Spotlight on: The Year of the Horse, Part II

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Natural Horsemanship is practiced by many different trainers and horse owners around the world. Though practitioners differ in their techniques, there is a basic set of principles most agree on.
  • The horse is a prey animal, who feels safest in a herd. Horses live in communities with a clear hierarchy and communicate primarily through body language.
  • The horse/human relationship is based on mutual respect and communication, not through fear, pain or intimidation.
  • Humans have to understand a horse’s language, because horses aren’t going to start speaking ours.
How then, is that like grammar?
  • Readers and authors communicate through a common language. 
  • The reader/author relationship is based on mutual respect and communication.
  • Writers must understand a reader’s language, for while readers might be willing to explore outside their comfort zone, they are unlikely to learn an entirely new language just to decipher your book.

Knowing the rules of grammar, story structure, and genre helps the writer communicate with the reader, just as the rules of Natural Horsemanship helps the horse owner communicate with the horse.
The more advanced the writer, the further boundaries can be pushed and new avenues explored. Cross-genre, breaking grammatical rules, bending traditional story structure, these are all possible in the hands of an experienced writer, but done by an amateur, bad outcomes are almost guaranteed.
When I first started working with Chance, walking him from the paddock to the barn wasn’t safe. Not for him and not for me. He was tall, strong, and in his prime. Horses may be prey animals, and more likely to run than fight, but that doesn’t mean they won’t run over the top of you or throw a back leg in your direction.

 A whole lot of work went into getting this traumatized animal to trust walking to and from places wasn’t a sign he was going to be abused, permanently removed from his herd, or loaded into a trailer to take back to the kill pen. He also had to learn he’s not the one making decisions, I’m in charge. (We’re still working on that, but we’re getting a little better every day).

Chance and I went back to the basics. Learning mutual respect and communication on the ground before we try it from the saddle. He’s a completely different horse than when I first met him. And the changes in his behavior in the last six months have been overwhelming. He’ll stand quietly, come when I whistle, and walk calmly by my side.

I’m often asked if I’m riding him yet, as if that’s the most important thing I can do with my horse. I understand the question. It’s what most people “know” about horses. If you own one, you ride them. 
It’s very similar to being a writer. Everyone asks, “Is your book published yet?” As if that’s the most important thing you can do with your work.

For me, the most important thing I can do with my horse, is have a relationship. Getting him to let me pick out all four hooves was a huge accomplishment. Maybe bigger than riding him one day. From the outside, it appears small and inconsequential, from the inside, it’s taking a horse who would not let anyone touch him, and have him trust me enough to pick his feet up, one at a time, and pick them out with a metal object. Now that he trusts me, getting on his back is a small thing. The groundwork that came first was infinitely more important.

As writers, publication is a big accomplishment, but it’s the last little step after the 1000 steps that came before it. Learning “the how” of writing a story, discovering one’s voice, and writing and rewriting draft after draft after draft is the important part. Because it is that process, which allows one to get the publishing contract. The big accomplishment is finishing the book in the first place.

I will ride Chance one day, probably soon, but that won’t be the most important thing we do together. It won’t outweigh the 1000 steps that came before or the 1000 steps that come after.

My advice to writers working towards that first publishing contract is enjoy the 1000 steps before you publish. Do your groundwork without worrying about riding. That will come, but it won’t be the most important thing. It will be logical next step. And you will be ready for it, because you earned it.

Elena Hartwell

Author and developmental editor.