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My Horse, My Teacher

Updated: Apr 16, 2023

The work I'm doing today began unsuspectingly over 20 years ago, with a horse named Marco. A 7 year old thoroughbred just off the racing circuit and only recently gelded, he'd been purchased by a novice trainer at our barn in hopes of turning him around for quick profit; this "project" was short lived, however, as she found his constant rearing, biting, aggression, and lack of cooperation to be more than she cared to deal with. She decided to send him to auction, to recoup some money and be free of her expense and frustration. I had felt inexplicably drawn to this horse the first moment I saw him, and witnessed with sadness the disconnect and misunderstanding between him and his owner, and their mutual misery. Though I hadn't planned on buying another horse right then, I knew if a horse like that went to auction he'd likely end up abused or slaughtered. Having rehabilitated other ex-racehorses and so-called remedial horses, I felt I could help him learn to trust, and knew I would enjoy the process of developing a relationship with him. There was something special about this horse, I just knew. Little did I know he would become my best teacher, as well as the inspiration for my life's work. In the beginning, Marco was a perfect example of what Monty Roberts would call “man made problems” - he was a challenge for sure. In training sessions, when he didn't understand something or got startled his first reaction was to rear. His previous owner had punished him severely for rearing, which only made him more frightened, defensiveness, and determined to get away. The people who ran the boarding stable referred to him (when they thought I wasn't within earshot) as "the mean horse;" they stalled him at the far end of the aisle where no one would be walking by, as he tended to lunge with ears pinned and teeth barred at anyone who passed (reminding me of an old line from Monty Python, "None shall pass!") He would likewise attack anyone who opened his stall door, then immediately run backwards to the corner of his stall, head high and eyes wild - he had obviously played out this scenario so many times it had become his pattern for relating to the stall door being opened, regardless of the fact he was no longer living in a situation where that might have been appropriate. A perfect example, though an extreme one, of what we all do to some degree every day: our well-established patterns of perception and reaction, based on our past, prevent us from seeing clearly and responding appropriately in the present.

In those early days of our relationship, Marco also hated to be groomed or touched in any way. I had to cross-tie him in order to groom him safely, and I tried every kind of brush and technique in search of something that would make it pleasant for him. I hired an equine massage therapist to help him relate to physical contact in a positive way - it was the first time I ever witnessed him actually relaxing. This inspired me to learn equine massage and bodywork too: first to help Marco, and later doing the work professionally to help other horses. As we began work under saddle, I spent as much time falling off him as staying on ~ he'd go into racehorse mode at the slightest provocation, and I'd stay on as long as I could before hitting the dirt. This experience taught me a valuable life lesson on the power of our minds and expectations. One day while he was flying around the large outdoor arena at top speed, I recognized that my mind was already "negatively projecting" an outcome: the all-too-familiar one of me coming off, and all the sensations associated with this. I realized that my own mental picturing and sensory imagining was paving the way for an outcome I didn't want. I knew that even if I couldn't ultimately control the outcome, I could at least stop investing in a negative one - it wasn't a matter of resisting or fearing the unwanted experience, actually, so much as simply feeling like I was rather tired of doing the same thing and realizing I had a choice. I decided I had nothing to lose by changing my mind: either I would fall off as I had dozens of times before, or I'd stay on and something different would unfold. Changing the pattern needed to start with me, in my own mind. I started envisioning myself staying on effortlessly, and imagining what that felt like. I focused on the rhythm of my breathing and began coordinating it with Marco's movement. Soon my mind was calm, and next thing I knew Marco had slowed down to a comfortable trot, and then a walk, all on his own without my interference. I never fell off him again, though we spent another 11 years together riding several times a week. Marco taught me many things and inspired me in many ways as our relationship progressed. I had been practicing yoga since the age of 15 and riding since childhood, but it was Marco who showed me the direct application of yoga for riders and the need to share this with others. At first for me, this meant the parallels between how I was taught to use my body in the yoga poses, and how I was taught to use my body on the horse: squaring the hips in Warrior I, for example, gave me awareness about my body’s tendencies and created the muscle memory I needed to use in the saddle to ride straighter. By practicing on the mat before going riding, I had a better sense of my own body patterns and developed better balance, self-control, alignment, and self-carriage to ride more effectively. Much of the riding instruction I had received until then focused on what to do "TO" the horse; indeed, this is still the primary method of riding technique taught by most trainers and in most books on the subject. But Marco soon showed me that these methods are self-limiting as they are not cohesive with the language of the horse. Communication is the key to any relationship, and if we want a better relationship we'd better learn to speak our partner's language. As our partnership progressed, so too did my understanding of how my yoga practice benefitted my communication with this sensitive being. One early incident stands out clearly in my mind to this day: I was riding Marco in the arena, tracking left, and despite my leg and rein aids I could not get him straight. He kept pressing his ribcage to the left and dropping his inside shoulder. More effort with my rein and leg aids failed to accomplish anything besides making us both increasingly frustrated. Finally a little voice in my head said, "Why don't you straighten yourself out!?!" As I took my focus off of trying to change my horse, and instead turned my attention inward to observe myself, I realized that MY ribcage was pushed to the left, and MY left shoulder was collapsed forward; recognizing this, I straightened myself out...and miraculously, without any aids at all, my horse straightened too. I was in awe at what I was witnessing. A whole new level of awareness opened up as I realized my horse was mirroring me; for better or worse, he was doing not "what I say" but rather "what I do." Our horses, just like Life, are mirroring back to us our own patterns, reflecting what is inside us. If we want to change what's "outside" we must, as Gandhi said, "BE the change we want to see in the world."

My desire to help Marco, to understand him, and to be a better partner for him also motivated me to study various Natural Horsemanship approaches. I had never felt comfortable with traditional horse training, where dominance and human ego is celebrated and horses learn what the human wants by being forced or getting punished for guessing wrong - I always knew there had to be a better way, and was fortunate to find a wonderful teacher in my early 20’s, Karin Nietcheman, who had introduced me to the teachings of Monty Roberts and Reiner Klimke. Karin had guided me in rehabilitating a frightened, feral Arabian, and showed me what was possible when we engage the horse with compassion, understanding, patience, and collaboration. So far I’d gotten by with what I’d learned from her, my dressage teachers, books, and my good intentions, but I was far from an expert and needed help if I was to help this special horse. Seven years into our partnership, Marco, my other horse (Bear) and I moved to Ocala, FL and had many such resources available to us. The first lesson we had with Jerry Williams blew my mind: Jerry interacted with Marco in a specific way, and Marco immediately responded perfectly despite never having been exposed to these techniques before. Jerry, like Karin years before, was “speaking the horse’s language” and Marco seemed absolutely relieved to be finally talking with someone who truly understood him. My eyes were being opened to a whole new world of possibilities, and I was so grateful (as was Marco.) This education in Natural Horsemanship coincided with my beginning to learn Ortho-Bionomy and Equine Ortho-Bionomy, and the principles of both were stunningly parallel. Working with the horses was like Ortho-Bionomy in action: I was learning and applying the natural laws of life, and amazed at how effective the path of ease could be.

I feel it important for the reader to know that this horse that was so "difficult" in the beginning of our journey together became the most willing, engaged, rewarding partner I could ever have wished for. His rearing stopped early on, as I learned to honor his feedback and thresholds, slowing down and giving him space when he was learning something or feeling unconfident. He never reared again in all our years together. It wasn’t a matter of “training him not to do it” or punishing him to make it unpleasant, but simply recognizing what was behind the behaviour - confusion, fear, frustration, unconfidence - catching the signs of overload and adjusting according to his needs in the moment. After a few years together and a change in lifestyle to living out 24/7 with other horses, he regained his innate balance and serenity. He could trust that he was understood, heard, and supported. Having complete freedom of choice, he'd be the first herd member to meet me at the gate, eager to interact. He also came to actually enjoy being groomed and touched: no longer needing a halter or crossties, he stood at liberty in his pasture as I groomed him, blissfully twitching his nose, licking, yawning, and closing his eyes. When I hosted Equine Ortho-Bionomy clinics with my teacher, Zarna Carter, Marco enjoyed being a demo horse - having students touch him and practice on him for two days at a time. These are just some examples of the drastic change in Marco, and what is possible when horses are given a chance.

One of the biggest lessons Marco taught me was that horses are much more willing and able than humans to let the past go and embrace a new reality. So often in our relationships~ whether with our horses or other humans ~ we keep ourselves and others stuck in outdated patterns because of our own projections and assumptions, continuing to negatively predict expected outcomes based on the past. We limit ourselves and others from experiencing something different because of our attachment- attachment to an old paradigm or role, attachment to being right, even attachment to playing out the familiar just so we can feel the sense of safety/control that comes from knowing what's next. When we can stay present, open our minds to new possibilities, look for the best in others and meet them where they need to be met - anything is possible.

After 11 years together, Marco died suddenly and unexpectedly, but his lessons stay with me and continue to deepen. He opened a door for me, set my feet on an unexpected path, and expanded my mind. Each horse I have interacted with since then has added their own lessons and helped me grow in understanding. They are teaching us all the time, and if we are open they'll show us how we can better relate with them. I am forever grateful to be on this never-ending journey.

In appreciation and gratitude for my beloved friend.

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