Imagine from a distance you are watching a young woman and her horse walking peacefully up a gravel road. Beyond them you notice a mountain biker rounding the curve, barreling towards the unsuspecting pair. Like electricity, the horse bolts and ends up at the end of a long rope. The line smokes through the woman’s gloved hands, anchored at her hips. The horse swings his haunches out as he hits the end of the rope, facing up, wide-eyed and stiff-legged.
That was the fall of 2003. With adrenaline pumping, I remember saying out loud, “You are with me now and I promise to keep you safe.” The horse-owning part of my equestrian journey had just begun in the summer of that year, when I adopted my first horse, a bay Mustang, from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holding pens in California.
I was not sure exactly how a beginner like me could adopt and start a Mustang, but things lined up. A vaquero I had just met at a Cinco de Mayo parade lent me his stock trailer to pick up a wild horse from the BLM Litchfield holding pens. Who lends their trailer to a total stranger? The truck I used was borrowed too! A Mustang-owning neighbor and her daughter allowed me to start my wild horse on their property. I felt like things aligned and anything was possible. By June 13, 2003 I had my first horse, a wild Mustang.
Since those early days with Mustang Yogi, I have spent weeks, months, and years working with the best instructors, reading, writing, and reflecting, to be better for Yogi and all of my animals. Why write a blog, I ask myself? If something I have learned along my own journey, and subsequently share, helps animals and their humans, that’s my purpose. With the right attitude, determination, and support, someone new to horses can gentle a wild horse.
In my writing, I pledge to operate on, "Is it true, inspiring, helpful, and necessary?" I mean, nobody needs to know EVERYTHING that’s going on under my helmet. But I do think it’s helpful for me to know that even Warwick Schiller is human, and practices mindfulness breathing techniques before stepping into a crowd-filled arena at an expo. If someone has never heard of Warwick before, maybe I'll serve as the Malcom Gladwell "Connector." Through this blog, I may be able to link equestrian hopefuls with equestrian helpers, so they too can achieve their wildest dreams in any discipline, with any breed of horse. For step by step directions on how to train a horse, join Warwick Schiller’s online library.
As a learner, reader, writer and teacher, I am still evolving. As for training, at first it was trial-and-error, “throwing spaghetti on the wall” to see what stuck. But I also knew enough to sometimes say, "No, thank you" to my helpers. I wanted to do this in a different way. I wanted to participate in every aspect of my horse’s training.
I wore a helmet in the pen when I started Yogi. I was teased. Embarrassed, I laughed it off and continued to wear the helmet. Yogi was wild when I brought him home, but at the age of 3-1/2 he taught me not to stare. I was gazing in pure awe at MY FIRST HORSE. To him I was a predator, and to him, I was staring. If I looked too intently, he reared straight up. Yogi was never aggressive, because I dropped my gaze to the ground, stepped back, and turned my body away. He taught me! I learned to see with my peripheral vision, Sally Swift’s, "soft eyes," or what I now refer to as Reiki eyes. With Reiki eyes, we see the beings light, inside and out, with no attention to what's wrong.
Seventeen years later, I aspire to be more like Elsa Sinclair of “Taming Wild.” It was breathtaking to meet Elsa after watching her documentary at the Napa Valley Film Festival. In her film, she asked the questions, "What if horses were given a choice? Would they let us ride them? Without force or tools to control, and without bribes to lure them?" I get chills thinking of how Elsa and her mare taught one another to be gentle. But honestly, I don’t have her patience! I’m a little more “let’s get’r done.” I’m not a purist when it comes to training. At this point in my evolution as a learner, I believe there is not necessarily one best method or step-by-step way to train. Each horse is different.
I’m not a rope-shaking, pressure-escalating Natural Horsemanship (NH) human anymore. I learned about the trauma "flooding" a horse with frightening experiences may cause. I started to realize that a horse's freeze reaction to being sacked out or desensitized is actually learned helplessness. There are kind ways to habituate horses to new or frightening situations. My foundation was built on the Parelli "7 Games." Linda Parelli’s "Finesse" ridden exercises helped both Yogi and me with balance, stretching into contact, relaxation, and moving the shoulders with outside aids. NH teaches people to use energy to bring the horse's energy up or down. That’s good stuff! Knowing how to use energy to move a horse out of your space will keep you safe. With different training methods, it's a good idea to pay attention to how you and the horse feel about things. If either of you is over threshold, take a step back, breathe, and work on one thing at a time.
I shared my trepidation about hitting publish with Facebook friend, trainer, and scientist Andrea Mills of Mills Horsemanship and Hoofcare. Andrea is one of my inspirations for delving deeper into endotapping and positive reinforcement training. She shared what Warwick Schiller said to her about taking risks, “It’s an exercise in embodying vulnerability and authenticity.” If writing about my experiences is true, inspiring, helpful, and necessary for helping animals and their people, then there's no need for worry in my cup. If you want to dive deeply into the science of training, Andrea’s blog is the place to start.
Thanks for reading my meanderings! Tune in for my next post on how I discovered positive reinforcement clicker training. With gratitude for my animal teachers, husband, and good friends too!
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Two of my best friends, Mustang Yogi and youngster PRE Andalusian Brioso at Limontour Beach, Point Reyes, CA. (Lusitano Arteiro, not pictured here, joined us later in 2019.)