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.
A different outcome requires a different response. This time I stopped, took a breath, opened my mind and said, “Okay, I hear what you are saying. I draped the lead line over my arm and groomed him away from the hitching rail. He answered me by lowering his head, softening his eyes and breathing out, telling me that would work for him.
Next Riley says, “I can’t stand still any longer” as he reaches around to nip at me. My “trainer’s brain” says, “show him who is boss, back him up, disengage his haunches and move those feet!” All this would have been accompanied by my look of disgust because feelings drive expression and this was not the behavior I wanted. Is that response bad or wrong? Not necessarily, minus the negative expression. Therefore, I do move him around a bit, but choose to remain calm and neutral, not angry. After a moment I stop, breathe, relax and ask him if he can let me finish now. I promise not to linger but explain there are things I need to do. He relaxes a bit, allowing me to finish.
The conversation continues as we arrive at the mounting block. Riley says, “I can’t step up”, moving one foot, approximately 1 inch at a time, with every request I make. Ugh! It will take hours at this rate. (I can only imagine what you all are thinking now. What a spoiled rotten, disobedient horse…) Again, I could show him who is boss. I have the skills. I could get my stick and start tapping, or make him quickly reverse direction a few times and then demand that he step up. It would work as he is a trained horse. Enter the “Paradigm Shift”……….instead, I stop asking. I look around, take a breath and try to see things from his perspective. My listening reveals the problem. His butt is towards the open gate to the driveway and that is worrying him. He knows his job is to step up and stand still. My job is to listen to him and try to understand his “feelings” and this situation is making him nervous. Riley is an introvert. He often holds his nervousness deep inside. He doesn’t express it with head up, eyes big and dancing feet. Perhaps he knows that it might be difficult to be still while I swing my leg over his bare back just as the “cougar” is making his move to strike. My listening leads me to moving the block away from the gate and turning it to face the opening. Riley steps up on the first ask and stands perfectly still while I mount, because he is a trained horse, whose feelings had been considered. We then enjoyed a shorterJ, but wonderful winter ride.
Points to Ponder
Horses only have their body to communicate their feelings to us. Being a prey animal it is always first all about how it “feels”. I listened and acknowledged what Riley was telling me. Then I calmly shared what I needed back to him. We compromised, creating enrichment, instead of controversy, deepening our connection.
A trusted, leader does not explode, get angry and chase other horses away. Those are the traits of a bully. I could have chosen not to listen to how he was feeling, stick with my agenda and simply demand his obedience. He would have acquiesced, but at what cost to our relationship?
The Balancing Act-Lessons Revealed in the Herd
Almost daily I watch a conversation between Scout, the lead horse and Riley at the gate during feeding times. Riley stands at the gate, trying to be first. Scout slowly advances as I approach the gate to open it. Riley doesn’t move and Scout works his way up the pressure scale. It begins with pinned ears, then a projection of energy towards Riley’s cheek, then it’s a nip on the neck, then it’s a BITE on the shoulder. Riley responds differently on different days. This conversation has repeated itself for YEARS!
What I learn from this is that Riley is sensitive, but needs clear boundaries. He will always ask questions, needing to be seen and heard. He is looking for clear, consistent answers from his leader. Sometimes a whisper is enough, other times a momentary “shout” is needed. Calmness follows every conversation. The one at the gate always ends with Riley walking quietly behind Scout to his stall.
The Paradigm Shift……………….
This isn’t easy. It takes time and an unbelievable amount of patience. It really is all about how it feels, and it should feel good. Try slowing down and shifting from doing what you “know”, to mindfully knowing what you’re doing. Observe, listen, look, and figure out how to offer a response that makes sense to the horse, one that creates enrichment and deepens your connection. Do it “with” him instead of “to” him. He only knows how to act like a horse. Letting go of what we know could quickly “fix” a situation is hard. Choosing to really “see” and “hear” what he is trying to convey takes patience, knowledge, discipline, and practice. The shift is time consuming and challenging, but the reward is amazing. Every experience will be one of enrichment and leads you to creating a more lasting, trusting, deeper bond. Then, when you really need him to do something he’ll be there for you, with no questions asked.
If you are looking to deepen your understanding and create your own “shifts” visit www.horsespeakeducation.com and join our webinar series. It’s not too late.