Thursday, December 24, 2009


An inscription at the Kentucky Horse Park reads, “History was written on the back of a horse.” The horse, like no other creature, seems created for the pleasure and service of mankind. Though they are no longer necessary to settle and contain this great country, horses continue to capture mans imagination with their beauty, grace, athleticism, and subtle yet powerful ability to express themselves.

For all their natural gifts and capacity for service, however, a relationship with human beings is something that has never occurred to the natural horse. A feral horse, browsing in green pastures, doesn’t one day suddenly say to itself, “Wow, that bi-ped over there is amazing. I think I’d like to know him, become friends. Maybe he’d like to put a big piece of dead cow on my back and run me around.” Left to his own devices, a horse feels no need, whatsoever, for a relationship with humanity. But the capacity is there. It must simply be awakened.

Human culture and communication have little in common with equids. For starters, we are natural predators, they are prey. Our complicated mental abilities far surpass that of a horse that naturally operates on instinct. Horses are simple. Their communication, based almost exclusively on movement and body language (unnatural to human beings) is simple. But magic happens when a person makes a conscious effort to learn horse language and communicate in ways that are meaningful to them. I was thinking of this yesterday after working Eli at liberty.

As I’ve previously posted, getting out can be tough this time of year. With the cold, holiday crazies, and general instinct to cocoon by the fire, schlepping to the arena and actually working Eli isn’t happening much. But I made it yesterday. After roughly thirty or forty minutes of working him I was pretty much done, even though he’d barely broken a sweat. I took the saddle off and turned him loose to have a good roll while I trudged back and forth to my trailer with loads of tack (breaking a pretty good sweat myself). Eli watched me, had a good roll, and then ogled a pretty mare being led down the barn aisle just outside. When he decided to talk to her I thought it a good opportunity to test his response to me, test his mental ability to “join up” with me at liberty and amidst distractions. And there is never a shortage of distractions for a stallion.

Monty Roberts is a popular trainer who coined the phrase “join up.” It refers to what happens when a trainer successfully communicates with a horse at liberty and it mentally forms a partnership, willing following after the trainer and entering into a relationship. This moment is always moving for me, whether I watch it on TV or experience it with my own horses. Roberts makes it look easy but it takes quite a bit of effort for me to get to the horse’s level, to become like a horse so a connection can be made.

When I kissed to Eli he came right over, big eyes curious. It’s been just over a year since I unloaded this horse and put him in my pasture. Our relationship over the last twelve months has developed into a pretty good partnership. Not totally there yet, but close. He’s come a long way from the stallion that felt pressure simply from me standing next to his shoulder; the horse that flinched and moved off if I ran my hand down his side. From the beginning the look in his eye told me he had incredible potential as a partner, but he is definitely one that would not, on his own, choose to relate to human beings. I had to reach out to him first. Eli has moved from barely tolerating my touch, to lowering his head and hanging it by my side when I scratch his favorite spot. Sometimes he circles his neck around my shoulder without touching me, a gentle and dignified show of affection.

At first Eli followed me willingly around the arena, trotting when I ran yet not rushing ahead of me. When I stopped, he stopped. I decided to see if I could lunge him around me at liberty. This took some doing, some reaching deep into my still (sadly) shallow reserves of equine foreign language skills. Eventually I could send him off with a signal and call him back immediately by moving his hip away. We made part of a circle this way a few times and as he relaxed he started to understand my suggestions. A couple more times of this and I should be able to lunge him with no rope attached.

So I’m finishing this post at ten o’clock, December 24, 2009. Besides waiting for kids to go to sleep so I can “assist” Santa, I’m also thinking about Christ. He’s familiar with the concept I use to build a relationship with Eli. He employed this same sort of method two thousand years ago to reach out and communicate in a way that was meaningful to humanity. All this in hopes of achieving join up. Emmanuel—“God with us.”

Merry Christmas.

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