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Beyond Condition-Response

The equestrian industry has been blessed with wonderful insight and advancements in the last few decades through the books and videos of today’s prominent trainers. If you compare the starting of a horse in a round pen while allowing the horse to become a participant in the process to the old style of tying a horse to a post, throwing a saddle on it, and having a bronc buster ride it out, you find a world of difference. Through the continuing study of animal behavior and the growing understanding of how equine think, we are developing training techniques and styles that are increasingly effective, more humane, and safer for man and equine. In my opinion, we have only scratched the surface of a true understanding of the equine mind. Beliefs such as "a horse is a horse" or that there are certain methods that will make every horse a perfect horse will retard the advancement toward a complete understanding of equine behavior and the resulting capability of reaching the maximum partnership potential of man and equine. These beliefs confine the partnerships you have with equines to your own limited understanding. It is time to acknowledge that all equine beings are unique and to realize that all animals are capable of greater reasoning than we humans tend to realize. If we start with the premise that any problems in forming a working relationship with an equine are the result of a lack of communication, understanding, confidence, respect, and trust we can reach new levels of accomplishment. These are the building blocks of any healthy, working relationship.

If you consider condition-response in its simplest form, you have the principle of cause and effect. In the modern world, people often interact with machines more than other beings. We push a button and the television turns on. We prefer simplicity- we want a remote control so that we do not have the added step of getting off the couch and walking all the way to the TV. If you want true simplicity in your life, buy a bike, not an equine. The bike will always give the same response under the exact same conditions. The laws of physics will always apply the same way. Equines are living, thinking beings and are more complex.

With equines, there will always be intangibles involved. However, what we interpret as a lack of predictability may possibly be better explained by our own lack of understanding. It is a normal human trait to label anything we do not understand as "stupid." The truth is that equines act in a way that is predictable to themselves. Our own lack of understanding of their reactions should not make us think that they are lacking intelligence. While we are busy in our own minds thinking of things yet to happen, equines are more comfortable thinking in the here and now. They are very aware of their surroundings. Animals think in pictures and have incredible memories which are sparked by outside sensory stimuli. We may not always pick up on those stimuli but they exist, nevertheless. Sometimes it takes a closer look to understand that there is something real going on with an animal. It may be something that we can not see nor comprehend, but to the animal it may seem life threatening. We often think we have a difficult life, but how often have we been stalked by a predator out looking for dinner and hoping that we will be the main course? Maybe you think that your equine never had to endure that sort of existence, but another belief of mine is that animal instinct is born out of years of survival. It may even be possible that mental imagery (memory) in animals is past down through generations. Perhaps your equine is responding to a threat that was a part of the existence of its ancestry. Granted, this has not been proven scientifically, but it is a possible explanation of the existence of instinct. The point is, we must try to understand the behavior of an animal that cannot use words to describe its thoughts. Pressing the right button but getting the wrong response should not always be considered to be the stupidity or the laziness of the animal. In reality, the lack of communication and understanding is probably the result of our own ignorance.

Some equines are much more predictable than others, but that does not mean that the more predictable animals are necessarily the more capable. In truth, being less predictable may actually be a sign of more intelligence. Is it possible that some of the most capable equine in history have been the ones we have destroyed because of our own lack of understanding? It has been written in numerous accounts in history that only a percentage of the captured wild horses in American history survived the "breaking process." Was this really a lack of their intelligence or of our own? However, "normal" horses are definitely easier to deal with.

With "normal" horses, condition-response is much easier to achieve than with zebras, zorses, or "problem" horses. Mistakes or breakdowns in the establishment of a proper relationship are much easier to resolve with "normal" horses. It is the result of the natural social structure of horses. The herd instinct, with the importance of the role of domination in establishing social order, makes most horses comparatively easy to train. It is through the horse’s willingness to participate and to be dominated that provides for an attainable partnership with the human in control under most circumstances. With a basic understanding and familiarity of horses and a little bit of thought, most horses can be put under saddle without much incidence. Proper condition-response reactions are attainable with little attention to relationship or an expanded knowledge of the equine thought process. Through the experiences of working with "problem" horses, zebras, and zorses, a unique insight can be gained into the understanding of equine behavior and thought processes, and an incredible partnership can be the end result. If you are thinking that it is not worth the risk, the extra time, or the trouble, consider the following story.

There was once, many years ago, a young man named Alexander. Alexander's father was the ruler of Macedonia, and it was the custom in those days that the best horse breeders in the land would bring their horses to the courtyard for royalty to consider. The courtiers of the court were riding the horses as Philip and his son watched. There was a certain horse tied to the rail that the courtiers proclaimed as unrideable. Alexander turned to his father and said: "Father, I want that horse." You can imagine that Philip thought his young son was out of his mind. No one else present would attempt to ride this seemingly wild animal. After some argument, Alexander struck a deal with his father. If Alexander could ride this horse, he could own it. Alexander went to the frightened horse, led it away from the shadow that was the cause of the horse’s fear, and rode it back into the shadow. In time, Alexander the Great rode this horse to victory in many of battle. The horse, Bucephalus, had a town named after him.

The questions follow: If Alexander would have chosen the easiest horse available for his personal mount, would history today be the same? Would this world we live in have the same social structure? Did the experiences and the resulting relationship that developed as Alexander and Bucephalus worked through their problems and fears together help to carry them both through their life’s journey?

It is the relationships that we develop in the process of our attempts to attain a condition-response reaction from our animals that provides the true meaning and pleasure in any equestrian activities, as well as in any interactions with animals. If someone tells you that equines are lazy and stupid, it is time to question that person’s wisdom and understanding of life. It is the hope of this author that in the coming years the understanding of equine, including zebra, mules, donkeys, and zebra hybrids will escalate to a new and exciting level. Through this journey we can all gain a deeper understanding of ourselves as well as of the life that we are given and reach new levels of accomplishment with our equine friends and with our fellow human beings. My personal journey beyond condition-response relationships with horses started with the purchase of a young Arabian stallion named Baladdin. At the time of this purchase I had been training horses full time for several years, but had never taken on a challenge of this magnitude.

My purchase of this young stallion came complete with a page of instructions listing the problems associated with Baladdin's care and handling and an opinion from his previous owners that he could never be ridden. During the first three years of his life Baladdin was rarely handled without a twitch or a tranquilizer. To summarize his state of being, he was afraid of anything he had not seen before and was particularly head shy and difficult to halter. Most of his existence was in the confines of a stallion paddock. Through the following eight months Baladdin and I worked through the basics of building a proper relationship and learned to face our fears together. Baladdin also had to learn to be mannerly around other horses, to accept my dominance, and to be saddled and ridden. At the end of eight months, we took our first ride outside of the round pen. Soon after, we started competing in NATRC trail rides. The first few rides were an experience that will always be remembered by all that shared in them. The methods and techniques that I used with Baladdin were not the secret to our eventual success as they were often awkward and lacking. Through the experiences of working with Baladdin and other problem horses I have learned that the techniques are something you invent as you go and are only the tools for building a proper relationship with the unique equine you are working with. It was only after several more years that I learned that Baladdin and his dam were involved in a trailer incident when Baladdin was two weeks old that terrified him and injured his mom. It is not necessary to know the specific reasons behind the fears and anxiety of your equine, but only to know they exist and to learn the triggering factors. . The most important skill is in learning to understand and communicate as you develop mutual confidence, respect, and trust. This requires learning the non-verbal communication of the equine. Equine are masters at non-verbal communication, while people must work at this skill to become proficient. The continuance in my journey has been in working with a zorse (zebra x horse) named Savannah, and a zebra named Jazz.


From the left, Jaz, Savannah, and Baladdin.

At this point, I have not had the opportunity to give Jazz the attention that I desire, but she has taught me the differences between a zebra and a horse, which has also given me a deeper understanding of Savannah, the zorse. First and most obvious, zebra are not domesticated like horses, they are wild animals. This does not mean they are "untrainable." Secondly, it appears to me that zebra have a totally different social structure in the wild than horses. The social structure of zebra herds also varies between species. In working with zebra and zebra hybrids, an advantage can be gained through the re-socialization process of raising them around mannerly, well trained equines. In time, animals will adapt to their environment and become more like the animals they herd with. The old saying goes, "birds of a feather flock together," but the more important lesson is that in a controlled environment, a zebra in a horse herd eventually becomes more like a horse. I bring all of this up at this point to provide a better understanding of Savannah, a half zebra.

It is well documented that zorses tend to inherit the "unpredictability" of their zebra half. If treated as a horse, a zorse will show this trait and all attempts to train a zorse in the same manner as a horse will be limited. My personal progress with Savannah has been slow and sometimes difficult. An amazing turning point in my relationship with Savannah began when I went out to de-worm the herd. Savannah had never taken kindly to such things, and so I saved her for last. She was in the pasture with Baladdin as I approached her, haltered her, and tried to administer the de-wormer. Savannah was letting me know that she did not want any part of the process when Baladdin walked up and put his head and neck over her neck. She then kept her head low and allowed me to give her the medicine without struggle. At this point I realized that Baladdin could be a key factor in advancing my relationship with Savannah. Since that time, Savannah and I, with Baladdin's help, have begun our own amazing journey under saddle. At this point in time, we are taking things very slowly and attempting to always create a positive mental image of the experience. The success that we now enjoy is that I can ride Savannah without any anxiety or fear on her part, both at home and in unfamiliar environments. She is a willing participant in the process, and is even affectionate when I dismount. Zorses have been ridden before, but to my knowledge a zorse has never been willing, calm, and "predictable" under saddle to date.

Every person is unique, and every equine is equally unique. This article is an attempt to reach a starting point of sharing the experiences and knowledge gained through the daily interaction with the equines in one person’s life. Future articles will be an attempt to explore more specifically the details and dynamics of those interactions. My next article will cover more specifics of the training and progress of Savannah, the zorse. "Problem" horses, zebra, and zebra hybrids are not for everyone, but maybe from reading this and future articles you will gain a deeper understanding of all the equines that you interact with.

Rick Harper

Meet Savannah the riding zorse at:

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