I am currently attending a permaculture design course with Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden. One of the guest speakers in our latest class happened to be friend Brock Dolman who, in preparation for this year’s International Permaculture Convergence in Cuba, put together a condensed definition for this complex field of whole-systems thinking. After reading through the list that he projected on the overhead screen, I laughed. It sounded just like the best round pen session I ever had with a horse.
Developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren with the intention of solving the world’s most pressing problems, the term permaculture is a contraction of the words permanent culture or permanent agriculture. It is “a design method for creating regenerative human settlement systems based in natural patterns and processes.” This basically means that there is a way for humans to exist on the planet that creates a mutually enhancing relationship with each other and the natural world, rather than a mindless, domineering, toxic, and destructive one. What does this have to do with working horses? Just replace the words “natural world” in the last sentence with “horses” and you begin to see the correlation. Going through the list of “Permaculture Principles” will help to further clarify what I mean.
Tom often said, “You can learn so much about a horse just by observing them in their natural state.” He was very clever in finding ways to slow me down and inhibit me from being so quick to take action before I’d given myself the opportunity to really think about what I was doing. So much of what I did around horses — and the way I did them — came out of my assumptions about what I thought was expected of me, rather than what I had reasoned about based on what the horse was actually telling me.
With Tom, it was not uncommon for me to spend an entire day beside him in the golf cart observing horses out in pasture, horses turned loose in the round pen or arena, horses rolling, horses and cows turned out together, horses vying for position during feeding time; or watching the expressions on their faces when standing in the sun, under the shade of a tree, while being being worked or while being groomed. When a friend of mine arrived with her troubled
gelding, Tom had her turn him loose in his paddock and we spent both morning and afternoon watching her explore different ways of petting him; how to work her hands over his face, around his eyes and on the inside of his mouth, then down his neck in slow, firm strokes, her fingers pressing in along each side of his wind pipe. There were many ways for her to explore rubbing around his withers, around his girth and over his rib cage, sometimes lightening the pressure with feather-like quality, other times digging in with rapid nail action for a real scratch. We must have watched her spend well over an hour on his tail alone, Tom’s soft words guiding her through the process.
Each stroke of her hand was dictated by her horse’s expression, sometimes offering a soft eye, an extended lip or a lowered head when she’d discovered just the right touch, but other times informing her of his uncertainty or displeasure with a raised head, tight back and cocked ear no longer soft and pliable. I remember having the vague notion that I should grab my video camera to tape the entire session. But by that time I was transfixed, knowing I would miss so much in the time it would take me to remove myself from the cart, walk to my truck, and rummage around with the battery pack. I had finally gotten to the place inside myself where what had once seemed boring and insignificant had become beautiful and fascinating, and all I wanted was to be there to witness it. To be present.
2. Compose with, instead of impose upon
By the end of the petting session, my friend had gotten pretty good at adjusting her strokes to elicit the best expressions from her gelding. Instead of moving away when he became uncomfortable with her touch, he learned that if he “voiced” his sentiment with a “look,” she would change to something he liked. It was an understanding that developed between the two of them as the day progressed. She got better at observing him, he began to trust that she would respond to his needs. The next morning when she went out to halter him, he walked right up to her for the first time instead of doing what he had always done before, which was to turn in the opposite direction and make himself unavailable the second he saw her coming. The change that occurred between them is what Tom often referred to as “a respect that works both ways,” or the cornerstone of a real partnership.
Tune in for more next week… or sometime shortly thereafter. 😀