Training via Flight Instinct, and Otherwise

This winter I am studying the Liberty and Horse Behavior course from Parelli Natural Horsemanship. It’s a course I’ve been interested in for several years because so much of how I interact with my ponies is at liberty. Finally all the stars aligned to create the opportunity. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much I already know!

I am one of the lucky horsewomen whose husband shares an interest in the hoofed creatures in our lives. When Don overheard one of the lessons, he expressed interest in watching the course with me. His comments as the course has progressed have helped me understand that while I am the one immersed in equine pursuits right now, he’s been around horses a lot longer than I have.

Don’s first job in his chosen profession of logging was to skid poles with a mule named Pete. Pete was quite well versed in his work, so Don’s involvement was mainly to hitch Pete to poles, which Pete then skid loose-headed to the destination where Don met him to unhitch him. Pete would then head back up the hill loose-headed, unless it was lunch time, which he announced by leaving. Don got his preparation for this particular job via his childhood in Allenspark, Colorado, a small mountain community where there were a number of dude strings and livery stables. Don never worked at these concerns, but by casual observation he saw a wide range of horsemanship skills amongst the owners and cowboys who did. While Don’s own horse ownership career was quite short – a horse with less training than his skills could handle at the time – Don has ridden horses for search and rescue and at another extreme had to euthanize horses after a traffic accident. For many years he would be visited in the woods by mounted cowboys out tending cattle herds on the Colorado State Forest. They appreciated his logging work because he left the forest easy to ride through.

Last night we watched a lesson in which the assertion was made that many horse trainers rely on shaping the flight instinct. When a smart, confident horse comes along that isn’t as inclined to move its feet after being given the usual cues, these trainers often label the horse as stubborn or, worse, untrainable. This was a revelation to me, but Don immediately tuned in to the distinction since he’d seen exceptional horsemen and otherwise over his many years of horsewatching.

When I asked Don how he knew the difference between the different approaches to horse training he saw growing up, he said it came down to how fast the horses’ feet moved. It was most evident in trailer loading. The best horsemen led their horses into a trailer at a walk. On the other hand, Don saw numerous occasions of horses being forced into the trailer by making sure they didn’t have any other choice. He even witnessed a man trying to ride a horse into a trailer because they couldn’t load it otherwise; the man was badly injured when he didn’t duck far enough.

What little horsemanship training I’ve had from people – the most valuable training I’ve had has come from my ponies – has come from those interested in natural horsemanship. Fortunately for Don, we do have one shared experience seeing the ‘otherwise’ type of horsemanship. We witnessed some young Fell Ponies being twitched in order to get their feet trimmed. The owner didn’t have the time to properly prepare them with training so used this technique to get the job done. Don can remind me of this experience when he needs me to understand that horse handling that doesn’t put much stock in the relationship is not all that uncommon.

Over the years, and as recently as yesterday, I’ve received comments that my ponies are very fortunate. This revelation about horse training via reliance on the flight instinct helps me understand a little better where these comments are coming from. It also gives me new insight into why many people don’t like ponies, since many ponies are quite smart and less inclined to move their feet. Of course, this is precisely why I love them! How fortunate I was to be introduced to pony ownership via natural horsemanship where training is based not on the flight instinct but on the relationship. There’s no way I could have enjoyed this journey otherwise!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2013


About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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