Six Feet Over the Line

I am beyond pleased to report that the Blackhorse Ride this weekend brought celebration and success and the mare I’ve poured so much into greatly outperformed my hopes and expectations.

Oddly enough I felt unusually unsure of myself while loading my horse onto the trailer and hitting the road on Friday morning. In fact I found myself questioning just about everything along the way – uncharacteristically of me. Friday itself went smoothly down to a relaxed shady afternoon warm up ride, everything seemed in place. Still I lay in the dark unable to sleep the night before, once again, wondering what I am doing here?

I hate getting up in the cold dark early morning. I am not a morning person. That’s not entirely true, I am a person who likes to spend the early morning on my couch next to the big picture window with my latte and journal praying over the day to come and seeing the sun peek over the mountains probably with a cat on my lap and if it is cold, a fire crackling in the wood stove. I am not a get up early and do something difficult morning person.

It was going to be a potentially long hard day and no guarantee of success. Wouldn’t I rather sleep in a little, wake up when the sun is warming the earth just a touch and do a nice easy 25-30 mile ride that I had decent assurance would be successful? We’d done that kind of distance to prep for this, on these same trails. Thankfully this ride didn’t offer that option so I couldn’t be lured to take the ultra conservative “safe” option.

Yet the alarms (bird sounds at least, I can’t stand to be jolted awake with a loud noise) began around 5am and I entreated Mike to please turn on the tent heater for me… um and Iva of course (Iva is never cold, she didn’t need the heater but it made me feel less like the cold sissy I am). I can’t come out of the blankets until my nose isn’t frozen! Not only did Mike dutifully figure out the tent heater (thank you for loaning it Timmy!) but he also started the coffee and assured Khlaeesi who was beginning to nicker at us as she could tell we were up and moving around inside, that her breakfast was definitely high on the priority list… after I got enough heat to brave coming out of my cocoon and some coffee… then she would get something to eat…. maybe I could get Iva to start on the food… Iva is never cold.

The trailer ‘bunkhouse’

The morning went smoothly as ever. I had TWO amazing crew helpers and that was HUGE. I’ve often done this completely alone and I can pull it off, but having all those hands was beyond what I can explain for making the morning less stressful. Mike (who rode the single track section of trail the afternoon before on his mountain bike with his chainsaw in the trailer behind him, cleared the last of the downed trees for us. He was the ride camp hero for more than just me!) is great at being willing to figure out anything you ask of him, and Iva has been working closely with me for a year or so now — she has a good grip on how we do things and she is now equipped to be more proactive than she was able to be in years past.

I can not say thank you enough to both Mike and Iva who took the time to serve both K and me and others at the ride (Can I mention that Mike’s post ride home made Mac and cheese with extra meat and hot sauce is ridiculously worth every mile I rode!), and Amy and Madison and Niveah as well who didn’t ride but instead made sure others could and also helped me personally. Along with Mary the ride manager who had the vision to resurrect this ride from like 25 years ago, and many other volunteers without whom we couldn’t have an organized ride. I am grateful to each and every one of you

Amy, Iva & Mike

Because of my amazing team I was actually ON the horse and ready to go 10 minutes before start which is definitely a first for me.

I headed right out when the trail opened. I didn’t feel the need to “race” in the front, but one strength of my mare is a good brain and she will be more likely to take care of herself and conserve energy than to kill herself running too hard. Knowing I’ve finished rides with minutes on the clock in years past I did not want to waste any of them hanging out in camp leaving with the second or third waves of riders trying not to get caught up in the excitement of the front riders.

Beautiful sunrise on the trail

Though not out of control, K was nevertheless all business from the words “trail’s open”. I found myself negotiating with her to find a sensible pace yet not waste any energy in a fight with her. I think our conversation would have sounded like this had she been able to speak words:

Ok, I got this let’s go!

Yeah, ok, but did I tell you this is actually a 50 today? It seems a bit aggressive a pace for this long a day- and it’s your first ride back in 2 years.

I’m telling you- we’re good, let me run, I can keep up with these clowns.

Um… I won’t tell them you said that… see that horse ahead of us, that horse is likely to finish this thing in first place with a crazy high vet score and has like 6000 miles experience doing this. That horse could do this 50 twice today and still finish like it’s a walk in the park.

I can take him.

No. Not doing that. There’s no way I let you pass that horse. Sorry

I feel great! It’s a cool morning and I’m rested up. You gotta trust me, I’m so ready for this!

Ok. I trust you, I won’t hold you back much, but seriously. That horse is where I draw the line. We stay behind him no matter what. I have to be the brains here. You be the legs, and we’ll work together, ok? I trust you and give you some leeway to set the pace, and you trust me when I say ease up just a little.

Thus we began at a pace I wasn’t expecting, but I had a sense I did need to trust her. I was ready to give her a chance in the early cool morning and spend a little we might have to give back in the heat of the afternoon with less incentive of other riders as we often end up in a pocket alone at some point during the day. She might get excited but she won’t kill herself keeping up with a herd. This I am confident of.

She felt stronger than I’ve ever experienced coming into a ride in her body and she came through the two checkpoints much faster than I had hoped- crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway twice, navigating lots of rocky technical single track and dirt and rock roads with almost constant up or downhill, bringing us into the first hold at mile 18 in 2 hours 49 minutes.

Second crossing under the Blue Ridge Parkway
Morning view on the single track section of Glenwood Horse Trail

Slow and smooth, unhurried, I pulled her tack (though not required) and walked her to the pulse box where in 4 minutes from arrival she pulsed at 48. We were at that point in 10th place.

She had barely sweat and ate and drank like a professional. The hold was 40 minutes and Mike was there helping out as a volunteer. He made sure she had plenty of carrots and my human electrolytes were refilled and I had anything I needed.

Mike get some cuddle time with K after checking her feet

It wasn’t cold enough for me to have concern about her getting chilled and I’m glad I pulled off her tack, I think getting a break is better for the horse if possible. It’s worth a little extra effort.

Trot out at first hold.

We were ready to go a few minutes before out time and hit the trail at a trot to finish the loop back to base camp 12 miles away for the second hold of 50 minutes.

In the first loop there were two checkpoints and spotters who had water and hay. Most of the people racing in front of us had passed on taking time there but in both cases I paused and encouraged her to grab a bite and drink and hopped off to electrolyte at both. It cost me some time, but I think it was worth it. This meant however we were — as usual — in a lonely pocket by the time we got to the hold, and also left alone with the majority of the 40 riders behind us and the top 9 with a decent enough lead we weren’t likely to catch up.

In one of those moments of humor about 4 miles in, I absolutely could not go on trotting if I did not relieve my bladder as much as I hated to take the time – and I jumped off after a stream crossing barely getting off the trail to do a very quick relief break. Just a few minutes before I said a brief prayer that I knew my horse would really like some company. Other horses are huge encouragement on a long day riding hard and though she wasn’t tired she was feeling much less inspired than she had with other horses around. Lord, could you send us a buddy for her to share some miles with?

Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor? It was just when I jumped off and barely got off the trail for some quick business that I heard hoof beats coming at us!

Oh I’m so sorry! I just could NOT wait! I cried out in desperation as Libby and Silvia approached the water crossing and kindly said not to worry, they wouldn’t look.

Their horses took a quick drink as I pulled myself together and got back on my horse as they trotted by. Khaleesi more inspired again picked up her pace willingly and they had a great pace for her. We leap frogged a while as one or the other would canter up a hill or extend a trot down the other side. They turned out not only to be nice riding companions, but we had wonderful chats about some fascinating horsemanship ideas that I found insightful and gave me some ideas in some areas I’d been working on that were oddly another kind of answered prayer. God doesn’t waste a thing. I’m so often amazed.

We did the roughly 12 miles in 1 hour 32 minutes, still a pace unexpectedly strong for this horse on this trail. This stretch wasn’t technical (except the one rocky mile in and out of the first check) it composed of lots of dirt/gravel forest service roads but I found them to be relentless with up and down- in fact looking back the biggest challenge of this ride was there was nothing flat. Everything was climbing or descending, and the ground was all hard rock or gravel (I can’t imagine the pounding on legs and joints without the composite shoes on this ride.)

Vet check

The three of us trotted into the second vet check at the same time and parted ways to take care of business back in camp crewing from our trailers. K was hydrated and sound and Iva kept her in the shade eating mostly grass and carrots though she did chow some of her wet Coolstance and hay pellets with chia seeds as well.

K & Iva – one of the few people I trust completely with my horse.

The course map was set up that the first 30 miles left camp through a back trail, did a large loop returning to camp through the same back trails for the second hold. My concern was the last 20 miles was an out and back to the first hold again, also out the back trails with the finish line at the front of camp which took off a couple miles to make the mileage correct. I have a smart mare. She asks questions like: why after riding 30 miles, now that we have returned to the trailer and food and rest would you want to leave again? Did I do something wrong? And why go the same way we just came from? Why don’t you go jog another 20 miles on your own feet if you want to go so bad?

Quite honestly I find them to be valid questions and it’s a bit difficult to answer them to a horse that doesn’t speak fluent English… even if she did my explanation might fall short since she’s the one doing all the running.

In years past this has been the most difficult challenge I face with her mentally. On a massive loop like the OD the question isn’t there because once we leave camp in the morning it’s 50 miles back to camp at the end of the day so the entire ride is a mission that makes at least some sense. On rides like Forth Valley or Biltmore when we come and go from camp this is more difficult and I’ve had to insist (force) more than I’d like. I don’t love it when I have to say: Because I said so, now just do it or I’ll use my crop….

I am pleased with two pieces that came in leaving this second hold.

First I allow this horse to have choice in accepting the bit. I offer it and 99% of the time she takes it on her own when presented within 3-5 seconds. With one minute to “out” time I offered the bit and she delayed. Everything in me wanted to shove my fingers in her mouth and get it done (clock is ticking), but some small amount of patience apparently has taken hold in all of this journey and I decided to access my self-control instead.

I know she knew what this meant and she was not ready to concede yet. Her decision to take the bit or not is one place I give her choice- and for the most part it’s real choice because I haven’t had to force it in a very very very long time. I decided this was not the moment to start. She had bought us time moving so strongly early today. She had earned a moment of patience and self-control as the clock continued to tick.

Once again I offered the bit. She stood still, head down, lips and teeth closed. I waited.

I seesawed the bit a little to ask with more intention. She left her teeth closed. I waited more. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick… I imagined our buddies that would be helpful for us to ride with as long as possible leaving us behind as I gave my horse the choice to finish tacking up. I put the last 20 miles on the table right there with a bit presented for consideration, knowing I could shove that thing in, I have the ability to get it done, but this is where the metal hits the road- do I have the stomach, the courage to let her make the choice? For how long? I think it was like an hour, but probably it was 2 minutes. As I waited and softly asked her if she would do this with me, she opened her mouth just wide enough and reached her lips to the bit taking it in her mouth and though she made it known this was not completely enthusiastic, she would go.

As I passed the out timer double checking I was clear to go I got the comment: Yeah, you’ve been “out” a while now. Truly, 5 or 6 minutes is more than I’d like to give up, and in the end that’s about the difference that put us behind the two riders that finished before us, but still, I wouldn’t trade that moment I waited for her and honored as much as I could her choice.

The next challenge was to get her to move forward at anything like the pace she left camp in the cool exciting morning start. I was lucky to get a decent walk though I was pleased that I didn’t need my crop which I carried just in case the entire day. The “in case” was in large part to be prepared for being squeezed between riders which is the one situation if I can’t get control of she is most likely to kick and I may need something with more communicating power to move her were that to happen. There are sometimes riders out on these rides who don’t have a whole lot of control over their horse and that can get sticky from time to time.

If anyone read my training on the trail post I talk about using transitions to encourage forward energy and how I believe I have inadvertently contributed to a horse that isn’t as forward over years of riding without thinking about “release” on the trail and when. I used that information instead of my crop to get small increases in speed and then relax back to a walk until I had built up momentum. She began to offer willingly more trot and faster speeds again. We both had a little after lunch lull but this was by far the most successful final loop ride camp exit I’ve ever done with her.

After about 5 miles our friends caught up to us, they had gotten held up in camp and left later than planned but they came along just in time and once again K was glad for the company and picked up motivation to ride along together. We enjoyed the company all the way to the checkpoint (previously the first hold) at mile 40 and Mike was there still waiting for us to come through and helpful as ever encouraging us along as I stopped to electrolyte and allow for a few bites of hay or whatever was in that grain pan she found that might have been oats or who knows what… she vacuumed it up before I could ask the question and in the end it didn’t matter, she was entitled to a fun snack at this point even if it was beyond our normal dietary offering.

After a very brief pause we all turned and headed back toward camp for the last 10 miles. I was glad for my new friends but found their horses who are much more seasoned in 50 mile events had figured out this was the last stretch back home and they continued to pick up speed. Meanwhile K began to find her tank running low and thought she still cantered up hills and trotted on down them I knew both of us were beginning to wear. After a few miles we crossed a stream and K dove in to get a big drink– their horses pranced and begged to continue on. That was really alright, I knew we would be fine and didn’t need to keep their pace.

K and I stayed a few more minutes in the stream where she drank her fill and cooled her feet knowing her buddies were going to be long gone. This horse, when it comes down to it WILL manage herself over the emotional need to “keep up”. She will drink when she’s ready even if she’s being left behind, and she will finally slow her pace if she just cannot keep up.

I decided not to inform her those clowns from this morning that she was so certain she could outrun were likely approaching the finish line while we waited out here still 7 or so miles out. As our buddies pulled away we moved from basically 10th place to 12th. Still ahead of the solid “mid pack” I thought would be a wildly victorious day, and way way ahead of the “turtle” prize that I had still considered a successful day.

In the heat of mid afternoon we slowed pace and worked intervals mixing up walk, trot and canter to create focus and switch up which tired muscles would be engaged. After 2 more miles, around 5 to go, I began to sense a very slight uneven trot that seemed the smallest touch heavier on one side no matter what diagonal I chose. Now the paranoia began to set in.

My worse nightmare of all- a lameness pull- began to bubble to the surface.

Had we ridden too hard today?

Would I ever get out from underneath the mild subtle intermittent lameness?

Was I being an idiot to keep thinking this horse could do this sport?

I would have been better off walking a ton more if she truly wasn’t strong to do the amount of trotting we had.

I got off and walk/ jogged about a mile. I checked her feet again to be sure no rock had embedded itself. Was that a head bob? Did I not change diagonals enough? Still cannot get a reliable left lead canter- we did much more cantering than we used to all Right lead. Could this contribute?

Four miles to go I felt we would never finish if I didn’t get back in the saddle again. I can’t jog up and down these hills after riding 45 miles! So I began to ride as much sitting trot as possible, to encourage even movement now that she was tired her trot slowed to something manageable. Two riders trot by us… now in 14th place and still way way ahead of my expectations. 3.5 miles to go.

This will never end.

Up again, down again relentless hills… 2.8 miles to go. Worry plagues me. Finally we come to that intersection we’ve crossed every which way through the day and has water buckets and hay.

One mile to go

From here I knew the last mile was downhill- pretty steep, and hard pack dirt that was rutted out in places. I was tired, she was tired, It would be easy to slip or slide here, I wasn’t at my strongest so wouldn’t be much help to support her. I made the choice to jump off and hand jog her in.

As we headed down the last mile I watched her trot next to me as sound as the day she was born. As I jogged along I was able to enjoy looking next to me – her body lean and strong and even. We crossed the finish line all 6 feet on the ground together. Symbolically I thought it fit. We were more of a team than we have been in years past, yet less of a team than I hope we will be in rides to come.

Finish line

Iva and Mike were there to greet us and help me walk her into camp, pull her tack and get her through the vet. Amy came to make sure we had all we needed and she flew through the last check without a hitch.

Iva walks K in as Mike takes my gear and hands me a cold coconut water
Pulse at 56
Final test: trot out is sound!

Amy also helped teach Iva and me the best way to wrap tired legs- she has a ton of experience in these things and I’m grateful for her help.

Definitely a day to celebrate!

There are things going on in my horse herd that have me continuing to question deeper what’s possible between a human and a horse. I don’t think it is any accident that God set us in the path of Libby who mentioned the way she and her husband work with their horses leave much more choice and that the horses respond to it in amazing ways. She didn’t begin the questions, she verified that many of them are the right ones to be asking and I’m getting “warmer” in the search. I think I give my horses more choice than many are comfortable with already, but in the end I’m prepared to “get it done”.

Is it truly choice if the horse cannot say no?

What if K wouldn’t have picked up the bit? How long until I would have stuck a thumb in her cheek to open her jaw? I don’t consider that inhumane yet I think waiting on her to make that one decision meant something- both to her and to me. It gave her an honor of choice in that moment- and I’m VERY glad she chose the way she did because in the end, I don’t think I would have given up finishing that ride because my horse didn’t open her mouth. How long I would have waited? That is the real question. Yet… down deep I would like to think someday I might be the rider who would not go out at the second vet check because my horse said No.

Taking a step back and looking at it, what exactly would I have lost?

Not a thing. Miles on a record that no one really cares about anyway except maybe my ego.

What might I have gained?

That is much harder to answer. Maybe everything- and maybe nothing.

Sometimes in the early mornings I hear those soul whispers. They are always significant. This morning very clearly I heard: why do you fear if you give your horses more choice it will mean they will refuse to comply? Horses are built to want to partner and work for humans- it’s our own human methods and systems that destroy that willingness, generosity and bond. It can be regained but you have to be brave enough to try….

My whole horse journey has been winding around this direction since I found Khlaeesi on a local farm determined to do something different from what I had seen around me. A way with less force and more partnership. Have I found freedom or simply a kinder and gentler prison?

I know many people will find these questions ridiculous and a waste of time. I’m not certain they are wrong.

But I’m not certain….

At the core, what I dream is an equine partner with spirit in tact, choosing out of free will to work with me. Not an animal slave I’ve trained to comply or else. These are different ends of the spectrum and most people are probably not at either extreme. I have some ideas to play with, so if I learn anything useful I’ll make sure to update you. I won’t be throwing out the baby with the bathwater and opening my pasture gates setting the mare herd free to the mountainside any time soon. In fact I don’t even allow then to eat all the lush grass they want at the moment as they don’t seem to be capable of making good choices of when to take a break and end up gaining too much weight for their joints and too much sugar for healthy hooves and eat themselves literally sick if left to their own devices.

Apparently with domestication comes some limits. Probably different people have different tolerance for these limits. Maybe I will head out in search of where my tolerance can stretch and what might happen there.

In the concrete world of calendars and events, getting through this ride well sets us in line for the OD 50 once again- the ride I’ve completed once and not completed twice.

In the next month after she has some time off physically, I will dig deeper into more canter work and keep climbing the mountains here in our backyard. I am excited about the Emily Kemp Horsemanship Clinic Memorial weekend because aside from the composite shoes which I contribute the greatest chunk of success to, the improvement in my riding balance and not only getting out of her way but becoming a part of her strength I think is a close second and I still have a lot to improve on. I’d like to get a more reliable left lead canter which has been a weakness the entire history of my riding her. And I will be experimenting in smaller ways to offer her more choice than I already do to see if I can build a stronger partnership and get more buy in from her.

And just maybe we will once again conquer the Beast of the East’s 50 mile course… together

Return to the start

Less than one week to go. Saturday, May 1, Khaleesi will start her first 50 mile endurance ride since June of 2019. The 2019 season began with a 30 mile no frills ride where she placed 8th on Easter weekend. I considered riding her a second day and then decided she had done well and I would take a “win” and go home to prepare for the June Old Dominion 50.

We started that beast of a ride and at the second vet check, on the rocky ground of the trot out she wasn’t quite right. It was one more lameness pull where the cause was hard to pinpoint but something was wrong.

After the heartbreak of a non-completion on Friday I switched gears and focused on helping my dear friend Amy through her successful 100 on Saturday with amazing horse Amillion Frills and isn’t she just that.

I have meant to write this update of sorts for a couple weeks and as I finally sit her at my kitchen counter on a Sunday morning I reflect on two things:

  1. I just told a friend last night right here in the same kitchen counter in response to a question he had asked me: “I’ve never made the decision to set aside my own agenda in order to help or be there for someone else’s and regretted it later. Never.”
  2. I’m about to hit the road today to get new composite shoes put on Khaleesi for the ride… and this deep dive into composite shoes that has been a game changer for us wouldn’t have been as likely had I not been sitting at a vet check waiting for Amy looking for someone to chat with – a lameness pull in a history of lameness struggles on my mind- finally desperate enough to need new answers.

Regarding the first point: truth is I’m not some kind of saint who loves to self-sacrifice to help my friends follow their dreams. I was there to help Amy and Frills regardless if I completed the ride or not. I rode Friday so I could crew for her Saturday. With a lameness pull the day before it was more challenging to cheer her onto amazing success still choking on the bitter pill that once again I had failed to complete a ride on the horse I believed in regardless in the face of evidence sane people would accept she just might not be suited for this sport. It would have been easier for me to lick my wounds in the corner and pout. I probably did a little of that over the 24 hour period… yet the bigger truth is I do want my friends to have great success- I just want to be successful with them!

Sometimes it seems like God is particularly mean spirited when he gives the things you wish for to everyone around you while he sits you in a corner for some greater purpose. But in reflection today, I can see time after time that God actually IS incredibly kind to me, even when it is a stretch in the moment to see it. That’s when we are called to have life endurance which parallels the equine sport I’m attracted to. When we gut out the confusion and do the right thing even when it isn’t exactly where our heart is yet we find grace. Even better I think when are (eventually) able to admit it is not a natural bent to be that way- though I am sure other people are way more gifted in this grace than I am.

Had I finished the ride successfully I would not have been desperate for another answer. I had tried everything. Starting barefoot when she was 4 and just under saddle, hoof issues took me to metal shoes… more issues… shoes and pads… more issues… then back to barefoot for about two years and had some good success including completing some tough endurance rides (like the OD Fort Valley) in Scoot Boots (I highly recommend them and they are still my back up of choice).

If I’d had continued success even if it wasn’t flying colors, I would have stuck with them, but I had suspected they weren’t going to take me as far as I want to go and now another pull staring me in the face. Thus the time and place so lined up for me to find myself talking to a long time endurance rider also waiting at the vet check (randomly ?? not likely) who had great experience with the Easycare Flex Composities, and was able to point me to someone who would do a reliable job getting them put on for me within a drive that wasn’t close but it was possible.

There are a handful of things that I’ve changed and improved in this almost 2 years of rebuilding my horse from the ground up. This composite shoe component I believe is the most important piece. If you haven’t seen it, below is the interview with the guy who currently shoes my horses, and his experience with them across many horses since beginning to work with Khaleesi and me about 18 months back.

Marcus Wise Composite Interview on YouTube

Aside from hoofwear that has given impact protection on her legs, joints and tendons, I had to learn about the constantly changing padding process in the Balance Saddle System (and I still am working in that though I’ve seen it is worth it!) I’ve also gotten help scientifically dialing in her nutritional profile with forage testing, I’ve changed up how I manage grass vs. hay in spring and summer. I’ve done the deworming protocol for possible parasite aneurism which would contribute to some questionable things I noticed in her hind end and the way she moved and held herself over a year back… This is the third year of using the neuromuscular dentist (Natural Balance)… I’ve spent countless hours learning to ride better, balanced… lighter. I have put a whole lot of energy into the long process of changing her physical balance to power from her hind. I’ve worked on her mental system connecting us for better efficiency of movement because we are increasingly working off the same page. Oh and of course lameness exams and radiographs and in 2019 an injection (standard hyaluronic acid and steroid) into the fetlock where very mild changes in the bone made the idea worth exploring (I have not injected the joint since as she has gotten strong and showed less lameness issues.)

So almost two years of piecing together anything I could to come out of intermittent lameness, build strength and health, and being cautiously optimistic as both she and I healed. I suppose it’s worth a side glance to the fact that winter of 2019 is also when my own life exploded personally and so maybe we both have been climbing back into strength in our own ways.

Each ride expansion (distance, speed, technical challenge) she’s come through in strength to the point where I am confident that it’s time to return to a ride start. After that it’s all up for grabs, anything can happen. She might finish strong and (frankly) shock me with her performance. She might finish solid or even win the turtle (come in last!) yet a finish truly is a win for us at this juncture. She might not have what it takes to move fast enough through the terrain and we can’t pull through the cut offs… but if she comes up lame….. (well I won’t say here in polite company what I’ve thought I might be frustrated enough to do in that case…)

Either way we are both in a new place today. She has matured and strengthened in those years of slowing down and building a better foundation. I have matured through the storms of life I faced. No matter what happens I know I am with her. I still aspire to see this horse through a 100 mile completion God willing and if something doesn’t show me it is detrimental and wrong to push that forward, but I have come to know that it’s the horse, and it’s the horsemanship process that I love more than the “sport”. The big goal is learning to be better, to ride better, to communicate better, for her to be able to trust me with more of her giant spirit because I am faithful in the little things as well as the big things. That is the real goal. That is the big stuff.

Finishing an endurance ride is the little stuff. The icing. The way we get to play around and test the important things we’ve spent and will continue to spend the bulk of our time on.

And the little things do matter too. And so, we return to the start to see what we can learn once again.

How to teach your horse to spook: training on the trail

I’ve heard people talk about training on the trail before. In the past I think it’s been more of a way of saying: we don’t need to do circles in an arena to have a well trained horse. The “training on the trail” I’ve seen has been pretty large scale need-based, like making sure a less experienced horse will cross streams, rivers or bridges, and go around or through a real-life obstacle down tree or the like. I’ve also worked with friends on the trail to address barn sour horses, or horses that cannot be separated from the “herd” they are out with. These are minimum requirements for being a trail horse and necessary for sure. The trail seems a good place to address them, but it wasn’t until this week I went deep into using the trail for some serious work.

I couldn’t have done this work unless riding alone. There is on-the-trail training that can be done in groups, but the things I addressed could only be done solo because my timing was key, and other people change the ability to focus so accurately on exact timing. This might explain why I haven’t seen this level of training on the trail before, because I wasn’t doing it, and riding in a group is not conducive to it.

The title of this post is borrowed from a Stacey Westfall podcast I really enjoyed “How to train your horse to spook” (Episode 68 from March 2020). I don’t have a spooky horse and I wouldn’t train her to, so I almost passed it by but I was curious… so I downloaded it.

It’s a great podcast, I highly recommend it. Stacey goes into a tongue and cheek explanation of how one WOULD train a horse to spook at things as a back door way to seeing how one might begin to reverse the “training”. This year I’ve spend some effort trying to see more clearly from the horse’s perspective and understand the part we play in their choices and behaviors- especially ones we would like to change.

I notice people with horses they’ve accepted do less than ideal things like toss their heads, run through the bit at races (race brain), barn sour, buddy sour, tripping, “laziness”… and I have a few others of my own I began to experiment with.

If we were to change perspective and consider what it would look like to train in the thing we don’t want, might we see things we are already doing that are creating the problem? If so, we are now empowered to help make positive changes.

Khaleesi is competent in the “elementary school” functioning of a basic horse. I am pleased to say finally this horse can start, stop, and steer and is pretty light to work with. We are getting a nice back up, and I daresay there isn’t a non-life-threatening trail problem we can’t get through together (I ride a lot of back country places and have been in challenging to sketchy situations and she and I are able to come together to move through them together for better or worse), and I am pleased to say we can even do some decent circles in an arena with some fancy footwork when the communication is working well.

I am digging into the deeper questions, like straightness, proper bend going around curves, less sticky in the back up, more lightness moving off my leg at all speeds (laterally, not forward) and as a bonus, I am fairly certain she has more to give me in the effort department but tends toward “conservation of energy” especially when we’re alone. Lazy? I have noticed out with a friend she easily picks up the pace and is strong for more miles at faster speeds than she offers when we ride alone. Apparently I have a motivational question.

These aren’t new for me. They are long term habitual things I am seeing I likely built in. She has ALWAYS tended toward borderline “laziness” on long trail rides alone, and I finally noticed over a year ago while working with friends in an arena that she sometimes will go around a full lap or two with the entirely wrong bend in her body— with very little I was able to do about it at the time!

Armed with these top layer questions, the need for some long miles to prepare for our first 50, and no arena to play in at the moment anyway… I hit the trail solo for a 20 mile ride.

I’ve had a lot going on this spring, it’s grant writing time, concert season, final juries are coming up at the college, transitions are in play that take extra energy, and spring- it always seems the most violent season to me as the entire world comes back from the death of winter. Birth (and rebirth) is violent, and the weather going through extremes of freezing rain to warm sunny days are draining. Some days just choosing clothing is stressful for me.

I arrived at the field and thought to myself “There’s no way I can do a hard 20 mile ride today. I just want to go back home and take a nap.” My long rides so far this year have been with a good buddy and down south where the footing is friendly and the climbs are reasonable. Today I was headed out for Beast of the East style rocks through most of the ride and we would go over two mountains and ride a hilly Ridgeline for about 4,500 feet of elevation. Solo. 

One thing I’ve learned: when feeling overwhelmed, try to simply ride the trail in front of you. Just do the one next thing. Looking at my horse, with her shedding messy muddy coat of hair I thought: ok. I just need to bring you into the barn. Let’s start by shedding some of that hair and mud. I can do that.

So anyone who is facing something big to take on. Just pick up the next thing and DO THAT. Eventually you’ll have the whole 20 (or 50 or 100) miles and a beautiful sunset on the mountain photo to remember it by.

Unfortunately I look at arena work and “training” differently from the need for miles and “conditioning” which is usually what the trail is for us. I would say from observation that Khaleesi LOVES arena work because she loves to LEARN and she also is a great conversationalist. I would also say from observation Khaleesi doesn’t love working hard doing long miles “mindlessly” out on the trail. Honestly, mindless hours on the trail for “fitness” are boring for me too. Especially solo. This definitely affects me and how I see the work we take on. I took on this tough day with the challenge to see if I could change my mind and find a way to change all that.

This would take some creativity. 

The first thing I noticed about this ride is there were no straight paths. Twists and turns were everywhere and lots of switchbacks. What an opportunity to address straightness and bend questions. With a decent downhill grade to start the ride we headed off with a forward walk and I noticed something fascinating. Every time we hit a decent curve in the trail or a switchback my horse ALWAYS pointed her nose away from the turn to set herself up for the turn with an opposite bend.

I can’t imagine the odds could be so strong on her just doing this today and I was fascinated to realize it was too predictable for it to be chance. This is something I had trained in. Inadvertently.

I began to work it by anticipating the potential opposite bend/look to the outside and found myself struggling to make the change in my own body. I desperately wanted to look the wrong way as well! It felt like I was coming to an intersection in a car and not looking both ways before proceeding- yet there was no other trail there and no one in the woods off trail to T-bone us. Every instinct in me said to glance the “other way” before making the turn and I had to fight it in order to look where I wanted the horse to also look and go. 

Now I was certain I had trained my horse without realizing it and that set her up- prepared her badly to position – for that turn in the trail. It happened over and over again. With a new consistency in play, first the left turn improved then with more difficulty the right. I have some thoughts on why the right took longer but I won’t bore you with those layers today.

I have not spent much effort actually steering or supporting my horse around turns in the trail. She is a solid trail horse that can follow a path. She turns on her own. This isn’t a bad thing, but considering I would like to take mindless hours of trail riding and add quality, balance, and strength, supporting or asking for quality in our turns is only going to benefit us and my awareness on every curve and switchback on this ride. Indeed, by the end of the 20 miles my horse had begun to prepare for the turns with better form and carry herself with more balance. This corresponded with my ability to curb the need to look for oncoming traffic that didn’t exist in the woods. The horse learns the fastest when a release is given and peace is found. Small releases and peace come when we stop “asking” but the big changes are best made with a full on stop and process moment.

For miles I worked on noticing an upcoming bend in the trail and preparing to position my horse to move in that shape with balance. It wasn’t until almost 9 miles in that she took a turn without trying to counter bend herself and look to the outside. Without me having to block or shape her she seemed to finally realize this is what I’m doing now. After how many YEARS I had been riding her looking to the outside on turns I’m shocked the change can come so quickly when new information is presented clearly. She just did it correctly with very little direction or blocking from me. As soon as we rounded that turn I put on the brakes and we stood a moment quietly and I rubbed her telling her what a great job she was doing. This would be tricky to time with friends who have no reason to stop at that moment to reward their own horses and if they don’t have the same timing now it isn’t a reward and peace, it’s stressful because the herd is leaving.

The idea that I have been training in things I had no intention of went next to her “conservation of energy” (laziness?).

Any readers for the long haul know I have had some intermittent really mild lameness issues over time. Some of it has been physical and legitimate, but over time I’ve begun to wonder if I had also “trained in” some of it.

Yes. A horse CAN learn to move in a certain way that would seem like unevenness or lameness because of how a rider responds.

With some mild lameness in the past, I definitely became hyper-vigilant. If I felt the tiniest of uneven gait I’d begin to wonder, “is this the start of a new problem? what’s wrong?” I would be inclined to slow down, maybe walk instead of trot, I’d worry it. The horse feels this and if creating a slightly uneven gait seemed to be rewarded by getting to walk and find less work and more peace, the horse will recognize the pattern. I am not saying she is “trying to outsmart me” or “faking an injury”. I am saying horses are excellent observers of patterns and sometimes things we have trained in begin on accident, a couple steps of uneven gait that wasn’t lameness but a funny rock on the trail or some other fluke she begins to notice I back off and give her a rest (REWARD). Looking back I’ve considered this in the past and I’ve begun to experiment with asking her to work through the uneven feel (especially if I had reason to believe she WAS sound and healthy). I have found the uneven gait will usually go away after a bit now.

So in light of some of these revelations recently the question became clear:

how might I have trained this mare to not give me her full effort?

As we ambled along the rocky ridge line I paid close attention to when (still on the way ‘out’ in the ride) she would offer me extra effort and pick up speed with barely a suggestion from me and I did the very opposite I was naturally be inclined to do- I would take those few steps of impulsion and I asked for a stop and rubbed her telling her that was exactly what I liked

What I would have done in the past with my goal of getting through miles was accepted the offer of picking up speed by taking all she gave me and maybe asking for more. Imagine you offer some extra effort at work and your boss says: great, now I know you should be doing more and I expect it, what else do you have for me?

That isn’t likely to make me want to perform over and above. In fact I’ll be careful not to do that again!

My new response to her offer of extra effort (stopping and resting a moment) was more like saying: I love how you put in extra effort on that- take off early today and have dinner on me too. 

Here we were again on a long trail ride standing quietly for minutes at a time not moving down the trail. It is even hard for me not to feel this as time wasted, but what became clear as I bought into my own plan, was Khaleesi began offering extra energy into a walk or trot with increasing regularity. This mare is not built with the need to be in motion (I do know horses who come this way and they have different issues to work on, which is also why this type of on the trail training is not so easy to do with a friend if the horses have different motivation factors) but encouraging her by rewarding her effort toward harder work was paying off even in the first half of the day.

K isn’t particularly barn or herd sour but there is more incentive on the return ends of the ride even if it’s slight so I didn’t do as much with stopping to reward effort on the return trip because leaving her alone to keep moving was more rewarding than me stopping her so much with the exception of climbing tough hills where some extra effort brought her a momentary break to catch her breath.

The last piece I’d been working with has to do with straightness. I have been considering this for a long time but now if we do get a straight section of trail I ride expecting she will basically stay in a line with her body. We are in the woods and I allow for some looking around, but she does have. a job, I am trustworthy and she doesn’t need to be super focused on the environment. There have been times in our life together when she was super focused on everything BUT me. These were the periods she was more likely to startle or spook not less. I want to be working together with her enough that she doesn’t have the boredom to be too focused on everything else. Yet I won’t punish her for taking a look once in a while.

I’ve begun to simply ask her to return her head to straight after she looks. Sometimes I need to widen my reins more than her education level seems to need but it helps to point her more clearly into the tip of my triangle from hands to nose. Once in a while I will stop her lightly and ask for a few steps of back up, also keeping straight then after she feels light there (for us it still takes a few steps to accomplish the light back up) I feel her hind truly engage and then ONLY when her head is straight we push forward from the hind back into forward. I will decide in advance if I want engaged walk, a trot, or even a canter.

I was surprised how much attention it took for me to not go forward until I had a straight horse. How often had I mindlessly on the trail (especially with others) moved off while my horse was NOT prepared in position to walk forward in balance and strength? Yes, many people might roll their eyes at the level of attention to detail this takes, and maybe others will wonder how it took me so long to begin to take on this level, but though my horse CAN walk with her body in a snakey curved like and she can take on switchbacks in a counterbend, it shouldn’t be due to my mindless riding, and worse mindless inadvertent training.

For me, this is how I want my horse to move toward the 100 miles. I want her doing it in balance, strength and with a rider who is working each small ride, each 20 mile ride for excellence. 100 miles is a long way to focus on excellence, but I have to start with the trail in front of me if I will be able to do it at all. Maybe this is the gift in the journey taking me so long.

I had a dream once where I was in a hurry to get going and a wise one said to me:

Great journeys take great preparation.

I found at the end of the ride we were both tired, but something bigger was accomplished than physical miles. The conversations continued through the day and that made for a nice finish together. I had developed a trend of having more conversations with her arena spaces and tuning out her questions asking her for the most part only “to go” on trail days. This change where I engaged her mind more on a long ride was more fun for both of us and created more connection which we both enjoy.

Whatever your “training on the trail” program looks like, my guess is it could step up. Send me a note on what you use trail work to accomplish, have you stagnated (as I had) with a solid horse, or are you still finding new layers to delve into together as you ride? 

Prepare to position

Thank you to those people who have given me glimpses of this thing that I now chase after too…

Over time this blog has shifted from the physical mindset of conditioning and “training” a young non-Arab horse (well 1/4 Arab…) to complete a 100 mile single day event to a wandering road of the deeper life goal and what transformation that kind of journey takes.

It began with the realization that if I was going to ride more than a few meandering hours on the trail with friends I was going to have to learn to ride better. I could trot along for a short burst here and there but upon trotting for miles and miles it became clear to me I was bouncing all over the place at best, and definitely making it harder on my horse than it would be if I had better skill.

First ride photo Khaleesi at 5 years old- hollow backs- both mine and hers!

Seeking help from a friend with an impressive dressage background led me into the rabbit hole of horsemanship that I had been seeking but hadn’t realized it, and now come to believe is the superpower anyone with insight will develop for higher success in every field and discipline. Above and beyond good equitation what I am speaking of is learning the subtle language of each horse and how to work together in mind, body and spirit not resorting to force to get it done.

Over time my blog has shifted along with this view to interest in the heart of the horse-human relationship over the surface layers of how-far how-fast how-high how-long data. I do have an obsession with getting this little feral mare to a single-day 100, but the real passion has shifted to how we get there and so has my writing.

Finishing an early 50 together

I’ve asked myself more than once: do these things I’m so fascinated with still work in a blog on getting to an ultra-long distance equine marathon? My own personal answer is that it is at the core. Yet being around the periphery of the endurance community there is much more emphasis put on how to get mileage, speed, increased cardio capacity, how to to dial in electrolytes (or not use them at all!), what to feed on race day, what tack is lightest for the horse and easiest for the handler, but though every rider mentions that “training” and riding skill is important- almost like it’s a given… something we all accept and pay minimal attention to unless it hinders getting to the big goal or puts someone in immediate danger.

If you can load your horse somehow, enclose it successfully, keep it from striking out at the vet check, get on it before the ride starts (often with someone holding it still for you), hold on and not fall for each loop, bonus points for not kicking other horses (who by the way may not actually have control over their horses and crowd you or run up on your own horse’s personal space) and double bonus if you can use your arms at the first vet check because your awesome horse is so fast and eager they pull you through the first loop completely braced to run through the bit— you can succeed at endurance riding!

Stunningly bad timing, feel and balance caught at our second 30 mile ride… I always have a positive attitude at least! Somehow this horse always gives me the chance to grow!

This isn’t limited to distance riding sports and there is a full range of excellence to crazy hot mess to go around. I have been a less than shining example of fine horsemanship and drowning in ignorance more than my fair share. As a whole it is too common that the “training” part in many competitive equine sports is only seriously addressed if it gets in the way of “winning”… Seems like part of the driven nature of competitive people. I speak from experience, I fight it back constantly now or at least when I recognize it.

One day however, when I asked for help from my friend, I saw this thing, this real connection and communication between a horse and a human and it’s different enough from what most of the people out there are doing that it stood out to me and I knew that’s the thing I wanted more than the rest of it. I didn’t see good training. I didn’t see a horse who knew the rules of behavior. I saw understanding. And it shone like the dawn to me. It was different.

What I am still coming to terms with is that not everyone is able to see this quality in a horse and human. I’ve had people to tell me it’s everywhere and most people with horses have it, but though I wondered for a while if I was being blind; it’s actually more clear to me as the years go by: it’s not common at all. Most people are still talking about and looking at good training. Good training isn’t that difficult. It’s much better than no training and hugely different than poor training. But all horse training is finite. True understanding between beings has no limits to where it can go.

Wyoming has been a challenge to understand for me in the deeper way she needs to succeed. Yet she has been a gift of inspired growth in my horsemanship life. Working with her always makes my time with Khaleesi more refined.

Recently I have been considering the phrase prepare to position. I’ve read it in Tom Dorrance’s True Unity, I heard Buck Brannaman talking about it in a clinic video, and it’s come over some other podcast and interview media as well. There is something fundamental about this concept in the horsemanship I crave. I currently struggle to improve at this***.

*** side note as I edit the previous line one thing I have observed from the people I admire for their approach and skill in this work… every one of them to a person has something they are struggling to improve in their own self. Timing, balance, feel, understanding, softer touch… they are all on the hunt constantly not for the next event, but the thing….***

Regarding prepare to position, myself and others I notice are asking horses to do something they are not prepared to position for, and most of the time it comes from this combination of lack of experience, patience, knowledge, timing and feel.

How often have riders talked about a canter lead their horse struggles with yet don’t realize that as they ask for the lead with the cue that should work they have the wrong timing of how the feet are carrying the weight of horse and rider? Certainly horses everyday overcome this and get correct canter leads despite the inadequacy of feel in a rider, but if a rider can prepare to position the horse for the correct lead with a feel of the feet on the ground and then ask in good timing, a higher excellence in riding can come out. The horse can move in a balanced way instead of having to overcome bad timing and feel, there can be a new level of lightness and refinement, strength in the movement. Yet the experience, knowledge, patience and work it takes for the rider to get to this is more than most of us have the time to dedicate when we have 24 more miles to go to get the cardio training in for the next event. Just give me a canter here and lets get on with it.

At least that’s how I’ve felt many many days. Let’s not count the ones I didn’t even understand there was a need to develop two different canter leads at all. Ignorance. Simply putting miles in riding a horse does not make one a good rider. I am proof of this!

Another moment of ungrace in our past journey

It reminds me of the advice to try to figure out what is the thing that happened before the thing that happened. Find insight sooner back in the process: do less sooner so you don’t have to do more later. By the time you’ve landed headfirst into a tree, there were steps that brought you there but many of us haven’t worked at training our minds to observe and act appropriately to these moments. Please don’t confuse this with overreacting, that’s actually doing a lot more way too soon that creates a bigger problem than you really have in the moment.

Prepare to position to me speaks of a deeper understanding of where the horse is holding weight or balance or brace that will inhibit the request we would like to make. It uses subtlety to ask for a weight shift before asking for the movement. It puts the horse in a place where it can easily fulfill the request as long as she also understands the request.

I can ask my horse to pivot around her hindquarters but she is going to do this with more quality and lightness if I knew she had shifted more of her weight to her hind so her front can move with ease. Did she stop heavy on her front end? Do I need to first ask for her to shift her weight back before I ask for the front to move?

Really nice moment with Wyoming that inspired a recent ride that was excellent with Khaleesi.

The truth is I have barely begun to scratch the surface of these questions. I have a chance on the ground where I can use my eyes, but in the saddle I have marginal feel and understanding of what’s going on that I can’t see. That’s ok because just changing my mindset to care is part of the greater concept of prepare to position. I will never get better if I don’t begin by asking the questions of myself. Mentally I want to feel this better, that must come first.

It IS ok that not everyone wants to get to this level of finesse and lightness in riding. It is incredibly demanding of the rider. Horses are amazing creatures that can do so much despite our shortcomings in feel and timing. In fact they often do this preparation on their own because they can sense what comes before the thing that comes before what the human just cued. They know us better than we know them.

I can’t understand how anyone who rides a horse would not be craving this kind of connection with their horse. Maybe they haven’t gotten a taste of it yet… maybe their lives are busy with other things…

Gradually over years learning to feel where my horse is, help her balance and I hope improve timing as well leading to a stronger self carriage more often

Simply trying to find incremental improvement here brought some moments with Khaleesi over the weekend where everything came together and she sprang with lightness into a movement that felt like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. When I am in tune to these things and get them right and they encourage her to work in her strength, balance, and lightness with me instead in spite of me it is a taste of something otherworldly. And what I love even more is that over the years I’ve thought I’ve found it in a new depth of movement or feeling and yet always I find there’s more. I think it might just be infinite, these layers available.

In the larger scheme I saw that over these few years of ups and downs with my endurance horse and my sojourn into a horsemanship addiction have been preparing to position me and she for what’s ahead. Through setbacks, mild injuries, incomplete events, personal struggles and everything in between, I can see that all of it has been preparing to position us as a stronger team, with a stronger, lighter, more balanced horse and a smarter, lighter, more balanced rider. I hope that paying attention to building this in both of us will mean a longer window of competitive strength, I hope I can compete her without breaking her down physically even in a demanding sport.

In my case I can look back and see what I didn’t know caused us to have to pay some early fines in physical issues. My unbalanced riding, ignorance in diagonals, leads, and ways to help a horse carry herself properly along with listening to the voices that said to move her into longer distances before we both had a stronger foundation (even though I sensed it wasn’t right somehow) because I was driven toward my goals contributed to some time of having to step back and heal/strengthen physically.

It’s ok. I didn’t understand- it is both a reminder to have grace for others who don’t know more than they do as well as a humility check that I will someday know more than I do today and have things I wish I had done better today. My horse is amazing, well all of them are, and she always leaves the door open for me to grow. She gives me fresh mercies every morning… usually! Occasionally I have to dig myself out of bigger screw ups, but we always come back together…. and sometimes, when it all comes into focus….

we fly…

Happy New Year 2021

Hello friends!

I am excited to share some news about my new venture Hope Horsemanship. It’s been in the making for a few months and the website is officially live with a new blog as well.

I will continue to write here especially as I have hopes for a real ride season with Khaleesi who is currently strong and beginning conditioning!

The Hope Horsemanship website will be loaded full of video content and the blog is at the moment centered around a new horse that I will be sharing the process of connecting with in video and writing with the goal to unearth helpful tools and ideas for those following along to use with their own horses. I would love feedback and ideas from you all as well if there are things you struggle with.

Please check out the new site, click on the blog page to see the blog and short video about Hope the QH mare. Subscribe to that blog as well and I’ll keep you updated with her story and the latest video content.

And thank you! Thank you for reading my wandering musings and for your interest in my horsemanship journey. Thank you for being part of my world, wherever you are.

I wish you a wonderful 2021 full of adventure and surprise and most of all… JOY

Jaime

https://www.hopehorsemanship.com

The Right Result

Joyce Meyer has a saying: if you keep doing the right things, eventually you will get a right result.

The right things are usually not the easy things. The right things come with resistance, struggle and doubt. But if you hang in there I believe what Joyce says is true, the right result will come.

I began this particular path to see if I could take a feral 4 year old unstarted mare and arrive someday at a successful single day 100 mile completion. She is only 1/4 Arab and not a natural choice for the easy win, but she’s also not a worst case scenario in build or mentality. I took the learning way not the easy way. Six years later with stops and starts we are still on the path together and though we haven’t made it through 100, I’ve learned more about connecting with horses than I ever dreamed. I still believe we will get there and when we do my hope is we will do it together, in strength and in a way that doesn’t disintegrate our bond and has the least amount of breakdown for her physically.

This is apparent in habit changing like weight loss, drinking excessively, financial stability, flossing perhaps? People who want to be healthy will have to make choices that put off gratification and then stick to those choices longer than is convenient or comfortable. And in the face of small steps forward and less than exciting results or frustrating plateaus keeping inching forward. For those who keep slogging through the set backs and disappointment in the short term and determine the changes are important at a deeper level, gradually something fundamental shifts inside them. It becomes a way of life.

I see parallels in working with horses.

I recently saw an old quote from a horseman regarding the death of Tom Dorrance who was inspired by the Dorrance’s way of using subtlety over force. In his opinion this way of working with horses will never be popular. I think the concept similar to being fit and healthy is not unpopular, it is the implementation where the disconnect occurs. The implementation isn’t popular because it’s a long view.

We all want results. That is a good thing, but when we use force to get a horse or a human onto our plan we chip away at the relationship instead of building it. All of us want to be the boy who would ride the black stallion on the deserted island with no saddle or halter, but none of us wants to be trapped on a lonely island for months. We have friends to meet, trails to see, ribbons to win or cut off times to beat.

Whenever we take the shortcut route we appear to be ahead at first but that process disintegrates in time. When we choose the way of cooperation, communication and relationship it always takes longer and it seems like the world around you is flying by you standing still, but this process integrates and eventually when other’s plans begin to fall apart, yours are just coming together in strength.

I’ve heard too many stories of the perfect horse being purchased along with all the excitement and dreams of the future. Usually a great first season fuels more dreams and visions of what is possible only to stumble into struggle, then real problems arise in the next or third season. Eventually an injury of the human or horse presses the unhappy situation to a junction and the horse is sold for another better perfect horse with less problems and repeat. There are many signposts along the way as the horse tries to communicate (unless the horse is already shut down) but a competition season doesn’t leave time for the deeper answers and so tools are brought in to shut down the questions and concerns the horse has in order to get to the next event.

It is the horse people who instead have made the fundamental shift that inspire me the most. These horse/human teams don’t always have the flashiest record or ribbons and they tend to blend in if you haven’t trained your eyes to spot them. They don’t always have first place (though they sometimes do) but you’ll see attributes like longer career length than usual in a sport with the same horse or the performance that takes your breath away and makes you smile at the same time. They carry a lightness and a joy. They are also really good at supporting others even at the expense of their own performance.

That is what I keep inching forward toward. That longevity, lightness and joy is what I want define the performance with my horses. Regardless if it’s trying a jumping lesson, learning some dressage, navigating a precarious trail or riding 100 miles, I want my horse to give me her all because we are in it together.

Of course I have riding goals and competitive goals but those are all long term. Goals are important to giving us a direction, benchmarks and a road to travel. When the steps are in place to achieve the goals we know what needs attention next along the path, it is the patience not to skip the steps or take short cuts while moving toward the goal that changes everything.

The mental shift that I’ve been pressing toward is to have an idea of what I want to get done and always honestly adjust depending on what I find when I greet my horse.

It helps me to look at Khaleesi who today is such a solid companion there isn’t much we can’t do together. Wyoming and I are much earlier in the journey together and still sorting out basic things. It helps encourage me because if I squint as I look back in time I can see when she didn’t walk with me on lead, the times she tried to turn me around on trail, was unreliable at loading on the trailer, sometimes evaded meeting in the field, laid down in inviting mud puddles while riding with friends, and various other questionable habits. Today she is a rock solid mare I trust with my life. She is my partner to a finite level of detail if needed and still we have many layers deeper to explore over the time we have together.

I know so many out there are trying to take on this journey as well and I want to encourage you to know it is worth it!

No matter what challenge we came to – Khaleesi and me approaching from our different directions – I did my best to work with her and she did her best to figure out what I was doing. We learned to communicate honestly. There were many setbacks and struggles and some days I thought quitting was the only wise choice. The days I questioned if I would ever get to the place I hoped where she would truly partner with me, I kept slogging through. I kept trying to do this the right way, finesse instead of force, conversation instead of control, allowing the time for mistakes and the learning process. Many around me let me know there are faster ways to move forward. This is certainly true even in the approach I envisioned – but I had to learn and I was much slower than the horse.

Today I believe that mindset and determination has paid off. What I appreciate with this kind of foundation is we are not dependent on the best circumstances. We can thrive together in ease and adversity both. Dangerous situations aside I know I can count on us having whatever conversation we need to with whatever comes our way. We can go off script. And Wyoming and I are getting there a step at a time.

I would guess the many of the riders that struggle with fears may have less anxiety if this slower foundational process was given the time to establish a truer bond of trust between horse and human. Of course it comes in time but only in time doing the right things. Just as practice doesn’t make perfect; only perfect practice makes perfect. I have seen my share of people who have spent their lives around horses and still don’t seem to see what they are doing is not developing relationship with the horses that go through their herds. If we spend the time doing counterproductive things together it will only create more fear and anxiety.

I have seen different schools of thought in endurance riding circles as well. Some say get horses up in distances as soon as possible. Don’t stay long in limited distance lengths or skip them all together. If you want to do 100 mile races get the horse a base of conditioning and then get right into it when the age limit is crossed (6 years I believe for AERC). Conversely others say wait, slow down, spend more time in lower distances and don’t consider a 100 with a horse younger than 10 years. I see success with younger and less experienced horses getting through 50-100 mile rides and some of these natural athletes thrive no matter what you do to them, but I also see damage and physical break down that is too easily accepted as ‘part of the sport’. I love the stories like the oldest horse to complete Tevis, a grueling 100 in the Western US, in her 20s, well beyond most endurance horse 100 mile careers.

I have not arrived at some horsemanship destination. This is a field where the more one learns the more one can see there is much more to learn than it seemed at first. Those are the journeys worth leaving home for. Yet I am determined to keep on slogging through the mud and setbacks and slow foundational work and learn what I need to because I believe that eventually, in time, we will soar.

And I also hope that for you!

First 5 videos

It’s been fun creating the first mini-series in video for starting the day connected. I’ve learned a fair amount already about the video-audio process and they will continue to improve in quality as I go forward.

There are a couple ways to find the videos in one place. First is the link to my WordPress page at

Greento100.com/videos/

The second place they are easily grouped together is on the YouTube play list: 5 steps for starting connected.

YouTube 5 steps for starting connected link

This project is intended to be a starting point to find out where riders are most interested in going deeper. If there are links in this process that you would like to delve deeper into please leave a comment on the YouTube video or with my blog and I’ll work on future content that addresses how I handled the steps and the questions.

Also let me know how your horse journey is going! What are you learning as you dig deeper?

Stay tuned!

Leading for connection

Here is the second video in my new series!

Each step of the process with your horse will bring you more connected or less depending on how you do it.

When leading your horse in- or out- it’s important to be clear and expect excellence in leading as this will set the tone for the rest of the day.

Who is the leader? Are you paying attention or chatting with a friend? Do you know where you want your horse to walk? Do you have the ability to ask her for that?

Here are some ideas from my own walk..

How is your walk? Does your horse stay with you? Does your horse drag or rush? Do you know why?

The Relationship

I knew when I brought home Ireland (now Khaleesi) as a barely handled 4 year old that I didn’t want a horse that complied with what I wanted or needed out of fear or force. I wanted a willing horse who would choose to be my partner. I didn’t want a trained horse, I wanted something deeper than training.

I don’t want my horse to get trained because training is absolutely finite.

Buck Brannaman

In this journey I came to realize that to have the connection I wanted I didn’t need to become a horse whisperer, I needed to learn how to listen. The only way to deeper relationship is good communication, and this is impossible without listening. Probably the biggest challenge of this process that many people give up too soon is learning the language of the horse so you can become a horse listener.

There are good trainers out there training horses to know how to do what you need them to do. Trainers who can deliver a push button horse and show you how it works. The horse is an incredibly intelligent creature and can learn how to do this. As long as you stick to the manual you will do fine. The horse is also generous as a creature and will try to fill in for a human and get things done in the least stressful way possible. If you get stuck, adding enough pressure will usually result in getting somewhere even if it’s not elegant.

I’ve come to accept that in the horse world there are situations where this is acceptable and even preferable. But it’s hard for me to understand why anyone who realized there is more available would choose to stop there.

Imagine a marriage where there are acceptable topics and if you will agree to stick to those pleasantries over coffee in the morning then it will be fine… just don’t go off script.

Well. Actually I can imagine that.

I refuse to stay on the surface of a well trained horse. I want to be able to have that deeper relationship where she is safe to communicate to me even the things I don’t want to hear, and I will listen and try my best to respond in… love.

I don’t mean love as in I’m having a good day and feel good. I mean the kind of love that balances with truth and protects yet exposes and never quits. The love that puts my horse first above my timeline and above my goals for the day or the year. The love that will continue to examine myself and what’s revealed in me as I grow deeper with my horse.

Recently Khaleesi was fussing over being groomed sometimes I descend into ‘get it done’ mode so we can move to the real plan for the day… riding. She was getting nippy and pinning her ears. Instead of correcting her and telling her NO, QUIT THAT or worse putting her in cross ties, I slowed down and asked her.

What is it? What are you saying?

I gently rubbed her neck and stopped brushing. I looked at her and she calmed. Her eyes got softer. I began to brush more slowly and talked to her while I brushed. I watched her reaction. I gently worked some dirt patches out with intention and not just a quick groom to get onto the next thing. She lowered her head and completely changed.

This is one example of how my horse teaches me to pay attention and gives me an opportunity to honor her thoughts and feelings. She has both. In this case she felt like she was being hurriedly brushed at. She was being treated like an object to get cleaned. When I changed my approach she changed.

Not all horses are this way. My mustang mare loves the brushing and the rougher the better, it feels good and scratches all her itchy parts. The point of my story isn’t to change how you groom, but to consider in every step how your horse sees you and your approach.

Your relationship with each horse is unique. Just like your relationship to each child is unique or with your parents— unique to each of them.

If you want a deeper connection with your horse you must be willing to really listen. The biggest roadblock here is our assumptions that we know what they think or feel. What you do to your horse, it is likely you do with people too.

In this journey I observed something else: time, even a lifetime, spent around horses does not equal correct understanding of horse language. And I’ve met people around horses fewer years who have a better grasp on horse communication than some who have spent a lifetime.

What helps understanding is letting go of assumptions and taking the time to imagine every interaction is a conversation. When you begin to do this it can feel like talking to a 5-year old. You have to slow down and try to understand what they are asking. Sometimes the words aren’t quite what you’d expect and need some mental translation, sometimes it’s an odd question to bother with at the moment, sometimes you do have to say can we talk about that another time? This process in fullness is way more time consuming than most goal driven horse people have the interest for.

But if you consistently ignore the child and their concerns or ideas and never take the time to honestly listen, you will shut them down and they will learn you don’t want to know what they think or feel. Similarly if you don’t really listen and assume you know what they are asking you will never really get to know the real ‘them’.

The push button horse, how I am using the illustration, has been trained not to ask questions. They are trained to respond to a cue and do the thing in a timely fashion without questions about the thing. This horse has learned that humans do not want conversation they want results. One way you can recognize this horse the response is basically the same no matter who the horse is with. There is not much uniqueness in relationship to different humans. It is a learned response. Training.

I’ve sadly seen these horses called ‘good’ horses while horses that have more questions are considered ‘bad’ horses. Horses are really simply horses. I enjoy curious horses, horses that have a lot to say or ask, playful horses, horses that demand more from me and insist I grow and learn… even horses that respond in fear or disrespect are still just horses and especially in true dangerous disrespect- they have been led there by a human.

Push button horse is much more efficient at getting to your goals.

I also have goals, but that’s not why I have horses. If my horse seems to be unfit for my riding goals either by choice or limitation, I am finding a new goal, not a new horse. And I have been and continue to be faced with this question from time to time.

Someone else can train a horse, but if I am committed to listening it means I will have to learn and grow. Thankfully it’s a beautiful journey of getting to know my horse as she allows me in one layer at a time.

This is a vital point. Many horses I see are already well past shut down and not engaged in this process. Many horses learn not to share their thoughts or feeling or questions with a human because they are punished or corrected for it. This is often part of the training process. This is a way for humans to feel safe.

** it doesn’t necessarily mean the human IS safe, we like feeling safe or in control— often of much we are not**

Having a true push button horse usually means they don’t go off script either. They are trained not to.

I have seen that these horses can be drawn out. It takes time and it takes a human who is willing to do the drawing and engage in the questions even though it will slow down the pace of the day. It takes a willingness for the human to hear even if the new layers aren’t pretty at first. It takes a willingness to feel vulnerable and balance that with being a leader which is also vital in the process.

Listening to my horse- like listening to a 5-year old- doesn’t mean I take every idea and run with it. It means I honor the conversation even if I steer it in a new direction. I still must be the leader of the partnership.

Going off script and learning the process to communicate and connect can be scary. We do like predictability and stability, illusion of control. Deeper doesn’t feel safe, for us or the horse, at first. The truth can be sometimes that no, I don’t really want to know what you think about this. If we go there what I assume is all fine could unravel… in human and horse relationships. At least for me at times in both.

Listening to my horse, or other humans I am invested in, takes courage. We don’t always want to hear what they have to say.

It also reminds me of how God insists on working with us. Humans want a list of rules. We actually prefer the training method for ourselves too. Religion- especially religious systems- gives us traditions and regulations: give me the buttons God and I promise to do my best to push the right ones… if I do, you will then do your part and life will work out for me. I will be safe.

We also want a push button God.

But in the words of C.S. Lewis:

“Safe?” said Mr Beaver “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

God doesn’t want us to learn to push the buttons or be trained. He wants more from us: real relationship. He wants the heart. He wants to listen to us even though he knows everything already, and he wants us to learn to hear his voice too. (We become the child now with all the time consuming questions) Sure, God gives us some basic rules and guidelines but around 90% of our day doesn’t fall into those. If you are trying to decide what to do in the course of a day and it including killing someone, that’s a no go. Try again. Most of our decisions are more nuanced.

People complain about the ‘inconsistency’ of the Bible when often it is the struggle in how God is looking for us to walk with him in partnership not pushing the buttons. He wants to go off script into the wild layers of deep connection. It doesn’t feel safe. That’s why it takes trust and building faith. Small steps at first.

Same with the horses. Maybe don’t start today cantering bitless and bridleless in the big field and expect elegant dancing. Maybe begin with a conversation in the field before you halter? Maybe ask: hey, how are you feeling today? Before you put on the halter.

And then listen to what she says…