Your Horse Isn’t Distracted

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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Rocky and Crissi, 2008

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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Living In The Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

A Gratitude of Horses

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

The Whole Horse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Removing Mental Hobbles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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