Being a Badass Beauty
If you ask me, I’d say it’s the best fun you can have with a horse. To me, nothing is more inspiring than having your best friend gallop towards you because you called her. Dancing with shadows and play- spooking, impulsion games, punching the air with the power hoof, free choice in a big open area.
‘When the ropes come off, all that’s left is the truth’. Pat Parelli.
We all do it. Every time you interact with your pony in the paddock, even if you’re just catching him, you are playing a liberty game right up to the point that you put the halter on. However going out to play with no intention of haltering up provokes a different sort of magic.
How interesting are you really? How engaging? Does she want to play with you, or does she walk away? Sometimes she may run away, and that’s okay- it’s not freedom if there’s no risk. Her free choice.
Anyone can make a horse do something. To have a horse want to do it for you is an entirely different conversation.
So what sort of conversation is it?
It’s a conversation of Focus and Feel, Timing and Balance.
It’s a conversation about choices.
Opinions. Freedom. Moods. Pace. Honesty. Letting go of control. True expression.
It’s a conversation about Play.
How do we humans define Play when it comes to horses?
Play, like all the word symbols we use, is no simple singular thing. When referring to horses, it can be used in a few contexts.
Play is the third tier in the horse hierarchy of needs. If he can play, then you know that he feels safe, and that he feels comfortable. If safety is an issue he will not play. If he feels constrained by discomfort, or even the threat of it, he cannot play either, though I do know that some master horse sages can teach a horse to find the freedom within a set of proscribed movements; the option of choice is an imperative to call it true play, in my opinion.
To a horse, Play is a serious business.
Why do baby animals play? We do it to socialise, to practice for life. During play we discover things about ourselves and others. We find our imaginations, and we use them to test each other. We find our strengths and our weaknesses. We find our standing in our social hierarchy.
There’s that word again- hierarchy.
Does that word trigger you?
If it does, then likely you are a fairly evolved human being. We who value freedom for all don’t tend to like that word much. It draws up images of Nazis, of imposed rule, authority, of the haves and the have nots. It’s not pluralistic, egalitarian, or fair.
However it’s also a fact of life. Freedom to play still occurs within the parameters of our biological settings, and in nature, hierarchy is a naturally occurring phenomenon.
There are two types of hierarchy. What we commonly call dominance based hierarchy is imposed from without. A military structure of obedience or else. It’s power taken by someone who has the gun, or the ability to take away your freeedom to punish and control you. It’s racism, sexism, slavery, oppressive and always has two things in common- the controller, and the controlled. The controlled are resentful and miserable.
Up until very recently, I would have equated ‘domestication’ with this as well. But while it can fall into this definition, it actually doesn’t have to.
There are definitely times that we need to control our horses, in order for us both to survive. True liberty play is not one of those moments, and natural hierarchy allows for that.
However what is the natural hierarchy?
In nature, there is sequence. Look at our bodies. It is a structure only because of hierarchy- if we didn’t have hierarchy we would not exist in this beautiful organic form- we would instead be a heap.
In scientific terms, the hard eye of outer truth, our body is a collection of organs, which are in turn a collection of cells, which in turn are a collection of molecules, which in turn are a collection of atoms, which in turn, are collections of a few sub atomic particles and a lot of space.
There are rules that are inviolate. No cell can be an entire organ. No atom can be a molecule.
There is also the rule of numbers- there is always more space than particles. There are always more particles than atoms. There are always more atoms than molecules. There are always more molecules than cells…you get the picture.
That is a natural hierarchy; described from the top down and back up again in the eye of the hard science. It’s measurable. It’s true. It is defined by the fact that the top is made up of the rest. It doesn’t subjugate or overwhelm unless it’s a cancer. It is the result of the group, the many become one, with beautiful natural order.
What about social hierarchy?
Because of the various Nazis in our history, we who abhor dominance based hierarchy tend to shy away from this concept. I think here we are capable of confusing natural hierarchy and our fear of imposed control takeovers.
In quantum physics, there is a state called a tangled hierarchy. When you look at a herd of horses, you see something that seems to fit this description. There is usually a leader, who leads by going somewhere, and the rest follow. There will be a best friend of the leader who gets to share her everything, but who gets pushed off the best grass patch by a third horse, who is in charge of three others who all drive a straggler around, except for that horse there on Tuesday because they were scratching, and oh the third horse who is in charge of the fourth but yields to the straggler. There are skirmishes and sort outs, but ultimately the aim is peace and a balanced herd.
There may be a class bully. He might by rude, pushy, even violent. If his violence is unbalanced and surmountable, he will be driven away by the herd until he learns balance, or dies. If he is insurmountable, he will be a bully, and he will be lonely, as bullies always ultimately are. No one will want to hang out with him, but he may still have his uses. Being able to drive others is a skill; a stallion does it to protect his herd from other breeding males and from predation. He will round up the stragglers and keep everyone together and safe.
In play, we practise at leading and following. We flash our credentials for each position, and we take turns. In play, we find out who the leader is today, and who the follower is. We try on hats and we swap roles.
Play also has another vital function. Another subset to its repertoire.
When horses, and humans, are stressed, they only have three options. Flight, freeze or fight. These options have functional and dysfunctional forms. It’s dysfunctional if it doesn’t serve its purpose; which ultimately is to protect the individual until he is safe and can return himself to a normal state.
A dysfunctional stress response is one that is inappropriate for the situation, or that goes on too long, outliving it’s usefulness. No one enjoys a state of stress.
I know a horse who suffers from being herd bound, or ‘barn sour’ some call it, or ‘destination addiction’ as Warwick Schiller coined it. It’s a horse who wants to be somewhere else. This horse is extremely attuned to her own herd, and every horse in every field that she can see from her pasture. If the skewbald over in the far right corner of her vision leaves his place, she panics. This horse has never touched noses with her, but he belongs in that field three fences away, and she will pace and call and pace and call until he comes back, or until she is forced to accept a ‘new normal’.
During this process, she is a nuisance and she upsets the balance in her own herd. So the head gelding in this particular group will get after her. ‘Go away with that stupid behaviour’ is his message. ‘You’re upsetting everybody’.
Her prolonged stress response of Flight is dysfunctional because it is serving no purpose in helping her return to balance or keeping her safe. There is one other vital marker of dysfunctional stress response. That is, the victim of it is alone in her distress.
So along comes sensible gelding, and he starts chasing her. She runs. He chases. He will bite her if he catches her, he doesn’t want that unbalanced energy anywhere near his herd, so she runs now to get away from him. He chases. Suddenly, the same action- Flight, has become functional. It has a purpose- to save her from the long yellow teeth of the law.
In essence, he has joined her in her flight and she is no longer running alone. Eventually, he will be satisfied and now they can both stop running. She’d forgotten about the missing skewbald for now.
Lick and chew.
Balance is restored. No one likes a stresshead.
We are reminded that Flight is more than a stress reaction, it’s something we can use to escape an aroused Fight response when you know you’re outplayed, and it’s something the other guy can use to keep up with you, teeth snapping, until you yield enough to satisfy him.
Yielding is a functional form of stress relief.
So that’s an example of the stress response of flight going from dysfunctional to functional.
How about Fight?
Fight is probably the rarest horse stress response, usually only pulled out if there is no choice of Flight or Freezing is not an option for that horse. In most cases it is functional- charging the predator and killing it can save your life or that of your foal. Burros, donkeys and mules are great at this. They evolved on mountains, where Flight is highly dysfunctional- you can’t run because you’d fall off a cliff.
Don’t mess with burros, donkeys or mules. You need to be smart, not forceful.
Other times it kicks in are biologically driven motives around sex. Boys will be boys, and battles for the right to breed are a pretty common way to fight off the hormonal frustration.
When Rage is awakened in a horse, you are left in no doubt. If you ever hear a horse scream at you in pure rage, it’s possibly the last thing you’ll hear.
Fight is pretty hard to be dysfunctional with because by definition it’s hard to fight alone, you need a protagonist, but it does happen. Have you ever seen a lone horse digging with both front feet in fury and frustration? That is about as mad as a horse can get, and it’s heart wrenching to see. No one wants to feel like that.
The functional form of Fight, is Play.
Play is where horses sort out their social standing, and turn dysfunctional stress responses into functional. It’s also fun. It’s give and take, give and take.
At liberty, we Play with our horses. We follow, we lead. We drive, we draw. It’s reciprocal. That means that the horse also gets to follow, and lead, and drive, and draw.
Here he is practising at being a social creature with his human. A new dynamic- it’s fun. We play, we pretend, we take turns.
For years I have been playing with horses. Eventually I came up against a worrisome (to me) obstacle. That obstacle was expression. Why is it that whenever we play at liberty, at some point we always get what one of my clients calls ‘Poopoo face’ from our horses? The flattened ears, snake neck, steely glint eye? There is often head shaking, and snaking, squeals, and ‘I’m gunna getcha’ looks. All overt signs of what? Aggression? Defensiveness?
This bothered me a lot for a long time. Horses don’t lie, and I am a bit practised at reading horses. On first look, it looks like that horse is annoyed, irritated, a range from sulky to furious. Then it changes. The charge softens, the ears stand up and up close we know she is happy to be with us, she says so.
Usually the poopoo face comes out when being backed away, circling, sideways, and stick-to-me (running together with your horse at your shoulder)
I felt it was me. Why am I upsetting my horse so when we do this? Why do I get a sour face circling at liberty, when she circles with softness and grace on line, at distances up to 45’ away on my longest lariat, and has soft, attentive ears?
The answer is, from the horse POV, this liberty deal is real play. Play is practice for social standing, in a low key reciprocal way. It’s also the functional form of the stress response that we are practising.
Several things are going on when my horse is playing the badass.
In play we take turns at leadership. That means that when I’m playing ‘stick to me’; she’s playing ‘driving game’. She’s driving me from behind, and when you’re being the driver, you don’t prick your ears.
When I’m backing her up, or asking for sideways, she is concentrating on where she is going- she needs to look to see and that requires ears that go back as well. When I draw her towards me, sometimes it’s ears back- is she charging? No, she’s playing at charging; she’s arrived, her expression changed to bright and pleased about four strides out before she stops in front of me.
At liberty we take turns at leadership, followship, and together we practise fellowship. Another way to look at poopoo face? How about expressive? Exuberant?
I love it when my horses play at being badass! Horses are dynamic, they don’t stand round in the wild with pricked ears all day because they are free. They use that freedom to play, and play is practice for life, and life includes the skills of the badass. It’s ok to do this. More, it’s necessary for horses.
They don’t necessarily need to play it with us, but if you have the skills to protect your own bubble well in place, this shadow boxing with your badass beauty, taking turns, reciprocity, can deepen your relationship and regard for each other.
I don’t mean get in a physical punch up! We don’t play those games- there we draw a line and we take care of our own threshold carefully. It’s all Feel from a distance.
It’s currently a few weeks out from the 2018 Kaimanawa Wild Horse muster, where for the first time in their lives, around 170 horses have lost their true liberty forever. These horses would starve if left to breed and overpopulate, so every two years we humans bring in the excess that the land cannot sustain, and we do our best to home all of them.
Mostly this means yards, trucks, loss, grief and pressure for these horses. However, in pockets around the country, we are finding humans sitting in fields, experimenting with thresholds, meditating upon grass, breathing in sync, and waiting. The horse in these pockets is in charge of the timeline, and the thresholds. He is a prey animal and he knows the top predator when he sees it. To feel safe, we need to show him that we understand his signals and respect his boundaries. Then he can relax, knowing he has some sort of control button, and then he can become curious instead.
I am thrilled to see this silent movement, Facebook videos of firsts-first look (he looked at me! He was actually confident enough to look at me without fear!) first approach, first grass taken from a hand, first touch. Reciprocity is crucial to this process, if you choose to do it.
The wild one is in a state of fear and grief. He is alone in his distress, and he needs company to become functional again. In this gentle, unobtrusive way, a connection of trust and communication is forming. When it’s robust enough then play becomes possible. Now I don’t know if many people (maybe three I can think of) who could play actual badass leadership games with a fresh wild stallion and survive. But if you are with a wild horse who from thirty metres away raises her head and thrusts a nose in alarm at you, and you retreat a few steps and turn away, you are already starting this subtle game.
I hear gasps of horror. You moved your feet? Isn’t that a bad thing?
It depends, I think. If that horse is so scared if you that she can’t even look at you, she needs to know she has some control and we provide that with reciprocity. We model overtly that we see her signal, and honour the threshold. With that simple gesture and response, we show the horse that we understand, and care enough to respond. Approach and retreat. This is about developing trust and communication. Leadership comes later.
Once the gentling is in place, and he feels confident that you would never harm him, then you get your turn to be the leader. This is advanced stuff and any human doing this are top students in horse university, but it is possible if you have the focus, feel, timing and balance to create that trust, confidence and mutual respect that we need to proceed to partnership with our horses.
Those wild ones know this game well. You are with a master player. He knows peace, he knows balance, he knows when to practice followship and he knows when to bring out his badass.
One day if you are worthy, you will be able to play leadership games with this horse. You will be able to show your badass without scaring your horse.
Journey before destination.
Note: this is play, but not a game for new players. Horses are serious about play. If you have any boundary issues of your own between you and your horse, like crowding, nipping, pushing on you, then you need to sort that out, seriously. There is a video on YouTube which shows a young girl getting kicked in the face while playing at liberty. People have died doing this, so when it comes to leadership games, make sure you establish the rules and you both stick to them before doing this. If you’re not sure, then you are not safe. Up your game before playing with the big boys, have your own threshold set and know it is honoured by both of you. Reciprocity.