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Horse Whispering in New Hampshire

As mentioned in a previous post, my daughter and I participated in a horsemanship camp with Kris Kokal in New Hampshire this past September. Kris has a knack for communicating with horses, and has a particular soft spot in his heart for Mustangs. At one point near the end of the five-day camp, the participants were told that we would be working with one Mustang each in a round pen. We would be executing the basic groundwork maneuvers he had taught us and then go through the steps of a first saddling.

Everyone would watch as one-by-one the participants “gentled” their Mustang. Most were excited to put our newfound knowledge to the test, but many were nervous about the scrutiny they were to be put under while doing so.

As if the “being put on the spot” weren’t enough, Kris added another challenge to add to the pressure we were feeling. Before we were to begin, he said he wanted us to ask our Mustang two questions: 1) “Where is your favorite place?” and 2) “Who is your best friend?”

A lot of the participants blanched. Some expressed their astonishment: “How are we supposed to ask our horse?” “You said horses are non-verbal!” “I don’t even know anything about this horse or the herd for that matter!” “Even if I figure out how to ask the question, how will I get the answer?”

Kris just smiled his enigmatic smile. “By the way, I know how your horses are going to answer the questions,” he said, “so don’t bother trying to make something up.”

The participants continued to murmur nervously, until Kris spoke up again. “Katerina,” he said, “why don’t you go first?” He pointed to the round pen on the edge of the other pens. “There’s your horse.”

“Oh no,” I groaned inwardly; I had been set up with one of the most difficult horses in the herd!

Ishta was a special Mustang, one that obeyed no rules, preferred to be on her own, and acted as if she didn’t need anyone or care about anything other than her own self and needs. The pasture fences built to keep all her herd mates in (or out), worked for the herd, but not Ishta. She knew how to squeeze through the slats to get to wherever she needed to go, which was usually somewhere far from the herd. She was a loner, a loose cannon, a dark horse (literally). When we humans would walk into the pasture, Ishta would push her way through the crowd and demand petting and attention, sometimes stepping on a foot or two in order to get what she wanted. Ishta was a supreme invader of personal space, and, if you asked her to move away, for example, she pretended to be insensitive to cues, verbal or physical. She could act quite threatening, if need be, to get you to yield to her (instead of the other way around)!

My first impression of and reaction to her on the first day in the pasture was a negative one; I didn’t like her self-centeredness and disrespectful behavior. I didn’t feel like rewarding her for it, and so tended to ignore her when we were in the pasture observing and loving on the other, more amenable, members of the herd. Imagine my horror when I found she was to be my “guinea-pig” for the day. I could see the other participants look at me with sympathy and a guilty sense of relief that they dodged the Ishta bullet!

As I opened the gate to the round pen and walked up to this black blob of recalcitrance, I decided to make this into a fun, interesting, and needed challenge for me. I decided, too, that perhaps it was a mark of Kris’ respect that he gave me the toughest horse in the bunch to work with (wishful thinking?). So, I decided to let go of my prejudices and be the kind, empathetic, firm leader I want to become. Ishta would require me to be strong, but I didn’t want to intimidate her into obedience; I was hoping to inspire her to work with me. And, because Ishta would now have to learn to listen and respond to my agenda instead of her own, I was worried that we might be headed into a bit of a tussle. But, I was not going to project that onto her before we had even begun our engagement. I took a deep breath and put a rope halter on Ishta.

I began my groundwork as I always do, asking quietly, subtly, for Ishta to move her feet, but immediately amped up the cues if she was not responding. Within a minute or two, Ishta realized her old “brush-off” or “menacing face” antics would not work; I could see through them, and would not let off the pressure until she responded to my requests with suppleness. Her mean/insensitive façade began to fall away and I made sure to reward her for every little effort to listen to me and respond correctly. Before everyone’s eyes, Ishta melted like butter, she began to have pep in her step, and her eyes softened and gleamed with enthusiasm. Ishta transformed into a soft, sweet, fun little ground partner that worked with me as if we had known each other for years. The crowd gave us rewarding applause which I could feel Ishta soak in, just like me.

Okay, now, it was crunch time. Time to find out how Ishta would answer the questions Kris had posed. I moved Ishta around me in the pen, and searched her mind and heart, looking for her favorite spot to be. Crazy as it sounds, Ishta was like an open book, and I saw her favorite spot clear as day (even though I had never seen her stand there before). The spot was on the main driveway up near the house; she could get to the spot by squeezing through the fence, escaping the pasture, and I saw a clear image of her standing there watching everyone come and go, like a lion at the gate. When I told this to Kris, his placid countenance broke into a surprise smile. “Yes!” he enthusiastically agreed, “that’s the place!”

As for the second answer, well, no one image of a horse or human came forward as her best friend. Try as I might, I drew a blank. It made sense to me, really. Ishta did not seem capable of loving or bonding to anyone, and you can’t be a best friend if all you love is yourself, right? Kris said that the dominant mare in the herd was the only horse that would allow Ishta to come up close and hang out, and so she could technically be her best friend, although, for me, I was happy with the blank I drew on that question!

Questions whispered and answered, I continued our work with Ishta, getting a saddle on her and moving her with ease around the pen at a quick lope. As our round pen work was coming to a close, I admired this “new” horse in front of me, so different from the one I encountered when I first entered the pen. The shaggy, dark-energy Mustang Ishta, had become a sweet, funny, quirky, cutie-pie of a pony. Oh! The power of empathy, communication, and mutual respect! I felt so happy that I was able to work with this difficult mare, earn her trust, and see into her heart. What a cool day! By gaining her respect, she also earned mine, and we both learned a lot about being open to kindness, trust, and respectful communication. You rock, Ishta!

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