In the past, I remember taking a horse into an arena thinking, “I don’t like beginnings.” Every time a new horse would come to me, their owner asking for help with training, I would remember the horse I’d just spent 6 weeks with and wished I could already be there. The place where I felt a sense of accomplishment and affirmation that what I had done was working and had made the relationship with their human easier. Why can’t we start with the finish?
Of course, after a few moments with the new horse, my brain would click back into beginner mode. Just do the basics Cathy and give you and the horse a chance to get to know each other. Set it up for success as renowned horsemen Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt used to say. Allow the process to proceed naturally and go at it with an open mind and heart. Why do we try to make life so complicated for ourselves? Because we can!
There’s another side to the coin of experience and knowing what a finished product will look like-being over eager to “fix” something when you think it’s broken. You know, like those moments when you see a person getting involved in a romantic relationship in which they find themselves accommodating a partner-going where they want to go, doing what they want to do and forfeiting personal wants and needs for “love”. I just want to grab them and say “do you know where this is going to end up? Can’t you just get there without all the struggle and strife. Wouldn’t it just be easier for me to TELL YOU what to do because I know better?”
There is a term used in the study of Zen Buddhism called “beginners mind”. It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. It means you must set your ego aside and see what is right in front of you. Like a familiar photograph it will bring up past experiences and trigger reactions and responses in you. The real skill is in allowing the old to meld with the new and create something entirely different, something that works in the present.
I thought I knew what to do with the mare, walking loose in the arena about 10 feet in front of me, when she barely moved as I swung the rope towards her hindquarters. She simply turned her head away and gave me a swish of the tail. I wanted her to join me as we walked from cone to cone at liberty. With more energy behind my swing, she walked away in the opposite direction. Asking her to join me at the shoulder was no more effective. I knew there was no bond, no connection. She was low energy and of the opinion that to move her feet was an effort that deserved a reward.
On my next encounter with the beautiful appaloosa, I brought out the goodies. At first it was a free open bar with apple bits offered for just showing up near me, always careful to ask her to stand at a respectful distance. No problem. She was a quiet but cautious mare, not unlike the young woman working with her who had enlisted my help. While the treats drew her to me, I still had not established enough of a connection to bring her with me at liberty when I left the treats. She was a tough one to convince that I was really someone she could trust. Again, this had been my sense of the woman watching me work with the mare.
Finally, on the 3rd session, without really knowing that it was happening, I decided to adopt the attitude that is so important in my work at Life Lessons with Horses. Always be OPEN TO OUTCOME! There is no right or wrong way to do things, no specific road map. Let the journey take you to the next stop and then plot your course from there.
I remember doing just that on a very hectic and traditionally traffic crazy Thanksgiving Eve about 6 years ago. My son, away at college two hours north of us, needed a ride home for the holiday. For those of you who have never driven home on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, let’s just say, the highways are more like parking lots than thoroughfares. I told my husband I was going for it and would leave around 9 am. He hugged me as if I was going off to war and handed me provisions for a journey he thought would take 6 to 8 hours.
With an open mind and no preconceived notions (I’d never driven on the busiest travel day of the year) I headed out. I had my video camera with me and at one point recorded the stand still of cars heading in the opposite direction. Finally, I decided, “let’s just try something” and pulled off an exit that led me through the back roads into towns that in the past had been simply names on a road sign. By taking my time and going where I could find an opening, a lull in the traffic, I made it to my son’s place and back in less than 5 hours, the travel made even more special by the conversation we had all the way home.
And with the same openness, I approached the horse on the left side, asking with a gentle tap of a crop on the hip for her to step forward. I anticipated her low energy response away from me and following closely next to her I reached up and first stroked and then hugged her neck. She stopped and with a breath, we both relaxed. I rewarded her with more scratches and strokes as she lowered her head and licked her lips. AH, a connection. I repeated the ask and the hug several times until I was able to simply point in the direction I wanted us to go, each time reaching back with the crop barely touching her. Two steps turned into four steps turned into a walk through the cones. As the young woman watched, I could see her eagerness to try it for herself. After a few tries, they were on their way. She liked the low energy ask with the full contact reward as she had grown fond of grooming and stroking the horse during their weekly sessions.
I was reminded that day that no matter how much I learn about horses or how many years of experience I have, I must approach each one with the mind of a beginner. It has taught me to look at each experience in my personal AND professional life with a sense of curiosity and wonder, open to learning something new every day that keeps my ego (“yeah, I know what to do”) in check. It doesn’t mean I have to forget everything I know and fake ignorance. It means that I must not assume that today’s struggle will require the same approach as yesterday’s and that when others are struggling, there is just one way to go!