April 23, 2018

All About Animals: The Year of the Horse


The Topanga Messenger is pleased to announce that, beginning with this issue, Mollie Hogan, founder of The Nature of Wildworks (natureofwildworks.org), Topanga's wild animal sanctuary, will contribute a monthly column, "All About Animals."


All About Animals: The Year of the Horse

Look out, here they come! Two horses having fun in their corral.

This year is the Chinese Year of the Horse, said to be a time of fast victories and unexpected adventure so, to get myself in the groove, I took off on May 31 and headed to Light Hands Horsemanship in Santa Ynez, CA.

This four-day gathering of horse experts and enthusiasts was focused on what is known as Natural Horsemanship, a philosophy of working with horses based on the horse’s natural instincts and methods of communication. The understanding is that horses do not learn through fear or pain, but rather from pressure and the release of pressure.

Famed horseman Tom Dorrance is often credited as the originator of these techniques and his protégé, Ray Hunt, is known for “taking the show on the road” and sharing Dorrance’s unique methods with all of us in the horse world.


All About Animals: The Year of the Horse

Mollie Hogan, founder of The Nature of Wildworks, grooming one of her Arabian horses.

These days a number of enlightened individuals carry on the legacy, sharing information in live horsemanship clinics. The recent film, Buck, tells the story of one modern-day trainer, Buck Brannaman, as he travels around the country helping people with their horses. When the concept was first presented to me, the training instructions were vague. Phrases like, “Make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult,” and, “It’s all about feel,” were sent my way and my reply was simply, “Huh?” Having spent the past 30 years working with zoo species and domestic dogs and cats, I’m well- schooled in positive reinforcement, the use of clicker training and using treats as rewards. Natural Horsemanship relies primarily on negative reinforcement using operant conditioning through pressure and release. It was quite a challenge for me to switch over. Of course, the experts make it look easy as I continue to make it look hard.

Every time I’ve attended horse-training clinics, however, I’ve come home with some new ideas to try on my own horses. Although I’ve gained invaluable insight from lots of people who’ve had volumes of experience, I’ve learned just as much from the horses themselves. Here are some things they’ve taught me.

Every Horse Is Different—Over the years I’ve had up to five in the herd at one time. Now there are two and these two individuals are such different personalities that I’ve often wondered if they were a separate species. I acquired them both at about the same age with what seemed to be a similar history but early learning sticks with them so I’ll just never know what they experienced before they came my way.

One is naturally willing, the other resistant. The resistant one is calm and slow, the willing horse is flighty and sensitive. One likes to go for a walk, the other would rather be ridden. If I do ride the one that likes to be walked, he wants to go fast and far out into the hills while the other is happier being ridden to the end of the block to visit his horse friend.

They have one thing in common: both spend all of their time trying to figure out exactly what it is that I want from them. That’s what horses do. They’re looking for a leader and I’m a little on the fence (no pun intended) which presents them with the opportunity to move up in the hierarchy. We go back and forth on this.

Learning To Wait—If there is one species in the world that will teach you to wait, it’s the horse. I just learned at a lecture given by Robert Miller, DVM, that it’s best to wait to start riding a horse until he is four years old and his bones are fully fused. So, before anything else, you have to wait for them to grow up. Then, for some reason, they are prone to illness and injury. Whoever said, “Healthy as a Horse,” never had one. So you have to wait for that tendon to heal or the bruise on the hoof to go away. These things happen when they’re ridden but just as often when they’re not.

Learning Patience—This is the biggest challenge. I now have young horses and they will possibly outlive me. So even though I may die trying, I have all the time in the world to work with them and figure things out. In the past, I hurried and I paid the price. I was eager and rushed to ride my young horse. He wasn’t ready—so I fell off. I was in a hurry to load him in a trailer and scared him accidentally. So now it’s harder for him to be comfortable going in. The list is long. When faced with a challenge, people have a tendency to look for the short cut or simple answer. This rarely works with any animal, most especially the horse.

Be Careful—Horses are huge animals and their inherent need to flee from danger, real and imagined, requires safe practices at all times when working with and around them. My friend was raking the corral the other day and was knocked down by surprise when a horse heard a “monster” in the bushes and bolted. It has always amazed me how the mere sound of a squirrel rustling nearby can send my Arabian gelding into a self-taught “capriole,” a move originally trained to be used in warfare and would take volumes of time to train. There he goes—straight up into the air! Of course, the horse is just practicing self- preservation. It could be a mountain lion in there for all he knows. His fear is injury from the perceived predator, so time should be taken to teach the horse in a kind way that he’s safe with us and that the squirrels aren’t out to get him.

Horses are fast learners and they won’t forget. Often, even today, harsh methods are used in attempts to train horses to accept scary situations. Unfortunately, when the use of tough bits, whips and spurs are paired with lack of skill or unkind actions, the end result is more fear rather than less. I’ve found that when working with horses it’s always best to think “partner” instead of “predator.” This year is the horse’s year, so take time to learn as much as you can about these beautiful, graceful and intelligent animals and don’t be surprised if they, in turn, teach you a thing or two!