If there is one piece of wisdom I would wish to impart to anyone who trains horses, it would be this: appreciate the small gifts. If your goal is to win prizes and make money, then that wisdom may not be for you; you have in mind gifts the horse cannot provide, save for the use of its body in service to your ambition. However, if your goal is to enjoy a healthy working relationship with a large sensitive and social animal who grants you the privilege of sitting upon his back, and will offer friendship if you offer it to him, then perhaps those words will be of assistance to you.
First, let me define what I mean by “small gifts” – they are the moments in which the horse offers you something that you have been seeking. It is not the first time you get shoulder-in, or the first time you jump a course. Those are things that you have asked for and received, generally through obedience (we will hope not through force). I am talking about those moments when you are quiet, and the horse volunteers something you have been working toward.
It may be that moment when your colt, who will not allow you near, comes close enough and allows you to touch him. Or, better yet, the first time he reaches over to touch you … and stays.
Or perhaps it is that moment when your flighty mare sees something scary, but rather than her usual spook, she walks you up to check it out.
Or maybe it’s the first time that your horse sees you from across a field, and comes running to greet you.
I could probably spend all day coming up with a list of those moments where a horse unexpectedly took the initiative and offered me one of these little gifts. Each time it happens, it is a sign of not only trust but participation in the process. That is key to me – that the horse is given whatever freedom I can offer to be a willing participant in the process. We can certainly force them (in spite of popular arguments to the contrary), and to a point there is no doubt that they lack the ultimate ability to choose whether they participate – though one has to ask how much we even truly have that freedom in society. But the more I can offer them moments of agency, the closer we get to achieving partnership.
Coffee recently blessed me with one of these small gifts. We were both coming back from some time off, so I chose to hack on a somewhat slack rein. Coffee was moving up and open, not particularly connected but well balanced. As we went around, I suddenly felt him lift in the shoulders as he voluntarily arched his neck up and out, and completed the “circuit” by softly and voluntarily taking the contact. I suddenly had the “bird tied to a thread” feel in the reins, and the energy from his haunches was rippling through his back and into the ends of those “threads” in my hands. It was a lovely feeling – but it was a very trusting offering from a horse who spent his first two years under saddle being taught to avoid any contact at all cost. Yet, here he actually sought the connection. After the reward of a short break, we went trotting off again – and very soon he repeated his offering!
The importance of these small gifts is not that you’ve suddenly turned a corner and everything has changed. The next day I had to do more work to get the connection again, as I had in rides before the one where he volunteered. The day Noble allowed me to stroke him did not mean he stopped running away for good. No, what we have to accept about these moments is that they are a sign, and they are an attempt to communicate. It may take some time for the gift to be repeated – but, stay on the path that got you there, and repeat it will! However, you have to be a grateful recipient of the gift. If it is not acknowledged – or worse, it is taken advantage of – then the gift will be revoked. The opportunity for trust and understanding will be lost.
Horses can become very generous and willing partners, but only if we give them an opportunity to participate in the process. If you open the door to dialog, and provide quiet moments for them to make an offering, then you will be rewarded by these small gifts. Just remember to say “Thank you!”
Be good to your horses!