(photo courtesy of Charles Brooks Photography, 2011)
Every year that passes, I fall a little more in love with the horse. The more I understand them, the more admiration I have. I read something in Tom Dorrance's book True Unity today that caught my attention. He said, "...the rider needs to recognize the horse's need for self-preservation in mind, body, and spirit... He needs to realize how the person's approach can assure the horse that he can have his self-preservation and still respond to what the person is asking him to do." Have you ever thought about how incredible it is that these animals will either trust us, or fear us enough to put themselves in situations all the time that they feel may sacrifice their well being?
A lot of people think a horse is "being bad" when all he is doing is trying to stay out of harm's way in his mind. It is easy to understand their preservation of mind and body, but what exactly is the preservation of their spirit? Tom has a difficult time giving a textbook definition and I can relate as I ask myself the same question. All I can come up with is that they have a need to hold onto their personality, heart, and those unique attributes that are THEM. Their rider should embrace their strengths and give them a job that they enjoy where they can add it a little of their personality. I have seen so many horses that look broken inside and it really makes my heart heavy. I added this picture above because I think this horse looks happy and relaxed. His ears are perked forward and his head is in a balanced position.
I've been roping off of a horse that has his share of skeletons in the closet. A human in his past failed him, or many humans did. This includes but may not be limited to: being beaten with a rope, running WAY too many cattle, being taught strictly based on fear, and never being given any praise. By nature, he is exceptionally sensitive, therefore this sort of treatment has caused a number of things. When he showed up to our place he pulled back, could not be caught (I had a number of 45+ minute sessions), he would run away when you stepped off, the list goes on and on. As my boyfriend told me the first time I rode him, "The safest place to be is on him!"
I wrote this horse off for a long time. I really wanted nothing to do with him. But one day I needed an extra practice head horse and I cracked him out to ride. That day I saw a glimmer of what the horse could be. Our first steer he worked beautifully. After that, he got really worked up and started ducking out but I had seen all I needed to see. I decided after that to ride the horse for what I wanted him to be. I knew the bit we were using on him was too severe because of how sensitive he is, but the problem was he was pretty much a runaway without it. Some very knowledgeable trainers I know advised me to change him to a hackamore and I tried that and he slowly started to relax. The pressure of the other bit was way too much. I would rope off of him in the hackamore and then on days where I just worked on his foundation, I would put him in a snaffle bit and work on putting feel back into him. From there, I progressed to a broken bit with a short shank and he is thriving in it. I got choked up last week when we got second at our first jackpot together. We get better with each practice. I am so excited to see what the future holds for us as a team. I'm really falling for this horse;)
The point of this story is, this horse taught me a lot more compassion because he was so scared. I didn't want him to be afraid. I just wanted him to understand and relax. I pet him and reward him a lot, kind of like a super sensitive child. He is so eager to please that I can show him something once and he remembers and does it the next time when I ask. I know a lot of horses used to irritate me when they wouldn't do something. But I see it differently now. I know that it means their self preservation is strong. You should be able to say- Hey! Trust me!! Follow me! I am your leader and I will not let you get hurt! You will understand what I ask because I will teach you patiently and consistently! We are going to do amazing things together!" And if you have built a relationship upon trust and respect, your horse will say yes.
As our understanding of this concept grows, so will our love for such a kind, beautiful, sensitive, and intelligent animal that God has blessed us with. We will be able to have a fulfilling, personal relationship with our horses and they will enjoy what they do. I hope to bring more of this attitude to team roping.