The huge horse turns his head all the way to the left, straining to see his herd mates in the pasture, from his right eye. The empty socket on his left side looks a little ghoulish, but it doesn’t bother him. In fact, he likes to have me rub inside it, where the skin of his eyelids have been sewn together after the injured eye was removed. Zeb gets salt and grit in there, and nothing he can do will scratch that particular place.
Jill leads him up from the pasture holds the lead rope right up under his halter, hoping to exert some sort of control. I can feel her nerves, as Zeb whinnies a high thin sound to the friends he’s leaving behind.
He stands over 17 hands, which is 5’7” at his withers (the place where his neck meets the top of his back). I can’t see over his back, or under him, or around him. He’s like working beside a billboard; one who is blind in one eye, and might startle when someone comes up on that side. When he gets insecure, his thick neck lifts all the way up, and he seems to grow a few more inches.
With the blindness on his left side, which is where we usually lead a horse, we work with him from the right side, so he can see us. So, all Jill’s auto pilots for handling horses have just been rendered obsolete.
Her last few sessions with him in a halter didn’t go so well, so I want to work with them together.
“Why don’t you lead him around the dry lot, and just get the feel of one another?” I ask.
I like to see where they are together, what’s working, what might need a little help, or reframing, before I say anything.
Still holding the lead rope right up under the halter, she asks Zeb to walk with her around the empty dry lot.
This is his “home”, and I want to work with them here, where he feels safest, to give them both the best shot at success.
She takes him for a drink of water, and then leads him towards the gate. Zeb drags his feet, walking a few steps then stopping. Jill asks again and gets a few more steps, before he stops again. When they got close to a hay manger he just flat ignores her, dragging her over to the hay nets with him.
Face red and jaw clenched, she looks back at me and throws her hands up. We both laugh, and I ask if I can take the lead rope.
Zeb is half Belgium draft horse and half mustang, with the size of a draft horse, but just a little finer boned. It’s no joke to have him pull you around.
I take the lead rope and let him eat hay.
“What’s going on inside you as you’re working with him?” I keep my voice light, smiling at her from my insides.
Her forced smile stays in place as she rattles words that have nothing to do with what she’s feeling. My hand goes up to Zeb’s shoulder, finding his itchy places, soothing both of us.
This is the moment, and there are so many, with horses as well as people, where I stretch myself to find a bridge. How can I meet her? What does she need from me to find her next step?
She’s pouring words, but none of them mean any more than the frozen smile she still wears.
I drop into my body, beneath the words, following a thread of movement I can’t begin to articulate.
“Can I show you some options?” I ask.
“Please,” she responds, and I feel that land in a way none of her other words have.
I step away from Zeb, on his sighted side, allowing the twelve feet of lead rope to stretch between us, and offer a small feel on the line. He, most predictably, ignores me. I wait with him, my top knuckle of my right forefinger offering a tiny ‘thrum’ on the line, like a bait fish nibbling the hook. I get an ear flicked back to me, and stop, turn away, and breathe. I ask again, adding a little pressure towards his hip, with the training stick and string. His ear flicks towards me, and he picks up his head and slowly swings his body in my direction, his huge hind feet crossing over each other as he disengages his hindquarters.
He walks up to me and lowers his head for me to scratch his long ears. They flop out to the side and his one eye closes, as he relishes the scratching. It’s our thing.
Keeping my breath deep and even, I hold that feel with him, like a current that moves between my body and his. He lowers his head, relaxing into the connection.
This sweet boy isn’t very confident, and being away from his herd stretches him. He leans into this shared moment.
My own mind turns in the background.
“How do I impart this to people?” Some get it, and some don’t even see what’s going on. Words help with some folks, and with others, I need to hold them the same way I hold the horses.
I sigh, bringing myself back to what I can do now.
Jill is watching us, oblivious to what’s happening. This isn’t her next step.
Maybe action… ?
“I’d like to show you some options you have when you work with Zeb,” I begin. “First thing is to give you both longer lines. Control with him is an illusion.”
We both laugh.
That feels real.
“The second thing is to change things up,” I continue. “You know all the basics.”
This is something I say all the time to the people I work with. I’m always surprised at how much permission people need to step out of what they perceive as performance.
“All the ways you’ve learned to talk with him are like learning to playing scales. You practice the notes, and where to put your fingers to get them. But that’s not really music yet. Now you get to put those notes together to make music. And with a horse on the other end of the line, it’s like jazz. You get to riff and improvise together.”
Her eyes open a bit wider, and the edges of her smile fade.
“This isn’t a performance,” I say. “It’s relationship. It’s a dance together, and you’re always learning from each other.”
I step away from Zeb again, rather than asking him to walk beside me, and he turns to follow where I’m going. When he reaches me, I use his momentum to keep walking together.
“Clear, specific asks,” I say. “Help him to feel successful.”
“Now, let’s do a drive by with the hay manger again. I want to give you some options when he opts out of your relationship.”
I recreate the scenario she experienced with Zeb, walking him close enough to the manger to get his interest in the hay. Right on cue, he bows out of our conversation and suggests we should go eat some hay.
Instead of following along beside him trying to stop an 1800 lb horse, I move away and let him swing out the length of the lead rope, using my body and the rope as a fulcrum, and ask him to continue his motion, just turn it in my direction. It doesn’t get loud between us, just firm.
His ears shift from pointing towards the hay, to swiveling in my direction. His eye follows, and then his body, as he shifts back to the conversation we were sharing.
I see Jill’s face open, the frozen expression gone now, and understanding softening her eyes. I bring Zeb back to her and hand her the lead rope.
“You play with him now.”
She does the same thing, giving him that longer line, and a way to connect without it turning into a fight. Zeb turns from the hay towards her, and her face lights up in the first real smile I’ve seen all morning.
“That’s it! How does that feel?” I ask.
“That feels so good!”
Her words land inside me, authentic, connected.
This is the moment I want for her.
To feel something different.
As we put Zeb away, her words rattle around me again. So many words.
We’ll do this again.
It’s always a long game, this growth.
I let the words wash around me, and feel the warmth in my own body, lingering from the single moment of connection.