Sunday, April 20, 2008

Schooled in the Ways of the Barn

If you’ve ever been part of a large barn where everyone boards their horses, you know about this topic. Boarders’ barns are like school, where everyone has a reputation that follows them around like white on rice. I’m not talking about people’s reputations here, I’m talking about the reputation of horses. I’ve been a teacher so I know a little about this. When a kid in school gets a reputation with teachers, it follows the kid through all his or her school years. No matter what they tell you, teachers talk about kids, and all it takes is one teacher deciding that a kid is trouble, and no matter what, that kid will be trouble forever in school.

Albert the horse got branded as trouble pretty quickly. He started his career at the barn as a “schoolie,” a horse in the teacher’s herd that everyone takes riding lessons on. My husband Scott rode him on a few trail rides when he was a schoolie. It didn’t take long for Albert to diplay his insecurities. It started as a bad attitude and blossomed into bucking children off in lessons. But we saw something different in Albert. It’s a talented horse that can take the stress of different, inexperienced riders day after day. Albert wasn’t one of them. The more riders he had the more insecure he got until finally, he would just explode. So, when he went up for sale, we bought him, thinking that one rider would work for Albert.

Albert’s first trip to South Dakota for a week of riding and camping didn’t go so well either. Scott never had trouble riding him, but Albert’s insecurities didn’t go away, they just switched to a new source: other horses. First ride up the trail Albert kicked three or four other horses; one well-placed kick resulted in another horse with a bloody hoof mark on her chest. This wasn’t aggression, it was fear and insecurity. You could see it on Albert’s face. He was so confused and upset about his place in the herd he lashed out. But Scott got pretty good at changing Albert’s mind about kicking other horses. A leather bat that makes a big noise when you use it was applied to Albert’s neck every time he thought about kicking another horse. Albert is smart, it didn’t take him long to understand that thinking about kicking meant the bat. So he stopped thinking about it.

Scott and Albert in South Dakota. Notice the bat in Scott's right hand.

I am going to digress into a little horse training talk. I’m a teacher, remember, and anything about learning fascinates me. If Albert got the bat every time he kicked it would be too late. He’d already experienced the insecurity, it escalated into fear, he’s examined his options and KICK! The trick is to catch him as he’s experiencing the insecurity, before he’s started examining his options. Every tap of the bat changes his attention from all the other horses to his rider. The bat isn’t punishment, it realigns his thinking to pay attention to his rider instead of worrying about the other horses. As soon as Scott was able to catch Albert thinking about his insecurity, and change his mind, the kicking stopped. Now Scott rarely has to use the bat - he reconditioned Albert’s mind so Albert no longer worries about other horses.

This doesn’t work so well with people. Albert hasn’t kicked another horse for years. He’s never bucked when Scott is riding him. But according to all the people at the barn, Albert is trouble. Last year when we went to South Dakota, someone recommended that we tie a red ribbon on Albert’s tail to warn other riders that he kicks. When one of our friends wants to ride Albert, the teachers at the barn warn them away. We’ve had teachers tell our friends that if they want to learn to ride, they should ride a different horse. It’s like the kid at school who did a couple of dumb things in first grade and now a sixth grader, still hasn’t escaped his reputation. Applying the bat to folks at the barn to change their minds about Albert isn’t an option. So we ignore them. My sister is riding Albert now with great success. Albert is still insecure, but he’s learned to handle it. If only people were so easy.