The Sorraia Mustang mare Bella (ctr.), down at the beach with her herd mates during the summer of 2008
Each day is a new beginning and while modern humans may take for granted that when they emerge from warm, dream-spent bed covers, place their feet upon the floor and stand up to begin their daily routines their world will be a reliably familiar one, I think that those who live more closely tied to the rhythms of nature take nothing for granted.
My observations, following the lives of the horses living here at the Ravenseyrie Sorraia Mustang Preserve, is that they engage in a perpetual assessment of things, moment to moment, with every perceptive sense taking in visible and invisible fluctuations in their environment and between their herd mates. Theirs is a river-realm of continuously flowing streams of information which they are constantly adjusting to. (Actually we are part of the same river, but have compartmentalized ourselves to the point we are virtually oblivious to the subtle, yet rich, dialogues occurring everywhere in the universe.)
Domestically bred and traditionally housed horses require absolute reliability of routine and often are prone to anxiety if the protocol they are accustomed to is not followed. Stabled and paddocked horses expect consistency and regimented orderliness and have stunted, muted capacities for subtle sensory assessments, having put their trust in their caretaker's ability to assure their reliably familiar world will be the same today as it is tomorrow.
Part of this reliably familiar world is the almost absent-minded acceptance horses demonstrate for the type of handling they receive from their human caretakers. This type of handling assumes a certain ownership over the horse's body and mind, manifesting itself in a human who strides into the barn, opens the stall door, captures the head of the horse in a halter, brings the horse out into the aisle and systematically takes over parts of the horse's body for grooming, hoof maintenance, veterinary procedures, tacking up, etc. It is expected that the horse stands calmly in compliance as the human goes about these activities upon the horse's body in an equally absent-minded way. Most often, these activities the human imposes upon the horse are a means to an end, an end that typically involves some kind of "use" the human will be putting the horse to. Horse and human are aware of each other, but their feeling and appreciation of each other's core essences is as weak as an over-used tea bag.
Many variations of this domestically kept horse/human scenario are played out every day, sometimes with gruff roughness from each of them, other times a real bond of togetherness prevails, yet typically there is always an assumed right that the human feels she possesses when engaged in horse handling.
Among the equines here at Ravenseyrie, especially when entering the Sorraia group, one simply cannot get away with any sort of assumed rights over the horses, or expect that what a horse freely gave me on one day will be offered again the next. Like them, each time I am out mingling with the environment and come into the territory where they are, I have to carefully assess the subtle fluctuations of the present moment to determine what possibilities of interaction are present. How do I go about this assessment?
Before I share how I approach the horses, I'd like to highlight the importance other authors have placed on the proper introductions that ought to be undertaken in order to assure that human and horse are truly and fully accepting of each other and ready to share time together.
In his book, What Horses Reveal, Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling describes the approach to a horse as the "First Encounter" which is based on recognizing the character of the horse and how he experiences and reacts to the world around him. He describes the horse as a house that requires the right key before entrance is granted. Our understanding of our own nature and complete harmony with the nature of the horse coupled with careful body language and movement determines whether or not the horse is willing to let us inside. Hempfling relays that no matter how many times we come and go from this house, we must always gain entrance in the same or similar manner...no barging in as if we have ownership. Here are some of the things Mr. Hempfling has to share regarding the First Encounter from pages 134 and 138 of his book:
'Immediate communication' is a very important concept for us. It is the alpha and omega of the first encounter. For, if you do not have a 'key' to the 'house', i.e. you cannot immediately communicate with the horse, then, to stay with our analogy, you are an intruder breaking in, particularly if you are forcibly entering the house, and as a rule, anyone who enters forcibly violates and steals.
The moment of the first encounter is a moment of the most concentrated patience, because, with great humility, we are serving another creature's needs.
It is consciousness of self, you must be aware of your every expression and particularly their effects on the horse. It is an expression that reflects the deepest peace, sincerity and heartfelt cordiality, no mere superficial 'friendliness'.
I make clear to the horse by the manner of my approach that I never want anything from him. Nothing happens without his invitation. I am never permitted to overstep my boundaries; at most I can defend my boundaries for my immediate protection.
This approach is continually renewed from second to second. Nothing is rigidly determined in advance: everything is dependent upon the communication and reactions of the moment.
Carolyn Resnick describes the best means of establishing a relationship with a horse as being a magnetic heart connection. Carolyn believes anyone can achieve this type of connection but first they need to "understand how important it is to interact with their horse in this simple way - sharing time and space everyday like horses do with each other, moving a horse around, letting him move you around, easy and gentle like, with lots of pauses in between." Like Klaus, Carolyn does not take for granted that the horse's acceptance of her is the same every time she approaches him and realizes that she can only enter the house if the key is working. In her book, Naked Liberty, Carolyn relays:
I work with a horse in two stages every day. First, I spend time with the horse in the moment in passive time. When I get the feeling that he has connected to me in friendship and is focused on me, I begin with my daily program, whether it is riding him or traditional training. Sometimes the passive time I spend is as short as a quick hello from my horse. If he comes up to me, gives me a sniff and places his head in the halter, he is ready to go. (Putting on a halter is a critical time. If the horse objects to being haltered, it will negatively affect the interactions you have with him thereafter.)
Imke Spilker as well has some wonderful things to say about how she prefers to approach horses. We'll quote from her book, Empowered Horses:
I want to reduce the distance between us, but it would be disrespectful to push my way into the horse's personal space and touch him, without first asking permission. Think of the same situation in human terms: if I want to convince a person I don't know about my finer qualities and meet him in a spirit of friendship, I'll wait for his invitation, or offer one myself. People that do not abide by this rule of politeness can seem aggressive, even when they don't intend to be. So, when we respect a horse's personal space we convey the message, "I come as a friend."
Nurturing the relationship according to the horse's rules and in the horse's rhythm, I try, despite all our differences, to show my affection, to offer myself to the horse as a friend, as a companion. pg.10
Reflecting, observing, sensing--those are the tasks for human beings. A person who begins to see the world through the eyes of his horse becomes that horse's kindred spirit. And suddenly, completely new forms of communication are possible. Now external signals are of lesser importance. We understand each other directly, instantaneously, because the sharing of feelings creates an interface, and entranceway into the other's world.
Togetherness is the foundation from which everything else proceeds. Togetherness--not hierarchy--puts us on the same level. Togetherness is the prerequisite for influencing each other from within the depths of our being. And that relates to feelings and movement--horse and person on one wavelength in a dialog of movement. As with musicians, in the beginning there is a search for the common key and rhythm; before they begin to play a piece, musicians attune to one another. Togetherness and sharing openly are the first and oldest form of understanding. This is the archetype of every meaningful communication. Being together in harmony means shared feelings with one another. I share yours--I share mine. pg. 28-29
The communication between a person and a horse occurs on a much deeper, more direct level. It eludes a formal observer.
The melody is an inner one and that is where we both hear it. The way I move my hands is just a visible accompaniment to my mental images.
The horse perceives the whole of a human being and only when we are congruent as a whole, will a horse understand and trust us.
Although I have no physical hold on the horse, he picks up on the inner language of my thoughts and desires, and orients himself to them. When there is great emotional unity human beings, too, can pick up on each other's inner images. Suddenly, we "just know" what the other is thinking in the very moment he thinks it, sometimes without even seeing him. We all once lived in a world without words, and as children, we could think and communicate using inner images. It was only much later that we began to orient ourselves to words. You too can understand this inner language if you build a feeling-based connection to horses." pg. 98-99
So now, dear readers, you have a pretty good base of remarkable insights from these authors to assist in understanding a series of photos I'm going to share from an interaction I had with Bella last week.
Bella is a registered Spanish Mustang mare, possessing several phenotypical characteristics of the atavistic Sorraia horses. She is a captive bred range born mare (from Caballos de Destino in South Dakota) who came to Ravenseyrie as a relatively un-handled yearling. She gave birth to the half-Sorraia studcolt, Animado, when she was four years old. She is now five and expecting her second foal next March. She has never had any "official" training, but using an approach to establishing a relationship with her similar to the ones described by the above authors has enabled me to gain her acceptance of being haltered and led as well as having her hooves occasionally attended to. (Haltering and leading are things I rarely do--here there is little need for this.) Within the hierarchy of the herd, Bella is the dominant mare. She is very noble and has always seemed mentally older than her age. She has a sweet, yet very demanding personality, is slow to anger, but swift to violent retribution without regrets. She likes interacting with me but I always feel that I let her down, i.e. there is often something more she wants me to understand about her that so far I have failed to recognize--something that feels like she wants us to do when we are together...
Bella often nickers during our interactions, using the low murmur voice typically reserved for foals...she makes this low murmuring nicker when I have found the precise itchy spot, or when I am handling her front legs and she wants me to give her a shoulder lift (an equine bodywork movement) or after we have come to an understanding about something new we might be learning together. She will also paw with a foreleg if I am not paying good attention or not "getting" something she is trying to put across to me.
Okay, let's look at the photo sequence, keeping in mind that it is me taking the photos, so it was not possible to take photos of everything that we did together.
I'm hiking out to the west, where the family band is hanging out. The others are grazing, but from what I can tell, Bella is enjoying a standing nap. She senses my approach from quite a distance and maintains a focus on me, matching my focus on her.
The closer I come to Bella I can already feel that even though she hasn't altered her slack-hipped stance she will be coming up to engage with me. She doesn't always come forward to interact with me, sometimes she remains sleeping or continues grazing, ignoring my presence...likewise, I don't always go out with the intention of connecting with and interacting with her. But in my core being I knew that she was receptive to me this day, and in her core being she knew that I was willing to interact with her.
I stopped short of walking straight up to her (about ten feet away) and took up a position with my body aslant to hers, my heart filled with genuine admiration for who she is. Though still slightly dozy, within just a few seconds she came over to me. The key fit the house and she let me in.
Bella wanted to be itched and massaged. I willingly obliged. Noticing a burr was snagged in the inner part of her mane, I stopped itching to pull the prickly seed case out. She was not pleased that I had interrupted what was probably just the high point of a particularly good itch to do something so mundane as remove a burr. She let me know right away that she would rather I continue to itch and leave off the grooming for the moment. Sometimes, Bella can be pushy and more than asking for itches she demands them. Her manner of demanding is to step almost on my foot while simultaneously pushing her body, shoulder-first in a bullish bumping kind of way. It's a remarkably precise and deliberate action, rich with communicative expression. My response to this is to step away, giving her nothing to push upon, rather than attempting to correct her breech of gentility by forcing her to back out of my space (which is the traditionalists approach to teaching a horse to stay out of the human's space.)
At the same time, of course, I realize that I had disrupted a perfectly lovely itch session by shifting my focus to grooming so abruptly, even so, I did not right away go back to resuming our itch session, rather I asked Bella to make a half circle to the left allowing us to both reposition ourselves to begin again...our mutual transgressions now forgotten by this simple new channeling of our togetherness, our primal connection restored to its former harmony.
After I had given full attention to every spot that Bella wanted either itched or massaged, I then asked if I could get the tangle out of her mane and she was perfectly accepting.
"Would you like to play a bit with circles and turns around the haunches?", I inquired. "Oh yes!" was her response. How do I know this? I stepped three feet away from her, positioned myself just behind her center, slightly towards her rear, with my body facing forward and angled left, then I opened my arm and gracefully invited her to circle left while I myself did the same thing. That was my question put forth and her following my offer precisely was her definitive "yes".
After a couple of circles to the left and also to the right, then turns around the haunches both left and right, then a little steps of the hindquarters around the shoulders and some backing to the hand, I was going to end our session. But I could see that Bella still wanted to do something and since we'd pretty much run through our repertoire, I decided to see if she would trot along with me a few steps...something we've never tried. I did my best perky-horse trot hoping to entice her to accompany me--she looked quite interested in a bemused sort of way, but she remained stationary.
Spotting a rock nearby, I thought to suggest we should try an old game we used to do when she was a yearling, which was to lift a foreleg and rest it on a rock (a basic prelude to learning Spanish walk), something she became pretty good at, but as our herd increased and the foals started coming, I sort of left off thoughts of training for haute école movements.
So, I went over to the rock, noticed that it was nice and flat, almost like a pedestal, and I thought maybe Bella would like to try standing up on it with both front feet. Like the companion trotting idea, standing her front feet on a pedestal is something we've never done before. I invited her with my mind and a gesture of my hand, to come and stand up on the rock. Without hesitation, she did! And while I stroked her appreciatively, she gave her low murmuring nicker. I asked her if she'd stay up there long enough for me to take a photo and she obliged me. I took a few photos, but when I went to back up a bit further to get her full body in the frame, my camera batteries went dead (such timing!).
Bella remained up on the rock, so I gave her more caresses while she was up there and then asked her to step down, which she did. We exchanged several more mutual admiration gestures and then I continued on with my hike, feeling really good about our encounter. I hope she returned to her herd mates feeling really good about our encounter, too.
My reason for sharing these experiences is not to display my laughable "prowess" as a horse trainer...(I would actually flunk Carolyn Resnick's "quick quiz"designed to evaluate one's relationship with her horses and her leadership skills). I'm putting these things into the Journal of Ravenseyrie to provide readers with examples of how this unconventional approach to horse/human relationship manifests itself here at Ravenseyrie. The things the horses and I are exploring are not things that one brags about or gives achievement ribbons for--these are intimacies I am sharing, which are not aimed at creating a "using" horse for a human's equestrian pursuits, but are meant to heighten our appreciation for each other, facilitate greater understanding and explore new avenues of fun learning. I have no idea where it is leading, but I'm absolutely fascinated with this primal connection and want to only engage with my horses when the connection is mutually pure. This will require continual reassessment within myself and how I fit into things, and I am thankful for ground-breaking horsemen and women who have inspired me to take a journey down a river like this!