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.
On this particular day Riley was waiting at the gate for me, always a good first sign. I opened it and let him enter the front of the barnyard where there was a bit of hay. I shared some hay with him and then asked him to move off it. This exercise had come up in our recent Horse Speak webinar and I hadn’t done it in quite some time.
On the intensity scale of 1-4 it took a full-on 4 to move him. There was no attitude; it just took a lot to convince him that I meant it. I had to go with the stick and bag to have any influence at all as my energy and body language was not getting it done. Two other horses at the farm would have moved off with little more than an intentional finger point from a distance. The difference is that they have been mistreated by humans in their past and have “stories.” Riley was home raised with good care and being reactive isn’t in his nature. His reaction is to “freeze” when he gets worried.
On this day it took a huge amount of waving behind him, followed by a few taps on his butt, to get any response at all. Then, the response I did get was him moving his hind end a couple of inches to the left. Oh my Lord! (And that’s the attitude we can’t have…) I quit immediately, rewarding his effort. In my mind it was minimal and not what I envisioned. In his mind he did exactly what I asked, he moved his feet. It took a couple more asks, with breaks in between, to fully move him away from the hay pile. I had to reward every effort with a smile, nod and verbal praise. Once he actually left the hay I invited him to circle right back and share a meal with me. Next I added another small pile of hay and moved him between the two a couple of times, sharing some hay with him and quietly hanging out. (“Sharing” means bending down, rummaging through the hay with my hand, and occasionally pushing some choice pieces towards his muzzle. Please only try this exercise in a safe environment, with a trusted horse and the most minimal, quiet amount of pressure.)
When I approached Riley with the halter he put his head right in. Grooming and mounting was no issue. After riding up and down the driveway, and out in the field, I headed back to the barn to dismount. He halted for a moment and then walked off, heading right back out to the driveway. He wanted more. We walked around a bit more and then returned to the barn. After a quick hoof check I turned him loose and sat on the mounting block. He stood nearby and napped. When I returned him to the paddock I had to actually request that he move his butt through the gate because he stopped part way in. There was nothing blocking his path. He just seemed to want more time to hang out with me. I spent another moment with him, sniffed his neck and closed the gate, leaving with a happy heart.
This experience was a 180 from my last one. So what changed? It could have been the environment or just the way he was feeling on this particular day. He met me at the gate instead of me approaching him and him walking away. He was seeking interaction. It could have been me, my feelings and the energy that I presented on this day. Or, it could have been our discussion about leadership over the hay. It was likely a combination of everything with all of the pieces fitting together perfectly to create this enriching experience. Each day with a horse can be different, because, like us, they are living, breathing, thinking, feeling beings. By staying in the present moment, letting go of our agenda and clearing our busy minds, we open the door for wonderful things to happen.