Living in-relation with horses: stroking

I said that this post would be on feedback, but there’s something more immediate I’d like to talk about here – stroking our horses. Stroking has enormous significance to what Tom Dorrance describes as the ‘foundation’ of horsemanship – horses ‘coming to us for security’ (True Unity, p 12). Without this, he says, nothing will work. Above all else, we want our horses to feel happy and safe with us. This is what leadership is about.stroking

When I was visiting Suzi and Corey recently, Suzi returned from a day of lessons one evening and recounted her experience with a new student. An important part of the lesson had turned out to be stroking, as this was what the situation had called for. The horse was worried and distracted, and so Suzi started to gently stroke it. As this was a new experience for the horse, it took patience and ‘emotional commitment’ to not quit before a change came about. And then, when it did, the relaxation and softening were absolutely clear:

The horse lowered its head, softened its eye, relaxed its jaw and mouth. It glanced at me and then completely let go. I lingered for just a while longer to allow it to really enjoy the comfort it was finding, and then I let it be, in this peaceful state.

The student was amazed by the change, and admitted that she had never realized how much was involved in a pat.  For both horse and student, this was a step towards establishing that foundation of a trustworthy connection.

Coincidentally, I realized that stroking had been possibly the most important aspect of my stay on this occasion. Peridot, Corey and I had several days of quite intense learning and I was feeling confident in trying out new things. I could have focussed on some of these as achievements of the visit, but, on reflection, I realized that what had made them possible was the establishment of stroking as a trustworthy safe space for Peridot and myself. More precisely, it had become, for us, a between horse-and-human calming experience.

Over the past few months, Peridot has come more and more to find security and comfort in stroking. In this photo of her with Corey, Peridot has been alerted to something in the distance, and Corey is gently stroking her while she looks at whatever it is. And he waits. Then, as soon as there is a change, a relaxation and softening (see post 15/8/20), he quietly asks for some movement or other. Peridot hasn’t gone down that path of worry and is now happily engaged in something else.

On this stay, I developed confidence in stroking. As with everything else, this is not a matter of going through the motions: horse is worried, so I stroke and then things get fixed!  Rather, it is an intertwined experience of interbeing. I need to imagine-feel that gentle, calming softness of stroking-being stroked. For Peridot to be able to tune into this, she needs to be able to trust and feel ‘my’ calm leadership. I need to be tuned into her, listening, to be able to pick up any sense of worry. Sometimes, as in the case above with Corey, what is called for is standing and looking. At other times, stroking is called for while we are moving. In these situations, I allow her to look at the scary thing but maintain my focus on whatever we are doing, all the while stroking her. This happened, for example, when we were riding in the bush and there were noises in the bush or kangaroos jumping by. My developing confidence in riding in the bush, where horses are more on the alert, depended on confidence in stroking.

This raises the question of who is being calmed in this process. Having certain anxious tendencies, I can worry about what my horses might worry about. Clearly, then, this activity is a way of helping me shift to a state of calmness, so important to a capacity to be there for our horses. It just helps me feel calm to know that Peridot appreciates it – there’s nothing to worry about, I’m here, you can depend on me. Stroking relaxes us together. And, again, patience is ever so important. Without a change, a softening, this will be a pointless exercise. And when that change comes about, it is unmistakable. There is a depth to the experience, a softening in her whole being, which I feel in my horse-and-human being. A letting go, breathing together.

What I’ve been describing here are examples of feedback, examples of teaching-and-learning and working with horses through feedback. In the following post I will discuss the eco-logic of feedback.

With thanks to Andrew, Corey and Suzi




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