Continued from last time…
How does one take a dangerous horse and bring out it’s “good nature” in the most efficient way possible without putting oneself at risk? This is the first question I asked myself when I began working with Zoe.
As a trainer, I had already been down the road of coercing my horses to do my bidding, using side-reins and draw-reins and French reins and German reins and flash nose-bands and strong bits and roweled spurs and all the usual (and legal) paraphernalia. I knew how much work it was to punish bad behavior, contain rebellion and demand a work ethic that would grant me the success of my personal ambitions. But in the end, working harder had not saved me from ruining a really great horse, and making the lives of my others-in-training pretty stressful.
Later on, just after I had begun to see the error of my ways, it was to my great advantage to work with a master horseman who had already turned 80. He was still very strong and spry and active, but he had long before given up expending energy on trying to “make something happen,” particularly where horses and their people were concerned. Rather than work himself into a huff if a horse wasn’t coming ’round to his satisfaction, he would stop and reassess the situation. Likewise, when he’d hear someone else complain about their horse’s prolonged bad behavior he was often heard replying, “People usually try to convince me that their horse is as stubborn as a mule, but I’ve never actually seen a stubborn mule. What I have seen is a mule shut down for a while to give the person time to think about what they ought to be doing.”
The beautiful thing about Tom was that there was never any blame attached to his quips. He gave both horses and people all the time they needed to come up with a better strategy than the one currently causing their life misery, and without censure. Of course in my case, I already had a well-developed inner-flogger who found fault with everything I did, so it was life-changing, to say the least, to be granted a different perspective of myself through Tom’s eyes. He never lost his temper nor gave up on me no matter how many mistakes I made or how many times I repeated them. Likewise, the horse was given the means to work out their own “troubled spots,” Tom stepping in to “support and direct” only sparingly.
“I’m just trying to keep them this side of trouble,” he would say, allowing them to wander pretty close to the edge so that they could learn to make a better decision for themselves. Translated, that meant helping a horse learn to behave in ways that made their life easier amid the world of humans. This included giving them an opportunity to be relaxed, 1) inside their own skin, 2) with their surroundings, and 3) with the person.
Relaxation in these three areas constitutes the most significant change we can make each day in order to establish a reliable foundation upon which everything else rests.
No matter how hard we try, we cannot make our horse relax. It is an ability that everyone — horses and people — must learn for themselves. We can, however, set up the conditions within which they more easily and readily learn how to do just that. Oftentimes, the best way is by letting them loose. When our horse is loose inside a round pen or an arena, the fence line or wall creates a definite boundary, but within that boundary, they have complete freedom to make whatever decision they choose, and then to learn the consequences of that decision.
With Zoe, for example, that was key. When she was turned loose for the first time, everything scared her. She thought she needed to run away, so she ran. But for the first time, no one rushed in to try to stop her or “bring her under control.” The fence line did the work that a halter and lead would have otherwise done to keep her in proximity, but without me having to strain to keep her in check.
She learned that running never really let her get “away.” The same end of the arena just kept coming around again and again. If she wanted to catch her breath, she would have to slow down and face her world the way it was. Through that process, she realized that her surroundings were, in fact, not the danger she had anticipated. That was when she began to drop her head low and show signs that she was “letting down from the inside.” Then I let her walk, and kept her walking because she finally had the presence of mind to accept me asking for
that one simple directive. As she walked, she could look around and check out her world more thoroughly. That world — including the people and things in it — became less and less suspect. Over time, fear morphed into curiosity, and curiosity into play.
Learning to relax was the fundamental change that made her life better, but mine, too. Of course she became easier to work with, but was simply more pleasant to be around as well. Where once she wouldn’t put herself within arm’s reach, “hanging out” with her peeps has now become one of her favorite pastimes.
Allowing Zoe time to learn to relax required having some understanding of a horse’s nature in order to know what scenarios might aid her in working through her own issues. It also required letting go of blaming her for being crazy or too freakish to handle. Labeling her as such had not done one bit to help her become “sensible.” In addition, letting her learn rather than forcing her to comply was a lot more fun and rewarding for me than loading her up with draw reins and gag bits just to keep her feet on the ground.
Continuing as Zoe’s advocate means continuing to learn about her as she moves through the various stages of reaching her potential. In the one and a half years of working with her, it has not been a straight and uphill path. It’s been just like life, circuitous and surprising and well worth the journey.
Tune in next time for more…