This season I am committed to offering Khaleesi as much choice as she can possibly have, as is my habit: to the very edge and sometimes probably over the edge depending on where you’re looking at it from. I am also committed to approaching this season differently than I have in the past such as: I am entirely less interested in miles and a training schedule… and much less interested in what I can get out of her than finding out just what she has to offer me.
I took a risk this winter on a total four month riding break where I did 100% free choice, no halters allowed, liberty work. So if she wasn’t interested voluntarily then nothing happened. This is how I wanted to begin the year for us, in many ways like a Shabbat… and it was evening and it was morning… Jewish culture begins the day at sundown unlike our ‘hit the ground running’ western cultural view. I am beginning to think everything of value begins with intentional rest.
Yet the concept of Shabbat is not about merely resting. It is a purposeful decision to stop the frantic busy pace we think we must sustain in order to be successful, and to make time for what is more important. Shabbat is about connection even more than rest. Intentional peace and a reminder that we are not gods- that we do not actually hold the universe singlehandedly on its course. It is an act of trust that we can stop the spinning to see what is really available, and usually find we are actually better off for it.
The investment felt costly to me. It was a risk to not do the “normal” things to move toward a goal in the predatory straight line thinking human kind of way. For me TIME is always a costly investment. I may not have a lot of money, but even so at least it is replaceable. Time is only redeemed through the very creator himself- for me it is the most valuable thing I have to offer, and the thing my horses all require the most sacrifice of from me.
The last thing I wanted to see was the costly investment I made this winter in our connection and relationship get instantly flushed down the toiled as I returned to my normal ways of rushing around training lots of miles, forgetting what really matters and expecting her to just be on board… I mean I feed her don’t I? Doesn’t she realize she owes me her entire life? [that was sarcasm in case it doesn’t come through in print]
Thus I’ve been intentional about how we’ve returned to work, and allowing her as much choice as possible has been a new foundational piece, well, let me restate that: I am significantly expanding what I thought was the amount I could allow her to choose.
The only thing it’s cost me thus far is time.
And this mare is worth every extra minute I honor her with. So I’ll pay that gladly.
Today I was pleased with the picture that is coming into focus. Here is what it looked like in a snapshot.
I arrived with the truck and trailer to feed, this usually tips my observant and wise mare off that someone is going somewhere.
Feed the horses free in the field as always, knowing full well she is likely to be suspicious of the trailer- still will never use a feeding to “trap” her and all horses eat as usual.
Khaleesi surprises me by hanging close to me after breakfast (this is unusual)- so I take a few minutes and grab her halter- we do some positive reinforcement chatting around her interest in the halter. However I want to load my tack before I put her in the halter, so I know for certain these conversations will not end with her haltered. It’s just chatting for sake of chatting. (Old Jaime would consider this a time waste)
After a few minutes I walk off to finish my chores and assemble her tack for my planned 12 mile ride. When I return to the field she and the herd have crossed the “moat” and are in the far corner (of course) I smile, because it doesn’t matter where she goes- I will pursue- it just means I get a little extra walk in today, and honestly, I can use it.
I use the far gate so I don’t have to swim the moat and approach but do not completely close the gap between us. She is smart, and she already knows she’s going somewhere today, but she seems to enjoy the pursuit this season. For a while I was curious as to why she appears to like interacting with me, and yet she would still walk away and I had to learn this “pursue” concept. Then Iva observed: Jaime, I think she actually likes this part… when you go find her in the field and have the whole conversation around her leaving with you… it’s interaction she seems to look forward to… I have come to see there is truth in it. My mare likes the pursuit. The interactions we have before I hook her up and go about my business. This part of the process is really all about her and asking how she is doing today and what’s on her mind.
So I pause a few feet away from her and she looks at me. I hold out the halter toward her in my hand and she takes a step toward me and touches it with her nose. We spend a few minutes doing positive reinforcement until I make a large circle in front of her with my arm and the halter and she dives her nose all the way in- only then do I put the halter on. Her choice.
I begin to walk and she does not. I turn to her and invite her toward me. She comes a few steps and we have a chat about leaving the field together. She is well trained, I can drive her with my lead rope, I could add pressure from the halter- these would have her obediently walking with me, but I don’t do any of those. I continue to invite and discuss. Soon she is walking next to me as we head toward the gate. Her choice.
Right now the grass outside the gate is lush and sweet. After I get the gate shut I allow for a few bites here and there as we meander toward the barn and trailer. Purposefully suggesting she get a few bites here and there. Here is where my predator straight line thinking is the most challenged! I can promise you this is completely against my own instincts and grain to allow my horse to eat grass and wander toward the trailer instead of hiking over there toot suite and yet this lingering is one of her favorite things. When I do suggest we continue to walk- she always goes with me. Her choice.
Then I do as much of the curry comb shedding and quick grooming possible while she is munching on the favorite grass near the trailer because she absolutely has no interest in being groomed ever, and though I can insist she stands quietly while I do it, she will graciously allow me to get every flake of mud off without complaint if she can respectfully munch while I get that done. I am not ok with her being out of control eating and dragging me around so that I cannot do my grooming- so we negotiate terms here, she cooperates pretty nicely. Her choice.
Now it’s time to go, so I walk over to the trailer. For a few years she has been a fabulous easy loader. I send her right on and if she balks at me, I just add pressure and she obeys. She knows where it’s going to end and it’s never worth the extra energy to fight me. However a couple weeks back she did balk and resist loading just a little. That time I tried something also unlike me- I took a step back. I told her I know she has concerns about her herd- I would too if I were her, I mean we leave Wyoming in charge for goodness sake! No one including Wyoming loves that. However, I think they will all be safe, and Wyoming will survive, so here… focus on me and lets do this together. So instead of sending her on with additional pressure, I get on and invite her in, but I do not add pressure. And I wait. I only ask that she stay focused on me- not the herd or distractions. Today that process took three minutes.
For a horse that has loaded in 13 seconds, three minutes is a long time I suppose to wait, but the process is worth it, because instead of her loading despite her internal resistance, she pauses, drops her head, goes deep away inside with her eyes rolled back, and seems to be completely blown away that I am asking her and in a way that communicates: take as long as you need. When she comes back from that deep thought state, she calmly steps onto the ramp and loads without any stress or resistance in her body. Her choice.
For tack, sometimes I find she takes the bit on her own and sometimes she avoids it. Because I can ride her safely and effectively in a halter, right now I allow her full choice each ride to take the bit or leave it. Today she said no thanks- so I put the headstall and bit back in the truck and we headed out halter only. Her choice.
This day I decided to do the miles at whatever speed she offered and see what came. In years past I had goals in mind, how fast we should be able to go through the terrain so we can build on whatever we had previously because we are green to 100 not “green to whatever happens.” I mean if I left it up to her we could end up walking 12 miles right? So what? What if today we walked 12 miles? Is that really the end of the world? So I took the worst case and make it my expectation and made friends with it, and off we went.
The start of the 12 miles is a big climb so it was very appropriate to walk. However I found to my delight that many times on the first half of the ride (all the climbing is in the first section, and the road was improved with the big quartz rock making sections of it rought footing), yet when she could I was pleased to see she offered me lovely strong trotting sections and a surprising amount of balanced voluntary cantering. I tucked away my phone with GPS and clock on purpose in my backpack so I could not see miles or time, instead I focused on quality of balance (she seems to be pushing her ribcage out to the right lately) and paid attention to her energy leaks and when I did that it was amazing how she became more forward in a relaxed and balanced form and then got faster and faster. At the end she was close to a 5 mph average pace without me ever asking for her to move faster and always allowing her to transition downward if she asked to. Her choice.
Many horses I am learning, Khaleesi in particular, get rigid under force. I think many riders can feel some physical brace, but there are also mental and emotional bracing that happen when they are forced through their human activities and they all connect. A horse that is bracey cannot use their body fully for strength and efficiency. As I look in and around me I do think we humans are so used to getting things done many of us don’t know what a soft and “through moving” horse feels like. Horses live out an extreme amount of grace and I think they can fool us to think they are willing when they are obedient, or well trained, but hold resistance within, Today I would say if you have to use a tool to get something done (stronger bit, martingale, spurs, chain on the lead rope would be examples), this is probably a place of force and brace that could be smoothed out for improvement. There are tools that give us better communication for clarity (a rope halter, a dressage stick?) that can also be instruments of force, and I think deep down we know which is which. It is possible there are times to need tools, but consider asking the important question: who do they serve?
Do the tools serve me getting a shortcut to my goals? I mean the finish line, the ribbons, the graduating to the next level, or even getting to ride with friends when my horse is not actually mentally or physically ready for that group…. Those are so important right? And who has the time to work together with the horse to get them on the same page in the gradual time consuming way it takes for us both to learn to do better? It’s true: better riding and handling skills take us time to learn, and then getting the horse to accept a new way of operating, and to accept that we have also changed and gotten better… that also takes time.
Is it worth it?
I can’t answer that for anyone but me.
The beauty of the entire process in this day was her connection to me. She was relaxed, I am smoothing out the braces. She has more buy in to everything we are doing than ever before. I will continue to get her out for physical work, the strength she has right now didn’t come from running miles, it came from walking a ton of them properly, in balance, on the trail and in an arena where we could focus. We walked a ton of junk miles in years past without an understanding of balance and form and those did not serve us. Intentional riding is what has.
What I need to add now is a return of the cardio and stamina capacity she had last season. What I am seeing is the efficiency that comes from the strength she’s developed appears to be making the process of getting fitness faster. I have never developed a season this way before and I don’t yet know what will come of it.
But I’m happy enough with what I’m seeing to set our sights on Biltmore in May and test it out. For now we are going to drag ride the Old Dominion No Frills ride this weekend (two days). I find a lot of value in going to the ride to NOT compete. It changes her mental attitude toward the weekends and gives her variety – meaning every time I load up the trailer with all the gear and then her, we aren’t doing 50 or 55 miles working hard, sometimes we have the fun of all the energy of all the horses and we just do 15-18 miles and come in intentionally last. I can do those miles alone at home easily, but it isn’t the same. I think drag riding when offered is a wonderful gift in the development of a solid endurance horse personally and I’m grateful that OD rides still use drag riders.
Khaleesi is thriving so far this year, on all integrated fronts: Physical, Mental and Emotional. Having her voice heard and honored hasn’t left us lost and wandering, in fact it’s made her more likely to offer me what I really want from her anyway. The trust that she is on my side is paying off in spades. The bigger picture though is about the human. Working to honor her more and more each year has made me better.
Considering she’s pretty much always been fabulous, it seems the changes in me that have the potential to really up our game. I’m sure she’s glad I’m catching on!