The More You Learn, The More You See

When Rusty arrived, his eyes were as hard as his muscles.  He had rain rot from withers to tail and large old white scars on his back where someone had ridden in a saddle that didn’t fit. I chalked up his disinterest in his new surroundings to the long trailer ride from Texas.

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A few days passed before he recovered and made it clear that it wasn’t the trailer ride. He had zero interest in all things people. He was adamant about how he meant to be handled, which was not at all. 

He was difficult to catch, he didn’t stand still for grooming, and he was not going to have his feet worked on. He was disruptive in the herd; Rusty operated on a kick first, ask questions later philosophy. Oddly enough, he was quiet and reliable under saddle, which was exactly what we needed. We found him to be a safe horse for actors to ride, for our then upcoming movie, “Out of the Wild.”

During the filming of the movie four months later, he proved to be trustworthy and levelheaded. With time growing shorter to get the footage we needed, he chose to do several spur-of-the-moment jobs for us that we hadn’t prepared him for. For some reason, Rusty decided to work with us, when for months all he wanted was people as far away as possible. Preferably outer space. 

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Rusty having makeup applied for his big scene. Photo: Crissi McDonald

 

 

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Rusty and John Diehl, filming a scene. Photo: Stefan Angele

 

 

 

 

 

 

We couldn’t look a horse like that in the eye and sell him. So he stayed with us.

It’s been four years since the movie, and Rusty is a changed horse. The rain rot is long gone. He’s soft and sweet with eyes like a clear mountain pond. He’s easy to clinic with; he stands tied quietly, drinks and sleeps well, and doesn’t threaten other horses if they get too close. He doesn’t worry if another horse is nervous. He’s become a quiet leader in the herd. 

Those saddle scars have never softened or gone away, despite numerous treatments and consistent grooming.  His stifles are a little creaky, and his right hip bone is sheared off; the result of an old injury which was probably hitting the metal enclosure fast and hard when he was a roping horse.

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Rusty after a bodywork session with Jim Masterson

As time runs on like the river it is,  we gather information and glean insights, much like the list above. This is the Rusty we know today.

Most horse owners are an enthusiastic bunch; since a sizeable chunk of our income goes toward our horse way of life, we focus on what is important. We know what our horses like and don’t like, where their strengths and weaknesses are, where we can excel and where we need work. We know when they are sore, or tired, or feeling great. I’m sure they know this (and much more) about us as well.

It’s part of being human that we sort that information and adapt to fit our conclusions about any given horse in any given situation. Getting more skilled and informed as a horse person comes with a good news/bad news scenario: the more you learn, the more you see. And sometimes, the more you don’t want to see. 

 

This past summer, Rusty let me know everything I’ve learned about him over the years had changed. 

It was the end of our clinic day and everyone had left the arena. Rusty and I’d been trotting but I asked him into his canter to find out how he felt.

We transitioned into an easy lope and after a lap, I thought “Ok buddy, it’s hot out and you’re getting to be an old man so let’s go ahead and stop.” I exhaled and touched the reins lightly, which usually is enough to help him slow down.

Nothing. Instead, he lengthened his lope, making the wind rush past my smiling face.

We cantered for three more rounds, then came down to a walk. And I laughed. “Old Man” indeed.

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Photo: Chris Wolf

That day he showed me how having a story about him had shortchanged what he could actually do. He reminded me that just when we think we know something, we are in store for a surprise. We are shown a facet we weren’t expecting to see because we relied on our cruise control story to give us information, instead of being more present and open to seeing new things.

Stories are a form of insulation; if we think we know something or have all the information about anything, we don’t have to put much thought into how we are interacting or any effort into being aware. Stories and expectations are best buddies. Assumptions might be holding hands right along with them. 

 It’s a curious occurrence that with the whole kaleidoscope of life passing around us on any given day, that out of the bazillions of things to see, we choose the comfort zone of our story. I get comfort zones (you could say comfort zones and ruts are buddies too). You get in a groove, in a rhythm, and you can spend years dancing to the same beat.

There is a great chasm between having knowledge and creating a story. Knowledge stands on its own and can be shared among many. A story is singular, insular and needs knowledge to prop up its flimsy walls.

What I know about Rusty is knowledge – where he needs support physically and how reliable he is mentally. My thinking of him as an “old man?” That’s the story.

It’s a potent lesson for me every time I’m snapped out of my own rutted thinking: that by listening to what I thought was a familiar situation, I can actually learn and see new things. Seeing new things is what keeps horsemanship, and life, full of surprises.

 

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The Arizona Desert. Photo: Crissi McDonald

 

 

 

 

About the Author

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A lifelong horse woman, learning how to listen to horses.

44 Comments

Crissi what can I say…this is why I love you (and Mark of course!!) – your words never fail to touch and speak to me just at important times in my life xx

“That day he showed me how having a story about him had shortchanged what he could actually do. He reminded me that just when we think we know something, we are in store for a surprise.” Thank you Crissi! This is such a beautiful story and is similar to the journey I’ve been on with DreamWeaver Sunday. One cay I heard in my head, “let go of the story.” I was so shocked. It was a “good,” story in terms of therapeutic value for clients, but I think she wanted me to know that our new story had started and the pages were still blank. We still have a ways to go. My vet appears to think it’s humorous that we’re taking it slow (5 years and counting) but I’m not sure what the hurry is and for me the journey has been worth the miles. I adore your writings! I’ll be sharing with my tribe. xo

Love this, and how horses always teach about so much more than themselves when we listen. Thanks for all you do…and share.

Wow, I so love this essay! So important to be open to all beings’ potential to grow and develop beyond the narratives that serve them well for a while. I’d bet that Rusty’s initial story went a long way toward helping him reach that state of trust and safety. The great thing is that you and he understand that life stories have many chapters, and sometimes we can work our way through the difficult ones and arrive at the other side stronger and more whole. Thanks for this beautiful and insightful piece.

I love this. I always think of it as being willing to have a conversation with the horse instead of imposing my “story” onto them. Many trainers don’t support this way of being with and riding horses but in my experience as a rider my willingness to do this has fixed more issues than any training method ever has. I don’t look as good on the horse as the trainers but my horses are happy and we enjoy our rides. Thank you for being one of those who not only talk but listen. 🙂

Crissi, you taught me years ago to “lose the labels…lazy, fat, stubborn…etc”. Now I will learn to “lose the stories” ….he’s a rescue, just a pack horse, unfamiliar breed to me …etc…wow,after 50 years I’m still learning… now I’ll just say, “ This is Peter, my horse partner.” Thank You dear girl …for sharing!! ❤️❤️❤️

Thanks for sharing – I love the photo of looking through Rusty’s ears at the Arizona desert. Its like he’s saying ” keep looking ahead I’ll teach you more”. It always amazes me that just when you think you have these guys figured out they add another page to their bio.

Loved visiting with you guys in Cedarburg last month. Looking forward to next year. Safe travels.

Barb Thuerk

Isn’t that the truth – having one that was so shut down he would not look at me, he would do anything I asked just to get relief and go back to his stall. He really didn’t appeal that much to me but after the30 days I asked as a trial I felt so sorry for him I couldn’t walk away. No shell now , just that emerging personality —

Bravo. Well done Crissi! You have artfully expressed what has often been on my mind of late (how do you do this?!). Such a timely topic, poignant sentiments handled with grace and fluidity. One of your best yet I think. I found myself pausing to sit with your thoughts, saying “Yes. THIS.” May I share to my page?

Like you, I get surprised when I’m living in the past. I’ve taken to greeting horses with, “Who are you today?” Just trying to keep up. Such a great post, Crissi. Thank you.

Thank you for this, we have a rescue horse that looks just like Rusty, when we brought him home he had blown abscess’s, which turned out to be a horrible infection from a broken tooth, pancake feet among other issues. You couldn’t touch him let alone work with him. That’s why I started listening to Mark, now he is the biggest lover on the property. Leads and loads the best of all our horses, easiest to doctor. But he still is scared to death of someone trying to saddle (he has been broken) or accept a human in that respect. So I just love him, I don’t have to have another riding horse, he loves me and that’s all either one of us need. I accept him unconditionally for the horses he is, I can only imagine what he went through before but all he knows now is love.

Hi Bobbie – I’m glad to hear that your horse found you; love after such rough handling must feel like heaven to these horses. I also feel that if I needed to stop riding Rusty I would; our relationship is beautiful as it is and riding is a bonus. Thanks for writing!

Crissi, do you have a system for recording knowledge about your horses as you work with them? I’ve thought about recording notes about my daily work with my horses — maybe dictating notes into my phone while I’m at the barn and then reviewing them weekly at my home desktop. For such a system, do you have recommendations about what to note to build knowledge? I’ve also enjoyed your contributions to Listening to the Horse — The Movie. Thanks!

Hi Paul – I actually don’t have any system, other than thirty plus years of learning. 😉 I’ve been toying with the idea of carrying a notebook, as much to record observations and ideas for future blogs etc but that is as far as I’ve gotten. Hope you find what works for you! –Crissi

That is such a great blog. I remember one nasty cold winter day (of course in the beautiful Colorado sunshine!) I decided I really wanted to ride my horse. The arena was about 2 feet deep in soft new snow. I decided we weren’t going to do more than walk. The horse, Chipper, was about 10 years old at the time. He was an off the track thoroughbred who raced 73 times until he was 8. When we would work on dressage he would raise his head during transitions. On this particular day I thought to myself, we will work on halt to walk transitions. My “story” about him was that since he raced so much he must have had lots of riders and had become defensive about his mouth and back and hind end and had trouble being soft during transitions. As I started to work on the transitions and we were halted he said to me “you are riding all the past horses you have ridden and you are not riding me now. Be here with me now.” It still gives me chills when I think about all the gifts that horse gave me. I allowed my awareness to shift to the here and now and everything changed. Horses are so willing to meet us more than half way when we give them a remote chance to have a voice. So, Crissi, thank you so much for reminding me of stories and how they benefit no one.

Hello Helen! Thank you for sharing your experience with Chipper; that is powerful. Straight from the horse’s mouth too! I’ve had similar (rare) occurrences with horses. They are memories I will carry with me for the rest of my life. And you’re right; stories are of no benefit. Unless they are read to children at bedtime. 😉

Crissi, thank you. I remain grateful for your insights. You are a thoughtful writer and I read and re-read your posts, getting something more to consider or reinforced each time. I get a great deal from the comments of others, too. People are very generous. Maybe your messages resonate so strongly due to a mirror neuron thing (!) as we are all so receptive to the information? In any case, I appreciate the distinction between knowledge and story. Will focus on the former and try not to cling so tightly to the latter. Thank you again.

Patti, I appreciate you taking the time to write and share your thoughts. It helps me to know that these seemingly random thoughts I have are also helpful to others. 🙂 I think we learn best when we learn together (and it might be a mirror neuron thing!); I find that each time I write a blog, I’m writing what I need to learn as well. There are always facets to something that reveal a deeper layer than what we thought we know, right? Thank you again for writing, and happy holidays to you and yours.

“Stories are a form of insulation.” Boy I want to remember that, as much for my horse as for myself and those I meet along the way. To look outside our selves and see the possibility of different is quite a gift.

It was so great to see you and Mark in Iowa. The way you worked with my horse (your touch) has stayed with me. Hope to see you next year.

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