I just love January. It’s the month when I launch the newest addition of my online class. I get to interact with loads of new people and hear them tell inspiring stories about the profound changes that occur when they begin to listen to themselves, and in so doing, begin to understand what their horses are saying. Horse’s behavior can change in quite miraculous ways once they know we are listening, and more importantly acting on, what they say.
A week or so ago I started thinking about how I have some things I want to video for my class. Things that involve riding. I started thinking about which horse might be best suited for what I wanted to demonstrate. Rio came to mind. The only problem is that Rio has been off for a few years due to a lameness issue. He’s back to being sound enough I’ve been thinking of starting him back up this spring but I hadn’t done it yet. But now I’m getting the sense from Rio, like this nagging at the back of my mind, that he’d like to do this. He’d like to help me teach this.
Of course I think I’m making this up so I contact the animal communicator I’ve worked with for 20 years now. She’s been instrumental in helping me hone my own ability to communicate with my horses, so mostly these days I call when I feel like I need confirmation. She confirms what I’m sensing, that Rio is indeed game to help me teach. In fact, he’s super enthusiastic about it. His only request is that I spend some time practicing with him before I turn the camera on. This is so Rio, he’s always been camera-shy!
Saturday evening, in my enthusiasm, I made a futile attempt to sit on his back bareback while he ate his dinner. It was the first chance I had to hang with him and I was determined to make a start. The look on his face was priceless as he watched me drag an up ended water tank over to use as a mounting block. When he would have none of that, undaunted, I dragged the mounting block in from the arena and sat down on it near him.
“I’ll just watch him eat and hang out with him!”
I was met with another priceless sidelong glance. Can you imagine someone hovering over you watching you eat while oozing ungrounded enthusiasm and neediness? Sorry Rio…
This is the first time I’ll be re-starting a horse that does not belong to someone else. It’s a brilliant opportunity to finally put all the ideas I’ve employed with other people’s horses into play without any pressure to get a job done. Saturday evening I took some time before bed to really sit with that, start a training journal for Rio and I, and figure out how I wanted to do this. I’ve always found it useful to journal about the horses I work with. I ponder the problem, come up with a hypothesis, and then go try things. With Rio my primary goal in restarting him is to find a way to do this that is mutually agreed upon. My working theory is that if I spend time connecting with him first that we can come to an agreement before I ever even put a halter on.
Sunday morning I woke up bright and early and sat myself down. I was still ungrounded and feeling high-strung. One of my favorite quotes is from Craniosacral Bodyworker, Hugh Milne, who says, ‘first let your own dust settle, then there can be no mistakes.’ I just love this. It’s my mantra when I sit down to connect. Settled on my couch in the pre-dawn, eyes closed, it’s hard to settle and find my ground. I finally recall this image I heard somewhere of allowing your heart to rest against your spine. That one does the trick, now I feel my feet grow roots into the ground and feel them reaching behind me, toward the elm trees that line the north side of the property.
If you ever want to practice your skill at connecting with other beings, I highly recommend starting with trees. They are some of the oldest life on the planet. There is a great deal of wisdom there and they are happy to share it. I sense the roots of the elm trees reaching out to meet me and I hear: ‘patience’. Then I feel this sense of what it’s like to have roots and stretch tall from those roots, the solidity and patience of a tree trunk. This is the sensation I need to feel in my body when I am with Rio.
Next I expand my root system out in Rio’s direction, asking him if he’s willing to connect with me and communicate. To my great delight I feel him reach out to meet me with a warmth and softness that brings tears of joy. I love this horse. I’ve really missed the intimacy of our working relationship. So I ask him if he wants to get started training with me again.
He says: ‘yes, but I have some trepidation’.
When I ask him what that trepidation is about he shows me how he feels in his body. I feel all this tension in his shoulders, tingling nervous tension that radiates out into his diaphragm, dissipates as we breath and focus on it, then pops up in his throat, vanishes and shows up in the front of his legs and feet. I feel all these sensations and emotions as a ‘multi-sensory’ download. Information transmitted from his heart to mine.
As the sensations dissipate he says: ‘are you going to be willing to follow my lead sometimes?’
That’s a valid question. Certainly not something he experienced with me before he went lame a few years ago. I’m honest. It makes me a little nervous, the idea of following his lead and feeling that little bit out of control. But I trust him so I tell him I’ll do my best.
In the afternoon I head out with halter in hand to see if my hypothesis proves true. Did tuning into Rio and making this mutual agreement establish a connection that allows us to proceed together?
Rio greets me at the gate and after a brief grooming is happy to have the halter put on. Now last time I approached him with the halter he walked away, radiating those same feelings of trepidation he showed me when I tuned in that morning. This time there is none of that. He is calm, grounded and ready. In the past he’s let me put the halter on but then plants his feet, unwilling to move unless I swing a rope at his hip or tap him with a stick. This time he’s waiting at the gate so when I open the gate and suggest we go out together where we can be on our own, away from the other horses, he happily follows me through.
He hesitated for a moment until I explained that I’d like to go out to the arena area and move around there. Then he followed along just fine. Once in the arena he was keen as can be and took off to explore the space with great interest and enthusiasm. This is what he meant when he asked if I am willing to follow his lead once in a while. What a great opportunity to prove that I am and that I actually did hear his request. They do test that you know… So I followed him around while he investigated every pile of poop in the arena. Stopped to check in with all the other horses over the fences and then took me out to the large north pasture where he did lap after lap investigating and checking things out. He kept me out for nearly 40 minutes before I finally asked him to come back with me so I could start evening feeding.
Now this may not seem like a big deal, but this is a horse that has historically had serious separation anxiety. I have never had him take the lead like that and take me out away from all the other horses, voluntarily, and then stay out, even when his buddy was calling for him. He never displayed one ounce of anxiety. This was a huge first day for us and validated the thought that we could connect and communicate, coming to a mutual agreement about how to work together. I can’t wait to see what happens today!
I hear people talk all the time about listening to their horses. To me, it’s more about conversing with my horses. We ask questions of each other and we answer them. I think it puts a lot of pressure on a horse if we take listening to the extreme where we let everything be the horse’s idea. Since horses and humans are so intelligent, so capable of sophisticated levels of communication with each other, why not take it further? Why not literally have conversations with our horses? Then we can really dance!
I plan to continue to explore this kind of dialogue with Rio as we work towards riding again and sharing the process with the 2019 online class. It’s going to be a great year!