The Fine Art of Inviting a Horse to be Haltered
Part 1: How NOT to Catch a Horse!
Two women stalk through the pasture. Both carry a whip in one hand and a halter in the other as they approach the yellow horse. As you might expect, he runs when he sees them coming. Predictably, they launch into full charge, splitting off from each other in a futile attempt to cut him off and contain him in the north corner of the 2-acre pasture he calls home. They race to intercept him with whips cracking, screaming war cries that promise nothing any sensible being would stand around to receive.
How ironic to happen upon this scene having just taught a workshop here with Anna Blake a few weeks before. Our sole focus, how to read our horse’s body language. We spent all day Saturday learning the fine art of haltering a horse politely. The week after that I spent watching Frederic Pignon work with horses for two days. He talked about how everything the horse does means something. It’s how they communicate with us. He talked about making friends with our horses so they have a reason to do things with us. I’d forgotten there are still people out there who believe chasing a horse who doesn’t want to be caught is the way to go.
Chasing horses to catch them has never worked. It’s never going to.
I don’t often intervene in these kinds of situations, erring on the side of heeding some old cowboy advice I heard many years ago, “it ain’t always wise to offer aid in situations you ain’t made”. But, I had met this horse the day before and felt sure he wasn’t that hard to catch. Much to my relief, his whip wielding, winded people gratefully accepted my offer to give it a try.
The Fine Art of Non-Verbal Communication:
Armed with his halter – and no whip – I walked with calm purpose, never changing pace, slow, quiet, breathing, feeling the sun and breeze, tuned into my environment and not so worried about the yellow horse.
Horses like rhythm. They respond well to calm, purposeful movement. Erratic, unpredictable movement makes them nervous.
The yellow horse, justifiably, paid a whole lot of attention to me. He noticed everything about me, assessing my every move, gesture and response to decide if he could carry on a conversation with me. The first question he asked was clearly a test as he trotted, instead of ran, up the fence line. His first question/test: “are you going to chase me too?”
My answer: “No, I am not.” I convey this by not changing my pace or reacting in any way, I simply continue to walk in his general direction and continue to breathe. Instead of racing to the farthest end of the field from me he stopped about half way. This is his way of letting me know he heard my answer and is willing to give me a chance.
I passed his first test.
About this time his person chimed in, thanking me for trying as she headed with determination in his direction. She thought the conversation was over and was ready to resume the chase. Of course the yellow horse fixed his full attention on her, on full alert and ready to run. I stopped moving, quickly calling her off, letting her know I was not done yet. Our conversation had only just begun!
As soon as she backed off I resumed my slow, steady, connected rhythm, quietly approaching his position. Soon he turns to look at me. I stop and breathe – “there you are.” I smile at him and send a wave of love and appreciation from my heart. Thanking him for giving me a chance. He looks away and I walk.
No hurry, no worry, no doubt, no agenda, we have all the time in the world.
He looks at me again.
I stop and breathe, bend over and pick some grass. He looks away and I walk again, slowly angling in his direction always watching for signs from him that let me know he’s still okay with my approach.
He never moves off of his spot, continually looking at me, looking away and looking back again. He carries his head and neck in a neutral position, not on high alert and not low and guarded. His expression is wary but open with ears mobile. These are all good signs and all part of our ongoing conversation. He’s listening, noticing everything I’m saying as well:
“I’m not going to chase you.”
“I’m connected to the earth and my senses like you.”
“I notice and care about how you feel.”
“I’m no threat (I breathe, pause, pick grass and look at the sky).”
“I don’t need or want anything from you.”
“There is nothing more than this moment right here and now.”
“We have all the time in the world.”
He allows me to approach and accepts my offering of grass but turns away when I show him the halter.
“Are you going to chase me now?”
“Nope, still not going to chase you.” I demonstrate this by bending over and picking more grass.
Making him an offering of peace.
He’s communicating with me in other ways now. Telling me how he feels. I can see his sides heaving still from so much running. His breathing is short and quick, nostrils flaring, steam rising from his flanks and he’s visibly shaking. I can feel anxiety radiating off of him in waves. With every fiber of his being he’s letting me know how frightened he is.
So I verbally, literally, explain my intentions. “I can’t save you from being ridden but I can save you from being chased for another hour.” I explained how I knew these folks didn’t understand and I was sorry about that. If he’d let me catch him at least he wouldn’t get chased.
He took a deep breath and looked at me, accepting my offer of grass. When I held the halter up this time he quietly and softly placed his nose in it. How can they be so gracious under these circumstances?
It took less than 5 minutes for this entire conversation to take place. Less than 5 minutes to engage in a conversation and politely ask if it was okay to put the halter on. Less than 5 minutes for him to accept.
Far less time than it took to chase him.
Everything we do with our horses goes better if we remember to make friends with them first. From the sounds of it this young lady anticipates an adversarial relationship with horse and so she inadvertently sets one up each and every time she goes to catch him. Whatever we do with our horses, we set the tone. The conversation begins the moment we step foot in the pasture (sometimes even sooner!). Are you prepared for a conversation or an argument?
To read Anna Blake’s poignant and insightful blog on leadership click here: Making War on Horses: Is it Leadership?