“We like horses because they are smart, but we train them like they’re stupid.”
During a dressage lesson many years ago, my instructor had me put my horse Caleb in a double bridle (which has both a curb bit and a small snaffle called a bridoon), fasten the cavesson around his jaw as tight as it would go, and tighten the curb chain. She was frustrated that my horse wouldn’t “collect.” So we were going to make him collect.
After I got back on him, gathered up all four reins as he arched his neck stiffly, my instructor smiled for the first time that hour, said “Now we are getting somewhere! Make him walk.”
To Caleb’s credit, he didn’t do anything. He was an excellent bucker when he got out of sorts, but for reasons only known to him, he stood, tense and unmoving.
That’s the point where the instructor’s wisdom–“Kick him harder! Hit him with the crop!” –faded into background noise and I agreed with my horse: no more.
I dismounted, unbuckled both the curb strap and cavesson and took off the bridle. I paid for my lesson and hauled Caleb home, crying the whole time.
Over the following months, all the gear I’d collected gathered a thick layer of dust in the tack room. The various bits for various purposes showed signs of rust. The leather of the German martingales, draw reins and figure eight nosebands, which I once kept polished and supple, now went into a trunk. The lessons stopped.
I had heard of an equine massage therapist (in those days, a rare breed), and an acupuncturist for horses (even rarer) and had them out to work on Caleb. In the evenings I’d ride him at a leisurely walk, bareback with a halter and lead rope. His head was down, his back relaxed and swinging and I knew in those moments that what I was looking for was something much different than what I had grown up with.
That search took awhile, but in the end, I was both upset and elated when I heard Mark say the words above. Because if I had been (very unintentionally) training my horse like he was stupid, that meant I could change and treat him like he was smart.
What I know now is that horses have survived millions of years being tuned into their environment and their herd. They are masters of subtlety. Their timing and control of their bodies is nothing short of breathtaking, and this is all coupled with a tolerant nature. Their intelligence expresses itself differently than ours, but that makes it no less potent.
It doesn’t take a million mindless repetitions for a horse to “get it.” Most horses understand what we are looking for within minutes. It is our clarity, patience, and self-control that are effective teachers. What we do on the outside merely supports how we are on the inside.
I’m not saying that training tools are bad; years later, I took lessons on a fourth level dressage horse with a teacher who taught me how to use the double bridle with subtlety. The work we did together still shines in my memory. As with anything else, it’s how the horse feels about what you are doing that determines whether or not the tools are helpful.
Those two years with a dressage instructor were primarily focused on how to balance my body (which was valuable), even when on the inside I was frustrated, seething, and feeling defeated. What I am learning now, is how to remain in a balanced state of mind, and use external cues secondary to my intent.
Horses are able to learn some pretty fancy stuff in spite of us. Think how much further we could go if we are willing to put the time into learning how to ask for it in a way that both involves the inside of us (intent and focus), and at the same time, honors their intelligence. It often occurs to me that the art of horsemanship is a lot about staying out of a horse’s way. And staying out of the way shows faith in who horses are.
Every horse we touch is the recipient of the knowledge we have at the time. I made my fair share of mistakes with Caleb; he still went on to have a great life as my trail riding buddy and when he was older, a kind and quiet lesson horse. He taught me many valuable lessons, but none so valuable as the importance of listening to the horse.
Have you ever watched someone do something with their horse and thought, “That will never be me.” Or, even worse, had a trainer, experienced horse person or complete stranger (as they say in Texas “Bless their heart.”) tell you, in so many words, the same thing?
After the last blog, I got some feedback (more like a personal attack on a Facebook thread) from a stranger that felt like I’d been gut-punched. It made public a very private fear that we all carry, horses or not. “I’m a fraud.”
I can handle differences of opinion. Criticism even. But in a few sentences, this person crossed that line and made it personal.
I know it got under my skin because when I thought about writing this month’s blog, I felt as though I’d swallowed a bowling ball. I’m familiar with that weight since I used to carry it around like an expensive handbag because of a horse accident that left me hospitalized.
However, I also belong to an amazing writer’s group. I’ve never met most of them, but we all know what it’s like to write either publicly or privately. We all know the swallowed-a-bowling ball-I’m-a-fraud fear.
When I went to them with the feedback I’d received, looking for ways to stand back up after the punch in the gut, in return I got an outpouring of support. And humor. By the end of the day, I was laughing about it. My husband (who is also a writer) reassured and stood up for me. I went back and read all the comments I get from people who enjoy the blog. I re-read my writer’s group comments. I spent the next days only focusing on what was working and felt good, especially when that shady ol’ devil voice showed up inside my head and said: “You’re a fraud, and now everyone knows it.”
After several days, that voice had gotten almost non-existent. And yet, I was relieved that it was another month before I would sit down and write again. Here we are, a month later, my handbag of fear clutched beside me. What better way to exorcise this demon than writing anyway, about the very thing that the small, rolled up in a hole part of me wishes to keep silent about.
When it comes to anything we feel passion for (horses, climbing trees, baking, etc), when we share it we hope to share that passion for it too. Doing anything in front of people is nerve wracking because we know what it’s like to be human. As well as amazing kindness and goodness, we also have the capacity to be unkind, thoughtless, critical and mean.
Sharing your talent and your passion is an act of courage and extreme optimism. We are saying we won’t bow before criticism (bless its heart), we won’t yield to another’s judgment (or sometimes even our own), and we certainly won’t stop what we are doing and crawl back into our little hole.
So if you see another horse and rider, and you feel the need to say “That will never be me,” celebrate that. Because it won’t ever be you. YOU can be you, and your expression of horsemanship is uniquely between you and your horse. You know yourself, and your horse best. You know what feels right and good, and what doesn’t. I think where a lot of us get hung up is trusting ourselves. At some point, there comes a time when trusting who we are is the only choice we’ve got.
When and if the thought “That will never be me,” arises, try this. If you hear or think something that stings, find five more things that don’t. (Or conversely, remember my favorite bumper sticker: “Don’t believe everything you think.”) Talk to your friends – I bet they have a lot of ways to move beyond hurt feelings. Look at your horse’s soft and kind eye; there isn’t anything there but an appreciation of who you are. Every time that shady devil shows up to whisper in your ear, go back to the good stuff. Go back to your horse.
“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Oscar Wilde
I’ve been noticing that as humans we distinguish between planning to do something, and actually doing it. I’ve also noticed that we spend large amounts of time on the former and sometimes zero on the latter.
Horses don’t make that distinction. They are either doing something or not. So when we are riding, if we are kinda sorta thinking about perhaps sometime maybe someday trotting, and our horse trots? Technically, the horse just got the correct answer. We can celebrate how smart, willing and tuned in they are.
Usually what happens is we get frustrated, pull on the reins and holler “My horse is anticipating me!”
As if this is a bad thing.
Really what is happening is two fold: we have either (knowingly or unknowingly) repeated a pattern and the horse is following it, or we spent so much time planning before asking that the horse just went ahead and did it. As I see it, this is great. Wonderful even. We have chosen to get to know a creature who, by some miracle, not only appears to be uber talented at reading us but is willing to go along with our plan.
Think about it: if you knew what your co-workers or friends wanted to do; if it was clear as day and was being telegraphed every second and you heard and felt it, would you want to go along with their every plan?
Horses do this. All the time. They are hardwired to get along, to be as peaceful as they can be about it, and to look for ways to work within the flow of what is happening at any given moment.
I think most of us would agree that horses are really good at connecting. They are also Masters of Patterns. If you show them something the same way often enough, they will start to rely on and trust the pattern. It’s part of their evolutionary makeup: knowing the route to get to water or food, or a shady spot on a hot and blistering day was how they survived in their environment. It’s how they still survive, even though their roaming area is usually much smaller than their predecessors. And they have room service (i.e. humans).
Many years ago, a horse’s roaming area was vast. I wasn’t there when horses weren’t any bigger than Great Danes, but my guess is many of the same things that happened then, happen now. Mountains don’t get up and walk away. Rivers may dry up, but given enough rain, they will flow in roughly the same area. Grassy plains stretch for hundreds of miles and though subject to wildfire or drought, it was rare that it happened to the whole area. If there were big changes, the horses did what horses do best. They moved until they found somewhere more hospitable.
Once we brought horses into our lives, they lost the ability to seek out a different environment. We are their environment; we are the food providers, we decide the how and what and why and when every day for them.
We may be experts at thinking and it may have brought us this far, but horses are masters of feeling and responding, and making sure they stay alive.
All of this is to say, that we have a mountain of untapped potential residing right outside in the paddock.
The next time you’re with your horse do a little experiment. Think less. Do more. Trust your good intentions. Trust that your horse will do his best to do what you are asking. Trust that you won’t mess it up. Even if you do make a muck of things, it’s ok. Because besides horses being great at connecting and Masters of Patterns, they are also wildly good at overlooking our shortcomings.
We can work with their vast skill and knowledge or try to change or fight it. Either way, the horse will go on being a horse and they will find comfort in their life, or they won’t. Interacting with horses isn’t always easy, and we don’t always get it right. I do believe though that if we make acting more and thinking less a priority, we can get farther and become closer with our horses than even we can anticipate.
Photos: Crissi McDonald
There is a phrase that is used in the horse world I hope soon dies a quiet and peaceful death. I’ve been inviting it over for tea and taking it for walks to discuss other points of view. Helping get its affairs in order. But this phrase, I discovered, was born without ears.
It needs a funeral. A quiet affair with no gathering of friends and family afterward. Let’s bid farewell to:
“My horse needs to respect me.”
While I have been a grateful witness to an evolution in horsemanship (for example, I much more often hear about horses being “started,” rather than “broken.”), our need for our horses to respect us has its feet glued to the floor of our collective unconscious.
Even without hearing it from well-meaning horse people, the internet is littered with videos and articles, chat rooms and equipment to “make your horse respect you.” To me, that phrase tastes like a rotten meal that came back up.
“Your horse’s respect for you isn’t automatic; you have to earn it. The best way to do this is by moving his feet forward, backward, left and right. The more you can move his feet, the more control you have.”
“A horse who understands that you, as the herd leader, own the space in which he lives, will respect your asserted authority.”
“Without respect, you have nothing; no relationship, no trust, and ultimately, no communication.”
The way I see it, respect is a concept that is only understandable by humans. To enforce it on a different species without regard for their own needs, social structure or intelligence is ill-informed at best and abusive at worst.
Our brain structure, more specifically, the newest comer to the evolutionary party, the neocortex, is the part that lets us form and use abstract concepts like “the day after tomorrow,” “robbing a bank is wrong,” and “my horse needs to respect me.” Respect is part of the human-to-human complex social interaction, and one of the ways we get along with each other.
It may be a fairly large deductive leap, but I’m going to make it: since the neocortex in the horse isn’t well developed, it’s difficult for me to believe they have the ability to form abstract concepts. I also don’t feel it’s any coincidence that what is called a horse being “respectful,” also looks a lot like a horse who is afraid. Though that might not be the intentions of the handler, what we teach, and what horses learn, can be vastly different things.
If we absolutely have fallen in love with the word respect, let’s respect that:
Horses are thinking, feeling, living beings who feel both mental and physical pain.
Horses will hide pain and discomfort as long as they can.
Horses form powerful friendships and rely on the safety of the herd as primary to their being alive.
Horses are hardwired to survive and get along. They will cooperate, even at the risk of their own well-being.
Horses have rich inner lives, and ways of perceiving the world that are wildly different from ours.
Horses don’t owe us anything. As horse owners and riders, we are not entitled to their power or skill or courage, just because we house and feed them.
I’ve seen horses who understand boundaries once they know where they are. Horses who rely on consistency. Horses who have a job and are happy to perform it with us. Horses who need direction. Horses who are disoriented. Horses who rely on the relationship they have with a person. Confused horses. But I’ve never seen a respectful horse, or a disrespectful one, for that matter.
It makes as much sense to say that whales can climb mountains.
“My horse needs to respect me,” can open the door for us to commit grave errors. It sets up a mentality of competition, of winners and losers, and at it’s worst, legitimizes fighting.
Because between a human and a horse, it is far less about the horse giving us what we need, than it is about us figuring out how to encourage that great big heart to come out of hiding.
If there’s any respecting to be done, my vote is that we respect ourselves and our horses and become as educated and skilled as we can. We can then work with them in ways that allow them to trust themselves in our hands, and on their backs.
Photos: Lory Hopkins
I didn’t plan on writing a blog today. I’ve known I wanted to write, but to be honest, the inspiration gods haven’t come knocking recently. Now it’s March, but when I went to bed last night, I swore it was December.
If I’m honest, I’m waiting for that perfect idea. I don’t know what it is, but if I wait long enough and pay attention, surely lightning will strike on a sunny blue day and there it will be. The Blog.
How often do we feel this with our horses? We want to wait until we have the perfect solution for addressing an issue. We want to get it right (mostly, too, because of benevolent reasons), we want it to look perfect and by the way? Please let it not be messy.
Unlike writing, where I can stare at a blank page while I sip tea, horses prefer guidance, usually now. They need a response – any response- and the sooner the better.
Where we get hung up is we want to give them the RIGHT response. The perfect, mistake- free answer. So when our horse (for example) trots faster than we want, our thought process might go something like this:
“Why is he trotting faster?”
“Is he scared?”
“Does my saddle fit?”
“Am I out of balance?”
“What if I’m not feeding him right?”
“Did I give him too much leg? Maybe I need a different trainer.”
“I like my trainer.”
“But maybe a second opinion would help?”
“I need a second opinion on my arthritis.”
“I wonder if there are supplements that help arthritis?”
“I probably shouldn’t have had that fourth cup of coffee.”
And so on.
You can see how off track we get, simply because we think we don’t have the perfect answer for the horse.
Now, part of this is because we are spectacularly talented at rapid fire thinking and consistent distraction. This isn’t bad news. The counterbalance to this, though is that I also believe horses can help us slow down. Take a breath. Reconnect with our internal landscape that resonates with the wildness of nature.
In the space it takes for the thought of that fourth cup of coffe to flash across your mind, there is a gap in communication. It’s very similar to having a conversation on a cell phone and the call fails.
“Hello? Can you hear me now?”
Four, five, ten, twenty-six strides later, maybe we let the horse know about that trot that’s too fast. But by then the horse has been doing something else. Maybe he’s thinking about stopping, or cantering, maybe he’s feeling the saddle pad rucked up by his withers. It’s difficult to say, but what I can say is that when we choose thinking over doing, the horse is connected to himself, not necessarily doing something with you.
This isn’t personal. Horses are masters at connection but we’ve got to give them something to connect to.
When we live in our brains; sorting, judging, worrying, etc, it’s a powerful disconnection. The horse is saying “Hello? Anyone out there?” Because we are wrapped up snug with our hamster wheel mind, there isn’t any reply.
I don’t think horses are fans of one-way conversations. Everything in their environment (especially other horses) gives and receives communication of some sort. And whether we know it or not, we do too. The question is, what am I saying (and even if we aren’t saying anything, that means something) to my horse during any given moment?
Before this starts feeling like too much, or too big a responsibility, consider that we are also talking about creatures who can send and receive messages in less than the time it takes to blink. Those messages range all the way from we cannot fathom how subtle (I’ve seen one of our horses move another without as much as an ear twitch), to overt physical actions (biting, kicking, etc). The miracle of horses is that as much chatter as we must unknowingly send them, they are able to sort out what they need to listen to, and what they can let go of.
So, what can we do?
Take a breath. A big, knock-the-dust-off -your ribs-inhale (and exhale). Put your hand on your belly and feel your feet in the stirrups. Take another breath. When your horse does something unexpected, have an answer. Maybe it’s to turn him in a smaller circle. Maybe you stop doing what you tried and go do something different. Maybe ride a figure eight, or a serpentine. You will definitely take another rib-cracking breath.
Smiling would also help – I mean, one of the fastest creatures on the planet lets us ride them – what isn’t fun about that?! The point is, your horse will tell you if your answer was effective, or not. If it was: great! Build on that. If it wasn’t, we can try something else. Or ask someone to help us figure it out. The right (or perfect) answer is a mirage. While I admire our intention to do what is right by the horse, I also recognize that there’s a whole lot of freedom in letting go of needing to give a perfect answer, at the perfect time, with the perfect feel.
As an example, take a look at the photos at the top of the blog. Here, Rocky and I are practicing simple lead changes. On a circle to the right, he would pick up a left lead, and vice versa. By the third photo, we were on the right lead, going to the right.
Now, to be fair, I was mostly out to have fun, and Rocky was willing. But I would also like us to be balanced. So, we practiced until the correct lead came through and I learned that I would like to become more accurate about my timing and feel going into a canter/lope.
The mistakes I made during that process allowed for a couple of things: for Rocky and me to learn something about each other, and for me to learn that not only do I feel confident about cantering once more but now it’s time for me to explore the accuracy of that gait. I wouldn’t, however, have known any of this had I not decided to explore simple lead changes and had Rocky not been willing. In my search to set us up for the correct lead on a circle, I tried four different ways, all of which didn’t help. But the fifth adjustment? Bingo.
Just like writing, when you’re with horses, the answers arrive once you begin. However, if we are always thinking of the “best” way to begin, we end up going nowhere. A response – right or wrong-demonstrates listening. And it is feeling heard that starts us on the path to change.