|Harley is sensible and confident, which helps preserve his rider's confidence.|
My birds have taught me this as much as my time with horses. Avery, our cockatiel, can be quite moody and used to threaten to bite when he did not want to be put back in his cage. If I approached him with my hand and asked him to step-up, but I was timid and fearful that he would bite me, that is surely what he would do. And there was good reason to be scared, because when a parrot bites, it really hurts! So I had a training issue and handler confidence issue. I could try using a perch (a narrow wooden rod) to pick up my parrot and skirt the biting issue or I could find a way to communicate to him that biting was not going to be the solution to his problem (he wanted to stay outside his cage).
If you have spent any time working with animals, then you can probably see what had to be done. I had to confidently and assertively place my hand at Avery's belly and request that he step up. I could not show any fear or hesitation even if he did bite, which he did the first time that I tried this. I had to fortify myself with a plan and press my hand up to him more when he sunk his little beak into my flesh rather than draw away or wince. This was not easy! Thankfully, he only really tested my new technique once before learning the intended lesson: Biting me is not going to make "going in the cage" disappear. After two repetitions, he pretty much stopped biting all together when asked to go in his cage and often goes in his cage on his own. Thankfully, we were not dealing with an old or ingrained habit, as he was still a very young bird (six months old) at the time. My confidence in handling him grew as his biting behavior diminished. Years later, he almost never bites and my confidence is very high. I no longer have to pretend that I am not scared of a bite, because I am truly not scared and this encourages more compliant "Good Bird" behavior.
|Avery on the right, Rapa on the left, two more peeking through the toys in the cage|
I like that little Avery story, because I feel that it demonstrates the basic principle of the confidence necessary to work with animals successfully. However, this story does not directly translate to work with horses for obvious reasons. A bite from a parrot may hurt but it is not life threatening and in the situation of my small parrot, will not require serious medical attention (His bite was a nasty pinch, but did not break the skin on my hand.). Horses, of course, can do a great deal more damage in countless ways, so we cannot take the parrot story and directly apply it to work with horses. What can be transposed is the concept of surrounding the training and handling of horses with an atmosphere of confidence. This is very easily stated, but not easily cultivated as the growth of self-confidence is a very personal journey decorated by experience, education, time, and good luck. Each person requires different ingredients, to some degree, and those ingredients are not always obvious. For example, learning to ride "safe, quiet" horses builds confidence, but so does riding "difficult, opinionated" horses (or ponies) as long the experiences are a success, which, outside of physical and mental well-being, is also defined in relative terms. I guess I might argue that a well-rounded education must include both opportunities in as safe an environment as can be created and when the student is "ready". Just how is readiness determined by the instructor or the rider? Skill sets. Benchmarks. Eagerness. Instinct?
Once confidence has been developed, the rider must protect this quality just as one must protect physical well being. The two go hand-in-hand, but it is significant that damage to one's self-confidence may persist long after physical recovery. This implies that confidence must also be recovered or rehabbed with the components of experience, education, time, and good luck, although to make matters more challenging, the original recipe may no longer apply and will most certainly be impossible to duplicate. Since the rebuilding process is so individualized and cannot be rushed (the component of time), the rider must make the preservation of confidence a top priority. This is especially true since there are always the events that cannot be controlled (the component of good luck) and the ever-popular Murphy's Law.
How can confidence be preserved? The quick solution might be to avoid all dangerous situations, but working with horses in general is dangerous and unpredictable. I agree that one should not brashly leap outside skill or experience boundaries, but if one never embraces threshold-crossing experiences, then one never grows. Confidence does not flourish under avoidance and one could argue that avoidance replaces confidence with a false version. Those of us who have survived and come back from confidence-damaging situations may also describe their new working confidence as stronger than before. Wiser might be the better term. And this makes the development and preservation of confidence all the more circuitous and enigmatic.
Allow me to offer a short scenario. I was working at a farm and one of my coworkers approached me with a problem. A thoroughbred refused to be haltered in his stall. The horse seemed fearful. After discussing the horse's behavior I approached the stall with a lead and halter. As an employee, I had permission to handle and work with the horses as needed. The horse's expression was calm and curious, despite his earlier fearful behavior. I remained in the doorway, as I spoke to the horse, stroked his nose, and inspected the entire horse looking for signs of fear, aggression, or something else. I was confident that I could handle the horse, but also cautious. Something was upsetting this animal and I knew that there was a good chance that I was going to see what that was as soon as I tried to put on his halter. I wanted the lead line over his neck to start, so that I had something to control him with a little bit if he resisted haltering. I swung the line over the horse's neck in one smooth motion and the horse balked strongly. Immediately, the big dark bay leaped back and I did the same. I had kept myself lined up with the OPEN stall door, so that I had an emergency exit. My coworker later exclaimed that he had never seen someone move that fast. I was not about to wait and see if the horse was going to turn and kick. I was protecting my well-being and my confidence. After I saw the horse's initial reaction, I reentered the stall slowly and deliberately, patted and stroked his neck and mane and with a similar motion draped the line over his neck. The horse did not object to this and followed me to the door of the stall when I lead him from the neck rope. Once at the door, I kept a hand on the rope and used the other hand to raise the halter to his face and pet him with the halter in my hand. I did this several times until he did not flinch and showed signs of relaxation (dropped his head a little, softened his lips and eye wrinkles). Then I haltered him as normal and brought him out of the stall. I spent a little time tossing the lead line over his neck and moving it all around until he showed me that he no longer saw the line as scary. I did not practice re-haltering him, as this was a working barn and there were time constraints, so I had to let the horse go to his paddock. It was reported back to me, however, that the horse did not have a problem haltering after that. If only all training issues could be resolved that quickly!
I could not have been successful in that situation, if I had not been confident, but overconfidence might have set me up for an accident. I blended confidence with a healthy dose of caution. I left myself an opening and I had a plan, even though I know that things can still go wrong despite care and thoughtfulness. I was self-preservative, but not timid. I believe that this story and Avery's story embody my attempts to balance the use and preservation of my own confidence.
How do you try to preserve your own confidence in working with horses or other animals?