Relationship is the path to safety, effective collaboration, and reliable performance. Sometimes, it looks like this:
New podcast out. This episode is on “Devious Devices”. I explore how trainers get into trouble when we depend on devices over motivation and relationship. Devices give us an illusion of control, or a shortcut to coercion, or even just an added complication to the training process, like when we use toys or luring and have trouble fading out the food or toy.
Let’s consider horseback riding (not a subject of this podcast). People buy bits, spurs, saddles, martingales, quirts and more, and still people get thrown from their horses. Still people get killed by horses, and horse back riding, no matter how much equipment they have. All that equipment gives an illusion of control and safety, but it is just an illusion.
I don’t indulge in that illusion. I have been a reasonably sticky bareback rider since I was a kid, but have not used a saddle much, if at all. And with Sera, I used a rope halter with a cotton lead rope, and barely touched it. I gave cues mostly with my seat, or twist of my torso, and my assistants at the time did not discern the cues when they watched me, but Sera did. She responded smoothly and immediately. So then it was time for ’emergency dismount’ training. My right hand person, and experienced instructor, Sarajane, asked Sera to trot in a circle around her. Suddenly, she would bark out “Dismount!” or “Heave Ho!” or “Geronomo!”, which was my cue to hop off of Sera as gracefully and quickly as possible. But when I left Sera’s back, she was aghast. She turned on a dime and returned to me. She fixed me in her glare. Facing off with me where I had landed, her accusatory stare said, “What is wrong with you? You had no reason to fall off!”
I explained the point of the exercise and explained that next we would work with finding and bringing the cell phone (although I don’t think we ever finished that – but she does take cell phone calls!).
Sera appeared unimpressed, unconvinced, and disdainful. But, she stood calmly, radiating indignation, and allowed me to hop up again. But this time when the cue came for me to do the emergency dismount, Sera hooked her hip to bump me back up in place. It took extra skill and determination to get off her back. She was ready for my incompetence, and every time I tried to dismount, she just kept bumping me back. Nonetheless, I did it, I am that good at being incompetent. Sera was visibly disturbed, and aloof. By this time, Sarajane pronounced that I was good enough at proving I could fall off a horse, and it was too taxing on Sera to continue. Whew! I did not look forward to the dismount at a gallop! It pays to be really good at being incompetent at lower, safer levels, to avoid being tested at higher, more dangerous levels – note to self. So we ended up with some seat and balance exercises which seemed to revive Sera’s hope for my mental function, and all ended nicely and well.
My point is, I did not need a hefty saddle, emergency stirrups, a tough bit, a whip, spurs, or even a rope or a flag. My relationship, and the work that Sera and I did together, as a team, is what kept me safe, in spite of myself. That is because the best way to be safe with an animal is for the animal to decide to take care of you – maybe because you are vulnerable, rather than because you are armed and powerful. Because, no matter what kind of equipment and devices you have, you are always vulnerable.
Here’s another Sera story. I had read, from another trainer, that spending the night with your horse will change your relationship forever. Welllll….. Sera and I had spent countless hours together, but I had never slept in front of Sera. I had no idea what she might do, if I even lay down in her pasture. So one summer evening, I decided to test this idea. After training time, I took Sera back to her pasture and released her, but I did not leave. I explained to her that I was very sleepy and going to take a nap. See, the other horses that Sera lived with, PJ and Blaze, were wise and kind, and I was confident that they would not run into – or over- me. So I thought I would just lie down on the grass and close my eyes and appear to go to sleep, and then peek through my eyelids from time to time, to see the horses responses to my lying there, sleeping. I was not REALLY sleeping, but I am a very good actress. I was confident I would be convincing. So I closed my eyes, to wait for a bit and then start spying.
It was a beautiful summer afternoon, and the grass was soft, an the birds were singing. I closed my eyes. Soon, I opened them again. What? Why was I asleep in a field? Where was I? It was dark! The bird songs were supplanted with the whir and drone of cicadas. The star constellations of the Eagle, the Swann, and the Lyrebird, were directly overhead. And there, firmly against my right ribs, were two hooves, and over me, stood Sera, watching out before her errant human, diligently safeguarding me. The other horses were off grazing, but Sera stayed with me. I mean, she had to right? I was obviously in need of responsible supervision! My heart was touched, and I was humbled. My little prank and deception had imposed babysitting duty on my partner. But when she saw I was awake, she just looked down and nickered, and waited for me to stand. I sincerely thanked her, and apologized for usurping her evening plans.
And it did change my relationship with Sera forever. And it informed my arrogance from that point on. I clearly saw and I don’t own Sera, and I don’t control her. I collaborate with Sera. We care for one another. It now seems disrespectful, demeaning, and insulting, to use equipment to control an animal. Surely we have learned that self management is the most difficult skill we acquire and the only true control that can be exerted over our spirit. So I do use equipment when I am training, but I work to remove all need and dependence on that equipment, as soon as possible. And I use it at first, not for training, but for safety back up.
So this latest podcast, “Devious Devices”, is about how we are safest and most influential with animals, when we are collaborative, respectful, and present in the moment – and that depending on devices can set us up for … problems. I’d like to hear what you think about this. Please comment here, or there, on the podcast – I’d love to know your experiences. Meanwhile, here is the link: Podcast here
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Thank you so much for being here. May you enjoy meaningful collaboration with your animal partners.