Conversation with Sundance
Following is a series of images shot by Barb Young a few years back. Sundance hadn’t been here more than a year at this point and leading was a bit of a challenge.
When Sunny first arrived, he was quite shut down. I could do just about anything with him and he rarely objected. The only reason I knew he was not accepting what I was doing is that he would either freeze or go on “autopilot”, marching along without really being connected to me at all.
I think it’s really important to recognize the difference between willingness and compliance that is based in something ranging from acceptance to resignation. There’s a completely different feel that comes from a horse who is participating because they want to versus a horse who is participating because they know we are aren’t going to go away until they do what we want or who are afraid they will get punished if they don’t do what we want.
Here are two images of Sundance from when he first came that show what it looked like when he was allowing me to do things (which might look like acceptance) but really, he was checking out, exiting stage left mentally/emotionally, to escape the stressful situation.
In this first image, I find it significant that I have a bridle hanging on the gate beside him and his response to my presence is to stick his head in the corner and ignore me. In terms of a conversation it might look something like this:
Me (carrying halter and bridle): “Would you like to do something together?”
Sundance (puts his head in the corner): “I don’t see you, you’re not here, if I ignore you maybe you’ll go away.”
In the second image I have just put the surcingle on him for the first time:
Me: “Sundance, could you please tell me how you feel about being saddled by allowing me to put this surcingle on as a proxy for a saddle?” (I had a theory I wanted to test).
Sundance (sticks his head up in the air, note the ear position, freezes and stops breathing): “Holy crap, holy crap, holy crap!!!! Maybe if I freeze she’ll forget I’m here and go away with that thing.” And to me his answer to my question is: “If you tighten that thing around me I WILL HAVE to explode!!” (thus, answering my question and confirming my suspicion that part of the reason he was donated to the rescue might have been that he was exploding when they saddled him up.
Contrast these images with the following series taken about a year later. It’s worth noting that Sundance had been kept in a small paddock and fed nothing but corn husks prior to coming to me. I believe this was done to keep his energy low enough that the people who owned him could work him without risking their lives. He was extraordinarily food aggressive and you can see how dull his coat was.
The moment he started feeling better he stopped letting me do anything with him AT ALL. I could sometimes get a halter on him but I couldn’t get within 20 feet with a bridle! What was he telling me? I think he was telling me that now that he was strong enough to express an opinion he was letting me know that his days of having things done TO him were over. Message received and honored 😊
After about a year of just getting healthy, settling into the herd and growing comfortable with me he started showing curiosity about things like the bridle hanging on the fence and me coming into the paddock or pasture. He started allowing me to put the halter on and we’d spend time together. Here are the images from one of those early sessions.