For years I’ve called the process of making Benji movies trial-and-error film making. I always – well, usually – know what I want to see up there on the screen, but almost never know how to get it on film. I remember late one night in Oregon on Benji the Hunted there were about twelve of us crammed and bundled around the camera which was sitting on the dirt pointed down at a tiny little cougar cub who was supposed to be looking up at Benji, pleading with his eyes to not be left alone to be eaten by some larger predator (his mama had been shot by a hunter). The look in the cub’s eyes had to be right. It had to make us (the audience) choke up a little, feel the plight of this poor helpless baby. So there we were, this huge crowd of people all scrunched in a ball gawking down at this wee cub with a bevy of bright lights in his eyes, and I was supposed to be holding the “look” of the cub (as if he were gazing up at Benji) and I was also supposed to be doing something that would evoke just the right expression. Something that would make the cub’s eyes beg pleeeze don’t leave me here…
I squawked annoying sounds, tried to whistle (which I never had learned to do properly), gurgled, cracked sticks, rustled leaves, squeaked… none of which was having any effect. After a moment, the cub began to rock back and forth and I said, “I think he’s falling asleep!” I got louder, but the little guy’s eyes rolled back in his head and his eyelids dropped shut. He was out like a light. After a moment, he plopped over on his side, which woke him up with a start, and we began again. It had to be a funny sight to an innocent bystander. But it took a while for me to see the humor in it as rolls upon rolls of film raced through the camera. We shot up at least twenty minutes worth before finally getting the expression I wanted. I don’t even remember what sound or movement extracted the perfect look… but that particular moment in the finished film is magical. Truly magical.
The point here is, we don’t have to know all there is to know every time we enter a new situation. We don’t have to wait and wait until we’re living experts of the moment to give something a try. I’m a huge advocate of book and DVD learning, of ingesting years of experience in a short time from people more knowledgeable than I. But there comes a time when there is no better learning than first-hand experience, of getting out there and trying something. Giving it a shot. Knowing full well that it probably won’t work. But mentally set to keep going. To try something else. And something else again. Until that magical moment happens.
I’ve never forgotten the following moment, as described in The Soul of a Horse:
Our growing library of books and DVDs all said “begin at the beginning.” which meant standing in the arena teaching my horse to back up, or move sideways. Or come to me. These exercises would give me control, said the DVDs. And once I had complete control over how, where, and when the horse moves, I would then have a safe horse. And only then should I climb aboard.
But I wanted to know why.
I was also anxious to take the next step with Cash. After Join-Up, he was now looking to me for leadership, so off we went to the arena.
I hear we learn by our mistakes.
One of the training DVDs had spelled out three different ways to teach backup.
See Cash back up, Method One.
See Cash back up, Method Two.
See Cash back up, Method Three.
Why, I wondered, did I need three? Especially here, beginning at the beginning. One method would’ve been quite enough to confuse both of us this first time out.
See Joe look like a circus clown.
Clumsy and awkward do not adequately describe the moment. I had Cash’s lead rope in one hand and a three-foot-long Handy Stick in the other. A Handy Stick is a plastic rod used to extend the length of one’s arm so that, hopefully, one can stand back far enough to avoid the kind of knockdown Kathleen got to experience. The stick, sold of course by one of the DVD trainers, is not to be used for discipline, only for guidance. According to this particular DVD, I was supposed to be doing one thing with the lead rope and another with the stick.
It was like trying to rub circles on your belly with one hand while patting your head with the other.
I felt like an idiot.
Those droll cocks of the head and quizzical looks from Cash were coming at me like machine-gun fire. I expected him to burst out laughing any minute. I was clearly not getting through.
But I didn’t give up. I kept trying, but trying different things. If this doesn’t work, try that. Or something else. And slowly, over time, I began to see that it really doesn’t matter what you do, but rather how well you communicate what you’d like for your horse to do. If touching his ear will communicate that you want him to roll over, so be it. Ultimately I reached a point where I can now ask Cash to back up with nothing more than a look, or a toss of the head, or a flick of a finger.
And it all came about stumbling around through the process of trial and error. Which lead me to look at communication from his end of the lead rope, not from mine. I recommend it.