In the November 6th blog post called “Joy is a Coping Skill,” I talked about a momentary gaze between a horse and a boy. Paying attention to such moments may mean we find that thing we otherwise unconsciously dismiss, looking as we do for that thing—in this case, joy—to appear in something bigger.
The kids of that Coping for Kids program, one of the offerings I began this fall in my Equine Guided Learning practice in Huntsville, UT, did something that brought me joy–and I almost missed it. They talked about “Grandpa.” It took me a few references to what Grandpa “said” to realize the Grandpa they were referring to was not the 2-legged variety. They were talking about one of the horses in the herd. Grandpa was Denny, my first horse who was completely “mine,” a now 19-year-young mustang.
I’m going to attempt the impossible here–to talk about that one amazing horse in just a blog post. Talk about Denny puts me in a river—no, a flood of joy, and mirth. It’s hard to stop, harder to see why I should. These kids saw what I have had the honor of living with—the immense spirit of this 14.2-hand wild horse. In doing so, I’d love it if you responded below, or in an email, with your favorite stories of a special therapy horse.
“Grandpa,” when I first met him 18 ½ years ago, was at the Salt Lake Wild Horse and Burro Holding Facility, out near Butterfield Canyon in Herriman. I was a professor at Salt Lake Community College at the time. I didn’t get to see the horses showcased at 2002 Winter Olympic events, which is how I heard of their existence in the Salt Lake area, so I went to the holding facility in late February. And there was this little smokey colored thing.
Initially I didn’t see him at all, but I could see he was there. The mares of various herds, with their newborns, were packed together so tightly in a holding corral that I couldn’t tell what was going on, but there was a roving ruckus being caused by a being below the sea of backs. What really caught my attention was that he was both annoying the taller youngsters and mares I could see in the crowded corral, but he also seemed to be lifting their spirits. Who was this invisible creature? And where was his mother? No mare seemed to be calling out or sifting her way through the corral.
After the auction, I called him Denny, in honor of the little buckskin brumby in the film set in Australia, “The Man from Snowy River.” Before long it was clear Denny was not “owned” by me; rather, I belonged to him. He saw me as his mother sometimes, but also his first love, his best friend, his tormented big sister, his human. I first boarded him at a facility in Holladay, a suburb of Salt Lake, where the owner had a herd of recently adopted mustangs. She’d hired Peter Campbell, a natural horsemanship trainer from Canada, to gentle and train them. He’d have his crowd of paying auditors and two Montana cowboy apprentices glance over at Denny’s paddock as we all engaged in haltering and gentling sessions with different methodologies and say, “Love works, too.”
At that time, I’d been training horses for 20 years, since I was 13 and my trainer, who I’d been learning from for 5-6 years, hired me as her assistant. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some pretty good, even some fairly well-known trainers.
And it was love. Denny’s love, not mine. Maybe that’s what Peter meant. Once he was—in the eyes of humans anyway, “owned” by me—I got to see what would happen if I unraveled all that was bound up in what I’d been taught about training. Little did I know such an exploration would also unravel all I’d learned about what love was; about what role force, coercion, leadership, and human’s place in animals’ lives; played. I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. I hoped I’d become a better trainer. Denny taught me how to be a true student and a better person. He was such a fast learner, he challenged me to find things to teach him—ways to keep his mind engaged so his body could be conditioned in preparation to ride. If his mind ever got bored—he wasn’t a fan of repetition—he’d begin improvising to make it interesting.
I’m a slow learner, but eventually I got it. And then I realized I was still seeing wrongly as over and over he showed himself to be the bigger spirit, the more loving, the more joyful, the more capable teacher. We peeled back the layers. I could offer him a few skill sets and agree to some cues, but ultimately, if I asked nicely and envisioned well, he did what I wanted to do. His first 5 minutes in a round pen, ever, he walked, trotted, cantered, sped up, slowed down, turned, perfectly. He faced me. “Now what?” he seemed to say. “Nothing? Okay, it’s my turn!” The truth was, it wasn’t about training techniques, it was about how you asked, how clear your mind was as well as how flexible, and about also opening yourself to learn what he wanted, too. This was never going to be about him learning when I wasn’t up to his mental level. I learned all misbehavior is not the horse’s fault, but the human’s lack of imagination, providing a container too small for the horse before us.
Denny liked to jump. He’d seen others do it, and like everything, it looked like fun. It took a long time for Denny to realize some things in life weren’t fun. When he was 5 and I had a good opportunity, I put us both in jumping training. This was in Houston, TX. I worked with a former Olympiad and well-respected trainer, and in our first lesson he got us walk/trot/cantering bridless. I never went back. This elite trainer thought he’d practice with his recently aquired Parelli certification, but he had too much focus on the training system and not enough simple seeing, or asking, to see bridleless was something we’d been doing for 2 years. And that’s a year later than Denny had suggested we do it. I did tell him during the lesson; he just never heard me. Nor did he charge less, though I know it was special for him to see us that way–the way I’d already trained him–uh, correction–he’d trained me, without an expensive certification.
We wanted something different, which was actually something more standard. I needed to learn position, timing, balance, how to get out of my mount’s way. Denny had to make a few balance and position adjustments to make the jump with a rider on his back.
We found highly competent, if less well-known, trainers we both liked as people, and we negotiated. While Denny liked jumping, I liked dressage. So we evented, and Denny never placed lower than third. He cheerfully performed the three events with humor intact, sometimes with the artistry of a BMX biker more than with my exacting plan—because he could make me laugh even in the middle of our stadium jumping course, stop concentrating, perfecting, worrying, and just have fun.
Denny loved the atmosphere at those shows—overall, anyway. Like many people who had smaller budgets, I trailered him and kept him tied at the trailer rather than renting a stall. Denny didn’t do stalls anyway—but that’s another story. The problem was, given long enough, Denny could get untied or out of any halter. He was a social horse, liked to visit others, and loved to watch his fellow horse and human friends perform. If I left him at the trailer like a normal horse, with a hay net to occupy him, I’d regret it. If he didn’t have the time to undo a knot and wanted to see a buddy perform, he’d climb onto the trailer so he could see from a higher vantage. Yes, ON.
He put his front legs through windows and back hooves on a fender, and climb up so he could look OVER the trailer to watch you or his friends showing. I learned how to negotiate, which meant I learned to take him with me on his lead rope when I wanted to do something away from the trailer. My pocketbook—he destroyed many things in his cheerful determination—and my pride (if you’ve ever been to a horse show, even eventing, you’d understand), required it. This is how he got the moniker of pied piper, as while I led him everywhere and watched with him, he developed a following, literally, of jodpher-clad youngsters. He’s always loved kids.
Building fences one winter, Denny was my constant companion. And tools were no longer my companion at all. He’d grab them when I wasn’t looking, right out of my tool belt, so smoothly I didn’t feel them go, and drop them somewhere else. Fresh powder often meant my search—and my fence work for that day, was shorter than planned. Trips to the hardware store increased. Spring thaw led to a bounty of found fencing tools, some of them not even too rusty to keep.
All this personality makes Denny a fantastic therapy or experiential learning colleague. I don’t always know where he’s going in a session, but he’s never led someone, or his human co-facilitator, astray. Humans are in his herd, but he’s seen that we are missing something—something vibrant. He’s here to help. Like the horses of the desert, the stories with which I was raised, he is way ahead, sees what’s coming, and he’s the lionhearted friend, prophet, and guide who loves you intensely, even as he’s ready to reveal your deepest foibles.
And here we are. I might describe him, now that I think about it, as the best sort of grandpa. If you know a person who, when young, had as dynamic a spirit as this little buckskin, add to it some heroic stories and some sobering truths Denny has had to incorporate into his vastly compassionate gaze at humans and the world we’ve constructed, you could see what those kids were thinking. What lucky kids, to have this horse in their lives.