Saturday, May 08, 2010

Thoughts on being "the Alpha" -- or not

(Note: photo was taken in early March, prior to the recent rash of injuries.)

Working with Bar continues to educate me about horses, about myself, and about life in general. Working with both Bar and Lena has taught me to pay attention to individual horses and treat them, train them, according to their particular personalities and quirks.

Off and on in this blog, I've referred to myself as the "Alpha" and not thought too much about it beyond my own perceptions as someone the horses turn to for direction and leadership. Then I started reading Mark Rashid's book Horses Never Lie and it made me rethink what I meant by "Alpha." My methods are not what I would consider dominating and I'm usually trying to figure out how to give direction that makes sense to whichever horse I'm working with. Bar takes one kind of instruction, Lena another, but both of them are intelligent, playful horses and respond to making things entertaining and interesting.

Bar responds much more to a calm reaction to his antics than to cracking him on the nose. For example, he settles down faster if I say, "Okay, you want to come around me, then keep going around me. I'll just stand here until you're done," than when I smack the halter down on his nose and back him up forcefully.

With Lena, she needs to stop dancing and anticipating what she thinks I might ask her to do and use her brain instead. Some days that means letting her blow off steam until she can focus on something else besides her own energy level.

Trusting my own instincts about my horses and what they need on any given day has been something I've had to learn to do, and with experts all over it hasn't always been easy. I remember a parenting class I took eons ago where they talked about being sure to pay attention to how you're feeling about what you're asking you child to do. If it feels wrong to you--no matter what the "experts" say--it will come off wrong to your child. The times I've felt most unsure in training Bar and Lena have often been the times I'm doing the conventional things--using techniques and hardware others have assured me are the right things to use to show the horses who is boss. It occurred to me that--much like parenting--my horses can tell when I'm unsure and will have absolutely no reason to feel confident in my decisions.

Not to say I will always make the right decisions, but if I am paying attention to my horses and training from my gut--much as I learned to parent from my gut--it might work out better than simply following some proscribed method of horsemanship.

Bar is not like any other horse. Lena is not like any other horse. To train them with push-button rules does them a disservice. Figuring out how to work with them and teach them is as much a gift as it is a challenge.

That is the kind of leader I'd like to be, that is what the term Alpha has meant to me when I have used it in the past. I haven't decided if I'll keep using it or not. Mostly, I'd rather have a partner than a subordinate, so maybe that's a no.


Anonymous said...

Excellent, thoughtful post - I think trusting how you feel about it is an important part, and it takes time to learn what is right for each horse. That's why I don't much like "systems" of training that assume you should do the same things, and with the same gear, in the same sequence. It's harder not to use a system but it's better, I think. (I'm a Rashid fan and have ridden in or audited a number of his clinics, including 2 week longs in CO).

Wendy said...

Great post! I've always rolled my eyes when people tell me what level of "Parelli" they are working on - or any so called method of training. I have to wonder what happened to listening to what the horse has to say.

Good for you for understanding that manuals and specific steps out of a book or video don't always work for all horses.

Having said that, I do think that some people have a difficult time with understanding what their horses are saying to them and those manuals and videos can do some help. But they sure aren't for me!

Anonymous said...

I've linked to your post - hope you don't mind.

Jessica Boyd said...

Thank you, Kate and Wendy.

Rashid has a clinic coming up at the barn where my daughter works, so I think I will at least audit.

The tips and tricks can be helpful, but only as part of an overall toolkit, I think. Insisting that your horse respond in a certain way to a certain technique seems odd--especially when you think about it from the horse's point of view.

And Kate, totally okay to link to my post--thanks!

jane augenstein said...

What a wonderful post! Each horse or donkey, I have one of each, is different; just like people. They all learn differently, just like us.
I have followed Clinton Anderson, Dennis Reis and some Parelli but one size does not fit all, I use what works for me and my animals. I do like Mark Rashid and have read many of his wonderful books. I need to step back and rethink some of this training, because like you said sometimes I feel unsure about it and my horse certainly knows this too.

Mare said...

Great post! It really made me think! Could it be that we do not only taylor our horses training to their needs, but our own??? It's important to train our horses in a way we see fit. All horses think different, act different, and ARE different. To some people that means being the so called "Alpha" and to other it may mean being a partner on semi-equal terms. Your post just got me thinking! Does it really matter how we work with horses? We all have out own styles and ideas, and as long as we find a way that works for us...Thanks for the post, I enjoyed the thought!:D

Sarah Espinoza-Sokal said...

What a great blog post! I work for Parelli and am a huge fan of Mark Rashid's books and I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about being "alpha" and being flexible and attentive to your horses as you train. I've come to believe that everyone has the responsibility of deciding what they're true dream for their horsemanship is and then making decisions based on what is right for themselves, their horses and their dream. Reading Mark's book has really helped me clarify what I really want from my horsemanship - sounds like he's helped you, too! Thanks for sharing!

Sarah from Parelli