Tonight I tangled with Kaheka Boy. Again. Every evening I put the halter on him before turning him out into the interim pasture to eat his supplement. Every night he throws his head at the very last minute just as I am buckling the halter, jerking it right out of my hands and propelling it to the ground. Each night I yell at him, “Every goddamn night you do this!” all the while I’m cringing inside with poisonous shame and guilt. I knew I was being a bitch and not solving the problem even a little bit. Even though I knew there was a better way, taking the easier road, I persisted in my reactionary response.
My goal for the past 20 years has been to work cooperatively with horses. But I still forget. Tonight, I not only yelled but I picked up his halter from the ground and threw it back down. Hard! I don’t think I could ever hit this horse but throwing the halter on the ground like I did felt like the same harsh energy. Even though he is in his 20’s, an older guy by now, he has a youthful innocence. Like a teenager, he can be challenging but endearing at the same time, and extremely sensitive. In this instance, he simply rolled his eyes, turned his head and looked around as if embarrassed, to see if anyone was watching my foolishness, then patronized me with a “guru” type superior nod as he patiently observed my childish tantrum.
A few months ago Kaheka walked away from the new-to-us but old-in-years ferrier as he was trimming Kaheka’s hooves. I mean, he didn’t casually saunter away, he was on the move and ignored my efforts to stop him. In response to this horse’s one time “un-ruly” behavior, the ferrier made a stud shank out of a soft lead rope for Kaheka and put it over his head and muzzle. Then he yanked down on it to discipline him. Seemingly, it worked! Kaheka stood statue still. Exactly the behavior the ferrier wanted! Done. Wrong. Unfortunately, the ferrier wasn’t done. He also wanted to educate me in how to use it, as if I were interested. I wasn’t. My preference is to look behind the scenes at the real message the horse is bringing rather than resorting to harsh physical techniques assuming malicious intent. The ferrier, however, continued to give a periodic yank on the rope which was wrapped around Kaheka’s muzzle attempting to get a point across to me. After about 4 more times, not only was I paralyzed with a feeling of chaotic confusion and not wanting to get into a fighting match with the ferrier, something I must get over, Kaheka too was bewildered as to what the hell he was suppose to do or not do as he stood there absolutely still which was the original intent of the ferrier. By the last yank Kaheka had enough and immediately headed toward the barn door. The ferrier, to his credit, tuned in to his own Native American wisdom quickly laying aside white man authoritative “I-need-to-win” mentality. Realizing his error, he pulled the shank off and Kaheka immediately calmed down. But the impact had not dissipated. Kaheka spent the rest of his hoof trimming session with his lanky thoroughbred legs trembling noticeably.
A few days later I noticed that he, a normally friendly horse, drew away when a man he didn’t know came for a visit. My heart felt like it had been cinched a notch too tight. Kaheka was experiencing the aftermath of a disciplinary action from the “strange” ferrier a few days earlier that did not have to happen. Had the two humans involved stopped to examine what the horse was communicating to us about our own interactions, what a different outcome we would have all experienced. That is why I would never hit this horse. But my throwing a halter harshly to the ground was not a good option.
When the halter hit the ground in a puff of dust, I wondered at how I had regressed. It seems the closer I get to responding to ordinary behavioral issues in nontraditional ways, I backslide more ruthlessly into the very tradition I am hoping to abandon. But all was not lost.
In my efforts to work cooperatively with horses, Kaheka communicated to me now that I was listening with intent to learn from him. He had been throwing his head nightly when I haltered him because he was nervous about the other horses nearby. When I started buckling the halter, he felt constricted and more confined. Instinct for flight overtook him and he threw his head ready to flee. As he explained what was going on with him, I began to feel compassion and understanding. I instinctively lowered my voice, reassuring him that he was safe. “You’re okay, Kaheka, you are okay,” I was reminding him that all was well. And it was! We breezed through haltering him that night.
The next time, he threw his head again! My heart sank after thinking we had found a solution. “Wait,” he said, “This is a process. Don’t give up on me.” He meant don’t give up on yourself! I took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then, spoke softly again and reminded him to try to keep his head down, and that he was safe. After more coaching from him, I gave him space to stand in a position that helped him feel more confidant, where he could see the other horses. I whispered reminders to keep his head down, and to reassure him. All has gone smoothly since.
We are now both getting what we want. I get to buckle him without hassle, and he gets to feel confident and safe. I can feel him still on the alert, but putting every effort into keeping his head from flinging upward. He gets buckled more quickly, and then gets to his food sooner. There is a new camaraderie between us instead of antagonism.
In addition Kaheka also has shown me how I do the same thing in my own life. Throwing my head when I’m starting to feel constricted and unsafe, and slowing the process of forward movement by giving into my fears. That is his “guru” lesson for me.
Gratefully, the connection and the cooperation between Kaheka and me has grown deeper and at the same time more transcendent. It is another step forward on our horse and human journey, to work together in cooperation.