My Horse, My Teacher

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Taff's Ears

How many times have you heard someone say “horses teach us patience”? Maybe my horses have been the quiet kind of educators over the years, teaching invisible lessons that had unnoticed impact. But that’s not how it was one Friday night last summer. My horse (using an equine version of positive reinforcement) refreshed my skills in managing frustration.

I arrived at the barn grinding my teeth about summer plans gone awry, long-distance family drama, work, heat and kids. I drove down the driveway and slowed as I passed the gate to Taff’s field. He was standing there as if he was waiting for me. I called to him. He looked my way. I lingered a moment then drove on to park my car. I didn’t notice him turn away.

See Ya Later

After grabbing my halter, I walked back out to the field. I called to my horse. He hadn’t gone far, but he didn’t lift his head or nicker like he often does when he sees me coming. Instead, he turned his rear to me. He seemed to shift his weight so he could be ready to walk away if I approached.

Of course I approached. I stomped my way across the distance between him and me. He walked farther away. I showed him that I had treats and waited for him to walk to me. But he went the other direction. We repeated this sequence a few more times. I resorted to doling out my sweet treats to the other horses crowding around me.

Taff, a Welsh Cob whose name means “friend,” looked back at me and flicked his tail, maintaining that ready-to-get-away-from-me position. Finally, he trotted past me from a distance and snorted. This sent me into a fit of jaw-clenching agony.

Apparently, my horse wanted nothing to do with me. I knew better than to walk after him. I turned away, taking the pressure off so as to not push him even farther away.

I watched a young woman in the next field conditioning her horse up and down a hill. They cantered uphill, her body in perfect position and the gelding’s mane and tail flowing in the evening sunlight.

I stood in the dirt holding my halter. I was out of treats. I felt bad. Embarrassed. Humiliated. Mad. I hoped that Wonder Woman didn’t see me watching her from my side of the fence.

Backup Plan

I trudged back to the barn to get a bucket of grain. I hate resorting to this dangerous tactic, walking into a field of horses carrying a bucket. But my friend Eliza was waiting for me to ride. We had plans to ride on the canal nearby and then grab some dinner.

In the time elapsed, Eliza had already retrieved her horse Sugar from a far-flung field and tacked up. I thought my bucket of grain would help move things along on my end.

It didn’t.

Every other horse wanted my attention and made an attempt to get a nose in the bucket. Taff now cantered away from me as if he was spooked. He circled back, casting irritable glances in my direction. He hid behind his favorite pal, Ranger.

I talked to Ranger. I let him shove his head in the bucket (Take that, ungrateful horse of mine! I’m giving the grain to your friend!)

I shooed Ranger away, then stood back and squared my shoulders, facing away from my horse. I hoped he would approach, but he refused.

Angry Thoughts

The thick trees that surround the field have a hazy look to them in that hot part of the summer. I scanned the trees, shocked and hurt that I could walk into this field and leave without being able to halter my horse. About 50 minutes had gone by.

Wonder Woman had moved on to hosing her sweaty, perfect horse. Eliza was still waiting for me, now walking her horse in the ring.

A string of punishing thoughts pulsed through my head. I can’t catch my horse! My horse hates me! Sell this horse! Someone else could do better with this amazing horse! I should do better training this horse! Spend more time with this horse! Windy (my dearly departed mare) would never have done this to me!

For the record, I am not selling my horse. But in that moment, I felt the sweat on my back and on my face. My feet felt hot in my black paddock boots. My fingers clenched Taff’s halter.

That’s when I remembered something I’d seen on TV. It was a documentary about equine therapy and how a horse working with a person reflects how the person feels. Was my horse’s sour humor merely a reflection of my own? Had I slung my bad mood over my shoulder—along with my halter—when I walked into the field an hour earlier? Was I exuding peace, love and happiness or … something negative?

A Realization

I remembered interviewing legendary dressage trainer and sports psychology expert Jane Savoie once. She taught me all about how a rider—in or out of the saddle—can change how she feels with breathing exercises.

I thought about my Bikram yoga classes. I closed my eyes. Inhale for six counts, belly rise. Exhale slowly. Maybe six minutes went by. I opened my eyes and refocused on the soft, shimmering green trees that envelope the field. I felt better.

I reached into the bucket and ran my hands through the sticky half-a-handful of grain left. My mind had cleared. I thought about leaving the field without my horse, and how that was OK. I’d come back in the morning and try again.

The other horses had long grown bored with me. They grazed and stomped at flies. I turned to walk back up the hill to the gate. That’s when my teacher approached.

I stopped and turned around. Without thinking, I held out an empty hand. I could feel his breath on my palm. Really? I thought. I had to go through all that?

He licked a bit of grain off my hand. I exhaled. Then I walked back a few steps, giving him room to choose to come with me. A model of patience, he shuffled his beautiful feathered feet toward me and touched my hand again.

This article originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!

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