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Giving the horse a voice

Kitty and I started having conversations right from the start.

I remember when, as a wild thing, she politely asked me to move so she could go into her stall because throwing tantrums didn't have the desired affect on me.

She was free in a round pen that was connected to her stall by a sort of hall way. She was still pretty unpredictable at this point. I was standing in front of her stall door which was open. She had been playfully running around spending excess energy in the round pen. When she wanted back into her stall, she had tried rushing me a couple of times but I stood my ground. She then stood in the round pen for a moment visibly thinking. She slowly came back into the hall way, close but at a respectful distance, and positioned herself at an angle from me to not be too demanding. She stood there quietly to show me she could control herself and then softly reached her nose out to me. "May I please get past you so i can go to my stall?" It worked. I moved and she slipped behind me to her safe place.

We've been discussing things ever since.

One of the ways that really worked was integrating a few cues for her to use.

The first one was the check in. I would offer my knuckles for her to touch with her nose. It quickly became a reassuring gesture for both of us. It was a way to ask "Are you with me?" At first we both did it often. I liked knowing that she was attuned and relaxed enough to respond. She seemed to like knowing I was paying attention and available to her. In time we got more confident and it rarely happened. Occasionally she still seeks out my hand when she's unsure. Sometimes I will ask for it too. It's an easy conversation that always feels good.

Then there was the hug.

I started asking for a hug at the end of each work session to let her know that we were done. In time she started using it to tell me when she wanted to be done. She always gave me an honest amount of work before asking for the session to end. Sometimes I would be the one asking to stop before she was ready. I always tried to honor her request even if it just meant leaving the arena to continue working elsewhere.

This cue extended to her being able to tell me when she was uncomfortable.

We would go on the teeter totter and since she did really well with it, I started asking for more difficult things. I'd have her back up off of it or balance it. I didn't realize that she was actually a little stressed out by the thing until she hugged me while we were working on it.

I slowed down the asks and made it easier for her. She is now confident and happy to do anything on the teeter totter.

I don't always concede to her request and neither does she. If I want to leave while she's eating grass she will completely ignore my ask. If I want to work on more things, I will acknowledge her request and work a little longer before we're done. Although if she's no longer into it, there isn't much point in pushing it. Sometimes she's just anxious and I will reassure her but ask that she stick with it.

I like that she can tell me when a situation is too much for her. I don't want her to have to get loud about it.

She has also use the cue when she sensed that I'm uncomfortable. I've had some tense moments in the arena. One of these was when we were doing a clinic and I was sharing some hard emotions. She didn't have to do anything at all. She could have just stood there and taken a nap. She quietly came over to wrap her head around me suggesting that we should leave.

The other cue that sorta just happened was inviting me to get on.

I'd seen people teach their horses to give them a boost onto their back.

I started asking her to lift her front left and let me put some weight on it. I'd grab her withers and pull to get myself up. I gave up on it because it seemed like a strain on her neck and back. We dropped it for a few months.

She was the one to bring it back.

Anytime I went to get in the saddle from the ground she'd lift her front leg.

I had never asked for it in that context. She apparently understood what it meant. She was acknowledging that I was about get on and welcoming it.

She never seemed to have issue with me getting on her back.

When I got her she was too young to ride. As she got older, I was hesitant to make the jump to such an invasive and demanding ask. How would she feel about it? Do horses even like being ridden? We had such a strong bond, I was afraid I would loose that connection and trust.

The first time I got on she was very surprised in spite of all the efforts I put into preparing her. We had practiced all the pieces of riding. She was at ease with having me up high, on both sides. I could put anything on her back without her being worried. We had practiced the 'sack of potatoes' with me hoping my upper body on and letting my feet dangle off the side. I could put my foot up on her back and hind without a reaction.

And yet she clearly said "what are you doing?!" the first time I got on.

I slid off and talked to her. I tried again. She was fine with it on the second attempt.

I did alot of getting on her and just hanging out. She never objected again.

Now I ask her permission to get on more often than not.

I'll take her to the mounting block and literally ask "Can I get on?"

From the ground I will make eye contact and then look at the saddle and kinda reach for it while saying "Can I get on?"

Then I wait.

She will lift her front leg and stand quietly while I hop on.

She even starts cueing me when I get the saddle out. She seems excited and eager for the ride. I never treat her for this trick although it does crack me up every time. I always ask permission to put the saddle on too with a quick glance to her eye and then to her back. She will stand still and wait patiently. If she does move away I will give her a minute and do something else before I ask again. I've never had to ask more than twice.

I like being able to ask.

I feel safer getting on knowing she's aware and willing. Our bond has not changed and has extended to riding.

I get the feeling she likes having me up there. It gives her the freedom she wants with the support from me that she likes. On our first trail ride, she walked out confident and curious. I felt it click. It seemed like she realized that this is why I get on. She is bold and happy on the trail.

It makes sense that after thousands of years of domestication, it's the horses who were comfortable with being ridden that made it through the evolutionary filter.

We're now working on her cue for asking me to get off.

I can feel her get uncomfortable when we've been riding a while. She gets a little reluctant to

participate and a little stiff. Again she gives me an honest amount of work. She never gets rude about it and I'd rather keep it that way.

The cue we're working on is for her to touch each foot in sequence. So far she only does one. She's usually clear enough that I get it but sometimes she's just objecting to the girth (which she finds highly unnecessary)

How does your horse to talk to you? Do you have cues that they can use? Does your horse say 'no'?

Having a horse who is not afraid, shares her opinions and can say no is an interesting dilemma. The whip isn't impressive to her and she demands a certain amount of respect. Any time I have been unfair or too rough she quickly becomes reticent. Getting her motivated to work and be cooperative has been an interesting journey. That will be for another post :)

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