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The Project:

One Mustang directly off the range, One trainer, No tools, Just body language

The Goal:

To discover how far Equestrian Art can be developed solely using body language.

Zohari

I think it’s time for a story. Where I am today is due in large part to the phenomenal teachers I have had along my path. My human teachers have, of course, helped me immeasurably; however, it’s the horses I feel I need to write about first.

I have heard it said. “Words don’t teach, experiences teach.” A hard concept to swallow when I, in daily practice, am a teacher utilizing words to school my students. If indeed I believe that concept to be true, all I can do is use my words to set up opportunities for life to be experienced in new and enlightening ways.

Horses are the pure experience, without the words. They are the ultimate teachers of horsemanship.

This story is about Zohari: a horse who could never say no to me, a horse who gave me everything he could give everyday, a horse who gave so much of himself away that he lost all self-confidence and propelled me into the world of Natural Horsemanship. When he lost his courage, I was told I should sell him and start again with a new horse. Instead I chose the path less traveled and became a new person to partner my horse who needed a new start himself.

Zohari stands sixteen hands tall, with the lightness of his Arabian sire, the strength of his Westphalian grandsire, and the lanky build of his Thoroughbred granddam.

Zohari’s sire, Zorro, was bred to a Wesphalian Thoroughbred mare named Harmony. Zorro had been entrusted into my family’s care when I was young. My mother eventually couldn’t stand to see him kept alone, as stallions are in the world of captivity, so, to improve the quality of his life, he was given a couple of mares, the family he had never had. Harmony was one of those mares: a well bred Warmblood whose overall form had not met the expectations of her breeder. Passed from home to home, she had ended up with us. I had my apprehensions about breeding her; my mother knew it was the right thing to do. Again, I have to admit, she was correct. Zohari pulled out of his gene pool all the best traits and put them together with a harmony his dam had managed only in her name. Zohari was beautiful.

Perhaps Zohari’s emotional tendency to apprehension started when he was born. That night Harmony was still in the pasture with Zorro, the stallion. They were great friends, however, Zorro, had never seen a foal born, and with no one around but them that night, his curiosity and interest in the baby drove Harmony to be intensely overprotective. Not allowing her foal away from her chest and protectively bared teeth, he was unable to nurse, and she kept him moving away from the stallion as much as she was able until we arrived in the morning to put things to rights. Once we took the stallion away, she settled, let her baby nurse, and proved to be a wonderful mother.

Zohari, was a dear sweet foal, but never the bravest. All the babies we had had up to that point had enjoyed going out on the trails loose to travel alongside their mothers and explore the world. Zohari joined his mother for one trail ride only, and then decided that was enough for him. From that point on when we would take Harmony to the barn and out on the trail, Zohari would contentedly say goodbye at the edge of the herd and stay with the other horses until she returned. He always seemed composed and accepting of whatever happened around him. Weaning was smooth, and he became part of the boys herd with his brother and sire. The three of them led their coltish existence happily, though I am not sure Zohari ever realized he was substantially bigger than his sire and older brother. When they played he would give ground more of the time than not.

I started Zohari under saddle at three, smoothly and easily. When he had his basics, we began Three Day Event training. He was powerful over fences and hated to touch the rails, so he jumped clean and easy. I was in heaven and thought I had won the lottery. We galloped round a beginning novice course when he was four and, though he hesitated at every fence, when I asked him, he always said yes. His natural tendency to obedience made Dressage patterns a joy to train. His hyper carefulness of rails made stadium jumping feel safe and fun.

Our trainer at the time suggested it was time to get him jumping height, while he was still young enough to think he was invincible. She said he wasn’t really strong enough to jump four foot fences easily, so the idea was to gallop at them so fast that our momentum would carry us over. It was thrilling, and, if I said go, he did his very best. The winter he was four we did an indoor jumper show, showing at three foot six and three foot nine. The warm-up arena was so crowded it felt like entering the freeway at sixty miles per hour. You had to see your spot in the ring coming, and jump from halt to trot to get in. Zohari rose to the challenge and did everything I asked. This was to be our first experience jumping indoors. The sight of the solid walls behind every fence backed Zohari off significantly. He jumped the course slowly, and with such hesitation that everyone in the stands was sitting on the edges of their seats, clucking encouragement as we approached each fence. For me, and for them, he jumped them all, in spite of his apprehension.

The year Zohari turned five, everything changed. He had tried his heart out for me. I was ambitious and no matter how hard he tried, I always wanted more. Little by little he started showing his apprehension more obviously. Spooking at objects and leaping away from things became daily occurrences. I rode with a strong hand and a strong leg, with the aim to get him more focused on me and less concerned with the world around him. I tried spurs and drop nosebands and different bits to gain control over him and his fears. One day, headed out to the trails, he finally could take no more. We were traveling down the shoulder of a country road. Something bothered him and I tried to push him past. Instead of giving over to my strong leadership as he had in the past, he reared straight up and spun around, bolting for home. There was nothing I could do to slow or turn him. As we galloped flat out down the yellow line in the middle of the road I tried every trick I had, to no avail. Only once we had reached the safety of the barn would he slow. I was shaken and I don’t remember much after that, though knowing me, I am sure I lead him back out there, along that road on foot, with me in control on the ground, and I imagine I was not kind to him in my desperation to feel safe. From then on it went from bad to worse. The far end of the arena became an area to bolt from; every spook threatened to take us all the way back to the barn. Our riding gradually became limited to the side of the arena closest to the barn while I worked determinedly to build control back into our relationship.

At about this time, my wonderful mother did something extreme. She felt our horses needed a more natural life, and she informed us all there were to be no more bits in the horse’s mouths, and no more shoes on their feet. It was up to all of us to figure out how to make that work. I struggled on with conventional training for a time, attempting to do my dressage and gain control of my explosive horse with only a sidepull hackamore. Eventually, I had to admit it wasn’t getting any better. I had to find a different way.

Sus Kellogg came to my rescue. I was willing to try anything at that point. I was not willing to give up on Zohari, and I was frustrated that everything I had learned up to that point was not helping us. Sus insisted I quit riding for awhile and develop the ground work. I wanted to know how long it would take to complete this magic Natural Horsemanship stuff so I could go back to my Three Day Eventing and reclaim the Zohari I had known before he turned five. All Sus would tell me was in three months I would be really pleased with our progress.

Those first three months were rough going. Zohari was afraid and reactive to everything. I was frustrated and wanted to hurry the process along. Nonetheless, we took a day at a time and did the best we could. When we started riding, Sus insisted I ride bareback as much of the time as I could. I hated it. Zohari was always abruptly slamming on the breaks throwing me onto his withers, or scooting left or right leaving me to grab desperately on with my knees. The loose reins of freestyle riding seemed absurdly challenging on a spooky horse… yet, the process worked its magic, and, little by little, Zohari found his stability. When a horse makes a deliberate choice to be your partner, it’s a different feeling. I will never forget the day I was riding Zohari bareback and started to slide a little to one side. Instead of getting rattled as he would have before, he steadied, and hunkered down to step underneath me, putting me squarely up on top again. A movement so deliberate and focused, was something I had never felt from any horse.

I have loved this horse from day one, yet this was an action I had never expected from him. While he had always tried to do what I asked of him, taking the initiative to look out for me was a whole different world. It proved to me this was a way of being with horses that, once tasted, I couldn’t get enough of.

Over the next few years we developed our partnership to include liberty work and bridleless polocrosse. Jumping and trail riding with a whole different perspective: one of building his confidence, not just getting the job done. Passing our level three Parelli assessment test allowed us to revisit dressage with a whole new sensitivity. Performing in front of large crowds challenged us to new levels of confidence. Step by step Zohari and I grew into new versions of ourselves, and I am forever grateful to him.

Elsa Sinclair

www.equineclarity.com

4 Comments

  1. What an amazing and wonderful story Elsa. It reminds me of my Icelandic stallion Bjarg, with whom I experienced the same, not in detail but still the principle is the same. A very sensitive horse, willing to do everything I wanted, but in the end spooking on a trailride and bolting for home (a thing I had NEVER expected he would ever do!) because I just didn’t know how to be empathic with him and didn’t really see who he was. He set me on the path of groundwork and although I sold him to a wonderful new owner later on, I still consider him to be my greatest teacher. He stays in my heart and I am forever grateful to him.

  2. Elsa, That was almost lyrical and this is going to make a GREAT book, eventually! And the way you relate your revelations, your learning as much as your horses learn makes this a new text book in Equine Management. I look forward to each new lesson——I’m learning, too, even after fifty years of Western Horse-ing, 32 years of working ranches. Thanks, Michael

  3. You write so well. Thanks for these.

  4. That was such a pleasure reading your story of Zohari. I can’t wait to get started with my lessons with you and am really looking forward to getting to know you more thru them and this blog.
    Thanks, Ritzy


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