by Elisha McCulloh
You want me to do what?! This was often my initial reaction when Tiffany Rowe, Parelli Professional, gave instructions during horsemanship workshops. Jump? Over that? On a horse I hardly know? Or, Canter? Now? Bareback?!
But each time, I did as instructed. And I survived. It was never pretty, and that never mattered.
Tiffany is the kind of teacher I need. She pushes me without shattering my confidence. She also makes me think. Twice she has asked me unexpected but important questions, just casually, and I fell flat on my face when answering. But I thought a great deal about them later and hopefully I will be better prepared if someone asks me similar questions in the future. Even though my answers were so poor that they embarrassed me at the time, Tiffany never made me feel wrong or stupid for my inadequate answers.
I’m learning that there is no good purpose in making people feel wrong. In Parelli horsemanship, we learn to, “Expect a lot, accept a little, reward the slightest try.” That works with horses, and apparently with people. In my experience, sometimes when people try to teach something, they do it in such a way as to appear superior while expressing impatience at the student’s perceived failings. When that happens to me, due to my own insecurities, I then feel embarrassed (or even humiliated), misunderstood, and just plain bad. Giving the benefit of the doubt, I’ll say that’s probably not really the “teacher’s” intention – they just don’t know any better. But as a teaching style, I personally think it’s problematic (to put it mildly). My intuition told me this long ago; recent personal experience has reinforced the lesson and demonstrated the profound positive impact a polar opposite teaching style can have.
Placing confidence in an excellent teacher yields results. Tiffany often asks me to do things that I don’t feel at all ready to attempt, but when I trust her leadership and give it a try, I always learn something. One of the things I have learned is that I am more ready than I thought I was. Also, that being ready and being perfect are two separate things, and that only the first one is necessary when I’m trying to make progress.
Tiffany’s questions and challenges have helped me to grow and to learn at a surprising pace without destroying my confidence. Her style works really well for me, and it has worked for all of our staff. In my roles as Program Director and session leader at Achaius Ranch, I sometimes find it tempting to correct people when I perceive they are “doing it wrong.” While training others about horsemanship, Nicole Wilson has expressed the very same realization. We are both working on this and we are building this concept into our staff training so that it is part of our leadership style here at the ranch.
For many years, I was riddled with fears, insecurities, and doubts about my own horsemanship skills and therefore, my ability to teach anyone else to ride. Because of that, along with the demands of taking care of horses, the property, and the youth program, I had nearly given up on the idea of advancing my own riding skills.
My journey with horses (apart from a brief time in my early teens) didn’t begin until I was in my 40s. No longer the fearless girl I had been long ago, a couple of unexpected actions (“crow-hops,” bucks and rears) from Storm, my first horse, literally triggered mild panic attacks any time he or any horse “acted up.” This was frustrating and humiliating for me. And while looking for a horse that could help me build my shattered self-confidence while gaining needed skills, I tried out one that unexpectedly bolted, which sent me into that now-too-familiar humiliating frustrating panic. Fortunately, the very next horse I tried (Keva) behaved beautifully and set me on a path of gaining both confidence and skill. (I am truly thankful to Carol Goebel, who has since become a Parelli Professional, for finding Keva for me and for all that Nicole and I learned from her in our early years!)
I did progress from that point forward, with the help of lovely and gentle Keva, but my progress was rather slow until this year, when things dramatically changed.
In May, Tiffany encouraged Nicole to advance through Parelli level four, but she would need a horse that could help her. (We did not have a horse at the ranch with the necessary abilities she would need for that level.) How Nicole then acquired Ronin and what that has meant for her is a story in itself, which is hers to tell, but it inspired me to advance as well. And Iago is helping me with that. He is an eleven year old gelding, ¼ Belgian Warmblood, ¼ Thoroughbred, and half Paint. He is one of our biggest horses. I did not go looking for a new horse and would not have thought to look for a horse like Iago for myself (normally I would have gone for a Quarter Horse). But he turned out to be a complete surprise, an unexpected blessing, and just the horse I needed!
Early in the summer, Tiffany had introduced to us the question of what to do about the fact that our session horse population was rather elderly. Here we were for the first time with multiple session leaders and everything set up to finally allow us to serve a lot more youth. But what would we do if (rather, when) our horses showed signs of over-use and needed rest and/or retirement? Furthermore, quite a few of the horses we had intended to use for sessions were gaited horses, which meant kids couldn’t really trot or canter on them. And kids tend to want to ride faster than a walk!
We needed to make some changes in our herd, bringing in suitable horses that could fit into our youth program immediately (having limited time to spend training a new horse). We have a number of rescued horses that aren’t really suitable for kids to ride, and we are often asked to take in horses that people can no longer care for but that aren’t good candidates for our youth program. We have to be responsible and careful with our resources so that we don’t over-commit and then find ourselves unable to properly care for our creatures, property, equipment, or run our youth program.
So when Tiffany told us about Iago, who was trained using Parelli methods and could fit right into our program, we decided to give him a try. Little did I realize that he would actually become my horse! (Which means that, although we are able to use him in our youth program, I pay for all his care and food and can take him off the ranch for trail-riding, etc.) But from his first day here, it seemed that he had chosen me! Iago and I started forming a partnership immediately. I took him into the round pen and we communicated so well together that I removed his halter and experimented with him “at liberty.” Though this was our very first time playing together, he chose to stay connected with me and responded to everything I asked of him. This had never happened to me before, not with any horse. I was in tears!
We continued playing together nearly every day and I tried things I had not had confidence to do before. We did a lot of cantering, bareback riding, and ground work, “at liberty” as well as with a 22’ line. Later, we left the ranch to ride with friends at their place, venture into nearby harvested fields, and trailer to wooded trails. It took work, courage, and determination on my part to do all of these things, but despite many challenges (like the unintended half-mile gallop!), I have yet to experience panic like I did with previous horses. Tiffany has guided me through this process and helped me learn how to safely address problematic situations. My trust in Iago has only grown, despite the fact that he requires me to be a good leader and help him become a more confident (and safe) horse. He stays connected with me, constantly interested, responsive, and playful. He actually seems to like me and to enjoy what we do together, which is extremely gratifying! Happily, he also responds well to children and is a wonderful addition to our youth program. As a bonus, his size and strength will make him a go-to partner for those that need a bigger horse under them, which is something we really didn’t have before.
I couldn’t be happier with Iago and am thrilled with my new equine partner, who I expect will continue teaching me and many others for years to come. And I am truly thankful for the excellent leadership and guidance of our dear friend and teacher, Tiffany. More than anything, I am grateful that we have a God who is infinitely patient and gentle with us, even though we have so much to learn!