Monday, July 16, 2012

The Alchemical Horse is moving!

The Alchemical Horse blog has moved! Look for new posts at, my new web page, where you'll also find information about my Equine Guided Learning services. This site will remain as an archive.

Thanks for visiting--see you over there!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Who says horses can't talk?

When I first got involved with horses a few years back, I remember thinking, "Gosh! How will I ever know what they're thinking? They have no expression!"


Now I marvel daily at just how expressive they are--I just had no idea, back then, how to read the nuances of the wrinkles above their eyes, the pucker of their mouth or chin, the angle of their head.

And they communicate so clearly, once you learn to read them! Here's a case in point:

We've had a dreadful fly season already this year, and the horses have been pretty miserable. Fly spray seems to be more of a condiment than a repellant for the little menaces. Several of the horses are wearing fly masks 24/7 by now. I didn't have them for any of my guys.

The other day I went to the pasture to get Nevada, who normally whinnies and moves right over to meet me. This morning, she didn't come, though she saw me right away. She was standing with one of her girlfriends about halfway down the fence line toward the woods, and there the two of them stayed.

I walked over, wondering for a moment if there was something wrong. But no, both horses were just fine. Nevada, though, had something on her mind.

She looked at me, then pointed her nose at her friend's fly mask, then looked at me again; she made that same gesture three times, just in case I missed her message the first time. "I want one of those." She could not have been more clear about it.

So, of course, I went and bought her one. She's never had a fly mask on in her life, but as soon as I showed it to her, she stuck her head right in, ears and all, and gave a big sigh of relief.

So who says horses can't talk?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Hoof Clinic

Yesterday I had the great good fortune to attend a beginner hoof trimming clinic with Ida Hammer at her place in central Illinois. I don’ t want to become a trimmer (certainly not starting out at 60+!), but I do want to know everything I can about my horses’ feet and the care they need. So a friend and I made the 4-hour trip.

The clinic was amazing, and not just because of the information. It was such an experience, on so many levels!

I had been afraid that it would smell bad and I’d be uncomfortable. Well, it didn’t exactly smell great, but there was no smell of death—the legs were fresh-frozen and then thawed, carefully wrapped with plastic and duct tape to expose only the fetlock and hoof. Those were some gnarly, smelly feet, I’ll grant you. Hooves of all shapes and sizes, in pretty bad condition.

The sheer amount of information that was shared was astonishing and overwhelming at times. Ida’s knowledge is deep and broad, and her enthusiasm and love for the horse is huge. The most important thing I learned was how much I still have to learn—a lifetime isn’t enough!

What was most interesting of all, though, was the “relationship” that I developed over the course of the day with the big horse whose foot I trimmed. There’s no explaining it in logical terms, other than to say it was my imagination running away with me—but I know that wasn’t the case. From the moment I first picked it up, that leg felt alive to me, not in a physical way, but energetically, psychically. That horse was PRESENT. His energy was big, warm, curious, friendly, happy. He was not in the least distressed by what was going on.

As the day went on and the trim proceeded, I found myself talking to him, patting him, reassuring him, like I would have done to a living horse. I was careful to put the leg down gently, and to protect it from people walking past. Doing a good job with the trim was important to me so he could walk properly and freely—even though this leg, obviously, would never again feel the ground in a joyful gallop. No matter.

Call me crazy, but that experience was as intimate as anything I’ve had with my own living, breathing horses. By the time I had that hoof trimmed up and looking great, I felt like he was “my” horse—felt so much affection for him and happiness in his presence! The thought of him running across those heavenly pastures with beautiful, sound feet was a joy.

When it was over and Ida asked who was going to take their leg home, I wanted to raise my hand. But we were several hours from home without a way to keep it chilled overnight and on the trip back.

What, you ask, would I have done with an amputated horse leg? Buried it in our little pet graveyard out in back of the house, with Shadow and Oshie and Wendy the Dog—those other four-legged family members who’ve gone on ahead.

But instead, I’ll write, and honor his memory and his sacrifice this way.

I wasn’t the only one to sense the presence of the horses yesterday. My friend, auditing, says she could feel the entire “herd” there with us, happily grazing and watching us as we learned from their feet and legs, just hanging out with us. Horses, in life and death, are amazing creatures.

Last night, lying in bed at the hotel, I missed my new-found friend and grieved his passing as if I had known him a long time. Those tears felt right and just. This morning, the intensity of the sadness has moved on and I’ve gone “back to grazing.”His memory, and my gratitude, remain.

Many thanks, my four-legged friend! And if you didn’t know love and care in your lifetime, I hope you could feel it yesterday. Godspeed!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

What is leadership, really?

Working with the horses and my clients lately has gotten me wondering on just what “leadership” really means. There are so many “leadership styles,” so much “leadership training” out there that it boggles the mind!

In my work, I’m just going to have to let the horses tell me what it means and how to practice it. This, clearly, will be an ongoing topic in my life and on this blog!

My opening assumptions, based on what I’ve already learned, are these:

- A leader doesn’t make a big fuss over it. A leader’s energy is calm, grounded, and steady. When necessary, the leader’s energy escalates as much as necessary, but just enough to get the job done, and then quiets back down.

- A leader doesn’t shout—doesn’t need to. Because there’s no shouting and no drama, her followers listen and pay attention.

- A leader is respectful in her requests, but expects to be listened to. She promises that she will ask, suggest, urge, and then follow through with sufficient energy to get the job done. This is part of the “contract” she has with her followers.

- A leader rewards for the slightest effort and smallest try, so that her followers know their efforts are noticed and appreciated.

- A leader listens to her followers. They are entitled to an opinion and to be heard respectfully. However, the leader makes the decisions.

- A leader understands how to communicate effectively, with voice, energy, and body language, so that there is no misunderstanding.

These are just a few of the things that come to mind. The horses are great at teaching these principles, and they keep me on my toes as I learn, too.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A Changing Relationship With my Horses, Part Two: Galahad

I’ve been spending a lot of time just hanging around with my big guy lately: stroking, walking, grazing, grooming, cleaning his feet. Putting Desitin on his undercarriage to discourage the flies, which have been terrible already this year. Riding him, bareback, just moseying along the road. Standing with him in the pasture, watching him interact with his buddies. I feel like I’m finally getting to know his real self.

The other day I walked out to the pasture on an unseasonably hot afternoon. Galahad left the rest of the herd standing in the shade and came over to me right away.

I stood there and just stroked him for a while. The big, blue-eyed Paint threatened to come running over and chase him, but I got between them and waved my rope; the Paint suddenly discovered a very tasty clump of grass. I kept walking toward him, though, casually swinging my rope until he decided to leave in a hurry. Galahad, as usual, was watching with big eyes. “Wow! Did you see that?!” My big, gentle guy is pretty close to the bottom in the herd’s social structure.

The flies were miserable, and Galahad was clearly grumpy because of it. He kept moving his hindquarters closer to me, which is unusual for him, and “pointing” at his belly with his nose. He was pretty clearly asking for help with the flies. I offered the halter and he stuck his nose in it.

He wasn’t keen on walking anyplace very fast, but we eventually made it to the barn. It’s not like I was in any kind of hurry. I tied him to the hitching post, cleaned his feet, and put lots of bug spray on him (though it was only the herbal one, which lasts approximately five minutes). Then I put Desitin on his underneath parts again. He likes the feel of that—I think it’s soothing, and really does keep the flies off for at least a day. There were a couple of ticks, too that I got rid of for him.

Then we went into the small arena, where I started teaching him to step sideways over a downed barrel. Some of our horses at the Rescue Ranch actually like doing that. Galahad? Not so much.

He did it once, after much coaxing. I instantly walked away as a reward, then raved over him, gave him a cookie, and everything. He looked quite pleased with himself. I decided to see if he’d do it again—his pouty face came on, and suddenly the flies became even more unbearable. I admit to pushing him harder the second time. Finally, he did it again, but not willingly. I ignored that, fussed over him again, and took his halter off.

He didn’t even want to roll. Instead, he started yawning, pointedly, non-stop. “This is SO boring.” I laughed, walked over toward him with the halter held out, and said, “Are you ready to go?” He stepped right over and stuck his head in it. My boy is a clear communicator; I’ll say that for him.

After that, we walked up the hill, past the new, scary ducklings in the little shed. Galahad wasn’t nearly as unnerved by them as Midnight had been earlier that day, but still, it was something to wake a guy up. Then we came back, had a treat, and I rode him back down to the pasture. Good boy!

Interesting: our relationship is changing and Galahad clearly notices it, so he keeps testing me to find the new limits. And I’m still figuring out what those limits are—it’s a moving target, and, like any relationship, will always exist in a state of dynamic balance. But I feel like I’m seeing him as a fellow being now, not just as a horse. It’s worth the effort.

A Lesson from Nevada

I made a serious error the other day: I embarrassed Nevada in front of her friends—I swear!—by making her work right there in the pasture.
Pasture 5 is a LONG way down the lane. I was tired, it was hot, but I felt I SHOULD work with her. Now, a “should” in that context ought to have tipped me off right away that my judgement was impaired. But it didn’t.

The mares were all at the bottom of the pasture, clearly enjoying the grass that had just been mowed. So fragrant, even to me!

I walked toward the herd at the bottom of the pasture. Nevada came willingly once I got close, and I put the halter on her. Then I did a short version of our normal workout: yielding front and hind, circling me at a walk and trot—but all of it right there next to the rest of the herd. And I’m certain that she saw absolutely NO point in it. There weren’t even any treats involved.

We didn’t work for long—maybe five minutes. But it was long enough, apparently, to offend a sensitive nearly-three-year-old.

The next day, when I went to get her, Nevada took off running as soon as I got anywhere close. She’s a smart little mare: She took the entire herd down to the creek, where I couldn’t get to her without wading in and making a big fuss. Clearly, she wanted no part of me and my stupid games! Only then did I stop to see things from her perspective, and I couldn’t blame her for being offended.

The mares stayed in the water a long time—I could hear them splashing. I deserved to be dissed, so I had to laugh—but I just waited her out. I had my camera with me, and went off and took some photos.

Eventually, they all came back out, running and rolling and bucking and farting. Nevada soon spotted me, and then the real games began. She’d chase and bite at one horse or another to make them run, the stinky little mustang, to provide her with cover so she could “hide” behind them.

No matter. I made sure she kept running, and that she knew that the running was my idea, not hers. She’s such a joy to watch—that natural self-carriage and collection of hers is something to see.

Eventually, after several trips around the pasture (interestingly, the rest of the mares didn’t move unless she made them move—obviously, they knew I wasn’t after them), Nevada slowed down and deigned to look at me, kind of sideways. I approached slowly, stopping and/or turning away to reward her every time she glanced in my direction. Once she quit running, she didn’t argue much, and didn’t try to move away as I approached.

When I got up to her, at first I just petted her until she relaxed a little, then walked away from her for a minute. Next time, I showed her the halter, then walked away when she relaxed. Then I put it around her neck and asked her to flex a little—no dice at first. She was still trying to ignore me. But eventually she gave just a bit, and I dropped the halter and walked away.

By this time, she’s looking at me like I’m crazy, right? But each time I walk back to her, she’s a little softer.

Eventually, I did put the halter on her, flex her, thank her, take it off, and walk away clear out of the pasture. She watched me but didn’t offer to follow. That’s OK. Next time.

It’s a lesson I won’t forget.

[This wonderful photo of Nevada and her friends is copyrighted by my good friend at AimingHigh Photography, used by permission.]

A changing relationship with my horses

I’m re-thinking how I relate to my horses the last few months. It started, really, back when I first got Galahad and realized that the accepted training methods—even those labeled “natural horsemanship”—didn’t sit well with me. They’re still based on the dominance/submission paradigm—“Me human, you horse: You obey or I will hurt you” kind of thinking.

It’s a moving target. I don’t have a problem with riding my horses, within reason; I do have a problem with bits and spurs. I don’t have a problem with them having opinions that get listened to, and I want them to have fun when we’re together; I do have a problem with them being pushy and disrespectful. On and on. Nothing is yet clear. They weigh nine or ten times as much as I do, and I need to be safe, too.

And because I’m working on this, it seems like I’m having more fun. I love the way my horses enjoy being with me. I love the way they come to me when I call them, sometimes at a trot.

Well, they come to me most of the time, at least.

[Note on the photo: Sharp eyes will see that the horse on the right is not Nevada, but one of Galahad's gelding buddies. Close enough in looks, though, and he didn't mind being in the shot.]