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

 

 

 

 

Firm Resolve, Gentle Approach

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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.

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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.

 

Where’s Your Line

 

 

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Photo: Crissi McDonald

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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Photo: Crissi McDonald

 

Slowing Down

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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.

 

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Photo: Mark Rashid

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.

 

 

 

 

It’s Not Resistance.

Our horses aren’t resistant. Our thoughts about them, however, may be.

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