I Wish You Peace

From the Mirriam-Webster Dictionary online:

Peace:

  1. :  a state of tranquility or quiet: such asa :  freedom from civil disturbance <Peace and order were finally restored in the town.>b :  a state of security or order within a community provided for by law or custom <a breach of the peace>

  2. 2 :  freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions <I have been in perfect peace and contentment — J. H. Newman>

  3. 3 :  harmony in personal relations <The sisters are at peace with each other.>

  4. 4a :  a state or period of mutual concord between governments <There was a peace of 50 years before war broke out again.>b :  a pact or agreement to end hostilities between those who have been at war or in a state of enmity <offered the possibility of a negotiated peace — New York Times>

  5. 5 —used interjectionally to ask for silence or calm or as a greeting or farewell

at peace

  1. :  in a state of concord or tranquility <The problem was settled and his mind was at peace.>

 

The horse, whatever he does, is seeking peace. Think about that. WHATEVER he does, he is seeking peace. Peace like the definition of “at peace: in a state of concord and tranquility,” that kind of peace.

Now, that sounds nice, it sounds kind of soft and fluffy and touchy-feely and we like that. So we are attracted to this idea. We say, “Yes, the horse is seeking peace, and I’m good at providing him with it, or I’m working on getting good at it.” But there’s actually a lot more to it than simply “not bothering” your horse.

What brings a horse peace is different than what brings a human peace, and humans are about the most self-centered creatures out there. As much as we try, it’s hard to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”, and the greater the species divide, the harder it gets. It’s easier to anthropomorphize, to simply attribute human actions, thoughts and emotions to the horse. But that is a grave error, as it actually deprives the horse of the peace he seeks while, ironically, delivering peace to the human.

So what brings a horse peace? Well, there are two sources of peace for the horse, as I see it. We’ve got what naturally or instinctively brings him peace, and then we’ve got what learned behavior has taught him will bring him peace.

Where instinct is concerned, it’s important to understand that the horse is a herd and a prey animal, so he is going to naturally find peace in being in community with other horses, and he’s going to find peace in his ability to run away if he feels threatened or scared. If we take a moment to think about that, many to most of the things we want to do with horses go against these two instincts. We don’t want him to be attached to other horses, and we don’t want him to flee if he’s scared. So really, we’re in the business of taking his peace away from the get-go.

There are two solutions to this problem. We can just do nothing with our horses and just leave them in the field so they can experience peace. That would work, in that it would likely bring the horse peace. But frankly, that’s not why many of us have horses. Ray Hunt once said, “I’m just trying to see how much I can do with a horse without troubling him”. Some of us are more like that. We want to see what all we can do with a horse (not how LITTLE, but how MUCH) and not trouble him. That’s the discussion and the work I enjoy exploring. If I’m not going to just leave the horse in the field, how to I help him find peace in a world where all his peace cannot come from these instinctive places?

That brings us to the other place a horse can seek and experience peace, and that’s through what I’d call “learned behaviors”. These are the ways that humans teach a horse (intentionally or unintentionally) that he can achieve a state of peace and tranquility. Now, as a person who works with horses for the general public, I can safely say that one of the biggest things we do in that work is to move the peace and tranquility to more appropriate places. What I mean by that is that it is easy to teach a horse that he will get peace from rearing, pawing, being anxious, running away, pulling back, bucking, biting, pushing, dragging, bracing, etc. That’s why I can say that whatever a horse does, he’s seeking peace. A horse who is dragging someone away from a horse trailer is simply seeking peace. Experience has shown him that he’s more likely to get peace further away from the trailer than in it, so that’s where he’s trying to go. All he’s doing is seeking peace.

It is hard to imagine that a horse would spend so much what we see as “negative” energy to achieve something allegedly “peaceful”. But that’s how horses and humans are different. The horse seeks peace, and he’s willing to pay just about anything for it. He will do things that cause injury and illness to himself if he believes it will bring him peace. We can literally teach a horse anything if he thinks it will bring him peace. He does not distinguish “good” from “bad” like we do. If biting you brings him peace (he bites you and you leave him alone, or he bites you and you give him a treat), he WILL do it again, seeking that peace.

So what does this mean, at the end of the day, for those of us who want to DO SOMETHING with our horses? First of all, when it comes to the horse seeking instinctive peace in his herd and flight behaviors, I’m going to work to moderate (not eliminate, as then he wouldn’t be a horse anymore) those responses through progressive and rational preparation and training. I’m going to help him learn how to be confident in me and in himself in situations when he wants to get back to his buddies or to flee. I am going to honor the fact that those things are in him and that my job, as his guardian (and “trainer”, if you like) is to prepare him for the way things are going to be in the world we have constructed for him. None of our horses jumped into our pastures! We bear a profound responsibility to prepare them for what we want them to do. Horses are very adaptable and teachable, so this stuff just takes work, not magic.

Then there’s the weird ways that humans have allowed and enabled horses to gain peace. This stuff can be hard to change, and it can be hard to chase down in a horse just because it’s so bizarre. There are horses that when you pet them, they get excited. Not fearful but excited, as in elevated mentally. Now, that’s not peace. Excited is something humans like to see, in our dogs, our kids, our horses, our sports teams, you name it. We like to see things excited. But in the horse world, “excited” is basically equivalent to “anxious”. If we show up and our horse gets “excited”, then he’s no longer in a state of peace, and it’s our presence that took that away from him. I don’t want to be “that person” in my horse’s life. So what I’ll do is I will shape things, in our everyday life and in our work sessions so that my horse gains peace in the “right” places. I will give him peace (and peace is not petting if petting scares or excites him) when he’s doing something I think is good, or when he’s doing something I will need in the future.

I will watch carefully for places where my horse lacks peacefulness and try to help him with that. Sometimes a horse just needs to do something a few times to gain the confidence that will give him peace, and sometimes I’ll need to more assertively tell him what he needs to do to get that peace, and then make sure the peace is there for him.

Eventually, I want my presence in his proximity to bring my horse peace, not because I give him sweeties, but because in his horse way, he understands how we interact and where he stands in my presence and in the relationship. Then, I want him to gain peace in his work with me until he understands that by working for me and doing things that are not his idea, he actually gains peace and tranquility.

I’m thinking that’s a lot to ask, a lot to achieve, and a lot to strive for. It’s past pressure and release, past positive and negative reinforcement and past conditioned responses. It might include all of that or none of that, but what I’m talking about is the honest attempt to be able to identify what actually gives a horse true peace and separate it from what makes us feel good. Then the greatest challenge is to turn the job we want him to do into a source of peace for both of us.

This article first appeared in Horsemanship Magazine in the UK, which can be found here: http://www.horsemanshipmagazine.co.uk/

On Being Enough

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Years ago, I was attempting to take my off-the-track-Thoroughbred out on the dirt roads around the farm by ourselves, with varying amounts of success. It was a little stressful for both of us. A friend asked me how it was going, and I told him, “Well, my horse isn’t sure he’s okay being out there all by himself.” “Kathleen,” my friend replied, “he’s not by himself. He’s with YOU.”

Then a little voice said in my head, “Yes… but I’m not ENOUGH, obviously!”

And I think therein lies one of the harder things to get right in our horse work. Being enough. At any moment in time, with this horse and that horse, taking into account all the variables present at any given time, being just enough. And not too much.

What do I mean about “being enough”?

At any given moment, there are things a horse needs from us – from direction, to support, comfort, blocking, insistence, repetition, reward, release, relief, you name it. In any moment, there is something the horse needs from us so he can do his best and mentally feel his best. And getting THAT right, being on time and accurate with that thing the horse needs right then is incredibly difficult. Sometimes we are too much in the moment, and then others times, we’re not enough. It’s hard, it’s contradictory, and it’s really important to the horse.

For instance, I’m getting to know a new horse who is at our farm to further his education. He doesn’t know much, but he’s not a blank slate either, if you see what I mean. There are some unexpected things in a horse like that. He got me thinking about “being enough”. This horse, if you pet him, he mentally elevates. He gets excited and then he thinks about biting. Now, I’m petting him to soothe him (my intent) or I’m petting him to reward him for doing something correctly. My intent is NOT to excite him and make his mind busy. But whether I like it or not, that’s what petting does right now. I didn’t make him that way, he came that way. In order for me to be enough for this horse, I need to be less. I need to not pet him when he does something right, but instead just let him quietly soak and think and stay mentally quiet so he can feel the relief in doing something right and being with a person without becoming mentally elevated. For now, in this case, I need to be less in order to be enough.

Then there’s River. He’s a colt we’ve brought along for ourselves here at the home farm, so we know him pretty well. He’s laid back and easy to get along with and cheerful and willing as he progresses in his life and work. I realized the other day that if I’m riding him out and about and he looks at something, I take my legs off him. And I KNOW that this colt likes the support of the rider’s leg gently “hugging” him and directing him. I also know that for decades I rode Thoroughbreds off the track, and if they were out and looked at something, it was a pretty wise move to get your legs off them so you didn’t add fuel to the fire, so to speak. But when River looks at something and I take my legs off, I’m now not enough and he becomes less confident. In order to be enough in that moment, I need to override my reflex to take my legs off and keep that soft, supportive contact with him so he can carry on. If River gets worried, I may need to increase the support of my legs so I can be more in order to be enough. In that case, I may need to be more to be enough.

And this is the hard thing – to be just enough in every moment. It’s all too easy to be too much or be too little. Sometimes simply who we are is too much or too little – maybe in certain moments, or maybe all the time. That’s hard to swallow.

The horse is the authority here. Only he can tell us if we are enough or too much, and he is always right. In any moment, he can only do what he can do. He responds to what he feels and sees right then. That’s just how horses work. He may or may not respond to us the way we think he will, and then we have to adjust so that we are just enough. Not too little, and not too much. Enough.