Wednesday, February 18, 2009


With Valentine's Day still fresh on my mind I've been contemplating love. Real love. The kind all humanity longs for deep inside. The promise of this kind sells everything imaginable--do/buy this and it means he/she truly loves you. Its easy to label something as being ultimate proof of love if it is outwardly extravagant. Something that empties your bank account. An In-Your-Face freeway billboard kind of gesture. I have to admit I like those lavish displays of love. Who doesn't? But there is another sort that is just as extravagant in its quiet frugality. This sort is faithful, it does not give up. I call it Approach And Retreat Love.

Horses are flight animals, like deer. Easily frightened and overwhelmed, horses respond well to approach and retreat. Approach, then retreat before the animal decides to leave on its own. This is key. In this way, a foundation of trust can be built by not giving the horse more than it can handle at any one time.

After the basic biological urges of eating and reproduction, horses are most motivated by comfort and safety. It is the job of a good horseman to prove they are a source of comfort. The horse finds rest and safety in the presence of the trainer.

A fascinating tool, highly effective in training horses, is the round pen. A horse is worked at liberty in a round space of approximately 60 feet. The horse is free to run away from/ignore the trainer, as long as he wants. The trainer simply makes sure the horse does not stop his feet. Fairly quickly the animal discovers that his freedom is tiring. He discovers that while nothing forces him to relate to the trainer, the trainer controls the space in which he is moving. The concept of this exercise is not to tire the horse, it is to break through psychologically. No equipment or restraining ropes are necessary. When the horse is ready he will choose of his own free will to follow after the trainer. He discovers that rest and comfort exist only when he is by the trainers side. Watching a horse sort this out is a moving experience. It never fails to inspire me spiritually. Sometimes horses are not all that different from human beings.

Last month I sought the advice of a wise friend for help with Eli. This horse is truly my "heart horse." I feel it every time I am with him. While there has been improvement in his responses to me he remains reserved and careful. A horse not given to trust easily. I wanted ideas on how to bond with him.

"You need to go slower with these types of horses," my friend advised. "Don't always ask something of him or force him to relate to you." She further suggested I look for opportunities to "hang out" in his space, giving attention/affection in tiny doses and leaving before Eli becomes overwhelmed. This is hard for me. I want to hug on him every time I'm with him; lavish him with attention. Instead, I resolved to give her suggestions a try.

I felt silly the first time I dragged a chair into the pasture. Trying to look natural I sat down and opened a book. Eli wasn't buying it. He put plenty of distance between us and watched me carefully. Twice he took a step or two in my direction then changed his mind. Finally he ambled off and made a definitive equine gesture--he turned his butt in my direction. I ignored him but slyly peeped his way from time to time. Once, without moving, he swung his neck around, stared at me and sighed deeply. I could almost hear him say, "Weird." He never approached so I left him alone.

Soon after that I began working him in a round pen at a local arena. His character and spirit is open and very sensitive. He quickly sought my companionship for comfort and rest. I was thrilled. At home I continued to look for opportunities to pop into the pasture, rub his forehead or shoulder and leave before he became overwhelmed.

Last week I went out one morning and busied myself getting truck and trailer ready for hauling Chance to a lesson. Tango and Eli were working on breakfast in the back pasture. As I loaded equipment, I glanced their way. Eli had stopped eating and was watching me walk to and fro. He seemed to be thinking. I slipped under the electric fence and approached him.

"Hi Pal." I arranged his long forelock, rubbed his face, and turned back to the task at hand. As I walked away I felt a following presence.

"Do you have something to say?" Being careful not to startle Eli I turned to face him. He lifted his nose to my face. I blew in his nostrils the not too appealing scent of stale coffee. All I could see were huge dark Arabian eyes as he breathed back. When I turned to leave Eli followed me to the gate.

It is a supreme compliment for a horse to leave a breakfast of fragrant alfalfa/orchard grass hay for the company of a human being. I scratched Eli's chest, my heart soaring. He still wasn't ready for all my attention but we had made a breakthrough.

A caveat to safety.....
I do not recommend allowing a stallion to put his nose in your face. It is a good way to get ones face bitten off. I have allowed it with this horse because, well, it seems to be his thing and he has never shown a hint of animosity or aggression. Rather, he seems interested in examining my character in this way (see post, Smelling the Soul). The first time it occured was a week or so after bringing him home. He wanted nothing to do with me. He would not accept food from my hand and refused to eat if I stood by the hay. While outwardly controlled, he seemed deeply upset to be in a new situation with a new caretaker. Then one day, while bent over arranging his breakfast of hay, I felt a looming presence. Ignoring breakfast, Eli was instead smelling my cheek. I froze, not wanting to spook him but equally leary of losing a chunk of my face. He gave me a good sniff, then began eating.

With horses, the good trainer must come down to the horses level, must limit themselves to the horses ability to understand and process an experience. It is the only way to build true friendship, respect, and trust with a horse.

I'm humbled that God limits himself to get through to me. He is a master at approach and retreat. How often He must long to grab me in a bear hug, lavish His big love on me. But I'm easily overwhelmed. I can't handle the attention sometimes. So He gives me a little at a time, doling out an extravagant love in ways I can understand and accept, inviting me to approach, put my face next to His and breath deeply of His character. Eventually I can't help but run to Him, the place where all comfort and safety exist.

No comments: