Last week I had the fine priviledge of visiting my friends on a ranch I used to work on in the beautiful Cariboo region of BC, and trimming the hooves of a couple lovely equids I’ve known for years. I also had a travel buddy with a camera, so I got to see some rare documentation of my own working style – I laughed out loud. Seeing the way I work from an outside perspective, I realized how unsafe my approach might look. Take a gander:
Let’s see…Miss Daisy Donkey is haltered but not tied, her high-strung Thouroughbred boyfriend is moving around loose in their small paddock (not pictured here: the annual cattle round up and weaning going on a couple fields over, complete with a horse stuck halfway over a fence he tried to jump and the endless bawling of scared cows and calves), I am not only kneeling on the ground but actually under the donkey, and my face is directly in the line of fire of a hind hoof. It’s a safety nightmare!
Now – I totally get the point of safety rules and standards, especially around horses, especially in commercial or public outfits where liability is concerned. I love when people are organized and methodical, when they have systems in place, and when there are standards for behaviour, and so on and so forth.
I happen to be really, really poor at implementing safety procedures in my own interactions with horses (if you hadn’t noticed). When other people are involved, yes, it’s a different story. But when it’s just me, I get up to some pretty dodgy antics. And while I entirely do NOT recommend the way I do things to anyone else, I and my horses (and my clients’ horses!) are to date surprisingly unscathed. Is it blind luck? What gives?
This is the best I’ve come up with: haphazard though my approach may look, there are core principles behind the way I do things – namely, awareness, communication, calmness, and trust. Much of this comes from my Aikido training, which has helped me to develop my sense of physical and energetic states in myself and others. It helps me to read situations and to react swiftly when they change – I train to sense danger as it comes and get out of the way, essentially, but also to remain relaxed and present the rest of the time.
As soon as I enter into the space of any horse, take Daisy for example, I know it’s my responsibility to remain aware. I am aware that there is a roundup going on and that the horses are a little wound up. I am aware that Daisy has trouble lifting her feet because of pain left over from a bad founder situation, and that in the past she has panicked when I ask for her feet and thrown her weight around. But I also know that my own physical safety is now in my own hands, so I only do what I am comfortable doing. I take my time. I talk to her, reconnect, love her up. I halter her to give us both a sense of solidity but only need to use it to ask her to stay once. After that, the awareness is on a micro, or energetic level; not conscious thought, but something underneath that.
By communication, I really mean listening. If Daisy is tense, distracted, nervous, scared, or outright angry, I try to listen to that and adjust accordingly. I also listen for when the horse is relaxed, ready, and willing. I actually do and say very little, it’s more “how about this?” or, “can we try this?” or, “where’s more comfortable? Show me.” Hence how I ended up on the ground – the little lady is not comfortable hiking her feet up to my knee or waist height, so I get down to accomodate her. As a result, she relaxes more and stands easily, so the job is quick and painless for both of us.
Remaining calm, or at least returning to calmness whenever I lose it, is not a matter of repressing emotions and responses, or “calmness at any cost”. If a horse scares me or moves to hurt me, I respond. I might shout, move away suddenly, or throw my hands up in defence – and then take whatever time or space I or the horse may need before we’re ready to interact closely again. Or, I might relax into the affront and let it dissipate. Either way, calmness is a process and not a static state. And calmness allows for the quiet required to be aware and for communication to flow.
Trust is sort of the result of the rest. When I am really in the zone (I’m usually only partway there), everything flows like clockwork. I’ve had all members of a herd loose in a paddock slip into meditation and lift their hooves one by one for me as I move around and trim each one. I know this is special because it’s more common that I’m coaxing, pleading, and arguing my way through my work…
Trust – and trusting my intuition – is what has led me on some of my greatest rides, or into the softest most loving interactions.
In fact, I find that when I implement all this, there is almost never any opportunity to get hurt, because horses that are not restrained or forced to do things tend to be relaxed and, well, safe.
On the other hand, when I make mistakes I can always trace it back to a moment where I stopped paying attention, stopped listening, or let myself get worked up when something didn’t go my way.
When I look at good standard safety procedures imposed by others, I see within them structures that allow for these same things: following rules makes you pay attention, and therefore promotes awareness. Communication with other humans as well as horses comes with clear signals and rules, and having good gear and parameters will automatically induce calmness, which has a positive feedback effect (calmness begets calmness, therefore lowering accident rates). As for trust – that’s extremely personal and can only come from authentic experience and relationship.
I ask people that visit my herd not to rely on rules or regulations to remain safe, but rather to engage in the moment, listen to their own fears, and be their own champions – while respecting the horses and giving them space to be horses. But this takes constant vigilance and personal practice, and we’re all at different places with this kind of stuff – which is why, I think, we turn to rules to keep us relatively safe.
I’m curious about your thoughts on safety, especially those of you with practices and businesses where a certain standard is required. When do you feel most safe? What situations have felt unsafe? Do rules and regulations help or hinder your work?