“No one can teach riding as well as a horse.” CS Lewis
It’s time to tell Treasure’s story. If you read my blog entitled Analogies and the Wizard of Oz, (http://www.equinefacilitydesign.com/blog/post/Analogies-and-The-Wizard-of-Oz.aspx), I allude to Helen Keller when describing Treasure:
Treasure, what can I say about Treasure? The horse of every little girls dream – golden palomino, flaxen mane and tail, the color of straw. Yep, Treasure was my Scarecrow, a gorgeous animal and the smallest horse in the barn with the biggest attitude. An eight year old American Saddlebred who was exactly what I wanted, who popped up when I entered all my criteria into Dreamhorse.com. Treasure, who thought he was a dumb blond surfer dude who only spoke slang. He thought that was all he was. Treasure came to Freestyle Farm to find his brain. (There is actually a Helen Keller analogy in here, but that will have to wait for another time, after all, this is the Wizard of Oz.)
If you haven’t watched the movie “The Miracle Worker”, I cannot recommend it highly enough! I have watched the version where Patty Duke plays the part of Helen more times than I can count; I cry each and every time. It has quite possibly helped my horse training as much as all of the lessons I have taken.
Here is Treasure’s analogy:
Treasure entered his new life at Freestyle Farm thinking he was the boss of his world, as he had been for the first of his eight years. He thought humans were fabulous when their two feet remained on the ground. But he found them confusing, to say the least, when they were sitting on his back. Although confident, he was extremely green, and was one of those horses that had been told “whoa” and “go” with big spurs and a bigger bit – which made him resentful and basically clueless about what being a ‘ridden’ horse was all about.
Of course, I wasn’t aware of all of this from the get-go. When I rode him, yes, he was the greenest horse I had ever ridden. To the point that he moved like a drunken sailor under saddle, as if he had no idea how to balance the weight of a rider. Yes, the owner did wear spurs and used a rather severe curb, but I rode him in my own dressage saddle, no spurs or whip, and with what I call a “baby Mylar snaffle”. And while green, he did fine going down the trail.
Regardless of his training, or lack thereof, I was charmed by his attentiveness to humans and his desire to be with them. I was impressed by his total lack of spookiness, his willingness to cross water quietly (a huge point in his favor), and he was stunningly gorgeous (of course, the most important factor in my decision making process!).
However, pretty is as pretty does. When I got Treasure home, he decided arena work was not for him. Go was not in his vocabulary and he acted if he couldn’t understand a thing I asked him for under saddle. This horse was an interesting trial for me – he would not go. He would threaten to rear; threaten to buck (mostly by kicking out a leg). His seller was afraid to ride him and now I knew why. Would he go up – in front or in back? How bad could he escalate? I chose to find out, off his back.
But first I had his teeth checked, his body checked, his saddle checked, etc., to eliminate any possibility there was a physical issue causing his objection to moving – in the arena. Trail work was fine, so I was pretty sure it was a training problem. Everything checked out just fine.
And then, for months, and I do mean months, I would attempt to ride him in the arena. I would get on at the mounting block. He might go a couple of steps then refuse to go any further. I would get off, tap him once with the dressage whip, make him trot around me a couple of times, go back to the mounting block and get back on him. He might go four steps this time, and then stop. I would dismount, tap again, trot again, get back on and walk. All I was asking for was for him to walk. Thankfully, I had learned patience from my other horses and he was mostly a trail horse, so I had all the time in the world which was good because I only had time to ride him for an hour or so once or twice a week.
Of course there is a lot more to his story, but this is a blog, not a novel, so I cannot tell all of it here. But finally, we had what trainers like to refer to as a “light bulb moment” and I refer to as his Helen Keller moment. It was as if, rather than just giving in, that he actually all of a sudden understood that humans were for more than just giving pets and food; that we could, and wanted to, communicate with him, that my body on his back was actually saying something to him, that he could go while taking me with him and (as one trainer put it) “feel the joy in the movement”. He immediately transformed before my eyes – he bloomed – from a horse with no go and too much whoa, to a horse that would move with me and not against me. He started experimenting, and most importantly, he started asking me questions: he started wanting to learn “our” language.
I never saw this transformation more clearly displayed then recently when I put children on his back that had never ridden before. The older girls, the 13 and 10 year old, I allowed to ride him at the walk without a lunge line. Each one discovered on their own how to communicate with him. The 13 year old decided on two handed direct reining, the 10 year old used one-handed neck reining while holding onto the saddle with the other hand. My only instructions to them was to wiggle your ankles to make him go, look where you want him to go and point his nose in that direction, say whoa to stop.
Before my very eyes, Treasure finally grew into the name I had bestowed upon him five years ago. He became the treasure I always believed was inside of him. With his head and neck in a perfect position, saliva quietly streaming from his relaxed jaw and mouth as never before, I watched his eyes as he tried to teach each child how to “talk” to him. He walked when they wiggled their ankles; he did his best to correctly respond to their non-dressage-like steering, he whoa’ed on a dime when asked.
It is almost as if, in his own “sign language”, I could hear him say to each child: Wa-ter, w.a.t.e.r., wa-ter. The student becomes the teacher. I, as his Anne Sullivan, couldn’t be prouder as I watched my hard headed student become the gentle teacher to his small riders. I am only slightly embarrassed to say I watched through tears as I silently thanked Helen Keller for helping me out with all my horses, but especially with him.
Those who are most difficult to teach, most difficult to reach, may be the most rewarding. As Anne Sullivan would then say: I am Teacher, Treasure, t.e.a.c.h.e.r., teacher.