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.
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.
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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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.
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.
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.