Barbara Weiss has been a student of Natural Horsemanship for five years. She has come to believe that Natural Horsemanship is the best path to training, riding, or simply “being” with a horse. Natural Horsemanship, she believes is about honest, thoughtful exploration between horse and rider. “If Wishes Were Horses” examines this kind of exploration. The essay discusses her attempt to filter what she has learned from a variety of clinicians and to that learning on my own with my horse.
Written by Barbara Weiss
Yeah, if only wishes were horses…
Tai stood half-asleep. It had been so long since I’d moved she’d probably forgotten I was on her back. I curled my frozen toes and they cracked like icicles snapping. The other horses in the field nickered and shuffled around the gates waiting for their chance to get in out of the cold. They were impatient at this diversion from their schedule. It was time to roll and sleep and chew the particle board walls inside the arena. But, I couldn’t get off my horse. I couldn’t leave things at this low ebb. It would feel like I’d given up when I should be pushing on. I didn’t want to leave until I’d made something happen.
“Hey, wake up down there,” I clucked to Tai and her head came up fast. “We’re trying this again.”
I ordered her to walk back to the far end of the arena. Tai yawned and sighed, but walked out straight and easy anyway. I asked her to shift left, walk straight, shift left, walk straight, shift left…It only took four or five steps before we were wadded up like a stick of gum. Tai’s head pointed north while her hindquarters headed southwest.
“So this is what it’s like to ride a “Push-me-pull-you,” I thought remembering that strange beast from Dr. Doolittle. I fought the urge to give up and go home. Tai curled her head around and tried to bite my toe.
Now what? I leaned back in the saddle and tipped my chin toward the rafters. That stone cold voice that lurked in the back of my mind said, “The slower you go the faster you’ll learn.”
I knew the voice well. It belonged to Ray Hunt: Father, Son and Holy Ghost to the horse; totalitarian task-master to the rider. Ray is as old as the hills and spent enough time on horseback riding through them to learn more about the feel of a horse than most of us can even dream about.
The first time I met Ray Hunt was on an Eastern Oregon ranch out of John Day. He was teaching a four-day colt starting and horsemanship clinic. On the first day of the clinic he sauntered out into the arena on the back of a soft-eyed blue roan named Fancy. He clipped a mic to the pocket of his pressed, pink oxford shirt and stared at the ring of spectators and clinic participants like a Sunday preacher ready to let loose a torrent of fire and brimstone.
“I’m here for the horse,” Ray roared into his mic, “The horse comes first and then me and you get whatever’s left over.”
“You can’t make it work?” Ray Hunt said, “Fix it so it can.” Ray shifted in the saddle. His hands the size of bear paws with skin like cracked parchment rested on the post horn of his saddle.
Ray Hunt said, “The human is the phony outfit compared to the horse. The horse has no ego, no pride like the human.”
Ray pointed to the colt starters, “Get those colts into the round pen,” he said.
The crowd buzzed as though awakened from a trance. Coffee cups were tossed aside. The colt starters moved off to gather their horses.
Ray chuckled at a string bean cowboy trying to pull his recalcitrant colt through the round pen gate.
“How are you gonna drag 1200 pounds of pure resistance through that gate?” Ray Hunt asked.
The cowboy dropped his lead rope and shoved his hat down on his head. He turned to Ray for help and his horse walked into the pen.
“Yeah, that’s how.” Ray said. The cowboy stared at Ray, shades of mad in his eyes.
Ray worked the colts until they moved together as a herd drawing comfort from one another, understanding the boundaries of the round pen panels, how to turn as one unit away from the flag and around and back again. It didn’t take long for most of the colts to figure out what Ray’s flag asked of them—all except for one chestnut filly. She seemed confused. She wanted to stand stock still in the middle of the round pen while the others loped and bucked circles around her. Her body strained to meet the other colts. She flinched forward with desire to run with them, but her feet held too much fear.
Ray rode up behind the stuck colt and tapped her on the rear with his flag. She jumped forward and stopped. Her sides heaved. Her neck was wet with sweat.
“Catch your horses,” Ray yelled, “leave this one to me.”
The colt starters moved into the round pen. They looked stiff and wary like tiny action figures as they headed in to catch up their nervous horses.
Ray chomped down on the end of a toothpick as he watched the white-eyed filly. When everyone else cleared the pen he rode up beside her and started rubbing her ears and face with his big hands. The filly dropped her head a notch.
“This horse has got to learn to move her feet. She’s scared of her own movement,” Ray said, more to himself than to the crowd.
Ray slipped a halter over her head and got her to stumble a few reluctant steps toward the edge of the pen. Ray tied the filly to one of the crosspieces on the round pen panel allowing her enough line to move her on but not so much that she could get her feet wrapped up in it. He started asking her to move her hind quarters away from his flag. The filly wouldn’t budge. Ray sat on his horse and tapped her flanks with his flag. The filly’s ears twitched back and forth. Her eyes rolled and her head turned side to side.
“She’s thinking about how to get out of this situation. I’m just gonna let her think this through.”
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap…..
A whole year passed and the filly still hadn’t figured it out. The bleachers creaked under the restless weight of the thirty, or so, spectators. Someone announced that there was a fresh pot of coffee on.
Tap, tap, tap….
The filly leaned toward Ray.
Tap, tap, tap…
The filly leaned toward the fence.
Over the mic Ray’s breathing labored. His one last lung worked overtime. The colt starters stood in the arena and messed around with their horses. Someone behind me in the bleachers whispered, “If that was my horse I’d give her a reason to move her feet.”
It only took a second. I didn’t see what Ray saw—the tiny shift in horse understanding that made him suspend his flag. In the amount of time it takes for thought to become voice the filly stepped away from the flag toward the fence.
That was the miracle. That split second, that simple step.
I leaned over and raked my fingers through Tai’s mane. I knew that what stood between me and the perfect two-track lived in the split second. I knew too that my desire to make it happen, to “Just do it and be done with it” didn’t mean a thing to my horse.
What mattered to Tai had nothing to do with executing a perfect two-track. What mattered to Tai was that I’d asked a question in terms she could understand and that, after asking, I waited politely, that I gave her the split second or two or five minutes to conjure the answer. And when she understood and said so, that I didn’t miss it and ask for more.
I thought again of Ray, sucking that toothpick and saying, “You might not get it all at once. In fact you won’t.”
The clock on the arena wall read 10:30. We’d been standing fifteen minutes. I felt the gentle rhythm of Tai’s heavy breath filling her sides. Her eyes were closed now. I shifted in the saddle. Tai’s head came up fast as if to say, “Did you want something? I’m here.”
“Yeah, let’s try again,” I said.
I turned Tai back to the other end of the arena, we walked and then trotted. I felt the life in her rising. Her ears pricked toward the soft shuffle and snort of the waiting horses.
I said, “Let’s walk straight to that fish bowl hole in the sawdust and when your right front foot hits the bowl I’ll ask you to shift over left and keep going.”
“Just one step,” I told her.
I felt nervous. Tai’s ears flicked back and forth. She was on to me, like always.
“Just one step,” I whispered to myself.
It’s not my nature to slow down and believe that a single step up the trail toward the mountain top represents any kind of success. It’s a struggle for me to take my eyes off the summit and pay strict attention to the path. In real life, who has time to pay attention? But now, I vowed to pay attention, not to the act of two-tracking, but to Tai and what she felt about the situation.
The fish bowl approached. Tai moved straight. She felt loose and light like water. We walked right past the fishbowl hole and around the end of the arena and headed back toward the horses waiting outside the gate. Tai’s ears flicked toward the shuffling horses. I felt her desire to be near them and then I opened my reins and asked her to shift right and go on a bit. We made two steps. Tai tipped her nose left, her body shaped like a half-moon. We went on a few more steps until she got straight again and then I asked for a stop.
It wasn’t perfect. Nowhere near. But, we were amicable. Tai wasn’t twisting and bobbing her head in frantic frustration. I wasn’t biting my cheek, exasperated. I swung off her back and rubbed her ears. Tai yielded her head to me and snuffled around my pockets for a forgotten carrot.
Another thing Ray Hunt sometimes says is “Adjust to fit a situation.” The situation here was that it might take me another day, a month, a year, maybe even three to get to the two-track of my dreams. I wasn’t going to “Just do it and be done with it.” But that had to be OK. The subtleties of learning how to feel my horse feeling back to me, the tremendous amount of attention required to understand my timing in relation to my horse’s balance can’t be gleaned solely from a clinic, a book or a trainer’s video. This learning can only happen in the saddle. Ultimately, it’s a private matter, a quiet conversation, between my horse and me.
Written by Barbara Weiss