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.

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