Great Reading

  • "Think Harmony with Horses" by Ray Hunt
  • "Ground Work" by Buck Brannaman
  • "Cowboy Logic" by Ray Hunt


Thursday, July 28, 2011

For the longest time we have all heard that what is happening to us, who we are, what we are like on the inside has a dramatic effect on our horsemanship and horses. Ray would say that what is on the inside of us drains right out and into our horses. A poet once wrote that the best thing for the inside of a man was the outside of a horse, but Ray would say that sometimes the worst thing for the inside of a horse was the inside of a man.

I know with a couple of my horses, if I'm having a bad day the LAST thing they want is to have ME in the barn. Mares are so intuitive that way. What the geldings will often times tolerate, the mares will have none of. Before I write one more word I have to thank, from the bottom of my heart, the horses and humans that were so generous in clearly illustrating this this often discussed bit of philosophy.

I have been caring for a wonderful little chestnut mare for the past couple of years. Watching her change, relax, become part of a herd and enjoy her life as a horse has for me been a blessing and a gift. She is a nice horse, patient, gentle and oh so very tolerant. She is my go-to girl when there are "new" riders in the barn. She knows her job and totes most folk around with the patience of Job. I have much to learn from that mare. She does however have her limits.

A friend was up for a visit and riding of course was the order of the day. She was bringing along a friend of hers that wanted to learn a little more about this style of horsemanship that has become such a passion for me. I was happy to share in my own limited way what my teachers have so generously shared with me. My goal is to spark that same passion, introduce them to my teachers and friends and continue spread this "virus" of great horsemanship. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, sometimes the greatest disasters bring the very best lessons.

The Chestnut mare was of course my go to girl. You can tell so much about how things are going to go in just the way a person leads a horse. I was swallowing hard. The mare was wanting to leave even though she knew going the barn meant grain and grooming, two things she really loves. She was fidgety, looking out the doors, not being able to still her feet. I was talking to our visitor about rubbing the mare, getting her to feel good about going with her, how much a touch means to a horse. It was as though my words were hitting an India rubber ball, they were bouncing right back at me. If you have ever played dodge ball on the playground as a kid, you know what I'm talking about. Grooming and saddling were "tolerated" events.

Ground work was the next order of business and I kept reminding myself of what things were like for me when I was first learning and what a trial that must have been for my teachers. I think the biggest difference was that I wanted to change. I was looking for something different, something real, new and meaningful. Our visitors sister had ridden with Buck Brannaman three times. She was helping her with groundwork. Something was missing in the translation. The clucking and pulling was having a dramatic effect on the Chestnut mare and you could feel the frustration on both the part of the horse and human. Same feeling, very different origins. I asked her to please quit clucking, the response was definite, "It works for my horse so I'm going to keep doing it". There was no thought to the trouble it was causing the horse she was holding. No thought of adjusting to fit the needs of another individual. This person was stuck, braced and absolutely unyielding. I was again having flashbacks of my own journey, stomping off in an absolute rage after my first Ray Hunt clinic. I rubbed the little mare, asked quietly for her forgiveness, slipped on her snaffle bit, and carried on.

Things went immediately from bad to worse. I could tell we were reaching limits of the mares patience. I was wondering how much more I could expect from her in good conscience and what the risk/benefit ratio was. I had just "sold" this horse and was having some real remorse. I was waiting for some "try" form the human, some indication that the discomfort and sacrifice on the part of the horse was going to be worth it. Mind you, it all looked...okay. The mare was walking, trotting, bending and doing her job. Her eyes however were starting to bug out of her head. The walk was stiff and there was getting to be more trotting, the bending was turning into pulling accompanied by a deep and authoritative "HO".

"Sa***a, lets try something different. I want you to think about rubbing her to a walk. Try not touching your reins, relax, breathe and just rub her." I was hoping this little exercise would help both horse and human relax as well as reinforce the message that its not about the reins anyway! The tension in the arena was palpable, thick and sticky. I stood back struggling with what to come up with, how to help, how to spark some recognition and find that "AH-HA" moment. I glanced around the arena and saw Ziggy and *nn*. They had been riding and I hadn't noticed that they had come still in the arena and were watching, relaxed, happy and quite unaffected by the tension building to volcanic proportions. Ziggy's eyes had even closed and his leg was cocked. A**e was watching, back, legs and seat soft, just as casual as the horse. The Chestnut mare noticed too. She could feel the peace and comfort and she was drawn to it. Her trot was now concentrated around Ziggy and ***e in an ever tightening circle. "Just pluck a rein and steer back out" I kept trying to get my little human volcano to exercise some leadership, and thought, to understand that riding is a verb and it requires action. "She has something going with that other horse" Sa***a's voice was getting shrill. "She won't walk. I'm not here to train this horse." So, with that final, frustrated declaration came the eruption. In a fairly masterful tug-o-war she pulled the mare to a stop and baled off. "I'd like to see you get this mare to walk around in here!" The words bubbled out like hot lava. I walked over took the mare and rubbed her. I rubbed over her very wrinkled brow and very bothered eye until the whites were not longer showing. I checked my cinches, shortened up my stirrups, lead her up to the fence and slid into the saddle. This is the only part of this lesson I have a tough time telling. I am not blowing my own horn, far from it. I have a tough time staying on a swinging gate in a stiff breeze most days. I am not fork-ed, I am not a bronc rider and I don't ever want to be. I would rather get my horses gentle. I would rather develop a partnership where they will work a little harder to fill in for me. I must say I'm pretty proud to ride like an old lady. It makes me think. I'm not quick, I'm not strong but I am pretty good at finding a feel. I like this mare. She knows it. With one big sigh she stepped off, flat footed and to my way of thinking, thankful. I spent my time rubbing her as we walked. She hadn't totally let down, but then I wasn't that let down either! This was no longer a lesson. I didn't have anything to prove. This was about forgiveness, trust and making amends. I put this mare in a bad spot. I asked her for more than what she could give and I wanted her to know it was my mistake. All she was looking for was a good deal, a little fairness and some understanding. I reached up and slipped her bridle off. It was the least I could do given the last the couple of hours. She continued to walk, softer and a bit more relaxed. Left, right, forward, back not great, not totally soft, but so very willing.

Horses are wonderful. They live in the moment. Their capacity to forgive is amazing. Their willingness to respond to the good deal, impressive. Their ability to sense what we as humans try so hard to hide is humbling. As I think back on this day, I am still in awe. We can hear these stories, these horsemanship parables, but to get to experience it, and share in it with such alive clarity is such a gift. I am so truly thankful for these moments. Thankful to horse and human and feeling very blessed to in some small way, be a part of it all.

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