Monday, June 9, 2014

In Which Sonita Teaches Me the Difference Between Feel and Patience II

Sonita wasn't easy. She wasn't particularly nice. She was quick, reactive and bad tempered.

I had been riding her for enough years to let those things become my guide.

I had forgotten, or accepted as my right--I'm not sure which--that Sonita had never kicked or bit anyone. If I slipped in the saddle she stepped under me if she could, and waited for me to straighten myself out if she couldn't. She whinnied to me as I pulled up to the barn. She would leave good grass on a warm afternoon to stand by my chair and doze.

I had fallen into the habit of putting my human spin on her behavior.

Horses are not bold by nature. They are flight animals.

I was treating Sonita like she was a wart hog, or a rhino. Or a street punk. A bully to be conquered.

Horses will fight. Some are quicker to fight than others. But I had never met a horse who didn't spook before it charged. Horses who lunged over stall doors to snap at passerby spent most of their lives with their heads in corners and butts to the door, as far away from their perceived torment as possible.

A lone horse runs hard and spooks wide, can become so panicked it will become lost in the wilderness. A horse with an unstable, injured or weak herd mate becomes aggressive. The need for companionship overcomes flight, but take away flight, give the horse another that needs protection, and fear drives the horse into aggression.

Was Sonita's behavior based on fear?

She was a horse who was aware of everything. Birds, people,vehicles, things that flapped, things that stood too still, Everything close, everything as far as she could see, everything in between.

When I rode, I was essentially driving her, I sat behind her head and shoulders, my legs told her where to put her feet and my hands told her what speed she had to hold as we traveled.

I was in the position to lead, but was I leading? Or was I the weak link?

As we walked around the ring I stayed lost in thought, but made myself stay aware enough to keep my legs steady and my hand quiet. She was quiet too, except for when we had to pass my coat. Then her head came up, she gathered her legs under her and I could feel her as she waited. I stayed quiet and she skittered away from the coat, then settled along the rail again. She dropped to a walk on her own.

My heart sunk a little when I realized she was waiting for my hand to clench, my legs to stiffen and my body to become wooden. She waited for me to transmit all of her tension right back at her. Between my locked legs and my fingers creeping up the reins to get a better hold I was taking away her flight.
I was the fight.

The world was a cacophony of sensation for Sonita. Instead of giving her a clear path, I was reacting to her, piling my responses on top of her already over-loaded brain.

I was as tangled a mess as my horse was. If I was going to be the leader, I had to know where we were going and expect her to get there. I needed to be the toll of a deep clear bell cutting through her tinnitus.

I started by deciding what exactly I wanted. I wanted her to walk on the rail, pass my coat without worry and move into her bit.

I shook out my arms, kicked my feet out of the stirrups, stretched my legs and got my seat together just in time to ride out the next spook. Again, I didn't interfere.She didn't jump as high or as far and was back on the rail within two strides.

If I was going to get past the coat, I wanted it to be because she was concentrating on what we were doing, not whether or not my coat was growing hair and claws and not because I lost track of my goals so I could fight with her.

So I started with simple collection. I held my hand steady, my reins just tight enough so she could make contact if she chose and gave her a squeeze with my calves. Sonita jumped forward, tail wringing, head in the air, and banged herself on the bit. I stayed steady. My hand was quiet, my legs squeezed in the rhythm of the walk I wanted, and she only found pressure if she leaned one way or the other. After a few ugly steps she eased back into the walk. I relaxed my legs, eased the tension in the small of my back and squeezed again. She tossed her head, and jangled her bit, but stepped her hind legs nicely underneath her. I relaxed my legs again.

And so it went. I concentrated on the ground about 10 feet in front of us, kept my body relaxed, and made sure if she was bumped by my legs or hand, it was her own doing. As long as she traveled my chosen line, there was no pressure. I would ask her to collect, get a few steps and release her again.

I made sure I asked her to collect at least five feet before her last spook spot and held my request, but nothing more, through each spook.

She began to collect before my coat, scatter past it, then find her frame within a few feet. I would release her and let her walk the long side of the arena on a loose rein.

I didn't think about the coat, I didn't look at the coat, I just thought about straight lines and extending the amount of time Sonita walked deep, her shoulders up, her poll soft, and her nose an inch or so in front of the vertical.

I'll be damned if we weren't walking past that coat, in frame, without even a tail twitch in another 15 minutes.

I stopped  by my jacket, leaned over, pulled it from the post and put it on.

"Sonita, I'm sorry. I'll figure it out, I promise."

She shook her head and pinned her ears. It was dinner time. She was still a bitch. But I knew, finally, I had her.


  1. Wow, sounds just like my grouchy old gelding. I am embarrassed to say that after being the one to start him and, mostly, the only one to ride him for the last fourteen or so years that I am only now learning this about him. Or at least it is just now really sinking in. I think it's because we are no longer working. Nowadays I hop on bareback and we "plod" around the yard.
    He is hot, alert and reactive. I can feel every twitch of his back muscles without the saddle and if I keep my seat relaxed he calms back down. If I tense and react, at all, it builds to a major tantrum. Love hearing that good riders are slow to pick up on these things too.

  2. I love how you explain your thought processes, Mugs. It's a good approach to figure out why a problem or behavior exists.

  3. Thank you for posting this story. You did a wonderful job of articulating the vicious cycle of reactiveness that we all get sucked into as riders and handlers at one time or another. Great food for thought.

  4. Wonderful clarity. Achieving that selfless way of riding, being completely in tune to their instinct is so difficult to do, yet alone describe.

    Thanks for both figuring it out and sharing the process.

  5. Wow. Horses are amazing and they're just waiting for us to figure it out. It's so hard for us to not impose our human nature on them.

    Well written!!!!