Measures of Learning

20141204154411 (2)It was an interesting day at the barn yesterday. Foggy, misty, cool but not really cold. When I arrived, the horses were grazing peacefully in the east pasture. Galahad followed me back to the fence, where I put on his halter and tied him so he’d stand still for me to treat his rain rot with iodine. Sometimes he gets bored and wants to wander off.

The peace and quiet didn’t last long. I had gotten maybe six square inches of that big, broad back treated when things got going.

It started with the mares in the other pasture. SOMETHING BAD, they said, was on the trail. Their intensity got the geldings’ attention, including Galahad’s. I couldn’t see a thing. The rest of the geldings were tense, snorting and dancing, not really sure what was wrong.

As everyone’s energy mounted, Galahad started to prance and snort, and I could feel my fear rising—an old reaction that I haven’t felt in a while. If he hadn’t been on the lead rope, I’d simply have moved him off to a safe distance. As it was, my mind called up the old image of a Raging Creature on a String. What to do?

First thing I did was take a breath and feel into the fear. Yes, I really did have the presence of mind to become conscious of it, and to understand that although I was afraid, I do now have the tools and training to handle the situation.

I’m quite proud of that split-second awareness! Guess I’ve learned something over these last few years!

The next thing I did was to untie the rope from the fence. Then I waited to see what would happen. Didn’t have to wait long. He reared and tossed his head. I bumped the lead rope, surprisingly calmly, and he dropped back down. Then I backed him about 25 or 30 feet, asked him to circle me on the line a time or two in each direction, then backed him some more. He did it all with a lot of energy, but no resistance.

Then I walked over and took the halter off, expecting him to whirl and run.

He didn’t. He stayed facing me, paying attention to ME and not to his herd mates, who were still milling excitedly around near the mares. In fact, I was able to back him up, circle him a bit more, move his hind end, and get him to change directions, all at liberty.

Then I sent him off to be with the herd. Pretty amazing.

In general, I think I did OK. My first thought was to control him—back to the natural horsemanship techniques that are (thankfully, sometimes) second nature by now. Control is probably not a bad thing to think about, considering that he’s 1100+ pounds of muscle, bone, and hoof. And goodness knows how tall he is when he’s standing on his hind legs! There was also the fact that he was not at liberty—I couldn’t readily send him off—and I needed to have him calm enough to get his halter off safely.

The unexpected and delightful part of this experience is twofold: First, he never actually tried to get away. His rearing was just a statement of what he’d LIKE to do. He wasn’t threatening me, and had he wanted to get away, he most certainly could have. I wouldn’t have tried to stop him.

Second, he trusted me way more than I trusted myself in this situation. Galahad did what I asked, even though the other horses were agitated and moving around. He chose me over his herd. I know that, because he did not leave me after I took his halter off, until I asked him to go.


How interesting. Hopefully, next time I’ll remember all this, and not need to be afraid. My horse trusts me. That is amazing.

Galahad is my teacher

Galahad 1 by Aiming High PhotographyAn interesting late afternoon with the horses. I spent some time with Nevada, who’s just a sweetheart: she hangs out with us, content to just stand around if that’s what we’re doing, or to trot around or do groundwork or (especially) eat grass.

Galahad’s a harder one for me to understand, or so it sometimes seems. But I think it’s just that Galahad has so much to teach me, instead of the other way around. I need to learn from him, instead of beating myself up about it when things don’t go as I plan.

This afternoon I had him in the small indoor arena, supposedly just to hang out (I’m starting a Carolyn Resnick course this month). But I started out by trying to round-pen him in there, which Nevada does easily, probably because she thinks it’s fun. Galahad has been round-penned a lot, and it has NOT been fun, by and large, so he’s not as willing.

After a while I remembered that my original idea had been to just hang out with him. Oh. Yes. Forgot that part.

Galahad kind of wandered around the arena, checking out the “messages” left in the sand by other horses, hanging his head over the fence and watching horses and people outside. He did come over to me a couple of times, checking in. But not often enough to satisfy me, I guess.

He came by when I knelt down and started scratching the sand with my hand—he wanted to see what I was up to. Then he left, which was fine. I went over and sat on the mounting block for a while, and he came over once.

As I write this, I’m noticing that what actually happened was not what I initially remembered. The way I remembered it, he totally ignored me. Um no, it wasn’t like that.

I mean, really! What do I expect from him? Can we say, “unreasonable”?

I started walking around the arena, pretending to pay no attention to him, and he was standing looking out over the gate to the outside. I walked past him and away, with my back to him. Then I heard what I thought were a person’s footsteps, and I swung my head around to see who had dared to disturb our space.

The sound was actually Galahad’s footsteps, following me. But he stopped instantly when I swung around. The message I unintentionally sent, oh so clear in horse language, was “Stay back. Don’t bother me!” The equivalent of swinging my head with my ears pinned.

I was so disappointed with myself! That wasn’t at all what I had in mind! There was no way to take it back, of course. I kept walking, but he didn’t follow any more.

I immediately started beating myself up about it, and I know he felt that disappointment. Nevada can deal with me when I’m like that: she just lets it blow right on past.

But Galahad is the most sensitive soul I’ve ever encountered, and his ego really isn’t all that strong. Galahad isn’t like Nevada. He worries. If I’m disappointed, he worries that he’s done something wrong—he has no idea what, but he expects to be blamed.

That’s another remnant of his unfortunate experiences as a youngster before he was rescued. And even our first trainer, successful though he is, used methods that demand pretty much instant obedience, not thinking about building up the horse’s self-confidence.

And then there’s me: I took to those early training methods so well because they are exactly what my dad would have used. That’s how I was taught: obey instantly, or face the consequences. Dad’s love was conditional on my behaving in a way that he could approve of, and preferably in a way that made him look good. So I get it.

The hard part is realizing how much of that internalized, patriarchal, “Arthur” energy I still have inside me, and how far I still have to go to learn what it’s like to express unconditional love. I would love Galahad no matter what he did, but he has no way of knowing that, and until he does know that, we can’t have the kind of relationship I’m looking for.

So he’s shown me, once again, exactly what I need to learn. And I will learn—but it’s going to take a lot of time and patience. I’m hoping the new course will help me develop better habits and learn to be patient and loving not just with Galahad, but with myself, too.

The real student here is me, not my horse.

[Note: This lovely photograph is by my good friend Aimée at Aiming High Photography.]

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.]