Nothing inspires me more than interacting with horses and other people. Between the farrier, Dr. Madalyn Ward, lots of collaboration with horses, and fellow ‘students of the horse’, these last few weeks, my wheels are seriously turning. So much fodder for blogs! Yay!
But this week I really want to focus on the power of taking our time so that a horse is able to come on board with our idea. If you follow my work, you’ll know how important it is to me that my horses feel they have a voice, that they have a choice about what happens to them, and they guide how it happens to them. That does not mean that I turn everything over to the horse and never ask them to do anything with me or for me. Sometimes it even means asking them to trust me enough to do something they don’t think they want to do…
Horses understand how to respond to input appropriately. They respond to one another as they interact. Whatever they do or do not do is a response to input from another horse, their own body, the environment, me. What they do is not at all random, or without purpose. That means that if I want to give my horses choices, I have to offer them some to begin with. If I don’t ask them anything they won’t offer anything. Period.
It also means that their response is in answer to my question. Just because they don’t respond by giving themselves over and doing exactly what I want all at once, does not mean I should stop asking questions. Just because my horse initially walks away when I approach does not necessarily mean he doesn’t want to do anything at all. I mean think about it, how do you feel if someone comes along that wants you to do something with them but they won’t tell you what, or for how long? Would you enthusiastically go along, or would you maybe ask a few questions first? That’s what are horses are doing when they walk away, they are letting us know they feel unsure, or that our enthusiasm is a bit too much, or our sneakiness (I see that halter you have hiding behind your back) is not appreciated. He’s responding to me, now it’s my job to respond back, in ways appropriate to carrying on a ‘conversation’.
You might recall these images of Sundance last week.
He frequently walks away when we approach with a halter. I know him well enough now to know that in part, that comes from him being a bit stuck in the past. Something confirmed by Dr. Madalyn Ward when she came to work on him last week. I get it. He had a rough go and he may always be skeptical. If I follow along and spend time breathing, silently sharing my heart and my intention, he pauses and checks in every few strides. I don’t compulsively reach for him every time he stops. I believe in his ability to say yes, and I believe in his willingness to hang in and continue the conversation. I show him I trust him by waiting until I feel him come on board.
When a horse is ready, when they come on board, it’s an easily recognizable shift, once you learn to see it, you can’t unsee it. Just because he stopped walking away doesn’t necessarily mean he’s okay with me haltering him yet. I wait for him to breathe. I wait until the knot in my own throat, the butterflies in my stomach dissipate. I’m feeling him. Yet another way horses communicate. They radiate their emotional state so that it’s palpable.
When he’s ready, Sundance turns his head toward me, puts his nose on the halter, and leans in when I touch his neck. Every horse is different. Every ‘conversation’ unique to the horse and human partnership. What I just described with Sundance likely isn’t what’s going to happen with you and your horse. There is no formula. We must learn to be like horses and respond appropriately to stimuli from them.
One of the questions I’m most often asked is ‘how do I give my horse a voice when it comes to something I have to do?’ Like trim their feet, deworm, vaccinate, have a lameness exam done, work on their teeth. It does take some time and due diligence to develop rapport with a horse. If I’m working with my own horses trust is built through consistently listening to them, within the context of every interaction we have. But, I can also build enough rapport to really help a horse in just a few minutes of developing a dialogue so there is enough trust to negotiate the more difficult ‘conversations’. ‘Conversations that might require a horse to make a passage through discomfort.
There is absolutely no reason to fight with a horse about anything. There is no need to force our will upon them. Take the time to communicate with clarity in a language they understand and they happily come on board. When they do, they guide us to exactly what they need. Even those difficult conversations that require a passage through discomfort.
A few more examples of horses and humans working together from this last week.