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From the Outside, In.

“We like horses because they are smart, but we train them like they’re stupid.”Mark Rashid

During a dressage lesson many years ago, my instructor had me put my horse Caleb in a double bridle (which has both a curb bit and a small snaffle called a bridoon), fasten the cavesson around his jaw as tight as it would go, and tighten the curb chain. She was frustrated that my horse wouldn’t “collect.” So we were going to make him collect.

After I got back on him, gathered up all four reins as he arched his neck stiffly, my instructor smiled for the first time that hour, said “Now we are getting somewhere! Make him walk.”

He didn’t.

To Caleb’s credit, he didn’t do anything. He was an excellent bucker when he got out of sorts, but for reasons only known to him, he stood, tense and unmoving.

That’s the point where the instructor’s wisdom–“Kick him harder! Hit him with the crop!” –faded into background noise and I agreed with my horse: no more.

I dismounted, unbuckled both the curb strap and cavesson and took off the bridle. I paid for my lesson and hauled Caleb home, crying the whole time.

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Caleb and Crissi 1994


Over the following months, all the gear I’d collected gathered a thick layer of dust in the tack room. The various bits for various purposes showed signs of rust. The leather of the German martingales, draw reins and figure eight nosebands, which I once kept polished and supple, now went into a trunk. The lessons stopped.

I had heard of an equine massage therapist (in those days, a rare breed), and an acupuncturist for horses (even rarer) and had them out to work on Caleb. In the evenings I’d ride him at a leisurely walk, bareback with a halter and lead rope. His head was down, his back relaxed and swinging and I knew in those moments that what I was looking for was something much different than what I had grown up with.

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Caleb and Crissi 1996


That search took awhile, but in the end, I was both upset and elated when I heard Mark say the words above. Because if I had been (very unintentionally) training my horse like he was stupid, that meant I could change and treat him like he was smart.

What I know now is that horses have survived millions of years being tuned into their environment and their herd. They are masters of subtlety. Their timing and control of their bodies is nothing short of breathtaking, and this is all coupled with a tolerant nature. Their intelligence expresses itself differently than ours, but that makes it no less potent. 

It doesn’t take a million mindless repetitions for a horse to “get it.” Most horses understand what we are looking for within minutes. It is our clarity, patience, and self-control that are effective teachers. What we do on the outside merely supports how we are on the inside.

I’m not saying that training tools are bad; years later, I took lessons on a fourth level dressage horse with a teacher who taught me how to use the double bridle with subtlety. The work we did together still shines in my memory. As with anything else, it’s how the horse feels about what you are doing that determines whether or not the tools are helpful.

crustyhires

Rusty and Crissi 2017                       Photo: Gail Fazio


Those two years with a dressage instructor were primarily focused on how to balance my body (which was valuable), even when on the inside I was frustrated, seething, and feeling defeated. What I am learning now, is how to remain in a balanced state of mind, and use external cues secondary to my intent.

Horses are able to learn some pretty fancy stuff in spite of us. Think how much further we could go if we are willing to put the time into learning how to ask for it in a way that both involves the inside of us (intent and focus), and at the same time, honors their intelligence. It often occurs to me that the art of horsemanship is a lot about staying out of a horse’s way. And staying out of the way shows faith in who horses are.

Every horse we touch is the recipient of the knowledge we have at the time. I made my fair share of mistakes with Caleb; he still went on to have a great life as my trail riding buddy and when he was older, a kind and quiet lesson horse. He taught me many valuable lessons, but none so valuable as the importance of listening to the horse.

Comments (111)

Guest
Aug 18

Thank you! I found this with my little mare. As I can´t ride anymore and she isn´t a horse happy to just stand around, she is ridden by others. Now I hear she is good in avoiding to work. When I say, no, she isn´t, probably they just didn´t give the right cues, all I get is blank stare, Seems that the idea, that a horse is always following the cues of the rider is not widley known....

Ursula,

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Cynthia McCormack
Cynthia McCormack
Jul 14

So very beautifully said!! 💜

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Guest
Jul 10

So true!

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sandy
Jul 09

I am reading Untethered Soul by Michael Singer for the second time. ( I considered it to be “ my bible” ten years ago after making a major life change). your beautiful poem is like having dessert after I just finished the last chapter! Crissi you are so beautiful from the inside out. 🙏💖

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Guest
Jul 06

I love this! I would also love to know more about Top. We have a 16 year old QH, whose previous job was a ranch horse, dragging calves, etc. We tease that his first answer is always a definitive "NO". He's coming closer to yes being his answer of choice for most things, but it's taken a long dang time.

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Guest
Jul 03

Such beautiful and thoughtful words. I shared with friends and they were equally taken with your poetry.

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Guest
Jul 03

Love Love Love this..... Thank you!

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Guest
Jul 01

So beautiful, so true . A perfect poem and a,great way of thinking about things. Thank you so much for sharing Crissi.

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crissimcdonald
Admin
Jul 02
Replying to

Thank you very much!

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Guest
Jul 01

Sweet and poignant. Thank you, Crissi.

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crissimcdonald
Admin
Jul 02
Replying to

You're welcome. Thanks for taking the time to watch it. :)

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Guest
Jul 01

Well said! Thank you for sharing in the moment.

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crissimcdonald
Admin
Jul 02
Replying to

Thank you!

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