Wednesday, January 6, 2010


Happy New Year.

Don’t worry if you can’t come up with a good resolution or two on your own. The grocery store checkout is a reliable source of ideas (albeit a bit redundant), screaming in bold type on every magazine cover: Lose Ten in 2010; Ten Tips for Healthier Eating in '10. I'd personally enjoy more unique headlines: Top Ten Skinny People We Love to Hate; Ten Reasons Fat is Good for You; Make Peace With Your Cellulite in 2010. I’ll let you know if any editors like my ideas.

Last year I was full of worthy resolutions that were (mostly) abandoned by mid spring. This year I wasn’t going to bother until my husband and I had a great talk last week while exercising together (I must admit I am not immune to those screaming headlines). We discussed the tendency to get set in our ways and avoid taking direction, to resist being teachable. As often happens, I thought of life with horses—specifically the training experiences—and how it offers insight into this area.

I’m constantly fascinated with the difference between intelligence and trainability in horses. Highly trainable horses are always intelligent but intelligent horses are not always very trainable. Clinician Richard Shrake has pondered what attributes separate the normal, bomb-around, backyard animal from, say, the (aptly named) Smart Little Lenas or Khemosabis of the horse world. These animals had something extra and almost mysterious. They were special, and not simply because of breeding or outstanding appearance—though they usually had that, too. Uncommonly excellent horses have an uncanny ability to live up to potential. Shrake has developed an easy test that measures not just intelligence in horses but, more importantly, their trainability.

The highly intelligent, resistant horse is, in my opinion, the most frustrating horse to train. I have patience for the dim-witted members of the species; the ones who aren’t particular athletic and just can’t help it. But the intelligent ones can drive you to drink, lose your religion, and pull your hair out. If you thought you had any talent as a horse trainer the extra smart, resistant horse will convince you otherwise. They could be so much more, you think to yourself, as the horse persists in offering his own ideas in place of yours. While super intelligent horses always capture my imagination, with poor trainability it is much harder to get the animal to live up to potential. It has taken ownership of many horses to observe and appreciate trainability and how it trumps intelligence, every time.

I am no doubt spoiled forever since riding Eli. Of course one can scream,“Barn Blind,” (and be correct) but it will be hard to be satisfied with a “normal” horses after having one so highly trainable as well as intelligent. I have had pretty horses and smart horses and enjoyed them all, but never one that is such an overall pleasure to work with. Eli doesn’t need a reason to do what I ask he simply needs to know how and , overwhelmingly, his attitude is, “Whatever you require of me.”

Eli surprised me with the degree of his willingness to please during his first photo shoot last October (see this month’s Northwest HorseSource for some of those pics). To get him to puff up, stallion style, we put him in with our newest member of the herd—Cowboy—for the first time. I was sure he would be all pomp and circumstance, but retrieved my whip to get him to move out in the pasture if I needed to. Instead of puffing up, and focusing on Cowboy, Eli’s focus was on me—What do you want me to do? He didn’t run off, tail flagging, when I swung the whip his direction, but turned and walked toward me, his eyes gentle and curious (see above photo). Though I hadn’t worked him in the round pen for many months the appearance of the whip and my body language triggered a response. He had learned comfort comes from being with the trainer and doesn’t need to try out his own ideas, repeatedly, to be reminded of that lesson.

This year, instead of focusing on my outer appearance (though I have sworn off dip for awhile, and the Bailey’s on ice, and fudge, and…), I want to focus on an inner quality in 2010. I want to be teachable: willing to learn, to change, to grow into my God-given potential.

Here’s to a teachable 2010.


Jonna of Acer Farm said...

now that's something I might just have to ponder: the difference between trainability and intelligence.... interesting..

Catherine said...

I think its fascinating Jonna. I'd never thought about it until after reading a Richard Shrake article a few years ago. He has a test (you can probably find it on his website somewhere) and you rate the horse on a point system according to their reaction/resistence to different stimulation. Happy New Year, btw:).

Tracey said...

The horse's mind is a complex thing. What makes one stand out while another, who appears to have the same attributes, falls flat on their face? Sometimes it simply boils down to heart. While one has the technical skills, the other has the heart. All the talent in the world cannot make up for heart.

Catherine said...

I completely agree with you Tracey. You can't train heart into a horse. I used to believe horses were essentially equal mentally and if they had the athletic constitution for a task it was simply a matter of training. I do not believe that anymore. Having said that, I've learned the most from the difficult/resistent ones!