Working with a horse at liberty (without a rope on the horse) is a delicate and intricate dance. A dance that involves an invisible string, connecting you and your horse, which at one moment feels like it is made of the strongest twine and the next moment disintegrates into thin air. This is not unlike the dance of human relationships, including parenting and counselling, and the learnings from one context may guide us in others.
To dance in harmony you need to continuously feel the power of the connection moving along the string; to know when it is safe to lead in a certain move, and when you need to slow your dance down and work on strengthening your connection.
The smallest nuances can make huge differences. An intuitive dancer reads her horse’s body language to gauge the strength of the connection and the direction they need to go to stay in step; monitoring and adjusting her own moves to see where she is at risk of weakening the connection. A step forward or back, looking up or down, at his head or at his tail; the horse is always paying close attention and when you are working with him at liberty so should you.
I am reminded of this every time I work – or dance – with Skye, a highly sensitive Arabian horse.
Some days it feels like a nice smooth waltz with us moving gently in time, in sync with each other, through a steady connection that never wavers. On those days he turns when I ask, moves calmly in a circle in the direction I suggest, comes smoothly in when I beckon. His eyes are soft, his ears tune in my direction, and his head lowers as he approaches. We move sideways, forwards and back in perfect unison, in tune with each other; and I feel in tune with the world.
Other days I get it all wrong and I completely miss his cues. He asks for more connection and I don’t see his request, I send him away when he needed to come close, I take a hold on the string and ask for more before I realize that it is already gone. Those are the days that see Skye galloping off with me standing in his dust, wondering what went wrong this time, not feeling in tune with anything.
On reflection I always see that right before Skye took off I asked for more than I should have.
I misread the strength of that invisible string and pulled on something that wasn’t there. I acted outside of the level of leadership our current connection afforded me. Perhaps I asked him to trot a circle when I should have kept him in walk or simply have kept him much closer to me; or to turn his hind quarters when I didn’t have a strong enough connection to keep his front end with me. Most of my errors come out of asking him to move away from me when he was not secure enough in that moment to want to come back. So he chooses to leave.
Sometime, if I realize my misjudgment quickly enough, I can ‘get him back’; a quick dance step and I’m back in the lead again; by asking for the right turn in the right way I can engage his attention and bring him in close before I lose the connection completely and he heads for the hills – or at least for the gate.
Luckily Skye is forgiving. He usually comes back, or at least agrees to me bringing him back, and is ready to try again. This time I will know that I need to focus on the strength of our connection and relationship, on re-building that invisible string; and to keep my requests and directions within the level of leadership it provides me.
Others see me working with my horses and suggest ways I could increase my ‘influence’ to get a ‘better behaved’ horse. Perhaps some horse treats to let him know when he is getting it right, or a whip to remind him who is boss and correct him when he makes a wrong step. Thing is, while those techniques may work when you have a rope on your horse any time I’ve seen anything like them tried at liberty the end result has been to sever or distract from that invisible string. The treats bring his attention away from me and onto the treat. No longer are we reading each other’s cues and dancing in tune; now he is solely focused on what might be in my pocket. One step forward, one step back and he is still going for the x –ray vision through the fabric of my jacket. This result could last for many days, with him checking my pockets regularly, until I can finally bring his attention back to me.
The whip I will use to gently rub his back with when I can’t reach, but if it is used or threatened in reprimand it rarely goes well. The first time I use it he may respond with alarm and, if the invisible string survives intact, may react immediately and often in the way I was aiming for. But I will see the fear in his careful eyes, in his high head carriage and uneasy stance. I will know that the string has been frayed and that next time I pull it may break. And that time he may not be so willing to come back and try again. This is not natural leadership; it is coercion and force which he can smell a mile away (along with those treats).
As a Mom and parenting coach I see rich parallels to how we parent our children. So many parenting strategies are really just forms of the treats or the whip. A significant body of research, supported by neuroscience and attachment theory, shows that the most critical factor for a child’s long term health, emotional development and well-being is a healthy attachment with a care-taking adult. Any parenting approach that does not honour this connection and relationship risks damaging it.
As a counsellor there are also important lessons here. I clearly remember at grad school being told that the most significant factor in our clients’ success was not which technique we used, but the relationship we formed with them. Again, why would we not prioritise this in all that we do?
So, in all three contexts, I endeavor to keep my focus upon that invisible string and find ways to dance within the realms of what it offers me in each moment. I won’t always get it right but I know that provided I focus primarily on that connection and relationship then Skye – and hopefully also my children and clients – will keep accepting my dance invites, and all of the rest will come in time.