When I was a teenager I was a quick learner. I could watch somebody do something with a horse and then go away and practice it. It usually didn’t take long before I had worked out how to get my horse to do the same thing. I probably learned more from watching people and then practicing it on my own than I ever did by being instructed on how to do something. I had a good eye for seeing stuff and good co-ordination that allowed me to be effective at getting things done. I still think these are useful skills to have if a person is going to be a handy around horses.
It wasn’t until many years later that I realized I had been learning only half of what it took to be good with horses. Admittedly it was a an important half and one that everybody needs to learn in their journey to become skilled, but it alone was never going to be enough. All I was learning was to be effective at getting stuff done. I didn’t know any better because I was riding a lot of horses for people and had considerable success in competition. Everybody else seemed to think I was doing a good job and since they were older and smarter than me why would I ever question if I was on the right track or not.
Then one day I met an old bloke. I mean really old. He was old enough to remember the Big Bang. His English was weak, but that didn’t matter because when he was around horses he spoke more clearly than if he had written the Oxford Dictionary. Before he passed away I spent a lot of time in the company of him and his herd of horses. Despite not exchanging a lot of words we conversed volumes through his Icelandic and Fjord ponies.
Recently I have been thinking a lot about my friend. Particularly yesterday when I was playing with one of my wife’s horses, Guy. Guy is about 22 and Michèle was given him about 6 or so years ago. He had a lot of bad riding and handling for most of his life and was a real mess. He has been on vacation for most of the time we have had him, but the small amount of training Michèle has given him has made a hug difference. Still, it has been about 3 or 4 years since anybody has worked with him.
I began playing with him a couple of days ago because one my horses, Riley is covered in ant bites and there is nowhere I can put any gear on him that does not cause him discomfort. He looks like a leper.
Anyway, working with Guy has been fun. He is so smart and sensitive and gets easily upset at the slightest loss of clarity. He is a great project horse for somebody who is impatient. That’s what got me thinking about my friend. I realized that when I first met my ancient friend I was impatient. I remember when I was a teenager and receiving so much praise for being an effective rider, I was impatient. I remember that a lot of the success I had in jumping events was largely because I was impatient.
One of the earliest differences I saw between my non-English speaking friend and myself (and my mentors) was patience. He taught me the value of waiting. For a man that didn’t have a lot of years left, he acted around the horses as if he had a 1000 years left.
I recall one of my first experiences with my friend. I watched him load a pack onto a Fjord pony. It was freezing cold and about 10cm of snow covered everything, including the gear and ponies. But my friend waited at each step for the pony to be ready for the next buckle to be fixed or the next strap or pack to be steadied in place. At first I didn’t understand why he would go to adjust a strap, stop and scratch the pony, wait again, ask for a shift of weight, stop, touch an ear, stop and then adjust the strap. It seemed like some secret ceremonial ritual. But by the time he had done this with 8 ponies, I began to see what he was doing. He was waiting. He was waiting for the horse to check in with him and let him know it was okay. At each step he asked a horse if it was okay and then waited until the horse said, “it’s okay”.
I didn’t know what it was to wait for a horse. The idea that waiting was something you did was foreign to me. At first I thought it was some strange new-age gimmicky thing that foreigners did. But I eventually learned that my friend had figured out stuff I am still figuring out 30 years later. Sometime later I discovered that he was equally confused by me when he watched and noticed that I didn’t know how to wait for a horse to be ready. He thought it was some new-age gimmicky thing that foreigners did too.
Waiting has always been a challenge for me. I think those early years of learning to be effective also taught me that horses were meant to be on my schedule, not me on theirs. But my friend showed me that to get something done when a horse was not ready was an abuse of power and privilege – it’s what bullies do, not horseman.
I have a lot of stories about my friend. He was the first horseman I met that truly thought of his horses as family to be loved and cared for. He is long gone now, but I hope some of things he taught me are some of the things I teach my students – and maybe they will teach a new generation. Then he will never really be gone.
Photo: This is not a photo of my friend, but it think it is a good picture that conveys something about the relationship between horse and horseman.