Tuesday, February 1, 2011

“Laying a Horse Down”

Jay and I have had many discussions of this process, which is a technique often used by natural horsemanship trainers.

In my mind, “laying a horse down” is part of the old-school, cowboy method of breaking an animal. I’ve never seen it done, but I’ve seen photos and videos of some of the old methods, and they’re pretty horrific. Jay has tried hard to convince me that, in the right hands, the process can actually be of benefit to the horse.

I couldn’t get past the apparent violence. Forcing a terrified animal into such a vulnerable position can send it into a state of dissociation that’s basically the same thing that happens to an antelope—or a horse—just before it’s eaten by a lion. Some horses never return from this deadened state. After the experience, they really are “broke,” and you can do anything you like to them. There’s no spirit, no fight. They’re automatons.

To me the technique, and indeed the entire idea, reeked of coercion and violence. It recalled experiences from my own childhood that I would very much like to forget. So I argued and argued, but finally agreed to watch Jay work with a horse before making a final decision.

Jay’s method and his reason for laying a horse down are very different from those of the old cowboys. In part, it is teaching the horse to obey. That’s undeniable. But Jay’s other reason, especially with a fearful horse, is that persuading the animal to do something that puts him in such a vulnerable position, and then showing him that it’s not just safe but relaxing, can change the animal’s view of the world. Once the horse has done the scariest thing he can imagine, only to discover that it’s safe and he gets rewarded for it, it will be easier for him to handle other fearful things.

“Teaching the horse to lie down” requires, first, that you have built up a relationship of trust with the horse. Second, it requires impeccable timing, because you have to reward the horse’s smallest effort and slightest try toward doing what you’re asking. Third, it requires enormous patience, because it might take the horse an hour to understand what you’re asking, then another hour for you to convince him that it’s safe to do it. All the while, your energy must stay calm and relaxed.

The other day I watched Jay lay “Roger” down. Believe me, I was watching that horse for any sign of distress! I didn’t see a one. It was stressful and difficult for the horse, no doubt. He was breathing hard, but he wasn’t upset by any of it. Jay took it in small steps, and rewarded Roger for each move in the right direction.

When Jay would let Roger rest and think about the step he’d just taken, often I would see the horse licking and chewing, a sign of relaxation. His head always returned to its calm, resting position, and his eyes had a relaxed look to them.

The whole thing took maybe half an hour. I wish I had a photo of Roger lying flat on the ground (this photo is Sue, who now lies down with just a suggestion). He was completely relaxed while Jay petted his neck, his back, his rump, his belly, his face. It was amazing.

Then, after Jay asked him to stand up again, Roger quietly moved right over to stand next to Jay, nose by his arm, looking  (I swear I’m not making this up!) quite pleased with himself. He seemed happy to have done a good job.

I suggested Jay not call it “laying the horse down,” because what he’s really doing is teaching the horse that lying down on command is a safe and pleasant thing to do. Yes, the horse does, in fact, have to do it, but the way Jay does it, the horse is rewarded at each little step, so that the whole process is not unpleasant for him.

So I’m finding I have to rethink my knee-jerk reactions to techniques. “Laying a horse down,” when done by someone operating within the old, dominance-based paradigm, is a dangerous and inhumane thing. Done by someone who understands horses deeply, communicates clearly and consistently with them, and has their best interests at heart, “teaching a horse to lie down” can actually make a horse feel better about himself, and trust his environment and his handler more completely.

I would guess that with one’s own horse, a horse with whom you already have a trusting and respectful relationship, it would be OK. But still, I’m not going to try this one at home.

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