What I learned from Bentley – The Value of Choice

Bentley is a miniature mule who will be 3 years old in 2019.

This past summer, a friend came out to take some photos of me playing with my horses. I took Bentley out to a big empty pasture, one he’d never been in before, with the idea that the background would be better for the pictures. But since it was a new space and we were completely at liberty, I knew it might not go well. I even said to Thia, “if he runs off, I guess we’ll just be done then.”  And that would’ve been okay.

He really had true choice: engage with me and play our games, which would earn treats, or go explore the new pasture, and graze on free grass, and run and play, or go back over to the fence where his friends were waiting. Every option was rewarding, and he had the freedom to choose.

It was my job to make it so engaging and fun that he wanted to stay with me. And he did for a bit, but then he wandered further away, exploring a new space, grazing a bit. He trotted further away, and I gave him a moment and then called him, he looked and I called again, asking him to “come touch” to give him a focus.

He turned and flipped his lil mule tale, flattened those big ole ears (for aerodynamics lol) and trotted right back to touch my hand target and stand in his “be polite” position at my side. He continued to show off his backing and sidepassing for the camera, walked and trotted with me, and when we were finished he walked back through the gate and into his own pasture again, all at liberty.

It was a magical moment for me. For those who don’t know Bentley’s whole story, we had a rough beginning to our relationship, when he and his brother got lost in the woods for 3 days: you can hear the whole story here.  To have him make the choice to leave his explorations and hurry back to play with me less than a year later was amazing, and it’s due to using positive reinforcement and incorporating choice into his training.

Choice has always been a huge part of our journey together.

Initially, there was no choice, as we had to do things like get him on the van to bring him home, get him gelded, get his feet trimmed and generally keep him safe. That, unfortunately, ended up in a lot of dragging him from A to B, despite our efforts to do it as little as possible. As little as possible didn’t mean it didn’t happen, and it really made an impression on him.

Once I got him home and was able to start working with him regularly, liberty work was the key to everything. I taught him to stand quietly beside me, walk and trot with me, back, sidepass, pick up his feet, stand on a mat … all at liberty. Then I put the halter on, and because he already understood what I was asking, there was no pulling or resistance.

After he was solid on these skills in his own pen, I decided I wanted to bring him into the barn to work with him. Because of the still recent trauma of his escape, I put a halter on him and led him out of his pen and to the barn door. That was fine, but he wasn’t sure about going in the barn, and immediately decided that I was going to drag him in. I wasn’t – I’d decided I’d have the halter on as a “safety” but under no circumstances was I going to pull him into the barn.

But I didn’t have a chance to explain it to him … he’d get anywhere near the barn door and fly backward, dragging me along with him so that I couldn’t possibly keep up and prevent the pull on his halter. After three times, I knew this was only going to escalate and make things worse.

Traditional horsemanship would say that I couldn’t let him win. Traditional horsemanship would say to put a rope halter, or a “correction” halter, or a chain on him, and make him stop dragging me away from the door. Traditional horsemanship would have me getting out a whip or a stick or a flag, to show him that it’s scarier outside the barn and he has to go in to relieve the pressure.

I took off his halter.

I needed him to know that I was not, under any circumstances, going to drag him into the barn.

I needed him to know that it was completely his own choice, and that he controlled when he would walk through that barn door.

I asked him to touch his target – which I’d been doing with the halter on as well, but he couldn’t engage, worried that I would force him inside. Without the halter, he engaged with me, and while he still had anxiety about walking through the barn door, he was able to do it in just a few minutes, of his own choice.

The first day, he walked in, ate a jackpot (handful) of cookies, and scooted out again. I called it a win, and took him back to his pen to play a bit more.

The next day, at liberty from the start, he walked into the barn, and started targeting all the new and scary things he found there, clearly proud of his bravery and cleverness, and quickly learning that the barn was a super fun – and rewarding! – place to be.

Today, I can catch him and lead him into the barn as easily as my other colt his age, who was born in that barn and led in and out every day for his first 6 months of life.

And because I gave him the choice to come in the first time, he doesn’t have any fearful or painful memories of walking into the barn that may come up and undermine his trust, either in that situation, or in me. In fact, because he felt like he was in control, and because it is associated with the food rewards he earned for coming in to touch a target, he has a very positive association with the barn.

Sure, I could have gotten him into the barn using the more traditional methods. But that would mean using fear or pain, and those memories are never erased. By allowing our horses to choose to participate, we’re making sure they’re comfortable with what we’re doing, and engaged in learning.

Last week was a milestone, when I opened the gate to get Bentley out of his pasture – the furthest away from the barn – and he followed me, at liberty, all the way into the barn. I did finally have to put a halter on him … to get him to leave the barn when we were done playing!

How can you incorporate choice in your routine with your horse? Have you tried taking the halter off in your groundwork? It’s a great way to challenge your horsemanship, and ensure you’re focusing on communication and trust, rather than control.

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