This month, Linda Kohanov shares how the lessons she learned rehabilitating her troubled stallion Marlin allowed her to form a much quicker bond with a horse that others had given up on—after collaborating with two local equine rescues to save the horse’s life.
Relationship Off Lead
Last winter, I was encouraged, against all logic, to rescue a “dangerous horse.” I didn’t have the space, time or funds to take him on. But the horse’s life was on the line, and though I hadn’t met him, his story conveyed a palpable presence I couldn’t deny.
The week he was scheduled to be euthanized, I felt the ghost of another misunderstood soul urging me to take a chance. Over a decade earlier, I’d taken on a much more violent horse, Midnight Merlin, a black Arabian stallion with impressive Egyptian bloodlines. Facing serious risks—and no small amount of skepticism—to rehabilitate this angry soul, I stubbornly moved forward with the idea of socializing him to live and mate with my mares Rasa and Comet.
Most people thought I was crazy for taking on such a project. Even my own trainer, Shelley Rosenberg, who had extensive experience training and breeding spirited sires, initially told me to “Run, don’t walk, away from this one.” Yet help me she did, leading us both into unexpected territory. Our success in this venture led to the births of Spirit, Indigo Moon, and Orion (three talented sons of Merlin who are just now old enough to begin working with clients), and Spirit’s daughter, Artemis, who is also joining the “staff” this year.
Aside from the incredible blessings his offspring continue to bring, working with Merlin gave me an unexpected gift: an advanced understanding of power. Through years of frightening “lessons,” he forced me to develop a series of paradoxical skills that changed my life and my work: namely relaxed yet heightened awareness, “fierce sensitivity,” and an understanding of how elusive concepts like “space” and “energy” were essential to cultivating mutually respectful relationships with intelligent, empowered horses.
These were the very skills I was struggling to put into words last winter as I told Merlin’s story in my upcoming book The Power of the Herd. The synchronicity of another troubled horse showing up at that very moment, begging me to give him a chance, did not escape me.
No one knows how long the chestnut gelding had been living in the desert, alone, a horse with no name and no discernable history other than what the roughly-healed welts on his body revealed. Thin, thirsty, yet clearly in his prime, he had wandered up to a house at the edge of state land, searching for water, exhibiting the skittish behavior, back soreness, and scars we often see with drug running horses near the Mexican border. This guy was a “cimarron” in the truest sense of the word, an escaped slave who found redemption in the wilderness. Yet with temperatures passing 100 degrees and the monsoon season still several months away, the streams and watering holes were drying up. Suppressing his fear of humans long enough to steal a drink from a backyard trough, he was promptly roped by the owner, whipped onto a trailer, and taken to a regional horse rescue. There, Ann Jost, owner of Care for the Horses, hired one of the area’s gentler cowboys to train the gelding for several months and put him up for adoption, whereupon he encountered a number of people who were unable to keep him for various reasons.
His first adoptive owner sent the feisty chestnut back, claiming he was not only unpredictable around humans, he was too aggressive to be turned out with a herd. Then a teenage girl agreed to adopt him as her only horse. Without warning, the chestnut threw her two weeks later, fracturing her arm, whereupon several people recommended that this handsome yet still flighty gelding be destroyed.
The girl’s mother contacted me as arrangements for euthanasia and burial were being discussed. The nearest rescue, Equine Voices, was full, as was the ranch that originally rescued him. The horse seemed destined to die if I didn’t take him in, yet my facility was also at capacity. I simply didn’t have the funds to create a new corral, and I had been advised that he was too “stud-like” to turn out with other horses.
Reason and resources told me I should walk away. But I couldn’t. After all, I was in the midst of finishing a book centered on the lessons I had learned from a much more dangerous horse. The chestnut gelding was in jeopardy at the very moment I was writing about Merlin’s frenetic rehabilitation.
And so, through a partnership with both horse rescues, we pooled our resources to bring the horse to my small ranch, Epona at Eagle Way. Over the next two months, staff members Elysa Ginsburg, Sue Smades, and I used every technique we had learned from Merlin, with surprisingly efficient results. Shelley Rosenberg, who helped me train and breed Merlin a decade earlier, donated some of her time to teach our new ward how to trailer more quietly after his initially traumatic experience.
Remembering his brave sojourn through the desert, we couldn’t help but call him Cimarron, wondering if he’d ever be comfortable around humans.
The Marriage of Rasa and Merlin
One technique I found immensely useful in gaining Cimarron’s trust was, in essence, a marriage of skills I had learned from Rasa and Merlin. Years earlier, when my mare became too lame to ride (from an injury described in The Tao of Equus), I had learned how to dance with her on the ground, eventually teaching this relationship-enhancing practice to others. “Rasa Dance,” as I called the technique and the workshop designed to teach it, relied less on training and more on a kind of “physics of relationship” combining intention, boundaries in motion, nonverbal cues, and an understanding of how certain movements (some of which are actually counterintuitive to equestrians) create predictable responses in horses that encourage collaboration.
Rasa Dance wasn’t a rehearsed endeavor; it was a co-creative conversation through movement. Because it happened off lead, at a distance comfortable to abused horses like Merlin, I had found it useful in working with skittish horses. By the time I met Cimarron, I was well versed in the use of Rasa Dance as a relationship-building tool. When our European apprenticeship class asked to see a demonstration of the technique and its benefits at my Eagle Way ranch last December, I decided to take a bit of a chance and bring Cimarron out.
I had spent perhaps a total of an hour standing quietly in his corral, assessing where and how he liked to be touched (not much as it turned out). The following video of our dance was our very first interaction in an area. Special thanks to our Norway-based apprenticeship graduate, now approved instructor, Kerstin Kleinow, for taking this video and posting it on YouTube:
In watching this video, it’s clear that Cimarron is NOT a dangerous horse, but rather a highly intelligent, soulful being who “lit up” when he was invited to engage in a co-creative interaction where his space was respected and his talents could be nurtured off-lead, rather than under constant restraint and/or stern direction.
It’s possible that Cimarron threw his teenage rider because of an ill-fitting saddle, or a sudden jolt of back pain, perhaps due to the spine crushing packs that drug running horses are forced to wear. For this reason, I’m not sure if Cimarron will ever be reliable under saddle, though we are doing some acupuncture/body work with a holistic vet to see if this obviously brave, experienced desert horse might someday be up for hitting the trails with other riders.
In the meantime, Cimarron has become a real star in working with people. He calls out affectionately to staff, and reaches out to clients, more recently dancing with people who want to learn this technique during our Rasa Dance workshop. I hope that his story inspires others, not only to consider horses as worthy of more than just riding, but in creating partnerships with horse rescues and individual horse lovers to pool resources to save horses that might not otherwise have a chance. In this respect, I’d like to thank Karen Pomroy at Equine Voices, and Ann Jost at Care for the Horses, for answering Cimarron’s call!
We still have two spaces left in our upcoming Rasa Dance workshop October 18 through 21.
While this workshop is helpful in learning techniques to bond with challenging horses like Cimarron, it’s also a great technique for exercising “relationship off lead” with any horse. And, as many of our leadership and personal development clients have discovered, the skills you learn in the arena help you nurture human relationships and dance with whatever joys and challenges life brings you.
The experiences I had in RASA DANCE were in and of themselves powerful, but the real potency of this work has been to be able to directly interface what I learned in the workshop, with my life. I now welcome challenging situations and conversations with my “horse dancing skills.” I am able to be in the moment, meet another with fluid boundaries and a willingness to seek union over sticking to a plan.
Adriana Sevahn Nichols – Playwright, Actress
For more information or to register, contact Sue Smades at email@example.com or 520-455-5908. Please leave a message with your phone number if we don’t answer; sometimes Sue is out working horses.
Cimarron, in fact, now lives with Sue’s mare Sunny. The previously “dangerous horse” is clearly in love!