The Good Deal.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Always offer the horse a good deal first. Then if they don’t take it do what it takes to get it done. If you’re consistent the will start to take you up on the good deal and you’ll need less effort each try.

**Every detail counts: I try to be more aware of all my interactions from walking over to the pasture to tacking up. I have a different way of approaching and putting on the rope halter now that asks them to participate and I ask new riders who come to try the same things because they are important to me. It treats the horses as partners from the first contact and considers them as beings from the start.

Each step to the barn is part of the dance and we do different speeds, back ups and even throw in a circle sometimes to partner with them and engage their minds with us before we ride.

I usually allow them to eat while grooming and give them some leeway there- but in tacking up I don’t want too much dancing or ear pinning while girthing etc and I insist we tighten slowly in between other movements (putting on a breast collar or adjusting stirrup length, checking feet or putting on boots, grabbing a water bottle etc…) so it’s not so harsh all at once.

When I bit I now insist they lower their head even a teeny bit and participate and I’m much more careful to not bop them in the face with my bridle and gently adjust their ears. Also I’ve lowered my bits so we have NO WRINKLES anymore. I never understood the common wisdom of the wrinkles and after hearing Buck say “That small amount of contact means something to my horse” I thought that makes so much more sense to me, I will try it. I think my horses are softer and happier with NO WRINKLES at their mouth. We certainly haven’t lost any control.

When we go to mount I prefer to use the stool- it’s easier on their backs and I want them to learn to come to me and stand so I can easily get on. We are never in such a hurry to get on the trail that we can’t take as long as we need to be sure the horse learns right where she needs to be for us and reward them with stillness and a rub first.

Once mounted STAND STILL until I say we can move. This is my current challenge with Khaleesi- she walks at least a step or two and then stops at which point she will stand still, but we’re forming a habit of a few steps first. I need to get off of her and start over when she does this but I’ve been lazy in it and just ask her to step back and stand- which she will do.

GOAL: work on getting on and NOT MOVING feet until I say it’s ok. Preferably on a day no one is waiting for me to hit the trail!

 

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**Leading Dance: Forward all speeds and directions is great. We’re still working on the back up with me next to her (leading). At first I had to ask her with the lead every time. Now she’ll at least take one step on her own. I want more, as many steps as I want, so now that she’s begun to get the idea I am trying to get a couple steps. I sometimes forget to release her as she’s backing and I hold the lead too long during the process which isn’t as clear and might be a reason why this process has been slower than cleaning up the forward motion.

GOAL: release AS SOON as she’s started backing with me and see if she’ll continue with me before adding pressure again.

**Walking circles: The fundamental issue with my walking circles is starting and turning. She does not know what it means to send her off with my lead rope. Once we’re moving in a circle she’s pretty good. I need to grab a longer line to get some distance, but she’s not collapsing in so much and she “gets it” now and moves around me and stays out of my bubble after we’ve gotten going.

GOAL: work on sending her each direction away from me with my lead rope. As Buck says the lead rope ought to mean something to the horse – it’s not just a leash to keep her from walking off.

 

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The dogs get really interested in what we’re doing. I liked this moment with Peggy Sue who had been following got ahead and turned to Khaleesi as if to wonder what we were trying to do.

**Forward Walk: We took a walking only trail ride with a local teenage horse girl and worked on JUST a little faster if she bogged down. Staying in front was helpful for this exercise because it wasn’t to keep up with the pack but just to move out. We sometimes had the big walk, and sometimes just a decent stride, but I never settled for the death plod and she only tried to trot out once- so she’s picking up a little speed for me and seems to understand. I have to remember to offer the “good deal” here as if she gets ploddy I start to assume she needs a kick to ask her to step it up. I assume a small squeeze won’t do the job- and if I don’t start with that it never will.

GOAL: continue to ask for better walk a few steps at a time. Always remember to squeeze with both legs just a touch before getting to a kick, and start insisting she keep up the pace longer each time.

 

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**Basics & Manners: On our ride today she kicked at Faygo (for the first time in months). The first time I was taken aback and not ready so I had to lose the opportunity to bad timing. I wasn’t even sure that’s what happened and I had to ask Susan… did Khaleesi just kick Faygo??  At that point it was way too late.

Fortunately a few minutes later Faygo approached us again and I was ready when strike two came!

I immediately and calmly one-rein turned her and started working in tight circles then small figure 8s disconnecting her hind quarters and moving around in a small space. She eventually softened to the work and I knew we had succesfully  communicated.

Susan asked me what I had done and why. I did a rough explanation at the time of making her work and move her feet, but in writing my blog (the main reason I do this) I thought it through more and realized that in choosing not to yell at her, or hit her in any way with my hand or my popper (all things I’ve heard of as ideas to correcting a kicker), I took control of her feet and I demanded she stop doing what she wanted (walk on toward home) and instead do what I wanted (go in small circles in one place on the trail). I continued this with her until it wasn’t a fight but until I felt her body soften and give to me and what this ended up doing was remind her that I was the one who makes these decisions when I’m riding her and she needs to “give” to me.

Kicking a horse on the trail is a manifestation of her taking control of a situation she wasn’t happy about (Faygo coming up to pass her). When she kicked she was asking a question:

Is it ok for me to kick Faygo for passing us when I want to be in front.

Unfortunately the first time it happened I said:

Yes, sure go ahead and kick Faygo.

I do not believe that 15 seconds after the fact me reacting would have had the same effect as when I did it immediately.

In some ways I loved the fact that me missing the first time did exactly what one should expect. The concept that you are always teaching your horse something in every interaction was never more vivid to me than that moment.

You have the choice- instill good habits, or instill not so good ones.

Every inch we give because we are not paying attention (like me today at kick 1) or because it’s just easier, will train the horse to invade space, not stand still when you mount, not pay attention when you need her to.

Conversely every tiny inch you ask for something to keep their attention or insist they stand quietly while you chat, fix your gloves or get off to adjust your saddle, or to back up while leading just for the heck of it, is an inch or more closer to your goal of having a horse who is a pleasure to spend time with, in tune to you, and most important: under control when you need it most.

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Next step:

Fine Tuning: I’d like to start with some serpentines around trees in open woods to get her from having trail blinders and staying connected with me. Also to help me continue to get her legs operating as if they were mine. Keeping an independent seat and working around trees with my legs and eyes can really “up” our game.

GOAL: take an “alone day” to go up into the woods and instead of a true trail ride, spend an hour serpentining around trees in the woods!

 

Takeaways:

I’ve been thinking more and more about the concept of giving the horse a “good deal” first. Every time. Allow them the chance to take the good deal and if they don’t- do what it takes to get it done.

The “good deal” is the most gentle way of asking for something. Every time assume your horse will take the good deal- even if she never has yet.

We can get used to assuming our horse won’t do whatever it is without a big loud bossy command and we skip the good deal altogether. The horse might have made a mistake the day before- but the horse moves forward the next day as a new day. It becomes reaction instead of thoughtful. We should avoid saying “my horse always does xxxx” because we’ve put that behavior on them now and assumed they can’t learn and change. We’ve now blocked the process of growth for them and us.

I thought about this in life too. We can have difficult relationships and we “know how that person is” and we “know what we need to do” to get something done or work around them. We react instead of thoughtfully proceed. This is more likely at work or with a family member because you wouldn’t normally keep a friend around that was difficult to be around.

Shouldn’t we always hope the best and give people a chance to each day to take the “good deal” first- before we get bossy or loud or go around them? It may not always work- but it’s a better process to at least start with a quiet and gentle yet direct request than passive aggressive maneuverings, bossy words or a tough attitude.

I know in my life it’s a good reminder.

As for my horse- the teenage phase hasn’t been so bad lately. Probably I’m doing a better job communicating with her and I love that after we work she has softness in her eyes and her body and a calm that tells me we did good today.

We all learn more when we can lower the stress level- horses and humans both.

Update… small steps

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Training a horse is insulting to the horse. Don’t be a horse trainer- be a horseman. A horseman educates the horse without the horse ever knowing its being trained…. Training a horse is absolutely finite. If you get the horse to operate as to be your legs you have exceeded the notion of training. — Buck Brannaman

I’ve been visiting my horses lately even if I only have a few minutes to do a few back ups or circles. Something I love to see is that for the past couple months whenever I drive up to the barn, any time of day, the girls come from wherever they are in the field to the corner of the fence to look for me.

Yesterday when I came to feed and squeeze 15 minutes of groundwork before a morning meeting I was surprised to see Khaleesi waiting for me half way down the fence. Faygo had come over and Khaleesi was just standing back. I started to pour the feed into the pans and still she refused to come over.

Little miss independent?

When I opened the gate and Faygo came for breakfast and she still didn’t move closer I wondered if something might be wrong.

True enough she started pedaling her front feet up and down in place and then it made sense: she was caught.

I took my halter and lead over with me to her to find she had a high tensile wire from the top of the fence that had gotten pulled slack and caught somehow so that her front legs were wrapped loosely. Pretty impressive actually!

How did you possibly do this to yourself?

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She had this top wire down around two of her legs

I have no idea how long she was caught there, but the ground had gone bare from some struggling. I was glad to see that she hadn’t panicked and  hadn’t hurt herself either.

She seemed to get frustrated me as I put the halter on:

MOM! can’t you see I’m STUCK!? I can’t go with you!

I know girl- but I think whatever we need to do to get you free will work better if I can help you stay in control with your halter… just hold up ok?

Thankfully the one wire was pretty loose and I was able to step it down and walk her one leg at a time over the wire. I was relieved it was so easy and she was excited to be free but did lead nicely with me over to find breakfast.

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Khaleesi eating breakfast after being freed from the fence.

I decided to forego the training- poor thing had been stuck in the fence, I doubted she would be in a mindset to work calmly. That would be setting us both up for failure. But I was so thankful I decided to run over there before my meeting that day!

Our dancing is improving albeit slowly. Our walking circles are getting more balanced and she isn’t falling to the inside as much as she did the first few times. I’m beginning to get her to start and turn around without quite so much crazy animation on my part.

I am really pleased with our leading. She is beginning to take at least one step back without me having to reach up and take her halter! Also she is moving out of my way if I walk into her space and following me in a circle the other direction. This small thing already feel so wonderful as she is paying a little more attention to me every time we do it. She stays just an eyelash behind my shoulder to be able to be ready for whatever move I might make.

Meanwhile (contrary to what my last post might have seemed to suggest) we are still riding.

Over the weekend Khaleesi started a new thing where she’d try to turn a half circle at random points along the trail to turn us toward home. No matter how strongly I did not give she still could turn her head- so in the end I changed approach and let her- only we kept going 360 so we were still going forward in the end. Tuesday she didn’t do this- nor did she try to pick up the pace to get home.

On Tuesday, not only were the girls waiting at the gate to come in and play, but they both led beautifully and we now use that leading from the field to get to their brains engaged to work with us.

Both girls are also getting better at sending on the trailer without us, and I was pleased to have them both walk on without any fuss without a human leading the way.

We did my all time favorite ride along the Jackson River Valley and I paid even more attention to what I was asking and how I released. Khaleesi likes to be a trail hog and not let another horse come up and ride next to us. We are getting better at me asking her to stay on her side of the trail even at a trot and she’ll step over pretty well. I paid close attention to how and when I asked with my leg, and as soon as she gave me some movement over I released the leg.

We are improving on minimal hands for communication as well. I am still working on an independent seat and using my body to communicate speed and direction as much as I can.  If we have to make a choice on the trail I am careful to look exactly where I want to be and she has done well choosing that direction (around a gate, log, rock…). I noticed that I had to use very little rein for steering and that pleased me.

She also kept a very steady slow trot pace for a good amount of the ride no matter who got ahead or behind- we did a good job at finding a rhythm and holding to it on loose rein and no leg action.

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Crossing Muddy Run at Hidden Valley with Nancy & Mireyah. This ride the two mares were really beginning to tolerate each other- almost in a friendly way. Such a big improvement over our rides in the Spring when at least one all out kicking match ensued (while we were riding them!)

One challenge I have is control over her walk.

She has a nice forward walk- I’ve felt it. However she also has a death plod that has very little use out on a trail ride. I do not have control over which walk she uses right now.

I can move her forward when she choses the death plod- but every time she chooses to trot up instead of animate her walk. My plan of action for this is I need to ask her with my legs for more energy, and when she choses the trot we stop or downward transition into the walk (which generally becomes the death plod again) and I ask again. This could take a lot of trying.

I noticed Buck via video footage encouraging people to realize what a first try looks like and to reward it. At one point a student in a group asked if she should release even if she just got one or two faster steps and he said “Of course- that is what it will look like at first.” So I will be trying to figure out how to reward a few good walk steps even if it’s not a sustained energetic walk. I do realize that is harder for her and she’ll have to work into it over some time.

A good thing to work in the arena or on a solo ride as if we fall too far behind in the process she is going to be set up to fail (no one likes to be left way behind) so then we have to trot to catch up once in a while.

Susan was on our ride and I have enjoyed introducing her to trail riding (and possibly endurance riding too!). She has a positive attitude, is an accomplished and fine rider, has a learning spirit and loves Faygo- who is teaching her tons each week.

Each ride Susan gleefully shares her “firsts” with us and I enjoy hearing them as we go…

My first time to ride in the woods… My first time on a gaited horse… My first time to cross a river… My first time to ride over 2 hours… My first time to open a gate on a horse… My first time to cross a bridge.. My first time (um, ok I promised not to share that one…)

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Susan coming out of one of our deeper water crossings

Today we got “My first time to go that fast… well, that fast still under control!

Then I got home to hear another Buck quote:

You do need to get a horse to where you can open him up and run. A horse is pretty incomplete if you can open him up and not have him loose his mind. You gotta practice dialing up and dialing back down again.

Nothing groundbreaking there, but something to think about- and we did it today.

There’s a beautiful hill that is a prefect spot to really run, and Faygo has an amazing “open up” gear. She is fast.

Developing Khaleesi’s canter has been fascinating to me. A year ago it felt funny, and she would twist out her back legs to get started and it was not very fast. Having never started a horse before I assumed that she just had a strange canter (too bad- I do like a nice canter sometimes). Over the year that canter has changed and improved and occasionally she would run up after Faygo as fast as she could and though she could never quite catch up, she was developing a nice canter.

Today I told Susan this was the one place she could feel safe giving Faygo as much room as she wanted- the footing was good and there’s a pipe gate at the top that would stop us even if somehow she felt out of control (though Faygo has not in my knowledge run away with anyone since Nancy worked on that with her years ago).

Susan and Faygo got going- but Khaleesi was ready for more and at the final stretch we passed Faygo and she might have hit what felt like her top speed. We only got to about 15MPH, and I can’t remember what her top speed was in the past, but she felt great and was balanced! (Susan had held Faygo back- this was the fastest she’d ever gone and she did a great job of staying in control and only as fast as she felt confident)

We walked around the pipe gate- heading home of course- and the girls both dialed back down the energy to a walk for a while.

Faygo can get so hot on her way home- one thing I may do more with her is trying to amp her up then dial her back to see if she can begin to control her own adrenaline level more. We saw some fun exercises that pushed the horse to sprint, then stop, back up 5 or 10 steps, then sprint, and sometimes just stand still in between. That will be a good Faygo routine this winter.

It’s boot season and in 13 miles we only had to stop twice to fix a boot for Faygo. One time we lost a boot in a deep mud suck coming out of the river- thankfully I watched it happen. The second time the boot twisted up onto her leg and we had to adjust. Not too bad all told. Khaleesi had all 4 stay on 100%!

This is a good week.

I haven’t seen any teenage tantrum flare ups (though I am sure they are not far beneath the surface) and we’ve had some nice small successes and good riding. Even our neighbor (who helped pull her back shoes on one of her worst days lately) saw us walking in yesterday and commented:

Boy, look at her… she’s such a different horse when you’re on her back!

And I said:

…not really, she just has her good moments and her not so good ones… like any young horse. She’s doing great today!

And then I thought… probably most of that difference is actually in me. She does her job really well: her job is to be a horse.

I have a long way to go to go from a “man” to a “horseman” and I hope I’ve made some more progress recently.

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Epilogue:

My saddle should be en route soon, but I asked for some pictures of the tree this time because I love watching the progress, and this tree is very slightly different than her standard one. So though I am dying to ride in it, it’s at least fun for the moment to get to see some pictures as it’s developing.

The Seasons Change… Pacing and Barn Sour Horses

Monday, November 2, 2015

I love the change of seasons.

That doesn’t just mean I like to see the earth go through rebirth over the year-  I really love the changes of life’s pace.

Summer is not only lush and warm… humid and green… but it is full of life. The days are long and exhausting but we revel in the activity and drink up as much sunlight as we can squeeze out of each day. The woods are noisy with birds and animals. As a teacher my work slows down leaving me able to spend lots of hours outside – my heart is in the barn and the woods, but also the yard is in bloom and things grown in the garden. We stay outside into the night with friends drinking wine, or margaritas… or mojitos… and laugh easily and often. It’s also the height of ride season and next year I hope to do at least an event each month with Khaleesi through late spring to fall… summer!

Summer gets exhausting after a while. And the heat gets tiring… humidity draining… tack and boots seem to mold overnight. Our horses are always sweating and we worry about dehydration and overheating at rides and in trailers. You dream of a shower if you are camped out without one but on the other hand get sick of wondering if there will be a thunderstorm every single afternoon for the rest of your life.

Fall comes along and brings pretty colors and trails and tack begin to dry out. The woods are stunning and the cooler temps are a godsend to your exhausted horses- though they are fantastic shape right now. This is why fall riding is “the best” – in shape horses, beautiful views, dry trails and cooler temperatures.

As the days get shorter and the leaves disappear this perfect riding gives way to winter which means parties must be held indoor, thus are usually smaller and cozy. You begin to talk in depth with your friends again over scotch or bourbon and the wood stove. It gets dark earlier and you begin to ride 2 hours or less in the warmest part of the day or risk loosing a toe to frostbite. The trails are often soggy and slick and half frozen. You worry about the storm that’s predicted and promises to dump 36 inches of snow and freezing rain… do my horses have enough hay until I’ll be able to dig a path back to the pasture? Will the water freeze? To blanket or not to blanket?

Work gets busy for me, but as riding hours are fewer it’s a good time for tradeoff. Also it’s quiet, the nights are clear and the stars blaze in the darkness. The stillness is good for the soul and there are a few perfect clear days after a snow when you can ride in the powder sugar forest and see the coyote and turkey tracks as clear as your dogs can usually smell them — nothing else has come through except you.

Just as you think you will go stir crazy from being inside as much as possible and sick of slippery footing and short rides everything begins to melt and the cycle begins again with spring. Probably my least favorite time of year the trails go from frozen to slushy and refrozen ice rinks, your horse is not only covered in mud but also shedding out a thick winter coat and you look like either bigfoot or the abominable snowman every time you try to clean one up enough to ride. Raining ruins your riding plans the most in spring- and it’s usually a COLD rain. The only saving grace is those few days that are JUST RIGHT and the sun shines warming you enough through the window that 50 degrees feels like you might just pull out your tank top for this ride (then go outside to realize you actually have lost your mind through the winter).

At least in spring you know what is coming, and winter helped you rest up for the busy riding season ahead!

Now that daylight savings time has ended and November is here the writing is on the wall. As my husband reminds me often:

Winter is coming.

cutting some downs to get through on a new trail
cutting some downs to get through on a new trail

That’s ok. The woods that were ablaze last week in color are now looking sparse with a few leaves floating along on the breeze. I took Faygo out for a really nice ride and enjoyed the time with her scoping out some new trails with my GPS- this is something I don’t do often with Khaleesi as I usually have riding mileage/speed goals with her and have been enjoying that process. Faygo however continues to struggle with hard riding so this was a great way to enjoy the first November afternoon of riding together.

Also since I have been able to dial back my riding program without feeling guilty this year (a rest season is good for the horses too!), I’ve been able to spend some time helping friends with their equine life as well.  I’ve been given a lot in my horse journey and if I can pass anything along and give some of my time to other people it’s the least I can do. My girlfriend lost her horse recently and had already been looking for another for the family so she ended up taking on two rescue walking horses to see how they’ll do this fall.

the two rescues on their trail trail ride
the two rescues on their trail trail ride

They are nice horses but will be projects to refresh their training and get them on the trails again. They have good foundations and I think have good potential and are not beyond the capability of my friend and her family, but it will take some work, and nothing is guaranteed. I found this year there is a difference when you have to put some work into your horse than if you get one fully trained and ready to go by someone else- it’s a good process to undertake, and for her teenage son who wants to ride one of these geldings I believe having to invest some time into the horse is important to understanding it’s an animal and not a motorcycle. I hope to help them out in any way I can along the journey.

An issue they will be dealing with in one horse is “barn sour”. This is something I’ve had to work through with Faygo since I began riding her. It’s gone through many phases from minor and slightly annoying to, at it’s worst (brought on by the lymes and back pain) downright dangerous and scary. We took out both geldings to see if they were even worth considering, and traded horses on the way back so we could get the experience of riding both. We did the switch after barn sour gelding started his push for home. I was glad to see when my friend dismounted and I got on he stood quietly even though he wanted to go. I believe is somewhere mid range on the barn sour scale but certainly needing improvement for a rider to enjoy him. He was never dangerous or out of control but he was pushy and hard to hold back.

[Also good to remember this was their first ride in …. who knows how long. They haven’t even been handled much by people recently. They are rescue horses without a lot of known history. They both really did fantastic for the circumstances, and the other horse- the paint horse wasn’t phased by Mr. Barn Sour and he walked calmly even when left behind at times by Mr. Barn Sour.]

Nice exploring ride with trail dogs getting a quick drink in the woods
Nice exploring ride with trail dogs getting a quick drink in the woods

Today I found Faygo to be more pushy than usual (she goes in cycles and we hadn’t ridden alone in a while); since I knew I’d be helping my friend I was very thoughtful in our training as we headed home.

Through the years I went through lots of trial and error with her from a harsher bit to jerking her and trying to slow her down by force to finally realizing I was not going to ever force that horse to do anything. I had to get to her mind. When she was at her worst is when I was forced to be at my best and I got serious about the barn sour habit.

I don’t know if you can ever make a horse NOT barn sour at all (though I won’t argue this point, anything is possible). Most horses to some extent like to hurry home- but you CAN have a horse that respects you and doesn’t become dangerous, out of control, or pulls your shoulders out of joint. For Faygo I tried lots of approaches- once I followed advice to make the work harder… circle your horse and get her to see that it’s much harder to push home than to walk nicely. In our case (and I believe most horses) this only made the energy go UP UP UP and she got more fired up the more circles I did. I had to get off her to lunge her without feeling like we were in the rodeo then get back on… It was more dangerous because now she was barn sour, intent to run home, and adrenaline UP.

I thought this over and decided in her case we needed to bring the energy down. Instead I began to turn her around- one rein U turn (not facing home) and then ask her to side pass.. back up… forward two steps… anything I could ask that wasn’t walk home but that made her think about what I wanted her to do and get her focus off of running me home. If she was bad enough I’d get off and do groundwork right there. Calm deliberate groundwork, not fast animated circles.

This helped. She’s naturally a hot headed horse though over time I find her to be softening more and more. I am always interested in keeping her adrenaline down when we’re working through something.

Over time I came up with a new game: the tree maze. This is what I used today as we got closer to home and she was pushing me. In the tree maze- every time she went from her fast walk (which I allow) to a foxtrot gait (too fast) I would practice going off the path and winding through and around trees. I work on our communication – I look first where I want to go, then use my shoulders and eventually rein if she doesn’t “hear” me. For us this works great and connects our communication better as well. She is so good that eventually the softest ‘voice’ of just looking through random trees will snake us around the woods on a diverted path home.

I could feel her dial her pace back just a touch to avoid having to go off trail without a rein cue from me. To top it off, she is so smart that she would only start to push into a gait when the sides of the trail were either so dense or so steep she KNEW I wouldn’t make her do it. Then immediately pull back a few steps later when the trail opened back up again.

Love this horse, she always ups my game

Again I had to outsmart her- so I decided in those sections I would just turn her around and do side passes and back ups then turn back around and continue. Eventually she realized this and we walked home. Loose rein. Granted we walked fast- but my rule was as long as it’s a walk I’ll take it.

I always start by asking myself what I am doing to contribute to the problem. I believe all great riders start here and hopefully it’s the easiest thing to change first (our own behavior or energy)! I think many of us are just a step ahead of our horses. We anticipate what they have done in the past and I wondered if I might be telegraphing her speeding up in places she’s done it before to basically create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As we ride the familiar trail home I know I think to myself “here is where she always speeds up that little hill…” or “this is the spot she always tries to run past where the other trail meets” and in doing so am I creating some of this energy? Like another friend who has occasional trailer loading issues… does she sometimes worry to herself “I know he’s not going to load” and send out that energy to the horse who feels there must be a reason to be worried about this? How about another friend who has been working on getting her horse to not drag on the lead and move with her when she jogs out- she said her horse is starting to jog sideways with it’s hind end out to the side… we figured out she had gotten too used to popping the lead rope behind her to ask him to move out without even giving him the chance to move correctly (or incorrectly) first.

I tried to get control of my brain and really think the slower footfall rhythm and energy and using my Jedi training assume she would NOT try to speed up in those known areas, but instead keep my energy down and the rhythm and energy dialed back. I believe it made a difference. In riding this way more and more there are moments when I can feel her energy in a split second ask my energy a question “can we canter up this hill please?” or “I’m tired and hope to slow down.. can we?” and often my energy answers with a “yes lets go!” or “I was just thinking we should slow down for a bit”. And I’m working on stopping my horse without rein if at all possible- and not really with my seat either, but as Pam and I talked about I try putting my energy to “Zero”. I have literally stopped saying “Whoa” sometimes and actually say out loud (though it’s mostly to myself to try to help my energy as much as possible since I’m not a Jedi quite yet) “zero”. When we did make it home and were approaching the  barn I did this and bam. “zero.” She stopped.

At some point in riding Faygo, I decided that I will not pull on her face to get her to listen- I expect her to go the speed I ask and not faster (or slower) until I change the speed, and hopefully someday stop when my energy says “zero” every time. This isn’t easy- with Faygo going home the challenge was to keep her from trotting me in, and we did it today.

the go-go-Faygo
the go-go-Faygo

With Khaleesi it’s mainly keeping her moving – my energy needs work too. I have found that sometimes I’m asking her to move forward, but I haven’t changed my own energy into a trot. When I do it’s more effective. Also I’ve ridden in a group where the energy is forward and away we go- 6mph easy with a forward friend, but in a group with a lower energy level I might put her out front and try to set a slow trot and it’s pulling teeth- the other horses are lagging behind and she feels the group energy stronger than mine. She can speed up or slow down without me asking- and most of us as casual riders let the horse choose the speed often. I’d like us to be more fine tuned than that. The one thing that I don’t like about group riding (more than 3 people) is that I find the speed changes ALL THE TIME. A horse gets in front and goes out a few steps, then lags back to a walk- then fast walk- then slow walk-trot/gait a short distance…  the pace never seems to find a groove (except sometimes in the case of walking along for stretches).

I have ideas for barn sour Faygo, but I tried to think about how to encourage Khaleesi to keep moving. In the arena when she’d slow down in a corner I’d use a dressage whip (just a tap) to answer the question for her “Can I slow down now?” I may experiment riding her alone on the trail and work on my energy forward and bring the dressage whip as a tool to help us communicate without me having to kick and push her from my legs- I want her to be more responsive and not dull there.

I know she can move out, and she’s in plenty good enough shape. It’s kind of nice to know I have a horse in her that is capable of a mellow ride and a fast one depending on what we’re doing. Ironically with Faygo, who needs to mellow out due to breathing limitations, is always pushing on hot and fast. Dialing her back is always a struggle.

All of this seems to come back to energy and pace to me the more I think about them. Faygo needs to slow down sometimes, and Khaleesi needs to keep moving at a steady trot. Both of these we work on more effectively alone- then hope our work and energy translates into group riding.

That is one of my winter goals- to find some groove in our pace… and to help my friend’s new barn sour rescue learn to walk in under control.

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Post Season

Monday, October 19, 2015

Our first season is now behind us and it’s a mix between the letdown of anticipation and activity and a more relaxed feeling of enjoying the ride without training goals in the forefront. I sometimes just go to the barn to bring apples and love and the girls must know because they come to me at the gate faster than they used to (though none of them are hard to catch).

Madison and I were fortunate to get one last ride in and get the girls to stretch their legs a bit before they headed back to FL. It was a lovely ride and we were in no hurry. The leaves are finally starting to change and drop and when fall gets serious it happens quickly.

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I am ok with our temporary saddle solution, but this winter I will have a goal to sort out a more long term answer to my saddle puzzle. For the moment I plan to borrow and ride her in as many saddles that are a “decent” fit as possible and see if I can discern how she moves in them and how I move in them. Yes- I have to start with the horse because that is the most important part, but as Garnet reminded me: If the saddle doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work. You won’t be balanced and ride comfortably, and you can’t do endurance miles like that.

I started with a Freeform that a friend loaned me. I’m not generally a fan (for myself) of treeless saddles as I don’t think I’m either a light enough or good enough rider to make it work for my horse without a better system to distribute my weight without pressure points on her back. But still for some shorter rides, it’s not bad to try it and see how we feel. The one bonus of treeless is the movement in the back it affords the horse. [side note, this saddle is for sale if you’re looking for a freeform send me a message and I’ll connect you to her]

Khaleesi in the freeform
Khaleesi in the freeform

The feel as a rider in a treeless saddle is a little uncomfortable for me because of the wider feel in my legs around the horse. It made posting a little different- and not particularly better or worse. I felt she moved pretty well in the saddle and honestly I wasn’t able to tell a big difference in her. I hope as I use more different saddles through the fall as I’m able I might start to notice things more.

One thing I did was try a few from the barn on her on a day I didn’t ride recently. One didn’t fit particularly well and she pinned her ears and a few times tried to nip at me while we were feeling under it. I got the message.

NOT THAT ONE!

Then we tried another one and she was already more relaxed and though she was still turning her head asking what we were doing she was not as intense about the message.

Also this winter our goals are to continue to work on our communication and relationship. I would like to improve riding intentionally and move her with my energy more and less with physical cues. When I ride alone we are already better at this and we move into the trot often without my legs but from a joint energy push. Transitioning down is getting better as well and we are smoother going back to a walk than we used to be. I start with eyes and shoulders for turns and going around trees and often she follows without much rein aid at all now.

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When we ride with others we are both more distracted- she by what the other horses are doing (speed up slow down as a herd) and me as well- chatting and enjoying the company of other humans takes some of my energy focus away. I think it’s ok. It’s a different ride and I enjoy them all.

It has made my solo riding more meaningful than it used to be. I used to enjoy a ride alone, but after a while get tired of my own company and wish for some friends on the trail. Now I find that if I ride with others too often I wish for the focus and connection of a solo ride. This is good because winter means lots of solo riding as we start to stay closer to home and trailer around less.

Around the barn I also hope to deepen our relationship and communication. This is tough to do with a ride schedule. My last ride with Khaleesi I spent more time at my stool asking her to stand quietly than I would have been comfortable had someone been waiting on me. She wants to walk off when I get on her- at least a step or two. With no agenda or anyone waiting on me I took the time she needed to come where I wanted her at the stool (the stool is smaller than a mounting block and I find it harder for us to coordinate). When we got that to my satisfaction I got on and she took a step. I got off and we started again- the whole process. Second time it was better. Still a work in progress here.

The following day I brought her in ONLY to work on standing at the stool with me. I think she was feeling obstinate because it took over 30 minutes to get her in position and standing quietly with lots of starting over when she’d push her butt out and stand facing me as if to say “I’d rather do this“. I planned to work on mounting her bareback and getting the whole stand still down- but we quit at standing in the right place at the stool as I didn’t have another hour to hope to get the next step successfully (be flexible in training what you can that day, and always end on a good note).

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I find this to be a fun challenge- problem solving. How can I communicate better what I want her to do in a way she’ll understand, and how can I be a little smarter than her when she doesn’t understand or tries to evade what I’m asking. In the words of Monty Roberts I heard in an interview recently:

When you do your work correctly, repetition is your best friend. When you do your work incorrectly, repetition is your worst enemy.

If something isn’t working- my challenge is to figure out a better way to ask. Horses do not lie, and they are not “false”. They may resist something, but there is always a reason. Horses want peace and comfort – my job is to show them the way and if I do it right they will choose the right answer.

Monty made a point to say one of the biggest mistakes in working with horses is not controlling our own emotional state (internally). If a horse isn’t doing what we ask we often have an elevated heart rate (due to either fear or frustration). Not being in control of our own heart rate and internal energy is one of the main factors in his opinion that hinder our work- that kind of repetition is our greatest enemy. They are so sensitive that I may look patient and calm to a human, but the horse senses heart rate change and energy change in an instant. So all these boring things like standing still, coming to the mounting block and leading properly (maybe this winter sending on the trailer?) turn into personal growth for me- can I control not only my outer reaction, but my inner emotional one?

Can I not get upset when she swings her butt out away from me when I want her to stand next to me at the stool?

Can I keep my heart from racing when she does those little bucks at the start of a race?

Can I not have a reaction when my work colleague does something that would normally make my head want to explode?

Can I slow down my emotional reaction when my husband makes the comment that needles me in just the right spot?

Is it possible that student is not just slow or refusing to try- but that it’s my responsibility to find a better way to approach the problem that allows them to open up and learn?

That is the Jedi training I started this year and I can’t say enough what kind of positive affect it’s had on my life.

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late afternoon fall light
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Favorite trails this fall

I love being on the trails in the fall, but I’ve noticed that I don’t miss a riding day as much anymore if I only have an hour or so available to bring in a horse and do a little mind work instead. It’s become a sort of addiction actually- hopefully a positive one!

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Fall on the farm

The little things

Monday, September 21, 2015

Khaleesi has had a well deserved break, and Faygo and I have taken a few rides- a little alone time together, and some trail clearing and riding fun with Nancy and Mireyah. It’s been forever since we’ve ridden with them and that was a great ride. We got off and clipped out a new trail connector, then rode a really beautiful 11 mile ride on some of my favorite “backyard” roads.

I’ve also done some more work on my riding with Khaleesi. Riding bareback has been a fantastic way to better understand her feet and how my body connects with hers. I love riding her in a halter bareback – and this week the connection finally clicked of what it feels like when her back feet pick up. We got our first really good cross over and it was amazing to do that together. It doesn’t look exciting, but the timing for that little movement to be correct has taken me months! (Sometimes I feel like such a slow learner!)

We also worked on it under saddle and I was able to feel the movement then as well!

My trotting has been going through lots of phases, and saddle changes over the past couple months, but I believe it’s come down now to settling into my feet and keeping them more still. This will work better if I am more relaxed and not letting my legs “grip” her sides. We went through lots of off-kilter moments…

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I’m still pretty far from a graceful easy rider, but each time we get better. I know that improving my riding will improve our endurance prospects. If I am better in the seat- if I can relax more and get out of her way, she can move most effectively and faster, longer strides when we need them and we can do the miles without pain (for both of us!). Here is how we ended it this week- a little more centered, less grip from my legs, and my feet a bit more still:

Besides my riding, we’ve been working on some great ground exercises with Pam. These have become as fun to me as riding because I love to see her “get it” and step up to such great manners/behavior. I have always thought the time on the ground matters- and spent a lot of time there before riding Khaleesi last year and really built our relationship – literally- from the ground up. I have come upon a new love of working from the ground again.

Between our scheduled rides, I’ve been focusing on what I call the “Little things” that foundationally shape the “Big things” (our trail rides and events).

Some of our little things have included:

Standing Still: Don’t eat right now. Don’t move a foot unless I as ask you to. If you do move- I can ask with energy and a lead rope cue for you to put that foot back in place. Stay in place for me to adjust your saddle, hose you off, spray you with fly spray (that was a huge breakthrough this week!), and in extension- while the pulse taker gets your heart rate, while the vet checks you over, and while the farrier is working.

Back Up: she has a decent back up but I have to ask loudly for it. (of course that’s my fault not hers- she is perfectly capable of hearing me ask more quietly). We are working on gently wiggling the lead rope and focusing on which foot I’m asking her to move- also being able to ask her from a foot or more away and not having to enter her space to get her to move back.

Come to me: clucking for us means to come closer. So after getting her to back away from me a few feet and stand there, clucking to her to ask her to come closer is a great tool to have (it is also useful in the mounting block, or mounting rock, log on the trail.. etc)

Leading perfectly: her head at my shoulder. Don’t lag/drag when I move, stop when I stop, back up with my feet, trot out when I jog, slow down or speed up at will and don’t eat when we’re working.

Mounting: Coming to me at the mounting block, then standing quietly as long as I want- and not moving one foot once I get on until I ask her to.

Load up: she is great about walking right on the trailer if I lead the way. Eventually I’d like her to load up and step on while I stand behind her. She’s done it a couple times, but we’re not quite there regularly yet.

Some of these things are basics that we just do, like leading. Every time I get her out of the field and bring her into the barn we practice this. It doesn’t take much time and occasionally I’ll challenge her with some speed changes and stops or back ups together just to be sure she’s “tuned up”.

Unfortunately I get into the habit that her basic manners are fine and we don’t need to do much groundwork now- we did that already right?

Could there be more layers of learning available there that we are leaving on the table? Could it be this is more than “work” or making sure a horse is safe with good manners? I think what is really developed from the ground is communication and connection. It’s not work actually- it’s learning to have a conversation, and it’s spending time listening to your horse on their level. Literally.

I am reminded again that ground communication is a much deeper relationship builder than riding work. I was ‘forced’ into substantial ground communication with Khaleesi when I first brought her home because that was all we had and it is the base of the great relationship we have today. I am convinced it couldn’t have happened otherwise, I love Faygo and she and I have a really good relationship, but our relationship is built more from riding than ground communication over the years and it is definitely a different relationship. I’d like to work on that as well with her.

…….. In fact Faygo seems to hate being in an arena/ring. She doesn’t like repetitive tasks. She is impatient. I’d like to find out this winter if that is indeed true, or if she just hasn’t felt like anyone is truly having a conversation with her and she’s sick of having someone talk “at” her instead of work with her? She is incredibly smart. She seems to have learned how to function in the human world, but maybe she would open up to a conversation on her level. At her age it might take a little time for her to believe me, but this winter that’s a project for me to try….

Some of these things can be incredibly time consuming and don’t fit into a riding agenda day. Who wants to wait 5 or more minutes while we hang around the mounting block before hitting the trail? Who wants to watch us work on standing still for fly spray application… as of last week that could have taken 20 minutes of patiently just putting her feet back in place, getting one spray in, then putting her feet back in place….

No one – nor should they!

This is the foundation we work on when no one is waiting for us to hit the trail! In the busy pace of life, and riding goals appear larger than the time available, it’s easy for me to forgo this time and figure we’ll get our ‘training on the trail’.

Note: Of course we are training on the trail. We are training every time we interact with our horse- we are training good habits and positive relationships, or bad habits and negative relationships. Training on the trail isn’t bad, just maybe not sufficient for the relationship I hope for with my horse.

It has been a new challenge for me to combine “stand still” with “fly spray” because of how terrible Khaleesi used to be with the spray. She used to dance around me in circles as if being lunged on too short a rope occasionally rearing up and trying to bite the bottle.

I wasn’t sure the best way to deal with this except that maybe she’d eventually “desensitize”, realize she wasn’t hurt by the fly spray, and get tired of working herself up with it. Armed with the stand still work we set out to fly spray calmly. At first she would move around- much much better than the crazy fly spray dance, but not standing still as I’d asked.

With absolutely no time-line, I would spray her, put her feet back in place (sometimes having to put the spray down and two handed work the lead rope as she said “NO WAY am I standing around for you to do that to me!” I’d get her back in place as calmly and matter of factly as possible then pick up the bottle and spray again. Each time she’d move, but eventually just a step instead of completely trying to run me over to get out of the ‘zone’. Finally, about 2 weeks later, I took this video of her standing still while I sprayed her. She isn’t perfect yet, but she is doing great and each time we do it, the moving, stepping, and dancing is less.

Then there’s the mounting block.

Yesterday, bareback with only a halter it must have taken me 15 minutes to move her around the block again when she’d move a foot as I tried to get on her. Once she was SO CLOSE, she positioned herself perfectly, I rubbed her while she stood quietly, then leaned over and almost was on her when she walked off!

I was on, but that was not good enough. I dropped down, walked her calmly back to the block and we tried again. And again, and again, and again as each time she’d get in place perfectly… but at some point would move a foot or step off as I started to get on her. Thankfully Pam is gracious and we didn’t have a time-limit. She encouraged me to do it as many times as it took for her to hear me ask for what I wanted, and then learn to respond correctly.

Eventually there was a time she stood there with her ears back- I think she knew what we were trying to do and just was getting annoyed with the process. We stood there, her in place for what seemed like a LOOOOOOONG time. We waited. And at some point she softened and shook her head and licked her lips and there was a change in her. She was more willing to have the conversation.  After that it clicked and she did not walk off as I leaned over and climbed on her bareback.

That moment came from me doing NOTHING. Just waiting and reading her energy. (And Pam helping me realize that it was an opportunity. I am not naturally good at waiting and doing nothing in order to get results)

What I love the most about these things is that we are learning to talk to each other- or I am learning to communicate better with her while she realizes I truly am willing to speak her language. This process is pretty time consuming, but the rewards have been overwhelming. Also, once we gain understanding it is always improved going forward. The ground we gain has solid footing (as long as I don’t ‘untrain’ it in the future!) We have a conversation going that is much more balanced and our relationship which was good before is deepening as is our connection.

Also, this is different than true “non-agenda” time. I used to think that was bonding time- when we’d just go in the barn, and I’d groom my horse and give her attention and love and not ask for anything. While this is nice to do, I have begun to realize that though (depending on your horse who may not really like all the hands on attention) this might be a nice treat for them, it does not work on our relationship. My horse doesn’t need me to fawn over her and treat her like a princess to realize I love her. My horse needs me to learn her language. We don’t grow together into a deeper relationship because I adore her and brush her. We grow together when we interact.

Too often I believe we don’t know how to speak to our horses so they understand us- that creates a wall between us. I’ve seen a night and day difference in Khaleesi in a poor communication from me vs. a clear one.

One of the first times I was aware of this was trying to adjust her saddle at Pam’s in July and she kept eating grass which made the process harder on me. I would jerk her head up with the lead rope and ask her “stop and stand still” and her head would pull up as I jerked, then she would go right back. Pam watched a moment and said:

She doesn’t understand ‘pulling’ on her head. That’s not how horses communicate. They don’t ‘pull’. Would you like to teach her to stand quietly while you do that?

I thought OF COURSE I would like her to do that……… is that possible?

Pam took the lead rope and every time she went to get a bite of grass she popped the rope so it popped her in the head/neck (didn’t hurt her, just surprised her). She jerked her head up on her own and looked at Pam with a clear recognition.

That human just spoke to me” is what her face said- completely different from the inaudible chatter that my pulling her head up was to her.

She looked at Pam, and put her head down to eat again.

Pop with the lead rope- head comes up.

Looked at Pam. Obvious thought and processing going on.

Put her head partway down, did not reach for grass… testing the water.

No pop.

Ok. I am allowed to move my head.

Head slowly to the ground, sniffs, (no rope correction)…… takes a bite.

POP.

Head up. Looking at Pam, thinking it over.

Within 2 minutes she stood quietly and did not eat or mover her feet.

She heard someone speak to her clearly in her language and I saw it in her face. Some might say she “knew” what I wanted when I pulled her head up with the lead rope. She was just being willful. I take this example to be proof that is not true. It did not take weeks to change this behavior, it took minutes. There had been a wall between us in that instance, this shattered the wall. Choosing the correct method of communication was the only difference. I wanted to be part of that conversation.

I don’t want to just be a good rider. I want to be a horseman, a great one someday. One that listens to my horses and wins their respect and their friendship because I hear them and can communicate more clearly. We can’t grow together with bad or no communication.

I thought I was on a journey to a 100 mile ride. Turns out it’s bigger than that. It’s a labor of love.

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Communication.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Officially I am on vacation in Southern Oregon and haven’t seen my horses in days, but this post woke me up before light this morning asking to be written.

I did a little more riding at the end of last week I hadn’t written about, but also some horse world intersecting with real life ideas have been mulling around in my head needing some written space to get worked out. So after tossing and turning in the wee morning, I gave in and got up to write it.

I always love visitors and was excited that my first endurance riding friend came to visit. Pascale was my neighbor at the no frills in April and helped me along through my first ride weekend. We’ve kept in touch and she came out and helped me get my girls ridden for a couple days over the weekend.

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She arrived early evening and we headed to the barn after a heavy but short rain and took a misty evening ride. The fog sitting on the mountainsides were pretty and she got to know Faygo a bit.

IMG_1388Due to epic boot failure, I had to get up early before our Sunday ride and see if I could get the hoof glue shim removed from my old “back” easy boots. The old back boots are the same size as the current fronts, and after losing 2 fronts on the Alleghany Trail ride, I needed the old back to become a front for the day. My farrier wasn’t sure if the shim would stay in place long term, but it certainly did! In fact I had to get help from Tim with his dremel tool to get the custom shims out. It took some effort, but we did get them out so that previously back boot would fit her front foot for this – last before the farrier comes to shoe her – ride.

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The next day the girls headed out to Hidden Valley and took one of my favorite rides along the Jackson River. We had beautiful weather and the terrain is easy and not many mountains to climb so we were able to move out at a good clip for a group of five. We did 13-15 miles in about 3 hours.

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It’s one of the nicest rides in our area so I’ll post some pictures.

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Meanwhile my husband and I had a conversation about communication. I’ve been mulling this over.

The conversation began about a very specific situation that in his opinion was an example of our poor communication. While I agree we don’t always seem to speak the same language, I went over the same example step by step and thought it represented pretty clear communication (at least from my perspective).

We seemed to agree that it would be good for us to improve our communication, but without any clear plan to do so. I tend to be a step by step problem solver and the vagueness of both the problem and the solution is vexing to me.

One principle I hold fast is that no matter what the problem is, any possible solution must include variables I have some control over. In real life this is a very small set. I have no control over other people’s actions or feelings, the environment (weather, social norms, economy, politics, this list is very long), and I have only partial control over myself- I generally can’t control my feelings (though I have tried!), my actions and reactions are about all I can at least get some control over (on a good day).

How can communication between humans who even speak the same basic language (English in this case) be so complicated? What can I do about it?

I began wondering if verbal language could actually be the enemy.

I try to be straightforward and I like to rely on verbalization. Words. Of course that’s not completely true. We all look at other forms of communication even if subconsciously. Words might even be the least reliable layer of communication for anything except basic data (What does that apple weigh?). Tone is the next layer that usually tells us more information than the words themselves. In fact- tone came into play in our communication discussion. One obvious example is irritation.

When I get a response filled with irritation all around the words- I have much more information than the words themselves gave me.

What about other layers? What about non-verbal body language? What about eyes? posture? movements? These layers are more subtle- but do they tell us more than the other layers if you tune into them? But what are they saying?

These layers are more intimidating to me because they may be more reliable- but there isn’t an answer key. You can get these wrong. How do you find out the answers and get better at understanding these layers reliably? Could these layers be different for different people? Where do we go from understanding non-verbal communication and into “mind reading” (which is too far in my opinion to go).  Why can’t people just say what they mean to say and be honest in their words about what they want, expect and feel? That would be so much easier for me.

How on earth am I supposed to learn what these other layers mean- and what am I supposed to do with the information if I did know!?

Wait.

Isn’t this what I expect to do with my horses? Learn their language through nonverbal communication?

Maybe.

This is kind of a big maybe right now in my mind.

Maybe I am capable of trying to observe and learn more about my human communications by paying more attention than I currently do to the nonverbal communication layers.

Maybe it’s a cop-out to say to myself that if someone doesn’t tell me verbally then I am not responsible for the information.

Yes- I believe that it is annoying and less efficient to have to deal with this, but if I return to the fact that I can’t change the way other people function- and most people (even me…?!) function in this way- I am left with ignoring it to my peril, or trying to work within it as a reality of life.

This is where I am today. The concept finally crossing over that if I can learn to communicate with horses in their nonverbal language maybe I can improve my human communications too. Maybe that would help my husband-wife communication.

Maybe……..

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