It would be nice if that were the case! No, actually it wouldn't, because then horses would just be machines. We'd miss out on all the nuances of their individual personalities.
I've been realizing lately that something has changed with Hero and I, in the past several weeks. It's a little bit difficult to categorize, but I think we're going to make better progress now. You might say he's shown me everything he's got, and it's made me feel that I have an understanding of his reactions.
It's hard to explain, but I've been through this with all three of my horses. You don't know at first the extent of all their reactions. To be safe, you don't push at certain times because you don't want to go too far. There's always this nagging insecurity because you're not sure how far this horse can go. For example, if Hero reared and I scared him, would he flip over? If he got really upset when another horse left him behind, would he explode or fall down? Etc.
I've been riding Hero for about a year and a half, so it's almost surprising to notice this change. But even though it's taken a very long time, I think he is finally starting to really listen to me. It reminds me of my Papillon, which people say they are great dogs but terrible puppies. I remember saying Gilligan this and Gilligan that and his eyes were just glazed and inattentive. A day or two after his first birthday, I said "Gilligan" and he looked into my eyes and focused like "Yes? What did you want?" Before that it was all noise to him.
Hero must have tried to bite (or bite) me a couple hundred times at least, and received a reprimand. Whatever I did seemed ineffective. Except now he doesn't try to bite me. Sometimes if he's really upset he'll flap his lips at me or move his mouth toward me, and then if I wave my hand he'll overreact and be very contrite. He's stopped threatening to kick me. He's letting me groom him and come in close and put my hand over his head and nose, and sometimes he looks in my eye and it's a very sweet look.
People say the horse has to respect you or you need to dominate the horse. I was thinking today that it's more like the folklore about naming, or knowing the true name of something. In one fiction book I read, if you knew the true name of something you had power over it, and that was because you understood all the properties of whatever it was; if it was a person, you understood their emotions and motivations and all about them. Even though it's been quite a long process, I'm beginning to understand more of the bigger picture of Hero.
If he gets really upset, he (like most horses) wants to trust that I will be bigger than that. Bigger than his bucking or panicking or rearing. He wants me to tell him what is up, and then to take comfort from that. That is really hard to do, even if you're extremely confident and secure and think you're willing to risk whatever. There's still a small part of you that is waiting for the really bad thing to happen.
But the past several weeks, I've seen how if I am truly "above" what is happening, it makes a big difference. For example, on the beach the other day something was really scary and Hero got really tight, scrambly and started leaping around under me. I just said "It's fine," whopped him one smack with the crop, and he was literally calm within 5 seconds and back into a nice walk. But I actually felt deep down that it was fine, and he knew that. It's not as simple as "confidence," but you actually have to know the horse well enough to get there.
Yesterday I was pushing him to do very adult horse things in the field, riding in small circles with some lateral movement, fast transitions, and backing. A loud car went by while his brain was engaged, and so he felt overwhelmed and reared. I leaned forward, looked him in the eye, and very slowly bopped him on the cheek, which he thought being whapped on the face was a severe reprimand. Five seconds later he was back into the work, focusing and calm. I felt comfortable pushing him back up to see if he would reach that point again, but he didn't. He didn't want to get face bopped again.
And I don't think it's what I'm doing, but what is different is that he is thinking about how what he is doing is creating a response from me, so he is not just reacting and thinking I am just flying along with him, but instead has gained the focus to relate my reaction to his actions. Like most horses, he does want to please, so he is beginning to pull himself out of his emotions and changing behaviors based on my feedback. As long as I was even a little fazed by his behaviors, he was not able to join me in calm analytical space. Suddenly, I'm seeing his eye, and his thoughts, and he's processing things along with me.
I really believe it's not just about being a strong leader, or getting a horse's respect. You have to know the horse, and sometimes the horse has to know your name too. Trust can take a very long time. And even if they trust you, they might know that you can't quite trust their responses at times, and that you're being wary and safe. Which you absolutely have to do so there's just no short cut. That's why I believe a partnership can need to develop over a long time with a horse, especially if the horse has had previous experiences with other riders and trainers where they've been let down.
Something about Hero's "true name" is that he is a bit like that hysterical woman in the old movies. It's so politically incorrect now, but they used to say "Get a hold of yourself!" and slap someone across the face. Honestly, it sounds silly but Hero is like that. He panics, I say "Get a hold of yourself!" with a smack, and then he does.
Gottatrot- I really like your thoughts and insight, it makes me think. And I really respect that you take on unconventional difficult horses so you get it. And I think that sort of knowledge is something I respect in a horseman above all else. Horses have their own identity and ways of being, there isnt a one size fits all methodology that works and I think with experience and riding a variety of different horses, as well as unconventional horses you really get an education that I think most trainers and people severely lack.
I think some horses it takes longer, if ever to let a rider into their mind and let the rider ride them. If Hero has an unknown background and you got him from a rescue, if he was mistreated or ran around without skill I could see where he lacks trust. I know I've ridden horses from lesson programs that really have to be convinced to let you into their mind and to influence their body. Worse if they were psychologically mistreated, then it's like sometimes they let you in but then if something happens they go to a purely reactionary place and you cant reach them. But that's amazing that now he is reaching to you when he is unsure or nervous, rather than reacting!
But I agree horses like Hero, you cant just MAKE them or bully them or fight them for respect or dominance. It's like a hand in hand process where yes you'll get some ugly moments and they'll challenge you and at moments it's dangerous but you keep going step by step, correcting the bad behavior and directing them towards the behavior you want and accept them, rather than trying to make them into something they arent just being patient and guiding.
I think special and unique horses just take more time to figure out and get on your side, I also think as a rider/handler we have to accept we'll never be in total control but we learn to trust each other more. But when you get these horses on your side, no horse will try harder or show more heart. I think when you have an unconventional horse, people just assume it's because you're doing something wrong or dont understand what you are doing to reach a horse or that there are extra steps in training. A lot of trainers throw these horses away because they're too much work, take too much time and they dont have the emotional sensitivity. I think a horse like Hero needs you and needs someone who listens and at the same time says look I get it but you still need to listen and be here with me. I really think people are so judgmental with an unconventional horse because there are so few of them. So those people lack the experience to understand the horse has a mind of its own. And have not truly encountered a unique horse and a lot of times peoples trainers havent truly encountered a one of kind type of horse either. And it makes the journey hard but when you make head way, it is so rewarding.
Point being I think when you have an unconventional horse you learn something unspoken in each other, maybe that is their name? Im not sure I understand but I think for example Wonder is very loyal to me. I dont know if I know his name but I can reach his "radio station" and he listens when I engage him vs some other people he closes off his radio signal. He will do a lot for me, he still voices his opinions and will tell me to F off. Im also sure Hero will do a lot for you that he wouldnt do for anyone else.
A natural horsemanship trainer taught me, when we engage with a horse. We need to show them we are different and open up communication using energy and the mind to communicate. It isnt just pressing buttons or something physical but all riding and horsemanship begins with the mind and communicating to the horse that we are different, that we hear them and wish for them to begin emotionally and mentally before an aid become physical. If that makes sense but that sort of what knowing the true name meant to me.
I'll also say in regards to upper level competition horses, a lot of those horses dont have room in this world without being that level of horse because they have an intensity and drive that they need a job and purpose every day with someone who can handle that kind of horse. My horse for example couldnt just be a trail horse or something you just hack out. He isnt happy just sitting in a field eating grass, he needs a job. A trainer of mine who used to ride in the UK knew a mare who was only happy when working, even sat in a field eating grass she wasnt happy but the work made her relax and find peace.
I think it's like a difference between say a border collie who NEEDS a job or behaves badly vs a lab or greyhound who is totally happy being a couch dog. Some horses and people are the same, they NEED a job and hard work. Not all horses are happy being trail horses and quite honestly a lot of those high level competition horses are so well treated and well managed but the horse's are really difficult (not all but more common to find unconventional horses at the top than the bottom). They're often the horses who'd be put down in most other situations because they are too much and are dangerous in the wrong hands. I know my horse would rotate homes until he ends up at a slaughter house. His behavior gets SO bad if he isnt properly managed or ridden by very experienced, tactful riders every ride. I can put anyone on him at a walk but trot or canter that rider HAS to know what they're doing or he decides he doesnt steer or brake anymore. Every test he gives is testing whether or not he respects you enough to listen. If a rider/handler became aggressive with him and tried to dominate, there is a lot of aggression in his personality that would come out.
I think gottatrot knows this very well but with certain horses they have different behavioral characteristics based on what you nurse in them and the energy you carry in yourself, as well as what behavior you correct. And some horses behave very badly, if they dont have a direction for all their mental and physical energy. It kinda reminds me of a border collie or german shepherd.
I think competition has it's place and some of the horses at the top levels need that space, else no one would work with them. Like my trainer explained to her clients that I tolerate all of Wonder's attitude, difficulty and problems because he is so talented. I also love him and couldn't live with him ending up at slaughter or euthanized because that's what happens to horses like him. My friends in Denmark who have done high level competition have told me, Wonder is the sort of horse you dont pull out in front of any client because then people think you dont know what youre doing but then when you pull them out at GP everyone goes oh who is that? That's a cool horse. And that's what pros do when they see a talented horse who is unconventional, they wait a long time before they show them in public. My point being without competition, where do these horse go? And where do they end up? People say competition is bad but it makes a space for horses people wouldnt tolerate, unless they had talent and they end up in the right hands.