Thursday, December 30, 2010

Rough day

Yesterday—just yesterday?—I spent an hour and a half with Jay in a stall with a stallion—at first, I forgot he was a stallion, because he was pretty mild-mannered. But he had not been taught to stand for the farrier—last month they had to sedate him to trim his hooves. Jay and I were tasked with getting him used to the idea.

I had the head end, while Jay worked on the feet. Sounds pretty simple—keep the horse quiet and standing in one place. Yes. And at the same time be sure to keep your own legs and feet out of the horse’s way as he tries to evade Jay. OK. I can do that. And if the horse does get antsy, keep out of reach of his hind hooves. Oh, and remember: this is a stallion, and if you offend him too badly, he’ll likely come after you to put you in your place. Flight won’t necessarily be his first choice.

Sheesh. I felt so dumb and clueless. Holding my own horse is nothing by comparison. Even at his worst, Galahad is pretty peaceable. This guy was fifteen and a half hands of solid power, not all that used to being handled. When he got agitated, you could feel every muscle in his body tense up, ready for the explosion.

At one point, I unaccountably found myself staring at his business end, praying he didn’t kick me. How that happened, I do not remember, but the moment passed and I got his lead rope back. Jay was so patient about explaining to me just why most of my natural instincts were wrong, and showing me a better, safer way of holding the rope and moving my body.

At first I kept forgetting to breathe, which meant I was tense, and so was the horse. About the time I settled down, the stall-cleaning crew arrived. That meant lots of noise and laughter, and turned me into a nervous wreck. I handed the horse back to Jay, who talked me down out of my tree. We got the horse back into his own stall and finished up. In the end, the stallion was willing to lift all four feet pretty well, though he’ll need some more work. Best of all, I hadn’t managed to mess up badly enough to cause injury to anyone, and my knees didn’t start to shake until we left the barn.

That wasn’t the only rough moment yesterday, either. Leading an old, lame mare back up from the lane to get her feet done turned into an adventure when she spotted a dreadful, horse-eating pig up the hill from the main barn. At that point, the mare, in self-defense, turned herself into a fire-breathing dragon, and pranced and danced and snorted her way clear into the barn.

And there was the thoroughbred gelding who, after working calmly in the arena, decided to make a run for his stall as I tried to open the gate. He nearly knocked me down on his way. Amazingly, I held onto the lead rope, spun his hindquarters around, and sent him back into the arena where he paused, looking confused. You could almost hear him wonder what went wrong with his plan. His plan? I was still trying to figure out what went wrong with mine!

Finally, at the very end of the day, I was minding my own business, following Jay leading another mare back to her stall after their round pen session. I rounded a corner and there, at eye level and bearing down on me, was Mama Llama. I have never been that close to a llama before, and have never really wanted to be. Pretty horrifying—though they all say she’s quite friendly and scarcely ever spits at anyone….

Yeah, right.

The Inner Critic

I went out to see Sir Galahad the Defiant this morning. He was friendly enough, just not interested in doing what I had in mind. The good part, though, was that because he was defiant but lazy and therefore slow, I was able to really practice the stuff I’ve been doing with Jay.

I made him run around the pasture when he decided not to stay with me (making the "wrong" thing difficult and the "right" thing easy). I discovered that I could control his direction from halfway across the pasture, and turn his hind end away so that he faced me, with no difficulty and from a considerable distance. When he did consent to stand with me, he moved his forequarters away nicely so that I could change sides. Finally, I haltered him and we did Parelli's circling game on the halter and lead rope. Galahad doesn’t like it because it’s work, but he did it, sort of.

After I was done, we walked down to the creek. He wouldn’t drink while he was on the lead rope, but he did lick the salt block, and then I took the halter off. His girlfriend Sissy came down also, and after the two of them drank, they galloped away together, bucking and kicking. It's nice to know that he does have someone to romp with, at least sometimes, when she's not in heat.

One final interesting note: I put him back out into the pasture, then before I left, decided to go give him a cookie. I waved to him from a ways off while he was eating hay, and as I raised my right arm to show him the cookie, I saw his head jerk to my right also. At first I just though “Oh, he saw me.” But then I realized that no, he saw me and interpreted my gesture as a “send” to that direction. His muscle memory/habit kicked in, and without his wanting to, he responded appropriately. Cool!

When I left the ranch, I spent the drive home beating myself up over what I should have done—mainly, countered his defiance by raising his energy up beyond what he wanted to do, and thus make the original requests easier by comparison.  If I had, he would have joined up more readily, and followed more willingly. But I did do a lot of things very purposefully and pretty darned well. The horse was at liberty, I have to remember, and I had good control of his direction and speed anyway. That's no trivial accomplishment. Next time I’ll practice even more.

So I need to watch out for those old tapes that play endlessly in my head, all reflecting not the real me but my false self, my inner critic. The current tape loop is, "You're no good at this training stuff. You can't even manage your own horse! Who do you think you are?"

Um, excuse me, but I think I'm proving that one wrong.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Horse's Eye

One of the things I like about doing groundwork with horses is that their beautiful eyes are right down at my level. A horse's eye lets you see right into her soul. Horses are utterly present in each moment, and completely without guile, and their eyes are so very expressive.

Today I had the privilege once again of working with a lovely Thoroughbred mare. Like many of her breed, she can be flighty and high-strung, and is sometimes a handful to manage. Our plan is to work with her and attempt to change her view of the world as a fearful place where she is not safe to one where she can relax and enjoy her surroundings.
My task for today was to help her learn not to run ahead of me, but to stop when I stopped, then take a step backwards when I did. This was not easy for her, and it took us quite a while to get it worked out. As we practiced, though, I would stop periodically and stroke her neck until she relaxed, and her head gradually dropped lower and lower.

Finally, after half an hour or so, I took a step forward and noticed her tuck her head as she walked next to me. She placed her feet with obvious care--she was paying close attention to me. After a few steps, I stopped, and she stopped--and backed up with me. The sudden change was wonderful to see--she finally understood exactly what I was asking, and did it because I asked her to.

The expression in her big, beautiful eye had changed as she looked at me. It is a wonderful moment, when a horse begins to trust you. Such a gift; such an honor. May I be worthy....

Monday, December 20, 2010

Day Four: The real work begins

Today Jay finally realized what I'd been telling him all along: I have no finesse with the most basic of basic skills, like asking a horse to yield his hindquarters, or back up. Yes, I generally get the job done, and to the untrained eye, it all looks fine.

But it's not fine. Jay's method is all about clarity and consistency of communication, and if you're not precise about the way you ask the horse to do something, she can easily get confused. A confused horse can't trust you enough to feel secure in your presence, and that's not a good thing at all.

So Jay started to get tough with me. Over and over, he'd correct me, and it seemed like half the time he'd tell me one thing one time and something different the next time I tried it. But that's actually part of the lesson--nothing about working with horses is cut and dried. Rather, it changes depending on exactly what's going on at any given moment.

What doesn't change is the absolute need for clarity with what you ask and the way you ask it. So I appreciated the drills, frustrating though they were. My mind might understand what Jay was asking me to do, but getting all my body parts to react appropriately while trying to manage my stick and string and lead rope and also keep my eyes on my equine companion--intense and very, very difficult.

Toward the end of the day, I was pretty worn out mentally, and my defenses were down. We were asked to lead a couple of horses back out to the pasture, where they would spend the night. Jay grabbed the "easy" one and left me with Gus, who proceeded to give me a bit of horsey attitude. He's a perfectly nice horse; he just wanted to get the haltering over with and go out to the pasture.

What's interesting to me about the interaction between me and Gus wasn't in the details, but rather in what I learned about myself. When he started acting up, I got "stern," as I always like to think of it, and raised my voice and my energy level. As soon as I did so, I realized that "stern" was actually combative. And it was based on fear. I could feel my tension rising and my breathing quicken.

Fight or flight: how do I react to fear these days? The pendulum lately seems to have swung to fight. But the fear remains. I'm not sure what I want to do about this, but it's good to be aware of it. I wonder how this relates to how I react in other situations?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Introductions: Days One, Two, and Three

Just in these first few days I've had a chance to review and practice so many simple, seemingly self-evident things I already "knew." Even more, I'm getting first-hand experience in just why these simple things are so very important.

This work is exciting, riveting, all-consuming to me, despite the fact that to a non-horsey observer, it probably looks boring and repetitious. Not to mention cold--we work either outside or in an unheated barn and indoor arena. The temperatures the first three days of my apprenticeship have been unusually cold for this time of year--nighttime lows in the teens or below, daytime highs not even reaching the twenties.

The first day began with watering down the arena to keep the dust down. This has to be done even in the winter. Dragging cold, heavy hoses around is not fun, but it's obviously the job of an intern. So are is making photocopies of riding releases, mucking a stall here or there, and hanging around with prospective adopters while the trainer is busy with a class.

I did get a chance to play with a couple of horses: walking them across tarps or through a maze of old tires, letting them jump small obstacles, having them play "go touch it" with objects in the arena. I also practiced having them back up, yield their hindquarters, and other basic safety moves. I discovered that when one is under Jay's watchful eye, it's a lot harder than it looks.

Lessons from Day One: Keep your feet planted as much as you can, be consistent with your spatial relationship with the horse. Don't move around randomly. Horses have a much more highly developed spatial sense than we do, and every micromovement counts. Not an easy lesson to learn. (Will any of them be, I wonder?)

Day Two was bitterly cold--it didn't get above 15 degrees all day. We didn't work the horses much at all--didn't want to risk getting them sweaty, then chilled. We did, however, work with the farrier (guess it doesn't matter so much if he gets sweaty).

One of my jobs was to help Jay get a one-ton Belgian gelding ready to have his hooves trimmed. First, we worked on getting him to back up and yield his hindquarters. After we got him limbered up and moving, I had to try to hold the horse while Jay wrestled with his enormous feet to be sure he would lift them without a fight. But after the work and the trim, I led the big guy back out to the field with two fingers on the lead rope.

Lesson from Day Two: Do not get into a shoving match with a horse. The horse will win. Especially if he weighs a ton.

Day Three was mostly about catching horses in the field, leading them to the barn (Herd Health Day: shots and deworming for almost all of them), and taking them back out. Wonderful fun! (I am serious.) It was very interesting to watch the herd dynamics at work even when all the horses were in the barn.

A major  lesson from Day Three was that to catch a horse, it's easier to draw him to you than to try to sneak up on him because you cannot sneak up on a horse. And in a herd of, say, three horses, you have to be aware of all three at once in order to catch any of them. Also, if the horse decides to move away from you, your job is to make him move with vigor--to make it way easier for him to stand still and let you walk up to him.

The big Belgian who gave me so little trouble on Day Two had different ideas on Day Three. When we got back out nearly to his pasture, there were a bunch of rowdy horses in the next-door paddock, and the Belgian started watching. Somehow my head got between him and something very interesting, and I got clobbered.

A Belgian's head alone must weigh a couple hundred pounds. Ouch. I was more scared than hurt, though. Jay showed me how to use the business end of the lead rope with enough energy to make the horse back up in a hurry and focus on me again. Those big fellows can move pretty fast in reverse gear, and when they're doing that, they're not nearly so scary.

I'm going to look back on those first three days very fondly, I'm thinking. It was an easy introduction to the next three months. Day Four was a different story entirely! More on that when I recover from it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Learning Horsemanship at Sixty: The Adventure Begins!

Just last weekend I began a three-month traineeship at the Ranch where I've been volunteering for the last year or so. I'll be working with "Jay," my friend and the trainer there, learning pretty much all aspects of training and rehabilitating rescued horses.

This is a tremendous opportunity for me--to work with someone as talented as Jay, and with such a variety of horses. It's not a paying position; in fact, I'll be paying them back with even more volunteer hours. But it's a win-win situation, for sure.

Between now and the end of March, I'll be reporting on my experiences as a sixty-year-old woman, with less than two years of experience with horses, learning natural horsemanship from the ground up. My focus will be less on the techniques and exercises that I learn, and more on the internal, psychological aspects of the experience. So far, my work with horses has brought about noticeable changes in the way I interact with others, human and equine; and I expect it will continue to do so.

So here goes! I'm ready for a wild ride!

Friday, December 10, 2010


It's been such an eventful couple of months, and it's hard to believe I haven't updated this blog in so long. But it's time, now. Things are shifting.

A quick summary: Galahad has moved to a private boarding stable about 30 miles west of here. He wasn't happy at his previous stable--he was constantly getting in trouble with the other horses, picking fights, wanting to play whether the other horses did or not. He'd already been seriously hurt once, and I knew it was only a matter of time before he was injured again, or hurt another horse. Something had to be done, so when this new opportunity arose, I jumped at it.

The new stable is significantly farther away from home for me, but worth it for Galahad. He's much better off, and that is the most important thing. A lot has happened since we moved him, and I'll have to update that in a few days, but something has shifted in me that is of major significance. I didn't realize it until a couple of days ago:

A friend and I went out to see him and work with him a bit. He needs work--in his new place he has grass pasture, woods, and gets to stay outside all night when the weather is fine, and so he's decided that he's a wild pony and doesn't have to do anything he doesn't feel like doing. Because of the adjustment--his and mine--I haven't been working with him as much as I used to.

Ground work is so important, and can be done anywhere and at any time, so we decided to take him for a walk. The trails at the new place are lovely, hilly but not steep, and a nice mix of woods and open fields. He hasn't been on them much yet, so it was all new to him.

My friend was leading him. She's been around horses a lot more than I have, so I didn't think anything about it. All was well until we got to the top of the hill—he got very wild and started pushing her around with his head and shoulders. She wasn’t staying on top of him, wasn't able to counter his pushiness. I realized that she was going to be in serious danger in a few more seconds, so I took the lead away from her.

It took all my skill to get him back under control and to lead him down the hill. But I did it. He walked down that hill slowly, stopping when asked, backing when asked, and we made it.

So what? you say. The significance of this is that before that moment, I would have backed off and let her deal with him. She has more experience, right? so she must know better than I do. And truthfully, she would have figured it all out and been fine. But for the first time, I knew that I was better able to deal with the horse in that moment, and without thinking about it, I stepped in. Or stepped up. Stepped into my own authority. Stepped into my mare energy.

Interesting, the timing. Tomorrow I begin a three-month traineeship with my friend and gifted horse trainer "Jay" out at the rescue ranch. It'll be hard work, physically and emotionally (not to mention that it's the dead of winter). Without mare energy, I can't work with troubled horses safely and effectively. But I have it (always have had it), and now I recognize and accept it, with humility and gratitude.