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
Friendship: a state of mutual trust and support.
Over the last several months while teaching, I’ve heard myself saying “Treat your horse as though he’s your friend.” This doesn’t come up with every horse and rider. And it doesn’t mean that people aren’t doing this to some degree; most of us have horses because we deeply care about and enjoy them. However, it is also the case that sometimes our human hardwiring takes over and we go from gentle and understanding to harsh and combative in almost the blink of an eye.
Photos 1, 4, 5: Crissi McDonald
Photo 2: Louise Thayer
Photo 3: Dustin Tedder
Photo 6: Lindsey Tedder
Our farrier, Scott, was here the other day, and like most times when we get together, chat about what was going on in our lives mixed with chat about hoof health. After our horses had their shoes removed and their hooves trimmed, some had shoes put back on and some were left barefoot in preparation for going to pasture this fall.
Scott mentioned that since people began domesticating horses, we have been looking for the best way to care for their feet. It began with ancient people wrapping horses’ hooves in animal hide. Next came the Roman “hipposandal,” then, around roughly 1000 AD, cast bronze horseshoes with nail holes started showing up.
Iron (as well as steel and bronze) horseshoes have been mass-produced and used since the early thirteenth century. Currently, the development of various types of boots, glue-on shoes, and trimming according to specific principles has expanded our hoof-protection choices.
However, my intent here isn’t to take a position on one side or the other in the barefoot vs. shoes debate.
My point is that my casual conversation with Scott made me aware of The Big Picture: the revelation that, how we take care of horse’s feet has a rich and varied history that spans thousands of years over many continents in the world. Were we able to travel that far back in time to revisit the many cultures that depended on the horse, we would see people just like us searching and experimenting and finding ways to do something that needed to be done.
This is also true of just about everything we take for granted in our daily lives, things that came into being because someone, somewhere saw a need for them. Sofas? We can thank the people of seventeenth-century France for them. Tablecloths? A poet named Martial (who died in 103 AD) mentioned them, and in the eighth century, Emperor Charlemagne reportedly used one made of asbestos, throwing it into the fire after a meal, and when it didn’t burn, would use this to convince his guests of his superiority as a leader.
Or, more currently, the development of our space program. In general, it was based on our understanding of airplanes, which themselves were developed through the study of birds, but also, of wind and water currents (not to mention a whole lot of going up and coming down in very short order.) It’s perhaps a gross oversimplification, but as I understand it, we got to space by watching nature, and by making a lot of mistakes, some of which cost people their lives.
When we study something, and follow it back to its source (or as far as we’re able), the enormity and evolution of that something, whatever it is, is awe-inspiring.
That all those eons ago, people were doing essentially the same things we are today with horses? That what they did led us to where we are now, and that what we are doing now will lead to what others will do in the distant future? The idea that millions of individuals have been born, lived, invented things, and then passed on so the next generation could do the same? I feel simultaneously as though I matter and that The Big Picture will go on whether I involve myself or not.
When we study anything—horses, geology, x-rays, vacuum cleaners, or furniture making—we touch people we will never meet, and somehow contribute to the life of that thing. Everything in our lives, every object, every being, everything in nature, has come to exist in this moment on the backs of millions of things before it. This includes you and me, our horses, dogs and cats, tablecloths, sofas, and space travel.
What does this have to do with horses, or horsemanship? Well, it struck me with great clarity that when we study The Big Picture, we might, in the process, find a bit of ourselves. It’s as though understanding something at a macro level gives us a way to comprehend it at the micro level as well. I’ve seen the way a dawning understanding of our own behavior and motivations has been extended to our horses; oftentimes, our horses are the ones who initiate that dawn.
I’ve also seen, more times than I can count, the way a fuller perception of ourselves at both macro and micro levels makes things better for our horses. We ask more and demand less, hold their comfort—both physical and mental—as much a priority as our own. We do things with more softness and good intent. And because we have a broader perspective, the things we do with our horses may be more understandable and approachable to them.
I can’t help but think that reminding ourselves of the big picture also releases us from the mindset of having to get something done with our horse this very minute. That having faith that our horse’s skills (and our own), and the relationship with our horse, will evolve and grow. This can be felt by the horse within seconds of us making that change, and I no longer underestimate the power of going slowly.
For those of us who seek the best and most compatible equine relationships, it’s very much about coaxing the inside of the horse to the outside, so that what we see in the horse is a reflection of who the horse truly is. After that, the stars are the limit.
I went to a day long retreat recently. An opportunity to chat with one of the speakers came up, so I approached him and introduced myself, letting him know how much I appreciated his work. We got to talking about the words people use to describe his work, and him. His easy laughter and chagrin at some of the terms was plain. We both shared thoughts about how such labels, while on one level helpful, could also be limiting. Toward the end of our conversation I remarked, “We have to use labels, because it certainly isn’t enough to just be a human being!”
I’ve rolled that around in my head for a couple of months now, this idea that we enforce on ourselves (and perhaps by proxy, all others who come into contact with us) the idea is that being human is not enough. We have to be this person with that talent doing this incredible thing while striving to stay ahead of what ever curve it is we measure ourselves by. This can extend to our horses too: they are not just horses, they are breeds, disciplines, trophy, money and award winners, therapists, best friends, teachers. The way I see it, labels are neither bad nor good. I think sometimes that they are also like driving on ice: one quick turn of the wheel and we are in the ditch.
Of course it is fun to do things with horses! Of course we like challenges and improving our skills with horses. Of course they can be our friends, teachers and confidants. All of that and more! At the end of the day though, they are horses, just as we are humans. In my personal experience, the letting go of labels (in as much as we can) brings a certain quality to our interactions with others and our horses. Striving to see things as they are by its very nature depressurizes most situations. It can mean the difference between fighting with a “stubborn” or “resistant” or “lazy” horse, and clearly communicating what we’d like to a horse who is otherwise unclear about our request. Once we see things as they are, we can interact with them in a way that is not about seeing things as we wish them to be.
I’ve seen Thoroughbred racehorses who didn’t like to run. Warmbloods who were happier out on the trail than in an arena. Quarter horses who loved to jump, Arabians who excelled at working cattle. I’ve seen gaited horses who were talented pacers, and child-sized ponies who could jump higher than many taller horses. My point is that despite our labeling a horse as anything, they are so much more than that. Sometimes we recognize this, and sometimes it takes a horse (or several, in my case) to jar us out of our tight-fisted, white-knuckled grip on a label.
Horses are many things to many people. By no means have I seen it all when it comes to horse/human interactions, but I’ve seen enough to say with confidence that when we can treat our horses as they are, things usually go pretty well.
Many years ago now, I was helping out at one of Mark’s clinics and I said to him with no small amount of frustration how the horse I had brought with me was 15 years old and he should know how to be bridled by now. Mark paused and remarked, “Maybe if you treat him like he doesn’t know, instead of treating him like he’s fifteen it might go better.” That was the beginning of my grip starting to loosen, because sure enough, once I calmed down and helped my horse understand, we stopped fighting and things got easy. Lesson: confusion doesn’t know how old you are.
I guess in a way it’s like traveling back to when I was twelve. Grooming a horse or riding a horse – any horse – felt the same to me. Joyful. As I got older, I did my share of competing (whether I was in a show or not), my share of pressuring a horse to be something different from what they were. My share of agonizing over and struggling with how to get my horse to do something I felt was very important. Perhaps it is a by-product of getting older and working so closely with them, but these days I feel as though I’m still that pig-tailed girl, who is giddy just hanging around a horse.
(Below: a torn out page from my journal when I was twelve. It says, “I cantered.” )
After 28 years away from playing music, I decided to start practicing the violin again. This morning I was working on some drills for moving the bow across the strings at different speeds. I’ve always practiced these techniques slowly, and increased the speed as it felt more comfortable. Every day for the last two months, I’ve practiced. I’ve felt my shoulders lock, my wrists get stiff, my breathing stop and that sneaky mean low down nasty little voice we all have say – “This is too difficult!” and “You sound atrocious!”
This morning, I started on the bowing drills. Again. Something clicked and all of a sudden I was bowing like top notch fiddle player, the violin echoing in a machine gun barrage of unstoppable notes.
I laughed. And then I put my violin away.
The thing that got me thinking was, we could apply this same commitment to doing things mindfully with our horses.
Horses are masters of movement pretty much from the time they are born. Sidepassing? No problem. Roll backs? Childs play! Capriole (a movement where the horse leaps into the air and kicks out with their hind legs)? Piece of cake. Flying lead changes? Easy peasy.
It is only when we get involved with horses that things can get a little more difficult. Sidepasses, roll backs, flying lead changes – even just backing up – can all feel heavy and difficult and like a ton of effort.
I have seen that when we are able to make a couple of small adjustments, things get easier. The first adjustment is breaking things down into smaller chunks (this is for both the human and the horse’s benefit). The second adjustment is creating a drill of sorts; something we can do with (and without) our horse over and over until both of our bodies sync up and the movement almost happens of it’s own accord. Then the drill disappears.
This is the value of finding an instructor / horse trainer who can guide you through these drills and give you the feel of them.
The rest is up to you.
You get to choose how much to practice, how often to practice, and if that practice is of importance to you. This is why you will often hear Mark and I say that in order to get your horse going more softly, you need to find ways to go more softly yourself. Can you drive softly (i.e. breathing, letting go of the competitive mindset, letting go of your white knuckles on the steering wheel, etc), can you go through the activities of your day with your breath and awareness of each moment more intact? Can you groom and touch your horse with focus and the intent to be soft?
More importantly, can you put that sneaky low down mean little voice in the backseat as you make mistakes, have difficult days, feel like this fumbling will never end?
I believe you can.