Horsey Therapist

Monday, July 30, 2007

Show Time

I seldom show. Yesterday I did despite ambivalence galore.

It was a small show, advertised as a schooling show. Although I knew it would be small and low pressure, I felt pressure as I prepared.

I worried because I did not have the proper attire. I worried because I want to be seen as someone competent and with something special in the relationships with my horses. I worried because I anticipate being harshly judged. I worried because I did not know how things would go in a setting where I expected to have more control than I usually expect.

I took my two Morgans. They were ambivalent about loading in the trailer. Well, that is not true. They were ambivalent about staying in the trailer -- they both loaded fine!

I was uncertain which horse I would ride in which division of classes. They both qualify for "green horse" division having been shown less than two years. Last year was Rusty's first horse show. Saturday was Kacee's first. Although I quickly regretted my decision, I rode Kacee in the green horse division, and Rusty in the adult division. Why did I regret it? Rusty acted more like a green horse than Kacee. That should not have been any surprise however I was thinking about last year's show and how calm and responsive Rusty was ... then. I forgot about feeling of right now!

After about ten minutes there, I really connected with my intention to consider this experience some enjoyable time with my horses. And that is what it was. Yes, I had moments of "oy vey", but they were few, shallow, and short lived. The show staff and the judge, people I know from other venues, were casual, friendly, and supportive. So were the other competitors, and that is hardly the right word for the other folks there showing.

What I learned is that I let my horses make a lot of choices in general, and when it came time for me to make some choices, they were remarkably able to come through with what I asked. Rusty was not able to maintain what I asked -- such as coming off my inside leg/outside rein at walk, trot, or canter and staying where we got to (I am not a rider who will hold my horse someplace -- I want him to find it and choose it). He really surprised me when he responded to my request to come upright around a corner in the canter where he was leaning way into the curve. He came upright in a heart beat -- what a different feeling to make that turn with that balance! So now I know I can ask that of him.

My learning comes in unusual ways. I suppose if I worked regularly with a teacher who coached me in these things, I might find them quicker and the disconnected ways of traveling might last a shorter time. But indeed we do find them, and once I have experienced a more fluid feeling as we travel, I will look for it, ask for it, find it. I know my horses can give it to me.

Kacee delighted me thoroughly with her cantering! New mindset? New saddle? New rider mindset? Who knows. But it was a controlled and sitable canter, and she got the correct lead right away in both directions.

There is so little I understand about these things. I mean, why exactly would I be so surprised by her good performance? *sigh*

So, during the course of the show, I mounted and dismounted over and over as I traded horses, taking off the half chaps, putting them back on. I rode Kacee in dressage saddle and Rusty in western saddle. I had planned to change into riding britches for the dressage saddle but never had time as the classes were back to back, alternating between green horse and adult classes: pleasure, equitation, trail.

I am glad I went.

I imagine if I were more focused in my "training" and/or more willing to use force (harsher bit and spurs for example) to get a certain consistency in performance I would have horses that 'looked' better on the outside (I am comparing to the performance of the other horses and riders there). I feel pretty darned good that my horses looked fine and more important to me, they felt pretty darned good on the inside. It felt good as well that I held true to my principles and rode on a slack rein all the time unless I needed to take the slack out to get a response to a request.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

A trail ride with friends

It has been a long time since I loaded up one of our horses and joined a friend for a trail ride. I did this today.

I was a little nervous before we got started, with fleeting images of past rides when I felt the need to be firm to keep us out of trouble. I worried that the progress I have made and the increased softness and responsiveness that Rusty has made would fly out the window. But heading out with one other rider and one other horse -- ones with whom we have ridden before and are sympatico regarding horsemanship -- seemed like a good opportunity to enjoy a ride.

Indeed we did enjoy a ride.

I was pleased how well it went. Rusty was responsive, forward, interested in our surroundings, mostly respectful to the other horse. He wanted to chew on his rump but I used the same 'liven up to urge him to think about something else' approach to dealing with this as I've been using at home and it worked well, and allowed me to redirect his mind without involving the reins.

We rode for 1 1/2 hours, took about a 1/2 hour water and lunch break, and rode for another hour. Up hill, down hill, through woods, along dirt roads, along a very overgrown and unmaintained roadway, over some water, and through a field. Light wind, air temps about 70 -- ideal!

This informs one of my earlier wonderings: How would what I was doing at home with my horses translate to other settings?

It translates nicely!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Beyond the push and the pull

Because I CAN push and pull my horse, FINALLY! I have found I really, really, really don't want to do that at all. Because I have had a taste of the sliding gliding feeling of my horse taking me someplace, even someplace I want to go, I really, really, really do want to have that feeling all the time. Or as much as I can.

I have ridden plenty of horses who will go where I want them to without much fuss, and perhaps without a tremendous amount of enthusiasm either. Horses who will go as long as I keep asking them to go unless they are pulled along by the forward energy of another horse.

I really don't know how what I'm doing will come out in the end. I know how I want it to feel to both of us. I know that right now in my horsemanship (this day, this week, maybe this month?) I am doing this experimenting in baby steps. All these letting-the-horse-decide moments are because my horses have not been able to decide much at all without getting into trouble, and they have a whole lot of unanswered questions about going here and going there. So on some level I am saying, 'OK, I'm with you, show me where you want to go, and show me again where you want to go.' And I myself am enjoying what they are showing me. Some times it's a small circle near the barn door. I know at some point they will no longer want to go in a small circle near the barn door. I have faith they will think of something else to do.

Meanwhile I am going slowly through this so I do not succumb to the temptation to act on those pressured feelings accompanied with thoughts like 'heavens to mergatroid, isn't there something else you want to do?' I have come to recognize that my horses KNOW when I'm criticizing their choices.

And I want them to KNOW what it's like to be with me when I'm NOT being critical of their choices, their needs, their wants, their urges, whatever. When I am being present and supportive.

And yes, I don't stop there, but I do wait until they have gone through all the options they are attached to before I ask 'can we go this way now?' and if they are really ready, it weighs nothing on the rein, no leg or seat is needed to urge them anywhere, and they go -- they take me off in that direction sometimes with more enthusiasm than I expected. 'FAR OUT!' I say to myself.

This is the particular way I'm exploring how to wait patiently while the horse makes some choices when I'm riding. Similar mindset on my part to when I'm waiting for the horse to make the choice to come hang with me in the round pen. I might be adding some pressure to 'search' or 'put a little more effort into this' but otherwise NO PUSH, NO PULL. Just watching and waiting. It really is quite fascinating what each horse will think to do when allowed to think and do!

Defenses and Transitions

I'm constantly blown away by the things people do to protect themselves.

With horses, defensiveness is usually very clear: swing head, pin ears, swish tail, walk away, strike out, kick out, run away, any of the above. (Some less clear defensiveness also occurs with withdrawal, dissociation, and avoidance.)

With people -- oh my -- the ways we can project messages to 'keep your distance' are beyond counting.

Lately I've discovered a new layer in myself.

I've known this about myself: I don't like transitions, especially sudden ones that have not been predicted for me. I'm better than I used to be in many circumstances. But still I can get cranky quickly when someone expects something of me right now that I wasn't told about ahead of time, or when someone changes the plans without communicating successfully and early (!).

Dear RNB -- he often gets the brunt of my crankiness. However, he also often gets the benefit of the new, improved me once I've worked through something deep and haunting to my psyche.

Some connections between my current behavior and my past relationships were revealed to me recently. Some happened on their own, and some via a conscious dialogue process we do called Imago Dialogue. Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt talk about how the dialogue process allows the un-languaged to become languaged. To paraphrase that, this process brings the unconsicous to consciousness, and the benefit of that is that we can change what we know, not what we don't know.

What I uncovered was the sorrow and loneliness of childhood around my dear mother who was not consistently present and taking care of the needs of her children. It wasn't just me, this I know. But my memories and how my early relationships molded my defenses is very personal. My siblings would have their own discoveries and uncoveries to explore and share.

The presence and disappearance of her attention, support, interest, and nurturance were out of my control. The loss after the wholeness became unbearable to me, so I closed off some of my presence and availability. I withdrew into what seemed like a safe place, a slightly detached, numb, protected way of being. To an extent, some dissociation became my lifestyle, my norm. I functioned fine according to others, yet lived with a gap between the full enthusiasm we humans are designed to live in, and the level of social connectedness I could tolerate.

Within the growing safety of my relationship with RNB, I am finding places where my defenses don't feel right. I want now to be open and allowing of deeper interactions. Yet in real life here and now, there are inconsistencies in our ability to be present and attentive with each other. But do I still have to retreat and act on this strong feeling to protect myself from him when I start noticing the moments when he is less present than he was yesterday or last month? No, I do not. I do not even want to be keeping track of those disconnects. In fact, I do not want to disconnect when these happen. It is not his fault and he has not caused my feeling disconnected. It is left over from my childhood, when that disconnect and dissociation helped me survive something I had no words for, and no way to seek reassurance or comfort when I felt that way.

Today I do have words, and I can get reassurance and comfort when those old feelings are triggered by some innocent events of the now. Today with awareness, I have choices. Today I can choose to stop when I feel a defensive feeling arising, breathe, breathe again, and seek to stayed connected, starting with myself, and extending that offer of connectedness to RNB, to my horses, to my friends... The impact of my consciously relinquishing the power of my defenses has already amazed me, and will continue to enrich all my relationships. May I suggest you try this yourself?


I spent a few hours recently with my friend, Gloria, and her young mare, Velvet. Gloria asked me to write out some of my observations to help her recall what went on during that time. Here are those thoughts pretty much as I wrote them to her.

One of your 'wants' was to see me ride Velvet. I knew I wanted to go through some assessment/get connected time together with her before I decided whether it would feel safe and right to mount her. That assessment would give me (and did give me) a sense of how attentive and responsive and understanding of my requests she might be.

In the round pen at liberty... what does she do and how does she do it when I ask her to do something with me?

Key thing to think about, be aware of: is she with me, are we connected and feeling good together? All my efforts are to build a good feeling between us that she can trust and will look for. A good feeling as the foundation of all of our interactions.

Can we walk off together? Can we stop together. Can we trot together? Can we turn left or right together? Can she walk off from me when I request but still stay mentally connected? Can she speed up without getting worried?

Sometimes Velvet got stuck and when she got stuck, it took more effort on my part to effect a change (halt to walk for example, or walk to trot) and when she made the change it was faster or quicker, had some worry and hurry involved. When she was present and responsive to my requests, her transitions were smooth and effortless.

You and I talked about her history and the sense that she coped (and still copes) by dissociating, by spacing out. Then she is very "spooky" or startles when she's coming back to the here and now. So, if she reacts with some hurried movement when I've gotten bigger or firmer in my request because she didn't respond to my more subtle requests, her spooky actions are due to her surprise, her startledness upon returning to here and now -- perhaps simply that surprise, or perhaps surprise plus fear that she's about to get punished or bullied or whatever it was that has left her wanting to 'go away' mentally from the present. So, doing things to invite her here, even insist that she come here (here means the present mentally and emotionally, not a specific physical location) are not what causes her reactions (though they could if timing or degree of firmness were off) but her own inside worries are what causes her reactions.

Greeting her with warmth, reassurance, quietness inside when she comes through these places will help build the foundation of 'it feels good together' for her. She will always have her memories, but she will more and more be able to recall and rely on memories that feel good.

We talked about the timing of reassuring her. When you reassure her while she is worried, she will understand that being worried is a wanted condition, an emotional state that we value. If you think thoughts like 'you can make it, you can find a feeling place that feels better' while you ask and/or wait for change, then reassure her when you see her soften (eye, mouth, breathing, etc.) that will let her know that searching and finding her way to a change is what is wanted.

She was a little worried about the saddling and would stand for it but I asked her to move a little. Actually I think this was just with the saddle pad. I would rather a horse show me how bad they feel than have them stand there and stuff it. Stuffing bad feelings leads to explosions of smaller or greater degree. If it feels like the horse is a little worried with a saddle pad for example, I will ask her to walk off. So often, once a horse knows she can leave, that she has a choice, then she will stay. Velvet was certainly within the emotional range of being able to think things through, never hit a panic mode. From what you say, you can take credit for that because you've already helped her feel OK enough to keep her mind engaged to some degree even when she's worried about something. Very important!

Her understanding and responsiveness to my leg and rein aids when mounted improved. I did not try to keep her moving once I had asked for a walk and she answered with a walk. If she stopped, I just asked again. Lots of opportunities to ask for walk and for her to respond with walk. Sometimes it took a LOT of energy from me before she would walk. It felt like she got stuck and didn't know how to get out of the bad feeling place, didn't know what she could do to stop the pressure from my leg aids. She started to understand that. I tried each and every time to ask with the lightest of request that I could imagine (the thought to walk!) then follow up with stronger requests until she made some effort to walk. At first it might be just the feeling that she was considering to walk. I want her to understand my release means 'yes' or 'good try', and that will help her keep trying regardless of whether she comes up with the right answer. She first needs to feel confident that it's OK to try, and that trying is actually something that feels good to us both, and then once that is established, I might start giving her feedback sooner about 'yes good try' or 'yes good try but try again'.

Like with ground work, when Velvet was stuck standing still, when she did finally move it had more energy and awkwardness than when she moved off without first being stuck. On some level I don't care at all WHY she is stuck or WHAT is her history, I really care about the present experiences feeling good, or better put: I really care that she believes from her own experience that we can feel good together and she will do her best to try to find how to find that good feeling place when it's missing.

Before I saddled and rode her, I did the changing eyes exercise as it is often called. That was when I took the lead rope around the far side of her body and invited her to find her way off the pressure. This exercise to me is much more than getting comfortable changing eyes. Changing eyes is what a horse does when we or any object moves from the field of vision of one eye to the other eye. Their brains take in info from their eyes differently than ours do, not in the integrated manner that humans have.

I'll attempt to describe this exercise which can and should be done from each side. If I am on the left, I stand at the neck and take the extra long lead rope (12-20' long) and either take it over the face and head or under the neck so it is on the far side and hold it draped over the withers. (If at any point the horse is worried about the feel of the rope or the sight of the rope, do not proceed until the horse is OK with this.) Then I will slide or lightly toss the rope further and further back until it drops over the rump and rests lightly above the hocks. It may well fall to the ground so hopefully I've previously done something to help the horse feel comfortable with ropes dangling around the hind legs and feet. Then I will lift slightly, taking some slack out of the lead rope, and see what the horse does. Ideally, the horse will follow the feel of the lead rope on the halter, as if I am using my right rein in this situation, and turn to the right keeping slack in the rope and rearrange her body coming around to the right in a small graceful fashion, at which point I will turn away and walk off with her following me.

Velvet got stuck going to the left. She figured out going to the right pretty quickly.

When a horse gets stuck, I like to wait as much as possible, increasing the pressure on the lead rope only if I get the sense the horse has stopped thinking about the puzzle, about the bind she is in. Then I might 'help' by increasing the pressure in order to encourage some more searching for the answer, and/or I might change my body position moving further to her hindquarters, even behind her to her right side so she can connect the pressure with the visual of my body there on the right side of her which might be familiar from previously being led in a circle or lunged. But I do want her to eventually show me she understands how to think this through without worry, and show me she understands how to follow the slack as if it were my rein.

I do not want to pull on the reins or the lead rope. I want to help educate the horse to keep slack in the reins or the lead rope, so if the horse starts to feel the slack going out (picture I start to walk someplace with lead rope in my hand while she's standing still), she will rearrange her body in order to keep the slack in the lead rope or rein.

This is what comes out right now without much editing or re-reading. I should mention something about how to deal with herd bound issues, or in this case, it was Gloria bound. Once she understands to walk when asked, encourage her gently to move when she is thinking about coming to hang out near you, or the barn, or another horse, until she herself chooses to move away rather than toward you... I think I wrote more extensively about this recently while describing some experimenting I was doing with Rusty and Kacee here at home.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Vet here for Sofia

I wrote this last week, intending to include a photo of Sofia's extracted wolf teeth. I lost one of the teeth and have not yet taken a photo, so am publishing this now sans pic.

I have a slew of vets involved with our animal care. Usually AK does the routine stuff for all the outside animals but the birds (horses, cows, sheep, goats). RVV in town does the cats and when we've had a dog, the dog. PA, a few hours away, I use for a wholistic approach with the cats, and recently I used HH for chiropractic and acupuncture for the horses. Today I had KG here on HH's recommendation that I get x-rays of her injured foot, plus AK's recommendation that KG pull Sofia's wolf teeth.

It all went remarkably well. Sofia got points for being so laid back and cooperative. She almost lost those points during the teeth extraction but she contained her disdain adequately and the procedure went more smoothly than anyone expected.

KG did a lameness assessment first (this is followup care for the puncture wound a few months back) and suggested blocking her lower limb to isolate if the lameness is from her hoof injury or something further up her hind leg. The block did leave her trotting out without any lameness so that was nicely definitive. We proceeded with x-rays and I will hear about them perhaps as soon as this evening. If they show nothing -- which is likely because they would reveal bone damage and not soft tissue damage -- my next option is to have an MRI on her foot. I will consider that if I'm told that some specific treatment would be her only possibility to regain full soundness, and that could be determined only by an MRI.

After the x-rays came the teeth extractions. First the sedative. Wow, Sofia went dopey quickly! Then the mouth speculum which was a new experience for her. The sedation helped her be pretty nonchalant about that. Then nerve blocks in her mouth, followed by a tool that pushes back the gum tissue around the tooth, then the tool that she uses to grasp the tooth and wiggle and rock it back and forth to loosen it. From the size of the teeth, KG expected quite an ordeal, however she was pleasantly surprised each time a tooth popped out without much effort. Well, I can say that because I was not the one exerting myself in this weather we've been having!

Sofia is now nodding off in her stall, recovering from the sedation. I'm grateful this is over and hopeful the x-rays show nothing abnormal in the bones of her right hind foot.

What's up for the rest of the day? Our hay man stopped by this morning and asked me to show up at 12:30 with truck and trailer to pick up hay he's baling right now. RNB has suggested today is as good as any day to go trade in the station wagon for a smaller station wagon. And I'm planning on attending as a student this afternoon's Advanced Sidewalker Training at High Horses where my roles usually include teaching riding lessons, teaching volunteers, and consulting with horse training needs. With the temperatures heading to the mid-90s, I won't miss riding today.