Wednesday, December 9, 2015

When You Feel Them In Your Heart

"When you feel it in here (your heart), 
when you feel for him, 
when you feel of him; 
the confidence can go down through that body, 
or you can take it out.” 
- Ray Hunt

This quote spoke to me today, especially the first half of the line, "When you feel it in here (your heart), when you feel for him, when you feel of him..."

I didn't have that feeling for Leah until I started riding her.  It's one thing to be on the ground with a horse (and I don't want to take anything away from that), but it's another thing to be on your horse.  

Last year, I did an interview with a wonderful horsewoman who advocated no riding, and since then, I've mulled it over and over and over...while continuing to enjoy riding.

I have to say, I think my horses enjoy it, too.  

Last Saturday my husband and I went on a trail ride, and when we got back to the trailer, Cowboy wouldn't approach it.  He pulled me away from the trailer and back onto the trail.  We just started to laugh--this crazy horse wants to keep going!  So, we obliged and went back on the trail.  Penny was also happy to move back out again. 

Horses are curious, athletic, sentient beings.  I know they enjoy the new scenery, the movement, and the fellowship as much as we do. 

Yesterday I had another lesson with Leah.  I'm so proud of her. She's come a long, long way--further than I have, I'm sure!  Most of what we did was me sitting back and quieting my legs at the back up, walk forward and turn--getting her to round her back a bit more and put more purpose and energy into her step.  For the turn, I was to use my own purpose--no steering and no leg--and she was so sensitive--picked right up on those subtle cues. In fact, I'm not sure what the cues were.  Regina told me to think about turning, and Leah turned.  I imagine my body was turning a little when I thought about it, and that's what she perceived.

The stop work was interesting, too.  I was to sit back and gather up alternating reins a little at a time until she stopped.  It was important to stay quiet and not pull back, just these gentle gathers of the rein until she figured it out.  Then, when she stopped, I backed her up and moved her out again.  After a few times, she was really picking up that those gentle gathers meant to stop.  

I'm not sure where all this is going, but I'll let you know when I do.  

I find myself daydreaming a lot about Leah now, and wishing I was with her--Beautiful Girl, too, who is still in a stall and gets special daily attention.  And, of course, Cowboy.  

I feel them all in my heart, as Ray Hunt would say.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Back to School With My Green Horses

Originally published 9/21/15

Exciting adventures coming this fall and winter, beginning tomorrow, but first, I played hookie from work today.  Is it hooky or hookie?  Why do they call it hookie?  Anyway, it was good hookie.  The weather was beautiful and about 6 of us hit the trails.  We arrived at 10 am, played around on the obstacle course and rode the trails along the Spokane River.  I pulled out at 12:45 with my two horses, drove home and unloaded, threw on a new outfit (did not have time to shower, so still smell like my sweaty horse--which is to say GOOD), and was back in the car at 1:10 and back to work by 1:25.

(Me playing hookie)

Saturday morning I was privileged to ride in the First Annual Ride and Hike to benefit Free Rein Therapeutic Riding--a non-profit that uses horses to help children with autism, and other special needs, and PTSD in veterans.

(Riding out with my partner.)
 (Returning with my partner)

 (My partner and I at the trailhead)

Tomorrow I start training C'ya with the help of a professional.  I discovered two things:

1.  I don't feel comfortable training a green horse.  It's not something I do all the time, and I want her to have a solid foundation.

2.  I don't want to send her off to someone for training because I want to grow as she grows and get to know her through the process.  Even though I've owned her and trained her since she was 2--and even rode her in the past--we never got very far in the whole process, and I never took her out on the trails.  All the riding happened in the round pen and arena and there wasn't much of it.  I sent her to a trainer a few years ago who rode her for two weeks, but C'ya developed cinch sores, and I had to bring her home.  I've worked with her since then, from the ground, going over poles and obstacles (to teach her to watch where she's putting her feet--a complaint from the trainer) and basic yielding, etc.  Cowboy has taken all my time and attention--and he still will as long as he stays sound--but through fall and winter, especially winter, when I wouldn't be trail riding anyway, I want to concentrate first on C'ya and then, when I've had a green horse refresher, with Beautiful Girl.

Wish me luck on going back to school with my green horses. Should be a great adventure.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Riding Through the Scary Tunnels with Buddies

Sometimes, everything in you says "DANGER"!  That's instinct, and it's a good thing to heed.  Like this tunnel, for example: graffiti, the smell of urine, the tincture of heated rail from the train that passes every hour or so above, the sometimes present noise of arrows at the archery range it feeds into....and the darkness.  Scary Danger!

Last year, the only way I could get Cowboy through this tunnel was to back him up until he was partially in, then turn him around and ride the rest of the way through.  Tricky!  We all had a good laugh about that one.  But you do what you have to do, and then reward them on the other side.

As we've all been talking about lately on this blog, fear is a good thing.  It shows a smart horse.  But elevated anxiety in our horses can also be dangerous for us as riders. That said, we decided to spend some time going back and forth through the scary tunnel in various ways.  We let the ones who were nervous (which were all but one) follow, and then, as they became more comfortable, take the lead, as we passed through back and forth as many times as it took to get them all to OK.

That's what you want in trail buddies, because it's what makes the adventure enjoyable for horses and riders and keeps everyone in the group safe.

Many years ago now, I made a bunch of horse friends online and we all met up and became flesh and blood friends.  Our friendship revolves around our shared love of horses. We have the same philosophy, even if we get to it different ways.  Mostly, we have support for each other as horsewomen.

I wouldn't go through the scary tunnels without this group, so I'm not much different than Cowboy. Call me "Smart", because "graffiti, the smell of urine...and darkness" really do point to danger when riding alone.  

We're buddies and our horses are buddies, and we all rely on each other to get through the scary places.

Who are your riding buddies?  What scary tunnels have they helped you pass through?

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Sensitive, Neurotic Horse May Be Just What the Doctor Ordered

 Humans need to avoid stereotyping equine personalities into “good” or “bad.” “It's important to realize that, just like in people, there is no perfect personality type," she said. "For example, a neurotic horse will be more prone to stress and will be more likely to spook, which may be difficult to work with. On the other hand, their sensitivity means that they are incredibly responsive and can thus appear 'in tune' with their handler. If you're a good, calm handler, you can get amazing results by putting this to good use. "Researchers Develop Subjective Equine Personality Test", Christa Lese'-Lasserre,MA, June 13, 2013

What an inspiring quote to start the day out with, at least for all of us with super-sensitive-borderline-neurotic horses that we LOVE.  And, thanks for all your stories and wisdom last week regarding the post, "Equine Anxieties, From a Psychiatric Perspective."   All were GREAT food for thought.

The things I took from that human/horse panic attack connection were:

1. Control some physiological parameter.
2. Use a top down approach and get them thinking.
3. Do not pressure them forward, but get them to relax and not run away.
4. Help them experience the feared situation as a pleasant situation.

I'm not going to put this on the list, but I do think it's great insight.  My husband said that a panic attack feels truly horrible, and people who have them feel like they're going to die.  Eventually, their anxiety comes from the fear of the panic attack itself.  I imagine it's similar for horses.  Horses have phenomenal fear memory and can remember a scary place for a long time (maybe years later) even if there was nothing there to fear.  What is that except fear of fear?

Kerry Thomas, the "Horse Detective" in the last post, wrote a paper on Equine PTSD.  In it, he said:
(Concerning an Arabian Show) From a psychological standpoint, I saw these otherwise beautiful horses being brought into the arena much like a pin-ball being sprung forth, injected if you will into a game of psychological chaos.
(Concerning training mind and then body)  Physical change is necessitated by environmental conditions and stimuli.  Mental interpretations of these happen prior to the physical response.  This is why in training the horse; we must train the mind ahead of the body, if we wish to have the most efficiency from that body. 

On the trail, you're usually riding with a group, and have pressure to keep going--get across the water, get past the ravens in the trees, get past (insert anything here that scares your horse), that's why it's so important to have trail partners who think like you do and are able to adapt the ride to help the horses. It might take extra time to let them think about things and develop curiosity and courage, but it has to be done if you have an eye for the long term.  I so regret the times I didn't do that--didn't have enough confidence in my own instincts and didn't have enough courage to listen to my horse.  It's not about the ride, getting from point A to point Z, it's about the partnership along the way as you encounter A, B, C, D.....Z.

I'm very picky about my riding partners.   How about you? 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Insecure Horses and the Power of Praise

My horse has a fundamentally insecure base personality.  He was a very young bottle-fed orphan who loved humans, but isn't human, and never really adapted well in the herd.  No matter which herd you place him in, he'll always be the omega.

And yet, I love him and love working with him. It's always a challenge between discipline and praise, and he's quick to need both.  Because of this, he's sharpened me.  I have to be more aware of when he's challenging me and when he's feeling trapped, and I have to be able to respond immediately with little time to analyze which it is.  

When to wean a horse is always a debatable topic.  The first horse I ever purchased was a weanling, and I bought him before he was weaned.  I was so excited to have him, I'd go visit him with his mama as much as I could without being a pest to the owners.  On the day of weaning (it's been so long I can't remember how old he was, but I think he was about 5 or 6 months) there was a lot of calling back and forth between he and his dam.  I boarded him on the same property and his owner wanted to start using his mom for team penning and trail riding, so she was happy to get them separated, but it was a stressful day on the two of them.  He turned out to be a solid, trusting, brave trail horse, and I think it's in part because he was with his mom for so long.  Cowboy didn't get that option.

Almost 20 years after the weanling, I brought Cowboy to the same barn, same stall, where I'd had my former horse.  In his stall, Cowboy was the bully of bullies.  If a horse was walked down the aisle in front of him, he'd raise his head up as high as it would go and lunge out like he was going to bite them.  He seemed like an alpha.

Then we brought him home and let him go with the herd.  What a difference.  He became the most docile, submissive horse you've ever seen, and soon, the omega, where he's been ever since then.

Cowboy and I have worked together for twelve years now and he still keeps me on my toes.  I have horses in my herd that you can depend on to be brave and unshakable in almost every situation, but Cowboy is not that horse.  He's brave and unshakable in most situations, but will choose the strangest things to be scared of.

Two weeks ago I took him to the despooking clinic and it was once again revealed to me that, at his core, he is insecure.  For him, challenges have to be met one by one, mastering each one.  

Which brings me to the topic of praise.  One of the things they told us to do at the clinic was praise our horses...BIG TIME, as in, make a BIG deal over every success.  "GOOD job, Cowboy.  Good job, boy!!"

That really isn't my way.  I'm more of a quiet praiser.  But to make them happy, I exaggerated the praise--took it up a few notches, and I've continued doing it to see if it helps.  As of now, it's new for him and he's trying to figure it out.  Like, "What's this all about?  Is she faking?"  

I've had a few trail rides since that clinic and in some ways he's doing better, and in some other ways, worse.  The area where he's doing worse is trust.  He seems to anticipate that I'm going to ask him to do something he's afraid of now, like I did at the clinic.  He's a bit more adversarial with me.

Today I went out with him before I had to leave to work.  I wanted to spend some time just being with him and giving him some easy tasks he could accomplish so that I had more opportunity to praise him.  He seems to like it.  The heart of a horse wants to please.  I really think they take pride in doing things right and are even competitive with one another.

Tomorrow I have a long ride planned with him, about five hours, and I'm hoping to work on trust throughout it.  I want to break down the tasks I've come to expect and make a bigger deal over them.  I want him to know how proud of his accomplishments I am.  He's twenty years old and we've been partners for twelve years, but you can never have enough trust.  If anything, my desire to see him confidant and brave has only increased with time.

Please share your own thoughts on praise and how your horses respond to it.  Do you think they need it?  How BIG is your praise?

Monday, February 16, 2015

River Gods (Riverside State Park) & An Early Spring

Originally published 2/16/15

 "Simply put; I'm trying to see what I can get done with the horse without him being troubled about doing it."- Buck Brannaman

Here in Spokane, WA we've had an early spring.  In fact, it's the warmest February on record.  For us, that means trail rides.  Where normally we'd be waiting for April, this Valentines was spent at Riverside State Park with my Valentines Baby--actually born on Valentines Day 23 years ago.

This weekend I realized my survivor heart-horse, Cowboy, is getting old.  I have to dig out his papers (which I don't need and don't care about except to find out his age) to see if he's 19 or 20.

19 or 20???  How did that happen?  He was supposed to be dead, by most accounts, 8 years ago almost to the day when he fractured and displaced his coffin bone.  The worst case scenario, he's never sound.  The best case scenario, you get a few seasons out of him until the arthritis in his coffin joint makes him unsound.

8 years later, I'm riding my old boy Friday, Saturday and Sunday--Riverside, Palisades and Slavin Conservation Area.  I am a blessed horsewoman!!!

While riding at Slavin on Sunday, we spotted a group of Snow Geese.  (See picture directly above with Cowboy looking at the lake.)  What's unusual about that is they don't usually arrive until April.  This is February.

It has been a wonderful February so far--which is yet another blessing for me.  My youngest son set off to Boot Camp two weeks ago to prepare for his future with the Air National Guard.  The loss, although I know I shouldn't think of it as a loss, has left me pretty empty.  It's even been hard to play the piano.

That's why being able to be on horseback--on the trails--early this year is a personal miracle.  Being with my horse sets things straight.

I'm going to include another poem I wrote last summer after a 20 mile ride along the Spokane River with a good friend.  (See above Friday's picture with my daughter a day before her birthday--that's the beautiful Spokane River behind us.)  The loneliness I mention is what I felt the next day writing about it from my office and wishing I was back there.  The only remedy, spend every waking hour with my horses.

Happy President's Day, everyone.  I hope you're all having lots and lots of great moments with your own herd families today and always.

River Gods (Riverside State Park, WA)

     I do not know much about gods;  
     but I think that the river
     Is a strong brown god -
     sullen, untamed and intractable.
                           T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: Dry Salvages

Nothing makes you feel more alone–
Yesterday’s twenty miles of river
Calculated today, a lifetime.
The hunting bird, you said eagle,
Then, you said Osprey,
It was an Osprey.
Great beautiful white-winged thing
Hunting the Spokane River
For the one that jumps too high,
Makes itself too known,
Dares to release itself
From the swelling under-swell.

by Linda Reznicek

Listen to T.S. Eliot read Four Quartets.

Another bit to share: I've been looking for a piece of art for my living room for seven years and found this piece this weekend.  It reminded me so much of Cowboy I had to buy it.  It's almost as if he was the model--but he wasn't.