Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Trouble with "Cowboys"

There are cowboys, and then there are "cowboys".

The former have a good hand with a horse, a good understanding of how big of an impact body language plays, respect the instincts of a flight animal, and successfully start and train wonderful animals.

The latter however? The latter are the complete opposite. They "accomplish" the same as the former, but the end result is something entirely different.

The "cowboy" trained animal results as one that holds onto fears and trauma because fear was used to start that animal. The same methods that a cowboy will use are abused when used by a "cowboy".

Flags, carrot sticks, and use of a rope by a cowboy can be valuable tools to direct, redirect, focus, and shape the behavior of a green horse. A cowboy knows how the tiniest of gestures from their body or the tool they use as an extension of their body can greatly influence the responding behavior in the horse. Through proper use of these tools, the cowboy and horse find a middle common ground where they communicate and work with understanding.

"Cowboys" over-use these tools. Their gestures are over-large and very threatening. They don't seek to find a common ground of understanding with the horse, they seek to dominate and force the horse to their will. The horse, fearful for its life, complies.


I'm sure many of you know just what I'm talking about. I'm sure you've witnessed it with your own eyes. And I know you can think of examples of horses that have resulted from cowboy training and "cowboy" training.

Q was trained by a "cowboy". The longer I spend time with my little mare, the more she tells me of her past.

We've managed to work through many issues:
  • she used to be incapable of standing tied; now she will stand for hours.
  • she used to be flighty and panicky when in the round pen, running herself in circles with the mere presence of a human in that shared space, staying always at the outer perimeter; now she is calm and relaxed and would rather follow me about than run away.
  • she used to be very nervous about being handled from the ground; now she's her calmest when being handled from the ground.
  • she used to be an absolute monster about trailer loading, nearly bowling me over to avoid getting on; now she's more apt to push past me to self-load herself - she self-loads at the very first opportunity.
But I'm still working through some and still uncovering more to work through.

That "cowboy" trained Q with excessive force. The fear he instilled in her sticks with her strongly. It's at her core. The first things she ever learned about riding and being handled she learned from him.

The scars from his rowled spurs on her belly scream about the force he exerted to "train" her to move laterally. The larger mark on her right side is likely why she moves as well as she does to the left now, he forced her harder to that direction and she still gravitates that way more now when she's scared.

But the worst of it? The worst if it is the extreme claustrophobia and fear she exhibits when you try to stretch and handle her hind legs or deal with her hind end. You see, that "cowboy" who trained her likes to break horses by tying a leg up because they grow tired faster of fighting when they've only got three legs. This information was a strong theory I'd developed over time, but it has more recently been confirmed to me by others who have been around that "cowboy" and horses "trained" by that "cowboy".

He definitely spent more time tying her left hind as she's far worse with it than the right hind. I can only wonder how long he left her tied up with a leg in the air like that. It kills me to think about it though, so I never ponder for long.


Fortunately, Q doesn't have a mean bone in her body, a fact that makes this all the more sad and makes me wonder how she would have been if she'd been brought up by someone kinder. It makes working through her issues a little easier to do though. She doesn't strike out in fear when you work with her. She always tries to escape; from small side steps to large jumps and whirling, she always seeks escape. (She's also never offered a buck or rear under saddle in our 3.5 years together.)

She's EXCESSIVELY better about things with her hind end now. She lets me trim her feet with minimal issue. Treating scratches last year on her hind legs was a bear of a task, but we managed (albeit with lots of screaming from me because of her escape antics when all I wanted to do was make her better).

But that fear is still very much there, evidenced by how Q is always at least a little on edge when you handle her hind feet. Or how she gets more nervous than any horse I've ever ridden about noise approaching her from behind, despite having a lot of experience with it because of endurance competitions!

Strides are being made and Q handles things better every day I spend with her, but it is still so sad (but not surprising) to me that she holds the fear so strongly after this time. Each season I've focused on a certain fear of hers to work through: first standing tied, then onward to being handled on the ground, then handling of her hinds for trimming, then the trailering, then her anxiety in the round pen. This next season we will be focusing on more extensive handling of her hind feet/legs with a goal of being able to stretch her leg standing behind her - this is something she fosters the most fear about. We'll take time and baby steps and I know we'll get there.


So, some queries: Do any of you have a horse that was trained by a "cowboy"? Or experience with them? Specifically, a horse whose legs were tied/likely tied like Q's? What did you do that helped your horse through its fears developed from this kind of "training"?

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