At the moment it happened, time slowed and became like looking at old-fashioned film, one subtly different image at a time. Boogie reared, his front hooves leaving the ground in an upward arc. For a long moment, he balanced at the apex of the movement. And then, slowly and inevitably, he fell.
That day, I hadn’t found my voice about horses yet.
Since childhood, I’d loved horses, spent time with them, ridden them. I grew up riding Western-style in Utah, where horses were a way of life in the west, and where taking pack horses into the backcountry to hunt was just part of the rhythm of the season. I never felt comfortable with it. I struggled with the way the men approached the horses: like they were something to be forced into submission. They were treated like fundamentally stupid and obstinate animals, good for nothing except doing what was commanded. I remember wanting desperately to open the gate and shoo them out into the open land, where they would be horses again, and not things.
Even with that history – and knowing that I wanted a different relationship with horses than the one I’d seen modeled – I wanted to make sure my daughter had strong early riding experiences. When we moved to twelve acres of land in the Pacific Northwest, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to start developing her horsemanship.
Our first horse here was named Boogie – an apt name for a flighty Arabian Quarter cross. He shied easily, with anxiety that ramped up anytime he was exposed to something unfamiliar. When we started my daughter Olivia with him in Western-style 4H, he hesitated every step of the way. In early rides, he reared, resisting, even though he had spent seven years being ridden by a child before then. The proposed solution – a harsh bit that would show dominance over him, even with a child handling the reins – didn’t feel right to me.
In response, we moved laterally, into more English-style lessons that built on a foundation of education and knowledge about horses. The style fit our family understanding of the relationship between people and horses better: aiming to create rapport through mutual respect, trust, and understanding. Still, though, Boogie didn’t thrive. There was something missing, some deeper aspect of relationship-building that I couldn’t articulate then. Boogie was trying to listen to us, but he was also listening to something in himself that we weren’t ready to see.
Trying to identify that missing piece of who Boogie was, I found Meghan Valenti. A trainer who works with profoundly troubled horses through Skagit Animals in Need, she’s an advocate of Natural Horsemanship. This approach to horse training emphasizes building communication on the ground by engaging with their inherited and native instinct to use the mind and move the feet, to develop deep trust, to follow gentle physical direction, to listen with calmness and respect. We boarded Boogie with Meghan for a month, and took Olivia up to work with him three times a week.
In all that time, she hardly rode at all. Instead, she did groundwork.
Day after day after day, she stood in an arena and built trust, one wiggled line and soft-spoken command at a time. Meanwhile, I devoured every book on natural horsemanship, from Pat Parelli to Buck Brannaman, that I could get my hands on. This was new, and honest, and real.
When Boogie came back to us, he soon found a new friend in Dodger, a rescue horse we were fostering. The two of them quickly became inseparable: bonded best friends that loved spending time together. Returning to more traditional riding lessons alongside continued groundwork, Boogie did much better. He enjoyed his rides and returned to his herd at night, all of it running like clockwork.
Then, Dodger pulled up lame from a previous coffin bone fracture that needed more experience and education than we had to manage. He went to a different foster home, one with a veterinary student, and Boogie, left behind, grieved deeply. When we took Boogie to lessons a few days later, he wasn’t present; he was vacant, jittery, and eating little. When Olivia mounted, he took a few steps and reared, hitting the side reins that act more like a prison than an aid, so she took an emergency dismount and got out of the way.
The instructor moved quickly to intervene, running him backwards to bring him back under control. We didn’t know what we know now about listening to horses, observing them, seeing the signs that they display. They’re unfailingly honest when we know how to listen. Boogie was trying to tell us he wasn’t okay, but we weren’t reading him. Instead, all he got was humans trying to dominate him and force him into the mold of what we thought he should be. He reared again, this time so high he couldn’t balance, and in that stop-motion, agonizing moment, he tipped.
In the year since then, things have changed. Olivia has welcomed a pony home: Dublin, a little, sweet-tempered Connemara. And Boogie’s my partner. I don’t ride him – not yet. Instead, I get up in the morning, go out to check on him, and do groundwork.
We walk together. We breathe together. We hang out, enjoying a warm patch of sun. Someday, Boogie might invite me to ride him, and someday I might. But for now, we’re learning to trust each other again, as two fellow creatures just trying to figure things out, just trying to build a connection through the wilds.
I think about the way my relationship with horses has changed all the time as I work with my team. I’m not suggesting people are horses, I do think, however, the same principles apply. The most salient one is the understanding that repeating the same patterns, over and over, creates walls instead of paths. Just like horses, people internalize the way they’re treated, and a sense of what they’re good (or not so good) at.
When you work with a team, you can’t just force people to do what you want. You can’t yank them along with you. You can’t get your work done through fear, pain, and brute force.
Everyone I know has worked with someone who thinks that intimidation, rather than trust, is the way to meet goals. We all know what it feels like: the helplessness of having no space to move, no room to try without the dread of failure. When people face the same barriers over time, they develop braces against them. They start to avoid even trying, and can’t be full versions of themselves.
I’m here to advocate for a different way to approach teams and trust. I’ve come to realize that the way to get the most from a team is to do more groundwork. With a new team member, that might mean a lot of face time at first as they get oriented to the job. It might mean leaving them alone so they don’t feel micromanaged and can figure out what they’re doing in peace. It always means reaffirming the basics: I like you, I trust you, we’re in this together. Over time, we build confidence and capacity. Even with all of that, though, we never lose what brings us together in the first place, and the ongoing work that makes it possible.
Stay tuned to the blog for more in the Kinship groundwork series: an inside look at what makes a high-functioning small team, and how my work with myself and with horses informs the way I work with others.