Phase Two: Building a Dialogue with our Horses
Over the years the horses taught me the importance of building a strong foundation in my ability to perceive and engage with my senses. It was quite astonishing the first time I ventured out to see other horses after holing up with my herd for several years. Horses I never met before responded to me differently. I could see and feel things I never would have before. Their communication was SO clear it was shocking. How could anyone not see this? Not feel this? I recently began thinking of this as phase one, this development of my ability to perceive accurately. Phase two then, is taking that new-found ability to gather information with my senses and use it to decipher the things that might be preventing my horse from reciprocating my offers of connection, and shared movement.
You may already have a sense of things that get in the way of fluid communication between you and your horse. Not only must we identify what we are communicating (consciously and unconsciously), we must also identify the things that are going on with our horses that make it challenging for them to hear us.
If we are to accurately engage with what our horses are communicating, then we must learn to see beyond simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. We must learn to perceive the nuance. The reality is, there are a great many reasons a horse might at first appear to decline our suggestions. So far, we focused mostly on our side of the conversation: learning to listen, to resource ourselves well enough to not take things so personally, so we can remain present when our horses are troubled. We are learning just how finely tuned our horses are to our nuances in posture, tone, movement, and emotional content.
JULY 12 2018: Working with a horse at liberty (Gandalf video)
Hello Class! I'd like to take a moment, again, to welcome those of you new to the group and thank you for your patience as I regroup! Please don't hesitate to reach out here or privately if you have any questions about anything. And I'll take this moment to remind all of you that as the years go by this course becomes more and more customized to the students needs. I create content that suits your needs or I can point you to the content you need to guide you.
Now, on to the subject at hand. I went to visit George last week and play with Gandalf again. As I was watching George's videos that he posted over the weeks prior I was thinking a lot about liberty work - which is essentially what George is doing with Gandalf - by default. Liberty work, in it's purest sense, is the most challenging thing we can do with a horse, in my opinion.
Liberty work, more than any other way of working with horses, requires us to be meticulous, precise and clear. It took me a long time to start dabbling in liberty work because I felt I couldn't figure out how to do it without confusing my horses. I found that with tack I could give my horses a choice (after much work letting go of old paradigms) and the tack and physical contact became a way to provide clarity so my horses didn't have to guess what I wanted.
Liberty work is very hard to do well because it's easy to leave our horses guessing what we want. That puts them in a very vulnerable position and causes a great deal of stress. It was with great excitement that I went to a clinic a few years ago and got to spend two days glued to the round pen watching Frederic Pignon work horse after horse at liberty.
He talked a lot about resonance - that he feels what the horse is feeling. He used touch to offer comfort and assess the horse. He was incredibly precise in his movement and how he used his tools. He would teach the horse a pattern so they had something to fall back on (a comfort zone) and then use the halter and lead to clarify as needed, then turn them loose and try it again. It was incredibly validating to see him using body language to communicate and to use the halter, lead and whip to help provide comfort and clarity.
So, when I watch George work with Gandalf I am struck by the distinct challenge of this situation. George has no choice but to work at liberty. What occurred to me was that it seemed to me that Gandalf isn't clear about what George wants and he is trying to figure it out. If George could find a way to create a pattern - start to use movement and posture and gesture in ways that mean something to Gandalf - so they are repeatable, then they have the beginnings of a dialogue that is meaningful to the horse.
One of the things I've realized is that I go in and start moving with purpose. I decide what I'm going to try and go do it. Then I observe the horse and see how they respond to what I'm doing. Based on how they respond I adjust, adapt and fine tune. I'm looking for things I'm doing that elicit a response that I can make use of in terms of developing communication. then I repeat that - so I'm creating a pattern we can fall back on so we have a mutual comfort zone. This way as I start to ask more, or try different things, if the horse gets worried we can come back to this pattern they know.
With Gandalf I found that he did not respond all that well to moving out ahead of me, but even so, he could do it and he could grasp the concept of slowing down when I slowed down, speeding up when I sped up and stopping when I stopped. He gained some comfort and began to move in a less impulsive way when he realized we were actually communicating.
What he did like was following my shoulder so I worked a pattern where I would turn and walk in a big arc around him and he would follow my inside shoulder. I could pivot and take my other shoulder and have him turn and go the other way. He was sticky about it and wanted to stand in one place and pivot to follow me so I had to play with distance and such to figure how to draw him to move his feet forward.
I was also able to determine that if you stop moving your feet and are sideways to him he gets anxious. He can't figure out what that means. Facing him square on and bringing my center back (so Im kind of leaning in toward him and beckoning) creates an invitation for him to come to me but not too fast. If I face up and lean back he tries to come in hot. If I stood square to him with my arms and hands at my side he would stand away from me and just hang out - it seemed to convey you're ok there and I'm ok here. So you see, by paying attention to his every move I started to develop the A,B,C's of communication. I believe that if I were to continue to work the pattern where he is coming up on my inside shoulder it won't be long before he's beside you and then who knows!
I see this all the time - this temptation - especially with the mustangs, to get the halter on - so we can trim their feet, get vet attention, etc. But here's the thing, what happens when we get the halter and lead on a 1200 pound animal that we have no common language with? If I work this piece of developing the dialogue first, so the horse is reliably following me, speeding up, slowing down, stopping, etc then the halter and lead are not technically 'needed' to control the horse. I can work on helping the understand restraint and that sort of thing in a very systematic, safe way. As I wrote in my blog last week - consider movement before touch - if we can't move together we have much bigger problems. Touch will come.
Those are just a few of my thoughts as I went to interact with Gandalf. I can do voice over if it would be helpful just say the word.