Those bittersweet visits I made to the barn filled empty hours with the essence they emit – Kept up my spirits and me looking forward, never allowing me any reason or option to quit.
All of our childhood days we are instructed to “Look where you are going”. This seemed like wise advice coming from adults at the time. Little did we know, that was a lie – albeit not intentional. The real truth is that you need to keep your focus on where you want to go, not where you are now or where you seem to be going. Keep looking at the desired destination and never waver your attention from that goal. Sooner or later, you will get there, one way or another. This has been one of life’s biggest lessons that I have learned and have found it particularly true when it comes to working with horses. Anyone who has jumped a horse knows that it is fatal mistake to look at the the jump as you approach it. You look up over and past the jump because that is the goal – not the jump itself. The jump is merely an obstacle to overcome to get there. Another example is riding a horse that is intent on trying to get out of the gate when working in the arena. If your thoughts and attention are on the gate such as: “I know he is going to fight me when we go by the gate”, that is what will happen. When your focus is on the gate, so will your horse’s. Don’t even let that thought of the gate come into your mind. Visualize you and your horse heading to a spot past the gate. Even if it takes a few tries, it will no longer be a stopping point for your horse if that is not where the attention is. Life is like riding a horse. We tend to pay way too much attention to where we are at the moment, forgetting what we really set out to do. We get caught up in the moments when things seem to be heading in the wrong direction and put all of our energy there working on the problem instead of the solution. The obstacles become a diversion and instead of figuring out how to get past them, we allow them to change our direction. Stay the course and set your goals and dreams where you want them to be, working constantly toward them. Rarely is there a straight easy path to achieve anything worthwhile – in either life or with horses. Take the detours when necessary and go around the obstacles. They are only temporary setbacks. Remember that we always get what we really, really want. We also always get what we really, really don’t want. Depends on which aspect we focus on.
Such an array of extreme emotions, so many choices – Dreams and fears are real here and more than just voices.
A few years ago, I attended a “graduation” of sorts at Warm Springs Institute in Georgia. The ceremony marked the end of a rehabilitation program designed to merge challenged citizens into the real world as productive citizens. Most were learning to cope with physical handicaps as a result of birth complications or due to impairing accidents. Some, like my brother, were dealing with brain irregularities. They were all taught certain skills which co-coordinated with their individual interests and capabilities. Celebrations ran high. They were so proud of their achievements. We were proud of them. They now felt like they had a place, a chance to blend with the “normal” world. This marked the end of the struggle and was just the beginning of a new and better life. Such high hopes and expectations. It was such an emotional day, so full of promise after living through such hardships. I cried as they laughed.
Fast forward to last weekend where I attended the Ultimate Rescue Challenge sponsored by the Georgia Equine Rescue League. Not unlike the graduates mentioned above, these horses had survived indescribable hardships of abuse and starvation. They were hurt, damaged and fearful of what the world had to offer them – kindness or cruelty? They had undergone a 120 day training session to get them ready for the real world – a permanent home. What I saw was an impossibly strong connection between horse and trainer that allowed these equine partners to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles and give their all. Were they perfect? Of course not and some would never be able to function as a normal “riding”horse. But they all had value and gave everything they possibly could. They all had a place where they could excel in the right setting and situation. Much like the graduates of Warm Springs, these graduates of rescue were being celebrated for their accomplishments and potential while being painfully aware of the limitations. I cried as their stories were told.
Wondering what the future holds.
The possibilities are endless as to the future of these graduates – both human and horse. Graduation Day was the high point of their lives so far and then tomorrow it all ends and they are thrown into the world, ready or not. The world can be a wonderful place with an ending that they live happily ever after in the perfect homes and jobs, or ….. Only time will tell how well they can fill in the gaps needed to make it all work out for the best and what their destiny will be. It is hard enough to make it without dealing with unfair handicaps. I choose to believe that, given a chance, they will change the way they have had to look at the world and put the darker side behind them. I watched the culmination of those graduations and felt all those emotions stir inside me that an unfortunate past and unknown future holds. I was moved by the euphoric sensations and just as strongly fearful of the outcome. I prayed for the best and I cried.
It is hard to explain how my itinerary is made – There is a certain rotation to be sure a foundation is laid.
Partners and friends
There are just some topics you avoid with certain people because you already know you are not going to agree. The top three in my world are politics, religion and especially horses. Avoiding the first two is not that difficult in my day-to-day existence and I generally believe that everyone has a right to formulate their own ideas as long as it doesn’t infringe on my life. My opinions are mostly kept to myself and revealed only through my lifestyle. Horses – now that is a different subject. I find that horse people are the most opinionated of all. Every single aspect of horses is up for contention depending on how they think it should be done. I don’t care if it is about the care, training, riding, breeding, keeping, shoeing, tack, blanketing, worming, shots, stalling, supplements, disciplines, eventing or feeding. Horse owners, handlers and lovers are passionate in their beliefs of what is the right way when it comes to our equine partners. I work with horses daily and how I operate is an open book to anyone who observes or interacts with me. Unfortunately, it seems that people feel they have “free rein” (excuse the pun) to give their unsolicited opinion when I do things a little differently than they might. In all truthfulness, I am probably one of the worst at doing that myself because I believe in what I do. I have great difficulty biting my tongue when I witness treatment of a horse based on the old school methods of “show ’em who’s boss” or “you gotta make them more afraid of you than what you want him to do”. I personally get no sense of joy or accomplishment whatsoever from “making” a horse do anything, especially by using means of brute force, pain or fear. It is kind of ironic that the term “cowboy” used to be the epitome of the ultimate perfect horse person. We all aspired to be able to ride like a cowboy. Now, when we use that word to describe how a horse is trained, if it has been “cowboyed” it means handled brutally into submission. The more enlightened horse trainers and handlers are more interested in “gentling” a horse – not “breaking” them. We are looking for partners, not slaves or vehicles. We want to be on the same side. It is not a contest. There should be no winners or losers. There is a great deal of ego that comes into play with humans when they can intimidate a huge, powerful and majestic beast like the horse. What I am telling those people is that they are missing the magic. They will never truly be a fine horseman if they have to operate on that base level and they will never experience the wonders of knowing horses by heart. There is no honor in being a bully. Sure, you may get a horse broke to ride, but you steal his soul and you sell yours. There is a better way. So, maybe I am really getting onto all three dangerous territories here. The topic of horses is actually about religion and politics.
Each one has its unique gift given so sweetly and freely to me – And each has its need for improvement so that we can agree.
As I mature, Christmas takes on a whole new meaning to me. Somehow, I have turned the corner where I don’t worry and fret so much about the presents I give or receive. Most of those trinkets are quickly forgotten once the packages are opened and seasons change. It is the gifts that create special memories for me that I treasure. It is the visits, the phone calls and the helping hands that warm my heart this season. Also, it is the memory of Christmas past that I hold dear. One particular one comes to mind. It was Christmas of 1995 which was the last Christmas our family was whole. My mother died February 1st, 1996 and ever since that year, my siblings and I just never find the time or the need to be all together again for the holidays- just not convenient anymore. My mom was the nucleus of “our family” and now we all have developed into our own traditions and our own families have grown. I know that is the way it goes but just can’t help thinking about how it used to be. We had a family picture taken that last whole family Christmas and my mom is wearing her “Christmas sweater”. It is a beautiful black sweater with a big Christmas bow of sequins embellishing it. I have that sweater. It is one of my most treasured possessions. If I walked into a second hand store and saw that sweater on the rack for $1, I wouldn’t be interested, but I wouldn’t trade this one for anything in the world. I keep it in my cedar chest and have never had it cleaned. I want to smell and feel her when I hold it. I even wear it for a few hours some years even though it is long past being in style. That gaudy trinket is my treasure.
I guess thinking like that is exactly why I get a lot of criticism for some of my methods of working with horses. I am not interested in the “proof of the pudding” in the form of ribbons and trophies as proof of my abilities. Those are just useless trinkets down the road unless they are earned from the heart – yours and your horse’s -and then become a true treasure. I would personally take no joy from completing a perfect performance if it meant giving up a partnership with my horse in lieu of a dominating rigorous drilling that my horse hated. Nothing fills up my heart more than walking out to the pasture and my horse freely walking up to greet me. Now, that is a gift I treasure and hold dear and am not willing to trade.
So, while it’s a great problem, they are still tough choices – Deciding the best way to go about quieting these inner voices.
I was making apple cinnamon muffins for a training clinic I was hosting the other day when I was reminded of an incident that occurred many years ago. The funny thing was that I just finally figured out the lesson I learned that day and how it relates to my horses. My mother was famous in our small Michigan hometown for her apple pie baking skills. She had entered the annual contest and everyone knew she would have no competition taking first prize. When she took second place, I was in disbelief. How did that happen? When I questioned her about it, she admitted that someone had given her some apples and so instead of using the normal McIntosh apples, she used the gifted ones. “Whatttt??? You changed the main ingredient for an event as important as this? Why would you do that?” Her wise and sensible answer infuriated me. “Because it was what I had to work with at the time”. I get it now and she was so right. It really didn’t matter in the big scheme of things if she only took second prize. Everyone knew how good her pies were anyway. It was still one of the best pies most people will ever eat and she was proud of it, as she should have been. How many of us insist on using the tried and true instead of taking a chance? How many of us demand perfection from a horse that might not be the best one for the job but tries hard to please because it is important to us? How many of us won’t settle for anything less than the ultimate breeding and training methods because we are so afraid of not getting that prized blue ribbon when we have a willing partner readily available. Perfection is not the journey, nor is it even the goal. Bringing out the best of what you have to work with is where the real prize is found. Being thankful and grateful for the gifts presented to us and seeing the potential in everything instead of dwelling on what is lacking is how magic is created.
Loved for who he was.
Anybody can follow a recipe to the letter and get similar results, but it takes a master chef to create something wonderful out of ordinary ingredients.
I love and miss my mom – she died February 1st, 1996. Still teaching me lessons.
My beautiful paint gelding is like a blank canvas awaiting the brush – My plan is to dedicate plenty of time and not give him the rush
Eddy-O has been my number one project for the past couple of years. He was born here and he and I have pioneered our own path. The problem came when he had to postpone any further riding or training for three months due to a sore foot. I used this time that he was recovering to work with Patches. She had just come into my possession and I needed to get to know her and her limitations before using her for my program. I spent a great deal of time with her and even took her on trailering trips. Eddy would stand at the fence and stare at us the entire time we were working in the arena. Then, all of a sudden, Patches started bossing Eddy-O around in the pasture and driving him off his hay. My attention to Patches raised her level of hierarchy in the herd and drove Eddy-s self-confidence down. He felt he went from being the favorite son to the bottom of the pile. He had gotten his feelings hurt. I tried to spend time with him by just hanging around some, but it wasn’t the same. Finally, he was given the green light to start up light work and riding again. Excited as I was to get back to work with him, something was different. We just didn’t have that same connection we had before the injury. When I rode him in the arena with someone else riding Patches, he was ill-tempered and did not want to be anywhere near her and even pinned his ears and tried to bite at her if were rode side by side. That had never happened. Eddy-O has always been everybody’s best buddy and does not have a mean bone in his body. I knew I had to fix that and reconnect on the level he needed. So, I took him on a picnic – just him and me.
It was a gorgeous October day and I packed a lunch, making sure I had plenty of goodies for him too, and set out on foot with him. I walked him way back to the field that was lush with grass and far away from any other horses. I dropped the lead rope and settled in on a log to eat while he happily munched away. Every few minutes he would walk over to me and check in and see what I had for him and then go back to grazing just a few feet from where I sat. After about an hour, we continued even further and explored together. We then returned the long walk home, side by side. After a short break, I put the bareback pad and bit-less bridle on and we had the easiest ride ever. Later, I saddled him up and we went out alone without a hitch. No calls to the herd or any hesitations whatsoever. We were a team again.
This morning, I put out some flakes of alfalfa hay and Eddy-O stood his ground and Patches did not steal his hay today.
I pull on my jeans, lace my boots and tie up my hair – head down to the pasture because my horses are there.
We have all had one – you know which one I am talking about-the aunt who always pinched your cheeks when she saw you as a child and exclaimed how you have grown. Do you remember your feelings when she would do that? How you would shrink away from her and try to stay out of her reach whenever she came around, even if you loved her. You hated that but tolerated it because it wasn’t polite to rebuke her affections.
Well, guess what? We do that same thing to our horses all the time. I don’t mean literally “pinch their cheeks” but we tend to go right for the face when we encounter them. They are so beautiful that it is hard not to. It just seems like those elongated noses, soft muzzles and deep eyes draw our hands right to it. To us, we offer it as a sign of affection and admiration, but does it mean the same thing to them being on the receiving end? What if the horses touches you with his nose first? Do you get offended and slap him away? Do you deem it to be disrespectful? Does it scare you? Maybe you weren’t ready for that contact yet.
Now, look at our actions from the horses’ point of view. Let’s say a total stranger, someone you didn’t particularly have an affection for, or someone that might frighten you somewhat approached you, and without your consent, started putting his hands on your face. Even if it was done gently and lovingly, you would be repulsed by that action. It is presumptuous and shows a total lack of respect for your space. Unearned familiarity may even be intimidating. Are there times when stroking someone’s face is appropriate and meaningful? Of course! The operative word being “appropriate”. A tender touch to the cheek can be one of the most intimate and loving gestures, as we all know. Realize the difference and apply it to your horse. Stay away from a horses’s face unless you are familiar to him and he has invited you to do so. Stroke his shoulder or withers instead – a very comforting and non-intrusive gesture of friendship that he will appreciate. Notice how horse friends “groom” each other in those places.
Oh, and another thing. Girls, I see this all the time and it drives me insane. I am talking about those pictures (mostly selfies these days) where the person takes a close up of her face smashed up against her horses. Notice how the horse is being held tightly by the clasp of the halter just below the horses’ head. I don’t see the horse smiling in those pictures. That is not a pretty picture to people who know horses well. Now if you get a photo of the horse willingly and freely coming that close to you, then you have something.
Ah yes, there is my gifted, gorgeous and most perfect Breeze – Who makes having a horse look like a job done with ease.
Working with your horse’s natural tendency will get the best results. If you try to do upper level dressage with a cow pony, chances are you aren’t going to win many Olympic medals. Can the pony learn dressage? Probably, to some degree and may even get pretty good at it. He will do much better and be much happier doing a job that he has a natural talent for and you will be a whole lot less frustrated. When we ask our horses to do something that is new or foreign to them, they need our patience and encouragement all the more. Getting upset and punishing wrong moves is not the best way to teach correct moves and certainly kills the want-to-please incentive for the horse. It is not perfection you are striving for at first, it is the try that needs to be recognized and encouraged.
I was reminded of this basic principal this morning when I attended my 5 year old grandson’s very first baseball/T-ball game. The players were all decked out with a new uniforms, shoes, helmets, bats and gloves. They all looked the part but when the game started it quickly became obvious they were not all naturals. Some had the confidence but lacked skill. It was obvious that with some work, they would be great players some day if they chose to. There were the more advanced players who could already hit and knew the basics. They probably had sports-minded family or at least had a lot of extra help. They were the naturally good players. It looked effortless and they were truly having fun. There was a combination of these and then there were the few who just did not want to be there. Scared, tearful, reluctant little guys who had to be pushed out to the diamond when it was their turn. One particular little boy who comes to mind that I watched this morning and there was no miraculous transformation when he got up to bat. He did horribly. He swung at the ball with barely enough enthusiasm to knock it off the T-stand. He just wanted to get it over with and be done with it. Of course, the parents were shouting and wanting him to get fired up and show everybody he had the stuff. Didn’t happen. The child had absolutely no desire to play baseball and therefore had even less tendency to do well at it. He left the field feeling even more dejected after being tagged at first because he wouldn’t run to the base. This brought to mind a book I read last winter about a guy who lived to rope cattle. His whole male side of the family were hard-nosed horse trainers who specialized in getting horses ready to run cows. Then one day, he saw the horse of his dreams and just knew this was the one with the natural talent he had always wanted to excel at the rodeos. Problem was that his horse didn’t share the same dream. He didn’t like cows and hated his job. Hours, weeks, months and years were spent practicing to perfect the horse. He had the looks, he had the speed, he had the breeding – he did not have the tendency. Could he do the job? Of course, and he could do it extremely well. He proved it to him and ran perfectly at one show winning the highest awards that day. He ran like a well-tuned machine with innate instincts. It was like a miracle. Never before that day and never after. The cowboy got so frustrated that he actually hauled off and kicked the horse when he couldn’t get a repeat performance out of him. He didn’t know how to make that horse want it as badly as he did. That was all I could think of today as I watched that game and saw how it will be for some of those kids and parents I watched today. Some of them will be great – the ones that want to be. Some will be pretty good – the ones that are doing it for fun or that practice enough. Some will never be good ball players and never want to be. They will have other desires and talents to work with. Same with your horse. Whatever it is you want to do with your horse, keep in mind that to get the best results, it has to be good for him too and don’t try squeezing a square peg into a round hole.
There is a scar left behind where they took off a bump – Just under my ribcage from a saddle horn bump.
What started out to be just an ordinary ride with one of my male boarders, turned into what may have been one of my most embarrassing moments. We can all laugh at it now, but at the time, it was pretty humiliating. John and I decided to ride on the developing track for the motorsport park going in across the street from the farm. The roads were graded but unpaved which made it perfect to explore on horseback.
My guy Cruise
He was riding Ranger and I was on my powerful black appendix, Cruise. There are lots of twists, turns and hills on the track to make it challenging for future drivers. We rounded a bend and charged up a particularly steep incline. I was wearing a western shirt with the snap buttons up the front. As Cruise lunged up the hill, he would leap forward and then rock back and thrust with his turbo charged back end in a rocking motion, kicking his back feet out with each thrust. I was leaning forward to help him up the hill when the saddlehorn went through a gap between the buttons of my shirt and hooked under my bra. When Cruise rocked back, I was pulled forward and went right off his right shoulder. When I hit the ground, I landed flat on my back with every snap of my shirt complete undone and my bra only covering one of my breasts. It took me a few moment to grasp the situation as I had the wind knocked out of me but then awareness seeped in. I looked up to see my riding partner, John very politely standing on the far side of his horse waiting for me to get up, using Ranger as a shield from his eyes and pretending to be unaware of my plight other than falling from my horse. John never said a word about what he saw, and to this day adamantly denies seeing anything that might have been improper. I know differently because every time the story comes up about that ride, he turns beet red- especially when my husband brought it up in front of John’s wife. Being the gentleman he is, John and I have still never talked about what he really saw that day. I am sure he hasn’t forgotten it entirely. I know I will never forget it. I couldn’t if I tried as I has a scar from that saddlehorn to this day to remind me. Horses are known to teach you humility, but this took it to new level.
It had been a very long time, a good many years – Since I turned it all loose, put away all my fears.
Years ago when my nephew was a youngster, I took him to Six Flags Amusement Park to ride the rides. Looming bigger than life was a roller coaster aptly named the Mind Bender. I was determined to show him the thrill of his young life by demanding we ride it. He was adamantly opposed to it. His fear was obvious but I insisted, confident that once he experienced it, the thrill would override any misgivings he may have. I just needed to get him through it. We stood in line for 45 minutes before our turn to get in the car came up. He promptly jumped in and even more quickly hopped back out and darted back down the ramp. Now I was getting peeved. After all, he was being ridiculous and overreacting. I retrieved my nephew, got back in line and was safely locked into the seat before letting go of his hand. He was terrified. I thought it was great fun and just knew he was going to love it – he just didn’t know it yet. The entire ride was spent with his eyes squeezed tightly shut and shouting: “I’m going to tell my mom”. All the way home he was pouty and I knew I was going to be in big trouble with my sister. When we got to the house, he jumped out of the car and burst through the door to find him mom. I followed behind and was shocked to hear him squealing excitedly: “Guess what I did? I rode the Mind Bender!!!!”. He was bragging about it and jumping up and down with excitement over his thrilling accomplishment.
I can’t help but think about that summer day so many years ago everytime I ask my young horse to step out of his comfort zone and “get over it”. His fear and hesitation of the unknown is so real and terrifying even if I know it is unwarranted. Perception is reality, even to horses – especially to horses. Am I being fair? How hard should I push to get the job done but not cross that delicate line where trust falls away and terror takes over? How much is too much at any given time? How do I bring him through to the other side where he is proudly proclaiming “‘I did it” or “that’s easy, let’s do it again”? I am not sure exactly what the final analysis of that ride on the roller coaster would sound like if you asked my nephew. We still continued to have a great aunt/nephew relationship but I can’t help feeling that maybe I pushed just a little too much and that ultimate trust was broken. Although, it was a huge leap and nothing remotely bad happened- in fact quite the opposite- he never wanted to go back to Six Flags with me. I am careful to not let that happen with my horse.