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Tracy Courtney

We don't see horses as they are,

We treat them as we are...

Every horse owner has aspirations of becoming an expert with horses. At some deep level, we truly want to understand what makes horses tick and why they do the things they do. We have different reasons for our involvement with horses, but the underlying motivation revolves around helping others with the assistance of horses or helping the horses themselves. We can’t deny that there is something special about horses that can’t be found anywhere else. Just being around them calms emotions & soothes the soul. Being in their presence makes a confusing world seem bright & happy again, if even for just a little while.

Somewhere along the line, we have lost sight of this basic, intuitive understanding. The horse world has become big business with sponsorship, promotions, productions & has come to revolve around financial goals as its bottom line. We’ve become centered around pedigree & performance & lost sight of horses as individuals & companions with their own thoughts & feelings. There are production lines everywhere we look, displaying the newest designer horse models & products available to mask the results of the excessive stress & strain we place on these animals for personal & financial reasons. We don’t have to look far to see what we’ve done to horses. There are ads everywhere for ulcer medications, CBD medications, calming supplements, growth supplements, healing magnets, tapes, wraps & gadgets of every shape & size to force horses to mould their minds, emotions & bodies to how we believe they should be. There is no shortage of training videos available to learn the latest & greatest ways of making horses do what others tell us they should do.

When we decide we’re going to work with our horses, we always have an idea of what we’re aiming for & what actions we want our horses to achieve. When we decide to do “horse training”, our minds automatically enter into a particular mode of concept boxes in which we have a goal & a route by which to get to those goals. We have a series of steps to attain & think we’re making great progress when we see our horse performing these sequences of movements, but this isn’t a partnership. We & our horses are only repeating a forced mechanical formula without any genuine feelings of interest, joy or benefit. Any experience which is sustained by mechanical effort is not enjoyable, like people who work on an assembly line.

People like to believe that intermediate states of learning are staging posts between where they started & where they want to be. They believe that there must be gruelling periods of discomfort around & through the learning curves to reach new successful levels of knowledge & performance. When we believe that certain things have to exist or occur in sequence for other things to function correctly, we are trapped & cannot move forward. We alone are choosing to indulge in thoughts, activities & habits that give us a false sense that these things are needed for other things to work or be ok. We do not need to overcome things that hold no importance or significance for us. Many methods will tell us that we have to climb a certain number of stairs or complete a series of tasks. There is only a gift or reward at the end of some striving & then we've done it. This is appealing to different types of personalities because it seems consistent with the rest of life as we've known it. The conditioned mind/ego likes the evolutionary path and it feels totally natural because in every other aspect of life, we evolve, become better and more skilled.

We don’t see horses as they are, we treat them as we are…

We have developed an intellectual method of thinking that separates our lives into tiny boxes of limited time & narrow, focused action, which has led us to believe that horses are the problem & not us. We adopt a particular mask of personality to suit & reflect the different aspects of our lives as we move through these revolving doors of interaction. We become sullen & unhappy when we walk through the “work door” that we’ve decided we don’t enjoy & happy & carefree when we walk through the “weekend door”, where we can be what we consider to be our true nature. When interacting with our horses, we reflect these same ideas that we have created because it feels normal & comfortable "for us". We create boxes of time for our horses where they have to be serious during training time & can relax during grazing & grooming time. We force our horses to adapt to these boxes where they have to stand patiently in cross ties to be quickly groomed, often without meaningful interaction, because they have to get ready to work hard in the arena. In the arena, there is no discussion or consideration of their feelings, only an agenda to be dictated & force-fed without question. After leaving the arena, they may not get any time for grazing or meaningful time spent grooming because we’re on a tight schedule & have somewhere else to be. And we wonder why we have behaviour problems? Great leadership isn’t about control, it’s about empowering your horse to feel as though he’s your partner. By giving him choices & opinions in the relationship & discussing problems so healthy resolutions can be found. It’s about not creating boxes of time & tasks but learning how to eliminate those boxes, so all time spent with them, regardless of where it is, involves mutual learning, fun, expression, meaningful interaction & laughter. We need to shift our beliefs to prioritizing happiness instead of grades.

There was a time when Natural Horsemanship was not in the equestrian vocabulary. When it was first introduced, it was met with skepticism & aggression, as most new things are. As it slowly began to take root in the accepted views of how to work with horses, it was a necessary shift in our ways of thinking & a much needed change in the evolution of working with horses. Although a necessary step, Natural Horsemanship is still based on the idea of a series of step-by-step drilling practices to reach physical goals.

Most methods focus on a repetitive system of physical drilling – repeating the same task over & over until it’s performed perfectly. This teaches us to focus only on physical responses to our directions (dictations). This doesn’t allow any space for real listening, choices or opinions. The only choices being offered, are to either respond to our direction or not, which will be met with force, anger &/or violence. This does not involve our horse in a meaningful or mutual conversation. In essence, we are dictating statements for which our horses are only allowed to answer yes or no. Drilling is only a tool of the mind to give the illusion that we are making progress toward an end goal. Yes, after enough practice our horse will respond perfectly, but are they a willing & enthusiastic partner?

How many times have we spent a lengthy amount of time deep in thought, trying to solve a problem & the answer always comes when we’re not thinking about it? Take some time to analyze what happens when we go deep into thought about a subject, especially when there is an elevated emotional component, which will pull us in deeper to the subject? When we focus on the mind, we shut off the rest of our senses. Try it again but try to take an objective point of view this time. Our vision, hearing & other senses diminish dramatically or shut off all together, depending on how deeply we are focused on these thoughts. If we have previous thoughts flowing through our mind about what we already know & think we understand, we are placing a curtain between us and what our horse is showing us that will obscure our vision. Letting go of thoughts allows us to be in the moment & seeing what’s being said by our horse for what it really is. The more we practice emptying our mind of thoughts & time limits, the more we will begin to see & understand what our horse is trying to tell us. Our thoughts have to shift from making “statements” of what we think you know to “questioning” what we’re seeing & what it means.

Even though we may feel we are “asking” our horse to do things for us & not demanding, dictating or using force to accomplish our goals, what might we find if we were to analyze these beliefs at a much deeper level? What defines a healthy relationship? Trust, respect, discussion, compromise, patience, understanding, personal growth & unconditional love. Let’s begin with the word “goals”. Who’s goals are they? Did our horse have a voice in the decision-making process for these goals? As we are growing & maturing, we try our hand at different types of jobs, which help direct us toward what we feel is most conducive to our interests & will make us happy & productive. Many horses are made to perform one particular type of “job” & aren’t given opportunities to try other avenues that they might enjoy more or add interest in all areas. They are forced to repeat only one job until they become so bored, they sour to it. I have always felt that it was important to the mental, emotional & physical wellbeing of all horses that they were all-rounders. No matter what type of horse I had or their pedigree & background, they were always exposed to as many options as possible.

We make the sole decisions about what our horses are going to learn & in what order these “steps” are going to be “asked” to be accomplished. Does this involve discussion or compromise? We all learn at different rates, excel in some areas & take longer in others. Do we extend these considerations to our horses? When our horses are having difficulties learning something new, do we slow down, break the task into smaller steps & take as much patience/time as is needed for our horses to work through their worries & fears, to show them we understand how they’re feeling? Do we show them they can trust & respect us or do we become frustrated & angry because they are being “lazy & defiant”?

Many people perceive unwanted behaviour as a personal attack, deliberately directed at them. If we pay attention to unwanted behaviour, our focus on it will increase it, because any level of recognition is perceived as a reward or increased pressure. The reward itself is a shift of focus from the task to anything else; any release from the uncomfortable pressure. Recognizing this will help us learn to listen to & guide our horse in a constructive manner. When we redirect the thoughts, we are reducing the pressure of the task but are continuing to keep the mind engaged & connected to us. When we remove the pressure but allow the mind to wander without guidance or direction, it gets lost & reverts back to the only habit it knows of fear, avoidance & escape. When we redirect the thoughts constructively, they forget about what was causing the reaction & don’t disconnect. Initially, in the tolerance of the expression of the opinion/ignoring of the behaviour, it disappears. Save our focus for important things instead of perceiving behaviour as a personal attack. These are only how we choose to perceive the situations & you are responsible for these perceptions. “Don’t provoke itching by scratching”. If we pay attention to it, we have provoked it & have to pamper our creation.

The person who has made the commitment to truly understand horses & move beyond the limits of current methods, has no ideas or concepts about what they want to achieve initially. They make the effort to leave all previous concepts & beliefs at the door when they enter. They choose to enter this new door with an empty & open mind, to listen to what their horse has been trying to tell them all along. Those who come with concepts & baggage can only filter these words through their concepts & baggage. They may have very good experiences, but they will never reach the end result of what FEARLESS has to offer. They just enter these states & sustain them through their efforts. When I’m teaching, I can see people nodding their heads as though they understand – they’ve read the articles, listened to the talks. They have a structure inside their head of what the teachings are about. Every time something is said, they take a particular statement or idea & fit it into a particular program step box – ideas that support the internal structure of what they believe the teachings represent. Words don’t reach them in a place where they can experience what the horses are teaching – they get filed away in various conceptual categories in the mind. We have to get rid of the filters & concepts so our horse’s teachings can reach us in a way that they can move beyond the mind & become experience.

When we’re not working with our horse, we’re not really aware of how cluttered & chaotic your mind actually is. Our attention is on our work and family. All of our desires, feelings, fears, fantasies are bubbling away in the background that we don’t pay much attention to because we’ve got the external things to worry about. When we actually stop looking at all of these external things & put our attention instead on the mechanism of our mind, we are surprised at what an overwhelming mess it is. It’s not that we’ve suddenly become a lot worse, it’s that we’ve stopped looking at the things our mind has been conditioned to focus on. We’ve actually taken the manhole off of our own private sewer & we’ve recoiled in horror. This is a standard reaction of people who have stopped looking at the world & have had a long look at their real selves. There is no magic wand, we just have to persevere & genuinely want to succeed through practice. It’s not something that requires a linear progress of steps & we must be committed to the results. There is no accumulation of silence in the mind that we can access more of every day. Every day as we lift the lid of the sewer, more stinky stuff will come out & we have to deal with what arises. The simplest way is just letting go.

Thoughts, feelings & emotions are fluid. They're always changing. We don't decide that we're going to feel happy or sad for an hour, look at our watch & then change our emotions to fear or worry. Horse’s thoughts, feelings & emotions are based on the immediate environment, not on what happened previously. Human’s thoughts, feelings & emotions are based on what happened previously or what might happen in the future, not the immediate environment. This is one of the greatest barriers we have to overcome; learning to become fluid with our thoughts & be prepared to respond to what's happening in each moment through listening, patience, respect, asking questions & understanding.

FEARLESS isn’t a method, it’s a process & is the opposite of everything we’ve learned about horses until now. It involves shifting the focus of our current thoughts & beliefs from intellectual, step-by-step boxes, to a quiet place, where we can really see & understand what horses have been trying to teach us all along. The immediate results experienced are undeniable proof of its efficacy, but the continuing results are equivalent to the amount of previous programming we’re prepared to let go of. Are we prepared to make the commitment to continue to walk through these new doors of understanding & face the uncomfortable change of what our horse is going to show us about ourself?