Learning from Horses


I just finished reading the book Horses Never Lie by Mark Rashid, about his cooperative approach to horse training. I have a history with horses, ever since I first forked a pony as a wee lad in a park in Berwyn, Illinois. Horses were a good part of my life until I left Alaska and moved to the urban environment of the central coast of California.

Mark Rashid shied away from the popular image of horse training, the rough-tough cowboy breaking the fiery stallion, forcing his will on the wild animal. Mark works to understand what the horse is thinking and approaches horses with empathy, understanding and a desire to build a cooperative relationship, not dominance over a wild animal.

As I was reading, I realized that this has been my approach to life since I was little, probably born with it. I’ve always been an observer more than a doer. I’ve always approached horses quietly, humbly, with no expectations, accepting them on their terms, not trying to impose my own will on theirs.

My buddy, Guido (picture above), was a good case in point. He was a Paso Fino, a gaited breed that many people refer to as “high energy” or “a handful.” And indeed he was when he first came to me.

Guido originally belonged to a neighbor who raised Pasos. He had twenty some horses on his farm about a mile east of my then one-horse place north of Fairbanks, Alaska. I learned about Guido when I answered an ad for a horse trailer.

When I stopped by the place and bought the trailer, the owner told me he was moving Outside (the word Alaskans use for every place other than Alaska) and that he was going to have to sell one of his horses who hadn’t been tested for encephalitis in time to meet the state’s requirements for exporting horses. He said he hadn’t had any takers yet, and I told him if he didn’t find some one I would be happy to take him on.

A couple of weeks later, I looked down the lane past the barn and saw the owner leading a beautiful young gelding. That’s how I met Guido. He seemed calm, alert and interested in his surroundings, a beautifully well-groomed, healthy young horse.

Then the owner told me Guido’s history, explaining why no one had bought him so far. Seems he was used as a child’s horse by the previous owner, who hadn’t provided enough supervision and training for the new rider. Guido was smart and he quickly learned how to discourage his new charge by stalling, backing under trees, taking the bit and heading back to the barn.

When the present owner bought him, Guido really had become a handful, difficult to impossible to ride and had broken out of his electric fence several times. The last straw was when he broke away from the owner and galloped full tilt down a paved highway and wound up foundered.

He was walking fine when I first saw him and didn’t exhibit any pain, but his hooves showed laminitis lines. I quizzed the owner about treatment, and he told me the vet had had him on Bute but he was healed now and the farrier had set up his feet and shoes to guard against further recurrence.

I asked him how much he wanted for Guido. He handed me the lead rope and said, “If you want him, he’s yours.”

That was the beginning of my education in horse sense, from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

Guido would stand quietly while I saddled and bridled him, never fuss or puff up when I pulled the cinch tight. He just turned his head at me, with his near eyebrow lifted, saying, “Are you done fooling around yet?”

When I swung aboard, nothing happened … no rodeo, no crow hopping, no slashing hooves or flashing teeth. He just stood there … and stood there … for as long as I sat in the saddle.

No amount of encouragement would get him to move, forward or back, left or right. I could dismount and lead him by the reins as calm as a Sunday stroll in the park, but when I climbed back aboard, he was as solid and unyielding as a Robert E. Lee statue.

As you might imagine, we had some discussion about this, Guido and me.

I finally figured out that Guido had learned to take control of the world he grew up in, so he could discourage the young two-leggeds who made his life miserable, through unremitting Gandhian non-cooperation. He just wouldn’t go, and if forced to go, he would find the fastest way to separate himself from the source of his misery and go on about his way.

So we decided some ground work was in order. I set up a temporary round pen in the turnaround of the road to the barn, and I fitted Guido with a working hackamore and long lines. Long-lining is a good way for a horse and trainer to get to know each other, to ask and answer, to learn about each others needs and desires.

We started out real slow, with Guido refusing to move until I walked up to him and led him by the long reins. Over the next couple of weeks I slowly lengthened the distance on the lead as I made my way into the center of the pen, until he was walking placidly around the pen all by himself.

We turned a remarkable corner one fine fall evening, as I was bridling Guido for more ground work under saddle. As I adjusted the chin strap, Guido raised his nose to my face and took a long intake of breath and then blew out in my face. I could feel the velvety soft skin of his nose on my cheek and his stiff chin whiskers tickled my beard. It startled me at first, but I soon realized we were synchronizing our breathing and sharing our breath with each other. Our worlds had merged with our breath. This became our daily greeting.

Not long after that (Fall was under way with Snow not long to follow) it was time to up our workouts with me in the saddle. By this time I was enjoying our relationship built on ground work and daily exercise walks, so I wasn’t too anxious to return to what had been an uncomfortable confrontation. Guido knew what was coming, of course. He was outside the round pen, facing out to the road, saddled and bridled but with no long lines. As I climbed aboard he turned his head and looked at me with his characteristic skeptical eyebrow lifted. I turned his head back to where we were headed and tapped him gently with my heels. “All right, Guido, let’s go.”

Nothing. He did his noble horse statue impression.

I leaned over the saddle horn and whispered in his ear, “Come on, Guido. It’s time to go.”

I urged him forward once more. He took a step.

I patted his neck and rubbed his itchy spot between his ears, and urged him forward again.

He took another step … and another … and we were walking, calmly, smoothly, with Guido looking around, taking in the country side as it passed by. After that first step, the boreal forest and its roads and trails were ours for the taking.

It would be nice to think that we rode off into the sunset in complete peace and harmony, but the reality was that Guido was a young horse, full of vinegar, not experienced in a world full of boogers jumping out of the bushes. So we had our moments of crow hopping and startled jump-backs, but they were short-lived and easily accommodated. We’d become buddies and we both looked forward to our daily outings.

When I left Alaska for the Lower 48, I had to leave Guido behind. He eventually went to a capable horse woman down the road who was aware of his background and shared my preference for gentle and understanding equine relationships.

Guido taught me a lot about trust, understanding, patience, power and control, lessons that have stayed with me all these years. I can’t help but think that the decline and virtual elimination of horses as an important part of our society and culture has contributed to our declining understanding of non-humans and the resulting destruction of the natural world.

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