Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hanna's Story

“To be a teacher in the right sense is to be a learner. I am not a teacher, only a fellow student.” -Sören Kierkegaard

Two years ago almost to the date, my head was spinning with questions. I had spent the summer riding in a bitless bridle, discovering intuitive animal communication and watching Klaus Hempfling’s videos on YouTube. The foundation of my equestrian knowledge was shaking and I wondered if what I was doing was the right thing to do. Lost on my search for the path I didn’t even know existed, I continued riding and teaching. But every time I gave advice, every time I gave a horse an aid, I wondered if it was correct. Perhaps there was more out there to be discovered, more knowledge and wisdom I had not yet unveiled.

Then I met Hanna. She was still a young girl, a high school student finishing her last year in school, and wanted to ride in lessons with her younger sister. I questioned her motives, as she seemed so nervous, so impatient and edgy when she sat on a horse. I wondered if perhaps she was merely joining as a favor to her sister, who was the more determined, traditional rider. Insecure on the surface, she questioned everything and anything I said or did, in a way nobody had before. And there was so much to question, as I had recently found out myself.

At first the two girls came to ride together, sharing the lease of Zorro, an older gelding. This horse was an experienced mount and hardly a horse you could call excitable, but he knew who was who, and behaved accordingly. The younger sister had the skill and energy needed and thus the gelding seemed cooperative, trotting and cantering around the arena dutifully, performing the requested moves obediently for the first half of the shared lesson. But for the second half of the hour, he turned into another horse. Sullen and unresponsive, he soon had Hanna, the older sister frustrated and irritable and who could blame her, the horse seemed to have something against her.

In hind sight, it is easy to see how Zorro manipulated the situation. Soon the two girls were riding separately. I did my best to guide both my students into the secrets of riding this particular horse and pressed forward in the traditional manner, focusing on teaching the correct riding biomechanics. This worked for the younger sister, but not for Hanna and Zorro. The horse had a whole other agenda, unknown at this point to any of us humans involved.

One thing lead to another and it wasn’t long before Hanna was riding the gelding in a bitless bridle and working him from the ground. Our riding lessons were no longer about riding, but rather about connecting and communicating with the horse. They were also about the emotions that are transferred back and forth between the animal and the human. Our conversations were extended past the hour lesson twice a month and I found myself discussing issues over the email. How did I get onto this path with this particular student? I don’t know. Perhaps it was the hundreds upon hundreds of questions Hanna asked every time we met. Or was it Zorro, who pushed us both to seek alternative ways of interacting with him. He certainly had a way of pushing Hanna’s buttons…

Six months after we had started our lessons, Hanna wrote “I have found myself very frustrated on a horse, several times, because I feel I don’t understand it...I could never truly hit a horse, but the frustration over feeling superior to a horse has been there, many times. and then the anger and just blocking of mind when things don’t work out. I just didn’t know, like so many other riders, the true way of dealing with it. How riding in itself could be a whole philosophy and so much more than just a hobby.”

We continued our lessons, meeting only twice a month, but in the meanwhile this intelligent girl embarked on a journey of her own. Slowly I started to realize that Zorro, the wise gelding, was showing her the way. After working more and more with the horse on the ground Hanna wrote:

“ever since I learned about the ground exercises I feel much more secure around him, and I feel happier when I ride because it's like we get along...When he listens to me and he "respects" my space, I feel more comfortable and a lot happier when I ride. Doing the ground work has helped me so much to regain control...I'm not scared and stressed so much when I'm around him anymore, which I think is such a relief for both of us.”

We talked a lot about being the leader for the horse, something I firmly believed in back then, but a concept that I continue to question and perhaps to abandon. Hanna, however, was light years ahead of me, already wondering if there, in fact, was another way to be with these majestic animals than dominating them. In the spring she wrote: “I try as much as I can to always show him that I'm his leader, and it's so fascinating how he actually reads my body language and understands me in that way. The only problem for me now is that since I'm not used to this, I feel like such a dictator. I feel like I just boss him around, and whenever he does something he's not supposed to - he's punished… I don't overdo the punishment and I feel like I'm being fair to him. Yet I always imagined the horse to come to you - trusting you and being your friend if you were his. Just like in real life...I would never become best friends with someone who told me off for anything I did which didn't suit her/him. I would much rather become friends with someone who accepts me for who I am and gives me some space when I need it.”

After a particularly eventful trail ride, Hanna wrote me in distress: “...was it wrong of me to force him on that walk, although i noticed that he didn't want to go? If i had been more convincing, do you think he would have been more willing to come with me? I try to listen to what he's saying but maybe sometimes I listen too hard and I hear things that aren't real. When he notices my hesitation he then takes his chance to show that he'd rather be back at the can I know? How do you know when you're forcing an animal to do something? The line between forcing an animal and doing what you think is best for it, is such a fine line.”

And Hanna was right, it is such a fine line. How do you be with a horse without the power struggle? How do you gain respect without being “bossy”? When it came to understanding horses, Hanna was a natural, but she struggled only because Zorro had decided she needed to grow, to evolve. Horses have an amazing ability to know who we really are, they can see our potential long before we even have a clue, and Zorro was no different. Hanna had to find the confidence to believe in herself before she could befriend this gelding. It seemed that every time she pushed him, he shut down, but then when she tried to comply to his ideas, the horse ran over her.

Hanna and I spent a lot of time talking about emotions. What kind of emotions are involved when we are with horses? Can we stay authentic, instead of “forcing” it? Hanna was definitely closer to cracking this mystery when she made an absolutely brilliant observation: “I wish that one day everything I do with horses will be "real" and not just "mechanical" or fake, like I feel sometimes. It's like I want to make a connection so badly that I try too hard and that's when I miss the signs of the true emotions the horse is sending me...”

We all fall into the trap of trying too hard. Horses don’t have goals and aspirations like we do. They live in the moment; they let their emotions take them where ever they lead them. Unlike us humans who bottle everything in, horses move to their emotions. Movement is emotion, emotions are movement. Everything is real, nothing is forced or planned. To truly connect, you have to be able to let go of the human ambitions and improvise, let your feelings take you for a ride.

Soon after Hanna started to make connections between how she operated in life and the emotional patterns that surfaced when she was with Zorro. I am a firm believer that the way we do one thing, is the way we do everything, and Hanna certainly proved me right in that respect. Frustrated with her discoveries, she vowed to change, because within those emotional patterns she discovered an insecure girl she didn’t want to be. Zorro had brought her to the final threshold, the place where you look at yourself and ask: “Who am I – really?”

So many emotional encounters later, so many hours of butting heads with a very stubborn gelding, countless afternoons discovering a horse discovering her, Hanna wrote:

“A few days ago I went to Zorro and we spent some time outside in his pasture. After about half an hour of me just kind of standing there, walking around, and trying to just be there, he walked over to me. He followed me for a few steps only, and then turned away to do his own thing. But those few seconds when I actually felt like we had a short moment of ‘connection’ were amazing. Yesterday I did the same thing and I found that it didn’t take long before we could go exploring different areas of the pasture together. We hung out, he was eating and I was just sort of there with him. We then went inside. I have never felt so close to him as I did during that hour in the pasture.”

The rest is history. Hanna and Zorro connected over time like only a horse and human can connect. Hanna spent hours just sitting with this horse, reading her book, thinking, day dreaming, watching her friend graze. And he gave her the support she needed, he allowed her to discover who she really was and wanted to be.

As a teacher, I am always in awe of my students, who -with just a gentle push from my part- suddenly take to flight with strong, powerful wings. How I love to watch them fly, to discover new, uncharted territories. And although I call myself their teacher, in reality I, too, have learned more than I have taught because teaching and learning are just two different sides of the same coin. To be a good teacher is to commit yourself to lifelong learning. I have not yet met a student, who has not taught me at least one valuable lesson.

I could tell you so much more about amazing Hanna, but I will leave that for another time. We came together, Hanna, Zorro and I, as student, horse and teacher, but in the end our initial roles were reversed so many times, the lines of learning and teaching fused and faded. I will always remember Hanna’s courage and her relentless search for answers, even for the ones she knew would be painful to discover. She taught me that it is possible to go down the Path with fast and furious strides, if you discard all resistance and allow your mind to remain open.

Hanna gave me hope for the future; the future of our planet, our horses and us. She is so very young, but already so wise, although she perhaps does not yet comprehend the true extent of her wisdom. It will be people like her - people who are willing to follow the unbeaten path with reckless abandonment - who will eventually change this world to a better place. 

Ps. Hanna is now studying in another country and Zorro has retired in the Swiss mountains with a herd of horses. Perhaps they will meet again one day.  But, in the meanwhile, they will remain connected through the energy of the universe.

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” - Buddhist proverb
“When the teacher is ready, the student will appear.” - Katariina’s answer to the Buddhist proverb


  1. Thank you for a most powerful lesson Katariina!

  2. Thank you for a very lovely post, I have been reading your blog for only a short time but I am honoured that I have found it in all its wisdom.

    I too, like Hanna am struggling with the reasons why I ride at the moment and feel that this path of connection is only just opening up to me, but is opening up nevertheless and it is breathtakingly daunting and wonderful at the same time. It is the only thing I now want from my interaction with the horses around me, and that in itself is enough.

    I agree that is it not enough just to work on the mechanics of horse riding, which leaves me feeling so deadened and robotic, it is more a question of turning inwards and looking at the person we really are, which is also something akin to the person we really want to become - in my case, from shy and frighteningly fearful underneath, to a confident and shining being....I believe that horses have the ability to make us look into ourselves in this profound way......and help us make those changes.

    Well, I am certainly a student waiting for her teacher to appear and I know that there is a horse somewhere waiting for me.....

    thank you.

    Louisa x

  3. Dear Louisa,
    I am certain there is a horse somewhere waiting for you and I think it will be a very lucky horse. The fact that you are already aware of your feelings like this is a gift. I love how you describe the process as "breathtakingly daunting and wonderful at the same time". That is SO TRUE. I sometimes wonder if it will ever change, or if I'll always live in a certain level of uncertainty when it comes to my connection with horses.
    I wish you good luck and I hope you find your horse-guide soon,