Respect or Robot?

I was sent an interesting blog recently regarding learned helplessness in horses. I recommend it as food for thought and if you read it (including the two embedded links) you may find this post easier to track.

Learned Helplesness Blog

I was pondering in recent weeks how occasionally I’ve heard horse people talk about a horse so easy going anyone can ride him in just a halter… anyone can get out on the trail… he doesn’t take a bad step… easy to catch… bombproof… etc. and I thought about my own mare.

Well, I ride her in a halter… at endurance rides where there are lots of distractions and high energy… I can reliably bring her in from the field. I can do anything I need to do with her in confidence that even if it takes a moment to sort out, once she knows what I’m asking, and once she realizes I’m not going to give up, if she can do it– it will get done.

Photo credit: Dr Birks at the Fort Valley 50 start

Yet she’s not that horse mentioned above… the horse that anyone can catch and ride. I rarely allow anyone else to handle her at all and never let anyone else ride her. Actually on a couple occasions someone has tried to approach or catch her in the field… and considering they were horse professionals it was frustrating when they had absolutely no success:

She’s just a one person horse… she has no respect or fear of humans… she’s untrained…. she only likes women….

I’m certain there are people other than me who could approach and bring her in.

Would I put another rider on her in a halter to zip around for a ride?

No way.

I have no idea what would happen. It would completely depend on the rider. There are less than a handful I’d even consider. And I would be even less likely to allow a rider to use a metal bit at all. I am not certain our relationship would recover.

I have had my share of eye rolls… of people who think I’m in left field… and that my horse is badly behaved. Honestly at times she is.

What I have noticed is a pervasive sense of horse-folk seeing success with a horse equating with this thing they call respect. Which appears defined by most of them as a kind of immediate questionless obedience to every command.

More curious to me is that as I observe this in action over time… if I were to suggest that’s what they are aiming toward many of them would say of course it’s not….

I don’t want a robot! I want a free intelligent animal to partner with me… in exactly the way I ask every time without hesitation.

Oh right sorry. I misunderstood.

The other concept I notice is that safety becomes the buzz word.

You can’t let them do that it’s unsafe.

Well yeah. Actually being around horses at all is dangerous. Once you get on one that’s definitely dangerous. Who ever says otherwise has left all logic behind.

Of course we try to mitigate danger in as many ways as possible but being around horse people I’ve noticed that once you suggest something is dangerous it’s like going nuclear. Argument over.

I have often observed that dangerous to one horse person is often a calculated risk to another – and to a third it’s just a daily routine. (Crossing a road, riding bitless, jumping a fence, trail riding alone in the wilderness, not using cross ties… almost anything can fit this).

One of my favorite photos [Hughes Photography] of Tracie Falcone going over Cougar Rock in the Tevis Cup in a Balance Saddle and neck string. I’m sure she hits a few of the dangerous categories here!!

I started my journey into that vague thing I believed was possible with an I started basically feral 4-yr old mare and had never started a horse before. I’m about as unqualified as they come when you’re looking at horse trainer credentials.

Some people were sure that was dangerous.

They may have had a point; but I knew I had to try to find the thing I was seeking. And I had to look for it on my own.

It’s not for everyone but it was the path in front of me and it seemed incredibly obvious. Best of all it’s a very long journey and I will never arrive because there’s always more to learn and room for growth. That’s what a true relationship is- and as you deepen it, both parties also change as they connect. Which gives you more complexity and more to explore together.

What an adventure!

But for all of this connection in 4 years of digging up soil where I see something I like around me- I am far from perfect and we are so far from perfect.


Sometimes she loads immediately onto the trailer. Sometimes she takes 30 seconds to ask a question… sometimes 5 minutes. It varies.


Sometimes she comes to the gate and puts her head in the halter. Sometimes I have to walk over to her a few feet. Sometimes I have to walk out and encourage them to come in and they do without lead ropes. Sometimes I have to all the way to the far corner and bring her in while she pauses every 10 feet. Sometimes she walks away and she and the mustang go running around me in protest. It varies.


Sometimes we ride in complete sync like she reads my mind. Sometimes I have to work a little harder to keep her attention. Sometimes I have to use a tool to remind her I’m still there. Sometimes she insists on turning around or not going my way. It varies.

Ack! The first time K saw a ride photographer… now great friend Becky Pearman. First LD ride: Iron Mountain 2015.

Beginning to ride with neck rope- no halter or bridle.


Since it seems to be a widespread belief that a horse that basically does whatever you ask when you ask it is the measure of success – my slow left field methods are probably suspect.

Yet I still do my best to avoid using brute force to get my way- while still patiently (some days more patiently than others) asking until I do… all the while continuing to ask

…what is force? And does it sometimes have a place in the process? And are there real safety issues that I’m not paying enough attention to? Am I as some have suggested reckless and dangerous? How much of her opinion do I really want? How much of a say can she have in the process without her becoming the leader? How much can I tell her to get over it and just comply before I’m just like those who think they want a partner but really want a robot?

The Learned Helplessness blog tied in with these questions and thoughts I’ve had because I realized my horses are completely awake. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s exactly what I was seeking and why I looked for a young horse not yet started, because I’d been seeing various levels of what the writer calls learned helplessness and I didn’t really know what I wanted – but I knew it wasn’t that.

A term many people throw around is respect and conversely disrespect. But to quote the Princess Bride character Inigo Montoya:

I am pretty certain my horse respects me more often than not. She communicates with me and works together with me – she still asks me questions. [In other words respect does not equal immediate robot obedience to me] Though sometimes she actually does whatever I ask basically when I ask to, she may suggest she doesn’t want to comply for various reasons, and she may try to tell my why she cannot fulfill a request (pain, location, confusion, even in rare cases fear).

The better our communication gets, and the more I act like a leader she can trust which is a whole year of blogs… the better this process gets. The sooner she does what I’m asking or can explain to me why I might want to re-think a questionable or dangerous request.

I reflect back and see many cases where a horse trying to communicate confusion or fear has been called disrespectful.

That is likely to follow though: if you misunderstand the horse and/or ignore its attempts to communicate very long you are likely to earn disrespect soon enough. Then the fight that ensues is likely to take you to shut down… robot… or in the case of that problem horse so and so had to get ride of… fight.

Photo of Khaleesi on the first day of muzzleloader season 2018. The neighbors were shooting repeatedly (sighting? Target?) and she was for the most part not with me that day. She had deep concerns for the herds on the property and did not like being ‘tied up’ having to work with me while what she perceived as potential danger was so near. I made the choice to work with what I had that day and stayed flexible with my plans. I have never seen her so anxious. And no: it was not being read from me. I was not worried. But that did little to help her that day. I did some work with her but significantly different from the plan I’d laid out in advance.

There are arguments for the safety of the ‘respectful’ robot horse. The one who will go where you point when you point without question.

I’ve also seen some wrecks come from those horses. I’ve personally watched a rider repeatedly berate a horse and punish it for checking terrain and taking time on a new trail going over natural obstacles – then later on the same ride end up on the ground because the horse finally learned to stop checking in and ended up having to maneuver an obstacle the rider wasn’t ready for an couldn’t stay on through.

Remember the saying about “if your friends all jump off the bridge are you going to follow?” Well yeah. That’s the extreme case of the robot horse. A horse that is going to do whatever the rider asks without question or hesitation. And once in a while… the human might be wrong.

I want my horse to tell me if she knows or senses something I haven’t noticed or sensed. Horses are extremely aware of their environments. Much more than I am still though I constantly work on this actually. She senses the bear cubs, the turkey gang, often knows where the hole is… check the muck puddle… pause before crashing over the downed tree.

I’ve had my mare ‘save’ me from tripping through a rock ditch that was hard to see one day leading her in from a part of the field I didn’t often venture. It had washed out in some hard rain a while back and was overgrown with tall grasses. She kept planting her feet until I adjusted course. It was unusual behavior so instead of forcing her on I tried to slow down and sort out why she might be stalling. As we got closer I saw the ditch and thanked her for letting me know. We walked in with no trouble after that.

SHEEP! Sometimes I have to work her through a concern she has that is not really a danger.

A horse that is awake and communicating might have more to say than most riders want to deal with. They are after all a prey animal and have learned to be better safe than sorry over many genetic generations.

It also takes a long time (for me at least) to get even basically proficient in their subtle language.

I’ve been wrong many times, what I assumed she was saying is not always what she is in fact trying to say. You sort this out by trial and error… which brings me to the the fact that she often doesn’t make me look good to the causal observer- who is often impressed by immediate obedience.

Recently I had a horse-woman friend over and showed her some of the things Khaleesi and I had been working on. Backing into a stall… some groundwork ‘dancing’… and riding her bareback with a neckrope in the yard. It was a good day. She was so with me.

Impressed my friend said: wow!! That is so beautiful!! I bet when you go to your endurance rides everyone is just blown away.

After a good laugh I assured her … first most people are focused on their own horses and what they need to do… second this kind of thing isn’t exactly flashy… and third… she’s not always this focused- ride camp has lots of energy and distraction. So.

It varies.

Then there’s the whole self carriage thing…. but that’s an entirely separate post.

Go ahead… explain…

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

I believe there are reasons for the struggles and shaping I go through. They are good for me in the long run, but that doesn’t mean I don’t occasionally throw a tantrum.

Sometimes I have the energy to take the annoyance or difficulty in stride and sometimes I wish God would work on the other people around me instead…

Can’t you work on him/her for a while right now so my life is easier!?

Silence.

I’m tired. Can we do this some other time or never?

Silence.

Ouch that hurts! Why do I have to go through this?!

Silence.

Why?

Silence.


Then I went to the barn to check on Khaleesi’s painful scabby scratches on the right hind. I wasn’t able to do much the previous two days due to cold rain leaving fields completely mud soaked. No chance of drying the infected spots out which is necessary for them to heal.

It’s been a losing battle with this wet 2018. Just when I get a window of headway the mud and rain return creating new hot painful scabs.

First I used the hose to wash the mud off her legs and feet. She tolerated it.

But when I began as carefully as I could to dry and just assess the bad foot with my eyes she avoided, sidestepped and even air kicked at me.

Stop! That hurts! Leave it alone!!! GO AWAY!!

I know it hurts but I need to help you.

In order to truly help her I had to dry the area I’d just cleaned, run the mini clipper over it to remove as much hair as possible, then spray an aloe-antibacterial gel that cleans and cools the area (slightly easing the pain), then add some skin cream to soften the scabs so I might be able to remove some of them to allow them to heal – and a protective zinc oxide to help them feel better and protect them as they heal.

She was highly and visibly against this process and I understood. It hurt. The low level irritating pain is easier to deal with than the excruciating pain involved in true healing.

We know as humans that if we put up with the bad pain in an effort to heal we will then be well and not eventually to lose use of a leg and possibly die if you’re a horse who gets taken down by a predator.

So here I am in the barn knowing I absolutely have to get the scratches treated. With her consent or not in this case.

So I picked up the one thing that gets that mare’s attention beyond any other mental or physical distraction.

The flag.

And the next time I went to spray the cooling gel and she danced away I flapped the flag and she understood I was now not negotiating. And I had her undivided attention.


I want to pause to explain a couple things here:

First– I have worked to build a solid relationship of trust with this mare over years. Most times she will go along with me even if she’s unsure because I’ve built that foundation. I cannot say I would take this same course of action with Wyoming the mustang. She is learning to trust me but the foundation isn’t solid enough yet.

Second– I did wave that flag toward her and I meant business. But I was not emotionally upset with her. I didn’t act out of anger but love. While the flag gets waved either way- the intent behind it was to help her. It does matter. If I’d have been frustrated, angry and out of control this would not have worked out the same way.


She is sensitive already and the flag is BIG language for her.

It brought her back to me and though she still moved it was much less… no air kicking. I didn’t get everything done to the level I wanted but I got done what I needed.

And though she didn’t like it, she was able to relax and process when we finished and we walked to the field connected and the relationship not broken- in fact probably stronger for it.


There was a moment however in the barn while I watched her struggle and stood back a moment to allow her to calm that tears began to puddle in the corner of my eyes.

I was thinking of something I’d heard earlier that morning.

Tim Keller described watching – years ago on a farm in Europe- sheep got dipped for parasite control that saved their lives. The process was terrifying to them. As a soft hearted human, Tim explained, we want to explain to the sheep that it’s for their own good.

We want to explain.

So… suggested Tim…

Go ahead and explain.

😶

😚

Exactly.

Better than I deserve

Monday, October 22, 2018

Home from the last ride of 2018 I’m pleased and a little surprised to say we had a fantastic day. Better than expected and truly better than I deserved.

The abrupt drop in temps made for a great morning for Khaleesi who has a full on winter fuzz coat that I refused to clip this year.

As I wrote in my last entry- and it continued until the morning I was loading up- I flip flopped daily on going to the ride or not.

Arriving at base camp with left hind scratches that were flared up again which meant a horse that was avoiding me and kicking at me as I continued to treat them; also a larger bare patch from the rain rot spot near the wither under the saddle — I wasn’t certain we would even pass the pre-ride vet.

That’s ok I decided mentally because maybe I’m really here to support C…

One of the friends I’d been helping out this season get started in endurance riding had come to do her first 30 mile as well. Maybe in the end this ride was about her and I could crew and cheer her on.

Maybe it’s an opportunity for me to take the back seat and enjoy someone else’s success?

I’m ok with that… I have my completion for this season to stay on track for a decade team… I don’t have to ride this one.

But we passed the vet-in with a flying trot out (she does get excited sometimes) and flying colors on our vet card.

One step at a time I just kept on toward the ride half expecting each one to fail.

As I prepped the night before I still had doubts. I laid in my hammock as the temps dropped into the 30s (thanks Noel T for the heater!!) I was certain I’d go to put the rear boots on and she’d be lame from the painful scabs where the boot sits on the back of the foot.

But in the morning the previously inflamed warm scabs were not warm to the touch and she seemed ok with the boot.

She looked at me obviously annoyed as I went to saddle her:

I don’t think she wants to run today

I told her it’s just her job so let’s give it our best. She knew what was coming- it’s always a long day when we go to a ride and she works hard… but she is a horse and it is her job. We all have to work sometimes. She doesn’t hate it once we get out there.

In the cold morning I hand walked her a good 10 minutes before even getting on… back and forth to check-in, drop some extra supplies at the crew bag and just wander warming up joints. I got on and she was ready but not hyped up as she sometimes gets with the pre ride energy in camp.

Once trail was open we stayed toward the rear as usual but got right to business and began the immediate 2 miles straight up hill that begins both the first and second loop. I allowed her to trot and walk in intervals and we made our way through the group.

A couple times I wondered if she was ‘off’… was it that back foot?

Maybe I should just turn back right now… what was I thinking. This is a bad idea. Is it just for my ego… to do what I planned… me being inflexible and not listening to my horse?

Yet she evened out and seemed ok. So. One more step at a time we just kept moving.

In fact I was pleased to see her maneuvering through the rocks with no trouble and the ScootBoots were fantastic.

I often allow her to move along the first loop because it’s the coolest part of the day and not having an arab it makes a big difference for us. Her trot ranging through the rocky single track trails was way faster than I’d anticipated but she was asking to go and I said absolutely. On the grassy roads we cantered more than usual as well. Riding mostly alone she was really picking up the trail!

First and second loops head the same basic direction and include a steep climb/drop in and out. The way back to camp includes what I call fondly the trail of tears and it’s steep and rocky after 15 or so miles of hard riding. It’s a challenging ride for sure and we do it twice.

Khaleesi led a group up the mountain and just kept going one step at a time without lag and I was very proud of her.

By the time we returned to the 2 mile steep road now returning to camp at the end of the first 17 mile loop and I jumped off (I jog her down on foot as it’s just a brutal steep gravel road and we can move faster safely if I’m on the ground) I was shocked to find riders usually way ahead of me coming up from behind.

Turns out we were solidly in the middle of the pack.

After trotting into the check and pulsing at 52 before I even had the saddle off, I held my breath knowing Khaleesi often gets questioned on her gait but we got through the vet check without a hitch. Even hydration and gut sounds were As though she hadn’t eaten a thing on the first loop. (She drank often)

Turns out we’d arrived in 2 minutes behind my friend A so we decided to hit the second loop together.

The second loop went much like the first. This loop has a long out and back along a gravel road and we cantered most of it in a small group of friends. It ended at a pretty stop along the Shenandoah River with lots of grass for a quick snack.

She began to drag on and off as we turned back to camp but I think it was post snack break coma and eventually she picked back up and began to hit her stride.

By the time we returned from the second loop (also hand jogging in the last 2 miles down the road) the temps had climbed into the 60s and it took K a few extra minutes to pulse but still in the 50s in no time and again a great report to head out onto the last loop.

My goal was to finish before dark and it appeared at this point we just might do that.

The last loop is the shortest and doesn’t include the insane 2 mile climb out and the trail of tears climb back to camp but it’s no joke and includes two good hills and comes at the warmest part of the day and after 35 tough miles before.

That 14 miles always feels longer than the 17+ mile loops before!

In the heat of the later afternoon she began to tire. We stopped trotting or cantering the climbs and began walking them. A’s horse was also beginning to lag.

I know my mare always gives me what she can- and I continued to encourage her. There is something about miles 36-45 that always seem hard for them. And without fail as we get closer to 50 an amazing burst comes and as I would tell her how strong and great she is she took on a small hill at the fastest center of the day passing As horse who’d often gotten just ahead enough of us to be out of sight from time to time.

The burst was contagious and As horse raced to catch up and we were off again with more cantering and faster trot speeds again.

I sometimes wonder why I’m compelled to do this crazy sport and mile 45 feeling my horse come back alive underneath me and begin to reach for a new layer of strength is so inspiring there’s not much like it to remind us the true spirit of endurance!

It reminds me to keep going when I feel tired. When I want to say I’ve given enough. Tried hard enough to love someone who is hard to love… don’t want to give anymore… feel like I can’t. Somehow there is always more.

We haven’t come to the point of sweating blood…

The last few miles thankfully were mostly pasture fields and the mares continued leap frogging for the lead and we all encouraged each other on.

We raced off to the finish line hollering like a pack of coyotes. It was fitting that we came in 12th to As 11th – her horse had truly inspired K to keep up a better pace than we would have alone.

With a ride time of 9 hours and 2 minutes it might be one of the best rides of our career. Technically our first 55 at the Biltmore in 2016 was faster but that terrain was much easier and not nearly the elevation. Same with the Blackwater ride in 2017- that was under 8 hours which is amazing for us but it was in tidewater and not any hills in sight and no rocks.

Certainly as I mentioned last entry I have not put in the distance or speed this season in training as I’ve been sharing trail with friends who aren’t at that point more than I have in the past. I suppose I feel that her coming to life this ride beyond my expectations is a gift for investing in others. It wasn’t really due to my own amazing conditioning program this year.

Either way I will gladly accept the grace that was extended us for the unexpected strength and speed to share trail with a good friend and her amazing horse! And the gift from them to not leave us behind although as I reminded her often they certainly could have! We are ok alone… but we are better together.

I am also very pleased to say my other friend C and her lovely mare also finished 12th in the 30 mile distance. I’m very proud of her accomplishments as it’s a tough first ride!

I look back to the many many many doubts I had about this ride and learn that though it’s important to listen to the voices of reason when things look not so great… still we can take one step at a time to see how far we can go. And in that way sometimes we get much farther than we’d ever hoped.

Ride the trail in front of you…. that’s all you get sometimes!

Sometimes you’re the windshield

… sometimes you’re the bug….

Friday, September 7, 2018

This song has been wafting through from my teenage years from Mary Chapin Carpenter of late.

I am preparing for the Biltmore 50 on September 20. It’s the AERC national championship ride and I was just informed Khaleesi and I qualify for it!

I’ve been amping up my physical training: more miles, some speed, and some big workout climbs. Also mental and communication and down time together too.

I’ve sat in the field after evening feedings just being around without asking anything except companionship, I’ve brought both horses into the barn more and worked together on everything from trimming feet (especially on Wy), to tacking while getting advice from K on what’s working and what isn’t, and enlisted K’s help on some very relaxed and productive trailer loading with Wyoming.

Done some easy rides to pony Wy along… Family time.

I’ve spent some time in my little arena under video surveillance to see if I can improve my riding and our communication with some 3rd perspective help.

Through all that I’ve had moments of great triumph … and not so great as well.

It has been a reminder that no matter if I’m in the glorious heights of floating along at the perfect trot and feeling completely balanced and in sync with my 4-legs underneath me… to bailing as my trusty steed goes running up the bank in terror of a slow moving tractor…

I can always be truly joyful to realize that I am one of the luckiest people in the world to have horses, to be able to communicate with them and grow with them, to have a horse life with all its ups and downs.

I would trade any of it.

Well… maybe except…


That day last weekend clearing my main trails close to home which with a rainy year are severely overgrown only to stop for the first big briar mass– clipping away while Khaleesi behind me learns she’s standing on a ground bee nest.

🤯

Four stings for me and I’m sure more for her by the time I realized why she was acting like such a lunatic behind me. When I started getting stung the answer maniacally appeared.

Bees!!! Why didn’t you say so? Run!!

Flip side- even on the tight grown-in laurel tunnels both running for our lives she never trampled me, and when it was too hard to navigate at a full run and I let her gallop off ahead of me she waited once cleared of the bees for me to catch up and walk on home together. One more day I want glad to be riding in a halter and not a bit!


Yes, the above mentioned bail out on the embankment did happen while waiting to cross the road and letting a very slow but very large and very noisy front loader tractor pass by.

I thought I could convince her to stand firm. No. It was too much, she had to move her feet. I’m still kicking myself that I reacted so badly in that moment.

She could have run up the embankment to escape and been fine. I could have ridden her up there. But I was determined to hold her- and thus when she went, I was behind her and on that steep incline the only thing I was left with was re-balancing myself on her halter (thank god I didn’t have a bit that day).

The only thing I clearly remember was an instant where I saw her head clearly and realized I was PULLING!!!!!

[NO PULLING EVER!!! I KNOW BETTER]

I immediately let go and bailed seeing her feet cross my eyes as I landed next to her and hoping she had the balance not to fall or slip down onto me but knowing that she would do everything she could not to hurt me.

I rolled down a few feet and stood up to see her standing at the top of the hill now calm and waiting for me to get up and go to her.

The flip side– I had a real reminder of what I need to do in an emergency…. if she has to move her feet and we’re not going over a cliff or into barbed wire (which usually she’s smart enough to avoid anyway) you get ready to ride!

And even better I had only a small scratch on my hand and no injuries – I wasn’t even sore in the following days.


And there’s yesterday…. I had the whole day, alone, and a plan for 20 miles or so on some amazing trails I’d been wanting to connect! I planned to start at the other end and find a new route for a group ride soon.

What could go wrong?

The obvious trail was apparently not obvious and I went wrong right in the first half mile. I ended up doing some steep ups and downs, went through two backyards before realizing I’d circled right back around and my best bet was returning through the town for a whopping 6 miles in almost 2 hours.

The flip side: I think I made some people’s day riding up and down the sidewalks as cars slowed to take pictures out the window- we stopped where I dropped out from someone’s yard at this point obviously lost to chat (and apologize to the neighborhood for trespassing) with some local folks from the holler and they were tickled and took pictures of Khaleesi… a little girl came out to see and pet a ‘real horsey’ back in the neighborhood and in using the town back roads we went both over and under the main freeway with lots of foreign noises, lawn mowers, barking dogs behind fences, car traffic, bikes, tarps … all kinds of things.

(One is the yards we passed through trying to get un-lost… this was better than most of the no trespassing signs we passed!)

This time I was ready to ride at the moments I felt her tense to the unusual obstacles. Funny thing- when I gave her permission to move her feet, and decided to go with her- watching for a safe escape zone should we need it and I could at least help guide the flight…. she never needed to run.

🤔… could it be that slow moving tractor episode was preparing me to cut through town the following week? I’ll let you decided that one.

No matter what it was great training for Biltmore where some trails and roads are shared with bikes, joggers, strollers, seguays and even maintenance vehicles or lawn mowers and tractors.

And now I know where not to go- and upon better map inspection I think I can do it right the next time.

(I did load up and drive to another nearby trailhead for some more miles but still not the day I’d planned)


My saddle fit and shimming seems to be working well. It’s a funny combo but it leaves even sweat patterns and she has been pretty chill about the tacking process.

Her better breakover toe trim has been a winner as the slightly sore spots on her lower back that were coming and going (that the body worker was certain were not saddle related but the breakover inhibiting her free movement) – they seem to be staying gone. And her feet continue to look better each week.

However I’ve been encouraging her heels to grow and basically leaving them alone unless I had to even them a bit. This week I’ve begun to see the first signs of rubbing from the boots in the couple years I’ve used them- which tells me it may be time to pull those heels back a little now that the toes are coming into place.

It’s probably been 2-3 months since I’ve touched her heels so I did that after the ride yesterday. With a couple days rest we’ll try again and see how it helps.

Everything affects something- I love learning how the system functions and how I can help it hum along at its best given circumstances.

And my riding has been part of that too- I saw some things in the video from the arena that helped me adjust myself in a way to really opened up a freer trot and felt great for both of us and finally I could switch diagonals and felt completely the same on either instead of one being stronger or easier. That was a glorious moment.

I wish I could say it’s constant. It still comes and goes but I’m finding it more often each ride.

On and on and on we go through our lives and the unknown…

I wouldn’t have it any other way!

I’m with you.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

I spent a couple days riding and camping with a close friend in West Virginia this week. The riding was stunning and the friendships rich.

One of my favorite things about the trip was meeting new friends. An endurance friend connected me with a guide to help us through a new and potentially dangerous territory. Some of the wilderness can be treacherous for a horse if you take a wrong turn – you can end up in some deep swamps, there are sink holes, tricky rock formations and boulders that can be leg breaking and of course some areas are more fun with more stunning views to ride through than others.

Dan was not only a great guide but a very interesting person with an eye always out to learn something from others. Humble, gracious and easy going. We took along a friend of his who had been an endurance rider in Brazil who rode a great little mustang mare, and a woman new to town who works with horses and people to help them improve their tools to connecting.

We were delighted to watch her with a green Arab that she was being asked to take on for some fundamental training. It was clear she was someone we could relate to who was working without force, from energy, and looking to create relationships and when she said you’ve lost everything the minute you get frustrated or mad at a horse we knew we’d found a kindred spirit.

In the 5 hours together (about 20 miles) we talked easily and enjoyed getting to know each other.

It was also a great training ride for Biltmore if I decide to go.

Dan set us up to camp at a barn where there was a huge field for the horses and a pretty spot for the humans overlooking the Cannan Valley floor.

The second day we rode unguided in the ‘safer’ terrain of Cannan Valley Wildlife Refuge and Blackwater State Park. We missed a turn and ended up farther than we intended for a short ride and called Dan to see if he had any advice on the easiest way back to the trailer.

He happened to have a little time right then and we’d dropped into a place accessible by vehicle so he offered to meet us and take one of us to bring back the trailer. It would save time. That was fine for us and would mean getting on the road earlier.

It may have been the 20 minutes I relaxed with the horses that turned out to be my favorite moments of the trip.

After I pulled tack on both horses I sat on the grass and to let the horses graze and walk around dragging their leads. There were no people, no traffic, and plenty of grass. If either started to leave I would redirect them back, worse case one of them would step on a lead and get themselves stopped long enough for me to catch up.

They each took a couple meandering steps and a few bites and within a minute I found myself looking up into two horse muzzles comfortably resting above me.

They weren’t doing anything… just looking down on me as I rested sitting on the ground.

I leaned back, looked up and wondered.

What is this?

I’ve spent lots of time around my horses loose. They usually graze, or walk around, or sniff me, ask for a scratch, I’ve never had them just stand looking down at me… for 20 minutes.

They shifted weight, cocked and uncocked hind feet, sometimes looked a different direction for a moment, but until the trailer rolled up they didn’t move.

As I looked up at them in peaceful contentment, and I reflected over some of the trip’s highlights, a thought resonated with me that reminded me of something Bob Goff says:

I’m with you.

Bob says that real love, it isn’t about doing things so that you can get something in return. Or in his words collect tickets like at an arcade and turn them in for a cheap trinket… or to add up your own good deeds to tip the scales somehow.

The change has to be from within the heart; the thing that creates connection and lasts is the heart that says: I’m with you.

That’s all we three were doing at that moment. Being together.

My mind floated back to earlier that morning as this idea played out in beautiful layers like gossamer threads in the fabric of life.

My friend used to have trailer loading issues with her main horse. Then she got some better tools, did a lot of personal work, more work with her horse, and found she had a reliable loading horse and built a better relationship.

Yet recently she began to see some very small signs that things weren’t quite right. He still would load but not as easily and with some of his old habits returning (like rearing up and avoiding before stepping on). She felt like she’d somehow ‘lost ground’.

That morning he did not willingly immediately load on the trailer and it created worry, fears, pressure and frustration in her and then there’s that nagging voice we all hear that tells us everyone else has it so much more together than I do.

She didn’t want to mess up my day or be the reason we were held up. She didn’t want to imagine that she’s going back to the times she didn’t know if he would load or not. None of us want to feel like a failure and most of all not in front of anyone else to watch.

Her horse is not afraid of the trailer. He wasn’t being disrespectful. He didn’t want to fight her.

He had some concerns. One of which was Khaleesi.

Is she coming?

We both knew we could load him in 30 seconds by answering that question: load the mare first.

He would have walked right on (I’m 100% certain he would have walked right on because he didn’t load right away the afternoon before after the 20 mile ride. Not wanting to take everyone else’s time at the trailhead we loaded Khaleesi first and he practically ran me over eager to get on behind her.)

However getting him to load on the trailer was NOT the thing she wanted to solve. We could trick or manipulate him into doing it but that isn’t a lasting solution.

She was working toward a relationship with him that he could trust in her to the extent that if she asked him to load up he would be confident in her. She would be capable to trust with the details.

Considering what a powerful, sensitive and highly ranked horse he is, this is not an easy job and it takes her constantly being aware of everything – because he is constantly aware of everything. You don’t earn that trust and then float on with it. You re-earn it every interaction. It has to change who you are when you have a horse like that. She has to be that good. 100% of the time.

I think she’d say he’s worth it. ❤️

And from what I know of her- she can be that person, in fact I watch her turn into that person a little more every time I ride with them.

Thankfully there are few of these kind of horses in the world. Most people have a more middle of the pack animal that isn’t quite as demanding.

What I love most is that we all get the horse we need to teach us to grow.

There are the really bad fits that need to be sold or given to a better situation of course, but for most of us, the horses we struggle with are growth opportunities if we start by looking not to the horse to change first, but look in the mirror. Then seek out and get the right tools and education to work on ourselves first.

She knows all this and I encouraged her to spend whatever time she needed that morning to tell her horse not: we’ll be ok if you just get on the damn trailer already…

but simply: I’m paying attention, I see you’re struggling here, and as you sort it out… I’m with you.

That was the other layer. She is a close friend and I cared much more about her opportunity to connect with her horse than anything else that morning.

Love doesn’t demand its own way.

I’d gladly give up doing any ride at all if that’s what was needed. For her to connect with her horse I would trailer 2 hours then spend the day trailer load and go home if that would help her. And I’d love every minute of the process doing life with her because she’s my friend.

She didn’t need to worry about loading her horse AND me getting impatient or frustrated. She didn’t need to wonder what I’d want back from her in trade for my patience. She also knew I’d never judge her journey with this horse- that I knew it was unique to the two of them and not comparable to my own or any other friend’s situation.

No matter what we were doing that day she needed to know: I’m with you.

This is not a trailer loading post. What she did is not the answer to everyones horse that doesn’t want to load. But we learned some interesting things together because I was able to be a different, outside pair of eyes as she worked with him from her limited first person perspective.

It seemed clear he knew what she wanted- and she didn’t need to continue to ask him again. He just wasn’t ready to do it. He would get comfortable part way onto the trailer and most people would ask him to continue on and load up- finish the job- but we observed that even just pointing the direction she wanted (asking again) without any pressure from the rope would send him flying back off completely to restart the process.

She’d lose everything just as he seemed ready to load that last few feet. This happened a couple times and my outside 3rd person perspective was able to see it play out and help her with the information.

I’m no smarter than her, I just had the right viewpoint.

What she was doing wasn’t wrong. It just wasn’t what he needed that morning.

He’s a really cool horse- extremely sensitive. This can work for you and against you depending.

I suggested she try something different. Just keep him focused on her inside the trailer- and she could do it with only a click of her tongue (he’s that sensitive). Don’t add any more pressure or ask him again to get on. I was certain he was under no doubt that she wanted him to load. He wasn’t confused. He just wasn’t ready to do it.

She expertly timed relaxing vs. a tongue click the moment he’d look away and get distracted. Very soft, very relaxed he would inch forward closer to her, paw the ground, sniff inside… one level at a time he continued onto the trailer.

I know it was hard sometimes as he was almost there not to ask him to take that last 6 inches and let’s get going. In human terms we’d waited long enough for a horse that is 20 years old and been riding in horse trailers almost all of his life.

Even I had a hard time not wanting to push that back foot the last two inches and close the ramp so he was trapped on.

Gotcha!!

That would have destroyed all trust immediately!

But she worked out her patience with sweat and blood – it was killing her to be so close but not force or pressure him, get excited that after 30 minutes he was almost there or even think about how close he was until he was ready to close that last gap of his own free will.

Its easy to see with horses. We humans are often making the choices for our horses. We don’t even give them the chance. We don’t let them make a mistake. It takes so much time at first to consult them for every little thing we do with them. It seems easier and faster to just push and pull them around.

What could have been done in 2 minutes with a shortcut (load the mare first) took her 45. (I was prepared to spend hours or all day!) But the end result was beautiful.

He loaded himself onto the trailer for her.

Anyone watching would wondered what was wrong. Most people would have offered help. But watching them was a gift for me of exactly what was right.

Her message to him during that time was not conditional: if you do what I want then I’ll be with you...

That’s manipulation. We humans are so good at it. We manipulate each other, we manipulate animals, we manipulate ourselves and try to manipulate God.

Her message was simply: it’s time to get on the trailer, however you need to do it today… I’m with you.

And Khaleesi and I stood quietly nearby saying: and we’re with you both too.

I look around… and in the mirror and see so much manipulation hidden deceptively in the clothing of generosity and kindness.

I’m a nice/giving/tolerant person… up to a point. But take advantage of me … or disagree with me and watch out.

My friend had a limit in her mind of what was ‘enough’ time for him to sort out getting on. At that point she would ask again [he knows how to do this!!!], add pressure. But her limit was like 35 minutes before he was ready. He needed that time that day and she got a win for their connection by giving it to him instead of demanding that after 10 minutes he was just taking advantage of her and she’d now show him!

It also looks like ticket counting when we want to trade our kindness or being with someone for something for ourselves:

If I spend today working around the house with my husband then I have saved up enough tickets to go riding all day tomorrow with my girlfriends!

Or…

I’ve saved enough ‘tickets’ that you should be more thoughtful of my needs…

There’s also the scoreboard we all seem to keep running track of:

I have gone out of my way to help you X times… the least you could do is do Y for me…

The change of heart to simply if I can I will, and because I want to be with you is enough, opens a transformation so much bigger than any act itself. And there is never anything on the other side of the equal sign. I don’t count tickets anymore. Mine or yours.

I think this is how hoses live. They do life being with each other.

I’ve had friendships along the way where if we happened to be going the same direction then it worked, but both of us were really just doing what we each wanted and basically lined up doing the same things. Sometimes it’s a surprise when you thought you had a deep friendship to find that once you did need someone to be with you… they weren’t with you… they were doing what worked for them still. Or the other way around. It happens both directions.

This isn’t necessarily bad. And we can’t do life with too many people this way. I love how Bob Goff suggests you should figure out how many people will fit around your bed so that as you’re dying you have just the right amount of deep relationships that no one is squeezed out and you don’t have too much empty space either. I think he decided its like 10 or 12 people!

But this can work with everyone you interact with in allowing yourself to be with the people you are with through your day.

Can I set myself aside whenever I’m in someones presence to be with them at that moment and really see them not just what I need from them?

There is a magic that happens when you can’t be taken advantage of because you’re actually just giving.

Maybe the most ironic part is realizing that you can’t have this heart change if it’s because you want a horse that will load on the trailer, or your spouse to be kinder to you, or because you want anything.

Because that is the heart of manipulation again.

if you can find this change in your heart then for it to be real, and to matter, it must become a way of being over your lifetime. The deep changes around you come in increments over time as you change and those who you love begin to be loved as you say…

I’m with you.

Peace

August 13, 2018

Things in the barn have been quiet lately.

No that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped going! Very funny.

After years… at least four or five or even six… of seeking a different way of relating to horses… of struggling to connect and communicate with them more effectively. Something has clicked over.

Friday I brought in both mares. I walk out to greet them even if they are at the farthest point of the field. As I approached they walked a few feet up the fence line and turned their attention to the field past the adjoining driveway. So I did as well. I stood there next to them scanning the tall grass for a moment until I heard them.

The sheep were coming. They hang out at the big oak tree just a few feet over from the mare’s favorite shady spot.

Oh- are they your friends? The sheep? Well hello sheep…. ok, are you ready to go?

Then I rub both horses a greeting and hold up khaleesi’s halter. She drops her head into the noseband letting me know she is indeed ready. (If she’s not ready she will walk out of the halter I am holding- and I allow her to. Sometimes she needs to scratch first, or show me something, or ask if I still care if she’s ready or not….)

I walk with K on lead and Wy follows. I don’t need a halter for her. Khaleesi knows which side she’s supposed to walk on depending on what hand I carry the lead rope. I don’t choose the same side all the time. Yet today she dips behind my back and changes sides then walks ‘too close’ to me with her head right in front of my shoulder.

That’s odd. She doesn’t usually do that. She knows how to walk in with me…. why would she do that?

So I stop and turn to her and find a green headed fly sucking the blood out of her neck right in my eyeline.

Can you please kill that thing!? She asks me so politely.

And I do.

She goes back to the side we agreed upon and we walk on.

I open the gate and both mares come out and we head in to the barn. I loop khaleesi’s line through loosely (she will stay there) and get the green halter for Wy as I will tie her while we’re in the barn.

Wyoming’s feet are long in the toe again. Working on her feet takes a long time commitment for me so I don’t do it as often as I would like to. I work on them every couple weeks- but I only get so far before it’s too much for her so they more need regular attention for now.

Then there is the right hind that she still cannot allow me to work at all. That one is wicked long in the toe and I hope she breaks it off herself soon.

I grab my rasp and gloves and get started. Her front feet used to be difficult but now she lifts them easily and will give me a good amount of time with them before it’s ‘too much’. For the most part I allow her to decide what she can handle. I haven’t always taken this approach- after all it’s for her own good that I get her feet trimmed.

But she is a mustang and if she’s not comfortable nothing goes right. When she first came I tried to push her comfort zone so she would see it’s all going to be fine. And it wasn’t fine for her. Which meant it wasn’t fine for any human who had to work with her.

My farrier at the time suggested she needed more fear of humans. He tried to help that process along. It cost me dearly with her and he (I’m sure to his relief) never worked on her again. This process isn’t his job anyway. It’s mine.

So a year later I am still healing the breech and honoring her spirit above the health of her hooves.

After getting a lot of hoof filed off she asked to pause and I dropped the hoof. She set it down and off she went. Deep into her mind. Vacant. Processing. It must feel so much better to get that hoof in balance.

I stood quietly (this is why it takes so long to work on her feet right now…) I couldn’t pay a trimmer or farrier enough to allow the luxury of this wild mare to process the changes both physically and emotionally. I watch and wait for her to return knowing that every time we do this she takes a big step toward being easy to trim.

This goes on for both front feet and in one of the pauses khaleesi who had been standing quietly and often also processing along with in support of Wy starts to paw her right front hoof in the ground and lift it up.

You want me to check that out for you?

So I let the mustang rest and go to Khaleesi. She holds the foot just off the ground and I see the pillars are growing in thick even though it’s not two weeks since I trimmed them. I shave a little off with my rasp and even up the heels just a touch (the medial grows longer over time). She sets her foot down and shakes her head and licks.

She’s happy with that.

Then she raises the other front hoof and I do about the same.

Moving back the the mustang she now lifts her left hind as I approach her. She is beginning to understand that what I’m doing is helping her. Yet there emotional damage that makes it hard for her to trust and let go.

This horse doesn’t need me to force her through. She needs understanding. Time.

Lifting that hind is huge for her so I pick it up and do my best to work in a way that she’s comfortable. It’s stop and start as I find an angle to work the rasp effectively and when I get it wrong she takes the hoof back uncomfortable.

Yet we sort it out and I get more done on that hind than ever before.

The other hind is a whole other layer of internal struggle for her. She wants to give it to me but but just can’t seem to be ok yet.

In the end I take my lesson of never letting what’s good for her in my mind (not having one long toed hoof left after trimming!!) get to be more important than the whole horse and what she’s capable of… just getting her to lift that hoof a tiny bit and not step over to avoid me is the best I’ll get without losing everything.

(Wyoming relaxed in thought with Khaleesi also in process mode in the background)

So I stop with trimming for the day.

I decide to put the saddle on her and she is a good sport but I sense a very low level concern building. She is ok with the saddle- she is more likely worried about what might come next.

Don’t worry about that today. This is all you need to be ok with.

I walk her in large circles through and around the barn so she can move her feet and not stand tied up and worried about what the saddle means.

Once she’s relaxed again I tie her back up and remove the saddle.

Good girl.

It took a lot of time to get this far today so I have maybe an hour to ride. Perfect to pony Wyoming which I haven’t done in a while.

It will be good for us all…

I’m in the midst of troubleshooting some very ugly rub spots on Khaleesi. Saddle woes have been from time to time part of every horse person’s life I know- at least anyone who is paying attention.

I wrote recently about my own saddle journey in my other blog drawing board. You can find it here: Saddles: constructive, destructive, defensive

https://drawingboardlessons.wordpress.com/2018/08/11/saddles-constructive-destructive-defensive/

My saddle is great. In fact that’s the problem. Her topline is muscling in continuously and I have to figure out how to stay ahead of the curve and I’m not doing a good job of adjusting with the changes. I’m behind.

As she grows in more back muscling I need to adjust how the felt shims work and in this case I believe now that the pads I was using didn’t do what I now need which is different than what I needed a year ago.

Thankfully I have a good friend who is helping me sort it out and is a bit of a pad-hoarder and has loaned me some options to work with.

After trying some set ups that made it worse I had that 4am flash of inspiration and was ready to try that today.

I began to tack up Khaleesi and in tightening the girth she scrunched her face, bared her teeth and as I didn’t really believe her (just give it a try!!) she nipped at me.

Ugh. She says no way. So much for that idea. Now what am I going to do?

As I loosened the girth I felt underneath. The 1/2″ pad was tight under my hand. Maybe the 1/4″ would do?

So I tried the thinner ‘J’ pad and she stood quiet and relaxed as I tightened the girth without even a side glance.

She approves!

It is so much better when she helps me figure out what works for her!

With Khaleesi moving comfortably and happy underneath me the shimming solution seems to be a winner (for now). And with Wyoming healing emotionally over lots of time and patience she walked exactly at my knee like a buddy.

Everything at peace. Even the two mares with each other.

Life is never without challenges so we did have a couple trials: first being two terrible big biting flies that attacked Wyoming on the hind. I couldn’t do anything to help her except stop and give her lots of lead to get them off. She twisted bucked and reared and finally spun so her butt was smashed against my leg.

Later I thought how frightening her antics would have looked to someone with less experience with her. But I knew she wasn’t being ‘bad’ she was begging for help.

It made me wonder how many people appear to be acting badly outwardly but really have a problem they can’t seem to sort out on their own. All of us I recon.

I had to finally let go of her and trust. I couldn’t get those flies and I knew they would stalk her until I did. She bounded a few steps down the trail away from me and khaleesi and I walked the opposite direction. The flies came with us and landed on Khaleesi and I killed them both.

I didn’t know what would happen next. Would Wyoming try to head for home? Would I be able to get her lead rope without having to get off and on wrangling two horses? No matter what I knew I could sort it out.

In the end it wasn’t a big deal. We walked up to her and I was able to reach out and get the lead, turn us around and continue on in peace.

On the way home as we walked along the property fence a down tree was casting strange shadows. Something terrified Wyoming and she hard-stopped then panicked in fear dashing in front of Khaleesi, getting to the end of the lead then spinning around into a tree so their heads were together and Wyoming was facing me and the downed tree. (Again… what may have looked like a ‘bad’ horse was a horse terrified for her life. I don’t think it matters if there is anything to actually fear. It’s what she believes that matters at the moment)

We just stood there a moment and khaleesi and I were calm- after a moment observation I knew there was truly nothing there to fear but the little mustang was visibly shaking.

After a moment she regained her wits and I untangled the lead from the tree, situated us right again, and we walked on relaxed and easy.

There was a time when that mustang would have not stopped to consider if she was ok until she’d put a big distance between her and the fright. I’ve watched her leap a fence from a standstill to evade a spook. That’s wonderful progress!

Last thing I noted about her- she used to struggle going down the steeper hills. This time it was easy going both up and down. No fussing or discomfort.

I maneuvered much of the ride with little aid from my hands and feet as Khaleesi responds pretty well now from my energy.

We returned to the barn with a relaxed Khaleesi and Wyoming still at my knee on a loose lead.

Everything about the day as it had been for the past few weeks. Aligned. Connected. Peaceful. In agreement.

I haven’t arrived. I am not done learning… I still haven’t finished a successful 50 this season.

In fact, this may finally be the beginning.

Whatever it is, I like it.

I will not say I love you.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

I once heard it said that love is heard better as a non-verbal language.

Khaleesi carried me 35 miles over two days of (over) 17-mile training rides literally over the rivers and through the woods. And she did it with a fresh barbed wire cut on her left front.

I bandaged the cut before booting- and as fortune would have it I’d just filed her toes enough that her boots were a little loose so the bandage and vetwrap actually seemed to improve the boot fit.

She trotted and cantered miles on varied terrain in without complaint but I am certain it was at least a little uncomfortable. She had a good attitude the entire 35 miles.

Not only that but most of my closer rider-friends know the queenWILL kick a horse if she feels necessary.

Necessary to her is specifically being ‘boxed in’ she will protect her space if she cannot move forward and a horse comes into her close zone (I’m talking touching distance not a few feet).

This I do not blame her for. She doesn’t do it at random or because she’s mean. She does it not allow a horse to run her over or into another horse or a tree or human etc. Now it’s truly a last resort (it wasn’t always 😝) and it’s been at least a year since she has kicked another horse.

I work actively to protect that space and not allow this situation, but sometimes moving fast on narrow wooded trails with 4 horses things happen.

There were two times this occurred and both times I knew she was about to kick — I was able to avert the crisis by moving us offtrail to give her a way out or by turning her tightly and asking the rider who’d crowded us to remember to leave some space.

Both times no kick.

My horse is connecting with me as a leader more as I continue to become a better one. Riding despite physical discomfort is a sign of willingness and not kicking but allowing me to quickly (instantly) adjust to protect her instead are both positive growth for us.

As I get better… she gets better. 🤔☺️

This has been years of focused effort in my part to be consistent and pay a higher level of attention at ALL times I’m in EYESIGHT of my horse.

I don’t always get it right, and I may have wondered if this level of focus would be worth or.

It is.

A million percent.

This morning I went to the barn feeling much love for my mare. I could tell her I love her till my voice gives out and it will mean very little to her. (I think she’s a little like my husband in this respect!)

With a deep joy in my heart I showed it the best way I knew how instead.


My solid, trusted, strong and bold khaleesi.

I will walk the entire length of the field with my halter and bag of wound care supplies to find you in your favorite morning spot. The only place that is still shaded after the morning sun is high.

I will find you with your strong muscular neck low and your head relaxed and a hind foot cocked, with Wyoming awake and on duty to keep watch while you rest.

Wyoming will step away from you to greet me and ask my business and remind me that the queen has asked not to be disturbed unless it’s important.

I will rub her hello and assure her it’ll only take a minute.

I will greet you gently as you come half out of your nap still breathing so deeply I smell the grass and earth as I approach.

I will ask if you’d like me to check your ears for little scabs from biting midges and you will lower your head toward me to say yes please.

I will rub your neck and withers, along your back and rump and tell you I’m really grateful for your hard work the last two days.

I will notice how strong and fit you look in the height of summer and how your brown coffee coat highlighted with carmel by the sun gleams and shimmers with health.

I will take out my halter and you will drop your nose into it even though you know it could mean a walk to the barn and another 17 miles. If I ask you will go.

I will drape the lead over the fence as I pick up and unbandage your foot and check the cut. I am not ready to leave it open yet to the dirt and flies so decide to rebandage it with a clean dressing and duct tape for one more day and you never move a hoof though Wyoming curiously moves around to watch from different points to get a better view- sometimes her nose on my shoulder, sometimes on the other side from beneath.

When I finish the job and you put your foot down you will lick and chew and yawn in agreement as I remove the halter.

I will allow you to decide if you’d like to come in for breakfast now or rest in the shade a little more and eat when you’re ready.

I will walk away alone and leave you resting in the shade with peace in my heart as Wyoming goes back on watch.

I will leave some food in your bowls for later if you want a snack.

And today…

I will not say I love you,

I will let you be a horse.