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Connecting the Dots on Crete

I am in a small village in Crete feeling blessed and grateful. And all because of a mare and two tiny stallions. The mare is tall, thin, and lovely to look at. But the stallions? Beyond adorable!

One looks like a workhorse that was shrunken into a smaller size (his withers reach almost to my hips), the other is truly tiny…miniscule…an itty bitty molecule of equine spunk.

Oh! These two boys! Just writing about them makes me smile. They are personality incarnate, rambunctious spirit, and curiosity supreme.

They are…awesome.

Marianna, the owner and head trainer of the Horse Center (Kentro Ippikou) in Karteros, Crete, is not only a great horsewoman, but a wonderful person as well. Kind, smart, dedicated, and talented (not to mention beautiful inside and out). I met her through our mutual friend Manolis, who happens to be the godfather to our second son. She had heard of my fascination with horses and offered me a horse last year to work with on the ground as he was new to the center, young, and needed some training. Marianna was happy with my work, as little as it was—I was on vacation in Crete, after all, with a husband and four kids and an extended family of 20—and so, this year, when I returned for more, she gave me the reins (literally) to three horses: young, untrained 3-year old mare Koukla (meaning: Doll; pronounced kOOklah), and two miniature stallions: the large, chestnut Paint Asterix, and the dark bay Paint Tzeri (Gerry).

First of all, their names say it all!

Koukla is gorgeous—big doll eyes, and a quiet, laid-back personality; she lets you ask her to put her shoulders or hindquarters in different positions at different speeds without changing her pretty expression. Marianna and Leonidas (the talented jumping trainer) warned me that she was very mouthy and pushy, a remnant from her being bottle-fed, and had had little or no handling otherwise.

Asterix, the bigger mini stallion is just like his comic book namesake: clever as all get out, athletic and strong, and a great team player. He is at times fearful of humans and anything coming near his hind end, but I know within a few playdates I will turn that fear into curiosity and interest because he is just so smart. Once he trusts me completely, there is nothing he will not be able to do!

Tzeri? Oh, Tzeri! What a stinkin’ cute little holy terror! Just like his cartoon mouse namesake, he is all energy, lightning-fast moves, sassy ideas, and rapid-fire intelligence. That said, both Marianna and Leonidas warned me about him. “Watch out,” they said, “he will grab the lead rope and run off with you! And, he bites!” The stable helper Nicoletta said she couldn’t even walk him down the stall aisle—he would drag her as if she were water skiing. And this, from a little punk whose withers don’t even reach the top of my knees! “Ha!” I thought, “Just try me.”

What can I say? All they said about these three horses was true. What they didn’t say was how satisfying it would be to work with them, and how much I would piece together all that I’ve been studying and practicing. A real connecting of the dots moment. Coolness!

When I went to halter Koukla, she tried several times to mouth my hands, face, and even to nibble. One nice push, then one firm smack, and finally just a stern look, and she never did it again.

Asterix? I was told he was uncontrollable on a lead rope and an escape artist. “Oh yeah?”

I didn’t give him a chance to think of running off with me holding the lead; I let him move at liberty and to run to his heart’s content before asking for his attention. He then gave it very willingly.

Tzeri? What fun! I clicked a lead rope on his halter, and you could hear a record player scratchily blare music from an old Western stampede (da-ra-run, da-ra-run, da-ra-run-run-run) and off he flew from the stall! The needle of the record player went “errrrrk” as my hands snatched Tzeri and made him do a 180-degree turn to face me. The look of shock on his face I will never forget. He said “What was that? That never happened before!”

He then stepped carefully out and tried again, but I swerved him around more forcefully. “Oh!” was his reaction, and he actually “saw” me for the first time. “This person is different. I better watch out.” He was a perfect gentleman until we got to the small covered arena. Just like with Asterix, I let him loose. The stampede music blared again and off he went. Almost too cute to be real.

Working with these horses, looking over the video of my sessions with them, and preparing clips for my blog has given me some insights and a-ha moments that I would like to share with you here.

What has most stood out to me from just one day of working with these horses, is how far I’ve come from my initial understanding of horses and how to work them. And how I understand better how to combine an owner’s goals and abilities with the horse’s abilities, background, and needs.

I have learned to set up a horse for success and have also become very good at “measuring it.” Van Hargis says it is important to know how to measure success, so that you know when to reward your horse’s try. Success is not necessarily a flawless execution of a task, but an improved response from the previous ask. As my ability to see and properly measure success has grown, my ideas of what success is have shrunken! This has allowed me to reward my horses much more and even set them up for success more often. I am not looking for the big, impressive changes or maneuvers; the tiny changes, especially in attitude, are what make me ecstatic.

Even as near as a year ago, my first step in working a new horse would have been to create a bubble around myself as I lead him and then to “move the horse’s feet” and get the horse to face me when asked, and turn away from me without offering me their hind end. I would be all about getting obedience, responsiveness, and movement of each part of the horse’s body right from the get-go. This doesn’t sound too horrible, but, in retrospect, I had it all wrong.

Without a horse’s focus and his relaxed mind, you don’t have a real and positive relationship with the horse. And that is what I’ve always wanted the most.

So, what has changed?

Now, once I’ve established a safe bubble and proper leading protocol to get to the working space (arena or round pen), the overarching principle that guides me is Tom Dorrance’s: “First you go with the horse. Then the horse goes with you. Then you go together.”

I use this principle to achieve my first goal of capturing the horse’s attention and mind either at liberty or on lead; I don’t come into their world, guns blazing and imposing my will. Once they see that I can follow them and they choose to engage with me, my goal is to get them to focus on me and relax and exhale in my presence (thank you Warwick Schiller). Any simple groundwork I do is done to enhance bend in their bodies (thank you Patrick King) and engage their hindquarters and promote balance and relaxation. My ability to analyze their expressions and movements (thank you Sharon Wilsie) and therefore “catch their thoughts” (thank you Mary Miller Jordan) has made me be able to get them to tune into me and trust me without much work or repetition at all! I can reward the slightest try now and notice any improvement thanks to my measuring skills (thank you Van Hargis)! Also, I can quickly judge what each horse needs to work on by remembering the principle “Do the opposite” (thanks Warwick, again), such that the slow, calm horse is asked to do energetic movements; little energizer bunnies like Tzeri are asked to do more technical, slow maneuvers. The more comfortable we get with each other, the more I ask them to expand their comfort zone. In return, they expand mine!

So, this year, in my first interaction with these horses, I demanded respect only as needed for our mutual safety (as I did with Koukla’s face mugging, Asterix’s offering me his hind end, or Tzeri’s taking off like an arrow out of his stall), but, once in the arena, I just wanted them to “see me” (or, as Warwick Schiller says, “to notice my haircut.”). At first I “went with them” and followed them around or mirrored their movements quietly. If we were on lead and I saw what was attracting their thoughts, I took them there. If we were at liberty, and they were leaving me with their thoughts, I asked them to go there with more gusto (thank you Ribbleton). Soon, they were “going with me.” By the end, we were “going together.” I had each of them working a little bit on the opposite side of their personality and comfort zone spectrum, without fuss, without stress, without force. Nice!

In letting them have a say, I got their attention. In asking them to just focus on me and relax, I got their trust. In getting them to do the opposite, I had them engaged and working muscles and brain cells that had been dormant.

No need to have them execute exacting maneuvers and display perfect manners in the first session. I wanted their minds first, and then was confident their bodies would follow in surprising ways as our work progressed.

These horses amazed me. In listening to them, staying in the moment without expectation, and using my experience with horses of all makes and models and all the tools and knowledge I’ve culled from studying master horsemen and women (past and present), I found myself connecting faster and better with them than I might have ever in the past.

The desire to connect positively is the driving force in my life. What a blessing to practice positive connection with these special horses on the gorgeous island of Crete!

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