Nervous Weather and a Bird in Hand

Beautiful and sunny here again today–definitely NOT the norm for early December here. We’ve had some of the highest pressures ever recorded in Washington State this week, and I’ve noticed everything from an increase in my stress-related headaches to people on the road driving more erratically than usual.

The animals, however, all seem extraordinarily happy. The hens have been taking regular dirt baths, the cats are off hunting in the sunshine all day, and I’m still letting horses forage nine acres during the day and feeding only once in the late afternoon. That’s been a real boon for me so far this year, as feeding once daily this fall has saved me a ton of time (that will change, of course, as soon as we have snow cover).  Although it’s been cold at night, the days have been quite pleasant.

Makes a person  nervous. Our nastiest weather (hurricane-force winds, blizzards, arctic fronts) almost always occurs between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, so we’re all waiting for the other shoe to drop.

My first quarter working as a full-time prof (and driving 600 miles a week) is finally coming to a close. I don’t feel like I’ve handled the stress particularly well–and that has caused plenty of problems in my personal life as well as my work with the horses. But the great thing about horses is that good things seem to happen just when you’re at your most frustrated and exasperated.

Yesterday after reading Kate’s post about her ground work with her independent-minded horse Drift I was inspired to do some work with my like-minded young mare Friday. A week or so ago she tried to take off on me when we were on a walk across a field–I was leading her. She wasn’t spooking–she’d apparently just decided she’d had enough of leading. She’s not a big horse, but I nearly got yanked off my feet, and I got a rope burn on one hand.  She tried this same exact thing once last spring. I don’t know how, but each time I’ve been lucky enough to hang on and yank her back around. I marched at her while swinging the lead rope (thank heavens for my 14′ leads!), and asked her quickly back away from me until I felt she’d adequately acknowledged my displeasure.

As Kate says, staying mentally ahead of your horse is really, really important. A lot of intelligent and independent horses don’t have much patience with humans who aren’t reading their signals correctly. But even though I know where this behavior is coming from, it can be really hard not to take this personally.  I know it’s an awesome thing for one’s horsemanship to have the opportunity to work with a horse like this, but this kind of constant testing behavior sometimes really gets me down–I feel like a failure, and worse, sometimes I wind up feeling like my mare just doesn’t like me.  I try not to feel this way, because I know I’ll wind up with a feedback loop of unpleasantness rather than just a matter-of-fact examination-work-toward-solution sort of dynamic–but sometimes it’s really difficult to leave my feelings out of it.

Friday was more pleasant than usual yesterday, although she immediately walked off when she saw I had a halter and lead rope in hand. One of my favorite tactics when she does that is to stand and wait until my other mare Dove comes up to me and then I lavishly praise Dove, give her a treat, and work with Dove instead. The look on Friday’s face when she sees Dove being rewarded is always priceless–(“Uh, wait…I WAS actually going to let you catch me, you know!”) I actually think that doing this sometimes hurts F’s feelings a little bit, but that’s OK. If there is anything I need to get across to this mare, it’s that good things happen if you have a good attitude.

I’ve written a little bit about how birds and horses are alike, and one of the ways you can catch a pet bird that’s escaped (if you happen to have another bird) is to take the caged bird outside and lavish attention on your “bird in hand.” The theory is that the escapee will get so jealous they’ll fly down to you. Horses are just as observant as birds are, and I like using this “bird in hand” technique with Friday whenever I can to make a point. Dr. Pepperberg (the scientist who famously studied Alex the African Grey parrot) would also use this “jealousy” technique with Alex–she’d often “teach” things to Alex and a human assistant at the same time. The human assistant would also get a reward for answering questions correctly, which spurred Alex to pay attention and try to get things right.

One of the things that really seems to ramp Fry up is trotting next to me–I want her to be able to trot with me without waves of crabbiness emanating off of her, and I want her to slow to a walk when I slow my own speed. We managed to get that once yesterday, and I immediately rewarded her and took the halter off. I had the feeling she was disappointed that we were done for the day–and that was exactly what I wanted to leave her with. Good times all around.

BTW, we decided to name the new kitty Olive. She’s got her butt wedged up against the laptop keyboard as I write this…just saw a hilarious LOL cat the other day of a sad-looking kitten sitting on a laptop. “If not for sits, then why made of warm?”







Filed under Posty post

4 responses to “Nervous Weather and a Bird in Hand

  1. I think Olive is an excellent name for a lucky cat! Good choice.
    Interesting what you write about birds and jealousy. I have zip experience with domesticated birds and had no idea that they would respond that way, which is very similar to horses. They do feel jealousy, of that I’m sure.

    And yes, trying to keep our human feelings of hurt out of the mix when working with our horses is very difficult. I have to remind myself not to take things personally when India wants to blow me off, which she does way too often.

    I hope your other-shoe weather doesn’t drop, but that the high pressures moderate some and you get fewer headaches.

  2. funder

    I spent two years thinking Dixie didn’t like me. I decided it didn’t matter: she had to learn certain behaviors to be a good horse, and she needed to be a good horse in case something happened to me and she had to find a new home. I just detached my emotions, especially my hurt feelings, and kept working with her. Now I think she does like me; she’s just a very subtle and non-demonstrative horse. We have a very low-key dialogue going all the time.

    I love using herd dynamics like you’re doing!

  3. Alexandra Kurland puts a big emphasis on rope handling during her clinics, it was from her that I learned how to rein my mare back in when she bolts off by using a bone rotation/tai chi move on the rope to set up a barrier that is instantly released as soon as she comes back. Unfortunately this is not something you can really describe in words, you have to see it and feel it. After you rein the horse in you ask the horse to yield the hips and back up a few steps. Gets their mind back with you in a non-confrontational way.

  4. Funder: I have noticed I have more luck with Friday the more I dial down my demonstrations of affection. She is one of those horses who likes to ‘touch noses’ (sometimes I even blow into her nostrils) and she’d prefer that I did this and then didn’t touch her most of the time (unless, of course, it’s buggy and we are very itchy).

    Kathleen: thanks–Olive is turning out to be a wild little girl. Don’t think she’s going to be a lap cat, but that’s OK.

    Shannon: That’s wild–have never heard of that but would love to see it demonstrated. If you ever run across a video of it, let me know!

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