Equi-Sense Day 1: Lota and Thunder
This pretty boy is Thunder. He’s one of several horses I’ve worked with over the last few days at a nearby horse ranch. I don’t know much about horses, myself, something that’s made some of the tasks I’ve been required to perform over the past few days somewhat daunting.
My fist task after arriving and shortly after watching some mares in a large pen squabble over food, was to enter a small pen and put a harness on a male horse whose name I’d later learn is Lota. Anyone reading this who happens to have experience working with horses will probably laugh at this point, but I didn’t know what to do.
I’d never seen a harness before, I’d been given no instructions on how it works, or even how to approach a horse that I’d never met. My only prior experience with horses was at a petting zoo, and it pretty-much avoided everyone (can’t say I blame it.)
As I approached the animal, I quickly realized just how huge it was. Being barely 4’11 and 90lbs on a fat day, I admit to being quite a bit intimidated. There was nobody around to help me or tell me what to do. It was just me and the horse. I stepped near its shoulder so I wouldn’t be kicked or easily bitten.
To introduce myself to dogs, I let them smell my hand. What do I do with a horse? I didn’t know, but I figured gently touching its shoulder would be a good first contact. It didn’t try kill me, so I felt better. Apart from pointing one ear my way, the animal seemed to just ignore me at first. I waited for it to look my way before tying to slip the harness over its nose (I looked at the horses in another pen to see how it was supposed to go.) Unfortunately, I was too short to be able to reach over its ears to buckle the harness.
I kept an eye on its ears as I fumbled with the buckle to watch for signs of irritation. I remembered that when the horses were squabbling over the food bucket, a large mare (Boots) had pinned her ears back (much like a cat) and bore her teeth as she charged another horse (a mare named Brandy.) But Lota did no such thing. Eventually, the bored-looking horse took pity on me and lowered its head.
A bit shaken by this, I prepared to leave the pen. Just as I neared the gate, the owner of the horses told me he had one more task for me. He wanted me to go back to the horse and lift one of its feet. What?! I was worried the horse would, at best, simply refuse, or at worse, stomp my hand. Not wanting to look like a chicken though, I turned around to do as I was told. To my amazement, the animal offered no resistance and lifted its foot with little effort from me. Hm.
Of course these animals are used to all this. The program I was participating in was called Equi-Sense, the purpose to be a sort of therapy for soldiers like me dealing with physical and/or psychological problems, most of us pending medical discharge. And we aren’t the first group to go through. No, these horses are well trained and used to being handled by inept strangers, and of course the owner would only pick the friendliest of his horses for this task.
For much of the rest of the first day, my partner and I worked with Thunder, a larger male horse. First we just had him walking back and fourth with us (we held his lead, we weren’t riding on him.) Thunder was mostly very cooperative, any problems I found ended up being my fault. As we walked, he had a tendency to cross my path, walking in to me and cutting me off. Each time he did this, I stopped walking and lead him in a circle until he was in the position I wanted him in, then kept walking. I did this because this is what I’d been taught to do with dogs who don’t behave on their leash. I learned to be careful not to pull the lead towards me, so it’s less likely to turn my way, and to wave my hand near its eye when it does to drive it back.
Next, they wanted us to trot along side our horses. I had a lot of trouble getting Thunder to trot. I tried several times, but just couldn’t seem to be able to get him to do it. Then a helper came over and had no difficulty. I noticed that to get the horse going he made sort of a clicking sound. I guess that meant “go.” Would have been nice to know. After seeing this, I gave it another go, making the click noise myself.
We tried some other maneuvers, getting the horse to pivot on its hind quarters, getting it to pivot on its front, and getting it to walk sideways. We got the horses to move their fronts by waving our hands near an eye, and to move their hind ends my gently tapping their hip with the end of the lead rope. Thunder didn’t like the latter maneuver, swishing his tail in protest.
The tasks became more difficult as the day went on. We were asked to get in the round pen with Lota, one at a time, and make him walk, then trot around the perimeter of the pen, and change direction when he wanted us to. The catch? There was no lead rope and we weren’t allowed to touch him. We were to compel him to do what we wanted using our body energy alone. Some people needed only to point and wave their arms to accomplish this. I had more trouble. I tried waving, jumping, yelling, but it was hard to maintain control of the horse. He didn’t seem to take me all that seriously.
Eventually, they gave me a stick to tap the ground with. As soon I held it in my hand though, the horse ran, causing me to wonder if he’d ever been beaten with it. I put the stick back and never held it again. Soon after, we were asked to do the same thing, only this time we were to get Lota to jump over a low stick. It took me two tries (he simply went around it the first time,) but I got Lota to do as I asked.
I remembered the owner’s words from earlier in the day. He said that horses have two modes, leader and follower, but neither was intrinsic. All one needed to do to make a horse a follower was to be a strong, effective leader. A horse that is made a follower is less likely to act aggressively and more likely to be controllable.
Afterwards, Lota approached me at the center of the pen. I petted him between his eyes, and he nuzzled against me, causing me to consider that I’d never thought of horses as cuddly animals. I realized I wasn’t afraid of him biting or trampling me anymore, even though he could have easily done either if he wanted to. I turned and walked away. As I reached the gate, I looked back to see that the horse had followed me. I guess that means it considered me a leader.