Well I have to apologize. I have a new computer system, new video editing software and I haven’t had the time to produce the last couple videos on Zeus. I will get there, though!
In the meantime, Zeus has been progressing in an amazing way. I firmly believe in training at the pace of the horse vs the pace of the trainer. So with Zeus, a long term commitment to success and the realization and celebration of his small successes is absolutely essential. His life experience is exposed when I work with him. It is so very enticing. We know he was at the bottom of the herd and his behavior around domestic horses demonstrates that; he simply runs when another horse is in the vicinity, whether or not he is being chased. A simple nod of the head from a few hundred yards away will send him off at a gallop.
If you’ve observed wild prey animals, you’ll notice they do this: run from perceived danger, then turn around and look when at a safe distance. Which is a fairly stressful way to exist. But each day I notice Zeus make departures from that way of thinking. Some small and some huge. Zeus is over 10 years old and he’s starting a whole new life. That he can learn, change and adapt is both fascinating and incredible.
As far as training goes, I had to take a different tack on my approach. I’d been asking for Zeus to release, relax…to yield. To let go of fear and stress and move forward in that new mindset. Although we were making progress, the difficulty for him – I have realized – is that Zeus had no idea how to let go.
I don’t believe that many times in his adult life, that he’s been able to, or had the opportunity to, let go of his prey / herd tension. So how could I ask of him something he has no concept of? Although he was trying and exhibiting releases, I felt I could present this to him in a much more beneficial and positive way. So I changed it up: instead of asking him, I showed him.
How many times have you heard or been told, “The horse knows when you’re nervous…so relax!” Very true, so if a horse knows when you are nervous, he is also able to feel when you are not. In my experience, horses can sense everything you are feeling: anger, pride, fear, etc. As a prey animal, communicating empathically like that is a survival instinct; if one horse becomes scared, the rest of the herd instantly picks up on this and they are able to act as one. When the herd leader feels safe and content, other horses in his space relax, close their eyes or lie down.
My approach to training horses consists a lot of being able to direct their thoughts. Physical motion, after all, starts with a thought…a focus. If you’ve been in one of our clinics, you’ll have had the opportunity to play with and experience this. Horses communicate with space, energy and intent, so learning to emulate this is almost common sense if we want to pursue any endeavor with a horse. However with Zeus, instead of asking him to release with a touch and feel, I have to show him, by really feeling it within myself…and really put it out there for him to pick up. So when I touch him or ask for a release, I must release so that he can feel what I am asking.
It works like a charm.
Our progress since that moment has been nothing short of stunning. Why? Because it was essential that Zeus learn that I can provide him with that peace instead of chase him out or ask human things of him that he can’t yet conceptualize. Domestic horses have that conceptualization based on human interaction since they were born. Zeus does not. His view of the world is that it contains many things that want to harm him. He’s had no experience with the opposite.
I’ve tried this approach now on other wild horses. I was recently working with a client’s wildies. She has an older wild mare that has never been led on a lead rope; she has, for the most part, been left to her own devices and is quite solidified in her thinking. We’ve been working in the past weeks at showing her that she can release and asking small things of her with respect to spacial communication. She’s been doing great. Last week I had the opportunity to try something new with her. Like I did with Zeus, instead of asking her to release on a cue, at the instant of the cue, I released, so that she could feel it. At each touch of my hand on her neck I let go even more. And with each touch – so did she. She lowered her head more and relaxed her eye and jaw. My client said, “It’s magic!” It seemed like it, but really, I’m just communicating to her in the way horses communicate with each other. As a herd leader, I’m just showing her by demonstration: the herd is safe here. The power in communicating with a horse in their language of space, energy and empathy is incredible.
Like I said, I’m stunned with the results. A couple of days ago, I drove into the pasture on the ATV. Normally, Zeus takes off. This time he didn’t. Instead, when I put it in park and left it idling, he came up to check it out, thus demonstrating two qualities I work hard to develop in every horse: trust and curiosity. These really go hand in hand. Considering Zeus spooked and ran from a water pail after he sniffed it in the week he arrived here, this was a monumental change in his thinking. His growing trust in me was more than obvious as he followed me around the pasture while I was on and off the ATV.
The following training session left me in goosebumps. It was the first time Zeus showed that he was truly enjoying our time together and showing pride in his accomplishments. I don’t think horses, in nature, have many opportunities in their life to feel pride. But it’s quite obvious that we are able to create situations in which they do. There is a look in their eye when they get it right. And where does that come from? That comes from us. We feel “Yes, we did it buddy!” and they pick right up on that. That is such a key element in proceeding with training; once a horse realizes that try produces success which produces pride and reward…well, they’re willing to just try anything for you.
Zeus and I work mostly at liberty. In our last session we were trotting together, turning in unison, stopping – and for the first time – I sensed he was proud of how he was doing and truly with me, as opposed to simply acting on my direction. That look in his eye… It was like he was having the time of his life. And he probably was. After that I was able to step energetically into his space and praise on him, something I’ve had to be very cautious of. Too much energy in presentation and he’s typically off like a rocket. This time, however, my energy was in how proud I was of him. And he sucked it right up.
Tonight was one of those evenings that…I’ll admit…left me a bit teary-eyed. Zeus was alone in a section of the pasture around the corner from the rest of the herd, after being chased out by Spud. Spud is an exceptional horse as well, but he is very protective of his herd and particularly one horse within it. Needless to say, Zeus was on his own. Our backdrop was a beautiful red and yellow sunset. It was warm and calm – no chilly south wind for a change. I walked out into the pasture that Zeus was in and sat down on the ground just to take in the serenity of the day.
Slowly, and ever so slowly, Zeus made his way toward me. He’d stop, sniff at the grass in front of him, raise his head, stand there a few moments, then lower his head again and take another couple of steps toward me. I just sat there, creating that space of peace that horses gravitate to. As he neared me, his steps became very small. He’d pick up a front foot, shift it forward and over a few inches, cock a hind foot, then cock his other hind foot and move a foot up. His approach to me was a cautious arc. Within about 20 minutes, Zeus was standing over me. He lowered his head and sniffed my shoe. The look in his eye was one of utter contentment. Cautiously, I reached out my hand to him, and he sniffed it. He’s always been fearful of that, and today…curiosity. Instead of me going up to him and touching him, he voluntarily came up to me and touched me.
What made this moment even more intimate was that Zeus turned so that his right side was toward me. His ‘scared’ side. The side that I’ve worked so hard to be on. For him to walk all the way up to me, completely release and present his right side was an exceptional demonstration of trust and intimacy. Everything we have been working on in the past weeks came together and was revealed in those moments.
It was emotional and touching.
Zeus is a special project. He’s an incredible animal. He has power and strength, but so much fear. With each day his fear dissipates. His courage increases. His curiosity is piqued. He’s experiencing that crucial learning sequence through try to success to pride and reward. He has come to realize that being with me is a good experience and he is seeking that feeling by wanting to be with me. For a horse like him, this is so, so critical. It’s the development of trust and his belief that I’m not going to hurt him or chase him. Our journey together is a very special one and I feel blessed to be a part of his life.