Thinking, Judging, Feeling

Despite several big worries that have been gnawing their way through my psyche today, that hot bath feeling of peace visited me. A part of my brain, the part that seems to ignite with anxiety at the smallest spark, jumped up and said, “What’s that?!”

“What’s what?” I answered myself.

“That feeling! What is it? Should we do something about it?”

I realized as we drove to the barn to check on our horses and do the day’s chores, that the feeling that had my anxiety brain so excited was the feeling of calm. Contentment. Peace.

It’s funny to realize that sometimes we worry about not being worried. I mean, even if our lives are in order, what is going on in our world can be a source of daily worry. Especially these crazy days.

The other funny thing is that I think we sometimes do this with horses. We will be working with them, or riding along, noticing the sounds of their hooves on the earth or how they prick their ears forward and sideways and forward again and all of a sudden we think,

“What was that?!”

“Did she just lean to the left? Is her shoulder falling to the inside?”

I don’t know if this is judgement or a busy brain or our fear of feeling peaceful – like who are we to feel that way when there is so much going on, and so much is wrong in the world? All of a sudden, that misstep or moment of unbalance on our horse’s part throws us out of feeling something straight into a judgement that we can’t have that. No, can’t have the misstep, the tug on the reins, the shortening of a stride. Before we know it we can get caught up in chasing the problem instead of being part of a solution.

Whatever the origin is, I know that riding with a brain that is assessing, planning and judging is a sure way to feeling dissatisfied. We miss half of the experience of being with our horses when we ride with only our brains engaged.

Thinking is what brains are designed to do. Judging stands at the other end of the spectrum of thinking. As Carl Jung says, “Thinking is difficult. That’s why people judge.” As we get older, it’s easier to dismiss the body as a means to carrying the magnificent brain around. During the course of a day, I find it far easier to clutch onto judgment like a jelly doughnut after eating a salad: we know the salad is better for us but oh, is that doughnut a heavenly rush or what?

Go to any horse show or clinic, and if you sit amongst a crowd of people, you’ll likely hear murmurings and sighs and the certainty of voices that tells us that the speaker in the bleachers knows more than the horse and rider in the arena.

I’d like to say that the ability to judge, assess or discern is a normal evolutionary gift that got us where we are today; without the ability to remember life-threatening events and make a snap judgement if they arise again, humans would have died out a long time ago. Besides our brains, we have nothing to compete with in the animal kingdom. Strip us down to a pair of shorts and a tank top and we can’t run very far, can’t keep warm or stay cool without the help of either fire or a shade tree, can’t defend ourselves with teeth, speed, claws or antlers.

Judgement, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. It’s when we use it to blanket ourselves from life that it can get in the way. Judgement as a defense against anything we find threatening is probably natural, but just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good. Tornadoes are natural too.

One of the thousands of reasons so many of us find being around animals restful is because they don’t judge us. The accept us as we are in any given moment. Being around horses, especially horses who are in a calm and restful state, can bring us to their level. If we allow our brains to slow down along with our heart rate, we can begin to inhabit a place of relaxed alertness that is so effective when working with our horse.

Anytime our mind tightens, our body will follow. In fact, I often wonder what happens first: did our horse’s body become momentarily unbalanced and then we felt that and our brain jumped into the fray? Whatever the order of events, a tense mind and body won’t yield relaxation in our horse, whether we are on the ground or riding. The art of being with horses is the ability to maintain as much relaxation in ourselves as possible no matter what our horse is up to. Hence the popularity of breathing, and weaving other body awareness disciplines into horsemanship.

As those practices teach us more about mindfulness, the power of deep breathing, and ourselves, we can access those feelings when we are with our horses. Over the past couple of decades, I’ve practiced the work of Byron Katie (who has a very interesting process for dealing with judgements), breathwork and meditation, Buddhism, improved my diet, explored the martial art of Aikido, and increased my exercise. All of these avenues have helped not only lower my overall anxiety, but given me constructive ways to deal with the judgement voice that crops up in my head. As this voice has calmed down, I find I can hear horses at a level I couldn’t before. I feel centered and able to be a better instructor as well as live with myself and others with more ease.

I’ve come to realize that we are evolving from our heads into our bodies. From there it’s a natural step into our hearts. From brains to bodies to feelings, I believe we are growing in a way that lets us understand horses and ourselves without the thick veil of judgement. That particular veil can cloud a rich and nourishing experience of life. Connecting this triune places us in our centers. Judgement quiets down, and peace finds us more often.

Uncovering softness

Top, October 2019

It was October, and Top stood quietly at the trailer while being groomed and saddled. When Mark bridled him and then gathered up the reins to see how Top would respond to pressure, it was clear that what Top knew was how to push. He raised his head really well too. Since these aren’t the responses we look for, Mark decided to work with Top from the ground until Top could begin to get the idea of how to let go.

Horses are already soft. They are born that way; receptive, aware, sensitive and willing. It is through our interactions with them that we either cover that up or keep it alive. We could see that Top was a nice horse who had learned to protect himself against the bit, the rider, or both. He wasn’t so defensive that he was acting out, but his defensiveness manifested itself as a constant and complete body tension. We also felt that he had learned to not say much when it came to interactions with people. Some might call this stoic. I often wonder, though, if a component of this is that he learned through consistent feedback that people are deaf so he kept how he felt to himself.

Before and after his teeth are balanced, and chiropractic.

Shortly after he arrived, we had the chance to haul him down to Happy Dog Ranch where he got his teeth balanced and a thorough session of chiropractic. Since the weather was nice, we decided to stay an extra day and work with him, to see what he thought about these new changes.

After groundwork on the first day, Mark took him back to the round pen and worked with him on the ground first before getting on. Top was more relaxed and looked more comfortable. It was all going really well until Mark asked Top to back up. Top put all of his weight on the right side of his body, moved his left foot back, threw his head to the left and almost fell over.

We see this from time to time, not only in some of the ranch horses we buy, but also with horses at clinics. They’ve been tense and imbalanced for so long that imbalance becomes their balance. Add to this that Top was ridden in a curb bit, and it became apparent pretty quickly that he knew how to do something in the context of equipment, not because he knew how to do that particular skill with a rider.

What does that mean? That as long as Top could lean on or rely on the mechanics of the curb bit, the bit would help him do the job. It’s like the training wheels got left on the bike, and once we took them off, the bike toppled over.

This isn’t to say that curb bits are bad or all horses who are ridden in curbs don’t know their job. But I do know that in Top’s case, without the curb bit he didn’t know how to move his body in a relaxed and balanced way. As it turns out, he had some trouble with forward, turning, and stopping as well.

It sheds a whole new light on how our horses learn, and what they learn. While outwardly Top could perform his job, when asked about the how, Top couldn’t answer. All he knew was which responses to the bit and the cues from the rider would get a release, but he couldn’t perform basic movements with any kind of balance in his own body. He had been trained so the outside of his body did certain tasks, but the rest of the horse wasn’t included.

These are also horses we sometimes see at clinics; outwardly skilled, but inwardly not involved in the movements. Most of the time these horses carry not only physical tension, but emotional and mental tension as well. Once we begin to show them how to balance themselves and involve them in the movement, as opposed to putting them into the movement, they begin to calm down.

Top is unlike other horses in that he is emotionally pretty balanced. We don’t often see or sense an “oh no” from him. When it does come up, if we stay quiet and give him time, he starts to reengage with us and get curious. I’ve come to see that how he feels most of the time, and how his body performs are split. It’s not a common occurrence with horses; most of the time how they feel is how they act.

Over the months that we traveled with Top to Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, and Texas, Mark worked on the same set of skills with him. Stop softly, turn softly, go forward softly, and back up softly. What all this meant was that Mark was looking for a certain feel through the reins from Top. He didn’t want a lot of pressure in his hands, nor did he want Top putting his nose to his chest. When we talk about self-carriage, what we would like to see is that a horse is able to engage their abdominals and balance themselves through any movement.

July, 2020

At a recent clinic here in Colorado, I watched as Mark asked Top to turn on his haunches, side pass, back up and stop. Everything was done with ease. As they walked around the arena helping a horse and rider beginning to go through the same process they’d been through for the past six months, I could see, in this snapshot, where Top used to be, and where he is now.

We are all somewhere along the continuum of learning. Our horses too. We can help them, and ourselves, by taking manageable steps to help fill our days with as much ease as possible. I’m looking forward to getting to know Mr. Top more, and watch as he settles into a softer way of going.

You can read more about Top here: https://crissimcdonald.com/2020/03/04/its-not-a-catching-problem/

Riding into Relaxation

Photo: Chris Wolf

We sometimes forget that horses can perform any movement we need them to do already. They are masters of movement.  All horses are talented creatures; they can fly without wings (not for long), they can figure out how to talk their owners into being fed early (who can resist those liquid eyes and low rumbly nickers?), will run fast, jump high and move in ways that have us lost in their artistry. 

What we do as riders is attach a cue to a certain movement. There’s nothing fancy about training horses; as long as you understand when to release and when to cue working with a horse isn’t rocket science.

Creating a space where the horse willingly does those moves for you, and is so confident that the movement is relaxed? That is the art of horsemanship. You can’t buy it, cheat it, manipulate or fake it. I will gladly spend the rest of my life pursuing this art.

If you have a horse long enough, he’ll either associate you with relaxation or tension. With feeling safe, or not. 

This is why when I hear riders saying that their horses are stubborn or lazy or <insert any other negative descriptor> I feel drawn to asking them how their own body feels. What if we, as the rider, aren’t breathing? Or we have our shoulders up so high they look like clunky earrings? What if we have a horse who is reading every. dang. signal. our bodies and emotions are sending them and haven’t any clue which one to respond to? All these goings on are within our power to change.

I get being at the end of your metaphorical rope when the same behavior keeps showing up and you don’t know what to do. When all you want to do is hang the picture in your head on your horse and make him match it.

Your horse can already perform any movement you wish. If there is a gap between what you’d like and what your horse is doing, the first place we need to look is at ourselves: What are we doing or not doing that the horse interprets in such a way that she is tense? The second place we look is to our horse’s physical needs. Does our horse need bodywork? Nutritional support? Their teeth and feet balanced? Tack that doesn’t interfere with how they need to move? These are questions I ask with such regularity that the more I ask, the more committed I am to asking yet again. In our clinics across the country, we see horses who more often than not have physical issues, much more so than training issues. I would say true training issues are ten percent of the horses we see. That means ninety percent have something physical bothering them. 

After those questions are resolved and we are working with a horse who we feel confident about their ability to perform how we need them to (whether it is cutting a cow from the herd or performing piaffe or walking quietly down the trail), how do we ride our horse into the relaxation of the movement, instead of train in tension, and therefore limits, on how well our horse can perform?

I was out walking the dogs this afternoon, looking at the different shapes of their paw prints on the ground, and it occurred to me that we spend a great deal of time hunched over. We hunch over computers, hunch in a chair or our bed to watch tv, definitely curl up around our smartphones or tablets and spend any time we have in our car hunched and tense behind the wheel as we try to get from point A to point B without sending ourselves into outer space with road rage, or get hit by a distracted driver. We hunch over the sink to do dishes. We sit down to eat and hunch over our meal. Perhaps some of us even walk with a slouch.

Here’s where we can start to not only ride our horses into the relaxation of movement, but begin that relaxation in our own minds and bodies. The great thing about horses is that because we need to be balanced in order to stay on, hunching while in the saddle is not a good idea. Keeping our eyes on the ground and staying in a slouch while we are grooming, or doing ground work is also not a good idea. Horses require us to look up, to straighten up and to use our bodies in non-habitual ways. They are so much healthier for us than screens.

Besides a practice of riding in relaxed physical balance, we can also develop the skill of riding in emotional balance. 

To me this has the quality of a meditation practice. Instead of signing up for a three day silent retreat when I can’t sit for ten minutes in silence in my own house, I sit for five minutes each day, not only watching my breath go in and out but also marveling at how much like breeding bunnies my thoughts are. This, I know, is a contradiction to having the much-coveted empty mind. These racing bouncy thoughts are everywhere and reproduce at an alarming rate, hopping from here to there and outwitting my breath at every turn. 

Riding horses is the same. If we drive to the barn shaking our fist and cursing at other drivers, and then want a quiet and centered ride, good luck. If we walk out to our horse’s pen fuming about an argument we had and expect our horses to greet us eagerly, that particular wish may not happen. Riding our horses into relaxation is all about us relaxing first. 

But it’s a gradual process. Like meditation, we need to build our being-in-the-moment-with-our-horse muscles. If we dive in too soon, we will frustrate ourselves.  If we don’t practice at all and let those bunnies in the saddle too, frustration is a sure bet. 

Instead we shoot for a present and happy walk. We take a breath, we feel the warmth of our horse’s soft neck, see the particular shape and tilt of their ears. And then we take another breath and practice staying present and open in the trot. 

We need to convince our chatterbox brain that it really is ok to take a break and listen. 

Sometimes we help our horses, sometimes they help us. I don’t mean to say that everything in your world needs to be rainbows and Muzak. Life happens all the time, but it’s more about finding ways that are meaningful to us to help set aside our concerns and worries while we are with our horses, so we can give them the full attention they need, and deserve. 

It strikes me that we need and deserve our own full attention too. We can ride ourselves into relaxation, just by the choices we make each day. 

Bree Returns

I didn’t know I needed to see Bree until I saw her again. Five years had passed since she and I had the accident that put me in the hospital with a small brain bleed. For five years, she had been fostered by a kind Texas horsewoman who took her in as a companion for her Arabian. For five years I’d let that Bree-filled space in my heart close, knowing she was well taken care of. But life is filled with switchbacks and steep hills, and the woman’s life changed. When she texted us that she needed to find Bree a new home, we decided to take back my mare.

As we traveled from North Carolina to Texas, panic stole my breath when I thought about seeing Bree again. My heart raced, but it wasn’t because I was thrilled. When we arrived at Bree’s foster home, I watched as she was led to the trailer and watched as Mark loaded her. I was sweating, the rivulets running down my back so that my t-shirt felt soaked and much too small. On the way back to our clinic venue, I remember breathing deeply and letting the wind from the open window dry me off. At the venue, Mark unloaded Bree and put her in the paddock with our two geldings. I watched her from outside the pen, then—feeling a recurrence of the earlier hyperventilating coming on—turned away and sat down in the shade. 

Knowing a little about trauma and its aftereffects, this level of panic didn’t surprise me. The intensity did, however. As I watched Bree look for grass in the paddock, I realized that I felt the same as I had five years earlier, when I’d watched her through a fog of painkillers. Fear was doing its best to convince me that time hadn’t passed, and that I really didn’t have the tools to deal with this. “There’s a monster in the paddock!” my fear shouted that day. 

The next day was humid and windless, and as I walked by the horse pen, I broke out into a sweat again, but this time because the air was as thick as the water I’d just drunk. I called Bree’s name (“Ree-ah!”) using the tone of voice I’d adopted when we were together. Her head popped up, her ears came forward, and she walked up to the fence, standing close to me and breathing quietly, reaching out to  touch my face and shoulder with her nose. It washed through me that this is why I’d loved her, and I loved her still. The gratitude I was feeling was far bigger than my fear. 

For the next three days, I took care of her while we worked. When I called her name, she came to me. We shared moments with her sniffing my belly and arms and shoulders and me stroking her silky neck. It felt natural to put on her halter. It was easy to groom her and put on her fly mask. I led her between paddocks and her stall and wasn’t afraid, even when she snorted, flung her dainty head, and pranced. Sometimes, wildness needs to be celebrated, after all. In my heart, I celebrated right with her.

The only thing I felt was admiration for her beauty. The familiarity and ease that I experienced when I handled her was a safe place for both of us. It wasn’t just that I’ve led a few horses. It was that I was leading Bree, and we’d written years of our own personal history. Both of us had now opened a new chapter in the book we shared. It was my fear that turned the accident into a 900-pound monster. 

Bree helped me see that there were no monsters in the paddock. 

We got back to Colorado just days before the quarantine went into effect, and on the way home, dropped Bree off at Happy Dog Ranch, where our friends had so kindly arranged a place for her. Here, she could be a lesson horse for groundwork sessions, a safe horse for beginners to groom and learn with, and an addition to their therapy program. This life suited her far better than the one I could give her, one in which she would have minimal interaction with people because of our work schedule. 

Before we left the next morning, we moved Bree from the paddock with our two geldings and put her in a round pen close to the ranch herd. She was upset, running and calling to her friends. I knew how she felt; my mare had returned and now I was leaving her, albeit in a home where I knew her intelligence, gentleness, and grace would be appreciated. I was tempted to go into the round pen and run and holler myself. 

Instead, I watched how her long, black tail flagged in the wind. How with each stride, she seemed unfettered by gravity. How she snorted, came to a walk, and grabbed mouthfuls of hay and sips of water. 

I knew she would calm down and come to feel safe in her new life. I knew my friends at Happy Dog Ranch would appreciate and love her, and that she would help so many people feel better. I also knew that I would be able to see her more often and share those quiet moments that hadn’t disappeared, despite our long separation.

It’s funny how some relationships grow, disappear, and stay gone, and others continue to grow in spite of distance and time. After our accident, I knew that by placing Bree in a foster home, I was doing the best I could for her, and made peace with my decision to have her live elsewhere. 

Then when she returned, and after my terror faded, I realized that she and I had both grown in our own ways. When we had a chance to spend time together again, it was as though no time at all had passed. She was the same sweet, beautiful mare that I had loved, and that love hadn’t gone anywhere. Rather, it had, like our hearts, expanded. 

This is the gift of a good horse: without design or artifice, manipulation or grand plans, they bring us to the realization of how to be a good human, and in so doing, to grow beyond what we thought was possible. Sometimes, what we consider to be a monster is really a 900-pound gift waiting for us to open it. 

The full story of Bree and Crissi is included in her book, “Continuing The Ride: Rebuilding Confidence from the Ground Up.” Available on Amazon as both an e-book and printed version. Signed copies are available here.

Shedding A heavy coat

Rocky and Crissi.

It’s that time of year. Our horse Rocky is so itchy, he’s rubbing up against pine trees to scratch the hair off. I took the shedding brushes out to his paddock and spent some time reaching all the parts he couldn’t. He’s twenty-one this year, and like most of us when we get older, is sprouting hair where there didn’t used to be any. Different than us though, this hair is thick and grips to him like winter is still around the corner.

I’ve written before about the importance of remaining calm in the midst of chaos. Now the chaos is visiting us when we see the things we thought would always be there are gone. We watch the numbers of us affected by the virus go up, and no one knows where this train stops. Or even pauses.

As much as anyone can in these times, I’ve tried to stay informed without spinning emotionally out of control. Many of my loved ones are far away and some of them are older. We live in a mountain town that depends on tourism. We are self-employed and have cancelled our clinics for the foreseeable future. Those thousands of people who have lost loved ones, and the thousands more who are ill. My hamster brain is running itself ragged on the coronavirus wheel.

As horse people, one of the required skills to thriving with horses is the ability to maintain a level head. This is more important than any technique we could ever learn.

So when I went out to brush the horses this morning, I was aware of how close I was to full-blown anxiety. I was also aware that I was relying on my practices to keep me grounded. Deep breath in. Slow breath out. Listen to the birds. Feel the sun warming skin that hasn’t felt the air move across it in months.

The most powerful moment of revelation came when I was brushing Rocky, and watching his obvious pleasure at being relieved of a winter coat that is too heavy. I was fascinated by the ssshhhshhhing of the brush I was using and the hair that let loose in piles and fell to the ground. Rocky stood still even as I brushed those sensitive and hard to reach places; the inside of his hind legs. The underside of his round belly.

The sun, warm. The air, warm. The birds singing. Rocky, his head down, sighing in relief.

This pandemic coat is heavy too. If we believe we wear it alone, it can feel suffocating. But we aren’t alone, are we? We have each other, our fellow humans and we are all wearing the same coat. We may need to socially distance, but we can smile and be kind to those people who have jobs that require they interact with the public. We can leave supplies for our neighbors, who need them too. If we are able to sew, we can make face masks. We can volunteer to deliver meals to those who can’t get out. Even during a time of such stress and fear and tragedy, we can find ways to focus our mind and heart toward being part of a solution.

All our knowledge of the earth, the air, the sea and the skies, is built on hundreds of years of exploration. It is millions of layers of the bravery and courage of those who have gone before us. Horsemanship isn’t any different: what we know, we know because someone else either tried and failed, or tried and succeeded. I believe the horses themselves are doing their part to help us become better listeners, and hopefully, better people on this planet we share with so many other forms of life.

I take comfort in nature’s offerings of being in each moment and enjoying her beauty, even the beauty of winter hair on the ground and the promise of a shiny coat. I take comfort in the eons of people who have got us where we are today. I feel gratitude for all those people we will probably never know or meet, working together to solve our current and historically unique crisis. However this turns out (and I realize there is tragedy along the way), I also have faith that we will learn things that future generations will use to further their own lives. I have the feeling that we will learn something about ourselves, both individually and collectively that will change us.

I think that all of this knowledge and understanding we’ve been collecting about horses for years, sometimes decades, can serve us well. Just when we think we can’t bear anymore, we think of that horse who seemed “broken” and how they came back because of kindness and patience. How our focus on breathing can be applied to help us through our day. How focusing on the wild grassiness of their smell or the way they ruffle air through their nostrils, is a restful moment in a world that is anything but restful.

Those lessons we learned from and about horses aren’t just platitudes or things with which to distract ourselves. They can be applied right now so we can weather this storm. I would say that we no longer have the option to not apply them; these times are why we have learned all we have.

We can brush our horses. Listen to them munch on hay. Ground ourselves in the present so firmly that for those moments we are unencumbered by heavy coats and can bask in the warm spring air. Weave enough of those moments together, and we might actually be able to feel something other than dread. Take that coat off and we can open our bare arms to the sunshine.

It’s Not a Catching Problem

Our new clinic horse Top is a chocolate bay with a kind eye and a pink spot on his lower lip that makes him look like his tongue is always out. He came to us from South Dakota, and before that he was a working ranch horse. Top’s ten years old. Undoubtedly, he knows stuff.

We buy ranch horses every once in a while. They’re generally quiet and don’t mind standing tied and are easy to haul. They are easy to get around. Since we need them to do the specific job of being a clinic horse, easy to get around goes a long way.

The first two months that we had Top and would walk into the pen, he would turn his hindquarters to us and trot away. It took an average of two to three minutes to talk him into being caught. At one point Mark did a few minutes of asking Top to bring his head toward him (instead of his hindquarters), but other than that we haven’t had a chance to work on Top’s feeling better about this skill.

What we’ve noticed though is that Top, like most of the ranch horses we’ve bought, has a hard time being caught. Once we are close to with a halter, it’s usually not a big deal. But that first five minutes or so he feels he needs to run, or duck behind another horse, or look for a way out of the paddock that he might’ve missed.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that this kind of behavior is not about being caught. It’s not a catching problem, nor is it really any kind of problem at all. The horse’s stress level has gone up. The way they’re trying to find their way out of being stressed or confused is by moving.

Horses who are in some sort of discomfort, whether it is from their feet, their teeth or in their body, will be more reluctant to be caught. Some horses who have a hard time doing the job assigned to them will also take awhile to allow themselves to be caught. Maybe they don’t understand their role; maybe their job causes them stress or worry or fear. Maybe the person handling them is rougher than the horse is comfortable with. Maybe the saddle doesn’t fit or grooming is uncomfortable or the horse has ulcers or the saddle being girthed up quickly is uncomfortable. 

Catching, like most things relating to horses, is one piece of a larger puzzle. And, as most humans do, we tend to focus on the one small piece to decipher the whole picture. We stare at it with uneasy intensity, thinking that if we could get more light, or wear stronger glasses or frame it on the wall, we could tell what the whole picture is.

Put all of these puzzle pieces together and now we can see the fuller picture behind a horse who we think is “hard to catch,” is actually trying to communicate something much different to us. 

There are many times when we have to help the horse know how we’d like the catching process to go. We need them to stop and face us, instead of turning away and running. This is our preferred way to catch a horse, and there are lots of other ways. Our focus is on keeping the stress level as low as we can, and building on the good behavior instead of punishing the behavior we don’t want.

As for Top, I’ve never thought he was difficult to catch, and neither did Mark. We look at all horse behavior as communication. At any given moment, horses are doing their best to communicate how they are feeling. How they feel and how they act are the same states of being for them. The fact that Top needed to move away from us told us more about how he felt than anything else. He wasn’t being “naughty,” he wasn’t being “stubborn.” The only thing he was being was worried.

So what are the pieces in the puzzle that changed that picture for Top? We had his teeth balanced, and we had a chiropractor work on him. A month later, I gave him a Masterson Method® bodywork session. He has a saddle that fits, his feet were already in good shape, and the saddle pads we use are memory foam based.  When we go out to halter him, the halter goes on with consideration for being in such close proximity to his face. In other words, gently.

From the time we halter him to the time we turn him out at the end of our work day, we handle him as softly as possible. We do our best to be clear with him.

Now we are in North Carolina doing a couple of clinics and we put Top and Rocky out in a large paddock that has a shelter. This morning as we went out to get them, Top drifted away from us at a walk and then turned and faced us. I didn’t feel a raise in his concern level or energy. His head was low and his walk swingy. Walking away from a person with a halter is now just a habit that he doesn’t need. Like all habits, it will take some time to be replaced with a new one. 

When Top walked away, neither Mark or I changed our pace or our breathing. We didn’t spin the lead ropes and “make him leave faster.” Top drifted to our right, so we changed direction to the right and walked parallel to him before he stopped and turned, ears forward and body relaxed. 

Saying a horse has a catching problem is really a way of giving ourselves permission to only stare at one tiny piece of that puzzle, instead of finding the other pieces so we can see what the whole picture actually may be.

I get this kind of mental habit. It’s intimidating to think that we might be doing something that our horse isn’t comfortable with, and change is sometimes pretty danged difficult. It’s far easier to label something and let the label do the talking.

It’s sometimes danged difficult for horses, too, but we ask them to change all the time. Seems to me that fair’s fair, and we can do some changing right along with them. 

Too Much Lateral Flexion

In 1996 I’d been training horses for less than a year. I got a call from a neighbor who wanted help with her horse. When I arrived, Polly, a paint mare, stood quietly at the hitch rail, a spring breeze lifting her brown and white mane. I was chatting with her owner that morning, finding out how I could help them both.

Anne zipped up her jacket and flipped her long braid over her shoulder before saying, “I would like to take lessons at some point, but riding her makes me nervous right now. She doesn’t stop very well, even with a curb bit, and I hate pulling on her mouth.”

I went to my car and got a bridle that had a snaffle bit on it. I figured if Polly didn’t stop no matter what, a curb bit wasn’t going to be much help. 

Once mounted in Anne’s arena, I asked Polly to walk, and she did with a large, ground eating stride. As we were coming by the end closest to where Polly ate, I shortened the reins and asked Polly to stop.

Polly kept walking, this time with her nose stuck out and her neck braced. I slid my left hand down the rein and brought Polly’s nose around and put her in a circle until her feet stopped moving. Once we were stopped and I’d released the left rein, Polly took a deep breath and stood still.

“So Anne, is this normally the way it goes?” I asked.

Anne smiled and said, “Well, there’s usually a lot more pulling and cursing, but yes, that’s how it goes.” 

“Well, she’s pretty stiff. I’ve been doing something with other horses, including my own, that is working really well and I’d like to give it a try with Polly.”

“Sure,” Anne said. “What is it?”

“It’s called lateral flexion and it gets the horse more relaxed in their neck.”

The trainer I’d learned this from said that you couldn’t do too much lateral flexion and I took that statement as truth. Anne would watch as over the next couple of weeks, Polly stopped fighting the pressure from the bit and as I sat on her, brought her head to the left, and then to the right over and over again.

When I did ask Polly to go and then stop, all I had to do was pick up on one rein and bring her nose around and she would halt. I added a slight pressure from both reins and she would stop. Then I would swing her head around to my left stirrup, and swing her head around to my right stirrup. 

I felt like we’d hit the equine lottery; such a simple technique and I was proud of myself for figuring it out and proud of Polly for being so easy to work with. 

After a couple of weeks practicing a halt from a walk and trot in the small arena, I asked Anne if Polly loped.

“Sure, she lopes,” Anne said as she adjusted her big brimmed straw cowboy hat. “She’s got that rocking horse gait that’s easy to sit. I just haven’t done it in awhile because, you know, the stopping thing.”

“Right,” I laughed. “Well, your arena is great for the work we’ve been doing, but I think I’d like a little larger area to canter her in. Is there somewhere close by that you know of that we can do that?”

“My neighbor has a large dirt track they ride their motorcycles on. It’s big enough for a loping horse.” 

I bridled Polly and the three of us walked over to the dirt track. As I mounted up, and after bending her to the left and right a dozen times, we turned to our left and began walking around the dirt track.

Several times I asked her to stop by bending her head around to one of my boots, and Polly did, just as easily as she’d done when we were in the arena.

“Alright, Miss Polly, let’s see about that rocking horse lope,” I said to her as her ears flicked back and forth.

Sure enough, Polly’s lope was gentle and easy. I relaxed into my creaking saddle and noticed that a turn to the left was coming up. I slowly shortened my left rein.

Polly’s nose tilted to the left until her nose was at my boot. Her body kept going straight until we were now in the middle of the field. I straightened her out, put pressure on both reins and pushing into the bit, she thankfully slowed from a lope to a jog to a walk and then a halt. It occurred to me that Polly was being generous; I hadn’t used pressure on both reins going that fast.

I did it exactly like the book and the trainer had told me to do it. Why didn’t Polly turn? I’ll try again, I thought.

Swingy walk to cushy jog to smooth lope. I relaxed in the saddle and took a deep breath. I picked up the right rein as the turn was coming up. 

Polly’s nose tilted to the right. Her body kept going straight and once again she was loping in a straight line with her nose bent to my boot.

That image sparked an aha moment for me; she was doing exactly what I’d taught her to do. 

After slowing to a walk, we made our way over to Anne.

“I think I may have taught her that lateral flexion lesson a bit too well,” I felt embarrassed by the difference in what I thought I’d taught Polly and what she’d actually learned. 

I mentioned that I wanted to try something with Polly that I hoped would clear up how to turn and lope at the same time. The last thing I wanted was to leave Anne’s horse with no way to steer.

We loped to the left again and I shortened the left rein and kept a hold of the right rein, instead of lengthening it. This gave Polly a boundary. She shook her head and then loped around the left turn. We did this twice more before turning to the right and trying it in that direction. The paint mare turned easily, even as she kept trying to bring her nose to my boot. 

Polly was the last horse I ever did lateral flexion with. I learned from her that it actually can be overdone; it takes away the rider’s ability to steer their horse as well as mentally disconnects the horse’s head from the rest of their body.

Over the last decade of working all over the world, and seeing the results of this technique on countless horses, I can honestly say that I have yet to see one horse who could turn when the rider asked or soften at the poll and carry themselves balanced in their bodies. Every horse who has been over laterally flexed has to have their steering re-installed. Most horses get worried when they are asked to turn. And don’t even get me started on the hypermobility it creates in their neck, which can cause a myriad of physical issues. If Rollkur is horrible for Dressage horses, lateral flexion is its equally as horrible sibling.

Photo: Gail Fazio

So what do I do instead? I prefer to teach horses how to give to pressure and how to soften using backing up and turning. There is then a purpose behind them learning to give to pressure, whether it is vertical, horizontal or lateral and we still keep the horse connected to themselves, both in their body and mind. A horse connected to him or herself has a better chance of staying connected to us, as well. A connected horse has a greater chance of finding and staying in balance.

The Best Tools

There’s an expression currently making its rounds in the horse world. “It’s another tool for my toolbox.”

Having answers to our horse’s questions is a good thing. To be with horses safely and with pleasure, there are things we must know about them. They are prey animals, and running will always be their first instinct; they are faster and more sensory oriented than we’ll ever be; they have lives and priorities that have nothing to do with us.

I would also add that knowing something isn’t the same as understanding something. Knowing is what I used to do before a math test when I was in college; cram in information so I could pass the test. As soon as the test was done, the numbers evaporated out of my head.

Understanding is what happened when I was in my third year of learning German. There was a point that I wasn’t translating from English to German and back again. German had its own way of being expressed that had nothing to do with English.

Understanding is also what has been growing over the last thirty years of working with horses and people. But it wasn’t always that way.

In the 1990s, when I was thinking about being a horse trainer, I became fascinated with a method that was heavy on round pen work. Looking back at that time in my life, my horse education before seeing this method had been a lot of kicking, pulling, and making horses do things. There were good things I learned too, but being with horses was a contest and I was supposed to win. Although I loved horses, I also was taught the right way to use the many tools it took to train a horse.

So when this cowboy demonstrated his techniques in a round pen that caused changes in horses without using any tools, or even being connected by a longe line, I was instantly intrigued. I also realized that what I knew about horses was not much.

Over the next five years, I went to his clinics, bought all his DVD’s, learned to throw a rope, read books on the method and began working with horses who my friends were having some issue with.

Nine out of ten horses responded the way the DVD’s and books said they would; they learned to read my body and adjust their speed and direction. They would learn to turn and face in and we could calmly learn how to work together without a halter or lead rope.

But there was always that one horse. Every so often, no matter how much I followed the formula, the horse wasn’t improving. He wasn’t feeling better, and in some ways, he was getting worse. To be fair, this may have been caused by my lack of skill as much as my execution of the method. I know for sure that my focus on the method instead of the horse was a more significant issue.

Even though I had more tools in my horse training toolkit, I was missing the horse. I was wandering in a forest and missing the delight of each tree. I had so many new tools and relied on them so much that all I could see was the tools and completely missed who the horse was.

It took me several years of this pattern, and multiple times of admitting to several owners that I didn’t know what to do anymore, that I started the search again. What was I missing?

I found another cowboy clinician. There wasn’t a lot of dust being raised as I watched the first day of the clinic. He worked with one rider and one horse at a time. He was a kind teacher. I didn’t hear, “If you do A and B, you will get C.” I heard him making observations about one horse that didn’t apply to the next horse. I heard him asking each rider what they wanted to do with their horse, instead of going through a pre-planned lesson. I saw every horse leave calmer than when they stepped into the arena, yet in every case, the horse hadn’t moved out of a walk.

When it was my turn to ride, he watched as my Missouri Foxtrotter Jack and I gaited a few laps around the arena. He then mentioned that perhaps we could get my horse to soften a little bit.

Well, here is something I knew! I’d had years of Dressage training, and I could make a horse put their head down and collect with the best of them!

Before I could begin to shorten my reins, brace my shoulders, and leverage the reins with a big bicep popping effort, I heard “We are going to ask your horse to soften. Right now he’s light, but not soft.”

That stopped the chorus of “make your horse collect” voices and stunned them into silence. I thought if I pulled on the reins and released when my horse’s head went down that he was soft. Light and collected.

The rest of that session, and that clinic, I watched and asked questions about what the difference was between lightness and softness. In the world I had come from, the two were synonymous. What this cowboy was saying was that they weren’t.

During that four day clinic, I started seeing how individual Jack was and felt inspired about what I could learn from him. Working with Jack became an exploration instead of a contest. I could see how my handling of the reins caused him to defend himself, both by raising his nose and speeding up his feet. I saw the beauty of a tree that was my horse and how everything I knew was just a little, tiny forest.

We can learn something using techniques and methods, and most of the time, our horses will respond. We can also see horses for who they are. We can understand down to our guts that safety is their number one priority and do our best not to put them in a position to defend themselves.

Understanding horses, and our own horse, gives us an opportunity to experience life from a different species’ point of view. How exciting is that?! It means that we recognize how different horses are from us, and yet also how they are the same. It means not taking anyone’s word for something, but exploring it with our horse. It means-and this is where I get excited all over again-a lifetime of learning.

Tools are handy. But so is understanding. Grabbing a tool for the sake of filling your toolbox isn’t going to go quite as far as understanding (as much as any human can) what it is to be a horse.

We can forget the sticks and special halters, the crops, ropes, and martingales. With practice, mistakes, education and guidance from our horse, we have the best tools already with us: the human mind and body.

The Season of Acceptance

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There are things I like about this time of year. The Christmas lights that festoon the trees lining our downtown main street are magical, especially after a nighttime snowfall. I like that the dark reminds us to go inside and recharge after a season of working from light’s beginning to light’s end. I like that I see kindness being given and received more often than other times of the year. It’s a good reminder that kindness can be a gift given no matter the season.

I like spending time with family and for someone who swears off cooking at every chance, I even like planning meals that we share around a big table with people we love.

When I think about why I feel so stressed despite the “joy of the season,” it really only comes down to one thing: the impending doom of December 25th.

Being plugged into the internet is just not a good idea this time of year. From before Thanksgiving onward, it’s a commercial scrum: who can have more sales, who can score the biggest Black Friday win? But wait! Now there’s cyber Monday!

It’s not like December 25th is a surprise either; get past enough Christmases and you know what to expect, you have a general idea of what your friends and family members would enjoy receiving, and you know that on that date everything will come together (or not). After the rush of the holidays, we then start the slow elliptical rotation toward longer days.

Every year I can feel myself winding up like a too-tight rope around a thick saddle horn: December 25th is the cow horse, and I am the steer. Every dang year, I have the same emotional response I did the previous year: race to get everything done on top of everything that already needs to be done until I am snappy and tired and sick of my own company.

This year it occurred to me that instead of fighting the march of time across the calendar, I could take a more active role and begin sorting out Christmas in October. If I got really proactive, maybe June! I could waltz through this holiday season with less stress, more rest and probably be more pleasant company. I could accept that time, and the calendar, pause for no one.

We are capable of sorting these kinds of things out for ourselves. But what happens when we start seeing the first signs that our beloved horse may need a change too? That’s just what has been happening with our horse, Rocky.

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January 2010

Mark and I walked out on the thirty-five-acre pasture where the horses winter, and I call “Hooor-ses!” Six furry heads pop up from eating and they gallop toward us, coming to a walk several yards out before greeting us with a whiff of warm breath that mists the cold morning air.

It’s the beginning of our clinic season, which means that Rocky and two other horses will be joining us as we work around the country.

We halter Rocky and the other geldings and hold them for the vet so he can write up health certificates. After he’s done, we turn the horses loose once more. The two other geldings walk away, noses lowered in a search for the grass under the snow. Rocky stays and we give him a pat on the neck before walking to the truck. He follows us back to the gate, hangs his head over the green rails and watches us walk away.

He’s always been like this; eager to work, greeting us first, easy to catch.

It’s December 2019 now, and Rocky has traveled over a million (no exaggeration) miles in a horse trailer. He’s stood quietly in hot and cold weather, rainstorms and wild winds, city traffic and along desert highways. That’s a lot of time for his hooves to be disconnected from the earth. He’s twenty-one next year and has been doing his job with excellence since he was seven. His nickname is Rockstar for good reasons.

He’s stood calmly while other horses worried. He’s helped our less experienced clinic horses get to know the job. He’s a ranch horse, a trail horse, a clinic horse, has worked cattle, starred in a movie, given a few rides to folks who want to feel how soft true softness is, and in the last four years, has been teaching me how to jump.

In the last year, we’ve noticed some quiet changes. We often need to walk to Rocky to halter him, instead of him meeting us at the gate. He’s harder to keep weight on during a trip and he no longer finishes the hay that we hang in front of him during long hauls.

This past summer while Mark was riding him, he refused three times to get close to a horse Mark was trying to help through a gate. When Mark asked Rocky to step in a little closer, Rocky didn’t move.

Instead of using a stronger cue, Mark let it go and finished the workday. He later admitted that Rocky’s time as a clinic horse was done. Our red horse, who has never said no to anything we’ve asked, refused three times in the space of as many minutes.

He was the first to go out on pasture this winter. As we walked over the grass that was pushing through the snow, I called to them “Hoooor-ses!” Up popped four furry heads, and they galloped toward us, Rocky leading the way.

That day we needed to trim their feet. All four horses stood quietly in the winter sun as we chatted with our farrier. After he was done, we turned Rocky loose first. With barely a backward glance, he galloped away without waiting for the other horses, or us.

At some point, all of us will have to let our good horses rest. We will have to read their signs and listen closely when they begin telling us they can no longer do what they used to. This is, in some ways, of course what we do for Rocky. He doesn’t owe us a thing; it is we who owe him.

This new chapter, for me, is also a braid of emotions: one strand for sadness, one strand for gratitude and one strand for curiosity.

I’m sad that Rocky has reached twenty-one so quickly. I’m grateful we’ve had the pleasure of his company and his big kind generous heart. I’m curious because I’d like to find out where his yes’s still are.

I know two of them: trail riding and jumping. However, these two activities are now done with care and limits. We recognize that his spirit will probably always gallop ahead of his body. We accept that it is time for our good red horse to keep his hooves connected to the earth and go a little easier in this world.

Photos in slideshow by: Crissi McDonald, Mark Rashid, Kim Beck, Stephen Angele, Paul Krizan, Louise Oliver, Tim Harvey, Leslie Robinson.

Excerpt from “Continuing The Ride.”

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In the summer, I like to keep a few pots of herbs and vegetables on our south-facing porch. The growing season is short where we live, and between the weather and the deer who like the same herbs and vegetables I do, growing food in pots means the odds that I’ll be able to enjoy the herbs and vegetables go up. 

When we’re home, I check on the tomato plant at different times of the day. I make sure the morning sun reaches it first, and give it water. In the afternoon, I smell the tangy leaves and think of my Nana, who grew tomatoes the respectable way: in the dirt, in a good old-fashioned southern garden. In the evening, I water it again and admire how some tomatoes have grown in size and others are in various stages of going from green to red. 

The leaves feel scratchy. The stalks refuse to be contained in their bamboo supports. I don’t know much about gardening, but I’ve discovered that tomatoes are a most unruly plant. I’m sure there are other unruly food sources out there, but the potted tomato plant on our summer porch is my only frame of reference. 

During my care of the tomatoes, I’ve often thought that a fear of returning to being with horses is unruly, too. Fear likes to visit unannounced and horses don’t conform to our rules. They are, for all their domestic ways, quite wild. They can seem unruly to us, but what they are doing is following their own true nature. 

It occurs to me that we allow our fear to be like that tomato plant. Despite constant tending, or maybe because of it, it grows wild and unruly even when we try to contain it. Fear is being true to its nature as well. 

All of our emotions have a job to do. They serve a purpose—positive or negative—whether we like it or not. Though there have been times I wished I were more like Spock from Star Trek, when I think of the times I’ve felt any intense emotion, I realize that as unruly as those emotions are, they come and go. Nothing is permanent, even if it feels like it is. I often remember what Pema Chödrön says: “You are the sky. Everything else—it’s just the weather.”

The sun rises and sets and each new day is different. My tomato plant thrives and ripens and then withers as the days grow shorter and colder. I mourn this, the fall into the darker spaces of winter. I am sorry to see the flowers go from green and colorful to brown and brittle. Sad to put all the cheery pots away until the next spring. As often as I’ve thought about the seasons and the cycles of life that we all participate in, it doesn’t lessen my grief to see the flowers’ colors drain away. But it does do wonders for my learning the constant lesson of acceptance of the passage of time, and the cyclical nature of life. 

Our fear and anxiety around horses thrive in the sunlight of obsession. The more we focus on the fear, the bigger it seems to be. It’s like doing shadow animals in the light of a candle; the shadows our hands cast are much bigger than our actual hands. 

Our fear doesn’t need tending or befriending, but our confidence does. 

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After any kind of accident with a horse, fear feels vast and insurmountable. After my accident with Bree, I naturally attached that fear to everything that was involved with it: the horse, the soft line of a black mane, the dirt, the saddle, the state of Florida. I wanted nothing to do with any of it. I hoped that shunning my fear in a cold blast of emotional winter would cause it to wither and die. 

But it didn’t. For all my ardent wishes that I wouldn’t be afraid around horses, for all my wanting to “move forward,” or “get over it,” nothing changed until I owned the fear, and then figured out ways to tend to my confidence. 

Just like my little tomato plant, I put my confidence somewhere safe. I protected it and counted every fruit as it burst into life. I made sure the soil was nourished and kept moist. I was mindful to avoid setting it out in conditions that might cause it to be knocked over. 

What did this mean on a practical level? I decided to only put myself in the proximity of our own herd or horses I was familiar with. I chose practices that had a noticeable effect on my state of mind (numero uno is putting attention on my breath) and that I could do anywhere. I started a brain-supplement regimen and a way of eating to help my brain heal. 

Whatever you want to do, there are creative ways you can do that thing. It may not look like anything else anyone else is doing, but so what? It’s your life, and your peace of mind that’s important. When it comes down to it, the fruit of ripened confidence is about the most delicious thing there is. 


 

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Continuing the Ride Cover 3D

One Rein Thoughts

By the time Shelly came into the arena for her lesson with me, her mare’s bay coat was almost black with sweat. When Shelly bought the mare, Jewel, the previous year, she hadn’t noticed anything alarming about her behavior other than the horse seemed a little more nervous than other horses Shelly had come across. In that year, Jewel had gone from nervous to an unpredictable runaway. Shelly was an older and experienced horse woman who had zero desire to come off a horse at a full gallop.

While Shelly and I talked, I ran my hands under the saddle, checking the blanket and fit. I checked the bridle and made sure the bit was the right diameter. Shelly had gone to great lengths to customize everything for Jewel, she’d had the vet out to check her over, and taken care of her teeth and feet. Jewel also received bodywork every month.

The support that Shelly had given Jewel was thorough and had, in some respects, helped. Jewel was quieter on the ground, she had gained some needed weight and muscle mass, and her runaway episodes had become infrequent. But she still began to sweat and move when Shelly saddled her, and Jewel usually had to canter in a round pen for fifteen to twenty minutes before Shelly would get on her.

Shelly felt more confident in the sandy arena, knowing that even though Jewel ran, she wasn’t ever uncontrollable. As Shelly found the mounting block and got on Jewel, I saw the mare tense her whole body and then try to shoot forward. Before Jewel could rush more than a couple of strides, Shelly had bent the mare’s head around to the stirrup and they were circling in the middle of the arena.

It was apparent to me that this was an established pattern by the way Jewel quickly gave up and braced to a stop. Shelly held the mare in this position for a few seconds more before releasing her and walking over to where I stood.

“So is that normal?” I asked.

“Sure,” Shelly said. “It doesn’t happen every time, but it does happen enough that I’m ready for her.”

I asked Shelly if Jewel had always felt the need to rush away when a rider was on her, and she said yes, but after learning the one rein stop at another clinic she’d attended, at least she and Jewel weren’t going too far.

“So when you got her, she did this? She would feel like she had to take off the moment her rider was on her?”

Shelly nodded. “I’ve had to use the one rein stop more often in the last six months because if we go from walk to trot to canter she goes faster than I’m asking. I’m not sure how to make her stop other than using one rein.”

I asked Shelly to walk down to the other end of the arena. As they turned, Jewel tightened up again but maintained a stiff walk. Shelly asked, “Do you wanna see me trot her?” I said yes, and watched as Jewel took two steps into her trot and then jumped into a lope that was more like a deer leaping in fright. Shelly grabbed one rein and pulled Jewels head around and this time it took several minutes for the mare to come to a halt.

Walking up to the pair of them, I noticed Jewel was wide eyed and her mouth was clamped shut. I suspected that there was a miscommunication between her and Shelly and mentioned that if we tried something different, maybe we could get the both of them speaking the same language.

“Oftentimes, the one rein stop is taught and used as a training tool that is supposed to solve the problem of a horse who is going too fast. Sometimes it’s used as a punishment because it’s an effective way to control movement. But,” I added, “the downside is that a one rein stop, if used often enough, can sometimes make a horse nervous about moving at all.”

Shelly asked why it was taught so much, and why other trainers swore by it. I could tell she felt confused about the fact that she may have been inadvertently adding to Jewel’s nervousness.

“Honestly? I don’t know why other trainers use it so much. When I first started training I used it a lot too. It’s an emergency brake of sorts, and it gives the rider a way to slow a horse down who’s unable to respond to any sort of pressure.”

“But here’s the thing: it’s quite often used as a bandaid. Meaning, a one rein stop is a poor substitute for taking the time to educate the horse about what stopping is. While it is good in an emergency, it’s not very good as an every day training strategy.”

I went on, explaining to Shelly that we were going to change what she was doing to help Jewel. Instead of pulling her head around to the stirrup, we would ask for a figure eight, one that was relatively small where Jewel wasn’t ever in a straight line from her nose to her tail.

“What we want to do with Jewel is give her a chance to release her energy, instead of bottling it up. A one rein stop is like boiling water in a kettle that doesn’t have a spout: you may have a tea kettle for a little bit but at some point the whole thing is going explode from too much unreleased pressure.”

I could see Shelly starting to put the pieces together so I continued.

“I’m not telling you to never use the one rein stop. What I am saying though is that there are other, more effective ways to help your horse than that. I personally haven’t used a one rein stop in over twenty years.”

As Shelly asked Jewel to walk again, I talked about thinking of the shape of her figure eight. I let her know that her timing was good, and she would now use this to catch Jewel before she got too far into speeding up.

“Once you ask her for the trot, let’s put her in a little figure eight and see what happens,” I said.

As Shelly asked for the trot and Jewel responded by a stiff leap into it, Shelly picked up her left rein and began riding Jewel into the figure eight. It was five minutes before Jewel could slow to a walk, but in that time she had started to move with her head lower and her body relaxed.

“Tell me again why that works,” Shelly smiled as she walked Jewel over to me.

“Well, it works not only because you’ve installed a spout on the kettle to let off the steam, but also because instead of saying to Jewel ‘Don’t do that!’ You’re giving her something positive to do.”

“Think of it this way: all she knows is that when she goes faster she ends up bent around and stopped. But she doesn’t know why, so this increases her nervousness which increases her need to speed up.”

“Her question to you has been, ‘Can I speed up now?’ The answer we’ve been giving doesn’t make sense to her, so she keeps repeating the question. By directing her into a figure eight, we are not only giving her something to do to help her release nervousness and energy, but we are answering her question.”

Shelly wondered what the answer was. I said, “The answer we are giving Jewel is ‘Yes, and if we need to go that fast, we will go in a figure eight.”

As Shelly and Jewel kept practicing, I could see the tightness melt from both of their bodies. Jewel was able to move into a trot without rushing and Shelly started to feel more confident about how we were answering Jewel’s question. By the end of our session, Shelly could ask Jewel for a trot and she would jog and then come back down with minimal pressure from the reins.

When it comes to horses, we often ask an ineffective question when unwanted behavior shows up. We ask, “How can I fix it?”

A more helpful question might be “Why is my horse doing this in the first place?” The first question will most often put us behind them, not only in timing but in finding an effective solution. The second question will lead us to explore our interactions and come up with ways to help and educate our horse. An educated horse is most often a calmer and more content horse.

You Already Have Timing and Feel

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As I was brushing our horses yesterday, I noticed that despite the rivulet of sweat running down my back, their short summer coats were falling out. In the shade of a day edging toward 90 degrees, while I was in a t-shirt and cropped jeans, our herd is preparing for snowmageddon.

The ability of horses to be ahead of us in so many ways is astonishing. Their timing goes beyond instinctual to almost psychic. Their innate talent at moving quickly before we know anything is happening is a quality I envy. And their desire to get along, no matter the circumstances is a constant reminder that despite what life throws me, I can try and get along too.

My husband always says horsemanship would be easy if it wasn’t for gravity and timing. The older I get and the longer the years that I live with horses, the more that statement gives me a bittersweet laugh.

Gravity, well, because. If you’re reading this and you’ve ridden for any amount of time (by “time” I mean minutes as well as years) you know that coming off a horse is a when proposition, not an if. I stopped counting the number of times I’ve come off horses after I hit the double digits.

Timing. The word “feel” is often paired with timing because in our horse-centric world it seems one cannot exist without the other.

I doubt that horses stand under a shade tree and contemplate how to improve on their timing and feel. Horses are the embodied definition of those two horsemanship holy grails; they already are what we strive to improve in ourselves.

When we think about improving our timing, about improving our relationship, about improving anything we think is lacking about ourselves—and isn’t that list woefully long— there’s a lot of thinking that goes on. And on. I’ll admit to years (ok, fine: decades) of thinking about horses and how much I wanted to be better at being with them. I’ll admit to reading mountains of books about horses because I thought that the more that I knew about them, the better my timing and feel would be. 

That was like preparing for three-day eventing at the Olympics by watching YouTube.

Thinking, as you probably guessed it, is the number one reason our timing is often behind. As riders, we are taught that in order to ride well we must think a lot. But horses are sensorimotor creatures, which means they feel and they move. That’s their job description, that is how they came into this world; one look at their brains will tell you that they are wired for movement and using their senses to discern if/when/how fast they need to go.

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One look at a human brain and you’ll see that we are, indeed, wired for thinking. Here’s something exciting though-we all have the capacity to develop the timing and the feel that informs it.

When a dressage instructor of many years ago told me in subtle ways that I couldn’t ride, in a fit of pique I chose to quit the lessons. I had been having my doubts already, so it wasn’t a far leap. Turns out, my timing on this issue was great; two weeks later my horse came up three-legged lame and I spent the next three years figuring out how to help him be sound and comfortable.

Timing is getting out of the way a millisecond before a kick could’ve landed in your face. Not that this has happened to me.

Timing is also knowing when to give a horse a break from a concentrated lesson.

It is knowing when to give yourself a break if you feel you’re just not getting it.

We are told that timing and feel cannot be taught.

Except wait – we all use feel and timing hundreds of times during our day. It’s how we can eat breakfast without spilling it down the front of our shirt. It’s how we drive and don’t get into accidents on a daily basis. It’s how we throw a ball for our dog or cook a meal for ourselves or hold a baby without dropping them.

By the time most of us reach adulthood, there are thousands of tiny skills we have mastered that once seemed like big skills. Walking, speaking, running, eating. We forget how at one time we were all toddling, drooling, gibberish speaking wide-eyed love nuggets who spent every day marveling at the wonder of everything.

As horse people, we grew up and discovered we were, in fact, part horse. That wonder at life then got transferred to these creatures of the wind and plains. At first, we toddled about them, unsure of where we fit in relation to them, thrown off balance by the swing of their barrel beneath us and the lift of each elegant leg.   

Our hearts got thrown off course by their breath and their eyes that seemed to see right through us.

So when someone says “Ya gotta have feel! Ya gotta have timing!”  I smile to myself because we already do.

All we gotta have is the awareness of how to best apply it to working with horses. This means the more time we put ourselves in the context of our horse, the better attuned we will be to using our inborn talent of timing and feel. 

Granted, they aren’t cars or a smooth sidewalk to run down. They are unlike anything else in our lives that we handle or are in a relationship with. You may be able to force things on horses, but most of us know and seek out the kind of relationship that cultivates space for mutual consent. It’s where the beauty is.

If we can have a little bit of confidence in our own innate abilities, and a little bit of a quieter mind, chances are we are going to get along with our horse just fine. Chances are those skills are inside of us the whole time, waiting to be grasped. 

Your Horse Isn’t Distracted

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After learning about the horse’s brain at a recent seminar and getting to hold a horse brain, I felt a thrill much like roller coasters must be thrilling for some people.  

The seminar, given by Dr. Steve Peters (author of “Evidence-Based Horsemanship”), covered a lot of ground. Here’s what I’m chewing on this month:

 

Your horse isn’t distracted and your horse doesn’t have ADD.

 

What your horse does have is a highly responsive and very fast system of answering his constant question, “Am I safe?”  You might say that horses have a built-in radar system that makes ours look like holding a wet finger up to the wind to hear if there’s a bear snoring in their sleep in a cave over on the next mountain range. 

 

When horses detect something that they think might endanger their lives, the response takes what is called the low road. For example, the sight of a wildly flapping flag goes from the environment through the eyes, to the thalamus in the brain and directly into the amygdala (the center for fight or flight). This process takes milliseconds. As horse people, we know a lot can happen in those milliseconds.

 

To put that in perspective, the average reaction time for a visual stimulus in humans is 250 milliseconds and 170 milliseconds for an auditory stimulus. Horse’s auditory reaction time is 140-160 milliseconds, and their visual reaction time is 180-200 milliseconds.

 

Whether you look at the numbers in seconds or thousands of seconds, horses respond more quickly to their environment than us.

 

Building an understanding with the horse then becomes a process of encouraging their curiosity instead of fear. Curiosity allows and fosters learning. Any time a horse fears for his life he not learning. Until their question of safety is answered our horse will continue to use every sense he has to figure out whether to stay or leave. Whether to relax or flee.

 

If we keep things relatively quiet and provide clear guidance about what we’re looking for, the horse will come back. When we do our best to answer the horse’s primary question, “Am I safe,” it leaves them able to switch over to their natural curiosity and learn more, and more efficiently. 

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Rocky and Crissi, 2008

 

Horses constantly monitor everything that is going on around them. They can’t turn it off and on like we do with our selective seeing. (Click here for a demo of inattentional blindness)

 

It has occurred to me that the only time they are fully “paying attention” is when they are on the verge of fleeing. We’ve all seen our horse zero in on something before deciding to quickly leave.  What we call “paying attention” may, in fact, be completely different (and troublesome) for our horses.

 

To me, so much of horse training appears narcissistic: we want both their eyes, we want their head turned in our direction, we want all of their attention, we want all of their bodies to be at our beck and call.

 

I’m discovering that being with horses gets a lot easier if we share, instead of hijacking and demanding. I also realize that I’ve never been comfortable insisting on all of a horse’s attention.

 

So when a horse looks off into the distance, or can’t seem to “focus,” it’s never bothered me. I never really understood what the ruckus of “having their attention” was about. Until I learned about their internal radar recently, I probably wasn’t bothered because I did the same thing myself: when overwhelmed and unable to escape, I looked away and went somewhere else.

 

Many of us who have been preyed upon by other humans have a particular set of experiences and ways of viewing the world that allow us to viscerally understand the horse’s primal need for safety. I’ve spent my life evaluating every situation I find myself in, where the exits are, who is around me, and how I would escape. Or fight. All of this is almost subconscious.

 

“Horses need safety to learn. We want our horses in a state of relaxed alertness.” Dr. Stephen Peters

For me, accepting the horse for who they are means we continue to learn about them instead of relying on hearsay. Accepting our horse, and his finely tuned sensory movement talented brain means we find ways of working with him that encourage that feeling of safety. 

 

This doesn’t mean we do nothing when we are with our horse, but what it does mean is that education/training with a horse goes a lot more smoothly if we are educated too. If we understand the basic mechanics of what makes a horse tick, we are far less likely to get frustrated or take it out on our horse.

 

Instead of saying our horse is “distracted” we could see what horses do as gathering information. Or seeking comfort. Or both. The best-case scenario is that our horse transfers that feeling of safety to include us and that the relationship we have with them meets their need for safety, most of the time. 

 

Because if we can help the horse feel safe, that means that we are all safer. If our horses feel safe with us the chances of accidents, misunderstandings and miscommunication get lower.

 

Beyond all this science though, I also think it feels pretty great to help a worried horse transform into a relaxed horse.

 

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Living In The Center

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As we stood at the gate to the horse’s paddock on a sunny afternoon, my nephew said: “Aunt Crissi, I want to pet every horse in the pen!”

“Let’s do that,” I said. “Before we go in, though, let’s breathe and feel our belly. Horses really like it when we are breathing and centered.” He took a fast breath and slapped his hand on his stomach.

Quinn is an energetic ten year old who is given to bursts of jumping, spontaneous song singing, and loud talking. I love his exuberance but wanted to give him another way to focus when we went in with the horses. Some of our horses like and understand children. A couple of them look sideways these little beings and their quick movements.

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I opened the gate and Quinn darted in. I reminded him about breathing and feeling his belly. I added, “It’s also called your center and it’s the place where you and the horses can meet.”

He waited for me as I walked in while still chatting quietly about breathing and feeling our centers.

The horses had just been fed and were stuffing hay into their mouths as quickly as they could chew.  They stood around the feeders, heads down, eyes half closed in gastronomic bliss. When we got part way into the paddock, all the horses picked up their heads, left their hay and walked over to us.

A rush of horses always thrills me, but this was an even bigger thrill. It was as if we had said “Hello friends,” and they were answering with a resounding hello back. It felt like that moment in the movie “Arrival,” (if I really want to age myself, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) when you realize you are actually communicating with an alien species.

I spoke to him about reaching for their shoulders or necks instead of their faces (despite the fact that all six horse faces were surrounding us) and brought him closer to me to keep him from being jostled.

Quinn and the herd exchanged their mutual admirations and one by one the horses returned to eating.

When we walked out, he gave an arm-flailing little hop and said, “That was so cool!”

As I walked over to my niece who was grooming Ally, I asked her to focus on the same things. She’s a quiet and kind girl who is very gentle with the horses. They, in turn, are quiet with her too.

Keyvnn has been riding since she started visiting us in Colorado. When she was small, I let her know that when we ride a horse,  we always groom before and after. Now that she is big enough to push a wheelbarrow, the list of rules has expanded to cleaning up the pen and stalls, as well as grooming. Just as I was at her age, she is happy to participate in all things horse, and I love seeing her growing confidence.

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This year we had Key focus on her belly (center) and breathing not only during riding but when she was grooming Ally as well. This gave Key time to acclimate to Ally, and it let Ally feel confident in Key’s presence.

Sharing our horses with my niece and nephew was a great way for me to explore how to phrase and teach concepts that I normally talk about with adult riders. It was also the chance for me to see just how powerful remaining in our center can be, and how it radiates out.

If we pay attention, life gives us just the right lessons at just the right time. Most of my life I haven’t paid attention, so these days I’m working on reversing that trend. I’ve been feeling a little threatened by world events the past couple of years, so this refresher on the power of our center was just what I needed. It’s been on my mind that with all the bad news that is available to us every day, it’s sometimes difficult to figure out how to remain centered.

And yet, I’ve found that for my own sanity and sense of peace I have to limit my news intake, increase time being in nature and being with horses, and generally choose to help as much as I can, where I can.

I’ve discovered that remaining in our center is anything but passive. It takes self-control, lots of breathing, and a fair helping of big-picture thinking especially when we feel drowned by details and out of control. I’d gotten distracted from being in my center, but Key and Quinn’s visit reminded me of the power of living there and how we can return anytime we choose.

Although it seems that sometimes our lives are everywhere but the center if we take a breath and change our focus, just for a moment, we can touch into our selves and the place where we feel most balanced. We can balance exuberance with calm, and gentleness with our breath. The beauty of horses is that they will meet us there, every time.

 

 

 

 

A Gratitude of Horses

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Thorny was an old cowboy my parents knew, and the first person who introduced me to horses. I was still in diapers, holding on to the lead rope of a gray speckled pony that wasn’t much taller than I was. I can still see the ghost of a smile on that toddler’s face.

Thorny seemed like he had a million horses. On another visit, not long after I was out of diapers, my parents remember putting me up on a big red horse, where I sat smiling and clutching his copper mane until they had to lift me down. That’s when the screaming started. Other kids cried when they were lifted up on the horse’s back.

This was a portent of things to come. That day with the pony I met magic that walks the earth on four hooves; it was my version of getting a letter to Hogwarts.  For years I did what many other “horse crazy” kids would do;  pretend my bike was a horse or gallop around our backyard neighing. Collecting Breyer models and making up pedigrees for them (and voices). Feeding grass to horses through a fence and trying not to get caught.

Really, who could have designed a more perfect animal? They smell good when they sweat, they smell good when they breathe, when their hooves strike the earth in three time it’s an invitation to heaven. They are fuzzy and soft and when they look at you with those eyes! When their ears flick back to catch your voice! A nicker makes my heart burst.

 

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I’m living with and teaching about the mystery that is the horse.   While I still enjoy riding, I am discovering that the gifts that horses offer us go beyond sitting on their backs. In my own evolution with horses, there are many things that have captured my interest and many horses who have given themselves so that I might, for a little while, enter their world. So that I might, for a moment, feel the twin freedom of speeding across the ground while being free from gravity.

I’m no longer that little girl in diapers. This year I hit a milestone birthday and though I’ve not usually been one to count years or label myself by them, I’ve also noticed that growing older is challenging. Our bodies change (I now revel in cold weather and dread the heat), grief finds us more frequently, we listen as our doctor tells us about the invasive health screenings we must endure. Health insurance goes up and our energy goes down.

But along with all of that, I also notice the frost on a horse’s whiskers in the winter. How on a chilly morning the wind catches the mist of their breath. How standing beside them allows me to calm down and experience a grounded sense of peace. The sound of horses chewing hay. Watching their muzzles gather hay into their mouths (I often wonder if horses saw elephants, would they have nose envy?). How their whuffing breath on my hands or face feels like the best self-care of all.

Is this obsession? If so, it’s one I’ll gladly claim. Is it the growing knowledge that my time is limited? Definitely.

All the times I’ve struggled, all the horrible things I’ve said to myself about my horsemanship, all the questions, agonizing, and striving and bringing horses into my life and letting them go again: all of it! And yet I can stand beside a horse and become mesmerized when the light shines through their manes. They’re deep oceans encased in soft coats. Whether I am riding or not, the feeling of being in a glorious nickering, neighing freefall around a horse has become downright mystical.

It all started with a dappled pony. Inside somewhere is that girl who still sneaks grass to horses through a fence. Though I don’t know how or when my journey will end, I do know I will always love and be thankful for horses.

 

 

 

 

The Whole Horse

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It was a warm and sunny morning as I chatted with Jaycee about what she would like to work on with her horse Scamp.

“I’ve been making him move his feet because everyone I’ve worked with says he needs to move his feet more. But he’s always spooky,” Jaycee said.

I thought about this for a moment and then replied, “When you say ‘make him move his feet,’ what do you mean?”

“Well, this is what I do.” She picked up the end of her lead rope, spun it quickly at Scamp’s nose, and stepped aside as he took off to the end of the line and then bounced around in a circle before settling into a stiff lope.

“Ok,” I said. “When you say that it’s important for a horse to move, you’re right. But if we just focus on his feet, and not how we are asking him to move or the quality of his movement, we are missing a big part of the picture.”

Jaycee nodded and pulled on the line so Scamp would stop. He planted his feet in the dirt, raised his head and snorted.

I continued explaining. “Moving the feet can be a tricky way to think of this. If we only focus on the feet, and not how the horse is feeling inside his own skin, we may miss helping him reach the point of relaxation.”

“I think we can adjust a couple of things here. Let’s present moving on a circle more softly, and let’s also watch for his breathing to become regular and his movement to relax.”

I showed her how to step out of Scamp’s way while breathing deeply, and using the end of her rope farther away from his body. We started with a slow twirl. Scamp looked at the rope then burst into a fast trot.

“That was better! Now Jaycee, I’d like you to keep breathing and relax your body a little.”

Scamp trotted a couple more laps before he too took a breath and slowed to a walk.

“Let’s change how we ask him to stop, Jaycee. I’d like you to stop your feet as you exhale. If Scamp isn’t able to stop with that we can use the lead rope to ask.”

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Scamp walked half a circle before drifting to a halt. He shook his head and neck, exhaled and stood quietly.

“Wow,” said Jaycee. “That was really different. He’s starting to relax.”

I nodded and said “Yes. That is the inside of the horse releasing tension. My hunch is that once we turn the volume down for both of you, he will be able to not only move his feet, but you can help him feel more relaxed inside.”

“Move their feet,” is a phrase that is ingrained into the fabric of horse culture.

On the one hand, it’s great that so many people have learned this phrase. On the other, it can lead to tunnel vision (or should I say hoof vision?) about what it is we are trying to accomplish with our horse.

We can sometimes get so caught up in “moving the feet” that we forget that doing so is an end result to an internal process. When the horse feels pressure or tension and they need to move, that energy reaches the feet last. We can use that energy, however, to get back to the inside of the horse in a way that will help them calm down.

We aren’t moving the feet to punish the horse or wear him out. We are allowing the horse to do what horses are designed to do – move. It’s a whole body, inside and out process that is expressed through the feet, not by them.

Moving the feet isn’t a part of “making the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy” either, since horses don’t know what the wrong or right thing is anyway. What horses seek is what brings them comfort and ease. Their tolerant natures seek quiet places. Sometimes they need to move a lot to find that quiet place. But if we focus only on moving their feet without regard for the rest of them, I have a hunch that movement can feel punishing instead of relieving.

By the end of our time together, Jaycee and Scamp were able to work together quietly. Scamp could walk, trot and lope on a relaxed circle. He was breathing better, his body was loose and he had stopped being hyperalert.

In the end, it wasn’t the feet that needed our attention. It was the horse himself.

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Removing Mental Hobbles

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Life–and horses, for that matter– both have an uncanny knack of knowing just when you need a little insight and humility.

We recently posted a photo on our online Classroom page on Facebook. In the photo, one of our horses was standing hobbled. We posted this in response to requests from several of our Classroom members who were looking for help teaching their own horses this skill.  We made a three-part video series carefully explaining how to teach a horse to be ok with hobbles.

We thought this photo was just a photo. However, for others, it was an example of cruelty and abuse. It was a source of disappointment that we would advocate their use. How could we?! How dare we?!

Mark and I both have worked on ranches where hobbling is just another job a ranch horse does, like standing tied or moving cattle. Neither one of us had used this as a way to punish or scare horses, and I personally have not seen a hobbled horse hurt itself. But it quickly became apparent that for other people who didn’t share that background, it was an example of us abusing our horse. The other interesting thing is that the comments we received from angry people were about the photo, not because they watched the video series.

A few folks felt that by hobbling a horse we are taking away their ability to flee. That it may also induce learned helplessness. That we are setting them up for both mental and physical injury. To be fair, all these things can certainly happen if you don’t prepare your horse properly.  Hobbling isn’t a skill for a horse with limited life experience and training. It’s not a way to force them to stand still. And it’s certainly not a substitute for teaching them how to stand tied. When done properly, hobbling becomes an extension of their education.

However, what interests me isn’t the hobbling debate. What does interest me are the insights into human behavior. As many of us know, who we are in life has a direct impact on how we are with horses. Through those two days of seeing unbridled anger at our post, several things occurred to me.

IMG_58291At some point in time, we all run up against our own beliefs and prejudices. If we aren’t careful, this gets translated into our horse work as a certain rigidity (my horse HAS to do the thing, right NOW in this EXACT way). If we aren’t careful, the view of our lives and the world can get pretty narrow. And small. Small isn’t where life thrives, I believe. Small is where we dig ourselves in because we feel threatened. Life–and horses–lives big and open and out there.

Some of the most aggressive people I’ve run across also profess to be kind to animals. They probably spend hours learning about horses or dogs, or cats, or any other pet that they have. They put a tremendous amount of effort into trying to understand their pet and caring for them. When it comes to relating to other people, though, there is very little effort to understand or get along.

The interesting thing is, if some of these kind animal people find a post on social media that is at odds with what they believe, they will attack first and not ask questions later.  I guess this is to force someone else to change what they think, or at the very least make the other person feel like a very horrible human.

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I get it. As a person who is deeply introverted and has worked with the public, I often struggle with people.  I’ve found some to be rude, self-serving and cruel. I’ve been forced to do things that were traumatic (as have many young men and women) and have spent most of my life not only being wary of people, but avoiding them. For most of my life, I’ve often said that I get along better with animals than people.

I realized when I started teaching that getting along with and being kind to animals is easy. Getting along and being kind to people is where my personal challenge lies. Kindness, or any positive quality we wish to have, is robust and full-bodied and inclusive. One might say unhobbled.

How can we call ourselves tolerant if we only apply it toward certain people (or certain breeds of horses, or certain riding techniques and/or disciplines)? How can we be patient if we only practice when it suits us?

After reading over the comments in the hobbling post, I can now see how the people who are against hobbling feel they are correct. I can also see how we can be more considerate about what we place on social media and keep in mind the broadness of our audience and their own life and horse experiences.

Though I strongly believe that we are all more alike than we are different, the one trait I don’t care to share is close-mindedness. It isn’t helpful in our horsemanship, or our life.

In order to be the kind of teacher and human I want to be I still have many skills to learn. Some of the skills I work on daily are traits that my introverted hermit heart sometimes wished I didn’t have to learn. Some days I want to (and do) sit on our couch with my cat and a good book and let the world go on its way.

Right now I’m grateful for the angry outbursts from people because it brought me to these realizations that are personally valuable.  An experience like this, though fleeting, helps me get closer to who I want to be. Like working with horses, I’m not striving to be perfect, but just a little better than I was before.

 

 

 

 

Assumptions and Knowledge

 

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Photo: Crissi McDonald

I was in my mid-twenties when I started training horses (and assumed I knew more than I actually did).  I brought Jack, a young gelding, home. I’d given him a couple of weeks to settle in with my older gelding Caleb before riding him in the arena next to our house.

I caught him, groomed and tacked him up, and saddled him, making sure that the saddle fit. He was on his toes a little bit and moving around, but since I was a newly-hatched trainer, I thought I could “train” that out of him. Once I was riding, I decided it was time to see what his canter was about. I sat up straight, made sure the reins were relaxed and kicked his sides-gently, I thought-with both heels while making a kissing noise as loudly as I could.

He left the ground in a fine imitation of a rocket and then raced around the arena as though he’d eaten high octane fuel for breakfast. It became very clear very quickly that my arena was too small to contain a frightened galloping horse. I was so surprised I forgot to do anything for a few strides before I gathered up the reins and put some pressure on them to slow him down.

No response.

I started talking to him and relaxed the reins while trying to move with him at his frantic gallop. I noticed that despite all the flurry of his legs, he wasn’t actually going that fast.

Once we came down to a wide-eyed and hard breathing walk, I thought about what I’d just done. I had cued him for a canter with the same strength of cues that I had been using with my much more relaxed and experienced gelding.

This was my first lesson in how to NOT ride one horse like I’d ridden all horses.

I didn’t want to end our time together on that experience, so after a few rounds of a walk, I took a deep breath, relaxed and brought my calves closer to his sides by millimeters. I was smart enough at that point to not make any sounds as I did this. He leaped into a canter again, but this time he was less frantic and I could ask him to slow down with the reins. We did this a couple more times before stopping for the day.

This memory always conjures up two things for me; laughter because of my bravado and cluelessness, and the potent lesson that stays with me: an assumption is not the same as knowledge.

I made an assumption about Jack that I’d fostered while riding Caleb: horses need very big cues to know what we want. In the textbook definition of the word, I didn’t know I was operating on this assumption, so instead of paying attention to the horse I had under me I let my assumptions take control of the ride.

This is oh so rarely a good idea.

 

“In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.” Tom Bodett

 

Looking back, if I had taken the time to be quieter – by dropping my agenda for a horse I didn’t know, by slowing down while grooming and saddling- I would have seen how nervous he was. I would have seen that perhaps we could work on riding skills another day. I would have felt that he wasn’t breathing. I could have helped him start to settle into his new home, instead of scaring the spots off him.

Learning to take things slowly is often the result of lessons learned the hard way. And learning these lessons may involve repeating them until we figure out exactly what is going on. The hard way sometimes has to get harder before we find out what it is we need to learn.

The other thing about assumptions is that it’s easy to keep them alive if we don’t examine what they are. It’s also easy to mistake assumptions for knowledge because assumptions are hidden and secret things. Horses are great at unmasking our assumptions and causing us to broaden our knowledge. This lesson that Jack taught me was the revelation of an assumption (all horses need big cues) and the beginning of setting me on the long road to gain knowledge-both about Jack as an individual and horses as a species.

 

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Photo: Crissi McDonald

These days, whenever we get a new horse, we focus on finding out where the horse is comfortable and start there. Sometimes we can saddle up and ride and work. Sometimes it’s haltering and grooming and leading for a day or two. Wherever we start, where ever we are in the country and whatever horse we are working with, our goal doesn’t change; get to know the horse and help him feel confident about us and the job at hand.

Jack taught me not only to drop my assumptions about what I thought I knew, but he was also the horse who first taught me, over the course of our many years together, that a relationship built by knowledge, trust, and understanding will always go farther than assumptions and training.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Praise of Simplicity

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When I was in my late twenties, I became fascinated by the art of Dressage. Honestly? I am still fascinated. Back then, however, the trouble was that I wasn’t a very talented technical rider. And I was on an unconventional horse for dressage; a 16’2 Appendix Quarter horse who excelled more at trails and jumping. His hindquarters were higher than his very prominent withers, and he had tiny feet and one clubbed foot that made it spectacularly difficult to collect and round as my instructor wanted me to shape him.

This shaping took the form of adding more and more pressure to the bit, pulling against the pressure he was exerting on it, and then the addition of a crop and spurs because he lacked impulsion.

At first, I truly enjoyed what dressage offered. But it wasn’t too long before things got serious. Things got complex. And the simple joys of riding a horse were lost to the technicalities that I was being taught.

If I had to count how many times I’ve thought about this particular method, and how many times the  “I wish I knew then what I know now” syndrome has appeared, I couldn’t come up with a number. Thousands?

All horses are the recipients of our knowledge at any given point. And besides these dressage lessons, my horse lived a good horse life – out in a large paddock with other horses, nutritional support, regular massages and lots of hay. This is probably what gave him the tolerance to get through those weekly 45 minute lessons.

I finally ended up emotionally storming away from Dressage when the number of requests my instructor gave me outnumbered my ability to execute them.

Looking back, I can see how this endeavor triggered all kinds of old baggage from my childhood; I was always picked last to be on a team in sports, and I regularly sprained and even broke bones. I was never an agile or physically talented kid, and so when the time came that those kind of activities were optional, I chose instead to go to the library or read a book.

To this day, I still happily make the same choices.

Also to this day, however, I am grateful to have learned simpler ways to ask horses.  Less punitive ways that instead of assuming the horse is stupid and needs endless repetition, assumes that horses are incredibly intelligent and intuitive and we can focus on those aspects when we are with them.

By now, my husband and I have spent countless hours held by numerous years traveling the world helping people with horses. And in that span of time, one lesson stands out above all the others.

The answers lie in simplicity. 

Why use a leg, a crop, outside rein, inside sit bone, flare your left nostril and sing “Do Re Mi,” (that last part is the vestiges of my frustration from all those years ago) when you can inhale and think about changing the rhythm of your gait from a four beat (walk) to a two beat (trot)? Now we get a response from the horse that is more relaxed.

“To quote a dictum of Simon, what a horse does under compulsion he does blindly, and his performance is no more beautiful than would be that of a ballet-dancer taught by whip and goad.” 
― Xenophon, The Art of Horsemanship

Complexity makes us feel good about ourselves. And to be fair, our brains are really good at complexity. The downside, however, is that there is a very narrow line between complexity that is productive and complexity that ties us in knots.

In our work with horses, we have seen time and again how they prefer simplicity. While our brain excels at complexity, the horse brain and body is made for movement. The fantastic thing about horses is that they can also sense internal movement. Call it intention, call it micro-movement, call it hocus pocus, but whenever we lead a request with our intention and focus, horses will hear it and do their best to answer.

We can ask ourselves to first breathe, then let go of tension and have a clear picture in our mind of what we would like to do. Oddly enough (but not really),  horses respond not only more quickly,  but also with more ease. 

The fact that we are amazed by simplicity perhaps tells us just how long and how often we make things more complex than they need to be. While there are indeed parts of life that feel like endless hoops to jump through and are filled with emotional complexity, a lot of life is also quite simple.

Breathe deeply. Notice what is going on now. And breathe more deeply again. 

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Release and Relief

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Breagha (Bree)

I think we learn and go through life much like a pendulum; we swing all the way to one side and then we swing the opposite way before realizing that the middle is where balance and skill lie.

When we begin learning about horses, we are at the apex of knowing nothing. The only time we are taught to release is when asking a horse to stop and he does, or after he turns. 

Many of us know when we are teaching horses any new skill, we must provide a release of pressure to show them they got it right.  I had been doing this to some small degree from the time I began riding as a child. Shortly after I began training horses, I encountered a way to be more conscious about it at clinic given by a well-known horseman. 

When I started systematically applying the release, it worked really well. It wasn’t too long before I came to the realization that if a little release was good, more was better. This included completely letting go of my reins if the horse I was working with did whatever it was I was asking. I would stop all work immediately if they hit on the right answer. You name it, I released it. The pendulum had swung opposite of where I began when I learned to ride; instead of infrequent releases, I now released for everything. 

For a couple of decades, I continued to practice and refine my skill of releasing. I was always searching for that middle space where the release was not too far one way or another, but right in the middle. I learned that horses are sensitive beyond our wildest imaginings, that big releases were (most of the time) not necessary and indeed could create an unintended message.

But it wasn’t until we spent some time recently with Dr. Steve Peters (neuropsychologist, horseman, and co-author of Evidence-Based Horsemanship) that he mentioned in passing that the horse must experience both release and relief for optimal learning.

If I were a horse, I would’ve pricked my ears forward and thrown my mane in the wind.

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Photo: Allyson DeCanio

It turns out, that the more time a horse is given to process a new skill, the more time there is for the nervous system as a whole to move into a state of relief. The chemicals that were present during the pressure of learning or doing something new dissipate, and the feel-good chemicals, specifically Dopamine, get released. Simply put, the greater the relief (the more Dopamine), the greater the learning.

How do we achieve this hallowed state? By giving our horses time. 

Time is exactly what I had to give my little Arab mare, Bree. She had come to us as a very green seven year old, whose majority of riding experiences had been people hopping on and making her run.  On our first working day together, I had saddled her up with no intention of riding. I did, however, put my foot in the stirrup and prepare to get on.

She responded by, ever so slightly, rocking back on her hindquarters, not-so-slightly pinning her ears, and then trying to leave the ground like a rocket.

“Huh,” I thought. “That was informative.”

For the rest of that day, and the following weeks as we taught clinics, I would randomly put my foot in the stirrup on either side and prepare to get on. Because we were doing this work while I was teaching, sometimes we could practice a lot and sometimes not once during a whole hour.

I was surprised when each day she showed less anxiety and a need to run. Every day there was a monumental improvement. I thought, “Well, she’s an Arab and they are noted for their smarts.” I thought, “Well, the magnesium oxide we have her on is helping her to stay calmer.” I thought “Horses are amazing and brilliant.”

Now, all of these are true. And every thought I had about the “why” she was settling so quickly after five years of being inadvertently taught to run when the rider’s foot hit the stirrup, was only part of the picture.

It’s been almost ten years since Bree taught me all she did, but when Dr. Peters spoke about horses needing a release and relief, she was the first horse who popped into my mind.

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Photo: Bo Reich

Because during those weeks when she and I could only work together sporadically on this one skill, the circumstances had conspired to give her a lot of time.

By being given a lot of time, she was allowed to settle from a chronically stressed state to a more relaxed state, which allowed her learning to be more firmly cemented. Because horses learn best when pressure is low and not ongoing, she could integrate the information and start to have confidence in our interactions. 

I often think of Bree and how far we got together, how close we became. After the initial weeks of struggle, she turned out to be a horse I could do anything with; working cattle, trail riding, teaching lessons with, switching from riding in a bit to a bosal, and all around trusting. She’s a little mare with a very big heart. 

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Bree and Crissi

Horses seek comfort. Horses seek a quiet way of feeling and being and going. Despite our perception that we don’t have any time and our busy lives are too full, we could stop and consider that it is within all of our power (as riders and horse owners) to give the horse one of the most important things they need to feel confident and peaceful with us. 

Time.

 

 

 

The More You Learn, The More You See

When Rusty arrived, his eyes were as hard as his muscles.  He had rain rot from withers to tail and large old white scars on his back where someone had ridden in a saddle that didn’t fit. I chalked up his disinterest in his new surroundings to the long trailer ride from Texas.

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A few days passed before he recovered and made it clear that it wasn’t the trailer ride. He had zero interest in all things people. He was adamant about how he meant to be handled, which was not at all. 

He was difficult to catch, he didn’t stand still for grooming, and he was not going to have his feet worked on. He was disruptive in the herd; Rusty operated on a kick first, ask questions later philosophy. Oddly enough, he was quiet and reliable under saddle, which was exactly what we needed. We found him to be a safe horse for actors to ride, for our then upcoming movie, “Out of the Wild.”

During the filming of the movie four months later, he proved to be trustworthy and levelheaded. With time growing shorter to get the footage we needed, he chose to do several spur-of-the-moment jobs for us that we hadn’t prepared him for. For some reason, Rusty decided to work with us, when for months all he wanted was people as far away as possible. Preferably outer space. 

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Rusty having makeup applied for his big scene. Photo: Crissi McDonald

 

 

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Rusty and John Diehl, filming a scene. Photo: Stefan Angele

 

 

 

 

 

 

We couldn’t look a horse like that in the eye and sell him. So he stayed with us.

It’s been four years since the movie, and Rusty is a changed horse. The rain rot is long gone. He’s soft and sweet with eyes like a clear mountain pond. He’s easy to clinic with; he stands tied quietly, drinks and sleeps well, and doesn’t threaten other horses if they get too close. He doesn’t worry if another horse is nervous. He’s become a quiet leader in the herd. 

Those saddle scars have never softened or gone away, despite numerous treatments and consistent grooming.  His stifles are a little creaky, and his right hip bone is sheared off; the result of an old injury which was probably hitting the metal enclosure fast and hard when he was a roping horse.

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Rusty after a bodywork session with Jim Masterson

As time runs on like the river it is,  we gather information and glean insights, much like the list above. This is the Rusty we know today.

Most horse owners are an enthusiastic bunch; since a sizeable chunk of our income goes toward our horse way of life, we focus on what is important. We know what our horses like and don’t like, where their strengths and weaknesses are, where we can excel and where we need work. We know when they are sore, or tired, or feeling great. I’m sure they know this (and much more) about us as well.

It’s part of being human that we sort that information and adapt to fit our conclusions about any given horse in any given situation. Getting more skilled and informed as a horse person comes with a good news/bad news scenario: the more you learn, the more you see. And sometimes, the more you don’t want to see. 

 

This past summer, Rusty let me know everything I’ve learned about him over the years had changed. 

It was the end of our clinic day and everyone had left the arena. Rusty and I’d been trotting but I asked him into his canter to find out how he felt.

We transitioned into an easy lope and after a lap, I thought “Ok buddy, it’s hot out and you’re getting to be an old man so let’s go ahead and stop.” I exhaled and touched the reins lightly, which usually is enough to help him slow down.

Nothing. Instead, he lengthened his lope, making the wind rush past my smiling face.

We cantered for three more rounds, then came down to a walk. And I laughed. “Old Man” indeed.

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Photo: Chris Wolf

That day he showed me how having a story about him had shortchanged what he could actually do. He reminded me that just when we think we know something, we are in store for a surprise. We are shown a facet we weren’t expecting to see because we relied on our cruise control story to give us information, instead of being more present and open to seeing new things.

Stories are a form of insulation; if we think we know something or have all the information about anything, we don’t have to put much thought into how we are interacting or any effort into being aware. Stories and expectations are best buddies. Assumptions might be holding hands right along with them. 

 It’s a curious occurrence that with the whole kaleidoscope of life passing around us on any given day, that out of the bazillions of things to see, we choose the comfort zone of our story. I get comfort zones (you could say comfort zones and ruts are buddies too). You get in a groove, in a rhythm, and you can spend years dancing to the same beat.

There is a great chasm between having knowledge and creating a story. Knowledge stands on its own and can be shared among many. A story is singular, insular and needs knowledge to prop up its flimsy walls.

What I know about Rusty is knowledge – where he needs support physically and how reliable he is mentally. My thinking of him as an “old man?” That’s the story.

It’s a potent lesson for me every time I’m snapped out of my own rutted thinking: that by listening to what I thought was a familiar situation, I can actually learn and see new things. Seeing new things is what keeps horsemanship, and life, full of surprises.

 

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The Arizona Desert. Photo: Crissi McDonald

 

 

 

 

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