Book Review: The Man Who Listens to Horses

One of the best books I’ve read on training is The Man Who Listens to Horses.

I found this book by accident because I was looking in the wrong section of the library for another book for someone else. I’m so glad I did. Not only was it an engaging account of an extraordinary life, it was a clear, simple articulation of a method for creating connection and trust with a horse.

At the time, I’d recently taken a course on taming mustangs that was based on Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) principles. The aim of this method is the humane training of horses (and other animals) based on gaining trust and then teaching using the behaviorist methods of Skinner and Pavlov to pair positive stimuli with the training process. It’s interesting and effective, but I found that when I was studying the process, it seemed…convoluted. Like it was more complicated than it had to be.

When I read about Monty Roberts’s join-up method, I saw what was missing. He speaks to the horses using their own language, not our complex vocabulary of psychological terms. Having spent so much time observing mustangs in the wild and understanding how they interact—for example, how a matriarch mare disciplines the problematic behavior of a young colt—Roberts was able to learn how to make a connection with horses in terms that they understand. There’s a part where he talks about a tutor he had when he was young, who said that you can’t teach someone anything, you can only create an environment where he can learn. That is what strikes me as the difference between the ABA approach I studied and Roberts’s approach. Instead of repetitive, scientifically constructed scenarios aimed at getting the horse to do what you want, Roberts’s method is essentially a conversation. It’s saying to the horse, “Trust me; I’ll take care of you,” when the horse is at his most vulnerable. After he trusts you, he’ll willingly want to learn.

The ideas of this book really stuck with me. Several months after reading it, I was at my first show with Dunnie, having my first experience with cow work. He’s trained as a cow horse and gets very excited about them. I, on the other hand, am somewhat afraid of cows. They’re big and I don’t have any experience with them — so I don’t know how they’ll behave. But as I was watching everyone in my clinic class try to keep that cow along the wall, and then in my own run, I realized that a lot of it comes down to pressure.

When Roberts first has a horse in the round pen during the initial join-up process, he puts “pressure” on the horse by approaching it with squared-off shoulders and direct eye contact, in order to encourage the horse to move away from him. After the horse begins to show signs of no longer wanting to flee (turning an ear inward, turning a head, licking and chewing, and finally dropping the head), he beings to ease off that pressure by turning his shoulders at a 45 degree angle to the horse and releasing eye contact. It’s then that the horse will come over to him and join up. (You can watch the process here. It takes an astonishingly short time and it’s kind of like magic.)

So as I was learning about how to manage the cow, it occurred to me that this same kind of pressure applies. When you approach the cow’s flank with your horse, it applies pressure and the cow moves. But then as we were chasing the cow, the clinician was telling me to apply “cow-side” leg—i.e. stay parallel to the cow, but move Dunnie off my leg laterally in the direction away from the cow. That seems to ease off the pressure and results in the cow slowing down or stopping. The whole thing seems to hinge on creating the right tension of pressure on the cow, aiming it at the right place with the right timing to control it. I have a lot to learn in this area; my one experience after the clinic was our Working Cow class this next day, my goal in which was less to control the cow and more just to make it out alive. But the more cutting I watch, the more interested I become in trying it out again with Dunnie. We might soon have the opportunity to do more cow work with the show team; there’s a team penning event held at a place not too far away on Wednesday nights that I’m dying to go to.

Since working at this barn, I’ve also had my first opportunities to work in a round pen, both with Dunnie and with another horse I was testing out for my trainer. It was amazing to me how much I could learn about a horse by interacting with him on the ground. Using Roberts’s techniques, it’s possible to strike up a conversation even with a horse that is fully trained that can broaden and deepen your understanding and connection.

Starting a horse from scratch has always been my dream. Reading The Man Who Listens to Horses made me long for the opportunity to do that even more.

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Wild Horses: Native or Invasive Species?

wild-mustangs-gardner-ranch-californiaFor the past few months, I’ve been involved in a training course to become certified as a Texas Master Naturalist. It’s a program whose mission is to train a corps of well-informed volunteers to provide education, outreach, and service to help with the beneficial management of natural resources and natural areas within their communities for the state of Texas. It has been a great experience, and I’m looking forward to starting my volunteer service — likely for the Katy Prairie Conservancy — now that the training portion is drawing to an end. Tuesday was our last class, and each of my class members was expected to give a 5-minute presentation on the topic of their choice.

Shockingly, I chose to talk about horses. I’ve been reading about and learning about the U.S. wild horse population for years now, ever since I went to the horse exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History many years ago and saw information about adopting a wild horse. I lived in NYC at the time, and I mistakenly believed this was the kind of “adoption” where you send some money and you get a picture to put on your fridge. It was the closest I could imagine getting to one of these creatures at the time, as when I learned that it meant really actually taking a horse home with you, I doubted the BLM would deem a one-bedroom in Brooklyn a suitable living space for a horse, wild or otherwise. Later, I learned about the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge from watching the movie “Wild Horse, Wild Ride,” which I still dream of participating in one day. I’ve even taken a course on how to gentle a wild mustang.

Clearly I have a lot of background in this topic. But the learning I’ve done in my Master Naturalist program has framed the issue in a new light for me, one I hadn’t considered before I started putting together this presentation. A huge part of what we’ve been taught in our training is about the role of native species and non-native invasive species in ecosystem management. Often this relates to plants, but it can refer to animals as well. (A really common example is European starlings, which were introduced by a man who was part of a society in New York in the late 1800s that decided we should import all of the species ever mentioned in Shakespeare. Starlings are all over the place now, and giving a lot of grief to Eastern Bluebird populations.) The problem with situations wherein a new species that not native to the area is introduced is that they compete with the natives for resources, and can choke them out. The native species are integral to the ecosystem, like plants that provide food for pollinators such as bees and birds, and if they are diminished, it can throw everything out of balance. If a food source for pollinators is decimated by an invasive species taking over, it can disrupt every level of the food chain.

When it comes to wild horses, almost all of them in the U.S. are under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), based on the Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burros Act of 1971, which covers the management, protection, and study of horses on public lands. The BLM currently manages horse populations in ten states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming), where it manages herd numbers by rounding up horses in excess of what the land can bear (to prevent overgrazing, and all its attendant problems for long-term rangeland health, as well as so there is enough food for the horses remaining loose.) Currently, there are over 44,000 horses in BLM holding pens throughout these states, most of whom have never interacted with humans (and if they have, the experience has likely been unpleasant.) The cost to keep these horses is about $50 million a year — which is 2/3 of the BLM’s entire budget (they do a lot of other stuff besides manage horses). The Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burros Act prohibits the sale of these animals for profit (meant to prevent their sale for slaughter), and some of these horses are able to be adopted, but that’s not enough. The Bureau is now considering drastic measures, including wide scale euthanasia, to deal with the problem.

What I hadn’t realized, prior to working on this presentation, is that the BLM classifies the horses as a non-native species, and this classification frames its management decisions. Their mission is to protect native species from non-natives that would harm the land. If the horses are non-native, then they are viewed as part of the problem, not a valuable form of wildlife (not to mention an enormously symbolic one in American heritage) to be protected.

But are the horses really non-native? We all know that horses were brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1500s. The mustangs now roaming on BLM-managed public lands are the descendants of those horses, and are therefore technically “feral” — the term for animals from a domesticated species that have gone back to living in the wild — rather than truly “wild.”

However, fossil evidence has shown that horses did once reside in North America; in fact, it was a center of horse evolution. An excellent read on this topic is The Horse: The Epic History of Our Noble Companion by Wendy Williams, which chronicles the fossil evidence showing the North American horse’s evolution through millions of years as it adapted to drastic changes in climate and the subsequent rise of the grasslands, and evolved from a four-toed creature to the one-toed creature we ride today.

For reasons not entirely understood, after millions of years of evolution and adaptation, the fossil record indicates that the North American horse became extinct here around 13,000 to 11,000 years ago. Luckily, animals from the genus Equus had already migrated, via land bridges, to other parts of the globe: Asia, Africa, and Europe — making them available to the Europeans, who reintroduced them to North America in the 1500s.

And herein lies the crux of the debate into whether these animals can be considered native or non-native: Is the species that was brought by Europeans to the Americas (Equus caballus; the horse as we know it today) the same species that was present in North America 13,000 – 11,000 years ago and became extinct?

Both fossil evidence and the emerging science of studying mitochondrial DNA seem to answer that yes, it was the same species. This article goes into great detail on the subject, and provides citations for the research being conducted, but the main points are these:

  • The fossil record indicates that Equus caballus is about 2 million years old, that it originated in North America, and that there is no evidence for its origination elsewhere.
  • While the genetic analyses of mitochondrial DNA do not indicate the origination of the Equus caballus species, it does indicate that it underwent genetic divergence around 200,000 to 300,000 years ago — from which we can extrapolate that if it was present that long ago, surely it originated earlier than the 11,000- to 13,000-year time frame given by the fossil record for North American horse extinction.
  • Furthermore, the study of many species’ genomes has led to the reconsideration of much of our taxonomy — showing that animals we believed to be related may not be, and showing that we have perhaps been overzealous in species splitting, creating subspecies based on observational differences that are not reflected on a genetic level. This seems to be the case with horses as well. Genetic analysis indicates that Equus caballus is genetically equivalent to Equus lambei, the horse that according to the fossil record was the most prevalent and recent species in North America prior to extinction.

Does this information make any difference to the 40,000+ horses now sitting in pens awaiting slaughter? Not likely. But this points to a serious gap between scientific research and the management decisions made by the governmental agencies in charge of the protection of our public lands. It is vital that this gap is closed, and that we begin using fact-based evidence to manage our lands and natural resources — not just the bottom line of a corporation, or the rhetoric of a politician, or the hysterical ranting of people on the Internet who think they are “raising awareness” but who are, in fact, fear mongering and spreading ignorance.

As a final thought, I’ll leave you with this quote from the Texas Master Naturalist curriculum textbook, by Gregory Bateson, an English anthropologist:

The major problems in the world today are the result of the difference between the way nature works and the way people think.

As a naturalist, I am committed to continuing to form an understanding of how nature works and to educating others. I believe this is important in order for us to work in concert with nature to both further our goals as human beings and protect the land we live on for ourselves and its other inhabitants.

 

 

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Technology of Taming

Back when I was still riding in Brooklyn, I wrote about how I’d heard of an internship program out in New Mexico for taming wild mustangs. I was very demoralized at the time, feeling trapped in my life there and like I’d never have the opportunity to do something like that.

Life is quite a bit different now than it was then. I’m now a freelancer instead of a commuter, and it gives me the opportunity to move around and explore the country in ways I’ve only dreamed of.  It’s opening me up to looking at what is really important to me and forcing me to give up the excuses and take action.

To that end, I recently completed the online course offered by the mustang camp that does the internships. I wasn’t able to go out there and learn in person, but you have to work with what you have in front of you.

The course was focused on using the principles Applied Behavior Analysis to taming and training wild mustangs. The skills taught can be generalized to any animal, but Mustang Camp is a non-profit organization focused specifically on the preventing cruelty to the wild horses that are rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management each year.

In 1971, Richard Nixon (who, despite being an extraordinary slimeball, turns out to have left a legacy of environmentally-friendly policy including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passing of Clean Air Act of 1970) signed into law the Wild Horse and Free-Roaming Burro Act, which covered the management, protection, and study of “unbranded and unclaimed horses and burros on public lands in the United States.”

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service now manage these herds, but it requires a difficult balance to prevent the herds from overwhelming the small amount of public lands available to sustain them. The solution since 1973 has been to round up excess horses and to adopt them out to private owners.

You can adopt a horse directly from the BLM for only about $200 if you have the required facilities; they have an internet adoption site  that I look at all the time and fantasize about bringing a mustang home. However, these are wild animals that have had very little–and often unpleasant–associations with humans.

The BLM therefore has a program where it sends its horses out to trainers who gentle the animals and then adopt them out to private owners. (I wrote before about the movie “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” that chronicles the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge, wherein 100 people take home 100 horses for 100 days and then showcase them at a competition and auction). On a much smaller scale, this is what Mustang Camp does. Using humane techniques based on teaching the animals rewards and consequences, the horses are trained to accept human touch, allow grooming and veterinary care, and willingly board a trailer.

I would have loved to get out to New Mexico for a month to get the hands-on experience, but it just wasn’t feasible. Perhaps sometime in the future. But in the meantime, the online course was challenging and interesting, giving me new insight into animal behavior that I have brought to my interactions with horses as a rider. (It also has brought new insights into interactions with my cats. As I said, the principles are good for all kinds of animals; cats are notoriously independent and sometimes seem all but untrainable, but that’s not really the case).

It also felt good to be getting training/education in an area that has always fascinated me: animal behavior. Doing the readings and working on the assignments brought me back to how much I enjoyed my grad school courses and makes me wonder if now’s the time to go back to school for a career change. Actually, it wouldn’t be so much a career change as it would be returning to the field that I started out working in as a teenager: environmental education and wildlife conservation.

TechTameJessicaFilippi

 

 

Impossible

I haven’t been writing lately for a number of reasons, but mostly because I just haven’t felt like it. I’ve had a few lessons that were generally positive. I’ve even started volunteering at GallopNYC, a therapeutic riding program for children and adults with disabilities. I go once a week and help out as a side-walker, helping the rider be secure on the horse while they go through the exercises and activities that the instructor has planned. It’s rewarding work, and I get to be outside and around horses another hour a week.

But most of my time lately has been spent trying to figure out what the hell to do with my life. I don’t want to do this anymore, and I need a plan to make a change. My boyfriend and I talk non-stop about what work we could do to fulfill us, where we could live that we’d feel connected and comfortable, and how, at our age, educational level, economic situation, and extent of career experience, we could possibly ever get to a place where we’d be even just not miserable, let alone truly satisfied.

This came up most recently after my lesson yesterday. Our old trainer, Hannah, has moved on since graduating, going back upstate to start her career in a less expensive place, so we now ride with Jess. We rode with her once when Hannah was out and clicked well, and I think it will continue to be a good match. I rode Jasper, whom I was surprised to find out that Jess doesn’t think much of–when I suggested him as someone I could ride, she said she thought he was kind of a dick. Apparently most of the trainers don’t trust him all that much, as he has gotten a little cranky in the indoor of late. I’m not surprised, though. Even though it is finally spring here, we’ve still been stuck in the indoor due to some heavy rains that have soaked the ground on the ring outside. I’m cranky about that, too. Despite a bit of sassiness the last time we rode, where Jasper threw a few bucks as we were cantering toward the jumps, I’ve never had a problem with him. That was true this week too, and Jess chalked it up to Jasper and I just “vibing” well with each other. I think he and I are just awkward in similar ways, and it works.

But despite him going well for me and having a generally good lesson, I was frustrated. I haven’t been as active as I’d like to be, lately falling into the spiral of “I haven’t exercised so I’m too drained to start exercising” that usually isn’t a problem for me this time of year. But softball has been irregular due to scheduling weirdness from the fields being renovated, I haven’t made it to the gym because I’m demolished after work, and I only ride twice a month at best. I’m a bit overweight, my muscles are weak, my stamina is reduced. I’m just not where I want to be, physically or mentally. I want to be an athlete: strong, fit, and pushing myself to do amazing things with my body. And as it stands, I am just a sort of thin person who is rapidly deteriorating at a rate that seems wrong for my age. I feel old. My joints hurt. My muscles are so tight that no amount of daily stretching seems to mitigate it; I fantasize about being put on the rack just to feel some space opened up inside my knotted-up body. This is the worst part for riding. I get on the horse and I know what I am supposed to do. I know to keep my legs back and my heels down, but I can’t physically do it because of how tight my inner thigh muscles are, and no amount of stretching beforehand seems to help. I know I need to keep my upper body still at the canter and between jumps, but my abs are a gelatinous mess. And I know, if I could ride a horse more than twice a month, I would be able to reverse this. I would get fit, my muscles strengthening and becoming flexible again. And because of my circumstances, because of how difficult and expensive it is to ride here, I despair of this ever happening.

I walked around, cooling Jasper down, and I thought about how I would like my life to be. I thought about my dream of becoming a horse trainer. I thought that I’m nearly thirty-three, totally out of shape, and with little to no experience training horses. Sure, I’ve been around them my whole life. Sure, I’ve ridden for nearly fifteen years in total (counting the time before and after my decade-long hiatus). But do I really have anything to show for it? No. I have no accomplishments, no awards, no job experience, no name. I have my abilities, I have my knowledge, but I can’t even show that properly since I’m so damn out of shape. And I think all these things, and I think I’m kidding myself that I could ever make a change, that I could leave this destructive, meaningless office work behind and work with horses.

Chatting at the end of the lesson, Jess mentioned a friend of hers who had just done a month-long internship in New Mexico gentling mustangs. I became excited to find out information about it, since that’s pretty much my dream. I came home and looked it up. For $1,500, which includes room and board for a whole month, I could go out there and learn how to do exactly what I want to do: learn how to train wild horses. They have a certification program that teaches interns how to privatize excess government horses and get them up for adoption (the process that I first learned about and became fascinated with over a year ago when I saw the documentary “Wild Horse, Wild Ride”).

This sounds amazing to me. I get so excited at the thought of going to do this, and I want to fill out the application right away. But then reality must be considered. How can I go to New Mexico for a month? I only have two weeks of vacation. In order to go, I’d have to quit my job. And then what? I go do this for a month, and then after the month is up I have no income, and no place to live. And this drives me wild. I can’t take one month out of my life, away from my job, to explore something that I think could be my life’s work, but which I don’t know until I try whether I have what it takes.  The only way to make a change is to entirely give up income, insurance, security, and stability.

It’s depressing. So many things seem impossible right now.

 

Wild Horse

I didn’t have a riding lesson last weekend because the weather finally caught up with me. It’s been a pretty mild winter so far, but snow on the ground and temperatures in the 20s is beyond the pale. Growing up, I never rode outside in the wintertime, instead moving into my barn’s large indoor arena in late fall. It’s a reversal that seems funny to me: in the city, where the majority of our lives is lived indoors, I am riding outside all winter. Indoor space is simply at too much at a premium here; we’ve penned it all up to rent it out for millions of dollars. The horses have their small barn to live in, but we’ve gotta ride them outside in the park.

To make up for the horse deficit that a week without riding creates in my heart, I rented this movie called “Wild Horse, Wild Ride” from Netflix. I discovered it during one of my periodic binges on the Apple Movie Trailers site and was immediately taken by the description:

Each year thousands of wild horses are rounded up and removed from public lands by the U.S. Government. All will need permanent homes. None has ever been touched by a human hand.

Wild Horse, Wild Ride tells the story of the Extreme Mustang Makeover Challenge, an annual contest that dares 100 people to each tame a totally wild mustang in order to get it adopted into a better life beyond federal corrals.

The movie follows a handful of contestants in the Challenge from when they take their horses home on Day 1 all the way to the competition on Day 100 as they do what has quite simply been my lifelong dream: train a horse from scratch.  The horses are completely wild at the start; confused, restless in a paddock, shy to human presence, let alone touch. Wild horses have personalities as distinct as the schoolies I know; some are congenitally calm and take to training very easily, some are more aggressive and recalcitrant. The trainers take small steps every day, forming bonds of trust that cut both ways–the horses must learn to trust trainers, but also the trainers must trust the horses enough to push them forward. Some of the best moments in the film are when the trainers are able to get on their horses for the first time, in their own time–one as early as Day 3, and one as late as Day 90.

Watching the movie reminded me of my dream to undertake this crazy mission of training my own horse. Not that I’d forgotten it, exactly, I just had sort of let it shrink away. As I’ve become more entrenched in my life here, the possibility of ever being able to do it has simply become more remote. But lately I’ve been re-examining my priorities. I think it began with my decision to start riding again after such a long time away from it. I realized that I never stopped wanting to ride and that if that was true, I just had to do it. It’s not perfect, it’s not even close to ideal, but for now I am riding and I am getting stronger and more confident and more in touch with my horse instincts every time I go.

I have been thinking, however, that it isn’t enough. I have this dream to train a horse, and it is not a dream that I can achieve here. In fact, most of what I want to do is not something to be done here. I want to ride horses every day. I want to hike in the woods and I want to watch birds. I want to drive a car and sing out loud with the music. I want to be able to play my bass guitar without worrying about disturbing my neighbors, who live 18 inches away from me. New York City is an amazing place to live, with a zillion incredible things in it. But they are not the things I want. So why am I paying a gargantuan rent to be near all these things? Additionally, it is inconvenient and expensive to do the things I like to do here because they are not city things, but elsewhere they are a regular part of life. It’s hard to see beyond the city sometimes, to imagine a life elsewhere. It’s a very special kind of tunnel vision wherein the awareness of the rest of the world recedes, and all you can see is concrete and stores and throngs and throngs of people…

For now, these are just thoughts. But they are gaining traction. I am tired and worn down from this city life, and ready to stop putting all my time, energy, and money into it while neglecting my true goals and dreams. All of this is to say, I guess, that perhaps I won’t be an urban equestrian for too much longer.