I woke this morning in the mood to dance.
It was a feeling borne of a late-night talk with a friend, during which we discussed the magic that draws a good horse to a good handler despite the horse's obvious physical superiority.
"I frequently marvel," I said, "that I can put a bit of string on a 900-pound prey animal and lead it through strange and frightening territory with that string in an open palm, and it will stay with me. This despite the fact that there is nothing, nothing in my power that could stop that horse from leaving if it wanted to. Tell me that isn't magic."
"Sounds like trust," my friend said.
"Trust. Yes. But not blind trust. That is the magic."
Think of horses in a field. Watch them long enough, and you'll see that they control each others' movements with subtle -- and occasionally dramatic -- bits of body language. Tilt of ear, angle of body, suggestion of raised hip. They have no need of whips or ropes or chains; their language is based on the twin elements of respect and trust.
Respect comes first, every time. Introduce a new horse to the herd, and you'll see this truth in action. Only when the hierarchy is well established will you see emerge the equine version of friendship; that is, trust. This is the turning of two horses -- apparently spontaneous, but actually subtly cued by the dominant horse -- to scratch each others' withers. It is standing head to tail in the shade, flicking flies from one anothers' faces. It is the magnetic pull of follow-the-leader that moves small societies within the herd from place to place throughout the day.
Horses, clearly, are wired for liberty work. If I am good enough, if I can learn their language thoroughly, I should be able to dispense with the artificial tools I use to compensate for my inferior size and strength. If I have earned the right to lead, my horse and I will move in seamless dance with no physical bond between us. When we fail, it's my fault every time. The horse already knows her part; it's my responsibility to learn mine.
Liberty work is exactly that: work. It depends upon concentration, understanding, empathy, precision. Respect. Trust. Among horses, liberty is made or broken by the worth of the leader.
A horse at liberty demands clear, consistent, honest leadership. If she doesn't get it, she rebels.
Proof, yet again, that horses are wiser than men.
Shall We Dance?
Call Me Crazy: A Word about Natural Horsemanship
Twenty Minutes in Photos: Trust-Based Training at Work
Heart in My Hands: Gentling the Unhandled Horse
Shot in the Dark: Liberty
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