Lessons Learned from Doolittle

Bloged in Horse riding by admin Sunday January 7, 2007

In the years when I worked as a trail guide for a local
riding stable, one of my guide horses was a striking
sixteen-hand liver chestnut Saddlebred gelding named
Doolittle.

Doolittle was one of those horses who would, whenever he was
in the mood, do exactly as his rider wished, but if he was
not in the mood, the entire world knew about it, and on the
days when Doolittle did not feel like escorting the novice
riders out on the trail, he was apt to get as far as the
ranch gate, and then dig in his feet, start bucking and
kicking, and bring the whole procession to a halt.

I was “assigned” to work with Doolittle over the course
of a summer so that he would learn to have a better attitude
towards his work. I had often enough seen other guides
struggle with him, kicking, hitting, and yelling with all
their might. But that behavior always brought to mind what
one of my earliest riding teachers taught me about horses:
“They’re bigger, so you have to be smarter.”

Knowing that Doolittle, for a horse, was exceptionally
intelligent, I decided to start from scratch with him, and
try to understand what was going on in his mind. I think,
because horses have been domesticated for so long, and
because so few of us have ever seen them in the wild, we
forget that their first instinct, when they are in
situations they don’t like, is to flee.

Horses have no natural defenses, except their hooves, teeth,
and speed, with which to combat predators; and one of the
most effective ways a predator has to bring down a horse is
to attack it from above–in other words, from on the
horse’s back. And that’s exactly where we sit when we
ride, meaning that any horse, before it can be ridden, has
to overcome its survival instinct and learn that a rider on
the back is not the same as a predator.

So whenever Doolittle began his antics, and his riders began
punishing him with their heels, quirts, and yelling, I
thought, maybe Doolittle was responding to them as
predators. I decided to try a different approach, and every
day would take Doolittle out to the ranch gate which seemed
to be, in his mind, the point where he needed to assert
himself. The first few times we did it, he would buck,
kick, and even once rubbed up against the barbed wire fence
so that, even though he got jabbed, I did as well. Through
it all, I just stayed quiet, stayed on him, and kept control
of his head, but did not do anything that I thought might
stir his survival instinct.

After about a week, we would get to the ranch gate, and
Doolittle would pause. I would let him stand as long as he
liked; I just would not let him turn around and head back to
the barn. Whenever he started turning I would rein him
to turn in continuing circles until he was either too dizzy,
or distracted–I’m not sure which– to remember that he
wanted to go home. When we were facing the trail again I
nudged him and we were on our way. After about another week
Doolittle would pass the ranch gate without giving it a
second glance, and we had our Doolittle “doing more” once
again!

So if you have a horse “misbehaving” ask yourself if it
isn’t really just behaving like a horse needs to behave
to survive, and see if there’s not something you can do
that will make the situation less threatening, so that the
survival instinct isn’t triggered.
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