Years ago I was trying to get a stick out of my horse's shoe. I was in a hurry because I only had an hour to ride before dark. It had somehow wedged under the very edge of the horse's shoe and hoof, just sandwiched there. I almost had it when the stick made that sound they do, sort of a creak before it snaps. The horse jerked back and bolted. In my young mind I thought that was pretty dumb. It's just a stick. Years later I now understand that the horse went into flight because that is a natural sound of danger; a deadly predator's step on that twig warns them, the wind snapping a branch and the sound warns them. They want very much to live! But on that day I became frustrated, playing this herky-jerky game of getting the stick and having the horse rip off in terror.
Grandpa was a horseman of many many years of knowledge. He was born in 1909 into a family who broke and trained horses and mules for other people. His knowledge wasn't that from another trainer but from growing up training and handling. His Pa and older brother were master horsemen. Over time I'd come to think of Grandpa as a magic maker with horses. More importantly horses adored him. I've seen them bicker and beg for his attention even if it was the first time they ever saw him. He was special and so was what he had to teach.
Grandpa came out. He was whistling under his breath and had the butt end of a match stick between his teeth, wanting to know what I was doing. I explained that I couldn't get the mare to hold still so I could pry the stick out before she tore her shoe off or damaged her hoof. Oh yes, well he could see we indeed had a problem. He began to ask what I'd done, how I'd attempted it. I showed him several times with the same results.
"Sister," he said to me taking the match stick out & pointing to the mare with it, "you got any idea the thing that's missing? Why she can't stand still?"
Like a lot of youngsters, I could think of something with a little sarcasm but Grandpa didn't deserve that sort of remark so I just shook my head.
He told me that there was something we couldn't see at work. It was something we couldn't feel with our hands. It was something that had a name but not a face. But it was why the horse could not stand still. He was very clear that it was not bad behavior.
I asked him if it was the wind. I was sincere in asking. It was the only thing I could think of that came close to matching his description. He looked at me with a smile and shook his head, "No but it's like the wind." He went on to tell me that this thing that was causing the mare and I problems was a lot like the wind. It was there but it could be gone before I could blink my eye. It was hard to generate but easy to lose.
Okay, I might be a slow student but the idea popped into my head and I said, "Trust."
At moments like this I could tell he was proud of me as he nodded, his brows raising and his eyes growing big when he said, "Sister, you have to earn trust from a horse. They have to know they can count on you to understand them, to work with them, not to scare them. They forgive us when we make a mistake but they can't just trust us again in a second if we wrong them."
I was ready to argue that I hadn't done anything wrong to the mare but it wasn't quite true. I was so focused on the thing I had to do (get the stick out) that I forgot the golden rule with horses. When they're afraid they need to feel safe. I hadn't made the mare feel safe. I hadn't been her shelter in a storm, so to speak. I just kept going after that stick like a wolf goes after prey, relentlessly. That behavior alone is enough to make a horse nervous, add the sound of a cracking stick & the horse literally CAN NOT stand still.
So for the next twenty minutes I spent time just getting the mare comfortable enough to let me touch the stick but not go for it. I spent time talking softly, moving slowly, acknowledging this mare's fear and then asking her to trust me to fix things. Sometimes the slower you go the faster you get the results you're looking for. In short order the mare seemed to look relieved and was able to stand still, allow me to get the stick out and then massage her leg for awhile until her expression was soft and relaxed.
Like the wind, trust is an illusive and intangible thing. I was fortunate enough to have a hands-on lesson which I've spent a lifetime building upon thanks to my Horseman Grandpa.