This is about horse training so get your mind out of the gutter and into the manure pile.
So over the years I've followed quite a few horse trainers. In the beginning I worshiped (and recently though to a lessor degree) insert horse training guru here. I can successfully say that I have unsuccessfully been pure to half a dozen or so trainers. That is, I followed the try, try again if you don't first succeed kind of thinking with varying results.
There are a variety of reasons for that. For one thing, horse trainers don't always make good people trainers. Another is that every trainer, I mean every trainer, keeps something back. Sometimes it is intentional and other times, the trainer is unaware of something small but important they do and or consider things they do as understood. So there's that. Then there is your ability not only to understand what they are talking about, but the skill to execute it. For some unempirical evidence, I present to you my experience using the training stick. I use a training stick well. I use a lunge whip expertly. And just returning to a tool I've had twenty years practice with upped my training game.
The variables continue: riding ability (or as in my case, lack there of) breed of horse (yes, it does and doesn't matter simultaneously), and I can't think of anything else coherently right now, but there are a lot. One less coherent problem that popped into my head and by coherent, I mean hard to understand unless you live in South Kore are open ditches. So alongside most countryside roads are this 4ft uncovered, concrete drainage ditches. If you want to go trail riding, you pretty much have to deal with these and this silver, sun reflecting, apple ripening plastic. It glittersas far as the eye can seen from late July until Novemberish, Though to be fair (to the farmers) from September on, there are also the flying silver sheets of plastic that got away from the apple orchards, didn't manage to snag on a tree, bush, or fall in the ditch.
Everyone but Thunder is really good about. And Thunder being a mare has opinion changes by day and sometimes minute to minute. Well, to be accurate, circle to circle in the round pen.
This brings me to things like side reins and what not. The purist natural horseman will tell you your horse just needs to relax more or something. But with a horse like Thunder, relaxed is relative to now. Having said that, an equine chef baking that special trained horsey cake, probably would have less trouble because after the first few thousand horses its pretty much the same right?
Okay, now that this is nice and long, here's my point. Draw reins are not bad. Lots of very good trainers use them. Probably because the people they learned from use them and so on down the line, Just as not using them isn't bad. It just is.
Thor, our not so bright ex-racehorse went through a really spooky couple of months. Not as in two or three months of Halloween or in the I was scared sense of the word. Well to be honest I was scared so I did what most trainers wouldn't do.
I didn't ride him on Monday or Tuesday or at all for as long as he was jumping out of his skin at what some might say was nothing. But to him it was not nothing and to me it was a big something. Not the spookiness, because that was a symptom of something much bigger going on in his head. He started to see the world.
Racehorses can have a varied experience, and this is not to say they are abused. What one horse can tolerate, other horses simply can not. One thing is certain, they are started under saddle where between their first and second a year of life. This is done in theory to get them ready for the races at two. But there is also a very practical... Once at an auction I watched four men pick up a frightened yearling and put him in the horse trailer. I've suspected all along that something similar happened to Thor.
There is a term in psychology called learned helplessness. The experiment (which I blogged about before but I can't remember when or why) involved dogs, cages and electric shock. It was mild shock, probably similar to what we use for our electric fence.
So the psychologists put the dogs in cages. One side of each cage would be turned on, and the dogs would move to the other side. This was repeated until the psychologists had enough evidence to be statistically significant that dogs would move from the negative stimuli. Then both sides of the cage were electrified so that the dog could not escape the negative stimuli. So the dogs just laid down and accepted. And because the dog learned there was no better place, when the dogs were put in a cage with no electric and then one side turned on, the dogs did not even try to go to the other side.
And this is pretty much Thor in a nutshell. I do not believe he was abused but whatever his training, it was overload for him. And he learned when he was a baby, there was nothing he could do about it. To a great extent (and despite hours of ridden and ground work) he's been like a kid with their hands over their ears singing "lalalalala." It's how he coped with being overwhelmed. Yes, horses can get overwhelmed. Its something to think about when buying any horse.
A quiet horse may not be a quiet horse if they've actually just checked out on life. These horses often come with a certain unpredictability. You might hear something along the lines of, "It's like he never saw a bike before." That's because he or she actually may not have seen a bike before. And I think all the things the parts of being a racehorse lend itself to a variety of coping mechanisms.
Taking Thor for example. We've had him almost two years... that's how much time it took for him to mentally be able to cope with the world. Suddenly, he was spooking at the neighbor's dogs, the cars going up and down the road, the birds, the sounds of anything and even the grass blowing. Some might say he lot his mind, but that's really a misunderstanding of what he felt. I can't imagine how mind boggling it was for him and I didn't want him become so overwhelmed that he shut down again.
Not riding was one way I helped him. Riding places a horse in the position where their behavior has a direct impact on their human's safety and well being. I do believe with all my heart that horses do not want to hurt people and take personal responsibility for the people they love.
I also helped him with clicker training. After about a week of nuttiness, I realized he just wasn't coping well with seeing everything. He was being he best boy he could be. For example, one day something behind him startled him and I was in front. Thor never rears, but he started to gallop and could run into me and, as he often does, didn't think about left or right, so it was up, up. Cute, but also telling. Because when I send him to the left or right, sometimes he gets so worried about the consequences of being wrong, he doesn't know which way to go. I say consequences, because if you learned to round pen from any number of trainers, they are loud with their body language. So I broke with the tradition. I asked him to go around in walk trot and canter and brought him into the middle for some target training with the clicker. Rinse and repeat. S
Suddenly the horse we joked about being not so bright, is our star pupil. He is already picking things up and giving them to me. But it's not only that. Things that took so many repetitions for him to learn before, he gets after one or two tries now. He's learning how to learn as well as how to cope with the world. There is an alertness there that wasn't before. He pricks his ears at sounds and looks at things. You can see him thinking about the world, and while I kind of miss his dopey, "huh" expression, the gain is greater.
When I take into account all four of our ex-racehorses, I see a pattern emerging. One that is filled with a lot unknowns. That said, all four of our guys are have enriched our lives immeasurably.
Fact 1: I've been listening a lot to rSlash on YouTube. (It kind of fills the void of audio books since I've had to cut back on non-essentials. Horses equals tight money.)
Fact 2: I live in South Korea which is buffered from China only by North Korea. Not that physical barriers matter in this day and age. In recent days the number of cases in South Korea have sky rocketed.
Fact 3: There is one case the city adjacent to mine.
The reason for this comes down to one entitled person. You see, she had symptoms. She went to the hospital. The doctor said, " I'd like to test for the coronavirus just to be safe."
So she stayed and got the test and there was a mistake? Nope. She left the hospital and went to three church services that day with about 1000 attendees at each service. And a wedding near me... or someone from the church who caught it from her, came to a wedding. That part isn't clear. Being that she broke no laws at the time, she's just the person who infected a lot of people. But now it is illegal to refuse a test for an epidemic This law was passed practically over night. Compounding the issue is that she belongs to a church that isn't not a cult. Yes, I said that right. Many members are secretive about being a part of the church. So there is no way to track all the people she had contact with.
And members of the church go to other churches to recruit people, so much so, there are signs that people from this not, not a cult church are not welcome. These are the reasons the numbers are jumping.
Fact4: When it comes to these things, I rather tend toward the media blowing it out of proportion because it sells papers.
Not a fact: This time, however, I think it's quite serious. Overall all the mortality rate is 2.5%. That's two in a half people out of every 100 die. However, if you look at the break down, in their 70s and 80s have a mortality rate of something like 14%. The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if this wasn't let out on purpose as many populations have a large elderly ratio to young people and this virus could curb that problem.
But I don't really think that. What I worry about most are my best friends parents and also my best friend. She some existing health problems that are quite common and manageable. As long as she doesn't get this virus.
Pan (Black Panther) broke out of our round pen four times last Saturday. I was so frustrated with him. Our round pen is not particularly secure. Partly because it's temporary... until it's not. We don't know when that will be as the farm takes shape.
Well, we have the water obstacle settling now. But our plans for it to be spring fed died as the spring either dried up or only works part of the year. Or perhaps we broke it. Actually, I recommended my friend not divert the spring out of the pond. This was before we were sure that the old pond would become a water obstacle and diverting the water made a kind of sense at the time.
Hindsight is sometimes 2020 but not always. In the case of the pond we don't know a lot of things, except the old pond was too big and stagnant. At least our water obstacle has stayed about an inch full and we know it will fill up from spring rains. And we can always fill it for events if we ever have any.
So when Panther broke out of the round pen, he ran around the pond over to the pasture where I caught him easily and tried again. I finally solved the escape route by stacking apple crates by the gate and even though he could technically break out anywhere, he doesn't know that.
Also, to prevent him from learning that I had to rethink what I know about training a horse to turn in rather an away. Most trainers use a lot of pressure to teach the horse that turn away is wrong, but sometimes having less than perfect teaches you things you didn't know.
Now, one thing I've been doing a lot of lately is using the words, "good boy" and "good girl." Our horses know their names so they perk up when we say their names. These are things they had to learn though. Horses don't start out knowing their name and they don't know "good boy/girl" from all the other sounds we make. They have to learn what it means.
How do you teach them? The easiest way, and fastest way to teach a horse their name is to call it and either give them attention or a treat. We use a mixture of both and it's not a specific training but a day to day interaction. It's very useful to call one up to the barn by their name. Our horses also know the word "no."
This means a lot of our interactions are verbal. But still, most of my round pen work has been non-verbal. Yet, instead of applying pressure to Panther, I decided to try removing pressure and using "Good boy," so he could get what I wanted. Now, if he didn't already know "Good boy," the results would have been minimal to nonexistent.
Pan is also a "yes" man and in that he is unlike our other horses. Super says, "mayyyyybe." Thunder replies with an emphatic, "No." And Thor plays dumb.... "I'm confused and my feet are tangle." And since this is also often true-- he fell down about six times last year, once in the barn while being saddled, another time with me on him, and the rest were just as surprising --- I'm still learning how to when he's playing dumb to avoid exertion and really struggling to understand.
So, with Pan it takes almost no cue and he goes, "Yes!!!!!! Ma'am!!!!!" Thus I realized, both by his attitude when I caught him and his breaking out, that my pressure level was just too high. To be fair, all of our horses go off of light pressure. Still, with Pan, he really needs to learn to be less reactive and a lot of things don't mean anything ,which is what we're working on.
Every so often the Korean kids, especially young ones, like kindergartners, will point at my belly and say, "Baby?" Baby is just one of those words that translates so well that second language learners get it the first time they hear it. Hamburger is another word.
I am in fact fat. The polite term is overweight, but I don't hedge on this. I usually weight 95 kg which is 211 lbs. I'm five foot five and a half. That half is very important to me. Its both a genetic thing and an eating thing.
The genetic part is this. I like things like pizza, friend chicken and hamburgers. Actually, I don't just like. i love. I've met people who absolutely love veggies as much as I like fries and fried cheese sticks. The other genetic component is a love of eating. I find it a most relaxing and pleasurable act. And I've always been this way. I didn't talk as a young child for the longest time and then suddenly, at dinner time I said "Please pass the mashed potatoes."
Anyway, sometimes when overweight people come to teach in Korea the struggle. When you are a child surrounded by size 0 adults, the plus sized stand out like a sore thumb and the only word you know for it is fat... well, one better grow a thick skin. The kids aren't being rude. By 3rd, though sometimes 4th grade, they know better. But even then they want to talk about it. Not because they think you are bad, but it's strange as curly hair or blue eyes. With blue eyes, you'll hear, "Pretty, and for curly hair they ask, "Perma?" which is perm in Korean. They understand, "Natural."
They also understand, "Hamburger belly." It's not exactly true. I don't eat that many hamburgers and anyway, pizza, fried chicken, cake, cookies, gimchi, gamjatang, and thousand other things are to blame for it. But it's honest. Refreshingly so, that I never fail to get a smile an break the ice even with adults. But what I'm really saying is that I'm okay with my body.
This isn't to say I've given up and just eat whatever I want. For the most part I simply don't buy the things I'll really overeat. That keeps temptation low on days like today, where I've had a healthy dinner of boiled cabbage, meat, mint leave and broth. It's a new Korean dish my friends mom made. When I first came to Korea it was the kind of the dish that made being here so hard. But now I really enjoy this kind of food.
Nevertheless, I'd really love something sweet to chase it down with.
My friend was driving. Squeezed between her and I was Gabe, her 8 year old son. We were talking about the horses.
Me: Thor makes my butt look small.
Gabe: No, your butt is big.
Me: No, your butt is big.
Gabe: No, your butt is as big as a galaxy. (Friendly insults are our thing. Like smell you later and so on.)
Me: Then the Guardians of the Galaxy are guardians of my butt.
Gabe who loves everything superhero; Nooooooo!
Me: Yeeees. Since my butt is as big as a galaxy then the Guardians of the Galaxy or guardians of my butt. I'm better than a superhero.
Gabe gets this look on his face. To an eight year old boy this is a really difficult problem.The only way to save the Guardians of the Galaxy is for him to say my butt isn't that big.
So the routine changes based on how much grain everyone gets and weather I want to brave having Thunder in the barn, but usually, Super and Thor eat together, and Thunder and Panther eat together. Thunder spills grain everywhere and then breaks into the not too secure feed-bin.
The roadway up to the barn is quite steep so I usually slide two feed tubs down. Thor takes his and takes his. And then they share. Each get 1 kilo of sweet feed in the evenings and since the weather has been so hot and humid, a quarter scoop of a supplement. They also have salt and mineral licks and I'm forever changing the water in their troughs from warmed by the sun to cold.
Korea is a really hot place and the horses are dripping with sweat just eating hay by 10 am. I'm so happy that Liz opened up the spring behind the barn. With the rock wall and pond, the loafing shed can be much cooler. I know because we have a chair bed back there and have found myself too cold to nap on some very hot days. Which is fine, there is always stuff that needs doing. I have to admit though, it's fun to hang out back there with the horses and no agenda.
Anyway, tonight I sent the feed tubs down and prepared Panther's dinner. Thunder was already in the barn having broken in for dinner. Despite not feeding them at the same time ever, she's learned to read my body language of when the grain is coming. Smart girl.
So, when I went down I turned around, I realized Thor was not eating his dinner. Panther wasn't eating it either, he's that low in the group. Then I saw Thor, held by the hay net by an eary. Every so often Thor will get stuck this way. Just an ear mind you, but he's been taught to give to pressure. And while it took him longer to understand than any horse I've personally trained and was a true trial in patience, now that it's in there he can't not do it.
Our vet says, Thor reminds people of a not so bright warmblood. But we'd never call him him stupid. For one thing, he's a very, very good boss horse. He's firm but fair. He'll hang out with everyone and really doesn't seem to have a preference for who his buddy is. When they spend their time behind the barn, Thunder is by his side. I mean, right there in the most annoying way possible. Super has little patience for her when she's clingy. Thor also hangs out happily with Super but reminds him of his place. Super has the perseverance of Wile E Coyote. And he hangs out with Panther, sharing a hay net and recently sparing. Which I think is really nice for Panther. For one thing, despite being a stallion, he was too afraid to even think of playing stallion games. As number 4 of the herd, certainly, Thor could really put a stop to it. But there was a break in the weather and so everybody when for a short run and two boys had a fun game. Usually Super spars with Thor so it was just very interesting to see that the game has nothing to do with rank. At least not as far as Thor is concerned.
Thunder spars sometimes too, but she looses interest quickly. Her favorite game is "Run with me!!!" Unless you're riding her, then she's like, "What is this thing canter? I've never heard of it before." Sometimes I think she'd love another mare, but at the same time, it would really be rolling the dice. She's a grumpy girl. And when she grumps at the boys they're all like yeah, yeah, yeah. Another mare might not not.
Imagine stepping into a herd of horses loaded down with treats. What's going to happen?
Put a bunch of kids together and they figure out the unspoken, unwritten social rules. Except the weird kids who don't. Years ago, I read an article about and while I can't really remember much about the article, it stuck in my head.
It came back to me strongly the year I taught kindergarten. It was one of the best years of my life. The school was alright, but the kids. Being a homeroom teacher. Going back to sandwiching English into 40 minutes a day was tough. But I digress. My point is, while teaching kindergarten I was faced with a student who had zero social skills.
If you think about it, social skills are no different than math or science or English for that matter. Well they are different, because nobody writes them down and rarely are the spoken out loud. Nonetheless, it's a set of learned behaviors. And some children need help navigating. It can be quite difficult to teach because first you have to put words to the unwritten rules and then find a way of explaining them and finally create a safe environment for the child to practice their skills. But educating children, especially young children can have a long lasting impact on their lives.
This in influenced my thinking about horses as well. I also read a story about wild horses once, about the how the older mares discipline younger herd members who are causing too much trouble by driving them away from the herd. A horsey time out if you will and when they rejoin they do it with a lot of licking an chewing.
I didn't intervene much when Thunder was introduced to Super. We had one gelding and one mare and that made it easy. However when Thor came, he was weird. He'd ignore anything the other horses did, but out of the blue would jump, bite, and twist. He didn't give any looks or ear pinning. And they way he'd bite was scary.
So I made a paddock in the pasture and anytime he acted too aggressive he went there for a couple of hours and once, a couple of days. Months later during feeding time-- we have no stalls-- I got tired of the squabbling. So, I tried an experiment of driving the horse who squabbled away until the horse changed their and relaxed into staying away. It turned out to be way more effective than putting the offender in a paddock alone.
I've thought a lot about over the past year. If we look at wild herds where humans don't interfere the addition and subtraction of herd members is a much rarer event and less destabilizing. Probably because the wild herd includes a matriarch, a group of high ranking older mares and everyone is generally somewhat related. Even when the oldest mare dies, there is another leader to take over. Being the most aggressive is not how this leader is chose either. It's often more fluid than that. A horse that knows where to find good grazing and water and who is firm but fair. I think that in human managed herds we add horses, take them away, add new horses. We further destabilize things by just being us... grabbing our horse to feed or ride (regardless of pecking order) and much more.
Our herd has clear rules. No squabbling around people for any reason-- these days food and scratches are equally prized. Super particularly with his butt scratches. Offenders have to go stand over there and think about it. And it has worked so well that our boss horse Thor, a guy who used to suddenly lunch, bite and twist, not only gives subtle warnings, but intervenes when anyone (usually Super) is causing a ruckus.
Me: Thor, did you learn that from me?
Thor: That's too much verbal communication for my equine brain, but you're smiling.
Me: You're a good boy.
Thor: I know these words !!!! I love these words!!! Stop mucking, scratch me here (insert itchy spot) and say those words.
And of course I do.
Last night after saying goodbye to everyone, my best friend followed me to the pharmacy door... the house is attached to the pharmacy so it has to be locked after I leave or customers will come in at all hours of the night, no lights and all.
This is a common weekend ritual. Liz paused and suggested we get up early to have a fire today. We chatted back and forth and then decided to be committed to getting up. I woke up about 5:30 but lingered in bed. My friend sent me a message a little bit later that she didn't sleep until 3 am so the fire was out for the morning.
This is not normal Korean life. In fact is about as far from normal as you can get from normal in Korea. Nevertheless it's our normal. I mean having a fire in the morning or not having a fire. Or... most of the things we do. For example, Gabe (English name) recently told one of the girls in his first grade class he has three horses, Thor, Thunder and Superman. They are both signed up to take lessons from a stables nearby through the school and so he told her she should come ride his horses because they were better than the other stables. Well, her mom called my friend.
"Oh, well he really loves his horses," my friend said.
"You really have horses?"
"Yes," my friend said.
You see the mom wasn't calling about Gabe bragging She was calling to let his mom, my friend know Gabe is making things up. Like, "my mom drives a tractor." You know, those kind of things.
Anyway, I wanted clarify that, though we often have fires at the farm, most Koreans don't have fires like Americans do just in case someone is thinking of coming to Korea on the information I write. It's a different life that I live.
So different in fact, that after we both got up around 9, we went to the farm and because my friend had a meeting in Seoul, she suggested I go with her. Thus, we rushed through Sunday barn chores and I'm now sitting at a Starbuks in Seoul writing this blog. It's pretty lame I admit, but these the farm takes up so much of my time it's a real treat. I used to hate riding the bus and the subway when I was in Seoul, but it's refreshingly different.
Writers often talk about characters taking a life of their own. In my case I'm engaged one. His name is Dr. Bob. He has 17 ex-wives. He asked me to marry him while he was at a bar-- east of somewhere-- drinking beer.
Our relationship is quite complicated. For example, my best friend, who is also jokingly my wife (joking in the way some things that aren't true are also true), does not like him any more that my friend's husband likes her wife -- me.
Confused yet? That's okay. I'm confused too. I can't say exactly when I became engaged to Dr. Bob. It happened sometime while writing Do It Yourself Veterinary Medicine for Dr. Bob because he was at the bar drinking beer. Now, I'm working on three hundred ways to say "no" for the website. It's kind of like that song from Simon and Garfunkel.
Setting aside all jokes, I have been working this book for a very, very long time. I'm so happy the book itself is finished. I'm working on the website since the two go hand-in-hand. I'm very excited about this and a bit sad as writing it has been one of my joys in life. I'd leave it for periods and every time I picked back up, I laughed, often so hard people looked at me strange. And sometimes my cats.
Mariel R. is an ESL teacher, horse trainer, writer, editor, sporadic blogger, and lover of beer. She lives in South Korea with two house cats, three horses, a German Shepherd and three barn cats .
Bear (Gom in Korean) )
Geumbi (Goldy in English) R.I.P February, 23, 2018