The Magic of The Mean Little Black Horse

20161222_152543I arrived at the barn yesterday around noon. The main chore, other than feeding, was to take off Midnight’s parka and put on his rain jacket instead. The temperature was quite warm—in the upper 40s and mostly sunny, so I knew he didn’t need anything heavy. The forecast for Christmas Day is for rain and temperatures near 60° F (after plummeting to 4° F only a week ago!).

He was very happy to get rid of the blanket and enjoyed a good scrubbing with a stiff brush. His hair wasn’t too matted, but he’s old and dusty and stinky. He rubbed his face on the fence while I scrubbed his itchy back and sides. Then we went for a walk.

He didn’t want to go down toward the trail—he wanted to go see things up by the barn. Midders is very good at communicating his desired direction with a flip of his nose. So that’s where we went. I wasn’t too happy about it—I had wanted to spend some time training Galahad—but the old guy doesn’t get much attention or many walks, and since he was already out of his stall, off we went.

He wanted to trot, but his gimpy leg needs time to get warmed up and moving, and he’s a little stumbly. I worry too much about him—don’t want him going down in a heap on my watch—so I made him slow down and walk. He didn’t mind too much. We checked a few times for clover at the edge of the lane—no such luck, buddy. It’s December. Then we looked at the new round pen but didn’t stop. Instead, we went directly to the mares pasture, where he flirted and squealed with Maggie, the pretty black mare who’s just his size. When she said “Enough!” we walked through the barn and over to the bin where the sweet feed is stored. I swear, he’d try to crawl under there to get the little bit that’s spilled on the ground, if I didn’t stand between him and the frame. I pulled some of it over to where he could nibble it. He has no teeth, so he can’t actually chew it, but he sure loves to roll it around in his mouth!

Midnight is, as you all know, an opinionated old man. Long ago I learned that it’s no use pulling on him to get him to move along, and that’s really not the point of our walks, any more. So I’ll just stand, point, and ask him to come along. Sometimes it takes a while, but eventually he consents. Much nicer to have his consent! That’s kind of how our relationship has developed over the years. We’re old friends. We have history.

We stopped at the hay barn to talk with Reggie, who was loading up the cart for the afternoon feeding. Then we headed for home. Some people and a car were down the lane by Midnight’s paddock, delivering holiday treats. He liked that. Something different. And then there was dinner in his stall and soaked hay cubes for dessert out in his paddock.

While he was finishing up, I fed Galahad, Dancer, and Nevada. Galahad had cut his fetlock on something and was ouchy, and that needed doctoring. I folded up Midnight’s parka and refilled the feed bins, picked up around his paddock, and did some other little chores. By then the sun was sinking and the air was cooler. Time to put the rain jacket on the Little Black Horse.

But it was going to be comparatively warm overnight—only dropping into the 30s. Did he really need that blanket? He had fussed so much last week when I put the parka on him, and had been so glad when I took it off…. As I stood there holding his jacket, Midders left his pile of green stuff and walked over to me. He touched the blanket, then stood quietly, waiting. Felt like a “yes” to me! He didn’t fidget at all the entire time I spent putting it on him—so I’m quite sure I read him right.

And then the magic: Once the last buckle was fastened, Midnight put his nose on my shoulder and just stood there for several minutes, breathing on my cheek and very, very gently nibbling my jacket while I cried and told him how much I love him.

The Mean Little Black Horse loves me. He loves me, he appreciates the care I give him, and he knows that I intend only good things for him. He loves that I respect him, and in return, he gives me respect and consideration that he certainly does NOT give everyone. Best of all—and this is something I have a hard time offering myself—is that he loves me for me, just the way I am. He doesn’t care that maybe I could have done something different, or more, or better. He doesn’t care that my life sometimes gets in the way of being there for him as often as I wish I could. He doesn’t care about all the things that I worry about. He just loves me. Just me, as I am. He’s glad that I’m part of his life.

Wow. It’s just that simple, isn’t it, underneath it all?

I’m going to try to take his example to heart.

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.]