“Once your awareness becomes a flame, it burns up the whole slavery that the mind has created.”
Today, when a friend and I were visiting a small farm house with a few horses, we met a man who had an Argentinean Criollo. The sturdy little gelding was absolutely beautiful, but eyed us suspiciously from the moment we entered his range of vision. His owner was grooming the horse and I immediately noticed how slowly and deliberately he was moving around him. Before the man could really say anything to us about his horse, my friend marched over to the paint which was tied to the wall of the farm, and pushed both of her hands into his face, rubbing his forehead vigorously.
“You are so cute,” she said loudly and then proceeded to energetically pet the animal’s neck. I winced at the gesture, even though I used pet horses in the same near violent manner some years ago. The horse stood still, but a barely noticeable quiver of panic went through his body and his eyes bulged in his head. I wanted to physically pull my friend away, but at that moment the owner of the horse interfered. He took a step closer to his horse, wedging himself slightly between my friend and the animal.
“This is Arizona. He is quite sensitive and not so sure about people,” he said.
You would think this would have deterred my friend, but she is not one to take hints. Perhaps this is the very reason she seems to have zero ability to read horses, a trait that will undoubtedly one day get her into a lot of trouble. She pushed her hands back into the horses face and this time Arizona backed away, visibly scared. Finally my friend stopped touching the gelding, but still didn’t back away. She turned to look at me, still clueless.
“He is so cute, isn’t he?” She said, with a broad smile on her face.
It was obvious that my friend was not at all aware of the fact that she was frightening Arizona. Nearly every time we are around horses together, I have witnessed behavior from her part which is either dangerous or disrespectful to the horse. Heaven knows I have tried to address these issues, both diplomatically and less so, but with no luck. She does not seem to understand what I’m saying and my good intentions end in awkward silences and blank looks.
I have come to realize that no matter how hard I would like my friend to change her behavior around horses, I cannot force this change. A person cannot change something of which they are not aware. This is perhaps the first lesson I learned 30 years ago when I started teaching vaulting and riding as a young teenager. Since then, it has always been awareness that I strive to bring to my students. When they see what is happening, when they feel their own mistake, they can start realizing the consequences of their own actions. When I was still teaching traditional riding, it didn’t seem to take long for my students to catch onto what I pointed out. Everything was one-dimensional; the rider pulled on the reins unintentionally – the horse slowed down. The rider kicked the horse too hard – the horse scooted off. But now… bringing people’s attention to the subtle cause and effect patterns they are stuck in with their horses is one of the hardest things to do. It is especially difficult when the person in question is not ready to enter such a state of consciousness.
And even when we think we have all the awareness in the world, holding onto it may be the hardest thing we ever do. We are only human and can sometimes make human sized mistakes. Being aware of our place in the universe, of our actions and the impact we have on every living being is like holding quicksilver in the palm of your hand. This deeper level of consciousness escapes us when we least expect it, slipping away just when we think we have it trapped completely. To catch that moment, to return back to that world that is separate from our human world, is like catching quicksilver: one must have quite a bit of patience and motivation and perseverance. Lucky for us humans, horses have all three. I don’t think they will ever cease to bring us back to any given lesson over and over again, until we get it. And this means that perhaps one day my friend, too, will learn to become more aware of her own personal cause and effect .
Over ten years ago, when I was still a vaulting coach, I met a horse called Designer Socks. Socks was an interesting character to say the least and anyone who had the privilege to know him can testify to this. This was a horse who couldn’t speak the human language, yet he spoke volumes of what he liked and disliked, what he wanted and what he didn’t want. Because of this, he had a reputation of being difficult. In fact, when I met him, I called him that myself. Now, in hindsight, I realize that there really is no such thing as a difficult horse, there are just opinionated ones. And then there are truck loads of ignorant humans. Which perhaps is the reason some horses choose to be so animated; they would never get through to us otherwise.
I can’t say I was always quick to catch on to what Socks was pointing out, but he was relentless; he would spell his message out until even a hardheaded equestrian like myself got the picture. And once I allowed myself to listen to Socks, he taught me more than any horse before him had, opening my eyes to so many things.
Socks was extremely sensitive and particular. He would perform beautifully under saddle, but only when he felt like it. If you pushed him too much, he exploded, becoming hotheaded and hyper within seconds. And once he got that bee in his bonnet, there was nothing - short of stopping everything at once- that would calm him down. To ride this horse you had to know him and work with him. And it was the same when it came to vaulting on him. Socks willingly participated in vaulting, but only under one condition: that we did it his way. Forget training a routine for hours; forget running through a team freestyle program several times at the canter. Oh no. The team could have one go at it and then Socks was done. If the vaulters were having a particularly bad day (which meant they were imbalanced or sloppy), he wouldn’t give them even that one go. Which, to think of it, was completely fair. Why would Socks have to be at his best, when other (human) members of the team weren’t?
Sometimes Socks’ messages were extremely subtle and encoding the meaning behind certain behavior would take me more than a few tries. Take for example the issue with the sunglasses. As we were living and practicing in California, there was a lot of sunshine. Coming from Finland, my eyes were especially sensitive and when summer came around, I wore sunglasses nearly all the time. Socks, however, didn’t like this one bit. He this behavior very suspicious, especially when I was lunging him on a circle for vaulting. In the spring, it took me a while to realize it was the sunglasses that had caused the change in him. Once I removed them and Socks could see my eyes again, he was back to his normal self. After that day, I have avoided using sunglasses around horses altogether.
I have since realized that there are many other minor details in the human behavior that can bother horses; hats, perfume, body lotion, laundry detergent - to mention a few. I have noticed that my horse Little Love definitely acts different when I have lathered myself in a body lotion with a strong scent. The first time this happened a few years back, she flared her nostrils and moved away from me, as if I was a stranger. Now I make an effort to never use scented lotion before going to the barn, and have switched to an ecological, scentless laundry detergent in her behalf. Luckily I was never one to wear perfumes in the first place!
Last week, when I was spending time with my mare, Little Love, I received a call on my cell phone. The caller was a young boy whom I had had the privilege to coach in floorball on and off for the past few years. I had seen this boy, now a teenager, grow from a beginner into a skilled athlete. Weeks before all his hard work had paid off and he had been invited to try out for a regional team. This in itself had been big news, but I knew he was calling to tell me the results of the tryout camp.
“Hello,” I answered and saw Little Love, my mare, pin her ears back. Distracted, I ignored the gesture and continued brushing her, holding the phone to my ear with my other hand. I was hoping to have enough time to go out for a walk and I was a bit pressed with time. I moved around her briskly, at the same time listening to what the young boy had to say at the other side of the phone conversation.
Little Love pinned her ears back several times and she stomped her foot; she swished her tail and yanked her foot out of my hand when I was picking the hooves. At that point I should have had the sense to walk away from her, but since I was more focused on the phone conversation, I kept on working around her. And it was a long conversation. By the time I was done talking on the phone, Little Love was tacked up and ready to go. But she didn’t seem ready mentally. Somehow, during the grooming and tacking process, she had become irate and nervous. She stood tied to the grooming rail with her nostrils flaring and her head held high. I could see the whites of her eyes and she paced nervously.
I looked at my horse impatiently. What in the world had gotten into her? Seeing she was anxious and overly energetic, I decided to take her into the arena first, to assess the situation before venturing out. The weather had changed two days earlier and now that the rains had set in, the temperature was much lower. Perhaps the change in weather was causing this behavior? That day was also fairly windy, which I immediately pegged down as another cause for Little Love's "irritation". Obviously I didn't have the brain space at that moment to think very creatively.
In the arena I asked Little Love to trot on the long rope. She literally looked at me and sighed, then started trotting around me with a sour face. A funny feeling filled my chest, as if I had forgotten something important. At first I thought I was feeling nervous about going out with Little Love on such a windy day, but soon realized this was something else. I looked back at what we had done together so far and that was when the thought hit me in the head like a ton of bricks: the phone.
How would you feel if you were having dinner with one of your best friends and in the middle of your time together, she would suddenly start talking on the phone, completely ignoring you, yet continue eating her dinner, as if nothing was wrong? I’m sure you would be hurt – at least I would. I would also feel annoyed and neglected. I would probably want to walk away from the situation.
When we are with horses, we must be with them 100% or not at all. This is a lesson Little Love has taught me over and over again. Staying in the moment is paramount. But of course when you are on the phone, staying in the moment becomes impossible. I believe I knew that already, but somehow had forgotten it. Yet again. Obviously it was time for me to "relearn" it that day.
The realization of how rudely I had just treated my friend came over me like a huge wave.
"I am so sorry," I said out loud to Little Love. "So, so sorry. I can't believe I did that to you."
She licked her lips. I swear she was thinking: "Well duh, finally you have a clue!" I am a slow learner at times.
I have been thinking about Socks a lot lately. I can now see that he had more lessons in store for me than I was able to handle at the time. Perhaps I was a bit like my friend is now, like an elephant in a china shop. And I still have a long way to go. Perhaps that is why Little Love came along the way, to continue the work Socks started. I don’t know if this work will ever be completed, but I sure am trying to be the best student possible and catch that quicksilver. Like they say: the teacher will appear when the student is ready, and I’m definitely ready now.
What comes to that windy day last week when I was talking on my cell phone… After I realized my mistake and sincerely apologized for it, it was as if a switch went off in my horse. She stood by me calmly and all signs of nervousness were gone. We walked out through the barn gate and took a long walk on the trails in the cool summer weather. The strong wind didn’t bother either one of us, quite the contrary, it kept the bugs at bay when we stopped in the middle of the emerald field to graze on the tall, abundant grass. And again, I felt like I was holding that infamous quicksilver in the palm of my hand for a short, glorious moment.
“The mind, this globe of awareness, is a starry universe that when you push off with your foot, a thousand new roads become clear, as you yourself do at dawn, sailing through the light.” ~Rumi