Friday, September 5, 2014

You are Not The Boss Of Me

Boss Mare at her bossiest (to another horse):  "You'd best get out of my way"

I haven't done any serious work/play with the horses since spring.  Storm is still in my pocket and wants all the attention I'll give her, but Abbey... Abbey is another story.

After I fed them the other day I sat, and she came up to me.  She remained a little standoffish, though, and I had this impression:  "You think you can stay away for months and just waltz right in here and act like you've been here all along?" 

No, I don't suppose I do.

Today, I put a halter on her.  Not for restraint, but as a way of saying "I want to work with you today."  She was all for that, put her nose right in it, and seemed like she wanted to work with me.  We did some "friendly game", which was cool, I cleaned her feet, cool.

Then I started trying to get her to move her feet.  She yielded her hindquarters the first time, then I tried to direct her and move her.  She was not interested.  It was like I could push her away, but when I tried to draw her back she'd stare at me.

Jewel seemed like she wanted to play, so I went to see if she would, but she just ran off, then I went back to Abbey and Storm (Pick me! Pick me!), who decided it was time to head back to the big pasture (ALL of this was at Liberty).  That's cool but HANG ON... I"m going first.  You're not the boss.  She dodged me; she didn't want to follow me.  I jogged in front of her twice, and then tried to get her to whoa.  Ms. Lethargic suddenly took a huge leap and galloped across the pasture full tilt. 

Huh.  Can't leave that state of affairs.  So I walked out to her and got in front of her.  She turned her back on me twice but I kept moving so I was right in front of her, in an inviting pose.  It took a good ten minutes, but she finally came to me, whereupon I gave her a treat and a good rub and left her be for the day.

Life with a mustang is never boring, and sometimes I think she is smarter than I am.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

No Agenda Time

It's almost spring. I've not been feeling well so I haven't been to the farm in a few days. So, I thought I'd just hang out and be one of the herd today.  They don't mind. In fact, they'd much rather I hang out than encroach on "Oh my God it's GRASS!!" time. The new grass is oh so sweet and tender and I watch them nibble up the tiny tufts. 

The birds are chatty. I watch a little yellow bellied woodpecker talk to himself as he cleans bugs off a dead tree. There was another bird, more secretive, that I couldn't get a good enough look at to ID. A soft breeze blows. Far across the field at least a dozen deer bound toward the forest, white tails flickering. 

This is peace. This is promise. This is a gentle time that fills me with warmth and light.


It's something I try to do at least weekly. Why? Because it tells my horses I'm at least as interested in what's important to then as I am in what's important to me. It also clues me in on what's going on with the herd.. This mare is going into heat, these two aren't getting along that great lately. I watch my mustang monitoring for danger in her role as boss mare. I watch them obviously seeking out a specific plant to eat, and then I learn what it is. It's fascinating. 

Best of all, I remember how to breathe and just Be. We humans have a lot to learn from them on that score, so it's important to come see the equine gurus for their answers to the meaning of life. 

I'm pretty sure it has something to do with spring grass. 

Monday, February 10, 2014


This is Abbey, my 14-year-old BLM Mustang mare. She was my first horse, whom I bought 4 years ago for $500 because she "had some issues."  They weren't huge issues.  She didn't want to stand for mounting.  She "didn't like to canter" and she HATED jumping, which her teenaged owner was very into.  Her ground manners are impeccable and she loves people, and she wanted to be with me, which for me was the most important thing.

So I bought her and moved her to my friend's farm.  I learned about Parelli and also Clinton Anderson, and we played every day, and I was terribly patient with her "mounting problem", and I think we were getting somewhere.  We did pretty well, made some great progress, she is smarter than a whip and she learns at lightning speed, as long as she's on board with your crazy human ideas (doesn't usually take much convincing for most things, and as a Left Brain Introvert if there's a click and a treat involved, she'll go to the ends of the earth, preferably not fast).

I'm not in the best shape, and if I'm honest I haven't been incredibly confident since I got her.  I rode hunters as a teenager and laughed at a jump refusal that sent me over a horse's head, but I learned a few years ago that I don't bounce like I used to.  When I went to test ride Abbey before I bought her, I asked her to canter and she just trotted faster, and I gave up -- I never made her to canter at all.  The one time I asked, after I bought her, she cantered a few steps and bucked halfheartedly.

Anyway I went and played with her every day from August to January, and that's when I got Storm, because my non-horsey hubby fell so in love with her awesome personality that he told me he was stealing my horse and I'd need to get another one. 

We had her mounting problem pretty much solved.  One sunny day in March 2011 my hubby Russ and I went to the farm, and the plan was to put him up on her for the first time and give him a little lesson.  Abbey stood for him to get on, no problem, and she was responding well to his cues.  I got kind of excited and wanted to ride with him - this was a dream coming true here, to get to share my biggest crazy lifelong passion with my awesome hubby - so I tacked Storm up and started lunging her.  She spooked at something (the only time I have ever seen her spook) and started running around the little enclosed field.  Russ was sitting on Abbey not far away, and to her credit she stood as Storm tore by her twice.  The third time she decided maybe there WAS something to be concerned about, and she turned and ran, and Russ freaked, yelling, bouncing on her back.  I think she bucked.  Long story short, he hit the ground and broke his collarbone, lost a month and a half of work (which we couldn't afford), and to his credit, didn't decide he's never getting on horses again -- just not until he had some sick time built up again.

This was pretty devastating to my dream.  I know I'm not the first person to fall in love with the idea of horses -- the image of Alec Ramsay galloping down a beach on The Black's bare back is pretty persistent for a lot of us, right?  -- and then find our dream smashed because of the reality.  The the reality is, horses have a different dream.  And we didn't ask what it was.  Abbey's dream is a herd to boss around, and being outside 24/7, and a handful of carrots and the occasional peppermint.  Riding... that's not on her radar.  

I felt like this whole thing was my responsibility.  I should never have left Russ his first time on a horse (much less a horse with any issues whatsoever) to his own devices for any reason, or rushed anything at all, or... well, you get the shoulda coulda woulda picture, right?  Guilt can ruin a lot of things.

I still went to see the horses every day but I didn't try to ride for a month or two after that.  I took my sister-in-law, who rides, to see the horses.  She was going to try riding Abbey, and I was going to ride Storm.  Well, Ab started bucking the minute Lilly put her foot in the stirrup.  Not crazy bucking, protest bucking, and enough to put off a ride for someone who's not terribly confident.  She won that round, totally.  We left her alone and played with the other horses.  I haven't tried to ride her since.  

Some time in June of that same year I had an issue with my neck, and to make a very long story short, I was told by a neurologist that if I fell from a horse I could be permanently paralyzed.  Confidence took another huge hit.  I stopped riding entirely.  Last year I got a new doctor.  I told him about the horses, and told him that I wasn't really afraid of pain, or dying... I got scared with the neck injury that I wouldn't be able to do things... but the fear of that was preventing me from doing things!  He showed me a scar from his own broken collarbone, falling from a horse (he was jousting!), and told me "we break, but we heal."  He reviewed my MRI and told me that in his professional opinion I was no more likely to be paralyzed riding than anyone else.

That was a weight of a thousand pounds off my shoulders.  I had a green light to ride!  It changed everything.  Except that I am still lacking confidence.  I've ridden Storm about five times since then, at a walk with a few steps of trot here and there.  Winter happened, and that reduced my riding further, but I'm determined that this be the year I get my confidence back and fall back in love with riding.

Still, the confidence thing, and also the fact that I'm overweight and out of shape.  I bought a bareback pad this year and I am riding sans stirrups to try to find my seat again (this makes Russ really nervous, poor guy, but so far it's been fine).  Storm is a willing accomplice for the regaining of my confidence and I am taking it one step at a time, plus I am doing yoga/working out six days a week to try to get some level of fitness, balance and strength back, to make this process easier. 

So this blog is the story of regaining that confidence, and the horses who are teaching me.  If you've got a horse and some lost confidence, I'd really love to hear from you.  Maybe we can take the journey back together.

And if that's the case, I have a few things to say to you:
1)  It's okay to be afraid.  Myth #1 "leave your fear at the gate" is a load of bull.  Everyone who has any sense is a little bit afraid sometimes. 
2)  It's okay to stop and get off, or go away and take a time out.  Read my post about Storm and how to train an unconfident horse:  treat yourself with the same level of respect.  If you need a time out, or to back off, allow it.  Don't run off, though.  Stay with the horse at the level of safety that seems okay to you and wait for them to ask you back, and if you feel comfortable, push the envelope of comfort just a tiny bit at a time.
3)  You know that stuff they told you about "the horse senses your fear" (myth #2) and basically will take advantage of you?  It's a load of crap.  Does your horse sense your fear?  Heck yes.  Will they stomp you into the ground because of that?  Well, some horses might, but most I doubt it.  If you're REALLY afraid, definitely work with a qualified, compassionate instructor (screen them well!  ask questions! admit that you're afraid!)
Here's the thing.  Horses value congruence, not bravado.  Horses have a highly developed sort of sixth sense that tells them what's going on internally.  It seems almost telepathic sometimes.  Maybe it is or maybe it isn't, but the reality is that they are prey animals who are sensitive to the tiniest changes in your aura.  It's body language in large part, but it's also feel.  Did you ever walk into a room and know that there was an argument, or something was wrong, just from the feel in the air?  That's what I'm talking about.  They pick up on that with exquisite sensitivity.  They pick up on cues from fellow herd members, and they pick up on cues from other species (especially predatory species, which we are).  If you walk up to your horse, and you are devastated from a breakup, but you "left your feelings at the gate", march up to her and throw a saddle on, you better believe she knows the score.  

And, we humans tend to dissociate.  We put the brave face on (or the pleasant face, or any number of fakey facades -- we kind of need to do this in our society as a matter of course).  But this makes horses REALLY uneasy.  Think about it.  If they can read the actual emotion plain as day, and you're faking something, to them we come off as a slimy used car salesman trying to sell them something.  And they don't want it.  I definitely want to talk about this further in future blog posts, but I'm starting to ramble (sorry about that).

Anyway.  One day last year after I found out I could ride again I sat on the cart that is near the barn, and Abbey came over to me.  I loved on her.  I told her I was sorry about what happened with Russ, and I realized I resented her a little because of it.  I told her that, too.  I said I was sorry for that. I told her I wanted to start again, and figure out what we want to do together, something we both want to do.  I told her I loved her.

She started licking me the way a dam licks a foal, from my hands to my elbows and my knees.  I felt a pretty overwhelming love from her.  She stood after that, just standing near me with her forehead to mine. 

Oh yes, horses know when you're afraid.  And all the rest of it too. You can pretend you're not afraid, or resentful, or whatever, but you're only fooling one of you, and it's not the four-legged one. So I recommend this:  trust your horse with your feelings.  They'll help you figure them out.  And then your relationship with your horse grows by leaps and bounds, and you might even find that you don't really need a psychologist.

As for us, we are back on the road to recovery.  Storm and I ride, and Abbey seems interested in what we're doing, to the point of leading the whole rest of the herd into the woods with us to tag along (which is super cool since I have no riding buddies).  I've gone back to some mounting block work with her.  If winter will let up a bit I plan on spending some quality no agenda time with her (this is a crucial element, in any training program, in my opinion).  I'll keep you posted.

P.S. - if you want to read more about congruence and horses, you should check out Linda Kohanov's Tao of Equus.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Black Mare

Yesterday Vengeance/Venus walked RIGHT beside me (like, I could have been leading her) to her feed bucket, took two handfuls of grain out of my hand, and I stood beside her while she ate and she didn't act like I was going to eat her.  This is HUGE!

Dare I daydream that she'll someday let me pet and brush her, love on her, maybe even more...?  Sometimes I swear she wants me to.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Power of the Pause

Silly pink pony

My girl Storm is shy.  Parelli would call her a "Right Brain Introvert."  She's low girl on the herd totem. She has never spooked with me, she is very calm.  

But when something overwhelms her she "goes to her happy place."  This looks like this:

Storm (backgrond) demonstrating her "happy place pose".

In this photo I'd brought in an odd object (the red chair from an earlier post).  In the foreground you can see my two left-brainers checking it out.  In the background you can see Storm:  "I'm unconfident about this, excuse me a sec."  She adopts this posture at that exact angle - 5 degrees away from my butt is to you.  She'll cock a hind leg and look like she's half asleep.  

It's her "I can't deal with this right now."  It generally lasts a few seconds, depending on the level of the pressure.  Then it's like she's waking up out of it, and she'll cock her head around "What's going on now?" and often come back and check in.

That's when I click and reward her.  And give her a few seconds.

With this type of equine personality profile (which, for the record most closely corresponds to my own personality), they need processing time.

So, what if I had a lead rope on her?

I see this response WAY WAY more often at liberty.  If you've got an RBI I highly suggest you work at much at liberty as possible.

Here's what went down today:

I fed the horses, and groomed Storm a bit.  I put a neck rope on her - just a loop of rope that rests in front of the withers.  This means "I choose you today."  (since I don't have a very effective and safe way to separate out herd members.  

Then I showed her the bridle (I never wrote a post about the cross-under bitless I got.. need to get to that.  For now, suffice it to say we are working in a simple rope hackamore).  Oh boy, was the response I got, and she wandered off and went to her happy place. 

That's cool, I said.  I'm going to sit in the tailgate of my van and play with this here bridle.  5, 4, 3, 2, 1....  head comes around.  "What are you doing?"   "Still here, me and this bridle..."  

She can't resist.  She comes to check it out.  Click.  Treat.  Rub.  Hold bridle up.  She pokes it with her nose.  I get up, hold up the bridle.

She goes away again.  We repeat this sequence probably five or six times.  Here's the really important part:  give time to process AFTER the click/treat, after they've come back, before you put back ANY kind of pressure.  The key here is excruciating patience.  And leave the ropes off.  Because if I'd had her on a lead rope I wouldn't have seen any of this.

What would have been the big deal about not seeing any of this?  Well, trust.  Humans are very direct thinkers.  "I'm going to go to the barn today, and we're going to go for a 30 minute trail ride/practice that side pass/run some barrels."  We go, and we throw the tack on, mount up, giddyup and off we go. At any point in this, did we ask?  Did we say "Hey my girl, how's your day been?  What do you think about  a ride today?"

I asked.  I asked over and over again, at every point in this process.  "Hey, what do you think about this brush?"  "Hey, how about this bridle?"

Her answer was no.  If it had been a firm NO WAY, NO THANK YOU I'd have respected that and I would not have ridden today.  It was more of an "Oh geez, I don't know... give me a sec."

And every time she came back, I gave her a really good reason to come back again.  It took probably 10 minutes to get that bridle on her, and since it's a rope hackamore, and my "saddle" is a bareback pad, I don't hang on to her for dear life when it's on - she follows me voluntarily, and she goes away if he needs to.  If she decided to hell for leather across the field and roll in my pad, so what (unless I'm on, that's another story!).  I'd wait till she came back (she always comes back) and get my stuff off her.

The other reason it's important to not push an RBI is because if they go to their happy place and you miss it, and you keep pushing and pushing and pushing, eventually THEY WILL EXPLODE.  These are the horses that get labeled unpredictable and dangerous.

Anyway, 15 minutes later, bridle on, she DID leave.  She wandered out to the field.  That's cool, I said. I'm going to come along, and I'm bringing this lunge and whip, and I'll play by myself.  And I wandered around, 10 feet away from her, playing with my rope, kicking the dirt.  She came over.  We did some friendly game.  I won't bore you with the details -- when I say excruciating patience, I am not exaggerating.  The fact that I am an RBI myself helps a lot.... if I was an exuberant extrovert this would be a painful process.  I think it wouldn't be any less necessary.  If you like a nutty fun horse, get yourself an LBE.  If you've got an RBI and you love them, I'll quote one of my favorite Parelli-isms:  "Take the time it takes, so it takes less time."  Next time, if we do this on a regular basis, everything goes a little more quickly.  If it happens to be winter and you don't ride that often, it might take a little longer.  

She was pretty poky and sluggish today, which is fine by me any day I'm going to ride since I don't want a bronc ride, but I asked her for a few trot circles on the lunge line, and then I asked her if the bareback pad was cool, and it totally was, no wandering off.  So I got on and we had a beautiful ride. 

Enjoying the view

That doesn't mean I let her do whatever she wants.  You develop a language after a while.  My horses live on a peninsula between two rivers.  We rode to overlook one river, then back to overlook the other, and then back to the barn.  When I asked her to go into the back paddock, she told me she'd pretty much had enough, and tried to turn around on me.  Nope, I said, let's keep going.  I rode her to the back of the paddock, hugged her, and hopped off, and let her walk home without having to haul me there - in fact, I left the pad on but pulled the bridle off, and she just followed me back to the barn.

And then allll over the place.  After our ride I thought we'd do some "No-Agenda Time" and I'd just go hang out with her and do what she wanted.  We walked into the field with the other horses.  "Hey, want to run?" I asked her, and I ran.  She trotted along beside me, keeping pace with me right at my shoulder, and we turned, ran, stopped and moved as one.  In a lot of ways I find this experience, which horses are masters at, more moving than riding.  She followed me all the way back to the river, and by then it was sunset.  I wanted a picture of my pretty girl with the sunset behind her so I pulled out my phone and sat on the ground.  She made a general pest of herself, nuzzling my head, poking at my shoulder, unzipping and un-velcro-ing my jacket.  This is all really left-brained stuff for her to do, which is pretty cool.   I didn't get a great picture but the one at the top is decent.

Funny thing is, while we were sitting there, who came over the hill to see what was going on but Vee, ears up, terribly curious about the weirdo human who sits on the ground.  

She has a perfect V on her forehead and she looks lovely in sunset colors.

I'll have to post about Vee another time -- I'm sure I've talked your eyes off enough in this post -- but suffice it to say that this is a very reactive, abused mare who avoids contact with people like the plague.  She has gotten to the point, just over the last few weeks (I have known her 4 years) where she will eat out of my hand, but only when I'm about to give her her grain.  She has been very interested in what I'm doing lately and mean to Storm - jealous maybe? - and she will follow me around, but at a distance.  She came this close and stayed, and it was pretty cool.  

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Questions of Tack

I haven't seen my horses in over a week and it's driving me crazy!  We had family in from out of town last week so I didn't get to go to the farm, and then my car broke down and I've been more or less housebound.  It's at the shop today, finally!  So hopefully I'll get to go tomorrow (fingers crossed!!!).

But I'm ruminating over tack today, because I think Storm is really being irritated by either my saddle or my girth (I'm going to check fit next time I go there and see which it is).  Honestly, I'm not too crazy about my saddle either.  I've thought about getting a nice Aussie saddle, but...

Ultimately the goal is to ride bareback and bridleless, but I'm not so reckless as to jump into that, so I really want something that's GOOD for the horse.   First do no harm!  

I rode Storm this year exactly once in her snaffle... I really don't want that; I'm convinced bitless is the way to go.  So the other two times I just had her rope halter on her with reins attached... that works, but maybe a little less finesse than this out-of-shape rider could use.  And, I want to trail ride and I think trying to do that BB&B might be a little foolhardy.  I would like to someday do Endurance riding, too, IF Storm likes it.

So... I want a Dr. Cook bitless bridle.

Joe Camp's comment:  "Forget the no-more-metal rhetoric, forget the pain, forget the cruelty - all of which are true - the darned thing just works better than a bit!"

It crosses under the horse's chin and the pressure is applied to the poll, not the nose.  

I've done some research on saddles, too.  I thought I'd try a bareback pad, more for me than for Storm... I would like to have the close contact but at the same time, I don't fully trust my seat yet and I need a lot more practice to have confidence in it (which riding without stirrups definitely cultivates!).  But again, I feel like I need to have a saddle for heading out on the trail, especially long rides.  

But saddles have probably caused more woe to horses than anything else... a tree has to fit right or it can cause skin sores, muscle soreness, or just cause them to move in a way that is detrimental... and since they don't generally turn and say "Hey, you know... that saddle sucks, can we ditch it?", it's tough to know you've got a good fit.  So what to do?

So I thought, bareback pad.  But a lot of them have a single cinch that goes over the back behind the withers, causing a lot of pressure in a single spot on the back... also not good.  And bareback pads should NEVER be used with stirrups... then you're REALLY concentrating all of the rider's weight on that one spot.  Imagine carrying a person in a backpack and trying to balance them.  

So then I thought, treeless?  A lot of them are not well made and have the same issues as bareback pads.... the tree on a saddle is designed to distribute the rider's weight over a larger area on the back, and also many sit directly on the horse's spine (bad).  I am fairly impressed with Barefoot Saddles and may go that route... although I may opt for a flex tree instead of treeless.   

For now my plan is to get a Barefoot bareback pad and work on my seat and our communication (and her comfort...), and continue to do research into the saddle question.  The advantage of the Barefoot pad is that it has a girthing system that distributes weight much better than the traditional pad... and there are no stirrups.

Anyone need a fairly nice synthetic hunt seat saddle?  ;)

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Fun With the Boy

Brandon & Jewel, circa winter 2010

I can't believe I took NO pictures today!  Well, this photo is from the last time my son Brandon (now 20) came to the farm with me, probably 2 1/2 to 3 years ago.  He's since moved out to go to college, but he came to hang out with me today and ultimately we decided to go hang with the horses.

We couldn't find them when we got there, so we figured maybe they were in the woods, and took a hike.  We found them deep in the woods, in the clearing by the river.  It's kind of funny because when I first got Abbey she wouldn't voluntarily go into the woods much at all.

I coaxed them to follow me through the woods so they joined us on our hike... walking in the woods with a string of horses behind you, loose, is kind of fun!  We usually walk on the trail, which is paved with gravel, but the horses don't care much for walking on that so they showed us the cow path, a way through the woods I've never taken, stopping and giving us confused looks when we took the wrong fork - I'm constantly amazed at what horses will tell you about if you give them freedom and the opportunity, and consider their ideas as valid as yours!

One thing is for sure, walking through the woods with my horses makes me reaaaallly want to ride through the woods.

Then we got back, I fed them, and asked Bran if he'd like to try riding.  He's been on a horse only a handful of times, and Storm is pretty sensitive, but I was pretty sure she'd be a good girl.  I kept her on a lead rope, just in case - I certainly don't need to be responsible for any more riding accidents.

She did basically what she did the last time I got on her - stood rooted in place and had to be coaxed to move.  Bran's not a super balanced rider, not having ridden much, and it was pretty plain to me watching from the ground that my hunt seat saddle wasn't helping either of them (frankly I think it was causing the balance issues).  Also, she kept balking again, and every so often she'd reach around and touch her nose to near the girth, so...   

I think the saddle is really bothering her, or possibly just the girth.  Gonna try a mohair girth on it, but my anniversary/Christmas wish is either a good bareback pad or possibly a Barefoot treeless saddle, with a mohair girth. And a bitless bridle.  Meanwhile... I may try riding entirely bareback to see if she acts differently, or maybe try Russ's saddle on her.

Besides not really wanting to go, she was great for him, because she always is.  I love my pony, and Bran had a great time too.  <3   Thanks for being awesome, Stormie.