Last Saturday we held the event I had euphemistically titled "Winter Warm Up." At least we had double digits, and once I figured out to close all the doors, it was almost tolerable inside the arena. I'd had this idea that once the sun came up, it would flood us with warmth, love and illumination. Like a few other preconceived notions I brought with me that day, I was wrong.
I had five brave participants, weather be damned they were willing to work with their horses, open their minds and see if I had anything to offer as far as how to get things done. I set up obstacles in the arena, each with an array of advancement possibilities as after having some rather advanced riders show up at my clinics, here and there, I want to be able to teach each to their level of ability, not overwhelming anyone but not letting anyone stand idle and bored, either.
All of the material I present is about learning how to communicate with a horse in such a way that it make sense to the horse. That communication is effected with timing, feel and balance. I talk about bringing up the life in the body to get to the feet which then reaches the mind. I learned that from the late great Mr. Ray Hunt, and it's as useful a tool as I know. I teach my clients to learn how to bring their OWN life energy up and down as the situation requires, and sometimes you have to be emotional agile as any Cirque De Soleil acrobat in order to create the response you desire rather than reacting to the one you are getting.
My goal is to make a soft change in the horse, and then teach the student how to make those changes. I got to see people learn the joy of trusting their horse, and see the gratitude of the horse on the end of the rein. I got to see good relationships get better, and happy lightbulbs went on, most of the day, for many, including myself. I use a variety of techniques, methodology and games to help the students realize what the horses already know, how to move into and away from pressure, applied by the horse or the person in charge. I teach that the release is where the horse learns if they are even in the right ball park or not. No release, no lesson.
All of my clinics also have lessons in them for me, and they are sometimes not the ones I have gone looking for. I know my style of horsemanship and training methods work. I develop the highest caliber of horses that I have, ever in my 30 years of working with horses. They generally go about their business in a calm, businesslike manner and are a pleasure to be around and to handle. I have learned to look for the soft eyes, the relaxed neck, the pretty free way of moving that comes from a horse who enjoys his job. Everything I do builds to that end. I see it every day that I work with a horse.
Becoming adept in communicating these methods to my fellow human beings has deeply challenged my feel, timing and ability to balance my emotional energy. I let my horses learn through running into their own resistance, finding reward through release and I teach that. However I also teach if you apply too pressure and the horse is overwhelmed, they will not learn. They will attempt to fight, or flee, and they will be upset. I find it is very much the same with human beings. Once the horse seeks release from pressure, I teach to respond with lightening quickness, rewarding the horse for the slightest try, affirming that they are on the right path, and doing the right thing. Horses want to feel safe, secure and confident in the leadership that is managing. We aren't so very different, are we? A hand heavy on the line creates the brace we seek to avoid, ill timed release confuses the horse, and we don't get the lightness and response we are looking for, the anxiety builds on both sides and the fight is on.
Through teaching, I have discovered the heavy hand, the ill timed release, and the misjudging of where to stand emotionally is once again, a large challenge for me as an instructor. Knowing when my students are reaching a threshold I would never ask a horse to blow through, taking the time it takes to help my students break down the techniques into small, manageable portions that make sense not only theoretically, but in practical application, this is taking me back to school, once again, myself.
I didn't wake up one day and think hey, this is how you do things, in the area of horse training. I have spent years testing the information I have seen from other clinicians, experimenting myself on different methodologies, even to the point of stopping my horse mid-step because my brain was whirling and unable to get my thoughts through to my hands and definitely not to the horse! Teaching clinics is every bit as challenging and maybe more so, than training horses. For one thing, I would never in my life even conceive of the notion that I could train a horse in a day. Never. Yet, this one day format has become very accepted and popular as a vehicle for transferring information.
In the course of a day, I attempt to teach philosophy, and psychology as it pertains to the nature of horse and human relationships. I teach how to handle a horse from the ground, establishing a "bubble" of personal space. I teach people to be aware of where their bodies are, in relationship to the horse and to be aware of who moves who's feet . . . and what means. That's in about the first 15 minutes.
From there, it is a whirlwind of how to control the parts of the horse, using as little pressure as possible but being willing to build to as much as necessary. How to lift a rein and move a foot. I introduce the idea that we exaggerate our motions to teach and that the goal is soft, invisible refinement, a flowing partnership that delights both horse and human. I teach how to settle the upset horse, not to ask them to blow through a task but to access the thinking side of the equine brain, acknowledge and accept the job that's being handed to them.
It's a lot.
In the afternoon, we saddle, and ride through the exercises that were taught in the morning . . . if it works out that way. I don't have anyone ride on a horse I view as unsafe and I had one of those on Saturday and that participant didn't get to ride, but got to practice bringing her horse down off a high by calmly moving it's feet, establishing leadership, trust and respect.
The hardest lesson of this particular day, for me, was that I let a different participant struggle far harder than I would have let any horse. I blew her through thresholds of comfort that I would never have pushed a horse through. My feel, timing and balance completely stunk for this client. I did not release to the slightest try on the part of my client, did not back up to the step where things worked, as I would have advised, had it been an equine student. The result? Built tension until things broke apart. Fortunately, for me, it wasn't a horse I was relentlessly pressuring who would not be able to object with anything but a physical explosion. Been there, done that, suffered the broken bones and physical wounds as a consequence. The human being is able to make choices and when that person had enough, it was enough. She voted with her feet and left the event.
I have never had anyone walk out on a clinic before. I have never allowed anyone to become that upset, lost and miserable before. I had to really process, just as I have had to review ugly days in horse training to see what the heck went wrong with the picture. My first reaction? Blame the client, of course, same as once upon a time, I blamed the horse. Well, that does not work out. It doesn't teach me anything, nor does it give me tools with which to avoid future similar situations. As I firmly hold the belief that I am responsible for my side of the communication, be it horse or human, and that the only side of the street that is my business is the one I am standing on, I took a good hard look at how I would have felt, had the shoes been on the other foot.
The horse the client was using belongs to me. Our beloved Ginger had a bad day. She was herd sour, antsy and disrespectful from the word go. I know this is a powerful, dominant mare, and my thought had been she would challenge my client, who I felt had the skills necessary to bring Ginger to a place of quiet respect. The horse wasn't having any of it, and rather than detaching from my agenda, being quick on my feet and emotionally agile to the situation, I clung doggedly to my course. Had it been myself, in a situation where I was using someone else's horse, I would not have cared how good they said the horse was, "usually." I would have let my own eyes, my own sense of what was going on tell me if the horse was good for me to use or not. Had the person in charge not respected my opinion, my own faith and trust in that person would have been very damaged.
Life is too short to put yourself in danger and I am the person who is the best judge of what I am capable of, and while I am willing to let someone I respect push me beyond my comfort zone, there are limits and places I will not go until I know I am absolutely ready. It does not matter that someone else might feel I am completely safe. If I don't have that belief, I am not, until something is done to reassure me and show me I am okay. I teach that if the horse says things are not good for him, then they are not, and it is my job to turn things around until the horse agrees we are in good space. I did not get this accomplished for my client and it does not matter whether I think I tried or not. The job not done is the job not done. I also did not respect that very basic instinctive value on the part of the client and the damage is done.
We do not have physical wounds to heal, but there are emotional ones, and they are painful as well, and take a very long time from which to recover. I am taught, once again, to keep my words soft, as I may have to swallow them, and some thoughtless remarks on my part are coming back to haunt more than one of us.
I have broken down the confidence of a horse through my errors along the learning curve, and it's a lot harder to put it all back together, once it's broken. Most of the time, through effort, willingness and hard work, it's possible. Human beings are tougher. You can't put one in the round pen and say, okay we are going to be here until things are good for us again. You can only try to be for that person what you would want them to be for you, hope for best, study your lessons, go on and try not to repeat the same mistakes, too many times, too many places. It takes feel, timing, and balance. The only way you get there, is practice.
Is this a good commercial for riding an Anywhere From Here foundation horsemanship clinic? Perhaps not, but it's right, it's real and it's what is happening. Over the course of time, trial and error, I have learned how to make things very good for my horses. Slowly but surely, it is also becoming good for my students but not without some bumps on the learning curve along the way. I am grateful to my friends who support me, help me be able to give "both eyes and both ears" to a situation. I am not in charge of the lesson learned, I am not in charge of the journey chosen for anyone else but myself. I am continually reminded that while I might have ideas about what the day holds for you, and how best things might go for you, should I be in charge, it is very good that I am NOT, and that what you have to learn is really not my business, after all. We each do our homework, and what's learned, end of day, can only benefit the one doing the learning. In my shoes, that's me.
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