There Are Rules!
Updated: Jun 7, 2019
Today I watched a mom and her three-year old son try to leave the park where I live. It's a small, historic, city neighborhood and today there was a house tour. All around the park were vendors selling their wares and hundreds and hundreds of people.
The woman reached down her hand to the boy who stood beside her stomping, red-faced and wailing about going back to the swings. He would not take her hand. They did not leave the park.
The mom kept her arm extended and in a firm, but loving voice said “But there are rules.” The boy took her hand, snuffled a little, and walked calmly out of the park with mom.
I flashed on that scene in the movie Seabisquit when Jeff Bridges’ head swivels from Tobey Maguire in a fight with a bunch of guys to Seabisquit whose handlers could hardly control him.
Tantrums thrown all over the place.
All of it reminded me of my big red guy lately. Though Dorian hasn’t thrown tantrums, he’s been less-than-cooperative in our efforts to move from winter’s inactivity to spring riding and working together.
Though everything I said in my last post is true— love, trust, and respect (with a big dose of patience)—are essential to a healthy relationship with a horse, it’s also true that “there are rules,” whether that's with our partnership or with horses in their herds.
And lately Dorian hasn’t been all that too keen on abiding by our rules. Watching that mom, I realized that Dorian knows what the rules are, he’s just choosing to ignore them.
"Horses are forever." Karen Rohlf, Dressage trainer.
That’s true. Horses are forever. I'd never, ever part with Dorian. And that’s why, in addition to love, trust, and respect, discipline is essential.
Dorian is over half a ton bigger than I am. Respect and partnership keep us both safe. It’s important to remember that’s a two-way street.
And this is the art of horse training—knowing when patience, taking it down a notch,
and rewarding for every try is appropriate and when discipline is required.
"Being mindful when you’re working with your horse will help you make the right decisions at the right time." Warwick Schiller
Later that day, I had a chance to put all that into action.
We were meeting up with some friends for a trail ride, so I pulled Dorian out of the pasture, and started down the road to the lower barn for saddling.
He did his feet plant as has become a bad habit. I was patient and he took two steps forward, then halted. I gave him a few nudges with the halter and he . . . did nothing.
In fact, his look was perhaps a little defiant. And, of course, given he is who he is, more than a little mischievous.
Ah-ha, I realized. He’s just testing me. I recalled how on our last trail ride, he’d periodically dive for the grass and try for a snack. Or how, among other horses under saddle, he’d nose up to them, pin his ears, and nip.
Incorrigible. He was getting away with things we’d worked through long, long ago.
But only because I let him.
So. There we were in the middle of the road—Dorian’s head high and me feeling the frustration build.
Time for a “conversation,” I thought. I had to earn back his respect as his leader.
I backed him up, my face fiercely intent on the task at hand, insisting that he act obediently. I wasn’t mad at him—that would be unproductive—I was simply requiring that he listen to me and obey.
Horses read us better than we read ourselves, so if I'd been anything less than committed to Dorian doing as I asked, he'd simply have ignored me.
The surprised look on his face was almost comical. He backed up the moment he felt I was serious. It only took about three or four steps backs and he got the point.
Immediately, there was a meek and mild Dorian in front of me, head lowered, glancing up at me with a little-boy look that was nearly the exact mirror of that three-year-old I’d seen that morning.
We need to be trustworthy leaders, partners our horses can rely on to set fair rules and abide by them.
I called him to me, my eyes soft and affectionate, and he walked slowly forward, head lowered, until he was right in front of me. He was quite contrite.
I smiled and he lifted his head. We gazed at each other a few moments and I gently rubbed his blaze and laid my forehead against his. He sighed and I sighed. Then he licked and chewed as I turned and we headed the rest of the way to the barn without incident.
He stood calmly as I tied and saddled him, and the ride went really well. Happy me, happy Dorian.
Horses don’t want us to let them push us around. They survive because they pick other horses in the herd who can lead and who will lead. That’s what they want from us. We need to be trustworthy leaders, partners they can rely on to set fair rules and abide by them.
Partnership works both ways, as it does in any lasting, healthy relationship. I won’t be forgetting that any time soon. And neither will Dorian.