Sometimes dreams come true. I have wanted to own my own horse for my whole life, and now finally I own my own horse. I get to go out in the middle of the night and sit in my barn, with my mare beside me, munching on her hay while I sit on a bale of straw beside her. I can go out early in the morning and there she is. It is kind of magic. There is only one problem. I am a somewhat nervous rider. In my teens I was in a bad riding accident and since then I have lost my confidence as a rider.
All was going well with my young (four year old) mare, Kayak, until she started trying to buck me off. Now although I am a nervous rider, I am a fairly competent rider and in five tries she has only succeeded once. The problem is that although I landed on my feet, and although I have sat through her shenanigans four more times, she scared the heck out of me. In fact, she scared me enough that one night this week, I talked myself into a tizzy and had an overbearing sense of doom about riding her. For sure I was going to fall off. I got myself into a real state of fear.
Never the less, I talked myself down enough to go down to the paddock and groom her to ride. While I was grooming her she was a bit uptight and moved around a fair amount. My sense of foreboding got worse. I tacked her up, and strapped on my helmet and led her to the paddock gate. I took her out of her paddock and mounted her; she stood to mount and was well behaved and walked out nicely when I asked. I was pretty tense though. When we got to my laneway, I asked her to turn left and very nicely, so she did. We walked toward the road at the end of our lane, and as we approached, a robin landed in a puddle in front of us. Kayak snorted and jigged a bit, and I said to her “don’t worry, it’s just a bird.” I got more nervous though.
We got to the end of the lane and turned around and passed the bird again and I said “It’s okay, Kayak, good horse, it’s just a bird” and I got more nervous again. Kayak responded by tensing up a bit. We approached my giant white Dogs in the Park truck and Kayak stepped to the side. “Silly horse,” I said. “It’s just the truck.” And I got a tiny bit more nervous. Kayak continued along our laneway towards the other end, and stopped suddenly beside Eco’s Frisbee and snorted again. “It’s okay, it’s just a Frisbee, Kayak” I said. More tension passed through the reins between me and Kayak. She started to raise her head up high and started to look around for more things to worry about. She stopped at a pop can crushed on the road, and tossed her head and again, I tried to reassure her; “It’s okay Kayak, it’s a pop can.” Suddenly I realized something. Something I tell my students every day. Something really important.
When I tell my horse “It’s okay” or “Don’t worry” I get tense. I worry. I get more nervous. And those nerves pass themselves down the reins straight into my horse’s mind. No, I don’t do telepathy with my horse, but she sure can tell from my posture, from how I hold the reins, from my movements, that I am tense. When I am tense, my horse gets tense. I have seen just the exact same thing in the dogs I work with. When the handler anticipates that something bad will happen, they transmit that tension through the leash and the dog responds accordingly. When the handler is tense, then the animal is going to take that information and use it; my tension translates into my animal’s vigilance. If I am tense, and I have a good relationship with my dog or horse, they trust that I have a good reason to be tense.
In order to undo that, I need to do something that will counteract that tension I am feeling. What I usually tell my students to do is to tell the dog that they are brave. “Look at that, brave dog” can go a long way to convincing me that we are going to get through the situation in one piece. Low and behold, when I turned around at the far end of my laneway and I said to her “You are a brave horse. We can do this together” it was like turning a mental corner together. Suddenly, I relaxed and just as suddenly she relaxed too. We approached the pop can and I said to her, “Brave horse, you can walk right by that can” and when we approached the truck I said “Brave horse, we can pass the great white whale of a truck together.” We passed the Frisbee, the bird and then approached the busy road to look at the cars. “Brave horse,” I said, “We will look at the cars together” and amazingly, we did. Calmly and confidently. She is a brave horse and I am a brave rider and we did it together.
Together is important when we work with animals. When we work together, we can achieve greater things than we individually achieve alone. Together, I can throw the ball and my dog can fetch it up. My horse can carry me farther than I can walk, while I provide feed and shelter for her. My dog can gather the sheep which provide us both with meat and milk. When we do things together, we get a sense of one another. We get an understanding of what each of us wants out of the relationship. When the relationship is meaningful we take one another into account. When one of us is tense, the other picks up on that and when one of us consciously relaxed, we share that between us.
Brave horse. Don’t be scared. The two sentences seem to have similar meanings but they really have something different to say that is important in how we share ourselves with our animal partners. Brave horse recognizes our triumph. Don’t be scared is a warning of impending danger. When we phrase our interactions in the context of impending danger, we both tense up and get frightened. When we phrase it in terms of our joint triumph, we both win.
What is ironic in this story is that for many years, I have been telling my students to phrase their interactions in a supportive, constructive voice, and yet, when I was nervous about my horse, I dropped right into the language that I know leads us down a dangerous path of nervousness, of fear and of reactivity, and that is exactly what I got with my horse. When I rephrased it, I got a different response. A response I think is much better for both of us.
This morning I went out to ride again, but this time it was different. I hadn’t set myself up to be afraid of my horse by thinking all night about all the things that could go wrong. Those things could and might still happen, but they weren’t the most important thing on my mind. A friend came over today to meet my horse, and we groomed her together. We tacked her up, sharing ourselves with Kayak. I was relaxed and so was Kayak and we were enjoying the company of my friend. We took her out of the paddock and I mounted and she stood stock still for a moment once I was up. Suddenly, she dropped her head way down low and stepped forward three steps with her front feet. Then she leaned back and stretched herself right out, like a dog bowing in play. She pulled herself upright and stretched out her back legs too and then walked herself back upright and stood waiting for my signal to walk on. I was startled but not frightened when she made this very novel move, and I am left to wonder if she has a sense of humour and is stretching and laughing because I am relaxed enough to enjoy the joke.