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21 Years of Thinking

I recently had a birthday and turned, errrrm, 21 for the second time. It gave me plenty of time for gratuitous reminiscing about how my thoughts and attitude have changed since my 21st birthday and it occurred to me that my 21st was actually a fairly pivotal time for me. Not only because I was travelling alone and working as a "cowboy" in the US, thinking I was "finding myself". Not only because, in the time-honoured fashion, I drank too much and woke up in the woods with only a hazy recollection of how I'd got there. And certainly not only because I was given the apparently traditional 21 spanks (thereby earning myself the nickname "Spanky" for the rest of the summer) and was thrown into the water trough by my fellow cowboys. But because it was the summer when I think I started thinking.

I had just finished my Natural Sciences degree and was caught up in the usual student conflict of wanting a holiday job that was also a source of intrinsic motivation, rather than merely insufficient cash. I managed to find one, working as a wrangler at a dude ranch in the mid-West. This meant taking holiday-makers, who were staying at the ranch, out on horse rides each day whilst dressed as a cowboy. For someone like me, who had only ever been able to go riding if I paid for the opportunity, this was the dream job. I wasn't working in a local UK pub or a factory, I was in the USA for the summer, being paid to ride horses and I was excited about it.

I soon realised that when the local area billed itself as "The Gateway to the West" and when the ranch tried very hard to model itself on the Wild West, there was something comical and unconvincing about it. The surrounding maize fields and forests were attractive in their own way but still not what you might be forgiven for expecting. I may have laughed and cringed initially, after all I was there for a bit of holiday fun. But for my colleagues, being a cowboy was how they made their living; for them it was serious, not just "dressing up" and with time I learnt to respect them for it and felt a little more "the part".

The first evening I was there I was taken to the bar to meet some of the other wranglers. The discussion turned to the difference between English riding and Western. I had never ridden Western before and this summer was to be my introduction to it. I was asked about what I would do if I was riding on unstable terrain and the horse stumbled, would I maintain a rein contact? All my ridden instruction to that point had indeed justified maintaining a contact at all times and so, rightly or wrongly, I argued my corner. My colleagues were firmly of the opinion that you needed to leave the reins loose and let the horse pick his way through. This contradicted everything I had been taught and it niggled at me. It is probably why I remember the conversation so well to this day. And although the conversation ended without me having changed my mind, I'm not sure I have maintained a contact whilst hacking since. What a ridiculous arrogance, to assume that a horse couldn't pick his way through challenging terrain without the all-important human contact. I cringe at what they must have thought of me, although take some comfort in the realisation that they too were enjoying the debate.

The next day I was introduced to the horses and the work. This was the first time I had understood the scale of the set-up. Someone would go and open the gates and let the horses through to the barn. I think this involved a certain amount of herding with trucks but never actually witnessed it. Around 40 of the approximately 70 horses would be let into the barn, where each would find an empty stall with grain in the manger. While the horses stood in the stall and ate, we would go round doing a speedy groom of each. I was often rebuked for being too slow. We would then lead each horse by the rope-less head-collar to the entrance of the barn, where an "assembly line" tacking up procedure was in play - one person would grab the saddle and put it on the horse's back, whilst handing the bridle to the wrangler leading the horse (it was a long time before I was able to do this job - so many saddles, so many horses and such a cursory relationship with them that it took me most of the summer to learn all their names). Someone else would be waiting the other side to do up the cinch and the wrangler would continue leading the horse a little further on before putting on the bridle. The horses were then all clipped on to a series of long rails to await the first riders of the day.

Trail Ride Fig. 1 - Out on the trails

Despite having little knowledge of ethology at the time, I was shocked at the way the horses spent most of the day tied to a rail or being ridden by novices, without access to food or water. And it was hot - 80-90 degrees and 90-100% humidity and no shade in the yard where they were tied up. The forests in which most of the rides took place were at least shady but we were still plagued by flies and horse-flies, whose bites were enough to get a horse bucking underneath you (thank goodness for that saddle-horn when there was a little kid being repeatedly bucked until you could lean across and eject the fly). At lunch time we would remove the bridles and lead the horses to the water trough for a drink and then back inside the barn for hay. But that was it. At one point I commented about the "poor horses", to one of the other wranglers. She shrugged and pointed out that they worked for 8 hours a day but spent the remaining 16 hours a day out in a huge herd in beautiful large fields with loads of grazing and natural shelter. I was taken to see the fields at one point and could see that, given that they were working horses (rightly or wrongly), overall their lifestyle was considerably preferable to that of the horses I was more familiar with, who spent more of their time stabled, had much less access to company, had tiny acreage when they were turned out and had their whole lives controlled by humans. It was clearly still an ethical compromise, but quite a wake-up call to being open-minded in how we define "poor horses".

A similar ethical compromise that struck me was the ubiquitous use of Western curb bits, for all the horses and regardless of the experience of the rider. The long shanks applied a great deal of pressure to the poll and had the potential to be very harsh. But no-one was riding with a contact and so the potential was rarely realised. The physicist in me was playing mental gymnastics, trying to work out if the weight of the rein and the occasional contact on a curb bit was better or worse than the continual contact on a typical English snaffle. Of course, the horse's experience is key and so this is not purely a mathematical calculation. But the lightness of the Western horses, despite them being generally rather shut-down archetypal riding school horses, impressed me - were they light because they were in more pain, or because they had become less habituated to heavy handling? I'm still not sure I know the answer to that and suspect that it is a complicated combination of both.

The wranglers' horses were brought out at the end and were stationed at separate rails from the others. I had been assigned a little appaloosa mare called Cuckoo. Her name reflected the prejudice that my colleagues held for apps and Arabs and, while I thought she was sweet and lovely, I soon realised that as a temporary English visitor I was given the lowest value horse. The quarter horses comprising most of the herd were by far the more "desirable" horses there, and the occasional TB was rated somewhere in the middle. Cuckoo was nervous and spooky and I could see at once why most of them hated her, finding her "stupid" and "annoying".

Fig. 2 - Cuckoo waiting to be taken out for a trail-ride. Appaloosa Horse

Being assigned Cuckoo was the first of a number of occasions where I felt I was being "tested". Maybe I was meant to complain and beg for a quarter horse. I was never quite sure! Similarly I was given the job of teaching the kids in a tiny corral with a 40 year old horse much more often than was naturally my turn, particularly if the head wrangler was annoyed at me (or just the world) for any reason. Yet I enjoyed it so, again, I didn't complain. I was never sure if just getting on with things was the right or wrong thing to do. It never seemed to be what they were expecting of me but eventually I think they took me for who I was, rather than trying to turn me into something that I couldn't be because I didn't know what it was. It was possibly my first experience of thinking of Human Behaviour Change as a "thing", something that required thought and analysis, rather than just a thoughtless and reactionary response.

Appaloosa Horse and rider Fig 3. - About to set off after breakfast on the "breakfast ride" - I was holding her back for the the photo, this wasn't how I typically rode her, honest...

There was a period of particularly bad flies or heat or both that caused Cuckoo to start head-shaking very violently. She was frantic and would inadvertently flip the reins over her head whilst out riding, leaving me a little distracted from tending to the needs of the clients. I found myself wishing for an Irish martingale, not something I had ever actually seen but had learnt about in my Pony Club days, and felt that it would address my problems without worsening Cuckoo's problems. While now obviously I would find myself wishing much more for some veterinary diagnostics and a break from ridden work, my request for something that would just keep the reins either side of her neck was granted in the form of a tie-down. I had never seen one of these before but it turned out to be the same as a standing martingale, the neck strap made out of a very harsh plastic and fitted very tightly. The first ride Cuckoo wore this thing, she was ridden by one of the other wranglers - who felt that hitting her repeatedly either side of her head was a good way to address the head-shaking. Funnily enough it didn't seem to help. The next time I rode Cuckoo I was appalled. Needless to say, the tie-down did not remove her need to head-shake but the restriction caused her to nearly fall over in her desperation to put right whatever it was that was bothering her. Continually. While I'd never have been able to argue against its use on ethical grounds - wrangler autonomy and concern for the horses' emotions were not particularly encouraged - I was able to get rid of it on the grounds that it made her behaviour worse and more dangerous. It was possibly my first realisation of the difference between fixing the cause and fixing the symptoms and, even back then, I was deeply troubled by it.

Fig. 4 - Out on the trails again. Trail Ride

After a while some of the long-term wranglers seemed to take pity on me, or genuinely start to like me. Or something in between! They invited me out for a ride one evening, not at the ranch on ranch horses but on their own private quarter (obviously!) horses. It turned out we had to load the ready tacked-up horses and travel to the hills. I was surprised that there was no ramp to the float and no partitions between the horses. Apparently there was no concern about the horses' tack becoming entangled or any other safety issue. My cowboy friend told me that he made part of his living hauling rodeo horses and could cram more in the float by having them alternate nose-to-tail. Hey, what did I know about health and safety? Or how the horses felt about it? I kept quiet...

I was promised some "real cowboy riding", unlike the gentle trail rides at the ranch. I was excited but slightly nervous, not knowing what real cowboy riding entailed. But I anticipated lots of galloping, something I had no qualms about, and figured I could hold my own. Our ride turned out to remain at walk the whole way. I was surprised but enjoyed the change of scene and the novelty of hills. But then the "real" riding became apparent as we started going down the steepest hill I have ever been down, making the Hickstead bank look like a doddle. And my cinch was loose and my horse very sweaty as the saddle worked its way down his neck. At the bottom, with shaking hands to which I had no intention of admitting, I got off to reposition the saddle and somehow got back on again. And off we went again... Thinking back to my earlier conversation in the bar, there was no question of picking up a contact - the intervening weeks had definitely allowed me to relax and trust the horse to do his thing on the challenging terrain. Things changed from that point. It seemed that I had finally passed one of my "tests", earned some respect and I spent a lot more time in the bar with them all from that moment onwards. I particularly learnt to appreciate that comfy and secure Western saddle during a day of riding, following too little sleep and too much alcohol the night before. Poor Cuckoo... I'm not proud...

But it was also commented on that I was having a good effect on Cuckoo. She was becoming a lot less spooky and a generally calmer, happier horse. I had realised through trial and error that trying to get her to confront her fears didn't work. She would spook and nap and resist. Whereas when I worked out what she was frightened by, had a mental shaping plan (although I didn't know it was called that then) and introduced her to things slowly and calmly with lots of reassuring scratches, she was able to cope much better. This was the first time I had ever had the chance to have (almost) exclusive access to a horse and see the effects of my behaviour on her. I could see that being kind worked and I liked the way it was being noticed, partly as it massaged my ego but also because there was always the glimmer of hope that someone may try to emulate the way I did things. Admittedly it was a small glimmer...

When I returned from the US I ended up with a crappy local waitressing job and longed to be riding again. Amazingly it turned out that there was a local Western riding school and it wasn't long before I managed to get a job as wrangler there. I worked there intermittently for a few years during holidays from my subsequent postgraduate study. I ended up buying one of their quarter horses, Jak, and he has been responsible for almost all of my "thinking" over the past 21 years. Solving causes rather than symptoms, maximising the ethics of training, learning about behaviour, the launch of the Thinking Horsemanship Forum and my role in the founding of the Equine Behaviour and Training Association - all of these started for me around the time of my 21st birthday and have changed my life, career and manner in which I look after my children. I owe my cowboy friends a lot...

Writing this article prompted me to doing a little web searching... I'm not sure why I didn't do it before. The ranch still exists and seems to have been given quite a face-lift. I don't remember any of the featured horses and have no idea what happened to Cuckoo, although I did visit the following year and rode her one last time - I don’t think anyone had ridden her since my previous visit and suspect her role as beautiful pasture ornament wouldn't have lasted long. Some of my old cowboy friends seem to have Facebook pages but I have been too cowardly to send them friend requests, maybe some nostalgic memories are best left alone...

Copyright Catherine Bell 2016