Saturday, September 10, 2011

Monumental truths

A few years ago when I first saw videos of people working side by side with their horses using a cordeo (a loop made out of rope around the horse's neck) I liked the idea of this sort of partnership. Humans seem to always want to control the head of the horse and I was looking for something different. Excited, I made myself a cordeo and introduced it to Little Love. She pinned her ears back and tried to bite me. The thing is that with the cordeo, I had to walk next to her and I was too close to her liking. She didn't mind someone leading her with a halter, since they were walking in front. But side by side and moving? No way.

I abandoned my dream of working with just the rope around Lilo's neck. This was a horse who had always been very particular about her personal space. She didn't like to be touched, but she also didn't like people standing too close to her, no matter how well they thought they knew her.

Not ready to completely give up my idea, I started working on lunging Little Love with a rope halter and moving beside her. It was very delicate work, since if I went too close, she would threaten me with a kick or a toss of the head. A few times I saw her teeth as she pulled her upper lip back as a threat. But, gradually, with patience and utter respect of her boundaries, I was able to walk and trot side by side with her. Given, I had to keep 3 meters (9-10 feet) of space between us and cantering would still produce flying hooves. It was a far cry from working with a cordeo, but something had shifted.

Over time we worked out a routine in the lunging with cues for collection and canter departs and what not. Little Love allowed me to narrow the distance to a few feet. In fact, I dare say she actually liked it, as she would eagerly connect with me through movement. We would take turns imitating each other, stretching the stride and collecting the stride. Sometimes I was almost close enough to touch her, but not quite. And I never would have, because I knew that was out of the question. There were still days she didn't want me anywhere but far away. I had learned to accept that this is just how it would be.

Then, at Becky's place a few months ago, when we were trotting side by side up a long hill, I grabbed the front of the saddle while I sprinted next to Little Love. I needed her to help me get up that hill. She didn't like it, but she allowed it. After all, I wasn't touching her directly. But I was very close, perhaps a bit too close. But it worked because she was so focused on following Col, and had less brain space to worry about her human coming so close. We started jogging together down the trails, side by said, but not touching. I always made sure to keep at least a half a meter (about two feet) between us.

Over the years I have learned to accept Little Love as who she is. I decided long time ago, years before she was my horse, that I would never touch her unless it was absolutely necessary. There were days when I wouldn't brush her at all. I did my best to refrain from petting her or stroking her neck. It was really hard in the beginning, because we are used to touching our animals and often when I forgot, she turned her head away or pinned her ears back. I won't lie; there were moments when I felt utterly rejected. But I kept at it, trying to rein in my instinct to touch. If this was the price of our partnership, I was willing to pay it.

I don't know when things started changing. Sometimes change is so gradual, that you barely notice it happening. Or perhaps parts of it happen in an instant, but we are too busy to notice. It is hard to say. One day horse who didn't let you touch her ears no longer cares if you pull on them. Or she rubs her face against your hand, begging you to scratch her. Or she lets you take care of the cut on her leg. Or, she lets you closer while lunging. Was I this close last week? Surely I wasn't. And then, one glorious day in September when you are on a walk together, she invites you to hold on to her mane while you trot up a hill, side by side, shoulders touching.

Is this what you achieve when you stop pushing for what you want and start listening to what the horse wants? Is this the difference between taking and giving? Because you still remember what it felt like to take and it never felt like how it does when you lean into your horse, the same one who for years has not wanted you in her space, as she pulls you up the hill, your feet pounding the dirt underneath in unison. Her main between your fingers is coarse as you grab onto it tighter and you watch her ears and eyes for any sign of distress, but there is none. The horse with her powerful trot grabs your weight and it is as if you are flying, you beautiful black mare has helped your feet grow wings. How different this is from the vaulting you did long time ago, when you never asked for permission, but merely imposed yourself on the horse.

When you get to the top of the hill, you let go and your heart is full of so many answers. She touches your arm as if to reconfirm what you already know; without really knowing when it happened, you have broken through an invisible wall. Only seconds have gone by, but those seconds hold such monumental truths that even if you tried for the rest of your life, you could never find words to describe them.


  1. Lovely - thank you.

  2. What a beautiful, powerful story! I'm so glad you and Lilo have forged such a amazing bond and are able to continue to strengthen it every day.

  3. Brought tears to my eyes. I've been working with a ex-racehorse for a couple years now ( his name is Will) and he was one of "those horses". How was I supposed to touch this guy without literally going to the hospital? How do we "do" this? We didn't. Sometimes I just stood near Will's enclosure, sometimes he "let" me inside the fence. Over time, I was able to sit comfortably in a chair near Will, sometimes I was abel to lead him to pasture and back. And I don't know when it happened but Will comes over to me now and asks for a scratch, asks to be near ( really near! He likes to shimmy up next to my chair and nap!), and never threatens. I've asked the question over and over "how and when did this happen?" and I think the answer is I stopped trying to take and just offered myself and respected Will's answer no matter what it was. That's learned connection. K, this kind of shift is visceral, cellular, to the core. And it takes as long as it takes. What a completely beautiful experience (s) for both you and Little Love.

  4. Shelby, Will has come even a longer and more painful way than Little Love, it is so amazing what you guys have achieved together with him!

  5. Yes he has come a LONG way, but I wonder if his pain was any more than Little Love's... was it just the way he dealt with his mis treatment of his past? Was Little Love's behavior just her only way of coping? Their journeys may have been different but our experiences seem to be equally powerful in the that we were given the gift of being offered that connection instead of just taking it. And would we even have a connection had we taken from them? I think no. I still well up just thinking of this beautiful and most always gentle gelding now. I was so afraid of him, my knees would knock together when I was near him. Who would have thought that this lovely creature was buried in this monster? Wow.