As I drove the miles through small towns surrounded by ranches and farms, unseasonably green in late summer, I wondered about the horses I would meet. I knew one was a black-and-white Paint who had been a lesson horse; the other was a sorrel leopard Appaloosa with an uncertain past, having come through a rescue three years before. Both horses had been pastured in a small herd for three years, without much handling, and were fast friends. Susan, an accomplished horsewoman, had visited the two several times, liked them both, and was eager to make a choice.
I knew what I would do when I arrived at the farm. I was looking for an intelligence born of years far beyond these horses’ lives, back to their beginnings on the Plains of North America as herd animals. Susan was waiting as I drove up the long drive to the gate, halters in hand. We walked toward the horses and noticed the two we came to see were together; both their heads came up at our approach, and they stepped toward us. They remembered Susan, and come with willingness. In the corral, my work began. Which one? Who would be the horse who would carry Susan forward in her heartfelt mission to communicate with horses on a deep level? Who would advance with her in both trail riding and dressage? And who would best heal her heart.
Susan removed their halters and fed them treats as I stood at the edge of the corral watching. Both horses were aware of me, coming by occasionally to greet me again, sniff me…and amazingly the leopard appaloosa stopped to breathe with me. Susan had re-named them, as she always seemed to know the best name for a horse. The Paint was so obviously intelligent, and earned the name Maxwell Smart. The Appy was called Ben. The horses were comfortable with my presence now, so the work could begin. I stepped toward Maxwell, who was the lead horse in the pasture, and signaled for him to move away from me, pointing straight ahead. With a puzzled look, he turned to face me. Again, I asked him to move away. As he did so, and took a step, I dropped my energy and exhaled. Good boy. And then the familiar, but always exciting look came on the horse’s face… “Oh! Do you know that?” he expressed. And so it began. That ancient practice of Native American tribes, Walking a Horse Down. All horses know this ritualistic practice, even if they live alone in a stall.
Maxwell knew it extra-well, as he was a strong lead horse. In the horse world, the leader follows. After three steps of my following, he stopped short. “Hey!’ he seemed to say. “I’m a lead horse. I don’t want to do this!” I walked around in front of him, extending my hand in greeting. He stretched toward me, breathing on my hand. This reassured him, and I asked again for him to leave me, to walk in front of me as I followed. This behavior happened several times, all quietly, all with no force. Then his head lowered and he licked his lips; he complied, giving me assurance that he would accept my leadership in this time-honored Way of the Horse. After about 5 minutes of following Max around the corral, I asked Susan to step in and follow. Max glanced at her as she stepped in to follow, assessing her leadership. Apparently she passed! He willingly stepped forward as she followed him for several minutes.
Then we sat in the corral. Doing nothing, or so it seemed. And the horses grazed near us. Doing nothing, or so it seemed. But in both horses’ minds, they were digesting what just happened. Max had been involved, Ben had watched carefully. This pause was important to them, as it was to me, knowing that processing time in a relaxed state moves horses along with far greater speed.
As the horses grazed, Susan told me about the clinic she and Max had attended soon after they met. He seemed to have good knowledge of training, but had learned, she said, to avoid working, moving forward and complying by tuning out, common among school horses who don’t like their jobs. So a working relationship hadn’t been established. I asked about Ben, the majestic leopard Appaloosa in the corral. All Susan knew was that he had come in to a rescue as a cruelty case, and had been pastured here after being adopted. She knew, too, that she really liked him. It still astonishes me that a horse with this background is still interested in humans, willing to give second chances in hope of finding a good leader. There he was in his magnificence, looking at me with soft intelligent eyes and ears forward.
I walked toward Ben from the front, telling him in his own language that he was safe with me. I extended my hand in greeting once again, showing respect for his body space. He reached for my hand with his nose, soft breath caressing my skin. I turned away, assuring him again of safety. Turning back to him, I asked him to walk away in front of me, allowing me in the familiar leadership position. Ben had a different reaction! A slight snort of anxiety came from him, and he trotted a few steps away from me. Knowing that my energy must match the energy I wanted in him, I grounded myself, looking down, moving slowly in position behind him. The trot slowed to a walk, and Ben relaxed into the age-old practice of the herd. We walked. And then Susan walked behind him, her leadership softly distinct, assuring Ben of her caretaking leadership. And so our morning passed in the gentle company of horses.
What was my recommendation? Both horses won our hearts with their willingness and interest in people who knew their own language. But Ben’s training was unknown, and Maxwell’s was documented, so I said, “Take Maxwell Smart,” and Susan agreed. I advised her to spend as much time as possible, just sitting with him and building the bond of love, trust and respect. And of course the Foundation Practice of Following, which builds and nourishes a working bond.
Life is still difficult for my friend because of her strong bond with her lost herd. But Maxwell is stepping in, stepping up to the task of what horses do so well. Healing Hearts.
What about Ben, the Leopard Appaloosa gelding, who was Maxwell Smart's best friend? Susan and I both wanted Ben for her, too. But circumstances didn't permit that, as that F5 tornado decimated the boarding barns in the whole area along with so many horses. She waited for a place to open up and finally found room for only one horse. Ben is happy in the same herd he has lived in for 3 years, and still available for sale. I'm sure he and Max miss each other. (If I had one more square foot of land, he would be in my pasture!)
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For the Horse,
(c) Ruella Yates, 2013