The first meeting with Jesse was not auspicious. There I was, minding my own business as he fidgeted, standing 10 feet away from me. Suddenly he lunged in my direction, landing an earnest bite on the school horse I was astride. I thought, “Man, that horse is crazy.”
Then of course, about a year later I fell in love with him.
His coat is the color of sunshine, which is apt because he’s a tumble of energy. Ornery, athletic, clever, mischievous — his character was a clash with most people. Before he was 5 years old, he had had at least three human caregivers, and on the fateful day that I rode him for the first time, he again had so annoyed every prospective rider that he had been left saddled and tied to a hitching pole for hours. I saw kind eyes (and if I’m honest, a challenge I had to accept), so I took him to an open field dotted with sagebrush. Bred as a cutting horse, he danced between the silvery green landmarks with such ease and grace that I was hooked. A couple of years later, after a complicated process that is a story for another day, the paperwork was finalized.
Jesse’s issues ran deep. He was anxious and flighty; many of our early rides were barely controlled chaos. His health was challenged, prone as he was to a debilitating condition known as laminitis, and I was a new horse owner, so we fumbled our way through. I fervidly researched horse physiology and healthcare, experimented with various training philosophies, and soaked in the ubiquitous advice of other people. I worked hard at it because, quite simply, Jesse required it.
My mother used to say that the teacher who challenges you will be the one who teaches you the most and you remember most fondly. Jesse falls into this camp. Animals often do.
The teachings Jesse brings to my life are innumerable and he’s an exacting master. He’s smart enough to keep me on my toes and ornery enough to make me truly earn every victory. A key lesson I’m learning from him now is that what you teach is less important than how you do it.
Training a horse, any animal really — including humans — can take many roads to generally the same place. During a clinic I rode in once, the renowned horse trainer Buck Brannaman said (and I paraphrase because at the time I was in an arena along with 30-plus other horses and riders and didn’t take notes): “You could teach a horse that swinging a chicken over your head means I want you to canter. You just have to be consistent.”
Yet, I’m starting to see it’s not the end goal of a canter that’s the most important. Recently I embarked on a new-to-me type of training, which turns the basic tenets of horsemanship on its head. The training approach most people use with horses is negative reinforcement. Basically, we shape what we want from them by using something they don’t really like — pressure, a whip, even harsh words.
Now I’m experimenting with positive reinforcement, guided by an insanely amazing teacher, known as Mustang Maddy, in which I’m shaping Jesse’s behavior using things he wants, such as food and pats. Also, he gets the chance to express his opinion about what we’re doing; he can even opt out.
In both types of training, there is a basic promise: If you do what I want, you’ll get rewarded. In one training regiment, it’s by relief from something you find aversive. In the other, it’s receiving something that makes you happy. Which would you prefer? Which do you think builds a better relationship and deeper connection?
Every day, I’ve been making the promise that I seek to grow closer to Jesse. The difference in him has been remarkable. He nickers every time I walk up to his gate; his sense of play has become even keener, his anxiety lower, and those kind eyes softer. We’re not perfect, but we’re better.
In life, as we all learn, it’s essential to keep your promises, but Jesse’s teaching me that what comes first is determining what is behind them.