Waltzing with Galahad

I had an interesting time the other day at the barn. I put the English saddle on Galahad, and a friend of mine tried lunging him with me on his back. No dice…. He didn’t want to move forward, and certainly wasn’t going to stay on the rail if he did (I had no reins at the time). Trot? Nah. Two or three steps, and he’d drop back to a walk.

Now, granted, my friend is not especially good at lunging or round penning, but you’d think that with my urging, too, he’d move out. Nope. He just does not like the saddle; not at all.

How do I know it’s the saddle? Because he’s happy to move forward with me on him bareback, happy to walk, eager to trot and (I suspect) gallop off, with me on board. We communicate well: he’ll side pass, “drift” or whatever it’s called, stop, back up, and do anything else I ask him to…as long as there’s no saddle involved.

Anyway, after trying for quite a while, I gave up, asked for my reins back, and “pushed him through it” to get several laps in each direction and the usual stop, back up, yield hind end. But he wasn’t happy about it, and I wasn’t happy forcing the issue.

Here’s my dilemma: How does “pushing him through it” fit in with the Carolyn Resnick philosophy that I want to be using with him? I’d say, not at all. Resnick’s idea is that you don’t force the horse to do anything. At any point, she says, the horse can choose to refuse to do what you’re asking; he retains control over his own actions.

“What?” you ask. “I thought you just said that the horse gets to express an opinion, but YOU decide!”

That’s right: it’s about leadership. Remember, a true leader in the relational sense gains the confidence and trust of her followers, to the point where they will do what she asks willingly and happily. Carolyn Resnick adds the “training” element, too: If you work with the horse, and make your request at a time when the horse is likely to do it (and not when he is NOT likely to do it), “obedience” will become a habit.

I’ve been puzzling over this for a long time now. I’ve been trained in several different methods of natural horsemanship. My first trainer was a fan of Dennis Reis; I’ve learned bits from followers of Parelli and Clinton Anderson. Currently, I study with Jay, who combines the best of all the major training methods, and whose style is near-perfect for preparing the Rescue Ranch’s horses for their new lives.

None of these methods are exactly what I want with my own horses, but Carolyn Resnick’s method (and that of Robin Gates, her student) comes extremely close. But here’s the problem: How do I know, in the moment, if what I’m doing with Galahad or Nevada is “right” in this new style that I want to embrace? For sure, “pushing him through it” is NOT.

After the Waltz Party last night, something came into focus that’s been there all along. The image, the metaphor I’m looking for, is the dance. I’m a very good dancer (according to my partners, at least), and it’s an activity that I find soul-stirring and joyful with a good partner. It can be excruciating with a bad partner.

Following a good lead through complex waltz moves is not something I have to think about: My body feels the music and interprets my partner’s suggestions without thought. It just happens, and it’s beautiful.

So why are some partners more desirable to me than others? What makes a dance, specifically a waltz, enjoyable to me? What is it that makes me want to go to the dances? I can tell you, it’s NOT the idea of having someone pushing me around all the time, music or no music.

I realized that Galahad and I are alike, in that we’re both excellent at following a lead that makes sense to us and that works with our body’s natural movements. We dance best with a partner who that doesn’t poke or prod or push us around. And I for darn sure wouldn’t want to dance with a partner who “pushed me through” the waltz!

So I’m going to stop trying with the saddle for a while. I’m going to invite my horse to dance with me, and let him agree, or not. Then I’m going to use subtle cues and allow him to respond, or not. I’m going to do my best to be that perfect dance partner that makes interaction not just fun but exhilarating. That does NOT include “pushing him through it” when he declines the dance!

Later on, when we’re both loving the dance and we have our cues adjusted, I can reintroduce the saddle. By then, he’ll be willing to trust my leadership, and we can continue our partnership in a slightly different way.

So that metaphor will be my guiding principle. If I wouldn’t like to be treated in a certain way by my dance partner, I’m not going to treat Galahad that way.

[Disclaimer: Please note that I am not suggesting that anyone try this for themselves without guidance, and certainly not unless they’re quite proficient at handling horses. I’m willing to take these risks, but I am NOT suggesting that YOU do it.]