Do you find yourself feeling like what you do with your horses is not enough? As though you should be making more progress than you are? Do you have a horse that asks you to step up in ways that challenge your old paradigms of horse training, stretching your comfort zone to the max?
My 4-year-old mustang gelding, Feather, came home last Sunday. He is officially home for one week.
Those three questions I just asked… I can safely say I answered each of them with a resounding yes in that week! An exhausting roller coaster of emotions, if only I could stop thinking so much and just be. Life is much easier when my mind is centered in the moment, not frantically analyzing what happened ten minutes ago, or projecting out to what might be necessary in a few days or weeks if what I do now is ineffective…
There is some sense of urgency about making in roads with Feather. He is, after all, wearing a halter and lead that need to come off sooner rather than later. I was all set to have the vet come out and dart him with a tranquilizer on Friday and just get it done. Then I realized, he just got to his new home. I have no clue what might be possible if I take a little time, let him settle in, let him get to know me. What if I really could remove that halter with his cooperation? And even if that proves impossible, he should respond better to sedation if he feels safe and settled here.
I canceled the vet appointment and instead, focused on relationship building. And boy, this horse holds me accountable in ways that remind me a lot of Gin. Lucky for Feather, Gin trained me well. I am at least open to the possibility it might be me that needs to adjust and not Feather. He taught me so much about myself during our first few days of a whole lifetime of wonderfully rich shared experiences. This is just the beginning. The first few days of the rest of our lives. So, what IS the hurry?
Feeling like what I do each day is not enough is an easy trap to fall into. Feather carries quite a lot of trauma, and a distinct distrust of humans. While his curiosity is strong, it is stressful for him to have me in his space for any length of time. My objective right now is to do my very best not to be an overt source of stress, for him to begin to feel my presence as a place of peace and ease. It sure feels like I should be spending more than ten minutes with him, but he tells me otherwise. Ten minutes of finding a way to work with his anxiety is enough for him. Spending an hour does not make him better. Spending time in short sessions multiple times per day might be okay one day and out of bounds the next.
My expectation is, if he is good in the morning and we build some trust, he should be even better when I go back in the afternoon. If he we have what feels like a big breakthrough one day, the next day he should be even better. I expect a linear progression with steady improvement dang it! But life is anything but linear, especially with a horse that has some trauma. Our anything but linear progression this last week brought my attention to how easy it is for us to get discouraged when things are not so black and white.
Horses live in the moment. We humans seem to do a lot of projecting into the future. Putting our hopes and dreams, our sense of time is running out, onto each interaction. Our internal sense of pressure spilling out onto our horse and making them feel pressured too. Feather has a zero-tolerance policy for my busy mind. He experiences my thinking too much as a threat. If I am not in the moment, not paying attention to my surroundings, distracted, I become a source of danger – at very least, certainly not a source of peace. I learned that lesson on Wednesday and Thursday when Feather started bolting to put distance between us while I was doing chores in or around his run.
My busy, thinking, judgmental mind said: ‘what is wrong with you! We should be making more progress than this! You were so peaceful the first few days and now you act like I might eat you for breakfast. What the heck?’ My initial thoughts ran along the lines of: ‘suck it up dude – I will be walking by your run and cleaning your pen every day. This is who I am, this is how I move through the world, deal with it.’ But he was not ‘dealing with it’ well. He became increasingly uncomfortable around me over the course of those two days. Which of course, sent my busy mind on overdrive!
When I checked in more deeply about what caused this change in his behavior the words I heard: “you are so unpredictable and inconsistent!” I was baffled. I thought I was being very consistent and predictable, creating a routine he could get used to. Then I realized, it was my busy mind he was referring to. When he first arrived, I was careful to notice how my presence impacted him. I noticed when he noticed and responded. I noticed when he got worried and responded. As he relaxed so did I. I stopped paying attention to how my presence was affecting him when I was in his personal space. I stopped responding to him, and so in his mind I was unpredictable and inconsistent. And he was right. When I started paying attention again, fully present in the moment rather than thinking about who knows what while I did my chores, he stopped bolting.
What a gift he gives me, if I choose to accept it. I spent more time this past week with a quiet mind and peaceful heart than I can remember. He taught me how to appreciate the small things and to see the larger picture of how we progress in our relationship from day to day. Even though it is anything but linear. Trust the process. Take the small wins and let go of the moments when things go south. We make mistakes. Sometimes we ask too much. Sometimes we could ask for more. What matters is the larger picture. The overall progression.
I realize how easy it is for me to focus on what went wrong. Dwelling on what went wrong means I miss the opportunity to feel appreciation for what went right, for the gift of connection my horse gave me in that moment. I lose the significance of those small moments when my horse chose to trust me enough to cooperate of his free will. Feather reminds me to celebrate every day, even the tiniest in road. By focusing on what goes well, I have something to build on. Those tiny wins do accumulate over the course of days, weeks and months. Those tiny wins are the foundation of true partnership.
Did I get as far with Feather this first week as I had hoped?
Heck no! In my wildest dreams we built an instant and magical connection and he put his head in my arms and let me take that halter off on day one! That is not what happened. We had good interactions and not so good interactions. But the overall picture is filled with great strides forward! Believe me, I did not just sit here in a state of bliss appreciating how much he has offered up. I worked on my mindset every single night, writing down all the fears, doubts and insecurities – willing myself to write down the positive changes and own the wins.
And for a first week home there are some significant wins! Allow me to celebrate
How quickly and easily he settled into his new home with the burros in tow.
How many times he has walked quickly past me when we need to pass by one another while I clean his paddock instead of bolting.
That he was able to stand four feet away from me on Friday and hang out with a hind foot resting while he processed through a whole lot of anxiety for a full 5 minutes before needing to move off.
That he has not touched me out of anxiety a single time since he arrived.
That he can stand in my space and not need to touch me, touching me with anxiety is a sign of insecurity and worry. He no longer has that.
That he has not charged me a single time since he’s been here despite the tight quarters.
Yesterday he walked back and forth past me sitting on my muck tub completely peaceful and then stood 20 feet away and went to sleep for 5 minutes. In my presence! That’s huge!
He stands at the gate and nickers when he sees me coming with food.
He can stay at the gate and not bolt while I put his handful of supplements in a pan and slide it under the gate.
He stays at his hay pile when I step into the paddock and keeps eating (not in a stressed way)
As I write, I realize, I could keep going. There are so many small wins that add up to a lot more than the moments when he still loses control of his emotions and bolts. When I lose my focus and freak him out. By focusing on these positive changes, I realize he is overall moving in a direction of releasing his trauma and stress. He IS learning to trust me and feel at peace in my presence. All I have to do is believe in myself. Believe in him, and trust this process we engage in together.
If you answered feel discouraged about taking it slow with your horse, like you should be doing more, time is passing you by and you may never reach your goals, Feather and I encourage you to join us in taking a few deep breaths. Feel your feet on the ground. Go outside and be still. Listen to the birds sing and feel the sun (or the wind in our case) on your face. The journey is richest when we appreciate each moment. The paradox is that when we slow down and do less, the goal is reached before we know it. When we push for it, and try to make it happen faster, the goal becomes elusive, often for years.
What are the small things your horse offers up that might be bigger than you realized? What can you celebrate today?
Those things we think of as small and insignificant are a huge thing for our horses to give. When we fail to appreciate the significance of the little things they offer up it discourages them from offering more. It is so important to appreciate those things we think of as small – we can never know how much courage it took for our horse to take that small step toward trust.
I chronicle my adventures with Feather on Patreon. We welcome you to follow along as we get to know each other. There is a free blog or you can pay a monthly fee to access audio and video where I talk in depth about my philosophy of training. You’ll get to hear all the behind the scenes bits about how I make decisions, what I see and feel, how I interpret that information, and allow it to inform my decisions.
Andrea Datz Tango with Horses on Patreon
Feather also has a Facebook page!
(Gandalf) Gray Feather on Facebook