One winter in Kalamazoo, to satisfy girlhood dreams and to reward myself for working hard in a job that didn’t feel like “me” at all but paid the bills, I took a Saturday morning class in dressage. My favorite part of the morning came after class when we returned our horses to their stalls, put away saddles, changed bridles for soft halters and—the very best part—curry-combed and brushed the horses’ coats. Being around horses, I told David, was more than self-indulgence. It was self-improvement, a way for me to cultivate in myself virtues critical for working with horses and traits I needed for other reasons, as well. I identified these virtues as my three C’s. Of necessity, with horses, I would be training myself to be calm, consistent and confident.
Now I’m having an absolutely wonderful time reading The Body Language of Horses, by Tom Ainslee (veteran racehorse handicapper) and Bonnie Ledbetter (equestrian and trainer), though I’m sometimes jumping out of my chair with excitement rather than receiving the text calmly.
Barns, stalls, feeding and exercise schedules, saddles, bridles, bits, carts, whips, spurs, jumping contests, running or trotting or pacing races and all the other methodology, paraphernalia and activity of domestication are entirely for human convenience and seldom coincide with equine nature. The horse adapts because it has the ability to do so and, in any event, lacks options.
- Tom Ainslee & Bonnie Ledbetter, The Body Language of Horses
For best results, whether for pleasure riding, racing or other work, a horse must be approached with its nature in mind. One anecdote about a filly confined with leg cuts and then taken directly to the track for training without any chance to run and roll and play outdoors beforehand brings out this observation from the authors:
The filly would have gone willingly to the track for a strengthening gallop if her handlers had understood the psychological effects of a week’s confinement. They should not have rushed her back to arduous work before giving her a chance to release her from the stall. But they treated her conventionally. That is,they overlooked the difference between a horse and an automobile. A repaired car goes where it is driven. But the horse has a brain that generates feelings and preferences.
My basic CCC outlook remains unchanged, but this book is a treasure trove of very specific facts, strategies and examples. I can't remember ever reading anything so completely hands-on as this on working with horses. The horse-human psychology in the book has been all the more interesting to me (how could it possibly be more interesting?) in that I came to The Body Language of Horses almost straight (well, not counting that long work of fiction that continues to engross me on a nightly basis) from a book on dogs, The Dogs of Bedlam Farm, by Jon Katz.
It took me a long time—years of living with dogs—to understand how many of the problems that often mark human relationships with these remarkable animals have more to do with the people than the dogs. Only recently have I really grasped that when I complain about something my dog is doing, I’m often speaking about my own behavior.
Training a dog is something of a spiritual experience when done properly, a meshing of the instincts and traits of two very different species trying to live together harmoniously. But the spiritual stuff tends to get subsumed in all the yelling, tugging, even electro-shocking that passes for dog training in much of America.
- Jon Katz, The Dogs of Bedlam Farm
Now here’s a confession. I heard Jon Katz on the radio when Katz on Dogs came out and couldn’t resist the title, but sometime after that I ran across a very negative review of one of his dog memoir books, perhaps the most negative book review I’ve ever read. For the same reason I never read Marley and Me, therefore, I kept a distance from Katz’s books. When a dog exhibits consistent bad behavior, to me it isn’t a comedy but a tragedy. Dogs deserve better. They deserve, as Cesar Millan puts it, “boundaries, rules, limitations,” along with plenty of exercise and socializing.
As is obvious from the passage I’ve quoted above, Jon Katz has realized that he and not his dogs had problems and that he had to address his own problems rather than project them onto the dogs, so this book, The Dogs of Bedlam Farm, is a spiritual journey. No dog dies in the book, and every dog is done right by. Ungrammatical? It’s what I mean and want to say it just that way.
Patricia McConnell, Bonnie Ledbetter, John Katz, Cesar Millan, Monty Roberts, Tom Ainslee and others all tell different stories, and they differ from point to point in how they see the human relationship with four-footed animals. There is, however, a fundamental agreement: all preach the importance of knowing the nature of the animal (horse or dog), and all proceed to establish that relationship nonviolently. Any of us willing to acknowledge the nature or a horse or a dog and to build a positive relationship must also look into her or his own heart, question our own motivation and judgments and try, each of us, as Jon Katz’s herding instructor told him to be a “damned better human being.”
Sarah is a pretty easy-going dog, but she's high-spirited and independent, too, and she can be a challenge. Spiritual retreat, spiritual practice? Horse training, dog training!
Am I calm, consistent and confident? Sometimes. Not always. I still have a lot of room for improvement. But my girl is a big help, and we're working together. Would she like a horse on the place? Hmmmm.