Sunday, December 15, 2013

Feeding the Horses

     One of the things you learn when you play with horses is how much you can say with your body language.  You can make your body like a brick wall that says, "I own this place.  Here you stop and go no further."  You can make your body tense with fear to say, "I see something that scares me.  I am now prepared to fight or flee or freeze."  You can make your body soft to say, "Come join me.  This is a good, safe, welcoming place."  You can also make your body soft to say, "Where you are is perfect.  What you are doing is perfect.  All is well.  Relax."

    Caleb met me at the gate the next week.  I did a little unofficial friendly game with him and then walked out into the field to get WhiteStar.  Caleb followed me.  I wished I could take him to the arena and play with him, but my instructor was busy.
     I thought about why my instructor wanted to help me with him.  I decided that, in addition to the safety issue, she also didn't want me to do something terribly wrong and ruin him before we even got started.  So I was trying to wait patiently for her.
     I had a good time playing with WhiteStar.  We mixed up the order of our games and tried some new combinations.  I was starting to feel confident enough to do that.  I also learned a signal to ask her to back up while I was riding her.  Something about that felt really cool to me.
     After I finished with WhiteStar, I helped my instructor feed the horses.  I carried WhiteStar's bucket out to the field.
     "WhiteStar!  Here, sweet girl!" I called.
     She was at the far end of the field but she came when I called (more because of the bucket I was holding than anything else).  I sat the bucket down and waited for her, making my body soft to say, "Come join me.  This is a good, safe, welcoming place to eat."
     WhiteStar made it to about 20 feet away from me when she suddenly shied away.  I was surprised and tried to soften my body even further.  I backed away from her bucket, thinking that perhaps I looked too intimidating standing over her food.  She still danced away.
     At that moment, my instructor yelled, "Look out for Caleb!"
     I turned around to see the big white horse moseying toward me, with his eyes on WhiteStar's food.
     "Oh, no, you don't," I thought.  I straightened my body, squared off at Caleb, and planted my feet with a little bit of a stomp.  "This is WhiteStar's food."
     Caleb pulled his head up in surprise and hesitated, wondering whether he should turn away or continue coming.  He watched me for a clue.
     I took a meaningful step toward him at the same time as my instructor shouted for me to use rhythm.  So I incorporated a wave of my arm at the end of the step, but Caleb was already turning away.  "I'm so sorry -- I didn't realize you cared," his attitude seemed to say as he returned to his own bucket and continued eating.
     As soon as Caleb turned away, I relaxed my body, and WhiteStar came and ate.  I stayed stationed between the two of them, keeping my body soft to say, "Where you are is perfect.  What you are doing is perfect.  All is well.  Relax and eat."  But I was ready to be firm if necessary.
     Caleb's hindquarters were squarely facing me.  Horses, in general, can see behind them due to the placement of their eyes.  Staring at Caleb, though, I thought, "His hindquarters are too broad -- I bet he can't see me." 
     With this thought in mind, my gaze fell from his hindquarters down to his bucket, which I could see through his legs.  And there, over the edge of the bucket, one large eyeball was directly focused on me.  I almost jumped, startled, when I realized he had been watching me the whole time  --  not around his hindquarters but through his legs.  Surprise!  It was kind of funny, actually.  I grinned ruefully at myself.
     WhiteStar finished her meal and meandered away to eat grass.  Caleb was still eating.  So I walked around a little bit, exploring the field.  There was a giant tire laying down nearby.  I climbed on top of it, wondering if the tire in the field was an intentional desensitization project.
     I look back toward the horses in time to see Scooter moseying toward Caleb with his eyes on Caleb's bucket of food.  Scooter is the top horse in the field.
     "Oh, no, you don't either," I thought and strode two steps intently toward Scooter.  Scooter dropped his head and returned to his own bucket.  I immediately relaxed again.
     This was pretty cool, though.  I had proved myself a strong and capable leader, both by correcting Caleb and by defending Caleb.  I couldn't have set it up any better.
     My instructor was putting in some extra practice with Scooter that day, since she was doing a demonstration at a retreat over the weekend.  So, after all the horses ate, Scooter went to join her in the arena to play.  There was no time for working Caleb in the arena.  That would have to wait until next time.  So I gave a goodbye to WhiteStar and Caleb, and then trotted up to the arena to watch my instructor.

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