of running when I turn him out in the arena, he often wants to hang out with me, and will keep trying to come back to me until I let him. And if I leave him alone in the cross ties, he'll whinny to me, like he's asking where I am. (I always say something back to him, which probably also helps to encourage the behavior.)

Today I was telling my trainer about my "discovery," and she said she wasn't surprised. (She always calls him a mommy's boy.) Then she said, "Did they say how to fix it?"

I was a bit taken aback. I was actually proud that he is so bonded to me, and it even said in the book that the goal is to get your horse to bond to you instead of another horse, so that they'll trust you more on rides.

My trainer, however, seems to think that Panama isn't trusting us enough. Today she was desensitizing him to her coat, throwing it over his head to cover his eyes. She told me she wants me to work with him with a coat every day, and not say anything to him while I'm doing it, or even laugh. But while she was working with him, he freaked out and actually knocked her down in order to run away from it. It was agonizing to watch — I know how attuned Panama is to my voice, and I could actually feel how much he wanted some verbal reassurance. But she withheld the praise until the very end, so that for a while all he got was snapped at when he wasn't doing it right.

I sensed that my trainer was short on patience today, when she rode as well as during the coat incident, and as a result it was a very frustrating session for me as an observer. I feel that Panama doesn't have enough experience yet to automatically trust us on everything, especially when something is unfamiliar; he still needs to be able to investigate something new, at first as well as periodically while you are working with him on it. She wasn't letting him do that today, though, and I was a bit bothered — especially since I normally encourage his curiosity by always giving him a chance to check something out, and praising him when I can tell he is overcoming his fear in order to do so.

My trainer also told me she wants Panama to be a little afraid of us. She says he acts too much like he thinks he's a person, because of the way he'll follow me around I guess, and seems to think that's a bad thing for getting him to listen. I'm not so sure I agree — just because he is bonded to me doesn't mean he doesn't know when to listen.

Any of you who have read my blog for a while know that I think very highly of my trainer. She has been with us since the very beginning; she was the one who started Panama under saddle. But after today I started thinking about it, and I feel like she has been less patient with him at times lately. I also worry that she is expecting more than she should of him. Four and a half is still a baby in so many ways, and I don't expect him to be okay with having his head covered for the very first time at this age. That isn't an issue of trust, but of experience.

I'm undecided what to do right now. I could wait and see how the next few sessions go before I say anything, and see if perhaps today was just a bad day. I could also cut back to just a lesson a week, instead of both a lesson and a training session, so that I would be riding him almost exclusively again. I'm a bit worried about talking to her yet, though, in case it was just a bad day for her.

What strikes me is that it wasn't a bad day for Panama. He was being exceptionally demonstrative, and was obviously very happy to spend time with me (I hadn't been there since Sunday). Even after my trainer rode him, I hopped on him bareback just to test his temperament, and he was in a fine mood — quite chipper, actually. I'm anxious for tomorrow, so that I can ride him myself and see how he does.

In the meantime, I have a lot to think about. What are your thoughts on the matter?



At January 27, 2010 at 8:37 PM, Blogger Veronica said...

Okay, so I don't have a wealth of experience with horses, but I do with babies (well, a teensy bit) and he sounds like he is acting like a baby.

When a baby gets to about 10 months, they start to cry/fret whimper every time you leave the room. They haven't yet learned that Mum is always coming back and they're worried that once they can't see you, then you're gone. It ties into object permanence.

Eventually they realise, that even when they can't see you, you'll be back, eventually. For some kids, it takes a few months, for others, it's a few weeks. It depends on the child. Some parents ignore it saying 'they'll just have to learn to deal with me being gone' and continue on with things, other parents accept that the baby is frightened of her not coming back and she does everything to reassure them, to the point of not leaving the baby until the baby is over it.

Neither way is wrong, just different and in the end, the phase passes.

I know that proscribing human behaviours to horses is a silly thing to do, but it seems like Panama might be worrying that you're not coming back if he can't see you. When he's in the cross ties and you walk away, he calls for you and you respond and he's reassured.

I think it's like attachment parenting (co-sleeping, baby wearing, not leaving the baby) vs other kinds of parenting (day care, baby sitters, own cot, CIO). You've got to do what makes you comfortable. Neither way is wrong, not in the slightest, just different. And you can combine bits from both styles to work out where you are.

Panama is still very young, it's possible he just needs more reassurance from you that things are okay and that he will be okay because you're telling him he will.

It's not trust per se, it's just learning, that things will be okay, even if you're not there.

Does that make any sense?

Sorry for the essay.

At January 27, 2010 at 8:39 PM, Blogger RiverBend Farm said...

I would love for my mare to be so bonded to me! But I know that you need to be a respected master instead of a buddy and "one of the gang". Do you ever do any desensitizing when you're at home or is everything done by the trainer? If I were you, I'd be doing more with him myself and leaving your time with the trainer to answer any questions you have or have it as a time of critiquing what you might be doing wrong as far as riding. Once you get him desensitized to things around home, it's always nice to have him be that way when away from home. I've heard of horses being on trail rides and getting spooked by others coats flapping and phones ringing. My mare still jumps every time I click the camera.
There's two cents worth of my opinion,

At January 27, 2010 at 9:19 PM, Blogger Katharine Swan said...

Veronica, I worked in child care for a long time and I know what your talking about. It's called stranger anxiety, and it does usually happen around 10 months. I'd consider this different, as babies grow out of stranger anxiety -- it's a stage in their emotional development. A lot of people try to train horses not to be buddy bound (or change who they get turned out with periodically to prevent it), but it's not to my knowledge something they "grow out of." In any case, I've never heard of anyone trying to train their horses not to be attached to THEM.

I do agree with you, though, that there are different ways of doing things and it just depends on what you're comfortable with. I don't think it's unhealthy for Panama to be bonded to me -- and as that book I was reading says, it can actually be a good thing, because they will feel more secure with you. Sounds about right to me.

Berte, I absolutely do tons of desensitization with Panama. I make a game out of trying to catch him unawares, actually, and he's a pretty good sport about it. :o) I talk to him a lot, though, and I am certain he takes a lot of cues from me -- laughing means we're playing, soothing talk means it's something I want or need him to do. That's why I think he was so freaked out about the jacket -- the verbal cues he depends on weren't there, my trainer was getting mad, and he didn't know what was expected of him. So he panicked.

The jacket is something that we have to revisit periodically, and I hadn't in a little while. Also, although I do all kinds of desensitization with him, I hadn't been covering his eyes with a jacket -- though I do with my hands sometimes -- so that was really new to him. My trainer started doing it on her own, by the way -- I didn't ask her to. (She rides him once a week to make sure he's moving forward with his training, by the way. I'm not a very experienced rider, so there's plenty that I wouldn't have known to teach him otherwise.)

The other thing you mentioned -- although he is bonded with me, he definitely knows the difference between me and one of his buddies. I think it is possible for a horse's owner to be the "alpha" and the leader as well as an adored "mom."

In any case, I should clarify -- for everyone's sake, not just for you two. I'm not asking what my readers think about the bond, but about the situation with my trainer. I already know that the bond between me and Panama feels right, and that it's a good thing for both of us. In fact, if it weren't for that bond, I don't know that I would care so much about having a horse. I ride not because I love riding, but because I love my horse. Without that relationship it's about as much fun for me as riding a stationary bike at the gym.

At January 28, 2010 at 8:00 AM, Anonymous Jackie said...

I think I'd have to agree with you ... the more bonded Ace has become with me the better he listens - not the other way around.

The fact of the matter is that you know Panama better than anyone ... including your trainer. She knows horses, but you know him. And when it comes down to it, it's your responsibility to do what's in his best interest.

There are all kinds of different ways to train horses, and all have their merits. Not all of them work with all horses, though. The best thing we can do is listen to our horses so we know what works best for them. I think that as long as your trainer understands that, this is just a bump in the road. Her non-verbal method may work with other horses, but doesn't seem like it's the best for Panama. It also sounds like this has been an isolated incident in your training history with her.

My thought would be to give her a little more time and see if it was just a bad day, and if she adjusts her methods based on how Panama is responding. But don't hesitate to jump in and make suggestions based on what you are seeing when she works with him. I would think she'd be willing to work with you on it. And if she isn't willing to listen and consider your thoughts, that's a problem.

And it might be a good idea to go back to riding only lessons with her. My thought is that you seem very confident working with Panama on the ground, but less confident in the saddle. I bet you can handle the groundwork just fine on your own. I'd hate to see Panama actually regress a little bit because her methods differ from yours and might not work as well for him.

Just keep your eyes open like I know you always do, and take good care of the cute boy!

At February 2, 2010 at 3:07 PM, Blogger Katharine Swan said...

Jackie, you are absolutely right, I am much more confident on the ground. I know Panama and I know how to handle him, with few exceptions, but I don't entirely trust my riding skill.

Our Friday lesson was very good, so I'm playing it by ear for now. Hopefully it was just a bad day, and remains -- as you put it -- an isolated incident.


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