What is your horse telling you?
As a facilitator for Equine Assisted Learning - I put my horse first in a lot of things. This job has completely changed me from what I thought I was, a "horse trainer" into a person who really gets to know my horses on a different level to see what they're saying. I am now one who allows my horses to have a voice and an opinion in their lives. They're still horses of course, still animals under my control and they don't get to choose if we move houses or if they get their normal meals or straight apples every day, but when theres a time I can give them a choice, I for sure try my best to listen to what they say.
For example - I was setting up obstacles one day in preparation for a class and I had my herd of 3 loose with me in the arena. I figured we would be working with Tom that day, it was new students and Tom is my easy going trust worthy ol' beginner horse. But he didn't want to let me close to him that day. Even so much as walking in the opposite direction from me when I looked over at him which is very unusual for him. Meanwhile, my mare Mika was almost trying to ride piggy back with me. She was right in step behind me the whole time I was setting up. Bumping objects with her nose and seeming to read the instruction cards as I moved from one set up to the next. We worked with Mika that day. Things went beautifully. I can't guarantee that things would have gone better or worse with Tom, but he made it pretty clear that he didn't want to work that day and Mika was pretty clear she DID want to work that day. My horses are good horses, even by my old "horse trainer" standards. They stand tied. They are easy to catch in the field and they have good manners no matter who is working around them. So you think I wouldn't miss such obvious signs like I did just last week. We were gathering the horses in for another class. The boys, Tom and Zeke had no issues being caught. Mika evaded the halter being put on her head, but she still walked between the boys and over to the fence. She's an independent woman! She doesn't need anyone to lead her to the hitching post. I chucked to myself as I tied up the boys. But Mika was still a bit off as I went over to her. All my horses are tied during classes. Even if we're just working with one, for safety of the herd and participants any horses not currently working that day are secured and within eyesight the whole time we're in the area. Mika did not want to be caught that day, she did not want the halter on her face, she walked a few steps away and didn't put her face in the halter for me but made me work a bit more than usual to get her secure at the fence with the boys. I had a bit going on that day and missed those important signs. So she was forced to talk louder. Sometimes the participants are allowed to choose their own teacher horse for class and sometimes I choose for them. That morning for some reason I chose Mika for the team to work with. She flicked her ears at me as she was led towards the first obstacle.
Mika is very good at her job. She's one of the best teachers I've ever encountered. But this particular class had two obstacles that required her to do lateral movement, or to move sideways. Her ears instantly pinned back and she snaked that head out with a frustrated snap of her teeth at the air. Her tail was swishing and she even picked up her feet and deliberately stomped. A hand was ran along her back and she flinched about midway down. Suddenly, I knew. All the signs, all the things she had been telling me all morning finally clicked. She hurt. Mika was severely abused before I met her and she doesn't have a strong bone structure because of it. She needs routine chiropractic care and that day, she was telling me she was due. Her ribs were out and it was making any sideways movement painful for her.
Mika knows her job. She loves her job. But even if you know how to do your job and you love it, its still not fun when you're in pain. Especially if the job requires you to move in ways that hurt. I could have forced her to keep going. The old "horse trainer" in me wouldn't' have given up until she submitted and did one sidestep without being "crabby". But now, I understand her. I have built a connection with her where I know she as a horse will never try to deceive me, she is never intentionally bad, she was just in pain and trying to tell me. We put Mika back with the boys, gave her extra love and I called the vet to schedule an adjustment. She will be fine, and I am yet again amazed that this far in to my equine assisted learning journey I still have to practice listening to my horses. Something that is a practice is something you are continually working on. I will never know everything there is to know about horses and that is amazing to me. Every time I work with them I am learning something new about my leadership, my listening skills, my communication skills and my teamwork abilities.
Mika was clear, immediate and honest - and I still didn't see it because I was so focused on class that day.
I have apologized to her and she will be just fine after her upcoming adjustment. That rib will go back in place like it always does and we will continue on with bravery at Starting Gate. This time, with even better communication and trust between us. What is your horse telling you? What could a horse tell you about your listening skills?