I got my start with horses in a world of “make them do it” horsemanship. I heard a lot about making the horse respect the rider. Crops and whips were used as both aids and punishment. Side reins were used to hold the horse’s head in position, and there was a lot of talk about driving aids, pushing the horse into the contact, and setting the hands. Any reluctance or unresponsiveness by the horse was to be met with a sharper or secondary aid to get the desired response NOW.
For nearly my first thirty years of riding, that was my foundation. Over time I moved away from a lot of the harsher components of it, but like many of the people I grew up watching and learning from, I remained quick to frustration and anger when things didn’t go the way I wanted or expected with a horse. For the past almost twenty years, I’ve been learning from people who have a different approach to horses, one that is more relationship-based than demand-based. When I started actively learning a softer way with horses and that anger came up, I directed most of it at myself, for my inability to just stop reacting that way. The horses didn’t care much who I was mad at; they just knew that I was mad, and that the energy I was projecting wasn’t safe to be around.
When I was in my early twenties, I read a book by a respected animal behaviorist who was also a respected trainer of dogs and horses. When she died in 2001, the New York Times obituary referred to her as someone “who saw human traits in pets,” which was not how scientists were supposed to think then (it probably still isn’t). She was much more aware than most trainers and scientists of the time of animals having intellect and emotions, and what she called a moral sense. As a trainer, she also wrote about being given “crazy” horses or dogs to work with and acting crazier than they did so that they had to pay attention to her. At the time, as something of a specialist myself in “crazy” horses (i.e. the horses I usually got a chance to work with when I couldn’t afford a horse that had decent or no training), this made sense to me. Now, it does not. For me, anyway, this approach was just another variant of the old methods: obedience, discipline, correction. Even well-intentioned trainers still use language like this.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why we deal with horses this way. When “I say, you do, and do it NOW” is the expectation, what’s behind that? Far more often than I ever want to admit, it’s about fear. “I say, you do” feels like it keeps me in control. I think there’s a human belief that if we are afraid of something, and we can make that something or someone afraid of us instead, we will be safe. We can try to convince the horse that we are scary enough for it not to hurt us – without going so far that we convince it we are scary enough to attack. Horses are flight animals, but if given no choice, they will fight. When we are afraid, we make bad (and sometimes dangerous) decisions. When we are afraid and we don’t want to admit to or show our fear, we make even worse (and more dangerous) decisions.
Recently my wise friend, horsewoman Anna Blake, posted a brilliant blog in which she said “Level ground is needed for trust. In the beginning, it feels like chaos to breathe instead of intimidating.” I don’t want any kind of tattoo, let alone one with a whole lot of words in it (ouch!), but that sounds like a good choice so that I can look at those words every day. What does it feel like to put myself on level ground with someone or something I believe can hurt me? What does it look like for me to pause, breathe, and choose my next action with deliberation and kindness, instead of reacting in fear and anger? What happens if I start by extending trust, instead of withholding it?
I have a long history of doing stupid things with horses. Usually I did the stupid things when I was alone, often while trying to get something done faster and more easily. I almost never got hurt back then, but I came back to the barn with a lot of interesting stories. There was the time didn’t shut the main gate before bringing the herd in for breakfast (spoiler alert: no horse story that begins with “I didn’t take the time to shut the gate” is going to end with all the horses going smoothly into their stalls) and ended up jogging down the middle of the road behind a trotting horse, as cars passed us in both directions, drivers apparently thinking this was an expected way for a person and a horse to get exercise at the same time. There was the time I hopped on one horse bareback to ride him in from the field while ponying another horse behind. Not a bad idea until the horse I was ponying slammed on the brakes, and I decided in that split second that if I had to hold onto either the inexpensive Apaloosa-Thoroughbred cross or the expensive Hanoverian it should be the Hanoverian. Perhaps not the wrong cost-benefit decision, but not such a good idea to let go of the horse I was riding and hang onto the horse I was leading but who wasn’t actually moving. Fastest unscheduled dismount I’ve ever done off the back end of a horse.
Sometimes it was a well intended but ill judged riding decision, as in the time I decided to get on a horse for the first time in an open field some distance from the barn. I was re-starting him after some very bad experiences and my theory was that he would be more comfortable away from the arena where the bad experiences had occurred. He stood like a rock as I put my foot in the stirrup, hopped a bit, and pulled myself up, and then he went from rock to rocket and bolted for the barn. I had the choice to throw myself off or throw myself the rest of the way on, and I chose on, trying to stay in the middle of his back while planning what I would say to my boss when we came screaming into the barn at 700 miles per hour. He wore himself down to a walk before I had to finish crafting my speech. There was the time I decided that it would be better for me to dismount and lead the green horse over the narrow, muddy creek instead of asking him to go across it with me on his back. I took the end of the reins, hopped across the creek, and turned back to encourage him only to find he was in mid-air on his way to landing in the exact spot I occupied. I turned away and he hit me square in the back with his chest, sending me from upright to face plant in a split second. Because I (of course) held on to the reins, I also caused him to step on me and push me further down into the mud. I ended up with mud covering every inch of the front of my body (face included), and some hoof-shaped bruises on my ass – perfect imprints including the shape of his frog, his shoe, even the nailheads.
My riding career got off to a fairly sedate start with a couple of black and white paint school ponies during two weeks of summer riding camp. Ace (Ace of Spades, for the black spade marking centered around his tail) had been packing new riders for so long I’m not fully convinced he ever knew little eight year old me was up there on his back, but he certainly never did anything to disturb me (or to expend any extra energy). Cherokee was smaller, prettier, and more sensitive, though I confess at the end-of-camp show she simply left the ring with me on her back and headed for her stall.
It wasn’t until a little later, but not much later, that I started getting placed on horses no one knew anything about and sent out for a trail ride or a lesson. This did not always go well, as in the time the horse in question was a mare with a foal by her side. The instructor shut the foal in the stall, put me up on the mare, and we headed out towards the trails. I say “towards” because we didn’t even make it all the way to the end of the barn before she turned around and ran back to her foal. It was a short ride. Slightly longer and more eventful was the time we were walking on a trail on a ridge above the creek , when the instructor started to trot and everyone behind him trotted also, until it came to the horse I was on. Instead of trotting, he stood up on his hind legs and started backing down the hill towards the creek. I threw my arms around his neck to try to stay on and keep him from flipping over while my sister, the only rider behind me, screamed for the instructor to stop. Like most of my stories from this period, this one ended uneventfully with the ride resuming after the instructor decided to walk the rest of the way.
Once I had a choice about what horses I would ride, I often chose the same kinds of horses I rode when I first started. Horses who were new at the barn and no one knew what to expect of them. Horses who people did know what to expect of, and it wasn’t anything good. Horses who people had decided weren’t worth the effort. I have always loved horses, but when I first started taking lessons I was afraid of riding them. I remained afraid until the first time I fell off and nothing bad happened. That fall happened because I was so tense I just bounced off the side of the horse when he started to trot. Afterwards I was able to at least loosen up enough to stay on. The next year when we moved to a different barn I had the added motivation of the requirement that any student who fell off in a lesson had to bring brownies to the next lesson. The shame of being seen carrying the brownies was sufficient to keep me on top during almost any situation. I learned to ride, but I also learned to hang on.
I am not sure if my lifelong habit of choosing horses who are challenging to ride had to do with proving that I was not scared, or with the positive “this kid can ride anything” feedback I got from being put on horses I had no business riding, or with having empathy for horses other people had given up on, or a combination of all these things. There was a period in my life where my horse choices and my people choices were remarkably similar. Then there was a point when I made a decision that if I needed to work out some kind of savior energy in my life I should do that with horses and not with people. Eventually I realized I don’t need to do it with horses either, but that was a bumpier road. That one brought up the “Who am I, if I’m not the person who…” line of thinking. If I’m not the person who can – and does – ride anything. If I’m not the person who is the horse’s last hope. If I’m not the person who can get the horse to do the thing he won’t do for anyone else. If I’m not the person who isn’t scared – but that’s the one that gets tricky, because I was in fact scared all along. I was just an expert at both hiding and ignoring it.
I don’t particularly want to admit to being scared of anything, but admitting I’m scared on a horse or around a horse is about the hardest thing for me. It comes the closest to erasing my entire identity. Even though it has been decades since I earned my living riding the last hope horses, the idea that I can do it is still central to my sense of myself. I still have the last horse I got because of my horse savior complex, and I will say now that I have been scared of him for most of the time I have had him. He didn’t need me to save him, turns out, but for a period of time I needed him because he doesn’t let me get away with anything, especially not with pretending not to be afraid. I try not to make that his responsibility any more. These days when I go out to his field and he’s jumping at shadows I just say, “Me too, buddy. People can’t always see what’s scaring us.”
I don’t miss my bad ideas and my crazy stories. I don’t miss making decisions that were dangerous for me and for the horses. I don’t miss what eventually led to broken bones when I stopped being young enough to bounce. I do miss being young enough to bounce, though, and sometimes I miss that kid who would get on any horse because at the heart of her she believed the horses wouldn’t hurt her. There’s still a horse crazy girl inside me who believes she is every character in every horse book she ever read: who rode a bronc to win enough money to buy Misty, who won the Grand National on The Pie, who galloped the Black Stallion on the beach and on the track. She’s pretty content, as it happens, to spend time hanging out with horses in her back yard, forgetting about what she can train them to do and letting them teach her what they want to teach. Some adventures are best left in the past.