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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
At 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.