After a morning of review and questions and a demonstration at the Natural Lifemanship Fundamentals training, it was already time to go in with the horses.
The black and white Gypsy Vanner, Louie, clipped grass, pawed rocks and mouthed a halter on the ground, completely oblivious to me. The sun felt hot on my shoulders, but not hotter than my face. I felt eyes on me, felt where the plaid shirt and cowboy hat was, the only eyes who would really know what I was doing.
I was the first one in the pen, wired with anticipation and urged in there first. It was afternoon of the first day of training and I knew what to do, I knew how to do it. Get connection. Get his attention at least. Have an ear, an eye, his head turn towards me. In the demo, Tanner had gotten him connected, close by attachment and after some time by detachment, also. The big horse, who hadn’t been still the whole morning became quiet, standing in the center of his pen, leg cocked, head relaxed, while Tanner walked around. I watched the horse subtly follow him around in the circle. A nearly unrecognizable cock of the head to pick him up in the other eye. A little swivel of the ear. I knew I couldn’t get that. I didn’t have the practice or the time. But I understood, I’d done a lot of parts of this, I’d been successful. I knew that feeling when the horse first stopped and looked at you.
But I carried a lot into that pen.
My lip was raw from biting on it. The last 24 hours had fully revealed the absurdity and desperation and hopelessness of my situation. This was the step out of my life that I needed. But I carried that desperation, along with unstoppable questions about this Natural Lifemanship work with me. Attending the training was a push toward moving forward, something I finally found that gave me a taste of hope. Of change. Of changing others, of bringing them hope, too.
I kept looking to Tanner, wildly hoping for him to say something, as the horse continued to ignore me. The horse finally responded with mild resistance, lazily walking around his pen as I put pressure on his hind end. When he stopped at the gate and began pawing rocks again, ignoring me, Tanner finally came up to me.
“What are you working on?” he asked.
“Getting some connection.”
“What do you think Louie is feeling?”
He didn’t seem very anxious to me. “I think he’s annoyed,” I replied.
Tanner looked like that was a clue. “What kind of statement is that? Doesn’t that put all the judgement on you?”
Hurry, change your answer. “Maybe he’s anxious.” Tanner nodded, and I think he probably said more, started talking about how to add more energy, but everything caught and clawed in my chest and all I could think of was I always do that. It all comes back on me. I always turn the judgement on myself.
He said something about not being task oriented, about looking for the connection and not a specific behavior like turning to face me. It’s all about relationship. I fumbled around with the lead rope and adding pressure and got Louie to respond a little. But he got stuck again at the gate, his head thrust over it, pawing the metal bars loudly.
I wanted to slow down, back up, start over with an assessment, a baseline instead of jumping right into it, but I wanted to touch the horse. Pet his shoulder. I asked Tanner but he brought more questions. Was it safe to touch him? Why did I want to? What would that accomplish? And how would the horse feel about it?
My words tripped over themselves and I couldn’t answer the real reason. I just wanted to pause, slow down. Get grounded. I touched him anyway as the thoughts still came, as I reached out for the only thing familiar: the strong, solid side of the horse. Damn the horse in this little moment, it was safe for me to be next to him while I caught my breath. In that moment, I saw all of the ranch horses, all the ways I worked with them, knew them. Pixie pawing at the wall and tugging on her tied lead rope. Rocket’s soft eyes as he turned to me from trotting loose around the arena. Tex nearly kicking me on the lunge. Donny gently flexing his sorrel nose towards me.
I wanted to show them, the eyes watching me, that I brought all those horses and all the people that stepped into the arena with me. I was here for them. So that I could do a better job. Somehow add enough time to care for the horses, to be fully present with the people. Somehow this would change things, fix things, fix horses. Validate me and all the work I did.
I scratched Louie’s haunches as he continued to ignore me and I remembered to breathe.
Tanner talked to me about the pressure, about something else but I didn’t hear a word of it. I wanted to say I know this, I know how to do this, wanting so desperately to prove that I did. That I understood. That I’m good with horses. That the 98 that I take care of are in good hands and I can read them and I know something. But the concept of “task-oriented” was spinning in my head, spilling into more, carrying a wider meaning.
I swung the lead rope. I followed the horse, like I’ve done a million times. I willed his ear to flick to me, to give some indication that he saw me and recognized my existence.
And I felt the undeniable pull of the other trainers. The other participants.
How do I do this so you are satisfied? How will I be able to take the pressure from you off?
The pressure for me was not getting the damn horse to acknowledge my rope-swinging presence, but to do a good enough job. To give them the answer they were looking for. To complete the task to their standards. To know all those horses and people who come into contact are somehow not made worse for knowing me, being dependant on me.
I completely lost sight of the horse in my desperate attempt for approval.
Tanner gently said I’d been in for a while, that more people needed a turn.
“I know, I know,” I choked out. My failure clawed around me and it was not the failure to get the connection with the horse. Moments before, he had given me an ear, good enough for him and me and the time.
Tanner suggested I find a place to end on a good note and I never wanted to get out of somewhere so badly. Don’t make me stay in here, I wanted to say.
The sun was beautiful and bright and the grass fresh and green but it all swam around me as the ranch and my old job and my family and all that I mistakenly put my identity in waited for me outside of the pen, waiting for me to fail.
I was going to fail no matter what.
Let me out of this pen, I can’t be in here with it, with you watching, with such a simple task completely un-doing me.
I “found a place to leave on a good note” and I think I was still breathing while I avoided everyone’s eyes and found a quiet spot and sunk down into the grass while the tears burned their way out and I quickly brushed them away.
How long was I in there?
My whole life? 3 years? 20 minutes?
Someone brought me water and I sat and watched everyone else for a long time, until my heart slowed down and I think I could walk again. Everyone else tried more than one horse but there was no way I was going back in another pen, even with that sorrel that looked like the easiest one.
In the end, the training was life changing, like Corey said. When I slept on all that and all the information, found a clearer head, I was inspired by the possibilities of Natural Lifemanship. For horses, for relationships. For healing and growth and renewal. God and Christ and redemption runs through it all, and is at the heart of it. God desires that connection and relationship more than we could ever know, and that’s where new life comes. Horses bring it out, reveal patterns, show stumbling blocks. The possibilities for programs are endless.
One of the Natural Lifemanship principles is that horses are not mirrors, like some people say. That black and white horse with the feathered legs let me see something, though. Somehow through the hot sun and the trainers with all those years of experience I clearly saw how desperate and consuming my desire is to know if I am enough.
I didn’t answer that question, but the horse started the conversation.