Bryony Anderson Pullin, LMT, CYT
My Horse, My Teacher
Updated: Apr 25, 2022
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 trouble than she cared to deal with. She decided to send him to auction, to at least recoup some money and be free of the 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 reschooled other ex-racehorses for transitions to new careers, I was not intimidated; 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 that he would become my best teacher, as well as the inspiration for my life's work. In the beginning, Marco was a challenge for sure. The people who ran the barn 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 come at anyone who opened his stall door, then immediately run backwards to the corner of his stall, head high and eyes wild; he had 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 days, Marco also hated to be groomed or touched in any way; I had to cross-tie him in order to groom him without being attacked, and I tried every kind of brush and every kind of technique in attempt to make it pleasant for him (which later motivated me to learn equine massage and bodywork - more on this later). In training, when he didn't understand something or got startled, his first reaction was to rear. 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, too, 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 the unwanted experience, actually, so much as simply feeling like I was rather tired of doing the same thing over and over, 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 that horse 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 valuable practice 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 employ 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, 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 relationship, and if we want a bettDr relationship we'd better learn to speak our partner's language. 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."
I feel it important for the reader to know that this horse that was so difficult in the beginning ended up being the most willing, engaged, rewarding partner I could have imagined. His rearing stopped early on, as I learned to work with him in a way that met him where he needed to be met, and 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 - catching the signs of overload and making a shift, before they amounted to a blow up (“Recognize what happens before what happens happens.” ~ Pat Parelli) He likewise came to actually enjoy being groomed; after a few years together and a change in lifestyle to living out 24/7 with other horses, he’d be the first to meet me at the gate, and stand in contented stillness, blissfully twitching his nose and closing his eyes as I groomed him- no halter, no lines, no crossties.
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 open our minds to new possibilities and meet others where they need to be met, in the present moment, 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. Each horse I have interacted with since then has added their own lessons, and helped me expand my understanding of how we can better relate with them, and what they can teach us about ourselves and one another.
In appreciation and gratitude for my beloved friend.