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Thursday, 22 December 2011

Collecting the heart

«The State of Mind of a horse (or person, for that matter) is everything. The ones who will do things even when they don't want to are easier and perhaps make us feel confident and effective. But it is the ones that won't do anything, unless we are pure in our techniques and intentions that either show us we actually are effective, or prove that we are not. Either way it is a gift.» 

When I first read this quote, it struck me as an accurate definition of my relationship with my mare Menina, my half-Lusitano, and the most challenging horse I have played with to this day. She is a wonderful teacher, and I am grateful to have her in my life.  If you have been following me, you already know she is not easy. I raised her from birth, but the combination of excellent breeding, athletic ability, sensitivity, intelligence and confidence has proven to be, to say the least, daunting. This horse will not fill in for my mistakes, that is partly why she is so demanding. She is also highly connected to me, to my thoughts, to my state of mind, and this adds another dimension to the challenge:  if my intentions are not pure or if it's not about doing it with her, she knows it even before I have started to ask for anything.  I remember leading her when she was 2 weeks old, and as we were passing by a small concrete ledge, I thought «Wouldn't it be cool if she j...», and there she was, on the ledge!  That is how connected she is to me; she keeps track of my whereabouts and what I am doing, and understands whether she is to be involved or not.

So with Menina, I either have to find the right combination of focus, feel, timing, balance and energy or she will clearly indicate her objection to my feeble human leadership. As an extreme LBE/LBI/RBE that can sometimes be RBI, not only do I have to continually adjust to play with the horse that shows up, but if she wore a sign on her head, it would most likely read 'YOU SUCK' a large portion of the time.

It would be easy to become disheartened or discouraged with such a horse, and she has certainly tested my confidence many, many times. Her responses or reactions can be quite extreme, and have included in the past serious bucking, striking, kicking, rearing, running off, biting, laying down and refusal to move. At one point in time, she was labelled 4 out 5 on Pat Parelli's challenging horse scale. Progress through the levels has been slow, as I have had to keep learning and refining my skills to prove that I can be a worthy leader for Menina.  Thankfully she is the third horse I am bringing to Level 4, not the first one.  I probably would not have survived the first time around!

Several years ago, at the end of a 6 week course, we were asked to write a letter to our horse. Mine said something like «who will I have to become to finally be good enough to earn your heart?»; and that has been my quest every since. Whenever I get the chance to play with another horse, most of the time, I find them easy. And they help me regain confidence in my skills and ability. They might fill in a bit, or I might just have learned enough to get through to these horses. But not Menina. There is not much room for error, and she won't tolerate much fumbling around either. I either get it, or I SUCK. Thankfully, I have earned enough leadership in the last 8 years to get past most of the dangerous behavior. Today, her feedback consists mostly of arguing, saying no, leaving, or simply ignoring my requests.

My latest issue had been showing up in the circling game online, a task that I have been trying to refine to finish taping Level 4 (instructors have been issued a deadline to complete Level 4 by September so we are on a timeline now).  She can canter on the 45 foot line and will do flying lead changes with ease, our long lining is solid, and she will handle any obstacle with confidence.  However, she has also mastered the art of leaving at any point in time, by hooking the rope with her leg or nose, straightening out her body and taking off at a gallop ripping the line out of my hands.  She only does it at a certain distance, so playing on the 22 foot line has not helped me resolve the issue.  Up to recently, she always did it to the left, but when I became acutely focused on where her mind and nose were going when going left, and was able to interrupt the pattern a couple of times by doing less sooner, she started doing it to the right.  All the techniques I learned over the years spent at the Parelli ranch made no difference; I had to rethink carefully my strategies and take a hard look at the root of this behavior.

Then one night, I remembered Pat and Casper back when I was in the Parelli University several years ago, and a game he had us play to help Casper at Liberty.  Casper had a pattern of leaving Pat, always on the same side, and Pat was trying to find a way to replace this pattern.  Casper is also a very challenging and very intelligent horse.  At that point, it dawned on me that my issue was not at all about circling - Menina could circle perfectly fine is she WANTED to.  What was missing was the strength of relationship that I needed to keep her wanting to stay, and, in my endeavor to make progress, to resolve other issues, learn Finesse, ride with Walter Zettl and get ready for courses like the Game of Contact, I had somehow forgotten to keep COLLECTING HER HEART.  I had been putting a lot of pressure on my horse, and she was saying «listen to me, what about the relationship?».  I had her mentally, emotionally and physically collected, but I had been neglecting the heart.  The bank account was running low.  Even a left brain, confident, horse needs to know you care, even if they are not afraid of you and generally like human companionship.  She had no trouble being with me, but she started leaving when I was asking for more, and in her eyes, I was either being unfair, critical, or I was asking at the wrong time.

In light of this insight, I changed my focus completely and made the last week all about the relationship.  I'm trying to listen to her more, to ask less without forgetting to be particular, which is crucial to keep being a good leader for this type of horse, accepting the tries, and rewarding often.  I threw away my rope and restarted at Liberty in a large area, so I could have the Truth, whatever that may be.  The first day, she did leave right away; I encouraged her with a lot of energy, drove her strongly to create more draw and make the wrong thing difficult, but gave her HUGE releases by backing off completely when she started looking at me to come back.  Extreme drive and draw for an extreme behavior, matching the energy.  Two repetitions and she was sticking to me like glue.  I asked very little the first day, other than that she stay with me, and then sat down and just hung out with her for a long time.  I decided to not ride her either, to make sure we left everything on a soft positive feeling for her and for me.

I am on day 5 of this program, and the change is HUGE.  Every day I ask for a little more, because she will get bored if I don't, trying to balance how much I can ask and when to back off.  She is no longer leaving, even with the grass under her feet and her buddies out of sight.  And she is giving me trot circles at liberty, both directions, with changes of direction, and putting lots of effort in.  A little more each day.  I am ending each session on a big chunk of undemanding time (so hard for an extrovert), and she grazes next to me or just put her muzzle on my head and softly blows in my hair as if to say «Thank you for finally getting it!».

Horses don't care what you know until they know how much you care.
So easy to forget when you are busy and goal oriented.  Walter Zettl says that without Schwung, you have nothing to work with.  In Parelli, we say that without the relationship, you have nothing.  This horse was not going to let me get away with forgetting that very important piece of the puzzle; what an amazing teacher she has been and continues to be!  Through all the times where I thought I just SUCKED, there has been all that learning going on and huge lessons being hammered into my brain and heart.  I am and continue to be absolutely committed to my relationship with this horse, as with all my other horses.  But this relationship is where I have to be more than committed;  I have to be obsessed!   I have to keep working at it and cannot be lured into thinking that I might have learned everything I need to know to be good with horses, or with this horse.  Not even for a day.

Thank you Menina for constantly pushing me to become a better horseman and human, for making sure my intentions are pure and my techniques are right, and for never, ever, letting me off the hook!

1 comment:

  1. Love this blog, Gen. I have a LB horse who thinks I SUCK a lot of the time, too! I'm finally starting to figure out what I have to do to change her opinion, but doing it is another matter! ;)