We all want to understand & be with our horses at a deeper level but are we genuinely willing to meet our horses in the middle? We mimic & parrot the actions & words of others we admire, but does this help us reach the depths of connection we long to understand?
We consider the opinions of some to be of higher truth, value & authority over others but do we ever question who decides the validity of these authorities? We do. These decisions are based solely on our personal opinions. We decide who has merit & who doesn't, based on our personal past experience & whether these things conform to our own ideologies & beliefs. There is no right or wrong, simply personal opinions. The question that has to be considered is, because we've come to rely so heavily on these ideas & beliefs as a sense of personal identity, is it possible that these things we cling to are responsible for our inability to reach these deeper levels of understanding, communication & connection?
I was asked to work with a 2 year old gelding which had been bred & foaled on the property. This facility had many volunteers that fed & cleaned but were not allowed to touch the horses, other than to occasionally lead them out to pasture. The information given prior to my visit was that this horse was lovely in every way but was pushy at feeding time & was afraid to walk in a particular area.
I arrived at feeding time to witness this horse lunge aggressively & slam into the stall door every time the teenager tried to approach, to throw hay over the door. Naturally this teenager recoiled several times before finding the nerve to get close enough to throw the hay. Every time anyone walked down the aisle, this horse would lunge viciously to bite & whirl around quickly to kick. Of course this horse didn't have a normal wooden door, but nothing more than a nylon stall guard? I told the owner that this situation was dangerous & someone would be seriously hurt if immediate intervention wasn't implemented. Most horses that appear to be aggressive aren't really, but this horse was one of the few exceptions.
After quickly solving the stall issues, I was told the horse was also too afraid to enter the indoor arena, so I would have tto work outside? As soon as we passed the terrifying round bales, this horse focused in for the attack. I tell everyone during our first discussion that I do not advocate for using gadgets, force or violence ever but some horses have been taught dangerous habits & will do what's necessary in the moment to protect myself. If I feel it's necessary to say no, I mimic the Bell Mare, for which all horses understand because it's their natural way of being. I further explain that if I have to get big, it will only happen a couple of times because strategic Bell Mare repercussions are understood without question.
After spending a short time making it clear that this horse could not even think about entering my personal space, he planted & refused to move to draw me into him where he could reach me, because he became focused on attacking & injuring me. He had been taught to do this as a way of making the human move their feet come to him so he could enter their personal space & show them who was boss. Dominant horses make humans move their feet a lot, which asserts dominance & control over the human in the horse's mind & eliminates all respect. This is a normal horse game that doesn't normally involve aggression, however this horse was reflecting the aggression that had been used on him. I began swinging my long rope to put pressure toward his hind end & began feeding it out longer & longer to give him time to think & respond. He stood planted until the rope touched him lightly 3 or 4 times, at which point he reluctantly began to walk forward.
As a result of tapping this horse with my rope, the owner then exploded. I was showered with a verbal barrage of insults as to my character & my methods. I was quickly told to vacate the premises for having been so abusive toward this person's beloved baby horse. I was told I was a fraud & didn't know a horse from you know what. I was later informed that this horse seriously injured one of the volunteers. I never heard what happened to the horse as a result. I do know that this person no longer offers therapy sessions as a result.
What's the point of this? From the outside, many would have pointed fingers & labeled this horse as being a problem, disrespectful, in need of an attitude adjustment & many other unsavoury opinions. It's much too easy & common to place the blame on this horse for his behaviour & then try to counter & control the dominance with more dominance. That's fighting fire with fire & can only result in an inferno. I think I've made the point pretty clear here that the human was the real source of the problem with this horse, not the horse.
When we begin to listen & understand horses at a deeper level, we understand that all behaviours are learned/taught habits regardless of what they are. When we begin to accept this at a deeper level, we can begin to let go of our culturally programmed defaults toward judgements, criticisms, anger & feelings of personal insult, as though the behaviours are directed at us personally. Our focus should not be on who or what is responsible for the behaviour, but what the behaviours are in this moment & how best to help this troubled horse move past them patiently & safely without our personal opinions.
As with our children, we must be prepared to be a parent first & a friend second. There must be a solid foundation of trust & respect governing the relationship for the mutual benefit of all involved. We must be able to put our personal agendas & emotions aside to see behaviour for what it really is & that we are the only ones responsible for this behaviour. This particular owner blamed everyone & everything for this horse's behaviour & refused to take responsibility for their own choices.
What choices was the horse given in the development & escalation of these behaviours? Was this horse not rewarded for his behaviour by giving him what he wanted (feed) while he was threatening, thereby telling this horse that these behaviours were ok? Was this horse not rewarded for his fear of the arena by avoiding the arena & not helping him work through his worries?
To be present with our horse & truly see what's in front of us, we must be willing to put aside everything we think we know & believe. Put aside everything we think is right or wrong, good or bad & listen to our horses. These thoughts & ideas only serve to create impatience, frustration, judgements, conflict & lead to force & anger. These beliefs create a curtain over our perceptions & don't allow us to clearly see what our horses are trying to tell us.
As demonstrated, this owner could not see how serious these behaviours were through their hard-set ideas of what they wanted to believe. We often don't understand the repercussions of our decisions until it's too late. Like thinking it's ok for a horse to balk in-hand but what will we do when we've told our horse this behaviour is ok & they decide to balk in the middle of the highway with a transport racing toward us?
On another occasion, I was accused of being a cold & heartless person for suggesting that we help a horse work through their fear of trailer loading. The reasoning was that I was supposed to coddle & comfort the fear by avoiding it, like the arena. What we fail to understand in these moments of personal, emotionally gratifying decisions, based only on our own self-interest, is what will we do if our horse colics & has to be rushed for life-saving surgery? We need to deeply examine our personal motivations & beliefs & ask ourselves if we are truly willing to meet our horses in the middle? Is it possible we're making personally emotionally gratifying decisions to appease our own inadequacies, are just repeating a mechanical verbal formula we've heard somewhere else or are we considering the mental, emotional & physical health & welfare of our horse for the long term?