From Chicken Soup for the Horse Lover's Soul II

The String

In the depth of winter I finally learned there was in me invincible summer.

Albert Camus

As a researcher and horsemanship instructor, I’ve met many people from all over the world, most with two things in common: a love of horses and a strong desire to improve in whatever they want to do with them. Some years ago, Barbara, a fortyish woman from Germany attended one of our programs at the Equine Research Foundation (ERF). The non-profit Foundation, which I run with my partner, Jerry Ingersoll, is dedicated to advancing knowledge about equine cognition, perception and behavior and improving the human/horse relationship as well as the care and wellbeingof horses. People from all walks of life come to the Foundation for learning and riding vacations of one or two weeks with internships ranging from one to three months.

Barbara had worked in jobs that required quite a bit of social interaction. Curious about cognition and social behavior, she was eager to learn more about learning abilities and how behaviorism played into everyday interactions between people and their animals. She arrived without much knowledge about horses or research but enthusiasm enough to make up for it.

For half of every day, Barbara and other volunteers assisted with our research. The rest of the time, she was immersed in hands-on horseplay where participants learned about and honed their skills in horse handling, training and bonding using ERF techniques. Not everything came easily to Barbara. Horse handling at the Foundation was new and different from what she had come across in her occasional ride in a formal venue. The straightforward part was learning how to assist with the research. Data on how horses per- ceive their world and how they assimilate what they encounter grew daily. Everyone was excited to learn that horses could generalize and form categories and, even more astonishingly, use some degree of conceptualization. This was groundbreaking research and we all had worked together to make it happen.

Real challenges came when participants were asked to develop a positive relationship, a real partnership, with the horses. Those who ride only rental or lesson horses are not generally given the chance to bond with their horses and even some horse owners miss out on this valuable and rewarding opportunity. Riders are shown the correct hand and leg signals needed for directing a horse but are taught little about how to develop a relationship that makes the horse want to be with them, anytime, anywhere. Thus, they rarely have the occasion to communicate with horses as horses do with one another, which is the foundation of true horsemanship.

Barbara and the other participants watched as our horses followed and hung out with Jerry and myself at liberty, without halter, lead rope, or any other kind of tack. They speculated on what would motivate horses to leave their food or herd mates to be with us. They pondered over why it all looked so simple when we did it and how we always seemed to know what would happen next. They sure didn’t believe that within a week or so they, too, would possess the knowledge and skills to do the same. And they looked at us kind of funny when we asked what the strongest lead rope was made out of.

Eager, hopeful, yet doubting her abilities, Barbara began working with our horses. When she walked toward them, they walked off. When she asked them to move left, they moved right. When she tried to raise their heads for haltering, they continued grazing. When all else failed, sweet-talk also failed. Discouraged and humbled, Barbara lamented that she’d never catch on and that the horses responded to her the same way some people did. Although she worked hard at her job back home, she felt she wasn’t communicating with her colleagues effectively. Distressing parallels between her interactions with horses and her relationships with people became evident to her. Something had to change.

Days at ERF went by with Barbara engrossed in horse cognition and behavior. She noted how we based our interactions on equine social behavior—treating our horses as they would each other—and how we used positive reinforcement frequently. Within the first week, Barbara was feeling good about herself. She could get the horses to do as she asked under saddle and they would follow her nicely on the ground, at least on a lead rope. Now it was time for one more challenge.

One morning during the second week of her stay, I asked Barbara to go out and bring in our Paint gelding, Coco Bean, a spirited two-year-old with a mind of his own. No pushover, he could instantly read the abilities of any human and would treat them accordingly. Barbara had worked with Coco Bean a bit in days previous and felt fairly confident about heading out to catch him, halter and twelve-foot lead rope in hand.

She was halfway out the stable door when I asked, “What’s that in your hand?”

“Why, it’s a halter and lead rope.” Barbara replied.

“What do you need that for?” I asked.

Barbara looked at me as if I was daft and answered, “To put on the horse to bring him in.”

“Oh.Well, wait a minute.” I walked into the tack room and returned dangling an eight-inch piece of cotton string and said, “Use this instead.”

“Instead of what?” Barbara said, alarmed.

“Leave the halter and lead rope here and bring Coco Bean in with just this string.” I said.

Barbara laughed nervously, “Yeah, right, you expect me to bring in a 1,000 pound horse with this fragment of string?”

“Yep,” I answered with a smile.

“I can’t do that,” Barbara fretted, “It’s impossible!”

“I think you might be able to,” I answered. Muttering something in German and shaking her head, Barbara reluctantly took the string and headed out, anticipating defeat.

We watched from the fence as she approached Coco Bean. Coco gave her an assessing look and wavered between standing still and leaving. As Barbara neared him, he took a few steps in the opposite direction. Without the security of the halter and lead rope, Barbara reverted to her old ways, anxiously calling Coco while trying to head him off. Coco Bean, recognizing her lack of confidence, reacted instinctively and trotted off. I heard a collective groan from the other participants but kept an eye on Barbara. It was exactly at that moment that it all clicked. Her body posture changed, as did her demeanor. She relaxed. She became confident. What she had learned about horse behavior and training during the days at the ERF kicked in and she became a leader.

String in hand but not even in use, she approached Coco Bean, drawing only on her newly acquired body language to ask him to turn and face her. When he did, she casually turned and walked off. It was a moment to remember, watching her exultant face as she strolled all over the twoacre pasture, untethered horse following her every footstep. She had just discovered that the strongest lead rope was the invisible one—the bond between horse and human.

    Barbara returned to Germany and Jerry and I continued

our work at ERF. On a spring day years later, I was in the

stable running a new experiment when I heard voices outside.

I stuck my head out the door and there was Barbara. As

we walked around, Barbara exclaimed at all of the changes

we had made, including the addition of six more horses.

While standing by them, Barbara suddenly said, “I have

something to show you.” She lifted her shirt a little and

pointed to her belt loop. Tied to it was a ragged eight-inch

piece of string. I looked at her with a puzzled expression and

she said, “Remember this? I keep it with me always. It’s my

symbol to tell me that I am capable of accomplishing


Evelyn B. Hanggi, M.S., Ph.D.

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