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“Horse sense always follows freedom” ~ Jim Oakley
When my husband Rod and I found our 2 ½ acre rental property, we had dreams of making it a home for Darma. Though not ideal as a horse property, it was still better than most boarding stable environments I had experienced. I also wanted to get to know her in a deeper way than my visits to a stable could allow.
Our landlord had previously owned horses and was amenable to allowing us to keep Darma on the property. She offered to let me ride or graze Darma on her long, grass bordered driveway and 5-acre property next door. The opportunity seemed ideal.
At first I attempted to ride Darma, but it soon became clear that I was attempting too much, too soon. I was focusing on “Doing” rather than “Being” with her. I hadn’t allowed her to get used to her new environment. I decided to just spend time getting to know her. Since she didn’t have enough grass in her paddock to graze, I started grazing her in-hand on a long lead line in the yard surrounding our house.
I soon realized however that this was not satisfying to her because I could tell she wanted to move freely to the next patch of grass and it was frustrating for her to have to ask permission to move, or anticipate my tagging along. Sometimes this became a problem because she was often excitable when I took her out. She thought of her paddock as “inside” and the yard as “outside” where she felt more vulnerable and also wanted to move without restraint. Therefore she spooked easily, and I felt I always had to be prepared in order to anticipate her reactions. A few times this escalated into an issue when she would spook, reach the end of the lead line, and then get even more anxious. Once she pulled the lead rope from my hand and charged out on the road. This was clearly not working safely or happily for either of us.
Our landlord’s property next door was fenced and their driveway had a gate, however her earlier offer became contingent on making an appointment each time I wanted to walk Darma down the driveway or graze her on their 5 acres of mown grass. If it rained we were restricted to the driveway, because she didn’t want horse prints on her manicured lawn. Their driveway was bordered by fences and high bushes, with only a tiny grass border, so even walking her down that “secure” area was both claustrophobic and boring to Darma and I.
When I asked if we could build a gate on our roundabout driveways to protect Darma from the road while I was out leading her, she refused, saying a gate wouldn’t stop Darma from exiting the property since there was open space in the trees elsewhere. She wouldn’t let us fence the property because she thought we would use the lawn as Darma’s paddock. It became uncomfortably evident that she was not flexible enough to allow us to adapt our use of the rental property to our needs despite her earlier enthusiasm of allowing Darma to live there. Though we were extremely conscientious and had already made many improvements to the property, she didn’t trust that we would take care of any damage that Darma might
cause by her presence there. This mistrust created an inner tension that began to affect our ability to think of the property as home. Our options were steadily declining.
I knew that leading Darma in our tiny backyard was becoming too restrictive for her. I also strongly felt that her spooking had become aa part of the dynamic of leading her with a rope in that environment. Since she had no place to exercise, her excess of energy contributed to her nervousness. This presented a difficult situation. I knew that having Darma at home was critical to her emotional well being. Yet our use of the land was restricted and didn’t provide her with the basic needs of an energetic thoroughbred. She had as many options as she would at a boarding stable, with the exception of a big arena – but even at the stable she had often seemed alternately anxious or bored with that kind of space.
We needed a fast solution, so despite our landlord’s objections, we built temporary gates and wire fencing along the driveway, and I did the only think I could think of – I set her free.
There comes a time when one reacts to a situation instinctively, and when it works we can look back and say, “Why didn’t I do that before?” With the full knowledge that occasionally letting Drama out at liberty in our backyard might mean our eviction, I decided it was worth the risk. I just couldn’t restrict her freedom because of human convention any longer.
That first day, when I led Darma out of her paddock to graze. I told her I was going to take her halter off and that she would be very safe and able to move about at her own pace. I prayed that she wouldn’t run as she normally would in an arena when I removed her halter, as the backyard was not built for horses, it had low tree limbs, cars, rock walls and a pond, and the lower half wasn’t really even fenced. I had no idea what she might be capable of if she spooked in this obstacle course. But I knew my control of her with the halter was an illusion anyway. I undid her halter with a feeling that a mother must have when they watch their children ride off on their first bike. I knew there was nothing I could do to keep her safe. As the halter slide off her nose… she calmly walked away and began to graze.
After several long minutes I began to breathe attain, and then I started to relax. Then I realized that not only could Darma fully relax now, but so could I. While leading her, I had been so prepared to react if she should spook, that each moment with her outside had been filled with the tension of needing to be on guard for what might set her off. Of course now I know more about the contagious nature of emotion, but at the time, I thought I had to try to manage her fear. As I watched her graze freely, I realized how right and natural it was to see her this way.
After awhile I decided to walk around the end of the house to get something. With me suddenly out of sight, she snorted and ran around the house, heading for our rickety driveway fence. I called to her saying, “Easy girl, here I am” and I held up my hands to attract her attention. She skidded to a stop and turned and trotted to me. I felt more connect to her in that moment than I had ever felt with a lead rope in my hand.
This experience reminded me of a novel I had read called Golden Moments by Jim Oakley about horses, healing, and human hearts. (Available free to read here: http://goldenmoments.tripod.com/
In the book he talks about “The Principle”
“Releasing freedom, not using fear…
In every living creature there is a dignity,
The spirit to be free, and an inviolate sacred presence
Impenetrable except by love.”
My love for Darma meant wanting her to be free. Free to be herself as a horse in a human environment.