Learning to listen

Photo © 2021 Simone Sutherland-Keller ~ edited with Prisma app

Chapter 9

On the ride up to see Raven the following week, Simone and I talked about both of us studying the Parelli natural horsemanship program. The day before, we had gone to look at a young Yakima orphan mustang that Simone was interested in buying, and so we could help each other through the journey with our horses. She had become a really great friend – another horse lover who understood the connection and obsession with horses, and how they are a part of our souls – a lot of people don’t understand that.

I talked with Simone about whether I should start the Parelli work with Raven yet, because part of beginning the program has to do with not just walking in and grabbing your horse and making her do what your agenda dictates. It’s more about establishing a new language of communication that we can build on, and I still needed to do certain things with Raven for her health and recovery. Simone thought that Raven’s needs should take precedence right now – and right now, she needed to get out and get exercised for her own sanity, as well as be dewormed and get tested at the vet to clear her to come home with me. So we decided to just study up on the horsemanship program and when I got Raven healthy and situated, then we could start working with the tools and techniques in earnest.

On the car ride up, though, we did listen to an audio CD (my old Camry still had a CD player) called “The Six Keys to Success.” It was an hour of some good insights into horse behavior, as well as human behavior. It really provided some good perspective on how we view our horses, and how they view the world. I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start the first step, which was going into Raven’s pen and just sitting quietly without asking her to do anything – 30 minutes of undemanding time. If she approached, you could only touch her if she touched you, but otherwise you would just be there without expecting or needing anything from her. So when we got to the ranch, Simone and I sat in the corner of Raven’s pen and quietly read from the pocket guides provided in Parelli’s Level 1 program.

Raven came up to sniff us a few times and walked away. But the most marked result of that 30 minutes of quiet, undemanding time didn’t come from Raven – it was that Simone and I both felt so peaceful. For me, it put me in a calm, quiet state of mind where I was unhurried and not anxious. I had told Simone on the way up that I had just realized – maybe it was a good thing that I couldn’t ride Raven right now. If she was well and I could just hop on her, I think we would have had some issues. In the video of Raven being ridden at the feedlot, I had noticed some unsettling details – she was fishtailing around and her mouth gaped open to escape the discomfort of the bit. There were clearly some issues there with riding, and I may not have taken the time to go back to square one and start working from the ground up with her if she hadn’t been sick. She also had a big motor, so I thought it would be better that we start from scratch with each other since we’d be able to build a foundation together, and build trust, before I got on her.

Looking back, it’s kind of odd that in the more traditional way of thinking, our attitudes toward horses have us ready to just jump on their backs and expect them to do what we want without ever even trying to build trust with them first. I had grown up at barns learning that the horse was supposed to do what you wanted, and when they didn’t, they were being “disobedient” or “bad”, and they needed to be controlled and corrected until they did submit. I’ve come a long way from that mindset, but when you don’t know a better way, you operate from that knowledge base until you do know better. The way I learned to be around horses, the human component of what we bring to the relationship and the energy dynamic wasn’t even considered; the horse was trained to do something, and they’d better fucking do it, no matter what the human was thinking/feeling/doing that was actually causing some of the horse’s behaviors. Ironically, my love of horses as a kid drew me to stables to learn how to work with horses, but learning how to ride and work with horses ended up drawing me further away from the undemanding love and appreciation of horses as horses, and down a path of higher expectations of them and agendas for what they must do for me. It’s not to say that there wasn’t a love of horses in the hunter-jumper barns where I worked and took lessons. But I think when horses became a tool for success in the show ring, or a means of making money, the love of horses warped into this disconnect between how horses made us feel as kids and what they can do for us as a means to commercial success or status in the wider world. We forget that we loved them before we could ride them or before they could take us to more competitive heights. This isn’t a complete condemnation of those who make their living from horses or who compete on horseback. It’s just something I’m learning and I have been guilty of too – taking advantage of the horses’ willingness to please us, and perpetuating an older, rougher view of the horse as a thing that must do my bidding. It’s something that’s difficult to let go of. But even back then working at those barns, I felt there was a better way to be with horses, and once I discovered natural horsemanship, beginning with Monty Roberts’ The Man Who Listens to Horses, it sent me down a new path – one where the horse had a voice and we didn’t ignore it.

Even in her small pen, Raven was hard to catch – she would walk away and I would have to toss the lead rope over her neck to pull her head toward me to get the halter on. She was telling me that she wasn’t thrilled with being caught and having things done with her, but she wasn’t fighting me. It was just part of her communication to me, but for the time being I couldn’t hear her completely. There were necessities that had to be done before I could really let it be a two-way conversation, but at least I was recognizing that she should be listened to.

We went about deworming Raven and letting her have some exercise on the lunge line. We worked a little more on simple groundwork, and she settled and became a bit more calm than our last visit. I left feeling that we’d made some progress, and with following the Parelli program as a way to build a language and a bond, I was excited to continue the journey with Raven. I saw how I wanted to be – I wanted to ride her with no bit, and to work on refining my own riding, paying attention to how my body signals to her and bringing subtlety back into communicating under saddle. I knew this could be a fulfilling challenge, but I also knew I had to remind myself to stay determined and not give up on her or myself. At the end of the day, in the journal I kept to record our progress, I wrote:

We can do this.

I would need to keep believing that, listening to that, because another component was emerging in this new adventure I’d begun with my little horse – I wanted to start listening to her, but I also had to start listening to myself, something I had stopped doing a long time ago. Close to the time I brought Raven into my life, a very intuitive palm reader had told me that I didn’t trust my own brain, and she was right. To be able to communicate with Raven, I was also going to have to open up communication with myself, and that was a lot scarier than working with a 1,000 lb prey animal with strong instincts to run. I had been running from myself for years, and it was time to stop and look back at what had sent me running in the first place.

Photo © 2021 Simone Sutherland-Keller ~ edited with Prisma app

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