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The Earth Horse and The Spirit Horse

 

 

 

My two horses, Ogeechee and Arrow, the Earth Horse and the Spirit Horse, have been my partners on the journey for many years. They have always been there for me, my light and my darkness reflecting in an unbiased mirror of their being.

Ogeechee       Arrow's face

 

Ogeechee, The Earth Horse

 

If I were looking for a horse to buy now, color would not be on my list of selection criteria at all. But back in 2001, when I was looking for my first horse, my mind was firmly set on a horse of my dreams (modeled after one that I had leased for a year and fell head over heels in love with): a tall, bay Tobiano mare. Any other criteria of importance? Oh, yeah, she should not be too green, because I was still a beginner. So how did I end up with a 14 - 3'', chestnut Overo gelding? There is a saying that if you want to make God laugh, tell him YOUR plans. I hope that mine were funny enough.

Ogeechee's friendly face won my heart, plus, unlike many of the horses I had looked at, he would walk, trot, and canter when asked. The fact that he shot backwards and broke the crossties when I picked up his foot to clean did not disturb me: horses just do things sometimes, don't they?

But while I was still getting used to the happy feeling of having my own horse, it became apparent that he had a big issue with tying. Sometimes he was OK. And other times, he suddenly panicked and pulled back violently, breaking crossties and lead rope snaps. I asked my barn buddies for advice, and everybody was willing to help me. They showed me the methods they knew of teaching a horse to tie, and the problem not only persisted but was getting worse. In a few months, it escalated to the point that he started pulling back and breaking loose when being led to and from his stall. The owner of the barn made it clear to me that if I wanted to stay, the horse needed to be trained. In her opinion, he needed a real cowboy to throw him down and sit on him, to teach him some respect.

I felt doubtful and intimidated by such prospect, but I was in no position to train him myself, with only about a year of horse experience under my belt. A chance conversation opened a new door. Our vet told me she knew a very good trainer who really loved horses and gave me his phone number. What stuck with me was that "he really loved horses". I suppose every horse trainer should, but some of the things I had seen by then started eating away at my starry-eyed view in which all people involved with horses were automatically kind, patient, knowledgeable and understanding. It was comforting to think I might have found a trainer who would be kind to my horse.

Ed Dabney opened a whole new world to me. I knew that this world existed somewhere, in books and on the Internet, but here was a real person who had genuine respect for the horse and a consistent, logical training methodology based on understanding of how horses learn. Ed practiced his own version of natural horsemanship, having learned from many different trainers and having worked as a ranch cowboy in Wyoming. I was thoroughly impressed with his quiet and confident manner and a logical, thorough way of doing everything, from catching a horse, to tying a halter, to putting up the cinch, to every step in horse's education: everything was a clear, step-by-step progression leading to a reliable partnership. I loved the way he explained what he did at our first meeting: he said he presented a horse with a series of challenges and guided him through with kindness and understanding to build his confidence, responsiveness and courage. Now, I really had a chance to develop a true partnership with my horse, to have a real language that made sense to both of us.

When Ogeechee went in for training, I spent all my spare time watching Ed work with him and other horses. Ed had scheduled owner education time into his training program to transfer the necessary skills, but I could not wait for that. I absorbed everything he did like a sponge, took extensive notes, and tried all the exercises he did with Ogeechee on my own long before the scheduled time arrived. As the end of the training period approached, I found myself in true anguish. I could not go back to the world I left behind. I made a decision: gave my barn owner a notice and started boarding Ogeechee at the barn where Ed worked.

Tanya and Ogeechee on the trail

Left: Ogeechee and I on a trail ride soon after our move to the new barn.

Pretty soon, I was volunteering help with various training tasks. I was proud that Ed trusted me to  help work the horses he had in training. He was generous in sharing his knowledge and soon told me I seemed to be natural with horses. One day, he said: "Remember you asked me if I had an apprentice? Well, now I do." Wow, was I excited! My childhood dream of working with horses was coming true! I was finishing my Ph.D. program in Entomology at the time, but my life-long passion, now set loose, was clearly moving Entomology out of the field of my aspirations or inspirations. After defending my dissertation with flying colors and getting my degree, I stunned my graduate committee by quitting science altogether to work for a local cowboy for a minimal wage. Was I happy? By all means! My journey in natural horsemanship had begun.

What did Ogeechee think about all of it? He took training in stride, and pretty soon we could do some things that were downright impressive: fluent backing, front- and hindquarter turns, sidepass, circling at all gaits... plus all of that without halter and head rope. He could stand tied now and seemed comfortable with it, thanks to Ed's systematic and gradual way of teaching yielding to pressure.

Ogeechee and Tanya at a demoYet...

Here is what I wrote in my journal in winter 2003:

"I am as frustrated as ever with what I feel is an impasse in my relationship with Ogeechee. Sure, he has learned all these things, but he is still sour and unwilling. He rebels against my imposed dominance in form of passive stubbornness. I might be a leader, but I am not a friend. He doesn't want to be with me, and it breaks my heart, because I love him. I love to see a cheerful expression on his face, but it's never there when I ask him to do things. I am happy when he comes to meet me in his paddock, but as soon as it's time to work, he drifts into his own world: his eyes acquire a dazed look of stubborn denial, his ears go back, and his feet might as well be dragging through glue."

Every day, I kept looking for answers. I studied Pat Parelli videos and articles, read books by natural horsemanship trainers, and branched out into other kinds of training, all in search for the connection I craved with my horse. I experimented with the ways of allowing him to find the answers, rather than making him do what I wanted, and I looked for the ways to motivate him with something other than the promise of more pressure. I enjoyed experimenting with what I could glean from Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling. And I even used a clicker! I didn't know how to incorporate it into the way of training I was studying, but I taught him a few simple tricks, which boosted his motivation. After doing some "serious" work, we had a little fun time with the clicker.

I liked the philosophy of "making the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult", but I felt that in practice it sometimes turned into making the wrong thing completely impossible, leaving the horse no choice but to obey. On the one hand, listening to the horse was a highly esteemed trainer quality, on the other, if the horse happened to say no, we would turn a deaf ear and proceed to working him until he said: riding Ogeechee without tack"OK, yes, yes, I GIVE UP!" As my longest-term trainee, Ogeechee was showing me exactly what I didn't like about it.  Yes, he became very obedient, to the point that I could do his exercises at liberty in a field of lush grass or ride him with nothing but a neck string at all gaits all around the farm. Yet, there was rarely joy in what he was doing for me, and when I came to the pasture with his halter, I wished I could fail to notice the resignation with which he waited while I crossed the field.

Ogeechee and TanyaI loved him, and it grieved me. Still, for the lack of a better thing, I accepted what we had. Maybe the connection I dreamed about was just a pipe dream. And I was immersed in reality and getting things done, working 4-6 horses every day plus mine two in my spare time (by that time, I had Arrow as well). And we did have a bond, of course. I took him on walks to graze and to wallow in the shallow lake. I spent sleepless nights with him when he colicked. He waited for me, instead of running away, when I got thrown against rock-hard ground one day when he stepped on a poorly buried telephone cable and got shocked. It is only our work that brought him no joy. And I wished it did; I had a dream that we would be in it together, but I was the only one who was enthusiastic about it.

Along with other horses I encountered, Ogeechee was teaching me about a kind of Ogeechee and fillyrelationship and connection that was valued by horses. Watching him in various herd situations, with different horses, I saw that he was OK with all of them: bullies and the timid ones, geldings, mares, and a two-year-old filly that he helped me start under saddle.  He never bossed the lower ranking horses, moved out of the bullies' way, and knew how to get what he wanted and stay in his happy space. He knew how to make friends with a bully who terrified the herd. I was never surprised to see him sharing a hay pile claimed by a horse that no one dared to approach, let alone dream of sharing food with. I watched him turning his rear to a dominant horse to diffuse tension and questioned that turning butt to a trainer was a sign of disrespect.

Above right: Ogeechee being a perfect baby-sitter for a young filly, even though she is flirting with him, being in season for the first time. Below: Ogeechee engaging in horseplay with his dominant buddy Arrow.

horseplayhorseplay2I watched him boldly come straight up to a dominant horse to solicit play, and realized that there are situations when dominant horses let others come into their space without penalties.

 

 

sharing a pile of haysleepingI observed him grazing shoulder to shoulder or lying in a pile with a current close buddy and saw that closely bonded horses of comparable social rank merge their personal spaces.

All of this made me reevaluate how I viewed leadership. Tired of my dominant role, I wanted to learn what came to Ogeechee naturally and what Mark Rashid called passive leadership. Ogeechee never made anyone do anything, yet he always had a buddy willing to do him favors: grooming, fly swishing, food sharing, and standing guard when he slept, the favors that he generously returned.

Ogeechee stretching

When, around 2006, I bought Alexandra Kurland's two books, A Step-By-Step Guide in Pictures and Riding With the Clicker, I was ready for them. Here was a precise, clear, systematic method of applying the scientific method of operant conditioning with positive reinforcement to solid horsemanship. Here was the partnership and respect that the horse explicitly and voluntarily agreed to. I had known about clicker training for years, having read, reread, and admired Karen Pryor's Lads Before The Wind since I was about 11 years old. The scientist in me respected and appreciated Alexandra's scientific rigor in the way she used clicker training with horses. The horse woman in me valued the solid horsemanship in her approach and the fact that it merged the elements of John Lyons' teachings, which were close to my background in natural horsemanship, with the principles of Classical Dressage, which I had been admiring, reading about, and trying to understand. And as a plain human being in search of the ways to bridge the gap between my heart's desire and the current practice of my living, the love, compassion, and appreciation of the horse that filled every word in her books, went straight to my soul.

When I came to my horses with the clicker and a pouchful of cut-up carrots, armed with what I learned from Alexandra's books, I crossed a new threshold on my journey. It was not just the joy and spark in their eyes. Not just the miracle of seeing them thinking up creative solutions. Not just the fun. Not just the eagerness to work with me. It was as if my horses had been flower buds, beautiful, powerful, mysterious, full of tantalizing secrets, but always wrapped up tight into themselves and wary of my clumsy intrusion into their presence. Now, with my first steps into clicker training, I watched in awe and disbelief the tough outer petals part open and the warm, fluttering, glowing, sweet and vulnerable inner beauty unfold, tentative, playful, and so full of the true power of the heart. The heart of the horse that I had been trying so hard to pry open for so long, and now that I stopped prying, it gave me a glimpse of its majesty and kindness and laughter. My own heart flew wide open at this incredible offering. Maybe I didn't quite know it back then, but my path as clicker trainer was sealed in those first sessions.

Ogeechee doing a cat stretchIt was for the better that even after having read the books, I still started not with "serious" work, but with some lighthearted tricks that were not part of my horses' routine. As we progressed to ground work and riding, I encountered the many "poisoned cues" that I had created, especially with Ogeechee, my primary riding horse. It seems from where I stand now that this little Paint gelding without any particular physical talents and with plenty of physical and emotional problems had come into my life to put a mirror right in front of my soul's eyes and to keep me accountable for all things I did with horses - and with myself. The power of love that binds us would not let me lie to myself about my progress and my achievements if I look into my horse's eyes and see him gone, turning his soul away from me.

I wouldn't have wished upon myself, when I was first starting with horses, to some day experience the irreversibility of having done physical and emotional damage to my horse. I will never get out of my memory watching him pull back and fall on the concrete floor of the barn after I insisted on tying him despite of seeing his fear. I cried bitter tears that brought no relief when I saw him trot lame afterwards. I will never forget the remorse of realizing that the saddle I had been using was too narrow and had done damage to his back. I think with shame of the moments when I could have stood up for him and didn't. It has been difficult work trying to amend the damage and to forgive myself. Yet I find myself humbled and grateful even for this. Having done harm to a vulnerable and trusting being you love cuts so deep into your heart that it is impossible to come out on the other side unchanged. Witnessing myself being what I don't ever want to be is frightening. It takes away the comfortable assumption "I will never do that". But having done "that" and knowing that I am capable of it, I know that I am committed to doing everything in my power to never go down that road again.

Ogeechee started the work of uncorking my own inner being, cracking the tough outer shell that I had created to hide my own vulnerability, my own hurts and awkwardness, my own fears and wounds. From early on, I came to believe that I was a shame. No one can live knowing they are a shame without buffering it in some ways. I had developed an elaborate system of denial that helped me survive by sequestering the parts too painful to bring to the light of awareness. I had become numb to the the fact that those parts even existed. What could be more effective in stirring up those inner "No trespassing" signs than a thousand-pound being close and dear to you turning in a split second from someone who is all right in his world into a trembling mess completely lost in the chaos of his panic. And what a better way to see how evolved and enlightened you really are when a horse reflects back to you an off note you had just sent into the world.

A connection with a horse is multidimensional and as deeply visceral as a connection with a lover. Ogeechee, along with other horses, took me out of the confines of my head into the true playing field of being: my body, my emotions, my actions in the moment. If not for Ogeechee, who knows how much longer it would have taken for me to dare to reach into the mess inside, witness and accept it, and find it to be a deep source of healing, power, and vibrancy.

While I was freshly enamored with clicker training, I could not see that I dragged the vestiges of my "trainer ego" with me. It would take me time and trust in the organic process of transformation to start letting go of the desire to be in control. It was a very deeply held belief that the only thing that kept the world from falling into a frightening chaos was my own iron will, stoicism, and responsibility. It took a long process for me to see that what lies at the foundation of the world is not chaos but Love and Trust. The only thing I needed for it to be true was to find it in my own heart.

While I was making the transition, it was Ogeechee who was my reliable supporter and my strictest censor. This was when it first came to me that he was my Earth Horse. In his unassuming and nurturing way, he was OK with my spirit flight, but he was my ground crew, and he called me on my blind spots uncompromisingly. For all our successes with clicker training, there were so many moments when that familiar glazed look fell over him, bringing me back to the reality of the moment when a warm-hearted friend in me departed and a controlling trainer stepped forth. He let me know that not all was right, and he kept me looking close at what I was doing. I couldn't hide behind good words. He was the one who most eloquently showed to me that just becoming a clicker trainer was not enough, that a real, complete transformation from the inside out was required. At that time, I was exploring talking to animals, something that had seemed too far-fetched and fluffy-new-age to me before. This journaled conversation with Ogeechee in 2008 was one the most powerful and poignant messages I had ever received from anyone, animal or human:

Tanya: Ogeechee, can we talk more so that I can write it down?

Ogeechee: You are writing it down?

T: Yes. It is important, what you said to me.

O: OK then. What? I am angry. I am angry with you for what you have done.

T: Please, tell me about your feelings. Don't hold back. I know how it feels to have unexpressed anger. Talk about it. I know I have done many bad things to you. I accept everything you say. Please say it.

O: What! Now you are listening! Where have you been all this time? Conquering the world? I was not good enough for you, so you dumped me in the pasture. You don't care how my body feels if it doesn't serve you. And your ego. I am just a joke. Abuse me and throw me out. Practice clicker training on me. Wake up! I am alive. Don't you see MY tears? You are all positive now, aren't you? Well, screw you. Whatever. I don't trust you anymore. You act all understanding, and then you do one of THOSE things…

(I feel his tears, even though horses don't cry with tears, like humans do).

I love you…

Why can't you love me just the way I am? I don't have to be great. Why don't you just be my sister?

T: I am so sorry… (I am sobbing at this point).

O: It's all right, sister. There is a lot of sadness. You cry too. Learn from us while there is time. We love you. I love you.

T: I am sorry I have done to you what has been done to me. I am angry too, and I grieve. I beg your forgiveness for what I have done to you, brother.

O: Cry. It is good to cry. I feel the relief of tears. We will heal together. Write about me. The innocent body violated forever. Women and horses relate to it. And the Earth. We are one. Tell them about it. Because you feel that grief. You carry it in your body. We are forever changed. We cannot regain the innocence. But we have learned the wisdom. We are the wise ones. Because we cried. Because we felt. We cried in silence. We cried inside our eyes. And we will heal. But we need to stop the rape.

This. I have said.

Earth horse drawing

The crumbling of my "trainer ego" initiated by my transition into the clicker training paradigm was part of an upheaval that pulled the carpet of reality as I knew it right from under me. During that period, I went from knowing myself as a former scientist and a current horse trainer, a mother and a wife, living in a busy household of two adults, a teenager, two big dogs, several small pets, and two horses, to being no one I could put any label on and living by myself, with my horses silently but knowingly holding space for me.

During that time, I did not do much with my horses beyond caring for them and hanging out with them in the pasture. As if quitting a job, losing one of our dogs, getting divorced, and having my daughter move out was not enough, I had met and lost a love that meant the world to me, and for a long time, I could not see any sense, purpose, or meaning in anything. The very foundations of my being came up for questioning. Much of what I had taken for granted since I was about 4 years old simply fell apart. All I had that held together some semblance of structure was my work as clicker trainer, the house and the farm I lived on, a couple of trusted friends, and my horses. They became an outer protective shell, a womb in which I would gradually, like a butterfly in a chrysalis, form a new body from a small cluster of imaginal cells.

One night, I received a gift from Ogeechee I will never forget. It was a hot Georgia summer, and I usually went for a walk at night. That night I was overwhelmed by tears. One of the bonuses of living out in the country is privacy, so I did not hold back. In the darkness, I saw Ogeechee's white head bobbing up and down, coming to me from across the pasture. This time of the year, he eagerly employed me in scratching his itchy spots. Right now, I was in no shape to scratch his behind. But I was wrong in my assumption that this was what he had in mind. He came up to me, hanging his head over the fence. Then he stood quietly. We both did. I felt it welling up inside me like an overpowering wave, and suddenly, a dam broke. I threw myself around his neck and unleashed all the tears that I had held in my heart, in my gut, in my whole being. As I cried, he stood very still and just yawned, and yawned, and pulled faces, and stretched his jaw. When I was all spent, he stood there for another minute, deliberately, then turned around and wandered off. Just like that. I felt sore inside and all hunched up, like and old woman, but there was a relief of letting out all that pain. I could not have done it by myself. Ogeechee was my surgeon, he felt my need, he came and gave me of his love and wisdom and inner knowledge, all casually and unassumingly, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to do for someone. He did naturally what takes years of training for psychotherapists, healers and shamans to be able to do. And he thought nothing of it. He was just being himself.

As I am stepping into the new, yet unread, chapter of my life, I don't know how this partnership, that has become as intangible and vital as breath and heartbeat, will unfold. But one thing I know for sure, as one of my dearest human teachers likes to say, "There is always more!"

***

I took a spring day off to hang out with my horses. They are usually hopeful that we would do some clicker training, but if that is not the case, they settle into being together, simply sharing space. Grateful that it was still too early for fire ants, I lay on the ground, in the Earth's embrace, ethereal at this time of the year, feeling her barely stirring from her winter sleep. My horses took turns coming over, grazing around me, standing over me, stepping carefully around my arms and legs, and hands, and head, breathing thoughtfully into my hair and my nostrils, making me giggle. Gentle breeze picks up, inducing me to get up and flow with it in free-form Tai Chi. The sun is rolling down, tinted with gold and orange. Ogeechee comes up to me and I see that he feels what I am flowing with. And then I see his being. In this golden sunlight permeating his orange hair, I see that he is LOVE. That love which is not a feeling. The love that just IS. In my eyes, the strands of sunlight blur into a sparkling golden web, and it flows gently down my face to soothe and caress the thirsty ground. I hear myself saying, over and over again: "God bless you. I love you."

 

 

Arrow, The Spirit Horse

"...It was a gray, cold and wet day; outside, it was pouring. I could barely hear myself for the rain crashing down on the roof of the covered ring. At one point, rubbing the big horse's forehead, I realized I was happy. Like the rain and the grayness enclosed me and the horse in a small timeless spot in the middle."

Journal entry from November 5, 2002.

This was the first time that Arrow touched me with his magic. His name was Can't Touch, they called him Jake, he was a black Tennessee Walker, and I wanted him ever since that day.

Jake was for sale, but I could not possibly afford him. The owner saw how well we were getting along and urged me to buy him. A few prospective buyers came to look at him, and I was prepared to see him go, but they thought he was too green for the price. Eventually, I got a phone call from his owner. She told me she had reduced the price on him and that she really wished I could buy him and give him a good home. As much as I was tempted, I already had Ogeechee, and although I could afford Jake now, it was the question of the ongoing expenses of keeping one more horse.

I then decided that if I could find a place to board two horses for the current price of one, I would buy Jake. Impossible as it seemed, such place turned up with amazing ease.

More coming soon...

 

 

 

 

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