Pony Precepts

John R. Killacky

Right now I’m learning from a four-hundred-pound animal with the brain of a three-year-old child, as I train a Shetland pony to pull a cart. Ponies, like horses, are prey animals whose first instinct is to flee, so this can be a daunting and humbling task. Anything new is suspect, a first encounter with the unfamiliar unsettling.

My CEO/executive director self has no gravitas here. At the barn, I am a beginner. I’m always learning: from teenagers to one friend in her eighties who rides her twenty-four-year-old gelding every day. We never discuss our day jobs; all conversation is through and about our animals. Here I am Raindrop’s dad.

Being a novice at midlife is rejuvenating. I love grappling with new skills that take a long time to master. Failures are almost as important as successes here. Laughter at failure and learning from mistakes propel improvement. My competitive self is satisfied with a training session well done; thrilled that Raindrop and I have done our best for that day.

In working with my pony, I must first understand the world through her eyes, her smells, her experiences, her fears, and her relationships. Equine logic is quite different from human thinking. I also try to see the world as my pony does. Human vision is focused straight ahead; horses see at 350 degrees, encompassing peripheral vision. I practice this perspective, and vast horizons of fields, mountains, and clouds feathering the sky unfold.

Recently, Raindrop and I went off-site to a driving clinic. Jeff Morse, who led the two-day event, encouraged us to “create the horse you want, rather than fix the horse you have.” He had me drive with my eyes closed to feel the connection of my hands on the reins to the bit in her mouth. It was transformative.

Back at my home barn, training can get mighty complicated, with up to six horses and riders simultaneously in the indoor arena during the after-school and post-work rush hours. This necessitates an interrelated choreography of awareness, patience, and generosity by equines and humans alike. We lunge, jump, trot, and walk our animals in spiraling circles and figure eights. Loose but firm hands on the reins, the animals go where your eyes go. We dance together.

My favorite time at the barn is late at night, with no one else around. I love being in the stall with Raindrop as she and her stablemates settle down for the evening. The sounds and smells of two dozen safe, warm, and protected equines are divine. Just being there, in sublime stillness, through her quiet eyes, I am part of the herd. It’s at these moments that I experience rasa, a Sanskrit term indicating a profound state of empathic bliss.

Pony precepts have taught me a lot of things, some of which apply to human interactions. Beginner’s mind, meeting colleagues on their terms, starting where they are, interconnectivity, embracing the peripheral world, dancing with others, and sublime stillness all seem like good ideas to bring back into the office each morning — after I finish mucking out her stall, of course!