"The clock talked loud. I threw it away, it scared me what it talked." ~Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle
Last spring I ran into an old student, who had recently bought herself yet another horse. She invited me to come and give her a lesson, “for old time’s sake”. This I knew meant that she had run into problems with her new horse, as I had never known her to ask for a lesson with me unless the other trainers she rode with had failed to help her. I agreed, mainly because I was curious, but also because I felt that I had never really been able to reach the woman in terms of helping her understand her horses. She had always been very set on the traditional way of training. She had goals for herself and her mounts; therefore she wanted results and she wanted them fast. But, behind all this there was something else, something waiting to be ignited; she had, after all, periodically sought lessons from me.
When I arrived, she had the new horse tacked up. He had just turned four years old and was standing obediently in the middle of the indoor arena. I noted the drawreins hanging on the horse’s neck. I knew immediately this was the real reason I was there to give the lesson. My student read my thoughts.
“I know I know, I shouldn’t use drawreins, but I just have them for security.”
“Security,” I repeated and gave the gelding a horse-human handshake by extending the back of my hand out and letting him sniff it. There was something very touching about how he approached me, as if he was surprised I had acknowledged his presence.
“He is normally really calm, but then suddenly, without any reason, he goes completely crazy. He lifts his head up and takes off. I just can’t have that. It’s dangerous for one thing.”
I nodded, looking at the horse. The phrase that had caught my ear was “without any reason”. There was always a reason. But I didn’t say that out loud, because I knew that such a statement would surely end the conversation. Nobody wants to hear that they are incompetent in interpreting their horse. At least not point-blank within the first two minutes of the conversation. I would get there later.
“And does this occur every time you ride him?” I asked.
“No, that’s the thing, I can never know when it’s going to happen. One day he’s perfect and the next he flips out. That’s why I have the drawreins, so I can stop him if he goes nuts.”
“I see,” I said and stroked the neck of the young horse listening to him play with the bit in his mouth. It made a jingling noise, something I had never paid attention to years ago, but which now sounded as loud as a church bell. So many messages were hidden in every little thing that took place in a horse-human interaction, even in something as commonplace as this noise.
I asked the woman more questions and found out that the gelding only had these episodes in the arena, never on the trails. In fact, on the trails he was apparently “an angel”. Also, the fits never happened while longing or long-reining, only under saddle. The saddle had been checked, the osteopath had been consulted. Even the vet had been out.
“He does it with the trainer, too, and she’s a good rider,” the owner concluded. “So, it’s not just me.” She sighed and looked sad. “In the beginning he was the perfect horse, but now… I don’t know, maybe I should sell him. Or what do you think? Do you think he can get over this?”
I closed my eyes. When people use the expression “perfect horse”, something stirs inside me, even though I don’t know how many times I have used that very same expression myself. Sometimes I believe I teach students such as this lady just because I have a need to repent my past. Facing your old self over and over again can turn into a sort of cathartic experience. It also helps in defining the line between the person you were before and who you are now. I searched for the right words to say, words that would sink in, instead of blow over.
“Perhaps he feels he is being pushed beyond his limit,” I said.
My student shook her head and looked at her horse. “Yeah, but my other young horse never does this and we push him way more.”
“But perhaps this guy needs a little less pushing and a little more time. We are all different.”
The lady looked at me and wrinkled her brow.
“But he’s a horse,” she said.
Yes indeed, he was a horse. A breathing and feeling sentient being. I could see the wheels turning in the lady’s head. She shrugged. “We don’t have time,” she said. “I was planning to enter him in some young horse classes this summer.”
“Here’s another thought,” I continued, ignoring her comment about the competitions and not having time. I didn’t know if this was the perfect moment to share my earlier thoughts, but I had to go for it or the moment would be lost forever. “What if you don’t look at this behavior as bad, but instead see it as a means of communication.” I pointed at her young gelding. “What do you think he is trying to tell you and your trainers?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m just saying that there is always a reason why a horse behaves a certain way. They are not trying to be naughty, but rather trying to tell us something. ” I stroked the gelding’s neck. “It is your responsibility to figure out what the message is.”
I could see that I had perhaps gone a bit far. The lady looked very confused and perhaps a bit offended. I decided to commence the lesson and come back to the subject later. Sometimes, when you really challenge someone’s belief system, they shut down to all information. I didn’t want to ruin the opportunity to awaken this woman’s budding realization of how to understand her horse.
But something my student had said kept playing in my head; “We don’t have time”. What was it with our current society’s growing obsession with getting everything made for them on the spot? What ever happened to perseverance?
Ironically around the same time I gave this lesson, I was learning about perseverance myself. Little Love, my horse, has several traits that most people would call “deal breakers”, were they considering to buy her. One of her long time issue has to do with her inability to enter small spaces, such as a trailer. I, too, was faced with this problem when I bought her in the beginning of the year. As I fought with her in the pouring rain for nearly two hours, I thought to myself: “Never again”. I swore on the spot to work on the issue, giving it time, actual real time, to help Little Love get over her fear of the trailer.
Luckily the place where I moved had a trailer, and not only that, but a trailer that opened from both the front and the back, so the horse could walk through. This gave me the perfect opportunity to help Little Love with her fear. The starting situation was grim; if the ramp was down, Little Love was immediately agitated and anxious, as if she was anticipating something bad to happen even if I never asked her to approach the trailer. She needed something she had never truly gotten when it came to trailers and that was Time with a capital T.
Giving my horse Time took some training on my side. I, too, have a long history in an equestrian culture where you must produce results and fast. I had seen all kinds of people from “horse whispers” to natural horsemanship trainers load problem horses. All those methods were based on some sort of pressure and force, and were geared towards making the horse a perfect loader in a set time frame. “Look, I can load the unloadable horse in less than 30 minutes!” A few years ago it had appeared to me that those horses were “perfect” loaders. It wasn’t until later that I understood that it came with a price. Did I want my horse to be bullied into a trailer? Definitely not.
I decided to merely expose my horse to the trailer several times a week. But I couldn’t help myself; I asked her over and over again to come on to the ramp with one foot. Despite my good intentions, I was still falling into the trap of trying to get immediate results. No matter how much I swore I had no time restraints or goals, it wasn’t true; I subconsciously hoped for progress and tried to push for it. I also noticed my own heightened anxiety every time my horse approached the trailer. Not only did my horse need time to learn to go into the trailer, I needed time to learn to let go of the “trainer” within. I decided to always ask only twice and accept the answer, whatever that was.
I won’t lie: I was happy when a few days later my mare was comfortable with standing on the ramp with her front feet. I was encouraged about her progress, immediately visioning the next step and then the next. But then I stopped myself. What was I doing - again? I looked at my horse as she backed off the ramp on her own. I didn’t interfere. I’m sure this broke the basic rule of most trainers in the world, for I too had been drilled since childhood to “never let the horse have the last word.” But I realized that perhaps this was exactly the way to go.
I stopped leading my mare to the trailer, but instead let her loose in the vicinity. This gave my horse the opportunity to choose for herself. She started walking to the trailer confidently, instead of anxiously. She still only put her front feet on the ramp, but I told myself the rest would come later. But it didn’t. I put a bucket of food inside the trailer, but for days and weeks Little Love merely stood on the ramp. I actually started to give up ever getting her inside without force. Talk about perseverance... I kept on going.
Then one day, she walked in. Just like that. I didn’t lead her in, but rather opened the door and let my horse choose to go in. From that day on, she always went in when I opened the trailer. Slowly we started practicing standing in the trailer instead of just walking through. When I closed the back bar for the first time, she walked out the open front, knocking the grain bucket over. I didn’t try to stop her. I had finally realized what it meant to “take time”. It wasn't only about the time, it was also about what I did with that time.
In the course of three months, I had a horse that would load by herself and trailer without sweating. Were we done learning? Hardly. But my horse was learning to accept the trailer and I was learning what it meant to empower your horse. I was also learning lots of things about what it meant to take time. In the meanwhile, our bond became stronger and changed our relationship to the better. It also changed me. I am not in any rush now when it comes to horses. My only wish is to convey this message to the world: if you take time, you stumble upon invisible inner treasures you never knew existed. But how do you convey a message to people who are not ready to hear? This was my problem with the lady who owned the young gelding.
She called me back two weeks after our lesson. The lesson had gone well from my point of view, but afterwards I was fairly sure I would never hear from this woman again. Many things had surfaced during the hour and all of them had something to do with the ethics of horsemanship. Should she push this horse past his limit? Should she listen to him and see his “fits” as means of communication? Could she look at her own riding and admit how much her own tension, her baggage and her expectations were affecting this sensitive animal and his reactions? Could she resist the urge to sell this “imperfect” animal and instead find the time to work with him? Needless to say I was encouraged to hear her voice on the other end of the line.
“I’ve really been thinking,” she started the conversation, “that you may have a point. I think we are pushing this horse too much.”
I smiled at my cell phone.
“I’m happy you have been doing some reflecting. I could see at the end of our lesson that you were quite confused and perhaps unhappy.”
“Oh yeah, it was bad. I went home and cried. I was depressed for days. But I needed to do that to really see what was going on. The problem is now my two trainers. They think I’m crazy. They think the horse should just be shown his place, that they should force him to comply at any cost when he has his fits. Last time they rode him, they fought with him for two hours.”
“Remember, he is still your horse,” I said. I know I sounded calm and matter of fact, but I wanted to scream. I don’t believe anybody wants to be violent towards animals; it is just the old traditions, the way equestrian sports have evolved, that make people unable to see anything wrong with what they are doing. Hadn’t I been one of these people a few years ago? How could I judge them now? I knew anger would get me nowhere.
“I know it’s scary to stand up to professionals in this field, but I really advise you to go with your gut feeling. You are an experienced enough rider to ride him and teach him the basics. Then you can do it on your own terms. Or rather, the terms of your horse.”
“Yeah,” my student said at the other end of the phone connection. “I actually told the trainers we should take a break. I think the gelding needs some time. And I need some time to think.”
I took a deep breath. This is what I had been hoping to hear. Tears sprung to my eyes, but they were happy tears. Ever since I parted onto this other path, the Path of the Horse, I have experienced a variety of emotions. Mainly there has been a lot of sadness as my heart aches for the things I have done in the past. But there is also another ache, the ache for the present as there are so many horses in the world that suffer abuse on a daily basis. Teaching riding is becoming increasingly harder for me, but it is moments like these that make it worthwhile. I commended my old student for making the decision. This particular horse needed probably more than a break, but a break was a step in the right direction.
I believe each horse is perfect in their own right. If your dream for your horse does not align with reality, perhaps it is time to either adjust your dream or the methods you are using to achieve the dream. We talk about taking time with horses, either giving them the time to learn or the time to adjust. But have we ever stopped to think what this really means? What, for example, is enough time for a young horse to learn the basics of riding or to load into a trailer? Two hours? Two months? Two years? A life time? When it comes to any learning, is there ever really an end station, or is it rather a long, long track that continues for our entire life? Why do we always want to ride the bullet train instead of taking the man-powered trolley?
Months later I heard my student had gone back to the trainers. This was no surprise. Most people go back to what they know; the other alternative is too scary. I can’t say I wasn’t disheartened by this news of my old student and her young gelding, because I was. But I also was hopeful that whatever happened between us during that last lesson was still present in my student’s heart; that the seed I planted remains somewhere under everything. You never know, it may vegetate in her heart for years only to sprout into a real plant one day; a flower that blooms so spectacularly that it will lead her off the beaten path. And that is exactly where those invisible inner riches reside, off the beaten path.
I have decided to hold on to that image of the flower, as there are days when that is the only thing that keeps me teaching. And it is important to continue teaching for so many reasons.
“We cannot teach people anything; we can only help them discover it within themselves.” – Galileo Galilei