We sometimes call it Join Up Without a Round Pen. No-agenda time is a ritual Kathleen and I began with Noelle after Malachi died. The goal at the time was to just give her a bit of unstressed compassion and companionship. We’d go into Malachi’s playpen, open it up to Noelle, scatter a bit of hay around our feet, then sit there and talk, with no agenda whatsoever. Seriously, none. It yielded some of the best moments and lessons ever with Noelle. It took a bit of post analysis to realize what was going on during those times. And when we did we decided that we should use No Agenda Time with Saffron when we first adopted her.
Every evening we would sit in the paddock where Saffron and Stormy ate their dinner and talk about our day, with no agenda whatsoever related to the horses. We totally and completely ignored Saffron. Stormy was already bonded, probably since her first day. But with Saffron the purpose was to attempt nothing whatsoever with her until she decided of her own free choice, her own free will, that she trusted us and would like to have a relationship with us. Up until this point I had not been able to touch her at all. Anywhere. And I could not stand up with her anywhere close or she’d be gone.
There was obviously some level of trust working because she never once got upset with my imprinting of her new baby. I could touch, hold, and rub her. But not her mom.
One evening Stormy fell asleep right at my feet. Actually on my feet. Shortly after, her mom, Miss Saffron, an untouched mustang from the wild just a few weeks earlier, was munching hay scattered around our feet when she suddenly turned away and sauntered off to the water tub for a drink, maybe fifty feet away. Leaving her baby asleep on my boot. She won’t even let Stormy interact with the other horses through the fence. And has never before left her in our care. The trust it took to do that both surprised and overwhelmed us. And that was surely a signal. Five days later, on the evening of my birthday, Saffy gave me the best gift I could’ve asked for. Only a month before she had never willingly been touched by any human. But on my birthday her ever so slowly eroding trust barrier suddenly cracked, crumbled, and fell completely away.
With no advance notice she was suddenly all over me. Blowing noses, rubbing my cheek. Accepting scratches and rubs everywhere I could never touch before. Her neck, under her jaw, down her shoulder and leg. Her rib cage. Behind her ear. See the post An Amazing Birthday Gift from a Wild Mustang
You might remember that, for me, the most important element in Monty Roberts’ Join Up is that the choice to join up belongs to the horse. It is not forced by the human. And when the horse makes that choice freely, of its own free will, everything changes. No-Agenda time takes longer than Monty’s Join Up (which usually works for him in 30 to 40 minutes). This experiment with Saffron took 35 days, but when it happened everything changed right before our eyes. Everything! As if she had just thrown a light switch.
Happy Birthday she said!
I know friends who have accomplished this type of Join Up by just sitting alone in the middle of a pen, perhaps reading a book. Or working on something. Maybe studying.
I personally prefer it with two people. I don’t do well when I know that I must sit there for a couple of hours and read. Plus, with two people, engrossed in conversation with each other it adds an element of exclusion which seems to emphasize that there is no agenda relative to the horse. The horse can do whatever the horse wants to. We generally have some hay scattered near our feet, just to force closeness, which, again, when ignored seems to emphasize no agenda. It will probably take weeks. Four weeks is a pretty good average of time to “Join Up” from our experience and from others I’ve spoken with.
You are waiting for the horse to tell you that she accepts you, trusts you, and would like to be in relationship. That usually comes in the form of the horse touching you, maybe on your shoulder, or the side of your face. Perhaps blowing in your ear. Or just resting her chin on your shoulder and taking a nap. And allowing you to do things she would have not allowed ten minutes before. Rubbing, touching, scratching. Wherever. But especially often freaky areas, like ears, feet, belly, places like that.
But you must resist the temptation to do anything at all until the horse has taken that first step. That’s when everything changes. If you try to reach out, touch, get her to sniff you, or sneak a little rub, the response will always be conditional. When you do nothing until she makes her choice, the response will be total, all in.
Saffron sniffed my jeans a couple of times and even my gloves once, but even though those moments were enticing, I knew they were not commitments. They were merely exploratory musings. So do not jump in early.
How do you know which method to use? A traditional Join Up? Pat Parelli’s method? Or No Agenda Time? I would say if you know that the horse has had some bad experiences with humans who came before you, I would use No Agenda Time. If you know the horse has had good experiences with previous humans and is familiar with halters, maybe even has been ridden, perhaps try the traditional route. With any mustang – my opinion only – I would use No Agenda Time just to be safe. Had we known when Noelle came to us what we know today, and had we used No Agenda Time back then, I believe we’d have a very different relationship with her today.
Try it. But let the horse make the choices. Don’t be an opportunist. Let it roll along like a family conversation and ultimately the horse will begin to feel very safe and trusting, and one day that switch will flick on and everything will be different. In an instant. And how terrific that feels.
As I write this, we are back at it with Noelle. Take two. We will report.
Below are Saffron and Stormy’s first few posts:
(listed in chronlogical order)
Follow Our Entire Journey
From no horses and no clue to stumbling through mistakes, fear, fascination and frustration on a collision course with the ultimate discovery that something was very wrong in the world of horses.
Read the National Best Seller
…and the highly acclaimed…