Sammy was a pretty gray mare. Pretty to look at, and pretty darn smart. I was on the farm that day to vaccinate everyone, and when she was brought out of the stall I noticed her big right knee. I asked her owner what was going on and she said, “Oh, It’s my fault, and I feel awful about it. I got up later than usual two days ago and before I even got to the barn I heard her banging on the stall door. Whenever I’m late, or if I grain someone else first she either starts kicking the walls, or banging the stall door with her knee.” I think this owner should feel awful about the situation, because she caused it. Not by being late, but by letting herself be trained by her horse instead of the other way around. Good job, Sammy.
Horses have the most amazing internal clocks. Feed them for three days in a row at 7AM, and at 6:58 on day four they’re looking for you. With horses like Sammy the anticipation becomes physical. Do the same 45 minute workout with your horse every day, and then go a few minutes over and you may well notice a sudden lack of motivation from your animal. Sounds a little like us when quitting time comes.
If you stick to a regular schedule, your animals very quickly learn your timing, all without the benefit of clocks. Here is a suggestion. Instead of always being on schedule as you do chores around the barn, vary the time that you show up. Be regularly irregular. For example, if you usually feed up at 7 AM, show up tomorrow at 6:45 or 7:15. If your horse is used to a one hour work out, make it 50 minutes next time and maybe the next day an hour and 15. If you always show up after a work day at say, 5:30, run some errands first and be late. Vary your schedule enough and, as ironic as it seems, your animals will feel more secure as they learn that eventually you will show up, and that there is no sense in getting in a tizzy because you aren’t punctual.
An excellent trainer once told me that if he is heading home from a ride and his horse begins to jig a little faster when the driveway to the farm comes in sight he just rides right on by, and goes another 5 or 10 minutes past his place. Then he turns his horse and heads back home again. If the horse starts to get anxious to turn in from that direction, the trainer again just rides on by. He told me that he will keep this up, no matter how long it takes, until the horse finally will walk by the drive without speeding up. When they arrive at the barn he praises the horse and puts him up. Next time the acceptance comes quicker. This wise trainer told me that every minute spent with a horse is a teaching opportunity. He said he has been late to more than one family dinner to make a point with the animal he is working with. “Throw away your clock and your own schedule when a particular issue needs to be resolved.”
Understand, I’m a veterinarian, not a trainer, but it’s not unusual for me to come into contact with at least one horse every day who decides what will happen, and when. This was taken to an all-time low about 10 years ago when I arrived at a farm just as my client was coming in from a trail ride. I asked her where she went for her ride, and she replied, “not too far today, he only wanted to go for 15 minutes, and then he turned and headed for home. He decides where we are going and how long we are going to be gone.” No surprise that this horse is very difficult for me and the farrier to work on. Just picking up a foot is a project. The decisions concerning all your animals should be well thought out and should, of course, include their welfare, but you should always be the leader.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM