I had the awe-inspiring opportunity to get to know a very special horse Emmitt better while I was teaching, practicing, and performing as an opera singer in Oregon last month. Emmitt has taught me so much about singing that he really deserves as many carrots and apples as his big heart desires. Only, as a "Left-Brained-Introvert", i.e. a horse who is inherently dominant and focused upon "what's in it for him", it would not be the wisest thing for me, as his necessary leader, to shower him with treats. For, as soon as this thousand pounds of hulk discovers that I am a quasi-vending-machine-of-yummies, all but the "Nom-nom" part of his brain turns off and he becomes a flurry of snuffles and licks, searching my every pocket for food.
"Necessary leader" has been a phrase that has been floating around in my head for a while. This is a phrase that is easy to understand when we speak of horses. Horses naturally seek leadership. They are highly intuitive and sensitive beings, conditioned by thousands and thousands of years of surviving in the wild. As prey animals, they rely on the herd to keep them safe, and the most experienced and powerful horses become natural leaders of the herd, keeping their followers from danger. But as prey animals, even the leaders among horses are forced to give way to leadership. The strongest and fastest of stallions and the most protective mares cannot stride their way easily through the forest in the way a lioness or a bear can. Prey animals are led by the dangers around them to constantly seek safety and comfort.
With the dawn of man, horses were introduced to their most feared predators, but, at the same time, their most loving leaders. For how great a leader could a potential predator make? A perfect one: a leader that understands the power of what it means to be a predator, and the vulnerability of being prey, can empathize and take charge in equal doses, depending upon what is needed in the moment.
When Emmitt came to my family, I was struck by his beauty and steadiness. This was a horse who, I knew intuitively, was "safe". He possesses a self-assuredness and confidence that is rare among horses. It is not unshakable, but it is strong enough that under almost any circumstance, my Mother, his owner, I knew would be safe.
Emmitt came to us at least 300 pounds overweight. It was not until we got to know him that we realized that his previous owners over-fed him in order to be able to handle him. Emmitt had mastered what I call the "sassy pants" look. With it he simply says "Feed me and leave me alone". This look escalated toward feeding time, and came out whenever he felt forced to do something he didn't want to do. It wasn't until I became fascinated with exploring Emmitt's potential that I knew he was calling me past his sassiness. I started to dream about what it would be like to possess the power to no longer be intimidated by his nasty looks, and begin a partnership with him. I presume that, at the beginning of these imaginings, I was little different from a Native American woman crouching in the bushes hundreds of years ago, secretly watching a gorgeous wild mare lead her family away from harm. What would it take to communicate with such power? with a being of such conviction and natural strength?
I was soon to find out. As I have learned to communicate with darling Emmitt, colors and sparks emerge from him, and I feel honored to observe the times when he "forgets" to be the tough guy. Under my learned leadership so far, he is beginning to feel safe and proud enough to play. He is leaving behind his bulk and becoming a striking, ever-more-fit bundle of power who is so fun to watch that he makes me laugh like a young girl to see it. Indeed, hidden beneath the cover of his intimidating looks and his insulating flab, there is a horse of such power and joy that I live to someday see him with us in captivity just as I might see him in the wild: powerful, joyous, and free. This, to me, is what Natural Horsemanship is all about: uncovering, the true, natural nature of the horse, wild and free, even as it is in relationship with humans.
This is also what singing is about! We are architects of freedom in that, in order to take on the courage to uncover the truth of what we love, whether it be horse or song, we must be brave enough to imagine that love in all of its fullness before we see it in the flesh.
With Emmitt, I have experienced heart-stopping moments were I knew, deep down, that he saw me, his leader, as a playmate equal to him even in power and size, and the boundaries between us faded as he lowered his head and looked straight into my eyes as if to say "What's next? Let's play! One-two-go!" To experience this with an animal so inherently wild is an honor that will take any feeling person's breath away. If I could not, at least in some small way, imagine that this playful relationship might be possible, even back in his "sassy" days, I could not have fostered the courage to find the truth of who Emmitt really is, and I would have missed out on a whole lot of magic!
I believe the same magic is possible in singing. What we study along the Classical School of Singing path is how to know exactly what our true, natural voices are so that we can lead them through the music for which they were made. The greatest magic of being a singer comes when we can stand back and know that our voices are celebrating, not struggling, muffled, or hidden, when we sing a piece of music: wild and free, yet safe and comfortable, expressions of ease and lightness. We study so we can become one with our voices, so that all we have to do to sing is desire it, and it is done in a natural way that only God or her equivalent could have a hand in.
With the honor of being a singer, and the honor of being a Natural Horseman, comes responsibility! Ironically, in Emmitt's most playful moments, he is the most malleable and the most vulnerable. The big-highschool-football-player persona dissolves and he becomes hyper-aware, sensitive to all that is around him, and vulnerable to fear and insecurity. In these moments of exuberance which are becoming more and more frequent, dear Emmitt needs a leader to shape his experience, to guide him in all his ecstatic beauty and keep him from harm. He plays hard, like a little boy on the playground who, without an observant playmate might get himself into trouble easily.
As I am learning to allow Emmitt to be all he is in his playfulness, I am learning a horseman's technique called "Feel". "Feel" is about as easy to explain as "musicality". Some people say that one is either born with it or not. I believe that when one understands the reason it is important, it becomes easy to grasp the concept. Whether we commit ourselves to feel as horsemen is the same question as whether a musician commits herself to musicality, or not: How important is the true music to us? How important the true horse?
The best I can describe the concept of "Feel" so far on my journey to becoming the most accomplished horseman I can be, is to say that "Feel" is a way for the leader to lead without losing profound respect and recognition of who a horse truly is. In my last lesson with 3-Star-Parelli-Natural-Horsemanship-Instructor Marc Rea, Marc pointed out to me that it is in the mundane moments that a relationship between horse and human is fostered. When Emmitt is eating or ignoring me as is so inherently his dominant, comfortable attitude toward life, do I pull him thoughtlessly from his slumber or his meal? Or do I gently, with all due respect, draw him to me with a "Feel" that expresses all the love I have for him within it, all the while being his 'necessary leader'?
In all of my years studying singing and living with horses, I can see one common thread:
To find love in our lives, we must commit to seeking, and allowing ourselves to find, the truth.
What does this mean? It means acknowledging that we are creating what we love by nourishing it, by "taking the time it takes" to get to know it, by learning to communicate with it so we know who and what it truly is. It means valuing the identity of the voice we have been given or the horse in our care enough to learn the techniques to keep them safe and comfortable. It is putting the truth of what we love far above our own ideas of what our loved ones could be in our imaginations. We must dream of all possibilities, and at the same time be grounded in such reality that we do not betray the truth of those under our care, while still constantly acknowledging their greatness.
The more I learn to love Emmitt, the more awe I feel for the responsibility we humans have on this earth. I have the power to shape his experience. I have the power to force his obedience or to allow his natural expressions of life and love. I can expect too much of him, or I can celebrate every little thing he gives. On this path, I have made and will make many more mistakes, but at the same time I am gaining the confidence that with love and knowledge on my side, a relationship of the strongest freedom and integrity is being built.
When a singer can dance the beautiful dance between being the observer of her voice and loving it for what it truly is, great music is made. And when the rider can preserve her horse's dignity in the process of asking to be one with him, magic happens between horse and human. They, too, dance a dance that can only be called heavenly.
With the right attitude, knowledge, time, and patience, love can be allowed to draw together what once was thought separate: a singer and her song...a human and her horse...who we want to be, and who we truly are becoming...