This Way or That

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.

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.

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The Unruly Child

I sat and I thought quite a bit about it and eventually concluded “Of Course”-The very same method will surely work if applied to problems regarding my horse.

Years ago, I was working as a waitress at a very nice restaurant on the beach of southwest Florida when the entire room was disrupted by a very unruly five year-old child. In their efforts to quiet the youngster, the parents tried bribing him with everything from ice cream to toys but to no avail. In fact, every time they sweetened the pot and upped the offer the screaming just got worse. The parents finally gave up, left the restaurant without dinner while costing the owners, the chef, the waitress (me), and the other diners. Several customers even walked out it was that bad.  I didn’t have children of my own but all I could think of was that the way I was raised that would never have happened. At the first sign of misbehavior, I would have been given a warning and if it continued, quietly but firmly led outside- and it would not have been to get a new toy. When we returned, I would have sat quietly and ate my dinner politely and nothing more would have been said about it. I have never forgotten that episode and since then have observed the parenting changes over the years lend itself more and more to “reasoning” with the child, avoiding the use of power or fear over him. More and more I see the children calling the shots in a family and manipulating parents to get their way. It works for the child but but does not necessarily achieve the best end result. I am not saying you have to make your child go cut a switch and take him behind the woodshed. I am not an advocate of violence on any level, but there is a need to know who is in charge and that there are unpleasant consequences if you make bad choices.

Keeping up with the kid

Keeping up with the kid

Now that I am working with my colt, I find myself thinking of that scene in the restaurant when my guy decides to try to take charge or “argues” with me. It is firmly embedded in my mind that just “being nice” and giving in is not the way to go. It only creates a bigger problem. Being too harsh and demanding is not the way to go either -although that is the method most of us use on our horses. That creates resentment and defiance. There is a middle of the road way to be firm and consistent without dominating using pain, fear or intimidation. We love our children/horses but because we do, respect is a must. It is how we obtain it that will dictate our methods. By not drawing attention to the problems and rewarding the good, the message gets across and there is no contest. Refuse to get drawn into those situations where tempers flare and someone has to win and someone has to lose before it is over. That is not good horsemanship or parenting.

Rodeos Reframed

I was much different when I was younger – Indeed it was an altogether different story. I craved the speed and feeling of power. I knew no fear. It was all guts and all glory.

Deep in thought

Deep in thought

The town was all abuzz because the rodeo was here. Horses, action, broncos, roping, etc. A single girlfriend of mine was asked to go to the rodeo on a first date with a new guy she had met. She had never been to a rodeo before and her date enthusiastically encouraged her to go. It was a highlight of this guy’s life so she agreed and went with him. I saw her the next day and asked what she thought, expecting the usual replay of action-packed memorable moments. The reply I got from her is one that I will never forget and has caused me to rethink my opinion of some of the events. Her reply was simply: “I just wanted to cry”. So many of the animals used were terrified and exploited for it. There was  pain involved with whips, ropes, spurs, harsh bits and rough hands on animals that had no choice but to participate. Most of all, she couldn’t stand to watch the calf roping segment of the show. It broke her heart to see those babies running for their lives only to be savagely roped by either a leg or the neck and thrown down and tied, all the while thinking they were about to die. More than one of them limped off when released. Some of them entered the arena already limping most likely from practice runs. She never went out with that guy again because she knew that they were miles apart on some very basic core issues. She could never be attracted to someone who thought it was “FUN” to treat animals that way and think nothing about how they felt. It is not a game or a sport to them and to most of us who attend these events, they are dispensable. We just get another one when and if they get injured. A broken leg? No problem. Shoot that one and bring on the next. How can we humans be so calloused when it comes to animals? Is it because we just don’t want to spoil our entertainment to acknowledge that they feel fear, pain, grief, terror and affection for each other? She taught me a good lesson that day. She spoke with her heart and wasn’t afraid of how silly or over-the-top that guy or anybody else thought she was regarding her humanity toward the animals used in this widely accepted tradition. She has since died of cancer. As valiantly as she fought that battle, I admire her most for standing up for those rodeo victims. She was willing to endure ridicule for their sake even though she had no personal connection to any of them. She is one of my greatest heroes.

A Party Animal

The day is a glorious one and I have set it aside – to spend with my horses and go for a ride.

Comet had just been at my farm for a few days. He actually didn’t have a name before then. He was a result of one of those mares that somebody just didn’t bother to keep away from the stallion. He was about two years old, white, and had never been handled. As a rule, he was very laid back, almost to a fault -very slow moving and almost lethargic. At least that was how he had appeared in the short time I knew him. One particular summer day, I went to the pasture to get my horse out for a ride and as I was leading Blaze out of the gate, Comet darted through the opening past us. I had no idea he could move that fast but I had named him appropriately as all I saw as he flew up the driveway and down the road was his tail flying behind him.

Off on a mission

Off on a mission

I had no choice but to pursue him on foot as I didn’t want to lose sight of him. He ran to the corner and took a left down the first dirt road with me trying to keep him in my sights. We were in Michigan where the roads are laid out in square country miles so I could see him about a quarter of a mile ahead. Suddenly, still at a dead gallop, he took a sharp right into a yard. Way before I could get close enough to see where he went, I heard the screams. As I approached, I saw people running in every direction, grabbing the small children, knocking over the food tables and shouting that a wild horse was running loose. There was Comet right smack in the middle of about forty or fifty people having a family reunion picnic in the yard. He didn’t realize they were running and screaming because of him. When they panicked he did also and tried to stay close to them for security. Of course, the more they ran and yelled, the more he charged around. I can’t think of many moments in my life that were more embarrassing than when I had to go get him from the middle of that chaotic mess. To make matters even worse, he didn’t hardly know me yet and didn’t even know his name. It took me about 15 minutes – excruciatingly long minutes – to get a halter on him and walk him the long road back home while my audience glared at me. You have no idea how much I wanted to just deny knowing or owning that horse at that moment. I honestly considering it. I know they thought I was some kind of a lunatic who probably abused my horses and had caused him to run away from home. When he didn’t respond to me calling his name and didn’t want me catch him, it appeared that he was running for his life. I think that the worst part of the whole ordeal was knowing how bad a horsewoman they thought I must be. I don’t know what he was looking for that day when he went on his escapade. I can only guess that he had been attached to another horse – possibly his mother – and got homesick for her. Typical human that I am, at the time, I was more worried about how it made me look and not about how he felt. Although I really didn’t blame him for trying, once again, I learned how humbling horses can be.

I Want a Do-Over

We didn’t take lessons – our parents didn’t insist. We rode bareback with halters and helmets didn’t exist.

Today I watched as a professional photographer took amazing pictures of three young beautiful teenage girls riding a gorgeous big black Friesian mare and our very handsome dark bay gelding. The combined beauty was breathtaking. The girls were all slim, attractive and youthful with long flowing hair. They  wore sheer long skirts and bare feet or filmy short dresses with boots. The horses were gleaming, healthy looking and decked out in garlands for reins. They rode bareback and bitless in halters adorned with turquoise, quills and antler conchos or black onyx rhinestones. The horses wore a rhythm necklace made of turquoise, silver and Guinea feathers. Stunning!!! As beautiful as the girls and horses were, the most striking element was the way they rode. One girl in particular rode easily as she cantered, jumped, trotted and guided her horse with the barest of aids. The harmony she showed and rode with was nothing short of the stuff most of us dream of. She is the luckiest girl on this planet today.  She got to experience the magic of connecting with horses in the much sought after way that eludes all but a very few enlightened souls. There were no harsh bits, spurs, crops or saddles. She rode with a soft loose hand on the rope of the halter or with no head gear at all to restrain or force movement. She rode helmetless and her long blond hair danced around her shoulders as she appeared to float effortlessly. The sight pulled at old memories of a long ago time when I was that girl. How had I let that part of my life slip away for so many years that I will never experience it on that level again? Heck, I don’t think I ever rode as good as she rides at age 14. I had the connection but not the skills. When I was her age, we didn’t take horseback riding lessons. I didn’t even know there was such a thing. I just learned to ride by sheer will and guts. We called it “By the seat of our pants”. Somehow, it always worked out and I had a natural feel that kept me in the saddle. It wasn’t until I took up horses again in my 50’s that I became aware of my ignorance. Ironically, it was this awareness to better my riding skills to ride properly that caused me to lose that feeling.

Learning together

Learning together

Watching that girl ride today made me painfully aware of what I could have had. I constantly struggle now to find the best methods for me and my horses. I am seeking that knowledge from somewhere else instead of holding it within myself as she appears to do. I have to work at it now. If I could go back and relive my life, I would never have strayed from the path of the horse. All I could think as I watched her today was that I wanted to have the opportunity to do it all again. I wanted to be young, fearless, easy, connected and to appreciate every moment I spent on a horse while in that mindset. It really doesn’t get any better than that.

React or Respond

To get her to give her best performance and be the great girl you’ve come to expect – Avoid giving orders in a no-nonsense way. Remember she female and show her respect.

A new horse arrived the other day. She is a beautiful big black Friesian mare. As a rule, I introduce new horses to the herd in stages. “Grace” seemed anxious to find a friend, so I took a chance and turned her out in the pasture with the majority of the herd. She had already met Ranger who is the gelding that makes the new guys tow the line for a few days and that had gone extremely well. My four horses were not included in the group that morning as the bare foot farrier was here for them and I had them in the barn. Grace trotted right up to the eight horses in the field just like she had known them forever. In fact, she pretty much started laying the law down like she was going to be the new sheriff in town. I turned my horses out one at a time out as they got trimmed and they all just calmly joined the rest – with the exception of Guilty. She was the last one to be trimmed and we never did get it done. We didn’t even try because she was so worked up. She saw Grace taking advantage of the fact that she was not on duty and thought she was trying to steal her job of being the Alpha lead mare. Big mistake. Guilty is a passive leader, but she knows how to manage her herd. She tore up the hill to the horses, cut Grace out of the group and rounded up the others and disappeared over the hill with every one of the horses but Grace. Poor Grace was ostracized for not showing Guilty the proper respect for her position. Grace spent the day alone in the lower pasture while Guilty kept the others out of site. Grace knew enough not to try to work her way in but she wasn’t ready to accept Guilty as her leader yet. I put her in another paddock with two very friendly horses for the night so she would have some company and could make a couple of friends. In the morning, I had a lesson with a little girl on Guilty but we could not get her attention. The entire time we were in the arena giving the lesson, Guilty was watching the pasture to see this new horse. Grace was standing at the gate waiting to face off with Guilty. Guilty gave my poor little student the ride of her life as we headed back to the barn and Guilty ran right for the fence where Grace stood. After removing the student and tack from Guilty, I opened the gate and let her in. Grace made her move and immediately started backing into Guilty  trying to kick her. Another big mistake on Grace’s part. Guilty, in her infinite wisdom, did not turn it into a fight. Instead, she ignored Grace and just ran up the hill to claim her herd and Grace was left standing all alone again for the rest of the day. I learn so much from watching these herd dynamics play out. It is not the bully who ultimately wins the fight. Guilty still has her herd and Grace has no-one until she figures out that she needs to concede to Guilty as the leader.

Guilty on duty as Alpha mare

Guilty on duty as Alpha mare

Guilty will teach her that very important lesson without a single bite or kick. She will make it Grace’s choice without using force. Hmmm – what a concept.

The Headless Horse

Because you’ve practiced it over and over, your friend can now easily walk slow and lazy past those feared imaginary horse-eating monsters that once used to make your equine act crazy

I was just finishing up at the barn one morning, when I heard a ruckus coming from the upper pasture. Although I couldn’t see what was causing it, I could tell it was something earth-shattering as the entire herd of horses were screaming in a panic and appeared as a solid wave over the hill at a full out run-for-your-life gallop. They came charging down the hill toward me and were genuinely terrorized and wild-eyed. As I stood there watching and trying to figure out if I needed to run also, I saw the monster that was pursuing them. At the back of the pack was my daughter’s show horse, Detail. She had put a leopard patterned spandex-type slinky that covered his head and neck to keep him sleek and shiny. Somehow, the elastic strap that kept it in place had come undone and the stretchy leopard thing had been pulled up and covered the poor horse’s head, making it appear as though he had no head. The end was flapping loosely in the area where his face should have been. Not only was this a strange and frightening sight to the other horses, it blindfolded Detail. The other horses panicked at the sight of him and took flight, screaming as they ran. Detail couldn’t see what was scaring them and had no idea they were running from him. The harder and faster they ran to get away from him, the more he struggled to keep up with them, resulting in them running all the more as he “chased” them. Poor Detail struggled, fearing for his life and afraid he would be left behind to battle a monster he couldn’t see. He just knew it was something really, really awful to cause the others to stampede in terror like that. He was running blindly and I feared he would get badly injured if he didn’t slow down. They all ran right toward the gate where I was standing which brought him into earshot of my voice. As the horses veered off to the right, I called  “whoa” to Detail in a very calm and relaxed voice. Gratefully, he stopped dead in his tracks when he heard me. I kept talking softly to him as I approached him and was able to remove the horrible culprit. Detail was trembling when my hands touched him but he stood perfectly still, trusting me. Once it was off him, I think he and the others felt pretty foolish that they made such a big ado about nothing. I know I got a big laugh out of it.

Chased by a headless horse

Chased by a headless horse

I learned an important lesson that day. The lesson was that F.E.A.R. is really false evidence appearing real. What we think is happening usually isn’t anything near what our imagination would have us believe – the same is true for horses.

I Get It Now

The problem lies in the fact that he doesn’t seem to need me at all. He doesn’t seek my attention and is content left alone in his stall.

Breeze and I never connected. A fact that is very uncommon with my animals. I have always been a magnet of sorts for animals and my horses are no exception. I never understood it at the time and even grew to resent him somewhat for his lack of interest in me. Breeze was by far the best horse I have ever owned as far as looks, kindness, work ethic, ability etc. Everyone who met him  always oohed and awwed over him. He was everybody’s favorite. A very distinguished looking and fabulous horse who always performed beautifully – but he didn’t like me. He never did anything bad, he just didn’t care if I was around or not.

A Lonely Breeze

A Lonely Breeze

I had a friend who fell in love with him the first time she saw him. I ended up selling him to her and she kept him here and boarded with me for awhile so we could ride together. The change was unbelievable. All she had to do was call his name and he literally ran to get to her. He adored her in a way that I never thought he was capable of. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t witnessed it over and over again with my own eyes. He lived for her visits. So what did she have that I didn’t? I have pondered this many times over the past few years and can’t deny it any longer. I gave him no reason to give me his affection and his heart. I didn’t give him mine – it is as simple as that.  From the moment he was given to me as a birthday gift, I had my mind and my sights on another horse. When I bought his tack, I bought it with the other horse in mind. I was forbidden to get the horse I wanted and he was chosen for me even though I protested. Although Breeze was a far superior horse in every obvious way, he was not the one I had my heart set on and he knew it from the start. To top it off, for the first couple of months I had him, every single time I saddled him up for a ride, before I could get on him, I would get a phone call telling me my father had taken a turn for the worst and may not make it through the day. It happened so consistently that I got afraid to even think about riding him. I made the association of bad news with him. It wasn’t his fault- none of it was- and it wasn’t fair to him, so he just tuned me out. I deserved it. I knew he needed more than I could give him, which was the only reason I sold him to someone who adored him. Everybody thought I was crazy to do so because he was such a great horse – a really wonderful horse. But I knew I had to – for his sake. Do I regret it? Yes, sometimes I do. I understand it all now and know what to do that could have changed things between us. On the other hand, I wasn’t ready for him. Things come full circle and this week he is coming back to board with me again. He has his special person and now it will be my turn to be the one on the outside looking in.

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.

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.