JOY FULL Horses: Ten Things You Should Know About Cues: Number 9.) You Can’t Not Cue: Part 9 of 12
“She’s just being lazy.” That was what I was told when I first asked about the way Peregrine’s mother dragged her hind toes. She was not even a year old, and she had been mine for just a few short weeks.
The vet hadn’t said anything during the prepurchase exam about the way she used her hind end, but then he hadn’t really looked. This was the first prepurchase exam I had ever seen so I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve watched many more since, and I can say that this was the sloppiest and most superficial.
She was a weanling. What could be wrong? Thank goodness he was so casual with the exam! If he had looked more closely, he might have noticed the way she was moving behind. I’m not sure what I would have chosen to do. I didn’t want a “problem” horse. I wanted a horse I could ride; a horse who could teach me about great horsemanship. The Universe was clearly listening because that’s what I got.
While my friends were taking their adult horses off to shows, I was raising my dream horse. Only there was something wrong. Dragging her hind feet was the first sign.
“She’s just being lazy. You need to get after her more and make her move.”
That didn’t seem right. There was something else going on. A month or so after I started questioning her movement, I saw her fall for the first time. I’m glad I didn’t listen to all those well-meaning horse people who had been telling me to get after her. I had known she wasn’t being lazy. I knew there had to be a different answer. I just didn’t know yet what it was.
One of the best definitions of a teacher that I have ever heard is this: a teacher is someone who started before you. Nowadays, as a teacher, I say to people we need to tell stories about our horses that work in their best interest. The owner of the barn told the “lazy” story about my filly. That story leads to the “get after her” answer.
I told a different story. I didn’t know what was going on, but I was sure there was something wrong. I had a new vet in the practice come out and give her a more thorough exam. This one included neurological tests – all of which she failed.
We need to tell stories that help us find good training solutions. If I say that there is something wrong, I’ll become a good detective. I’ll take care of my horse’s physical needs. I’ll make sure my horse’s feet are well balanced, that his tack fits comfortably, that his nutritional needs are met.
I’ll check for lameness issues, for ulcers, and for other health issues that might interfere with my horse’s willingness to work with me. I’ll break my training down into small, manageable steps. If my horse doesn’t want to go forward, I’ll explain what I want more clearly. I’ll find lots of different ways to say “go forward” until they all begin to make sense.
Suppose after all this due diligence, I discover that actually, yes, the reason my horse didn’t want to go forward was he’s lazy. In that case what is the worst that can happen? He’ll be healthier because I reexamined his overall management. He’ll be better trained because I explained what I wanted. And in all likelihood, he’ll be eager to work with me, and I won’t be thinking he’s lazy. I’ll just be appreciating his level-headedness.
But suppose I bought into that original story – “He’s just being lazy. You should get after him.” What’s the worst that can happen?
In my filly’s case I would have destroyed all the good will I had built up in our relationship. She wasn’t dragging her toes because she was lazy. She was dragging them because she couldn’t feel where they were. The neurological damage meant she couldn’t feel her hind feet as they landed.
The news was devastating. But even more was the prognosis. At that time the vets had nothing to offer. They told me she would in all likelihood continue to deteriorate until she was no longer able to stand up. She would become a danger both to herself and to anyone who was near her. I would never be able to ride her. The best thing I could do would be to put her down.
I couldn’t do it.
I felt trapped. I wanted a riding horse, not a pasture ornament. I couldn’t afford a second horse. But I couldn’t put her down just because she couldn’t do for me what I wanted. Her life had value to her. When she got to the point where she couldn’t stand up and life was hard for her, then I would face the decision to put her down. That was the future we were looking at. In the meantime I had to deal with the problems each day presented.
One Day At A Time
While my friends were learning how to jump, I was teaching my filly how to walk – literally. When most of us talk about teaching our horse to walk we simply mean when we are asking them to walk with a certain energy level and overall balance. We don’t mean how to put one foot in front of the other without falling.
When you are caught in a situation like this, you try many different things. It is truly everything and the kitchen sink. At the universities scientists run controlled studies so they can say this technique works, and this other is just an old wife’s tale. I wasn’t interested in controlled studies. I tried lots of different things. Her condition began to stabilize. She wasn’t getting worse. The neurological deficit was still there. It would always be there, but she was learning how to compensate for the lack of proprioception.
Her balance was better, but not her mood. She was a terrible grump. She didn’t want to be groomed. If you walked past her shoulder, you would get pinned ears and her head snaking out at you to warn you off. I always had to be careful when others walked past her to make sure she didn’t bite at them. The barn owner had no use for her. He made his money by taking clients to horse shows and giving them lessons. From his point of view she was useless, and on top of that she was bad tempered.
I didn’t see her this way. She was my beautiful, best beloved. Together we were figuring out how to manage her condition. But the grumpiness was a concern. She clearly hurt somewhere, but she couldn’t tell me where. As soon as I approached her, she was warning me off.
In one of the many horse magazines I was reading at that time, I came across an article about Linda Tellington-Jones’ TTEAM training. The article described in detail the TEAM body work.
I was up for trying anything. That evening at the barn I experimented with the TTEAM circles. You were to cup your hand lightly on the horse. Then you imagined a clock face. Beginning at 6 o’clock, you moved your finger tips once around the clock back to 6 and a little beyond, pressing softly into the horse’s coat. You were to make one circle, and then move on to a different spot, letting your fingers guide you.
I tried it. My filly melted. Her head dropped. Her eyes got soft. She let me in.
Her whole body didn’t hurt. Finally, she could show me where the problem was. I could do TTEAM circles everywhere but one spot on her shoulder. That was off limits.
Now I could help her.
I didn’t have a lot of money. Taking on a horse was stretching my budget to it’s limits, but I knew I had to learn more about TTEAM. I knew I needed to study with Linda directly.
So I did some research, booked a spot on a clinic she was teaching out in the mid-west and got on an airplane. That was the first of many long journeys my horses have sent me on.
Innovations Come From the Outside In
Whether you are talking about the sciences, sports, economics: whatever the field of study is, new innovations evolve by bringing in ideas from the outside. We don’t evolve from the inside expanding out. We evolve by bringing in fresh ideas and combining them with what we already know. That’s how we come up with completely novel combinations.
That’s what Sally Swift did through her Centered Riding. She introduced the horse world to the Alexander technique and transformed how riding is taught.
Linda Tellington-Jones did something comparable for how horses are handled. She combined Moshe Feldenkrais’ work with her knowledge of horse training to produce something brand new and revolutionary – TTEAM.
Linda describes how she stumbled across Feldenkrais. She and her husband, Wentworth Tellington, had been running a school for instructors in California. They had 65 horses, plus staff and students, and all the responsibility and work that goes along with the running of a successful program. Linda burned out. She divorced her husband, sold off all the horses and went traveling.
As she described it, she put her antennae up and followed them wherever they took her. I love that image, and I have used it myself many times. I follow my antennae, and they have taken me on many wonderful adventures.
Following my antennae took me to TTEAM. I became a TTEAM Practitioner and in the mid-1980s I began teaching. That hadn’t been my intent when I headed off on this journey, but people were seeing what I was doing with Peregrine’s mother, and they were curious. How could she be doing so much more than their own horses when she was so very handicapped?
Because I was willing to travel, I had access to people they didn’t. I was bringing in new ideas from the outside. I was still greener than green in so many ways. Some of my clients could most definitely ride circles around me in terms of their skills on horseback, but I had access to resources they didn’t. And I was beginning to understand balance in a way that could help every horse I encountered.
The Joy of Discovery
There is a lot to be said for riding lots of horses. That’s the typical horse background of most professionals. They’ve grown up on the backs of horses, riding everything and anything that came their way.
I was having a very different and very unique experience. While others were off riding at shows, I was piecing together yet another tiny layer of the balance puzzle. What fascinated me was process. My clients understood that I didn’t have set answers for them. What I was sharing was a love of exploration. I wasn’t giving them recipes: this and only this is the way you train. I was sharing with them the joy of discovering yet another layer in the training puzzle.
People would contact me because they were struggling with some handling issue. Usually within a session or two we would be well on the way to solving their original problem, but now they were hooked on learning more. The adventure of discovery was what I was sharing. Very quickly they didn’t need me any more for the original problem. That was well behind us, but they wanted to keep going, to join me on the journey that eventually led to clicker training and all that it represents.
Ready To Teach
Many of my clients became long-term friends. As their skills expanded, they also became interested in teaching, but often they weren’t sure if they were really qualified to help others. When someone voices concerns about being ready to teach, I always refer back to my own early experiences. We are all experts in our own experience. That is the one thing we can safely say. I may not be an expert in jumping or team penning, but I am an expert in my own life experience. That is something I know well and can share.
A teacher is someone who started before you.
I have always loved that definition. I don’t know where I first heard it or who gets the credit for it. Whoever it was said a very wise thing.
You don’t have to wait until you are The Expert in your field to have something useful to contribute. You can teach and share out of your own experience. As long as people understand that you are teaching process, an on-going, never-ending exploration, you are fine. You aren’t teaching something that is set in stone and where you have all THE answers. You are teaching a process of exploration. You are inviting others to join you on the journey.
These days if you watch me train, most of the time you won’t see anything that jumps out at you that says: she must know TTEAM.
TTEAM was a stepping stone, and a very important one at that. Linda followed her antennae to Moshe Feldenkrais. He told her to keep exploring and to create. She became a Feldenkrais practitioner, but instead of using the work just on people, Linda carried it back to what she knew – horses. Out of that combination she developed something new.
I remember helping Linda at a clinic she was giving for a university audience in Madison Wisconsin. It was a large group that included many vets and vet students. One of the horses she worked that day was a big, raw-boned chestnut thoroughbred named Perfect.
Linda began by exploring his body using what she called tiger touches. Tiger touches are not meant to be therapeutic. They are used to collect data. Instead of the soft circles that I had first tried, in the tiger touches you curve your fingers more like the claws of a cat – hence the name – and you go deep into the muscles. You begin the exploration up at the horse’s poll and then work your way down his spine, shoulders and hindquarters.
At every point that Linda tested, Perfect reacted. When she got to his back, he all but dropped to his knees, he was in so much pain.
I listened to a gasp go up in the audience. Linda was helping people see what had been in front of them all this time.
What they had been taught had kept them from seeing how much pain horses could be in. We had all been told horses are stupid animals. Over and over again we heard this. That was the underlying belief system that dominated horse training. “Horses are stupid animals and because they are stupid, you have to use force to train them.” But then this was added: “Don’t worry, they don’t feel pain the way we do.”
A month or so after I watched Linda working with Perfect, I was reading an article in one of the major horse magazines. It was written by a vet. In the article he stated that horses do not experience back pain.
That was 1984. We have truly come a long way, and Linda, I believe, was a major catalyst for that change.
In 1984 we didn’t pay attention to saddle fit. You found a saddle that fit YOU, and then you used it on every horse that you rode. I remember being taught to put saddles up on top of the horse’s withers. When the saddle slid back on our high withered thoroughbreds, we put breast collars on to hold them in place.
It was Tony Gonzales, a farrier from Hawaii, who started to look at saddle placement. He had people watch how their horses moved when the saddles were placed up on the withers. Then he slid the saddles back behind the “locking in” point of the shoulder and had them watch again. The change was often dramatic. Now that the saddle was no longer pinching their shoulders, the horses could move.
Tony pointed out how uneven our horses often are. I remember being at a clinic of his that Sally Swift was also attending. Tony lifted Sally up so she could see down the spine of a tall thoroughbred. He pointed out how uneven this horse’s shoulders were.
This is general knowledge today, but it took a farrier from Hawaii bringing in fresh information to help us see what had always been right in front of us.
Change Our Beliefs, Change the World
When Peregrine’s mother was first diagnosed, there weren’t any chiropractors, or body workers around to help. They didn’t exist for horses. If they don’t experience pain, why would you need a body worker?
But now there are physical therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, energy workers. They are there in large part because Linda did tiger touches on a chestnut thoroughbred named Perfect. Together they helped people see what had always been there – horses do experience pain. It is just as real to them as it is to us. They are just better at hiding it.
I have always said I was so lucky in my horses, first with the neurological issues, and then later with Peregrine and his stifles. That may not sound lucky, but at least I knew what I was dealing with. There was no hiding these issues. I’ve dealt with so many horses who are puzzles. You know something isn’t right, but the horse masks the symptoms. It’s tempting to dismiss the reluctant attitude and reach instead for “just make him do it” solutions.
Again, we need to remember that horses are prey animals that rely on the safety of the herd for protection. Any animal that looks lame or infirm will attract the notice of predators. To stay safe horses have to hide their pain. That doesn’t mean they don’t feel the sharp twinge every time they take a step. I’ve had lots of injuries that I kept to myself.
If you don’t see the injury, you don’t need to know about it. That’s how horses operate. If they look vulnerable, they could be driven out of the herd. Alone and infirm, they will certainly attract the attention of any predators that are around.
We need to remember this when we go looking for the root cause of our horse’s reluctant attitude. The big things horses will show. It’s hard to disguise an abscess or a torn tendon. But other things they will be reluctant to let you see.
“He’s not right” will be a nagging feeling. Vets, trainers, other horse people will tell you nothing is wrong, but you’ll still have that gut feeling. Listen to it. Be a good detective and tell a story that works in the best interest of your horse.
Coming Next: Stepping Stones
I promised you I would be returning to the ear-shy horse, and now finally in this next post, that’s what I’ll be doing.
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