I have tried to write this update multiple times and seem to make a tangled mess out of it every time. Apparently it takes endurance to write about endurance!

If you don’t follow the Hope Horsemanship [HH] blog, I encourage you to read my experience of spending a week with Harry Whitney in The Motions of Emotion. Hope Horsemanship is my bigger umbrella horsemanship entity (a coaching business, website, blog and more) and I cover general horsemanship topics there broader than our endurance experiences.

In my previous attempts to impart the massive download I picked up in California as I watched Harry work as a digestible blog relatable to the journey of an endurance horse and human, I ended up with the material for a book or two. The entire thing got unwieldy each time. So I am going to try again here.

Yesterday as I rode the mountain road between Poor Farm Recreation area and Hidden Valley, the sun shone on the warm first day of Spring and I found we had settled into sitting a sweet balanced rhythmical trot. It wasn’t particularly fast. It wasn’t at all fancy. It was true.

I remember the first time Mike told me about an issue with a bike where the wheels weren’t true. This terminology stunned me. Here is a description:

When a bicycle wheel is true, it means that the wheel is perfectly straight and when the wheel spins it has no wobbles, lateral bends or rubbing against the brake pads. This is important because a true wheel ensures a smooth and efficient ride. It also prevents unnecessary wear and tear on the bike’s components, such as the brakes, and reduces the likelihood of accidents.

As I trotted along the mountain road perfectly balanced to all four corners, in a steady rhythm, with my horse relaxed and soft throughout her mind and body with me in (a rare and unusual) effortless sync, that word rang in my mind… True. If my horse is true I have a smooth and efficient ride. It prevents unnecessary wear and tear and reduces the likelihood of accidents. 

Wow. How true this is.

When the horse’s mind is separated from her body trouble reigns.

My core takeaway from the clinic with Harry Whitney is that when the horse’s mind is separated from her body trouble reigns. The world is full of troubled horses. Horses who carry to some extent anxiety, tension, brace, imbalance, confusion, fear, and pain. Most of us recognize that horses seek peace and security above all else- yet regardless of much we love them, we are the biggest peace destroyers in their worlds. Somehow in their boundless generosity, not only do they usually not kill us (ever wonder why horse sports are among the most dangerous?), but they continue to try to work with us even in the face of all those things. 

That is a miracle.

Harry’s approach is not unique because he considers the horse’s mind, it’s unique because he begins with the horse’s mind. He won’t do anything to educate or train a horse physically without first getting the horse’s mind present, relaxed and basically at peace (if not entirely, at least in great measure). He does not tap into the horse’s flight instinct to do so. He doesn’t chase horses around with direct pressure. He draws them in and asks them to let go of that thought that you might rather be somewhere else and doing something else. He assures the horse this mental escape or shutting down will not bring you peace; so give me a chance. Connect with me and be present and you’ll see this is where you find peace, right here, right now and with me. I will help you FEEL better, now.

Horse after horse, and human after human, as he walked through this process it worked. Getting this right to start meant that everything after had meaning and was done in a present and relaxed state of mind. There was connection. Horses are herd creatures and they crave connection. Humans are created for relationship and need connection to thrive. If we will make the changes, make the effort, this actually does work. Anyone can improve here and it will change things significantly for the better.

Harry Whitney in Vista, CA 2023

It was like watching a masterful teacher with a student who was dreaming of playing soccer with friends while the math lesson was supposed to be taking place. No learning will be successful until the student brings his mind back to the room and the teacher. Everything done before that happens is wasted. A mediocre teacher uses threats and punishment to bring back the student’s mind. There can be learning now, but the student is only grudgingly engaged and still pining for release in his mind and heart. But a creative and effective teacher invites the student and gives them something worth being present for. A brilliant teacher engages the student to want to learn, a teacher like this, the student learns over time, deeply cares for the student and connects with them, knows them, and honors their learning process as well. Harry Whitney is a brilliant teacher with that kind of heart.

Someone could teach you a myriad of ways to get a horse to walk a decent circle. You could learn where to put your leg, hands, shoulders, seat and eyes, but if the horse’s mind isn’t presently doing the circle (in the direction you are intending) then it will still be robotic with awkward inflexible curves in the body. There will be imbalance and tension no matter how expertly you steer the horse around. As my eyes have been opened more to this I am amazed at what horses can do with their body that they are not committed to in the mind!

However, if you develop a way to connect and communicate with your horse, using these tools find a way to suggest to the horse to walk a circle and the horse decides it wants to do it– you’ll have grace, flexibility, a bend to die for and balance on all four corners. And you don’t have to be an expert dressage rider because your horse is able to walk in a beautiful circle… if she sets her mind to doing so.

This is true.

There are rides when I have to nag my horse to want to continue off into the wilderness when she would rather go back and relax with her friends. Riding almost exclusively alone can be it’s own challenge though it also comes with a lot of treasure. The days she is unconvinced of my plan I can force her to cooperate, but it isn’t going to be the relaxed, balanced, rhythmic, floating ride when she has decided to stay with me mentally and willingly hit the road together. When I ask her can you be here with me, but have a nice forward thought? and we get this right, it all comes into balance and floats effortlessly. Because the mind is leading the way.

The opposite issue is the horse that consistently wants to be somewhere else. You don’t have to nag that horse to go, because that horse wants to be anywhere else and they are difficult to stop or influence. It takes a lot of force and leverage tools to keep that horse in check. This horse cannot stand still. The horse’s mind is somewhere else and it’s working at every angle to get it’s body reconnected- but only if it can do so in the place it already sent it’s mind. This means they aren’t moving in balance and relaxation, free from tension. They aren’t soft in mind or body and tend to rush around (hurry = worry), they can’t stand still to mount, can’t be behind another horse, and brace against the reins with a powerful neck and head no matter how “strong” the bit and tack are. If you ride these horses you get sore shoulders and neck, sometimes blisters on your hands. These horses are tough to influence and take a heavy hand to control. If we put enough force on them to comply they will often go “inside” and they’ll get the job done but they aren’t fully present… and these horses when something DOES bring them back, usually with a start… can be explosive. These are often the horses people say do things “out of nowhere”… it makes sense because that where their mind was… not present. Nowhere, deep inside where their last vestige of peace and safety was. Considering how many horses are functioning in some level of discomfort or pain, dulling out internally can be a way of survival for them.

What I’ve been enjoying with the horses I’m working with today at Hope Horsemanship is the softness that comes when the mind is relaxed and clear. The amount of subtle influence I have to shift weight without moving a hoof, to ask for a little lift here or a slight adjustment there to line up a little more in balance through a curve is so easy. The feel of the horse is responsive, present, and loose. The horse who is braced (worried, anxious, stressed, confused, distracted…) can’t adjust and tweak fine tuned movements. 

This horse has a mind that is not present. This horse is not smooth and efficient. This horse is not true. This horse is more likely to have chronic injury over time or be involved in an accident.

Where is her mind here?

Why this matters to any endurance rider is when the horse is not soft in the mind and relaxed in the work it is moving with brace somewhere in its body and tension. Tension in motion overtime time means break down and damage. More vet visits, more injections to joints, more tendon problems, more muscle breakdown, atrophy, tightness, more chiropractor adjustments, more osteopath work, shorter careers than necessary, and pain over time for the horse. Pain they often hide from us as much as they are able because they are prey animals who don’t show weakness if they can help it, and because they are often told to “quit it” when they try to communicate something isn’t working for them.  

  • You’re acting stupid.
  • That horse just needs to know who’s in charge.
  • I know just the [insert piece of tack here] to solve that for you.
  • He’s just lazy.

Too often we do all we can to get them to shove that truth somewhere the sun don’t shine. I have done this in ignorance, and willingly in other seasons of my life. Sometimes the truth is just too painful to deal with.

Yet, as I’ve chased down the passion to learn more and to grow in the ability to do this horse thing better I have often found myself overwhelmed with all I don’t know, the confusion I can still cause because my own signals can be awkward. The years of riding it takes to improve, the patience and time before things change, but as I watched the sessions with Harry something new bubbled up for me. This is something that both takes a lifetime AND is immediately available to anyone.

Possibly the overarching quality I saw with Harry Whitney: he is a truth seeker. He wants to know how the horse is feeling, what they are thinking, and then he wants to connect and show that horse they can trust him. The horse will feel better when it lets go of the anxious thoughts and connects in with him. Harry doesn’t have a goal to get anything in particular done with a horse in any particular time (though he does a whole lot of great things and with him they happen in short order) but his true goal is to help the horse feel better. 

Anyone can make the decision to want the truth. We fear the truth because it seems ugly at first. We want the sugar coating and the best case scenario, we want to know that because we love our horses (I don’t know anyone with a horse personally who doesn’t love their horse) that we aren’t capable of damaging them. We love good training and helpful tack pieces that fix deeper rooted issues with a surface solution- because these things allow us to see what we hope to see. And yet the truth sets us free, and sets our horses free. If we get honest with ourselves and listen to their version with clear eyes, ears and hearts, we immediately shift into a new more powerful place together.

Simply shifting awareness changes everything- and then we begin to grow in the ability to engage honestly. Immediately as we are willing and able to change our own internal drivers to truth seeking and integrity toward the horse, we can start becoming a safe and trusted place for them to come engage, connect and be present with. Then there is a lifetime of layers available. The good news is to make a massive difference in your horse’s mental-physical-emotional state and get on the fast track to a more powerful animal who connects to you and partners with you by choice and not by force… you do no have to be a level ten [insert horse training method here] instructor, you don’t have to have many years of following [insert master famous horseman here] around, and you can do this without fancy equipment or a small fortune. This is the great equalizer of the horse community at large: the truth.

I don’t know how Khaleesi will do this season, but I look at the rides we’ll attend as tests. They will show me truth. Will the mental-emotional-physical work we are doing together stand up to the call of event days? I find myself caring less and less about the finish line as I do about integrity. Where are the strengths and where are the weaknesses? I am not afraid of what I’ll find. Because the finish line, mileage stats, and success according to human standards is not interesting to me anymore. Humans are fickle. We are a grand mixture of agendas and egos and weakness and strength, pride and love and wounds and courage. Horses are generally a gift in their simplicity. They are good at truth telling but only if we come to them seeking honestly. Today, more than a record that humans can applaud, what I want is integrity. Truth.

I have seen people, myself, others I’ve watched around me, we all can get away with a lot for a time, but we do eventually reap what we sow. Sadly, it usually happens so gradually that if we aren’t sowing the right things and watching the ground, sometimes pulling back some dirt to make sure… at harvest time it is too late to reseed.

Only being open to seeing the truth even when it’s hard to face, will bring me a horse that is integrated, relaxed, not running around in race brain, or dragging back because she doesn’t want to go with me. I don’t want to fight though I’m willing to lead and invite. I want my horse to know that her feeling good, feeling strong, and feeling powerful, and having a voice I honor is more important than my mileage record and the finish line. I hope what I’m doing every day even when I’m working around the barn translates to what we do at an event. I am aware that process will be a longer road, but the result of that will be a partner for life, a long career, and considering we spend so much time alone together… a true friend.

Island of misfit toys

Recently I revisited the movie Moneyball and was reminded how much I love not only the underdog stories, but how important limitation are on problem solving, creative solution engineering and disruptive innovative technologies that have the potential to transform entire industries. If you haven’t read the book or watched the movie it’s a great story of Billy Bean who has just about the lowest budget to create a team for the Oakland A’s. Bean has done all he can within the accepted system of recruiting and training players- so well in fact that he became practically a training ground to be plundered by bigger budget franchises. He found great talent, prepared them and got them working well just in time for another team to offer them much more money and pull them out which constantly left Bean to begin again scouting new untested players. 

Bean’s limit was financial which is the most common limit most of us think we are facing- however we can be limited in many ways we cannot control that aren’t as obvious. I feel like my life in recent years has become a study on how limiting factors can become a strength and so this story particularly resonated with me.

The hero of the story was doing his level best to keep from going completely under but it was when his path crossed with Yale school of economics graduate and baseball fan Peter Brand that everything changed. Point two of this story: disruptive technologies and paradigm shifts that revolutionize an industry almost always come through an outsider. To his credit, Bean noticed there was something valuable going on with Brand although at first he couldn’t understand what it was- he was determined to find out. 

Brand understood that the statistics and numbers held an answer that were overlooked by those who had the big budgets. In fact, the big budget teams had a reason to keep the system- it was rigged in their favor. Those teams were throwing out money to buy talent- the obvious way to build a team. The economics nerd baseball lover Brand could see that was an inferior model. The system was wasteful and being mismanaged. If you looked at the value of hits and bases and you went all in to a system of building a team basically buying runs instead of most valuable players you didn’t have to spend near the money the big teams were throwing out. That’s where one of my favorite quotes of the movie comes from:

Billy, of the twenty thousand knowable players for us to consider, I believe that there is a championship team of twenty five people that we can afford. Because everyone else in baseball under values them. Like an island of misfit toys.

Peter Brand in the movie Moneyball

The island of misfit toys. 

This is what I feel like on a regular basis when I glance around my life. And it makes me smile.

I am woefully under-resourced and the amazing (only 1/4 Arabian) mare I adore is not a natural endurance athlete. She’s not fancy bred for anything forget for being a top endurance competitor. Then there’s the fact that she’s the first horse I started from nothing with no other trainer ever working with her and basically unhandled her first four years of life. Oh did I mention I had never had a riding lesson or ridden a non-gaited horse before her, so my riding skills were at zero as well. So the process on every front has been s-l-o-w.

From 2015… attempts at some groundwork with only a makeshift “flag”!

All these limitation have demanded that if I didn’t want to give up I would have to get creative with what was in my hands. I would have to look for things that others who had a more established, systematic, clear path don’t have the need to explore. Who takes something that “ain’t broke” and gives a lot of valuable time to “fixing” it? Sure everyone wants to get better- who doesn’t like tweaking the sauce a little to perfect it just a bit more?  And yet anyone who has been in a place where things are going wrong will agree it’s a different amount of desperation that demands a new way of thinking.

I know I am not alone. I think there are a fair amount of you on some version of the island of misfit toys as well. Take heart my friends… it is actually the best place to be!

It takes some pretty aggressive deconstruction on Billy Bean’s part to throw all his chips into a new paradigm. He is committed but his people are not fully on board. His manager doesn’t have the vision, thinks it’s a suicidal idea and refuses to play the team the way it was put together. He is afraid of looking like an idiot-failure. So at first, as things go terribly wrong, Billy has to go even farther in slashing the few “higher value” players her still had. He had to double down and commit. Do I believe it or not? That is another life lesson, those who want to dabble in new ideas might get some benefit, but it’s that jump into the new world that brings the most power. If you try to meld the new and the old system together you’re going to make a monstrous mess. The team got way worse with the misfit players being played in the old system thinking. 

Which brings us to the next truth in the process. Those people in the system who saw it as working just fine for them will see you tank for a while as things change over and anytime a major shift comes it always gets worse before it gets better. They will roll their eyes, laugh at you, and call you a little cray-cray. At best. You might get shrugged off and ignored- that’s not so bad. Many will talk about you hopefully mostly behind your back, but because you apparently are unbalanced they might try to talk sense into you directly as well. You took a chance and it failed… so pull yourself together, admit defeat. Come back into the system that everyone agrees has been studied, tweaked and works.

Billy Bean knows that system cannot be for him anymore so he is desperate enough to do everything it takes to go all in. He leaves his manager with nothing left, no bridges to the mainland and together on that island they have to find a way to survive together. The manager is convinced this is his death knell but at least he’s not the big boss and can begin putting together a resume to find an old system job after his contract expires. 

**Spoiler alert!!**

But when they go all in, something changes. They start winning. In fact they have a record breaking winning streak that the world can’t help but notice. With the “reject” players that were undervalued by the system they began to win and win and win and win.

For real spoiler alert***  if you don’t know the story and want the magic of watching it play out… you can save the blog and come back…

Billy Bean knows that none of this matters if they don’t win the World Series. He knows that real legitimacy only comes when you take the top prize. And he doesn’t. They get so close, they do amazing things and break records. His team completely is turned around, but they still don’t win that “last game” that proves the system is ready to come down. 

All for nothing? 

Another favorite moment in the movie for me comes toward the end when the owner of the Red Sox, John Henry, asks to meet with Bean and offers him a job. Bean reminds him that his plan didn’t work. He went all in and the system still came out ahead when it mattered, in the last game. Here is what Henry tells Bean:

I know you’ve taken it in the teeth out there, but the first guy through the wall — he always gets bloody. Always. It’s the threat of not just the way of doing business, but in their minds, it’s threatening the game. But really what it’s threatening is their livelihoods. It’s threatening their jobs. It’s threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it’s the government or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people who are holding the reins — have their hands on the switch — they go batshit crazy. Anyone who is not tearing apart their team right now and rebuilding it, using your model, they’re dinosaurs.

Boston Red Sox owner John Henry in the movie Moneyball

My limited understanding of baseball is that Henry saw this disruption for the future it could bring and he then powerfully married together the model Bean and Brand developed with the much better financing advantage the Red Sox had access to, and they made history too. They finally won that “last game” that broke a historical recording losing the World Series. I suppose they had slightly upgraded misfit toys to work with. The real magic comes when the best things from the old system are left to now be run by the new paradigm thinking and an entirely new thing is created.

I love new things!

What does this have to do with an endurance journey? 

To me it means that my limitation of time, money and geography could actually be in my favor if I use those limitations to seek out smarter ways to manage my horse and her career. It means I can take heart when I’m willing to risk something new and I learn from it but don’t get immediate success. For me it means I have a long view that is bigger than a couple rides or even a couple seasons. For me it means seeking out people who I see finding creative solutions that are somewhat out of the mainstream way of doing things. 

It means I am constantly looking for people who have found something that to me sticks out of the “norms” and catches my attention. It might be the only odd thing they are doing and so it might not look incredibly exciting in it’s habitat… like Peter Brand working for a team still heavily set in the old system. Someone had the sense to bring him on board, but when Bean asked him: why do they listen to you? Brand replied: mostly they don’t.

It took a Billy Bean to pull him out and give him a bigger role. What I hope to do is notice the Peter Brand moments that have a small role in someone else’s program and explore the value they might have in creative solutions.

One such moment came from a picture of a woman I do not know. I saw her picture on a completely non-endurance platform and I recognized that she was riding over cougar rock (in the Tevis cup- our World Series) in a Balance dressage style saddle (these saddles give the horse a ton of freedom for back muscles to work but about the least rider stability, so one must be a very good rider to be successful in them), and she was riding with only a neck rope. Not even a halter on the horse. I don’t know if that is the kind of success plan everyone should be hoping for- it’s quite extreme and I don’t know that I would ever have a horse who could be ridden in such a big public event without any head control whatsoever. I’m not even certain riding a demanding 100 without a bit to help give support to the horse is in the horse’s best interest. Maybe this horse was truly that developed in physical strength.

Photo permission given to use in Greento100 blog by Traci Falcone

Traci Falcone riding CCR Viking Prince finished Tevis in 21 hours and 16 minutes, and the picture from that day resonated with me deeply. She didn’t come in first or even top 10 at Tevis. That would not make them eligible for best condition. But she did something few people can do, and the partnership with a horse to do that I believed was more valuable than any point standing or mileage patch. I know Traci isn’t the only one to ride with a neck rope, but for perspective, cougar rock is optional because for many it’s a realistically frightening rock summit to take on with a horse, and I imagine few people take on cougar rock in a saddle that won’t make the rider feel secure and basically… no hands. To me that was unusual.

As I reflect on this, I am generally not that interested in who finishes the Tevis Cup in first place, or even who wins the coveted “best condition” prize. I guess for me that’s like getting excited about the Yankees winning another World Series [apparently they don’t win so much anymore 😆] The things I dig into are who takes on cougar rock with no headgear on their horse in a generally “unstable” saddle designed to give the horse the most amount of movement in their topline… or who has the longest record finishing Tevis on the same horse… or who has the oldest horse to complete the Tevis Cup. Those people are often doing more interesting things to me than the ones who ride into Robie Park first.

I don’t know Traci and she may not have dealt with the limitations I’m talking about, but her example to me is the stand out relationship and physical strength the horse had to have are unusual things that many people I know nod toward and move on. It doesn’t tun into a wormhole with them, they cock their heads ask: who does that and why? And then shake their heads because obviously that person is odd… and move on. 

But that picture is one example of Billy Bean noticing Peter Brand off to the side in a meeting. It was unusual enough for me to ask: how large a part does willing cooperation play in success? How about the kind of rider skill and topline strength that comes from being able to ride in a Balance saddle successfully?

And those values have become pillars in the program I am working on developing for my horse and me. To me the island of misfit toys is about becoming more aware of the oddities that could have powerful connections. Things that are overlooked buy the mainstream. Undervalued. 

The time and effort it would take to work toward riding with that kind of connection takes a lot of time investment, and might slow down the process. Considering many endurance people I know agree that a horse has a limited age window of peak competition- why would one waste it with fanciful useless things like learning to ride in a neck string? Yet when we start looking at things differently we begin to see value differently. Then we can start to pair powerful otherwise undervalued pieces together creating a new thing

My little herd of misfits…

Therein, at least for me, is something worthy of investing some time into. Therin, at least for me, lies the fun.

Respect or fear? Does it matter?

I have become addicted to the Inspector Gamache mystery novels by Louise Penny. I love the characters, the little town much of it takes place in, but even more I love the philosophical layers Penny unearths through the characters in each novel. In the most recent book I finished (A Great Reckoning) there is a movement in the Sûreté du Québec (provincial police force in Quebec) Academy to begin corruption at the student level. In one scene a cadet is asked of the villainous head of the academy Serge (The Duke) LaDuke (who had been murdered): was he was feared or respected.

Respected of course! Came the reply.

Then what was he respected for? A follow up question.

When the cadet couldn’t answer it became clear that the disgraced high level corrupt character was indeed feared and The Duke used fear to manipulate the young officers in training. This scene visited me today while I was working with my herd as I asked myself a similar question. I want my horses to respect and even like me, but do I know the difference as clearly as I had thought? The student was certain, but when pressed came up hollow.

In the novel, the corrupt instructor was using fear and manipulation to gain control over the potential officers early in their careers so they would be easier to control once they were in the system. This made the systematic corruption easier to propigate indefinitely. Shut down their voices before they become officers officially, and if any cadet wasn’t maleable enough to be controlled by fear, they would never make it to graduation and a job. Find their fears and weaknesses, and exploit them from the very start.

What an ingenious and effective plan. Fear saves time opposed to respect and trust, which must be gained over time and is a balance that must be continually nurtured through integrity and transparency.

As I was hiking Khaleesi up the mountain yet again in early training for our season, she was incredibly distracted. I am increasingly aware of her thoughts and feelings in recent months. That is where I now begin everything. It is time consuming. She was more distracted than usual today with the second herd on the property, and they were running around bored on a rainy day trying to draw her attention. It was working beautifully. For them.

For me… not so much.

She would stop walking up the trail (away from the herd); I knew by the time her feet stopped she had already been stuck in her mind. I also knew I had the quick tools to get her feet moving. I could drive her with my lead rope and insist that her feet get moving again. It is effective. It works every time, and it doesn’t take much anymore- just a threat would probably move her feet.

And as I looked at her… distracted horse with her feet stuck in the soft ground and her brain stuck more… I thought:

What I really want is for you to come WITH me, together. I want to invite you to come up the mountain with me, and what I really want is for you to decide to come along. How can I encourage you to decide? How can I change your MIND?

I have heard great horseman say we must move the feet to get to the brain. I have also observed more often that horses can do a great many things with their feet and body and not have much shift in the brain. Sometimes it works, especially when in expert hands, but moving the feet does not guarantee the thoughts will shift.

If I were to drive her forward in that moment (as I have many times before), it was clear to me that I would be engaging her flight response. She would scoot away from the driving pressure- either implied (threatened) or if need be actually making contact with the rope if she was stuck that hard. That neurological response that produces flight-fight-freeze is a fear response even if it’s a very mild fear. So am I truly building trust and respect if I have to revert to a fear response?

I don’t think anyone ever put that question to me before in quite that clear of terms.

The scene returned to my mind: Do they respect or fear?

Have I been at it for this long and now am only seeing the subtle difference? Fear does not always look the way we expect. Sometimes fear looks like respect. Sometimes it is hard to see the difference.

In the novel, the cadets in the academy said The Duke cared about them and was making them better, stronger, more courageous. The truth that came out in the book was it was psychological torment that over time hardened them, shut down their individuality, took away their freedom to think, compromised their ability to know right from wrong, and even the students didn’t realize what had happened to them until the system was changed (and counseling for many who had been there the longest). To the casual observer they looked like intelligent, well-trained, young adults. There was order and high marks in the classroom. It took enough cadets entering the force to see a trend, it took someone who could see subtle cues and recognize that something dark was at work under the surface.

Is it possible that even in my good intentions I had been using more fear in my training than I realized?

Honestly I think so, and it’s Wyoming who is the one who forced me to see it for what it was. She could not function in that system. It was the wild red mare that kept me searching for truth in my training plan. She didn’t have to be wild. She’s simply a statistic. In any population there are going to be the ones that to the system seems “broken.” The ones that don’t fit the mold, can’t comply, are never “safe” or can’t be “trusted.” Is it possible these horses that most people move on down the line because they are problems are actually the real gifts. If we looked to them to show us, if we were willing to let go of the system we want to maintain, would they in turn give us the understanding of an even better way?

Wyoming demonstrating how she feels about halter pressure a couple years back.

I’ve had this mare for years now and she hasn’t often felt like much of a gift! She’s been the source of much frustration. Why were none of the “normal” ways not working for her? Especially since she was still willing to try. And she was also smart. Why would things that work for other horses fall apart in time with her? She hadn’t given up on me. The honest truth is I would have given up on her had I been able to. But since she refused to ride on a trailer, it was easier to just keep trying! I am also somewhat stubborn and driven to believe there must be a way if we persist. I don’t give up easily.

I tried many things, some had value but weren’t a complete answer, and I kept funneling somehow until I stumbled into some ideas that were just different enough but not off the map where they made sense to me, in fact it was like a language that was able to describe what was going wrong for the first time that really made sense.

I began shifting my approach and first I was able to recognize massive cracks in the relationship and connection with Wyoming and her ability to be “ok” with very simple pieces (like accepting the halter and being led). She liked me, but she didn’t trust me. I got busy digging deeper to change how I worked with her and gradually I am seeing a change. It’s a real shift with real changes happening though too early to say we are home free quite yet. I am not yet living the dream of riding Wyoming hands free in a mounted archery competition… Baby steps…

I also shifted my approach for the entire herd. And I have seen Hope who has been struggling to regain her health (she would be one of those poor tormented students who need counseling. She is incredibly shut down in her mind, body and spirit. Her spine was literally compressed when I brought her home and had a roach in it, her shoulders are overdeveloped and her hind end almost non-existent, her immune system also virtually shut down as well.) I have watched her opening up more in the new herd system, her eyes are less dull and she is engaging both with me and the herd on a new level and her physical health began to shift more dramatically.

I am most grateful to see what the change is bringing out of Khaleesi. She has never been much trouble for me. The naturally compliant child. As those who’ve followed our story for long know, I started her myself as a four year old local feral mare- and I knew nothing at the time. So she has been forgiving and cooperative though she will occasionally voice conflicting opinions. In the end, she cooperates and I’d even go as far as to say pretty willingly. This is my lucky horse, the one who has given me the grace somehow to know I’m trying to do better all the time, and I’m worth not giving up on. She fills in for me constantly. Maybe my saving grace is I regularly acknowledge and thank her for it. She knows I know how much she does. And she knows I value her highly and appreciate what she does.

This change in approach away from direct pressure has opened up a new layer of softness between us. It isn’t perfect because relationships aren’t. However, I see a new kind of calm in her demeanor. I see increased confidence and trust in me and how I will honor her. I see a higher level of willingness, and I thought she was pretty willing before. This willingness is a more thoughtful and soft willingness, not a rough concession to comply. 

It is like a teenager who is asked to clean their room. Previously it might have looked like: Fine, I’ll clean up my room.. whatever (mumbling their way up the stairs while wearing earbuds to tune out the annoying rest of the world). Today it’s more like: Sure, that’s probably a good idea… there’s a strange smell coming out of the closet and I guess I also need to do laundry. Hey when I finish would you mind taking me to the mall? Of course both of these scenes are preferable to the one where the teenager flips you the bird and says make me. 

The second question… does it matter? 

I think it does.

The annoyed teenager who is probably only in compliance because they know if they argue or refuse the punishment is not worth it (fear), they are going to do the minimum requirement and probably cussing you under their breath as they smile to your face that cynical smile that doesn’t quite reach the eyes. They are going to stuff things away and not get it done at a level of excellence. As a horse this is going to get the job done but without softness, flexibility and that higher level of athleticism and brilliance that comes with a soft mind. This is the horse that needs specific tools in order to perform because the mind isn’t truly with the body- not always due to poor attitude or unhappiness, but can be brought on by being asked more than they can handle or understand at the time. Trust can be breached when the horse is asked to do something before she’s truly prepared for it on all levels (physical, mental and emotional). That is another kind of pressure that breaks down a horse often not intended maliciously.

The willing teen is going to need some guidance still, but is going to put in more effort and in their heart they want to do it right and are being asked something within their ability to do well. They care about the relationship, but they probably also know they are cared for and valued. That matters to them. There is more mind and heart involved in the process even if they might sometimes rush because they are distracted or make a mistake trying too hard. There is a mental softness that brings a higher level of performance for that horse if tapped into.

And the one who flips us the bird… she’s probably headed to reform school (30 days of training anyone? Does that really help or just force more training layers on? I suppose it depends).

So in that moment when K was distracted and stuck in her mind and body. I stopped with her. I slowed down because I do value her and I factored in enough time that we could have some conversations if she needed to. (Are you the always the busy parent on a schedule with never enough time? I was, now I just say no. I change my thinking and my priorities and now there is always time for her to ask a question. I just make time- I take it off my end somewhere. Period) I gently picked up the lead rope first seeing if she would redirect to connect with me, here and now, on the trail, asking her to come up the mountain with me. She remained stuck. The brace in her head and neck telling me what her eyes already said: I’m not with you really, I want to be with them…

I held a moment, and paused again. Then I reached out to touch her face where she had some dried eye boogers. And she began to rub her itchy head on my hand, and I rubbed her face all over and got the eye goop cleaned off and then some. I laughed and smiled at her.

She looked at me. Now reconnected to the moment, she and I here on the trail. Together. There you are. And I lifted the lead rope gently and she took a step toward me, down the trail. And we did walk together. Without fear. When her mind came loose so did her feet. I didn’t need to train her what the lead rope means, I needed to find a way to engage her to be present with me. She even stayed with me past the intersection where she might have asked to return back toward the herd again. Connected. More than I had hoped for.

There were a few more moments she paused to listen, to look down the path through the trees. Each time was easier to reconnect and redirect. Each time the invitation was answered sooner.

Yes. I will climb the mountain with you in the cold January rain. I suppose. But then can we go to the mall?

This is more than a philosophy. This is how someday we will keep going in a single-day 100 mile ride. She will have to agree: Yes, I will keep going even though I’m tired and it’s dark and it’s raining… I’m with you.

Not from pressure. Not from fear. I believe by then I will more consistently recognize the difference.

Top of the ninth…

As we all turn a page from one year into the next I realize this will by my ninth year studying, training for, and working through the process of endurance riding. So I write this as a newbie in comparison to the true veterans of the sport.

Yesterday was unseasonably mild and it made for a good excuse to seize the day to begin my 2023 training. Turns out the last ride for 2022 was the Big South Fork 100 in September of which we had soppy slower trails from a day of rain and a wrong turn or maybe two in the dark overnight hours that put us overtime to complete the 100 miles. Regardless, I was pleased that Khaleesi racked up about 88 miles and was still full of piss and vinegar trotting around at 4am. Though we didn’t finish the ride she highly exceeded my expectations. If we had great conditions and only 12 miles to go with enough time it was clear to me she could have done the miles and likely been plenty fit to continue… If… If… If…

From Big South Fork credit: Becky Pearman

The last ride I’d planned in November fell apart due to truck issues, but I’m learning to flow with what’s happening in the present, and it bothers me less when I don’t get what I thought I wanted. If it is truly about the journey and the process then setbacks are just as valid an experience as success and actually neither is better than the other. The entire picture is built from the entirety of experience, and the easy rides I find increasingly boring and offer me less depth to mine for wisdom.

In reflection (as this is that season) I recognize painful setbacks to my endurance goals over the years, were not only opportunities to learn, but in fact they had been protecting me from things I didn’t know I didn’t know and have likely been extending my horse’s longevity as my partner. For that I am entirely grateful. What’s that saying? How often do we thank God for the prayers he doesn’t answer?

It is clear we are closer than we’ve yet been to the journey of the single-day 100. Could this year be the year to cross the finish? I think it’s a distinct possibility, but far from a certainty.

Today as I hiked with Khaleesi up the mountain for our first 5 mile climbing loop in a couple months, I was thinking over the pieces and parts I’ve cobbled together to create a program I believe in. I think it’s quite different fundamentally from where I began those nine years ago.

Mental-Physical-Emotional Balance 

This has become my most valuable pillar in recent years. It’s the one thing I build everything else from now. Period. I focus on starting with the mental system in a horse in order to achieve balance between the systems. Mental softness is not the same as reliable training. Training is limited. Building a language to communicate more than a command to be followed with my horse is vital to me and it makes our partnership stronger, resilient and able to take on a multitude more challenges than a well trained horse can. And endurance riding brings a multitude of challenges. Building a common language and coming to agreement with a prey animal takes much longer but the payoff is deep. It has higher potential to create buy-in from the horse (though the most successful horses in any discipline often are naturally bent toward the sport and have that buy-in without needing as much connection). Training relies on a horse being conditioned to a response by direct pressure and this works better when we bypass their thinking brain altogether. Most horse people I know consider speed and ease of response to a request to be the highest value. Immediate obedience to a request. Don’t think. Just do.

Time to think

The physical system is the easiest and quickest to access and many sports including endurance put a lot of emphasis on how to get the physical system strong, but there is a lot more we can do in the mental system that would positively affect the physical system. When the mental/emotional systems are neglected, shut down or out of balance the horse cannot carry itself relaxed and in balance. This adds wear and tear to the body and leads to more chronic and overuse injuries.

Education that encourages a horse to have a thought, to act on their thoughts, and to have a choice to cooperate without a punishment for non-compliance is actually a slower road. This mental process requires slowing down to find softness in thought then soft willing action. The emotional system of the horse will reveal what’s going on in the mental-physical balance. Horses that have big emotional or zero (shut down) tendencies are likely out of balance in the physical-mental somewhere. 

Polarized style training- in hand foundation

There is a saying in the endurance community of “long and slow” where increases are made to distance and speed separately to take a horse from field to finish line. What I’ve observed is the concept of slow varies dramatically from rider to rider! I have also been advised over my earlier years to basically train how you plan to ride at the event. Never hurry and never tarry is great wisdom for the event as is staying in the moment riding exactly the trail in front of you to your horse’s own ability.

Conversations in recent years with human endurance athletes which spurred some research of my own have caused me to question if training like one would take on an event ride is the best approach and I’ve begun seeding my program with ideas of “zone two” training and a polarized workload. 

Now I do not train how I will compete, though I will intentionally sprinkle in a “competition type” ride from time to time. The way most people ride a horse in an event for endurance causes increased physical stress and will over time break down the horse. So I want to keep that kind of riding at a minimum and use it purposefully.

I am fortunate to live in a river valley so every direction from me is up. I used to get so tired of climbing the mountain when it would be so much more fun to be able to trot and canter along more on less rocky and steep trails. Now I am grateful. 

I started throwing in a hike on occasion to add diversity to the physical training routine because it helped my horse MENTALLY. Sometimes I would come and grab the halter, ride her bareback across the river then hop off for a hike up the mountain together on foot. I found she responded very positively and seemed to even enjoy our walks together. Around the same time I began to understand more about the power of staying out of “no mans land” in heart rate zones (zones 3-4) and how intentionally keeping the heart rate below aerobic threshold makes the cells more efficient energy burners, builds the engine and also has way less wear and tear on the body. Though it’s helpful to plan walking only rides, the horse being hand walked in rhythm for long stretches I learned develops good musculature in the ribcage (between the ribs), increased lung capacity, abdominal strength, better posture, topline musculature, and postural balance more effectively without a rider. It’s also fantastic for me because it helps me stay more in shape.

New Year Hike to begin the season training

As a note: many high level endurance competitors I’ve noticed use a horse exerciser and that caught my attention. I have no plans to go this route because of bullet point number one: putting my horse on a walking merry go round regularly does absolutely nothing for her MENTAL system if not actually running the risk of shutting down her thoughts. Second, I am fortunate to have mountains and my hand walking adds challenge by adding climbs and descents, a horse exerciser isn’t going to give me that kind of workout. Third, I am pretty convinced the repetitive circles of the same size (though I know they go either direction) over time is not the best option physically. However after learning what I have about the benefits of walking I can see why many successful competitors use them.

Polarized training is not only about walking. There must be high intensity days as well. I have a fabulous flat track trail with great footing in all weather along the river where we do high intensity intervals. This is where we get limber and warmed up and then for 8-12 sometimes up to 16 miles I cycle through trot intervals and all out canter stretches spaced with total recovery walking. High intensity jacking up the heart rate as fast and high as I can very briefly, then total recovery. Rinse repeat.

Very occasionally (once a month or a couple weeks out from the next event) I will do a longer 16-20 mile ride where I ride more like an event where we are likely to do more long relaxed trotting and these rides are usually challenging mountain courses where we’ll also encounter rock gardens, steep climbs and have to navigate technical terrain with a rider.

I train alone 90% of the time and though I enjoy the company of other riders and know many people prefer to train in groups when possible because it’s more fun, I think being able to dial in how my horse most benefits from the terrain or heart rate is valuable. Truthfully though I have found I love going out just me and my horse because I don’t consider that riding alone, and we can work together with less distraction and it builds more connection than the rides we have the distraction of other people (for me) and horses (for her). We can manage those rides just fine because the connection we’ve built alone is quite strong. Also we ride alone a large percentage of the events as well. Ironically I find it easier to catch a ride with non-endurance trail friends because they are usually going at a slower pace which keeps me in that zone 2 for longer stretches. They often assume I would not want to ride with them as they prefer to do a lot of walking. Actually this was more true in years past when I thought every ride as much as possible I should be training like I’d compete. Now I am looking for softness and quality in my horse at a relaxed walk and I know that kind of building that does and I’m quite happy spending hours there!

This program fell into place last year one piece at a time as I dug deeper into the questions I had, and I believe it was key to the horse I brought to Big South Fork and her reserve of strength there. Time will tell if it’s on track or I need to tweak more. But I’m willing to put it in action and do the testing over time. I believe it will save her from chronic injury and make her stronger overall. 

Diet, Nutrition, Micronutrients

Corn, wheat and soy are some of the biggest sources of inflammation in the diet (horse and human). So my horses don’t get anything that includes those. Period. I also avoid alfalfa. Much commercial alfalfa has glyphosate in the processing (unless it’s sun cured), but I believe there are questionable effects on the Ph of the hindgut and since my horses do not need alfalfa I just say no. (I have no need to convince anyone else of this so if you are part of the majority that disagree that’s ok).

I keep my diets forage based and as clean as possible. I’ve done some hair mineral analysis testing to support my best understanding of the balance of nutrition and have in some years also gone through forage testing. I regularly add chia and also spirulina for extra support and I add a micronutrient blend that seems to do well for the herd (right now I’m using the Vermont Blend). They are also usually on a vitamin E supplement -especially in winter when the fresh grass is at a minimum. I aim to keep them on plenty of balanced nutrients. This in hope that when it comes time to train harder or compete my horse is functioning with more than the bare minimum of vitamin and mineral levels and thus my horse isn’t coming into events with inflammation in the joints or organs, isn’t calcium or sodium or magnesium deficient or has a compromised immune system. 

Personally I think most of the processed or mixed feeds for all our animals are not any better for them than our own human processed food system (this is my opinion). Inflammation that present under the surface day to day will be revealed under stress. Keeping inflammation away at all costs is always going to mean better performance and stronger health over the long term. 

I do not change anything for an event in my feeding plan except that I add oats. Khaleesi is healthy overall and we have access to more pasture than she could ever keep eaten down 10 months of the year. So I only add oats on high intensity training days and event days. Oats are a quick access carb that can provide her with the energy supply she needs to stay in the “no man’s land” heart rate zones 3-5. Ideally the zone 2 training (which helps the cells increase efficiency in burning fat for energy which is a more stable source for endurance) and high intensity days have helped her build an engine that can go a long time but she will use the quick carbs from the oats to help keep the fires burning. 

The oats get mixed in with coolstance (a coconut product she eats every day) and coconut water which has a great natural balance of electrolytes in the holds. I also electrolyte separately and my home brew is mixed using enduramax, yogurt, date syrup and baby carrot food. I mix them about half strength and use more of them so they aren’t unpalatable or so harsh at once. I cannot risk having to force her to take the electrolytes when I need her mentally soft so I make sure she doesn’t mind the electrolytes even if it’s more for me to mix or carry. Ideally I have spent the every day effort to keep my horse in balanced and adequate levels of sodium, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, Potassium etc so I can support her in intense work where she is needing to replenish, but she isn’t coming into the start already partially deficient.

Balanced Rhythmic Riding

The next pillar in my program has been the multi years journey of becoming a better rider. If my horse is going to move in strength and stamina she won’t last long if she is heavy on her front and pulling herself through the miles. My first LD on Khaleesi I knew I had to drastically improve here because 30 miles of me banging around in the saddle was a huge liability. My first horse had been a smooth gaited fox trotter and I had not been taught how to trot and it was very clear to me we could not keep that up.

Helping a horse (and being patient and honest with ourselves in the process) to find better balance back to front is an art form. Anyone who thinks they have this figured out hasn’t likely started the journey yet! I love this journey, but it has taken me years to get to a point I think I have a clue on how to help my horse move better. I am always tuning into my body and how what I do affects my horse. I love to get lessons for an outside eye and to help me up my game, but also I’m really particular on who I will get input from.

Having fun at a jumping lesson

I spend as much time as possible learning basic dressage concepts as well as enjoy taking jumping lessons from a fabulous local teacher who was an international competitor before she left the scene for a quieter life. A good teacher is more encouraging than critical, and is able to give you only one or two key things to focus on that will give you the most improvement- then will add on layers as you improve. A good teacher is in tune with your horse’s experience in the learning process and can see the changes because the horse also improves. The horse will feel good about the lessons if the teacher is quality.

Structured and balanced riding also means I compete and do certain training rides in a bit even though we both love riding in a halter. If the bit is used to control the horse then the horse IS moving braced and that WILL eventually cause physically damage somewhere. However a bit is a powerful tool if it’s there for support of the horse. A bit gives the horse something to help them find balance especially over long miles and when they are tired and losing the strength to self-carry. I love to reference an interview with Dr. Ann Marie Hancock and Wendy Murdock where Dr. Hancock explains in one segment that the jaw on a horse almost acts like another limb to balance the body. This fascinated me and explained some things I’d been observing about how my horse holds up to more workload with and without a bit. When the horse is able to relax into the work the body can move efficiently and with less wear and tear on the joints.

Saddle & Shoes

These details have been important keeping Khaleesi strong and sound. I ride in a saddle from Balance Intentional. They are not a traditional saddle design but have a program they call functional saddling and they look at many factors including how to create a saddle that enables freedom of motion yet also offers support between the horse and rider. Most horses have some degree of atrophy under the saddle where the soft tissue of the muscle is inhibited. Balance saddles are intended to encourage rebuilding of the muscle and strength of the topline. It is a phenomenal system however it takes commitment to adjusting as your horse changes. I have at least 2 saddles to choose from and a few different pad options. The back can change with weight gain/loss, muscle growth, or minor injury can change things for them. For us one saddle and pad system does not even work through an entire season. There may come a time it’s more consistent but for now I have to pay attention to changes as she gets more fit and builds muscle after time off or early in the season vs. later in the season.

As for shoes, I stumbled upon composites (we nail, not glue) going through a mystery lameness season a few years ago and I can’t imagine going back to the concussion of the metal shoe. I do think the concussion will over time create more damage to the joints than the composite shoes offer. I love how I can trot along pavement or gravel with more stability than a metal shoe and though they can be slick in wet grass I think even metal shoes can be sketchy in these conditions depending. Nothing is perfect. I am always looking at longevity with my horse because once I put the investment and patience in to build a real partner and a language I want that horse to stay in it with me as long as possible!

Happy New Year

So we headed out for a hike to begin the chapters that 2023 brings. We have done two hikes to get started and by the second I was having a hard time keeping up with her on the climbs! I hope this is a good sign for the year because she was never quite so engaged climbing up those mountain trails last year. So I have expectations of more to learn, more to grow, joy and struggle, and we are ready to take on what comes… Together.

Happy New Year and I also hope for many dreams in your own journey to be realized this season!

Can you let go of that thought?

There is a Proverb that tells us a man makes his plans, but God establishes his steps. It is something I take to heart. There are some events I have a certainty about and regardless what comes my way I know my path is to go over around or through whatever the obstacle is. An example of this is Big South Fork 2021 (read that story here: Speedbumps and Roadblocks) when I went to load up and get on the road and my horse was missing. As I called neighbors and wandered the woods behind the property I was concerned but also fairly calm because I was reasonably certain we were going on that ride, so the horse would have to be found shortly and not be injured. It delayed us a couple hours, but she was found grazing in a nearby cemetery. Apparently the grass is extra sweet there.

There are events I’d like to attend but for whatever reason it’s obvious to me there’s a brick wall and I’m not passing without some kind of damage to myself and others. When I sense those I don’t bother anymore- it’s never worth hitting one’s head against a brick wall.

And then there are the events that I think make sense, they fit into the calendar, and I simply don’t have a strong sense of either way. These I hold loosely. Until I hear a clear “no-go” I keep moving forward. The ride Thanksgiving weekend was one of these. I had hoped maybe this year I would actually get in a late season ride in South Carolina.

Without question I wanted to go to this ride. I had plans to make stops on each end of the trip on the way to visit friends and I was looking forward to those visits. Also my horse is thriving. This season she has grown increasingly powerful- she is mentally engaged, she is willing, there is less brace and new levels of softness and relaxation in her biomechanics; she’s healthy, her diet/nutrition is dialed in and we’ve struck a great combination of work and rest. After seeing what she offered me at Big South Fork in September I was curious to see what she had for me in one more and a less demanding event to finish out the season.

K and I ride alone 80% or more of the time, but recently we’ve enjoyed some lovely company and ridden with various friends at some of the most idyllic places here in the rural mountains. I am grateful those rides were completely without incident as I look back.

Crossing the Jackson River in Hidden Valley

Because the very next time I went to use my truck (for a solo HIT run on the Jackson River trail) my truck was clearly not feeling well. Something in the timing and idling was clearly off and the truck would stall. I canceled my solo riding plans for the day and got the truck into my trusted local family owned repair shop only to hear that it was an extensive issue and sorry no, with the holiday, there’s no chance it would be done in time to haul to the ride.

There was a voice of clarity as I sat down taking in the disappointing news. There might have been some creative ways around this but in that instant it became obvious to me.

Can you let go of this ride? 

I have learned- it’s the long game. This will be for my good. It’s a promise. Even when it doesn’t feel good at the time.

Not necessarily in avoiding tragedy.

I used to think being blocked out of an event was to save me some horrible disaster – but now I’m inclined to believe it’s more likely something better is on the other side of the exchange.

It reminded me of a saying Mark Langley repeats often in his work with horses:

Can you let go of that thought?

I love this approach and he is so gifted at working with the horse first in their mind. If the horse’s mind and body are separate- not in the same place- you’re going to have trouble. Maybe in a minute, or maybe in a year… but it all stems from a thought.

It’s brilliant really. And ridiculously obvious. As I began going down the trail of thoughts leading to emotions and actions, like every good truth, I see implications of being able to recognize this. Most troubled horses are not present with their human educator/rider. They may be mentally with their friends, they may be mentally back in their home field or barn stall, they may be mentally withdrawn into their own inner world- far away from the reality you are trying to navigate. They have found a safe place in their mind and they go there.

Depending on the level of trauma, discomfort, confusion or fear they can have a wandering thought to a very “hard” thought. Hard thoughts are difficult to dislodge. The art of good horsemanship to Mark is once this disconnect is realized (step one is being aware when the horse’s thoughts and body are disconnected), how to convince the horse to let go of that thought and come to be present in the moment and the work.

Much of natural horsemanship is built around using the horse’s prey drive to bring a bigger worry and fear than the “hard thought” they had fixated on. Most people only have the tool of “move the horse’s feet” using increasing pressure to attempt to get to the brain. This can be effective, but I am considering that it looks even more effective than it really is.

I’m not sure getting a horse responding to flight mode really getting to the brain? Or at least the brain I want engaged? Depending on flight away from pressure is the responding brain — I want the thinking brain, the curious brain, the searching brain. It is true for all beings that we cannot think to the extent we are in fear or our sympathetic nervous system is engaged.

I don’t want a horse always running away from something, but one who is relaxed and searching- moving toward their thoughts.

Mark talks about using a “feel” to guide the horse toward a thought instead of flight away from pressure. And I find myself lately working with horses who are disconnecting in some way saying hey there, can you let go of that thought? Because what I want to do will feel good to you, and no one can really feel good when they are disconnected from the present… so if you’ll let go of that, I’ll give you something better. 

It’s an invitation. I’m going to offer connection, confidence, patience, and the ability to act toward a thought. Fighting reality is always stressful. For both humans and horses. 

I don’t want to be a human with a hard thought, refusing to let go if the one who is trying to lead this journey is gently reaching out to bring me to a better plan. Can I be led? There is a difference between steadfast and stubborn; between dedicated and stiff-necked. The line is usually hardest to see from the inside!

Since I can only make plans, and God establishes my steps, I’ve learned in recent years to stay flexible. In this case I had been wrestling at every layer to make plans to go visit my family for Christmas and nothing was lining up right. Within about 30 minutes from the news my truck was grounded for now I had tickets sorted out to spend thanksgiving with the entire family, which will mean not traveling over Christmas.

If you’d asked me a week ago would I want to maybe just cancel the ride to do a family Thanksgiving I’d have said honestly no, I don’t want to do that. Yet this is apparently where my steps are going to take me.

In perspective I am also thankful for some things:

  • I am thankful the way this ride became clearly blocked was a truck issue instead of a horse injury issue. Both can be expensive- but I’d rather have a healthy and sound horse any day! A vehicle is an inconvinience, a hurt animal is so much more.
  • I’m also thankful that the truck was totally fine in order for me to enjoy those lovely rides with friends, then completely not fine when I attempted to leave the yard- it didn’t go bad while hauling my horse somewhere with no cell service. Even more, it didn’t go wrong after I’d gotten to SC leaving me and K stranded in a strange place far from home.

Besides switching gears quickly to plan a family trip, I also switched gears quickly to put K on more generous rest. It was only a couple of weeks, but the sooner she goes into R&R the better for her system. Everything good begins with rest.

My vision for today is that next season will begin sooner than usual and we will aim for some earlier spring events. I hope that 2023 is the year she thrives through a 100 completion. Those are my plans as of now… I have reason to believe these are good plans, but as always I will hold them loosely. And when the one who is handling my own education in the greater scheme of things asks me can you let go of that thought? I hope I have the softness and trust to say ok, where are you leading instead of bracing against with hard thoughts… digging in my hooves in a refusal to shift gears. I hope I have the wisdom to stay connected and present even when things are not as I had hoped.

And greater things are yet to come.

Blessed are the flexible…

… for they shall not be bent out of shape.

Khaleesi has been on some down time after Big South Fork and I have been flung headlong into fall season of music program administration, teaching and rehearsals. I have done some hiking with her and then snuck in one unimpressive ride before the hurricane rains poured through one weekend.

A few days ago we visited Caroline’s and had a day of jumping paired with visiting a nearby client so Khaleesi could help babysit a horse who wasn’t able to focus well while riding around the property.

I have had lovely compliments on my fabulous mare. She is intelligent, strong, balanced and highly responsive. It’s always nice when your horse’s finer qualities are recognized. Saturday she was all those things and more in her work in both places. 

Sunday she was equally fabulous, but not at all agreeable and had some thoughts and opinions that completely hijacked my plans for the day.

She was perfectly clear

This is the less fun truth behind a free and powerful creature. 

They have an independent spirit that does not always equate to unquestioned respectful obedience. Danny Silk, in his book Culture of Honor (which I highly recommend), reminds us that free people who have responsibility of thought and choice are healthy and powerful. They are also the hardest to lead. It is much messier to move together in unity with people who have their own minds and do not mindlessly agree on everything. Brainwashed robotic populations that know they will be punished for freedom of thought are much easier to control. Its not very different with horses.

If efficiency and control are the goal then punishment and pressure are the better tools. You get to be the dictator and you have it your way. But you had better be willing to accept dull obedience and half hearted resignation. With control and punishment you are likely to win stuff… but you will never get the full brilliance the horse is capable of.

I believe and have experienced that you can find harmony the more you work together with your free population as a good leader. A true leader isn’t about being bossy or forceful but one who listens and serves others as the first priority even if it sidelines your own goals for periods of time. Both horses and people who have freedom of choice will choose to follow someone they trust and who has shown to be looking out for their best interests while calling them to grow and bringing out the best in everyone.

So armed with this belief I have set out to develop a powerful and free horse. I have begun to see brilliance and harmony. But it’s far from perfection.

After the glimpses of brilliance on Saturday I planned a trot/canter fitness ride for Sunday. I had some time (though limited) and the weather was a perfect fall day. I loaded up saddle and tack and grabbed the halter to find Khaleesi already thinking her independent thoughts. They were not in harmony with mine at all.

She kicked her back legs up and herded the trio across the dry creekbed to the far pasture in a hurry leaving no question in my mind about her feelings of going with me- anywhere.

So. I have a fabulous mare who is a stunning brilliant partner, and yep, the truth is, some days she resists even being haltered.

This doesn’t mean I cannot “catch” my horse. I can get my hands on her and if I had an emergency I could “trap her” with my tools. What it means is she is knows she has a right to her thoughts and sometimes they are not in agreement with mine. She knows I will hear her and not punish her for the honesty.

My hope was she would share her opinion with me, and I would tell her in equine language that she was heard and understood but today is a work day and so I’m not leaving without her on a lead. Sometimes that is enough and she decides to say ok fine, why not. But not yesterday. She was intent on holding onto that thought and for 10 minutes we did approach dance moves and she would block me from the side I halter her. Eventually walking off entirely.

After the 10 minutes of unusual level of resistance I had to recalculate. Evening comes early now and I was losing time. I could finish at sunset and come in after dark, that wasn’t ideal. And I didn’t have her willingly on line yet. I refused to throw the rope over her neck and get it done…

What did wisdom tell me today?

I looked at the truth of the moment: it was a horse who wasn’t willing to be haltered. I needed to adjust to deal with that question before anything else. It was the willing part. This wasn’t about catching a horse, it was about her thoughts and feelings. If I dragged her out of the field the brace would be hard to overcome.

I decided to adjust my advance and retreat timing to give her more (not less) control over the conversation. She began to get more curious as I began to be less determined. When she put her head in the halter I offered, I did about 30 seconds of some light leading work in hand that had lots of turns and direction changes. I made sure she was soft like butter in my hands.

She then tried to scratch at her flank and I scratched it for her. She was very happy with that and I took off the halter. I set my own goal aside to meet her where she was and see what I could do to make her feel better.

I knew the original plan was scrapped so I used some time to do a few things with Wyoming who hasn’t gotten a lot of attention lately and left Khaleesi to graze. 

After a few minutes with Wyoming I went back to ask Khaleesi to come into the halter. Again she walked off: No thank you, I thought we already had this talk. So I did the same approach and retreat that gave her more control of the conversation and waited for her. She eventually came back to me again and offered her head to the halter.

I repeated similar leading patterns and again she was soft and responsive, she was in harmony with me and it felt really nice. I could ride that horse…

Then I took off the halter, left her to graze and went to do some things with Hope. After that I walked back to Khaleesi and she resisted less than the other times. Repeat. Almost no brace in her body and mind, she was quiet and relaxed, curious and connected. Felt amazing.

However if she is still starting with the mental brace of walking away before the agreement, we aren’t there yet, so I took off the halter again. I walked off, and when I came back she met me and offered her head.

Zero brace mentally, physically or emotionally. She floated with me on the lead any direction I asked rolling with changes like a ball and her hind and front end flowed easily.

Now we were done.

No fitness ride today. But I spent an hour or so smoothing out brace in my horse’s mind and body. If she works with brace her body holds tension which results in less efficient movement, less strength, less brilliance. Potential for injury over time is greatly increased if she works in a braced state. The more time I spend getting into harmony with her the more brilliance and flow together we have access to. That’s where her power and strength come from.

There is a price for having a horse who knows she has the right to act on her thoughts. Not only am I willing to pay that price because I know what’s on the other side of her choice to connect with me of her own decision, but I am willing to look foolish in order to honor her true thoughts and feelings as much as I can. No, she doesn’t always come running to meet me at the gate…

But the times that she does are all the more special.

Am I safe? (Repost)

Some of you know I have other writing besides the green to 100 journey I focus on here. Though green is truly the beginning of it all, it’s unfolded into the creation of Hope Horsemanship (Hope being my middle name) and I discuss more expansive topics there and include more of the entire herd and their stories.

Last week I delved into some questions around physical, mental and emotional healing and the impact of the nervous system and why many horses get worse in good care before they get better.

I do not have definitive answers to some of these important questions but I think the topic is of great value- especially to those who are trying to keep their horse partners balanced, healthy and happy with long careers.

If you haven’t already subscribed to Hope Horsemanship’s blog- check out the links of Am I Safe (it’s a 3-part blog) and if you like it what you see on the HH website then please do subscribe!

Am I safe? (part 1)

Am I Safe? (Part 2)

Am I Safe? Conclusion (part 3)

Hopehorsemanship .com

And then there was one…

On Sunday afternoon, hours after the Big South Fork event was wrapped up I found myself (along with Khaleesi and Samwise) completely alone in the big field that had been pretty packed with people and horses for the past couple days. As I pondered feeling quite alone at the moment the thought came to me that seemed to sum up the experience: And then there was one…


Saturday morning at 6:30am there were eight competitors that rode out of camp in the dark to begin the 100 mile course that had to be completed in 24 hours or less ending with a healthy, sound horse in order to be a finisher. A pretty average 100 mile rides completion rate is somewhere in the 50-70% give or take. Some rides are not average at all. This was one of them. As the day wore on people were pulled from the race one by one until there were only three of us… and then (I don’t know the exact order in time) Holly & Poete finished the ride healthy and sound, and the other team was pulled. And then there was only us. Me and K still out there riding around the trails alone in the dark hoping maybe we might beat the odds.

…. And then there was one.

We did not beat the odds, and only one out of eight finished the 100 miles of Big South Fork (BSF) 2022 (Holly & Poete). Those are unusually bad statistics for a 100 mile endurance ride. We ended up riding (because of the added mileage of going off course) about 88 miles and she was vetted fit to continue with one loop to go. The ride manager and vet told us that officially we were cleared to go back out there, however it was clear the 2 hours remaining was not enough time for us to do the last 17 miles so we chose to pull out instead. Some quick details and a compilation video are in the last blog here: The Journey of Big South Fork.

So Sunday there we were, having ridden about 22 hours and with me on 3 hours sleep it was unwise to attempt the 9 hour drive home no matter how good Khaleesi looked it was unwise to load her up and go that far as well. And since no one else needed to lay over an extra day for recovery, there was only us.

I found it oddly more unnerving to be alone in ride camp than to be riding at 3am alone (and off trail) in the woods and that was surprising to me. The unease never left and the incoming storms forecasted didn’t help at all. In mid-afternoon Khaleesi got a foot in the fence, pulled it all out of joint, then in the pouring rain of a passing shower looked around at the open space and wandered off to find better grass. It was at that point I began to take stock of my concerns of being alone there with my horse through the night of potential storms and rain and I decided to find new options.

Turns out that Brandea and Molly (and family) were only 3 1/2 hours drive away and they could house both human and horse (and dog!) so I made the phone call, packed up as fast as I could and we got on the road. I am so glad I did because K had shelter and some buddies though we kept them in separate areas, and I had a bed and peace of mind. Also we got to catch up — best friends who have been separated by geography are always grateful for that.

As for the ride, I am still astounded at the strange mixture of failure and victory, with the sense of victory heavily outweighing the obvious failure.

The fact is that K and I did not see the finish line and without question that is a fail to complete. Ironically this turbulent ride season of 2022 began with another fail to complete. However, at the Biltmore even though we rode every mile to the finish line, K had enough distress (that I had caused unintentionally) her heart rate would not stay in the parameters and instead of a completion we got a walk to the treatment vet. I was deeply aware of how strong and willing my horse was, I learned important lessons and found some bonus humility, but I didn’t consider it a victory.

In the BSF ride we did not ride the entire 100 miles, but there were many valuable jewels for us in the process that I can’t help but feel it deeply as a personal win even if it isn’t a public one.

Photo by Becky Pearman

Here are my personal ‘wins’

First: it was the most miles we have ever ridden, paired with the longest amount of hours in the saddle. We took on beyond the 50 and in way more strength than I anticipated. We both were uncomfortable (to put it mildly) and yet we both kept going without complaint. Considering this was really MY goal as the human I was surprised at how willing Khaleesi was to continue going away from camp, mostly alone, to keep riding in circles eventually even into the dark. Looking back I’m also a little surprised at the positive attitude I had through six hours of rain, pain in various parts of my body, exhaustion, and getting lost- alone in the woods on the wrong trail at 3am.

Vet hold in the rain only slightly miserable.

Second: The surprisingly low completion rate for this ride. All day long one rider after another were pulled out of the ride for various reasons and yet we hung in there the longest of the non-completers. Ironically, getting lost earned us a handful of extra miles so though we didn’t get to 100 we got closer than we would have had we not stayed on trail! Somehow that little bonus makes me smile. It might be the only time going off trail feels like a personal win!

You can imagine the yellow, pink, black, red intersections at night could get tricky…

Third: through all the mileage and terrain, Khaleesi kept pounding through the vet checks like a pro. At first I delayed bringing her to pulse because I could not find a pulse, and considering we generally trotted into camp I assumed she COULD NOT be down to 60 (required) with just pulling tack. Apparently, the pulse takers said she can be hard to pick up, but every time she was down faster than I expected. Her CRI all day stayed the same: 56/60 pretty much right off trail. Though she never ate on trail until it got dark, somehow her gut sounds were always solid and she had good hydration. Her trot outs practically drug me down and back and I never had to “encourage” her to move. She ate like a monster in every hold. Healthy horse is a victory to me even if we went overtime.

She just kept eating at every hold

Fourth: The holds went really smoothly. My crew- Iva and Mike – were fantastic. Between the two of them they did the divide and conquer like they’d been doing this for years. I really appreciated the sense of calm that rested over our camp/crew set up. Nothing felt particularly hurried or slow. We always left at our out time, and everything got done including time for me to sit and rest while they took care of K’s needs and mine too. I am so grateful for them.

Crew camp, Iva kept the whiteboard updated

Fifth: Overall strength paired (physical) with “buy-in” on trail (mental). In reflection, I don’t think there were even three times in the entire 22 hours when I had to more than suggest for her to pick up speed. She and I seemed in agreement over almost all the terrain and speed in which to cover it. The only exception to this is the first loop when as usual she wanted to go even faster than I thought was prudent. I don’t fight with her, but I negotiated a fair amount. Because the start was in the dark I hadn’t realized that we were by riding along with Holly & Poete we were the leaders for about 2/3 of the first loop (a rider number checkpoint). I took an extra minute to electrolyte after the river crossing and encourage a drink and a few carrots as I intentionally waited for the pair move on. I did not want K to feel obligated to stay with that pair today. Not on a first 100.

River crossing with Holly and Poete Photo by Becky Pearman

It was going to be a long day and I needed money in the bank for the checks I was hoping to cash in much later in the day (night). It isn’t wrong to encourage a horse to pick up the pace. This is the first ride I really never had to ask, only to think it. She caught me before an aid or suggested it herself all those miles.

Photo by Becky Pearman

I do believe this willingness to offer and be so in harmony with me is in large part due to the increase of freedom work and the concepts of sharing the leadership from Andrea Wady’s resources and making sure there’s always an answer of some sort to what’s in it for her?

Still, no amount of willingness or friendship can overcome a fitness deficit. The longest ride we had done outside of the events this year (Biltmore 50 in May and OD 55 in June) was 16-17 miles. Most of our time was spent slowly climbing mountains sometimes on foot sometimes in the saddle with an occasional high intensity workout on the scenic trail often 8-12 miles of cantering and trotting intervals I had a theory that slower miles building her engine (zone 2) and some high intensity (zone 5-6) to push limits—avoiding training like I’d be riding at the event (zone 3-4 workouts in no mans land). I was willing to invest my time into it, but not certain how powerful I was until it was tested. You can read more about how we are training now in this blog link: No man’s land.

I wouldn’t want to skim over the impact working with Emily Kemp over the years to get both me and K moving more correctly in balance. That has been a huge factor.

Photo by Becky Pearman

The strength she moved through the ride told me what I needed to know. Much of her trotting over miles was balanced and efficient, even easy to sit which helped me not exhaust one diagonal over another. And contrary to my expectations, she never hit a wall 

Probably the icing on top that put us over the top I owe to Stephanie Carter and Dr. Ann Marie Hancock at True North Veterinary Services. Working together in whole horse functional medicine, a hair mineral analysis test and consult took my pretty good diet and supplementing plan and tweaked it to ensure she was going into this ride with nutritional support to spare. Though she appeared healthy on the outside, the hair analysis suggested she could be on the verge of adrenal fatigue. This would not have been obvious until it became a problem, and at that point it would be a bigger problem that would take time and support.

She is increasingly less grumpy!

Besides ensuring her nutritional support was more than adequate I looked to stress factors in her everyday life and the biggest one is the emotional weight she carries of the herd. I know she is a high level herd leader and in years past have been told by other professionals that her rest-digest system is maxed out most of the time. She is always “on” and doesn’t share the leadership with the rest of the herd.

This summer I began to solve two problems at once: too much high nutrition pasture is available and she isn’t finding enough rest in her life. I began to bring the herd into their barn stalls at night forcing everyone to rest and giving K some downtime, also bonus diet plan where they are not eating grass all night. If everyone is locked in their stalls in the barn K doesn’t have to work as hard to stay on alert keeping the herd safe. I thought she would hate being confined, but after a few weeks she began bringing everyone in at night and she is the first one to voluntarily come in with the others not far behind. Getting some extra rest I find she is even a little less grumpy!

So the victory I found at BSF was confirmation that the things I’m doing are going in the right direction. I’ve also considered the question: what if I had signed up for the 75? We might have finished that distance and been more successful even earning a finish. I believe if we would have been successful at the 75 I would have been disappointed. I think it would have plagued me to know if we could have gone “all the way” especially if she ran strong through the 75. I am less concerned about a ride record and points than the process and the journey.

We are close. Man makes plans, but God establishes our steps. It’s a little soon to be certain, but tentatively I intend to head to JD’s ride in November and am likely to go ahead and enter the 75 so we have another ride over 50. We will continue to train with a lot of hiking through winter, climbing the mountains slowly and getting some high intensity workouts as the conditions allow. Schedule depending we will do some spring events hopefully including Biltmore which is a favorite and it seems that the bulk of the advice I keep hearing is that the OD100 is a good bet for us so if things continue as expected that seems the most likely path for us to get it done.

In truth I kind of like being able to say still… to be continued…

Thank you!

Another nod to my fabulous crew!

It’s always dangerous to try to do a thank you because there are so many people who were part of us getting to the ride, equipped and ready to ride over the years… But I want to try because I’ve been very grateful for each one:

Mike Scales & Iva Jamison foremost because I cannot imagine doing that without you there as my hands and feet… crew is so key; but beyond crew you both have really been on this journey in the trenches. You guys are amazing.

Molly, Brandea & the Reeds, Marcus Wise, Emily Kemp, Amy Stone, Linda & Randy Webb, Kate Lawrence, Lynne Gilbert, Kelly Stoneburner, Stephanie Carter & Dr. Ann Marie, Karin Banks, Becky Pearman, Danny & Kim Rexrode, Caroline McClung, the Alleghany Highlands Trail Club, Shelley Polly, Amanda Ferguson, Carrington Brown & Dabney Pasco, Laurie Tillet & Tim Bowler, and then there’s the people who have showed up to crew for us in years past, who have encouraged us, who have shared trails with us, who have prayed for us, who have read this blog and quietly rooted for us that I’ve never met…

I want to say thank you because all of these pieces of support make a difference and we ride with a beautiful multi dimensional foundation! It is a beautiful community over years and we are the better for it!

The Journey of BSF 2022

September 14, 2022

Hello Green to 100 friends!

I am working on a reflective update on the lessons and victories of Big South Fork 2022, but meanwhile I’ve compiled a video journey you can enjoy that tells much of the surface story.

In short: 88 miles (an odd accumulation due to going off course on the last loop we rode) in about 22 hours. Khaleesi was counted fit to continue and was all As at 4:18am at our last vet check where we pulled as a rider option because the vet and manager told us officially we are free to go back out. The last loop was going to take more than the roughly 2 hours we had on the clock so we pulled voluntarily – healthy horse happy rider – happier crew and staff too I’m sure!

The videos were taken for my TicTok uploads so they are vertical instead of landscape which is why you’ll have the slightly awkward viewing on a screen for a longer form, and I threw it together as efficiently as possible so bear with any imperfections- all the videos are unedited live shots at the time… forgive the amount of times I repeat words at 2:30am such as fabulous and super… at least I’m not repeating words like painful and frustrating!

In fact as I reflect from making this video today I realize that it’s a really positive piece considering the amount of hours I was awake and the amount of painful things I was actually experiencing (hurting calves, incredibly sore butt being the foremost ones). It is the real-live thing, I didn’t edit out anything negative- except the concern I began to have on Sunday after the ride when we had storms rolling in. I did not video that process mostly because I was just trying to decide how to manage it and it didn’t occur to me it could be the most dramatic part of the day- but we still came up with a positive solution and all was well!

I will leave the rest of the deeper details to the blog post. For now, here’s the video link to YouTube. It’s a 5-day journey centered around the actual ride in about 14 minutes. I hope you enjoy the ride!

To link to the video click here:

Some trust in horses…

As long as the vet-in this afternoon holds no surprises, we have at least made it to the start of attempt #2 at the single-day 100 mile ride here at Big South Fork Recreation Area in TN.

If we were signed up for the 50 I would say I feel pretty confident that barring the unexpected we should finish and have a fun day. That is based on past experience and where she is in her fitness and training now.

But we aren’t signed up for the 50. And we have yet to complete a 100, so I don’t have any experience to rely on as of yet, and I just don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Which is exciting and a little terrifying if I think too much about it.

So instead I just do what is next and I plan to ride tomorrow as much in the moment as possible doing the next thing until we can’t do the next thing anymore and we stop and go to bed.

I took a look today at the ride map and loop lengths and all are under 20 miles. Any one of those loops we can accomplish. So we just need to string them together all in one day. Simple. Kind of. But that is how I plan to do it. One loop at a time. Giving it our best and having curiosity about what the day brings and not expectations or pressure to see the finish line.

We will or we won’t and as I waved a good ride to Claire out today on the 50 she said: how can it not be, it’s me and my best friend enjoying beautiful trails! And maybe that’s one reason I instinctively like Claire. Maybe it’s really that simple.

So I frothed up an aeropress oat milk latte this morning and took a look at Psalm 20 inspired by my rider number (number 20). I was pleased to read these lines.

May the Lord grant you your heart’s desire and fulfill all your plans! May we shout for joy over your salvation, and in the name of our God set up our banners! May the Lord fulfill all your petitions! Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed; he will answer him from his holy heaven with the saving might of his right hand. Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.‭‭

Psalm‬ ‭20:4-7‬ ‭ESV‬‬

It’s a good banner to ride under. In truth, I can ready my horse for battle, but in the end the battle always belongs to God if I’m wise about it. I will walk or trot or canter each mile with the expectation that he goes before me and behind me showing me the way and acting as my rear guard. Whatever comes we will take it on with as much grace as we are given.

And the story is always… to be continued.