Humans, aren’t we swell? Compared to horses, we have dim, frail senses, we’re seven times slower in our response time, and we have the focus of a toddler in a toy store. Horses might give us a paternalistic nod at this point, except for our biggest failing. We have that pesky prefrontal cortex. So, we think too much and we’re sure we’re right. It would be great if we wanted to dominate horses, but alas. We say we want a partnership, even after it dawns on us that means two voices, one of them our horse. Now, we are just floating in the nebulous abyss of “What do I do now?”
There’s a time-worn adage that if you are with a horse, you are training them. Considering how close horses focus on our every move and how strong their memory is, it would be easy to overreact. Then it’s like we immediately take away our horse’s TV privileges and start teaching Latin. We hyper-train and make every moment teachable. Yawn. We have a trailer full of training aids, we become deadly serious, and now the horse is dragging his toes to the arena. The reason that resolutions about training don’t work is that they stink of boot camp. Then there’s another adage, less is more. But just sitting in a lawn chair feels too disconnected.
Most of us are stuck trying to find some middle place, not too extreme in either direction. If we weren’t lost in self-scrutinizing, we might notice horses are in the same place. They don’t want endless punishing and drilling; most have been repetitively over-trained and intimidated. They have already been to boot camp. More likely, horses need to recuperate from training. If we care about their mental health as much as their physical health, then we slow it all way down. Horses need time to process emotions once we stop dictating. So, we let it be a democracy where we all have a vote. Given the space, they might surprise you and volunteer in a way that takes a minute to recognize. Right after that, you are never the same. It’s like discovering an alternate reality where horses are our equals.
The price of admission is waiting out the time between when we stop droning on and when they finally use their bodies to tell us something. Horses won’t interrupt us, so there will need to be a gulf of silence. We acknowledge that it might even look worse for a while because change is messy. The pendulum will swing. It’s having patience while the horse finds his voice, and then letting them air old emotions out like laundry on a line, to be cleaned by the wind.
If it’s a young horse, confidence is the goal. Letting him be curious and brave without micromanaging his answer, so his foundation is stronger, even as it takes longer to build. A reactive horse might be stuck in their fear and anxiety. They need time to scream it all out. A stoic horse might need the courage to find their voice and the confidence to speak up. An old horse might have been talked over for so long that he forgot he had a voice. A rescue horse needs more time than others, until they feel truly home, finally safe. This goes quicker if we smile, say good boy, and take nothing personally. Call it affirmative waiting.
We’ve had the proportions wrong. When we think about training, we see it as a pinnacle, a mountain to climb. The horse’s mental health might be a meadow if we could find one. In reality, training is more like the tip of the iceberg and the horse’s emotional wellbeing is a hundred times more massive and just below the surface. We can see it through their eyes, bottomless and dark.
We play a part, but it’s a supporting role. It’s our job to trigger the horses lightly by asking a question. We do that naturally, effortlessly, by being a human. It might be as simple as haltering or standing at the mounting block. They remember what comes after, something unpleasant, and anxiety comes howling back like wolves nipping at their heels. We have to teach ourselves that this is an opportunity. We would rather just ride. Instead, we give them time to process. We can’t fix horses, but we can make a safe place for them to do it.
It’s dull. When I was younger, I thought I thought patience and procrastination were the exact same thing. My mentor said I had too much blood in my eye. That my red-hot desire blinded me. My horse agreed.
I had to learn that having an investment in the answer changed the question.
Another adage: We don’t train the horse. We train ourselves. And chestnut mares have nothing on us. In fact, it might take one to get our attention. Because the soul of horse training is waiting affirmatively. It takes a lot more energy than sitting in a chair. It’s holding a focus that is soft and not letting yourself get distracted. It’s accepting the horse’s answer and affirming them with calming signals. So, we train ourselves first by learning another language than what we have always used. Then we soften our bodies and just say yes. Open to the conversation having two voices.
Think of a parent playing legos with their child, never placing one themselves, but engaged in cheering their child on. And never checking their cell phone once.
Horses are not naturally resistant. They want to work with us. Donkeys think it shows poor judgment, but horses will always err on the side of trying too hard. Then they get tangled up when we get in their way, contradict ourselves, or get in a hurry. We forget that horse training means letting the horse do it. We suggest a topic, but then the horse does the task, while we cheer.
Most often, we change the question before the horse answers. We absentmindedly adjust their forelock. We pet their flank as if someone putting a hand on our belly wouldn’t distract us. We teach our horses to share our anxiety about the trailers by clock-watching. As if they can’t hear our emotions simmering, like a foot tapping impatiently.
Affirmative waiting is breathing in, exhaling out, and staying easy on the earth and alive in the question, ready to say yes at any effort. Of course, intimidation would be quicker and easier. Instead, we encourage the horse to answer confidently, without fear. Our challenge isn’t if the horse does the task. It’s can we calmly and lightly ask the right question. Can we support their mental health and be the focused partner our horse needs?
Available Now! My new travel memoir is Undomesticated Women, Anectdotal Evidence from the Road. Ride along with us on a clinic tour through 30 states, 2 oceans, and 14k miles with me and my dog, Mister. It is an unapologetic celebration of sunsets, horses, RV parks, roadkill, diverse landscapes, and undomesticated women. Available now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and signed copies from me.
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