When we think about soft hands, we often think of how our hands influence the horse’s mouth through the reins and bit. Our minds usually go to being soft and not pulling on the reins. But I want you to think about it an additional way.
I want you to check next time you ride and see how your hands feel. Are they gripped around the reins? Are they practically white-knuckled? Are they numb? Are your nails digging into your palms? Are your fingers touching the reins or are they sticking out in mid-air? When you lead your horse, how are your hands then?
A horse feels all of this. If your hands aren’t literally soft, feeling the reins but not gripping them, then your horse will feel the tension. This can result in the horse bracing on the reins. Your horse may even exert counter pressure against the pressure he/she feels from your tight and tense hands.
Whenever you lead a horse or lunge a horse or do in-hand work or ride, remember that you want your hands to be soft. Not limp, mind you. As I often say, you want your hands to be relaxed but strong. Remember that your horse feels everything. If you have tension in your hands, you probably have it elsewhere in your body. You probably also have tension in your mind, your thoughts and your actions. And if you have tension in any of these places, you will have tension in your horse.
With New Years Day having just arrived, many people are making resolutions and plans for 2014. Resolutions and plans such as “I will ride more often this year,” or “ I will be able to do a flying lead change by the end of the year,” abound. Most people are probably experiencing the same emotions they did last year at this time, when they realized that they hadn’t kept their resolutions or reached their goals from the previous year. As we make resolutions and plans anew, we tend to berate ourselves for resolutions we didn’t keep last year, plans unfulfilled. We feel guilt over these situations, but, as we have probably done for more years than we care to remember, we gamely go at it again once January 1 rolls around.
There is another way to look at making resolutions and plans, and it’s something you can use in many facets of your life, including the things you do with horses. It’s what I call “plan lightly.” When we work with our horses, we strive to be as light with them as possible. We have feel of our horse, but we do not yank on the horse or pull or have tight contact. We have just enough feel for communication but not so much that we are tightly grasping our horse in any way.
We may have in our minds that we are going to go and do something specific with our horse today. Perhaps it’s the day we’ve planned that our horse will take that right-lead canter from the walk, with no trot stops in between gaits. If we have been working on that for weeks or months, we may have really built ourselves up to this being the day it happens. But what if it doesn’t? If we build a goal up so that it must happen by or at a certain time, then if it doesn’t, we suffer terribly. We may blame the horse. We may blame ourselves. We may blame both the horse and ourselves. To stop the blame game, which doesn’t help us reach our goal anyway, we need to hold that goal lightly in our minds.
We can hold our resolutions and plans the way we should hold the reins when riding, lightly, with feel. We hold our plan like that, so that we can step towards it but so that we can also move and change as it, or circumstances surrounding it, change. One of the most important things we can keep in mind is that we do not know what the future holds, and while most of us think that whatever we plan is the best possible thing that could happen and in the time frame we want it to, that may not be true. As it is unfolding, you may think that your plan isn’t working, but in the end, the unexpected things that happen may land you at a place even more spectacular than what you had wanted in the first place.
No matter what your plans for 2014 may be – to move, to change careers, to get that flying lead change, to adopt and gentle that wild Mustang you have always dreamed about – hold that plan lightly. If you do so, you will find that when 2015 rolls around, you won’t beat yourself up about not meeting your goal if isn’t exactly how you had planned it. Rather, you will look back and enjoy the time you spent working toward it, perhaps even marveling in how it changed and became more than you could have imagined when you started.
From 2004 – 2007, Dawn and I lived on a ranch in northwestern Nebraska, doing work with our nonprofit. There was an area at the ranch that had several houses and other buildings, and the main horse pastures were in that area. The area around the houses had several apple trees that bore many apples each year. The ranch had high game fence around most of the pastures because a previous owner had raised elk. The fence went from the ground up to about 10 feet or so. During he summer of 2006, there was a catastrophic wildfire, which subsequently led to us having to leave the ranch. We let the horses graze in some different pastures near the houses after the wildfire because there wasn’t as much grass in their regular pastures. One of the pastures was along a creek.
One fall day in 2006, Dawn and I returned from our weekly shopping trip (the nearest major shopping center was 70 miles away), and we sat in the driveway for a few minutes after arriving because we were in the middle of a horse discussion. We sat there for about 10 minutes, on a nice early fall evening, looking out at the houses and lawn area, including the apple trees.
Suddenly, I realized we were seeing something that hadn’t registered for awhile. There, under an apple tree, with her head held low and standing perfectly still so as not to be noticed, was Annie, my 3-year-old Mustang mare. She had somehow managed to get out from the pasture with it’s high game fencing, perhaps by going under where the creek was flowing. She had made her way to the house area, where she was happily eating apples until our arrival.
The most amazing thing was not her escape from the pasture, nor the fact that this formerly wild Mustang had stayed around the houses instead of going to roam on thousands of acres of open ranch land. What was most amazing was that she knew we were sitting there talking, and she had frozen so we wouldn’t see her. She was looking straight at us, with her head ducked under an apple tree branch. And you know what? For awhile, it did work, and we didn’t see her. When the jig was up, we got out of the truck, and I haltered her and put her back in the pasture. I still have an image in my mind of her looking straight at us, frozen, hoping we would be on our way while she ate apples.
When we last left Strawberry, Darcie’s communicative Mustang, he was quite explicitly telling with us that he wanted to be ridden instead of her riding her other horse, Karma. The next day, Darcie did, in fact, ride Strawberry and later in the day, we did a session with her riding Karma. While we did the session, Strawberry whinnied a few times from his shelter, where he was eating hay, but he didn’t even both to leave the shelter to see what we were doing.
Fast-forward a few days to another riding session with Karma. As I was walking to the riding area where Darcie had Karma, I saw Strawberry outside of the arena. I also saw his foot in the grooming box…again. I asked Darcie if she had ridden him that day, and she said that she had not. He was clearly letting us know that the important thing to him is not being groomed; he wants to be ridden.
I wonder what else Strawberry will have to tell us as Darcie’s equine journey continues with him and Karma?
“What if horses, along with other animals, are trying as hard as they can to find a way to communicate with us in a positive way, but because we’re so stuck on seeing ourselves as ‘superior’ beings, or because we have to feel our theories are right, we don’t even give them a chance? Well, for me, it seems that would be one serious lost opportunity. And I guess that’s an opportunity I’m not willing to let get past me.” — Life Lessons From a Ranch Horse by Mark Rashid
This is one of my favorite quotes by Mark Rashid. As anyone who works with me can tell you, I view the horse-human relationship in a different light than most folks. Chalk it up to the work I do with Native people at my nonprofit, Tapestry Institute, and the Native friends I have. I believe that horses, when given the chance, are constantly trying to communicate with us. I think that far too often, we don’t think it’s possible for them to do so, so we miss what they are saying completely. I wonder if, when a horse does get through to a human, the other horses in the herd all call him or her The Human Whisperer. What I do know is that if we open ourselves up to the possibilities, we can be amazed at the level with which horses are trying to connect and communicate with us.
I thought I would share an experience that happened just the other day that clearly shows that horses are capable of communicating to us. My apprentice, Darcie, has two wonderful horses: Karma and Strawberry. Karma is an Appaloosa cross with hardly any spots. Maybe two. If you look really hard. Strawberry is a BLM Mustang whom Darcie got as a horse she and her parents can all ride. He is an older horse, spent most of his life on a ranch, and he is about as mellow and trustworthy as they come. Karma is much younger (not even 10), has had a bit of a hard past, and likes to be the lead mare. As you can guess, Strawberry has been the go-to riding horse for the past year that Darcie and her family have had him.
Until two days ago.
Darcie is restarting Karma, and we have spent the spring doing groundwork and addressing lead mare issues. Darcie has done phenomenal work with Karma, so now, the moment of truth arrived: riding. We are going slowly because her previous training was too harsh, too fast and too loud. This time, it’s bareback in a rope halter at a walk in the round pen to start. The round pen is located in the horse paddock. When Darcie had her first reride on Karma two days ago, Strawberry saw it start and whinnied twice. He then went back to grazing. Yesterday was a little different.
Darcie brought Karma into the round pen, and as we began to attach the reins to her halter, Strawberry came over. The grooming box – your standard plastic box with a handle – was right outside the round pen. Strawberry proceeded to walk right up to the grooming box, paw at it, and then promptly put a front hoof INTO the box. He eventually pulled it out – it got a bit stuck, but, true to his Mustang nature, he just worked at it until he got it loose – and then proceeded to come from another direction and again place his front hoof in the grooming box. After he took that hoof out, he began to inspect Darcie’s cowgirl hat, and I quickly took it away from him before he could use it as another way of showing that HE wanted to be ridden. We moved everything into the round pen, and he eventually wandered off.
There was absolutely no mistaking what he was doing. As soon as he realized that Darcie was again going to ride Karma, he wanted to make sure that she knew he wanted to be ridden. Now, he had been in the paddock every time Darcie had worked with Karma on the ground, and he hadn’t done anything on those occasions. It wasn’t about Darcie simply working with Karma. It was about her riding Karma.
When she finished riding Karma – a ride that went just wonderfully for both horse and rider – Darcie groomed Strawberry. We will see next time if that is enough attention for Strawberry or if Darcie needs to schedule in time to ride Strawberry after she rides Karma.