My French mare’s French name is Ja’mais Perdu, which translates as, I am never lost. I’ve been calling her JP for short lately. We’ve been together for ten years; however, it hasn’t been until the past month that we actually learned to communicate. You see, we were both brought up the same way, in the rather abusive hunt seat world. That’s a generalization of course, there are many good hunt seat trainers, but ours were not kind and gentle.
I leaned the best way to control a horse was with a chain over the nose, and a shank backwards. I learned to pull their faces in with the reins, and to put a martingale on them to keep their heads down, artificially so. I learned that to calm a horse down you should just let them run around on a lounge line until they were exhausted, I learned that horses shouldn’t be allowed to be disobedient, they should be whipped over jumps and polls and hollered at.
The result…a fearful horse that is pretty much like a galloping trauma head case with severe anxiety. Then these horses are thrown away, because no one has time to deal with an animal that triggers easily.
Good thing I have a “thing” for head case horses. I think it’s because I get them, it’s not that they are “bad” it’s just that they are highly sensitive, and highly sensitive horses are by far and away the best. You turn your head in the direction you want to go, and they move there. You think it, they move off that thought. Highly sensitive horses though, need sensitivity and a lot of patience. This is why they don’t do well with most people, most horsewomen and men don’t have time to deal with such an animal. They take years to get quiet. They are a lifetime commitment.
This is how I ended up with my beautiful JP, she was a reject of several trainers. Fine breeding, fine form, but a psychological nightmare. When I first got her she was totally “inverted”. Meaning, she ran around the ring so much with her head above the bit running away from everything, that her muscles developed incorrectly under her neck. Instead of creating a “topline” in her back and muscle development on the top of her neck, the type of muscle development would allow her to drop her head relaxed and low. Getting low allows her to get underneath herself and carry her and a riders weight with strength and balance.
The only way to achieve this is through complete relaxation.
Before I continue, I would like to say I have made every mistake with JP, I am guilty of using the same horrible techniques on her as I was taught. Not now, but when we first purchased her. But that’s how we are, we do what we are taught, until we are taught differently or until we wake up.
That’s a whole book in itself-waking up. But let’s start at awake, like I am now… to the gentle way of doing things. The gentle way of leadership, the gentle way of love.
Changing behavior is a lot like building a muscle, relaxation actually can be learned. A horse like us humans have to be taught, and it begins in yourself, your own awareness. It is important that riders take a leadership role, and we can do this through the gentle way, a way that is inviting, it is firm, it does not use a harsh tone. If you are fearful, which happens even to me still, you must learn to acknowledge your own fear. I often wonder in my own mystical thinking sometimes if our own fear is actually us feeling the horses fear. When two creations are as intimately connected as a horse and rider, I think they may be able to feel each other and that takes a lot of presence to balance your own emotions while you are feeling another’s.
As I worked JP on the line this evening, my goal was softness and quiet relaxation. To achieve that, I needed to be quiet with my voice and gentle with my hands. I wanted to teach her that work in the ring, was relaxing. The work was the release from all the anxiety she typically ran around with. Myself, as the leader was the rock she could balance on. I wasn’t going to reflect back to her any of her anxiety or my own.
She walked, she trotted, head high…then low and deep and as soon as she got there, I released her from the work, gave her a pet, and a soothing “good girl”.
We moved on to the polls, which absolute terrified her. She was not allowed to go over them until she was relaxed. Which she did. And she looked lovely.
And everything was great until…she tripped over the poll, spooked and ran halfway across the arena. Old pattern returned. In an old life, she would have been hit for that, or yelled at, or put away and not bothered with. What 20 year old horse acts like that? Mine does, I thought with a smile. Even after 10 years with me, she still gets triggered, even when no one is hurting her.
I went and collected the wide eyed warm blood and gently put her back to the work of relaxing. Ironically, I felt serious anxiety in my stomach, picking up on her own nervousness. I took my own deep breaths, relaxed my body, pulling myself into a present and meditative state, with laser like focus and feel of the line I my hands. I cooed low, and as soon as she relaxed, we walked and trotted over the same poll. When we were done, she looked at me, and I at her…we took a deep breath, and I’m almost positive if horses could smile, that’s exactly what she was doing.
If we are a bit more forgiving and gentle with each other, and remain in partnership for the long haul-committed, practice relaxation as a way of achieving success, I think we will be peaceful partners; whether it is with a horse or a human.
When you practice the gentle way, you are never lost.