I Walk the Line: Emotions, Rewards, and Reassurance


The weather in North Texas has been warm for early November. The best time in my busy schedule to ride Rocky is Sunday afternoons. The weather was beautiful on Sunday afternoon so I decided to be a ride Rocky around the yard while he looked for grass. This part of Texas is in extreme drought conditions and Rocky has to do quite a bit of walking around just to find a few blades of grass and leftover hay blowing in the wind. We walk up and down the pond bank, around the barn, through gates, in and out of the pens, around trees, and through the flocks of napping ducks and chickens. I am just being a meditating passenger while Rocky tries to find something to eat.

After a few minutes, Rocky walks over and stands quietly by the gate panel in a fence where he stamps his hind legs and turns his head to look at me. There has already been two nights with icy frost so the buzzing bumblebee-like botflies are desperately trying to lay their last round of eggs on Rocky. He is politely asking me if I will get off and take care of the pesky horse botflies trying to lay eggs on his hind legs. We have come a long way in our ability to communicate!

I am riding Rocky with the bareback pad and the rope hackamore. Rocky’s withers are taller than I am so I can only get on Rocky from the gate panel in the fence. Long ago Rocky learned that I get on and off while he stands quietly by the gates. My earlier blog about Slowing a GO Horse describes how Rocky learned to stand quietly by the fence for me to mount. I dismount, take care of the botflies, and use the gate to get back onto Rocky’s back. He stood quietly by the gate the entire time. We continue our leisurely grass hunt when I lean back and squeeze with my legs.

On this meditation ride, I have been trying to decide “what’s next” with Rocky. My natural horsemanship objective for Rocky has always been safety. We have passed Parelli Level 3 and have achieved the safety goal. I don’t have any specific horse plans for the future. Right now, I am a working Mom with a daughter who is a junior in high school. I had assumed that after we passed Level 3, I would focus my energy on getting my daughter off to college before I made any other horse plans.

I had a lesson with Christi Rains last week while she was in North Texas and was embarrassed that I couldn’t tell her what I wanted to learn so I suggested a Liberty lesson. Christi said the only thing in Level 4 Liberty that we probably need to work on is the flying lead change.

I played with Rocky for a few minutes to warm up and he kept tossing his head back toward his side asking me to scratch his side. We normally play this friendly game a lot where he points to an itchy spot with his nose and I rub and scratch it while he does that happy nose wiggling head extension. After a couple of times, one of my horse buddies said, “He sure has your number!” And she is right. Learning to walk that thin line between over-indulgence with rewards and not requesting enough performance is really hard. My husband and I agonize over this very issue as parents.

As Pat says, “A horse doesn't care how much you know until he knows how much you care.” In this particular instance, Rocky wanted to be re-assured that I cared enough to scratch that particular itchy spot before I asked him to play the games. I scratched his side two times and then he did the circling game with exuberance.

Pat also talks about balancing request and reward levels, with big rewards for big tries and small rewards for small tries. A horse becomes dull and doesn’t’ try if you give them big rewards for small tries. The request and the resulting reward are based on the horsemanship skills of you and your horse. Over time, I have learned to read Rocky’s attitude and know how much friendly indulgence is needed to make sure he knows that I care without over-indulging his requests.

I had to learn to walk many “thin lines” to balance request and reward as I built a safe relationship with Rocky in Parelli Levels 1, 2, and 3. A lot of times, the line wasn’t readily apparent and I had to figure out that there was an emotional challenge that must be understood before figuring out how to keep it from escalating into anger and aggression.

Rocky was a very dominant and aggressive Left Brained Introverted horse. In Level 1, I was a naïve new horse owner and Rocky had a tremendous amount of angry emotional baggage. Even the friendly game with the carrot stick was a challenge in Level 1. Rocky did not mind being groomed but the sight of the carrot stick made him angry and aggressive. Rocky’s basic emotions are described in the following table.

During Level 1, we spent a lot of time walking the thin lines between his emotions of annoyance, anger, and aggression. Rocky had narrow boundaries between these emotions and could quickly move from being annoyed to angry and then aggressive toward me. When Rocky was being aggressive, I did everything to be safe and convince him I would protect my personal space and be the leader. If Rocky was angry, I worked really hard to remain calm and prevent him from crossing the line to aggression. The basic reward after an angry or aggressive episode was to get him to a state where we could stand calmly and do nothing.

I learned a lot of different friendly activities with approach and retreat over a long period of time (I’m talking about months here, not weeks or days) for Rocky to quietly stand still for the friendly game with the carrot stick and string. Looking back, I now realize Rocky learned to tolerate the friendly games with the carrot stick in Level 1 because I was also developing the effective phases needed to respond to his aggressive responses.

In Levels 2 and 3, I had to address the whole range of his emotional transitions from acceptance through aggression before he was friendly and we could play with exuberance. A big part of learning to be Rocky’s leader was learning to recognize his emotions and helping him transition to the desired friendly and exuberant state. The friendly game was a reward that Rocky learned to enjoy and over time he learned that he could ask for friendly rewards. In my blog The Ears Say it All, I explained how Rocky’s ears are a good indication of his emotions and how he learned to ask for friendly rewards.

It was a big breakthrough in our relationship when Rocky realized that he could ask me to do things for him. The friendly game really helped us develop a strong relationship. I had to gain enough experience to recognize Rocky’s emotions and learn how to help him transition to a friendly and exuberant state. During the Christi lesson that I mentioned earlier, if I had not shown Rocky how much I cared, he would have played the circling game but not with the same exuberance as he did knowing that I cared enough to scratch that itch on his side.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am thankful for the safe and meaningful relationship that I have with Rocky. The Friendly Game taught me how to communicate with Rocky and he in turn learned he could communicate his desires and concerns to me. You may wonder, “Is dismounting while we are riding to take care of Rocky’s botfly problem over-indulgence?” I think about balancing request and reward all of the time with Rocky because it is how I help Rocky be friendly and exuberant. The botflies were an important part of his feelings of safety and comfort and he politely asked his partner to help him. This is the natural partnership that Rocky and I enjoy.

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