Monday morning started out with everyone in a good mood after the Summit. Our head teacher, John, had done a spectacular performance on Sunday with a garrocha—a long pole from Spain used in bull fighting. He had done what Pat described as “the only pole dance that Linda would let me watch.” And it had indeed been an incredibly lithe and sexy dance that John had done making figures on his horse around the pole—one end of which he cradled in his hand or on his shoulder—as Latin music played in the background.
A couple of the women in our class conspired to buy some roses, which they distributed amongst us to throw at John’s feet when he came in to talk to us after breakfast. We hid them in our laps, but as we were working out our signal for when to throw them, I turned around and saw Pat walking toward the door. I hissed at one of the women to look who was coming. She gasped, and the scheme didn’t go off exactly as planned (though it might have been even better because Pat was there to see it). Pat asked what we had liked about the Summit, and after several responses someone finally said, “John’s performance,” at which point we all stood up and threw our roses. John looked both surprised and touched, and it was so much exactly the kind of stunt that I like to plan that I immediately liked the women who had arranged it even more than I already did.
We moved from there into a well-presented lecture on leadership by John. He began by talking about relationships generally and discussing how both parties in any relationship have an obligation to communicate what they’re feeling. He drew a contrast between horses, who communicate exactly what they’re feeling in the moment, and humans, who often keep their feelings inside until they come out really big somewhere else or sometime later. He said that in order to avoid this with his horse, he’ll often verbalize his feelings just so he’s not keeping them in: “Leo, it really frustrates me when you _______________________.” Then he can exhale and let it go.
He also made an important distinction about Parelli’s first law: “Put the relationship first.” John clarified that this does not mean to put the horse first—a tendency that many Parelli students have and that actually works against improvements in the relationship. He emphasized that any relationship in which only one party is giving feedback and getting their way is not a healthy relationship, and that we should not treat our horses better than we treat ourselves.
On a similar note, he spoke of the need to look for the good in ourselves because if we can’t see that, we won’t be able to see the good in our horses or other people either.
Then he explained where leadership comes in. He said there are two main pitfalls:
1. Expecting too little of your horse and yourself. John said that students frequently feel pushed too hard by instructors because they are expecting less of themselves than the instructors are. We need to pay ourselves and our horses the compliment of expecting more. (Always remembering, of course, to expect a lot, accept a little, and reward often.)
2. Using the other person or the horse as an excuse not to move out of your own comfort zone. John said that excuses and blame are easy because they remove us from the situation, but a more positive way to remove ourselves from the situation is to take a third-person perspective. He played audio clips of several leaders like Churchill, JFK, and MLK who invited their followers to take a broader view in a time of crisis—to stand outside the situation in a pro-active, rather than a reactive, way.
Finally, John asked us to make a chart with three columns and to spend some time on our own listing (a) the qualities of leaders whom we have admired, (b) the kind of leader we want to be for our horse, and (c) the steps we plan to take to get there. Here’s the chart I came up with:
positive and playful instead of judgmental
make games for myself to play with Lupin so that I have a playful “can you?” or “can we?” attitude
faith in me to do a good job
fair / not taking things personally
look at things from a third-person (an instructor’s?) perspective
a clear plan
having an interesting and fun yet challenging focus (provocative and progressive)
have a clear focus
set up challenges for him and let him figure them out (don’t micromanage)
give him jobs
telling me the truth / expecting a lot out of me
confident in both myself and my horse
don’t cater to his comfort: stretch his comfort zone but don’t overwhelm him
physically, mentally, and emotionally in sync with my horse
think like a horse—all the time
We very quickly got a chance to put all these leadership ideas into practice. We began having riding sessions every afternoon—all 50 of us in Arena Grande riding patterns simultaneously. We would have, for instance, a quarter of us riding the rail inside the ring, a quarter riding the rail outside the ring, a quarter doing the cloverleaf pattern, and a quarter riding circles in the remaining free spaces. Some would be walking and some would be trotting, and periodically John would call out for us to make a seamless, smooth change of direction or pattern.
Needless to say, this situation is fraught with opportunities for horses to get impulsive, and on Tuesday John put his foot down about that. He watched us ride for a bit, and then he said, “It’s clear to me that some of you did not warm up hard enough on the ground because your horses are impulsive. I have told you several times that you need to find a way to warm up hard enough that your horse remains calm despite anything that might happen while you’re riding him.”
I was pretty sure I was one of the ones he was talking to. Lupin is a left-brain introvert, which means that even when he’s impulsive, there’s nothing particularly spectacular or unrideable about it. But John wasn’t interested in our ability to ride our horses through it; he was interested in us being able to prevent our horses from going there in the first place. And Lupin had ignored my requests for downward transitions and even hopped up into the canter at one point when another horse passed him at a canter.
My first impulse was, indeed, to blame and make excuses. There were other people doing some things that were guaranteed to mess up the rhythm of the patterns: stopping and backing up on the rail without warning, cantering past other people when we had been asked to trot. But then I really listened to what John was saying. He was saying that it was our own responsibility to prepare our horses—to have them absolutely on the same page with us mentally, emotionally, and physically—precisely because we couldn’t control what everyone else would do. He was putting us in this situation on purpose to make sure that we learned how to prepare for it.
If you’ve been around the normal horse world at all, you know that it is not a given that people are in control of their horses. I myself spent a good part of my earlier years going places and doing things with my horse that I shouldn’t have been doing with a horse that I wasn’t in complete control of. But no one ever tells you a better way, so you just do the best you can and try to avoid anything and anyone that looks like a potential match to the powder keg you’re riding. John was offering us a better way. I decided that, if I accomplished nothing else for the rest of the course, I would learn how to play hard enough with Lupin on the ground that he would listen to me in the saddle no matter what else was going on.
On Wednesday, John made warming up for riding one of our morning focus sessions, and I jumped on it. At breakfast I had gathered some ideas for games I could play with Lupin—like the rockslide and the sideways piroutte—that would both get his energy up and get him thinking at the same time. I tried some of these and some figure 8’s with quick changes between different sets of cones. But I knew that, above all, I needed to address cantering on the circle—the one thing guaranteed to flip Lupin into right-brained thinking if he was at all inclined to go there—so I found one of the coaches and got to work.
In Parelli world, you are supposed to say, not that you work with your horse, but that you play with him. But this session was definitely work. I had for some time, in fact, been trying to set up cantering on the circle as a game that Lupin would want to play instead of a task he’d feel that he had to do. Dan Thompson had actually used Lupin in a demo once to show the difference between making them canter on the circle (whack, whack, whack) and motivating them to want to canter on the circle by playing high energy games like falling leaf that would get them revved up. But if you try to motivate them and that still doesn’t work, at some point they have to realize that they need to do it anyway. Given the extreme reaction that I was getting when I asked for the canter with Lupin, I figured it was time for us to face it, fun or not.
Theresa started us out doing rapid-fire walk-trot transitions—or, I should say, she was asking for rapid-fire transitions, and she was getting only moderately snappy ones because both Lupin and I have a pretty serious lag time. It was a lot like having a personal trainer as I labored to up my response time and demand a faster response time out of Lupin as well. It didn’t help that, not able to operate at my normal introvert take-the-time-to-think-through-it speed, I was getting all tangled up with my tools.
When I started asking for the canter, Lupin pulled his usual trick of swinging his butt away so that I couldn’t tag it and facing me, then going sideways when I tried to re-send him. I had to shorten up the rope a lot and really move my feet to get to where I could tag him, but I was pleased with the result: after only a few rounds of this, he picked up the canter without too much protest, and we got fairly quickly to the point where he gave us a good, relaxed lap at the canter.
That afternoon was a different story. I rather suspect that Lupin had just been caught off guard in the morning by the novelty of my being snappy and expecting a lot. By the afternoon, he had reverted to his usual unimpressed self and was having none of it. He tested me on every canter send, and when he finally did canter, it was only for a couple of strides before he broke gait, thereby starting the whole cycle again. Between running to close the gap between us so I could tag him and then drifting across the field with him after he picked up the canter, I covered a lot of ground, and we were both pretty exhausted by the time he gave me enough to call it a win.
We were over half an hour late for riding, which was trail ride prep that day, and I will say that Lupin was not remotely impulsive during our session, but I wasn’t convinced that we’d made a whole lot of lasting progress on the respect front.
The next morning bore that theory out. This time I wound up with both Theresa and Pete watching my circling game efforts, and it quickly began to feel like I had gone from having a personal trainer to having a drill sergeant. Everything Theresa asked for was exactly what needed to be done, but Lupin was resisting so much and so forcefully that I was hard pressed to keep up with Theresa’s demands of “Tag him! He needs to canter NOW!” Lupin constantly faced me and tried to bolt away, and he broke gait so much that I couldn’t even catch my breath in between episodes of trying to tag him. For the few strides that he did canter, I was being jerked across the field as he cantered out and away from me. I knew that part of what was so tiring was that I wasn’t being effective, but I was using all my energy just trying to keep up with Lupin and didn’t have any left over for processing Theresa’s suggestions for changing my technique.
Finally Lupin picked up his more difficult lead just off of the send with the rope without my having to tag him, and, knowing I couldn’t keep it up physically any longer, I decided to end it with that just seconds before Theresa told me to bring him in (she had seen him licking his lips, which meant that he was finally accepting the situation). I was close to tears from sheer physical exhaustion, and I’m pretty certain that this episode was what inspired the coaches to give me the “Digging Deep” award at the end of the course.
But we weren’t done. By the next morning both of my ankles were rebelling against me, so I decided to try it in the round pen where Lupin couldn’t drift so far away. The 75’ round pen that I chose, however, had a pretty serious slope to it, and Lupin went impulsive enough to actually fall down at one point. I persisted until I got a decent canter and chose to relocate to the 50’ round pens for our next couple of sessions.
Before we got to those, however, Linda Parelli dropped by for a Q & A session, in the course of which she talked about her LB introvert Remmer (about whom she later said, “He’s a punk, but he’s my favorite punk”). She said that LB introverts are the most challenging but also the most interesting because it’s all about figuring out how to get to their brains. Reverse psychology—doing the opposite of what they expect—is a good trick with them, and Theresa and I decided over the weekend to demand from Lupin that he not canter now that he was expecting it. I would ask for lots of transitions and a fast trot, but I wouldn’t let him break into the canter.
That strategy did seem to blow his mind a bit—enough that he gave me a fabulous trot. Then when I went back to asking for a lap at the canter on subsequent days, he did pretty well. It’s still something we’re going to have to improve, but we’ve got a good foundation now, and Lupin just may be beginning to suspect that I’m going to out-persist him on some of these issues, which should make the process a bit faster. In any case, I myself am now motivated to confront head-on his obstinacy on the circle issues and work through this whole breaking away problem. The fact that I simultaneously get to improve his circling game (and the physical fitness level of both of us) is just gravy.
I did express my concern to Alex on the way home that I’ve gone from being too soft on Lupin to being too quick to jump to whacking him as my primary solution to all our problems. Parelli is, after all, about learning how to motivate your horse to do what you want rather than forcing him to do it. While it’s true that you can read whacking a horse as a type of motivation (particularly if he’s a LB introvert), I can’t believe it’s a form of motivation that puts a lot of credits into your relationship bank account.
But Alex wisely reminded me that Parelli often says people go from one extreme to the other before they find balance in the middle, and I suppose it’s probably going to take a little bit of extreme behavior on my part anyway to convince Lupin that our previous understanding about how things will work is going to be permanently altered. If nothing else, Alex, who has a LB horse that is at least five times as challenging as Lupin, is living proof that you can be serious about your whacking without making an emotional issue of it, so that’s something I can aspire to as well. I just need to focus on hearing Alex’s peal of laughter as her horse tries to come over the top of her and she sends him back off with great amusement that he thought he could get away with it.