Horsey Therapist

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Lesson time

This is a big deal for me. I suspect it will increase my empathy for people who are in the student role with me. I will be in the student role tomorrow, with a new teacher.

I'm fairly comfortable with the teachers/clinicians/coaches already in my life. I see them once or twice a year if I'm able to arrange that (only one still comes within a few hours from here). But tomorrow I will venture to take a lesson not in horsemanship but an equitation lesson. I'm having mixed feelings of course -- excitement and nervousness. I know I will learn new things and I hope I will learn without tears or shame or anguish. Yes, I'm capable of emotional upheaval, although it really has not happened much in the past year or two. At least not in the area of Learning About Horses.

I am grateful for the openness of a horsey friend who blogs prolifically about her lessons and her learning. She has portrayed her instructor in ways that I know I could learn from her, someone with kindness and clarity and a tremendously humungous background with horses and teaching. I have scheduled a lesson with this instructor.

By the way, I confess this will be my first ever lunge line lesson. Something I advocate and teach myself, but have never done it. I expect some interesting revelations!

Sunday, December 10, 2006


The equine floater was here the other day. He travels from afar a few times a year and checks and/or works on all of our horses. I like that he is commited to doing teeth without sedation, speculum, or power tools. For the most part my horses like this, too.

I say "for the most part" because for the past few visits, Rusty has not wanted to let the floater do his job. It raises questions and provokes conversation. This visit went much better than last visit. Last time I was ready to say, "Nope, you won't be handling this horse again." I am a protective owner, but sometimes I wonder if I'm over protective, if I expect too little, if I allow too much.

Rusty has been provoking my learning since I got him as a yearling. I'm grateful for the sense (or nonsense) that has led me down this path of horsemanship so that he and I could enjoy our time together. I spent the first few years criticizing him, misunderstanding his needs and his communications, and finally have adjusted my presentation enough so that 96% of our time together is indeed together. What a treat!

So when Rusty was not cooperating with the floater, I got to doubting my approach, wondering if I'd missed something that this horse of mine was so strong in his opinions. Those strong opinons matched with a large healthy body result in situations where either we gain his cooperation, or we don't.

I tried to express this while things were a bit of a mess during the prior visit. I know I used the right words in terms of being clear and understandable, but there might have been an edge to my emotions, because in fact, there was an edge to my emotions. As I watched what was going on I felt increasingly uncomfortable and protective of Rusty. What a bind -- wanting to stop an interaction between a professional and my horse -- risking losing the professional's accessiblity and skill if I seriously turned him off in my effort to protect my horse and facilitate some change so that better communication and cooperation were happening.

Rusty cannot be forced. He has to think about things and make a decision. I know he trusts me enough that ever we had an emergency he would let go of his ideas right away and follow my feel, follow my directions there and then. But on less urgent issues, no force. Period. He knows he is stronger, and he knows from experience that his ways of taking care of himself are likely to be better than those ways of us silly humans.

A vet I used before I moved called Rusty a Prima Donna. Prima Donna has a few meanings: the leading woman soloist in an opera company; a temperamental, conceited person; a disagreeable person, unpleasant person. The vet's comment came after doing the usual annual vet stuff with Rusty, and watching me ask Rusty to stand or move, to lift a foot or whatever. It was not said in a warm loving manner, more with some exasperation that I would have a horse who needed the time he did before he'd 'behave himself'.

And that raises the huge question about horses behaving themselves. How can a horse behave on human terms? Most of what we ask them to do is counter to their very nature. So, in my understanding, am I enabling a disruptive, unruly horse or am I letting him be a horse as long as I'm safe and I enjoy our rides together?

I have to remember that each of us makes choices about our horse handling (excluding those folks who act unconsciously day after day around horses, and sadly there are folks like that), and that my choices reflect who I am today and my history with life in general not only with horses. My reactions around horses are similar to my reactions around people. My best communication offerings around horses are similar to my best around people. I am one and the same person regardless of what species I'm with.

Although, as so many of us know, it is often easier to be in the presence of horse or dog or cat, than of a fellow human being. Sad but true.

I wander in my writing this evening. I started out thinking I'd share about how well little Bo did with the floater. He was awesome! He questioned what this stranger wanted to do but allowed him and was more relaxed at the end than at the start. It was comforting to learn that his teeth were in pretty good shape as I have few details about his past.

I'm a type of person who questions a lot. So now I question -- how come Bo was so good (there's that judgmental word!) and Rusty wasn't (more judgment!)? I question if I've done something wrong and wonder if the longer Bo lives with me the better chance he'll be troublesome, too.

But then I remember standing there after the floater decided not to try anymore -- concerned he'd get hurt as Rusty threw his head around -- and put my fingers in Rusty's mouth, from one side, from both sides, reaching back up toward his molars, pulling his lower lip down, stretching the sides of his lips out, and Rusty allowed this except for one complaint. So that tells me I really can't do anything myself to prepare him any better to accept the floater, unless I asked everyone who comes to the farm to put their fingers and metal objects into his mouth? Sigh. I can do that. But I imagine that anyone I enlisted would either offer an acceptable feel to Rusty and be successful as I was, or offer an unacceptable feel and be rejected as clearly and quickly as a moving equine head can express.

It comes back to the word feel. And what we do when a horse accepts or rejects the feel we offer. Unless it's an emergency, I'm commited to letting the horse say no to me, and then looking for how I can share my intent and gain his cooperation without force. Leslie Desmond has told us that unless a horse can say "no", his "yes" will have little meaning. I'd say this applies to people as well. Having the choice to say "yes" implies that it is OK to say "no" as well. And often I've let a horse say "no", waited a bit, and found the horse offering a "yes".

Blah, blah, blah. It was an invigorating day outside in the chilly air but bright sun, warmed by my brandnew sheepskin hat, much more fashionable than my trusty old red and purple gortex hat. I'll have to get a picture of it, or wait and take a picture of my dreams if I make them come true -- dreams of making sheepskin hats from our Jacob sheepskins. I think their long fleece would look good on the outside of a hat, but would it be as warm as when it's on the inside?

Here I go again... blah, blah, blah.

It's in the little things

I spent time with Bo today. I haltered him and checked how he responded to my requests for him to circle around me, change directions, slow down, stop... All this within a few feet of his beloved Sofia, then further away when things went well at that close proximity.

He would have preferred at times to be shooing the other horses away from Sofia. But he let go of those thoughts fairly easily. When I felt like he was comfortably with me, I gave him a job: follow me while I picked up rocks and moved them.

Sometimes I do this with a horse whether there are rocks to be moved or not. Today there were real rocks. Real or imaginary, that doesn't matter as much as my focus and intent on doing something. He stalled out a few times but then understood what his job was, keeping the float in the lead and stopping when I did, and waiting. It's amazing how relaxed a horse can get when he has a job and knows what it is, and especially when he's asked to do something meaningful, not simply asked to move this way or that. Horses prefer to join us when the focus is on something we can do together, not just when we focus on them doing something.

I did find that if my rock-carrying route was off to the right of him, he didn't understand how he could reposition his body to let me do my part of this job. So I helped him get a better understanding of something some might call yielding his front end, or a turn on the hindquarters. It involved helping him think about getting ready, lifting his withers, stepping back and over away from where I needed to walk, giving me the space to pass there. He picked it up pretty quickly. It was sweet.

Then I led him into the barn. I had no plan other than 'take some rocks' into the barn, then we headed out again. Knowing how quickly the white of his eyes comes to view, I was careful all the time to take him deeply into his comfort zone after I took him a little bit toward the outer edge of his comfort zone. So in the barn, turn and out of the barn. Go pick up rocks again and back to the barn. Realizing this would be a good time to check if any of our saddles fit him, I tied him to the high O-ring and got the first saddle I came across. He was a little worried about the saddle and about being separated from Sofia, but Sofia must have known this because she arrived at the barn door and stood there.

That first saddle was too big -- too wide and too low on the withers. The second saddle, another English one, fit better and might do, although he's a pony and the saddle looks big on him. I suspect anything that is going to fit me will look too big for him.

Then I set my nice western saddle (semi custom from David Genadek, on him. Although proportionately it looks big for him like the English saddles did, it fit his back pretty well.

If I keep this handsome pony, I will get a saddle that fits him better. I'm fussy when it comes to saddle fit, regarding both fits -- fit for horse, fit for rider.

Done with that, I untied him and led him back out to the paddock. After I removed his halter, he stood there, 'with' me, until I released him to go. I'm growing fond of this fellow, and I think he's starting to understand the routine here and feel OK about it.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Bo update

The equine floater was here today and Bo was very good for this. Apparently Bo has been done before, has had regular care, and just needed what one would expect a horse to need who hadn't been floated recently. So either he has been done or he's got an amazingly good bite and ability to keep his teeth in good form on his own.

This floater does it without sedative or speculum or power tools, just gets his own hands into the horse's mouth and assesses then uses normal hand tools. Bo questioned this but then settled in for the process. I have the horses done outside so if they need to back up for awhile they can. A horse who is an old hand like our Haflinger can be done inside in a more confined space.

It's interesting to take out hay and see who gets to approach me first. Sometimes it's Bo and Sofia, sometimes it's Rusty and Kacee. I really like the changes with Bo regarding his apparent attacking behavior -- he sometimes still does it when he feels another gelding is too close, but he puts much less effort into it and does it less often. He seems most worried when Sofia wanders off close to the other horses.

Understanding regardless of equipment

I've been thinking about some recent discussions on a yahoo list I'm on (BillsBook@yahoogroups) which is set up as a study group focussed on True Horsemanship Through Feel (THTF) by Bill Dorrance and Leslie Desmond, and on Leslie's new audio book, Horse Handling and Riding Through Feel. The talk has been about bits, and has left me scratching my head some. Finally, in good study group form, I opened THTF to look for some ideas from Bill about what was mulling around inside me.

I quote from the top of Page 95: "A horse that doesn't lead up well when you want him to, isn't going to be reliable to ride. When you cannot control the timing and placement of his feet in response to the feel you present with the lead rope, your intent won't be clear to him through the reins either."

There are other great quotes in the next few pages. This one I choose to focus on because behind the words, I'm given a bigger picture of what I have going for me, or not, that is basic and can be tested from the ground before I ever mount up. (See Page 96: Test Him Out: "No matter what you have on the horse's head, you'll first test him out on certain things to see how much he understands.")

I'm guilty. Guilty of overexposing my horses because in my eagerness to 'go for a ride', I have many, many times tacked up and mounted before adequate understanding was developed between us. It wasn't until my last riding injury that I took this ground preparation with great seriousness. Before that yeah, it was important, but heck, I can ride some wildness and gee, I'll take care of it from his back. Those are some of the less conservative, more thoughtless ideas that permitted some of my riding activities.

Now though, I do want to see signs of some solid understanding before I mount. That I can assess this by leading a horse someplace is so easy it eluded me. Now combine that assessing with some common sense (don't get on before the understanding is established on the ground) and I'm golden.

This ties in with the tack stuff I've been thinking about. I know quite a bit about pressure and release, and at times have been satisfied and confident that I can teach a horse where to find a release. Lately though I'm no longer satisfied with that, and want to teach my horse to follow my intent, my feel, with slack in the lead rope or the reins. This is different from finding his way off pressure. This is more like shining a flashlight to illuminate the route through a fully furnished dark room instead of shuffling along, feeling for the likely bumps into furniture as I make my way in the dark. I'm not sure if I'm expressing this clearly or not.

In any case, when I take the time to establish a clearer understanding about stop and go, and speed and direction, then it hardly matters whether I have a piece of cotton sewing thread in his mouth, or single or double jointed snaffle bit. He will respond to my intent, my line of sight, my body shape changing, the feel of the reins on his neck, but really, if I've done my homework, he would not have to run into the nutcracker on the roof of his mouth or stretching of his lips because he knows what to do and I'm paying attention not to let us get into something that might elicit my relying on applying pressure on the reins/bit/mouth.

Please don't misunderstand, I'm not 'there' all the time with my horses by any means. But the vision of how it can be is clearer and my motivation is stronger than ever, and so far so good.

I'll include one more quote, this time from Page 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."

Now to keep my assessing frame of mind as I go out to feed some hay to the herd.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Horses calm in proximity

Horses eating hay on a sunny afternoon. From left to right: Rusty, Kacee, Soli, Prince, Bo, Sofia.

RNB and I built three hay cribs last fall in hopes of losing less hay to the snow and mud. In the cold of winter I put a square bale in each box twice day. This time of year most of the horses still are on pasture although they all enjoy some hay once or twice a day. Kacee is off pasture unless muzzled there for short periods due to metabolic issues with the grass.

"Easy keeper" is a misnomer. She is not an easy keeper -- she requires hay all year despite the pastures we have. But it is worth taking care of her -- she's a doll to ride, and I'll be forever grateful for all the learning she has facilitated.

Can you see the two other species in the photo?

I did ride Rusty

Weird picture, eh?

I was riding Rusty and started taking pictures of my riding companion...

I found Rusty on the edge of startlement each time the digital camera made its little electronic clickety beepy sounds. So I took a few shots just to acclimate him to the sound, not attending to focus or content of picture.

Ride was pleasant. 40 degrees, sunny, horses happy enough to head out down the road. Nothing remarkable to report. Which is, in fact, remarkable.