Saturday, February 10, 2018

Waiting for a Horse to Decide

When I was in high school I wrote a poem about how time seems to have almost palpable turning points around decisions. I don't remember the exact words, but the idea was that just before a decision is made time seems to tilt gradually, then all at once as it tumbles into a new reality.

This phenomenon is only amplified for me around horses. Unless they are frightened, in pain, playing or fighting, (all adrenaline-fueled decision situations) horses seem to make decisions relatively slowly compared to human beings. I get a weird joy out of waiting for a horse to decide to do something I wanted rather than shortcutting to make it fit human time.

Beautiful Nadiya teaches me a lot about waiting for horse decisions

Waiting for a horse to decide involves looking for a moment where I can give them a nudge to tip the decision in my favor. For example, when Aspen and I go walking we play a game where he stops to look at something and I wait expectantly until I am almost sure that he is done looking and then I turn toward him ever so slightly and he looks at me and starts walking again. If I turn too soon he pays no attention to me. If I turn too late then he has decided for me and I've lost the game.

Aspen out for a walk.

When I pick Nadiya's hooves she is particular about getting her front hooves done because she's protective of her front bowed tendons. Sometimes she doesn't want to lift her front feet at all, and then I play the foot game. I start with her back feet, picking them up carefully and gently. When I'm finished cleaning them I put them down slooowly. Then I move up to the front again and stare at her. She might be eating hay or looking out of her stall, but eventually if I keep staring intently at her eye she'll turn her head and look at me. I look back for a long moment, sometimes several seconds until she stops looking. Then I matter-of-factly bend down and put a hand on her hoof and kind of nudge her as if to say "you know this is ok. I just showed you I'm good at this. Lift up your foot." Sometimes she does the first time, sometimes I have to go stare at her some more, but in the end the hoof comes up and I hold up my end of the bargain by being as gentle with it as possible.


I used to play the foot game with Aspen but now he lifts each foot up in turn as soon as I put the other one down. I know when a foot hurts more than usual because he'll refuse to pick one up which is by now rare enough to alert me. Sometimes he'll even hesitate or put the hoof back down briefly before picking it back up again, and almost unfailingly there's a soft frog or a deep smelly crevice in that particular hoof that I have to be careful about.

Aspen who is now so good with getting his hooves picked. <3

Sometimes figuring out when to press for a decision and when to wait a little longer is hard- I am still working on being able to catch horses when they aren't sure they want to be caught, especially Gus. I call it practice herding. I can't just walk up to Gus with a halter all the time. Sometimes he "nopes" right out of there and I have to walk a little ways behind him and try to anticipate where he's going to go. If I over-anticipate then he can avoid me. If I'm too hesitant he can slip past me too. The one time I got it perfect was when I was catching him for the farrier and he started avoiding me. I stayed far enough back while following him that when he made a turn I only had to step one step in either direction to get in his path and block him. Finally, he stopped moving but I couldn't move any closer until he decided to be caught or he'd have the space advantage and herding would continue. So I waited, trying to watch closely to see what he would decide. After maybe 15-20 seconds of motionless decision making, he looked at me and sort of sagged his ears and leaned his neck toward me a little and the decision was made. He let me walk up and halter him and lead him over to the farrier. (Then I accidentally tried turning him around in the barn and he got confused and attempted to drag me out of the barn again, but that's another event entirely. :P)


As usual with my horse posts, I'll point out that there's still a lot to learn about the timing of horse decisions. They inevitably still surprise me with the things they choose to do and when they choose to do them, but more and more I'm seeing how they communicate their thought processes before they decide. If I wait and observe I learn more and more.

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