Sunday, August 3, 2014

Book Review: Zen Mind, Zen Horse

Zen Mind, Zen Horse - The Science and Spirituality of Working with Horses by Allan J. Hamilton, M.D. fills a gap in existing horse training literature by focusing on the direction and intensity of energy while working with horses, and on horse psychology.  There have been countless times when I have read a horse training book and attempted to apply it, only to discover that the method didn't work for me and my horses.  It wasn't until I found myself in situations where I was asked to teach what I know about training horses to other people that I discovered that it is not enough to explain how to do it and to model doing it myself.  A person can follow the exact steps I describe and emulate, but if the direction or intensity of her energy is off, the horse will not respond as desired.

For instance, when I was in Hawaii last December, the trail guide helped a girl onto her horse and then told her to take him over to the water trough and let him drink.  The girl flapped her legs on the horse's sides and yelled, "I can't get him to move!"

The guide was busy checking tack and giving other riders a leg up, so he ignored her.  I knew that he simply wanted her to get her horse out of the way, and it probably wasn't urgent that the horse get a drink.  She continued to flap her legs with the same intensity while yelling, "I can't get him to move!  How do I get this horse to move?"

When it became clear to her that the guide was too busy to help her, she turned her attention to me, remembering that I mentioned having experience with horses.  I didn't know this horse, so I really had no idea what would and wouldn't work.  All I could do was offer a few suggestions like kick harder, dig your heels in, whack him on the rump with the end of the rein, and still the horse would not budge.  I could see that the horse was in the way of other activities going on, so I climbed down from the porch and led her horse to the water trough.  She sighed and thanked me, but as soon as I walked away to get my horse, the girl panicked and yelled, "Now I'm stuck here!  What do I do to make him move some place else?"

I assured her the horse would move once all the other horses headed out.  Rental trail horses are pros at following the leader, but not always so good at acting independently from the herd.  Still, the rider felt uncomfortable being so far away from everyone else, so I told her to sit up straight, point her belly button where she wants the horse to go, and push the horse forward with her energy from her belly.  She looked at me like I was crazy, but she tried it, and the horse then moved.

Another time a friend was trying to get a horse to jump over a log while she lunged it in a circle.  Each time the horse came around, it either balked and refused to jump, or it ran around the log.  She had been practicing this a while, basically waiting for the horse to choose to jump the log, and not getting any results.  I wondered if the problem was that the horse didn't have enough confidence to jump it, and needed to be shown that it could jump it, so I asked if I could try.

On my first attempt of putting on pressure, the horse did jump the log.  My friend wanted to know what I did differently from her.  My response was to say that sometimes you have to push a horse to do something so that it knows it can do it in the first place.  Then you can wait for it to choose to do the same task after it learns that it can do it.  I realized later, though, that it probably had a lot to do with where in relation to the horse's body that I was directing my energy, and how much energy I was applying.  That's something that is not easy to teach.  You learn it through experimentation and observing the results.  If the horse overreacts, you applied too much energy.  If it under-reacts -- not enough energy.  If it doesn't even come close to what you are asking, your energy may be in the wrong location.

Think of an accelerator pedal on a car.  Jam your foot down on it and you'll get a speeding ticket.  Tap it, and you may move forward, but won't get very far.  Push with your foot in the wrong location, and you'll probably either be braking or popping the clutch.  After a while of making a lot of mistakes, most people learn where the gas pedal is located and how much pressure to put on it in order to go different speeds.  We go through the same learning process when working with horses from both the ground and the saddle.  The thing is that most experienced horse people forget about the process after it becomes second nature, so it is difficult for them to teach the inexperienced.

For that reason, I was happy to see a book that combines the principles of chi with horsemanship.  Dr. Hamilton created diagrams to illustrate where to direct one's energy when asking a horse to perform specific tasks.  He draws his horse training techniques from many well known natural horsemanship trainers like Monty Roberts, Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, John Lyons, Mark Rashid, Clinton Anderson, Pat and Linda Parelli.  The book focuses on ground work and horse behavior, and does not claim to offer equitation instruction, but the author does a good job of explaining the psychology behind a scared horse and how to shut down its energy either with a one-rein stop or through circling away from a scary object and then allowing curiosity to replace fear.

The book also offers practical advice such as halter fitting, how to safely tie a horse, and how to safely pick up a horse's feet.  Much of the information I had learned elsewhere, but occasionally I read something that was news to me, such as "a good back-up is the key ingredient to teaching your horse to relax."

This is a book I wish I had available when I bought my first horse and was trying to figure it all out.  I'm sure it would have put me on the fast track to better horsemanship.  I remember watching my horse trainer lunge Bombay with such ease, standing in the center and only turning her body as he went, or so I thought, and wondering why my horse did everything perfectly for her, but not for me.  I didn't understand that she was driving and aiming the horse with her energy the whole time that she stood there looking like she was doing nothing.  When I asked her how she made him move so consistently and change directions and gaits at her will, she only talked about the verbal cues and body language, but didn't mention the energy involved.

In retrospect, reading this book reminds me of just how much time and patience one must put into a horse to create a solid partner.  There were points in the book that worried me, though, because we are instructed to try certain things, but no suggestions are offered on what to do if the horse gets out of control.  It is assumed that the result will be positive.  I, for instance, know that if I try to desensitize my horse to having a saddle hanging under his belly, he will go rodeo on me and destroy my saddle.  So, I would not encourage a beginner to slide a saddle down a horse's sides and under its belly.  I know that once a horse is desensitized to that and taught to hold still when it happens, it will probably save a life, but there's a lot of work to do in between that the book avoids discussing.  On the other hand, I understand that books rarely provide enough space for authors to cover every angle of a subject.

There were a few moments toward the end of the book where statements were made like "never" do this and "always" do that, yet I can think of instances in my own experience where there were exceptions, and as I gain exposure to more and more ways in which humans interact with horses, I realize that my world is very small.  The possibilities are limitless, but reading Zen Mind, Zen Horse is a good start to get yourself and your horse out there to explore those possibilities.


Cut-N-Jump said...

Not every trainer refers to body language as 'using their energy', and some never make the connection, which could be why yours may not have mentioned it when explaining to you what she was doing and how she was getting it. What works for some...

KD said...

Hello Nuz, I would like to follow your blog more regularly but I can't get the feed to work. Will you offer an email feed as well? Or, if not, may I have permission to add your link in "blogs that I follow" on my blog? Thanks!

KD in Florida

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

KD - I can't find a way to enable email feeds, but of course you can add a link on your blog. You don't need my permission for that. Sorry my blog has been so fussy for you.