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Killacky: On the Bit

With me holding the reins long and soft, my Shetland pony pulls me along in a cart. We work on cadence, trot, and turns. The arc of her neck and impulsion from her hindquarters are my focus.

Her relaxed mouth accepting the bit, results in a sublime interplay between us. We fly through space and then help each other slow down and come to a stop.

She teaches me to see differently. Equines have eyes on the sides of their heads, emphasizing peripheral vision. Imagine the world opening up in startling ways. Space and light are transformed. No place is more important than another; the image behind is equal to that in front.

As I drive her in the ring, I try to look beyond the animal before me and perceive the world as she does. A bridle with blinders lessens her visual stimulation and helps focus her on tasks ahead.

Training intently every day – I seek to learn the animal, not master her. As with humans, equines have a dominant side. Circling and turning to her right is easy, to the left requires ongoing calibration. Attention and refinements are important, equal to patience and consistency.

Unexpected challenges arise. One day, she started refusing to go back into her stall. This went on for weeks, until one barn mate suggested spending more time post-workout before putting her away.

So we now spend slow time together, with her cross-tied in the open passageway, as I take off tack and brush her down. She stands quietly, contentedly watching the other horses being groomed as cool summer breezes wash over us. Ten minutes of hands-on time and she goes back in with no hesitation.

Another dilemma was loading her into a trailer in preparation for an off-site workshop. We graze by the open door, gently nudge her toward the ramp, and bribe her with grain to enter the dark, scary chamber. It takes more than a few attempts to normalize this transition.

Easy trailer entry and exit is vital when traveling to clinics. A calm focused animal is crucial. You don’t want to lose the lesson in transport.

Learning in a new context from another expert allows me to better receive information. It’s been a year since we worked with this coach. Both the pony and I are more assured. My hands on the reins are in sync with her mouth. She relaxes, and then bends her head slightly forward and down, redistributing the weight, and freeing her trot.

All our time and hard work together pays off. I am driving, she is pulling – we are one.

John Killacky is the executive director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington.
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