…continued from last week…
I gradually found out that for Tom, the concept of learning had a much broader meaning than my interpretation of the word. He would ask me for the simplest of tasks, like riding a circle at a walk… but without the use of my legs, and only using one rein, yet I was to keep the horse in balance as if I had been using that multiple set of aids. Or I would ask him how I could improve my half-pass, and he’d send me out into the brush to hide from other riders moving past my position to see if I could keep my horse from nickering at them. Or I would ask how I could improve my canter pirouettes, and he’d send me into the creek bed where my horse would flounder over the rocks. I didn’t understand what he was getting at, and he didn’t explain exactly, although he dropped a clue now and then, just enough to keep me intrigued, but not enough to ensure my success. That would be up to me, and I was lost from the get-go.
What kept me coming back was the fact that, like my sister had done years ago, he remained keenly attentive to every attempt I made no matter how many times I’d end up not being able to do what he had asked for. Noting his kindly indifference to my enormous lack of success frustrated me. If he didn’t care that I was doing it all wrong, what did this man want from me? Finally I recognized that it wasn’t about what he wanted. It was about what I wanted. And I wanted what he had in a big way.
What Tom had was an ability to make big changes with the most troubled horse in a very short time without looking like he was doing anything. I’d be watching him, but I couldn’t “see” how he made everything turn out fine when a moment ago the situation had looked hopeless. For years the best adjective many used to describe him was “magical,” and I hated that word because it explained nothing.
It was years before I began to realize that helping troubled horses was all about establishing partnership, and partnership was all about trust and respect, not memorization and technique — although those things are necessary in the beginning when honing one’s physical skill. But rather than achieving adept physical prowess for both myself and the horse as the coveted end-product like I had imagined, those things were merely the starting point to something much broader and deeper: understanding the horse and what he needed from me in order for me to be able to communicate with him in a truly effective way. This realm of expertise required abilities that could not be seen, but could only be felt, and so no one could teach them to me. I had to learn them myself.
What I did learn from Tom, however, is that an environment could be created within which I could find a way to feel for my horse, and herein lay his genius. He could see from day one that the horses I was “training” to do all the things I wanted, were not at all prepared to do them with ease, without tension, or happily. The horse for whom I wanted help riding half-passes was too distracted to perform an advanced movement requiring a complex use of aids. If I couldn’t maintain his attention without forcing him into a pretzel, why would I expect that such contortions would ease tensions as time went on? The horse who was schooling canter pirouettes couldn’t yet organize his feet over uneven terrain. Why would I be asking him for a movement he couldn’t begin to comply with? If Tom had tried to tell me, “Your horse doesn’t know where his feet are, so go ride over rocks and rough ground until he can figure that out,” I would have laughed in his face. “What do you mean, my horse doesn’t know where his feet are? Every horse knows where his feet are! Duh!”
No, I had to learn the truth of it for myself, and after a lot of time wondering why my horse was stumbling incessantly over the rocks, I finally felt the difference when he began to nimbly pick his way through. Only then did it occur to me that Tom had been right all along. I began to understand what it really meant to be able to feel where my horse was, and how inappropriate it is to ask what most of us ask of our horses — simply because we have relied solely on what we’ve been taught, and not on what we have actually learned about them.
More of the story next week! Stay tuned…