Some of the most magical, heart centered experiences of my annual Wyoming Retreats come from our evenings spent up on “the bench” with the big herd. The bench is where approximately 140 horses spend the night grazing, eating hay, wandering about and just “being”. This flat open plain is surrounded by mountains where one can simultaneously watch the sunset in the west and the moon rise in the east. It is a magical place to meditate, observe horse behavior and immerse yourself into their world.
In my last blog I wrote about the paradigm shift that I’ve had to go through in order to truly meet horses’ needs. It has required me to let go of my agenda, get out of my “trainers brain” and stop going first to the “tools” that I’ve built up over a lifetime. The shift begins with taking a few moments to look, listen, and feel of the horse before approaching him. Then you have to learn the language well enough so you can translate the information you are receiving and respond appropriately, in a way the horse can understand.
A common sight, especially at events where horses are in a new environment, is the horse with his head up, eyes wide, and nostrils flaring, as he looks off into the distance. He is asking, “What about that?” Before I proceed with my agenda I have to offer him a meaningful, believable answer. In Horse Speak© this could be a look, a point, a shout, a sentry breath or all of the above. Then, most importantly, those must be followed by the “all clear” signs by the leader of a few big, deep, audible breaths and postural relaxation. By doing this I have answered his most pressing question, is it safe? He will always tell you how each conversation needs to begin if you are observant and listening.
A recent experience with my Cheval Canadian Riley was the opposite of the last one I wrote about. (In case you haven’t read it, The Paradigm Shift, is the last Blog I wrote.) Our previous interaction consisted of him basically saying, “No” to everything from catching to mounting.
Sharon Wilsie, the founder of Horse Speak©, discussed this topic in last week’s Horse Speak Winter Webinar series. It brought to mind an experience I had with my Cheval Canadian Riley a few weeks ago.
Letting Go of Your Agenda……
Riley, “If you hitch me to that rail I’m going to pull back.” I knew the look because I’d seen it before, albeit rarely. And last time it happened just like he said it would, because I didn’t listen. It happened when I had an agenda and thought, “You are 13 years old. You are a trained horse. You are not a puller”….… until he was.
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.
These photos represent where we finished on our fourth session with Vaka. Our goal was to achieve relaxation under saddle. Check!
A few weeks ago Vaka’s owner Tahnit contacted me about helping her develop more meaningful, trusting relationships with her two Icelandic horses. In our first session we focused on creating a safe, peaceful environment within the 4-horse herd and on helping Tahnit become all that her horses needed her to be. Vaka is the lead mare and Galen, her gelding, is at the bottom of the pecking order. In the paddock we practiced being centered, grounded, aware and clear in all that we did. The horses took note of our calm, effective leadership as that is of high value to them. We created meaningful conversations about space and who moves who, keeping the energy as low as possible.
A couple weeks ago Mother Nature blessed us and I was able to spend a couple hours playing with my Cheval Canadien horse Riley. When we were done I returned him to his paddock and 4 pasture mates. After removing his halter I took a moment to just breath and share space standing next to him. I did a couple of the Horse Speak “go away faces” and moved the front end over a step when he inquired about treats. I remained there, took a few more breaths, sniffed his yummy neck, turned, gently swishing my “tail” and left. The amazing thing to me was that Riley stood rooted to this spot for nearly 15 minutes.
Our time together had included some liberty play, a couple new and slightly challenging training exercises, riding up and down the hills of our driveway, practicing some lateral work, a few circles, walk, trot, canter transitions and a couple of new tricks taught with clicker training and treats. We finished up with a bit of grooming and some stretches. We had done quite alot and yes, there was even some sweat involved:) What was the most rewarding for me about the whole experience was that once released Riley didn’t run off to join the herd. He simply stood there and kept his attention on me, watching until I had almost reached my house up on a hill. The fact that he stood in that spot for so long, along with his body language, told me that I had done it right. I had shared quality time with him. We had conversations about what he wanted and what I wanted. I balanced out work with fun, learning and some positive reinforcement training. I always try to strike a balance because it is a partnership, not a dictatorship. Done right they should want to linger a bit, not immediately run off the moment they are released.