Ahhh Friesians are the most amazing horses aren’t they?
I have heard this dominance thing about Friesians before though and I think I can explain why some of their behaviors can be quite misunderstood.
Here are two chapters from my book Zen Connection with Horses where I talk about a Friesian that I worked with who opened my eyes up to a whole bunch of things about boundaries and dominance.
THE DIGNITY OF LISTENING TO EACH OTHER IS A TWO WAY STREET
All this beautiful relationship work is as nothing if you have no boundaries – if you’ve put no thought into what is acceptable to you and what is not. And it’s not about us being the boss or dominating them – it’s about how we value ourselves and the standards that are important to us.
It’s about the dignity of two beings in a relationship where each understands what is and is not OK with the other – and it’s a two way street.
Doing something about boundaries is as simple as good communication. It’s about explaining to your horse, consistently, that what they’re doing is not OK … by using leadership – by changing speed and direction with the right attitude. And it’s about making those explanations while working the line between the Comfort Zone and the Not Too Sure zone and staying out of the Oh Shit Zone.
And it’s about listening to your horse and allowing them to tell us when we’re doing something that’s not OK by them. And if we can act on that while we’re not in our Oh Shit Zone either, then that too makes for a more joyful life for both of us. There’s a whole heap of stuff that we have done with our horses in the past, just because we didn’t know any other way.
I’ve come across a lot of horses though, where the horse was doing something really unacceptable, so it looked like a boundary issue – but that wasn’t really the problem at all. The story of Bobby’s brother and the really dangerous biting in Bobby Diaries is a case in point, so I won’t use that example again here.
We had another case recently, a striking jet black Friesian named Orion. (Now there’s a horse that could fulfill your black stallion galloping down the beach fantasy!)
Earlier this year Orion and Angela came to us at Tanjil South for a private clinic. He came in, despite the vast amounts of expensive training from some very talented riders, to work on his chronic barging. A barger is a horse who barges into your space, crowds you, even pushes you physically out of the way – and pushing was something Orion did very well. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this, you’ll know that it’s not pleasant and it’s not safe.
We thought at first that this was a clear question of unacceptable behavior and that the solution would be to figure out how far away we wanted him, ask him gently and consistently to keep his distance and enforce that.
As Angela worked with Orion, establishing clear boundaries that this barging was unacceptable, we had a moment of enlightenment that changed the way we saw everything. (And I wonder where THAT came from, given we were connected to him at the time?!)
We realized that the more pressure we had to put on him to stand off us, the more he went into the Oh Shit Zone. And the more he went into the Oh Shit Zone, the harder he came barging through us. More simply put, the harder we tried to stop him the harder he came barging through us. You can understand how seriously dangerous that was!
Our big realization was that Orion was simply afraid and he had been bred to push through when he was afraid.
Orion is a Friesian. He is from a long line of war horses who have been bred for hundreds if not thousands of years for their ability to keep doing whatever they were trained for, even when they were terrified. I can almost see them now, battle lines of war horses, moving forwards through the noise and the cannon fire and the smoke – afraid, but using those massive chests to just barge through whatever was in the way. This was such a useful trait in a war horse that they selectively bred for it.
To stop him when he was really afraid, we had to be incredibly and physically hard on him – which was not who either Angela or I wanted to be. I don’t expect he enjoyed it too much either! Nor was it OK for him to keep coming into us or through us – it wasn’t safe.
It wasn’t rocket science once we understood where he was coming from, although it sure took some doing! The solution was in his Deep Comfort Zone.
We helped him find his Deep Comfort Zone by listening to our feelings of fear, his fear that we were feeling as if it was our own – and we felt this fear when he did, which was before he started barging at us. We listened to his fear when it was the first tiny feelings of Not Quite Right which came long before he needed to act on that fear and barge over the top of us.
Each time we felt that Not Quite Right feeling, no matter what we were doing, we stopped, backed off and waited for The Chew. It was the combination of acting on our feelings of Not Quite Right and looking for very small progress at a time that made it possible for him to find the Deep Comfort Zone.
YET ANOTHER HEADING OF ITS OWN …
There were VERY long periods of time waiting for The Chew and lots of breaks where we took his halter off and walked away and had to leave him alone altogether to find the Comfort Zone again, because he didn’t have much of a Comfort Zone with people at all. Pay special attention to that, because that’s another big concept slipped into a little paragraph!
From that insight, Angela has continued to expand Orion’s comfort zone systematically and, even though she is a green rider and Orion is a young green horse, he is amazingly co-operative with her, all the way to riding when the timing for them both is right. And because they are both green, sometimes it’s not the right timing, but isn’t it wonderful that she hears him and keeps herself safe by paying attention to that?
Oh yeah… if you’re looking for the rest of this book, you’ll find it in the book shop here.