The problem with living in the present is that it’s easy to forget what we promised to do in the past. On October 16, 2011, for example. That’s the date on which I told you in this post that I thought it was important for people and horses to let things soak, and that I’d expand on the topic later.
Seven months certainly qualifies as later…and I want to apologize for having taken so long. If you’re one of my faithful readers, you know that I’ve had other things on my mind…
This week, the new horse and a hose reminded me to revisit the concept of “soaking.” Lest you misunderstand, the water involved has nothing at all to do with the concept of soaking. That’s just a coincidence.
I first came across the word “soak” in Roger and Joanna Day’s book The Fearless Horse, and when I did, I stopped saying things like, “Let it sink in” or “Give her a minute or two.” It was interesting to hear Buck Brannaman use the same word and employ the same concept.
Rather than speak of it in the abstract, let me share with you how soaking helped me bathe the new horse. As I’ve mentioned before, he’s one of the bravest horses I’ve ever met, but he’s afraid of being sprayed with water. My guess is that at some point in the past, the water was too cold, he was scolded or punished in the process, or he didn’t have time to figure out what was happening and became overwhelmed.
I could avoid the problem entirely and never give him a bath or I could barrel through his fear and resistance and get him clean no matter how he behaves, potentially leaving him with a legacy of bad behavior that others could dismiss in the future with “He doesn’t like...“ or “He’s bad about…” or “He won’t…” But that’s not good enough for him or for me.
A play in three acts
by Katie Hill
Cast of characters: New horse, Katie, Irish-Yankee horsewhispering boyfriend (IYHB)
Props: Hoze and nozzle, treats (following clicks), halter, chain, lead rope, clover
The play takes place over approximately an hour on a horse farm in Litchfield County, Connecticut
Act I, Scene 1: The Irish-Yankee horsewhispering boyfriend (IYHB) holds the new horse while Katie raises the spray nozzle to let out a gentle shower of warm water. The new horse immediately tries to walk away. Katie lowers the nozzle and waits, while IYHB gently leads the new horse back. Katie sprays the new horses’ feet with warm water, raising the spray to the coronet bands and then to the cannon bones. Katie then removes the spray from the horse’s body. Soak (this is the term for what’s happening when it looks like nothing’s happening).
Act I, Scene 2: Katie sprays the new horse again, up to his elbows. The new horse becomes anxious. Katie scales back the request, spraying the new horse’s cannon bones.
Act I, Scene 3: Katie gives the new horse a sponge bath. The new horse lets out a big sigh and eats clover.
Act II, Scene 1: Katie sprays the new horse’s front legs with warm water, raising the nozzle to his shoulders and then to his neck. Katie walks away with the hose. Soak.
Act II, Scene 2: Katie sprays the new horse’s shoulders and then gradually aims the spray behind the shoulders, at the new horse’s side. The new horse becomes agitated and tries to flee but is restrained by the hand and soothing voice of the YIHB. Soak.
Act II, Scene 3: Katie is spraying the horse again…quickly moving up from feet to shoulders. The new horse displays minor anxiety. Katie steadies the nozzle, wondering why it took her so long to think of that variation as a calming device. Soak.
Act III, Scene 1: Katie moves the nozzle onto the new horse’s abdomen. The new horse tenses and moves away from the spray. Katie withdraws the spray. The YIHB thinks it’s time to stop for the day, expressing his concerns about whether further attempts will backfire. He and Katie discuss the pros and cons while the new horse soaks.
Act III, Scene 2: Katie puts the spray back on the new horse, reaching his abdomen. The new horse moves and Katie keeps the spray on for several seconds. The new horse releases a long, ruffling sigh which sounds as if it came from deep in his belly.
Act III, Scene 3: Katie tells the YIHB, “We’re done.” The YIHB leads the new horse back into the sacrifice paddock. The new horse takes a nap.
It’s so easy to let our impatience and irritation get in the way of successful horse training, especially if our horses have problems we think they shouldn’t have, which embarrass us, or which stand in the way of our goals. As my Irish-Yankee horsewhispering boyfriend reminds us, the slow way is the fast way and the fast way is the slow way.
Horse training goes faster if you let it soak. Whether you’re helping your horse overcome a phobia, introducing something new, asking for something more, or trying to replace an old habit with a new one, “soak time,” as the Days refer to it, will get you where you’re going more quickly and effectively than non-empathic “alpha horse” approaches. You can make it even more effective by using the soak time you give your horse as an opportunity to center yourself.
When we think that things should be easier for our horses than they are, it’s tempting to push on with dominance, framing it as strong leadership when we’re actually being bullies. Flooding — the persistent exposure to a frightening stimulus — may work to alter behavior, but the consequences may be seen in a horse that’s shut down and withdrawn. That’s if it’s successful. When flooding doesn’t work, the unwanted behaviors usually intensify and increase the balance in at least one horse trainer’s bank account.
If you’ve ever had a fight with your spouse and kept going at it when he or she had stopped listening to you, you know why flooding fails and why soaking succeeds. If you’ve ever seen someone throw a child in the pool who’s frightened of water (a common memory of adults who can’t swim and don’t want to learn how), you’ll know why flooding fails and why soaking succeeds. If you’ve ever made someone do something, you may have succeeded in your aim, but likely not in putting that activity onto the “favorites” list for either one of you.
That’s not to say you want to reward your horse for anxiety or for fear. On the contrary, soaking is all about using cognition to aid in comfort and confidence. If you have to work with your horse for hours to get him to cross a stream, it will still help you and your horse to let it soak, to take off the pressure for a moment or a minute or more during the process.
When you soak, you give your horse time to make sense of things and rediscover his courage and his faith in you. So, when it’s time to soak, don’t be afraid to jump in the water.