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.
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.
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.
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.
When I first took possession of Guilty, I sent her to a trainer for 6 weeks to “tune her up” as she hadn’t been ridden in six years and I was just getting back into horses after a 25 year break. I was worried that it might be a little more than I could handle. Guilty was always a very sweet and kind horse but very strong willed and not convinced yet that she didn’t need to call the shots. One of the reasons I liked her from the very start was the way she wanted to interact. She always came over immediately when she saw me and stayed and watched me until my car was all the way out of the driveway when I left. I loved that about her. After she had been with the trainer for a few weeks, I went to visit her and check on her progress. He had her in a covered area where he works the horses. When I came up to the fence she was standing on the far side of the arena. She turned and looked at me but stayed where she was. This kind of hurt my feelings and I feared that the bond had been broken. I stood there quietly for a few minutes and finally she started over. I was so relieved. I turned to the trainer and said so. I told him that I was glad to see she recognized me and wanted to come over to say hello. I told him that I didn’t want to lose that. He seemed a little perturbed and I could tell he thought I was just being a dumb girl. He told me that he doesn’t care about that stuff. In fact, it is a show of respect that a horse stays away until you go get it and give it permission to be in your space. I thought about that conversation many times over the years and could never quite agree with him on that subject. Makes me wonder what else I might not have agreed on when I wasn’t there. Another incident that comes to mind where I heard a well known and respected trainer say out loud to a young horse while running it frantically around a round pen was “I don’t care if you are worried about where your friends are. I don’t care if you are upset. I don’t care if you want to quit now. I don’t care… You gotta show ’em who’s boss.”Those words and that attitude never set right with me but I was the one who was being soft and silly. Luckily, since then I have discovered that the truly great horsemen are not the ones who can make a horse do things. It is the ones that form a partnership with their horses that bring out the best in them. The true magic of horses is seeing and experiencing how a horse truly acts toward you – not how it is taught it needs to be when we decide to drag it into our itinerary. If treated kindly and fairly, the problems have a way of dissolving. Horses are innately of the temperment that they want to get along if they understand what we are asking and it is reasonable and do-able. I believe that we need to listen more to the horse – see things through his eyes and let him have a voice if there are concerns. Establish a relationship. Not only is it possible, but it is the most rewarding benefit you will ever get from having horses. If you
The next hour or so is spent in just observing my horses. We don’t have to interact – I know they know I am there. They give me brief glimpses into life of their private world. I savor the moments and deeply appreciate what they share.
I had what was probably the very best couple of hours I have ever had the other day with my horses. It was relaxing, thrilling, flattering and so rewarding. I have never been prouder of my work with horses – and I did NOTHING at all. Truthfully, I have pretty much put my horses on the back burner these last couple of months. The weather has been horrible, the holidays came and went and I just wasn’t feeling up to getting out there. Sure, I religiously care for my three and seven boarders, but that was about all I did – the chores. Nothing extra for me or my horses so I was feeling kind of disconnected. It was one of those rare beautiful warm and sunny days in the midst of the coldest weather we have had for years when I felt that irresistible pull. I needed to get out there with my horses. My first instinct was to ride. Rides had been few and far between this winter and the weather was perfect for it. But then I changed my mind and grabbed up a canvas chair and headed out to the pasture. We have a round bale in the lower pasture out of the wind and I plopped my chair down about 30 feet from it. A couple of horses were on the outskirts waiting their turn and the rest all stopped eating and watched until I sat down and settled in. Most resumed eating like it was an everyday event – except two. Grace and Patches exchanged looks and then sauntered over. It was like Grace was coaching Patches and telling her that even though she belonged to another human, I would be happy to visit with her. (Patches has been a little lonely since she rarely gets to see her owner). Grace stood about 3 steps from me and urged Patches closer to me. Patches then came and stood right next to me and I talked to her while petting her. She was so content and stood with me while Grace stood by. The entire time, my lead mare- and main squeeze- Guilty, had stopped eating hay and stood watching. After about 10 minutes she decided that was enough of that and pinned her ears and ambled over, moving Grace and Patches out of the area. It was her turn and I was her human. She moved into the space right next to my chair and planted herself within my reach. Still sitting, I stroked her face, neck, chest and front legs for awhile and then rested my head back, closed my eyes and just felt the warm sun on my face. I must have dozed for a few minutes because I suddenly became aware of a soft rhythmic breathing and the very lightest touch on my shoulder in time to the breathing. I peeked through my closed lids and there was my Guilty Girl stand over me, keeping watch over me while I slept. She was on the right side of my chair with her neck across the front of me and the very tip of her nose was touching my left shoulder ever so softly with every exhale she took. She was snoozing with me and we stayed that way for at least 30 minutes. The spell was broken only when she became aware of another person arriving at the barn and snapped to so she could do her job of being the matriarch of the herd. She lifted her head, turned toward the person and made sure I was awake and aware before she returned to the herd and the pile of hay. There is just no words that I can express to describe how that simple act filled my heart and my soul sang with the harmony. I can tell you that there isn’t a trophy or a ribbon in the world that would have made me prouder or happier of an accomplishment with my horse. Amazing.
Times when she balks or questions your asking, sidesteps restlessly and throws nervous glances.
My Southern Belle
Dixie, Southern Belle that she is, is very appropriately named. A Southern lady never lets on her true feelings or intent if she thinks it will be considered rude. Portraying good manners is always first on the list of behavior traits. And while I have heard more than once that “Horses don’t lie”, I have to beg to differ on that one when it comes to Dixie and dogs. She will flat out mislead any poor innocent by-standing dog into thinking that she isn’t giving him a second thought. This usually takes place while we take a break and she calmly grazes while my dogs wait quietly for us to start riding again. I will let Dixie have the reins so she can lower her head and grab a few bites of grass. I might add that the dogs have been along with us for the entire ride without incident. Dixie never gives them a second glance as they run along side, behind or in front of us- even when they get very close and a well-placed kick could easily find its mark. No, Dixie just goes along without any indication of her mischievious plan. She lets the trust build and the guard comes down as the dogs forget about watching out for her as a possible danger. I also fall for the false sense of security she exudes and time and again will relax and let my thoughts wander. That is when she makes her move. She instantly transforms from this sweet, laid-back, harmless horse to a dog attacking wild thing without blinking an eyelash. No laid back ears, no sidelong glances calculating her move, no fixed stares, no agitation – no nothing. Just a sudden rush at the unsuspecting dog who is minding his own business and happens to be within striking distance, nearly unseating me in the process. Actually, I think it is somewhat of a game for her. She is a very passive mare in the herd and gets pushed around a lot. I think she gets a kick out of seeing us all jump in reaction to her aggressiveness as she gets to do the moving. I have to say in her behalf that she never – not even once – has ever connected or hurt the dog. She just loves to surprise them and scare the daylights out of us. She thinks it is funny and gets a good laugh out of it. I always end up laughing also as she gets me time and again with this little ploy of hers and has me scrambling to attention. So, she not only lies about not having those thoughts, she lies about her intentions and acts like she is going to kill. She lies about being a bully, which she definitely is not. She just has a very warped sense of humor.
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
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.
A horse gives up his instincts – his freedom and will to become what we want – only trust settles the bill.
I have a group of young girls who come out on Saturday mornings to learn about horses. One 9 year old girl came out for her first visit last week. After doing some chores, we were ready to get the horses. As I picked up a halter and headed for the pasture, she piped up and said: “I wanna drag a horse”. I don’t know why that stunned me for a moment. I knew exactly what she meant. It is a shame that is the connotation she gets about leading a horse. When I think of it, it is obviously the only way she has ever seen it done – Get the halter on and pull, dragging a horse behind like a reluctant puppy. She actually didn’t know that a horse will walk easily and effortlessly beside you on a loose lead when trained to walk properly with a person. How sad that she has only witnessed using force and manhandling to get a horse to move from one spot to another. What was worse was the fact that she thought that was going to be great fun – for her, not the horse. I guess it is a chance for a small child to feel powerful. Little did she realize how much more powerful it is to walk beside a willing partner who will adjust to her every step. It never ceases to amaze me how embedded the notion is among humans that the only way to relate to a horse is to bully them and order them around – make them do things. This is a particularly attractive concept to kids who are usually on the other end of that stick. They finally get a chance to be the boss. My reply to her was: “That was exactly what we were going to learn not to do”. Needless to say, we spent the morning learning the correct way to lead a horse with courtesy and dignity to the horse.
It is not just the kids who need to learn about this. I see it all the time in every aspect of horsemanship. It is time that we set better examples that our younger horse enthusiasts can follow using kinder methods. Showing consideration for another living thing should be at the forefront of everything we do. We need to teach our children to respect the horse the same way we expect the horse to respect us – only without using force and pain to get the point across, obviously. I know that most horse people believe the 11th commandment – The horse shall not win. The big news is that the horse doesn’t even know it is a contest until we teach him that.
There is one sure way guaranteed to lift my spirits. I walk out to where my horses are hanging around- quietly grazing, snoozing or playing together and sit down to watch them from there on the ground.
I am from the North where Southerns often accuse us of being rude. I am one of those Southern Yankees. I was always in the mindset that I was wasting time – mine and theirs – if I didn’t just get down to business with someone. I thought it was unprofessional to chit chat before I told them why I called or why I was there. I would get so impatient when I had an agenda and they wanted to make small talk. It just seemed so inefficient. Finally, I realized the value of establishing a relationship with anyone I interacted with. I get better service, loyalty, favors granted, make better friends, help is offered willingly, etc. What was I thinking? This is a way better way to go through life. Take a little time to make someone feel special and let them know that you care enough to see how things are going with them before putting in a request. Okay, if that truth is so simple, why do we not do the same with our horses ? So many of us go get our horses with an agenda all planned out – our agenda, not the horses. We don’t stop to give them a few minutes of just saying hello and let them know you are glad to see them before we start taking over. We slap a halter on them, lead them to the ties, groom them, saddle them up, climb up and expect them to take good care of us without so much as a “How are you doing today?”
We are friends
Although I love to be near my horses and spend hours at the barn, it is rare that I am not there for some other reason than just hanging out for awhile without trying to get something done. It took somebody to actually teach me the importance of creating a personal bond with my horse for me to realize the difference it makes. We all go under the premise that a horse wants and needs the human to be the leader. That is true to an extent. A horse really wants to feel safe and will gladly submit to a leader he trusts. We cannot gain that trust by demanding it. We need to earn it by showing him that we are his friend first. Try spending some time alone with your horse with no distractions and no agenda. Take off all the ropes and halters. Make just for them. See how long it takes before they stop looking for other herd members and turn to you. It will give you a pretty good idea what your horse thinks of you.