My mare Zuzka comes to stand beside me at the gate, ready to have her halter slipped on. She is one who often will want to play games about being haltered, suggesting, no, I’m too busy today to go ride. Or maybe it’s just the game she likes. But this day she really wants to go out. I can often tell if she wants to go out on the trail, by how she stands looking off in the distance, when there is no activity on the horizon that can be seen with the naked eye. A sort of longing to be out there.
Some may say it is anthropomorphism, but I know it is not. Over the years the relationship with my horses has deepened. While I may have gotten them for certain purposes, we have gone beyond purpose to something more tangible, sweet, with invisible threads that connect us even when we are apart. I used to wish I could call my horses on the phone, to tell them about something I saw. But now I know I only have to think about it for them, visualize it, and they will pick it up.
Years ago, I watched Ray Hunt sitting on his mare, talking. His mare was attentive to him, then she felt his attention drift and she lowered her head to eat grass. With his slight touch of the rein, she brought her head up again, one ear cocked to him. He said, she knows when nobody’s home and she will take charge and do what she thinks is right. In this case, grazing, which is what all horses think is right. Ray could just think it, and the horse would know, in such a rare and beautiful way.
It is that connection that I sought, with Ray and every trainer I ever worked with. It is the part even he said was hardest to teach people, because they learn most easily with techniques. The connection hopefully will come with the learning of the basics.
A person riding in the backcountry alone must have a strong connection with their horse, because the horse is their way back home, and their way out of trouble. With all the stuff you pack on your saddle to do this, it will do you no good if the horse takes off. If the horse is truly bonded to you as a leader, then you can ride almost anywhere with water, sandwiches and snacks and a first aid kit, Leatherman tool and jacket, and be okay. Even a good horse may take off if badly spooked, forgetting that she has a fearless leader to take care of her. But it is less likely to happen if the horse and rider are deeply connected, they know each other’s foibles, strengths and weaknesses. They can depend on one another. The horse can sense things we can’t, but we can make intellectual decisions about what to do if a storm comes in, or we see a bear, etc.
When I talk about reading the horse’s mind and thoughts I’m talking about being really quiet and observant, to see what they do, how their breathing may change when they are with you, where their focus is, how they stand in relation to you. I’m not talking about reading something into what you experience, but waiting for the experience to reveal to you what the horse has to say.
Sometimes a horse will have a preference during work that you don’t share. The horse wants to take the trail headed home, for example, and you’re not done
yet. At that point I will look in the direction I want to go and say ‘look, let’s explore up that hill,’ or, ‘we’ve never been over here before.’ Because the horse and I have connected on this other level when I’m not asking for anything, we can then come together in agreement about something out on the trail. While the horse I’m riding may have been really set on heading for home, the idea of a new piece of trail to explore is interesting. I’ve piqued his curiosity.
Once at a clinic, I was conducting a bodywork clinic and I was working with a horse I know very well. He wanted to go off and join his herd at a certain point in the activities. I said, ‘I need you to walk for me right now, and show people the changes that we’ve all been able to make in your body.’ For him, that was all it took. When he was thinking of returning to his herd, he was thinking like a horse with no duties. When I said I needed him to participate fully to help others, he remembered his duties as a teacher and was fully present and agreeable.
I like to use the trail as a metaphor for life because I like to think of forward movement with horses, plugging into their rhythms. Even if we are doing an exercise in the arena, I’m thinking of how it will translate on the trail. I’ve spent so much of my life riding trails because that’s what I love, but I see where it takes us. Horses are curious beings and getting to be out and about on trails piques their interest and curiosity. I have trailered horses to trails all over four states, and those horses get off the trailer with their ears pricked forward, eager for the new experience.
I know there are some horses who are fearful of trails and may never be happy there, so this might not be a useful metaphor for them. It may take a very long time to get that type of horse comfortable with the trail, but I would begin with listening to him and watching him to really know him before introducing the trail.
I also think it depends on who is presenting the activity to them. If I were to try to introduce a horse to team penning, for example, I probably wouldn’t be very successful because I know nothing about the sport. But when I introduce a horse to the trail I feel fairly confident that the horse will pick up my enthusiasm and knowledge about what we’re doing and come along with me. Whether horses read resumes or not, they have an uncanny sense of people and what they are capable of. The horse is reading our minds and thoughts too!
There are days when I will read my horse or someone else’s and find that he is not interested in an activity with me. I may have the luxury of working with another horse, or I can take the first horse and say, ‘why don’t we try something different?’ I will adapt the activity to him, picking something we haven’t done for awhile or ever, still keeping in mind the goals I may want to accomplish. Pretty soon the other horses watching all this would like to be worked with, and the first horse is feeling pretty special about being the chosen one. Everything has shifted. I have his attention and his pride in himself and his accomplishments comes up. His resistance is completely gone.
The work done of being quiet and observant, sitting with your horse, knowing their desires, which may change from moment to moment, is like money in the bank when it comes to doing actual work. Without the observation and listening part of the learning, you may be able to convince a horse to do certain activities, but you will not always have them completely present with you.
Even before I began doing liberty work, I knew when my horses were joined with me in an activity, and when they were resistant or sluggish. I could feel locked parts of them, locking me out, but I didn’t know how to get them beyond it except by pushing them. This is the way most resistance in horses is approached, and some will go along with it and others will shut down.
If I listen and pay attention, I can find out why there is resistance. Dissolving the resistance will then allow for the connection, where all the good, deep work can be done.
Copyright (c) Susan Smith
Articles in Horse Around New Mexico
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