Written by Bob Lecy, Vietnam Veteran, Chairman of the Board at Veterans Helping Veterans Now
I remember my first glimpse of Max. Imposing, I thought, a commanding presence. Another veteran and I were headed to a meeting at a ranch north of Longmont to talk about an equine therapy program the owner of the property wanted to create for veterans. I have had previous experience as a participant in equine (horse) therapy and found it to be very healing and insightful. Horses have much to teach us.
As we drove up the driveway and rounded the corner of the barn I had my first glimpse of a magnificent horse. Max was standing tall, head erect and looking confident. Facing us as we approached, his ears and his attention were directed to us. Horses are always curious about what, or who is entering their world, their survival depends on it. I could feel in my gut there was something very special about this horse and wondered if I would have the opportunity to find out.
Max is from a breed called the Tennessee Walker. Bred in the days of Southern plantations for its smooth riding gait, the Walker is also known for its calm easygoing disposition. Although usually associated with a solid color, spotted, or Pinto, markings are common. Pinto comes from the British English meaning colored. Pintos were introduced into the Americas by the Spanish Conquistadors and are descendants of horses from North Africa and Asia Minor. A Pinto has a two-tone color scheme, one of which is always white and they can be classified in one of several color patterns. Max’s more famous relatives are Silver and Trigger, of the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers fame.
Max is colored white and black. His markings are of the tobiano pattern; head solid black, except for a barely noticeable patch of white on his nose and under his chin. All four of his legs below the knees are white and his mane and tail are both white and black. His flanks are also marked in black and his front displays a black oval giving the appearance of a shield over his chest; an appropriate marking for this horse. His black color makes his chin whiskers stand out, which to me gives him that oriental wise master kind of look.
A couple weeks after this initial meeting I had an opportunity to participate in an event at the ranch about animal communication which included Max and his barn buddy, Joe, also a Walker though with brown and white colors. The exercise was for the participants to move the horses around the ringed corral using only thoughts of intention and hand signals. Max was leading Joe.
After several times around the ring I noticed that I had a different intention, to connect with Max, not to move him around the corral. On the next pass Max stopped in front of me and despite hand signals and everyone else’s directions Max would not move. His buddy Joe was not appreciative of Max blocking his way and nipped him in the butt. Thus ended the lesson, as everyone was laughing too much. Although the lesson ended, it was the beginning of our connection and a bond I will feel forever.Max is a horse of many talents, a healer, a comforter, a teacher, a jokester and sage. He teaches me about relationships and the need for safety (physical and emotional), being present, having patience, how to chill, to be clear in my intentions and honest with my emotions. He has given me insights into leadership and the importance of holding a vision, having a plan; providing a sense of safety and to play. He invites me to step back and breathe..
During one of the sessions with Max and our instructor (also known as Max’s human, or owner for those not yet enlightened), I found myself conflicted again with the desire to simply be present with horses, especially Max, not directing or controlling them. I began to sense that my reluctance was more a fear of being a bully or someone who uses domination to motivate others. It’s not what I want in my relationships yet I didn’t know how to lead a horse with anything other than a rope. Especially, when food is not involved.
My strategy was to push or pull on Max to get him to move. Not a good strategy with a 1200 pound animal. Max taught me an easier way. To begin the subsequent exercise I needed Max to stay in place. Max, however, started to move forward and closer. I signaled Max to stop. He halted then stepped back. And that’s when I saw the intense look in his eyes, and the attentiveness in his entire body. I had a strong sense that Max not only desired to cooperate and accomplish the task, but more importantly, that he didn’t feel bullied. I felt an immediate shift in my body. Max just wanted clear, confident leadership. As our instructor and I talked about leadership we formulated a model (vision, plan, safety, breathe) Max stood next to us, patient and relaxed, making a chewing motion with his mouth; a signal that the horse is in agreement or feels safe. Max had gotten his point across.
That horses allow us to be in relationship with them is in itself an amazing act of trust. Horses are prey animals, and we humans are predator animals; we the aggressors, they the peacemakers. Predators have their eyes in the front of their heads to focus on prey and to better distinguish objects. Prey animals have eyes on the side of their head to have a wider field of vision and to better detect movement. Horses can smell your scent, even changes in your demeanor. They can hear your heartbeat from a distance. They know if your are not congruent with your emotion and act accordingly for their own safety. They become a mirror of us.
Not long after my first event at the ranch, I was given the opportunity to hang out with Max and his buddies two mornings each week. Three other horses live on the ranch (Joe, Misty, and Andy), all of whom I enjoy very much. I clean their stalls, haul their manure, give them feed and fill their water buckets, and when I am finished with the chores I usually hang with Max, sitting in his stall while he eats. When I am in the presence of Max I feel joy, he makes me laugh. I try to meditate but he usually interrupts me by chewing over my head, nuzzling my shoulders or chest, and snorting, usually a sign of contentment it is akin to a giant sneeze all over my body. Probably he is telling me not to be so serious, playing is better. Once he decided that my hat looked better off my head, and removed it.
I trade my time doing chores for instruction in natural horsemanship. Probably better called natural humanship because it is here that Max really shines and most problems between humans and horses are human. He shows me what I need to know about horses, about myself, and about relationships; confidence, healing, and forgiveness. Max probably didn’t know he would become a confidant and healer, but Max, and his buddy Joe, take to it like flies on a horse.
In the world of horses there is a clear structure or hierarchy to the herd. Even if there is only two (you and the horse) someone is going to be in charge. If the horse does not trust you, it will be the horse. Safety is paramount for horses to trust, and without trust there is no intimacy (a great life lesson). Horses live in the moment; they have a very open heart and they want to be in relationship. Being in a herd means survival. If you are trusted (safe), you are invited into the herd and relationship. When conflict occurs they use the amount of pressure (force) necessary to get their needs met but leave the other horse with its dignity intact. When the conflict is over, it’s over.
- Feeling Safe = trust = intimacy
- Be firm, clear, and confident, not mean
- It’s easier to lead a 1200 lb horse than push it – get more with less
- Keep your heart open – forgive
- Watch for cues, desire is in the eyes
- Be aware of what the horse is asking
- Give yourself and the horse the best possibility for success.
- Seek agreements
- Let the horse choose when it’s ready
- Don’t judge others
- Leadership = vision, plan, safety, breathe
Thank you Max for giving me your wisdom, trust, and room in your stall. And thanks for letting me into your world and into your heart. You certainly are in mine.