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.