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Disrupting the Rhythm

Watching my herd moving around their “territory”, an area that in winter is as small as 50 acres and in summer can be as large as 300 acres, I’ve witnessed how predictable their migration routes can be. They travel around the allotted area two to three times per day, stopping by the various water sources and shade trees at regular intervals and resting with the rhythms of nature. It’s not always at exactly the same time each day but you can bet the farm that if you wait in the upper meadow long enough, they’ll make an appearance and that if you watch the lower bench for a while, eventually they’ll show up.

These rhythms and patterns are important to the herd and they’re driven by needs and experience. You can tap into these natural rhythms if you’re paying attention. And if you’re mindful, you can use their natural predisposition toward predictable patterns to add in your own preferred habitual behaviors. For example, in the early hours of the day, around dawn, the herd likes to make the rounds past our winter feeding area, close to our catch pen. If I tap into this rhythm regularly and add some predictable cues and reliable rewards (such as calling the herd and providing oats for coming when I’ve called), I can add coming into our catch pen on call to their regular rhythm.

This routine makes catching the horses who are in training, or catching my own horses for our working day, much easier, much less stressful and much more comfortable; for both the herd and for us humans. The whole herd is on board and happy to oblige and if I don’t call them in, it doesn’t disrupt their day. They just make their regular round past the back gate of the catch pen and carry on, however, if I need the horses in, even if it’s not during their regular “pass by” time, having developed this predictable pattern and establishing the regular, reliable reward, I can call them and they’ll come from anywhere (so long as they can hear me) at any time.

Make no mistake. They come because they’ve been patterned to do so. Sure, most of them like me well enough but they don’t come because they love me, they come because I’ve tapped into their natural rhythms and created a predictable pattern that has become an automated response. (That being said, they likely wouldn’t come in if they disliked me…) As long as I’m fully aware of this and understand what’s happening, as long as I’m under no illusion that this is anything other than a trained habit, then we can all stay safe and happy. It’s when I let myself believe that something is happening that isn’t that I could get myself or my horses into trouble.

For example, I could tell myself that (because I can get them to come when I call) the horses are so obedient that I could get them to do anything! But if I decide to stand in the middle of the run (a narrow fenced area that works as a chute to funnel the horses safely into the catch pen without them getting too bunched up at the gate) and try doing my best Cavalia impersonation, asking them to do something other than what I’ve trained them to do (like stop or turn around and go back out) I’ll find out pretty quickly that they’re not in fact listening to my command of “COOOOOOOOME BOYS!!!” but rather, they’re performing a predictable pattern and a trained habituated response. I would in fact, create quite a disaster! There would be a pile up, horses would kick each other, I’d get run over and it’s quite possible that if I was still standing, I’d be fixing fences for the rest of the day.

What is the point of all this? Well, put simply, the learning that this lesson from the herd has reinforced for me is a bit of learning that I’ve been aware of for quite a while. It’s this phenomenon in which when a horse is “patterned”, all can be running quite smoothly and the relationship can appear to be quite solid, until you attempt to disrupt the pattern and you’re forced to confront the reality that the relationship you thought you had is actually no-where near what you thought it was.

As another example of this phenomenon, have you ever tried to ride a trail horse in the arena or relocated one to an urban area? The horse who safely and so steadily packed you up mountains, through rivers and over all kinds of terrain may start head tossing, walking sideways or refusing to move forward at all in the arena. And in most situations, the rider is quite surprised to discover this lack of cooperation coming from the horse they thought was so well trained. That same reliable, confident, solid horse who marched past bears, never batted an eye at the fleeing white tail deer and could stand tied to a tree for 3 hours while you had lunch and took a dip in the mountain creek might shy at recycling bins or garbage cans on the side of a road, balk at baby strollers or bicycles or even jump the painted lines on the road when they’re taken out of the back country and introduced to an urban area that’s unfamiliar to them.

Is this a bad thing? No. Not necessarily. If what you need that horse for is climbing mountain trails, crossing rivers and packing gear, I’d say you’ve got the right horse for the job! But if you decide you’d like to move to town, join a drill team or try your hand at competitive western performance you may find that your solid back country mount is seriously un-prepared.

Does this mean that your dreams of carrying the flag during the national anthem at your local rodeo will never become a reality? No. Not at all. But it does mean that if that’s your goal, you’ve got some work to do to develop some applicable language skills that you can use to communicate with, support and help guide your solid trail horse as he learns some new skills.

Conversely, if you own a city dwelling performance horse and you’d like to hit the trails or go help round up the cattle for an annual branding, your ribbon winning, championship holding, never been defeated reiner, may not be the best mount to choose. I will go into greater detail about this topic next month!


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