… for they shall not be bent out of shape.
Khaleesi has been on some down time after Big South Fork and I have been flung headlong into fall season of music program administration, teaching and rehearsals. I have done some hiking with her and then snuck in one unimpressive ride before the hurricane rains poured through one weekend.
A few days ago we visited Caroline’s and had a day of jumping paired with visiting a nearby client so Khaleesi could help babysit a horse who wasn’t able to focus well while riding around the property.
I have had lovely compliments on my fabulous mare. She is intelligent, strong, balanced and highly responsive. It’s always nice when your horse’s finer qualities are recognized. Saturday she was all those things and more in her work in both places.
Sunday she was equally fabulous, but not at all agreeable and had some thoughts and opinions that completely hijacked my plans for the day.
This is the less fun truth behind a free and powerful creature.
They have an independent spirit that does not always equate to unquestioned respectful obedience. Danny Silk, in his book Culture of Honor (which I highly recommend), reminds us that free people who have responsibility of thought and choice are healthy and powerful. They are also the hardest to lead. It is much messier to move together in unity with people who have their own minds and do not mindlessly agree on everything. Brainwashed robotic populations that know they will be punished for freedom of thought are much easier to control. Its not very different with horses.
If efficiency and control are the goal then punishment and pressure are the better tools. You get to be the dictator and you have it your way. But you had better be willing to accept dull obedience and half hearted resignation. With control and punishment you are likely to win stuff… but you will never get the full brilliance the horse is capable of.
I believe and have experienced that you can find harmony the more you work together with your free population as a good leader. A true leader isn’t about being bossy or forceful but one who listens and serves others as the first priority even if it sidelines your own goals for periods of time. Both horses and people who have freedom of choice will choose to follow someone they trust and who has shown to be looking out for their best interests while calling them to grow and bringing out the best in everyone.
So armed with this belief I have set out to develop a powerful and free horse. I have begun to see brilliance and harmony. But it’s far from perfection.
After the glimpses of brilliance on Saturday I planned a trot/canter fitness ride for Sunday. I had some time (though limited) and the weather was a perfect fall day. I loaded up saddle and tack and grabbed the halter to find Khaleesi already thinking her independent thoughts. They were not in harmony with mine at all.
She kicked her back legs up and herded the trio across the dry creekbed to the far pasture in a hurry leaving no question in my mind about her feelings of going with me- anywhere.
So. I have a fabulous mare who is a stunning brilliant partner, and yep, the truth is, some days she resists even being haltered.
This doesn’t mean I cannot “catch” my horse. I can get my hands on her and if I had an emergency I could “trap her” with my tools. What it means is she is knows she has a right to her thoughts and sometimes they are not in agreement with mine. She knows I will hear her and not punish her for the honesty.
My hope was she would share her opinion with me, and I would tell her in equine language that she was heard and understood but today is a work day and so I’m not leaving without her on a lead. Sometimes that is enough and she decides to say ok fine, why not. But not yesterday. She was intent on holding onto that thought and for 10 minutes we did approach dance moves and she would block me from the side I halter her. Eventually walking off entirely.
After the 10 minutes of unusual level of resistance I had to recalculate. Evening comes early now and I was losing time. I could finish at sunset and come in after dark, that wasn’t ideal. And I didn’t have her willingly on line yet. I refused to throw the rope over her neck and get it done…
What did wisdom tell me today?
I looked at the truth of the moment: it was a horse who wasn’t willing to be haltered. I needed to adjust to deal with that question before anything else. It was the willing part. This wasn’t about catching a horse, it was about her thoughts and feelings. If I dragged her out of the field the brace would be hard to overcome.
I decided to adjust my advance and retreat timing to give her more (not less) control over the conversation. She began to get more curious as I began to be less determined. When she put her head in the halter I offered, I did about 30 seconds of some light leading work in hand that had lots of turns and direction changes. I made sure she was soft like butter in my hands.
She then tried to scratch at her flank and I scratched it for her. She was very happy with that and I took off the halter. I set my own goal aside to meet her where she was and see what I could do to make her feel better.
I knew the original plan was scrapped so I used some time to do a few things with Wyoming who hasn’t gotten a lot of attention lately and left Khaleesi to graze.
After a few minutes with Wyoming I went back to ask Khaleesi to come into the halter. Again she walked off: No thank you, I thought we already had this talk. So I did the same approach and retreat that gave her more control of the conversation and waited for her. She eventually came back to me again and offered her head to the halter.
I repeated similar leading patterns and again she was soft and responsive, she was in harmony with me and it felt really nice. I could ride that horse…
Then I took off the halter, left her to graze and went to do some things with Hope. After that I walked back to Khaleesi and she resisted less than the other times. Repeat. Almost no brace in her body and mind, she was quiet and relaxed, curious and connected. Felt amazing.
However if she is still starting with the mental brace of walking away before the agreement, we aren’t there yet, so I took off the halter again. I walked off, and when I came back she met me and offered her head.
Zero brace mentally, physically or emotionally. She floated with me on the lead any direction I asked rolling with changes like a ball and her hind and front end flowed easily.
Now we were done.
No fitness ride today. But I spent an hour or so smoothing out brace in my horse’s mind and body. If she works with brace her body holds tension which results in less efficient movement, less strength, less brilliance. Potential for injury over time is greatly increased if she works in a braced state. The more time I spend getting into harmony with her the more brilliance and flow together we have access to. That’s where her power and strength come from.
There is a price for having a horse who knows she has the right to act on her thoughts. Not only am I willing to pay that price because I know what’s on the other side of her choice to connect with me of her own decision, but I am willing to look foolish in order to honor her true thoughts and feelings as much as I can. No, she doesn’t always come running to meet me at the gate…
But the times that she does are all the more special.
2 thoughts on “Blessed are the flexible…”
Yes to all of this. My friends and I call ourselves a committee of two with our horses, but sometimes we as the human have the deciding vote, especially when safety is involved…but the input is equal, and the responsibility is on us to ensure we’re setting everyone up for success, whatever that looks like on a given day. Like you, there’s been several times I’ve gone into the pasture with plans, and did a 180 based on what Tarma had to say that day. I want a safe, strong, willing mare to climb mountains and explore with, not a dude string horse that just goes along.
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Love your comment! It’s great to hear of others experiences. Love your approach!
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