It’s been a long day, and I did a lot, rather ironically, considering the title of this post. As my brain entered its traditional fugue state after too much pumelling, I suddenly had angst about today’s blog. Too long, too wandering, too much red mare. Get to the point, I hear the voice of my strict prep school teacher shout. She longed for me to get to the point, and I never did. I almost deleted the whole thing. But I’m going to post it anyway, with caveats, because the whole point of this place is that you get me warts and all. I’m not quite sure why this should be the point, but it is.
Here we go then:
Quite often, out on the horse forums which I sometimes frequent on the internet, I see poignant posts about people having problems with their dear equines. There is a disastrous ride, a catastrophic failure of nerve, a crushing setback. The forum I like the most is for people who have ex-racehorses. Everyone there is very supportive and empathetic and kind. Many helpful suggestions are posted, and a lot of shared experience offered. This exact thing happened to me, say the ladies (and they mostly are ladies); I know the feeling so well; you are not the only one. It’s one of the more touching sides of the internet.
Quite often, even though I feel very bogus doing so, since I am no expert, I offer my two-pence worth. Have you thought about giving yourself permission not to ride? I say. Have you considered just spending time hanging out with your horse? Have you wondered about doing nothing?
To me, now, this seems very natural and obvious. I grew up in the old school, which was all about riding. The ambition was to get really, really good at being on a horse, so that if it tanked off or bucked or would not stand still, you could ride it out. Ride through it, that was the cry. Obviously horses were schooled, but there was a notion that certain characteristics were built in – some were pullers and some were buckers and some were spookers - and there wasn’t much you could do about it except not come off.
This new kind of horsemanship, which goes by many names – natural, intelligent, empathetic – has the novel idea that you can teach a horse not to do any of these things. You can desensitise it, so that it will rarely spook. You can do the kind of groundwork which inspires trust and establishes you as the good, kind leader, so that the horse will listen to you and not get distracted. You can work on lateral flexion and changes in direction and slow transitions, so that it will learn not to want to pull. It’s not a question of learning to stop it, the thing does not happen in the first place.
Of course, sometimes the odd disaster will still happen, because human error is built in. Whenever something goes wrong with Red, it is because I have got cocky or am not paying attention. The other day, I let her out to graze in the set-aside when the sun was shining and the wind was blowing and she had twinkles in her toes. I should have done some free-schooling to settle her first, but I didn’t. So off she went on a hooley, and roared about with her tail in the air, and it was a while before I could get her back. She is very, very good at giving me lessons in hubris.
In her wild racehorse scramble, she scratched herself up a bit, so we’ve been off for a couple of days, her patches of purple spray reminding me of my own folly. But the lovely thing is, and there is always a lovely thing, that it’s given us a chance to do absolutely nothing together. I’ve been riding so much lately and thinking of teaching her things and trying out new approaches that we’ve been all work and no play.
Today, the sun shone and the wind gentled, and the Horse Talker and I went to hang around with our girls, doing bugger all. We gave them some hay and used special implements to remove the thick winter coats, and chatted and chatted. The dogs ran around, screaming under the horses’ legs, whilst the two clever mares did not turn a hair. (The dogs have proved our most excellent desensitising tool.)
Red stood happily, untethered, whilst I deployed the special implement, which she turned out to love. It has a good scratching action, which mimics another horse’s grooming. She blinked her eyes and had a little doze and occasionally turned her face for love.
And there it was again, the harmony. There was my beautiful, Zen, dozy donkey, come back to me. There will always be the odd hooley day, because she is a thoroughbred after all, and that empress speed and spirit are bred into her. But teaching her this way means that her default mode is stillness and peace. It is taught; it is circumstantial. It comes from her feeling safe with her human, knowing that she can trust my direction, understanding that I will be the one on mountain lion watch. And a huge part of this comes from sometimes doing absolutely nothing.
I love this idea for many reasons. But perhaps the most acute is that I am aware I ask a lot of her, and she gives me so much. It feels like good manners, a simple reciprocity, an act of grace that on occasion I ask her only to be a horse.