Lessons: Kindergarten Graduation

July 10, 2019

This blog is part of a series inspired by a private clinic with Emily Kemp. I highly recommend her and you can find more information here: Emily Kemp Website

Some of the most profound lessons for me from the clinic came from working with Wyoming.

Wyoming is a BLM Mustang from Wyoming that I adopted through the TIP training program a couple years back. She came started and just “needing experience” after being injured on the mustang makeover tour.

I loved that she grew up until about a two year old in the wild! However now, between realizing more acutely why people prefer yearling round ups who haven’t as keenly developed their wild animal survival instincts into a way of life… then there is her early experiences with humans being herded onto trailers for the makeover tour and then injured in the process in Indiana likely pushed too fast for her individual ability and personality… consequently sent off to a short training period in Tennessee (rather than giving up on her completely), then handed off to a 12 hour ride to the mountains of Virginia to live with my herd.

She was not the smart choice for a nice easy trail horse- though my heart was to help one of these wild creatures in need, and on that score I’m batting 1000.

After struggling to keep her comfortable with a rider about two years ago, and getting no certain clarity if the issues were truly physical, emotional or mental I made the decision to give her some time to reset in the field with the herd and take some time out.

I have come to enjoy her greatly. She is personable, fun and has begun to ask for more interaction and connection. A little socially awkward when it comes to knowing how big she is and invading your space at times when desperate for a scratch or just a little companionship- she truly doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. I see now she was often misunderstood. And being misunderstood often creates frustration in humans and equines.

I know this horse she is no accident and is in my life for a purpose. I’m not sure what quite yet, but the time is coming to begin to find out. I began to saddle her up and checked her out for a ride in the yard to see where things stood. Still not truly comfortable going forward.

The question is: why? How do I move forward?

So I asked Emily to help me get a feel for her.

What Emily saw was that Wyoming really wants to get out of kindergarten and I was concerned of going too fast and pushing her comfort zone which could risk losing her trust, her shutting down or possibly feeling the need to get aggressive to protect herself. This made me super careful in my approach and resulted in keeping her in kindergarten instead of allowing her to grow. I had supremely low expectations of her!

Once Emily started asking more of Wyoming, I watched her come alive. Her ears pricked, her movement got snappy, she did some dragon snorting at first and regardless of if she got the question right our not she was engaged and happy. She loves getting to work!

Of course growing means getting out of her comfort zone.

(Dragon snorting is some evidence of this, but the work I didn’t catch on video from the first session shows Wyoming trying to understand and getting occasionally flustered then so pleased with herself when she solved the puzzle)

Over dinner I’d mentioned that this year it’s felt like God has been submersing my head into a bucket of ice water… then lifting me to face the warm sun for a little breather… then it’s back into the ice water… don’t worry you just keep getting stronger each time!

Uh… right… stronger…

Emily remarked: that’s what Wyoming needs… to be pushed out of her comfort zone just enough and then some rest and encouragement… then back into new territory… then a break. Rinse and repeat!

So I guess I’m coming out of Kindergarten too? 

I suppose it’s about time.

I do want to grow, as uncomfortable as it is, I am engaged and happy, I want to learn and get stronger even though it’s hard. For a long time Wyoming has had the happy surface life of a horse. She has a great big field, lots of grass, friends, clean water and good food. I scratch her from time to time when she’s itchy, and she occasionally comes into the barn to get a pedicure. What’s not to love?

This is the easy life. It’s the thing most people seem to hope for. Protected, simple, surface, HAPPY. But I saw the mare get a taste of being asked for something MORE. To learn new skills, to have a purpose to be useful. She positively glowed.

We all need purpose, and not the kind of purpose that is only looking out for our own comfort. We all need something bigger than ourselves to engage in. As I look around my world I see a vibrant difference in people living for a purpose greater than their own comfort- and those who just want to be happy.

Happy has to do with your circumstances. The root HAP like in Happenstance is about a kind of luck that gives you a positive environment. Some people seem to find more happiness than others, but it’s different when you see real JOY.

Joy, from REJOICE or to make glad… the root of glad depicts something shining, there is also a root of appreciate in the word. People with JOY shine and live in appreciation regardless of their circumstances. In fact they seem to thrive when the storms come.

People who want to just be happy are usually chasing the circumstances that will make them feel good. Unfortunately there’s a whole other side to this when pressed that upon deeper inspection most often means at the expense of others in their life. Somehow the fact that people deserve to be happy appears to satisfy the question of who might get hurt in the process.

I have come over the past few years to almost be sick to my stomach to overhear people saying: well, as long as she’s happy! 

Sadly, this drive to find happiness is usually a pursuit that fails to satisfy long term because circumstances always turn again- for better and for worse – so this happiness will not be sustainable. Many people either resign themselves to this disappointment in a low grade bitterness or becoming shut down; others keep chasing and maiming those in their way their entire lives.

Real joy and a sense of peace beyond circumstances take cultivating, growth and work… it takes being willing to get out of Kindergarten and finding satisfaction in a greater purpose than your own happiness.  And sometimes it means sitting in discomfort long enough to learn something from it- that something will usually come in handy later in helping someone else. The things we go through are often for a greater good than our own.

I have had some hard circumstances this year, but I have already seen the fruit of it begin to put me in situations I’m more able to help others around me. Even while still in the middle of it, I’m more compassionate and can relate to others in their own painful trials.

I will say one of the most grating things for me have been people living in their surface happy lives passing on platitudes about how life always works out somehow in the end as long as everyone follows their heart and happiness while my own (not happy) heart is bleeding out from war zone shrapnel.

How often in my life have I been that very person?

Too many times I’m sure.

I don’t always have good “happenstance” in my world, in fact sometimes my circumstances are downright stormy. However if there is purpose in my life even in rough seas, I can have Joy. This also has brought a phenomenon where I’ve found I can have both Joy and Sorrow at the very same time.

Maybe that’s a little like sun through a storm and how we get a rainbow.

I watched Wyoming struggle occasionally to learn what Emily was asking her, but even through her questions and occasional frustration, she had a joy about her as she finally graduated from Ms. McArdle’s kindergarten class. And we aren’t quite trotting down the trails together yet, but I have hopped back on for some walking in the arena and so far already it’s been a much better experience than before!

Lessons: check in!

July 5, 2019

I recently hosted a 4-day private clinic with wonderful horsewoman Emily Kemp [Emily Kemp Horsemanship] for a handful of my riding friends. I can’t adequately describe in words the elegance and joy in Emily’s riding (and her genuine humility that accompanies it) but what I love even more is that we share many of the same philosophies about horses and life.

[Emily and Honey at a working equitation show May 2018]

I was fortunate to work both of my horses in this clinic. As I reflect on the weekend there were too many things to stuff into one blog- even for me! So I’m going to write them as they ‘download’ and hopefully that will also make them shorter.

The one that looms largest in my life today is the lesson of Check In!

The title comes from a recent dream where I went to my favorite B&B (The Inn at Tabbs Creek in Coastal VA) with a girlfriend for a couple days. The best part about this place is the river channels that the property sits on is perfectly situated for kayaking or a standing paddle board which I got to try for the first time last year on a visit there.

In my dream I was so excited about hitting the water that when my friend and I arrived, I took her right to the dock and began to show her the paddle boards. As dreams go we began to climb into the air on currents. I wasn’t even completely sure how. Thankfully the paddle board seemed to turn into more of a little boat with actual sides as we went high up toward the sky. I hadn’t really been expecting to fly-boat but I took it in stride. I wasn’t sure how I got us up that high I was also not sure how to bring us down.

I found a way to get us down onto the water safely. After we finished we went to the little water sport shack and found one of the owners there. She was glad we were enjoying our time and clarified with me that I had indeed filled out all the necessary paperwork and checked in at the main office.

Actually I had not done any of those important things…

I mumbled something about sure meaning more that sure I would be doing that right away… And toward the main office I headed.

As I considered my dream and wondered what there might be to learn I reflected- I need to be sure I slow down and put first things first and CHECK IN before I run forward headlong into even good activities.

This year my life has gotten a bit… complicated… in ways outside of my control. I have begun to see that if I pay attention to where He’s leading I have much better navigation than me guessing my way through on my own. It’s become pretty amazing just how much God will direct my path, but He asks me to check in before running forward.

What I loved about this dream was that I sensed God reminding me that He loves me and He knows my heart and even though I got excited, messed up the order of things and I didn’t check in before showing my friend to sky sail, he still gave me a cool experience of floating above the earth- and even gave me a safe landing when I didn’t know how to fly the thing.

But I still heard the warning: Don’t forget to Check In.

It’s the same thing I ask of my horses.

I’ve been starting to work with Wyoming again and though I’ve gotten back in the saddle with her recently she doesn’t seem entirely comfortable.

Emily worked with us and found she has some cracks in her training and her feet get “sticky” so we started some ground work to make sure her forward is working when I ask for it. She really took to the work and we began to click together and it was fun. She is super sensitive and smart, and willing to work.

She’s so enthusiastic that sometimes she would take off in the opposite direction I had asked her to go. It was as if she had made up her mind before I gave the signal!

At first it took a lot of communication to get her turned back around. I had to exaggerate with the flag and get her attention. Eventually she began to make the change back into “my will” with just an extra lift of the lead rope. What I want to see is that over time she won’t take off in her own direction before she waits to see what direction I am asking her for.

Especially when I’m in the saddle!!!

Thankfully God has patience with me but He will get loud if I begin to take off too fast in the wrong way. Ideally I want to remember to check in on my own so I don’t have to go through the correction.

It so happens I had a couple things I needed to re-evaluate and do a check in this week and in some of them I needed to change tracks.

I’m pleased to report that Wyoming is having a blast trotting around and now rarely misses my direction! She’s beginning to get a laser-like focus on what may hands are doing and wait until she sees the request before she blasts off.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/gMeKLGA7VVY

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I love her enthusiasm and don’t want to squelch it. I want that drive to be working for me as much as possible, so I have to be watchful as I correct her not to be harsh and quiet her zeal to work, yet make sure she is putting that zeal to work for me not against my purpose.

I hope I as a human can continue to remember to be checking in with my life too.

Healing and the Hope Cycle

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

I recently heard Holly Furtick talk about the Hope Cycle. She was inspired by an ancient letter written to people in Rome by a guy named Paul who suggested that we should be glad when we get to suffer… because suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope… and hope does not disappoint us.

Holly saw this as a circle beginning with suffering. Not only can we assume that life will bring these complications, but we are supposed to happy about them – he suggests we should BE GLAD in the onset of a struggle.

I also recently heard a Ted Talk about resilience especially in young adults today. Opposite of expecting and appreciating the role of struggle- many young adults today are the product of the concept that struggle, pain and discomfort is best avoided at all cost; a generation of parents that had the ability to do that for their children motivated by a great love for them… yet the unintended consequence has been a generation of young people who have not built resilience through having to overcome difficulty and are now facing the very serious problem of learned helplessness.

People who have been given as problem-free life as possible it turns out are not better off. In fact they struggle to cope with any small problem that arises.

As a third point to triangulate this topic- on a recent flight across the country I was reminded how important expectations play into all of this. 

I don’t love flying and I really don’t love turbulence, but while still on the ground, the pilot informed everyone in advance that there is weather through the middle of the country and we will have a bumpy flight.

He was right: at one point my half empty (or half full) coffee sloshed all over my tray table as we bounced up and down in midair. Because the pilot told me to expect turbulence, it now felt expected and normal instead of frightening and precarious. If I expect a pain free life, or even if I think that is the goal, then the suffering is much worse than if I have been assured that I should expect the life turbulence but more importantly even to appreciate it because it will create a life of endurance, strength and HOPE.

The Hope Cycle is constantly playing out in multiple layers in our lives. We know when our worlds are rocked by a big cycle… these feel like a cyclone.  The health diagnosis. The death. The job loss. The accident. The divorce. The loved one “lost” into drugs or other destructive life choices. Insert your worst nightmare here. These cycles put us into years of pain, turmoil and suffering.

Meanwhile we have all manner of other Hope Cycles going on simultaneously. Medium sized ones like passing a hard class; a difficult job assignment; a friendship drama; the terrible twos; setbacks that are tough but more temporary. Then there are the small but mighty ones: running my knee into the coffee table, stepping in cat puke on my way to get coffee first thing in the morning, the email you sent to the wrong person with the same first name (hopefully that doesn’t lead to the cyclone level of job loss!!), the particularly long day when nothing seems to go right, the burned Thanksgiving Turkey….

We get something out of all of these cycles, and the small ones build resilience and strength into the larger ones. In each, something valuable is produced into the character phase of the cycle. The value of a heartfelt apology in a relationship drama… learning to slow down moving through the house to not run into things… or though the pain smarts for a few minutes it will pass… humility and compassion when others make mistakes like sending an email to the wrong address and other mistakes…  stepping in cat puke does not HAVE to ruin my day (I can overcome!) and each of these cycles prove we CAN continue to put one foot in front of the other even through challenges and when we face the cyclone level issue those smaller challenges feed into our strength facing whatever comes at us.

Those are the concepts that I was pondering while riding with my friend and her “new” horse that I mentioned in my last blog.

I made the somewhat irrational decision 5 years ago to take a half feral unstarted young mare who was barely handled and see if I could turn her into my endurance partner. As I look back I’ve been through countless “Hope Cycles” in the process.

When I first brought her home I couldn’t even touch her. Then the day where I could actually put a saddle on her… sit on her?! For a while I couldn’t imagine riding her outside of a safe fenced in zone… Then wondering how she would do out in the big wide world of the trail… and of course the phase when she kept trying to turn around on the trail… each of those challenges took patience and problem solving to overcome.  Each week, each month something improved and I learned about her, about horses, and gained character and strength as a horse leader.

I learned that if you stick with it week to week and put in the time and the problem solving power (and that includes being open minded enough to learn what really works vs. what you’ve always done before or been told your whole life….) you can move forward and each phase will pass away into a new one.

There have been times in the past 6 months that my friend has felt discouraged. Each time a situation has been difficult or has felt like failure, I’ve reassured her that this is normal. The process takes the time it takes and you’re doing great! It will get better.

I have hope… I have gone through the Hope Cycle enough with my horse and watched a few cycles with her and her horse to know that it will improve. Also, she is doing all the right things to continue through and not get stuck!

As an endurance rider the applications of this are obvious to most of us. We often joke (not really joking) about how the biggest challenge is to get to the start of a ride. We are dealing with animals who have varying gifts of injuring themselves in mysterious ways when we aren’t present on top of the fact that we push their physical limits to a level that they can be more likely to cross a line into injury even when we try our best to take care of them.

Our experience and knowledge base as we go through these “Hope Cycles” grow and help us to do less harm to our honored partners in time.  There is room for common sense and asking more experienced riders in order to avoid major pitfulls, but for most of things, the way to learn how to manage an individual horse’s preparation for an endurance ride is to do it and see how it goes. Learn from what doesn’t work as well as what does.

The only way to become a good rider is to spend some time in the saddle being a bad one.

[one of my favorite pictures to see how far I’ve come… Khaleesi’s first official ride and first time spotting Becky Pearman with her camera in mid canter heading up the grassy hill. You could use this photo to show just about every what not to do as a rider!!]

Anyone in the endurance sport for more than 5 minutes has dealt with at least one and often all questions of lameness, ulcers, saddle fit, tight muscles, joint and tendon issues, dehydration, weight management & nutrition, barefoot vs. metal shoes, what kind of bit or no bit at all, overheating, and there are the behavior training issues of speed control, form, kicking, bucking, buddy sour, barn sour… and many more.

On the other hand anyone in the sport long enough has gone through various levels of the cycle to know that most things can be overcome with education, the right help, patience, and time. We won’t even get into the human and equipment elements like the flu on race day or flat tires half way to ride camp!

All of those cycles play into the miles you and your horse are riding alone because your pace doesn’t match anyone around you or your buddy got pulled at the last vet check. Maybe you’re walking one hoof at a time in the dark on a slow 100 knowing that in the past you’ve overcome saddle fit, hoof management, race brain, and a pulled (your own) leg muscle… so just keep going one step at a time and you HOPE this too will come out the to another cycle of Hope.

This kind of hope isn’t like: I hope it doesn’t rain on my wedding day next year… it’s a living breathing hope that is growing inside you each time you go through another Hope Cycle.

Because even if the night is dark, you know it won’t last forever. There is a finish line or another vet check where you’ll get something to eat and a little rest or a buckle!

Holly also discussed how not to stay longer in the struggle and suffering than necessary. While many things are out of our control, and take the time they take, we can make it harder on ourselves and get stuck in the struggle with some key factors:

Complaining. While it’s important to talk and share with the right people, complaining and focusing too much and too long on the problem will drag us down and make it hard to keep moving toward hope each day. Fix your eyes on where you’re headed, not where you are!

Blame. It helps sometimes – if possible- to figure out why something is happening if it will help not to repeat the same cycle going forward.  However, obsessing about blame either of yourself or others (victim mentality) will keep you stuck longer than necessary. Learn quickly what can be controlled and changed and begin to make the changes where applicable!

The wrong voices. Be intentional what input you seek going through your struggle. Spending time with people who aren’t constructive, supportive and honest with you or who have no experience in going through their own hope cycles well are not be the best companions. Find people who are compassionate about suffering yet don’t encourage you to wallow in complaining and blaming, get high on drama, or encourage too much mindless distraction.

Horses can be excellent companions to include in the process of the Hope Cycle but be careful about turning your horse into your therapist which isn’t helpful for either horse or human and can damage the relationship.

Horses are incredibly sensitive beings and each unique. Some horses are more inclined toward being involved in pain and suffering than others. While it is true that focusing more on the present and on your horse is a good rule of thumb, it’s important to be honest and not try to lie to your horse that you are more “together” than you are either. They sense lies a mile away. I’ve cried tears over my horse’s neck and she’s stood quietly and patiently while I’ve sorted out something hard in my life, but there seems to come a time when she demands we begin to “move our feet” so to speak and not get stuck wallowing.

One of my favorite verses when Jesus knows he is about to move into his trial, crucifixion and death is: Arise, let us go from here. Sometimes I think my horse helps me to realize it’s time to arise and get busy. Stay present and unless you are truly too broken to function that day (if that happens it is likely not a good riding day!), put one foot in front of the other and get to work at something you love with your best equine buddy.

Be aware if going through a big (or shorter but intense) trial for some red flags: has your horse become harder to catch when you go to the barn? Has your horse begun to develop behavioral quirks, especially in grooming or tacking up (more fidgety, tail swishing, nipping). Notice behaviors out of ordinary- Horses can take a lot of real emotion and even help release it, but they can become overwhelmed when the human refuses to move through the process. Notice if your horse seems to engage in your struggle or try to move away from you.

Sometimes an emotional struggle is so big it helps to call in a friend in the healing process. To end I’ll share a remarkable story.

I was struggling through some intense personal emotional questions and needed to process some thoughts with my girl friend at the barn. I arrived as she was doing some basic ground work with her horse and we began to talk.

We stood right in the barn aisle and her horse stood quietly next to her facing me as I began to share what I had gone through and in so doing releasing the power some of the wounds had on my spirit.

Her horse did not move away, fidget or rest with a foot cocked. She stood quietly but engaged in the process. At one point she began to move and we paused to watch as she stiffened every muscle in her body and her head gradually went high into the air. Her poll arched over like a beautiful statue — ears forward and alert and she began to shake her entire body starting at the head and neck and all the way through to her hind end as her muscles tightened and released in a wave from head to tail ending with her left hind leg pointing out toward the back wall as if to release every last emotional weight into the atmosphere.

This was the closest example I could find to how she raised her neck and bent at the poll but her mouth was closed. It was stunning.

… then she licked and chewed and yawned and took up her listening position again for us to continue. There was more, so I did continue. Releasing and sharing more of my story and the deep things I had been sorting through that week. After a while the mare did the exact same thing. It felt to both of us like she had taken the painful things I’d been processing and releasing from me and then distributing them out into the air as harmless energy….

I felt lighter from being able to talk to a friend and her horse! And all of us felt a special warmth and healing in the space.

I could not have set that up and had it be effective. It was planned by someone greater than myself that day and put into place for us to participate in. For those details beyond me I am always grateful.

I believe it was a good thing that my friend’s mare was there that day- and that my mare was not. Not every relationship is meant for every burden. As much as I love them… there are things I may choose not to talk about with my mother, or my husband, or my sister because they are not a burden that relationship should carry.

In this case my friend’s mare was able to help me in a way that I’m glad not to have put on my equine partner. And there may come times when my mare may help others in a way their own horse may not be the best choice for.

Horses do have a special place in healing- but not every horse is interested or gifted in the process, and not every relationship is the right one to carry the burden. This may help you to be sensitive in how horses are used to help us through our Hope Cycles- and how we may also help them!

And each time I do begin to see the promise of a struggle and almost begin to rejoice … though I’m not quite there yet.

Eighth

May 1, 2019

I have struggled to write since my last post; it’s been the longest hiatus since I began the blog.

It’s not due to lack of activity or material as much as there have been many seeds coming up all over the place with no finished concepts maturing into a blog that would share a complete thought.

Once finding a new level of soft in myself and with Khaleesi more connection continued on our relationship. It seems each time I find a new level of connection and communication and wonder if I’ve arrived somewhere I find that no (to my delight!) there are deeper layers to go.

I continue to find more conversation in our interactions and encourage everyone with a horse to earnestly seek to hear what your horse is saying.

I think it speaks to our humanness that we desire to be or meet horse-whisperers not horse-listeners. It’s easy to whisper, it’s very difficult to listen to the whisper. If you wish your horse would respond to your whisper, then go first and listen to what she whispers. You’ll learn so much more that way.

It is slow and takes a lot of practice and you’ll get it wrong at times. It’s much harder than force and tools. But it’s worth everything.

I have dedicated much of this winter to helping my friend with her first as an adult mare. The horse is lovely and perfect for her.

She is committed to the gradual, patient process of unraveling the mare’s layers of physical balance and mental protection; allowing her to bloom in her own physical-mental-emotional systems. The process is going well but is time consuming requring time, consistency and growth in both of them.

I have seen God at work directing things and when you see him involved everything moves faster. Truly HE is able to do things much faster than our human brains and bodies can keep up with. Sometimes I hear Him laughing (uh, with us right) as we race to keep up with all the growth and change.

I have enjoyed helping the pair grow together even more than putting in hours of lonely miles on long trails.

I’m learning from their process as well.

While I have been shown in most cases the necessity of beginning with the mental system of the horse; this mare had physical system issues that blocked her ability to work in a balanced way in the mental and emotional systems.

Not being able to balance her body properly meant that in riding she couldn’t connect with her mental system and her emotional system would take over and she would rush into a haywire state of panic.

That’s a whole other blog I won’t write because she isn’t my horse- however it’s been beautiful positive change in all the systems in a short time and I’ve spent a lot of time riding along with them to help in any way Khlaleesi and I can.

This has meant Khaleesi and I had to slow down and lower my mileage, however, the miles have been focused on form and quality. The lesser mileage and pulling back on speed for the purpose of helping them also worked to force Khaleesi and me to slow down our training and do a lot of rider form and connection.

One of our favorite places to work is the Jackson River Scenic Trail. It is flat with great footing and one can trot endlessly even if there was a week of rain previously. And it rides along the Jackson River with pretty views.

We do trotting intervals and the new mare seems to thrive here on the flat because it’s easier to balance than on the mountain trails with obstacles.

Now that I have my saddle set up working great, and Khaleesi has developed a strong topline she has begun to ask me for connection to ride more balanced in front on the bit. I purposely use the word connection because it’s a conversation we have. I don’t force her into contact. I don’t use the cycle of aids, and I don’t use ANY leg to push her to move onto the bit.

Now that my riding has gotten to a level of helping her more than hindering her she has begun to experiment. When she wants me to shorten the reins she dips her head. When she wants me to release them she shakes (it’s taken some trial and error to sort that out).

So riding along she began to ask me for more support…

She dipped again. More.

I shortened more. This seems like a lot of pressure.

She dipped again. MORE.

I was certain I misunderstood her and released some rein. Too much?

She shook her head. NO, that’s not what I’m asking. We’ve already established how I ask for more.

I don’t believe her. I begin to give up. This is all in my head. I can’t understand.

She dips her head. Take up the reins. More.

I take up a little more. 

She is happy for a few feet. Then dips her head. More. Take up more.

We continue this as I struggle, and my friend watches as I try to understand if I’m missing something. Human is confused.

Khaleesi is getting frustrated- I am not listening. I just can’t believe she wants that short of rein. But she’s very communicative and she’s annoyed. She begins working the bit in her mouth and her ears are flicking. She insists.

MORE!

So I take up more… more… until I am holding a 1200 pound freight train in my hands.

My friend watches and her eyes grow big as SOMETHING happens.

Khaleesi lifts up and begins to float above the ground, I stop moving in the saddle as I rose up 6 inches farther from the ground. She feels like a flying horse- not fast, just floating above the ground effortlessly. Magic.

After a short time of this we relax back down and we walk and then stop for a moment and she spends about 2 minutes yawning, shaking her entire neck and mane and licking and chewing in pleasure.

She was racking.

And she offered it up on her own without expert training and without me trying to get her to do it. It was beautiful. Organic!

She is certainly bred to be able to rack. She is saddlebred, rackinghorse and walking horse with 1/4 Arabian. So this little gift isn’t completely shocking. I’ve had people suggest I should get her in the hands of someone who could bring that gait out of her. While that isn’t bad advice because I have no experience teaching a horse to rack, anyone who knows me knows I am not likely to entrust Khaleesi to anyone to train her. And getting a racking gear though would be absolutely wonderful for us, I wouldn’t entrust her to just about anyone to get it.

Just one betrayal of her trust would ruin the years it’s taken me to earn it. No physical advantage would ever be worth it.

Due to the limited miles I’ve ridden this winter I made the call to enter the 30 instead of the 55 at the No Frills ride in April.

Friday morning of the race came and I strapped on her plain old scoot boots and Balance Saddle (with their pads) to hit the trail.

It was a fantastic day. We cantered many of the rolling grass roads, she climbed the mountains average difficulty recovering well each time, and she took the rocks on better than ever.

No boot issues even through some wet muddy low lands – until after the official finish line walking down into the vet check- a bad downhill mud suck took off two boots that I went back for on foot.

At that point I didn’t care we were already home!

At both the vet check and finish line she pulsed in immediately at 52 and her CRIs were both 44/48 which is fantastic for us. She had great vet scores and was totally sound and not a sensitive spot on her back. Gut sounds even were strong. She was strong.

In fact, we finished for the first time top 10 and placed 8th.

Eight is a number of new beginnings.  The word for this year for me and my mare is REGROWTH and the number 8 symbolizes a new beginning.

She is strong and fit, and I have a good sense for this season.

I am intrigued by the glimpse, the preview that came for the rack and look forward to how she will unveil it in time. Just about everything I do with my horses takes longer than others would expect. In part this is because I am not particularly experienced, but also I have learned to allow the horse to have a say in the process and include them in each step.

I am learning patience each month. Good things to come to those who wait…

Photo credit Becky Pearman

Snow day gift 

Friday, January 22, 2016

As I lingered under the covers Thursday morning I thought about how pretty and mild the day was forecasted to be. The one day of the week I was booked solid from 9am-7:30pm. I grabbed my phone to check morning emails without climbing out of the covers even for coffee to learn that due to impending weather everything was cancelled. A snow day with no snow!

What a gift!

I had a ton of work to catch up on so I decided to dig in and wait to spend any barn time until later in the day- it would also be the warmest then.

It wasn’t until after 2:30pm that I was able to get to the barn. I was conflicted as to how to use my time. We’ve had cold weather and more alone time recently and I was a little bored with short loops and training around the yard. I didn’t really have enough time to put in a lot of miles. 

I have sensed lately that Khaleesi isn’t really paying attention to me. It’s been gnawing at me since I sent a video of us working to a friend and she said as much after watching us.

I looked back. It was true.

We were getting things ‘right’- she moves nicely with me when we walk, she’ll stand at the stool now, but it’s like a teenager in a class they are bored with yawning as they give the answer with a ‘yeah yeah yeah I know… But what’s for lunch today‘ kind of attitude.

She’s not really focused. Not on me at least. I wasn’t really that important to her lately.

Maybe we should do groundwork?

No… It’s too pretty of a day for that… Come on!

I don’t know what we’re going to accomplish riding for 2 hours… Not speed, not mileage, seems like a waste of time- we should do something worthwhile. 

I often don’t have an exact plan when I walk out to the field. It sort of develops as we go and see where she is and where I am that day. 

Somehow it came together. 

When I walked out the girls were at the end of the pasture. Just standing in the sun not close to each other. They could have been napping. 

I decided to ignore them at first and check out their hay stash and run in shed. (Honestly you are already short on time- you should grab your horse and get moving!)

Horses wake up and start walking over to me (this is not a waste of time- today we are going to be excellent at every step – and pretend like we have all day… That is the plan now. Even if we don’t ride. We are going to focus on every single step today)

I let them find me. Khaleesi walks into the shed and takes a bite of hay. I ignore her and walk toward the gate a few steps. She is curious.  I don’t look at her but try to use body language to invite her to follow me. 

She does. I can hear her a few steps behind me. 

She is paying attention to me

I get her closer to the gate and reach back to rub her neck. She stands there and I put on her halter. We walk out together and she leads nicely to the barn. We (as always now) change speeds and back up and even do some circles to be sure we are connected. 

In the barn I give her a snack of beet pulp (wet to encourage hydration in the winter when they are prone to drink less), omega (supplement and feed) and show and pleasure pellets- with salt on top- again to encourage drinking. As she eats I brush her off and formulate the plan. 

We are going back to the basics today. We will ride if we can, but I have gotten lazy lately: tacking her up while she is distracted by eating. I’m going to ask her to stand still while I work around her and tack up and if it takes the entire time I have at least we will have worked on something valuable. 

This skill- being able to saddle up while she stands quietly, lead rope draped over my arm- is very valuable for our endurance training. At vet checks this would be a great skill to cultivate considering we often don’t have anything to tie to, I often don’t have a crew handy and there’s not always someone to hold your horse when you need. We are going to get serous about this skill this winter. And it will demand her to focus. 

One reason I have been lazy about letting her eat while grooming and saddling is that she gets snippy sometimes. She’ll tell me she doesn’t like that… Cinching up or putting on the breast collar or rubbing her with a cloth… It’s not serious but she needs to learn (as Buck says) “to live with that.” It isn’t hurting you- you are going to have to be ok with this process.

So I brought out all I would need and asked her to stand next to the saddle horse and every time she moved a foot I calmly put her back in place.  She moved a lot at first and also would try to block me with her head if I went to walk around her. I went slow and methodically. Each step I attained I took a picture to record the time. 

3:08pm: Standing still in place and groomed to go.   
3:14pm: took 6 minutes to stay in place, rub her, place the pad and stay standing still.  
3:21pm: 7 minutes to get her standing still in place to set the saddle on her back.    

3:31pm: 10 minutes to get the girth to the first hole on each side. She is not great with this part and she stepped off more than once. She even nipped her teeth in my direction once- to this I immediately backed her half way down the barn aisle and then brought her back in place. After that she stood much better.

 NOTE: I do not beloved she is in any pain with this and the saddle fits. It’s a habit and an attitude. There are times if she’s eating and distracted she doesn’t even register that she’s being tightened up. After I get it on loosely- she is usually pretty easy to tighten up. So I do not believe this is her crying out for help or in any pain.   

 3:36pm: breastcollar. I now also tighten one hole here and there on her cinch as I’m working. And rub her and just stand with her quietly too.  
3:45pm: bit and headstall. Before the bit I tied her back up, put a few apple treats in her dish as a reward/break and did a few last things as I went to get the bit out of the warm tack room. She was good at taking the bit and it didn’t take but a minute once I put her back in place.   
3:53pm: 12 minutes working on standing at the stool. She was not good here- she would step her hind away and walk off. It took a while to get her to stand still in place and then be sure she was paying attention to me before I tried to get on.   
3:57pm: finally mounted and she stood still while I got out my camera and reset my GPS.   
4pm: walking out to the trail. It took almost an hour to saddle, tack and mount properly. We don’t have that kind of time at the vet check!  
After all that I had about an hour left to ride. The ground is hard and frozen slick in many places. I decided to work on getting a good walk.

She did seem more into the ride and she argued less about going out. She only tried the turn around about 3 times and each time I caught it before she could get her head around and pushed that hind end back onto the right track. She isn’t trying with as much force now. It’s a halfhearted effort (that is progress!)

  
We had a great 4.25 mile ride. I now call these training rides as opposed to conditioning rides but I know both are valuable.  

I wonder if my horse friends & readers can tack their horses without tying (and asking the horse to stand quietly withou fidgeting)… Does everyone else already do this? Or would it be a challenge for others as well? 

I am going to get back into this habit again as I believe it made a big difference in our relationship during the ride. Has anyone else made this a priority? Let me know- I’m curious. Have you tried it? Is it easy for you? Make a comment here if you have (or haven’t). 

Do tell…

  

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.

Hunting the feel

Friday, December 18, 2015

The soft feel is the goal that it seems everything is in service to. Being able to do as much as possible with as little as possible. The instinct of when exactly to release when your horse begins to try- not to wait until the entire physical motion has played out. It’s something you can only pick up with time doing it.

Buck calls it hunting the feel– you get a taste of it and it’s something you want more of… you can spend your whole life chasing it.

There are worse things to chase.

Today we went into the arena to work on getting to the point where you reach for your horse and your horse reaches for you.

Though honestly I’m not completely sure what that means!

Technically… I get it… kind of… but we’re not there.

Right from the field… the way I put the rope halter on starts our day now. She lowers her head into the halter for me and she’s offering the back up before I have to reach up when leading now- each time it’s better.

It’s the hight of mud season right now- both horses are a muddy matted mess. We did minimal cleaning this afternoon as it was getting late and cold fast.

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First take away from our time today:

I need a more specific plan.

I had a vague plan, but I am a planner and I need to write down some goals before I go out. Right now I have a LOT of things I want to work on… so it’s not hard to find something to do- but it’s better to start a running list until I get more into a routine.

We began with walking around the arena on a loose rein (not a problem). Then I wanted to stop and see if I could ask her to give her head and release when she softened.  This is “the feel”.

Not bad- but if we weren’t moving she gets distracted and wonders when I’m going to do something.

Slight pressure on the reins.

K: Do you mean back up?

J: Uh, not really… I want you to drop your head.

K: I want to see what the boys are doing in the barn…

J: No, keep your head forward.

K: Faygo is yelling for me- she’s stressed out over there.

J: Focus. You’re with me.

K: And back up?

J: No, just soften your neck.

K: So we’re just standing here?

J: Yes. Kind of.

K: Oh.

K: I can back up.

<sigh>

We then worked on keeping an active walk around the arena. I want to get that nice forward walk on our trail rides. My A-HAH moment was that the “beginning” of the try is JUST A LITTLE faster. So I can’t get that fast walk I want every time right now, but I CAN ask for just a little more activity that she was giving on her own. Eventually that should build until I can ask her for her move out walk without getting a trot instead. Someday.

I was pleased with my “just a little faster” walk. It went great. We did a couple nice circles too.

I also took a moment to remember the exercises I did with Nancy earlier in the day with the Sally Swift Centered Riding book. We had a great morning doing some floor exercises that really impacted awareness of body- and how tension and balance affect everything.

I felt grounded and balanced and comfortable. At least at the walk.

Then we stopped again and I wanted to ask her with my legs to move her front end around her hind. I was able to get her to do this as well using the same techniques I watched. I touched her with my foot slightly forward and after she realized I didn’t want her to go forward she did step around. I could easily get her to take a few steps in each direction pivoting on her hind.

When I came home and re-watched the same segment I saw that Buck didn’t actually even touch the horse with his foot. He just pushed his leg forward and hovered it near the front end.

Hovering.

I hadn’t picked that up the first time. That’s pretty light right there. Not actually touching. Hovering.

The last thing we did was some trotting around the outside rail. No problem asking for a trot- but she still pushes me inside (same thing she used to do at Pam’s). Maybe it’s me? Either way I had to ask her loudly to get back to the outside. Leg and rein. She did it, but she was pushing me in. My decision was that once I got one complete time around with her willingly staying out on the rail we’d finish for the day.

About the 3rd or 4th time around we got a nice clean run and I stopped, got off and rubbed her:

Good job. That’s it! We’re done.

I put her out and brought Faygo in to do a quick pony ride up and down the mountain with one of the farm horses (who need a little exercise). We had a nice ride in the first snow flurry I’ve ridden in this season.

This time we took Bo- a handsome horse that wasn’t gelded until he was in his teens. He’s a good horse, but needs a leader. I didn’t know how well he’d pony, but if any horse can give it a go at keeping him in line it’s Faygo. For the most part he did a great job. Once we turned home he tried to run ahead of us, see if he could turn his butt toward Faygo, he was too close in our space (walking so close he was touching us with his body!) and then out of frustration nipping at Faygo’s neck (which is too close to my leg!).

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Enough- I stopped and asked him to step back. He did not.

He nosed his head toward my leg and braced.

I sat there on Faygo and bopped his rope halter to ask him to back up calmly and rhythmically.

For a long time (it felt like).

I watched for anything.

Finally a change in his body and his weight BARELY shifted.

I paused- then started again.

He stepped back!

Paused again and got one more step back.

Waited for a moment… the chance for it to sink in.

Then we walked off nicely. He stayed right at my elbow- a gentleman for the rest of the ride in.

I was getting cold as the sun was getting close to setting. I was reminded about one more Sally Swift thought.

My toes. (are cold!)

Are my toes loose?

Now they are.

Were they?

Not sure.

I spent some time thinking about wiggling my toes in my boots and feeling my ankle stay loose and flexible.

Was a good day of being aware, and we’ll be hunting the feel for a long time I think.

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