Three equines and three women occupied the arena that day. The three women were connected by a common theme. Each woman was standing in the face of significant change -- a thread of uncertainty which held them loosely together. For one woman, change was intertwined with stress, for another, change requires the constant reminder to “stay calm.” For me, change’s haunting companion is What If.
The women huddled together in the arena talking about the impact of change on their environment. To each woman, environment held a slightly different meaning and significance in the face of change. For me, I have been actively seeking to change my environment, plucking out the good and positive memories from an often dark and foreboding past. Reconstructing my life from tattered bits of two very different tapestries – attempting to grasp and hold on to the parts worth keeping and, with difficulty, give up the dark parts which no longer serve me, letting them slip away, now powerless but never forgotten.
My companions helped me spread color through our new environment, tossing a rainbow of traffic cones and pool noodles onto the mud-colored arena surface. Together we moved heavy, wooden poles to our new, changed environment, arranging them until we had created a space completely different from the one we started with. We then turned our attention to the three equines.
Each of us selected an equine and named it. A small, roan pony was named “Stress,” a large pinto was named “Stay Calm” and I named a solid bay gelding “What if.” Our goal was to each move our chosen equine into our new environment -- moving those parts we struggled with, into change.
I walked over to What If who was standing nearby. I reached up toward his head intending to encircle his neck with my arms and guide him over to the environment which represented change in my life. What If would have no part of my plan, constantly moving his head out of my grasp, pulling away from me and standing stubbornly just where I found him. The more I struggled with What If, the more he resisted my efforts to control him.
After several failed attempts to control What If, I paused to contemplate my next move in my effort to bring What If into my changed environment. As I stood quiet and unmoving, trying to figure out what to do next, What If walked into the center of my changed environment and stood quietly, nosing one of the colorful cones.
I walked toward What If, wanting to stand with him in my changed environment but as soon as I moved into his space, What If walked away. I went after him, wanting to bring him back to my changed environment but I could not budge him, What If resisted all my attempts to control him. I gave up my efforts to control What If and stood quietly once again. As I stood in silence, What If returned to my changed environment, looking around inquisitively but disrupting nothing.
In that moment the lesson became clear. What If will take care of itself. The more I try to control the “What If” in my life, the more I struggle and the less I am able to accomplish. What If doesn’t need me to worry over it, I cannot control it and any effort to exert my will over What If is met with frustration and resistance.
With my new found discovery tucked safely in my mind, I looked around the arena to see how my companions were doing. By letting What If take care of himself, I was available to help my companions reach their goals. I went to each and asked if I could help them. When we were done, we stood and watched as What If began driving Stress all around the arena in a decidedly non-productive pattern taking them far away from our newly changed environment. The three of us stood watching, with Stay Calm standing quietly over us, his legs firmly planted like the trunk of an enormous tree; a tree which would bend and sway with the winds of change but never break or fall, never losing ground to follow the whims of What If as he worried after Stress.
In their quiet way, the horses had spoken once again. Horse had become teacher and the lesson was learned.
Many people watch me work with my horse, Farletta and wonder why can’t their horse be the same? By that I assume they mean the version of Farletta who stands quietly, follows willingly, rides without a bridle and responds to the slightest shift of weight in the saddle or the most subtle of visual cues from the ground; not the version of the Perfect Princess when she loses her patience and succumbs to the “Four P’s” – pacing, pawing, prancing and (inappropriate) peeing.
What people don’t realize is it has taken years of work to get Farletta to be the horse she is today. And she is still learning, we both are. Sure, we have come a long way from the little mare who used to jump out of the arena, break her halter and run away, and lay down while I mounted her but it has taken hours upon hours of patience, consistency and flat out hard work. The change was gradual, it didn’t happen in six months or even a year – it is ongoing. Each time we crossed a hurdle, a new one would pop up. That is horse training. That is life.
Training a great horse involves cultivating a great relationship. Taking the time to work through the (sometimes seemingly endless) problems, learning to communicate in a way your horse understands, learning to actively listen (not just seek to be heard), and always approaching the relationship with kindness and a gentle but firm hand. You will take great steps forward and at times you will stumble backwards. That is horse training. That is life.
A horse is a living creature and just like people, they have different personalities, different learning styles, different physical capabilities and different mental capacities. It is your job to learn about your horse, how that horse thinks, how s/he learns, and how s/he communicates. Often behavioral problems stem from a lack of understanding on the part of the horse, and/or a breakdown in communication between the horse and handler.
A horse that has been abused or is being re-purposed has a special set of circumstances. If the horse was in an abusive situation for many years or a non-abused horse moving from a completely different environment with a different set of “rules” (such as a racing environment) then you must not only build the relationship but you must undo the negative the horse has already learned. This won’t happen quickly, if it took five years for the horse to develop the bad habits and behaviors it has today; is it unreasonable to expect it to take as long to undo the damage?
Building a relationship with your horse is a long term commitment. Just as in life, we all make mistakes and that is OK. This is how we learn. In a future post I will discuss different ways we can listen to what our horses are telling us. Until then, give your horse a carrot and a scratch on the neck from me.
Cheryl L. Eriksen, MSW, Equine Enthusiast, EAGALA groupie and writer of interesting, educational and entertaining blog posts!