My horse Cowboy is a rather large and imposing paint gelding who is the undisputed leader of his herd of over 20 geldings and mares. Cowboy’s plan for world dominance involves him using as little energy as possible, refusing to be physically or mentally moved by others and his blunt refusal to follow anyone. Some would call it stubbornness, Cowboy calls it a plan for leadership and survival. During our first four years together, Cowboy’s refusal to be moved or follow, extended to my efforts to move him and become his leader. He benignly observed as I tried to move him and convince him that I, at 5 foot 0 inches and prone to jumping at loud noises, was fit to assume leadership. He was not going to allow any other horse to move or lead him, why should he let me?
However, with my discovery and practice of the Waterhole Rituals, the tides began to turn for Cowboy and me. Carolyn taught me how to use the WHRs to influence Cowboy’s body and mind so that he would move at my request and trust me to be his leader. She gave me the mental and physical skills I needed to gain confidence in my leadership abilities and to convince Cowboy that I was fit for the job. One of the most important things she taught me is that leadership over horses is not about size, strength or ability to physically or mentally dominate. Leadership is about the subtleties of the mind and imagination. Your ability to lead is directly connected to your ability to control your mind, to understand the subtle minds of horses and your ability to imagine ways to develop the horse’s mind to want to follow our leadership and grant our requests.
But leadership with horses is an ongoing and ever changing journey and some days, in some situations, Cowboy would just say “nope, not happening.” He was not going to walk with me nor trust me to be his leader. Usually his change of attitude would occur when I asked him for companion walking in the pasture where he was happily grazing or napping. Or when I would ask him to walk away from food, or away from the barn at dinner time. The other place I ran into difficulty was when I asked Cowboy to go with me some place “uncomfortable” like the nearby woods. Sometimes he would refuse to walk with me at all, or if he did, he might wander off when he spotted something more interesting. Sometimes he would balk and spook when asked to go someplace new and scary. When this happened I became frustrated and agitated; which completely worked against any leadership opportunities I might have with Cowboy.
In the Spring of 2013, I was working on a solution to the dilemma and I kept thinking about Carolyn’s axiom, to “have the imagination of a child” when working with horses. Let your creativity run wild looking for ways to achieve the desired result with horses. I also thought about Carolyn telling me that the way to get a horse to move and listen to you is to have a job for you and your horse to do together, like mending fences. The desire to get the job done and see results, took the focus off “trying to get your horse to do something” and ended up with both the horse and rider working together as partners and obtaining the desired results of attentiveness, patience, go, halt, wait, and trust.
As urban dwellers, Cowboy and I were unlikely to get a job mending fences, so I pondered the other jobs we might do together. I thought about jobs that Cowboy and I would both enjoy and then it dawned on me that Easter Egg Hunting fit the bill perfectly. I love hunting Easter Eggs and Cowboy loves games and would adore the pieces of carrots I would hide inside the plastic Easter eggs. I would hide the carrot filled eggs in the area where I was trying to get Cowboy to companion walk with me. The job would involve all the elements of attentiveness, focus, patience, go, halt, wait and trust. And, in the end, a reward for a job well done – carrots for the horse and a willing, well-trained partner for me. I was certain that once Cowboy discovered that these odd little pieces of plastic contained delicious carrots, and that he needed me to help find and open the eggs, Cowboy would be on board and willing to walk, stop and wait with me wherever I desired.
I was thinking that the game sounded a little silly, but I nevertheless told Carolyn about my plan and she encouraged me to give it a try. I did, and the results were far beyond my expectations. I wrote to Carolyn about our first Easter Egg Hunt and she published it in her blog in the Summer of 2013 which you can see here.
The response to the Easter Egg Hunt, worldwide, astounded me. Carolyn’s followers from all over the world wrote back and told us that the game resonated with them immediately! Many went out and tried it with their horses the very next day. Some sent in videos of them hunting Easter eggs with their horses. They told us about how much fun they and their horses had and how the benefits of the game became immediately apparent.
The benefits of the Easter Egg Hunt have far exceeded my expectations! As you will see in the videos, Cowboy is attentive, well-mannered and follows my leadership whenever we are on an Easter Egg Hunt. It impresses upon him that being with me and following my direction is fun and leads to happy consequences. The Hunt allows us to work on speed, direction, halts, voice and body cues and attentiveness. This attentiveness and willingness to follow my leadership in the Easter Egg Hunt carries over to an amazing degree into other Liberty work and riding.
In fact, Cowboy adores the game, and frequently tells me that he wants to have a hunt, by poking his nose along the ground like he’s searching for eggs. When we do have a hunt, he is like an excited, but well behaved child – which is exactly what I want – no matter the excitement, mind your manners. Cowboy restrains himself from running off to find the next egg without me and then asks politely may he please have the prize inside and takes it gently from me.
In return, hunting for Easter Eggs has given me much greater control over Cowboy at Liberty. He is a willing companion who will walk and trot alongside me at a mere suggestion. He will navigate obstacles and stop on a dime. His attention is glued to me, since he knows that I am the master of the Easter Eggs (even when we haven’t had a hunt in months!) The sight of an Easter Egg gives me the means of redirecting Cowboy’s attention if it starts to wander. Finally, amazingly, the Easter Egg Hunt has translated into better trail riding. Before starting trail riding in the Spring, we have an Easter Egg Hunt or two out on the trials. Darn if those eggs don’t show up in the scariest spots – dried out creek bottoms with steep banks, on top of large fallen trees, even down winding, narrow trails. After Cowboy has clambered down into the creek bed to retrieve an Egg, marched up to the fallen tree to seek his treasure, or navigated through a scary trail to retrieve his prize, riding him through those places holds no fear for him or for me!
I hope all of you will try the Easter Egg Hunt with your horses. Let the idea of the Hunt infuse you with joy and excitement for the fun. Use the Hunt to develop a true partnership with your horse. The Hunt will help you gain your horse’s attention and trust and it will give you the key to leadership with your horse. Happy Hunting!!
Thank you MaryGaye for writing this and coming up with such a fun game for you and your horse, that helps him in so many ways. I always encourage my students to use their imagination to come up with safe, fun ways to play with their horse as well as integrating my Method. I can see your game is similar to my story of Sage Brush in my book "Naked Liberty" coupled with the the exercise I gave you in my Online Class to hide treats on the trail to help your horse get over his fears. I was so excited to see you create a game that encompassed both things.
MaryGaye and I are hosting a Webinar on Thursday, April 16th at 6:00pm PST that will discuss her Easter Egg Hunting game in more detail. Once you register for the Webinar, we will send you a few videos showing the details as well as written materials. You will be able to ask both myself and MaryGaye questions on training your horse with this game on the Webinar. The cost is $14.95 and you can email Teddie at email@example.com to register.
Have a great weekend! Be on the lookout for new horse and human sightings and may the horse be with you.
Carolyn Resnick - Beyond the Waterhole Rituals
Teddie Ziegler - The Waterhole Rituals