Reading these beautiful words from Maire, one of the students in my first Liberty Foundations Online class spoke volumes about Liberty Foundations Training for horses. With great consideration for each horse's energy, each human partner's energetic connection, we do nourish the wild heart beating in the chest of every domestic horse. For Maire and Cloud, this was particularly important because...
Wait! This story is best told in Maire's own words! I know you'll love this moving story of a remote pony who changed his life when Maire learned the language of the herd.
Cloud and I: You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.
Cloud came into our lives in September 2012.
I kept two ponies at home on a small track system. One was Rosie, a small, frail, much loved Kerry Bog Pony whose time had very sadly come to leave us. One was Ben, not a pony at all, but a compact, dominant, loyal cob who had challenged me hugely and become a friend for life. He now needed company. I prepared to approach rescue centres when my then 14 year old daughter said ‘could it be something I could ride?’ Daughter had no interest in competitions, she just wanted to ride out and have some fun. It seemed like a reasonable idea so we put the word out and heard that there is ‘a really nice pony in a small riding school that is closing down.’
We went to look. On a sunny day in August we found our way through a maze of small un-signposted roads to the riding school. The owner explained that they had sold many of their ponies but a few remained, one of whom was Cloud. ‘My 7 year old rides him, my husband rides him, the girls (it would be girls) still come and canter him on the lanes’. Cloud had originally come from Lithuania of all places, via three different moves in England to end up in the west of Ireland. The barn had a few ponies in it and Cloud was led out of his stable. My heart sank. He exuded presence and mastery and he was clearly in charge of every equine in that barn. He would surely be too much pony for my daughter. He pawed the ground as he was tacked up but when my daughter rode him he changed. He became steady, quiet and my daughter beamed. She was reminded of her favourite riding school pony. And so Cloud came home.
That sounds simple. It was not. The day we went to fetch him he refused to load. I could clearly see the moment that he realised he was leaving his diminished herd. I could see the shock reverberate through his system and how he protested. If the school had not been closing I would possibly have backed out there and then. But his herd was breaking up and home he came.
He took charge of a protesting Ben in one masterful display of friendly assertion and herded him around and around and around the track. When ridden however, all that presence disappeared. He would tuck in behind Ben not to herd him, but clearly in a ‘riding school pony’ way. My daughter found she could not ride him out on her own as he would start to nap a short way out. He had no boundaries – none – and clearly thought pockets were for treats. Instead of confronting with aggression, which Ben used to do, it seemed to me that he erected a veil between himself and humans and so could walk through one as if one just was not there. Once we established some boundaries he still remained aloof, certainly towards me. Daughter also found that she could not jump on his back when bareback, he would swing his head around to bite if she tried to, but he stood quietly when saddled. He did not like it either when I lifted my youngest daughter on his back. One day I experimented with stepping onto a grooming box beside him. I watched for his reaction and realised he was sensitive to even my body starting to move up. We had his back checked of course but I thought this reaction was because Cloud is at heart wild, in a way Ben at his most distrustful never was. He is a high-ranking pony who must have suffered hugely from having any and everyone use him essentially as a bicycle in a riding school.
Despite all that we had a nice year culminating in a fun summer of galloping and jumping in the field behind us.
In October 2013 he came down with mild laminitis. My fault. He had been fine (if fat despite daily riding) on the summer grass so when he came off the field I strip grazed our paddock. Clearly too much. So he was unrideable all winter. Daughter was a year older, facing state exams and rapidly losing interest in a pony who really belonged only to himself. So I nursed Cloud all winter, surviving long nights of cleaning out sore hooves, trying to manage his non-stop desire to eat, his cough if he ate unsteamed hay and trying to manage my own very mixed feelings towards him. ‘Can we manage you Cloud?’ I would think. ‘Should we pass you on?’ I would hear my divided thoughts and feel sure he must too. ‘This is not your fault’ I told him again and again as I felt despair at the workload, the anxiety and essentially the fact that I was not in love with this pony, he was not ‘mine’ in the way that Ben is mine, just as I am Ben’s.
Summer is here again and Cloud is sound. He needs exerise – badly – but does not like it. If I lunge him, he knows the drill but looks shut down. And I still have a divided mind. So when I heard that Ruella was going to teach an on-line course in Liberty Foundations I signed up. I liked her phrase ‘caretaking leader’, which gave a sense of the kind of leadership acceptable to an essentially wild pony who must live in a human world. (As I typed this a bird flew in through my slightly open window and stayed for a moment on the windowsill near me. A synchronous visit from wild nature.)
For two weeks I sat and meditated near Cloud, carefully keeping my mind away from all thoughts of him. I took the opportunity to slow down and experience the oneness of nature, the reality behind the unreal racing of everyday life. And when I would go to greet him at the end, he would come to me as if he knew this greeting and had been wating for it. Occasionally he would graze some brambles beside me companionably, never crowding me.
Next came Walking a Horse Down. Hah! He was not going to move. Or if he moved, he circled back immediately to be near Ben. He investigated the home-grown reed I used, which soon disintegrated, and then the collection of twigs, chosen for the noise they made as I swooshed them around. He clearly realised that they were no lunge whip and I could read his disdain. But I persisted. And persisted. And he did move. And he walked at my shoulder. And he stopped with me. I explained to him that I was a beginner at this and clumsy and stiff. And I learned loads from watching a video of myself and Ruella’s feedback and I became more flexible and energised in my body and Cloud moved more easily.
That was good. Another breakthrough was around food. When I put out a bucket with some treats he understood after just one session that I was in charge of that bucket and that therefore he needed to walk with me to the bucket, stop before we got there (all at liberty) and then approach the bucket again.
And then there was the moment when I crouched beside him after a session on walking him down when he had moved right away from Ben and I had walked side by side with him back to Ben. We paused, I squatted and he opened his mouth and yawned and yawned. His head came down to the ground beside me and his face looked open and soft and present. He blinked a lot. Then his nose found my hands, not to snuffle for treats, but to lick them and he licked and licked and licked. I was not sure what he was doing but felt very moved. Ruella said these were kisses.
And then, the crowning moment so far. When I opened a gate to some grass he stood in the gateway and kept his head up watching me. I moved away with my ‘come to me’ gesture (another of the Foundations) and he came and still waited. I pulled some grass for him. He took it and still waited. I moved away again and invited him to come. Then hand fed him more grass. He only put his head down to eat when I gestured that he should.
There are moments like that every day. I am still a complete beginner at these Liberty Foundations, but for Cloud I clearly am speaking a language he understands and he is happy to move back and allow me in as leader. This is immense. And it has happened with such ease.
And my divided mind? I think of the fox talking to the little prince (Antoine de Sainte Exupery): ‘You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.’
I intend going further with these Liberty Foundations. I would like to find a way to give Cloud the exercise he needs in a way that he would find joyful and right. And when I think of Cloud now, I think of him with joy, rather than as a burden.
What great stuff. Thank you Ruella, for your wonderful coaching on this course. This will become a way of life for me.