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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.