Edit: This post feels so shallow after re-reading it; it is more of a surface sketch, not touching the deeper things and intense emotions. This will be revisited by the end of 2015, in a more poetic and soulful manner!
I’m sitting here watching rainclouds pile up in the mountains outside my dining room window. I’m pretty sure “my silver,” as I’ve taken to calling Cello, is standing in a cool mist- which is probably nice, considering the warm few days we’ve had. While I was sitting here waiting for a better window of opportunity to go see him after being sick a few days, I found myself thinking about all the ways in which he has enhanced (and changed) my life. Even if some days are still more frustrating than others, I feel that he has had a huge part in how I’ve grown over the last few years. I’ve changed in many ways, but these are some of the things owning a mustang taught me.
- Your feelings are read by your horse. Cello, and mustangs in general, are incredibly sensitive to the mood of their humans. There is no hiding an anxious moment from him, or a sad one. He reacts accordingly. If I am anxious, he draws it out of me and makes me work through it. He doesn’t sugarcoat things, or ignore it and then talk behind my back. He brings it to the surface, makes any emotion bubble over and forces you to deal with it. This especially came out in the round pen with the groundwork I’ve learned. I remember standing in Justin Dunn’s round pen and being so anxious and keyed up that I couldn’t handle holding a lunge whip and lunge line at the same time- something that is second nature at this point! Cello wasn’t giving me any leeway until I got my crap together. Which was fine, I respect that. Let’s be clear here, too- there is the flip side. When my dog died, Cello didn’t play any games with me. He came up to me in the pasture and let me sob into his mane. When I have a truly awful day, or when I just give up, he is there. I was told by a respected trainer that he would probably never join up with me, that he was too independent and self-assured, and that he was a candidate for treats. More on treats later.. but the minute I agreed with her, which happened when she wasn’t around and I wasn’t getting anywhere with Cello, I turned to leave the roundpen and felt very sad and disconnected. Until I heard hoofbeats… right behind me.. and felt a muzzle on my back.
- He made me deal with myself first, him second. It’s unfair to ask an animal to give you their attention and time when you cannot put in the equivalent effort. I thought, when I adopted him, that we would continue right where the initial trainer left off. Wrong. Instead, we started at square one (almost.) I had stopped learning for years, due to my anxiety, and hadn’t truly ridden since I left Michigan- which was also years in the past at that point. “Ha!” the little mustang said to me. “You think you can just start back up like that? Get over yourself, and when you’ve dealt with that, we can talk.” Things quickly went downhill when I just expected him to do what I asked. I was used to riding horses raised in a barn, where human things were beyond natural, and where we worked with them and trailered them many times before the first ride… we had built in steering from a year of ground driving, sometimes, when the first ride came around! I hardly ever hit the trail. I had no idea how to talk to Cello, how to teach him things. He clearly found this unacceptable- as he should. Anxiety and clamming up wouldn’t work, I had to drop any sense of ego (and I had very little ego to start with) and strive to keep learning. Which I wanted to do all along- I just couldn’t break out of my self-created mold and get there. He got me there. I remember when he first started his “I don’t want to” phase, and how quickly that progressed. We didn’t have a roundpen or arena, so there I was on a green mustang on a mountainside having “conversations” about what we weren’t and were going to do. I had already scheduled time with Jessica, months and months out, and called Justin Dunn in desperation. Justin later told me the he took Cello in, despite his busy schedule, because of how desperate I sounded! Relieved, I thought there would be NO PROBLEM loading Cello in my little trailer and taking him to Justin. I had trailered him before, after all- in stock trailers. Cello would NOT get in, which triggered a major meltdown for me that night that led to some really cathartic conversations with my husband. I think it’s from that meltdown on that I began to become myself again. Justin later told me that Cello’s reaction to the small trailer hinted at some sort of trauma, that he had never seen a horse act like that once he got him INTO the trailer. So it was situational, but made me deal with my crap. We do work as a team, too, like when we ran into the mountain lion on the trail solo.. I gave him his head, I twisted and kept eyes behind us and he safely got us back to the barn in a very sensible way without direction from me.
- Set yourself up properly for success or don’t expect success. When I first brought Cello home 3 years ago, I didn’t have a round pen or an arena. I had watched some Monty Roberts videos and reflected on what I knew from starting sporthorses or working with my OTTB. I loved up on Cello, I spent time grooming and coddling him, we went on leisurely trail rides. It was beautiful- but I did not initially work on our relationship or gain his respect. He went with it for a while, until a wildfire threatened the ranch not long after I brought him home. That night, he didn’t trust me enough to let me catch him in the field; the horse I used to just walk up to and halter took off, panicked, the scent of smoke heavy in the air and flames visible from a ridge not far off. Helicopters flew back and forth and stress was in the air. He took one look at me, his new human who hadn’t properly worked with him, and said “I don’t really think you should be my leader at a time like this. In fact, I’m not sure you should be at all.” I couldn’t catch him easily for days, until my friend taught me every trick in the book she knew for rounding up a wilder horse (she ran a rescue for years.) We had residual issues from that for years- literally. Once we were a team, catching became a game, something we are just now resolving to be honest. I sought the help of mustang-specific trainers who gave me the basic tools I needed; I moved him to a ranch with an indoor arena, outdoor arena and roundpen. Ground work became routine, round pen work was routine, trail rides longer than 15 minutes were routine. We are much better off for it.
- The importance of clear, consistent communication that goes beyond the surfce. Intention, and chi, matters here. This is so obviously essential to working with any animal long term, but sometimes Cello did the “I can’t hear what you’re saying” thing back in the early days. Really making me pay attention to so many things I hadn’t before. Cues that would work with an “easier” horse didn’t fly. I had to be on top of my tone of voice; I had to be tuned in; I had to pay extreme attention to body language; I had to ask for things at *exactly* the right time. It was all about making things… more fluid, more honest. With myself and with him. I had to tune out other people, animals, expectations.
- Shaking it off. The Taylor Swift song… I hated it… until one day it came on right after a round of people bashing mustangs. Then… I loved it. I listen to it almost daily. I learned I had to shake off others judgements of me and my horse, do away with other people’s expectations and work with what I had towards what I wanted without letting the haters have their say. I took this to heart with my horse and with my life, it really shifted a perspective for me. I hated telling people about my horse past, as it sounds impressive but was a long time ago and not incredibly relevant to the relationship Cello and I have. It laid a great foundation for me to be a horsewoman, but the management side of things didn’t come with a ton of riding, and my abilities as a rider really stagnated after I left the Friesan barn (I was 18!) and improved some with my OTTB (which I trained, without a second set of eyes that would have been helpful.) Teaching beginner-intermediate lessons and managing dressage and breeding facilities taught me a lot of medical and a lot of technical skills… but people out here expected something different, I suppose. It really shook my confidence, and I had injuries to come back from (bum knee, weird hand.) But once I stopped worrying about everyone else, and focused on me and Cello, and just shook it off- I felt better.
- Determination. Sometimes things don’t just happen- again, obvious, but this ties into the breaking through those walls I put up in my own chest. I am a pretty stubborn go-getter, but for a while there I forgot that part of myself. I had no ambition, since I was so lost on my life direction, other than keeping my family happy. That is all well and good, but sometimes you need to set a goal and meet it. Whether it’s standing quietly in the wash rack, loading and standing in a trailer or sticking something out at a job.
- Compassion. Some days it’s easy to leave the pasture feeling like Cello didn’t give me what I wanted. Wait… back up… what is wrong with that statement? Literally everything. He is an animal! If he is bringing up an emotion, it’s coming from me, not him. So I learned to be a little more compassionate to outside circumstances and myself, as well. To handle emotions with a little more validity, a little more grace.
Anyways, this little horse pretty much brought a mental breakdown to the surface before it could destroy my life. He made me deal with emotions I thought long dead from the loss of friends, certain situations and lack of confidence. I am a better rider today because of it and I am a better horseperson because of it. I am more assertive and confident in daily life and have a better sense of self.
Are things perfect? No way. He just went to Daniel Harris because we were butting heads, becoming spooky and being very herd bound. Does he come to me when I enter his pasture? Most of the time, now. I confess that I started using treats- but not to reward pushy behavior. We started playing a come-to-me game, setting up a pattern that will develop into a habit. (I will take a moment to defend this: I don’t have the luxury of feeding my horse twice a day or even daily, and I can’t provide his daily care. Those who can definitely bond with their mustangs MUCH quicker. If you own a dog, it’s like this: even if you don’t use dog treats, you tend to feed yourself, twice a day typically… and that is part of a primal bond. So I give him treats, inconsistently and as an additional positive reward for responding.)
So no, things aren’t perfect, and I suspect Cello will continue to just tell me how it is, but I look forward to our time together and am grateful for all the he has helped me with. It hurts still when he won’t let me just approach him in the pasture, and I get frustrated at least once a month, but it’s all a journey.
So why did I post all this? Mostly as background information for this next tidbit: I want a tattoo of Cello, despite our ups and downs (or because of them) on my inner left forearm. Nothing generic, at all, but a really artistic piece that gets to the heart of what this horse has done for me as a person.
Here is the inspiration tattoo, and you already know what Cello looks like:
And here is the artist I want to work with on our vacation to Vancouver:
I think it is a fitting way to honor how the mountains, nature, and one wild mustang helped me figure out who I am and where I need to go in life.
Dani & Cello