The first time I met our horse Rocky, he and Mark were working together. It was Rocky’s first clinic, and the first time traveling to one, as well as the first time he was so far away from where he was born seven years prior, and then raised. He wasn’t too sure about anything. For three days I watched as Mark worked with him, mostly at the halt and walk to help him feel better about things.
On the fourth day during the lunch break, Rocky, still tied to a hitch rail and saddled, very carefully laid down and took a nap.
Fast forward six months: Rocky and I were working together. I did my best to continue the work Mark had started, now at the walk and trot. We worked several clinics a month for two years. One day he felt so quiet that I asked him if we could canter. He did, and it was so easy and relaxed that I laughed with joy.
Through the years, dozens of trips back and forth across the country, with Rocky spending time with both Mark and I, we found him to be a confident, willing to work partner. He reached the place where he was softer than I had ever felt in a horse, and many times he was so attuned that I began to notice where I was not clear in my own riding. Rocky and I were now learning from each other, but I’m quite sure I got the better end of the deal!
I have noticed that in this work (where the principal focus is softness, and helping the horse feel good), there comes a point where they grow past us. We ask them to open, and when they do, they show the depth of themselves which holds more than we ever imagined. This is where horses have inspired us to poetry and books and songs. This is what almost every horse holds the key to, when we show them that they can trust us to unlock.
Not every horse does this, or can do this, nor are they required to. Rocky, however, made a choice years ago that what we were asking fit with what he could do. We extended friendship to him, and he has given it back to us in numerous ways, as in the story below.
Mark and I were at home one day, when I let him know I was ready to ride another horse. It had been over a year after my accident by then and I was grateful about my growing confidence. I saddled up Rocky, took a few deep breaths and had a good time that day with my old pal. I asked Rocky for all the things we have done together, except for canter.
That night, I asked Mark if he would keep an eye on me the next day when we cantered, to give me a verbal “all’s well” beforehand. I didn’t have any doubts about Rocky, but rather my own internal system that went a bit haywire before the thought of going faster. I knew that if I heard “you’re ok,” from someone I trust, then I could quiet that worry.
When we rode the next day, as we were trotting by Mark, I said “I’m ready. Can you let me know it’s ok to—“ and before the word “canter” came out of my mouth, Rocky had picked up the soft, slow and rocking gait. I laughed with joy.
After that, cantering with Rocky was what it always used to be: fun, funny (I like the way he flips his forelock in the air) and as easy as a breath and a thought. We cantered again and again, and each time Rocky put a little more energy into it. It felt like he was asking me questions, and each time my answer was “yes!”
In a way, he was returning what we had, through the years, sought to give him: the feeling of all is well, and you’re ok.
Photos of Rocky are in chronological order.
Photo 1: Loveland, Colorado 2007
Photo 2: Visalia, CA 2009
Photo 3: Ben Wheeler, TX 2014
Photo 4: Anthony, FL 2015