WEEK NINE. The other evening I rode Solar in a thunderstorm. It was late, and dark, and we rode in the outdoor arena under the light of a single lamppost. Lightning periodically illuminated the dark landscape, clear as day. Throaty thunder rumbled through the Skookumchuck Valley. And warm rain soaked us all the way through. In the midst of this, it dawned on me that Solar and I are finally working as a team.
Riding Solar now is like putting on a worn-in pair of boots. They conform to my feet nicely and feel like an extension of my own frame. But they didn’t start out that way.
With any horse you meet there is a period of “getting to know you”–of figuring out how to communicate effectively with them. In some cases this happens in a matter of seconds, other times it takes much longer–days, weeks, even months. Master horsemen and horsewomen are able to communicate almost instantly and universally with the horses that cross their paths. Often, this ability comes from many years of practice, of observing and listening to horses, and with significant self-awareness. And it certainly requires a horse that is willing and able to try to understand you back. Mercifully the majority of them are.
When I first started working with Solar it was like trying to have a phone conversation with a busy signal. I’d initiate a conversation, say, by squeezing my inside lower leg against Solar’s side, and it would be met with… nothing. He wouldn’t respond. At this point many trainers might say something like “he’s being disrespectful.” But I see it a little differently. It’s not disrespect if they genuinely didn’t hear or understand you. What I realized with Solar is simply that many of my usual cues had little or no meaning to him. He didn’t “get” them and/or he wasn’t primed to listen to them. Hence, my task was to systematically teach him to expand his awareness and communicate on my level. I had to teach him to pick up the phone.
The 100-Day Trainer Challenge has not been a matter of training Solar, it’s retraining. Solar came to me fully “broke” to ride. He had been ridden for years, both during his career as a racehorse and with his owners post-racetrack. He had an education. He had skills, and patterns, and habits. And he had predetermined ideas about how to respond to people.
It’s like Solar grew up in an environment that taught him to speak English, and then in the seventh year of his life, I starting interacting with him in Spanglish. Some of the words he understood already or could easily infer, but many had no meaning to him. Even more confusing, sometimes the word he expected to hear in a certain situation was totally different. He saw a horse and thought “horse,” but I was calling that same horse “caballo.” Rather than trying to sort this out, Solar had patterns of tuning communication out.
You can’t really blame a racehorse for doing this until you teach them a different way to respond. In fact, mentally checking out (known as dissociation in psychology) is a fairly common coping mechanism in racehorses, especially for those that perceived their experiences at the track as traumatic. I’ve worked with many ex-racehorses who retreat into their heads in the face of stress.
In neurobiology, the saying goes: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This means that as we learn and move through life, we lay tracks in our brain circuitry. Solar’s learned behaviors have characterized the wiring in his brain and the way he processes information. We’ve had to learn to adjust to each other. And the only way for my work with Solar to sink in has been to communicate consistently with him over and over.
The wiring I want to lay in Solar’s mind has a lot to do with attention. I’m helping him give his focus over to his rider and to stay alert/responsive. Sometimes I have to repeat my cues, other times I have to apply them in a more direct or firm manner, and yet other times I represent a concept in a different way. Fundamentally though I don’t give up on my efforts to communicate until Solar is able to find and acknowledge the desired response. We’ve got to be consistent.
Solar’s retraining process has been focused heavily on improving his communication skills; namely sensitizing him to lighter, softer cues. I like how Olympic show jumper Rich Fellers describes this idea in a recent article about calibrating a horse to leg pressure; during your training, teach the horse to “stay lively.” This is physical AND psychological–it’s a way of being. Solar is finally inhabiting this way of being. Instead of giving me the busy signal, he’s picking up the phone on the first ring. And that feels like success.
Here are some informal video clips from evening rides with Solar during week nine of the 100-Day Trainer Challenge:
** Thank you Uckele Health & Nutrition! Solar continues to look and feel great. He loves his Uckele supplements! **