In a largely oversized and muggy indoor arena, the wide eyes await. They sense our intention. They sense our presence. They sense the start of something big. Some are fresh starts and some are restarts. Either way it is a new beginning, both for the people facilitating the learning and new for the wide eyes alike. What brings us all to this quiet place on the hilltop is life’s inevitable inertia; or rather, our desire to shift and change as we continue on our unique trajectories. It is the need to be dynamic – ever learning, ever seeking something else, ever seeking wisdom to grow. What we knew is that some of these wide eyes were already used to moving, that is to say that some were used to moving until an opposing force of some kind moved them backwards, or even sideways, or caused them to halt indefinitely. Some of them have never moved before at all, and we begin fresh with a clean slate on their behalf, which is an ideal situation.
The people at Colt Starting are similar in this way; some of us were moving and then we hit a block where we got stuck, and perhaps we even got scared. Some of us are fresh and have never really experienced much moving at all, and maybe that earnest quality will save our hides. Maybe the ignorance of what can go wrong and not knowing what bone-crushing pain is actually keeps us safer than others because we can manage our congruencey more adeptly, and we aren’t focused on the negative possibilities. Either way this is no easy task to learn to gently move the previously unmoved, and for some, the still unwilling to move, but fortunately for our Colt Starting course we have an ace in the hole; her name is Miss Anna Twinney.
Anna’s primary focus is to keep us all safe, horses included. She is not a babysitter and she will not simply do it for us. She is a collaborator, a facilitator, and a developer of souls, techniques, and ideals. Anna will look into us and ask what we are feeling. When we can’t decide on an answer, or if we answer dishonestly, she’ll look us over and purse her lips as she squints a little and then she’ll ask us again. It’s important to know these things, for us, for her, AND for the horse. It’s important because the horse is a reflection of our energy and our emotions at any given time. If we don’t know what we are feeling it makes a muddied water for the horse that makes it more challenging for them to succeed. When we are starting or restarting colts and horses there is no more unsafe and unfair way to proceed.
It’s most important to be in touch with feelings because it’s the difference between a reaction and a response, a cloudy cue and a clear communication, and a partnership vs. a dictatorship. It’s how Anna knows if we are ready to do the hard things: to look at ourselves, to be honest about our capabilities and our intention, and to know if we are ready to ground ourselves and focus on the work at hand. Knowing how we are feeling is the basis of all this work, and most significantly, it’s how Anna helps us help the horses. Therefore, to be confused, in denial, or unwilling to be honest with ourselves or with others, that is the cardinal sin of Natural Horsemanship. It’s a problem because it hinders our awareness and it causes an imbalance the horse can feel. It causes us to become misaligned with the truth of things, and hence the truth of our own reality, of which the horse is an integral part. We can’t very well move a horse who exists in the truth of a present reality when we are in the falsehood of our own illusions or past misconceptions. Some horses are much more forgiving than others, of course, but most of those who are totally forgiving are called “therapy horses.” They are there to help the human begin to understand the truth of their alignment and awareness, or lack thereof. These are not those kinds of horses just yet. These wide eyes are looking to us to be the leaders, the truth tellers, to assure them we have their back and their best interest and safety at heart. These wide eyes need clear, soft eyes who can show them what a kind, congruent leader and human looks like.
The trick in all of this is not just getting the horse to do what we want them to do. The trick is in allowing them to see they have options and choices in their growth process and helping them to feel safe with us. All the while we are showing them we are capable of leading them well. Then, when they want to follow us and they trust us to make good decisions, we can co-create a life of endless adventure with them. A life where we always learn about one another and one in which growth and creativity are cultivated and not smothered like an unwanted flame. This is the foundation work for all future horse-human relationships. If we rush the horse into a panic, we fail. If we allow three experiences in which the horse develops a behavioral issue, we have created one where none previously existed. If we are not present and aware, we could get hurt or killed, or get someone else hurt or killed. This colt starting is serious stuff, but there are benefits that go beyond words in this experience. There are changes to our hearts, minds, and souls that only observers of subtlety can detect and appreciate, and that is where the gold lies.
Early mornings, late nights, and summer heat aside, one by one, day by day, we worked in comfort. The comfort of good company, that is. We worked alongside our partners and buddies, both human and equine. We shared a growth experience with like-minded individuals who were the most willing group of people I have ever met. If something was needed, all we had to do was ask and people jumped left and right to pitch in. We worked together on softening, slowing down the mind, being wholly present and aware during the work, being equally responsive in thanking the horse for their try, learning the silent language, using our body language effectively, understanding what we can tell from the eyes, and discovering how we can similarly use our eyes, weight, and breath to share our requests, our intentions and to offer reward. We shaped the lessons for the horses so as not to overwhelm them, but to help them learn to cope with discomfort and to experience success as they learned to trust us to add pressure to their lives. We helped each other with suggestions, epiphanies, and in great and lengthy periods of varied experimentation. Just as with people, every horse is different and what works with one may not work with another. We were fortunate to find those who were willing to give us ideas, to help us problem solve, and to offer solutions and comfort when we feared we had exhausted our options, our patience, and our efforts. Truly a lasting bond was formed and the camaraderie of colt starting developed and lingered like a silent partner, waiting in the byways and walls of the arena, always there with a smile and a pat on the back, reassuring us we had given it our all and done a good job.
In a very early impression it felt like the success of a week of starting colts would be measured by the number of colts under saddle on the final day. This was such a misconception. That is not to say that we didn’t have amazing numbers as result of all the hard work because each colt was saddled by the end of the week and all but three, I believe, had been ridden. Rather, the measure of a good colt starting course is in the daily experiences; it’s in every obstacle on the obstacle course we can finally cross and in the joy that comes from approaching a wide-eyed one and watching them turn into a soft-eyed one around things that were of tremendous concern at the beginning of the week. The success is found in the round pen, in reaching out, and in creating the contract. It’s in the close connection, the love lessons, and the successful breakaways. It’s in the liberty work, and in the long lines that we might never have thought we could use on a particular horse. It’s in each girth tightened, and each saddle pad that finds its way onto the horse’s back, and in the stirrups that clang and bounce against the horse’s side as he forgets they are there and focuses on the communication and direction of the human instead. It’s in every parachute dragged, every dummy draped and slung, and every noodle and flag wiggled and waved throughout the week. It’s in every head drop, every deep breath and sigh, and every lick and chew. It’s in every eye that was once distant, hard and wide, that now is only soft and presently attentive. It’s in every curious exploration of an obstacle or a pocket, every smile, and definitely in every laugh of this process.
Colt Starting was not about the end result at all – not about the product, not about the final polish. Instead, it was about the safe opportunity for some to start over and to learn to trust again, and for some to just be started gently and effectively so they will never have to be restarted ever again. It was about affording us a space, an environment where learning could take place, and where ideas could be safely shared and exchanged. Colt Starting was truly about the start of the possibilities of each individual there, and to see that there is limitless potential that can be tapped in all of us, despite our somewhat active resistance to that process. It was about opening up to trust-based leadership and compassionate communication, or TLC, as Anna calls it. It was all about the beginning and the journey to the next beginning, which starts now for each and every one of us.
The success of Colt Starting is also in the future of the horses whose lives we may now touch on any level. Sometimes we will only be able to offer a compassionate sigh and knowing glance when we see that they are frustrated or confused. If we are fortunate, we will have our hands on to help gentle them to saddling ourselves, applying all that we learned over the course. It’s in the potential of each observer who might see us doing something differently, with compassion, and think to themselves, “I need to ask them how they do that so gently and with such patience, and how I can learn that too.” It’s in every connection with every horse in our futures, and their people, as we become the ROTH mission at work in our daily lives. It’s alive in each and every instance where the human mind entertains the thought, “maybe there is a better way.” I had that thought and after much exploration, I can assure you, there IS a better way: the ROTH way.
They said colts was the most difficult course that Anna teaches, and I could see why that might be the case. We are taking big steps with horses who may have some negative programming already in place about the process, and who may or may not react, possibly even violently. But after watching pair after pair succeed in achieving their daily goals, I was encouraged that it was not quite as trying as I had perceived it might have been. I was lucky to have my gelding there, who had been ridden before, but after an accident we had backtracked quite a bit. So my experience was much tempered compared to those who were truly starting a horse for the first time. Still, the challenges are only where we perceive them to be, and I perceive that this course was a wild and total success for each and every student and horse who attended.
It is with good reflection upon this recent experience, and in preparation for the long journey to all of the next beginnings, that I note one most important piece of practice that struck me, in particular, and that I need to apply hourly: that is to relax and to smile, because if I am not smiling, I am not breathing. To all the people who helped me smile or laugh along the way, my gratitude to you. Here’s to the limitless beginnings and starts, to a future of moving, to the potential of us all, and to the glorious necessity of breathing.
To a mentor and boss who shows me that only I can limit my true potential, and to her husband who is there for me when I need to share silly things and ask about life’s difficult questions, my deepest gratitude to you both for putting up with my growth spurts. Your eternal patience with me is most appreciated. All my love to you both for the sacrifices you make on a daily basis on behalf of the mission and the animals. There are no two like either of you anywhere in the world. May you always find the energy to shine on, ROTH style.
All my love,
ROTH’s 2017 Colt Starting Crew at Zuma’s Rescue Ranch in Littleton, CO