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.
If you have never experienced what I am talking about, Make it a point in your life and don’t go without
There is no way to place a value on horses we love.
We had a cute, albeit, broken down little pony here on the farm that belonged to one of my boarders. Little Man was very special to its owners and had been in the family for a long time. So when it became so ill that his quality of life was reduced to a breath by breath struggle, the humane decision was made to let him go. The owner and his son were distraught and heartbroken over their loss even though the little pony had been ill for a long time and had been out of service for years. Hours of care and countless vet bills were not the deciding factor. The decision was made because they loved the horse enough to give it some relief, not to lighten their own burden of caring for him.
As it happened, we were having a camp that fateful day. We made it a point to remove the children attending the camp to another part of the farm so they wouldn’t have to witness the euthanization. The camp leader explained to the little girls that they would not be able to ride that morning because the horse was very sick and the vet couldn’t do anything more for him. They needed the privacy of the barn area. It was at this point one of the little girls made this statement: “It doesn’t matter because you couldn’t ride him anymore, so what good was he anyway?”. The first wave of shocked disbelief hit my camp staff like a ton of bricks – and then the anger set in. That little girl got a lesson in life that day from people who truly love and appreciate their horses. Some of us have even lost one. To label our horses as valueless objects better of disposed of when it has outlived its usefulness is beyond our comprehension.
Unfortunately, that child’s opinion is not the exception to the rule. I was discussing this matter with one of my barn buddies who had just lost his own horse after nearly 20 years recently later that evening. He made the simple and profound statement which pretty much sums up my feelings on the subject. He said he knows that most people just throw away a horse and get another one once it no longer serves the purpose without even a backward glance, he even knew some who did that. (Usually, it is because of something they did causing an injury.) “But, those aren’t the kind of people I want to be around and have as friends.” Well said, my friend.
By the way, that misguided child’s parent complained to us the following morning that they paid a lot of money so their child could ride horses at the camp and wanted to be sure they would be able to ride that day. We explained that we did not feel it was the proper thing to do to just carry on while this horse was lying on the ground – for the child’s sake as well as the mourning owners and other horses. I can only hope that some of our compassion was learned by the campers that day and maybe a new perspective will be formed of the value of some of us consider a treasure.
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.
You spend these last hours right by his side, watching the clock as the minutes tick by -Trying to take in all the things you will miss, embedding in memory his beautiful eye.
I run a boarding facility and just because of the sheer number of horses I encounter, there are bound to be a few horses that will cross that infamous Rainbow Bridge while on my watch. It is a tragic event in a horse lover’s life to have to say “goodbye”. I know, I have witnessed it more than once. What I didn’t know or realize is that I only thought I knew what they were going through. I am the kind of caretaker who gets personally involved with each and every horse under my care. I truly love them all. Even though my heart ached, sincere tears were shed, the dread and horror of the moment was overwhelming, I still had no clue – until it almost happened to me. What an awakening! When my horse suffered a bowel displacement, I was suddenly thrust into the horrific position of being the one to have to make those decisions for my horse. For four of the longest days of my entire life, I moved through a haze of disbelief, sadness, panic and fear that I might lose him. I teetered precariously between optimistic hope and despair. His only viable chance was that it would correct itself if we starved him. It was a living nightmare to have him know I was feeding every other horse but him. The look he would give me of “Why are you doing this to me?” was as clear as if he was screaming those words at me. As hard as it was to not slip him just a little something, I had to do it. His only chance depended on it. I couldn’t eat myself during that time. I felt guilty putting something in my mouth and denying him anything.
Waiting for dinner
My insides felt like giant hands were just squeezing the life out of me. I couldn’t sleep for fear that he might go back down in writhing pain and I wouldn’t be there to give him relief until a vet could get there. I couldn’t even breathe. Everyday and every evening the vet would come out and sedate him, run a tube down his nose and pump oil and water into him. Then he would do rectal to feel if his intestine was still lodged between his kidney and his spleen. Everytime, I would stand there, holding my breath and praying, please, please, please. Everytime the vet would just shake his head and those hands inside me squeezed tighter while a little voice whispered “there is still a chance – maybe tomorrow”. I knew the morning of the fourth day that this would be the day. It was either working or it wasn’t by that time. That was the day to determine if he lived or died. I anxiously awaited the vet and played out the possible outcomes over and over in my mind. I tried to be ready and strong if I needed to be. Easier said than done. This time there would be no tubing. They gave my horse the sedative and began the rectal. I stood frozen in fear and hope staring at the vet’s face for any sign of my horse’s fate. Not a single flicker of emotion crossed his face. He pulled his arm out, took off the glove and turned to me. “I never would have thought it, but he is fine”. I think I cried more at that moment out of sheer relief and gratitude than I had during this whole ordeal. I could breathe again. I was keenly aware of how easily we could have went the other way. I finally grasped what kind of a loss one suffers by losing a beloved horse. At least a taste of it, albeit a small one in comparison to actually having to let go. I think I know now why the good Lord chose not to give me children. I couldn’t bear it to watch them suffer and if I lost one, I don’t know how I could ever get past it. Nothing like a good lesson in appreciation, empathy, priorities and the possibility of miracles created by willpower.
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.
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
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 know from experience what a fine friend she can be..
I always put my beginner riders on Guilty. She is safe, level headed and takes care of her rider. The problem lies in the fact that she is too careful sometimes, resulting in what some people interpret as difficult. She doesn’t move too fast or too much unless she feels it is necessary, she believes that you should be the one calling the shots, or if she isn’t quite comfortable going into a trot with a rider who can’t even make her turn or stop yet correctly. Then I start hearing the grumbles: “She won’t go. She’s lazy. I can’t make her do anything. She’s stubborn”. etc. These comments coming from a youngster who has no idea how to handle a horse much less make these assumptions. It is always the horse’s fault. Today when I heard these comments coming from a camper who is now on her third day of ever riding a horse, it hit home to me how this mindset affects the horse. If this is the kind of labels you put on her, this is what you will get from here on out. She feels that energy and will live up to those expectations because you have a bad attitude. She knows it. It actually reminded me of an incident that I am not too proud of that happened to me when I was growing up. I overheard my mother telling a neighbor how much help my older sister was around the house -( I was the second child and always thought she favored her which didn’t help matters) – When the neighbor commented that it looked like I was a good helper too (I guess she realized I was listening and that my feelings were getting hurt ) my mother spoke up and said, “Oh no, not Bobby. I can’t get her to anything around here. Her next sentence was when she turned to me and said, “Why don’t you finish doing the dishes?”. Being the rebel I was, I got my snotty attitude on and retorted “Because I don’t want to make a liar out of you!” and stormed out the door. Granted, my claim to fame has never been for my love of housework, but I embarrassed my mother in front of her friend. Her friend probably thought I was some kind of demon child from that moment on. The point is, I was going to live up to her expectation of me – not try harder to prove she was wrong about me. If she thought I was not a good helper, then by god, I wasn’t going to be. I am afraid that Guilty and I have that mindset in common. I tried to explain this concept to the little girl and tell her not to assume Guilty won’t do something for you – because she will, gladly, if you expect her to. She told me later that she apologized to Guilty for getting impatient and frustrated with her and for thinking bad things. She said it was funny but she thought Guilty winked at her. About a half hour later Guilty carried her her first trail ride of her life and performed beautifully for her. She was glowing.
A change in Attitudes
I have always said that Guilty is my best teacher.
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
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 am starting a youngster and there is a whole world to conquer – It’s a constant trial and error finding methods we both prefer.
I only allow myself to do one or two jigsaw puzzles a year because I become obsessed with them once I begin. I am driven to finish it and stay up all hours of the night. I can’t do much of anything that will take me away from it for any length of time. It just seems to me that every piece I fit into the picture is a mini success and brings me one step closer to solving the elusive mystery of life on a much grander scale than just the puzzle before me. As I was working on this puzzle it suddenly occurred to me how working with my young gelding has changed my style in my approach to puzzles and other things.
There is such a parallel to solving puzzles and the riddle of getting a young horse ready to ride confidently. A youngster is like the box full of pieces with the potential to be completed into something beautiful. But when you first open the box, it is just a jumble of loose pieces. The first thing I do is lay out the foundation by finding all the outside edges and anchoring it with definite corners – much like the groundwork I do with my colt. Once I have that in place, I turn my attention to something that is obvious and that I can put together easily while I am acquainting myself with the pieces and the feel of the puzzle.I try to determine exactly where that fits into the big picture and work out from there. I build from there, sorting pieces that are related and working them in, building on the absolute. I separate pieces by color within a group, breaking it into tiny steps and joining the pieces where I can until I find a connection to the main picture . Sometimes I get stuck and use the slow and methodical approach by just trying one piece after another until I find something that works. When I have that, it opens opportunities for the next pieces. Other times, it seems like the pieces just fall into place with no effort. If I try to put in a piece that needs another piece in place first or make a mistake and put it in the wrong place, it just won’t work and I have to go back to the basics and experiment until I find the correct missing piece. I had a setback in my horse’s training when he was injured – not unlike the setbacks in the puzzle when my cat landed in the center and pieces went flying. I had to rebuild but found it much quicker and easier than starting from the beginning. I have learned that when I get frustrated to take a break and come back to it with fresh eyes. I find that it takes hours and hours to really see the different nuances of each piece and that what may appear to be an obvious fit isn’t always the way to go. I will never quit because I already know what the end picture is – and it is beautiful and all the parts are right in front of me albeit some with teethmarks, even if I haven’t got it together yet.