One thing I really enjoy about working with animals of any kind is that you're constantly learning. I grew up with a dog who was already a "god dog" by the time I was born. After Bogie died I wanted another one so badly that I somehow convinced my parents to buy me a puppy training book to prove to them that I could handle the responsibility of one. I read it cover to cover many times. That coupled with a fantastic dog trainer/behaviorist taught me about the body language of dogs, i.e., how to communicate with them in a language they understand. Hobbes and then Oscar both turned into the best dogs anyone could ever ask for.
I also grew up horse-obsessed, of course. I remember one day seeing a book on my mom's bedside table whose cover showed a picture of a man with a horse standing directly behind him, without a halter or leadline anywhere in sight, his great head just over the man's shoulder. If you've read the book you know the man of whom I speak, Monty Roberts. The book is called The Man Who Listens to Horses and that, too, I read over and over again until I had parts of it memorized. In it he explains how he came to know and "speak" the language of horses and how it enables him to "join up" with them to form a team. He did it by observing them in the wild— and soon realized that they expressed clear signals to one another, and he could elicit those same behaviors from them.
People who are mostly around horses in movie theaters may think that horses are constantly rearing up and neighing and snorting but it's just not true. Hollywood for some reason finds those sound effects necessary [I think they're really awkward and distracting!]. Horses are prey animals. It wouldn't make any sense for a horse to go through life constantly alerting every wolf, mountain lion, coyote, bear, etc., to their presence. So instead they have a strong body language, and as you learn to listen, or read it, you can also learn to use it.
I'm no expert but I've tried various methods of Mr. Roberts', as well as seen him in workshops a few times, and I have seen how it works. It's truly an incredible thing.
When I was in Italy my closest companion came to be a horse, Nera. A beautiful mare, smart as a whip, well-trained but then left out in the pasture to rot for a year before I arrived. It was immediately obvious to me that at some point someone[s], most likely the ever-rotating interns with no idea how to handle horses and impatient, had mistreated her. She was shy but in an aggressive way, always at the ready with a kick aimed in my direction, always watching me. I started taking her treats and spending my free time down at the stable each day, and after a few weeks managed to get a halter on her and slowly begin grooming her.
Another evidence of past mistreatment reared its head a few times when she was haltered and tied to a post. I would leave her side briefly, usually to grab a different brush or something, and suddenly she would be rearing back in a white-eyed panic, thrashing until she broke the halter. She did that to me 3 or 4 times, for no apparent reason. Something awful happened to her once under similar circumstances and she won't ever forget it.
I took my time with her, happy just to have a horse in my life. The riding wasn't important and I had been there a month before I attempted it. Jay and I had been saddling her up and taking her for walks, not wanting to do anything to damage her already fragile trust. One evening we walked her to the front of the villa and it just felt like the right time. He gave me a leg up into the saddle and we just walked and walked more. Each day we went a little farther. At first she was anxious to leave her pasturemate behind, but gradually she became, I think, just as enthralled with our long rides through the woods and meadows as I was. It was spring and everything was blooming. On my free days we would disappear for hours and hours, exploring in every direction the 1200 acres of nature preserve that surrounds the farm.