Awareness in Your Horse's World


The golden harvest moon is rising and flooding the barnyard with ghostly shadows. Coyotes are yipping as they run along the lake shore to the east. A gentle breeze is blowing from the southeast with the acidic smell of smoke from the drought fueled Texas wildfires. Shrills of a screech owl are moving from the south to the north along the hill to the west. The ducks are having quiet quacking conversations on the muddy remnants of the pond to the south. The four month old kittens are playing chase games in the hay debris at Rocky’s feet.

I am sitting on Rocky bareback without a bridle. Our only gear is a savvy string around Rocky’s neck and I am wearing a helmet. I am sensitive to Rocky’s focus, energy level, breathing, heartbeat, and muscle tension. We often watch the moon rise together and enjoy the simple pleasures of nature. As a working Mom, I don’t have very much spare time during the daylight hours to work on our relationship. Watching the moon rise with Rocky is the perfect way to unwind after a stressful day and bond with Rocky.

Watching the moon rise bareback and bridleless

Suddenly, the German Shepherd guard dogs growl and rush past us into the woods barking and snarling on the chase. What did they smell or hear? Is it something that the horse – human partners should notice? Rocky and I remain calm. I can feel Rocky shift his weight slightly as he rotates his head to follow the barking dogs on their chase. His energy, muscles, breathing, and heartbeat remain calm. Apparently, Rocky doesn’t sense any danger from whatever the dogs are chasing.

This is Rocky’s world. Or rather, this is all that my human senses notice of Rocky’s world. Rocky and his small herd live in an isolated pasture surrounded by predators, both real and imagined. Coyotes, bobcats, and feral hogs frequently run through the pasture. A full grown mountain lion is the largest predator that I have seen in the pasture near the horses.

My past blogs described Rocky’s transformation from an angry aggressive horse that didn’t trust humans into a willing and exuberant partner. Rocky’s transformation is illustrated by these two photos:

Rocky's Transformation

What is not readily apparent is the massive transformation of the human half of our horse - human partnership. Of course, I learned to how to use the carrot stick and developed horsemanship skills as we played the games in the Parelli Natural Horsemanship lessons; but that wasn’t enough to be Rocky’s partner.

I had to learn as Pat Parelli often says, “to know what happens before it happens”. To do this, I had to become hypersensitive to the same things as Rocky so that I could transition from a reactive leader to a proactive leader. This transformation required developing an awareness of the events in Rocky’s world and understanding his responses

Most modern humans live in an artificial world. We live, work, and drive in climate controlled systems that insulate us from the sensory input of Rocky’s world. We are surrounded by modern equipment and entertainment systems that have dulled our senses to the stimulus that drives Rocky to act and react. I had to sensitize myself to the stimulus in Rocky’s world so that I could anticipate “what could happen before it happened”.

The Parelli horsemanship lessons were as much for me as they were for Rocky. The lessons in Parelli Levels 1 and 2 taught me to be sensitive to Rocky. I developed my abilities to sense and understand his physical and emotional state so that I could respond like the leader he needed. My last blog “Did You Notice?” was one example of developing my awareness of Rocky’s intentions and learning to respond properly. I was a reactive leader. I took my cues from Rocky and reacted to Rocky’s actions. Basically, Rocky was still in control.

As we progressed through our Level 3 program, I had to awaken my senses and become hypersensitive to our surroundings. Like all prey animals, Rocky is tuned in to the physical world and changes in the physical world. I had to learn to pay attention to everything in Rocky’s world and learn how Rocky observed and responded to real and perceived things in his world. In order to truly be his partner, I had to learn to be aware of the same things as Rocky so that I could respond like an effective leader in our horse - human partnership.

A reactive leader fixes problems after they have happened. A proactive leader recognizes the causes of a potential problem and takes actions to prevent a problem from happening or at the very least minimizes the impact of the problem. To truly be Rocky’s partner, I had to transform from a reactive leader to a proactive leader. The lessons in Parelli Levels 1 and 2 taught me to be sensitive to Rocky so that I could protect myself and react to his acts of aggression like a leader. Once we had a safe relationship and could trust one another in Level 3, I had to learn to become sensitive to the same things as Rocky so that I could anticipate his reactions and take the actions of a proactive leader to handle the unfolding situation. It took a lot of time for Rocky to recognize me as a proactive leader worthy of being his partner.

How did I transform from a reactive to a proactive leader in Rocky’s world? I found something important to Rocky and became the proactive leader for it. For Rocky, it was obviously food. Even before the Horsenalities for a Left Brained Introvert were formally documented, I knew Rocky was driven by food. Early in our relationship, we had to overcome a lot of food aggression issues.

I spent a lot of undemanding time just observing Rocky in different situations in his home pasture, at training camps, and play days. Christi Rains teaches mirroring as a way to understand the focus, energy, and emotions of your horse. During our mirroring exercises, I learned about Rocky’s grazing habits and his favorite grasses.

Mirroring Rocky's Focus, Energy, and Emotions

Grazing became the focus of our time together. I took Rocky for long grazing walks guiding him from one favorite grass to another. When the pasture was bare because it was winter or there was a drought, I took Rocky for grazing walks to places where he could graze outside of his normal pasture. We grazed around yards, the roadsides, and a nearby lake. I found grass for our herd of two and proactively led Rocky as we moved from grass patch to grass patch. I also took Rocky for grazing rides. The rides were totally undemanding; I simply guided him from one grazing spot to another. I was proactively leading our herd of two to the best grasses.

Rocky grazing by the lake when the pasture is bare

My relationship with Rocky changed into a partnership when he started trusting me as a leader who always knows where the best food is located. How strong is this kind of partnership? During a liberty class with David Lichman, we played a feed bucket game to test the strength of the horse – human relationship. 1. The first step of the liberty feed bucket game is to send your horse to a feed bucket and let them eat a bite or two. 2. The second step is the real liberty challenge: “How far can you be away from your horse and call your horse away from the bucket?”

The answer tells you a lot about the strength of your horse – human relationship. Many of the horses refused to leave the feed bucket. I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly Rocky always ran from the feed bucket to me. There was no hidden secret to winning the feed bucket game. Rocky totally trusts my decisions about food because of my proactive leadership during our grazing adventures.

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