The large roan gelding stands frozen, eyes cautious and unblinking. I sit to his left and behind, the belly of the long lead rope on the ground, giving the two of us space. The cold of the arena creeps into my back, and I breathe in and stretch my body down, asking the tight muscles to let go just a bit.
The horse makes no acknowledgment of my movement. Head low, his nose pushed out and ears forward, he feels like an inhale without an exhale. He is an old campaigner, the definition of a ‘good boy’, safe, tolerant, non reactive, and very private about what is going on inside.
I’d been drawn to him since he and his friend arrived at our ranch. Alpha of the herd of two, he watches over his herd mate with care, and the playful little Appaloosa draws confidence from him. This is a big transition for them both, though. Any move for a horse is. They are doing well with it, but I want to take time with him, and see if we could begin a conversation.
This first month is about getting settled, helping the horses relax into their new home, and into a shared language with us. This time is about giving us a chance to get to know each other. I have no expectation to ride, just engaging together on the ground, leading, following, and being open to where it will take us. The conversation is what is important. So I spend a lot of time listening.
There’s a thing about listening though… we can do it from within our own space, or we can try and push our way into theirs. Obviously, the pushing kind of listening feels as bad as it sounds. The only thing is, it’s how we, as humans, most often listen. Actually, pushing our way through, is how we do most everything. Recognizing that, I tune in to my back again, tune in to the feeling of the ground under me. I take a deep breath and imagine gathering up all my scattered thoughts and feelings, and bringing them back to the bubble that is ‘my own space’.
The gelding gives a soft blow, blinks, and chews.
Noted. I’ve been spilling out into his space, my ‘agenda’ to listen, the whir of my thoughts, pressing in on him. I stand up, slip his halter off, and walk away to sit on the mounting block, turning my body so I can only see him through my peripheral vision.
I shake my head, at the image of me blowing in like a whirlwind, with all my thoughts, plans, and spinning human energy, “She’s coming in hot…”, and the horses bracing themselves for the intrusion of what I bring.
The gap between what I think I’m presenting and what I must look like from their perspective, can be substantial. At least they’re honest enough to tell me. It’s up to me to receive it though, and do something with it.
Thinking activates that whirlwind, so I go back to breathing, and noticing my own body cues. Out of that peripheral vision, I see the gelding give a big yawn, his eyes softening for the first time. The yawn is contagious, and I don’t stifle my own. He gives another, and turns his head towards me. Minutes later, slow steps bring him to where I’m sitting, and he positions himself behind me, his chin whiskers brushing the back of my head.
I refocus on my own energy, calling it inward, ‘occupying’ my own space, and grounding any extra churn, down into the sand under my feet.
Can I allow him to approach me without needing anything from him?
Can I let him ‘be’ with me?
We all watch horses stand in proximity to one another, just ‘being’ together, neither making demands of the other. It’s an intimacy I rarely experience among people.
I feel his jaw move against my head, as he chews again, shifting from his sympathetic nervous system (flight/fight/freeze), to his parasympathetic (rest/digest).
I pull my focus back away from that, and return to my own space. Funny thing is… I can’t ‘be’ with them, unless I can first ‘be’ with myself. That’s the hard part. That’s the piece I’m constantly learning.
I notice where my energy settles best. Right now, it’s in my chest, with a gentleness that holds acceptance for myself, and for this gelding. I lean into that, allowing myself to relax.
Another yawn from him, and his nose rests against my neck, breath warming my stiff back. I breathe, easing more fully into myself, and feel the weight of his muzzle pressing down on me, the warm rhythm of his exhales mirroring my own.
I don’t know how much time goes by, as this still place seems to exist outside of time. Eventually though, I feel the desire to rouse, and feel it through the gelding as well. I stand slowly, stretch, pick up the empty halter and lead rope, and begin walking.
He matches my steps, eye soft, body attuned. There is a joining here, which I feel, but don’t try to define.
For me, this is holy ground.
The place where we both become more whole.
I often feel it’s a misnomer to call myself a trainer. The horses are the ones teaching me… teaching me to be a better version of myself, and to bring that better version into my conversations with them.
They’re patient with me, allowing me to practice, stumble, fail, and try again. I must seem impossibly slow to them, yet they continue to encourage my halting steps, rewarding my tries with their presence, with their acknowledgment, with honest feedback, and with a depth of connection that I’ve not often experienced elsewhere.
One of the sweetest things about it all though, is that when I’m ready, these same lessons apply to every area of my life. It’s not just about being better with horses. It’s about being a better human.