Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Sofi's story

The clouds were stunning today as they rolled through the skies bringing more rain to feed the grasses.

Today it was JD I nabbed to take some video with a camera phone. I'm not sure what's up with the audio but the video quality seems reasonable for a phone that I can keep in my pocket.

This is a video of what I spend lots of time doing with Sofi. The important elements are that she is not restrained in any way (that way I know when she's choosing to be with me and when she's done) and that I watch her signals for where she'd like me to scratch. The main signal (other than where she positions herself in relation to me) are the movements she makes with her head. She will extend her head and neck when I've hit a really good spot, and even wiggle her nose if she's super happy. I've got to mention that I find it funny when I see pictures of Sofi and I together. I'm so used to working with big horses that I consider her tiny, but then I see our relative sizes and can see who the tiny one actually is!

I've mentioned before that it's taken a long time for us to get to this place where we feel so comfortable around each other. I know I've tried to tell her story before but there must be more to it because I want to try again. Stepping back in time to when I was first working with her (around 2005) I noticed that she was more reactive than other horses.

She seemed nice enough at first (as an unstarted 3 year old) but as soon as I began to take away her liberties (introducing her to cross ties, grooming while tied, saddling, mounting, riding first with a bitless bridle and then with a bit) she steadily became more and more dangerous to be around. For example, if my toe touched her leg while I was mounting, she would whip her head around and try to bite me. If I tried to put a bit in her mouth, she would clamp her jaws shut and back as far as she could in the cross ties to try and tell me that she wanted none of it. When I dismounted her, she would again try to bite me on the way down. If I tried to touch her udder area she would first get extremely tense and then kick out.

I had been starting horses for the previous 19 years and as a result, my awareness around horses is acute and my reflexes are fast, so I never actually got injured, but I knew that there was no way a kid would have the capacity to work with her. She had brought me to a standstill. What I had relied on up until then no longer worked and something inside wouldn't allow me to get stronger or rougher which is what any other trainer I knew would have done.

In the Path of the Horse video, Carolyn Resnick says that people abuse horses because it works. And it does if we are focused on achieving an external goal. Most horses will learn a pattern of behavior acceptable to humans when the consequences of not performing that behavior are sufficiently painful. What it can't do is make a horse closer and more open to a human. For that, abuse has no place and agendas have no place. To ask a horse to open to us, we must be on equal ground with her. No force, no restrictions, no pain.

Looking back, it makes perfect sense that Sofi became the way she did. My question now is why more horses don't express themselves as clearly as she does. It took me 19 years of training horses before I ran across her and I was lucky enough to be in a place in my own life where I was willing to "sell the farm" in both a symbolic and literal way in order to clear the way for this shift to happen.

Interestingly enough, when I started NHE, I thought I could just test it out with Patrik and then apply the parts that worked to Sofi and other horses while I continued my regular training business. After a few months of learning more about NHE and especially about the amounts of pain involved in riding, I became clear that I couldn't live in both worlds at the same time.

So, I turned Sofi loose and started our new relationship on the other side of a fence. By this time I had purchased her myself so I wouldn't have the pressure of trying to train her to sell. In the corral or arena, Sofi would come up and look like she wanted attention, but if I got the least bit scared she would kick out full force and/or lunge at me with her teeth bared. At first her reactions were even more violent than when I had her haltered or bridled. Having the fence between us allowed me to stay calm and step away when she displayed her emotions like this rather than reacting back from my own fear which would probably have manifested as hitting her and rationalizing it by calling it self defense.

After we had a certain level of confidence with each other on opposite sides of the fence, I would come in to her area with a long stick or whip...not to hit her (never to hit her) but to wave around when I felt she was getting too close to me. I also worked in a pasture with a lot of trees so it was pretty easy to duck back around a tree if I felt threatened. I remember spending a lot of time minutely watching my own emotions as they rose and fell based on her proximity and the signs she was giving. It was always an interesting tension between knowing that she was a very loving horse who wanted attention and a connection and yet could so quickly turn into a scary dangerous beast.

I also spent a lot of time on the phone with Carolyn Resnick during this period (it was concurrent with the filming and editing of the documentary). She would always ask how my horses were doing and offer advice especially about Sofi. Carolyn's expertise is in building a strong relationship first before other elements such as riding and competing are added. Some of her liberty ground work exercises proved very helpful for Sofi and I to work out a basic level of comfort and trust with each other.

Fast forward two years and here we are now:

pictures are worth more than words, and videos more than pictures

Now JD is at a place where he's starting to scratch her from over a fence. It looks like they're progressing well.

In comment to the last blog Lucy wrote:
I look forward to this new journey, although I'm not so sure how I'm gonna handle the "judgment of others" whether perceived or real. I suppose that will actually be a benefit...an opportunity to grow and evolve.

Where do I go from here and how can I begin to build a new relationship with my horses?
Well Lucy, you came to the right place. I understand your concern about the judgment of others. Fortunately, through this struggle, you have an opportunity to prove to yourself that your own inner guidance system is more important than what others may think or say.

I am urging everyone who is serious about this path to sign up for the NHE forum and eventually the school. It is free and the information and insight available there is priceless. You can send in your application by clicking here and then click on the brown "International School" link.  Read about how to get an access there.  I feel confident in sending anyone to the forum and school because the horse's well-being is always the highest priority for the people there. As you explore the forum, you will find exercises to try with your horse that can form the foundation of this new consciousness and you will be able to connect with people who are there to help.

Also, I hope you can find some sense of community with this blog. It's nice to know that there are others out there even if you haven't met them in person yet.

With his winter coat still coming off, Patrik has decided that a little scratching is pleasurable. He has been the hardest of my 3 horses to get to show me where he would like to be scratched. I don't know if it's just his personality (the way some people love massages and others don't) or if there are deeper issues. On the other hand, he will do almost anything for a treat, so we've found a way to have fun together.

Today when I went to leave, it seemed like he wanted me to stay, even though I hadn't brought any treats with me. Sometimes it's nice to leave when they're still wanting a little more. Then they seem to be more excited to see me the next time.


  1. Wow. So she wasn't (in the traditional sense of the word) "abused" - she just had very strong principles! I guess she was definitely the right horse at the right time for you, wasn't she? You've got to admire horses with strong principles. My Chloe is like that - she never expressed herself by aggression, but despite years of "training" and reluctant compliance, she never assented. I like to say that she has read the Communist Manifesto and knows all about the Alienation of the Worker from the Means of Production.

  2. Hi Stormy,

    Thank you so much for this wonderful post! Can you believe I am just NOW learning that horses love to be scratched?! Not something I was taught in "riding lessons".

    Carolyn Resnick's blog today discusses abuse ... it's an enlightening post, indeed. I did sign up for her In the Box program so I can learn the Waterhole Rituals, but will not use my bond with my horse to ride him ... I wrote about this in my NHE diary.

    On another note, I just got Jenny Pearce's e-book, Zen Connection with Horses, and can't wait to get the CD of her lessons!

    Stormy, what is your experience with waiting for The Chew?

    I noticed the first time I shared space in a chair with King, he stood in the corner for the whole session, licking and chewing!

    Thank you for posting the photo of you and Patrik, and sharing these videos and your journey with us.

  3. One additional word of encouragement to Lucy ... I was at a personal development workshop years ago, and someone said, "It's none of my business what other people think of me."

    I found such freedom in that statement.

  4. Lovely, Stormy, just lovely to read your journey with Sofi and then see the video - looks like one could say you rescued Sofi from a future of probably abuse...but, then again, maybe it is Sofi who rescued you :)
    As Always, Thank You for Sharing.
    Beth and Cookie,
    in Virginia

  5. Thank you, Stormy, for sharing this. It is yet another proof that there are no coincidences ;)

    Do we also get to hear the stories of Patrik and Sundance? :)