I had the most amazing experience with a dog owner taking his dogs on an hour-long walk through the neighborhood and countryside, completely off leash. He never called or yelled their names. If there was ever danger, it was simply a quiet whistle and the dogs were back. Once the danger was passed, the dogs were back to exploring and being dogs. To my delight, the dogs didn’t care about me. There were busy exploring their environment.
This experience got me thinking about “off leash” walks with horses. Why not?
For the past several years, I’ve experimented with finding place on the walks with my horses where I felt comfortable putting the lead rope over their back, or letting them graze a particular spot, or letting them initiate on when to turn around and walk back home. Over time I began to see their patterns: where they liked to go, where they liked to stop, what neighboring horses they wanted to visit.
A few years ago I noticed for the first time that my horse would position himself so I was on the wrong side of his head to put on his halter before we would go for a walk. Rather than correct him, I stopped and observed. It was in that observation one day when it hit me, “You want to go out without a halter!”
My gosh, how long had he been trying to get through to me? Lucky for him, he did. Then I thought to myself, “What can I do to let him know that I heard him?” Rather than put the halter on, I decided to let him out into the yard without one, and we’d take a walk at another time.
Fast forward a few years, now we regularly take walks down a quiet road and trail “off leash”. I put a halter on the lower ranking herd member and take her for a walk and leave the gate open so my horse can follow if he wishes. Being a herd animal, he always wants to come. Sometimes, he’ll delay and get a few more bites of grass and then come trotting or cantering to catch up to us. He’s even straddled a ditch for several minutes while eating the woodland buffet of plants before him before heading further down the trail.
Recently a car came down our quiet road, and he was completely free, no halter or lead rope of any kind. He was grazing on the shoulder, and I walked down the road toward him with a low, calm voice, letting him know everything is fine, and he could stay just where he was. He turned his head and looked at me with relaxation right as the car was approaching and about to pass. Every fiber in my body was completely relaxed and trusting of him, and every fiber in his body was the same. Just after the car past, he resumed eating. His energy never came up, but rather it was just a question from a calm place: “Anything you need me to do?” “Nope, just stay right where you are.”
It’s these interactions where he is completely free to do as he wishes that inspire me. How much more is there to learn about being a horse from a horse if I can find more ways to stop doing what I’ve been taught and allow him to show me what he is capable of? I never tire of this exploration of the wonders of how God made the horse.