Driving home through northern Colorado yesterday, I passed the Berthoud off-ramp. Otherwise known as the Grandfather Horse off-ramp. I’ve only taken it twice; once when I went to look and once when I went to buy. I think there should be a birthplace monument there, one that would dwarf the Statue of Liberty. Beware. An off-ramp might be an on-ramp. Back when we met, he was just a skinny yearling stud colt. And I’d been saving up for a trip to Belize.
People say they wish they’d known me forty years ago. A certain colt would be the first to say, I was no prize back then. This is photographic proof. In hindsight, I was damaging his confidence and his balance because I thought I knew how he should walk. I did plenty wrong, and that was what doing my best looked like.
Most of us are so busy training our horses that we don’t think much about how humans learn. We all feel we have frustrated, confused, and failed our horses at one time or another. We dutifully recite the “know better, do better” quotes but get little satisfaction. We tell the same stories about horses from our past. Once we stop fighting them, we are happy to call them our teachers, but it always comes with a bittersweet sadness. We didn’t know then what we know now.
Well, of course, not. Learning isn’t a straight, clean line. It isn’t a precise answer like you get in a math class. It is always as nebulous as an art class. If you haven’t had one, here’s the problem with art classes. If they say you’re good, it doesn’t mean you are and if they say you’re bad, it doesn’t mean you fail at art. The best thing you learn in art class is that the art world is nebulous and fickle. It’s perfect training for the horse world where we never start in kindergarten and wind up with a master’s degree by putting one foot in front of the other. Horses are nebulous and fickle.
The challenge in learning about horses is not just that it’s endless, but it’s also easy to get lost because the learning goes off in all directions at once. It’s a spherical experience. Learning involves each of your senses, just as important as your brain. Read everything from memoirs to research papers. Keep an open mind and keep reading. Watch others. It isn’t enough to see the idea. You want to see it done well and done badly and see it done with different horses. Video yourself and watch others. Teach yourself to focus. Then talk about it and listen to trainers and friends talk about it. Write it out in a journal because it is another way to learn. Collect data and compare it. Go hear another person teach it, not that you don’t know the idea, but because they might use different words that would deepen your knowledge. Listen, digest, ask, digest, repeat.
Keep understanding as your top priority. Believe your horse because they are intelligent. But what they say might not make sense, so learn their calming signals. Ask again. Then listen better and dive deeper. Don’t let tradition hold you back because science is our friend. Learn until you can’t fit another thing in your brain, and then trust your intuition. But keep reading.
Get comfortable knowing you don’t have a finish line. It isn’t a race. Let go of right or wrong, and instead notice more. Gain perception. No two horses learn alike, and no two people do either. We can’t measure ourselves because we are unique. Let that sink in. It’s fantastic news. Then feel your body change. Understanding is more important than knowledge, but that wisdom takes longer to collect. Now stop worrying about your age. Slow down, your horse needs time to process. And surprise, so do you. Relish the time spent communicating because that is the magic part. It’s the part we never want to be over.
Eventually, we figure out it was not about finding the right method, and as much as horses might be our passion, not one bit of it was ever personal. It was always about the horse. We do not direct the movie of that horse’s life. We only play a supporting role but playing that part well will make all the difference.
Of course, that good horse dies because they all do. The next horse is different. It feels like nothing you know works. You might even blame the new horse for being alive. Things come apart for a while, and we can’t tell if it’s them spooking or if it’s us. We collapse in doubt, thinking we don’t know enough. Maybe we must hit bottom to be reminded the foundation of a horse is always where we start. Never where we left off with the last horse. We learn to depend on the fundamentals and we’re lucky to have so much experience there. Then you remember it isn’t a road or even an overgrown path. It’s still a nebulous sphere of understanding. Even better than that, everything in that sphere is working for you, not against you. You notice you are breathing again. Breathing is the price of admission to all things horse.
We act like horses do math, counting our mistakes. Like horses blame us for what we don’t know. See it from their side. When we feel bad, we stand around like coyotes. But not normal ones; we’re coyotes barfing up rodents and apologizing to their little corpses. Get over it. It’s the circle of life. If we are breathing, we are learning. Our regret or guilt is a waste of time, but more importantly, it makes horses nervous. Why bring it up? Do we make children apologize for being childish?
In every moment, when we’re learning for the horse we are with, we’re also learning for the next horse. It’s how we thank them. We are their legacy. They bequeath us to others and we become the legacy of those horses, too. How else can it make sense? We must learn well and trust our best will always be good enough for them. Then we kindly let it be good enough for us, too. We have nothing to apologize for.
Forgive yourself, so your horse can be free of your past.
As for that skinny colt, he got old and died, of course. And he is alive in every word I write and every lesson I teach. He and I explored the infinite mind together. Who needs Belize?
Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward
Want more? Become a “Barnie.” Subscribe to our online training group with affirmative demonstration videos, audio blogs, daily quotes, free participation in “group lessons”, and live chats with Anna. Become part of the most supportive group of like-minded horsepeople anywhere.
Anna teaches ongoing courses like Calming Signals and Affirmative Training at The Barn School, along with virtual clinics and our infamous Happy Hour. Everyone’s welcome.
Visit annablake.com to find archived blogs, purchase signed books, schedule a live consultation, subscribe for email delivery of this blog, or ask a question about the art and science of working with horses.