Sörli the Anxious, my first horse and teacher

A horse's obedience cannot be forced

My first Icelandic horse Sörli was anxious and recalcitrant

I had just signed the contract for my first Real Job, when the horse I had been riding regularly at my local riding school went up for sale. Terrified that he’d be snapped up by someone else, I bought him.


(Side note, and public service announcement: Don’t be like me, people. Don’t let yourself be rushed into a decision that will have a significant impact on your life for the next fifteen or more years.)


I never quite regretted that rash decision. But I did shed quite a few tears over my first horse as the years went by. Sörli was way too young and ill-trained for a relative newbie like me to handle, and the expert support and teaching I had access to at the time was far from sufficient to help me deal with the mix of anxiety and truculence that he showed on a regular basis.

Sörli was an anxious and recalcitrant horse

I saw the anxiety, and didn’t know how to deal with it. I also saw the truculence, and was told I had to be firm, to force Sörli to obey me. So I tried, and failed, and tried and failed again, and again. We switched stables, and riding trainers, to no avail. My horse freaked out on a regular basis, ran away with me, refused to do the simplest tasks (I thought).


On one memorable occasion, a simple walk in the forest ended in a tug-of-war, where he almost pulled me off my feet, trying to bolt back home.


Years passed, and things slowly got better. I took lesson after lesson, attended clinics with renowned trainers, took a class in Natural Horsemanship. All of that helped, but never enough. Sörli and I remained at cross-purposes. Whenever something scared him, he would rebel against my authority and bolt.

There are early stories of harmony with my Icelandic horse. Just not many of them

We did have our good moments.


There were moments when we worked at liberty and he followed me around the covered arena, for once no trace showing of his usual distrustful and standoffish attitude towards me.


There was one trail ride in the snow, when I only wanted to go a short way and then turn around and go back home, where he insisted on going on. I dropped the reins on his neck, and he took us on a sedated ride with a lot of walk and short passages of trot. He was relaxed, looking around at the snow-covered scenery, happy with the world, and, unusually, with me.


And one day, when a pack of dogs decided to chase us at full speed, I jumped off and stood in front of my terrified horse, scaring the dogs off with waving arms. Sörli didn’t try to bolt, trusting me to protect him from the dogs.

My trainer Jonanna Tryggvason is convinced that a horse should always feel that he is cooperating of his own free will

But the real breakthrough didn’t come until I lost access to riding lessons and had to rely on my intuition to deal with my recalcitrant horse. Since, without a trainer, I had no chance to make my horse do something against his will, I took inspiration from Monty Robert’s Join Up: I stopped trying to force Sörli to obey, and started offering him choices. And suddenly, Sörli stopped fighting me, and started accepting my authority.


Counter-intuitive, isn’t it?


Well, not really.


Much later, I met a trainer, Johanna Tryggvason, who told me a truth that Sörli had brought home years before:


The horse should always come away with the impression that he obeyed of his own free will.


You can try to persuade him to cooperate, you can use gentle pressure, but you should never leave the horse with the impression that he was forced against his will.

Training may first Icelandic horse Sörli was much more of a challenge than I'd expected

Easier said than done, of course, but not impossible. Even clumsily fishing in the dark as I was back then, with Sörli, my occasional successes in convincing him to cooperate taught me a lot about the right track to take with him.


For example, he would sometimes run away when he was out in the field and I came to fetch him for a ride. In similar situations in the past, I had always gotten help when that happened, and proceeded to chase him into a corner where I could approach him and put his halter on. Now, I just walked after him when he ran away, waited for him to settle down, and approached again. If he wanted to run again, he could. If he was tired of running, he could let me come close. I’d offer the halter, and give him the choice to accept it, or run away again.


In the beginning, we spent up to half an hour doing nothing but him running from me, and me walking after him until he let me approach and accepted the halter.


The important thing here: Before I’d even walk onto that field, I took the time to convince myself to think of this chasing game as an alternate way of training. That way, I was never disappointed when I couldn’t catch my horse at first, and I never, ever got angry at myself, or at Sörli.

My young horse responded well when I offered him choices, and, above all, stayed calm

As it turned out, that attitude made all the difference. The more relaxed I got, the better Sörli cooperated. Soon, the problem of catching him disappeared entirely: One day, a switch in my horse’s head seemed to turn, and from that moment onward, he would greet me calmly, and even come towards me a step or two when I came to get him.


Encouraged, I applied that new-found knowledge (and calm attitude) to riding him. Rather than being upset when he disobeyed, I laughed it off and offered Sörli an alternative to the failed exercise. The laughter, at least as much as the choice I offered, worked a small miracle. Gradually, my formerly recalcitrant horse turned into a calm, dependable partner, who never bolted, and only seldom got upset when I asked something that he didn’t want to do.


Or, quite possibly, couldn’t do, since I think a significant part of our problems had stemmed from my asking much more than the young and insecure horse offer.

Another touching story is how Sörli turned into a beginner's horse for my husband

In the end, Sörli became my husband’s first horse.

My husband was a total beginner at the time, which seemed to suit Sörli just fine.


The two of them formed a beautiful friendship based on mutual trust and consideration.


But that’s a story for a different day.


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