Saturday, July 14, 2012

Ben's Rainy Day Corral

Gee, I haven’t posted anything for a while. Maybe because I had nothing of note to say? And you, yes, you over there, hush up about never having....

 Anyway, it’s time for another pointless but amusing (to me, anyway) photo essay. This one goes way-way back, back before the Serious Photographer/Serious Camera (stop snickering, dammit) to the point-and-shoot days.

Years ago, when I was boarding my Thoroughbred Ben at a riding stable rather than the farm where he now resides, I wanted to clean his stall, without him in it to get in my way. Normally I’d have turned him loose in the inside ring while I worked, but people were riding. I could always put him in a turnout paddock, of course, though it was raining and he’d get all muddy. Then inspiration struck.

There weren’t any grass paddocks for Ben to graze in at Seven Acres Farm, but there was a grassy area next to the main barn. Three sides were fenced in some way: the barn side, a paddock fence running off it, and a tree/brush-lined slope for a third barrier. The fourth side, though, was wide open. What, oh what could I use to keep Ben confined? I looked around, and spotted the solution:


That’s right, plastic lawn chairs, and one lonely bucket. I set up the Arc of Imprisonment, led Ben in, unhooked the lead line, put the entrance chair back in place, and stood back to see how he’d react. Would he freak out? Blast through the flimsy barrier? Ben’s a biddable boy, quietly content to obey whatever his humans require of him and keenly aware of his duty to stay inside anything fencelike, but....


Now and then Ben left off massacring the grass to gaze away into the woods, though he didn’t bother to tell me what he was hearing or smelling.


 Or he’d check out the hose to the sump pump for draining the swale in the paddock behind him.


But mostly he grazed happily on his rare green treat.


 Satisfied that he wasn’t going anywhere, I went back to his stall, breaking off from the mucking every few minutes to look over and assure myself Ben was still where I’d left him. Meanwhile, the light rain dwindled to a mist; the mosquitoes began emerging, and Ben began to be annoyed by them.


The grass was still good enough to keep him occupied while I finished the last bit of mucking, refilled his water buckets, and stuffed fresh hay into his stall.


 I went to retrieve the Benster – and just in time! A monster was stirring in the woods...


 ...and he turned to me to save him, save him!


And that was the end of Ben’s rainy day corral.


Jen said...

Amazing that a simple row of chairs is enough to keep him from leaving! Is he incredibly well-trained or will most horses act in the same way?

Never Ben Better said...

Ben, accustomed all his life to a lightly applied but definitive set of directives from the humans, is content to go along with what the signals indicate he should do, because he knows what rewards he'll be given. I can move this thousand-plus pounds of prey animal sideways, away from food, with a touch of fingertips and a chirp, because he's been taught that obedience to signals makes life easier and that the signaller will never ask him to do stuff that will hurt him. Chair arc = fence; grass inside arc = good reason to stay there; but if something had badly spooked him, the arc would have failed to be Fence enough to restrain him in his panic, and if grass were lush outside but nonexistent inside, temptation could have overcome conditioning. I took a calculated risk in doing this, weighing the factors and actor involved.

On the other hand, my other horse, the wily and limits-testing Morgan whose previous owner let him get away with stuff I don't, would never be safe in such an enclosure; he'd figure out quickly that the chairs were merely symbolic rather than actually controlling his movements, and wouldn't hesitate to plow through them if the grass looked better elsewhere. He too can be controlled with minimal effort (though with more emphasis at times than the Thoroughbred) but this balance of power between us was arrived at following a period wherein he tested many of the boundaries I set for him, chewed over the results of transgressions, tried them again, and decided where the game wasn't worth the candle.

One might put it that Ben trusts; Commander verifies.

In both cases, the efficacy of the Chair Corral results from a confluence of factors; among them, the horse's personality, its training, its life experiences, and the availability and quality of rewards for obeying or breaking the rules.

Never Ben Better said...

I'd cross-posted this story at The Motley Moose, where I'm known as Janicket, and Chris Blask replied with his usual level of thoughtfulness to my frivolous diary. Here is our ensuing exchange:

There is a parable in the efficacy of the Chair Fence, of course.

Both from a political as well as a professional perspective I appreciate the pertinence of the point.

While it is often opined that the management of large forces - like a half-ton of horsemeat - requires large efforts, reality oft belies such notions. Similarly, to move and manage social groups or - on the professional point - keep them out of where they should not be typically requires less and different means than commonly assumed.

Ben doesn't want the hassle of being chased around the farm in exchange for the fresh green grass. He knows full well the chairs won't stop him, but he appreciates their meaning and chooses not to dispute their position.

The light and knowing hand. So much more powerful than the fist.

I hadn't thought of it that way but you're quite right. [copy/paste of response here to Jen] One size no more fits all animals than it does all humans; but I believe this generalization does apply: the lighter the hand of authority, applied with sufficient knowledge of actors and factors, the more efficacious it will be.

Horses are reasonable, people are, too.

I'll pull the pin when necessary, but it so rarely is. That proves the point, I believe, that people are nothing like the horrible Stain on the Planet (or Blight in the Eye of God, pick your poison) so commonly believed.

Let me tell you, if people were as bad as Occupy Oakland or Tea Party Central believe my job would be impossible. Critical infrastructure getting attacked by hackers in 2012 is not surprising, what is surprising is that there are so few and it took so long to get this bad. If the average person were the incipient Rogue Stallion with Rabies so many scared people believe, I would not be able to keep the lights on long enough for me to send or you to read this little missive.

I can't see Michael Moore as being good with horses. Nor Rush or Nancy Grace. If they are they should think about the fact the horses continue to not stomp them into a greasy paste, like they very easily could.

People don't need to be dragged kicking and screaming, they need to be led gently by the hand.

[continued in next comment]

Never Ben Better said...

Sadly, one can in fact dominate horses through cruelty and brutality, cow them into obedience. But their performance of demanded tasks lacks the wholehearted enthusiasm of freely offered effort; in their sullen compliance and shutdown response to human interaction they are harder to work with; and the stronger-minded among them will push back, through sly small disobediences all the way to outright raging rebellion.

Over the course of horse/human history there have been many, far too many people who've been just fine with the "beat 'em into submission" approach. Xenophon taught the principles of what's known today as natural horsemanship; throughout the intervening centuries horse whisperers and other open-minded equestrians have worked through kindness rather than fear; yet to this day abuse is still the default controller for a depressingly large swath of humankind. The animal is ruthlessly taught the required behavior, with no more regard for its own needs and desires than one would offer a hammer.

Yet even those horses who've known only impersonal uncaring dominance can learn to trust a person who offers them patiently persistent kindness, can crack through their protective shell and return affection for affection, their inner spirit kindling to life in once-dull eyes.

Blindingly obvious, to those with eyes to see: The application of the above to human/human interaction.

The Soviet vs. US model. The Nazi vs. US model, and many more comparisons which are less stark but refine the importance of the specific point.

Most of the art of leadership in human culture has been focused on how you make a bunch of miserable illiterate cretins follow orders. Less has been focused on how you enable intelligent, ethical people to work together.

The whole premise of this country is that people do not suck. That's pretty unique, all in all. The conspiracy-theory tack that all of this is a smoke screen covering Vast Controlling Interests would, if true, negate any value whatsoever in our culture. That fact of who we are argues against that.

Managing horses (or pitbulls, believe me) provides a deep experience in the finesse of human culture. No, you cannot lead every horse in every case without resorting to Authority. Yes, you can lead almost every horse in almost every case with Guidance. There is no black or white where using only one or the other is an option.

So with human affairs. Absolutely spineless acquiescence to the desires of the people is not leadership but abdication thereof, ruthless dictatorship is not intelligent leadership but rather a simplistic means to get a minimal result.

Far to the Left there is the idea that one should never - oh my! - use force or dominance in any way. Far to the Right there is the idea that one should never use anything else. In the middle are live horses, pitbulls, people and reality. How we choose to subtly mix those factors determines whether we are artists or sign painters.