The opinions expressed in previous entries may or may not express the current opinion of the author.

Friday, July 23, 2010

A Delicate Balance is Disturbed

Yesterday, I had a strange experience, which I am processing and may take a long time to fathom.

My good horsey friend, who gave us George, came over.  We haven't seen each other yet this summer, due to various family circumstances on both sides, and this was the first time she'd met the horses, apart from George of course.

She is extremely knowledgeable, experienced, and understanding about horses. We can talk for hours, literally, on the phone about matters equine.  Horses like and trust her.  She is thoughtful and curious about horses and knows far more than I do about horse behaviour and herd dynamics.


The but does not apply to her but to myself.

Where to begin?  Let's start with Bridget, who has acquired the habit of reaching out with her foreleg.  To my friend, this is a potentially dangerous and certainly domineering habit, which should not be allowed.  She suggested that I "train" this behaviour and only let Bridget raise her leg on demand.  So I reached toward Bridget's right foreleg and asked her to give it to me.  Whereupon - she bit me.  Instinctively, I thumped her.  Which would have been ok, I think.  However, my friend was carrying a short stick and proceeded to chase her off.

Then there's the matter of Bridget asking to have her rump scratched.  This is permitted, and my friend's horses do this.  However, Bridget committed the "fault" of bumping me and getting me, in the process, to move my feet.  My friend said that to allow my feet to be moved was to admit that Bridget occupies an alpha position over me.  Before scratching her, I should insist that she move a step or two away from me.  I asked her, but she didn't move, and my friend prodded her, whereupon Bridget went to kick (to me, it was more of a startle reaction, more like a bounce with her butt), whereupon my friend chased her off again. Afterwards, she was very quick to move forward when asked.

Bridget has never offered to kick, and she has nipped me only once or twice before, quite a while ago, when annoyed at being led away from some choice grazing, and never since moving up here.

Ok, what about George?  My friend says he is a typical cattle horse, bred to be unflappable, and that you need to really impress upon him the need to get off and move away.  That he is not "hot-blooded" and does not "give to pressure" readily, and therefore you have to go after him very forcefully.  So she spent quite a lot of time making him keep his distance.

The trouble is that my friend has thought long and intelligently about all these things.  She has observed horses in groups and understands the way they interact.  She really does know better than me.


I felt uncomfortable about the whole thing and felt that try as I might, I couldn't explain to my friend where I was coming from, because whatever I said could somehow be interpreted in a different way.

Today, little Bridget showed up with a nasty-looking wound in her forearm - a puncture, with a flap of skin that looked like it ought to be stitched.  But also looked like it ought to be allowed to heal from the inside out, which would argue against stitching.  It wasn't bleeding much, and it was too late to call any but an emergency vet, so I decided to wait until tomorrow morning, when I will go consult the horsey experts at the feed store. She is very restless - walking, walking, walking - which I reckon is a good thing as it will keep blood circulating to the spot to help healing and will prevent stiffness setting in.

Anyway - I went out with a tube of antibiotic ointment to apply on the wound.  But Bridget wouldn't let me get near.  I feel this is not entirely attributable to her restlessness but also to a break in trust since yesterday.  In order to get near her without George interfering, I went in armed with a stick and made him back off a lot.

After a while, nobody in the field was speaking to me.  Except of course Chloe, whom I hung out with for comfort until it got quite dark.

As I was standing with Chloe, it came to me.

George shouldn't be approached with extra force, but with less.  He should be asked in a whisper.  George likes to work from a position of intimacy and closeness.  He doesn't want me to stand a few feet away and wave a stick at him and tell him to buzz off.  He wants me to come up close and ask him sweetly.

By this time he wasn't speaking to me.  But I know the way to George's heart.  (Reminds me of my son, who when he was a little boy, could always be made happy by an offering of money or egg rolls.)  I went into the house, came out with a large handful of treats and gave them all to George.  Then I whispered, "Could you move back a little?" and made a quiet, little gesture with my hand.  He stepped back immediately.

And if my friend was right about Bridget, Bridget would have been gradually assuming more and more dominance over me as time went by.  As she realized that I would "allow" such impertinences as making me move my feet, she would have pushed forward to secure her advantage.  But that has not been happening.  Together, we have been bumping up against each other, figuring out what works, what doesn't work, what makes us feel safe, what makes us feel insecure. I broke that trust.

George and Bridget are not first and foremost horses; they are first and foremost individuals.  Like most people, I reckon, I hate it when people analyze me and attribute motivations to psychological syndromes or human behaviour patterns . And I'm sure my kids would feel betrayed if I insisted on discussing their actions in terms of "adolescence" or "early adulthood" and approached them with behavioural techniques.

These means of interpretation have validity, as does a systematic study of horse behaviour.  However, between two individuals, or in a family group, these ideas must stay firmly in the background, perhaps sometimes enhancing one's overall understanding of a situation, but never dictating one's responses to friends and dear ones. The Creator set in place all these mechanisms in order to create individuals; these individuals cannot then be reduced to the mechanisms of which they are composed. The individual is always more than the sum of his parts.

The experience has not been entirely negative, however, as it has made me question myself and find an answer.

I have ordered copies of Dancing With HorsesHorses Never Lie: The Heart of Passive Leadership, and Zen Connection With Horses. Thanks to the magic of Amazon Prime, I am already in possession of Dancing With Horses and can't wait to settle down with it.  I hope to learn more about how to be with the horses and how to move forward with them.

But the most important thing to relearn and remember is what Imke Spilker reminds us on her website Communicative Horses: "Who inspects my work?  Who supervises me?  My horse."

Not my friend who, despite her superior knowledge and experience, isn't me and isn't my horse.


  1. June,
    Thank you for sharing this experience on your blog.

    I'm at the studio, in the height of tourist season, but I'm going to have to work in a quick entry over at my blog to tip people off to come read this very meaningful entry of yours.

    Your experience is one that no doubt all who are engaging in more egalitarian partnerships with their horses based on a friendship relationship have already experienced or will at some point experience themselves.

    I just read something from the NHE "news" that speaks to this, and why there is a disconnect between the path of friendship relationships with horses and the traditional hierarchical approach. I'll put a link to it over at the Journal of Ravenseyrie.

    Truly, June...your experiences are SO valuable. thank you for sharing them with others.

  2. Hello June,

    Thank you for your wonderful blog post. I followed Lynne’s link and I am happy I did. Your story is so recognizable. I have some Parelli friends. My horse shares his paddock with 3 of their horses. Now here’s the thing: I like my friends and their horses very much, but I don’t like Parelli. However, we do take care of each other’s horses every once in a while and so our horses have to deal with a different approach sometimes. The be honest, we try to treat the other’s horses the way they are used to without going against our own “principles” too much, and I dare say the horses understand this.

    These last three weeks my friends were on vacation, so I took care of all four our horses. I am very happy all the horses accept and understand “my way” so easily. I have treated a wound on one of the Parelli horses hind hoofs, without using a halter or a rope. I just explained to the horse what I was up to, and once he understood, he was a perfect patient. This is a horse that Klaus Hempfling would call a “Skeptic”. I don’t know exactly what Parelli would call it, probably “left brained extravert” or something. This horse is known to be extremely difficult, always saying NO. I think I understand why that is. He is never really asked to do something, instead he is ordered, and he does not take ordering very well. He fights it. Asking however is a totally different matter. He may have a few questions, but once they are answered he is perfectly willing to cooperate. Just like your George I think. Your friend’s comments remind me very much of Parelli, the thing about moving your feet and defending your space. It sounds so logical, I even used those “techniques” myself one time. However, once you find out how to pay attention to your horse and really listen to what he/she has to say you don’t need those techniques anymore. You don’t need dominance, you need something else: TRUST, which is one of the most important ingredients of a good relationship with any being.

    What I have learned about Parelli is that the method is predictable for a horse and that makes the horse feel at least a little bit in control over what is going to happen to him. Horses like that better than the traditional unpredictable human being that is giving mixed signals all the time. However, being predictable is something completely different than being a friend. My horse doesn’t care if I am not always consistent in my behavior, instead he trusts me, as I trust him, we communicate, we are friends.

  3. Hi, Annemiek,
    Thanks for reading and for your input. I have similar feelings about dominance, which I find an issue for me even with Hempfling. I love what KFH does, but somehow I feel it's just not quite "me" - what do you think?

  4. Thanks, Lynne, reading and for the link. The NHE article is very interesting -thanks for that too.

  5. So you've had this collision too... Sounds familiar. I feel that all these dominance schnominance-methods are still based on fear of horses. It's not so very acceptable to force your horse by beating it, so it's done "only" mentally.

    So many people seem to think, that horses would harm or even kill us if given (more) equal rights to decide for themselves. That is so sad!

  6. Jen-ska, I think you're exactly right that it's fear. My friend's whole way of talking about it is: "Next thing you know, she'll be picking you up with her teeth and throwing you ..... next thing you know, he'll be running over you." But why is it, then, that their "behaviour" has been getting better rather than deteriorating? And I've always said about Chloe that, although she's the one who is least willing to recognize a human's dominance, I have always felt the most safe with her, even in the middle of a big argument. Maybe it's because she never gave up communicating clearly, even when oppressed!

  7. As Annemiek, says "It sounds so logical." We have to find a way to uncover the false logical connections underneath the surface.

  8. Hi June,
    Well, I think KH is a strange guy. Some of his ideas are surprisingly insightful, however I think KH is rather full of himself and he doesn’t mind sharing this fact with the rest of the world. My irritation about that totally overshadows the good things he has to say. I cannot help myself, I am sorry about that because he does have interesting things to say anyway. For me Imke Spilker ‘s ideas feel so much better. Reading her book was such a wonderful experience, that even now, months later, I keep the book within reach all the time.

    I think dominance is about fear too. Mostly fear about losing control. My horse is pretty high ranked in his herd. I am the opposite of dominant. In most people’s eyes a disastrous combination.When I started to give my horse choices and really listen to him he slowly changed from a biting, kicking, pushing horse into the sweetest, most gentle horse you can imagine! Not because I “showed him who’s the boss” that’s for sure!

  9. Yeah, I'm coming to question a lot of what KFH says. I agree - Spilker is ultimately much more helpful.

    I'm the same as you - undominant, surrounded by a group of dominant horses. And yet it seems to work.

  10. It should be remembered that Klaus wrote Dancing with horses after only about 1,5 years of being with horses - I've heard that he has said he was only a channel for this book to come.

    I haven't found his books very helpful, and they are not really easy to read, language is quite complicated. Maybe it's also because I get to spend time learning from Noora, who works as Klaus's assistant on his courses.

    I am reading Margrit Coates:Connecting with horses atm and I just love it!

  11. Jen-ska -
    That's interesting. What's the "book to come"?
    You seem like you're not into these hard-and-fast rules that Klaus lays down in Dancing With Horses - e.g. don't let the horse nuzzle you without permission. Has he given up those ideas? Where does Noora stand?
    How about an entry on your blog??!

  12. I, too, followed Lynne's posting to this post and I loved it. So very well said, and so moving to hear how you understand and honor your horses as the individuals that they are.
    I stopped riding, or "doing" anything with my own horses this spring, and have focused completely on our relationship, and it has been a good choice. We are all happier. I listen much better than I used to.
    Thank you for affirming so eloquently that this is the proper path (at least, in the horses' opinion). Many blessings upon you and your animal companions.

  13. Hi, Hilary - thanks for listening. I'm so glad that there are other people out there who empathize with what's going on. I haven't given up riding, or I should say I haven't given up ON riding, as I haven't ridden for quite a while, and I'm not exactly sure what would have to happen for me to do it again. The horses are the "brake" on that, and if they say it's ok, I'll do it.

  14. I meant that he has said, that he was a channel for this DWH-book to come through. He has written all that stuff in about 5 days!

    I am eagerly waiting for this new book from Klaus, to see what's changed with his long experience. I've heard good things about it!