Horsey Therapist

Monday, May 29, 2006

Riding again, and cones

It's been a few weeks since I rode. Maybe closer to many weeks. The rains we had would have kept me from riding, but in fact I was grounded because of injuries. Injuries due to coming off a horse, and injuries that left me determined to get together mentally with my horses before I mount them. So far I've kept to my word.

I rode the littlest equine here, and the biggest.

The littlest is Gwen, little dappled pony. I would never ride her long or far, but a little here and there to assess and expand her understanding of the riding experience. Soon she will go live with the G family whose young daughter has developed the horse bug. Mom has a full sized horse and often is my riding buddy around these parts. We live about two miles apart and can combine plans to enjoy some walk, trot, canter, and gallop rides on the local dirt roads.

Gwen will have lots of little-girl-grooming-and-loving attention that she so adores. And hopefully the match will be good so Gwen and the G family will live happily ever after. If not, I've promised Gwen this will be her last placement. Gwen was given to me for free, and I placed her for free where she spent a year or two with a wonderful family who for several reasons were no longer able to keep her. Again I will place her for free with the G family. The agreement is she comes back to me if things don't work out for any reason. Free pony with a guaranteed take-back plan in place. Who could refuse?!

Sofia is the biggest equine here, and was partially tuned in to me for some ground work before I asked her to come up to the mounting block. Actually it is a platform for playing on -- asking a horse to stand with two feet on the platform for example, or if the horse is really small, stand with four feet on it --but works well for mounting.

Sofia did not fully come up next to the mounting block. Instead of getting firmer with my request, I decided to do something else. So off with the halter and back to more liberty moving around the pen. When we were walking and trotting and walking together each way with smooth transitions, I asked her to come with me to the block again. Much smoother this time!

After our little bareback ride, she got lots of scratches and hanging out time. While I was scratching her, Gwen kept coming up to the platform and stepping her front feet up and looking expectantly over to me. What a clever equine!

I had thought I might ride Rusty as well. But first, true to my commitment, I first focussed on getting some groundwork going better. Walking and trotting at liberty with him in tune and comfortable with my requests -- that was the goal.

We had been playing the Scratching Cone game again. Rusty was so focussed on getting scratched, it was hard to switch gears so I put the cone outside the pen and asked him to move off with me. He was thinking about how to position himself for my ease of scratching his belly. Oh so many bug bites! He would walk off a few steps at my request then turn to come close again for scratches. When I put some distance between us, he went and stepped up onto the platform, a sure way to get more scratches, yes? But no, I had not asked for that so I waited for him to do something different. When he stepped down, he looked for nibbles -- apparently I didn't know how to play this game properly so he chose to occupy himself while I figured things out.

I got his attention again, asking him to move out while I was walking at his hip. We had some nice walks and changes of direction, but the added life and understanding to move into a trot just wasn't there. Classic picture -- human putting out a lot of effort, horse putting out minimal effort. I decided this didn't suit me (I know better!) and headed for the pen gate.

As I left the pen, I picked up the cone and tossed it a few feet away hoping to draw Rusty for more scratching and end on a good note.

A light went off in my little brain!

After he earned and received his scratching, I tossed the cone as far as I could, headed toward it with Rusty at my side, and asked him to trot with me. Trot we did, right up to the cone where he nose-dived it and waited for his scratches, which I gladly gave.

I can be slow to learn. But I did learn to use what works to set up a situation for success. Rusty will go to the cone for scratches. I want him to trot with me at liberty. Throw the cone and ask him to trot to it. So simple an idea really!

We repeated this five times on the way to the back door of the barn. Thank you, Rusty!

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Scratching Cone

Finally, weather and mood and stars lined up for an easy exit from house, out to play with horses. Truly with play in my heart, not just in my mind, pretending to play when I felt like work.

Rusty and Soli were in the play pen. Soli left when I arrived with an orange cone, an orange floppy foam pool noodle thing, and a purple nylon 'flag'. Rusty came right over to check out the toys.

After he touched everything with his nose and set into chewing on the foam (now in two pieces and no longer an optional free-play object), he resumed his munching on the itsy bits of green growing there.

Hmmm, what will I do?

Ah, I think I'll see if I can communicate to him that when he touches the cone, I'll scratch his belly. Scratches are major motivators these days, since the arrival of black flies, mosquitos, and who knows what else.

He was motivated. AND I remembered what I learned recently from an inservice about teaching therapeutic riding to people with autism, or "on the spectrum" as some folks called it. The spectrum of autistic disorders includes Autism, Aspergers, Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD), and possibly by now, some other variations of the autistic theme.

So I interacted with Rusty as if he were a student with a moderately severe communication disorder. I'm very pleased that I didn't once get frustrated or angry, and if you are wondering why I would even mention that, it has to do with my horsetime of recent days, not with my human teaching time.

My changed mindset was effective. When Rusty didn't seem to quite understand what I was asking, I asked again in a more simple way, anything to help him get the right answer. After he seemed to 'get it' a few times, he seemed then to not get it. So I retreated to an easier request from me, to which he responded albeit slo-o-o-o-o-o-owly.

I checked my urge to repeat, repeat, repeat, and thanked him for his interest in this activity with me, and wandered off toward the barn, arms full again with orange and purple objects.

Sofia came to greet me. She had been watching from a distance. Hmmm. Maybe she would like to play the same game? She was on the cone with her curiosity via her mouth in a jiffy. My cue to start scratching. No question that she liked that part. Her extended quivering upper lip was a clear give-away of her secret pleasure.

I stopped scratching and moved the cone off to the left. She reached for it, nudged it, and I started scratching. This fun exchange went on until Rusty sauntered over and in typical Rusty fashion, asked Sofia to move ("MOVE! NOW!) and he hesitated for a moment before lowering his head and touching the cone with his muzzle. Me? Scratch, scratch. Scratch, scratch, scratch, scratch. Scratch, scratch, scratch. I moved the cone a few feet ahead. I knew I was testing his understanding and his desire. Yay! He took a wee glance in my direction then stepped over to the cone and touched it... and I resumed my scratching.

All in all, a very successful experiment. And a very remedial chunk of horse time for me. Horse time is healing time.

Saturday, May 20, 2006


We decided to let the broody hen sit on some eggs. In fact, when I realized she was serious about sitting, I placed a few guinea eggs next to her, confident that she would tuck them under her feathered warmth as part of her maternal instinct. 'Maternal' may be the wrong word. 'Brooding' instinct is probably more precise.

Brooding? How is this avian behavior connected to the human mood called 'brooding'? When I am in such mood, am I going inward, stilling myself, settling into a period of reduced activity, forgoing food and water, as part of a great plan to develope some new life form?

More and more eggs arrive. I gather them each evening, some for our breakfast pleasure, most to sell. Then RNB mentions the incubator. Last year we hatched thirty chicks there. We are more busy this year than ever so I am grossly reluctant to deliberately create more work, not only now with incubator tending, but also later with chick tending and then chicken tending... I'm in one of those moods (brooding?) where I can exhaust myself thinking ahead to all the worry and work that goes hand in hand with adding a few dozen lives to our farm. I survived lambing, and now this?

I am determined to learn two things. (More than two actually, but for today's focus, two will do.)

I am determined to learn to communicate my needs and wishes in a pleasant voice, projecting the assumption that the receiver of my communications is a willing partner ready to help meet my needs.

I am determined to learn when someone tells me they will take responsibility for something that jointly impacts 'us', that they will indeed be trustworthy, and that I don't even need to carry some small question in my mind about said trustworthiness.

Phew. I have high expectations of myself. I wonder if I can engage someone near and dear to me with the responsibility of keeping my personal incubator of aspirations in good working condition so that my eggs-pectations can come to life?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Rainy Day Daydreams

Riding the smaller ones

Recently I rode a 15.2 hand Morgan. And a 12 hand Shetland. And another 11-12 hand pony.

Riding a pony is like sitting on a silent jackhammer. Riding a big horse is like sitting on a rocking chair. Funny though -- the fall from the jackhammer lands you on your feet, pretty much guaranteed. A fall from the rocking chair -- well, who knows how the landing will be. There is time to swing and sway and do somersaults before making contact with the ground.

I did not fall off any of them yesterday. I wondered about one ride. The ride which was not properly preceded by adequate groundwork to determine if the equine's mind was with me -- responsive, soft, attentive, and waiting for some direction from me.

With the biggest one and the littlest one, I spent the time before mounting to tilt the odds in my favor that I was going to be safe. Smart me.

It was not just about determining my safety. It was just as importantly about checking in mentally and emotionally with the horse. Gently and slowly establishing a communicative contact through which the horse got a better understanding of my questions and how well I listened to his answers. Through which I got a better understanding of the horse's questions and how well he listened to my answers. When I take the time to do this, each and every time I initiate contact, it is likely to get sweeter and sweeter between us.

I've been reading some articles on Ron Meredith's website. (Link on this page under Meredith Manor.) Sofia's trainer at Fair Winds Farm studied with Ron Meredith. I like what she was doing with Sofia and I like how my horses are responding to my experimenting with what I watched her do and practiced under her guidance. I'm putting quite some effort into one aspect that comes through time and time again: paying attention to the horse, tuning in, being there. Oh, I'm plenty good at doing this, however I am as likely to let my attention drift off as I am to focus. So I'm expecting more focus from myself. And more focus from the horse.

It means less socializing around the horses. That's not new to me. I remember riding when I lived in Maine and slowly finding myself riding alone because alone was better for me and my horse than riding with some folks who were more intent on chatting, galloping, or having 'fun' at the expense of the connection with the horse. Fortunately I have some riding friends who understand, even embrace, the approach to horsemanship that I value. These friends will wait patiently when I need to help my horse be with me mentally instead of getting frustrated or continuing down the trail, calling over their shoulder that I can catch up when I'm ready.

It takes a community to grow a good horseperson. It takes a community to grow a good horse.


I've been thinking a lot lately about getting, keeping, having the attention of the horse I'm handling. I'm trying to ask for it more but stay as quiet and minimalist as possible, not revert to a demanding attitude.

I found a few interesting quotes in True Horsemanship Through Feel(by Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond) about 'attention'. Both these I've quoted below come from sections discussing leading -- a real basic activity that reflects so much of what is going on with the horse and human.

Pg. 97: "What I mean by 'leading up real free' is a horse paying attention to the feel of your halter rope, or your reins, and following the feel you present by livening up his whole body. The important part in this is that he's ready to move his feet, and will move them, before the float is ever taken out of the rope. And he'll do this without any confusion, and he won't be trying to take over with ideas of his own. No, it would only be in response to your feel to move that he'll lead up with a float in the rope and look for a place to go."

Pg. 122: "When just one step can be taken, he's waiting for you. Then you have his attention and that's one of our main goals -- to get the horse's attention and keep it focussed on what we want him to do."

Lately I've been experimenting more than usual, with getting and keeping my horses' attention at liberty. I want to know for sure that the connection through halter and lead, or through reins, is based on willingness not confinement. I know how responsive my horses can be with tack connecting us. I'm learning how responsive they are without that, with only their attention, curiosity, willingness, and understanding keeping them with me mentally and physically. I'm pleased so far with what I'm finding.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Mother's Day

I just received an email that started like this:

Hi. This is the qmail-send program at
I'm afraid I wasn't able to deliver your message to the following addresses.
This is a permanent error; I've given up. Sorry it didn't work out.

It is Mother's Day and I decided to send my mother an email. I'm not surprised it didn't reach her. She died almost four years ago and her email address no longer accepts messages. But I tried anyway.

Genuinely I am wanting to let her hear from me, once again, my gratitude. I told her while she was living. Perhaps in some transformed state she can accept this inflow of loving energy more than she could before she died. Too much belief in self-belittlement left too little room for the great amounts of caring offered her throughout her life. Offered her because she earned it with her attention and questions and enjoyment of hearing the minute details of other people's lives.

Thank you, Mom. I miss you.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

It's raining but they don't mind

I know it's good for the earth, the pasture, the hayfield.

I know the rain is good for the ponds and brooks and rhubarb patch.

I don't know if it's good for babies, but these two don't seem to mind.

We did not know we had a gander before this. Gender is not as obvious as with other birds.

The proof appeared this morning, and a welcome sight! The arrival of this new life is timely, somehow balancing the recent loss of life within my sphere of friendships.

Thank you, young goslings!