Monday, October 4, 2010
“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us” - Marcel Proust
I recently witnessed a fairly experienced dressage rider deal with her new young horse, a lively animal to say the least. Despite the rider’s top-level skills, she was continuously running into problems with her new dressage hopeful. I have to admit, he was full of fire. He was also full of resistance and opinions. He had his own ideas about having his head down and complying with the dressage ideals. Finally, after he bucked his rider off one last time, she gave up.
“I sent him to Trainer X for some training,” she said. “The horse just has too much energy for me. He needs to be straightened out.” The horse community around her agreed, empathetically. They would have done the same thing.
“He’s such a great mover, too bad he is such a nut case,” they said and nodded their understanding heads.
The horse was gone for quite a while, almost a year. That’s how long it took to break his spirit and “straighten him out.” But finally, the work was done and the unruliness was gone. He showed successfully with Trainer X and was ready to return to his owner.
“Finally he has seen the light,” people commented. “What a beautiful dressage horse he is now.”
I watched the horse trot and barely recognized him, so stilted and dead his movement had become, so vacant his eyes, so sad the expression on his face. The fiery horse was gone and a shell had returned. But nobody noticed, because he was collecting ribbons at shows, he was performing at the top of his classes – he was obedient, like a good horse should be.
And this is what many human beings desire: a horse that does what they want, no questions asked. And they want that horse now, or preferably yesterday, no time wasted.
A compliant, good-natured horse is valuable. “He’s bombproof” is one of the greatest compliments you can give a horse. And it’s understandable, people simply want to ride and they want to enjoy the ride while they’re at it. They want to look like they are in control. An unruly, misbehaving animal is a direct reflection of their own riding skills. Not to mention time consuming and scary.
And there are people who will do what is necessary to produce this good-natured animal. They purchase a stronger bit or ride with drawreins. They switch trainers or better yet; send their horse to the trainer for some extra mileage under saddle. They lunge the animal to pieces before they get on to ride. They punish the horse for any bad behavior. I have seen a person whip their horse in the stall because he turned his head to look at her.
There are not many options for horses that are forced into “goodness”. Some fight back, but eventually most fall into different states of learned helplessness. This is a condition where the animal, even when there is an opportunity to avoid an unpleasant circumstance, behaves helplessly. This is a result of a perceived absence of control over the outcome of the situation. Learned helplessness is a brain’s last-resort coping mechanism against painful or fearful situations. In other words, when a horse feels he has no other option, or other options have been exhausted, he turns to learned helplessness. Soon the horse sort of loses his true self and becomes a machine-like mount. Life is easier that way, not only for the horse, but for the human, too. It seems like she has finally managed to produce the bombproof horse.
Not long ago a lady at our barn asked me a simple question. The actual words she said were: “Why do you ride Little Love?”
We were coming back from a trail ride and Little Love was walking with her head down, strolling next to this woman’s docile mount. The last flies of the season were persistently buzzing around both our heads, and every once and a while Lilo shook her head impatiently.
Such a simple question that could be interpreted several ways.
“What do you mean?” I asked, although I had a hunch of what my trail partner was getting at. She had, after all, witnessed Little Love peering at the big hay bales on the field and shying away from the large puddles on the road, not to mention the one time she spooked at the flock of seagulls that landed in the field next door.
“Well, she’s sort of… difficult.” The woman shrugged. “I would never choose to ride her, it’s too much work.”
This is not the first time someone makes such a comment and I’m fairly sure it won't be the last. Wasn't it just three weeks ago Little Love’s owner reported a similar conversation? She had been having dinner with a friend, a woman who owns a stallion at our barn with her daughter. During the course of the conversation, Little Love’s owner had mentioned that perhaps if her friend wanted, she could ride Little Love occasionally. It was a generous offer to a woman who was sharing her horse with her daughter. But the lady refused point blank. Then she said what she really thought.
“Frankly, I don’t even understand why you own that animal. You should sell her and get a horse that is nicer, you know, a good-natured one.”
I admit; Little Love is not what people would call the perfect horse. People, who don’t know her, see her as a horse that is afraid of strange objects, fearful of loud noises and absolutely horrified of enclosed spaces. She runs when she is frightened, rears if she is contained, dislikes people touching her and bites when irritated. On top of all this, she has a long back, enormous movement and by default does not trust humans.
A few years ago I, too, thought Little Love was all that, but now I know better. She was never difficult, she simply tried to express herself and make her “voice” heard. She had been trying for a very, very long time, just about as long as humans had been trying to “train” her. When nobody listened, she developed habits that turned her into someone she really is not. Alert became fearful, powerful became out of control, sensitive became anxious, and careful became angry.
Those days may be in the past, but that “difficult” horse can still resurface within seconds if Little Love’s opinion is not heard. But interestingly enough, that is really all she wants; to be heard. This mare can be amazingly flexible and generous, but only if she knows you know how she feels and respect that. She will even tolerate previously unthinkable things such as walking into the trailer, as long as she knows you will listen to her and let her take a moment, in case she gets claustrophobic. And despite her dislike for dressage work, she will do it willingly, but only if you don’t ask for it every day, or even every other day.
But, truth told, there are still brief moments when I wish Little Love could just be an obedient, calm horse. Just last week during a trail ride she got flustered over a log on the ground and wanted to run home. I lost my usual cool and became frustrated and impatient. We made it home in one piece, but I apologized to Little Love later, because I had been out of line. She knew just as well as I did that I had no right to be angry at her. But in the heat of the moment it is easier to be angry at the horse instead of admitting your own inadequacy. Klaus Hempfling puts it so well in the movie The Path of the Horse when he talks about the daily message horses give us: “you are not enough, you are not enough.” And that is exactly why we get so angry; nobody wants to hear they are not enough.
So, that all said, I can understand why people would rather try the rougher bit, dig out the drawreins or send their horse off to the hotshot trainer to be “straightened out”. It is certainly an easier solution than looking into the mirror and seeing yourself as who you really are; someone who is not enough for their horse. But, on the same token, if you choose to take the road less traveled, I can assure you that the scenery will be unforgettable. Yes, the expedition down that path of self-discovery will be paved with tears of frustration and disappointment, and there will be times you just want to quit. But if you persist, if you dare to stare into that mirror also known as a horse, you will discover the most memorable journey of your life.
In Little Love’s case I can see that the more mutual trust we have, the better our communication. And the better we communicate, the calmer we both are. We still have a long way to go before she trusts me enough to be labeled “bombproof” and I’m not even sure we will ever get to that point. In the meanwhile I will continue to work on myself, trying to learn how to be enough. And that is exactly what I told the lady who asked me why I ride Little Love.
Little Love and I are inseparable because she is teaching me how to connect with an inner peace I never knew existed. She is teaching me how to be a better person. She is teaching me about unconditional love. She chose me to be her student and I am honored to have been chosen. I know, she’s not bombproof, but guess what? I no longer expect her to be. Because what she is giving me instead is priceless.
“I wanted a perfect ending… Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some storied don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious ambiguity.” - Gilda Radner