The biggest lesson I’ve learned in horsemanship is also the simplest: it’s all about listening.
I don’t know why there’s a fashion for calling a good trainer a horse whisperer. The best trainers are well versed in silence. Able to lay aside ego and knowledge for the deeper skill of openness. It’s less like an artist painting and more like a conversation between two sentient, thinking, feeling, created beings – which is exactly what it is.
I have been trying to listen. I’m still not terribly good and many horses are just a closed book to me. Often I just can’t get a read on them. Zara was because I had never really encountered her language before; Dirkie was because I was staring down the barrel of a deadline.
Exavior, I’m ashamed to say, is because I thought I knew better than he did. And here’s lesson number two: nobody knows better about being a horse than a horse does.
It went something like this.
“Whoa,” I ordered, closing my hands on the reins.
“No, I don’t really want to. It’s not comfy when you do that,” said Exavior, gaping his mouth dramatically.
“OK, so you don’t like the bit.” I swapped his French link for a single joint and then the single joint for a fancypants straight bar.
“Actually, it’s still not nice.” Xave gaped his jaw some more.
“Noseband, then?” I took it off completely.
“Nope. Still ugh.” He gave his head a little shake to punctuate his words.
I glared at him, nettled. I’d tried every bit I knew. His teeth had been done less than a year ago. I was good with my hands. I’d done the groundwork.
“You’re just being a brat,” I announced, stepping onto the slippery slope of deafness, and clapped a grackle noseband on him.
“This is worse! I hate this!” Xave started to shake his head and resist having the bridle put on.
“Tough luck. Buck up, baby!” I locked my elbows, making my hands motionless as stone.
“It HURTS!” Xave pulled away while I was bridling him and bucked the length of the yard.
“Just STOP!” Voice and hands yelled together. Too loud for me to hear what he was saying.
Xave’s plentiful hot blood skyrocketed. He flung his head violently, almost yanking me out of the saddle. “NO! IT’S SORE!” Both forelegs left the ground for a moment and the adrenalin that kicked through me was just enough to jog my brain into remembering the eruption time for wolf teeth would be right about now.
Cowboy wisdom demanded I crank the grackle tighter and kick him till he submitted. Lacking a death wish, I slid to the ground instead, undid his noseband and stuck a thumb in his mouth, sliding it across the upper gum. Where there should have been a smooth curve of flesh, razor sharp tooth scraped against my skin.
He has two enormous wolf teeth.
“I’m sorry, buddy.”
The next day I rode him in a headcollar and he gave me two quiet walk laps of the ring, where the day before we barely made it across the middle before tantrums.
“I’m still sorry, dude.”
Xave’s big eye just sparkled mischievously. “I told you so.”
And that, kids, is how I started a gigantic warmblood in a headcollar – and vowed to never shout an honest horse down again.
Glory to the King.