Energy. It is a word that is bandied around a lot when we speak about horses. It can be a vague term and often misleading. For me, energy is a type of language. This ‘thing’ is difficult to describe because it is a feeling… language alone has a very poor capacity to evoke true kinesthetic realities, there are some things which can only be felt. Body, mind, heart and soul together as a whole singular, non-verbal experience.
When I speak about Sanson, there are elements in his behaviour which can be troublesome for some people and still remain a part of him today. He can bolt, run off with his rider, have problems concentrating, walk through or over someone, has even bucked people off. He is pretty bulky and naturally powerful horse, I can name a few instances that I know of (But probably these are the tip of the iceberg) where these ‘things’ have hurt people, even put them in hospital.
I spent 5 years visiting a mountain trekking centre in the foothills of the Spanish Sierra Nevada, first as a working holiday tourist, and then as a volunteer, and finally as a paid worker. What started as a holiday in the saddle became a summer job, and it was where I met Sanson… this was his home.
I still remember the first day I worked with him. There was a daily list at the stable, written by the owner and manager of the yard. ‘The List’ is the effective bible of the days work and client/ride regimen. I had worked with a variety of the horses they had across my visits but one day it went on the list—
‘4pm. School Sanson: Lachlan’
I remember the people around me having some kind of nervous reaction to that. Except for Val, the cool-as-a-cucumber Belgian stable manager. I idolised Val and thought (still do think) she was one of the most gifted horse people I had ever met. I cannot be certain, but I think it was Val’s suggestion to put me and Sanson together to work. I had steadily been progressing ‘Up’ in the level of horse they were giving me to ride and school, testing my skills and my nerve. Being a very busy yard, they are always looking for people who can help bring their horses along in their training, and improve the quality of rides to their clients.
Being horse crazy like I am, each chance to get to work and ride a new horse is an honour and exciting, and on that visit to Caballo Blanco (I think it was summer 2013) I had been on the yard for a couple of weeks already and felt settled enough not to be scared, or too bloody exhausted to have energy for fear, or both. Half their horses were rescues and most of them extremely forward, some even fairly unmanageable. Spanish horses can be hot and fiery, and the Spanish men are famous for their incredibly brutal training methods… some of these rescues were in a bad state. The place was run solely by English expat Sarah, who is something of a miracle worker with horses. Respected by expats and Spanish alike across the Alpujarrahs, if there is a God, Sarah got touched by him in her skills with horses……… and dogs, and cats, and chickens, and geese, and rabbits……
I should have been concerned when my friend Jane said to me after reading The List…
‘So! You workin’ with the big boy today eh?’
‘Oh yeah, it’s on the list, so I guess so.’
It was unusual to school a horse at 4pm, that was time to make the evening feeds, but there were enough volunteers and workers that summer that those who could do the horse work were freed up to do that. I had done a bit of mountain guiding for the place, and enjoyed it, but my heart really lay in horsemanship. There was so much more to riding and to horses that just the ‘Getting On and Going’ mentality of a trekking centre. You and your horse are thrown into the deep end and if your mount presents you with a few issues when you’re out on the mountain trail with -usually- inexperienced tourists following you, you never really get the chance to focus in and solve the issue. You and your horse finish the ride somewhat rattled. It always felt kind of unfair to the horse to me. Feels too much like flying by the seat of my pants. Sure, there is a value in learning how to solve a issue with your horse while you are out riding, or doing a job, but I think it puts the horse and rider at too much risk. Safety is EVERYTHING when it comes to horses! Taking an unfamiliar horse out on a week long trek can be great, if the horse has the training and the temperament that lends itself to that kind of experience. But most horses, it would be too much pressure on them just to ‘shut up and perform’. ( I am starting to see a spooky connection to my dance career…) Some horses have opinions, intelligence and are not ‘dead behind the eyes’ like many trail horses are. I think we owe it to them to see what they have to say, and help them through their issues.
Sanson up until that point had been the strange, floppy looking, young horse that I occasionally gave feeds to. I never saw anybody work or ride him. I thought he was actually kind of ugly, not being impressed by his mane, I was accustomed to horses that actually looked like horses, not strange fairytale ‘Barbie horses’ as he was referred to.
As I lead him into the round pen, I remember the other volunteers giving him a wide berth, and people closing the gate after me, which NEVER happened. Was I was leading a Siberian Tiger on the end of my rope? People would stop mid bucket duty to catch a peek of what we were doing. The whole energy I got from the yard was that Sanson was treated with caution, importance and even a bit of fear. I remember distinctly being absolutely, 100% perplexed by this yard vibe around him. None of the energy I ever got from him was giving me red flags. There certainly were horses on the yard that I would have been very calculated in my handling of, not that I wasn’t cautious with Sanson, but I was more reticent to work with the I-Cannot-Ever-Stand-Still-I-Want-To-Run-Everywhere-And-Dance-Piaffe-Pirouette-Bolt-Bite-Head-Shakey-Prancy-Explosion Andalucian rescue mares, than this weak looking, young, draft horses in a strange colour, who always came over to say hello in the paddock.
I remember feeling no fear, only a bizarre type of apprehension that grew from a place of calmness. I had absolutely no knowledge about prior training or experiences. Normally I wanted to know as much as possible about a new horse before I worked with them. I was told he was ridable and thats about it. I knew he was green. I had never worked with a baby before. In fact, my stable in Poland exclusively gave me the aged ‘safe’ horses. I was lead to believe that I wasn’t ready to able to work with a young horse. I love my trainers dearly, but this sentiment was apparently incorrect! I had had enough trainings to become an above average rider and done enough homework that I could take a fresh horse and not be clueless anymore. A new page in my life was about to be turned and I had no idea.
I had been studying for a year on Monty Robert’s methods. Now, I am no evangelical horseman… the type who prescribes to one method and loathes the rest. Monty, like many famous trainers, certainly has his fair share of such followers. I try to learn from many different horseman and see what works for me, take the good, and leave behind the rest. Like the modern American Philosopher Ken Wilbur who wrote about his idea for ‘Integral Humanism’ in his book ‘The Eye of Spirit’, I believe in Integrating Horsemanship from a variety of sources, and if it feels meaningful to you, do it, if it doesn’t, understand why you don’t like it.
I had read all of Monty’s books. Watched my trainers perform what they called Join-Up a few times, although suspected that the way they were doing it was wrong. So I had to go to the source. Monty lives in California but travels the world annually giving clinics. So, I flew to Germany one Spring to see him in action at one of his clinics. I saw him do Join-Up with my own eyes. I saw that he was the real deal. I saw his true love for horses totally outshine his own methods, and saw horses
forgive his many mistakes, because everything he did came from an amazing palpable place of joy, love, humour and care. After tens of thousands of horses under his belt, I saw Monty break into tears of happiness when a horse he presented at the clinic got over one his fears in front of the audience. I joined his online university and soon had watched more than 200 of his lesson videos. But, I had never had the practical opportunity to try Join-Up for myself. So, I decided to try with Sanson.
Three and a half minutes later, I had a sweet expressive nose, sniffing my shoulder. I had followed all the steps of the method that I knew by heart, and Sanson had responded in textbook perfect. I read somewhere that ‘Technique is what you use when you run out of inspiration’. For me it worked the opposite way. I used a technique I did not know I possessed, in order to grow some inspiration and intuition about what to do next. Luckily, a friend of mine was present, and I believe she captured in this photo the moment Sanson looked at me differently. This was the moment I think our connection started.
Then we began 3 years of working together. Whenever I could fly to Spain, I did, and though I loved being there, the more I went, the more Sanson became the reason I continued to return. This horse just gave me everything he had, EVERYTHING. I gave him 100% of my focus and intent each time, and he mirrored me back. It felt like the first truly reciprocal partnership with a horse. Like we were both there for equal parts each other and for ourselves. I discovered how much reassurance he needed from his rider. Not that he was needy, he can just be dramatic and fly off the handle, and needs a rider who can guide him through the good and the bad. He is extremely brave, but confidence can be lacking. But his confidence only lacks when he is confused, in pain or even mild discomfort, under too much pressure (mental or physical) or remembering past trauma. Trauma for him presents in ways you wouldn’t expect. He is also extremely sensitive to smell. He sadly once saw the corpse of another horse on the driveway corner under a tarp, it had passed away and was awaiting collection, and for the rest of his life on the mountain, I never knew when he would remember that moment. Some days past that corner he went past it like a pro. Some days he turned on his haunches and flew away, and things got western. Nothing but trust and step for step reassurance would lead him past it. He is still loathsome of ‘dead’ smells. Garbage with food remains of meat, if he is upwind, he spooks. I bought a hoof ointment with main component animal fat, if he is not tied up, he very expressively avoids me oiling his feet with it. If I was not detail oriented or aware of these things, and so willing to see the world through his eyes, these things would just present as Sanson being a ‘bit of a dick’, or ‘too spooky’ or whatever. There is a rhyme and reason for everything he does. Nothing is arbitrary with him or horses.
How do I get through to him? Energy. I have to be 100% physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, present and then he can recognise me. Luckily, I am a dancer, it brings a deeper understanding of my body, and the ability to project my energy out in the space around me. One of my strengths as an artist was my performance, or acting ability… this is only energy, and the instincts for how to send it out around you, to affect how others think and feel. This is what I do with him. I become present. I show him who I am. Like rolling back the grey plastic curtain of the human world, and entering the painfully clear world of the horse, I show up. I have photos which show what I believe to be Sanson finally ‘seeing’ me, when I do this with him. Thats when he just comes over and fits into the palm of my hand and gives me everything he has got. Sometimes I have even felt him share ideas, images, feelings and experiences with me this way. But more on that later… I am still a bit hesitant to talk about that, lest people think I am mad.
But it is true to say that I have the ability to make a connection with horses, and I think Sanson has an unusually developed talent to connect with a human, and has higher standards for people as a result. The reason why he is now my horse is because there was nobody yet who was able to accomplish with him, the things I have managed to accomplish. And I feel overwhelmed and honoured by it.
Tomorrow when I see him, my focus will be on my energy, on showing up, and stepping into his world, and out of mine.