Through Ellie’s Eyes


Ellie is my 9 year old Arabian mare.  Arabians often enjoy a reputation for being flighty, spooky, unstable, unpredictable over-reactors.  Ellie can be all of these things.  However, she also shares the other reputation that Arabians have — for being kind, sweet, smart, brave, hard working, dedicated, strong, fast, loyal and kind spirited companions.

I went out to ride her today.  I was actually going to ride Cricket – that was my plan.  But when I got to the barn, as soon as I parked my car and opened the door, Ellie was at the gate, whinnying her welcome to me.  She totally warmed my heart, and I decided I’d ride her today instead (although I’m not sure that was the outcome she was hoping for).  I went to get her, and brought her up to the barn to groom her.  They’re building a couple of new stalls out at the barn, so there was a good deal of commotion  — nail guns, circular saws, trucks driving around — in addition to the normal commotion of an active barn — horses and riders going about their regular activities.

I can never be quite sure which Ellie I’m going to get at a given time.  I was prepared for the flighty one — I get nervous around nail guns and circular saws — but I was pleasantly surprised.  She was quiet and relaxed while I groomed her and tacked her up, even as an air compressor came on loudly not far away.  I brought her to the arena and she stood with me while I took care of the gates and arranged some poles on the ground.  Then I mounted up and started the ride.  Mostly, she was very well behaved, but she was very nervous about one side of the arena.  On the other side of the fence, there were some poles and jump standards arranged.  They have been there for some time, but they’ve been rearranged since the last time I rode her in the arena.  So this was scary.  Saws, nail guns, moving vehicles – those are fine, but don’t make a pile of lumber!  Certainly, I can think of some good evolutionary reasons for horses to be wary of a pile of wood that had changed since their last pass through the area (something could be hiding in or behind it, for example) but it really made me realize something about horses and people and our reaction to perceived threats.

In particular, it made me think of this past weekend, which I spent with about 400 other people at our local area Freestyle dance competition.  Several of my students participated in the event, others came to watch, and Dan & I even got the chance to perform in a professional dance show.  I love these Freestyle events — I have since I was a student, and just starting out in the dance world.  I like to show off, it’s true, but it’s not that, in particular, that draws me.  I like the feeling of being under a bit of pressure — of getting the chance to find out what I know, and what I can do, even under stressful situations.  It’s why I’ve always liked competing, I think — whether it comes in the form of a dressage test, a dance competition or even taking a written test in school.  I like the feeling of putting my knowledge and skill up against the standard and seeing how I come out.

Not everyone feels this way, however.  Over the years, I’ve heard a varied list of responses (and rejections) from my students to the idea of participating in a Freestyle event.  Money and time are often given as excuses, but I suspect that behind these reasons usually hides a bigger motivation to avoid dancing in front of people — fear.  Sometimes, people will readily admit that they feel fearful, or unprepared to participate.  Sometimes we can help them overcome this, but often, fear is an insurmountable obstacle from a teacher’s perspective.  We can help with preparation, of course, but some people are never going to get over the panic they would feel if they stepped foot on that dance floor.  In fact, I once had a student, who had been a career military man, tell me he’d rather be shot at than dance in front of people — and he spoke from experience.

This is what Ellie made me think of.  From a practical perspective, there isn’t much more reason for Ellie to be afraid of poles on the ground than for my students to be afraid to dance in front of an audience.  In both cases, there’s no real danger from a safety of life perspective (other than the potential stress induced heart attack).  But yet, for neither does reason really enter into it.  This fear is something that the horse or the dancer reacts to without thinking – it’s instinctive.  We can theorize about the basis for the fear, and we can analyze it, but that’s not my point.  For someone like me who understands about the poles on the ground, or who has experienced the Freestyles event over a dozen times, their fear can seem irrational or baseless, but it’s not at all unreal for those who experience it.  It gives me a new perspective on the experience of my students, and helps to clarify my role in the situation.  I have to do just what I’d do with Ellie.  I have to be prepared for them to react with either comfort of fear, and I have to know that their reaction might not be what I expect.  I have to understand that there’s very little I can do, by way of explanation, to alleviate the fear.  Through experience, they can learn that there’s nothing to be afraid of.  But the best way I can help in the beginning is to be confident and to show that I am not fearful, and that I don’t really accept fear as an excuse for not doing something that I think is important.  I am the teacher, after all.

I wonder how my students would react to being led up to Freestyles so they could smell it?

It works with Ellie.

2 Responses to “Through Ellie’s Eyes”

  1. ponygall98 says:

    whats that got 2 do wit howrse???