Re-defining a Relationship


This month I am learning the importance of re-defining a relationship. This need to re-define, or re-shape, the inner workings of my relationship with Ngugi comes from a sudden change in her behavior.

For over nine months, she has been quite willing to learn new things. From learning how to stand patiently at the mounting block to learning how to find a soft and natural rhythm at the canter, she has shown me nothing but promise. But a few weeks ago, I went from owning and training a horse will an abundance of GO to a horse that slowly began to lock up and not want to go AT ALL. When I say this, I mean a reluctance–and often refusal (or balking)–to even take a step forward. Legs that once moved freely and with agility now stand thick and clamped in the sand.

And so I ask myself, “What is Gugi trying to teach me now?”

Answer: She is reminding me that a relationship needs to be assessed–to have its pulse taken every now and then. As the human, it is my responsibility to do the assessing and analyzing. It is my responsibility to not blame her for any sour behavior, but rather question myself as to why it is happening and whether there is something I am doing to bring it on. So, I approach it like any other relationship. I question it. Then, I reflect.
1) Is it based on mutual respect? Is it fair?
Reflection: Yes, I’ve learned that she does not feel respected if told what to do. I show respect by asking her to do something rather than telling her to do it. When asking, the energy I exude must not be frustrated, agitated, unforgiving, or insincere. All of these emotions show disrespect and lack of understanding. I remember in an early analysis of Gugi, trainer Kim told me, “Your horse needs everything whispered to her.” But the respect must be delivered from both ends. Gugi demonstrates respect by showing good ground manners and being patient and forgiving with me under saddle. For instance, as I’ve been learning to relax at the canter, she’s respected the fact that it’s taken me awhile. I still sometimes slam on her back or forget to find ease in the give, but never once has she put me in danger. It’s been a fair give and take.
2) Is it healthy?
Reflection: I ask this question more in terms of our individual health. Mine and hers. When reflecting on why she is balking, I immediately questioned her physical state. Is she experiencing pain and avoiding work because of it? Last Monday, Dr. Randy, our vet/chiropractor, examined her without any diagnosis of a major back issue that would interfere with performance. He spent close to an hour massaging and palpitating her body–every now and then, with a quick thrust from his fingertips and forearms, making an adjustment at her withers and lower spine. Nothing felt out of the ordinary for her age and past life as a racehorse and broodmare. She is healthy. So am I.
3) Is it fulfilling to each partner?
Reflection: This is where I think we may have a deficiency. It’s winter and this is the down season for horse training. Sure, the horses get turn-out time during the winter (Gugi goes outside with her friends from about 9 am until 4 or 5 pm during the short winter days), but things seem to slow down in terms of the training. Sometimes it is cut short, or a session is skipped, due to freezing temperatures. And because of this, I think that it’s easy for us as humans to forget that even horses can withdraw emotionally or become depressed. In speaking on Facebook with my sister’s trainer about Gugi’s issues he reminded me that a horse’s sense of fulfillment is born from a sense of purpose. Here’s what he wrote:

Horses need a sense of purpose, a job to do, so perhaps look at her routine and see if there is a clear purpose to it. We ask horses to go through the manuevers used to work cows. Not that most of the horses I work with will ever work a cow, but the feet placement and the challenge of it gives the horse a sense of purpose which engages their minds. Get her out of her routine, but also be more insistent, and clear on what you are asking

I can’t help but think of my 8th graders and piano students. They need the same sense of purpose. Everything I ask of them must initially be presented with a clear purpose–a purpose that makes sense to them within the context of their larger learning. Routines provide structure, and structure is good, but there is a danger here. If the routine sparks no curiosity within the student (or horse), it can stifle engagment, and therefore, learning. So, in the classroom I know that I must constantly keep my students guessing… What’s she going to do next? What’s the next step? When will I be asked to speak or move? When is my thinking going to be challenged? I must remember that these questions should translate to my four-legged student, Gugi. I want her mind engaged and curious, open and relaxed, focused on and aware of me as her leader. I want her licking and chewing, as these are sure signs of a thinking, active mind.
4) Is it fresh as opposed to stagnant?
Reflection: Similar to question number three, I think I can do more to keep my relationship with Gugi fresh. But again, I’ll emphasize Winter, but this time with a capital W. I almost see it as a character (an antagonist of some sort) that has crept into our story. It has antagonized us by causing us to bring our training sessions indoors. I know, first-hand, that we as humans experience a shift in our moods during Winter. We feel locked up and trapped. We yearn to feel the sun wrap its warmth around us, liberating us from the restrictions of Winter. Can a horse feel the same effects during Winter? If so, how can I help to release the stagnancy? I suppose it goes back to doing anything in my power to break the routine. For instance, today, trainer Kim will begin with ground-driving–something we haven’t done since last March. She can practice asking her to move forward from the ground and, in return, re-visit the most basic of manuevers. Maybe this week, since we will hit temperatures in the 50’s, we can also switch things up by riding outside. Then, on another day, we can surprise her with a western saddle. Bottom line, we need to get creative and unlock her mind with fresh strategies. We need to kick Winter in the ass.
5) Is it authentic and sincere?
Reflection: I think this entire blog speaks to this question. Yes. My relationship with Gugi has always been authentic and sincere. If it weren’t, I would have given up on it a year ago when we hit our last major set-back–bucking and rearing. But I didn’t. I kept trainer Kim’s mantra of consistency, persistency, and repetitionat the forefront of my mind, and I kept moving forward with our partnership. I threw away the calendar and timeline, allowing both our relationship and Gugi’s training to grow organically and at whatever speed it needed (as opposed to comparing it to the rate at which other horse and rider partnerships grow). I just let it be…

And so I reach the end of my search to re-define our relationship. But I’m not sure I know how it has been re-defined quite yet. I think this entry is more of a reflection and exploration than a conclusion. It seems to me that the next few weeks (or months, because I know it’s unrealistic to give any major breakthrough with Gugi a specific timeframe) will capture what it is Gugi is trying to teach me, and how our relationship will become something new… a relationship re-defined.


Getting Back into the Saddle


Today is the day I get back into the saddle.

To the rider, getting back into the saddle is no idiom. Usually one says it after a huge scare– getting bucked and reared off or perhaps crashing head first into the poles of a jump after a refusal. Either way, us riders are no strangers to getting back into the saddle. And with trepidation.

For me, it’s getting back into writing this blog that makes me scared. I’ve always suffered from severe anxiety when it comes to writing (and yes, ironically, my Master’s is in writing, whatever that means). It’s either never good enough or I’m experiencing writer’s block. In fact, it was this very blog, which started off as a requirment for a class, that became a remedy to these feelings of incompetency. My blog about Ngugi’s Word became my catalyst for writing. And then I traveled to Nicaragua for a few weeks and it’s layed dormant for months.

Today is the day I get back into the saddle.

To clear the air … Ngugi has not been laying dormant all these months. To recap our end of summer and into fall, I’ll say that Gugi found her rhythm at the canter with trainer Kim (both directions, although toward the right is rougher), and I got over my fear that she would maliciously hurt me (so much so that I began cantering her). It started off wild. I had to learn how to keep the soft connection that I established at the trot into the canter transition, meaning that I had to stop clutching with my calves and pumping with my upper body. I’ll always know when the connection is not there because it will be wild. The tail goes up and then the crow-hopping begins as a signal to me that my body is interferring with the rhythm she is tring to find for herself–the 1-2 rhythm that feels natural to Gugi. I’m still working hard at it, but the fear is subsiding.

Fear is what keeps us out of the saddle as riders and off our computers as writers. There is nothing rewarding about fear.