The Easter Egg Hunt with My Horse by MaryGaye LeBoeuf

MaryGaye and Cowboy

Carolyn encourages her students to have a child-like imagination when working with their horses. So, when Easter rolled around this year, I tried to imagine how that most child-like activity, Easter egg hunting, might improve my relationship and leadership with my big, lead horse, Cowboy. Here’s what happened...

Cowboy and MaryGayeOver the past two years, the Waterhole Rituals have helped me bring out Cowboy’s best qualities. Cowboy went from being dominant and stubborn to being cooperative and compliant. With the Waterhole Rituals, Cowboy and I have had many beautiful dances together at Liberty. However, there are times when I ask Cowboy to come with me and he says “no”. It may be because he is busy with something else (like waiting to be fed, grazing or napping), or it may be that I have asked him to go to a place he’s not sure he wants to go (like on trails through the woods). When this happens, it’s my job to figure out how to get him to pay attention to me and willingly go where I ask.

This is what I imagined Easter egg hunting could do to help me with this dilemma:

1) Easter egg hunting will persuade Cowboy to go with me at a time, or to a place, when he would rather not go. Why? Because Cowboy loves games and carrots. If he thinks that we are playing a game and the reward is finding carrots, he will be willing to leave what he is doing and come with me. Eventually, this will evolve into Cowboy going with me wherever and whenever I ask.

2) It will teach Cowboy to keep his attention on me and ignore other distractions.Why? Several reasons: Because I’m better at finding the eggs then he is. Also, because I can get the carrots out of the eggs and he cannot. Plus, Cowboy enjoys the game, he knows that I am in charge of the game and he doesn’t want to risk stopping the game before all the eggs (a/k/a carrot containers) are found.

3) Side benefits: Easter egg hunting gives us a chance to work on the draw, companion walking, changing direction, transitions from walk to halt and lots of head up and head down. This is also an exercise that builds respect around food and makes it possible to ride your horse over a grassy field and your horse will not try to graze when you don’t want him to.

Clutch of Eggs

Clutch of EggsTo test my hypotheses I arrived at the barn one beautiful Sunday afternoon, an hour before feeding time, carrying a clutch of 8 shiny, colored plastic Easter eggs, each containing a piece of carrot. It seemed a good time of day for this game, since Cowboy, thinking about lunch, would be willing to come with me towards the barn where we would “discover” the hidden Easter eggs.

When I arrived, Cowboy and the herd were about a quarter-mile out in the pasture, so I loaded up my Easter basket and headed out to hide the eggs along the path between Cowboy and the pasture gate to the barn. I hid the first two eggs by trees located close to the gate. Then, since it was our first egg hunt and needed to be easy, I placed the remaining eggs in relatively plain sight along the meandering trail leading out towards Cowboy.

Cowboy and the herd

Cowboy was splashing in a large muddy puddle when he noticed me bobbing around in the pasture. Curious boy that he is, he ambled over to see what I was up to. When he arrived, I had just hidden the last egg. I pointed it out to him, picked it up, let him sniff it, then opened it and gave him the carrot. Suspecting that there was more to this situation than first met the eye, Cowboy came along happily when I invited him to go and look for more eggs. When we came upon the next shiny egg, we halted while I bent down and pointed to the egg for Cowboy to see. Then I picked the egg up, opened it and handed him the carrot. That second carrot did it, the “light bulb” went on in Cowboy’s head and he knew a game had begun. When we started walking again, Cowboy had his nose to the ground scanning for more eggs. We soon spotted the next shiny egg and went right to it. Cowboy considered picking the egg up by himself, but I asked for head up while I retrieved the egg and gave him the carrot.

Cowboy Egg hidden by treeFrom there we moved on to the next two Easter eggs. When we reached the eggs, I asked for a halt, Cowboy would touch the egg with his nose, I would ask for head up, and then picked up the egg and gave him the carrot. A win/win situation.

My Hypotheses

The real testing of my hypotheses began as we approached our last three eggs. While we had been hunting for the first five eggs, the rest of the herd had moved past us toward the gate to the barn. This placed several horses in our path to the remaining eggs. In Cowboy’s world, other horses are not allowed on his path. Thus, keeping Cowboy with me, rather than him rushing off to move other horses, was the ultimate challenge. Luckily, he was so concerned about looking for eggs, that when I asked him to stay with me, he complied, without even laying his ears back or shaking his head at the other horses. So, instead of Cowboy moving the other horses, I used my reed to gently move them out of our way.

cowboy What are we doing nowHowever, after the first horses were moved from our path, Cowboy became agitated when he noticed the rest of the herd at the gate where he would normally be at the front of the line. While he considered rushing off to move those horses, I regained control by excitedly pointing out the big yellow egg on the side of the path. When Cowboy spied the egg, he thought it over for moment and abandoned the idea of chasing other horses, turned to me and came to retrieve his prize! I was elated!

As we moved closer to the gate, Cowboy’s tension increased -- he really felt the primal need to move those horses out of his way. I asked him to stay with me while I moved the other horses. Again, because he was so fascinated with the egg hunt, he obeyed my request. Despite the fact that there were several other horses around us, his attention remained fixed on me. His attentiveness was rewarded by our discovery of the last two eggs by the trees.

cowboy connection

Our amazing connection continued as I was able to take him, at liberty, through the herd of horses, stop and open the gate and leave the pasture without Cowboy trying to move a single horse. This really was beyond any of my wildest dreams!

After leaving the pasture, we went into the barn where Cowboy entered his stall to wait for lunch. Well, it wasn’t quite lunch time so, flush with victory; I refilled the eggs with carrots and headed out to a different pasture behind Cowboy’s stall. I wanted to see if I could get Cowboy to go some place he didn’t want to go - away from the barn at feeding time. Knowing that he would need to see that we were still Easter egg hunting, I hid the first egg in plain sight about 25 feet behind his paddock gate. I then hid the other eggs in various places moving away from the barn and then back towards another entrance to the barn.

Cowboy Peeking out of his stall

When I excitedly came back into Cowboy’s stall and asked him to come with me, he looked over his shoulder at me as if to say: “I’m not moving, I’m waiting for lunch.” However, he was still intrigued by the egg hunt and I was finally able to persuade him to at least come peek out the door towards the pasture. When he did, I hurried to the first egg and showed it to him. After considering the possibilities, he sauntered out to investigate. When he discovered that we were having another egg hunt, he signed on and we moved on to the seven other eggs in rapid succession. Success!!!

With our first two egg hunts I achieved my initial goals:

1) getting Cowboy to stay focused on me, and 2) getting him go somewhere he didn’t want to go. During our first hunt, Cowboy learned to stay close and focused on me as we navigated through the herd and out the gate. During the second hunt he again focused on me, but this time he went with me to a place he did not really want to go - outside his stall at feeding time. Huge victories!Cowboy finds an egg

Since that Sunday, Cowboy and I have been on several Easter egg hunts. Each time, once he discovered it was an egg hunt, he was happy to go with me, paying close attention to my requests. While there were a couple of occasions when he considered hunting eggs on his own, I foiled his intentions by hiding the eggs in deeper grass where they were quite difficult to find (Note: always count your eggs before you hide them, so you know if you have found them all). Thus, Cowboy has no choice but to rely on my superior egg hunting skills. He has also discovered that he needs me to liberate the carrots from the eggs.

So as Carolyn always says, getting horses to cooperate does not need to be complicated, difficult or forceful. It just takes imagination and using the resources available to a child.

Thank you MaryGaye for this lovely story about a creative and playful game that you and Cowboy created together.

Have a great weekend! Be on the lookout for more horse and human sightings and may the horse be with you.

Warmly, Carolyn


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