Thursday, December 1, 2011

Horse Time

Here’s an event that happened last month, but I never got around to writing about it at the time until one day last week.

Out at the Ranch one morning, one of the staff invited me to help her catch “Oliver,” an unruly colt who was out in a paddock playing with his little buddies and refusing to let anyone near him with a halter. My friend Sally had been trying for some time; I didn’t have any better luck. We were using the techniques that our trainer “Jay” had taught us, but to no avail. Eventually we gave up and went to get Jay himself.

Oliver was WAY more interested in playing than in being caught. He is/was a little spooky, it’s true, and for whatever reason, he recently had decided that being caught and haltered was not something he wanted to allow. He insisted—or pretended—that it was really scary.

Jay just played the game with him—and for Jay, it was a game, and fun. For Sally and me, it had been a job, or at least something that had to be accomplished in a “reasonable” amount of time. Not fun, but stressful!

Jay and Oliver played “approach and retreat” and “If you run away, you have to run really fast” for nearly an hour before Jay could begin to get the halter near Oliver’s head. And even when he could have “caught” him, Jay chose instead to reward Oliver’s relaxation by walking away—numerous times. Even when the halter eventually went on, it came back off several more times when Oliver relaxed.

In the end, Jay’s approach proved itself of huge benefit. Not only did we bring Oliver in that day, but the next day, after Jay had worked with him for a while in the round pen, playing the same games, I was able to halter him in the indoor arena. In fact, I was able, using the same techniques, to get him to run all the way across the arena to get me to put the halter on him!

So the lesson, to me, is that sometimes it takes a LONG TIME to do something the right way the first time or two. Yup. No doubt about it: It would have been quicker, that first afternoon, to drive Oliver into the “trap” that’s there in the paddock for that very reason, and catch and halter him there. But that hour Jay spent, plus the few minutes the next day in the indoor round pen, will save everyone HOURS and HOURS of effort from now on. Not to mention the fact that Oliver  now thinks that being haltered is a very good thing.

A lesson in “horse time.” In horse time, things take as long as they take—no more, no less. Things happen at exactly the right moment. Before it’s time, you can relax and have fun or eat grass, because it isn’t time yet. After it’s time, you can relax and have fun or eat grass, because it’s already happened. I want to try living my life that way.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Reason to Focus

This was originally a much more detailed post, but I realized that the details of what happened don’t matter. Rather, it’s my response to the situation that’s important.

Horses leave the Ranch with a willing attitude (we won't put them up for adoption until they demonstrate it) and the experience of clear, respectful communication. That’s what we teach them. The “down side” of that is that the horse learns that it is possible for such communication to take place. When they reach their new homes, they all too often encounter something quite different.

Our adoptive owners, while they unquestionably love their new horses, are usually not experienced in how to communicate respectfully with them. We teach them as much as we can before they take their horse home, but often that’s not enough to overcome their inexperience and the “old-school” methods that prevail at so many barns. Owners accept advice from the experienced owners and riders around them, most of whom are not skilled in relational horsemanship techniques.

“Old-school” isn’t wrong; I’m not saying that. It’s just different, and makes a different set of assumptions about the horse/human relationship: horse as useful animal versus horse as friend and partner.

The result, sometimes, is that the horse, having learned to expect a certain level of communication, takes offense when that’s not what it experiences. It’s not the fault of the owner, who has no idea what’s suddenly “gone wrong” with his beloved new friend. Generally, the horse gets blamed for its “bad attitude,” and no one understands that what’s really happened is a failure of proper, respectful communication between horse and owner.

My recent experience with “Toodles” was a perfect example. Our new apprentice, just learning (it was her first day!), wasn’t respectful in the way she asked Toodles to flex, and the horse took offense. The result: a fight, and a situation that likely would have continued, or gotten worse, if someone hadn’t been there to correct it.

We had a similar situation crop up last week with a recent adopter. My first reaction was to get discouraged and depressed. That’s clearly not helpful. After a lot of soul-searching, I realize that, in fact, the situation is a good reminder of why Jay and I work so hard at what we do at the Ranch. It reminds me to stay focused and continue our work of educating owners and riders, one at a time.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A lesson in manners

My lesson for today was softness. I was working with "Jenny," one of our new apprentices, helping her learn the basics of haltering a horse and asking it to flex its neck to each side. “Toodles,” an older mare who’s said to be very easygoing, was our test subject. Jenny got Toodles to flex to her left, but when she moved to the right side, the horse started fighting against her. I tried to talk the young woman through the process, but with no success, so I took the lead rope and the horse fought with me, too.

Interesting. The horse knows this maneuver, but we had apparently offended her with an approach that she considered impolite and disrespectful. My guess is that Jenny hasn’t figured out what “softness” means, and Toodles took offense at having her face pulled on. It’s not at all uncommon for a horse to do that. Generally, people fight with them about it, and things go from bad to worse. The result: a “bad” horse. Not really….

After a while, I sent my apprentice friend off to watch Jay and the others, and attempted the “fix” myself. I probably should have let her stay, but didn’t want to teach her anything wrong. One of these days I’ll start trusting myself more.

Since asking her to flex in my usual, polite-but-assertive way was only getting a fight, I decided to go back to basics—real basics—and lots of softness. I took up the lead rope, slid one arm along Toodles’s back, and with the other hand, slid down the rope toward her face. As gently as a whisper, I asked her to move her head out and back toward me, and rewarded her for every twitch in my direction by releasing the pressure for a second. The first time she gave a significant amount, I dropped everything and walked away from her. Confused, she followed me. Where was the fight she was expecting (and maybe looking forward to)?

I tried that a few times, and with persistent gentleness, got her all the way back to touching her side with her nose, on both sides. It did take me 20 minutes, and when she finally did it willingly, I took the halter off and left her. By then, she followed me to the stall door and hung her head out to be scratched.

Jay’s only critique was that I should have finished by asking her the “regular” way—but my confidence isn’t quite there yet, and I didn’t trust myself not to get into another fight with her (surprise, surprise!). So I’ll go back and try again tomorrow—but I feel REALLY good that I did the right thing, and that Toodles evidently agreed with me.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


Well. After all this time, I’m finally going to have to admit that my horsemanship skills are pretty good. Here are three instances from the last two weeks that have forced me to admit it.

First of all, I’ve actually been riding some of the horses at the Ranch, in spite of the fact that they’re “green,” and I've done well. Jay has been complimenting me on my willingness to get on these horses and ask them for a quick response—and to get it. That’s huge, for me! Actually, come to think of it, that’s pretty huge for anyone who’s not a long-time horseman ... and maybe for some folks who are.

I even rode “Duke,” a stubborn little Connemara pony the other day. He's been ridden quite a bit by his previous owner, but the little stinker has little or no stop, not much backup, and his lateral controls don’t work super well. However, he does a one-rein stop and, once he’s sure you’re not going to give in to him, he steers fairly well. We walked, trotted, did figure-eights, and worked on improving the “whoa.” I had a great time (and I think he did, too, though he’d never admit it). By the time we quit, he was doing those figure eights at a trot and moving almost entirely off my seat and posting cues. Way cool!

Then that same day, I had an amazing experience with the little walkaloosa I’d been riding. He spooked at a piece of paper blowing down the barn aisle as I was backing him out of the arena.

The barn aisle was clear—I had looked before we left the arena. I didn’t see the paper at first, though I knew he was spooking at something. I sure as heck wasn’t going to stop to find out what it was, thereby reinforcing his thought that it was going to eat him for lunch. I just kept asking him to back up—into whatever it was. Then, as the paper blew past him, he levitated—all four feet left the ground—but he carefully did not come toward me. Rather, he went sideways to avoid both me and the paper.

My heart rate didn’t even go up. That’s not something that can be controlled through willpower—but evidently I have gained enough experience to know, in the moment, whether or not I need to be afraid. I never even changed my stance—still with my head slightly forward, eyes and energy focused on his chest. As soon as he landed, we continued backing down the aisle to his stall.

And boy, did he back up like a dream! Head low, moving straight down the aisle, looking neither right nor left. Good boy! He didn’t “recover himself” until we got him backed into his stall—then, feeling secure once more, he challenged me a little bit, but not much.

Jay saw the whole show. His comment, afterwards: “That’s horsemanship!” I was so proud of myself!

Then yesterday at the Ranch I was planning to spend the day writing an article, but Jay grabbed me as soon as I walked in and handed me a horse to check out. “Dancer” is a lovely little mare, sorrel with a flaxen Fabio mane and tail.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this is a mare who has reared and gone over backwards several times since she arrived. She is the first horse I’ve encountered who wouldn’t do the easy yield-and-backup game that we use at the Ranch. She refused, at first, to yield either end! So I spent over an hour with her, getting her to disengage front and hind, and improving her backup. In between practices, we walked through and around obstacles in the arena, which she handled very well, head down and calm as could be.

Jay, who had been working in the round pen with another horse but who has eyes in the back and sides of his head, came over as I finished with her. “I hope you know how proud I am of you! You may not realize what a big thing you’ve accomplished there.” Then he told me about her history.

I felt great about it! And I did realize just how far I’ve come in the last ten or so months. That “Lead Intern” title is well deserved, I guess I have to admit.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Sir Galahad the Good

Galahad continues to astonish me.

He's been chosen as a "poster child" for a local organization, and yesterday was the video session out at the barn. Three solid hours of "Stand over there, please." "Can you say all that again?" "Can you get him to come up and nuzzle you while you're talking?" "Can he walk by in the background?" "Can we do that one again?" "Can you show us your regular morning routine?" "Can we show him frolicking with his friends?"

Galahad never turned a hair after the first five minutes. Five minutes? That was what it took him to get used to the video camera, the cameraman, the strange, umbrella-like lighted thing, the close proximity of the house (where he's never been before), the sound of the rattling equipment case.

What impressed me the most was that he was obviously nervous about all of it at first, but he just kept looking to me for reassurance and guidance. He trusts me that much! It made me feel wonderful, knowing that our relationship is so solid that he's willing to endure some pretty scary stuff if I tell him it's OK.

He only had one worrisome moment, when he snorted and backed away. That was the time I turned his lead rope over to someone he wasn't used to. He didn't actually do anything, but it was obvious that he was NOT OK with the idea of anyone but me calling the shots where he was concerned!

After the video crew left, Galahad had one more chore to perform: our friend had brought her two little boys, ages 7 and 8 or thereabouts, out to see the horses. Galahad, who has never had a little boy on his back, let alone two at once, gave a "pony" ride and was a perfect gentleman.

He wasn't too sure about the whole thing, but with the mom on one side, another adult on the other side, and me leading, he walked quietly. Even with the boys playing "one, two, three...WHOA!" amid gales of giggles and squirms, he stopped quietly or just kept moving when I told him to, calmly and gently.

What a guy! He's this good at five years old--he's going to be amazing when he's ten! A real jewel....

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Dancing, again

I think about dancing almost as much as I think about horses, in case no one has noticed, and lately I find myself thinking about riding while I'm dancing. Probably just as well not to let my partners know that....

I had the pleasure of dancing with three of my favorite partners Sunday night. They really gave me something to think--and blog--about. It was so interesting to pay attention to what was going on in my body during the dance.

The first gentleman asked me to dance shortly after I arrived. He and I have danced together for a long time. This particular evening, for whatever reason, he wasn't up to his usual form. His lead was a little late; his feet weren't where I expected them to be. As a result, when we first started, the dance felt "off." But we kept at it. I put a little more energy into my own dancing, and he actually seemed to pick up on it.

By the time the dance finished, we were nearly back to our usual proficiency. I wonder, is this what my horse experiences when I have a bad day? After a ride, I, as the rider, am usually feeling much better than when we started.

The second gentlemen, who studies ballroom dance and is the most technically proficient of the three, asked me for a waltz late in the evening.

There were a couple of times when he’d cue a move and I’d realize I had absolutely no idea what he was doing or where he wanted me to be. None. But it worked out anyway, and here's why (IMO, of course):

If I were a less experienced dancer, I would probably have hesitated there, not knowing what the cue meant. But experience told me to keep moving.

Also, I knew my partner was an excellent dancer and a strong lead. I was able and willing to trust him and move forward without knowing where he was sending me. Very important point: If I had not trusted him, I would have stopped, like a horse refusing a jump. It's happened before, with other partners. Most embarrassing for both parties!

So at those those times of not knowing, I just kept moving, trusting that I had understood the cue and that he knew what he was doing. Sure enough, there he’d be, at just the right instant to pick me up and move us into the next phrase.

The third gentleman, always fun and inventive, asked me for a tango. He and I have done a few Argentine tango lessons, but neither of us is terribly good at it. All dance, but especially this form of tango, requires an exceptionally precise lead and follow. There are no programmed steps, which makes it both challenging and great fun.

As we danced (and we danced very well!), I was aware of every signal, every hint, of the direction my partner was moving. This gave me direction and timing. Because we're not experienced and don't dance together often, I was also aware of my own fraction-of-a-second hesitation while my body--NOT my head--processed the information and moved. It was fascinating, and gave me a greater insight into what my horse experiences when we ride.

And it was magic. Pure magic. I want to ride like that.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Becoming a rider!

A funny thing has happened recently: I'm becoming a rider. Sounds strange, I know...haven't I been riding for quite a while now?

Yes and no. I've been riding, but only horses I know well, or "lesson" horses, who are said to be safe to ride. But certainly not the green-broke horses at the Ranch. I've been afraid to get on those, for the most part.

I have been riding, and taking lessons, with an excellent local (but soon to be nationally known) trainer. Her specialty is the Monte Foreman "basic handle," which schools the horse as it gets the rider used staying balanced while the horse makes sharp but controlled turns.

So I have been getting myself ready, working up my nerve, but still saying no every time Jay suggested I ride one of our horses.

But yesterday the amazing thing occurred: when Jay urged me to ride a little "walkaloosa," two and a half years old and 13-odd hands high, with maybe half a dozen rides on him, I agreed.

I had worked with him on the ground quite a bit, and he was behaving very well. He had demonstrated that he was willing for me to ride him, by moving willingly and freely on a lead line, no matter how much speed I asked him for, and then relaxing once I let off the pressure.

So I saddled him up, worked him for a bit longer on the ground, and on.

Yesterday, he argued quite a bit, but I insisted, politely but firmly, until he gave in. I mean, really, fella, all we're doin' here is followin' your nose.... It was a short ride--maybe ten minutes--and we never moved past a walk.

Today, we had our second ride, once we'd gotten our ground-school review out of the way. And we did fine! Jay even complimented me again today on how well I communicate with the horse, and how I was willing to engage him in some pretty energetic moving of his hindquarters, where other riders haven't been.

Best of all, I felt confident, secure, and capable. The little horse was willing (mostly), and we actually moved up into whatever it is that's just faster than his "trot," or whatever that gait is on a "walkaloosa." It felt like a tiny, fast-but-smooth canter. Reminded me of a paso fino that I rode once--feet moving ninety miles an hour, ground speed about a quarter of a mile an hour....

So, success on many, many fronts. Think I'm most happy with the feeling I have about it: such a boost to my confidence. Can't wait for the next ride!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dancing with horses

I went to a Sunday night Waltz Party a while back. Especially because of my work with the  horses, I paid attention to how I follow my partners' lead.

Several of the women dancers have asked me to help them follow better, but I've never been able to give them pointers. That Sunday night dance showed me why: I have absolutely no idea how I do it.

The best answer I can come up with is that I follow the path of least resistance--if my partner raises his arm in a certain way, it feels easier to twirl under in one direction rather than in the other. But it happens instantly, and I can't tell you in words just how I know to do it.

I bet this relates to the way horses learn our cues. A horse doesn't feel your leg on her side and then say to herself, "Well, that's Leg Position One on my right side, so I'm supposed to step over with my right front leg." But in the end, with a good rider, that's what they learn to do. They, too, learn follow the path of least resistance, moving without thinking about why or how, like water flowing downhill.

I think I follow my partner's lead in the same way. I come to associate a certain touch with moving in a particular direction, but it's a body knowledge of the easiest and most comfortable way to shift my weight, not a head knowledge of what the next step should be. What I've discovered over the years is that if I stop to think about what I'm doing in the dance, my feet stop moving correctly.

Some dance partners are better than others. With some, I dance well; with others, it's more like a battle of will and balance. There have been a few with whom I simply cannot dance. On one unpleasantly memorable occasion, I came to a complete stop in the middle of a waltz, balking without thought like a horse refusing a jump. To this day I don't know why that happened. That gentleman has never asked me to dance since--likely a wise move for both of our sakes!

Dunno. But it's interesting. I think this understanding may help me be a better rider.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Unexpected turnaround

I was privileged to witness an unexpected and dramatic change in attitude in one of the horses we're working with out at the Ranch.

Liberty, who was found chained to a tree where he'd been forced to live for some time, had an understandably bad attitude toward life in general and people in particular. The best word I can think of to describe it is sullen. He really wanted nothing at all to do with us.

A couple of months ago, before we realized just how bad things were with him, Jay let me work with him. It was soon obvious that my lack of skill was making the problem worse, not better. Liberty would pull away, and I'd pull back. Liberty would turn his butt to me in the round pen and, in trying to correct that misbehavior, I'd get him running hell-for-leather and not be able to get him calmed down.

I was actually relieved when Jay took over his training, because I didn't have the skills to help this horse past his problems. Even Jay had a tough time with him. The horse became more willing to do what he was asked, but his basic sullenness remained.

One afternoon, trying out his new trailer-loading technique, Jay decided to use Liberty as a test case. After only a few minutes, Liberty loaded right into the trailer without a fuss. Success, right?


Liberty would not back out of the trailer. Putting a foot out and stepping down into what apparently seemed like an abyss was not something the horse was willing to do. Nope. No way.

For well over two hours, I watched Jay work with the horse. Jay's voice tone and energy never altered during that entire time. In the end, Jay built up a couple of steps behind the trailer so that the drop-off wouldn't be so deep. Liberty let Jay pick up and position each back foot, gently pull on his tail to get him to set weight on that foot, and then move to the next one.

It was, literally, one step back and two steps forward at times, as Liberty got scared about the process and retreated into the trailer. But in the end, all four feet were on the arena floor, and Jay led Liberty away.

I was fortunate to have my video camera there, so I caught the entire process. It is amazing to watch (at least if you're a horse trainer, or you enjoy watching grass grow...). More interesting than the actual process, though, is the effect we've seen on Liberty himself.

As Jay was working with him that day, we speculated that the process of getting him out of the trailer, so difficult for Liberty, might be the emotional equivalent of laying him down (see my blog post here). We could tell that the horse, by the time a couple of hours had gone by, had actually figured out that we were trying to help him escape from a frightening situation, and was allowing Jay to position each foot.

And in fact, we have seen a transformation in Liberty's attitude. He's no longer sullen. He hangs his head out of his stall door, asking to be chosen to come out and work in the arena. He's turning into a lovely riding horse, good-natured and willing.

Pretty amazing.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Such a blessing....

I am exhausted.

This internship is emotionally draining at times, mostly because the amount of information I'm trying to absorb is enormous. On days like today, it feels like trying to get a drink out of a fire hose.

That is not a complaint, just a statement of fact.

There are disadvantages to starting this kind of learning adventure when one is sixty, and one of those disadvantages is that I don't have nearly the energy that I had a decade or two ago. On the other hand, I have much more life experience, much more humility, and much more ego strength than I had in my younger years. All of those things have proven their worth a thousand times over in the last three months.

I am too tired even to write. But this photo, taken by a dear friend, shows why I'm driven to do this work, and what the reward is when I get it "right." I am so very blessed.

Photo by AimingHigh Photography

Friday, February 18, 2011

Moving my psychic furniture

The horses are helping me--challenging me--to rearrange my psychic space lately. It is exhausting. There are days when I arrive home just shaking from fatigue--and it's not because the work is physically challenging--it isn't. In fact, I'm gaining weight!

The intuitive side of my nature--that part of me that receives information from non-rational sources and just knows things--is growing stronger as I interact more and more with my equine friends. And that's the part of my psyche that I've suppressed for most of my life. My dad, after all, didn't believe in that stuff. If you can't see it, feel it, and measure it, it didn't exist.

Furniture that's sat in one place for fifty or more years--whether it's psychic or real-world--tends to kind of grow into its space, and it seems to get harder and harder to move. So I suppose it's no wonder I'm so tired lately.

Still, I wouldn't trade this experience for anything in the world. I welcome these changes, difficult though they may be right now. I like the person I'm becoming--and the horses seem to agree.

[If you want to read a more psychological account of this, you can check it out on my other blog, It's An Alchemical Life.]

Friday, February 11, 2011

Two weeks without horses!

Well, not completely without horses, of course, since I have my own to care for. But I've been away from the Ranch for two weeks now.

The first week was weather-related--the Midwest has had the worst, snowiest, coldest winter I can remember, and my little car doesn't handle snow and ice very well. The ice on the ground has also meant that I couldn't actually do anything even with my own herd, which was very disappointing.

So this past week I was home most of the time, writing. And what a week it was! Our public clinics at the Ranch, which I helped advertise, are filling up all the way through June. Our internship program has three new potential applicants, and we're making good progress on getting our "mission statement," goals, and program details worked out. Finally, I got a training article accepted in a local horsemanship paper.

A great week! It's nice to feel like I'm helping to get the word out about our work at the Ranch, and especially about our way of working with horses that's based on relationship, not on dominance. So important, that. If the whole world operated from a place where relationship counted as much as power and control, we'd all be safer and happier.

Glad to be doing my little bit for the cause with my writing. But I sure will be glad when Monday rolls around and I can get back to working with the horses!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Sir Galahad the Studly

I got a call this morning from the "principal's office at school" (read, "my friend the barn manager"), who said Galahad was acting up.

Apparently he woke up this morning and decided he was a stud again, despite the fact that he was gelded over a year ago. He charged my friend when she went to bring her own mare in from the pasture, and then herded all the other mares into a frenzy, galloping them around the field. Who knows what other naughtiness he got into. My friend didn't say, and I'm sure not going to ask.

He's been living with the mares because he and the Boss Gelding got into a terrible row on his first night out with the boys. Galahad got scared and backed into and through the fence, taking it down with him. Fortunately, I happened to go out to check on him that night and discovered him wandering down the lane, distraught, and put him in the barn. The other boys had stayed in the pasture but couldn't be left there, obviously, with the fence down, so they all spent the night locked up in the barn.

All the horses have been indoors the last few days because of the blizzard, so I'm guessing that Galahad's friskiness is a reaction to having been cooped up. That, and the fact that one or more of the mares is always in season these days, and spring is coming, despite the snow and ice.

The report is that he did fine with the geldings today, though they put him back with the mares until tomorrow, when they'll try again.

I never, ever thought I'd have to deal with phone calls from school....

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Broncho That Would Not Be Broken

A poem by Vachel Lindsay, which I read when I was very young, has stuck with me for more than fifty years. I went looking for it just now, as I was working on a piece for this blog on the ethics of horse training. It still brings tears.

I'm not sure about copyright laws here, so I'll just post the link to one of the many places you can read this work:

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

“Laying a Horse Down”

Jay and I have had many discussions of this process, which is a technique often used by natural horsemanship trainers.

In my mind, “laying a horse down” is part of the old-school, cowboy method of breaking an animal. I’ve never seen it done, but I’ve seen photos and videos of some of the old methods, and they’re pretty horrific. Jay has tried hard to convince me that, in the right hands, the process can actually be of benefit to the horse.

I couldn’t get past the apparent violence. Forcing a terrified animal into such a vulnerable position can send it into a state of dissociation that’s basically the same thing that happens to an antelope—or a horse—just before it’s eaten by a lion. Some horses never return from this deadened state. After the experience, they really are “broke,” and you can do anything you like to them. There’s no spirit, no fight. They’re automatons.

To me the technique, and indeed the entire idea, reeked of coercion and violence. It recalled experiences from my own childhood that I would very much like to forget. So I argued and argued, but finally agreed to watch Jay work with a horse before making a final decision.

Jay’s method and his reason for laying a horse down are very different from those of the old cowboys. In part, it is teaching the horse to obey. That’s undeniable. But Jay’s other reason, especially with a fearful horse, is that persuading the animal to do something that puts him in such a vulnerable position, and then showing him that it’s not just safe but relaxing, can change the animal’s view of the world. Once the horse has done the scariest thing he can imagine, only to discover that it’s safe and he gets rewarded for it, it will be easier for him to handle other fearful things.

“Teaching the horse to lie down” requires, first, that you have built up a relationship of trust with the horse. Second, it requires impeccable timing, because you have to reward the horse’s smallest effort and slightest try toward doing what you’re asking. Third, it requires enormous patience, because it might take the horse an hour to understand what you’re asking, then another hour for you to convince him that it’s safe to do it. All the while, your energy must stay calm and relaxed.

The other day I watched Jay lay “Roger” down. Believe me, I was watching that horse for any sign of distress! I didn’t see a one. It was stressful and difficult for the horse, no doubt. He was breathing hard, but he wasn’t upset by any of it. Jay took it in small steps, and rewarded Roger for each move in the right direction.

When Jay would let Roger rest and think about the step he’d just taken, often I would see the horse licking and chewing, a sign of relaxation. His head always returned to its calm, resting position, and his eyes had a relaxed look to them.

The whole thing took maybe half an hour. I wish I had a photo of Roger lying flat on the ground (this photo is Sue, who now lies down with just a suggestion). He was completely relaxed while Jay petted his neck, his back, his rump, his belly, his face. It was amazing.

Then, after Jay asked him to stand up again, Roger quietly moved right over to stand next to Jay, nose by his arm, looking  (I swear I’m not making this up!) quite pleased with himself. He seemed happy to have done a good job.

I suggested Jay not call it “laying the horse down,” because what he’s really doing is teaching the horse that lying down on command is a safe and pleasant thing to do. Yes, the horse does, in fact, have to do it, but the way Jay does it, the horse is rewarded at each little step, so that the whole process is not unpleasant for him.

So I’m finding I have to rethink my knee-jerk reactions to techniques. “Laying a horse down,” when done by someone operating within the old, dominance-based paradigm, is a dangerous and inhumane thing. Done by someone who understands horses deeply, communicates clearly and consistently with them, and has their best interests at heart, “teaching a horse to lie down” can actually make a horse feel better about himself, and trust his environment and his handler more completely.

I would guess that with one’s own horse, a horse with whom you already have a trusting and respectful relationship, it would be OK. But still, I’m not going to try this one at home.

Monday, January 31, 2011


This life is a funny place. Saturday I took one of horses for a walk on the trails near the barn. The temperature was in the 40s, and for the most part there wasn't much snow left, just a little slush and lots of mud.

Horses, especially those wearing shoes, tend to get snow packed up into their hooves in the winter. These ice balls can be uncomfortable and dangerous--it's kind of like the horse is walking on hard, lumpy baseballs--so you have to stop frequently and chip them out.

The first time I took old Midnight out in the snow and he got ice balls on his feet, it took me quite a while to figure out what was wrong--why was he fighting me and stumbling on flat ground? I hopped off and saw that three of his four hooves were off the ground by a couple of inches. The packed ice was so hard that a stick wouldn't budge it. Instead, I had to search for a pointed rock and bash the ice out. You can imagine how much Midnight enjoyed that!

The tool of choice is a hoof pick, and most of us (including me, now) carry them in our pockets when we're on the trails. Saturday I thought about taking one, but decided there wasn't enough snow left to be a problem.

All was fine until we turned off the main trail and onto one that leads through a flat, open stretch between patches of trees. The sun doesn't reach that part of the path, and yes, it was still snow-covered and perfect for forming ice balls under a horse's hooves.

I started cussing myself out for not bringing the proper tool, and began to look for a suitable rock. But wait--what's that? Oh my goodness: a blue hoof pick, right there next to the trail, within easy reach.

I just stood there with my mouth open for a bit, thanked the Guides, or Providence, or Whoever placed it there for me, then picked it up and chipped the ice out of Midnight's hooves.

Yup. Life's a funny place.

[Cross-posted on It's an Alchemical Life.]

Thursday, January 27, 2011


My work with the horses is progressing. I’m gaining confidence and improving my skills, and all the while learning how to communicate better with these wonderful creatures. What a world of relationship that opens up! This hasn’t been an easy process, though.

Watching Jay work, it looks simple. Not so! I’ve been so surprised at how hard it is to learn the training methods that Jay uses. The theory isn’t difficult at all—everything pretty much follows from the fact that horses learn by release of pressure. Once you know that almost anything can be “pressure” to a horse, it’s just a matter of applying the principles and releasing that pressure appropriately.

But putting that into practice is definitely not an easy task. In the first place, it requires such attention to the smallest details: the twitch of an eye or an ear, the swish of a tail, the slightest “lean” the horse makes as he thinks about doing what you ask. All these are signals, and every single one is important. You have to learn to spot them, and then learn to use them to monitor the horse’s attitude and emotional state, as well as his understanding of what you’re asking.

You don’t just need to be aware of what the horse is doing—you need to be aware of what your own body is doing, on just that subtle a scale. His slightest twitch is significant; so is your tiniest movement. Horses respond to subtleties that humans don’t consciously notice. A horse's life can depend upon it. Learning to be anywhere near as aware and sensitive as your horse is seems, at times, impossible.

The often subtle movements that are required for clear communication with the horse—bending, focusing your gaze, moving toward or away from the horse, energizing or relaxing your body, and about a million others—must all be mastered to the point where you don’t have to think about them. These are the things that look so easy when Jay does them—and they are amazingly difficult to reproduce. He dances with the horses; my body, which is so graceful in a waltz, feels big and clumsy and sluggish. Yes, it’s getting easier. But I’m a long way from the fluidity of motion that’s needed for this dance!

And the timing! So critical to get it exactly right. And that’s not to mention the fact that you have to be able to react in a split second, when required, to the tiniest of the horse’s cues. But when you do, when you reward the movement or even the thought of the movement, the horse understands.

More than just understanding what you want, the horse understands that you can communicate with him. With some of these horses, Jay and I are almost certainly the first humans who have consciously and deliberately sought to communicate with them in a language they understand. Immediately, the horse’s willingness to engage increases exponentially, and you can see it happen.

So it’s worth all the hard work. Teaching a novice horse what you mean when you ask her to “back up,” watching for those slightest moves, smallest tries, and then rewarding those—it’s so satisfying to watch the light dawn as the horse realizes what you’re asking and responds.

What a gift this is.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Driving out to the ranch to work with Jay last Monday, I was feeling the familiar dread, which had always been present when I was anticipating my day’s work. No matter how much fun I have working with the horses, and no matter how excited I am about learning new techniques and improving my skill, my stomach ties itself up in knots on the drive out there.

Of course, it’s because of that inner critic who tells me I’m no good at any of this. I understand that tape loop very well indeed.

But on Monday, something different happened. Suddenly, driving along, I realized that no one expects me to be perfect—at anything—except me! In fact, people are always telling me how good I am at things. But that, I guess, pushes the button on the old tape that says, “If you fail, you will disappoint them, and then there will be dire consequences.”

Well, duh. I already knew what was happening. But somehow, at that moment driving out to the ranch, it shifted from an intellectual knowing to a feeling—something internal, something that was, for me, much more real. In that moment, I felt myself relax.

That day, at the ranch, I had more fun with the horses than ever before. I was relaxed, enjoying the games that we played:

Move your butt.

No, I’m going to squirt out in front of you.

Nope, you really have to back up now. That’s right. Now, let’s try that again. Move your butt.

How about if I step into you with my shoulder?

Nope. You have to back up away from me. OK, now move your butt.

Oh, all right. Like this?

Yup. That’s it. Good girl.

OK. That was fun. Now what?

Within minutes, I could see the difference in how the horses reacted to me. What had seemed impossible the day before now was accomplished quickly and easily, and the horses were calm and willing to work with me. My own energy had shifted dramatically.

Funny how working with horses helps me move so quickly through blocks that I’ve been working on for years in conventional therapy.  Somehow, the information seems to bypass the verbal, intellectual parts of my psyche—those parts that are so skilled in making excuses—and go directly to the feeling level. Interesting, and useful! That’s what I hope to help others accomplish in my private practice.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Christmas Day

I realized just now that I forgot to post this photo of our Christmas celebration. We cooked our dinner, then loaded it into a crock pot and went to the barn. We brought Galahad in and let him just wander around the barn with us.

It was quite a special dinner. Galahad was cheerful, hungry of course, but curious and friendly. He had beet pulp in his stall, and lots of hay, while we ate. It was pretty cold in the barn, and we didn’t stay too long.

When we got ready to head for home, Galahad didn't want to leave. He was more interested in hanging out with us (and maybe getting another handout, of course) than in going back out to be with the other horses.

Eventually we coaxed him out into the pasture, then walked with him down to the creek. He was playful, trying to herd us around or get us to run with him. After his drink, we all walked back toward the round bale hay feeder. I gently pitched a snowball at him, but he didn’t like that game and trotted off. Then my friend said, “Run toward me and see what he does.” I did, flailing my arms playfully, as though I were scared. Galahad started to trot in our direction.

I never would have expected what happened next: Nemo and Gracie, two of his pasturemates, had also wandered down to get a drink. They looked up and saw Galahad headed toward us. All of a sudden, they came charging up from the creek at full gallop, ears pinned back, straight at Galahad. He just looked at them for a minute, apparently surprised, and when they got close, he turned and trotted away at a pretty good clip. Honestly, it seemed that the two other horses were protecting us from him. Did they interpret my mock fear as the real thing, and take action? Stranger things have happened in my dealings with horses!

We were surprised, to say the least. Galahad didn’t seem upset when the mares put him in his place. But how strange!

The Thin Time

A few weeks ago I woke from a dream:

An old boyfriend is getting ready to move into an apartment—he is going back to school. He calls me to meet him at a friend’s house, where there are several other people whom we know. I assume he is going to ask me to move in with him. In the bedroom he tells me that he doesn’t really love me as much as he let on, and that he’s sorry he led me on, but that he just didn’t know how to tell me. I am so angry—how dare he do that to me? It turns out that everyone in the house knew about this except me.

He is very surprised that I’m angry. He offers to make love to me but I don’t want him anywhere near me. I don’t want anyone touching me. Then I tell another friend that I need to go home now, because I have an early morning with the horses.

This seemed like such a strange dream to me. The sense of betrayal and disappointment didn’t fit with anything I was experiencing in my waking life, and I couldn’t make it fit with what I know of my psychic state; nothing resonated.

That morning, still puzzling over the dream, I went out to the barn where I had recently moved my horse Galahad. I had been unusually busy the week before and hadn’t been to see him in quite a while. In the meantime, I had let a couple of other people ride him, to give him some company.

Galahad’s new home seems perfect to me: fresh grass, a flowing creek, woods, plenty of space to run in, and all the hay he can eat, 24 hours a day. He’s in a herd of six in a pasture, instead of a small dry lot and 20 horses at the place he had been living.

Idyllic as the situation seemed to me, I knew that Galahad wasn’t settling in contentedly. He wasn’t his usual playful, happy, carefree self, and he always seemed distracted. Physically, he was doing fine; it was his emotional state that had me worried. There’s always an adjustment period, but even after two months, he hadn’t settled in well.

That day Galahad seemed especially listless and sulky, and I couldn’t get him interested in anything. When I took him back out to the pasture and turned him loose, he wandered dully off toward the round bale. I watched him for a long time.

The dream kept coming back to me, so I decided to work with it again, this time trying to break it down to its basic, archetypal elements:

There is someone to whom the dream ego has given its heart and its trust. This someone has another agenda of which the dream ego is not aware, and which runs counter to what the dream ego expects. The person keeps this other agenda hidden, then unexpectedly expresses it. The dream ego is shocked and disappointed, and feels betrayed and used.

Disappointment and betrayal—and abandonment, too. Hmm…. Is there humiliation, as well? Since apparently everyone but the dream ego knew about it? No, in the dream that’s not a factor. It’s all focused on the broken “promise.”

Since nothing in that resonates for me personally, is this even my dream? Is it maybe a dream sent to me by the horses? Or is this Galahad’s dream?

I decided to do some journeying, some active imagination, and ask the Horse Ancestors for help. Sitting on a log near the stream, I closed my eyes and waited for a vision:

My Guide, the Cloud-colored Horse, comes to me in the pasture. I climb on his back. He takes me to a vast meadow. Although it’s dark and I can’t see anything much, I can hear the whuffles and snorts of the horse herd. I jump down off the Cloud-colored Horse and stand there, waiting. Dimly, I can make out another light-colored horse in front of me. This horse gets closer, and though I can’t make out much, I realize he is painfully thin. He grazes hungrily on what little grass there seems to be. Then he moves closer and closer to me until I can reach out and touch his thin body. Without lifting his head all the way, he nuzzles me and presses close. Is this Galahad? It doesn’t look like him, but I can’t be sure. Everything is dim—it must be night.
So that’s it, I think. Galahad is a rescued horse: He was so thin when the Humane Society picked him up that they nearly euthanized him on the spot. This new living situation reminds my boy of the “thin time,” especially the nighttime hours now, as it gets colder and as the grass gets thinner and thinner. He misses me. He misses his stall and lots of grain, even though he gets grain in the mornings and has hay to eat whenever he wants it.

Add the dream to the picture, and it seems to spell out the fact that he feels betrayed and abandoned, and is terrified that we will leave him and let him starve again. After all, I hadn’t been coming, and other people had been riding him. Maybe I would just vanish, after all!

Poor Galahad! I took him back to the barn via a patch of green grass where he grazed for a few minutes. Then I put him in his stall, hung out with him while he ate some hay, and fed him a beet pulp mash—nice and warm. He ate with gusto while I brushed him again and talked to him. I tried to reassure him that we will never, ever let that happen to him again.

I don’t know how much he actually understood, but he seemed to get some of his sparkle back. When the time came to leave, I led him directly to the round bale and took his halter off there. Hope it helped….

(Cross-posted on It's an Alchemical Life.)

Sunday, January 2, 2011


This might seem like an odd post for a blog about women and horsemanship, but bear with me, please, while I write for a moment about the second great passion of my life. There’s a connection, of course.

Over the weekend I attended a couple of dance parties celebrating the New Year. Other than working with my horses, dance is what brings me the most joy in life.

Sometimes I think I was born dancing, and the waltz is my favorite: It’s something that comes completely naturally to me. I must have learned to waltz somewhere, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know how. I’m fortunate to live in a city with an active dance community where, at least once a month, there’s an opportunity to waltz.

The waltz is a classic dance with as many styles as there are musical types in 3/4 time. Almost anyone can learn to waltz, though it takes skill, timing, balance, and lots of practice to do it well. And when done well, the waltz is breathtaking, in more than the physical sense.

Last night my favorite dance partner asked me for a waltz, and this morning, reflecting on the experience, I tried to figure out exactly what makes dancing with him different from dancing with other partners who love the dance just as much and are technically just as proficient as he is. I am an excellent dancer and a sought-after partner, but this particular gentleman brings out my potential more than any other.

This man is an artist of the dance: He hears the music and the patterns he creates for us as we dance reflect the mood and feel of each particular piece. How does he do it? We are two separate people, moving independently, and yet we move as one through intricate turns and twirls—and at speed. We start at the same instant, stop at the same instant, turn precisely together.

My partner is leading. But how do I know where to move? How does he communicate that to me?

We dancers are told that the lead must be firm and clear. Many men, hearing that, put a death grip on my back, fingers digging into my ribs or shoulder blade every time we turn or change direction—that’s unpleasant, to say the least. I end up squirming to avoid being gouged, and my steps aren’t free and flowing. When they want me to twirl, they crank my arm around or pull me off balance in the process. We will make it around the dance floor; they may even have enjoyed it immensely. As for me, I’ll try hard to avoid those fellows in the future.

My favorite partner’s hand on my back is firm, reassuring, and consistent. I think it’s this consistency that is key. Because there’s no random moving around, I trust that when I sense any change in the pressure, it’s significant, and I can respond to it appropriately. And there’s feedback: He makes a suggestion (never a demand), I feel the change and move, and he releases the pressure. I keep moving until I sense that his touch has returned to the consistent baseline.

He cues me not just with his hand on my back, but with his whole body, and always gives me a cue in time for me to prepare to move at just the right moment. Any cue, if given at the instant I am supposed to move, is too late, and puts me in the position of having to catch up, and catch my balance.

So: In addition to balance, physical ability, and knowing the moves, some very important elements of a great lead seem to be timing, consistency, and what my trainer friend Jay would call softness. A lead dancer should give cues that are as gentle as possible but as strong as necessary to make sure that his/her partner understands what he/she is asking.

Now, doesn’t that sound exactly what it takes to be a good rider? Isn’t this seamless relationship precisely what we all want with our horses when we ride? When I put myself in the horse’s place, what I would want from my rider, in order to bring out my best performance, is the same thing I as a dancer want from my dance partner.

So I just need to learn to ride like my favorite dance partner dances. Interesting! I’m going to think about this some more.