One Friday afternoon at the end of March, I had been working with Raven in her paddock, just as the hay truck was delivering the horses’ evening meal. She was in her halter with a long lead rope attached, and as soon as the flakes of hay hit the feeder, she clearly wanted to get away from me and go into her shelter to start eating her hay. I didn’t want her to learn that she could be pushy with me on the ground, something we were still working on. I asked her to just keep her feet still, not asking for her to “do” anything else. I happened to be positioned between her and her shelter, about 15 feet away from it, as she was facing it. She was irritated with me and kept trying to go past me, but I wiggled the lead rope to ask her to stop, and to just stand still. I took the pressure off when she stopped moving her feet, to show her that she didn’t need to do anything else, but the tension was escalating. She did not want to deal with me, she wanted to eat, and I was pissing her off. When she took a step, I would wiggle the rope and ask her to stop and back up a little. At one point she did not want to back up and full-on reared.
When she insisted on trying to barge toward the shelter behind me, I began to swing the end of the lead rope toward her, trying to keep her back from me. I felt like this was a pivotal moment where I couldn’t back down from her or I would set a precedent where she knew she could overtake me. Things were already not going well while leading her on the ground; she would push her shoulder into me or crowd me with her body, walk ahead of me, and be generally aware of everything else in the world but me, the person on the end of the lead rope.
Each time she tried to go past me, I would swing the end of the lead rope but not touch her with it. She was getting increasingly frustrated, and I felt like there was an invisible line hovering between us; I didn’t want to dominate her, I just wanted her to stand still for more than a second. To her, I was blocking her path to what she wanted: her food. I wanted her to stop ignoring me and running over me, but if I went too far with my energy to resist her, she would explode and hurt me. It was palpable.
Suddenly she flew into a gallop to run past me. I turned, the end of the long lead line still in my hands, and I jerked it towards me as she went to enter the shelter. Her head turned abruptly toward me, her body following as her legs slipped under her and she fell on her side in the soft mud in front of the shelter. I think it stunned both of us.
She quickly got up and stood facing me with her back to the shelter. After she stood for a moment, I approached and pet her. I gathered the lead rope and slowly walked with her in a small circle, looking to see if she had hurt herself or took any lame steps. She seemed to be fine, just jolted out of her intense focus on getting to her food. I walked her into her shelter and we stood before her feeder. I began to untie the knot that fastened her rope halter, and she waited, her eye watching me. She didn’t try to start grabbing hay; she held herself back. It felt like there was a new understanding there between us. I removed her halter and left her to her hay.
I left her paddock with every nerve in my body sparking and my heart punching against my chest. We had just a tense conversation using only the intention and energy in our bodies and minds, and I had tangibly felt the danger that I was facing if I had pushed too hard or tried to force her to submit. I was trying to move away from that old mindset of dominance that I’d been taught, of forcing the horse with physical punishment if she didn’t “listen.” I had just walked a fine line of communication with her, asking a simple question that had a strong answer. I didn’t know anything about her previous training, but she was clearly telling me what I needed to know: she was not used to or comfortable with being told what to do by a human. She had scared me, but I knew in the midst of that crackling tension that if I allowed her to intimidate me, I would be teaching her that every time I asked her to do something, she could scare me into backing down.
It didn’t mean that she was bad or mean, and in her frustration she could have hurt me, but she didn’t. The obvious truth was that Raven didn’t trust me yet and was not accustomed to relaxed interaction with a person. She had her own mind and thoughts about what she wanted to do, and she let me know what she had to say about her autonomy. But for once, she seemed to notice that I had a voice too, and she’d heard me this time.
Though I walked away from that encounter feeling like we had turned a corner in our relationship, the fact was that I was in over my head with a horse like her. Things would get worse before they could get better, and I still had a lot to learn about how to listen.