Sometimes I don't realize how far I'm come on this journey. I think it's about reflection and taking the time to reflect. I have the perfect place to do this with my journal, and I need to give myself time to write about it. So, I'm making a promise to myself to spend more time reflecting on our journey.
Besides officially completing Level 1, Duke and I have gone out of our comfort zone numerous times the past two week. And I'm finding myself moving away from 'Oh no' and thinking 'Oh boy!' more often.
First, there was the goat. And through this goat I experienced a successful It's not about the... from start to finish. :) Duke met a goat face to face a couple of weeks ago. At first he was skeptical and a little nervous, then he became curious, and within a few minutes Duke was sniffing and licking the goat. :) The key was approach and retreat. I had been riding when the goat came in with a young girl. When I saw this opportunity my heart skipped a beat. This was something I wanted to do for some time. Before purchasing Duke in 2008, his former owner told me about an experience he had while riding Duke when they encountered a herd of goats in a small field. Duke refused to pass by the field and went into flight mode. I'd seen the behavior once before when I brought Duke into the arena while a girl was practicing goat tying. At the time my confidence was minimal so I kept the approach and retreat session short and our distance from the goat long as we made our way to the round pen located at the far end of the arena.
But I couldn't shake the lost opportunity from my mind.
What kind of leader was I? A safe one, for sure, but at some point we'd have to leave our comfort zone. Fast forward to this month. We're enjoying a lovely, connected ride when we hear the sound of foot falls on the bridge outside the arena. From Duke's back I can see over the wall between the arena and the hallway and I see the top of someone's head bobbing up and down. I watch as they round the corner and approach the gate, leading a goat. Duke's head immediately went up and he stopped in his tracks. Stay calm. Go slow. Oh boy! Now we get to play with a goat! I will admit the riding session was coming to a close as it was getting a little boring for Duke. Well, our session was about to get very interesting.
As I dismounted the girl saw Duke's reaction and offered to leave. The look on her face when I asked her if she would mind if I introduced Duke to the goat was priceless. When I explained that this was something we needed to do, at first I don't think she believed me. Maybe she wasn't sure she heard me right. She kept saying 'I know most horses don't like goats, so if you want to keep riding, we can leave.' I convinced her this is good, and I've been wanting this kind of opportunity for some time.
Slowly we approached the goat, who was completely unaware of us, nor did he seem to care. Duke's ears were forward, he appeared calm but his head remained a little high. I wanted to switch over to the halter and lead rope (better tools for the task), but they are on the other side of the arena. When we turned away from the goat to fetch the halter, Duke's life came up and he began to dance around me. Okay we'll face the goat again, and back up to where the halter is. Nope. Dance...dance...dance. Hmmm. What to do...what to do. Adjust to fit the situation...use the tools I have. If we were on a trail ride and the halter was back at the trailer, I'd have to use the bridle and reins. I wasn't keen about doing this with a bit in his mouth, so I unclipped the right rein from the bit (I love these Parelli reins!) and I now had a 22' lead rope.
A few steps forward, watching Duke's reaction (ears, eyes, head, mouth), he's relaxed. Take a few steps back. Stop. Breathe! He's blinkin' and thinkin'. Ears forward. Head has lowered. Forward a few more steps. Watch. Back a couple. He's curious...this is good. The entire time I remained calm, not once did I hear the echo of my heart pounding. Yea!!! This is what confidence feels like...finally! I'm moving a little closer to horse savvy!!!
We repeated this and I'm guessing it took between three and five minutes before Duke was standing in front of the goat with a mere few inches of separation. Through it all Duke remained curious. I noticed him breathing more when he stretched his neck out to sniff, then touch the goat with his nose. Check the goat's rope to be sure Duke doesn't get tangled up in it. I backed him off one step, and watched him confidently approach the goat again, head down, breathing normal. All this time the goat was still ignoring Duke and I, but then he turned around and the two were face to face, eye to eye. The goat's owner observed how it must feel to be a goat having something that size coming toward you, but the goat was calm and perhaps curious too. Clearly he wasn't afraid of horses.
Duke got closer and closer sniffing and investigating this strange little creature until the goat was almost under his neck. When he started licking it I wondered how long it would take before curiousity turned to dominance. I've played enough with him to know two things: 1) he comes down quickly from fear and 2) once he gets past his fear of something he immediately wants to dominate it.
Time to move on. I thanked the girl and she expressed a grateful and hearfelt thank you; I think she was in shock. Maybe in the back of her mind she was thinking this isn't how most horse owners react...they always want the goat to leave. :)
This time when I turned Duke away from the goat to retrieve his halter, nothing changed. He calmly followed me, relaxed and confident.
Since it was time to clean his stall and corral, and I knew the goat would be in the arena for a while, I wanted to further maximize this opportunity. After switching over to the halter, I left Duke tacked up and tied him to a pole near the goat...about 20 feet away. Allow him time to take this all in, give him another perspective of the goat while I clean. Twenty minutes later when I walked past Duke to take a wheelbarrow load to the designated dumping site, he was standing quietly, facing the goat, watching. Smile.
Chores complete it was time to untack Duke outside at the trailer. By this time the girl was talking to a new boarder, a young man who recently offered to train Duke for me (that's another story). As I walked past, I noticed they were talking about horse training and I overheard him commenting about how few trainers there are in this area (not quite true, but...) and how he normally charges $49 per hour (funny, he quoted me $7 last month). Someone was definitely struting his stuff and it wasn't Duke. Outside at the trailer, we get untacked and go back inside for a little roll before dinner. Duke must have been thinking about that goat because as we came down the alley his attention was on the arena. Ears foward...where is it? Around the corner, through the gate, there's the goat and without hesitation Duke walked right up to the goat, ears forward and curious the entire time. As if they were best buds...reunited; the same way he greets Elvira when she visits. Again I thanked the girl, and again she thanked me with a tone of gratitude and relief. It was amazing. We walked off to find the perfect place to roll, then back to his stall for dinner.
As I stood watching him munching away, I remembered something...a moment, a gift Duke gave me. During the initial approach and retreat, after I decided not to fetch the halter, Duke and I had just retreated from the goat. It was during that quiet moment as I was debating whether it was time to get a little closer, Duke slowly turned his head to me, softly touched my right hand with his nose, then turned his attention back to goat, licking and chewing. Even now it brings tears to my eyes. What a truly beautiful gift for him to offer. I noticed it at the time and remember thinking He wants to do this. Trust him.
Trust him. I haven't allowed myself to trust Duke. There's this part of me that holds back. The toxic remains from a word of caution carelessly offered by a person just minutes after she retold the story of the time she climbed on the back of a green three year old mare she didn't know, with no preparation, only to find herself later trying to stop a runaway who only wanted to return to the safety and comfort of the barn. And she's giving me advice. Don't you trust him! If she only knew. When it comes to horses, everyone has advice. They give it because they once had a horse, or rode ponies as a child. But they always give it...without thinking, without knowing. I'm learning being a horse owner doesn't make one an expert on the subject; I own a closet full of clothes, but that doesn't make me a clothing designer.
Everyday I thank God I found Parelli. Parelli keeps me safe, sane, well-grounded and on the path to continuous improvement. Better your best. Never let it rest. Get your good better and your better best.
Well, this entry took longer than I originally planned. Another reason I don't write so often, it takes me hours to write one entry. Okay, we can work on that! There are more baby steps to write about, but I need to wrap this up and move on to some household duties before heading down to the barn today.