Fight, Flight, & the Bigger Picture
Horses have much to teach us about the middle ground
between submission and aggression. They are not cowardly
weaklings designed merely to panic and run. — Linda Kohanov
It doesn’t take much reading about training horses these days to encounter the fact that horses are prey animals and prefer to flee when they feel threatened. When unable to flee, horses respond by fighting. While I understand the concepts of fight or flight, the discussions have never felt comprehensive enough when it comes to working with horses.
Carrot, Stick, Horsemanship
Recently, I was thrilled to read an article that touched on the bigger picture. Yes, evolution favors those animals that successfully flee or fight when their survival is threatened. But fighting and fleeing take tremendous amounts of energy. Survival depends on replenishing that energy and using it for equally important activities such as raising the next generation. At some point, then, fighting and fleeing must give way to fostering life, including eating, resting and producing offspring. While fight-or-flight may be necessary for survival, so too is nourishing life. Studies have shown that horses spend 16 to 20 hours per day grazing when in natural settings. Therefore, a significant portion of each day is dedicated to activities that nourish life rather than fighting or fleeing. Natural selection must certainly then favor those animals that skillfully minimize preservation of life via fight or flight and maximize fostering life via eating, resting and producing offspring.
When my friend Joe fetched Mankiller, he wasn’t approaching the stallion in a way that would provoke a fighting response (necessitating a stick) or fleeing response (necessitating carrot/grain). He was approaching the stallion in a manner consistent with the bigger equine picture. Since fostering life via eating, resting and reproducing normally dominates an equine day, then horsemanship based on this bigger picture is certainly as viable an approach as horsemanship based on the fight or flight responses.
Horsemanship, in my experience, is about a continuous cascade of choices about how I interact with my equines. Am I choosing an interaction based on, or in response to, fight-or-flight or am I choosing an interaction based on the bigger picture? Am I using a Carrot, a Stick, or a more masterful approach? While I would prefer to be a master, the reality is that I use all three.
...earning a willing compliance, rather than extricating submission,
results in a far superior work mate. And the only thing required
of us to accomplish this is the right attitude – an attitude born of
a never-ending quest for understanding. — Lynn Miller
My first mare has always been a willing worker, as has my gelding. My gelding demonstrates his willingness even while we’re harnessing. He enthusiastically reaches for the bit when I lift the bridle to him. My mare, on the other hand, has always required that I insert my finger into her mouth to get her to open it and accept the bit. I have always been uncomfortable with even this minimal use of force, and my gelding has shown me that things could be better. So, after a dozen years of this routine, I decided the time for improvement had arrived.
Over the course of a dozen sessions, with liberal use of treats as reward/encouragement, my mare is now voluntarily opening her mouth and taking the bit in. I feel I’ve progressed my horsemanship with her from Stick (opening her mouth with my finger) to Carrot (treats as bribes to take the bit). My gelding has shown me, though, that we still have progress to make, because she doesn’t yet reach for the bit with enthusiasm like he does.
I don’t understand why my mare doesn’t reach for the bit. We’ve been working together successfully in harness for 12 years, and she’s as near perfect as they come. Perhaps she doesn’t like the taste or feel of this particular bit. Or maybe she doesn’t like bits at all; I’ve worked her on occasion with lines attached to her halter. It is likely, though, that she doesn’t reach for the bit like my gelding because she feels our relationship isn’t good enough yet, despite our long partnership. I’m reminded of the saying that circulates in the horse world about working with different genders: ask a gelding, tell a stallion, have a discussion with a mare! This mare has taught me a lot about horsemanship, and I obviously still have more to learn.
It’s Not Just About a Well-Broke Horse
… all horses share the sensitivity that allows, if we are open, for a calm, confident and wonderfully subtle working relationship. — Lynn Miller
When I first got involved with equines a dozen years ago, a friend emphatically told me that horses are not like machines. I found her statement aggravating because it was so obvious. But her point was well meant; she knew I didn’t have experience with horses, and I did have experience with machines. While a given machine can probably be operated by almost anyone, the same isn’t true for horses.
Several years ago, I injured my knee. Unfortunately, time-off to heal wasn’t an option; we had a skidding job that needed to be done. So I was skidding with my gelding Torrin when I stepped in a hole. This aggravated the injury, and I collapsed in pain. I was able to unhitch from where I fell, then I handed the lines to my coworker. I was fascinated by what happened next. My co-worker attempted to drive Torrin to the horse trailer so that I could catch my breath and recover. While my co-worker had previously ridden Torrin, my well-broke skid animal would not ground drive for my co-worker. I took the lines back and hobbled to the trailer where I could safely secure Torrin.
Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that “well-broke” wasn’t necessarily transferable to another person. Torrin knew the difference between my coworker and me on the lines, and he wasn’t interested in cooperating with my co-worker, though my co-worker did what he’d seen me do and used the same words I use as commands. It was clear that just having a relationship isn’t enough, as my co-worker had from riding. The subtleties of the relationship matter. It mattered to Torrin who was on the lines, and it had an impact on his performance. He was not a machine; our relationship was central to his willingness to work.
[Mankiller] attacked, with mouth open and ears laid back
Was the previous owner of Mankiller wrong for using grain (the Carrot approach) and/or force (the Stick approach) with this horse?
and at the crucial moment, the owner whacked him across the
nose with the hose. [The stallion] attacked several more times
and a neighbor and friend, who was there at the time, said, “If
you miss him, he will kill you.” The owner did not miss, and
the battle raged for some time. [Mankiller] then gave the
sign of submission. He recognized the owner as being the
herd leader, and the owner recognized the stallion’s sign of
submission and approached him and placed a
halter on him.
— Carole Morland
In my mind, the answer is not simple. The story above illustrates the extremes the horse and human had experienced in their relationship. Safety had to be and should always be a priority.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being around equines, though, it is that there are no absolutes. There is no one right way to ensure safety. There is no hardand- fast rule for how things should be done to achieve safe outcomes. There is no certainty that just because a horse reacted one way once, that it will react the same way again. An aggressive stallion may become compliant, just as a well-broke horse may refuse to ground-drive. And we humans are part of the picture.
What strikes me about this story is that the owner was able to progress from using a Stick, as described above, to using a Carrot, as Joe described. The ability to use a Carrot rather than a Stick was sufficient improvement that the owner didn’t ever go further. Joe showed that more improvement was still possible.
What I have observed, both with my own equines and in stories like “Mankiller,” is that the higher quality the horsemanship, the higher degree of safety that is possible. If I never activate the fight or flight response, I have a better chance for a safe outcome. If I lose my temper, lose patience, get too tired, or get in a hurry, my equines know that, and I can jeopardize my safety very quickly. It’s my responsibility, part of good horsemanship, to create safe outcomes.
Not everyone who works with horses is a master like Joe is. We may still need to use a Stick or a Carrot at times to ensure our safety. The responsibility of a horseman or woman, though, is to recognize that safer outcomes are possible through better horsemanship if we want them. We just have to choose. One of my favorite sayings is: If we do what we’ve always done, we’ll get what we’ve always got.
Opportunities to Improve
As long as you’re planning to be around horses, it’s a good
idea to be speculating all the time as to what little changes you
can make, or what new little things you could do so that things
go smoother between you and that horse. — Bill Dorrance
Whether we like it or not, our horses are constantly evaluating their relationship with us. And they give us feedback on the relationship, whether we want it or not. In one short span of time, Mankiller gave Joe and the previous owner feedback on their relationship with him. The previous owner may have been thinking “good riddance” when Joe walked away with the horse. Or he could have seen that a different relationship with Mankiller was possible, especially a safer one, if he’d been willing to approach the horse differently.
I was recently given an opportunity to change my approach so as to achieve a better outcome by a new mare in my herd. Before distributing buckets of vitamins each morning, I tie Ellie to the fence. I do this for safety reasons; she is the dominant mare, and I don’t want her pushing the others around when I’m in the paddock distributing buckets of feed.
When Ellie sees me approaching with buckets, she comes to the fence to greet me. I then climb through the fence with her halter and proceed to tie her to the fence. When I approached the fence with vitamin buckets one morning recently, she greeted me but then walked off and would not let me halter her. This was unusual behavior, as she’s usually willing to be haltered at any time. I realized that the pattern I had established during this morning routine was to tie her but then wait to give her a bucket after the rest of her paddock-mates had received theirs. I changed my pattern to give her a bucket first, before the rest of the herd, and now I’m back to having no problem haltering her. I showed her respect as lead mare in the herd, she responded in kind, and I got the safe outcome I needed.
Using versus Training
… the majority of horses being relied upon [for work] are most
likely those of common intelligence, athletic ability and
self-motivation. The truly exceptional animals pose too much
a challenge to most of us to presume training ... we view
as behavioral problems rather than examples of
great intelligence. — Lynn Miller
When I first got involved with working equines, I was interested in using them to get things done. I was very focused on results. I purchased a well-broke animal and went to work. We spread manure, skid fence posts and rails, herded cattle, and drove the four miles round trip to the mailbox. We got through our to-do list each day and started again the next. Without realizing I had made a choice, I was striving for a relationship based on respect and understanding rather than one based on force and submission. In return, my workmate was accepting of variations in routine and in tasks to be performed. It seemed there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do. I got a high every time we worked together. I didn’t see any reason to do things any other way. Then I got a second horse.
He was untrained, so I went about accustoming him to the tasks I’d been doing with my first equine. It was clear that most things were acceptable to him, but some things weren’t. We could skid and move firewood in a stone boat and ride to the mailbox, but driving wasn’t something that worked very well, and cattle were to be avoided, not worked. I adapted my expectations, and we soon had a productive and safe working relationship. Then I got a third horse, and all the confidence these first two had given me was blown out the window.
… using horses … and training horses involves two
ways of thinking. — Steve Bowers
Like my first equine, this mare was ‘trained’, but she was far from ready to go to work. Stripes in boulders along the road were monsters waiting to eat her, the jingle of harness chains put her into frenzied motion, and the sound of her feet on a bridge activated reverse gear. Obviously I was getting a very intense and detailed lesson about the definition of “trained.” It was also clear that there is a difference between training and using. This mare would require me to train, and training would require a completely different approach to each day. I could no longer start with a to-do list that needed to be completed by day’s end. Instead I needed to throw out the schedule and patiently pursue the training necessary to ready her for the work at hand. I had to make a choice. Was I interested in just using, or was I interested in training, too?
Using and training are clearly two very different ways of being with a horse. How is there time for both? I’ve come to two answers. First, having horses requires making time for training. There is no way around it. Working with horses is a dynamic thing; they age, they must be replaced, the weather changes, a new dog moves to the neighborhood … and training improves safety and the quality of work that’s possible. My second answer about making time for training as well as using is that it’s important to choose the right horse in the first place.
Meshing Horse and Human Temperaments
… if we ever feel the horse is stupid, the
problem may be with us. — Lynn Miller
I asked a trainer once about the differences in horses. He said that 60% of equines are easy to train, and the other 40% are more challenging. Another trainer has suggested that only a quarter of all equines have a temperament conducive to draft work. One of the wisest things I’ve ever heard about working with horses is: the longer you work with them, the more of them you’re around, the more you understand they’re all different.
My third horse taught me many things. Certainly the definition of “trained” is something that must be evaluated in a sales transaction. But she also made it clear that some equine personalities are easier for me to work with than others. She was trained and able to work for her previous owner, but she obviously wasn’t for me. Given her background, I had to accept that I was the issue. Given that there are variations in equine temperament, I now know that I have a responsibility when I bring an equine into my life to do the best job I can in matching that individual to the situation at hand, including how I will interact with it. My third horse was the beginning of a long string of horses that has challenged me to execute this responsibility.
It turns out I’m not alone. It’s quite possible to fill a bookshelf these days on the topic of equine temperaments, how to identify them, and how to train them. Books and trainers also offer to help humans choose equines that are appropriate to their situation, skill level, and personality. As a breeder, I am constantly assessing how one of my equines will mesh with a potential buyer. I have sent buyers elsewhere if I felt the match wouldn’t work. It’s easy to imagine that an illmade match can result in safety issues or injury to either human or horse.
It’s likely that Joe was successful with Mankiller not only because he took a different approach in his relationship. It’s likely his personality was also better suited to a positive relationship with the stallion than that of the previous owner. How a particular horse and a particular human will mesh is one of the most complex parts of horsemanship.
It’s the Little Things
Even when doing the most mundane task with welltrained
horses, a smart teamster will be analyzing the job with an
toward doing the job in a way which makes the horses
better trained for future use. — Steve Bowers
I still have my first mare that I can do anything with. Is she perfect? No. Does she change over time? Yes. Whether I like it or not, to be able to work her, I have to spend time training. Recently she’s started walking off when I’m mounting her, and I’ve been too lazy to correct her. We’ve been through this before, and I know it’s correctable; I just haven’t wanted to take the time. Now, though, the misbehavior has translated into harness work; she’s leaving when I lift the lines up instead of waiting for my command to start. The safety issues are obviously greater. The good news is that from past experience I know that if I correct the situation when riding, the correction will also translate to our work in harness. I just needed the reminder to pay attention to the little things.
… it’s those little things that are overlooked by the person that lead up to the horse taking over. Most people don’t realize that it’s a lot easier to take care of those little things than it is to take care of the bigger things that can happen afterwards. – Bill Dorrance
If horsemanship is about a continuous cascade of choices about how I interact with my equines, then my task as a horsewoman is to recognize the choices when they’re small and easy to make so I don’t have to make big choices later that I don’t like. I need to recognize, for instance, that not correcting anticipation when riding when the problem is small can lead to cleaning up a wreck when driving and possibly having to put an animal down because it became injured. My near-perfect mare has shown me that there’s always an opportunity to create an even better, and safer, work horse. By focusing on the little things, I can even make time for both using and training. The key is to not let the little things get too big.
Carrots, Treats, Cookies
It’s not the treats that are a problem, it’s the encouragement
the horse gets to disrespect you and your space in the course
of receiving treats that becomes a problem. When your
presentation changes, his response to you will change. If he
to reach down to the ground to eat his treats or find them
in a bucket, a horse will appreciate them just as much.
— Bill Dorrance
Every horse forum I’m familiar with eventually has a debate about the use of treats in training. As with everything having to do with horses, there is no single right answer. The reason is that it depends on the particular equine and the particular situation. It depends on the particular horse and the particular person. Treats are a tool in horsemanship, and as Joe showed with Mankiller, they are often not necessary. There are two pieces of advice that I’ve found to be especially true regarding using treats as training aids. First, there are particular types of equines with whom using treats causes more problems than it solves. In my herd, for instance, if an individual shows any sign of mouthy-ness, I immediately know that I’ll need to find another way to interact with him or her. When I’ve gotten lazy with my gelding and given him a treat, I’ve paid the price, as he’ll start looking for treats rather than focusing on the work at hand.
The well-trained accepting equine will come when called without
reward of grain and gladly accept the offered halter. Anything less
than this is an indication that the training is dangerously inadequate.
— Lynn Miller
The second piece of advice that I’ve found helpful is that treats should be considered an aid until our horsemanship improves and the treats are no longer needed. Joe didn’t need grain to catch and halter Mankiller. I was able to resolve the haltering issue with Ellie by changing my management instead of resorting to treats (a good thing because she is mouthy enough already). I still need to improve my horsemanship to get my mare to reach for her bit without treats.
Playing the catch-me game is one of the most common challenges of owning equines, and the Carrot approach is understandable. It’s also easy to understand the attraction of stalling horses versus keeping them in a paddock or pasture from the standpoint of needing to catch and halter them. Our horses use the catch-me game to ask us to improve our horsemanship. It is a challenging request to respond to.
Mentors, Gurus, Trainers
Understanding a horse is something of an art … It’s a sense about
the horse’s frame of mind and his thoughts about things. This part
can’t be learned from a book or videos. This ability can come
only from experience … It takes exposure to many horses
before a person can pick up on the important small things they
need to learn … Anyone with a sincere desire to achieve this
connection with a horse could develop this ability. They need to
have the time to devote to it and someone to help them once in
awhile. The main source of information they’ll rely on comes straight
from the horse. And if horses haven’t been part of daily life from an
early age, this is not as easy as it would be for someone raised
around them. But a person could still get pretty accomplished
at this anyway. — Bill Dorrance
I started with books and videos. I attended clinics. I had mentors when I started, and I am honored to call my friend Joe one now. I’ve spent money on trainers and gurus and still do. In the end, the most cost-effective instructors I’ve had have been my equines.
Books and videos, trainers and gurus all have something to offer. There are times when a simple piece of well-timed advice from another human is the best gift one could get. On the other hand, the interactions of horses and humans are so dynamic, they are so contextspecific, that accepting a universal solution from a book or trainer for a particular problem should be considered carefully. There is never one right answer. We must each accept the responsibility as horsemen and women to find the best fit where we are with the horse we have at the time we need it. It can be a lonely way to go.
I have a friend who is interested in the big picture. She has been taught Carrot and Stick approaches. She’s been through more trainers in the six years I’ve known her than I can count. I’ve noticed a pattern. The longer she’s away from working with a trainer, the greater strides she makes with her herd and the more satisfaction she experiences. As Dorrance says, someone to help once in awhile can be important, especially when safety is in jeopardy. In the end, though, we each need to make time to learn from our own horses.
Traditionally, ballroom dancing is seen to have a leader (the male)
and a follower (the female). But in truth we know that much difficulty
lies with the female’s role as she must understand or anticipate
direction and work to have all motion flow together. In a
good dancing partnership the female may easily be the superior
half without receiving due credit. Working with horses is like this.
We have the lead and they follow – yet, given half a chance to
enjoy and contribute, the horse will add subtlety, depth, range,
beauty and ease of motion by anticipation and reaction at fine
levels we are often incapable of feeling. — Lynn Miller
When I was a ballroom dancer, I started out having to think very hard about where to put each of my feet with each beat of the music. In time, the dance required much less thought, and it became more enjoyable. Eventually I learned how effortless the dance could be when my dance partner and I had a well-developed relationship; the dance became an incredible flowing experience that I craved whenever I heard the music.
The plethora of dancing shows on television these days astonishes me. Certainly, accomplished dancers are a joy to watch. Dance is art in motion. But I also suspect there is a fascination by the public with two people moving together, working together, in such perfect harmony. From my own history with ballroom dancing, I can say the fascination is well justified. that horses are more than fight or flight creatures. We can build our relationship with our horses based on mutual understanding and respect. We can understand that we will be training, not just using, and that, as trainers we will have to get better with time. We can reduce the amount of force we need to use to ensure our safety by committing to continual improvement in our horsemanship. We can seize small opportunities for improvement and wean our reliance on Carrots and Sticks as training aids. The big picture with horses requires us to be willing to change our ways. Sometimes it is not an easy choice.
In this world that has been highly polluted in many ways with
the machines of men, one sparkling glimmer of hope is the
person who has useful work for horses, and knows how to train
for that work with uncommon skill (this applies both to training
themselves and training their horses.) — Steve Bowers
When I first learned about draft horses as a child, it quickly became apparent that the invention of internal combustion engines had jeopardized the very survival of many draft horse breeds. As I’ve become more involved with rare breeds of livestock, the adverse impact of industrial agriculture on draft horses has become even more apparent. A few years ago, though, I read an alternative interpretation of history. The author asserted that the change was actually a blessing for those horses that survived because the people who were still working them were doing so by choice not necessity. People who didn’t like horses no longer had to use them, and the horses were less likely to be abused as a result. I appreciated this more positive spin on the industrial revolution and its impact on draft horses.
We all know that the public at large is enthralled with draft equines. Yes, it is amazing to see these animals pull heavy loads in pulling contests or strut their stuff pulling fancy wagons or push into their collars to move a plow through a field. But I think an unconscious appeal of draft horses is that horses and humans can, and do, work in partnership, and the best do so with the ease and grace of dance partners. If we stop and think about horses running free on the open range and then about horses pulling carriages in city traffic, it is almost magical to think that the same species is that adaptable and that willing to engage with humanity.
When I think about our draft horse breeds and I ponder Carrots, Sticks, and the big picture, I see real opportunity. Many of the draft breeds have been selected for centuries to engage with people to accomplish work. And while most of them have accepted the Carrot and Stick approach to horsemanship, it seems to me that they are more likely than other breeds, because of what we have bred them for, to respond enthusiastically to horsemanship as my friend Joe practices it.
Sometimes when I think about my mother’s question about my career choice, I’m reminded of someone who was much quicker with good responses than I’ve ever been. Whenever someone questioned his wisdom of working with horses, he was always ready with a very simple retort. His answer was, “Because I can.” Not everyone can say that.