He almost always whinnies as soon as he sees me come into view. Sometimes it is an acknowledgement, a greeting. Sometimes an expectant call for attention or food. The fact is, Zorro is very externally focused and keenly observant. He wants to know everything that is going on around him and he wants to control how it affects him as much as possible. It’s familiar to me, this desire to control the impact things might have on me. Perhaps it’s one reason I relate to this quirky yet fiercely committed little horse.
Seven years ago in November, I decided to foster a horse for a rescue in the Bay Area of California. I had recently moved to a ranch in a small town outside of Petaluma, where I was working and continuing my education in Equine Guided Coaching. The rescue had run out of room for the horses they were being called to help, and this particular horse had been picked up by animal control because he had been left living tied to a tree.
The horse was small, fine boned gelding, all black with an almost moon-shaped star on his forehead and one short, white sock. Several people had come to try him out with interest to adopt, as he was good looking and curious. But although he was easy to tack up, he was difficult to ride. He would freeze suddenly, spook easily and chomped terribly at the bit.
They estimated that he was about ten years old, but his personality was much more like a two-year-old. He was easy to engage and interested in everyone. He was playful and social with the other horses in the field, and was often the self-designated look-out, standing watch over other horses while they slept. He had a kind eye and I could not resist volunteering to care for him and work on his riding to help make him more adoptable. And so it was that I became the foster human for Zorro.
It was no surprise that Zorro became anxious when left standing, tied to a post. I spent a lot of time just loving on him while he stood tied, and gradually walking away for longer distances and longer lengths of time. He seemed to enjoy it when I spoke aloud to him, especially when praising him for all of his strength and courage… a tactic I used frequently when riding as well. This horse wanted so much to understand what was being asked of him, and he thrived on praise. The problem was, he often did not understand. He would very easily get confused and overwhelmed, and when he did, he was reactive.
There were times when I’d ask him to trot and if my balance was the slightest bit off, he would suddenly plant all four feet in a jarring halt. Sometimes I didn’t know what it was that was disconcerting for him, only that he was suddenly uncomfortable with a request to continue, and he would reach around and bite at my foot. What did not work at all was for me to become impatient, or to ask over again in the same way. It became a mission of mine to understand Zorro’s point of view; to spend more time observing and information-gathering than on trying to “do” more.
I did not, and do not consider myself a horse trainer, but I do know that horses are being trained every day by whatever it is we do consistently around them. We train the people around us as well… often not realizing how we’ve been teaching people to respond to us until it’s too late and suddenly we are wondering why our friends and family assume we will do all the planning and care-taking and we don’t need any help!
With as much time as possible visiting him in the field, hanging out and watching, we started to know each other as friendly cohabitants of this ranch. With a soft rubber bit, and the softest possible hands on the reins, his bit-chomping dissipated. With patient practice of the simplest tasks, and copious praise for even the smallest of successes together, he began to relax more under saddle, which also greatly diminished his tendency to spook and lurch and gallop off in any direction. Just as much as I was working on his riding, I was working on my own. Zorro’s high sensitivity levels meant that I needed to be aware of any tension in my own body, and know how to release it. I needed to slow down and re-master the basics with more balance and flow than I’d ever had. Perhaps most importantly, I needed to trust in myself and my ability to figure out the best way forward for the sake of the horse. Zorro was not going to trust me nor any request I made of him if I did not have complete trust and confidence in myself.
When prospective adopters began calling about Zorro after he’d made progress, it seemed no one was a good enough fit. I found something “wrong” with all of them. I couldn’t let this horse go off to just any home, after all. A few different friends had to help me accept the truth: I had fallen for this horse and he had fallen for me. On Valentine’s Day of 2014, I officially adopted my third horse.
As the weather gets colder, and the grass gets sparser, Zorro knows that when I come out of the house, it often means I will bring hay out to the pasture. He waits by the fence and whinnies in anticipation as soon as he sees me emerge from the door. There are flood lights on outside the house during the night. Even if the sun is up in the morning by the time I am ready to go out, he is watching those lights. Just before I step out the door, I switch off the lights. Zorro’s welcome whinny now comes as soon as I switch off the lights, and before I step out the door.
Images of present-day Zorro at work in Equine Guided Coaching. He helps others foster the confidence and trust he helped me train in myself.