Gee, Thanks!?!

But if you think you’ll convince me to be changing my ways – You’ve got another think coming because I know what pays

We were standing looking out over the pasture at my horses and discussing my mare, Guilty. She had come a long way since I found her and made her my horse against everyone’s advice. She had been a pasture ornament for the prior 6 years and was quite a project for me to take on. She was overweight, her feet were in bad shape from lack of regular trimming and her attitude was off the charts – Stubborn, smart and pushy. not to mention the fact that she hadn’t been ridden in years.  Still, I liked her – a lot – and I was determined that we could work all this out. So, I was talking  with my stepdaughter, who was my biggest adversary when I decided to buy this horse. She was on the show circuit and had another big handsome “turn-key” horse selected for me. Something “more suitable” and was upset that I had my own ideas about it. I was proudly telling  her about the progress we were making when she made the following comment: “It was that horse’s lucky day when you found her”. My surprised heart soared with what I thought was a compliment on my horsemanship skills. The moment was short-lived when she finished her statement with: “Anyone else would have gotten rid of her a long time ago”. I will never forget how that comment made me feel. Sure, Guilty is not show horse quality, but she is a registered gorgeous dappled smoky buckskin  quarterhorse with more personality and kindness than any other horse I have ever met. At first, my high took a nose-dive and my ego crashed and burned with disappointment. I was hurt and humiliated that she gave my opinion no value whatsoever and turned up her nose at my beloved horse. Then, over the course of the next few months, whenever that conversation came to mind, I started to get angry. Guilty wasn’t perfect then and certainly isn’t now but she reminds me a lot of myself. She is the safest horse I own. I do not hesitate to put my 2 year old grandson on her bareback and lead her around. I have put an 82 year old grandfather on her who had just had a hip replacement and literally took almost a full minute to pull himself up into the saddle and get situated. Guilty stood perfectly still while he struggled. She is the one that I get for small children or frightened adult riders. She is the best teacher for beginners because she demands respect and courtesy before she will comply. Guilty was the patient mount I rode to pony my young colt. When I shattered my ankle (an injury I endured while riding that same step daughter’s high dollar prize show horse, by the way), my first steps without my crutches were leading Guilty because I knew that if I stumbled she would bear my weight calmly and not panic if I fell. My first ride after that life-altering injury was on her back while I was still in my cast. She was the only one I trusted in my most vulnerable condition. It was Guilty who rebuilt my confidence.

I trust Guilty

I trust Guilty

It is Guilty’s eye on the front of the cover of Knowing Horses by Heart The heart in her pupil is real and not photo shopped. She has the most incredible smell.

Now, when I think about that  comment, I can smile. Yes, maybe it was her lucky day when I found her, but really, who is the lucky one?

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Hit Him!!

I’m too soft you might say – It’s only a horse. I’m used to hearing it – it’s par for the course.

I was attending a local horse show recently to watch my stepdaughter perform in the English Hunt Seat event. As I stood around the arena I noticed that beginners’ barrel racing was taking place in another part of the park. I wandered over to watch as they had many competitors who were very young – 3, 4, 5 & 6 year olds –  taking part in it. They looked so adorable all dressed up in their western outfits complete with chaps and hats. I was thinking to myself how great it was to be so small and be riding a full grown horse at top speed so fearlessly. How incredible those horses were that carried that precious cargo and performed so well when we all knew that those children were really at the horse’s mercy. For the most part, those kids just had to hold on and the horse got them through the pattern beautifully. Amazing animals! As I stood there in awe of their kindness and willingness to do their job, I was sickened by what I saw and heard from the enthusiastic parents who handed their children a crop at the entry gate. Throughout the entire course, as the horse was giving his all and still managing  to keep the child safe, they were shouting “Hit him- Hit him, harder”. I know they were caught up in the excitement of the moment, but if you don’t think that it hurts to get hit with a crop, think again-even if it is by a child. Try it on yourself sometime if you doubt it. It struck me how all this forceful training gets started and it all begins at a very young age. When a small child is being instructed to use pain as a means to get something they want, it is no wonder they grow up with the mindset of “making a horse do something” and using increasingly more intimidation as they get older. It was a no-win situation for the horse. He was still being punished with a whip when he was doing his job. When the child gets a reward of a ribbon as a result of that injustice, it only reinforces that behavior.

Attitude starts at a young age

Attitude starts at a young age

One of my favorite horse trainers wouldn’t allow participants in his clinics to carry a crop when riding with him. He said it was a heck of a way to ride a horse if you have to hit him to get him to do anything for you. The truth is, you don’t have to hit a horse if you learn to give him what he needs and understands as a horse. Realize that he is not a motorcycle or just a tool for you to use without regard for the part he plays and he will be a very willing partner.

Rats In My Head

or establishing a level of involvement I might wish to take – to help a horse get over some human’s insensitive training mistake.

I let them in. You know what I am talking about. Those annoying thoughts that gnaw at your self-confidence. The ugly little beasts that constantly tell you that you can’t do it. That you need to get professionals to do it for you. That your horse will be dangerous to ride unless you resort to the old school “show ’em who’s boss” method of teaching a young horse using dominance, fear and pain to get your point across. That you are too old, too uneducated, not knowledgeable enough to take it on. That men do a better job at “breaking” a horse (That part probably is true if you literally want a broken” horse.) Yep, I let them in. The door was cracked when my peers started dropping hints and then blatantly voicing their opinions about it. The project I had been looking forward to for most of my entire life was now slipping  beyond my reach. I am the first to admit that I am not an expert horse trainer and it had been 35 years since my  last foal and I was now in my 60’s. I began to doubt myself. I started having thoughts of fear where I had never even considered it part of the equation. I knew my horse very well. He was born here and I imprinted him myself. I could sleep in his stall if I wanted to without worrying.

Dream Project in Early Stages

Dream Project in Early Stages

And now I was being told – by experts – that it was a job for someone else to handle. I started to believe them. Those rats multiplied until I was afraid to make a move thinking it would be a wrong move that would permanently ruin my horse or I would get badly injured. I had started him with a bitless bridle and things were going very well but then I was told that I needed a bit.  Twice I let someone else give him a riding lesson and both times it took me months to undo the damage.  I just didn’t trust anyone else to handle him knowing it was not going to be methods I felt good about. He turned five in March and there was no more putting it off. I had to get off the fence. I came to the conclusion that “if it is to be, it is up to me”. I quit listening to everyone and started doing my homework researching and exploring trainers via watching DVD’s of clinics. I dug deeper into the new, more natural way of “gentling” a horse using language that horses understand. I sorted through bits and pieces of what I agreed with, what felt right through trial and error. Every little piece of the puzzle led me to the next. I truly am learning the lesson to go as far as I can see and then I will see further. It is a fascinating and fulfilling journey and we are well on the way. Suddenly my doubts, worries and fears have turned to confidence, eagerness and excitement. I had an amazing “wow” moment yesterday when I climbed up on the fence and my horse walked over to me and positioned himself for me to get on without any guidance. I say we are going to be just fine. The rats are gone but occasionally one or two will try to sneak back in but now I know how to deal with them and I don’t let anyone steal my dream.

I’ve Decided To Own It

The ladies’ hair may be coiffed – and I know what they pay – While my extensions are free and consist of pieces of hay.

I have made up  my mind. I am going to go natural – gray that is. I have always had exceptionally pretty auburn hair. Being a redhead has always suited me and that was my natural color way back when it was natural. For several (ok, many) years now, I have had to color it to stay that way. It is just getting to the point that I can’t keep up with it anymore. I am down to every 4 weeks and that is too long. I really need to touch it up about every two weeks to keep the roots from shining  through. It is a tough-on-the-ego thing to do. Funny, because I am natural in almost every other aspect of my life. I eat as natural and organic as I can, even grow my own garden. I try and feed my animals as naturally as possible. I would rather be outside on the farm than in the city. I only get my nails done for very special occasions (once or twice a year). I would rather wear natural stones than gems. I am into natural horsemanship – no gimmicks or gadgets. I keep my horses in a natural horse state (as much as you can for domesticated horses). They are allowed to socialize – mares and geldings together. They are kept out except for extreme weather conditions. They are allowed to grow winter coats and are barefoot. I don’t pull manes, shave whiskers or bridle paths. I enjoy horses for what they are – naturally. So why is this so hard for me to be what I am naturally. My mother had beautiful thick, wavy hair and mine will most likely be a lot like hers. Maybe that is the problem – it was my mother’s hair. I am now a grandmother three times over. I guess it is time for me to look like a grandmother.

Barb's real life

Barb’s real life

I don’t think it will be that bad once it is all gray and I am kind of curious to see how it will feel. It seems there is no product available to remove the dyes and strip your hair down to it’s real color – I have researched that. So, for now, the transition is agony. I now have about a full inch of pure silver hair gleaming where my hair parts. I look like I am either too cheap or too lazy to do something about it. Or worse, that I am not aware it looks like this. Believe me, every time I start up a conversation with someone I just want to tell them right up front that I am growing my gray in. I am painfully aware of it. It makes me feel unkept, uncool and older. I know that it means cutting it short also. My friends say don’t do it. My husband says do it. I say I am going to do it but am keeping my options open if it gets too bad. My horses – well, they don’t seem to notice.

Job Descriptions

He doesn’t need fine tuning and always performs his job well – I have to make it a point not to take him for granted for being so swell.

The other day I had some “visitors” come to ride my horses. It was a family of two adults and two small children ages 6 & 8 – none of which had ever been on a horse before. One of my boarders offered to go along on the trail with us and I went on foot to be able to help as needed. After the ride – which went very well, I thought – my friend offered the advice that I should have my horses “tuned up” so that they wouldn’t try to snatch a mouthful of grass along the way or be “stubborn” in the arena while we practiced some basics before hitting the trail. She suggested that I have my horses ridden more by experienced riders to perfect them. I bowed up and rallied in my horse’s defense. I told her that I didn’t think she realized just what my horses’ job is. Bear in mind that most of the people I put on my horses have never ridden or have very little knowledge of how to ride and many are small children. They get to share the horse experience, are  delivered safely, and have a blast doing it without any lessons or training. It is an adventure they never forget. My horses do that job extremely well. I have 4 fabulous horses that have never done anything but take care of their riders, no matter what. Actually, it goes way beyond just the riding part-they are just as safe to be around before and after the ride.

Guilty knows her job

Guilty knows her job

Do I mind if they steal a few bites of leaves or grass along the way? Nope. Do the riders mind? Nope. Would my friend be comfortable putting a small child or an inexperienced rider on her horse to ride at liberty on the trail? Nope. And what about the fact that we have no incidents of rearing, bucking, kicking, biting, bolting or bulking? The point is,  I appreciate my horses for the effort they make. They are aware that they can take advantage of those riders if they choose, but they behave nicely and give the gift of riding horses to people who would otherwise never get to do more than ride around an arena. Heck, I know some people who own horses and have ridden for years that never ride outside of an arena because they are afraid of what their horse will do. Are my horses perfect? Nope – not in small ways that don’t really matter for what they do. Is there any such thing anyway? They are not machines and I don’t expect them to act like one. They have a job and they do it. I think they are wonderful just the way they are and I think their riders would agree. ( By the way, if they are ridden by someone who has some riding skills, they perform accordingly.) Don’t be criticizing my horses.

Not a Happy Camper

I need to maintain that bond between us that took so long to build – I give her thanks everyday for the void that she filled.

Dixie had been impounded by the rescue team and I ended up with her, thank goodness. What a wonderful horse. She is a remarkably bright and beautifully marked paint mare. So wonderful that I decided to breed her and got the foal of my dreams as a result. When her colt was about 11 months old, an offer was made to purchase Dixie. I had been giving a very good friend’s granddaughter lessons on her for awhile and the little girl loved her. I knew these people and knew they would give her a great home. I had 5 horses at the time and money was tight, so I agreed to the sale. As I was getting Dixie ready to make the move, something just didn’t feel right. I cried like a baby as I brushed her before making that trip. I continued to give the little girl lessons on Dixie at their farm every week. For the first couple of months, it went beautifully. Dixie would always look for me and sniff my clothes for signs of her colt and the other horses she knew so well. I started noticing a change in her attitude. She became increasingly more difficult to saddle up and let me know in no uncertain terms that something was not right with her world. Over the next month, our lessons got more strained. It got to the point that I was not comfortable putting a child on her and truthfully, was leery of even riding her myself. It felt like she was going to blow. Not the Dixie we all knew and loved. I started voicing my concern to my husband who absolutely did not want to hear it. In his opinion, it was about the money and did not see it from either Dixie nor my point of view. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It was like Dixie was screaming at me to take her home and I couldn’t ignore it. I scraped up most of the money to buy her back and called the new owners to make an offer. They refused. Now the elephant was not only in the room, it was sitting on me. These were very good friends of ours and I had to tread lightly in addition to not going into battle with my husband over it. But I knew that somehow I had to bring her home. Finally, I wrote a letter to our friends in which I reminded them that I was going to limp the rest of my life because I did not pay attention to the signals and could not in good conscience put their grand daughter on that horse in that situation. I enclosed a check for the full amount of what they paid and picked up my horse. I never heard any more about it from them and we have never discussed it. I am not sure exactly what I told my husband or if he realizes I finagled our checking accounts to pay for her. From the moment she stepped off that trailer, all was right again. She immediately ran to her son, said hello to the rest of the herd and settled in.

Good to be home.

Good to be home.

She was where she needed to be and went on to be one of my best horses – still is. Every little girl wants to ride Dixie. I am sure  most people think this was all in my head and that I just wanted her back. It doesn’t matter, she’s happy, I am happy, her colt is happy and dozens of children are happy when they get to ride her. It all works out for the best if we pay attention to the signs.

Hay, Don’t I Know You?

There’s more to having horses than riding I’ve found – It’s more about how they look, the feel and the sound.

One of the most fascinating events to witness with horses is the dynamics that take shape when introducing a new horse to the established domesticated herd. What can be even more interesting is re-introducing a prior member who has been gone for a period of years. Do they remember one another? Do they recognize old friends? One of my favorite stories about this subject was told to me by an experienced horse handler and trainer in the spirit of being warm and fuzzy. A feel-good story. I hold onto that story because I want to believe it – in a way. In another way it is a sad story that brings to light that we humans tend to have no regard for our horses feelings toward one another when we separate close equine friends and family members.

Friends forever

Friends forever

My friend ran a riding stable where they kept about 30 head of horses. Among this large herd were an unlikely pair of buddies. Bella was a large draft cross and Caramel was a petite pretty palomino. They were inseparable whenever they had social time. One day Caramel was sold. After about three years, she was returned due to circumstances which made it impossible to keep her. As they were leading her into the pasture, the other horses were preparing to give her a “proper introduction”. This usually entails some bullying by the more dominant horses in order to establish the hierarchy. The new horse gets run around, bit a few times and is the recipient of several kicks. The horses were all rallying near the gate, just waiting to start the fireworks. Poor Caramel was scared. Suddenly, the herd parted and Bella strode through and went right up to Caramel. Without missing a (hoof)beat, she led Caramel through the group without incident. Now that is friendship. Bella never forgot her little friend and was ready to protect her without hesitation.

I learned a lot from that story- or maybe it is more accurate to say that I affirmed my own thoughts about what I perceive takes place between certain horses. I always feel a pang of sympathy for a horse when an owner moves him to another barn where it is all new and unknown. The unknown is a scary place for horses, especially when they don’t have any of their friends around for support. Horses are social animals. They know and remember their friends.

Just a School Horse

Thank goodness making the really tough choices is not done everyday-Ones like having to choose who will go and which ones will stay.

Have you ever watched a group of kids taking riding lessons and overheard someone point out that one of the horses seems to be “a little off”? If you have, then you probably heard the statement that usually follows: “Not a big deal, he’s just a school horse”. JUST A SCHOOL HORSE! Think about that. These are the salt of the earth horses. They continue to push on every day doing a job that is boring, repetitive and seemingly endless with riders who have little or no knowledge of how to ride properly.

Carrying our most trusted cargo - our children.

Carrying our most trusted cargo – our children.

They are ridden with methods that replace good horsemanship until those skills are learned. Tight reins and/or tie downs hold them in form, crops are used regularly to get them going, they are jerked around by the mouth, and drilled for hours on end with a “show them who is boss” attitude. Most of them are purchased for this purpose when their “real” life has ended and they are no longer suitable for the show ring or other performance events. They are then reduced to being “just a school horse”. If they are in discomfort, they are expected to work nonetheless. If they can’t do that, then they are simply traded for another one that can without a second thought to all the service they provided up to that point. It is a business, after all. There are no special people in their lives who dote on them, their upkeep is kept to a minimum, vet bills are avoided and boredom is a way of life. It is no wonder most of them get the reputation for being ill-willed and resort to some bad habits. Don’t lose sight of the fact that these are the very horses we trust our children and our grandchildren with to raise their confidence and learn from before they move onto a “real” horse. We need to thank these special horses and take extra good care of them. We should make sure they are comfortable, happy, loved and appreciated. After all, they are showing our children the gateway to the wondrous world of horses and all the magical and thrilling things it contains. The next time you hear someone refer to “just a school horse”, set them straight and make an effort to give that horse an extra few minutes of petting, grooming and thanks. A carrot or apple doesn’t hurt either. Most importantly, make every effort to instill a thankful attitude in the child riding that “school horse”. It may make a difference in the rest of their lives and the horses they encounter along the way. In my opinion, there is no such thing as “just a school horse”.