Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Out of Body Experiences

Today I worked with the beautiful and stubborn and sensitive Elijah.  I say worked but basically I did not have what I needed to communicate with a horse this morning.  I had to be talked through some of the most basic moves, how to stand tall and have intent.  Where to place myself in relation to the horse.  What to do when he refused my hopes.  I can't just pull on a rope and have an enormous horse, feet planted solidly, come along.  So this is why many people have small dogs.  Brawn doesn't cut it with a horse.

After leading Elijah toward the paddock I stopped and he squared off perpendicular to our direction.  I could not think my way out of this situation.  Karen showed and reminded me of the maneuver we had done while driving inside the arena.  You come to a halt, shift the rope, guide to the opposite side, and then here, guide back into proper alignment.  She managed it without a hitch.  I did not, no surprise.

I was just a shallow word-bound human today, suffering head congestion, little energy and no presence.  It was embarrassing how clueless I had become today both in remembering what I had learned, and being able to convey my wishes, physicality, commands.  Maybe twice today I made good moves that were understood.  It was as if I forgot how to give time for Elijah to read my wishes, and I forgot certainly how to read his.

We were in a road-neighboring corral and there were many distractions.  But I know that today it was my distraction that was leading to this hilarious circumstance of a human and a horse in the same ring, tethered to each other but miles apart.  If anything Elijah was a mirror, of my distraction, my small posture and presence, my confusion.  Oh well.  There is value in knowing those states that one can enter that fail to translate, that cannot translate, to another species.  I can only imagine what thoughts went through Elijah's head.  I fear the main one was extreme boredom.

I have vowed to myself to not drink wine (not even one glass) the night before a horse time session.  I ascribe my dullness to that and look forward to a better day next week.  Learning each and every day– about myself as much as anything else.

Sugar Fix

This day I worked again with Sugar,  the eleven year old mustang.  It was not the incredible moment of bonding that my time with Elijah had been, but then I don't think I will ever be as thrilled as I was that day of connection.  It would be impossible.  

I had trouble with keeping Sugar's attention.  Unlike Elijah she did not bolt when I unharnessed her.  She walked by my side quite willingly, stopped when I did, turned well and was not at all stubborn.  Yet I knew I had her attention less than I had had with Elijah.  At one point Sugar discovered a small clump of white horse hair on the ground, and she sniffed it and then blew it away from her feet with her nose, and then would do this over and over.  I really worked just to get her to the other side of the arena.  That felt humbling.  We also tried to walk over the low hurdles (I don't remember what these things are called) but she would not follow.  She would go around but not over.  

Today this was like learning a stick shift after having been taught on an automatic.  I needed much coaching on how to lead Sugar not from the forequarters but from the rear.  We had to break down the movement of my body in relation to her back hip.  Sometimes I would face her back hip and try to get her to back up which didn't work well.  The best option was to walk forward but in such a way that I got closer to her hip with my left shoulder. We worked a little bit on driving again with some refinements and I felt I could read her signals of compliance or resistance better. 

Karen mentioned that it was better to learn how to direct the horse from the ground.  Really to get that down before ever riding which requires the use of the reins in addition to body position.  Every day I get just that much closer to being interested in riding.  I was probably foolish to think this benign investigation of horse nature would not be leading to that inevitability.   I am pondering riding.  I am more eager to believe that a horse likes to be ridden.  At the very least it gets them into new territory.  And other rationales to come I am sure.  

Sunday, April 17, 2011

New World

My first two days amongst horses were engaging and presented me a learning curve that kept me just short of feeling competent.  I had some success with the new concepts of leading a horse and making sure it did not rule me.  I had learned to drive a horse in a ring, and change the direction of that drive.  What I could not at all claim proficiency in was being able to read the animal, I did not know when it was paying attention, nor when I had received dispensation to change things up, nor when it was tense, or relaxed.  Sugar had not responded to my talking, very little of my walking tall, and even less of my gesturing.

Day Three Karen introduced me to other horses boarded at the stables.  I met Mattheo, an enormous black Frisian/Thoroughbred horse with an honest to God Hercule Poirot mustache that apparently is shed in the summer.  That was a horse worthy of a photo spread.  He grabbed my sweatshirt with his lips, and even in my novice state I knew that was not the best behavior.  Next we met Garzo, a very nervous tic-laden horse that was white with blue eyes.  I could tell my proximity was stressing him out and I was glad when we went over to Karen's horses.

I visited Dusty, her most compliant and gentle horse.  He allowed me to do the neck pressure thing where he practically went nose to the grass.  Karen worked on the concept of getting Dusty to move away from me by my just facing his hind quarters and holding intent.  Dusty's leg almost immediately yielded over in front of his other one and he stepped away.  This was the demo horse.

Next up was Elijah, a white horse with huge blackberry colored splotches that are quite charming in total view.  Elijah was haltered by Karen and we tried the same thing of staring at the hip, facing the back side and I waited for Elijah to do the same cross step that Dusty had just showed.  Nothing.  Karen had told me in the arena with Sugar that it is not the best position of control for the human to cave in on a request.  We must stand our ground.  We must stare and be commanding.  I had less patience than Elijah and I decided to twirl my wrist a bit to give him the idea of relenting but that gesture spooked him and he pulled way back and turned toward me.  Karen had the halter so I think she knew he might do this.  She then informed me Elijah really needed little extra coaxing.  He was if anything very sensitive to commands and humans.  She suggested I lead Elijah down the hill to the arena.

We entered the arena and I figured we were going to practice what I had learned with Sugar with this new horse.  We got to the center and Karen began walking away and took up a bench at one end of the arena.  She then told me to remove Elijah's harness carefully and see if he would stay near me.  I began to undo the harness as if I were defusing a bomb, but as expected, I moved one of my hands too quickly (or so I thought) and he bolted to the other side of the enclosure.

Karen then said that today I would just try to get Elijah to come up to me and maybe to walk with me.  That was it.

From this moment my world tilted on its axis to a wholly new place.  For the next half hour I kept Elijah aware of my interest in him.  I approached and he bolted.  I cut him off in one direction and he would whirl away in the other,  if he approached I backed up,  I would keep eye contact and then break it respectfully.  The whole time I remained silent!  This went on and on, I never let him get bored with my presence.  I had to keep him engaged or we would both be standing alone, with me feeling very foolish.  It was at once a bizarre series of novel movements and at the same time an instinctive ritual dance that I felt I had known my entire life.

When at last Elijah walked in a straight path and stopped his nose straight in front of mine, my heart was beating an elated fast clip.  I was screaming inside Wow! and I can't believe this is happening to me! and  on the outside I was barely moving a muscle.  We stood there for about twenty seconds and I lowered my head a bit and slowly brought my hand up, a new knowledgeable hand, for permission, the time taken to ask it, and then a nose pet.  I broke my silence to tell Karen I could not believe this was happening.

She suggested I walk with Elijah, first placing myself at his side if he would allow, and then just commencing walking and see if he followed.  He did.  I was thrilled beyond anything I have felt in ages, if ever.  We walked clear around the ring twice, stopping on occasion to see if that still held our relationship actively too.  We walked over low hurdles that were set out. I spoke out loud to Karen to say that in all past times with horses I had never been given the opportunity or time to have a horse willingly accompany me anywhere.  It had all been about getting ready to ride.  Karen paused and then said, "I don't think Elijah has ever been given the time to make his own decisions about a person either."  What a wonderful thing for both of us.

On the second go round I walked over a hurdle and instead of going the same big circle path around the arena, left to right, I began to turn a tighter, more wall cramped right to left direction.  Elijah bolted.  Karen asked me what I thought went wrong and I at first thought it was an abrupt movement of my arm.  Then I added the thought that it might have been that I was asking him to make a tight turn.  She said yes, exactly, that turn is a submissive turn.  I had obviously broken our momentary equality and he didn't like it.  I apologized out loud, funny notion after all that silence but then Elijah came right back.  I probably don't need to elaborate on the feeling that was coursing through me.

Karen then came over and handed me the halter to put on Elijah.  Elijah did not move an inch as I placed it carefully.  Then I drove him around the arena for the next ten minutes.  He was so responsive to the slightest tug on the rope or twirling of the back of the rope to move off from me.  Karen said she had never been relaxed enough before about a student driving a horse on their second day. She just stayed seated and away from us.

Our time, our incredible time, was up.  I stood close to Elijah and looked at him as I have never looked at a horse.  I wondered if I had fallen in love.  This day I will remember for the rest of my life.  I have been elated all the week since.  I wonder if this day will ever be repeated with any horse, or even Elijah again.  I know it was a moment of grace for which I am profoundly thankful.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Monday Driving

This second day of horse investigation took place in a covered arena with Sugar.   As soon as we got inside it began to hail and the sound was all-encompassing and matched the excitement I felt at another chance to enter big beast world.  Sugar had a halter on and again I was handed the rope.  Today we were to make the distinction between leading a horse and driving a horse.  I led Sugar around the arena one or two times with great indifference on her part.  Karen explained that Sugar had been a wild mustang when captured young.  Sugar obviously had some history prior to becoming a part of Karen's herd because she had a way of checking out, zoning out, looking for something, anything different than dealing with a human's request.

Karen kept repeating that I had to look for the horse's attention.  She said I had to keep that attention.  We talked flexion points, where a horse gives in, gives a signal of attention or surrender to you. First up is right behind the ears, a too subtle move for me to detect, the next at the neck.  Here even I could detect whether the horse was giving me its attention, the animal does a ninety degree bend, quite obvious.  Then at the ribs and the hips.  We even worked with Sugar to give a little bit of release of her neck down toward the ground.  You hold constant pressure behind the ears on the mane and wait it out. Sugar might give you a three on a scale of ten - ten being head down to the grass level.  I needed to acknowledge even a one with this particular horse because she rarely gave herself away easily. I really could not distinguish Sugar's release or acquiescence, these minute signs that Karen can see. The subtlest shift might say she is ready to do your bidding but don't miss the signal or she might retrench.  I just don't know where or how to look.  

I had learned the day before a bit of Sugar's reticence to play along when I had been cut off near a fence.  I had tried to stride past her and all I had done was walk into her face. She held her ground, even while I flapped my arms.   I learned that a horse can't really see you to read you if you are too close.  Today I would learn to keep my distance in order to be 'heard'.  I still at this point kept trying to coax cooperation with soothing baby words, or doggy excitement words, or rational careful diction.  'Get a new playbook' was the lesson I learned instead.  While leading Sugar the only thing that worked was to be large, tall, quite elbowy even.  I could not observe from afar, I had to be in it completely as a strong presence.

One assignment sounded simple.  Walk around to the other side of the horse.  Here Sugar blocked me repeatedly.  I walked into her nose, we did feints left and right, she would not yield to her right side.  She would yield for Karen.  I asked if it were kosher to duck under the neck, and Karen said no.  It took me about fifteen minutes to get to the other side, I inched along, missing all the cues that Karen saw.  I rushed my request, I failed to request,  I gave up too soon, or I gave the wrong rope command.  My head was spinning with the not seeing it.  Finally Sugar allowed me around for about a minute before she circled me and once again I stood on her left.  Oh well.

Driving a horse is a different animal.  Here you play out a rope and let the animal lead, remaining as the pivot in the middle of a circle.  I noticed Karen swinging the long end of the rope and playing out the nose end getting distance and a fast clip.  It took me quite a while to do more than contain the front end of this horse racing away and around me, her butt end remaining quite close and her front end getting away from me, if that makes any sense.  The horse's peripheral vision is very much capable of seeing your more distant hand signaling with a circling motion.  I discovered that a twirling rope would move the rear end away.  It became a lot less tense.

I was just getting the hang of it when Karen changed the game and had me stop and pivot the horse's nose around my stationary self so that we could then drive in the other direction.  This was an exciting new dance step and once Sugar did the maneuver three times, we called it a day.  I walked home in the cold rain, over corral fences and through neighboring woods, delighted in the newness and freshness of this day and this horse world.

Give Me Sugar

We approached Sugar where she stood in a sturdily fenced corral.  It was at this moment that I had a pang of regret for my voluble chit chat a week ago on the trail.  My musings on a wish to get to know a horse had become moist breath and big eyes and odd noises, and that was just me.  I came toward Sugar a step and a half behind Karen.  Sugar is a black and tan Mustang with an unreadable branding on her neck.  Karen put a halter on her.  I did not really know what to do with myself without a fence between me and this large living thing.

Very quickly, without preamble, I was handed the rope and instructed to walk with her around the corral.  I was told that the two things I had to know were that Sugar would try to pin me against the fences and that if she pulls ahead I need to stop her.  She immediately pulled ahead and Karen said I should just stop and she would stop.  I stopped. She didn't.   Then I learned to pull up on the rope near her neck, phew, we stopped.  Karen pointed out that Sugar wasn't walking parallel to me either and that this is a problem.  She was essentially cutting me off at the pass.  With instructions to look straight ahead while walking tall and also the need to turn my head and see the alignment of Sugar's hips I was sending quite whacked cues to the horse.  My main concern was not being pinned against the fence.  The other thing I was doing was talking.

As much as I wanted my main talent to sway the day, the horse does not speak English, or infer meaning, or even respond.  I felt like I was at a cocktail party with people who thought I was boring.  Tons of effort and a constant report of my internal feelings, asking permission for advances, and a side play by play of all of my thoughts to Karen and one could only call me at this moment The Horse Blatherer.  Much of the most effective advice was to stand tall or be big, open my arms to the side, hold my place.  It was all a completely new language for me and I was baffled and full to the brim with my first day amongst horses.

I asked Karen as we walked away from Sugar's corral to repeat the rule that horses like to pin you to fences and get ahead of you.  Her reply was "Oh no, that's just Sugar, all the horses have different problems, each their own."  This sounded ominous.

Friday, April 8, 2011

A Date with Dusty-Neigh

My introduction to a horse began on a rare beautiful April day.  I pictured myself learning how to communicate with a horse by just observing it, hanging out on top of a fence, projecting my thoughts telepathically into those huge orbs of obsidian that they have for eyes. Somehow coming to an understanding without overstepping my welcome, and certainly not by controlling the animal.

Well the first thing I learned with my new teacher Karen is that, like dogs ala Cesar Romero, a horse needs to know that you are worthy of its attention, and that you will take the lead in any waltz around the paddock.  I was introduced first to Dusty.  He was the oldest and mellowest horse at the stable.  I thought that he would be just fine for this investigation.
Karen encouraged me to tell Dusty that I was intimidated by his size, the old adage that a horse instinctively knows your fears has been amended with the suggestion that you fess up immediately and pretend nothing and 'use your words'.  Karen spoke  of others who oversee equine therapy in which humans are encouraged to tell the animals their troubles.  This was not quite what I imagined, more like I wanted the horse to tell me its problems.  She then demonstrated the proper distance from the animal one needs to pass behind it and thus we left quiet Dusty.

I then met Elijah, a brown and white horse who appeared more tense.  Or maybe that was me.  I met him inside a stall which really amplifies the size of a horse.  I repeated my tried and true first greeting and held up my hand to be sniffed.  Wondering if to a horse this was akin to asking him to kiss my ring made me ask Karen if horses like or want this particular attention.  She replied that Elijah was obviously already bored with my presence since he started looking away immediately after the first sniff.  I asked how do you tell if a horse is tense, she noted the ears, tension in the neck, and stance, pointing out that Elijah's left rear hoof was tipped up and his balance was on one leg there and this is a sign of ease.  I felt somehow accomplished for the mere fact of not frightening the horse.  This whole morning I had been holding back my coughing for fear it would spook one of the horses.  I have a strange idea of horse skittishness and obviously it is all projection.

As we left the at-ease Elijah and passed by Dusty again, whose back foot interestingly was also tipped up in hoof repose I heard Karen say "Well I guess we are going to work with Sugar."  as if she had asked the other two for permission to work with me and they had declined.

Horse Time

Now that that last little adventure is over, and my personal responsibilities have subsided for awhile,  I am beginning a new odyssey of the Black Phoebe as I flit away from hearth and back again.  Staying available to family and loved ones and yet adventuring in my mind into new worlds.  Mere steps away from home.

I have recently been thinking that because of my aversion to the hubris of humans, in this case horse-back riders, that I have never really gotten to know horses very well.  Dogs, cats, even a canary, but with these pets  I never tried to ride them.  I admit that I get judgmental when I see someone on a horse.  It seems like the ultimate in vanity to elect to subjugate and be carried about by an animal.  I feel the same way about rickshaws and pedicabs.  This may be a product of living entirely in the age of the combustion engine.  For me though it seems incredibly arrogant to ride an animal.  My heart is not in it.

When I was a teenager I rode the pony rides at Tilden Park.  I took lessons with the Girl Scouts as a teen, and in my third year of college I took riding lessons.  Riding a horse is definitely exciting.  I enjoyed all of these times with horses though I was aware of my fear of such a large animal.  I had been run-away-with at a dude ranch in Red Bluff, all the way back to the barn and there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it.  The best thing these exposures did was impress my mother-in-law enough of my horsemanship to remove this skill, at  least this one thing, from her list of snarkies.

I mused over my lack of recent knowledge of these magnificent, HUGE, creatures, and realized most of my interaction with them in the last twenty years has been entirely holding the back of my hand near their nostrils to let them sniff.  Occasionally I would touch their neck from behind the safety of a fence.  I muse over many things and never act on them, and this recurrent though not necessary desire might have remained un-acted on.

There are many trails near my home where I walk our dog, Barkeley.  One day after going down a steep hill my knees began to ache.  (This occurs frequently now that I hiked down the eastern escarpment of the Sierra in about three hours at the end of my Sierra crossing).  To counter the pain I began a very weird goose step that looked like I was bicycling a Victorian large-wheel bike.  I thought I was alone but I had attracted the attention and concern of a tall woman on horseback.   She veered off her trail to check on whether I was OK.  I think tall women on large horses are more brave and more equipped to be heroic than hikers.

It turned out she was a woman I had met earlier who owned a stable very near our house.  We chatted, and I do go on, and in my blather I told her how I had been thinking about finding someone in town that would introduce me to horses without my having to ride them.   She said that I was not the only person who had asked her about this kind of 'lesson' and she had been musing how to construct such an approach for people like myself.  She suggested an introduction to horses for free the next week and I took her up on the idea.