Maven - Part Two

If you read Maven - Part One, you may have noticed that my feelings for my horse are not very practical for training purposes. I once joked to my riding instructor that training Maven would be so much easier for me if I had some “ugly horse” glasses that I could put on so that I wouldn’t be so distracted by his beauty. I’m simply too delighted by the things he does without any input from me to think that I could do anything but hamper him. Maven is already a genius when it comes to being a horse. I have nothing to add. He is exactly what a horse should be like.

Anyone who works with horses will plainly see that this line of thinking does not set me up for training success, which is all about the trainer’s ability to influence the horse.

So let’s talk about training for a minute. There are many schools of thought about how to train a horse, but they all have one thing in common: the overwhelming majority of horse training methods are based on the idea that the human must assert himself as the leader of the horse. This concept is derived from the model of stallion behavior: Humans have tried since the time of domestication 6000 years ago to out-stud the studs. Our entry into the training relationship with a horse begins with the establishment of a hierarchy, and we do everything we can to stack the deck in our favor. We put the horse in a roundpen where there is nowhere he can escape us, we occupy the center of the circle and ask him to orbit us on the perimeter. We use an assertive posture to puff ourselves up and move him around, just the way a dominant stallion in the wild would assert himself to another horse. When he moves around the way we want him to, we cease our displays of dominance as a way of showing him that harmony can be found if he complies with our requests and accepts his lower status. Training works because ultimately, horses will choose peace over ego to preserve their own survival. They are smarter than us in that way.

Training methods differ only in how they achieve this outcome, the elevation of the human’s status over that of the horse. Some methods go about it using brute force, some are as light as a feather but psychologically manipulative, and there are infinite variations in between. But all conventional horse training methods come back to the same understanding of how it works: You and your horse are engaged in a struggle for dominance. Training a horse is the process of persuading him to cede his power to you. Your job in training is to convince the horse that he must do as you say. If the horse does not do as you say, you must do whatever is necessary to make him do it. If you fail to make him do it, you have “lost”, and he has “won”. It is important that you don’t let your horse “win” because horses that get used to winning become dangerous. Your success as a trainer is measured by the number and difficulty of the things that you can get your horse to do.

I purchased Maven in 2014 from a trainer who struck me as very capable, and her methods were compatible with the theories that I was most interested in at that time. I could tell that Maven was smart and engaged, and I fully expected that we would quickly find a groove and build on what his previous trainer had started with him.

But once I began to get to know him, it became clear that training this horse in any conventional way would be a mistake, an insult even. The things that I admired most about Maven were incompatible with the subservient role that training cultivates. I feared that if I trained him as I had planned, he would lose what is most spectacular about him - his flamboyance, that charisma, that audacious magnetism that it is my privilege to witness every day. These traits of Maven are born from a brazen and ridiculous self-confidence that would not endure the humiliation of mainstream training.

I also realised that I too would lose something in the process of training him: Training him would require that I suppress that 11-year-old girl who I wrote about in Part One. Maven is the one who has reintroduced me to that girl, and I am so very happy to have found her again. To train Maven, I would have to become more pragmatic, I would have to be more critical and judgmental. I would have to see him as a collection of problems to be solved, rather than the unravelling spool of miracles that goes prancing past my window every day. I would have to assert myself over him. I would have to impose limits on his self-expression and convince us both that this is in our best interest. In order to train this horse, I would have to quiet the butterflies that he has released in my own heart. And who would want that besides old people and assholes?

So Maven and I are heading down a path that is a pretty radical departure from the conventional approach to training. I don’t even use the word “training” to describe what we are doing, and I don’t know if we will ever be able to do any of the things that most people want to do with their horses.

Maven is my friend. His life is worth more than just the pleasure he brings to mine. 

Maven is my friend. His life is worth more than just the pleasure he brings to mine. 

Our friendship is more important to me than being the boss, than getting my way, than winning ribbons at horse shows. It’s actually more important to me than riding at all. That is a big statement to make, and it should not be interpreted as an indifference to riding. Riding horses is the single greatest joy I’ve known in my life - and I’ve known a lot of joys. When I say that I care more about my relationship with my horse than I do about riding my horse, you should understand that what I mean is that I value Maven’s opinion about all matters that affect him, including riding, just as much as I value my own desire to ride him. If I want to ride him, I need to make sure that he is happy to be ridden. Therefore, he needs to be allowed to express his feelings, and I need to be willing to listen to what he says. In order to better be able to hear him, I’ve begun working with him almost entirely at liberty...in an open field, with no ropes, tack, or training equipment of any sort. This way, he is free to say “yes” or “no” very clearly, without escalating his behavior in a way that is dangerous to me. If he doesn’t like what we’re doing, he doesn’t have to rear or buck to let me know; he can just say “no thank you” and walk away.

As you might expect, this egalitarian relationship that we are building has led to a major reconfiguration of my goals as a rider. If I have any goal at all at this point, it’s just to make Maven feel as good about himself as possible. That’s it. That’s my only goal. Every day, I go out into my pasture and try to find new ways to make Maven feel even happier about being Maven than he was before I came out. I give him new opportunities to experience success. The better I am at this, the more he enjoys being around me, the more conscientious he is of my safety, and the more open he becomes to my suggestions about what we might do with our time together. I hope someday to gallop with Maven tackless across an open field. I don’t know if that will ever happen, but I’m pretty sure that Maven knows that that’s my dream, and every day, he gives me another small lesson about how I can get there.

He is a patient teacher, but I’m a fairly dense student. It’s hard to overcome 6000 years of trainer wiring and remember that I have more to learn than Maven does. Sometimes I hear him clear as a bell, and other times it may take days, weeks, or months for me to understand what he is telling me because I’ve relapsed into trainer mode, needing his obedience to assuage the ego of my inner trainer.

But I’m getting better at it, and he is eager to spend time with me, happy to see me when I come out, looking to me when he is unsure about something or needs help. He chooses to be with me, and I am discovering more and more things that he will happily do with me without any form of technical or psychological coercion. He trusts that I won’t hurt him, and he’s beginning to trust that I won’t let anything or anyone else hurt him either. This understanding between us has been a revelation, and it has been hard-earned. He came to me with a head full of assumptions about how people work, and it has taken more patience and humility than I ever could have imagined to prove to him that what we are doing is something different. The trust that we are building is the foundation of our relationship, and it will be the foundation of everything we do together in the future.

I realize that this post goes further in explaining what I’m not doing with Maven than it does in explaining what I am doing.

Part Three will be a nuts and bolts piece explaining exactly what we do and why.

(I have no idea how many Parts there will be. Probably a lot.)