Confessions of a Cro-Magnon Man
by Ken Akopiantz of Lopez, WA
“It seems to me that if we want to emulate horse behavior during training, we must decide what kind of horse we are being like. Should we try to be like the boss horse that the others seem to respond to out of fear or distrust (Cro-Magnon man)? Or do we want to be like the horse that can find a solution to even the most difficult problems- the leader that other horses want to be around and look up to. The choice is up to us.” – Mark Rashid
“This is all about smart horses with courage, and the humility and sensitivity of humans to keep their horses that way.” – L.R.M.
First off these days I usually refer to myself as “that Bozo with the lines.” I like to tell people that up till now everything that I have done with horses was wrong. It is time to do it differently. I hope that my horses can forgive my explosions and dubious communications. I have had horses for 8 years now. There was a time a few years back where I actually thought that I knew what I was doing. I have plowed, cultivated, planted and dug spuds, mowed and raked hay, driven 4 abreast and 4 up, logged, taken horses that did not work for others and had success etc. Most horses that I work had done none of this. I was a teamster ready to take on the world. Well all-good illusions usually come crashing on down or in this case running away as this one has. Upon talking to a friend about it in a distressed state he replied with this story. Many years ago while he was learning his trade, he too thought he had it figured out, when all went seemingly well at the beginning. Well one-day things began to go awry and he could just not figure it out. He turned to his mentor at the time who replied, “Great, now you can begin to learn.”
When I first began all “seemed” to be going fine. Sure there where a few minor problems, but they really did not matter, the work got done. I was the boss and my horses listened to me. If I only could have seen their pained and confused looks back then, but I had no context to. Some of these minor problems began to grow, but I was still oblivious to my part in it. Obviously there was something wrong with the horses and I being the great horseman was going to train them. What a joke. Needless to say the more I work them, the more problems we encountered. We would spend hours working, but the problems persisted. I figured at this point I would just work it out of them. This too did not work. I work them hard enough to see one of my gelding’s drop to the ground exhausted. I thought that I might have killed him. Luckily he eventually got up. I realized that it is not in how much one worked their horses, but in how one worked their horses. On to the next plan. I began searching.
The first clue came from a local teamster. I had been telling him some of my problems with the horses. He had walked into my barn and after a mere 30 second glance at my horses he announced that there was nothing wrong in here. I could not believe it. How could he say that? He had not even seen them working. He had to be wrong. I dwelled on this comment for awhile. It would not leave me. I began watching my hot, excitable mare. She was so relaxed when comfortable. I began to realize that he was right. If I could just keep my horses comfortable throughout the day they would/will do whatever I ask of them. Herein lies the next step to the puzzle. Why not make sure that the horses are comfortable through the entire training/working process. I write training/working process since in my mind they are one and the same. Instead of getting mad at your horses for showing signs of fear whatever they might be, take the time to relax and find quiet ways in which to show your horses all is o.k. Harsh words heard enough times along with abusive hands at these times only adds to the anxiety of the situation. You are going downhill fast picking up speed and it is just a matter of time before the things will be out of control. I remind myself of something I read. Never get mad at your horse for doing something wrong; just show him the right way of doing it.
Lynn Miller’s tale of how he now trains horses to pull a mower is a great example of this. He took the time to make sure that his horses were comfortable and will remain comfortable. No need for a rodeo. Now lets look at this on the Cro-Magnon man way. It is time to go mow. Well by golly my team is broke so here we go. I hook them up to the mower and off to the field we got. If I am using a shanked bit I might bit it down some for that extra security. I drop the cutterbar, get back on the seat a bit nervous and tell the team to go. I already have a good grip on the lines just in case. My horses are aware of all this, but I really cannot tell this. I tell the team to go and they step out. Probably before the traces even tighten, they are aware of a little bit extra pressure on the lines. I am just making sure that I am in control. Then as they move out and get just a little bit anxious about the clatter of the mower I pull just a little tighter on the lines. If anything happens, I am ready to pull on the lines. The horses get a little bit excited and I pull back on the lines causing them to raise up their heads to avoid the sudden pressure. Eventually they settle down and we finish a fine day of mowing. I did it, the great horse trainer succeeds. It was not even that hard. Let’s now look at this from the horse’s perspective and see what they really learn.
First off, they immediately notice the extra line pressure even before they are hooked up. They wonder what might be going on, but figure that it must be nothing. After they are hooked up and ready to go, they are once again aware that the lines are pulled tight. As they are surprised by the clatter of the mower and move out some, the lines are suddenly pulled tight causing them more discomfort. They move on pressing into the pressure of the bit that I will not release till I am sure that they are comfortable with the clatter of the mower. This scenario repeated enough leads to a few problems. First off a little extra pressure on the lines means that something scary is coming up. May as well get a little nervous about it now. Also when they do become startled by something, they are also worried about the bozo behind them pulling on the lines. This they might avoid by throwing up their heads and, jumping forward into the expected line pressure, prancing, bunching up or any combination of the above or another thing a nervous worried horse might think of doing. It is just a matter of time that the fuse gets lit.
The next clue came from the Doc (Hammill). He wrote something like; “A horse only acts up when it is either uncomfortable or expecting to be uncomfortable.” I had to think about this one a lot and still do. If the horses were acting up because they expected to be uncomfortable, would demanding compliance with either line pressure or harshly spoken words help? What had I done in the past to make the horses expect to be uncomfortable? What could I do to make them relax? First off I needed to relax and be less intense and demanding. I am talking about the kind of intensity learned growing up as an athlete. Coaches demand and push; their word is law. Go, go, go, faster, faster. Second I had to give my horses the benefit of the doubt. It was I who had created the issue. “If it was someone else’s problem, then there is no solution.” And last I had to figure out how to keep my horses comfortable. How could I convince them that I was no longer Cro-Magnon man?
The next key to the puzzle came from a conversation I had with another teamster. Upon explaining him some of “my problems,” his reply was, “So you only have problems when you ask something of your horses.” I did not have to think about this one for long to know he was right. I could plow, disk, mow etc. all day and all was fine, but whenever I ask for something slightly out of the routine, the horses simply had another idea. A good example of this was my attempts to plow the headlands of my fields. The horses being accustomed to walking easily through the headlands would rebel when I tried to plow them. As soon as they felt the pressure of the plow they would want to turn into the field, speed up, throw their heads around, etc. As I tried more pressure on the lines, they would stop. Now trying to start them they would lunge since they were already worked up. Needless to say I got the job done, but the horses never settled down into the job. Thinking about it all I learned that basically my horses were doing as they please all day long. The question was, how to change that. I began by changing the routine some while working, which help some, but unfortunately I was still a Cro-Magnon man. As I took ultimate control of the horses, I ran into plenty of resistance. No problem, I will hold on till the horses see it my way. The line pressure increased and I was getting what I wanted, but the horses were tense and uncomfortable. Things simply were not right, but where was the answer.
The next piece of the puzzle came in Doc’s description of Cro-Magnon man. I was him. I had been playing around with the lines some, but more often than not I would get too demanding and rely on too much pressure. The horse would respond, but would also tense up and resist. The horses would become stuck pushing into the pressure which they so dearly wanted to be released and I was stuck holding on since now as the pressure was released the horses would move out faster than needed. There was no longer a comfortable option for the horses or teamster. Though at times it seems like the appropriate response I remind myself that my past attitude as a teamster does not work. More than once I have had to remind myself not to be Cro- Magnon man. I try to see how my past reactions as Cro-Magnon man have encouraged and trained the horses. Here is a good example. Let’s say I am out disking a field. One section of the field a bit wet still. As the horses learn that this section is harder to pull through they want to pick up some speed. Cro- Magnon may say no way and pulls tight on the lines as they move through the wet spot. Now the next time around the horses are not only expecting the hard pull, but they are also expecting the pull on the lines. They might even anticipate this a little bit sooner this time. No problem for Cro-Magnon man he is ready. This goes on for awhile and the horses just keep pushing harder through the wet area. My arms are getting tired. In frustration as we go through the wet area I pull hard on the lines and the horses stop. Now as I tell them to go they are expecting intense line pressure and a hard pull. I am expecting them to lunge forward so I am holding firm to the lines. We somehow how manage to get going, but it is not pretty and the issue of the wet area gets bigger. My horses are worked up and anxious. No amount of work with this attitude on my part is going to help. Things are just going to get worse. My horses are getting trained to not only push hard into pressure, whether it be on the collars or lines, but to expect it. It is going to be a long day. Now on the other hand when I subtly work the lines before, through and after the wet area, my horses become more relaxed and begin to learn to walk through the pressure and relax. As we go around they begin to relax even more I notice that I am holding the lines four inches back from where I am accustomed to and the horses are holding their pace for the most part. Now all this did not happen in one day and it is not that simple. But the gist is that as I learn to relax and become less demanding on my horses, I can ask even more of them. I am not so much worried now with what my horses are doing, but why. When one gets anxious instead of forcing them on and demanding them to pay attention, I pay attention to them and try to figure out what the cause of their anxiety is. Am I holding the lines too tight? Are they just simply tired and need a rest? Is there a sore somewhere that I have not seen? The list goes on. I use an image right now that is my goal to see at all times. I watch my horses regularly. What do they look like when they are relaxed, whether out on pasture our standing in there stalls. This is what I want to see throughout the day whether we are slowly plowing or cultivating, moving out on the mower or standing at the beginning of the next row. It is interesting now. I find myself using the lines much more now. I manipulate them constantly throughout the day. Sometimes though I get carried away with this though and create some anxiety. “Why wont that Bozo leave us alone for just a moment?” A good example of this is while headed for the barn. When the horses are still pulling the disc they tend to be anxious and want to move out. Well the other day one of the local teamsters happened by just as I was getting ready to bring the disc in from the field. He hopped on for the ride. As we talk on the way in I mentioned to him that the horses went in much more relaxed when I was talking to someone. His reply was, “That is because you are not nit picking on them.” I still am just at the beginning of this road of becoming a teamster, but I, we, the horses and me, have moments when all is as it should be. I savor these moments, as they are my hope. Someday may the day be full of them.