By Ainsley Beauchamp
I feel so confused. This morning my horse and I went to war.
Maybe I should explain what that looks like. Make the wrong thing difficult, right thing easy… you know, that whole horsemanship deal. So it looked like a bunch of lunging with direction changes, stopping, backing, working over obstacles, releasing the hind quarters, just tons of basic groundwork, and all tasks that this horse absolutely excels at.
Maybe I should explain a little about my horse, Straycat. He’s a rescue, but that’s old business and he doesn’t carry the story, even if he does carry the scars. Because he was a yearling rescue and needed much gentle care and nursing, we’ve got a bond. Genuine, brotherhood, I got your back kind of action. He also was a working guide horse for years, so has had thousands, and I do mean thousands of mountain miles on, every single one of them with me. He’s also had an awful lot of downtime since I’ve changed careers, several years actually, with intermittent gloriously soft and willing rides thrown in so we remember I’m a rider.
I should also mention that I might have started out in a bad mood this morning. No need to make a bunch of excuses, it just was, and as a gobsmackingly imperfect human being I carried that cranky right on out to the hitching rail. My bad.
Mr. Sensitive suddenly decided that he couldn’t be saddled, leaning on the lead shank for the saddle pad. Not cool but not so unusual. (Red flag, should have backed up, checked myself and proceeded when I was better able to play well with others. Did I mention I was in a bit of a mood?) Saddle went up, as it had countless times before, and Straycat lost his mind, pulling back, dropping my almost brand new custom saddle in the gravel, then proceeded to act as though a ditched saddle was the kind of thing that eats horses from the fetlocks up. Since I hadn’t tied him solid to tack up – an old guider’s trick for not repairing hitching rails, dealing with torn neck muscles, or broken knees – he left. Oh, the lead shank, dragging beside him, so very horrifying. (Can you read my mind at this moment? Not polite thoughts, nor family appropriate.) Because according to the new data, Straycat had never dragged a lead shank, either.
But wait – he’s pulled back before, right? Yes, there was that time on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere when he lost his marbles and pulled hard. Really hard, uprooting a live and solid pine tree, which then ominously swayed like a deadly horizontal pendulum on the wrong side of a line of tied horses’ front legs. In that moment, as every fibre in Straycat’s body said flee backwards, he listened. He stopped, squared up and waited for me to sort things out. ‘Cause that’s how we roll. Most of the time. Often. Ok, sometimes. Maybe not so much anymore, because I keep messing with our relationship.
Back to pulling back at the hitching rail, and dumping my good saddle like so much refuse. I fetch him up and right to work. Circle circle come out go straight change direction circle circle. Whew. Someone’s starting to sweat. We’re both starting to sweat. Strangely enough, while my horse was clearly compliant, he was in no way relaxing into the groundwork. He loves groundwork –it’s fun. We’re great at it. We can do it on a wiggle, a whisper…
Tried the saddle again. It went on. And on – the groundwork, not the saddle. I got it in my head I wasn’t going to tolerate him leaning on the lead shank. He got it into his head that I’d turned into a crazy lady. Please note, that this is my beloved riding buddy, my brother Stray, and I meant him no harm. He’s so sensitive to my behaviors and moods, that hitting him is not in any way part of this story; I can send this horse into a spiral just by blasting energy at him – in this case, genuine pissed-ivity.
Finally, in my task oriented human brain, I was satisfied with the results. Pony was saddled. It felt a bit like dressing a 1,200 lb contrary toddler, but he was saddled. I was sweaty and disheveled, but so was he. Whew. Won that one. (Did I? Really? Was my determination to have him not lean for saddling undermining our trust, or strengthening my leadership role? I don’t know. And I don’t really like that cranky crazy woman at all, either. But she does visit from time to time.)
This is my struggle. I’m a Reiki Master. I understand energy, power of intention, and how our thoughts influence our environment. In a foul mood? Good luck at catching that horse. Feeling nothing but love, sweetness and light? Try to get them out of your pocket – pony people adore good energy. Horses as a reflection of our own behaviors and innermost beliefs; I’m in, drunk that Kool-Aid.
And then I work in all these performance barns where quite frankly, they’re getting things done. And they get there in a different way, through schooling and correction and repetition. And those horses are spectacular. Some are not always happy, but spectacular in body and ability. So now when crazy lady taps me on the shoulder and steps into the ring, she absurdly thinks she’s a mix between Tom Dorrance and Mark Rashid, with a little extra seasoning from some cool Warwick Schiller videos. And that’s all well and good. They’re all excellent role models. There’s nothing wrong with working a horse. In my world, there are boundaries, and if crossed, there are consequences. Horses should have manners, just as people really should, too. Even if that’s forgotten by some young restaurant servers… but I digress.
Pulling back, leaning on the lead shank, unacceptable. But you know what Straycat finds unacceptable? Me in a crappy mood, then changing philosophies halfway through his lifespan. Me going from a get along kind of partner and friend who enjoys his company and has enjoyed untold hours of adventure where we do things together, to a task-focused ticked off cretin. If he could have, he would have called a time out to regroup. And he would have been right. Because in the end, the problem was me, not him.
We all know there’s no room for temper in horsemanship; even if I never once ‘raised a hand’, I leaked – hell, blew – ugly energy all over him. And he would have pretty well opted to do anything rather than be with me in that moment – and who could blame him?
So here’s what happened. I’d decided that it was hot and we were both ‘glowing’ and the deal would be if he was a rock star for saddling, that would be the end of the day. Mess his mind up, all that fuss and it was just a little saddle on, saddle off situation. All that work, so unnecessary, pony’s choice. We got there, of course.
So he’s untacked, and given a nice little rinse off to help with that itchy sweat, standing in front of a haybag chillin’. Good living. And being me, just had to do a little massage on some tight spots as he dried in the sun. I got mellow, he got mellower. I felt a misalignment, he sighed. I went into my calm, loving bodyworker heart space, and he got softer and sweeter. Checked him from end to end; he was out in several places – no wonder he wasn’t interested in going for a ride, poor buddy. (Normally I’d make sure he was aligned and comfortable before we began with tacking up. But I was cranky and wanted to ‘get ‘er done’ and just go for a ride. Sigh.) Got that all sorted out, a nice therapy treatment, and he looked like blinky mush, eyes at half-mast. Turned him out to pasture, and let his herd mates in to graze with him.
A few minutes later, as I was scrubbing the nearest water trough in the heat, I realized Straycat hadn’t wandered off into the shady ravine. He was munching clover close by. And it came to me, clear as a bell. He wanted a drink – the trough wasn’t set up in the pasture yet as the horses were only out for an hour or so, and it hadn’t been hot. I grabbed a halter and lead, showed it to him and asked if he’d like a drink. If he wants one, I’ll take him to water and bring him right back to graze. Straycat walked right up, I took him to water, he drank his fill and went back out to join his friends.
You know, I can’t help but feel crazy cranky lady would have missed out on that peaceful little interaction. Because the authentic, congruent me wants two-way connection, a horse that feels he can ask and be heard. I want him to be soft and try – but that means meeting him there. I also must be soft and full of try. I want him to be polite but where were my manners? This isn’t the first time we’ve run across this particular dilemma, but it does once again for me confirm this: if I want my horse to be a beautiful, willing partner, then I have to show him how. And it starts with me, inside, checking my attitude at the gate, so to speak. Softness begets softness. Willingness begets willingness. Peace begets peace. And really, in the end, what I really want is a peaceful partnership. And by the way, so does my horse.