Last winter in Florida I was asked by friend, student and Yoga teacher Melissa to do a session with her horse. Fiddle was a BLM Mustang that was captured as a three-year-old stallion, gelded and adopted out three times, only to be returned three times. This earned him the title of a “Three-Striker”. Not a good place for a horse to be. Melissa was planning on adopting a different horse but then noticed Fiddle. She watched him canter across a field and felt him canter straight into her heart.
Fast forward three years to last winter. Melissa had made some very good progress with Fiddle using Natural Horsemanship and Positive Reinforcement training techniques that she had learned. She hired a few different trainers to help her problem solve and start him under saddle. However, there were still some issues that needed resolving. Fiddle could become very fearful and skittish in the ring. At other times he would just take charge of the ride and give Melissa a very hard time.
I began my session by reviewing breathing, centering and grounding with Melissa. I introduced her to some of the Horse Speak techniques and philosophies that I would be using. (Compliments of Sharon Wilsie) I greeted Fiddle, led him into the arena and allowed him to follow behind me on the lead line as I walked around the rail, scanning the horizon, tapping the fence, kicking the obstacles, touching the posts and basically checking out the whole environment. I asked nothing of him. I wanted to show him that I cared about what he cared about, which was how it felt to be in that space. We checked out his most feared areas, breathing, blowing away the boogeyman and relaxing. Fiddle showed interest in what I was interested in. We became alert together and we relaxed together.
I made some small, light requests to check his sensitivity, responsiveness and attitude. He responded with ease proving that Melissa had done a good job with him. We took time to breathe, blink, lick, chew and relax in between each request. My goal was to show him that I was a calm, empathetic, yet confident, strong member of our herd. I showed him that I could keep him safe, while also respecting his sensitivity. We had a conversation about my space and his space, another important element of horse behavior. About 45 minutes into our session Melissa dropped the “bomb”. She told me that I was the first trainer to work with Fiddle that he hadn’t struck out at. Wow! I would have never imagined that. At first I thought that it might have been good to know that in advance, but later realized it was better that I hadn’t. Melissa trusted my approach and she knew her horse. Seeing you can’t “un-know” something it was best left unsaid. Fiddle may have sensed something a little different in me, whether I wanted him to or not.
Bringing out the “Fight”….
Melissa explained how things had gone terribly wrong in the round pen with other trainers. Their methods used control and dominance to change the horse, causing fear, flight and fight. With many horses this approach will cause submission, but having been a wild stallion for his first three years Fiddle saw things differently. He was trapped and trying to save himself. This method would have never resulted in building a trusting relationship. What was there to trust? It is not natural for a horse to be confined in a small space and made to run in circles. In nature the communication is incredibly subtle. It is rare to see big reactions and when you do it is over quickly with things returning to a peaceful state. I moved on from this type of training many years ago as I discovered better ways to mimic how respect and leadership is actually established in the herd.
Melissa repeated what I had done with Fiddle and was standing by the gate, an area that generally caused anxiety in him. Fiddle began to sniff the ground and tried to circle. I explained that he wanted to roll and she should mimic his movements and let it happen. She mirrored him by lowering her body, pawing and circling and down he went. This had never happened before. Melissa was shocked that he would even attempt it in a space that had previously caused such agitation and fear. Once down Fiddle lowered his head, closed his eyes for a few moments and then enjoyed a good roll. He got up, shook it off and returned to a relaxed state.
Going slowly, mindfully and with compassion, rather than dominance, makes all the difference. My Horse Speak training is such a blessing and has led me to a path of deeper understanding. I am grateful for Sharon’s work, the horses that are willing to converse with me and their owners who trust me with their precious beings.
Here’s a message from Melissa to me the following day:
“He jumped over the moon ❤ Today’s ride was a 180!!! So soft, still forward but his head was dropping beautifully into the bit and his shoulders were much more willing!!! Thank you Heidi!!!! PS-I went back over the breathing in the book and I’m definitely hoping for some more “language” lessons on that tomorrow. 😍
If you are looking for a different approach to horsemanship look up the “Creating Harmony with Horse Speak” clinics that Sharon and I are co-teaching this year in New England. Details can be found at: www.heidipotter.com or www.wilsiewayhorsemanship.com