Saturday, April 26, 2014

Who's listened to you lately?

Horses have a lot to say but humans are not always good at hearing it. We get caught up in our own timelines, our own plans, and stop hearing anything outside of our own heads as we pursue that goal on the horizon, whatever it may be. This strategy can keep us focused on the end game but might make us miss some things on the way. Like an opportunity to connect with a big, brown racehorse. Or the universe. Could be the same thing some days of the week.

He says great things every day
As they transition away from their life on the track, ex-racehorses can be surprised by the new things they encounter in this strange new world of not-the-track. They adapt well--with a little time and patience--to cross-ties, being outdoors, dirt, heavy western saddles, weird games non-track people play and more. What sometimes surprises them most is having someone slow down and listen to them.

The people on the track (for the most part) do love and care for their horses. They know them, their personalities and quirks, and do what needs to get done to keep horses healthy and running. And they spend a lot of time doing that. But it is a business and very often things have to happen on a timeline--a human timeline around workout times and race days and the ticking of a clock that a horse doesn't necessarily hear.

Despite the human energy around them, some horses expect you to be listening. Lena not only expects it, she demands it and woe betide you if you go off somewhere else while you're riding. The ground can be nearly as unforgiving. She is a very expressive (some might say dramatic) mare. Not very affectionate in general but you can always tell when she doesn't feel well because suddenly her big head is in your chest with the likelihood being that she'd sit in your lap if she could. That's when--if you're listening--you be sure you have the vet's phone number close at hand. She's also extremely good at telling you when you are off-kilter in the saddle. "I think I'll zig zag now because you are posting on some crazy diagonal." 

Calabar did not expect anyone to hear what he had to say. Not really. He came to me certain he had to take charge because it was unlikely I would fathom the thoughts going on inside his big brown head. He was right at first, but he--more than any other horse--taught me to listen. There have been many incidents along the way that have cemented our relationship--from what liniment he prefers to saving him from the yellow jackets--and I've had the enormous pleasure to watch others prove themselves to him by simply hearing what he had to say. 

"Oh, I think I ran a hot nail," said my farrier after Calabar reared slightly in the cross ties while Mike held a front foot. Did Mike get mad? Nope. And not without cause. Calabar has not always been overly-cooperative for Mike. Mike stopped, pulled the nail and I swear I saw relief flow across that big brown horse's face. He even smooched Mike and has become easier to shoe since then.

Often the racehorses I've worked with are like Calabar. They've seen a lot, they've been handled a lot, but they haven't always been listened to a lot. Or not always when it mattered. And it's not just racehorses in that boat, there are plenty of horses out in the world with owners who don't want to or can't listen for whatever their reasons are. Those humans are missing a very important part of the conversation, of the relationship they could have with their horse, but they must like that path through the world.

I have seen that look of surprise and relief on more than one of the Neigh Savers horses I've worked with when I didn't get mad, when I didn't force an issue, when I stopped and said, "How can I explain this to you better so you understand me?" Or, "Why is this thing hard for you?" Or "What do you feel like doing today?" Or even just, "How do you like to be groomed?" Maybe this spot is sore or that spot needs a little massage or there is an itchy spot that just has to get scratched. Find them and show that you are paying attention, that you hear them even when they don't use words.

Nick is saying "I need something to do!"
Many of the horses also like to know what it is your doing. Show them the product you're going to spray on them, let them smell it. Take the time to let them understand and agree and you start to build that conversation so when the bigger issues come up--like cross ties and western saddles and large bodies of water--you've got a track record of trust behind you. 

It can get frustrating sometimes, of course. You've got stuff to do and the horse is bouncing away from you for some unknown (to you) reason. Lena likes to move. She likes to dance and prance and will spook just to entertain herself on occasion. Getting aggravated really doesn't help and merely lets her know she's won the latest round. Pretending you actually knew what she was going to do, however, that accomplishes many feats. In other words, go with it then find a way to slow her down and engage her brain more so there is less mental energy going towards practicing her sideways canter.

In other words, you also have to know when they are playing a game and call them on it. Ironically, this ends up building trust because they realize you have them figured out at least a little bit which means you were actually paying attention. Listening. Observing. Smothering laughter on occasion.

When you've been practicing your listening skills, it means you can often anticipate behavior.Any chance to prove you know what you're doing gives you that much more confidence and leadership which goes a very long way with 1,200 pounds. Not over-reacting when they do their silly thing and controlling it when they do it is sometimes anti-climactic but much more fun. Especially when they realize they've been had.

After a lunge session in the indoor arena awhile back, Calabar spied Peter doing battle with the terrifying patch of blackberry bushes in the back corner of the outdoor arena and we absolutely had to investigate. He didn't drag me but our pace was brisk and he would have had his nose in the bushes as Peter flung cut pieces around us if I hadn't kept the brown horse back a step or two. 

After our inspection, we turned to leave and I KNEW as soon as the butt end of my horse was pointed towards Peter and the bushes, Calabar would do what I call a "spin and face the danger." I could say I am so connected to my horse that I picked up on his psychic energy but it's really just as simple as sensing his more obvious Thoroughbred energy and reviewing past experiences.

So, yes. He did spin--a beautiful pivot off his front end, his butt swinging away from me at an impressive rate of speed--just so he could see what he'd just been looking at two seconds ago.. I looked up at him and asked if he was done. He looked at me, sighed and dropped his head to a normal level as we sauntered back up the hill so he could finish his dinner. There was a time I would have gotten mad and over-corrected him, but over time I stopped that silly human behavior (because he learned to stay out of my space with all his antics) and our adventures ceased escalating into madness. Funny how that works.

Listening, tuning out the background noise in your own head and just paying attention, is hard. But man is it ever worth it when they know you've actually heard them and give you their trust. Even if it's just for an instant, it's an instant you can build on, an instant you won't get without stopping to hear.

1 comment:

lmel said...

Great post! Calabar sounds a bit like Harley. Listening and knowing what he's thinking by watching his ears and eyes has kept me in the saddle a lot more over the years. Yes, often he's just being silly and jumping at nothing just because something spooked him there 3 months ago. But now I'm ready for it, relaxed, and just laugh it off. In the 5 years I've had him, his spins have decreased tremendously. He knows he can't get away with it anymore! You're so right--it's a partnership we build with our horses.