A Lesson in Rapport

cheryl de BieBy Cheryl de Bie


Recently my horse taught me a huge lesson, one I felt I had to share, one about rapport, the strength of bond within the relationship. This has been a big deal for me recently as I returned from my three month Externship at the Parelli Natural Horsemanship campus in Colorado to find my horse had lost a lot of trust during my absence.

raport web 2To put it in context Paris was the horse that got me into natural horsemanship. He was a skeptic when it came to all things human. You could do things with him but there was no joy in it for him and sometimes things were just plain dangerous. After following the Parelli program for three years we had reached the point where we were able to play at liberty and both have fun, I could ride my “runaway” ex-racehorse bare back and bridleless at a canter in open fields and, more impressively, we could stop! Whilst I was trying to qualify for the externship Paris began to have issues with his hind legs and I wasn’t sure I would be able to pass the necessary tests. Paris pulled out the stops and I got through but his legs got worse again and I gave him a long rest. I was not going to transport him all the way to America for three months and decided the time off would probably do him good. Three days before my flight Paris got injured in the field and had to go to the vets. The last time I saw him, before I flew away, he was stressed out and not eating at the vets.

My mum gave me regular updates and my partner would send me pictures and videos but I really missed my wonderful horse whilst I was away.

raport 2When I returned I half imagined our reunion would be like a cheesy film, all slow motion running to each other in meadows full of flowers. What I got was him standing their looking at me. I was sad to see his coat had dulled, he was underweight and rather foot sore. He would come to me if I MADE him but he no longer trotted to me, he would not play stick to me, he just seemed to tolerate me.

It was a hard blow and it got me thinking. The last thought he had of me for three months was that I left him in that strange stressful place. I had been a constant in his life for 5 years and then suddenly I was gone, just like every human had done before me. Sometimes it’s difficult to know where putting yourself in your horse’s shoes ends and anthropomorphism begins.

I decided that, as it was the end of summer, my goal for the winter would be to get him back to weight, sound and re-establish our relationship.

I did lots of confidence building exercises, hang out with him finding all his itchy spots, would catch him and take him with me to watch others play with their horses and then just let him go again. Quickly the shine was back in his coat, and also in his eye.

I realised that whilst I had been away the majority of human interactions he had was to either feed him or move him around. Paris needed some time with me just hanging out so he could feel safe and realise it was not all about take, take, take, but that I would also give.

raport web 1Occasionally I would play with Paris but I was finding him rather dull and unresponsive. Then one day I went out to play with him and I said “I want to get our play drive back”. I took him into his field and I began to run. I didn’t use my stick to get him to keep up with me I just ran and let the rope get taught if he did not keep up. He soon worked out that it was much more comfortable to run with me than have the rope pull on his halter. And suddenly my trot draw was back, we could do stick to me again, even at the canter. Paris came alive and I realised the biggest thing that had changed… me!

I had been so focused on how my horse felt about me that I completely overlooked how I felt when I was with my horse.

I must have projected anxious energy when I had first returned from my travels, nervous about how he would respond to me after the long break we’d had. When my anxiousness had caused him to be hesitant I allowed it to reinforce my negative ideas, “see! He is upset with you for leaving him!”, and this sapped all the fun and life out of me when I was with him.

Spending time hanging out with Paris was definitely worth while, but I do think it was more for me than him. He does need me to give him scratches and to spend relaxing time together, not only get him when I want him to perform, but he also needs me to have a plan, to have a goal in my mind’s eye and to believe that we can do it. As soon as I decided I was ready for us to have fun again my energy changed.

Horses are mirrors to our souls; they know when we are not at peace with ourselves. Next time you feel like your relationship with your horse has gone a bit south ask yourself “am I projecting my own emotions?”

I’ve got my relationship with Paris back where it was and in many ways it is better than ever and all it took was for me to adjust my attitude.

For more details please visit my website www.horseandridernaturally.com or call me on 07463 471919

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