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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This would take some creativity. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great journeys take great preparation.

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

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

Prepare to position

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finishing an early 50 together

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another moment of ungrace in our past journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

we fly…

Happy New Year 2021

Hello friends!

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Right Result

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

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

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

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

I see parallels in working with horses.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I also hope that for you!

First 5 videos

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

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

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

YouTube 5 steps for starting connected link

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

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

Stay tuned!

Leading for connection

Here is the second video in my new series!

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

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

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

Here are some ideas from my own walk..

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

The Relationship

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

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

Buck Brannaman

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

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

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

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

Well. Actually I can imagine that.

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

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

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

What is it? What are you saying?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We also want a push button God.

But in the words of C.S. Lewis:

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

The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

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

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

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

And then listen to what she says…

First things first!

Hello Green to 100 readers!

I am excited to share some new video content through green to 100. In the recent survey most responded they wanted to improve the relationship with their horse yet didn’t believe they had the time needed to do this effectively.

No matter how good our relationships are with horses there are more layers to enjoy. I believe anyone who has the desire to deepen the connection with their horse can do this with some simple mindsets in their current horse program with no additional time necessary.

These videos may seem simple but attention to detail in every step of working with our horses shows them we are present and willing to focus and connect. This is so important in relationship building.

I hope you enjoy this first video and please share this blog with anyone else who would be interested in a short series on deeper connection through every day routines.

Click here for video: Haltering for Connection


I know it’s true only thing we can count on is change itself. And the winds of change are stirring in many places from my viewshed. It adds to the quieting that Fall already brings, beautiful in its descend toward winter and the cycle of death and rebirth that is the most jarring for me — both in and out of Winter’s sleep. It seems fitting that the changes would come now somehow.

Two years ago in November MollyMare the Morgan came to live in my herd along with her human who is a like minded horsewoman and close friend of mine. At the time I wondered about the loss that change would bring: giving up my solo, quiet and autonomous barn life by introducing another horse and human into the mix. Today as they have both officially left the herd to move 5 hours south the loss of their presence is palpable and I can’t imagine how the place will be without them.

I recently listened to a ‘Wild at Heart’ podcast where John and Blaine Eldridge talked about how we humans always perceive change initially as loss. It is true, I see a loss of a herdmate, loss of a barn buddy, loss of a riding companion, and loss of a helper who was a wonderful support system or extra hands or someone to keep the herd alive when I was out of town… loss of laughter, loss of conversation and someone to bounce off training questions or equine health snafus… it is not an illusion: there is loss.

However change always brings with it opportunity as well. I know in this case our friendship is a deep heart bond and will last through the move. It is not the loss of a friend. We will still laugh and pick each other’s brains but now through phone calls and texts. The fact that she moved south already has my interest pricked at doing some winter training in her area and some road trips might do us good. I have heard the word expansion echoing in my soul since the news came and there is a knowing that this change isn’t all bad and loss forever. It’s hard to know yet what the new opportunities will be.

I have challenged myself to hold the two competing feelings in the same heart and not to wallow in sadness because I know good things and joy will come- yet the knowledge that there will be positive facets to this change doesn’t release me from facing the sense of loss and allow the honest mourning nonetheless.

It reminded me of how Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus even though he knew there would be triumph and even an immediate miraculous raising of the man from the dead. I think he wept for the loss he felt when death takes temporarily away from our immediate world, and he also wept for his friends and the loss they suffered. Even if we know joy comes in the morning, we still can honestly weep in the darkness. And I find it comforting to know that Jesus weeps with us too.

I am grateful that Iva – a young woman who used to occasionally come along and crew for me with Khaleesi when she was a violin student is back in the local area in part due to Covid and she has been coming once a week to ride with me. She is also likeminded to the approach I have with my horses and they like and trust her too.

Also I ran into- actually it was the other way around– a mountain biker in the spring while exploring some trails he helps to maintain. In our time together we enjoy a shared love of the trails but also of horses. He doesn’t have much experience but loves the horses and also comes out at least once a week to the barn to learn about horsemanship and riding and it’s become one of the days we spend together each week.

I spent a fair amount of time helping Molly mare and her human gain confidence and tools as she hadn’t had her own horse in many years. The lovely Morgan was quite a project both mentally and physically and I enjoyed helping the two along with whatever knowledge I could impart.

Molly in her new digs

I am really excited to learn this move has gone smoothly for them, and the deep foundational work they did on their relationship means this transition has not been overly stressful on either of them. Molly is secure in her owners care and seems to really know this.

Now besides my two wonderful riding companions I wonder if this place left open in their absence may find some filling helping others as well. I do hope so as sharing what I’ve picked up deepening my own horse-human relationships is a passion that burns brighter than most others for me. I will be keeping my eyes open for what that may look like as well.

Meanwhile as I consider developing long term some content that could be of use to a wider audience, I have a survey to ask what your frustrations, challenges, fears, hopes and dreams with horses are. Please click the link and take the very short survey but even more helpful is to share it with any horse people you know. I’d like to know how GreenTo100 can help readers with real video examples of relationship building over topics we all work with in our horseworld.

Hopes, dreams and challenges survey

The survey is short, takes a minute or so and has 5 questions that ask what your goals are and what your challenges are or where you’d most like to improve. There’s no catch or collection of personal information it’s only to see what people would find most helpful as a starting point. It would mean a lot for me to see feedback from my readers!

We’re waiting to hear from you

Thanks in advance!