…a ‘Master’ in the making…
Note: The difference between a broken automaton and a willful, conscious, opinionated, expressive being** comes down to the type and quality of interactions the horse (or child or anyone for that matter) engages in. It comes down to the governing principles and philosophy of ‘people’, which is in turn, is either dictated by how others ‘succeed’ (commercially) in the industry, or by an inner, self-respecting personal ‘knowing’. Sometimes people employ a combination of inner knowing and external influences, but commercial rewards or needs continuously justify the dominion of ego over heart. Intuition is not prioritized nearly enough by horse people all over the world; it’s a haphazard tool that’s fuzzy and disregarded… valuable feelings that are talked about over coffee, tea, beer, water, wine or soda, and then forgotten. Too bad… Nature is filled with Intellect and Wisdom, and Horses are filled with Nature. They are fully intuitive, sentient and aware. It’s a wonderful way to know and communicate with these remarkable Individuals…
**we’re not talking about baggage, venting, or troublesome behavior that is a type of communication that warrants additional understanding
Rosie raced 19 times and won just over 10K. She traces to Man O’ War eleven times in her pedigree, including her direct sire and dam lines. From a color perspective, interestingly, she has a dorsal stripe and slight ‘tiger stripes’ at her withers and mid neck. In the picture they show up as a darker coat color. She needed over-sized girths, not because she was ’round’ per se, but remarkably deep from wither to sternum. When she arrived (picture on the left), she was estimated at 1100 pounds by the vet. On the right, two years later, the vet measured from point of shoulder to seat bone, from wither to ground, and measured the circumference around her girth. He calculated her weight at 1580 pounds...
Rosie came to me as an emaciated ten year old, covered in rain rot, full of worms, depressed and pretty awkward. Her gaits were loose and unstable, her coordination of limbs and balance very tentative. I felt as if even skeletal muscles and ligaments were barely holding her together. She was (and still is) 16.1 hands. Her best features were her beautiful head and beautiful heart. With all the neglect she had suffered, she was still very thoughtful and kind. She wasn’t behaviorally dangerous, however, she could trip and just about fall flat. Sometimes, she did which was Hard, Hard, Hard to watch, and hard to be around.
What in the world gets into people, where they can let an animal in their care get to such a stage? Love has nothing to do with it; perhaps sentiment of not wanting to let go of past victories, perhaps romantic notions of winning the KY derby with a foal out of her, I don’t know. What I do know, is that it took some time for her body to eat away at itself by breaking down and digesting her own muscle, clearly the ‘available protein’ she needed to survive.. to the tune of almost 500 pounds.
Someone once said to me that they had a cat they couldn’t stand, and that the cat understood this ‘benign neglect’. Is it possible to have those words next to each other and make any sense at all? As far human beings go, it seems we can justify anything.
The irony is that we have everything in common with our animals, especially feelings, emotions, behaviors, and causes of dis-ease. We share the complexities that result from trauma, including various degrees of neglect. We need the same ‘solutions’. As people living in a modern detached world, we seem unable to make the necessary correlations, and are unable to learn these very important lessons that horses teach us in every moment.
Somehow, we’ve adopted a notion that we are ‘better’, ‘more intelligent’, we have bigger brains, and that animals are inferior in some way. Many of us also carry the deep, sometimes unconscious burden of being ‘unworthy’ and/or insecure. It makes us strange leaders/caretakers/stewards indeed.
Truth is, we have lost much by putting superiority and emotional denial into practice (for hundreds and hundreds of years), not only in our own back yards, but globally. We are experiencing a collective humanity identity crisis that has been critical, judgemental and destructive. We’ve caused much suffering and have gotten terribly confused about what constitutes harm, and what constitutes correction.
We’ve assumed ‘dominance’ without taking responsibility beyond the surface. We’ve lost an inner connection; we’ve lost our spiritual knowledge, we’ve lost heart in favor of intellect. We’ve lost the ability to communicate quite easily with animals and each other, without force or cell phones… (topic for another day). Maybe our collective crisis will encourage us to evolve into our truest potential.
Anyway, when Rose had gained enough strength to stay on her feet and run around the paddock, I started doing some ground work with her following the principles laid out by Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling in “Dancing with Horses”. This is a way to establish a healthy relationship without unnecessary physical exertion on the horse’s part.
While she was still weak I couldn’t risk injury, and yet, I felt she and I could establish some meaningful communication. Working in any ‘big’ arena is a big job for a big horse who is in this condition, so, the thing I like about the Hempfling method is that he prescribes using a ‘pikadero’. As far as smaller enclosures are concerned, it has distinct advantages over a round pen.
A pikadero is square, and when a horse works properly in a square, there is, in essence, a straightness – a bend – a straightness – a bend, and so on. The horse learns to balance slowly and correctly, as opposed to the nature of a round pen where it is possible to take off, gain speed, and lean into the turn like a motorcycle.
In nature, if a herd of horses is chased by a predator, they will naturally turn and follow the predator for a short while to assure the pursuit has truly broken off. It’s a well known survival skill and technique. It’s not necessarily a bonding moment.
I didn’t want my mare to feel that she was being pursued or pushed. I didn’t want her to submit because she was defeated. I wanted to communicate partnership, love, trust and the idea that I would make certain decisions at certain times, while still honoring her input.
It’s a more nuanced type of relationship.
So, the square it was. We worked without any halter, lead line, or tack of any sort. Not even a whip. I didn’t have any idea what her attitude was regarding a whip, since I’m sure she had been batted with one on the track. Plenty of time to find out. For now, it was about getting acquainted and learning some dance steps. I needed to know ‘where she was’ emotionally, educationally, mentally and socially. I needed to know if she really trusted people, or if she was just really passive with internalized issues.
Turned out to be the latter.
And this is a good time to talk about developing trust. You can take the time to show consistent compassion; making decisions that keep a horse safe, employ keen observation that prompt your actions in the priority of keeping them (multidimensionally) comfortable, figure out behaviors that have been habitualized due to the lack of meaningful connections, and figure out how to communicate boundaries with clarity (without righteous indignation or judgement).
Consistent compassion throughout the challenges and the seasons will engender trust…
… and as trust emerges on the foundation of compassion, over time, when trust is felt consistently, the two (compassion and trust) combined will enable the horse to begin finding Joy… and in that Joy, feel the true confidence of ‘being’.
It’s very easy to think a horse like this trusts you from the get go. For Rosie, it was really a matter of being too exhausted and too depressed to question. When she reached a certain pivot point, we then went through more emotional, mental, psychological and physical stages as the fog cleared from her brain and body.
However, she did begin to communicate more openly, and that was nurtured and fostered. In return, the love she exhibited to everyone was absolutely indescribable. This horse, once she received years of care, began to master herself in a way that was truly an inspiration. And yes. She’s very opinionated, some would say stubborn, but that’s more of an automated judgment*** when blind obedience disappears and a horse feels (and KNOWS) that their perspective is relevant and important.
***When those moments occur, they ‘seem’ to make a person ‘look bad’ or like the person isn’t skilled… but that’s only if a person is triggered to interpret it that way… or chooses to interpret it that way.
Her character, identity, temperament and personality blossomed. She wanted what she wanted when she wanted it, and was able to show it without ‘correction’. She still listened to me and I still listened to her. Eventually, we were able to unite under all circumstances.
The way Rose expresses her feelings and her opinions took several years to emerge. That’s when I thought of the idea; whose apprentice was she when she arrived? Whose apprentice was she now?
She didn’t possess the confidence to exert her will, her creativity or her personality when she arrived. In fact, her ‘behavior’ was to internalize all of her grief, anger and other challenging emotions. Even when she gained strength, she was a product of two worlds, one that was natural ‘horse’ but too obscure, and one that was unnatural ‘horse’ and imposed. She was a product of domestication and preordained ‘discipline’ with only a whisper of the wild… of the pure, unadulterated, magnificent horse.
There was probably an era during my equestrian career, that I would have liked a devoted, unquestioning apprentice to do my bidding. It would have been based on insecurity and a need to guarantee predictability. However, I’ve always been someone who cries when I watch galloping horses, especially wild horses, and so, something very deep inside me, cherishes freedom.
To really honor freedom, especially with powerful tools of confinement at my fingertips, I must relinquish the trainer/horse paradigm that asserts superiority, and embrace partnership. It involves a certain paradox; harder to understand, but easier to achieve equine trust, love, and united potentials.
And so, Rose, who had always been an apprentice (I want to avoid using the word ‘slave’) to human agendas, had only experienced her limited horse-ness during the first few months of her life, when she was still with her mother. This continued apprenticeship would only yield an obedient horse without real, unmitigated Joy…
… which was just unacceptable to me.
She grew to find the ‘glass ceiling’ had been taken down. Eventually, she did assert herself, and she did bloom. She became a thriving, confident horse after going through a period of uncertainty (probably self-doubt, and lack of trust), which involved some venting, spookiness, and questioning of some of my requests. All of which quickly subsided when she knew, without fear, that I listened to her, honored her and reassured her. I found she was a brilliant communicator, and a brilliant partner (on the ground and under saddle). I could count on her, and she could count on me. A relationship we both understood and valued.
Not the end of the story, though. Her true self-mastery and ultimate self-realization came later, when I moved her to a retirement facility with her older companion, a little Morab horse. She demonstrated to me, after living outdoors 24/7 (with appropriate nutrition, shelter and blanketing during extreme cold), that she was capable of SO much more. SO much. She became fitter than she ever had been because she was able to move around as much as she desired. Her old habit of tossing her grain tub disappeared, and when I visit, she comes to greet me, hangs out for a little while, and then turns away without looking back. At 25 years old, she appears younger in so many ways, yet her wisdom shines with the patina of agelessness.
Confident, self-reliant, Joyful every second… a self-Master… a Captain of her Soul.
My horse, my teacher… my compass rose. I’ve found I don’t need to be ‘needed’ to feel important or Loved. I’ve found that acknowledgement and deep sharing unmeasured by Time or ‘man-made’ language, refreshes a bond Rosie and I shall share forever.