Lessons from the Herd

When I started riding a number of years ago my focus was on myself most of the time (duh uh). Was I safe? Was this horse going to put me in a wheelchair? Was I doing ‘it’ (whatever I was doing at any given moment) the right way? When was I going to start to feel a little bit competent? It made me think of learning ballet and sailing all at once. I was contorting my body in unnatural ways while learning about equipment with strange names that, if I got it wrong, might cost me my life.

Eventually my attention started to shift a little away from me and to my horse. How was my horse feeling now? What did his behaviour mean? Was this the horse that was going to put me in a wheelchair? How can I let the horse know that I am it’s leader? Is it my fear or the horse’s fear that is getting in the way of getting over that jump/making the transition from trot to canter/succeeding at the next level of learning?

As my comfort, skill, and awareness grew I realized I was increasing my awareness, not just in my riding lessons, but in all aspects of my life and I was increasingly living in the now. The scope of my focus grew until finally I realized I was aware, in the moment, of myself, the herd,, other people, and the environment. Suddenly new choices and decisions presented themselves. When I entered the barn and started down the aisle and 30 equine heads all popped up and over the stall door what should I do? Were they all expecting me to greet them? Would I have to stop and greet each one? By now I knew that horses were individuals, just like people. In tech speak, I was no longer walking through a class of entities called ‘horse’. I was now in relation to 30 instances of ‘horse’, each with it’s own set of parameters – it’s own unique identity. Was I going to have to greet each of these beings like Crocodile Dundee did when he walked out onto the streets of Manhatten for the first time? If so I would have to start allowing a whole lot of extra time in my rush to get from the office down to the barn.

Initially I decided I would have to proceed as I did on the street. Just a nod of the head and a smile but keep on walking. Let them know I had business elsewhere – namely my own favourite horse. I’d love to stop but hey, busy girl here.  One horse came along and challenged the way I saw myself and pushed me to a new understanding of what it means to be seen and understood.

In my youth I had sought to be as invisible as possible. As I matured I knew I had to be more willing to be seen for who I am but it was a struggle, going very much against the grain of the natural born introvert. Electra was a lovely young warmblood. She was a champion dressage mount that had travelled to Europe more times than I had. I started to notice that some days I would show up and she would give me the evil eye as soon as she saw me come up the drive. She would actually bolt out of her stall into her paddock to get away from me. Other days she would check me out and seemingly everything was fine.

Eventually I figured out that she was reacting to my black, fur-lined leather jacket. I never knew what it was that she was seeing – perhaps that I was some kind of werewolf morphing from human into predator-beast or that I was under attack from some furry monster that might threaten her too. In any case I started to realize that I brought something into her space that perhaps required me to be more sensitive and responsive to her and her herd-mates. I started taking more time and paying more attention to her and the other individual horses. I started greeting each one as they chose to greet me. Soon all these creatures were noticing me, greeting me, and in their own ways letting me know how they were feeling and how their day was going. It didn’t really take much longer for me to get to my special horse and more surprisingly, it didn’t take long before I felt like a member of the herd. As a unexpected by-product I started to feel more like a member of the human race. Another great lesson from the herd.