Tag Archives: Mustang

practice makes (im)perfect

Last week I went to see Nelson.  We are celebrating our one-year friendship anniversary.

Working with Nelson, one of the things that has eluded me pretty consistently is leading him.  He does not think that being led is a good idea.  And I don’t feel like trying to convince him of that with any kind of force is a good idea.

But last week, I set an intention to lead him.  As I got out of the car, I started to pick up the rope halter and lead, and then opted instead for a Tellington Balance rein – a piece of rope with a leather strap attached that can be buckled to create a circle.   After I groomed him, I got out the balance rein and looped it around his neck.  He was fine with that,  we have done that many times before.  I fastened it high on his neck so that about 18″ of strap was hanging down.  Then I started to walk, giving him a little tiny bit of pressure on the line as I stepped off.

To my astonishment, he started walking with me, nice as you please.  This was the day after my cat Musia died, so I was pretty tender.  I felt like crying.  We stopped and walked and stopped and walked and changed directions and wandered all over his six acre field.  No problem.

I realized that all the things I had been doing with him before had led to this.  We were practicing.  But there must have been some subtle piece that was missing – some imperfection in the practice and in my movement that didn’t tell him as clearly as I could have, THIS is what I would like us to do.

That day, I had a really clear picture of what I wanted.  I wish I could say I had no doubt.  That would not be true.   I had no expectation.  And I was OK if it didn’t work.  Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect.  If you are practicing the wrong thing, or rehearsing the wrong state of mind, or forcing, no amount of practice will make that right.

The perfection that I practice with Nelson is this:  Our agreement is that if it is OK with him, we will go for it.  If it isn’t, we will not.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t try hard, and work through some initial resistance.  It does mean that we both have to feel successful and balanced at the end of our time together.  And yes, we do.

buddha horse

I am not sure if he was meditating, but when I downloaded my pictures, there was this photograph of Nelson with his eye closed.  Over the months that I have known him, Nelson has become a pretty equanimous horse.  He takes things more in stride and I will often see him reading me – reading my movement, parsing what I am asking before responding.

My body has become more readable as well.  I can feel it as I get out of the car and assemble my equipment (gloves, fanny pack with treats, brushes, sometimes a halter).  Settling, breathing, feeling the rhythm and smoothness of my gestures.  I don’t have a particular agenda or plan.  Usually we review the things that we know (grooming, hoof lifting and picking practicing our movement cues.  Then, depending on how he feels to me (steady, nervous, curious, disinterested), we move into something new.

I recently heard about a competition called the Extreme Mustang Makeover.  Contestants have 90 days to gentle and train a wild Mustang.  To me that sounds like a lot of pressure on both horse and human.  It also sounds like doing things in human time, not horse time.

For me, the joy of Nelson is in taking my time and in building trust, friendship and understanding in slow, comprehensible steps.  One of the greatest gifts that horses can teach us is learning to be in horse time, which is not goal oriented or clock and schedule driven.  And, as Klaus Hempfling says, letting the horse come to me, not the other way around.



When I first met Nelson, the almost formerly wild Mustang, he did not want to be touched.  He was nervous, and that made me feel nervous, and we did a strange nervous dance for quite a while.  Both of us prickly and alert, sympathetic nervous systems on orange.

I wish I could say that I found a magic key and that suddenly Nelson was easily touchable, but I did not.  What I did find was horse time.  Horse time is biologic, sometimes even geologic.  It does not have to do with any kind of human time measurement.  It has to do with listening and with waiting.

I got very good at waiting.  One day when I came to work with him, Nelson would not let me anywhere near him.  So I sat leaning against the fence for about 2 hours until he finally came close enough to get a treat.  I had a lot of time that day to think about taking that personally.  A lot of time to feel my impatience and what I assumed was my ineptitude.

The real thing that I have learned from Nelson is that if I listen and wait, he gives me everything.  And the lovely thing is that I have also found that to be true about myself.  If I listen and wait, then what I want unfolds and offers itself to me.  All in good horse time.

running with the horse

Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling is the most beautiful man on or off a horse that I have ever seen. I do not mean “sexiest man alive” beautiful, but lovely in his ability to be with a horse – beautiful in the connection. His work with a horse on the ground is an extraordinary dance improvisation.  His movement is neither predator nor prey, but has a deep, grounded athleticism like a kind of running tai chi.

When I first saw this video (below), I thought how wonderful it would be to be able to run with Nelson, the formerly wild Mustang. So yesterday we went out into the big field and did our walking dance:  me asking him to move around me in a circle and then come back to me.  This is all at liberty, no halter or lead rope and in a six acre field.  Just small hand signals.  So far so good.

Then I  started running.  I wanted him to see me running, but not be afraid.  So I ran away from him.  He looked mystified, but not particularly alarmed.  I walked back to him and petted him, then I ran away again.  This went on for a bit.

Then I said, “OK, you run.”  I have been hesitant to ask him to run because in the past he would run AWAY and then our time together is finished for that day.  But this time he ran, head up, tail flagging, but with one eye on me.  And when I did that little signal with my hand by my side, he circled and came back.  We hung out together and then I asked him to run again.  And again he came back.

I am no Klaus, but I was pretty happy with that dance.  And Nelson seemed pretty happy too.  Two animals working  out together how to go and come back, how to run and be connected.  And all of that makes me a very happy horse dancer.

Here is the master: