Horsey Therapist

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Recently I read where someone was criticized for having an amazing amount of naivety in their horsemanship, which got me thinking...

I want to be more naive!

What is amazing is how naive horses are, and what a challenge it is to become as naive as they are.

I looked up 'naive' in my Oxford American Dictionary:

"Naive, adj. showing a lack of experience or of informed judgment."

I can see where this could be considered a deficit, and I can see where this could truly be an advantage. Isn't it when we become childlike again that the wonders of the world are available to us? And "childlike" -- isn't that the fresh, open place, uncluttered by life's baggage?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Waiting for the next squall

A couple of years ago, RNB and I went sailing. Not just an afternoon excursion on the big lake in our little sailboat. No, this was a week on a chartered sailboat on some open and windy parts of the Atlantic. RNB skippered the boat and I crewed. It was a challenge for me. My preferred risks are land-based and mostly involving big, quick, hoofed mammals. RNB likes the ocean and I like the idea of the ocean.

What I didn't know when we left land was that RNB would be happy fighting for survival on a sailboat in a hurricane. Me? I would be happy drifting lazily on calm seas.

Our sailing was mostly somewhere in the middle -- steady winds except in harbor, moderate swells at times, some swift tides to negotiate entering some gorgeous areas where we could moor the boat for overnights and snorkeling.

What neither of us knew is that we would encounter major squalls on our way back the last day. The wind would come up suddenly and we would fight to stay on board while lowering some sail in the hopes of riding out the gigantic waves without being blown over or off course too much. Then the wind would quiet and we would rest. Well, RNB would fall asleep while I fretted about what had just happened and fretted that it may happen again. Which it did... I remember the feeling of bracing myself with all four hands and feet, steering while RNB was hauling in the lines, lowering or raising a sail.

Why am I writing about this now?

Lately life seems like that sailing trip we took. We are on a boat with no other option but keep sailing. Moderate steady winds are the norm. And with a few major squalls already weathered, I am waiting for the next one to come. It could blow like that at any time. And when the next squall hits, all I will be able to do is focus, hold on with every fiber of my being, and hope we are spared by the forces threatening to overpower us. Then breathe deeply and relish the calm seas that surprise me as much as the squalls.

Fond fund raising memories

Finally I got a picture from the annual Ride A Thon, one of High Horses' major fund raising events. It warms my heart to view this picture, partly because there I am smiling in the good company of a colleague/friend/neighbor and our horses, partly because there I am riding on a warm sunny day.

We had a high today of 20 something degrees. Brrrrrrrr!

About 25 riders raised over $9,000 this year. Here we are at the end of a 4 1/2 hour ride which we expected would be a 2 1/2 hour ride. It was much hillier and longer than estimated!

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Am I ready to ride?

I won't ride my Rusty gelding unless I can meet certain condition. In fact, I won't mount any horse unless:

1) I check him out before I ride doing ground work to connect with him and see how directable he is at walk, trot, backing, turns, standing still.

2) I can be present enough to notice what he can handle today and not take him anyplace (even to the other end of the arena) if he shows ANY concern whatsoever. If my mind is preoccupied, I cannot offer that to us.

3) I can ride out any expressions of his worries that might happen despite all my best precautions. If my physical and mental abilities are limited and I cannot promise us that I will ride those first seconds of power burst then start directing him, rather than let my fear reaction take over and add oil to the fire (grabbing with my inner thighs, holding my breath, picking up the reins with the hope of slowing him) then I have no business being on top of a horse.

Hence I have not ridden Rusty often since I'm still healing an injury from last March. It's a tall order for me as a human and a rider. One I can fill now and then. I have ridden Rusty 4 times, all in the ring, since March. I am certain I cannot count on myself to ride through any big, worried movements he might offer because I have missed signs of his smaller worries -- my survival instinct is still too strong as I want to protect myself from further pain.

I have ridden my Morgan mare, Kacee, many times. Her concern shows itself earlier and smaller, or at least I can recognize it sooner and direct her to something that suits me better. Plus I follow the same rules for her as for Rusty but have found that if I take care of 1 and 2, then 3 doesn't arise. And if it arises, her survival instinct in action is more a straight forward gallop compared to Rusty who will buck and bound, almost not really knowing what is his own plan to get to safety. Kacee's plan is clear and distinct -- run for home -- and I can ride that until there is room in her mind for some direction from me. But as I indicated, I like to answer her questions about who is making our decisions before I leave the ring.

Anyway, following an injury -- especially a horse-scared-me-scared-me-hurt event -- I do a ton of thinking, wondering what did I miss leading to this event, and what can I do differently to prevent any recurrences. And then approach the whole relationship more cautiously but at the same time with more certainty about what I have learned and can now do differently in order to keep us connected and safe or at least within sight of our comfort zones.

It is too easy to forget all the possible ways we can be in the path of harm. Those moments of forgetting -- of diminished awareness -- are the moments that leave us vulnerable. Developing a clear sense of whether I can stay in my own thoughtful and aware state while riding -- that is my main job. I know how to ride, I have adequate technique under my belt about horses and riding. It is the other stuff now that will only grow and expand for the rest of my life. And wanting a long and active rest of my life, I'll stay on the ground with a horse until I am confident we are connected -- not just that the horse is doing what I ask, but that the horse and I are tuned in and on the same wave length -- the horse is feeling open to my leadership presence and looking for my direction, not just accepting it or worse, just tolerating it.

And my baseline of what a calm, ready horse looks like and feels like keeps changing as my awareness grows.

And actually, after an injury, I am riding less as I become more aware. I honor the (temporarily greater) gap between my mind and my body -- my body is not as strong and agile as it could be right now (the injuries) and my instincts to protect myself are stronger than my intent to behave as the best rider I can be. So I am on the ground for the most part and learning, learning, learning as I interact, pay attention, interact some more.

These words come to mind (attributable to Tom Dorrance as well as Alexander Graham Bell): Observe, remember, compare...

Added note regarding books I bought

Leif Hallberg's Walking the Way of the Horse is basically a text book for equine facilitated mental health and education. More details about the book can be found on the Equestrian Network Magazine: Book Review by Martha McNiel.

Quoting from there: "The first half of the book (chapters one through eleven) comprise a stand-alone book covering the history of the horse-human relationship; the history of the field of Equine Facilitated Mental Health and Education Services; and theoretical perspectives and ethical considerations for EFMH/ES services. The second half of the book (chapters twelve through twenty-one) are a second complete book, covering eight different methods of theory and practice in EFMH/ES work. Each book could have been published separately, but the need for a comprehensive text book necessitated that all this information be included in one large volume."

Thursday, November 06, 2008

2008 NARHA National Conference

I was in Hartford, CT recently for the 2008 NARHA National Conference. Basically the biggest professional event in the US in the field of therapeutic riding and equine facilitated mental health and learning. It was great.

I started my week away from home with a visit to meet in person some wonderful bloggers I know. Their blogs are Teachings of the Horse, Grey Horse Matters, and Glenshee Equestrian Centre. Wonderful horse people to get to know better!

The next day I spent at Green Chimneys, a farm-based residential center in NY that serves close to 200 youths. That was a pre-conference workshop. Then three and a half days of workshops, presentations, food, and comraderie aka networking.

And I presented there as well, on Saturday as part of the "Horse Expo" at the Storrs, CT campus of UConn. A big thanks to the UConn Equine Studies program!

I purchased four books after some contact and conversation with each author, both to support these wonderful professionals and to have convenient access to their thoughts via the books.

1) Walking the Way of the Horse: Exploring the Power of the Horse-Human Relationship, by Lief Hallberg

2) Riding into Your Mythic Life: Transformational Adventures with the Horse, by Patricia Broersma

3) My Horse, My Partner: Teamwork on the Ground, by Lisa Wysocky

4) Hello Bob! + 49 Other Interactive Vaulting Games, by Gisela H. Rhodes

I have to write up an evaluation report on the workshops I attended (which I predict I will post here when I'm done). These are the titles of those workshops I attended (there were often 4-5 workshops running concurrently):

EFMHA Workshop: 60 Years of Practice: The Impact of the Green Chimneys Farm Nature Based Program Approach.

Managing Stress in Your Equine Herd - Lisa Wysocky.

Working with Nonverbal Learning in a Therapeutic Riding Setting - Becky Lundeen, CCC, SLP, HPCS.

Horses and Individuals with Autism: A Natural Therapeutic Relationship - Deborah Lipsky and Will Richards, PhD.

The Important Relationship Between Autism and Movement and How a Horse Can Help - Nancy Stellrecht, PT, HPCS.

Equine Facilitated Group Therapy with Teen Survivors of Sexual Abuse - Molly DePrekel MA, LP and Kay Neznik.

Stepping Stones to Success: How to Achieve and Measure Skill Progression During a Riding Lesson - Anthony Busacca and Amy Sheets.

Transitioning the Hippotherapy Client into the Therapeutic Riding Arena - Laura Simak and Debbie Sords, PT.

Advanced Leader Horse Handling - Lasell Bartlett MSW.

Understanding Equine Behavior & Desensitizing - Holly Sundmacker and Lauren Fitzgerald.

Creating Symmetry between Horse and Rider - Tracy McGowan.