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.
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.