I’ll tell you about how the first follow happened. She was a young barn-rat of a girl. You know the kind; she was quiet and kept her eyes low. Her breath was guarded; she was past excited but also shy. Lots of girls compete before her age, but today was her first time around horses. I’d shown her how to curry and brush, and what a frog was. She loved brushing the mare’s mane best. The barn-rat was deliberate and slow. I couldn’t tell who she was listening to harder–me or the mare. No matter how many times I’ve done this introduction, it never gets old.
Just when she thought it couldn’t get better, I asked if she’d like to lead the mare. Yes. Very yes, but she didn’t squeal. She solemnly listened to every syllable as I explained that the lead rope should be slack and that she should say, “Walk on.” There was a false start or two, but soon the pair was marching, making right turns, and changes in stride, big to small and back again. The mare kept her head low, just the height of the girl. They halted together on an exhale and the barn-rat’s voice was almost prayerful when she said, “Good girl,” placing her small hand on the mare’s cheek. So I told her to un-click the lead. The barn-rat didn’t believe me.
When I finally talked her into it, she took the tiniest, tentative step off, and the mare picked up one foot and put it down, just shifting her weight. Then they looked at each other sideways. I clucked both of them to a small walk. The barn rat was afraid to look at the mare or me, for fear of ruining it, but her eyebrows said it all. I asked for the same maneuvers they’d done with the lead rope and reminded her to breathe. The mare blew to encourage this calm little leader and moved along like her shadow. The barn-rat was not nearly so cool. She positively glowed with awe, incredulous that the mare stayed with her. I saw the size of the horse through her unblinking eyes; it was nothing short of magic. And absolute wonder.
Who would ever believe that a little girl could move a thousand pound horse at liberty?
We all do, of course. We know it all; that horses read body language and mirror our movements. We knew the mare would go with her, especially after a warm-up on the lead rope. It’s ordinary stuff and very sweet to watch. We’re like big sisters. We’ve been there, done that. We’re nostalgic about the awe the little girl felt. And almost condescending.
Wonder and awe aren’t just for beginners. The real question for us is how long has it been since we’ve put new eyes on the same ordinary stuff? We’re old pros and it isn’t cool for us to act like the barn-rat now. But one look at that mare tells us the barn-rat’s the one who has it right.
All my clients say the same thing–they want a better relationship with their horse. They watch videos and read books. They learn that body position is crucial and hands must be soft and kind. There are long-winded lists of cues for getting deep into a corner or preparing for a shoulder-in, but if the ability to remember a list of techniques was all that was necessary to ride well, everyone would do it. Techniques are required information, but they only work to the degree that the relationship between horse and rider allow it. For all of our years of study, if we can’t find that fragile space where our horses trust us, and volunteer to move with us, then any work we do together will look like…well…work.
Soon our horses need all kinds of corrections. Our trots start to look like death marches while the horse’s foot falls sound loud and hard. Then outright resistance begins. It’s slow at first, so we push them through it, but some resentment lingers behind on both sides.
When we lose that fragile sense of wonder, our horses feel the loss, too. It’s why kids manage things on horses that amaze adults. They have an energy in their hearts that inspires horses. If we’ve gotten lazy about energy or tainted by complacency, then all of our technical knowledge will not get us that happy barn-rat response. In the end, relationship might be even more important than technique; when we prioritize that connection, ordinary work becomes art.
There’s no shortage of studies that scientifically conclude that horses have emotions not unlike our own. It’s time we learn to respect that. It’s our failing that when communication gets sticky, our brains quit and our hands force an answer. It’s the thing we have that horses don’t; our hands trump their cue to us that our communication skills are lazy.
So let’s test that partnership. I proclaim this No Hands January. Start over and remind yourself how big your horse is. See him with little barn-rat eyes. Keep your hands in your pockets while you catch him. Go ahead and ride, but use a neck ring. Take your hands out of the equation because attached to the reins and bit, they give you an unfair dis-advantage. A lead rope or reins are meant to aid in light communication, not replace mental connection with physical threat.
Stop and go back for your inner barn-rat. Let your wonder be your horse’s reward; let ground work be your dance. Practice being a magnetic partner. Does he blow you off, ignore you, or give in and pout about it? Take him at his word, because truth cuts both ways. He’ll reward you when you get it right.
Always notice your energy before you complain about your horse’s response. If you are acting like a know-it-all old fart, well, no wonder. I mean that literally. No wonder is the exact problem.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.
And coming this month, Relaxed & Forward: Relationship Advice from Your Horse. It’s a collection of essays from this blog, available in paperback and ebook formats, from online retailers. Signed copies will be available as well.