As always, I’ve spent a significant amount of time beating myself up lately. The main subject at the moment is that I couldn’t “fix” the herd of 30 horses I worked with this summer. I’m not silly enough to have tried, but I had hoped to make a difference to some of them. What I found was that the difference I made was minimal, and it certainly wasn’t permanent.
I relayed my summer experiences to a friend when I returned home, and she in turn told me about some counsel she’d recently received from a trainer she’s going to use: sometimes, there really is nothing you can do. The trainer went on to say that you can look like you’ve made a difference, things will seem better. But the wind will change (or, more accurately, something will happen – horse will be handled by someone else, will experience a new trauma, will regress), and some horses are just pre-disposed to being the way they are, resulting in a lack of permanent fix. Sometimes, it’s just the way they are, or the behaviour has gone on for just too long.
I had sort of already reached this conclusion, but I was beating myself up again – I thought that by arriving at this realisation that I was copping out and making excuses for my failure. I thought I’d failed because I was inexperienced and I wasn’t putting enough effort in, but then I took another step back, had a deep breath and assessed my surroundings.
One of the things which Rupert Isaacson insists most strongly on when operating within his Horse Boy Method for helping families dealing with autism is that the environment is key. Autists need a certain type of space, a lack of pollutants and the right atmosphere in order to be set up for success. The same is true of training anyone and anything. Different things work for different people – for example, some people can study for an exam with music on, the TV blaring and a conversation flowing over them, whilst others need to be in a silent room with no distractions – but there will always be some critical factors.
I looked at my situation: a herd of 30 horses, a team of 14 staff at the barn, all of whom are from different backgrounds and levels of experience. A team on a combined total of almost 150 legs, aiming for the goal of satisfying close to 250 children each day, all of whom also have different expectations, needs and levels of experience. When you look at the numbers like that – and I actually didn’t at the time – it’s staggering. It looks impossible (or, at least, very difficult). With all of that going on, an attempt to improve the situation for the horses beyond their physical welfare involves an enormous effort. However, the effort shouldn’t just be on my part.
The thing is, it’s a team. And the team needs to be aiming for the same thing. Horses like consistency, which we’d give them in some ways but not in others. The key inconsistency in improving their behaviour is that we weren’t all handling the animals in the same way. No wonder the poor things were confused or weren’t making progress. A busy environment with a vast range of human facilitators isn’t the time or place to help a horse who’s already in a state.
Some horses will only be able to change within the perfect conditions: a small yard, with a stable herd which can mentor them. Staff who all operate physically and mentally in the same way – those who use the same cues to tell the horses what they want, and work with the same ideology. Because consistency’s a great teacher (as a certain someone says). Mixed messages create just that – confusion.
I’ve come to a partial conclusion, aided by my friend. There’s a slim chance that the very worst horses we had are fixable – get the environment right and they may improve. Change the environment again, and they’d certainly regress. But if those are the rules of the game, have you really made that progress at all?
No matter what, there just may not be a way of winning certain battles. That’s something I find very hard to accept, but realisation is probably the first step. The second is to set up that environment and start fighting.