Cat Amongst the Pigeons

The First Family’s young “rescue” dog bites a secret service agent and the dogs are sent home to Maryland. Now the internet is ablaze with voices, most of them barking, why don’t they just hire a trainer?

As if a dog is a simple machine, a robot, and the right set of coding will magically erase all fear and anxiety, all unacceptable behaviour. If this were even remotely true, most of us would opt for robots instead of pets. The world would be awash with trainers who could wield their coding expertise to produce absolutely predictable behaviour in the new domestic cyberpet. 

My point is this: a young German shepherd dog is not an automaton. And, if, like the Biden’s young dog, he was plucked from a shelter and has a history of trauma or neglect or even simple dislocation at a young age, he is going to react to pressure from his environment. Most likely, he will react in unpredictable and possibly undesirable ways. He has little capacity for self-regulation; he is simply trying to survive the best he can in an uncertain world. 

I can’t even imagine my own behaviour, were I to suddenly find myself living in the intense pressure cooker of The White House. Surely I would be swearing like a sailor and acting out in the hot-headed way I do when I feel overwhelmed and out of my depth. The best thing the Biden’s could have done for their young dog, is to remove him to the family home, a known and predictable environment where he will feel safe. What happens next for Major will likely involve a trainer. I hope it’s a compassionate one, a trainer who understands the nuances of interspecies communication and uses positive reinforcement as a primary tool.

I have an uncomfortable relationship with the term “trainer.” Sure, there are many professional trainers in the world. Some would say that anyone who keeps animals is, at some level, a trainer. In order to live side by side with humans, animals must become accustomed to human contact, learn to to behave in certain ways, respond to specific commands. A well-trained pet is generally happy and settled in the human environment in which it is kept. We train in order to mould an animal’s behaviour to suit our requirements. 

I live with dogs, and I train them, if lightly. My dogs are a working breed, highly energetic and always on the lookout for a job. If I don’t provide them with enough stimulation, they will go make their own fun which isn’t always to my liking. They will chase bicycles and motorbikes along the front boundary, barking. Or lay in wait for the birds that roost inside our big equipment shed. As birds fly in and out at dawn and dusk the dogs will chase them, and bark and bark and bark. It’s distracting, but if I really minded the sound of dogs barking, I wouldn’t have them. What I do have is elderly neighbours who are perpetually miffed that I bought the block of land next door, and very offended at the joyful noise we generate as we go about our daily activities. So, I take the dogs for long walks down the river to burn off steam and I train them to “heel” and stay with me as I work around the farm. I don’t have sheep they can herd, so I encourage them to seek out and give chase to bunnies instead. They’re not hunters; there’s little chance they could catch a rabbit, but the activity is useful on two counts. The dogs have a job that they love (one that requires lots of bounding around and sniffing things out — the stuff that dogs are good at). And, by doing their job, they discourage the rabbits from burrowing in the paddocks and creating safety hazards for the horses. 

I can think of myself as a trainer when it comes to the dogs. I have difficulty assuming the mantle when it comes to the horses that live on my farm. Dogs and horses are profoundly different. Obviously so, in size. But more importantly, dogs, like humans, are predators while horses are prey animals, hard wired to flee at the first sign of danger. They are not domesticated in the same sense as dogs and as herd animals they thrive in the company of their own kind. I won’t be having a horse sleep at the foot of the bed any time soon, more’s the pity for this inveterate horse mad girl.

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Horses communicate with each other through posture and subtle movements of their bodies. A mare might pin back her ears and poke her nose at a pesky youngster; that’s an obvious language sign to back off. Woe be to the youngster who doesn’t take heed. The next sign might be a bite on the rump. But horses regularly give and receive far more subtle signals. A yawn, a flick of the ear, a slight turn of the head and neck away from another horse — all signals among the herd that help to keep the peace or establish the space a horse requires within it. 

Horses don’t only communicate to other horses with their language signs. They also have a complex set of signals which help them self-soothe, easing tension and anxiety. Rubbing the muzzle on a front leg is a way of discharging the mental and physical tension that builds for a horse during a training session. Dropping and rolling or shaking the head, neck and back act as a reset for the autonomic nervous system. When we say to someone who is upset or anxious, “shake it off” we may mean it metaphorically. The horse does this literally, a good shake releases tension and helps return the horse to his para-sympathetic system, the “rest and digest”end of the autonomic nervous spectrum. 

Being subject to predation, horses are guided by primal instincts, the most common that of survival. When faced with the possibility of a threat, horses react quickly. Knowing how to be safe around horses is fundamental to keeping them. Reading their language signs and calming signals is as important as being aware of the environment and any potential triggering dangers. And yet, astoundingly, the vast majority of people who keep horses have little understanding of their language signs. We know this primarily because people, even trained professionals, don’t always see the subtle signs that indicate that a horse is in pain.

Imagine this: you are a prey animal. You live in a herd. You are at once a sentry on the lookout for danger and also a passive supporter, helping to keep the peace. If you stumble and strain a tendon, or get a rock imbedded in your hoof, your tendency is to carry on, masking the pain so as not to disclose your vulnerability. A lame horse attracts predators. Obvious lameness threatens the herd. It follows that if horses mask pain at all cost, it is even harder for their human caretakers to recognise the signs when they are compromised. When a horse pulls up lame, that’s a ten out of ten on the pain scale. They have a near-infinite capacity for self-regulation. They are simply trying to survive the best they can in an uncertain world.

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I would say that horses train me more than I train them. Once I began studying the language signs and calming signals of horses, I began to notice how much my own horses were trying to communicate with me using the same signs they use with each other. And the more I observe, the more aware I am of how loud and brassy my own attempts to communicate can be. 

I’ve accepted the challenge to quiet down. I practice mindfulness as I go about my chores and interactions with the horses. I observe them carefully, without fixing them with “coyote eyes.” I attempt to give them the time and space they need to process, to offer an answer, to relax. I try to enter into a conversation in a language they can understand. I can’t flick my ear, swish my tail or use my teeth to massage their wither soothingly, but I can regulate my emotions and ground myself with breathing when I am with them. I can take on board the things I am asking or demanding of them just by being in their space, and step back when they so quietly and politely ask.

I’ve come to understand that living with humans is inherently stressful for horses. No matter how deep their knowledge of us, their trust in the environment we provide for them, we will always be the cat amongst the pigeons. And because I love my horses, I desire change. My goal is to cause my horses as little stress as possible: to enable them to feel good in their bodies, provide them space to move and the company of others, feed them appropriately (not too much and not too little, with variety and regularity, not chopping and changing on a whim). For my riding horse, I endeavour to provide exercise that helps him relax and become more supple — as, just like us, horses become stiff with age and lack of exercise — but I never drill him. I like to regularly try new things (novelty is key for curiosity, which is what makes the brain ready for learning), but I’m careful not to over-face either him or me. Fear and anxiety are closely linked and kill the “try” every time. I listen to his language signs and vow to be happy to just do nothing on those days when — for whatever reason — he really doesn’t want to participate. 

I go to the paddock with the halter slung over my shoulder. I ground my feet on the earth and breathe deep into my belly. I check out where the horses are, and make my way to them walking purposefully but in a relaxed fashion, tracing arcs rather than bee-lining straight at them. If you watch horses in herds, they often move in arcs in and amongst each other and as a group. This indirect approach has a variety of benefits. Horses see best when you approach them side on, as the monocular aspect of their vision (one eye on either side of the head) creates a blind spot directly in front of them. The arc will deposit me a few feet off his right shoulder and signal my intent to have a conversation. Depending on the calming signals he offers, I may step closer to his shoulder, or I may step back by his flank and rest a hand on his croup, the point of his back near the base of his spine. When there, I am out of his space yet with him. I’e learned through trial and error that it is easier for him if I am further from his head when we start to converse. Outside of his bubble. Standing quietly, I exhale. I might see him exhale, too, or rest a back leg by cocking his hoof forward and dropping a hip. I’ll mirror this movement dropping my hip and softening my knees. He exhales again and I realise we are breathing in time with one another. There is a little electric joy that comes in the recognition that we are resting together peacefully. Sometimes this is when another horse will approach, and these days, Chico will usually stiffen a little, drop his ears back slightly and swing his muzzle at the intruder, telling them quietly but firmly to please go away. Usually they amble off. We take a few more restful breaths together and then I step to his shoulder, exhale again and do the magical thing called “asking for his eye.” This request has everything to do with intent. I must not drill into him with my predator eyes, or allow impatience to quicken my heart rate or my movements. I simply think something that loosely translates as “do you want to come do stuff with me?”as I glance softly at his eye. My little horse is coming to understand that there are a variety of ways he can answer that question. If he accepts, I’ll know because it will look like absolutely nothing more than a slight turn or inclination towards me: I will see his eye more clearly, he’ll look at me. I’ll place the lead rope which is connected to the halter over his wither at the base of his neck, and quietly open the circular nose piece and hold it, just so, and Chico will lower his head slightly as I slip the halter on.*

 I may not always get what I want in the short term. Doing things with my horse in this way takes time and he doesn’t always want to participate, but in the long term I get a partner who has a voice and I get the peace of mind of knowing I am not coercing him. He lives behind my fences and relies on me for sustenance. In all other ways, I am endeavouring to give him agency. 

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Nonetheless, horses have to survive in a human world. They need to stand behind fences without getting tangled in them, be transported without becoming claustrophobic. They need to accept medical attention when its required, and be able to walk safely and quietly beside a human who is leading the way. For this, some training is absolutely required. It can (and should) be kind and take into account how the horse learns, of which we know so much through advances in behavioural and neuroscience. 

And although we have had huge breakthroughs in understanding, we also have a tradition of kind and horse-centred training that spans more than 2000 years. Xenophon wrote of training the horse with kindness, and underscored the importance of understanding its nature and needs, in The Art of Horsemanship written around 355bc: 

“If you want to have a horse learn to perform their duty,” he wrote, “your best plan will be to show the horse kindness whenever the horse does as you wish … a horse will more readily take the bit, if something good happens each time that the horse accepts it. Also, the horse will leap ditches and spring up embankments and perform all other feats required, if every time the horse performs the command, the horse is rewarded with kindness.”

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Latter day Australian horseman, Tom Roberts, wrote in his 1998 book on The Young Horse: “If you are fond of a horse and wish to do him a real favour, train him well. Teach him good manners, good habits, both in the stable and under saddle. You need never worry about the future of such a horse if for any reason you have to part with him. You assure him of friends wherever he goes. Perhaps the greatest kindness you can do any horse is to educate him well.” 

I would posit that this goes for humans, too. If you want a horse to be a companion in all endeavours, listen. Quiet your own voice, and hone your observational skills. Learn his language, a language of gesture. His brain is not like yours, he not only relies on super-sensitive senses, but he processes sensory information differently that humans do. Often, he just needs a little time when asked for something. Give it to him and then take a leap. Check your expectations at the door. 

Get curious about the possibility of conversation.

With Chico and Whistar on a summer evening. Photo: Joe Letteri

Nota bene: I am indebted to Anna Blake of The Relaxed and Forward Barn for introducing me to the language of horses (calming signals) and to techniques such as mindful haltering described here. The changes in both me and my horse are profound.