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Building on trust

This is my story about learning to work with the horses. I don't want to prove anything, I don't want to tell anyone how they should do. I just try to write something about my personal process, and about the way I like to be with my horses.

And it makes me wonder

When I got my first horse, I didn't know that much about horsemanship. I just thought that when I want to turn left, I pull the left rein and when I want to turn right, I pull the right rein. Or, at least, that was how it worked when I was a kid. My mother had a horse, and sometimes we went driving with a sleigh, and I even did ride couple of times. But as a child I wasn't that interested in horses. But it left me with the feeling that it is normal to have a horse at home.

Well, as an adult interested in traditional way of life I bought a strong Finn-horse gelding whom already knew how to pull sleigh. The horse is called Velmu, and he is all black, which is a rather rare colour for a Finnhorse. It didn't take me long to learn the basic techniques of doing work with a horse. Together with some friends we were hauling timber in the wintertime, and one summer we went to a nearby mill to buy flour. Most of the time we managed fine, altough Velmu showed some signs of stubborness and wasn't always quite listening to my signals.

I also wanted to learn to ride better, but Velmu disagreed. He constantly refused to leave the yard, always just trying to turn back. I thought it as a question of authority; that I have to show my leadership. And I tried different ways of doing it, pretty much in vain. Tapping or slapping his hindquarters made him to take a step forward, but also made him even more nervous, quickly bucking and leaping around. And somehow I felt that I'd like to find a soft way to co-operate with the horse. Finally I found a good way; always when Velmu tried to turn back, I firmly pulled with the inner rein, making him to turn and turn in a small circle. And after couple of rounds, at the moment when he was again heading to the direction I wanted to go, I released all the pressure. I thought that repeating this systematically the horse will figure out that it is easier to go where I tell him to go. He tried it couple of times, never managing to take a step towards back home. And onwards we went, to the direction I wanted us to go. After a while Velmu stopped again, and for a very short while he stood still without trying to turn back. I prepared to react to his next action. And before I could blink my eye Velmu stood standing on his hindlegs, instantly turning around, and with a one leap darted towards home with a full gallop. Somehow I managed not to fall down until we reached the yard, and I was lucky that there was a lot of soft snow on the ground...

I realized that my reactions won't ever be as fast as my horse's reactions are. That physically he will always be superior to me. That my tricks have failed. So what next? Punish the horse for his bad behavior, use stronger bit in his mouth so that I will always have an option to inflict serious pain, making him to obey? I really didn't want to do that. So I did nothing. I didn't try to ride anymore. And, generally speaking, I was pretty depressed at those times. Depressed mood took over, I struggled to maintain my faith in life. I believed that someday I can recover from my depression, and someday I will learn how to co-operate with my horse. But I really didn't know how and when. I went to therapy, I even ate antidepressants, but mostly I felt that my pain just doesn't go away.

a New way

It was couple of years later, when I got to know Noora Ehnqvist. She was a young Finnish lady whom had spent some years studying horsemanship in mainland Europe. Noora wrote about a soft approach, about deep emotional contact and communication with horses. And she was coming to give her first clinic in Finland. I went to see that. It sounded like something I wanted to believe in, but I had some doubts. After all, horses kick and bite each other, that is their natural way of finding their place in a herd hierarchy - isn't it? So, if we want to be soft and non-violent, how can we possibly deal with a horse whom wants to fight? We need authority and leadership, sure we do?

Well, one of the demo horses at the clinic was a young horse, whose behavior was about getting out of control. The horse was constanly questioning human authority, it was even hard to lead the horse into a pen. And there they were, a smallish young lady and a horse whom didn't respect humans. Noora had a whip in her hand, hands hanging down. She was looking in the distance, almost as if she didn't care about the horse inside the same pen. And the horse was running around, and soon tried to pick a fight with Noora. Wihtout a sign of fear, without a single step, without any agression Noora just raised her hand with the whip - effectively showing the horse that she doesn't allow anyone inside a certain sphere around her. And that was it. The horse tried to run towards Noora, the horse sent both hindlegs in the air towards Noora, at the level of her head. And Noora showed no intention to move anywhere, she showed absolutely no sign of fear, nor did she punish the horse for bad behavior. But the horse never made a real attempt to come closer to Noora. Several times Noora had to do that elegant gesture again, and couple of times she had to spin the whip circling in the air to make it clear that there really is that sphere around her. That sphere was her personal space, and the horse wasn't allowed inside that sphere. Noora started to move slowly around inside the pen, always maintaining the sphere around her. And the horse went elsewhere. Noora was soft, confident, and minding her own business, leaving the horse somewhat alone. And slowly the horse realized that there is not going to be fight. And began to calm down and relax.

That was all for the demo. But I was impressed. I realized that this young woman certainly knows what she is talking about. That she doesn't only have unrealistic sweet dreams about soft horsemanship, but she really has the experience and talent to work with problematic horses. Noora said that her horsemanship is not about tricks and not about technique. It is about going back to the basics, about creating a mutual trust and communication between the horse and the human. Building on trust and respect. I was thinking a lot about it, and realized that as long as I feel empty and depressed inside, I can't find such a peace and confidence what I saw in Noora. So, learning horsemanship was - for me - about recovering from depression, about regaining my confidence and tranquility.

Meeting an Icelandic Goddess

A year later I went again to Noora's clinic. I decided that I'm going to participate with a horse, instead of just watching and listening. But I didn't feel like transporting my own horse, so I asked if I could borrow a horse from the stable where the clinic was held. They agreed. They gave me an Icelandic horse mare, and said: "She likes carrot but she isn't interested in the person whom gives the carrot." I thouhgt that fine - it is bit like me. I'm depressed, and most of the time I want to be left alone. I actually feel uneasy when I have to be together with other people, and I don't want to be touched.

Before it was my turn, I watched three other people working with the horses. They were all great. And there were touching moments, when a horse and human were paying attention to each other, softly communicating with body-language. I saw people growing more confident, I saw horses becoming more soft and relaxed. And I was the last one to work with a horse. I felt bit uneasy. I fetched the mare, whom slowly and unwillingly followed me into the pen. I released the lead rope, and she went to a corner of the pen, looking away into the forest, paying absolutely no attention to me. I was lost and didn't know what to do.

Like, I mean, I was totally lost. I felt that I'm facing the basic problem of my life. A problem I've been struggling with for most of my lifetime. And that to create a true contact with that horse I first have to open my soul, step out of my depression, open my emotions to another being. Something which I had failed for so many years, because I always feel that I have nothing to share but pain, sorrow and hatred. I thought that I've already tried everything; no professional psychoterapist had succeeded in opening my soul - I always felt that I'm just wathcing my life as one watches a dull B-grade movie. I felt that I'm not really present in my body, I'm not inside my life. I'm always outside of everything, I always hate myself, and I always want to be alone and someplace else. But now I was there, in a pen with a horse whom was equally uninterested in my presence and wanted to be someplace else. And the people were all watching us, and Noora was giving some advice. And I was afraid that if she puts any pressure on me, I'll just collapse and panic. Still, I had came to the clinic all because of this - to face this question and to see if there is a solution to be found.

I don't know how long we were there. It was 30°C below freezing, which is about insanely cold. Couple of times I tried to approach the horse, went away and discussed with Noora about such an approach which might work. Noora said that she doesn't know for sure. "Try to gently touch her legs" - and I did, for a while, then went away. "Place a rope on her neck, softly move it back and worth, but don't ask the horse to do anything. Just show her that it is OK to be touched by a rope." And I did, for a while, then went away. I knew that it was not about playing tricks. It was just trying to find something to do, something to direct our attention away from depressive mood, to allow us to find a contact.

Slowly the horse began more to accept my presence. We were standing next to each other, and suddenly I just felt the magic working. Strong emotions filled my soul, I couldn't tell if they were my own memories or memories of the horse. But for sure it felt that in that instant we were sharing same kind of strong, deep feelings. Crying of sorrow, rejoicing about being together, being filled with peace and confidence. It felt like finding a treasure which has long been hidden. To be filled with such a deep peace and strength. After a while we left the pen and headed back to the stables. This time the mare was walking with me, every step filled with power of life, with such a confidence that it was almost like being a wild, untamed animal. And I felt the same.

After that they told me that altough the horse is called Hamsu, her official name is Eirdís, which means "The Goddess of Protection / Peace". Having met an icelanding goddess, I felt that I'm on a right track. After the clinic I slowly returned back to my usual depressive mood. But this time it was different. I had a strong faith in recovery. That nothing is completely destroyed inside my soul, that I can find my way back to peace and tranquility, to honesty and sharing. And that this is the basic foundation of horsemanship - the way I'd like to learn it.

Raiku the young mare

Shortly after the clinic Velmu accidentally fell and injured his leg. The vet said that there is not so much to be done, just give the horse painkillers and if he doesn't recover then dig a grave. It was almost a year of slow process of recovery for him. I slowly started to believe that he will survive. But I felt that I'm not going to work with him anymore. For me it is enough if he can carry his own weight, but he doesn't have to be able to drag loads nor even to carry a rider. Then a close friend of mine asked if I could take her young mare for training. Her situation had changed so that she couldn't find time to train the young horse, and during one year the horse turned stubborn, hard to handle, and was quickly becoming dangerous.

I wasn't sure if I had gained enough talent to train a horse of my own. But still, I was there when this particular horse was born. I felt that it might be better if the horse comes to my place, instead of being sold to people whom have no previous contact with her. So I agreed to take care of the the young mare. Raiku is her name, and she is also a Finnhorse. I also asked Noora to come visit my place, to give us basic instructions on how to begin. But we had some time before Noora came, and I started by trying to show Raiku that it is OK to stand next to me, and it is OK if I touch her. In the beginning she wasn't so sure about that. She wanted to bite me, she wanted to kick me to make me go away. But I did my best not to pick a fight with her, instead trying to maintain my own peaceful frame of mind.

With Noora's kind help thing became smoother and better with Raiku. Noora said that Raiku becomes nervous just because she feels insecure and isn't sure what is going to happen. So, there is no need to punish her because of trying to bite or kick. But it is up to human to show that there is nothing be afraid of. To have such a calm and peace that the horse can sense it and begin to feel that everything is OK. I was thinking of times when my own kid was small. Many nights he woke up screaming in terror because of horrible nightmares. So many nights I carried him on my lap, singing or talking softly, rocking him gently to make him calmn down and to feel that everything is peaceful and safe. I understood that it is all the same with a young horse - she is panicking and without using words I have to communicate peace and safety with her.

When I started to train riding with Raiku, I never put bit in her mouth. I thought that if she is willing to go where I ask her to go, sure she will do it with side-pull reins. And now I have found out that most of the time I don't even have to touch the reins. It is just enough to use gentle voice aids and small gestures to communicate when to stop, when to go and where to turn. Of course it is not perfect all the time and I'm not an expert. But I'm happy with what we have now - my depression is almost gone, my horses have become my friends, and I have a feeling that I'm on a path of recovery and learning.

Building on trust

I was thinking about my own childhood. At early age I learnt that if I show my inner emotions or express my own thoughts, my parents are likely to get mad. My mother will get mad and scream at me. My father will blame me for being so annoying. My brother will bully me for being such and idiot. So I learnt not to show anything. If I just performed the things they wanted me to do, it was mostly OK. At times they could still scream at me and be violent with no reason - or for such a reason which I couldn't understand. Still, that was the best way to avoid being punished physically or mentally. And I learned that my parents are dangerous and not to be trusted. I just wanted to be alone, away from everybody. And over the years I developed a depressive personality.

Well, that is something I don't want to do with my own horses. I prefer them showing their emotions and intentions, and I do my best to undestand them. And to show them that I understand and accept their personality. It doesn't mean that I let them decide everything. It just means that we have trust, and that we can build on it. This way there is no need to punish the horse, nor to force her to do things for me. She is not obeying because she is afraid of punishment. She is co-operating, because she feels like it. And that makes things smooth and easy. It might be a slow process, but that suits me. Being with horses has become a meditation.

Thanks to everybody, including the horses!

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