The little gelding and I walked side by side, working in hand as part of his rehabilitation from a tendon injury. I remember the feeling of excitement that bubbled up inside me as he quietly executed the movement. He wasn’t always so easy. More often he tipped toward that edge of ‘overly sensitive’ and ‘reactive’. It had taken a year of patient, consistent practice to get to this point. It felt like a huge breakthrough!
When a horse is really with you there’s nothing quite like it. I feel this sense of potential energy where the possibilities of what we might do together become infinite. That’s how it felt with this gelding, like we could move in any direction, at any speed, in any sequence I could imagine! That feeling of excitement that bubbled up inside me went to my head. I began imagining all the movements we could do from here, movements that would be so good for his body and….
In a split second my partner turned into an anticipatory mess, dancing and prancing and hyperventilating. It took a moment for me to realize what was happening. Just before I asked him to stop and collect himself I realized he was obediently trying to execute all the ideas I had formed in my mind at the same time. I had, in rapid-fire succession, imagined him going from one move to another and he was trying to comply!
In that instant I realized what a huge responsibility I have when I begin the training process. I am the self appointed leader in a partnership I chose, not the horse. One of the hallmarks of the greatest leaders in Tango is their ability to adapt to each new partner, giving their follower the best experience possible. In this moment with this gelding I realized how critical it is to acknowledge my communication was confusing rather than rush to blame the horse. It was so clear he was responding, accurately I might add, to something I wasn’t even aware I requested. This is the kind of thing that no doubt got this horse in trouble with people in the past, the reason he had come to me for his rehabilitation, his ‘behavior’ was getting him into trouble.
“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” – Abraham Maslow
I think one of the greatest challenges when coaching people to work with horses is giving them enough structure to be effective and safe, without leading them to believe there is only one way to interact with horses. It’s normal, even necessary, when we first start learning, to have some structure that helps us build a solid foundation of useful skills. Some programs take such structure to an extreme, perhaps with an eye towards marketing, certification programs and the use of specialty equipment. These are all things that make a system or approach recognizable and repeatable – effective and maybe even efficient, but not necessarily adaptable.
When I look back on my own learning curve I see how I started out within various programs or systems, then branched out and away as my own skill set expanded such that the system became a barrier instead of a benefit. It’s also normal, as our aptitude expands to need less structure to feel safe and confident, allowing our instinct and intuition to guide us when we encounter something new or unfamiliar. This is a necessary part of mastery, and part of skill development that often gets left behind when we get stuck in a system or approach. We unintentionally limit our ability to adapt to new or challenging situations.
I can easily use myself as an example.
Not every horse is as light as a feather and tuned into my every thought like this gelding was. Over the years I tended to attract horses considered overly sensitive. I learned to whisper, to refine my movements and requests so that these feather light horses could dance with me without anxiety. My personal system evolved to be soft and light. And that worked great for the horses that were feathers.
One of our very favorite Tango lessons included an exploration our instructors called ‘feather and fridge’. They explained how some people are light as feathers in how they move and others heavy, more like moving a refrigerator. The ‘leader’ has to adapt to what the ‘follower’ presents in each moment. As the designated ‘follower’ it was my job to become a feather or a fridge so Steve could practice adapting his ‘leading’ style to accommodate a partner that is light as a feather or heavy as a fridge.
I never realized I was developing a personal style in response to the kinds of horses I was ‘dancing’ with until I encountered my first horse that was a ‘fridge’ instead of a ‘feather’.
A few years ago a friend brought her gelding to board here with me. He was the polar opposite of the responsive gelding that actively responded to my thoughts. Of course, I started out whispering my requests as though he were as sensitive as these other horses I’d honed my skills with. And he is just as sensitive. He does pick up on my thoughts. It’s just that instead of becoming anticipatory when people confused him he went the opposite direction and blocked it all out as meaningless noise. He shut down and became quite unresponsive. Or so it seemed, if I assumed he should be feather light.
It took some time for me to discover how to be effective moving a ‘fridge’ of a horse. At first it didn’t feel good to me to be so overt and direct in my requests. But anything less caused him anxiety. He’d go sullen and worried in an inward way, moving with uncertainty or wiggling his lip in his version of anxiety. All he wants is clarity. It took some time to develop my own movement aptitude to discover how to present clarity without aggression. I’m not going to ‘hit’ a horse to ‘make’ them go, so I had to dig deep inside myself to discover determination and perseverance that he could respond to.
There is no way I could approach all the horses I know in the same way, with the same energy and intention. Part of our necessary skill development is learning to expand beyond technique, to be creative and confidently adapt to each horse, each situation, fluidly. To stop seeing every horse as a fridge, or every horse as a feather, to expand our tool box to include more than just a hammer!