TRUE TRAINING 27 - Ninja Cows and Trust

Jan 01, 2021 by Janet Jones

Happy New Year from my horse-and-human team to yours! New decade, new vaccines, new friends and all the old ones too.


I started to write this post about True’s overall progress, comparing his current performance to our Discovery Ride in Post 10. But then we suffered a training interruption. Just when baby horses begin to settle and learn, something unexpected jumps in the way. That’s a big part of training babies: getting them used to all the strange smells, sights, sounds, and events in the human world.


We were warming up at a walk along the Killer Bird side of the arena. True’s settled most of his differences with the birds now, and they’re less active in winter. But he was tense, distracted, constantly checking an area some 500 yards away from the arena. I softened my own muscles, breathed rhythmically, used my low-slow voice, and encouraged my little buddy to drop his head and relax his neck. To bring his awareness back to me, I practiced a little arena embroidery of the type discussed in the chapters on attention in Horse Brain, Human Brain.


 True confessions? OK, I also made the mistake of repeating the mantra of annoyance (“nothing’s there”) knowing full well that horses can smell risks that escape riders completely. But hey, old habits die hard.


All of a sudden—because everything happens with young horses all of a sudden—True leaped straight up off all four feet. High. He landed with his legs splayed toward the four corners of the earth, head and neck like a stone giraffe. His eyes were big as saucers, and he blew so hard you could have heard him wherever you live. Then he started running backward, rearing, and trying to spin. Trooper has never displayed such fear… not even of bicycles or balloons, goats or birds.


He bolted to the farthest corner and stopped, pressed up against the fence, trembling. Now, one of my rules based on the way equine brains work is to respect a horse’s fear... whether I understand it or not. Clearly my teammate was terrified of something I could not sense. I continued speaking to True and asked him with the gentlest of calf pressure to take one step forward. He responded by running in reverse and hopping around on his hind feet, pausing occasionally to blow again.


I dismounted. Yes, I know, this is heresy in many training philosophies because it rewards the horse for bad behavior. But no one, horse or human, can learn in terror. Best to move to ground training for a few minutes, then remount and try again. I didn’t need to add to True’s trauma by pushing him around. I adopted the most relaxed demeanor possible, continued trying to calm him, and allowed him to look, smell, and listen in place. Obviously, the day’s training plan had been hijacked.


I watched, too, and three cows appeared at the property line. To me, they looked like ants at the 500-yard distance, but Mr. Trooper let me know the errors of my assumption. I discovered later that these were Black Angus cows, new to the neighborhood. Google later told me that Black Angus cattle range in size from 1300 to 1900 pounds. Each!  Evidently, they had escaped their property and wandered over to murder my baby.


True and I spent the rest of our session walking back and forth in that farthest corner, moving closer to the homicidal Ninja Cows on an angle, one inch at a time. After 30 minutes or so, he brought his head back down into the Earth’s atmosphere, and I ended our work at that moment with praise and strokes. The cows were long gone, but not in True’s mind. Over the next two weeks, it took six daily sessions of about an hour each to get him to approach the area where those three cows had appeared momentarily. I stuck with him every step of the way, for support and reassurance, but I let him do the approaching. It doesn’t help a traumatized horse to be pressured into a fearful place.  


There are a lot of lessons here. First, with babies, training interruptions occur frequently. Those that cause genuine fear have to be addressed at the horse’s pace, not the human’s. Second, calming techniques of the kind described in chapter 18 of Horse Brain, Human Brain are helpful. Third, horses have fantastic memories—three cows were in True’s life for 15 minutes or so and have never reappeared, but oh boy does he ever remember them! Equine memory is in many ways stronger and more pure than human memory. Fourth, on tough days, look for a good stopping point that will reward even the smallest tidbit of good behavior. Fifth, True is not going to be a cow horse. And sixth, the depth of a training lesson is more important than its surface.


Let me expand on that last item a bit. On the surface, I was asking True to move toward the Ninja Cow Location (remember, they weren’t there any more… though their scent was). I wanted him to get over the cows, to learn not to be afraid of them. That will come with time and practice. But the more important part of the lesson forms in the deepest recess of the horse’s mind. That is to build the horse’s trust, in himself and in me. To reduce his fear of new things in general. To encourage him to follow my lead even when every neuron of his prey brain tells him to run away.


In training, we are faced every day with this decision between surface and depth. Take the extra time to consider the horse’s noggin, to recognize that he is captive in a human world but with a very non-human brain. With that understanding and knowledge, it’s easier to train for depth. Does it take longer to train for depth (trust, human leadership) than to train for the surface goal (approach cows)? Yes. It takes more time, effort, knowledge, and skill. Is it worth all that? Definitely.