Green for green

I’ve been holding my ride season plans this year with a loose grip. 

After wrapping up last season with a good ride though unsuccessful finish at Big South Fork (BSF), it became clear we are very close to a successful single day 100. An experienced veteran of the sport came to chat after BSF and encouraged me that Khaleesi seemed like a solid horse, and was wondering: what was my plan for “getting this done?” I didn’t have a plan at the moment only hours after not getting it done, but I asked her for some thoughts.

She highly encouraged me to attempt the Old Dominion (OD) 100 the following June. She took time to explain why she thought it would be a do-able ride for us, and was really encouraging. I was grateful she took the time to share her insight and tucked the ideas in my brain. Over the winter, I decided to give the goal of OD 100 plan a try and we got an early start with the No Frills 55 (which includes some of the OD 100 course) in April, then headed straight (do not pass go… do not change shoes…) to the Biltmore 55 the first weekend of May. My intent going into 2023 was IF we successfully completed those two early rides we would enter the OD 100 in June.

That was until we came through the horrible horrible (“mail trail”) loop in the No Frills ride. That loop felt like it would never end, it sucked the entire life out of me trying to encourage my horse not to stop on the side of the rocky mountain trail and wait for the vultures to come pick us apart. For real… in the moment it was that bad. In that moment I said: there IS NO WAY we are doing the OD 100. Khaleesi hates navigating and climbing the mountains over rocks. This is miserable. For both of us… why would we do this? 

Decision made (in the moment of when you should not make any real decision being tired, angry, hungry, frustrated)

We did finish the No Frills 55 and had good remarks from the final vet at how good my horse looked after that grueling ride. This was small consolation, though the finish line WAS the sweetest sight I’d seen in a long time that day.

I decided in the aftermath of misery that was the overlapping loop of the OD 100- I had lost my mind over the winter to think we should try the OD 100. So I went back to do what is fun for us… Big South Fork!

It seemed like wisdom to me. It seemed like a good plan to me. I felt… well… 

The truth is I’ve never felt very certain about anything this year. 

I’ve felt that it will be a good year for us, but I haven’t felt a clarity about what that will look like. I never felt that sure about the OD 100 plan, and when I switched the BSF, I didn’t feel all that much more certain about that. In the absence of “feeling certain” I went with logic. The BSF plan made sense to me in my head. 

Recently I was doing some fall planning and wanted to be certain I had the correct weekend marked off for the ride, so I looked at the ride calendar and found… to my surprise, but really, deep down, not that surprised: no 100 mile ride being offered this September at Big South Fork.

Of course not.

If I wasn’t certain before, this helped clarify: If we are doing 100 this year, it is NOT going to be at BSF.

So I weaseled my way mentally for about 2 minutes through other ideas. What about Vermont? I’ve heard that ride is awesome… That just seemed like an overwhelming undertaking- it’s so far, and I think you need crew there as it’s not a return to base camp ride. I considered the new 100 this summer in Southern VA a few friends were looking forward to doing… but we’ve avoided that ride as it’s in the worst heat of August, and in Southern VA it’s miserably hot, and I’ve never really loved the trails or the ride enough to go out of my way… I just did not think that was a good option. Expand my reach? Head out west? 

What am I doing?

I don’t want to take on a complete unknown 100. I knew Big South Fork, and the truth is, I know about 70% of the Old Dominion trail from events and a segment I’ve drag ridden twice. I know almost all the vet checks, and I’ve crewed for the ride. The very first ride I ever volunteered for so I could learn about the sport before trying it myself was scribing for the 100 at the side of the King of Birdhaven (Ric Birks) I believe back in 2015.

It finally settled in for certain. OD 100 is the plan. 

It probably always was ever since I brought home the feral 4 year old mare. I read an article in our local electric cooperative magazine about a woman who kept trying year after year to complete a single-day 100 mile ride called the Old Dominion 100 and finally her dream came true… I had never heard of endurance riding before that and thought it was fascinating… so within the first week I had Khaleesi in her new home with me, and couldn’t even get my hands on the feral creature in the little pen yet… in the days I could only toss a hay pile and sit in her pen reading a book and drinking my coffee… when someone at a small dinner party asked me a question no one before or since has ever asked (What do you plan to do with that horse you just brought home?) I answered: I’m going to take her from an unstarted and basically feral filly to completing a single day 100-mile endurance ride.

Day one… just off the trailer. July 20, 2014

And then I wondered what I had just said, and why I had said it. Because I didn’t even know it until that moment.

So, maybe the OD 100 has always been the plan.

Now we are three weeks away from the day when we will (God willing) cross the starting line for that ride. Though when I think specifically about it I usually want to throw up… I also have a confidence that this is what we’re meant to do, and cross the starting line is all I can be sure of. The rest is going to have to be grace.

The confidence has been growing after I made the call and registered us for the ride (before I could talk myself out of it). I am seeing all green lights for team green to 100.

— First we came through the first two season rides strong. The No Frills 55 wasn’t impressive for time or rank, but she held true to form trotting in good balance the entire 9 miles back to camp on the last loop. Not exciting, but solid.  The Biltmore 55 was a nice surprise – we finished in 7th place, and again the horse was in really good shape which is what I need to see. Two serious 55 mile rides with different challenges that she came through with zero back sensitivity, ‘A’ scores on hydration, solid gut sounds, no issues with anal tone (muscles) or a question of lameness in gait. Neither heart rate recovery was exceptional but again- very solid and easily within parameters.  

She is finishing these rides with time left on the clock this year with less signs of wear than ever before. Green light.

— Another green light came from the Biltmore 55.

I have been working with Stephanie Carter of Indigo Ancestral Health (in connection with True North Equine Veterinary Services) for a year, getting a picture of what is going on internally. We have done two hair mineral analysis tests and have been addressing any source of inflammation and eradicating it best we can. I hope to have a long career with Khaleesi- and I want a strong, powerful partner who is fully supported in every way I can.

Stephanie helped me adjust micronutrient balance based on what her hair testing showed, and after the second test it appeared that she was improving on balance, but had issues with absorption and her hind gut wasn’t as healthy as we would have expected. I had concerns about iron levels in the well water that is at the barn we are currently residing, so decided to test the water to. I found no iron, but unexpectedly I found substantial levels of chlorine and chlorine dioxide in the water. 

I do not know why, and when I tested the spring water in another part of the farm, no chlorine. When I tested my home spring water, no chlorine. So regardless of how accurate the home test is, it is able to show a reading of zero, and a reading of “this is higher than the safety window” for the water my horses had been on for about 18 months.

This would explain why her hindgut was slow to catch up to the changes we had made. She’s had low grade chlorine poisoning killing off the good bacteria needed for a healthy hindgut. I solved that issue pronto, but redeveloping hindgut health takes time and we can support it, but we can’t zap it instantly into balance. 

Supporting a performing horse nutritionally is just as dicey as deciding on a good diet for an athletic human. There are tons of opinions and lots of “science” that give us conflicting and confusing information. I’ve felt confident working with Stephanie because I have an underlying belief that simple, forage based, ancestral focused diet, with the addition of micronutrients is what I wanted. I also have a personal bias that human processed foods are causing disease, inflammation and degeneration. And I have come to believe that our animal processed foods are not doing us any favors as well. With the exception of my cat — who refuses to get off the Doritos (and cats get what they want)—  I don’t do it anymore. My dogs and horses are on as clean diets as possible with “real” food, and I’ve seen enough of the evidence for this being a game changer that no “science argument” could ever make me unsee what I’ve seen.

At the Biltmore weekend there was a research project on gut permeability in equine athletes and we were given the opportunity to volunteer. There would be blood drawn day before the ride, morning of the ride, after the second vet check, after the ride, and the day following the ride. This is a lot of poking at my horse on a day I need her to focus and not be in a poor mood, but they offered us a carrot so to speak: They would give us a pre-ride and post-ride blood panel. I decided the data was worth the poking, so we enrolled in the study.

In less than two weeks the results came and I looked them over. Except that most of the numbers appeared basically in the expected range, I had no idea what they really meant. Thankfully I’ve been at this “what’s going on inside my horse” thing for a year now, and I sent them on to Stephanie and the True North Team. 

I was relieved when the response came!

The team is unanimous! The results are really positive- she is in great shape except some residual inflammation we believe is in detoxing [which we were aware of from the hair test- detoxing happens when the horse’s system is healthy enough to release stored toxins, so is a good sign but does tax the system]. Because she is headed to a strenuous event, lets put her on Organic Gut Solutions [which helps pull toxins so they don’t have to go through the liver and kidneys and reduces stress on the system]. Otherwise keep up the good work! Congratulations!

— Third green light for me, both No Frills and the Biltmore rides challenged our mental connection in different ways, and my aim this year has been to address the disconnect with leading, guiding, and offering instead of punishing, driving, or threatening.  I have found myself having to get pretty creative not to get something done the quick way by tapping into my horse’s prey drive which is much easier than offering a better deal and allowing her the freedom to choose. When she is dragging, I’ve seen now that often it isn’t that she’s tired, it’s that her mind was left behind and I need to find a way to bring it back, and see if it’ll engage us forward instead. This has meant a lot of creative thinking in the moment. I’m not sure I have it conquered, but I’m aware of it and we are improving together! I have seen new ground this year in our connection- and the confidence I have that we are a more powerful team is another green light I’ll move on.

— Finally, I didn’t want to attempt this ride without a crew- and a very helpful green light is that my ace crew Mike & Iva are on deck to support us. Mike has been with K and me since our post-covid return to competition and he has proven to be a god-send. He is also an extreme endurance sport guy (he has done some grueling mountain bike races of just under 300 miles across the VA highlands and set some records doing it on a single-speed). He knows a lot about the physical effects of endurance sports on the human, and has been a great help to me and given me key insights to helping Khaleesi in training and events as well. Bonus: he loves all animals including the horses and they love him too. He understands my approach with horsemanship and is one of the few people I completely entrust my horses to. Iva is quietly steadfast and unflappable. She has been along my horsemanship journey for years and she seems to fill every possible crack Mike might miss on a big ride. They are a good team and to know they’ll be there for me gives me confidence that I’ll have the best chance at getting this done.

So we are in the straight stretch toward the start line. It’s been a long journey and one I’ve hoped could be done in a way I could feel good about. Could we do it in good form? Could I do it not despite my horse but with her cooperation? Could we finish and I not feel like I had just beaten her up to achieve my goals? I don’t know if that will be true, but it has taken this long for me to see the green lights that at least make me think maybe we can. 

I’m really liking the side pull though we may try a different maker to find something less “clunky” going forward

It’s taken years to tweak the nutrition – having a horse who can absorb the nutrients is a huge step I’ve learned; then there’s the support so she shows up to the ride with correct balance and reserves in much needed calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium etc- we don’t want to play catch up to get through events. It’s taken time to get the composite shoe plan clicked in, the electrolyte balance. We’ve had to get saddle fit solid and up my own riding ability so that we are showing zero back soreness at the end of our 50s, the polarized training and amount of low-zone hiking we’re doing is a huge part of her physical development and muscling especially through the ribs and abs… the experience and experiments of riding in a halter, then a snaffle bit, to landing in the sweet spot of the side pull is a big plus for this season. And I believe one of the most vital keys has been the emphasis on our connection and mental game. 

family hiking days have been a key for our overall fitness work

The gradual and patient commitment to finding the balance of as much freedom as I can allow her combined with giving her clear leadership and direction. It’s been a long process trusting her with ever increasing responsibility and that if given the choice SHE WILL come along on her own decision. Increasing freedom generates increasing power- this is a long term play. Relationships cannot be rushed, and trust comes in time. Not only the trust I have in her, but the trust she has in me. On both sides it is easy to violate that trust and go backward- it only takes frustrated moments to feel rushed and the need to JUST GET THIS DONE for months of trust to be eroded in a moment. I have grown personally in prioritizing the long term dream that we can be real partners over anything I think needs to be rushed through when she IS NOT READY and I’d have to use a force card. Today the threshold for this is pretty life and death. We’d need a semi truck bearing down on us in a road for me to go there. At least most days! I am becoming more trustworthy all the time. 

We have committed to taking all of these things on in patience. The events are only the testing ground for the work that is our journey together every day. I don’t want an endurance horse, I don’t even care about having a 100 mile horse – I want a powerful horse and a true partner who can do anything we take on together. The events are great at revealing what is being developed. 

And so… we will show up and I can say for sure, we’ll give it our level best. And we’ll let you know how the showdown with the Beast of the East goes.

The Key

May 10, 2023

I had all the good intentions to give a more details write up from the No Frills ride in mid-April after posting the video clips, but ended up finding more contemplation from that ride fitting for the blog I release through the website for the book I published (The Jael Finishing School for Ladies) — relating to life lessons not usually horse related. And so you could peruse that post here if you were interesting in those sorts of musings:

Meanwhile life continues to pick up on all fronts here at this end of nowhere that I call home and I let the video clips stand as the best representation of how the day went for us in the No Frills 55 for 2023. In short, the weekend was challenging, but we just kept moving until we finished and vetted through successfully for a positive start to the 2023 season.

Before we knew it we were at the door of the Biltmore weekend and hit the road to one of our favorite ride weekends practically in the neighborhood of dear friends Brandea & Abigail who were good enough to drop in to crew. I am so grateful for them- not only are they incredibly helpful around camp and manning the vet holds, but they are family for me and encouraging to my spirit to be around. They are a true blessing!

Khaleesi is sure her crew must have something better for her…

As challenging as the No Frills ride was, the Biltmore ride was equally smooth.

The start to the trip engaged a mental journey that I have been on for years about what we do with these equine creatures— what we should, or should not do with them. I have considered that they being an animal we invest in, should do what we ask of them- regardless of how fun and engaging they find the work… and I’ve swung at times to the opposite thought that they should only do what they are willing to do without force and given the ability to choose. That side gets difficult because most horses, if given a real choice, are likely to prefer field and friends and food to whatever adventure we have in mind for them. How on earth do I make getting on a trailer that the smart mare noticed had been packed full of event gear for the entire day previous, better than staying with the family and relaxing in the grass? 

I have come to a more balanced understanding currently that there are some parallels to a human journey, and without getting too anthropomorphically out of balance I hope (because a horse is not a human); I think we too, if given a real choice, might choose food and friends over a more difficult task that is set before us for some greater purpose if we were honest. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but our human brains are able to decide to take on a thing instead of not getting off the couch; oftentimes there is incentive behind the choice like needing resources (a job), or not wanting to be quite so unhealthy (exercise), or in the best cases answering a need someone else has (love) and so we get out of our comfort zones to whatever extent we will and do the thing before us. 

In some similar way I believe that a horse is meant to partner with us humans when done well. Unfortunately it’s often not done well (I am a living example of this at times), and to make an even more complex point, done well can be in the eye of the beholder and have a sliding scale depending on the horse, the human, the circumstance, and the beholder. Khaleesi and I engage in a sport that is challenging and I believe the mare to be equal to the challenge if supported by her wise and honorable human (that would be me in case you’re wondering). And so with greater confidence than I’ve had in previous years of doubt, when she asked me at the ramp of the trailer: do we really have to do this thing? I was able to reply: yes, we really do, and I promise in the end you will thrive and we will do it together, and it will be hard, but we will prevail- whatever comes. And I will do my best to honor you in the journey best I can. Now lets go.

And after being satisfied with my answer, on the trailer she walked… slow and relaxed… as she does all things she is not afraid of.

I never arrive early enough to this ride to get a spot in main camp, but I’ve begun to like the relaxed setting of satellite camp. We don’t have designated spaces here and can spread out. It’s a farther walk to main camp and the activities, but that is a small price to pay. Camp is along the French Broad River on the Biltmore Estate Equestrian Center. There was a beautiful full moon that came up while we settled in with our late dinner and except a brief time K was unusually unsettled for a reason we never understood (and after I took her out for a hand walk she reentered), it was an easy lovely evening.

Ride day meant up before dawn getting prepared for the 7am ride start for the 55 mile competition. We all worked together easily to have me in the saddle by 6:30am and heading up to check in at main camp by the starting line.

Before the start

I realize many riders prefer to head out of camp in a leisurely relaxed manner after the first horses take up the immediately open trail. Khaleesi has very little race brain and tends to keep her head about her, we need all the incentive and all the clock time we can get, so I go out as soon as the trail is open for competition. I realize wise counsel often suggests holding the horse back so that later in the day there are yet some energy reserves to tap into. My particular horse doesn’t seem to tap out that deep resource and though she is not naturally a speedy equine, she does have longevity and if I can get some miles knocked out early in the cool of the day, I am apt to take it. Khaleesi is only 1/4 Arab (considering how solid her mind is I’ve had many a joke about the fact that her Arab and Saddlebred halves are not likey the genetics she is most closely associated) We have been known to put money in the time bank in the morning that she draws on when the heat of the day calls up the debt in the afternoon. It’s nice to have the padding.

We finished the roughly 15 mile loop in under two hours with an average speed of 8 mph. She didn’t feel exciting, but was solid and strong. Her pulse was down at 56 by the time we got the saddle off, and we had no trouble with the vet or the hold.

After the 50 minute mandatory hold we headed back out for the second and longest (22 mile) loop. This loop she was mentally not interested in going out to ride. I find it revealing that when her mind is not engaged in the work she can convince me she might die… Yet when we were overtaken by a small group of horses about six miles into the loop, she was clearly inspired and indeed she had plenty of life in her. It’s normal for us to ride the majority of an event alone, but the Biltmore has so many people doing various distances on various overlapping trails (25, 55, 75, 100 miles) we often rode along with people even for short stretches of overlapping trail.

This is one valuable key that has been in my mind for months. A horse will only perform as well as her mind is in the game. 

Since meeting Harry Whitney in February, when he talked about mental lameness, I had an “aha” moment about a strange phenomena I see on occasion that has, in years past, concerned me for a physical injury. It’s the mystery lameness that is hard to duplicate. Occasionally now, I can connect with times she is not thinking forward down the trail, she has this hop that comes in the trot that feels like she is going off. It shows up less and less over recent years, but I have still noticed it from time to time. Harry shared some experiences about similar strange gaits that no vet could sort out and no constructive farrier work could address; when he began to work with the horse focused on sorting out the issues in the horse’s mind, the lameness or gait dissolved and the horse came right. Now if that strange little gait appears I address it as a mental problem- her mind is somewhere else. I am not suggesting she is trying to trick me into thinking she is lame I am saying she is thinking backward, behind her where she left her mind at the trailer, at the barn, in the field or at camp, and the forward motion I am physically insisting on is in conflict with where her brain is. This can show up in a strange gait where the two worlds collide in an off-kilter hop that feels like a lameness. In short- the horse has lost her mind, and it’s my job to try to reunite them but getting her mind present with our bodies (because I’m not heading back to camp to retrieve it!). 

So I begin addressing her mental state which is not so simple to write about in a blog, and I’m still getting more proficient at, to encourage her to get with me, get her thoughts moving along the trail, and get back to work. When that happens the strange little hop gait does not reappear.

We finished the second loop in just under three hours with another smooth vet check and hold. Average speed for that according to the GPS was around 7.5mph which is pretty good for us.

Abigail sponging K while she eats grass at the second hold

The final loop is the long 18 miles. It’s long because it’s in the heat of the day, repeating the exit and return to camp trails, and though she was more willing this round to leave camp alone, she was not particularly enthousiastic about it. I have found myself in this same place from time to time in life- the job is not too hard, but it is bit tedious and so we just keep moving through without gusto because it will eventually end and the only way to get to the end is to go through. And so I reminded her to keep trotting, even if it’s slow, we just finish this last loop, and then you can relax, eat all you want, and take a nap. This loop she took a slight bit longer than the second, but an average pace of about 6.5mph which was respectable and got the job done. 

In the hair mineral analysis testing over the last year, her adrenal levels have suggested that she is a horse not prone to speed, but to endurance. It seems it’s preferable to have them more balanced, but considering this sport is endurance, and considering my hope is that we are able to compete the single-day 100 at some point, maybe I have just the right creature for it after all. I have noticed that she may not be flashy, but she can keep going. All through the day she reminded me of the energizer equine so to speak, she just kept going. Balanced, solid, true to form, steady, trotting along in a regular rhythm.

I have been working on polarized training with her now intentionally for about a year. I do notice a difference in the events we do. It worries me just a little because I do not feel the energized quickness I feel she had sometimes in years past- but that did not last all day. Now it’s less remarkable and exciting, but I am finding a depth that shows up to replace the eagerness I’ve felt before. So far it’s a depth that has served us until the finish line and I haven’t come to the end of it. I have been told this kind of training builds an engine. I have felt the freight train in times past, and that is exciting, now as we ride through the miles with less excitement, I felt instead the little engine that could. Less like the impressive bullet train, and more like the work engine that is dependable to carry the load across the miles and keeps chugging along though the changing scenery without faltering. She just keeps going.

When we crossed the finish line I was surprised to see we had finished in 7th place (out of 33 starting that morning). The ride did not feel particularly victorious as we went through it, and 7th place bumps us into the top 10 group which we are generally just out of (our usual finishes are in the teens, generally solid mid-pack).

Next we had to pass the final vet exam or the placement meant nothing. Once again this was smooth. I was particularly pleased how well she came through. In the last few miles I felt her begin to slow on steeper downhills taking more care, or she would slip on occasion which told me she was beginning to tire. I wondered if she was getting tight muscles from the constant up and down of the Biltmore trails. I also felt personally exhausted from her somewhat jarring trot (she has a decent trot, but it’s no western pleasure jog) and we’d been at it all day with very few intervals of cantering and even less walking. I try to sit the trot as often as it’s possible because of an imbalance I’m working on with her trot diagonals and a one-sided strength I built in years previous. All this to say, I also wondered how her back would feel from me attempting not always successfully to not bounce around on her yet stay loose and give her body the ability to move in the freedom she needs to work in strength and efficiency. Though I have come a long way, my riding still has room for improvement and I do get tired over time.

In the final vetting, I watched the vet (Ken) pressing all around her looking for any signs of pain or discomfort, and I was pleased to notice her relaxing into all the poking, prodding and pressing as if it might be a massage. Not a sign of back soreness and he gave her ‘A’ scores on muscle tone all around. Her legs were in good shape, hydration was an ‘A’, and gut sounds were decent (one quadrant was a “minus” the rest were “plus”).

She had eaten herself along the entire last loop which had been at times annoying for me trying to keep moving but I was glad to know she was feeling good because an exhausted horse will lose interest in food. Not only did we pass but he gave us a time to present for “Best Condition” which would be the horse that came through in the top 10 and finished also very strong. This would be our first time to show up for that potential honor and I was glad for the experience.

Once again: the mental key.

I knew my horse was in good shape and she spent the time window waiting for the best condition appearance eating grass and being brushed by Abigail who since we were not at our campsite used her own personal hairbrush. She was determined to ensure Khaleesi was well groomed and looking fabulous for the moment. Thank you Abigail, your efforts of caring for K through the day were over and above!

When we went to present it was in the very fancy dressage arena with the very expensive footing that had been closed off to general use. There was not a way we could have gone in there beforehand, nor did I consider trying. We entered and the examination began showing basically the same things the initial exam did- she was in good shape. Then we had to trot out and back, and around a large circle in both directions… Seeing the movement of the horse is a vital part of the scoring process and this is where I saw the mental part break down.

As we began to move through the arena which was littered with cones and other arena paraphernaliaa… and on the other side of the arena fencing were tents with vendors, cars and trailer and trucks moving about and in this slightly new environment my mare’s brain went all over the place… what is that white thing? Did that tent just flap in the breeze? Will it fly over here and crash into us? Where is my human going? Oops, I almost ran into her… oh! I just stepped on the orange cone and smashed it into the expensive blinding white footing… hey, she is running back now… better follow along or I’ll get yanked by the lead rope… wait, a circle, she’s changing sides- did I just almost hit her head with my chin?

Mid-cone-run-over moment we were not ‘together’ at all!

Oh yes, this is what our presenting was like. Considering I know what my mare can do when her brain is present- and I was not able to bring her back in that exact moment and do what we were called upon to do I had to laugh. It is good to see new things to grow into ahead of you.

On the point scoring side the fact we were about an hour behind the first horses to finish even if we were in fabulous shape we’d have to be exceptional to have taken this award- but the experience was really good for us. Ken was incredibly kind and lighthearted- first telling me that running over the cone is immediate disqualification which then he laughed and said of course not really… and he gave us great insights on how to present the horse at her best next time. He told us that considering we may find ourselves in this position now more often, we should practice and be ready.

I suppose time will tell.

Classic view

Regardless of where the path takes us on our journey to the single-day 100, I am grateful for the gift of a highly successful ride. I became aware after returning home that it as seven years ago that we took our first ride to the Biltmore to try for our first ride in the “50-mile” distance (it was a 55 mile) and this ride, seven years ago was our entrance into this sport’s foundational distance. Previously we had done the “Limited Distance” categories of 25/30 mile distances. Seven is a good number. It often symbolizes a completion (a seven day week…) sometimes a promise (seven colors in the rainbow)…

I am hopeful that the things we have spent years putting into practice, and believing that with patience in staying the course even as the improvement was slow, they would create a powerful horse that would continue to get better and not break her down for a relatively short career window and a horse with chronic injuries in the middle of her life. [I explain some of our foundational pillars in the post Top of the ninth if you want to go back to read it]

My hope is this commitment to doing things the slow, patient long way are beginning to bear fruit for us. I am excited about the key I believe gives access to all the important doors, the mind, and I’m looking forward to how increasingly learning to work this key will bring about more and more strength in my mare.

As a post-script, the other key from this weekend I believe, will come from our willingness to volunteer for a study that was offered. Blood and feces were taken at intervals to research the potential of gut permeability (leaky gut) in equine athletes. While the results of the study itself may take some time to see, each participant is getting a personal blood work panel including “a complete serum biochemistry panel including electrolytes, muscle enzymes, kidney values, and lactate before and after the race” which will come within 10 days of the event. Considering we have been working on the internal functional side of the horse for a year now addressing nutrition and whole health (including gut health and potential inflammation) I am really looking forward to what the blood work before (which would be “normal” for us) and after the ride tell us, and how that might instruct any changes to supporting Khaleesi both day to day (normal) and during a race.

Meanwhile… we relax a bit this week and try to get some early work done as we have a month until the Old Dominion weekend in June.

Photo credit Becky Pearman 2023

Thanks for coming along for the ride… until next time…


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)

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