Ranger and the River
by Ellen Daly:
I have had a horse
now for five years, and in this time, I have grown incredibly as a person.
My horse, Ranger, has taught me more about my self and the world around
me than many schools could have taught me. Not only have I, personally,
learned how to learn, I also learned a great deal about how both humans
and animals learn. Now when a problem erupts with my horse, I try to stand
back and think first before I react. When I was a less mature rider I
had the "show him who's boss" attitude, and if he wouldn't do
it, I would make him do it. Darn it!
I never stopped to think that maybe he did not understand what I was asking, or that he might not be physically capable of it yet. I know that horses can be very lazy and stubborn at times. I now understand that it is our job to motivate them with positive experiences and occasional trickery. I have made immense strides and progress with Ranger simply by taking my time. A little step in the right direction is far better than a lot of steps around it.
Most riders tend to blame the horse for their problems-rarely stopping to consider themselves as the source of their troubles. As we all know, communication is the key to any successful relationship, but if people have difficulty communicating with one another, how can we expect to be successful with another species? Consider what would happen if an alien spaceship landed in your front yard and a friendly looking creature approached you and began to gesture in an obvious attempt to communicate. You certainly would not yell and punish him for not knowing your language. Instead you would take great pains to find some common ground to start a dialogue. By reacting with an open mind, you would be responsible for world peace instead of a world war.
How many of us have had these world wars with our horses? But, come to think about it, a horse is not much different from that alien who is thrust into an all too-human world that bears little resemblance to his natural home. We are two different species from the same planet trying to communicate with one another in a variety of different manners. For the most part, horses talk to each other using body language and touch, while humans primarily use the spoken word. Bridging this gap between horse and human is our responsibility since we claim to be the superior race. Building this bridge takes incredible patience and observation for a race that likes immediate results.
I ran the gamut of this a last winter with my horse Ranger. Typically he is a very reliable sort when it comes to trail riding and the many obstacles we face. He does spook a bit but his spooks are typically the "jump back to get a better look at something" kind of jump. This makes sense because his eyes are set apart and a farther back of his head than most horses. He seems to need to lower his head to focus on something and often will jump back to get a better look at the many scary logs we pass. Having observed that physically Ranger doesn't see the best, I try to be patient with his spooks.
I had recently moved
Ranger to a new barn. In order to go down the trail, a river must be crossed
within the first fifteen minutes of the ride. There is no convenient way
to get around the first river crossing, and when the water is high or
freezes, riding becomes very limited. Riding down the hill to the river
and back is common for many of the riders in my neck of the woods. When
the river thaws, we are all anxious to cross and go down trail, but often
there is ice crusted on the edge of the bank making it look and sound
funny to a horse. Horses that have been lived there for years are used
to this and many will crunch through the ice without a second thought.
Of course Ranger had not spent many years dealing with icy rivers and
on one particular day, along the bank of the river, he and I had a test
It was a rare warmish day at the end of December, and the river had thawed after a period of being frozen. I was excited about the chance to go down trail after such a long time of being limited to riding up and down the hill. We reached the bank of the river, and I noticed a crust of ice along the edge of the shale island that ran along the river. It was nothing much, and I knew Ranger could crunch through and cross with ease, but he was unconvinced and stalled just short of the ice. He was breathing heavy, and when I urged him forward he took step and backed up-obviously very frightened. Ok, I thought, the water is a little high. Although I saw evidence that other horses had crossed, I decided to back off and save this ride for another day. I didn't want to force the issue, fearing that I might create a larger problem by fighting with him. I nonchalantly turned him around and headed back home-planning to work in the indoor arena.
As we worked in the arena all I could think about was the river, and I knew that I had to try to cross again. I didn't want this problem hanging over my head for the next couple of days so, against my better judgment, we headed back down to the river. I thought of bringing a whip but decided not to, mostly because of laziness. I didn't want to dismount and get one. I was determined to get this settled before if escalated into a major problem in my head. I marched him right down to the bank and saw evidence that other brave horses had crossed and broken some more of the ice. Ok Ranger, I thought, just cross now, and we will turn around and go home. Again he had other ideas. When we were close to the river, he stopped in terror and spun around in an attempt to run toward home. I promptly stopped his mad dash and turned him toward the water again. . He snorted and started backing away. I regretted not bringing a whip but as my temper flared it was probably best that I didn't. I was angry that he wouldn't cross because it was just a little bit of crunchy ice at the edge of a running river. I knew he was capable of doing it but he absolutely refused. We stood for a couple minutes and regrouped. I tried again with no success. He just couldn't get over the fact that it looked strange to him, and nothing I could do would convince him otherwise. I decided to walk him back and forth along the bank of the island as close as he would go to the edge. So we did this for a while without a hoof touching the water.
He was upset, and I knew from past experience that once he gets upset it is very hard to reason with him. This has always frustrated me but I have learned to work with it, except for that day when all common sense deserted me. It became a fight with both of us getting more and more upset as we marched back and forth. Every time he came near the water he would jump and try to run away. I felt the anger rising inside of me. All I saw was my goal-get this horse across the river. I didn't see that he was afraid. Finally, with both of us steaming from exertion and running out of time because I had to go to work, I gave up. We went back to the barn.
My normal partnership with Ranger had become adversarial, and it felt bad to both of us. I made sure that he was cooled off and went home thinking that I had ruined my horse, and we would never cross a river again. The more I thought about it, the more I saw the error of my action. I had been unfair to my horse; I hadn't listened to him when he said he was scared. I went back to my old mode thinking that he did this because he is being a jerk and was trying to make my life miserable. I realized later that he was communicating in the only way he knew how, and I was in too much of a hurry to listen. I had recently finished a book by a former head of the Lippizanner School and had seriously begun to subscribe to his feelings on training horses. He had worked which a huge variety of animals in his career and his motto was "I have time". Upon reviewing any failed training effort with horses, I knew in my heart that most problems are caused by rushing to get quick results. I had learned to take my time to bridge the gap between species. I had succeeded wonderfully previously, but on that particular day I failed miserably.
I set out to the barn a couple of days after the incident. I was ready and calm. I took my time grooming and saddling Ranger. He was happy so see me and eager to move. We worked in the indoor arena for a while stressing transitions-especially stopping and walking forward. I wanted no doubt in his head that when I said go that I meant it. I carried a whip that day but didn't need it because he was so responsive and focused. Our arena time came to an end, and we started out of the barn toward the river. I had realized that by using the hill trip for cool down I contributed to the problem. I had been letting him stop on his own to watch things and wasn't really asserting my presence. This needed to change, and as part of my plan, we worked the hill instead of sightseeing. I had to make it a less pleasant place for him and proceeded by urging him into a marching walk instead of an amble. We would walk and stop on my command and never on his own accord. We went up and down the hill twice, working and paying attention the whole way.
Finally we stopped at the riverbank. He was glad to rest. The ice had melted and everything was normal. He walked up to the water, stopped and refused to go near it. When I forced the issue he started to backup in fear, I stopped him and we stood for a few minutes until he calmed down. I asked him to go forward again, and he did. I stopped him just short of the point where he had panicked before. I had armed myself with baby carrots in my pockets knowing that food can greatly motivate horses. Every time he took a step forward he got a carrot. He began to think that the river was not such a bad place after all. When he was hovering a few inches from the water I stopped him again and stood there for fifteen minutes. I timed it. We watched the water and other activities. Some other horses crossed the water, which upset him, but he wouldn't follow so he missed out. After the allotted time we trekked up the hill past home with me still demanding his attention the entire way. Then we turned and headed back to the river. I marched to the water, and he still refused to cross. I began to feel at this point that it was more a case of being barn sour than fear because there was nothing for him to be afraid of anymore. But I let him go through his antics. We stopped and stood at the edge once again and watched the world go by. After another timed fifteen minutes, we went home. That was enough. I wanted him to think about this odd exercise we had done that day.
Another rider came down the hill behind us, and I thought this is it-he will cross now. He will just follow the other horse. It was perfect timing. We exchanged greetings. Ranger was excited to see someone else. She started to cross, and I asked him to go. He stepped forward then stopped and started to back away, again refusing. My heart sank as I waved the other rider on, and we stood again on the bank. I checked my watch and decided to stand another fifteen minutes. This way we could both relax and get bored again. I have time, I thought, as I scratched his neck when he put his head down again. The allotted time passed, and I gathered my resources to ask a final time before going home. At this point, I knew that it was more a matter of being barn sour, but I wanted to be careful because I understood how barn sour behavior could escalate. I was prepared for another refusal. I marched him toward the water. He must have sensed that this time was different so instead of just backing away he tried to turn toward home and bolt. My instinct kicked in, and I spun him in a tight circle and booted him toward the water and with a tap of the whip, he was in the river. He proceeded calmly across to the other side with such praise as he had never had in his life. Once across, he received a handful of baby carrots, then I turned him around and we crossed back to the other side. As soon as we hit land I dismounted, ran up the stirrups and loosened his girth. I petted him all over and gave him more carrots. We walked home side by side, both feeling awfully pleased and happy with ourselves. We went from the depths of confrontation to the height of understanding. We were a team again.
That weekend the benevolent wind continued to blow and we had a wonderful time riding. He crossed river without hesitation, and a couple of weeks later when we were confronted with a similar icy build up along the riverbank. Ranger put his head down to look at the ice. Then with a word from me, he crossed with only a little trepidation. I knew then that I had achieved my goal. The gap had been crossed. We each had a point to make, and we each reacted in a natural way. Then when stood back and listened to one another a common ground was found and understanding was achieved. After all we both have the time to take with each other and it is time well spent for the heart and soul.