Catherine, Griva & Timmy – Hanging Out with Horses

The horse-whisperer stuff doesn’t happen when you’re riding them.  It happens when you face them as intelligent creatures.  That’s what we do.


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Name:  Catherine (54 years old).  Also the horses: Griva (14 years old), Timmy (4 years old)

Where the human grew up:  USA, Swaziland, Albania (assuming growing – up or other directions – never stops.  Been in Albania for 14 years)

Languages:  English, Albanian, Horse, Dog, bit of Hedgehog, Tortoise.  Goose.  I’d say chicken, but chickens are arrogant idiots.  (also moribund-from-disuse French, Italian, Spanish and Russian, and enough Turkish and Arabic to be polite).  And I wouldn’t even say “Goose” if I didn’t recently experience the geese shrieking their heads off, and this stupid human lying in a hammock in their path, until I said “They’re upset because you’re blocking their path back to their nest” – which seemed entirely obvious to me, but “It’s amazing how you understand them,” she said.  She shifted, the geese huffed and went home, and everyone was happy.

Experience with horses:  Three years living with, and caring for daily, a bunch of them.  Through thick and thin.

How many horses do you have?  Two.  Griva (14 years old, SMART, and a bit suspicious.  Her strength is that her boundaries are CLEAR.  Defensive.  Patient with herd-mates, vaguely curious about other humans)  and Timmy (4 years old and a completely trusting idiot – he thinks humans are GREAT.  This means he’s also liable to crowd you, shove you or step on you.  He’ll also follow you around like a puppy).

Why do you like working with horses?  I find horses amazing as CREATURES.  (And I’d call humans ‘creatures’ too, so no speciesism there).   Three years ago I kind of accidentally inherited 3 horses.  At first I thought “Well, what do you do with horses?  Ride them, I guess.”  But 3 years (and one broken arm) later, what mostly fascinates me about horses is how much they teach me.   It took me a while to realize that leaping onto their backs was a pretty stupid way to get to know them.  I mean, would YOU like it if some total stranger leapt onto YOUR back, demanding a piggy back ride (AND started hitting you, kicking you, yelling at you AND jerking your mouth around)?   So I’m actually really into ‘groundwork’ (this is the stuff you do with a horse which doesn’t involve sitting on top of them).  In my (admittedly limited) experience, this is where you learn to communicate with a horse, and become friends (which to a horse means ‘herd’).   If I was going to make a horse training manual, my first chapter would be.  “Find a horse.  Bring a book.  Sit down next to the horse and read.”  Horses communicate with body language, and most of the time, they don’t know what the heck people are saying, because humans are really sloppy (at best) and aggressive (at worst).  In most horses’ experience people shout and scream and wave their arms around and hit and don’t make any sense.  So you slow down.  You break it down.  You make your movements coherent, consistent and clear.  You watch them, and look for the patterns and communication in their movements.  And when you learn a bit of their body language?  That’s when the magical horse-book stuff happens.  Oh, also: They know what you’re thinking.  Emotionally, at least.  So relating to a horse is as much about controlling yourself, as it is about collaborating with them.  They therefore also know when what you’re asking is serious and well-intentioned (“Lift your leg over this wire or you’ll get tangled and be crippled” or “Let me jab this needle in your butt, so you don’t die”) or if you’re nervous and just doing something stupid because someone else told you to (“Please attempt this fancy dressage move?  Even though neither of us would know dressage if it fell on our heads?”  Bleh, says the horse and “I think I saw some clover over there.”)

What are you offering?  I think a lot of people are fascinated by horses, and assume (as I did) that the only thing you can do with them is ride them.  But in fact riding horses is dangerous – especially if you don’t know what you’re doing.  And when it comes down to it, a lot of people are – quite rightly – scared when actually faced with a horse.  Get up on THAT?  With nothing to hold on to?!  (You’re right!  It’s a a pretty dumb and dangerous idea!)  But there’s a lot of other stuff you can do with horses.  You can just hang out with them.  You can play with them (and yes, depending on their personality, and given mood on any day – they can run around and play like puppies) (Big – REALLY BIG – puppies).  You can groom them, which is really just a good way of learning your way around a horse’s body – and can turn into a big lovefest of tickles.  You can also do some ‘groundwork’ which is what horse people call training a horse, but I have come to think is more about training the human (me, usually) – to learn how to communicate and ask for things in an effective way.

What are the shortest and longest sessions you offer?  It depends on what you want to do, and your attention span.  You can spend 15 minutes feeding them carrots.  You can spend an hour following them around and bugging them (Pay attention to ME!)  You can hang out with horses all day, in an environment that’s safe and familiar to them, which will make them see you as ‘herd’.  You can have a picnic, and we’re happy to arrange this.  Or, after getting to know each other a bit, you can go for a walk together – the degree of “together-ness” will depend on how much the horse accepts you as part of their herd, which depending on the horse can take 5 minutes (Timmy) or longer (Griva) – and make no mistake, during a simple ‘walk’ you’re going to have to use everything you’ve learned about horses to keep you – and them – safe and happy (but the good news is, if it all goes pear-shaped, you can always bail – the horse is eventually going to go back to where they felt safe and had good food).  Or you can do “groundwork.”  But intensive and demanding interactions are best limited to periodic 15 minute sessions.  I have no idea if it’s “kosher” with ‘real’ schools of equestrianism (there aren’t any here), but my experience is that horses learn by treating humans as pesky little siblings.  So the little sibling (me!  Or possibly YOU!) says (for example) “please pick up your foot?  Please?  Please please please please please please?  Please pick up your foot?  I’m not going to stop until you pick up your foot!  Come on – pick up your foot?  Please?  Please please?”  And finally the horse (who would probably rather be doing something else – like eating) says OH FINE!  HERE!  OKAY?  And picks up their foot.  And then – and this is the important part.  YOU STOP.  I mean, a deal is a deal.  They did it, you stop bothering them.  The trick IS – next time you ask, the horse thinks:  Ah ha!  I know this one!  She’ll stop bugging me if I pick up my foot!  So they do it.  And it gets faster every time.  But the point is, you gotta stop.  Sometimes just for 5 minutes, sometimes for a day.  (Hence the importance of the book in horse training.  It’s to distract the human.)  So I guess what I’m saying is:  You can spend as much time with a horse as you want, until you start bothering them.  And one thing that is no fun for anyone is an escalating, mutual-annoyance and frustration experience.  Eventually the horse is going to resort to biting and even kicking if they can’t get you to listen to them, and frankly, I don’t blame them (even though I’m not supposed to say that).  I guess this is where, historically, human trainers resorted to torturing and waterboarding horses.  One accepted way of training horses I’ve read about is to tie them to a fence and beat them until they collapse.  Yeah.  I’m not interested into doing that.  Alternatively, I just had a huge breakthrough recently when I realized that – if the horse (TIMMY!) is getting fractious (just because he thinks it’s fun), I can just turn my back on him and stand still, ignoring him.  Within a minute he’s going to calm down and be like “Hey!  Why aren’t you paying attention to me?  Are you MAD at me?  Oh drat.  Come on, don’t be like that.”  And suddenly he’s good as gold.  Griva, who’s a lady, through and through, would never do this.  If she gets cranky, it’s cause she means it.  I guess the trick is to realize that every horse is a person, and to understand the difference between a horse who’s getting stressed, and one who’s just being difficult because they think it’s fun.  Not hard, if you take the time to learn them.

How many people can you take at a time?  Since all we do is hang out and play with the horses, there’s no limit – but a gang of strangers is going to make them nervous, especially once you start asking them for stuff, until you take the time to get to know them and become ‘herd.’ (Once again, bring a book. The fastest way to tame a horse is by ignoring it.)

What kind of gear do you use?  Almost no gear. Wow!  Come to think of it, that’s pretty cool.  I don’t tie the horses up, not to groom them and clean their feet OR even (on the rare occasions it’s necessary) give them injections (not that you’ll be doing this!)  Tying them up just makes them nervous (50 million years of horse evolution tells them that they need to be ready to run at any given moment – being tied is at best a SMALL torture, I think), and that just makes a stressful situation worse.  I’m pretty sure any experienced horse person would roll their eyes at this, but my experience is that as long as you’re communicating well with the horse, having taken the time to learn their personality, and you understand each other, it isn’t necessary.  A guide rope clipped onto their halter is useful when you’re trying to learn a new move, just because it gives you a faster way of touching their bodies (head, in this case – body language!).  But I (rightly or wrongly) think you’re never seriously going to force a 300 kilo being into doing something they aren’t willing to do – not without a lot of trauma to both of you – if you don’t take the time to do it through communication and willingness.  Or just irritating the hell out of them to make them do what you want so you’ll STOP BOTHERING them.  Which is communication, I suppose.

How do you ensure safety around horses?  By listening to them, and understanding their body language.  The horse will really try to tell you if you’re pissing them off, or something else is scaring them, in a bunch of ways before anything bad happens.  First lesson – what is the horse telling you?  Second, the horse needs to know that you are their best source of safety.  Horses CARE about safety.  Unlike almost every other animal (except hedgehogs and salamaders?) they have ZERO ‘armaments’ – I mean, they can use their teeth and hooves, but they’re not specifically designed for that.  I’ve seen Griva in a total panic about something that she can perceive which I can’t (and her eyes, nose and ears are orders of magnitude better than mine, so I trust her), but no matter HOW much she’s running up and down and screaming and snorting, when I appear she will run to me, and hide behind me.  So the best way of being safe around a horse is to listen to them, and to make them understand that you are their friend.  Unless of course you’re the thing bugging them, in which case, shame on YOU – and stop it.  Of course, understanding how they move helps prevent getting stepped on, through sheer clumsiness.  That hurts (but less than you’d think).

What do you hope to contribute to “tourism” in Tropoja?  Mostly I always want people to see how amazing reality is.  A bunch of years ago someone asked me “Do you think there’s life on other planets?” And have always been happy when I remember that my immediate response was “Who cares?  There’s so much life HERE that we barely understand.  When I can talk to a tree (and how cool would THAT be?), I’ll worry about what might be on Mars, or non-carbon-based lifeforms.”  Why do humans get bored?  Because we expect everything to adapt to us.  Somewhat unsurprisingly, most of the natural world couldn’t give a toss about humans (except all the stuff we hate, like mosquitos, spiders, pigeons and viruses). Horses offer us a gentle (if ginormous) chance to take a sane walk on the wild side.   I’d like to help people go there.