The other day I was working with our gelding, Patches, on a liberty ritual that involves a pile of hay and him walking to me rather than to the hay. We then walk to the hay together, and include stops and sometimes backing up on our way there.
While we were working, my friend Nancy handwalked her mare Princess out in the vacant land next to the arena, and Patches turned his attention to her. I stepped back and let him go, figuring I was no match for that big beautiful grey mare! He stood at the fence and whinnied to her, and then trotted the fenceline as she was walked through the field. I then called him back to me and we continued our work and he maintained a strong connection with me.
A little while later as Princess was returning from her walk, Patches’ attention drifted back to her. Once again I let him go and call to her over the fence, cantering around, flinging his head in a love dance. And once again, he returned to me and our work with the hay pile.
I’ve written a little bit about how Patches fell in love with a big grey mare named Sophie when we were in Oklahoma City at Spirit Horse Ranch. They became inseparable and Patches nearly flipped out when I had to unload Sophie from the trailer at her home. He bounded up and down in the trailer while I got on the interstate – a highly emotional moment for both of us. It was one of those things – she lives in Oklahoma, he lives in Santa Fe. Although long distance romances can sometimes work for people, I couldn’t see how my horse would be able to do that.
When we got home I noticed changes in Patches: loving Sophie had upped his self-esteem. There might have been some other contributing factors: trailering a long way, having a new experience, who knows. When he got off the trailer at night at home, he trotted out beautifully in his big corral – not a stiff bone in his body, looking proud and self-confident. He had always been pushed around by every horse on the place before. This is no longer the case.
So, what is also interesting is that he has lived alongside the beautiful Princess for over a year, and since he got back from his long trip he has suddenly “seen” her. Maybe she reminds him of Sophie, because they are remarkably alike in appearance – big grey mares. Sophie is a draft-Thoroughbred cross and Princess is a Tennessee Walker.
Anyway, the event in our arena gave me an opportunity to test out flexible boundaries with Patches. When we were in Oklahoma, Carolyn Resnick had said she wouldn’t have expected Patches to give me a working connection with Sophie in the adjacent pasture. To our surprise, he connected with me beautifully and showed no signs of needing to go back to her. I wanted to see if I could achieve this with him with Princess in the field. I figured if I gave him space, he might come back to me. And he did.
There is something we talk about a lot in the Waterhole Ritual work and that is the pause. We pause, just as you see horses pause with each other, take a little time. With Princess in the field across the way, I used that as a big pause. Patches was free to leave our relationship and explore his interest in Princess.
I felt that this space allowed him to enjoy communicating with her, keep his dignity, and come back to me refreshed without feeling restrained. He got to orchestrate a part of that lesson. Amazingly, he resumed his interest in the work. When Princess was finished with her walk, I decided to halter Patches and take him to greet her, so they could then go back to their respective corrals together.
This pause is also used in Equine Ortho-Bionomy and Equine Positional Release – at a point where the body cannot or is better off not receiving any more information. I will often walk away, write some notes, allow space between me and the animal or human, until I’m invited back to work. It also fits in with the principle “less is more,” which works so well in both the Waterhole Rituals and the bodywork that I do.
As humans, we often tend to think pausing is impractical because we’re in a hurry and have schedules to maintain. But if we begin to incorporate it into our lives with horses more, it will carry over into our daily lives with others, and will make us feel more spacious.
As you build pauses into your work, I believe you are developing more stickiness between you and your horse with each pause. When you get to the stage where you need to ask more of your horse and have him stay with you, you should have more of his attention.
The pause need not look the same as in the work I did with Patches. It may look altogether different, such as the space of time you wait between going on to another part of the lesson. Or moving between piles of hay. If you’re opening or closing a gate from the saddle, think where you want your horse’s feet to go before giving him the cue to sidestep. Or loading a horse in the trailer. It’s a moment, a small meditation, a space between the notes, a vital part of flexible boundaries.
It is invaluable.
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