Posted by Tania Kindersley.
This is a very long post. It involves specific techniques and non-specific musings about working with horses. It also extrapolates from the horse stuff a few life lessons, which is how I like it. If this is of no interest to you, please do not wade through it and then get cross and bored. Do me the courtesy of moving swiftly on to another post or another blog. Come back tomorrow, when I shall be snappy and pithy.
Learning natural horsemanship is incredibly interesting to me for about forty-seven different reasons. It involves evolutionary biology, history, psychology, human instinct, equine behaviour, even, I would contend, a spiritual element. It really makes me think, and I adore things that make me think.
The proponents of the theory fascinate me too, because they all come at it from slightly different angles, and, for all that working naturally with horses is a lovely, calm, profound thing, sometimes spats break out, in a most unZennish way. Are you a Parelli girl or a Monty man? There may be fisticuffs over the matter.
The way I approach it is that I read as much as I can, and I take the things I like from everyone, and leave the rest. I do not follow one dogmatic route. Perhaps the best thing I read lately is that your finest teacher is your horse. This sounds so hippy and dippy but it is profoundly true. All these experts, with their years of experience, can teach me a huge amount, but my best professor is Red herself.
I was thinking of this when I went up this morning. I had been reading about how important it is for horses to feel safe. As prey animals, they yearn for security. If you are a good leader, calm and quiet and certain, you can give them that sense of safeness, and that is when the trust is won.
The leader thing sometimes gets confused, I think. Being in charge does not mean barging or shouting or waving your arms or forcing your horse. It is an internal, centred thing. It is almost not about doing anything but about thinking something. The thought is not: I am your overlord, and you must do everything I say or else. The thought is: I am your reliable, trusted guide, on whom you may depend.
Following from this thought was a personal realisation. Because I’ve been a bit jangly lately, stressed and tense and prone to scratchiness, I had become needy around the mare. In the middle of the daily frets, she was my one true thing; it was from her that I could get my peace.
I realised today that I had that the wrong way round. It is not for her to give me joy and peace, but for me to give those things to her. I had become like an awful whiny girlfriend: please love me, please think I am perfect. I was desperate for her to do her work with excellence, not for its own sake, but because it reflected well on me, and then people would point and say there goes that woman who is really good with horses. (I shy away from admitting this, because it is a very dusty reflection on me, but at least I have caught it in time, before I descended into a maze of neuroticism and category errors.)
I had become so desperate for her to love me that I was smothering her with affection, bribing her with carrots, letting her get away with things because I did not want to be the mean old girl who says no. This is ultimately confusing for the horse, and also no good at all for my own amour propre. No wonder she was having occasional moments of grumpiness.
My new twin revelations were that I need to be the good leader, and good leaders do not beg for love, and that I need to learn from her, to be acutely and constantly conscious of her state of mind.
I had also recently seen an excellent video by the brilliant Australian horseman, Warwick Schiller, who advised against always talking to your horse. Horses react to a very limited range of verbal cues; they evolved on wide plains where they could see each other, and so they did not need sound to communicate, but used sight. This is why body language is so important when you work with a horse. It’s something as simple as standing up straight and opening your shoulders and making your body strong; when an equine sees this, it instantly takes you seriously.
With all this in my brain, up I went. It was correction day. I needed to re-establish dominance, not in an aggressive shouty way, but in an I am the strong person you can trust way.
I also decided, for the first time ever, to work with her in complete silence.
I walked into the field. I held myself tall and moved as certainly and smoothly as I could. I stood beside her, waited a moment for her to duck her head to the halter, put the halter on, and did it up. Normally, at this stage, I would be chatting to her, telling her she is my good beautiful girl, scratching her ears, babying her. I did none of these things. In my mind, I was the kind strong boss horse, not the fawning give me love human.
I moved in front of her to clip the rope to the halter. Then she did an extraordinary thing. She bowed her head, and leant her forehead very gently against my stomach. It was an act of submission, of acknowledgement, of consent. It was as if she could tell instantly that something was different. I had not asked her to do anything yet, but she was telling me that she could sense a change. I wanted to burst into a verbal stream of admiration and love but I merely scratched her ears very gently for a moment and then moved off.
I was working with her on a long line. I very much like the idea of invitation, which is embedded in the natural horsemanship ethos. You are not pulling or yanking or tugging the horse; when you want it to move, you hold your hand up in the direction you want it to go, as a polite request. It looks exactly like a dancer in a scene from Jane Austen, holding out the hand for a quadrille. And just as your 19th century dancing partner would put his hand gently in yours, and move into the steps, so the horse will easily and elegantly respond.
Forward we went. I did not say walk on; I did not pull. She just followed my hand. She kept at the perfect distance, diagonally behind me by about three feet. I stopped. She stopped. Again, normally I would say STOP, loudly and with emphasis on the hard consonants. This time, there was absolute silence. She marked my feet, not my voice. I turned, she turned. The line was loose the whole time.
I had thought this corrective work would take a couple of hours. Instead, she was perfect from the instant I started. It was as if horsemanship elves had been up in the night, training her under the midnight sky.
In fact, all that had happened was that I had realised I had got into a bad habit, and had changed the way I think. I had switched my mind from neediness, from begging something from her, from taking everything personally, to giving. My job is to give her security, clear direction, peace. Confused signals and muddled human emotions just make a horse fretful and sad.
And, of course, because I was not asking anything of her, she gave me all the happy rewards I had craved. In our beautiful, effortless quadrille, I found a new and soaring joy. This is where the life lesson comes in, I think. It’s a bit hokey, a bit Hallmark card, a bit chicken soup for the soul, but I think it may be true for all that. It is by giving that you get everything.
(I think: I wish someone had told Mr Bob Diamond that, and then we might not be in this mess.)
To finish the lesson, I got Red to back up, to yield her hindquarters, and to lower her head, all on the lightest of cues. Eventually, I shall be able to merely point my finger, and she will know to do these things. At the moment, I sometimes need to touch her in the relevant place, but it is only the faintest of touches. A thoroughbred horse weighs half a ton. Red has a mighty set of muscles from her polo days, and even though I am letting her down as she moves into her new, more relaxed life, the muscles are still like hawsers. I could push her with my entire five foot eight body, and if she did not want to move, she would not. To be able to get this great animal to shift through a fleeting touch from my index finger really does feel like a sort of miracle. It is also good manners. I do not want her to barge me; I should not be barging her.
Again, in all that, I find a life lesson. Lightness of touch is a great human skill. You can berate and brutalise and stomp and scream; you can hector and rant; and you probably will not be able to shift anyone’s mind or heart. You might be able to get them to do the thing you want them to do, but they will do it sullenly and without delight. The metaphorical touch of the finger is something I am going to hold in my mind.
At the end of all this work, I wanted to fall on her neck and sob my thanks into her mane. I wanted to say, as I normally would, good girl, good girl, to stuff her with carrots, to kiss her all over her dear face. But I kept the silence. Saying nothing for forty minutes was one of the hardest disciplines of the whole thing, but by the end I felt as if I had moved into a sort of primal communion, a lovely plane beyond words or thought. Her reward was not gushing words of praise, but that I simply stood by her, rubbing the place on her forehead where her mother would have nuzzled her when she was a foal, keeping an internal calm that ran between us like a river.
When I moved away, she did not follow me to the gate as she normally would, vamping for one last treat. She stood quite still, her head low, entirely relaxed, and then, after a while, moved away to graze, a horse at one with her landscape. That was my reward.
The writer’s mind kicks in, about now. Must give them some roaring final paragraph, where the entire thesis is wrapped up and the thing ends with a bang. My fingers pause and falter. For all that I have given you too many words today, there is something about all this which is beyond words. That’s what I mean about it having a spiritual element. To say I love that mare is almost too obvious, too paltry, too easy a sentiment. (It is, though, the thing I do really want to say, over and over; I love her love her love her.)
I feel profoundly grateful to her, because she is so clever, so good, so willing, so responsive. She is not a pushover; all horses have minds of their own, and she certainly has her own wonderfully duchessy mind. To get her to do what I want, to be the horse I want her to be, to keep her happy and relaxed, calls on all my resources. She touches a deep part of me that goes beyond a coherent sentence or an obvious adjective. I can’t ever thank her adequately for that.
Aside from everything else, I get the great good fortune of working with my mare in this extraordinary landscape:
The low cloud has come again today; these were taken yesterday, when we had our one moment of evening sun.
Myfanway the pony was very interested in our work this morning, and even followed along with some of the steps, so that at moments we made up our very own horse band:
This is my favourite attitude – head low and relaxed, easy swinging walk, ears alert but not scanning for danger, a little curiosity in her glorious eye:
The other creature who gives me joy:
Doing her famous downward-facing dog, with her will there be biscuits soon face on.
No hill today, on account of cloud; but here is last night’s version:
Post script, for those working with horses:
At this stage, I am a learner, not a teacher. But for any of you who are interested in useful techniques, this is what I discovered today. Shifting your state of mind is as important as any fancy schooling. Reset expectations, check for your own mental glitches, stand tall and think of yourself as the good leader. I know it all sounds a bit nuts, but I can’t tell you the effect it had.
If bad habits have set in, or your horse is giving trouble, go back to basics. Essentially all I did today was walk my mare around a field. It does not sound very exciting or exacting. In fact, it reset our entire relationship. Perhaps the most important thing I learnt is that you can teach huge lessons by doing very, very small things.
On a purely practical level, moving your horse’s feet is the key to keeping her focussed. In herds, the leaders are the ones that get other horses to move. If Red loses concentration for a moment, or tries avoidance, I make her yield at the shoulder. I have found this is the easiest and quickest way to get her back to me. This is not something I learnt in a book; it is something I learnt from her, and through trial and error. I just touch her lightly at the back of her shoulder and get her to move sideways. For some reason, this brings back her focus like a laser.
I don’t think one should be hardline about the silence thing. (I don’t think one should be hardline about any of this; flexibility and responsiveness seem to me to be the absolute crucible of working well with equines.) Having horses is a joy, and one of the joys is talking nonsense to them. But every so often, you might try doing your groundwork without using your voice. I can’t tell you how powerful it was, both for me, and for the mare. I do think this, too, might be a life lesson. Sometimes, saying nothing is the most potent thing you can do.
And finally, don’t let yourself get bossed around. I have discovered that some natural horsemanship people are unnaturally dogmatic, and can be sneery about methods not their own. Find what works for you and your horse; listen to your own instincts; watch your horse’s reactions. Feel free to ignore every single sentence I have written today; take anything which you feel will have utility for you. I offer all this in the spirit of humility, because I am keenly aware of all the things I still do not know. I love shared experience, but that is all it is, not instruction or rules or commandments graven in stone. Perhaps that, too, is quite like life.