The Importance of Thumbs
When I was studying horsemanship at Pat Parelli’s International Study Center in Pagosa Springs, Colorado in the summer of 1998, my horse and I learned something about leading and following on a dark summer night.
For a long time I struggled with Baby preferring to be with her buddies in the pasture instead of being with me. If we were anywhere that Baby could see her buddies, even if it were a quarter mile away, she would start calling to them. They would pace up and down the fence line, calling her, too.
I knew that I had not earned enough respect from Baby so that she would see me as a leader. I was disappointed and embarrassed that I could not “make” her want to be with me.
But little, by little, things changed. As I learned skills that could ask Baby to move and listen to me, she started paying more attention to me and less to her buddies. The turning point came in one special evening.
Most of the students’ horses at the ranch stayed in pens overnight. Baby was having problems with the pellets that were fed in those pens, and I preferred that she eat the grass hay that the horses in the pasture ate. So, after we would finish our daily lessons, and put away our tack, I would take Baby out to the pasture with her buddies. We would walk down from the pens toward the main lodge, then hang a left up through the horse play area to the gates to the pasture. The whole trip was probably 300 to 400 yards.
At first, I had Baby on a lead rope while taking her up there. She eventually learned to stay at my shoulder, and not forge ahead. As we developed our relationship where I trusted her to stay with me, we would make this walk each evening and morning with no lead rope or halter. I thought it was pretty cool that my horse would follow me this way.
One evening, though, we finished our lessons after sundown. It was a dark, moonless night. I knew the way to pasture, but couldn’t see very far. Baby got anxious in the dark, even though she could probably see better than I could. About a hundred yards from the pasture gate, she thought she couldn’t wait any more, and took off toward her buddies.
I just stopped where I was and waited for her. I could hear her running up and down the fence line, calling to her friends. I just stood there and talked to her. “It’s OK, Sweetie. I can wait all night. You can run all you want, but I am the one with thumbs that can open the gate.” I knew she wasn’t really listening to what I said, but I just wanted to make sure that she could find me in the dark. Baby would come back toward me and ask me to hurry along. I didn’t move.
Finally after about fifteen minutes, Baby turned it over to me. She came and stood by my shoulder. We calmly went to the gate, and I let her in with her friends. I felt like I had gained a lot of leadership points that evening. She had a problem she couldn’t solve herself, and turned to me for help. By allowing her to explore her options without me, she learned that maybe I was a better leader than she thought. And I learned that if I want her to follow me willingly, it has to be because she wants to, and not because she has to.
It was a big turning point in our relationship. After that, she always paid attention to me while we were doing something together, and didn’t call to her buddies. Even now, more ten years later, when it’s dinner time, she will join me in the pasture and walk calmly at my shoulder all the way to our pen. It’s a wonderful feeling to have a horse look to you for comfort and safety.
And that fateful night, I am grateful that Baby finally decided that I could be a good leader. Or, maybe she was just saying,
“Dang. I wish I had thumbs.”