Horsemanship and dyslexia
I knew she was in trouble. I was the one that got her there.
I had taken my filly, Mouse, into a round pen for some partnership games. She had always seemed a little wary of me, even though she was born at our place and had never had anything bad happen to her.
A round pen is a perfect place to develop a relationship with a horse. There are no corners to hide in, and the horse can't run too far away. Since a horse is a prey animal…
A horse walks into a bar, and the bartender says, "So, why the long face?"
It's really not a joke. A horse's face is long so that he can still see a long way while he grazes. His eyes are on the side of his head so he can see all the way around him. He is a prey animal. He knows he tastes good. His primary defense against predators is to run.
If a horse chooses to stay on the rail and run away from the predator in the middle, he can do that. It makes him feel safer. But he gets tired. After a while, he'll turn his focus toward the middle of the circle, cock an ear toward me, and eventually drop his head to ask permission to come in. A colt or filly will do the same with his mom in the wild. If the baby is misbehaving, she'll send them away and won't let them come back until they ask politely to rejoin the safety of the herd.
I had played this partnership game with several horses in learning to be a horseman, and I thought I knew what I was doing. I sent Mouse out on the circle, but she never came back. She didn't ask to come back in.
She didn't seem particularly afraid. She just kept up a really fast trot. I tried to take all the energy out of my body, standing with a leg casually cocked. I wanted to show her that it was OK to slow down and come in to me.
I started to worry about how I had gotten her so wound up. Since I am a predator – eyes in the front of my head, a meat eater – I have the power. I have thumbs to open the gate and the food bins. I decide when Mouse has to go play games with me, not the other way around. A horseman understands the differences between him and horse, and it is the horseman's responsibility to build the partnership.
Since I take responsibility for the breakdown in the communication, and the communication isn't happening, I feel bad. And confused. Do I understand horses or not? Do I have what it takes to be a true horseman?
I try stepping back to encourage Mouse to come in. She keeps running. I step in front of her to try to slow her down, but she just changes directions.
My confidence is draining out through my boots and into the sand. I'm upset that I have gotten my little girl upset. I make a decision that didn't immediately solve the problem, but had I done it differently, I wouldn't have learned the lesson. I pulled out my phone and called my wife.
If had just stepped out of the pen and went in the house to ask for house, Mouse would have calmed down, and all would have been OK – temporarily.
By the time Nancy got out to see me, my tears of frustration were welling up. She sized up the situation immediately and saved me with two words.
I went to my knees. The tears dropped into the dirt.
I was NOT thinking, "Boy, this is going to make a good TED talk someday."
Mouse stopped running almost immediately. Within 30 seconds, she came over to me and took my hat off. Without lifting my head, I reached up and petted her.
Nancy said, "You're too big for her."
I had picked up and cradled this filly in my lap about an hour after she was born. I had seen her every day of her life. Why should she be afraid of me? She outweighed by about 100 pounds. I thought I was her loving Dad. But I was too big for her.
Once I came down to her level – and below – I felt the redemption of forgiveness.
"All is forgiven, Dad. Let's go learn something."
That episode of misunderstanding took a place in a single afternoon, but I want to change gears and tell about another story of misunderstanding that lasted for years.
My grandson, Charlie, hated school. He had a hard time reading and spelling. Math was easier, but still difficult.
Charlie's parents both work hard and didn't have the energy to make Charlie do his homework. It fell to Nancy and me to work with him on his homework. Sometimes Charlie would be doing fine, and then for some mysterious reason, he would melt down and the session would end in tears. He would run away, and we would physically carry him back to the table.
We tried to use our horsemanship techniques. We would not get angry (or try not to), and just offer Charlie a good deal and wait for him to settle down and do the work.
Practice passive persistence in the proper position, as our horsemanship guru Pat Parelli would say. Pat like's P's.
Schoolwork was difficult for all of us.
One night, early in Charlie's third grade year, he and I were working on some reading. I read a sentence and Charlie read a sentence.
When we got done, Charlie said,
"Wow! Look at those y's!"
I could not see what he meant. But he showed me. See "cry" in sentence 5, and the "my" in six. And below that, the "y" in Grandaddy forms a straight line.
My thought was "This kid sees the world differently than I do." Just like my horse. My brain was interpreting the squiggles of ink on the page as words that represent ideas, and things, and emotions. Charlie saw patterns in the letters.
I ran to my computer and Googled, "on-line dyslexia test." I found a list of 31 symptoms with an explanation that a typical child with dyslexia will have about 10 of these symptoms. Nancy and I counted 18 or 19 with Charlie.
As we learned more about dyslexia, we learned why Charlie has such a hard time reading. He really does perceive the world differently than we do. FMRI scans show that when a "normal" person reads, certain centers are activated in the brain. In a person with dyslexia, those centers are quiet. For whatever reason, they don't work. So, when we thought Charlie was being lazy or recalcitrant for not reading, his brain was actually working extra hard to try to make sense of the ink squiggles on the page.
Here's what breaks my heart and is the big lesson for me. With the horse, I knew that we saw the world differently. And it's easy to understand that a horse is different from me. And since I have the power, it was my responsibility to bridge the gap of understanding so that we can learn and play together.
However, I did NOT know that Charlie saw the world differently. Because we are both human, it was easy to assume that we saw the same way. I still had the power. But, I placed all the responsibility for learning on HIM. And it was hard. On that child that I love so much.
The horse can deal with stress by running away. All Charlie could do was cry and melt down.
How many interactions do we have with people when we assume they see the same way we do? How many times do those differences cause problems? It's not just a difference of opinion or level of knowledge. We see the world differently. As adults, we can share the responsibility of trying to understand each other.
But with kids, we must take on the responsibility to understand how each one may be different and how to best teach them.
Once I understood that I was too big for Mouse, I could approach her hunched or bent over. As our partnership grew, I didn't have to do that any more and she grew to trust me.
"All is forgiven, Dad. Let's go learn something."
Nancy is tutoring Charlie in his reading with a program designed for people with dyslexia. I am working on his math using multisensory manipulatives. Charlie's school makes accommodations by doing things like having someone read him the questions on his standardized tests. Now that we know, we can help Charlie learn and thrive and grow.
"All is forgiven, Papa. Let's go learn something."