Rogue is an 8-year-old quarter horse mare. Her wide eyes, often rimmed in white, reflect the abuse of her past. Rogue lived knee-deep in manure and mud — barely alive — when she was rescued and brought to Sanctuary One in April 2010. Her foal did not survive the filthy and starving conditions and was found dead when authorities arrived.
I met Rogue in May 2010 on one of my first visits to Sanctuary One. Her ribs poked through the sides of her skin, her coat was dull and dirty and the terror in her eyes told me all I needed to know about her past experience with humans.
Sanctuary One is about healing humans, animals and the Earth. We practice natural horsemanship as a way to heal rescued horses, to regain their trust in humans and to rebuild their confidence in the world. This approach also teaches us life lessons that go beyond the horse-human connection — the importance of practicing love, language and leadership, all in equal doses, as well as taking responsibility for our actions, controlling our emotions and practicing patience and persistence.
I understand Rogue needs love, but just as importantly she needs me to understand her language and be the leader she innately requires. Loving 1,000-pound animals without a balance of leadership and the ability to understand them leads to dangerous situations.
Horses are herd animals that need a leader to feel safe. If their humans are not strong leaders, horses will take over, becoming pushy, obstinate, even threatening. Likewise, in order to be the effective leader Rogue needs, I need to learn and understand her equine language. How horses communicate through body language is essential.
Taking responsibility for how Rogue reacts, rather than blaming her, is a huge life lesson for me. When things don't go the way I expect, I ask myself, "What can I do differently?"
Horses often mirror our intent and energy. If I get frustrated or angry, it only serves to drive Rogue away and causes her to distrust me. Anger and frustration also close me down to the gifts that are presented in the moment.
Natural horsemanship reminds us that if the horse is doing the opposite of what we are asking, it's most likely because of how we are asking, not because the horse is intentionally trying to make us angry. So a key to succeeding with Rogue is controlling my emotions, looking at feelings of frustration and anger as an opportunity to learn something new, to try something different, to ask myself, "What am I doing in the way I'm communicating that isn't working?"
Practicing patience and persistence — taking the time it takes to achieve a goal — is an important life lesson, as well as an important practice in natural horsemanship. It might be faster to corner Rogue in order to catch her, but what about taking the time to create a trusting relationship in which she starts to see me as a source of comfort and safety and then begins to choose to come to me when I want her? It might take longer for this to happen, but the results are lasting and real.
Today, Rogue is a different horse. Her coat is shiny, she has filled out, is healthy and robust and her eyes often are soft and inquisitive. She has a long way to go, but each day she trusts a little more and fears a little less.
Rogue reminds us of our roles as caretakers to never forget to take responsibility for our actions, to be ever mindful of our emotions and to take the time required to achieve goals worth achieving. She also reminds me of the importance of practicing a balance of love, language and leadership.
Della Merrill is People Care Manager at Sanctuary One at Double Oak Farm, located on Upper Applegate Road near Jacksonville; www.sanctuaryone.org.