The Story of Cowboy

One summer, a new occupant arrived in the empty five acre pasture across the street from our property. He was a 16.2 h, bay Quarter Horse named Cowboy. Day after day I saw him wearing a halter 24/7. Seeing him watching my horses and I interact and play together while wearing it day after day, week after week was, to say the least, depressing. Eventually, I was forced to make him a promise that I would do everything I could to get it off of him.

*Note. There is absolutely NO reason for any horse to wear a halter in the pasture! If your horse ‘runs away from you’ as you approach them in the pasture, then it would be best to reexamine your methods of not only management, care and ‘training,’ but most importantly the type of relationship you share with your horse.

I contacted his absentee owner, (who does not live on the property) about my concern and she said she had tried to take it off but found it impossible. I offered to teach him to come running to it and ‘help put it on and take it off’ for free. Doubtfully, she skeptically agreed to ‘let me try.’

A strange, mild feeling of misgiving flashed through my mind as I crossed the road to his pasture that first morning. What the Hell did I get myself into? I don’t believe in ‘spot-solving behavioral problems’ that result from our present day conventional training. True, there is ‘no such thing as a bad horse.’ There are only horses that have been forced to react and communicate aversively due to their owner’s choice of management, care, and archaic training methods. That’s certainly not the horse’s fault.

But ‘when it came right down to it,’ I actually knew nothing about Cowboy, (other than his owner couldn’t get his halter off). Sure, he’d called to me a few times when he ran out of water. But he was so engrossed with drinking that I didn’t have time to make any appreciable assessment his personality. Would he charge me and/ barge over me knocking me to the ground? Would he kick the daylights out of me? Would he rear and strike? Would he take my hand off when I offered him a treat? Needless to say, a lot of ‘food for thought’ went through my mind as I headed for his pasture that first morning. But I’d made him a promise, and was guardedly determined to keep it.

Plan ‘A’ was to create a focal point where we could meet and exchange ‘wants, needs, opinions and feelings’ as I was under the impression that no one could get close to him.

Well, Plan ‘A’ fell apart as soon as I entered his pasture with a food tub waving a halter high over my head and calling his name. Instead of avoiding me, he came running up to me! The real problem soon became obvious. He was not afraid of humans at all! But he was one of the most ‘halter/head shy’ horses I have ever seen in my life. Just raising the halter in my hand to waist level would send him spinning away and as often as not with a definite ‘warning kick’ high in the air at, but not close to me.

So, I went to Plan ‘B,’ (using food rewards). He seemed to REALLY enjoy the wheat bread treat I offered him and didn’t ‘take my hand off’ so all seemed good on that first test evaluation. I gave him three more treats that first morning with the halter hanging on my arm. As I gave him the fourth treat, I let the halter slowly slide down to my hand and momentarily touch his nose. I repeated that ‘halter touch nose’ several times and each time he was given a small treat and praised with a resounding, “GOOD BOY COWBOY!” At most, the total time this first ‘session’ took was less than five minutes.

That evening, I waved the halter high over my head again and called his name as I entered his pasture, (and always each time after that). As he approached, I held the halter out and touched his nose. Then gave him a treat and again, as always, added a tremendous “GOOD BOY COWBOY!” The next session, the nose band of the halter actually went a little bit ON his nose.

*Note. Using the acoustic signal of calling his name when I entered his pasture was important for two reasons.
#1. It is a personal identifier linked to him as an individual. When I call out his name as I enter his pasture, I am notifying him that I am specifically seeking him.
#2. Linking the ‘Good Boy’ to his name notifies him that my human ‘nicker/vocal approval’ is aimed specifically at showing my Appreciation of his actions. See: Law of Appreciation.

Each succeeding ‘two minute session’ every morning and evening the halter went a bit further up on his nose. By the morning of the sixth day I’d got the halter all the way on with me holding both ends above his neck, (but not buckled). But when I came into his pasture that evening, he steadfastly refused and decided he would try to ‘get the treat without all the halter nonsense.’ In short, he shook his head and held back before I could get the halter anywhere near his nose.

INSTANTLY, my shoulders and body slumped dejectedly, my eyes and facial expression turned from joyous hope and expectation to sadness and disappointment as I said in a very remorseful tone, “No Cowboy. You can do better than that,” and immediately turned and started walking away.

I didn’t get ten feet away walking forlornly toward the fence before he trotted ahead of me blocking my way. I asked him in a hopeful expectant tone if ‘he wanted to try again’ and he tried to duck his head into the halter before I had a chance to hold it up in position. We put the strap all the way over and I tightened the buckle that day. That was the day that I took off the halter I had been using, and the halter that he had been previously wearing.

*Note. The effect of the ‘disappointed turning around and walking away’ reaction will be relatively ineffectual without previously establishing some degree of affiliative relationship. In fact, doing so with some horses, (especially male adolescents) could be dangerous as it may be viewed as ‘running away.’ This could well result in ‘chasing’ the human, accelerating retroactive aggressive behavior, and possible physical injury to the human.

The next day was the same. I walked into his pasture calling his name waving the halter high over my head and put HIS halter on and took it off several times. Each time I would wave the halter high over my head and call his name as I entered his pasture and he would come running to ‘help me put it on.’

*Note. If I had initially tried to just ‘take his halter off’ there would have been little if any opportunity to utilize any shaping/chaining sequence for future reference. And there would have been little opportunity to create any degree of affiliative association, (friendly, positive relationship). He would not have learned to happily accept ‘putting it on and taking it off.’

It took me seven days of two sessions per day, (3 to 5 minutes per session) out in the middle of his pasture without using any type of whip, rope, stick or gadget.

*Note. Using ANY type man-made tool or gadget is counterproductive to developing the optimum potential of a truly affiliative, bonded human/equine interspecies relationship. Using tools and aids,(and/or any type of restriction) may pamper and bolster the human ego in that we are successfully ‘training a large animal.’ But then that is a choice each of us must make.

Is your ego more important than the relationship you share with your horse? Or is the relationship you share with your horse, (and giving them the best life possible) most important?

I checked a few months later just for the heck of it and yes, when I held the halter up high over my head and called his name as I entered his pasture, he still came running to ‘help me put it on,’ happily walk with me, and let me take it off.

It was not ‘rocket science.’
It was not ‘magic.’
It was not ‘horse whispering.’
Anyone can do it. Anyone.

All they have to do is gain a sound ethological knowledge of how horses learn to better understand their horse’s perspective. Then give their horse the needed positive motivation, and obvious displays of body, facial and vocal Appreciation. For Communication is the building block of any relationship. And Reciprocal Communication coupled with Freedom of Choice are the cement that binds those building blocks.

A large open area such as a pasture is absolutely essential, (or the most open area in the horse’s environment). The horse has to feel they have complete choice and control of the situation. Trapping them in a round pen, corral or arena does NOT give them that feeling of choice and freedom. In fact, if we want our horse to learn faster, (and retain the knowledge longer) trapping them would be the last thing on earth we would do! Horses are prey animals, and their primary means of survival is flight. Trapping them in a small area and using intimidation/fear as motivation cannot help but be stressful. And we all know that stress hormones inhibit cognition/learning.

Regrettably, there were no other horses in his pasture, so I could not ‘let another horse help teach him’ or activate/utilize RHP, (anthropomorphic ‘sibling rivalry’ syndrome) social cognition. This would have tremendously accelerated the entire process of habituation.

*Note. If you cannot initially ‘let a horse teach themselves,’ then utilizing social learning/cognition, (seeing other horses receiving high value rewards for accepting or doing something) is the next fastest, least invasive method.

The rest is simply patience and coupling facial, body and vocal approval/appreciation, (or conversely disapproval/disappointment) with, (or without) the food rewards, as well as breaking down the needed pattern into small increments. Sort of like taking ‘where we are now,’ and a goal, (where we want to be) and then breaking down the difference into tiny, incremental steps.

You see, in a particular situation like the one Cowboy presented, the need was to FIRST be able to ‘put a halter on and take it off’ BEFORE I could attempt to take off the one he was wearing.

If he had been fearful of humans, I would have used plan A and used some form of nourishment in a feed tub to instill his need to eventually accept my presence, (and later touch).

*If those who compete with their horse would give them a more natural lifestyle, compatible herdmates and a suitable diet proportionate to their true needs, (Freedom, Friends and Forage) and share a truly bonded relationship with their horse, they would find their horse’s potential increase exponentially. And in the process, experience a facet of the human/equine relationship many seek, but few ever attain.

For what it’s worth, (to all those horse owners who are still using conventional training and may not realize the benefits of reward-based training/Positive Reinforcement) the total time involved to convert Cowboy from ‘refusing to be caught and haltered,’ to ‘come running and help put it on’ was less than an hour. Not much of an investment for a permanent solution compared to chasing their horse trying to catch them every time they need them.

PS: Once, much later I visited Cowboy and impulsively tried to teach him our ‘nose to cheek FT Kiss.’ He refused, and instead chose to ‘share breath’ with me. When he first refused I instantly felt a rush of disappointment. But when he immediately chose instead to share breath with me for what seemed like hours, (but in reality was only a few minutes) I think I understood. He wasn’t completely refusing. He wasn’t trying to gain information FROM me on an olfactory level as horses do. He was trying to tell me something on that level.

But being a lowly human with a woefully less sensitive olfactory system, I couldn’t decipher exactly what it was. If forced to hazard a guess, I’d imagine that he might have been trying to tell me that he truly liked me, but our relationship wasn’t quite ready for that extreme proxemic Intimate Zone yet.

Thank you Cowboy, for reminding me not to ‘assume’ anything. And to always tender my human expectations and ‘goals’ with patience and understanding. You see, no matter how much we want something from our horse, to be truly authentic and long-lasting, it has to come within their time frame, not ours.

Through the years, each horse that came into my life has taught me a lesson. Some of them, more than one. And as often as not, many were unexpected at the time. Cowboy was no exception.
Happy Trails!

Chuck Mintzlaff