The little paint mare stood trembling at the end of the longest lead rope I could find that day. The July morning had dawned hot and we were both sweating in the middle of her paddock, though the cause of her agitation was probably due more to the bottle of fly spray in my hand.
In chatting with her owner, she said that every summer the mare would tear off three fly sheets, ruin a half dozen fly masks and be covered in flies from her sunburned nose to her constantly swishing tail. Fly spray was out of the question, and trying to wipe it on wasn’t any better. After two summers of watching her mare suffer, and having run out of options, the owner wanted to see if we could help her little paint horse through the issue.
After seeing the mare’s response to the fly spray, we decided to change a couple of things; we let her run loose in a round pen, and we found an old spray bottle that we filled with water.
I stood in the middle of the pen and began spraying water to the side of me and toward the ground. Without a halter and lead rope to contain her, the mare took off at a run. At first, there was not much change; she kept running, I kept spraying. Anytime she put an ear or an eye toward me or thought about slowing down, I would stop spraying. As she started to understand that facing the sound caused it to stop, her frantic run slowed to a canter and then a trot.
By the end of our time together she would stand still without a halter as I sprayed water, starting at her hooves and moving up to her legs. Her neck and body took a few minutes more, but she was standing quietly not long after.
After all of us took a long drink of water, her owner and I went back into the pen, haltered her and reviewed what we had done. The mare needed to move again, so we let her. After a few minutes, she quieted down and let the spray cover her.
We took another break, and this time we brought out the fly spray, starting at her hooves, pausing and then moving to her legs, paused a few moments more, and then her body. Though she wasn’t willing to put this on her list of Things That Are Really Cool, she stood still and calm. We repeated the process a few more times in her paddock, then at the hitch rail where she was usually groomed (without tying her). Although she felt the need to move around, the level of fear that she initially felt was almost non-existent, and after moving she would then stand quietly.
The reason I share this story is that so often we think what we do with horses has to get done right dang now. It doesn’t. And though there are some things that do indeed have an immediacy to them, that doesn’t mean that we have to do them quickly or with a hard hand.
Granted, this mare was being tormented by flies and needed some relief but even then, we took our time, gave her breaks, and watched her closely so we could time our release (stopping the spraying sound) with the moment she was a tiny bit curious about it.
I have often heard that horses don’t wear watches. I would also add that horses don’t have deadlines; what they do have is a very clear sense of pressure. When we force them to stand still out of a misguided sense of having to get things done right this second, the result is a perfect storm of miscommunication.
Though our resolve is firm, our approach doesn’t always have to be. Erring on the side of gentleness and slowing things down often will make things exponentially easier with our horses. By remaining aware, calm and doing our best to work with the horse, we can often get things done in a manner that leaves them feeling better about the situation than when we started. As far as I’m concerned, that’s on my own list of Things That Are Really Cool.
I have a little puzzle for you:
How would you make this line shorter?
Erase it? Cut it in half? Scribble on it?
“It’s time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet.” Marcus Aurelius
How would you make the first line shorter?
You could do something like this:
Instead of focusing on how we can deface the original line, we simply draw a longer line underneath it.
We often use this thought experiment when teaching our horsemanship courses because it illuminates a pretty common way of thinking. Sometimes we get so caught up in how someone else is doing something wrong or bad, we forget to put our time and energy into finding ways to increase the length of our own line.
If you look at the lines as representing skill sets, you can see that shortening someone else’s “line” is what happens when we choose to run people down. I’m not talking about giving up your opinions or beliefs. What I believe is that if we consistently turn our focus to lengthening our own line, we will not only more gain more skill, but feel happier as well. Because there’s nothing like a little comparison to make you feel anything but happy.
Shortening other people’s line doesn’t only pop up in horsemanship circles. It seems these days are especially fraught with commotion. It’s incredibly easy to get pulled off the focus of our life. There have been many times recently when I have forgotten my personal ideals and ignored them with something that felt very close to relief so I could indulge in negativity. It’s not a coincidence that the increased time I spent paying attention to the news decreased my drive to pay attention to my own internal workings.
Because developing our own skill set is challenging right? It’s much easier to forget basic manners and blast someone for all the ways they are wrong. Then celebrate all the ways we are right. Erase their line, and ours doesn’t have to grow a bit, does it?
“There’s a big difference between wanting your horse to be better, or wanting to be better for your horse.” Mark Rashid
Our ability to increase our skill is in direct relationship to our ability to keep our focus on what is truly important for us. A focus on being better for our horses is miles away from making our horses better. The first is in our control and the second? Well, it’s only the horse’s good nature that lets us believe the illusion that the latter is also within our control.
When we turn our attention outside of ourselves in a state of dissatisfaction, it seems we cannot help but try to erase, cut in half or scribble out other people’s lines. I am convinced that this gets translated to our horses as an increase in pressure for them to just get it right already.
Conversely, there is also the voice that tells us that our line will NEVER be as long as another person’s so what is the point in even trying (I feel your pain; I fall into this trap when I practice fiddle). So what if you and your horse can’t piaffe or passage like an Olympic medalist? So what if you can’t spin at Mach 1 like the horses at The Congress? Besides the cost to the horse to get to that level of skill, there is the plain truth that we are who we are, with the skills that we have, and the choices we make either bolster those skills or let them get rusty.
I have seen, in myself and others, that once we focus on being better for our horses (or better in our life, for that matter), there is a natural slowing down that happens. We become more thoughtful and more likely to experience the joy of the moment. We pay less attention to things that aren’t important and more attention to the depth and weight of our own lives, which is really all we’ve got anyway.
We can accept where we are and grow it, or we can fight. Either way, our horses are on the receiving end of our decisions. It seems if we want quieter and more peaceful horses it would be a good idea to make choices that support that same state of mind for ourselves.
Shortly after a horse accident in 2014, I had to walk with a cane. The design between its black handle and its black rubber tip was pink roses.
That should have been the first clue that my brain injury had rewired my preferences; before the wreck, I didn’t like pink. Or roses. But as I looked at the other canes – somber in their black and navy blueness – this one stood out. Pink roses seemed to defy injury.
The pink rose cane gave other people a clue that I couldn’t move like they could, but often I felt like a rock in a stream; people would eddy and rush past me much like the local rivers do in Spring when the runoff from the Rocky’s is melting.
There were many clues that things in my body and mind were changing; one of the biggest ones was that I was relishing walking slowly. Before the accident, I rarely strolled. Power walking was my gait of choice. Walking slowly and liking it was a new sensation. I felt like a different person.
This wasn’t just because of the pain in my crushed right thigh. It was also because I could see everything in great detail. I found out each blade of grass, though green, was a different shade. Some were darker at the tips. I saw tiny flowers and felt the variations of the ground underneath my left foot. I began studying hoof prints to see where a horse was carrying their weight when the hoof landed on the ground.
I also noticed how fast everything was. Cars were fast; most people were faster. It wasn’t just their speech that I could barely follow (though this might’ve had something to do with the brain injury), or that their actions were sped up. It was as though these things were the by-product of how they felt on the inside. I often wondered if this is how we feel to horses; unintelligible and edgy.
When it came to working with horses, I thought I went slowly. It wasn’t until after I was forced to slow down that I realized that even my version of slow was probably still too fast to a horse. After the accident, because I was physically and mentally slower I could feel how the world around me was sped up.
I’ve been revisiting this time in my life because since the holidays I have felt as though I am on fast forward. I’ve been metaphorically power walking past many of the routines that help foster going slowly. Yesterday my horse Banjo let me know this; he’s a master (as are all horses) at reflecting how I am interacting with him. If I’m quick and jerky, so is he. He showed me how speedy I am. Time for less power walking and more strolling.
We miss a lot of good things when we go too quickly. And I’ve discovered we miss a lot of communication when we rush through our time with horses. We get so focused on what we want to do and the time we have allotted to do it in, that we forget horses are creatures of Being. And Being, to be savored, is about depth and exploration. These are qualities that require us to slow down, and the rewards are endless.
Resistance is thought transformed into feeling. Change the thought that creates the resistance, and there is no more resistance. – Robert Conklin
If you were to give your instant impressions about the photo above, what would they be? Would the word resistance come up?
This way of thinking isn’t uncommon. Many of us started learning or grew up hearing horses spoken about as if they were spiteful people with body hair. Add our tendency to focus on the negative to this species nearsightedness and working with horses can feel like one long battle for supremacy.
For many of us though, this me-against-them perspective hasn’t ever felt right. Battling horses is neither a logical nor a smart choice but we get away with it because of their willing nature.
When we say “my horse is being resistant,” it lets us off the hook. We are self-absolved of the responsibility to listen further or learn more. On the flip side, we also have the ability to educate ourselves and choose different ways of thinking that can short-circuit the downward spiral into fighting with our horse. Here’s an example, as shown in the photos above and below.
In the above photo, Mark is working with Lily. She was returning to work from an injury after almost a year off. We decided to start with longeing to help her get back into the swing of things; this photo was taken at the beginning of the session.
While it may appear that Lily is resisting the rope (or Mark), another perspective to consider is that by giving Lily time and support, she can sort out how to use her body in a small circle. Mark’s posture is balanced and he is supporting Lily, as opposed to pulling on her. She hasn’t had to bend her body in a while so giving her time to loosen up can help her start traveling in a balanced way.
Compare this with the photo below, where Lily has been moving in a circle for about five minutes. She has found how to relax her body and move more in balance than the first photo. While there is a connection, there isn’t any pull.
Horses can only pull if you pull back. A tug on the lead rope, a hoof that won’t be picked up, or a horse who dives into the bit can, faster than we are comfortable admitting, send us straight to one of two places: resignation or frustration. Teaching yourself to maintain a relaxed and balanced structure when you feel a tug is a valuable skill because our bodies are hardwired to push or pull when pushed or pulled upon. Horses aren’t any different; unless we show them another option, the only skills they have to fall back on when they can’t get away or don’t understand is to push, pull or not respond.
I’ve often heard that this is an exercise in semantics but I don’t believe so. I have seen and felt the difference in horses when we approach them with understanding and a positive perspective, versus giving in to frustration and tension.
The first place any change takes place is in our heads and hearts. Without that change, everything else is mechanics and horses know it. When we interact with horses with the knowledge that physical issues or lack of understanding can contribute to what they are doing and how they are doing it, we create an atmosphere of lower pressure. And though some humans may seem to thrive on pressure, I also know many of us who don’t; horses absolutely don’t.
“Acceptance means events can make it through you without resistance”
― Michael Singer, An Untethered Soul
Horses are communication, embodied. How you see them behaving is how they are feeling. Why would we then choose to see or what they are doing in a negative light? We love horses for many reasons, and it seems contradictory to accept only the things that are easy about them, and negatively label or ignore those things we don’t understand.
Pressure, resistance, discomfort; we aren’t seeking to eliminate these experiences, but rather develop a response that returns us to inner equilibrium. Being with horses is about building a relationship of such solidity that they feel safe to express the full range of who they are while in connection with us. The distance between resistance and relaxation is a change of thought away. The depth of connection between us and our horse lies within this change of thought.
On a warm spring day, I walked into an arena to help Dave with his sorrel gelding, Whip. Wide-eyed and snorting, Whip was flinging his head in every direction, and Dave was doing his best to hang on to Whip’s halter.
“Hi, Dave. Why don’t we let Whip move around a bit? Do you have a longer lead rope or a longe line?” I asked.
Dave turned to see if I was serious or not. His disbelief was punctuated by dodging Whip’s head. He gave the halter another tug and bent down to pick up his hat from the dirt before answering me.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea right now,” he said between breaths exhaled in short huffs.
“I think I’d rather just help him get settled down. He doesn’t do real good in any new place, but sometimes if I can make him stand still, I can get on and we can go to work.”
“How has that worked out in the past?” I watched as Dave was lifted off his feet by Whip throwing his head so high that I wasn’t sure if it was going to stay attached to his body.
“Well, it’s hit or miss,” Dave said, once his feet were back on the ground. He then added, “mostly miss, if I’m being honest.”
“Tell you what, let’s let him move a bit and if it doesn’t seem to be working, we can try something else. Deal?”
Dave released the halter, handing the lead rope to me with a small smile of relief and said, “Deal.”
When you ask people if they consider themselves good listeners, most will answer that they are, usually after having either finished your question for you or answered before you were done talking.
We don’t need to look far to witness this kind of behavior; tune into any radio or TV show and you will hear raised voices competing to be heard. Interrupting has become a form of social dialogue and whoever talks loudest and fastest often gets the most attention. We seem to interpret this behavior we see as acceptable because when we go out into the world, we feel it is ok to not let the person we are chatting with finish–or even have–any say of their own.
The recurring situation that’s got me thinking about how to return to the art of conversation is that I’ve been noticing when I meet someone for the first time, they will almost always blurt out a question in a kind of machine gun barrage of words. I used to reply the same way. There’s always been a nagging suspicion that neither I nor the person who sought an answer felt good about the interaction, so I’ve begun to change my response. Instead of answering the question, I’ll reply with “Hello,” or “Good morning.” Ask how they’re doing, and what their name is. When they ask the question again, it is often more coherent and slower.
I find myself slipping into the ease of interrupting as much as anyone else; not a day goes by that I don’t catch myself. Perhaps it’s our current Culture of Me, or social media, or the rapid-fire chaotic events that surround us these days, but engaging in a polite, coherent conversation seems to be far less sexy than having our say no matter what. And having our say no matter what, if we aren’t careful, will get applied to our time with our horse.
Whether they are doing their best to let us know about a physical problem, or that they don’t understand what we are teaching, or poorly fitting tack, horses communicate all the time. Their behavior usually escalates because we don’t know how to guide them to what we want (sometimes we don’t even know what we want), or we aren’t listening because we label them “spooky,” “stubborn,” or “cranky,” and the label relieves us of the responsibility of finding out what is driving their behavior.
After we got a longer rope for Whip, and let him take off just under the speed of sound, two things happened: he was able to start breathing (which helped him calm down) and we let him have a beginning, a middle, and an end to what he was communicating.
Whip: I’m —
Us: Stand still.
Whip: But if I could just—
Us: You’ll feel better if you would just. Calm. Down!
Whip: I NEED TO—
Whip: I’m worried! I need to move!
Us: Ok. We are going to stay in a circle in this part of the arena and you can move as much as you want.
Whip grew calmer and quieter throughout the lesson, which confirmed that we were headed in a good direction. The next two days he and Dave made great progress as we practiced listening to what Whip had to say, and the ways to answer that helped both of them feel better.
It occurs to me that we are often so busy talking, and we think what we have to say is so important, that we forget the other person also feels the same way about what they have to say. And though a practice of communicating better with our fellow humans can certainly be difficult, I am convinced that it will yield fuller, richer and deeper communication with our friend the horse.