I forgot something.
Animals have an uncanny way of revealing ourselves to us. Just yesterday, my husband's father was marveled by the family dog, because he seemed to always know what my father-in-law was going to do before he did it. He exclaimed that it was like the dog was reading his mind! I smiled and in my head thought, "Believe me. I know what you are talking about!"
But a few days prior, I forgot this.
The ability to read us goes way beyond mere action and pattern recognition. Most people who spend time around animals have observed this. I find that horses are especially sensitive to our thoughts and emotions. They also seem more compelled to respond in recognition of those thoughts and emotions like it is an energy that cannot be stifled. The mirror metaphor is nothing new, but this does not mitigate the effect of the experience.
At the end of this week, I got on Harley for a short walk through the woods. Something was bothering me. The thing that was bothering me was barn-related and it was the kind of thing that frustrates, because of feelings of being "not in control" of a situation. The situation affects my horse and my friend and me, which understandably made my frustration emotionally-charged.
I did not have time for a ride, but I needed to get on Harley for a few minutes. This inevitably makes me feel better and I was feeling pretty lousy. After swinging into the saddle, we headed for one of the exit gates to the property. We stopped at the gate and I unlatched it. We walked through and I turned Harley around. Well, he really turns himself around and walks up to the latch. We have opened and closed gates hundreds of times together.
This particular gate is not lined up at the latch as well as it used to be. I have to raise the latch and pull up on the entire aluminum gate to fix the latch and close the gate. Lifting the gate and keeping my thumb on the latch at the same time is not easy from the ground. It is really difficult from horseback. The muscles along my torso tighten and scream at me if it takes me more than one attempt to get the gate to close. Despite my fussing and grunting to close the gate, Harley usually waits patiently.
As soon as I tried to lift up the gate, Harley started moving his feet. He started dancing in place. I stopped what I was doing and steadied him with the rein. I patted him and found his neck muscles tight. Of course, I could feel this under the saddle, too. I pleaded with him a little bit. Just give me a minute here, Boy. I fussed with the gate again, but he moved away before I could close it. I nudged him with my leg to move him closer to the gate. He side-stepped into my leg pressure. What? That is like horse defiance. When a steadying on the rein and a stronger nudge recieved more side-stepping away from the gate, I gave him a kick. Harley's hindquarters swung into the gate, slamming it closed with a satisfying "BANG".
This did not scare him. A part of me thinks he did it on purpose. I was actually kind of happy, because I did not have to mess with the gate anymore, but clearly there was a problem. I walked a small circle away from the gate and tried to stop Harley next to the latch. That trainer in me was not willing to let this go yet. We halted and I nudged his hindquarters closer to the gate. He responded with the same defiance of side-stepping into my leg pressure. I amplified my aids and he amplified his defiance. He swung his hindquarters in a circle toward my leg, pivoting on his front end. I kicked and nudged, but nothing I did had any effect. Once he had completed a 180 degree pivot, he started backing up. I kicked with both legs and tapped him insistently with the whip, but he kept backing up. His neck was high and tight. His ears were starting to flatten. He was angry! For a moment it crossed my mind that he might want to go up. Harley rear? Over a silly little gate exercise. But then I realized my mistake.
It was not about the gate at all. It was me. All the frustration and anger and emotion that I was feeling was coming through Harley. I was the one feeling defiant. Not in control. Like things were unfair. I was the one who was angry enough to rear, but as a human, as an adult, I had to keep my emotions in check. I was not allowed to act upon them, so I kept them inside. But I was not fooling Harley.
As he danced in place and hopped backward, I felt the energy streaming through both of us. It was not until we had danced like this for several long moments that I remembered how important it is to have a clear mind when you are with your horse. The horse cannot ignore it. He cannot hear any of your aids when your mind is screaming something else. This is why it is so important to always have a clear picture of what you want your horse to be like, to go like, when you are riding or training him. My mind was the equivalent of a laser light show when I was trying to close that gate. I might have liked to slam it myself, but I wouldn't. Harley did it for me and then he tried to figure out where to put all the energy I was giving off. There was nothing constructive for him to do with it and there was not a clear image coming from me, so he panicked and then he got mad at me. And now I was mad at myself.
Once I realized my mistake, my body softened and I took a deep breath. I told myself that even if somethings seemed unfair in my life, I needed to be fair to my horse. If I was riding him and not thinking about riding, I was doing him an injustice and I might as well just dismount.
Harley stopped his feet and waited.
I tapped him forward with both feet. He hesitated, but then he walked forward slowly. I imagined his body soft and flexible as I gently asked him to bend, and then I nudged him away from the offending leg. He side-stepped in a circle pivoting around his front end. I switch the bend and my aids and he repeated the exercise in the other direction. I released the reins and he let out a snort. We walked up to the latch of the gate and halted. I released the reins again and he lowered his neck. I leaned over and pulled on the gate, as if I still needed to latch it. Harley remained motionless. I patted his neck and he shook his mane from side-to-side, shaking off the previous confusion.
We started walking down the trail and he was a completely different horse. I am human and things are going to upset me from time to time, but I cannot expect my horse to just wash it away for me. I have to meet him halfway in the saddle even if my problems do not magically dissolve once my foot is in the stirrup.
The importance of riding with a clear mind cannot be overstated, but it does need reminding once in a while.