Today it was windy. I have a love-hate relationship with the wind. I love the way it sounds. I love the way it feels…in limited quantities. I hate how it picks up every dust, dirt, and sand particle within 3 miles of my location, and flings them onto my contact lens. I’m also not too keen on the way it whips the ends of my hair around so they lash me painfully in the face.
And then we get to the horse. Something you need to know about horses is this: they don’t have gigantic ears for the sake of decoration. Nor are those huge ears some kind of Cosmic Joke from the Gods, giving horses (who hate bugs) huge fuzzy ears that are basically Bug Magnets, just to torment the horses. I know Huey has a different opinion, but I don’t think it’s true.
Horses have giant ears because, most places you find them, they’re one of the lowest things on the food chain, and while they can (and do, sigh) fight with a will, they’d much rather run. And to successfully deploy the Run Away Strategy, they need as much advance notice on Potential Threats as possible.
Horsepeople all know this, but for everyone else…you can tell exactly what a horse is paying attention to. Just look and see where its ear is pointed. The open part of the ear, not the tip. The tips are a crude barometer: pointed forward = good, pointed backward = not so good, pointed back and down so they blend with the neck = very bad. And horse ears move independently, so a horse, unlike a human, can listen to two things at once. They’re much better at this kind of multi-tasking than humans are, and I speak as a college professor who earned her stripes during the advent of the cell phone and text messages. Humans do a positively lousy job at paying attention to more than one stimulus at a time. Horses are better. So when you want to know what a horse is paying attention to, look at those ears.
I saw this first-hand a while back when my trainer was putting some Good Manners on the Wonder Horse. He didn’t come to the barn with Good Manners. He didn’t back on request, he pulled at the lead line, he was inattentive to anyone on the ground, all the usual crap you get in horses who have been regarded as vehicles to drive forward in pursuit of medals and ribbons, rather than horses who know they are part of a family and expected to behave in a civilized manner. Fortunately, my trainer is GREAT at this kind of thing. I swapped out a Riding Lesson for a Lesson in Manners (his, on how to behave, and mine, on how to get him to behave). It took her about 15 minutes to turn a First Class Brat into a Somewhat Respectful Individual, and another 15 minutes to teach me how to ensure that he stays Somewhat Respectful and advances along that part even further to Downright Civilized. The good news is that 18 months later, we’re nearly there.
She had him in a round pen and was working with him to give him the requisite vocabulary of Decent Behavior. I was standing by, outside the pen, watching what she did, watching what he did, and soaking it all up like a sponge. But I couldn’t help noticing even then that while he was (kind-of) listening to her – in that he’d occasionally point his ears in her direction – for the most part, his ears were oriented all the way over on me. On the one hand, I was thrilled. He knew I was Mom. This showed it. On the other hand, I was not thrilled. I wanted him paying full attention to her, so he could learn. A quandary every parent is familiar with, I’m sure.
Anyway, hearing is very important to horses. Maybe most important. And when it’s windy, they can’t hear. At least, not properly. Everything in the world is making noise all at once. They hear all of it. And try to pay attention to all of it, because they don’t have any way to suss out what’s an actual threat and needs to be Run Away From, and what’s just background racket. They can’t. It would mean their life, too, if they didn’t pay attention.
So. Wind takes on a whole new meaning when you’re a horse owner and rider. Windy days mean that the horses are going to be all worked up, fidgety, distracted, and energized. Ordinarily, when the wind is roaring through the leaves or even blowing intermittently in huge gusts, I figure it’s a good day to comb tails and clean tack…not to ride. There’s nothing like being perched on a 1200 lb animal with hair-trigger reflexes that are all dialed up to 11. You might as well hop a ride on an inbound ballistic missile.
But. This morning I had a riding lesson scheduled. And it was windy. And I thought “Self,” I thought “what if it’s windy the day of a show? Carpe diem. No time to go riding in the wind like during a lesson.” And I showed up early and put The Wonder Horse through some basic paces to make sure he was paying attention. He really was a Wonder, too. He was incredibly distracted, flighty, and reactive thanks to the wind. But he was also really excited about working together and really wanting to focus and do a good job, despite the circumstances.
And so, I had a series of wonderful learning experiences.
First, I got on. This may not sound like much, or as Huey would say, You are saying But You do this all the time! Why is that wonderful?
It’s wonderful because I knew he was wired to the teeth, I knew that he was in an ultra-high-energy state, I knew that he was having trouble concentrating. And I spent about 3 seconds thinking “Holy crap, if this Goes Bad, it’s going to go really bad.” And I thought about that, and I thought that I was probably up to dealing with anything that happened – after all, he flipped out briefly on Sunday and tried to buck me off, and it didn’t work – but here’s the kicker. I thought and probably aren’t sure. I wasn’t sure I would be able to deal with whatever. I thought there was a reasonable chance that things would go south and I’d fall off. Or get thrown.
And I did it anyway. I regarded this as a viable possibility, but I focused more on the thought that I’d be able to handle it, and then I said Enough. Yes, it could happen. But I am not making any space in my brain for it. And I didn’t. I just shut that stuff right down, and refused to be afraid, and I wasn’t.
Sure enough, he was more than a handful for the next 40 minutes. He was spooking and shying and spooking and shying and any cue I gave him was getting multiplied like I was screaming it through an electronic megaphone.
So Second. I discovered Mad Riding Skillz I did not know I possessed. I’m still trying to think it all through. Huey is The Wonder Horse, which meant that even though every scrap of his environment was firing up every one of his many Flight Neurons, he still wanted to work with me. He just had an uphill battle, trying to keep it together for that. But he wanted to. That was really important. Without that, nothing would have worked, and they’d probably still be picking up my pieces from the arena floor now. He wanted to.
And it was my job as a rider to make that happen. I knew, from reading and stuff, that the rider functions as a really important “support” to the horse. I understood this, kind of, from watching a lot of jumping. The rider plots out how many paces and where to turn and cues the horse to take off, and basically does all the thinking for the team and supports the horse that way. And I knew it happens in dressage too…but I didn’t actually understand it until today.
I will say the job was complicated as hell, too. I had to be really strong for Huey, and let him know what I wanted unambiguously, BUT I had to do it all with a great deal of finesse, subtlety, and delicacy. I had to wield the iron fist clad in the velvet glove. He’d deviate from The Master Plan, and I had to have a way to bring him back on task…but if that correction wasn’t subtle I’d just wind up causing him to shoot off task in a different direction, with added velocity. Kind of like handling a temperamental six year old with ADHD but a strong work ethic, only one that’s got the detonation device for a nuclear warhead in his hands at the time. He was ULTRA responsive. I touched his sides once, asking for a trot – I knew that the usual “squeeze” wasn’t a good idea at all – and he launched himself into a canter. Fortunately, I was on my game and knew he might do that and could pull him back out if it as soon as it happened. But it was that kind of thing all over the place.
It was a physical workout, giving physical corrections to a huge animal, but it was a massive mental workout too, trying to figure out exactly how strong the correction needed to be to get his attention and hold it without touching off some other undesirable reaction. Being strong but soft. Being firm but delicate. Being assertive but gentle. A very complicated mix. Giving him things to think about without overloading him and freaking him out.
And I did it. Or, more accurately, we did it. Because that was the other thing: this was completely a Team Effort. He wanted to be attentive and work, and he was not just letting me guide him, he was looking to me to guide him. Huey likes to be in charge of things, whether it’s people or other horses. He’s some kind of natural leader. He’s imperious. Commanding. Proud. Strong. Opinionated. I love all of this about him, but know that ultimately, it has to be me that calls the shots.
And today, instead of trying to take charge of the situation and call the shots himself, he looked to me to do it. I stepped up and I was the leader that he needed to me be, but he also decided I was the leader he wanted to follow.
This was really too amazing for words. I’m sure that anyone who has found themselves in a leadership position with alert and engaged followers, and discovered at that point that they were up to the job knows what I’m talking about. I’m not sure that anyone who hasn’t had that experience can really understand.
We were a unit. Me and Huey, him listening to me and me listening to him, and me making decisions about what kind of latitude was OK to grant him – which was some, but not everything he’d usually request – and him knowing that it was all OK.
He trusted me.
I know Huey trusts me. He doesn’t like his ears touched, but I can brush them. He doesn’t like his face touched, but he knows now to close his eyes and put his head down when I go to rub the Eye Boogers out. He knows I won’t drop his feet, he knows that I know he doesn’t like his belly brushed but that I have to do it…and that I’ll keep that to a minimum. He knows that the fly mask is his friend, and he knows to put his head down when he sees me standing there with it, even though it’s all flappy and makes a lot of movement. He knows what the cue is for him to eat grass, and he knows that if he tries to eat grass without the cue, he’s going to get in trouble. He knows that I will show him whatever I’m about to touch his body with, including the fly spray, and once I show him, he will stand still for whatever it is. We have, as it were, a “bond”.
And today, I guess, was the Grand-Daddy of Payoffs for all of that, because he completely trusted me to take care of both of us. It was the first time I’ve really been aware, as a rider, of supporting my horse. And being the leader he needed me to be.
It was amazing.