Monday, May 24, 2010

Happy Birthday Little Horse!

This is a photo of my little horse when she was a baby. It’s hard to believe that Siete is eight years old today. It seems not that long ago that I was standing in the foaling shed watching her take her first few steps. She is an amazing gift, and each year, she gets better and better. In the past few weeks, my relationship with her has deepened and grown so much by spending time with her sharing territory and playing games that communicate with Siete in her own language. It’s been a real eye-opener for me.

One of the things I’ve always felt about Siete is that she has a very strong spirit. As you know from reading my blog all these years, I occasionally find that her spirit is stronger than mine. I’m beginning to better understand and appreciate the times that she challenges me now that I’m learning more about herd behavior and the rituals of wild horses. I’ve known that Siete gets frustrated when she tries to tell me something and I don’t get what she’s saying. There are days when she just doesn’t want to take one more minute of being the low horse in the pecking order around here. She can also sense when I’m in a weak or vulnerable frame of mind and will take advantage of it. Unlike Silk, who gets very protective of me when I’m upset, Siete seems to seize the opportunity with glee and turns up the spunk.

During the last few weeks, after I sit in the pasture with the horses each day, we do some games that involve controlling food and movement to teach the horses to keep an eye on me and follow my lead. Silk doesn’t really need it. For years, she has had an uncanny ability to always know where I am. There are times when I think that Silk can see through the walls of our house and knows everything that goes on with me. Siete hasn’t really cared about me much unless I’m feeding her or trying to do something with her. Now, I’ve noticed that she has developed that same watchful awareness of me, and with it, comes a closeness and more affection towards me.

Call it growing up or just getting more trusting and comfortable with each other, but my relationship with Siete is certainly closer on this birthday than it’s ever been. We’re having fun together, and it’s made my little red horse very happy.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Silk Shows Me How It's Done

I put out five small piles of hay in the pasture so I could play the Circle Game with Siete this afternoon. Both horses were grazing, so I sat down in my chair and read for about twenty minutes. Siete finally got interested in one of the piles of hay. After she ate for a little while, I came over with my reed and moved her onto the next pile. Then, I sat down again with my book. Her mother, Silk, went over to the same pile and began eating the hay with Siete. Just as I was about to get up and move Siete again, Silk poked her nose at Siete's side and shoved her off to the next pile of hay.

I decided to stay in my chair and see what happened next. Silk proceeded to move Siete from pile to pile around the circle just like I was going to do. I got up and companion walked next to Silk for a while and then invited her to come over to my own little special pile of hay next to my chair. As I stood next to Silk while she ate, Siete looked up at me in surprise. I held the eye contact and walked up to say hello to her. Then, I invited her to join us at my special extra good hay pile. We walked next to each other over to where Silk was already eating. I sat in my chair again and began reading, happily listening to my girls munching contentedly. While I appreciate that Silk wanted to show me that she knew her place in the pecking order and that it appeared I had been trying to do her job herding Siete, I also decided that tomorrow, mama will stay in the barn while Siete and I are in the pasture.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

In Their Own Language

This morning, when I fed the horses, I also opened the stall doors, and Siete rudely shoved her way past me out into the corral to eat the flake of hay that I had left out there. That's not okay, so I immediately told her that it was mine, not hers, and chased her to the far end of the corral. It was a little early for me to think clearly, but I heard Carolyn Resnick’s voice in my head telling me to keep strong but flexible boundaries. Siete was sulking. Head down, she came around to Silk's stall and joined her mother, eating from that pile. Then, as soon as I turned away, she charged back to the hay I had claimed as mine. Again, I waved her away and told her that she couldn't have it, and she retreated to her own stall to eat the hay in there.

So, when we began our Waterhole Ritual of sharing territory later in the day, I wasn't sure how Siete was going to act towards me. I had a feeling that she was still annoyed. There had been a huge commotion next door that I am proud to say my horses totally ignored. Our neighbors’ enormous tree had fallen across their driveway in the windstorm Sunday night. With chain saws and wood chippers and lots of loud, violent sounding noise, a crew of tree-trimmers cleaned it up for a couple of hours. After they were finished, I opened the big gate between the corral and the pasture so Silk and Siete could come and go into their stalls as they chose. I placed my chair in the pasture and began to read. Both horses joined me and grazed happily for a while.

Then, following Carolyn’s suggestion, I took a small bowl of carrots and put it under my chair. She wants Siete to become rude because she thinks it indicates that Siete trusts me more and knows she can speak out about how she feels. This exercise is supposed to develop the horse’s ability to listen and pay attention to me. I returned to reading. (I should add here that the horses aren’t wearing halters, and the only thing that I have to guide them is a “reed”, literally a long, very flexible grass reed from a water plant.) Neither horse came near me. After about 20 minutes, I stood up and brought a piece of carrot to Siete and thanked her for her good manners. When I sat down again and began reading, she approached me. I stood up and calmly waved the reed lightly, asking Siete to back away. She knows that when I wave the reed, I’m telling her that I want more space, and she left me alone. Slowly, I walked over to her and gave her another piece of carrot, praising her for listening to me. She turned and walked back to her stall and stood in the doorway, looking at me expectantly.

Silk came to me as soon I sat down again, ready for her piece of carrot. I stopped her by gently waving the reed and told her that she would have to go away to be able to get the treat. She looked really indignant and reluctantly stepped back. Miffed, she walked away. Then, I stood up and brought her a piece of carrot. I told her that I knew that she was a good horse, and I thanked her. She took it and began grazing again. I sat down, picking up my book again. Siete made her way back out into the pasture, so after awhile, I decided to try another exercise called the "Hello Ritual". I looked her in the eye and walked up to her, and she extended her nose to greet me. I touched her forehead, said hello and walked away. Over the next ten minutes, I did this again with Siete several times and she responded with interest and was glad to see me. This exercise gives the horse control of the situation and also shows her that she can trust me. When I approach her, I must follow her lead. If she greets me, I reply and then, take the pressure off by leaving her. These reciprocal movements are the beginning of the dance. Sometimes, you need to lead and sometimes you follow.

Each time I sat down in my chair, I felt a rising sensation of happiness begin to bubble up. I couldn't stop smiling. After about the fourth time that Siete looked me in the eye and lifted her nose towards my hand, I positively floated back to my seat. It seemed to me that my little horse was thinking, "Oh good, after all these years, she's finally speaking my language!"

Even though I've watched the "Waterhole Rituals" DVD over and over and read Carolyn's book, “Naked Liberty” twice, this time, everything seems to be clicking for me. I think that having the opportunity in long phone calls every two weeks to listen to Carolyn explain what she would like us to do and why we are doing it and having other students in the group ask questions helps make the pieces fit together better and become more clear for me. Today, I really believed in my heart for the first time that Siete would be interested in playing with me and eventually dancing with me, and it filled me with joy.

Carolyn was saying that we’ve been taught to be rigid with horses. That means the horse learns the rules, but stops paying attention to you. With the Waterhole Rituals, we’re beginning a new dialogue. To be able to learn this way of communication that is instinctive, basic and based on herd dynamics found in groups of wild horses while using the sophistication of the Internet and video and distance-learning technology is really remarkable.

I’m so grateful to Carolyn for her adventurous, open-minded and generous spirit. She is inspiring me to take a leap of faith and giving me more confidence and a greater comfort level when I communicate with Siete and Silk. For the last year, I’ve been lamenting that if I still lived in San Diego, I would have been able to work with Carolyn Resnick. I’ve looked and looked for a horse trainer near me here on the East Coast that seemed like a good fit and haven’t found anyone. It is amazing to think that I can learn to train my horse long distance like this with the very person that I most wanted as our teacher. Imagine all the other things that we can learn now that we have these resources available to us. It boggles my mind and thrills me.

Friday, May 7, 2010

My Two Smart Horses

Today was so beautiful and sunny, and it just felt like the right time to try the circle game with Siete. I placed the five piles of hay in a big circle about 20 feet apart. Then, I left some hay in the barn for Silk to eat and opened the gate between the corral and the barn so the horses could choose where they wanted to go. I sat down on my chair in the shade in the pasture and began reading a book.

Siete soon wandered out, curious, as always, about what was going on. She stopped to eat at the first pile of hay. After she had been munching for a little while, I approached her and asked her to move to the next pile. She did without any hesitation. We followed the same action around the circle. I would ask her to move on to the next pile. She did and stopped to eat. After a few bites, I’d ask her to go to the next one and she would walk calmly to our next stop. We went around the circle twice. Then, when we got to the last pile, after she took a bite, she shook her head at me and ran back into the barn. She stood in the doorway of her stall and looked at me, as if to say, “See? Wasn’t I a good kid? But that’s enough of that game.” I went outside the pasture, found a piece of carrot and gave her a treat, thanking her for her cooperation.

Then, I put a flake of hay in the pasture next to my chair and sat down . As soon as I started to read, Silk ambled out of the barn to join me. She put her nose on my hand to greet me and then began to eat the hay next to me. Siete came out again too and grazed on the grass about 40 feet away, not looking at us. It was so relaxing, and the weather was perfect. We stayed like this for about twenty minutes.

Siete finally came over and stood next to her mother. Silk immediately took half of the hay that was left and pushed it firmly under my chair with her nose. I started to laugh and thanked her and kept on reading. Siete took a big mouthful of hay and walked up behind me. I couldn’t figure out what she was going to do but I ignored her. She dropped the hay on me all over my head and my book. I laughed so hard and reached up to rub her face. Satisfied, she moved away and began grazing again.

I’ve noticed that Silk stays away from us when Siete and I are interacting. I explained to Mama Silk before I began practicing the Waterhole Rituals what I was going to do and why I thought it would be good for me and Siete. She gets it, like any good mother would.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Pause In Between

Siete and I are going to move on to a new exercise as part of the Waterhole Rituals. I am supposed to place five small piles of hay in a circle that is 20 feet in diameter. After Siete begins eating at one pile of hay, I will ask her to move on to the next one, the intention being that I will be able to eventually direct her calmly and easily to go around the circle from pile to pile at my request. It is the beginning of what Carolyn Resnick calls “leading from behind”.

I feel like my horse and I are both ready to try it, but I’ve been stuck for the last couple of days unable to move forward. My mind is full of “what if’s”, and I worry that I will do the wrong thing and give Siete the wrong message. I am going to need to respond spontaneously and confidently to what ever my horse offers me. I keep reminding myself of what I learned from one of my friends last year. Don’t think of what happens as a mistake, just learn from it and do the next thing you think you need to do. It should be a process for both me and Siete, without any right or wrong or blame or guilt.
My hesitation reminded me of an article that I read recently called “Open Stillness”, written by Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel. She talks about rock climbing in Colorado and reaching a place suspended on the rock where she can’t see any possibilities for moving up or down:

“Hanging off a rock is an exaggerated experience of facing the unknown. It is exhilarating, scary, and completely vibrant. When we can’t find a foothold, the mind falls into an open stillness— the same brief pause we encounter in any situation where we lose our familiar reference points. If we have the wherewithal to relax, we find our way. If we don’t, we sometimes panic. When reactive mind responds to situations where we lose our reference points, our body tightens, our breath shortens, our vision narrows.

After a while, muscle strain stirs our sensibilities: “I can’t stay like this forever!” We don’t have the luxury of avoidance, so we start to work with our mind and slowly it softens. Now, this is the fascinating part: as everything softens, all kinds of new patterns and shapes begin to emerge from the rock. We see places to balance we didn’t see before. We’re not doomed after all! As we soften and open, we access a special intelligence, unimpeded by habitual, reactive mind.”

It reminded me of an experience I had in college where I was climbing up a steep hill and got stuck exactly as she describes, afraid and unable to move in either direction. In that instance, I started laughing so hard at myself that I began crying, and eventually, one of my friends crawled below me and pushed my bottom and my feet until I could move to the next foothold. This time, the only friends I have out here in the pasture are my two horses. I’ve decided to include Silk in this exercise since I trust her and I think she might be able to help me find my balance with her daughter. In the end, though, it’s up to me to be the leader here.

I’m going to allow myself to be peaceful now in this pause before I begin climbing again and take some time to reflect on what I’m afraid might happen and why I would feel that way. Since Siete was born, I’ve always worried that I will do something that would ruin her and cause her to distrust humans. And despite my good intentions and best efforts, we’ve had some tough times with thoughtless, ego-driven trainers, vets and farriers. I know that what we are doing together now will heal us and lead to a mutual trust. It will take as long as it will take, no predicting when it will happen. So for right now, I’m not going to get impatient or annoyed with myself or even call it “being stuck”. I’d rather see it as a time to gather my “windhorse energy”, as the Buddhists call it. Siete has no agenda, and I have to be careful to listen to her and not try to create or force one of my own. I know I will be able to feel when we are ready to move forward from hay pile to hay pile.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Soooo Cute!

When we picked up hay this morning, we discovered that our favorite farmer has 11 new baby cows in his field. They were incredibly sweet and my daughter was dying to bring one home. Fortunately, there was no room with all the hay. With temperatures in the mid-80's, these little guys have the right idea -- naptime.