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The "I" of the Beholders

The “I” of the Beholders

By Betsy Kelleher

     A beholder is simply one who sees. Look at a horse and you can see indications of attitude, health, and breed. But can you also see beyond the surface of color and size? Can you look into your horse’s eyes as the window to his personality and understand what is in there?

     To connect on a deeper level of relationship, the I of the beholder must look into the heart and mind and spirit of the other. Not the eye of seeing, but the I of being—the inner being of who I am and what I am—the part of me that seeks to comprehend the true personality of this individual horse in order to enjoy a relationship. What I see determines how I work with him or her, but what my horse sees in me, in my own heart and mind and spirit, determines how he or she responds. Remember that any relationship is a two-way communication.

    Several years ago, I bought a book by Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling, What Horses Reveal. I read the part where the author places horses into 26 different character groups and suggests what owner works best with each. I quickly identified my Lady as the Guardian of the Fire, and Rocky as a mixture of Child and Minister. The part I hadn’t read explains how a person’s inner qualities influence the horse-human relationship. I am at a different place now in my horsemanship journey than I was when I bought this book, and I am ready for the rest of the story. Hempfling claims he can make a friend for life at the first encounter. He says human fearfulness or taking charge forcefully causes apprehension in a horse, and he attempts to teach the reader to how to meet each horse initially with understanding, with a quiet and tender composure, and with qualities of integrity and inner strength. It’s a book worth reading!       

     Identifying different personalities in horses is not a new thing. The old Beery school of horsemanship identified four horse types by the shape of their heads. Linda Tellington-Jones has a similar technique. The word Horsenality is now a trademarked term from Pat and Linda Parelli to help owners identify individual horse personalities. Do a search for equine personality types, and you’ll find many different ways of looking at horses. 

     My first horse was a headstrong, untrained young Appaloosa mare and I was an inexperienced, passionate horse lover. I saw and feared her intimidating energy but I rode anyway because I’d wanted a horse for so long. I was told to show her I was the boss, but I didn’t feel like the boss. Fanny took me along for the ride and taught me a book full of things, with the help of a new friend who had good horse experience and understanding. 

     Each horse I’ve owned since has been another teacher, each one revealing something different about the “I” that I needed to become. A horse is a mirror of its owner, you know, so if you have a problem with your horse, look at yourself—your inner person. Is your horse nervous? Are you? Is your horse resistant? Are you pushy? Is your inner person connecting effectively with your horse? Can you become what you need to be in order to improve the connection?

     When I got Lady, my black Tennessee Walking horse mare—short and stout, alpha and demanding, but sweetly affectionate—she became one of my best teachers. Lady taught me about headstrong mares again—same category, but a different being than Fanny had been. Every horse is unique. Every partnership has its own discoveries. 

     Because of Lady, I learned greater patience—the only way to connect with an emotional mare. Because of Lady, I had to learn to overcome a strong, long-lasting inner terror—resulting from Lady’s spin when passed by a noisy truck. Because of Lady, I also found a new level of partnership—resulting as far as I can tell from merely teaching her a new skill.

     Ever since Lady and I finished our first Competitive Ride Challenge last October with the American Competitive Trail Horse Association, I’ve wondered why she was so different that day. For eight years, I had struggled with her reactive side. I had seen her fear of big machines, like trucks and tractors. I was scared of Lady because of what she might do. Trailer loading was a dice game. She sometimes walked in, sometimes refused. But she ALWAYS came out fast, no matter what I tried. I didn’t feel in control. 

     Then I signed up for the ACTHA ride—six miles with six obstacles to be judged. After checking out the possible obstacles on their website, I trained her to drag a small log. She learned quickly, and during the teaching process, I stumbled into a change in our relationship. When asked to drag a scarecrow for one of the ride obstacles, she did not hesitate. At each obstacle, she seemed to think it through instead of reacting. Arriving back home, she came out of the trailer slowly, as I asked her to back out one step at a time. That in itself was an incredible conclusion to the day’s impressive experience.

     I figured that teaching her to drag an object had somehow established a greater respect for my leadership, or it had given Lady a new confidence in herself. Whatever did it, Lady had become a thinking horse. I saw it in the way she stopped at doorways when asked, instead of pushing on through. I saw it in her calmness as we rode to the edge of the woods behind the pasture. She spooked less. She seemed more secure. Lady was suddenly my perfect horse! Well, almost.       

     While writing this column, I came across something from Rick Lamb on training the alpha mare. It included a comment by Richard Shrake, “the best way to handle that kind of horse is to remain focused and always have an agenda when you work with her. Take that leadership role and have a plan.” I remembered Clinton Anderson’s instruction: to have a thinking horse you have to move their feet. I suddenly understood the change in Lady. While training her to drag an object, I wasn’t trying consciously to be a more confident leader, but as I simply focused on the task, it happened. And Lady responded.

     When I first heard about horses being teachers and healers, as wise souls who could lead people into greater understanding, I smiled and shook my head. Now, I’m not so sure. I used to be suspicious and scared of that whole thing about talking to animals. Now, I’m not so sure. One day, someone listened to my horse and passed the words on to me. Once you literally communicate with a horse, you will never see him or her the same way again. I began to see Lady as a fussy sister and Rocky as a cautious little boy. Traveller was my quiet guardian—the one I trusted.

     Lady isn’t as fussy now. Our relationship is better than ever, perhaps because of an improvement in what we can see in each other.

     Believing that God sometimes uses horses, I also believe He has a plan for each of us—including our horses—as it says in Jeremiah 29:12. A plan to give hope and a future. As I learn to see horses on a deeper level, my perception of our Creator is also deepening. I cannot see Him with my eyes, but the spirit of my inner person can know Him. I have experienced His unconditional love, His endless mercy, and His personal forgiveness. As I seek to know Him better, He reveals Himself—often through my experiences with horses. I will end with a quote from Hempfling’s book, “Give me a horse and I will lead before your eyes the proof that God exists.” 

(Originally published in the March 2012 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)

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