Relationship First by Joe Camp
I remember that it was an unusually chilly day for late May, because I recall the jacket I was wearing. Not so much the jacket, I suppose, as the collar. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing at full attention, and the collar was scratching at them.
There was no one else around. Just me and this eleven-hundred pound creature I had only met once before. And today he was passing out no clues as to how he felt about that earlier meeting, or about me. His stare was without emotion. Empty. Scary to one who was taking his very first step into the world of horses.
If he chose to do so this beast could take me out with no effort whatsoever. He was less than fifteen feet away. No halter, no line. We were surrounded by a round pen a mere fifty feet in diameter. No place to hide. Not that he was mean. At least I had been told that he wasn’t. But I had also been told that anything is possible with a horse. He’s a prey animal, they had said. A freaky flight animal that can flip from quiet and thoughtful to wild and reactive in a single heartbeat. Accidents happen.
But there was something about this horse. A kindness in his eyes that betrayed the vacant expression. And sometimes he would cock his head as if he were asking a question. I wanted him to be more than chattel. I wanted a relationship with this horse. I wanted to begin at the beginning, as Monty Roberts had prescribed. Start with a blank sheet of paper, then fill it in.
I had never done this before.
I knew dogs.
I did not know horses.
And I was going to ask this one to do something he had probably never been asked to do in his lifetime. To make a choice. Which made me all the more nervous. What if it didn’t work?
What if his choice was not me?
Rejection is not one of my favorite concepts.
I had vowed that this would be our path. We would begin our relationship with every horse in this manner. Our way to true horsemanship, which, as I would come to understand, was not about how well you ride, or how many trophies you win, or how fast your horse runs, or how high he or she jumps.
I squared my shoulders, stood tall, looked this almost sixteen hands of horse straight in the eye, appearing as much like a predator as I could muster, and tossed one end of a soft long-line into the air behind him, and off he went at full gallop around the round pen. Just like Monty said he would.
I kept my eyes on his eyes, just as a predator would. Cash would run for roughly a quarter of a mile, just as horses do in the wild, before he would offer his first signal. Did he actually think I was a predator, or did he know he was being tested? I believe it’s somewhere in between, a sort of leveling of the playing field. A starting from scratch with something he knows ever so well. Predators and flight. A simulation, if you will. Certainly he was into it. His eyes were wide, his nostrils flared. At the very least he wasn’t sure about me, and his fifty-two million years of genetics were telling him to flee.
It was those same genetics that caused him to offer the first signal. His inside ear turned and locked on me, again as Monty had predicted. He had run the quarter of a mile that usually preserves him from most predators; and I was still there, but not really seeming very predatory. So now, instead of pure reactive flight, he was getting curious. Beginning to think about it. Maybe he was even a bit confused. Horses have two nearly separate brains. Some say one is the reactive brain and the other is the thinking brain. Whether or not that’s true physiologically, emotionally it’s a good analogy. When they’re operating from the reactive side, the rule of thumb is to stand clear until you can get them thinking. Cash was now shifting. He was beginning to think. Hmm, maybe this human is not a predator after all. I’ll just keep an ear out for a bit. See what happens.
Before long, he began to lick and chew. Signal number two. I think maybe it’s safe to relax. I think, just maybe, this guy’s okay. I mean, if he really wanted to hurt me, he’s had plenty of time, right?
The next signal came quickly. He lowered his head, almost to the ground, and began to narrow the circle. Signal number three. I’ll look submissive, try to get closer, see what happens. I think this guy might be a good leader. We should discuss it.
I was now supposed to take my eyes off him, turn away, and lower my head and shoulders. No longer predatory, but assuming a submissive stance of my own, saying Okay, if it’s your desire, come on in. I’m not going to hurt you. But the choice is yours.
The moment of truth. Would he in fact do that? Would he make the decision, totally on his own, to come to me? I took a deep breath, and turned away.
He came to a halt and stood somewhere behind me.
The seconds seemed like hours.
“Don’t look back,” Monty had warned. “Just stare at the ground.”
A tiny spider was crawling across my new Boot Barn boot. The collar of my jacket was tickling the hairs on the back of my neck. And my heart was pounding. Then a puff of warm, moist air brushed my ear. My heart skipped a beat. He was really close. Then I felt his nose on my shoulder… the moment of Join-Up. I couldn’t believe it. Tears came out of nowhere and streamed down my cheeks. I had spoken to him in his own language, and he had listened… and he had chosen to be with me. He had said I trust you.
I was no longer a horse owner. I was a companion. A leader. I trusted friend. And I promised that his life with me would be the very best that I could possibly make it.
I had no clue what the very best might be but I vowed to him I would find out.
What a difference that day has made as this newcomer has stumbled his way through the learning process. Cash has never stopped trying, never stopped listening, never stopped giving.
Nor have I.
Joe Camp is the author of the national best seller The Soul of a Horse – Life Lessons from the Herd (from which the above is an edited excerpt) and The Soul of a Horse Blogged – The Journey Continues. He is also the creator of the canine superstar Benji and the writer-director of all five Benji movies. See the results of Cash and Joe’s relationship in the video: Relationship First! at The Soul of a Horse Channel on You Tube.