Lesson 1. How to be a centaur of sorts:
This is Jack Splash. He is a greedy guts, but at 17 hands 3 he has a large body mass to fill with energy. So I don’t hold a grudge against him. I keep him comfortably fed.
He was called Pieter when he was born, a gelderlander born in the Netherlands. I first met him when he was 13, but he came into my possession just before he turned 14. This year he turned 16.
He has a look about him that makes people look at him twice and not just because of his size. He is elegant, though solid! He consciously pulls himself together and does his utmost to draw attention to himself whenever we pass a field of other horses, with a real “Look at me!” attitude. He seems to need to exert himself as part of his insecurity. He is also the sort of horse who makes people step back, uncertain what he is going to do next.
These past two and half years, I have been getting to know him and understand him, trying not to push him too far out of his comfort zone, but trying to earn his trust instead and encourage him to feel more secure when I do stretch him. We’re restrained by the facilities we have to work with; time, location, weather, capacity for training etc. I am sure someone with better knowledge, more time, a better location and purposeful training facilities could do far more with him. But when Splash came to me, I understood he had been loaned out to people who didn’t take the time to understand him, he had reacted and people were frightened by him and did not know what to do with him. I’m no expert and I can’t say I haven’t been frightened by him. But when I got him I committed myself to him, with a commitment to keep him whatever the cost, to love him and help him whatever that meant and to help him feel secure, even if that meant never riding him. Needless to say, our story has never amounted to that. I do ride him but give equal importance to developing a good relationship with him on the ground as riding. Yes, we’ve had moments. However, my relationship with him now is built on trust and understanding and is a growing relationship. As I said, though, I am no expert. I am on a learning curve.
Our horses are just a hobby for us, as a family, and I have learnt so much with Splash, things that I have found have helped me in my understanding of people. For me, working with horses is very much a faith journey. I have to engage my faith and connect with our Creator when I do anything with the horses. And through them God teaches me things. That is an important part of the graph that plots my learning curve.
Splash and I are learning to work as a team.
Lesson 2. Partnership is important:
Splash is very emotionally immature and demonstrates this in lots of ways. When he meets a new horse he squeals and kicks out with his front hoof, usually his right. Put him in with other horses and he will fight his way to the top. He once fought for a week with a very plucky little stallion, until the plucky little chap stepped down and kept at least a mile’s distance between him and Splash from then on. I was worried during the week long stand off that one or other was going to end up with a fatal injury. I was mostly concerned for the little welshie who was half Splash’s size. There were no fatalities and they sorted their differences the natural horsey way. So on the one hand he is very domineering – especially around food – but on the other hand he can’t cope without company.
Take Splash out of the field and away from his companions, and unless there is food involved, he gets very stressed. He has been known to break the gate down to get back in the field with his companions (although I should clarify that the field gate is a state and unhinged, so not your average gate). This separation anxiety means we can only go out with company. Old man Fly, my father-in-law’s thoroughbred, is the perfect companion (perfect if they don’t try to race each other). This is old man Flying Star being led to bed, in the winter, by our youngest.
He is a gentleman. And he helps settle Splash with his good leadership. He also has a beautiful summer coat, and isn’t looking bad for his 23 years.
So what have I learnt? I have learnt how valuable it is to Splash to have another horse-head around when he goes anywhere. This support encourages him.
I see in the people around me the way this translates into daily life. Success comes when more than one is involved in the process. Splash has helped me to be aware that, as people, when we’re trying to achieve or get something done the power of support or partnership is much more effective than trying to reach our goals independently. When people feel insecure they need someone to come alongside them and help them with companionship in their insecurity. It can mean nothing more complicated than just being there.
As a side note, I have now achieved taking Splash out on his own if one of my family walk or cycle with me. Splash does still stress but will follow the leadership of me or the walker/cyclist. It’s a great achievement. And guess what? I am more at ease because I have familial support. Next step is to try his trust to going further with me alone.
Lesson 3. Patience:
Baby steps forward are big steps. I work with a “little achievement is good” attitude. So we only ever take baby steps forward in what we’re learning to do. Just to get as far as the woods and then return home on his own is enough. It’s good. We stop when all is going well. And on the days when his angst rules the ride we go as far as I feel is wise, which may not be far at all. Consistency and little steps make a good combination.
How has this helped me? This has helped me with the schooling of my youngest daughter who struggles with verbal communication and certain concepts. But a little done consistently goes a long way, and that’s OK. So it took her a long time to learn to count and to get her alphabet in the right order. She does not remember very easily things that seem quite abstract in concept. But put her with a horse and she is fearless, instinctive and naturally connects with the animal. Here she is barebacking her brother’s horse out to the field.
It helps me remember that we’re all different, unique and gifted in something. How often do we try to fit people to a blue printed design and expectation of their capability? I have to tell myself that over and over again, exercising patience when our daughter doesn’t grasp a concept straight away, I am convinced God is teaching me something new that isn’t a theory but that I have to put into practise. I’ve noticed how our youngest reads peoples faces and body language and she and the horses have helped me understand how much we express in our non verbal communication.
Lesson 4. Non verbal communication and focus.
I was recently reading a book that talked about how horses only use their voices to communicate at certain and specific times. The author was saying how we tend to talk quite a lot to our animals and probably they think we’re a bit schizophrenic! The author was advocating strengthening our nonverbal communication skills as we build our relationship with our horses. This challenged me to try what I’ve called “silent riding”. It’s been so rewarding. So, I make sure I mentally focus on what I want Splash to do. I watch his ears more to watch for the signs he is waiting for my leadership and then I make use of the usual aids. Sharpening my concentration to involve his thinking, as part of the process, has made him much more responsive and connected with me. But I have to keep up that mental effort. If I lose that focus, I lose his response. I encourage him when he responds by rubbing his neck.
What has this taught me? Well, it’s reminded me of the power and effectiveness of not allowing ourselves to get distracted. This is especially important when supporting other people, we need to concentrate completely on them and help them to get where they’re going. Half hearted distracted support is not really supportive at all, because it lacks the value shown by your full attention. That’s a challenge when we live with so many distractions, especially of the mobile variety in our pockets! It has reminded me too how we can easily get distracted and lose our focus on God.
Splash has also helped me to be aware that we should read people’s non verbal language. I think particularly of tension. Horses demonstrate tension in their bodies very well and I have realised how I often don’t take the time to observe how people are feeling by their body language. Just like learning to understand the language of horses, it is a language to be listened to.
Here is one tense boy, stressing because we took his girlfriend out of the field! Change makes him very uncomfortable until that change becomes routine.
I think there is a lesson in that too!
Yes, these lessons make me want to look into Equine therapy and Equine Assisted learning.