They used to call it breaking a horse. Many still do. Breaking his spirit, breaking his independence. Taking something correct and complete and destroying it. It’s fitting terminology for what it used to look like (and still does in some circles).
I was going to insert a video clip of a horse getting “broke” here but I just can’t do it, so here’s something cute instead:
I broke my arm once. Just a little, hairline fracture. It’s healed up now, but it will never be the same. It can never be unbroken.
The horsemen I follow call it starting a horse. Starting into a long education.
We ask the horse to consent to do what we ask. We give him time and space to consider his options, and in the end, he usually agrees with our suggestions. It’s a wondrous thing.
But what about when he doesn’t? In his fifth year, Bridger suddenly started disagreeing. Suddenly, that is, if one has failed to see the ripples and eddies forming on the surface of the pond. Bridger has now decided to revolt against those things he doesn’t like. The sweet, seemingly compliant kid has erupted into a surly teenager.
He’s a horse, surly is the wrong word. He’s unconfident and worried and irritated and frustrated, by turns or all at once. Maybe he wasn’t before, or maybe he just wasn’t showing it much. Now he is. His modus operandi is to rear up, which can be extremely dangerous.
So now we have to convince Bridger to quit it. We have to make him understand that his rearing idea — and his defiance ideas in general — won’t work out for him and he needs to find other ideas.
The plan, implemented by my teacher, Kathleen Sullivan, is to provoke the unwanted response and then show Bridger it’s not in his best interest. If we pussyfoot around and avoid the tough spot, it will stay in there and solidify.
“If it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.” Carl Jung.
Here’s the thing: correcting a problem can look awfully like breaking something. Kathleen gets pretty vigorous with Bridger when he thinks about rearing up. In my work with him, it can be the same. Dust flies, there is sweat. First he is quick and powerful and troubled, then, soon, he is docile.
I have to find the difference because I know we are not breaking him and won’t break him and can’t break him. Right?
Here’s the best I can do so far:
- Breaking: you reach for my french fries and I punch you in the face. I have my fries and you resent and fear me. Someday you may punch me back, if I ever see you again.
- Correcting: you reach for my french fries and I block your hand; you reach harder and I block harder; I block as fast and hard as I need to in protecting my fries; our hands fly like a Three Stooges routine; you give up trying. I have my fries and you recognize you won’t get any by grabbing. Maybe you ask politely and I give you some. Maybe you order your own. We’re friends.
Sometimes I use the shorthand term “broke” because horse people understand it. I tell people Bridger’s “broke to tie” or “green broke.” I hope beyond hope I haven’t broken anything much. It’s not the plan.