February 26, 2014

Only connect

Two weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the Horsenality/Humanality course with Patrick Handley and Linda Parelli, and it was amazing. It's hard to know where to start with blogging about it though, because there was just SO MUCH that I learned and experienced.

So I'll start where I always tend to start, with the lessons that Lupin shows me are the important ones.

One of the truly wonderful things about the course was getting to watch Linda play with her new horse Highland, a Left Brain Extrovert, and hearing her talk about her approach with him. The first day we saw Highland, Linda was riding Jazz and several of her students were riding their horses. Highland and Remmer were loose amongst all of this, and having a grand time gadding about and stirring up trouble and generally stealing the spotlight. (Highland's mission in life seems to be to get a rise out of people—by running at the audience, biting the butts of the other horses, and generally putting himself in the forefront of whatever is going on.)

Highland front and center and very self-confident
(photos taken by Becky Shewchuk)

Extrovert energy just shoots out from Highland

Highland and Remmer competing for 'Top Punk' status (Highland won)

My first thought was, "Good grief that horse is a punk! I'm glad I don't have to deal with him!" (Which, apparently, was what his previous owners thought as well when they sold him to Linda.) But after watching Linda interact with him for a few days, I saw that he wasn't nearly as extreme as he looked as long as he was approached with understanding. His former owners had made him into a mental mess by trying to repress all of that behavior, which did look alarming but which, around Linda, just melted into nothing on its own when she didn't react to it.

One of the main lessons that got imprinted on my mind during our course—not least because of Highland—was "don't correct." Just as on that first day Linda left Highland to his own devices while she played with Jazz, on the second day we watched Linda warming up an almost equally punky Highland, and she took much the same approach. She explained that during warm-up she isn't interested in what her horse is or isn't doing physically; she is interested in him getting connected to her mentally, which isn't going to happen if she's making him feel wrong. So she's not going to upbraid him for punky behavior.

Along those lines, someone asked a question about a horse that kicked out when changing direction on the circle, and Linda advised them just to maintain a safe distance and then let the horse do whatever he wants. She said that the horse is either playing or expressing himself, and telling him, "No!" is inappropriate in either case: if he's playing, then you're being a great bore to him, and if he's expressing himself, then you're telling him he can't have an opinion. Either way, you're going to shut him down so that he won't connect. Whereas if you hang in there without being judgmental, he'll start to get curious and connected and the behaviors will go away on their own.

Highland connected and asking a question
(photo courtesy of LeeAnn Walsh)

Highland bonding after he was done playing

To illustrate, Linda said that she used to have to spend 4 hours with Allure dealing with all sorts of unwanted behaviors before she could ride. Then one day she went out when she was tired and a little demoralized. When Allure went left instead of right, she said, "Okay." Then he changed direction and she said, "Okay." And then after a few more minutes he was connected and curious and done with opposing her . . . because she wasn't opposing him.

So now Linda's definition of a warm-up is just getting connected to your horse—doing whatever he needs you to do for him to be able to settle down and focus. That will be different for different horses, of course. Some, like Highland, need a chance to play. Others, like Hot Jazz, a Right Brain Introvert, need you to go slowly and be consistent until they gain enough confidence to be able to look at you without being overwhelmed. But the point is to think about the horse and his needs rather than your goals and what you want him to be doing (or, as is often the case, what other people tell you you should or shouldn't be allowing your horse to do).

During warm-up, then, it's all about the quality of the connection: observing your horse's emotional state, listening to what your horse is saying, and asking yourself what your horse needs in that moment. Focusing on these things will lead you away from an attitude of correcting.

But even when you move into the "goal" part of your session after your horse gets connected to you, there's really no place for correction. Linda quoted Luis Lucio, who tells his students, "Don't correct; just repeat." The vast majority of the time that our horses do something different than what we ask, it's because we ourselves were unclear. As Pat says, horses are like computers: they may not do what you want, but they do exactly what you ask them to do. Given this reality, there's just no reason to say, "No! Wrong answer!" Instead, just calmly ask again.

I have been a recovering perfectionist and a recovering direct-line thinker for quite a while now, and all of these ideas worked together to emblazon on my mind the phrase, "It's gotta be about the horse." If you put anything else first—your goals, your self-image, your need to do things "right" or be in control—you just won't get where you want to go.

This point was driven home one more time during our last session at the ranch. Pat had a new toy that he and his proteg├ęs were having a lot of fun with: a black and white quilt cow which was hanging on two long horizontal ropes, which were in turn on a pulley system that was hooked to a car battery and remotely controlled by Pat. Pat moved the cow back and forth, and his proteges' horses learned to focus on the "cow" and cut left and right in response to Pat's movements of it.

Highland, standing outside the round pen, had never seen the cow and had quite an issue with it, and I immediately got curious to see how Linda would deal with the introduction of this scary thing. During Pat's presentation, she just stood there and gave Highland slack to move around. Despite the fact that his behaviors were pretty big, she only responded as much as she needed to keep him off the top of her. Otherwise, she just kept leaning on the rail and watching Pat. After Pat was done and most of the audience had left, she took Highland into the round pen and played with him to one side of the cow. It took a little while, but finally he got noticeably calmer and began ignoring the cow.

The next day in class we asked Linda about her thought process. She said she didn't care about Highland being confident around the cow; she just cared that he got to where he connected with her despite the cow. That was why she hadn't asked him to go up and look at the cow or touch it; she just kept playing with him a little away from the cow until it ceased to be a factor in how Highland was (or was not) responding to Linda. When he reconnected to her, she ended the session. He was probably still somewhat bothered by the cow, but he was listening to Linda again, and that was her top priority. Once again, it was all about the horse and his ability to connect to her.

This idea is, I realized, another level of Linda's now famous assertion, "It's not about the ___________." We want our horses to build confidence, but if we focus on The Big Scary Thing, whatever it is, we are negating the means by which they will build confidence: their connection to us. And after watching Linda, I realized just how often I have made the scary thing more important than I am, in my mind as well as my horse's.

Generally when Lupin and I come across a Scary Thing, my tendency is to want to make sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Lupin gets over his fear of it. Therefore, once I discover a fear in him, I will spend hours playing friendly games, endlessly approaching and retreating. I will play squeeze games, and I will even do what Linda did: play other games near the scary thing. But my focus has always been on the scary thing. Essentially, I keep shoving it to the front of Lupin's consciousness, saying, "Is it okay now? How about now? Now?" And, needless to say, I have not been very successful.

Like everyone, I've heard Linda say not to make it about the thing (for instance, in her excellent discussion of Allure and the water in the October 2005 Savvy Times article "The Science of Confidence"). But I never quite understood how to take the emphasis off the thing in the mental realm. I've only done it in the physical realm by asking Lupin to move in ways that did not directly engage with the thing (like going sideways along a trailer rather than into it, or doing figure 8's near a cow). My focus, though, has still been on getting him to accept the thing, not on getting him connected to me. Consequently, the Scary Thing always becomes and remains the most important thing, both for me and for Lupin.

Last week, my brain was still mushing around what I had seen with Highland when, as luck would have it, Lupin and I stumbled upon yet another Scary Thing. We had had a lovely snowfall, and Lupin and I were out and about the farm at liberty. Basically we were playing point to point by finding bits of grass that weren't buried under the snow, looking for them beneath the cross-country jumps or over-turned canoes.

Some folks had been sledding on the dam, and I saw a dual possibility there: for Lupin to eat the grass exposed by the sled tracks, and for me to get in a couple of go's on a sled. It never even occurred to me that the sledding might bother Lupin, or that, if it did, it was a hell of a long way to chase him back to the barn.

You see where this is going.

While I was half-way down the hill on a much faster sled ride than I'd anticipated, Lupin took off. I flopped off the sled and took off after him, calling to him in a vain effort to get him to reconnect with me, but eventually his high-held head disappeared over the next hill. I jogged on, pretty certain he'd go straight to the barn, but I didn't want to get too far behind just in case he went somewhere else.

As it turned out, he did not go all the way back to the barn. That was evidently his plan, but he had cut across a field and crossed a stream where, on the other side, there was just a tiny bit of space to pace back and forth next to a fence. There was no way out except for him to re-cross the stream, but he had gone up quite a steep bank to get there, and re-crossing the stream would take him in the opposite direction of the barn, so he was doubly disinclined to go back across.

Luckily, I had on good boots for wading. I didn't, however, have anything else left to work with: I had never put his halter on that day, my carrot stick was at the top of the dam, and even my scarf had flown off as I ran after him. I managed to get him about halfway back down the steep, snow-covered bank just with my hands, but he wouldn't go past that. Finally, I found a more gradual descent that I could clear of thorns with just a little work, and he accepted that alternative. We got across the stream and started retracing his steps, as we had to backtrack a good way to get to the gate that would let us out of the field.

It was getting late, but I was still tempted to ask him to go all the way back to the dam with me. At that point he seemed fairly connected and not inclined to leave me, so I thought we had a good chance of making it despite his recent scare. But then I thought about it, and I realized, Holy cow! Providence had just handed me a huge gift: because Lupin had gone the route he had, I had gotten to help him back to the path he wanted to be on, and I was the one who was now taking him back to the barn. The good feeling of getting back to his comfort zone was therefore pretty certainly going to be connected to me in a way that it absolutely would not have been if he had gotten back to the barn on his own (and also wouldn't be if I tried to make him go back to the dam and he got bothered again).

And that was when I realized: it's not about the dam! Or the sled! I didn't need to make him go back to the spot he'd left, and I didn't need to go get the sled and start sledding in his pasture to desensitize him. He was connected to me and I was having a rare moment of really solid leadership by having helped him out of a sticky situation and by leading him back to his pasture. Why on earth would I not end on that note?

And so I did. We walked on back to the barn, his head low and relaxed. It didn't matter in the least that I had no tools: he stayed with me with no effort on my part, even while we were backtracking away from the direction of the barn. After we got back, I turned him out, and he slowly ambled out to his herd. Then I went and collected my scarf and carrot stick, had a couple more go's on the sled, and called it a very successful day. I didn't even care that there wouldn't be enough snow left the next day to play a friendly game with the sled, because you know what? I quit while my horse was calm and connected to me, and that is all that matters.