Monday, November 30, 2015

Horses Have Consciousness

"It was the first time the realization hit me that animals love to engage with us in games. And if you figure out how, in ways that work for the horse as well as for you, you can end up with a really fruitful relationship that also includes riding. But riding is not necessarily the first goal of these relationships."
I discovered a wonderful article today, which you can read online at National Geographic, Read Before Riding: Horses Have Consciousness. It's a book review of,  The Horse: The Epic History Of Our Noble Companion, by Wendy Williams.

It discusses the intelligence of horses: like the horse that could do math...but not when he couldn't see the test-giver.

And, the smartest horse in the world....who likes to play games.

And, the evolution of the horse from wild to domestic.

Anyone who has spent time around horses has, hopefully, seen examples of consciousness--that thing beyond simply being a biological sum of the parts.

I want to share one of my own personal "proofs".

As you all know, we have an old horse in our herd, Red, who is 35 years old.  Old and rickety, he is, but he is second in command in the hierarchy.  Most people who see them wonder, how is it that such an old, arthritic horse is able to eat first and boss the others, young and strong, around?  

I have the answer.

They let him.  They, in this case, is the mare herd, led by Cowgirl.  Cowgirl loves Red and has since she was a baby.  I call them the old married couple.  She's 10, he's 35.  And, if you watch, Cowgirl will give a twitch of an ear here, a glint of an eye there, telling the other mares to part and let Red through, let Red drink, or let Red eat.

But I have more proof than that, and it comes from my evenings spent watching and hanging out with them after dark.  I wouldn't have seen it if I hadn't kept Old Red around (there is so much value in our older horses!!!!) or if I hadn't decided to let my old guy live out with the herd, rather than sequestering him off somewhere "safe".

Here's one of my "proof's" of consciousness...

Red's old eyes don't work well at night and he has a hard time navigating the pastures, yet, he somehow was doing just that.

Last spring I saw how.  The first time it happened I was calling him in to eat after dark, pitch dark, and the horses were in a pasture far away and to the south of the house.  They had to make their way north, into another pasture, and then east, to another gate, and south, back to the barn.

I started making my way out to find Red, to help him get back to the barn, but instead, I saw him being led by the mare herd.  There were two mares in front of him, one at his side, and one behind him!  They made their way VERY slowly, along the path, and through the gates, but I wondered what they'd do when they made it to the stall--the stall with the grain and alfalfa.  I mean, we all know what horses usually do, they go in and fight for it.  But the mares walked him to the gate of the stall and stood to let him go in, then each one of them walked away. 

It was no big deal to them, they did it like a well-oiled machine, but I was dumb-founded.  Could a mare herd be THAT disciplined, THAT able to help an older gelding?

The answer is YES, and they did it again and again and again, several times through spring and summer.  I was so thankful for having the opportunity to have witnessed it.  Just one more proof of the noble hearts of our horses, their ability to empathize with one another and perform great acts of kindness.
"Horses teach you courage, patience, persistence; rewards of kindness and gentleness; companionship; the excitement and vitality of life; and warmth. They also provide an awful lot of memories, and the importance of caring for another living thing."

All of you, like me, who believe in the consciousness of the horse, what are some of the things that prove it to you?

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Hell Storm of 2015

Yesterday the wildest storm
I ever witnessed flew past
west to east, a shaggy
howling sky-beast
"The Wildest Storm", Mary Oliver, from Felicity

Last Tuesday, Spokane had one of the worst wind storms on record--71 mph winds.  It was devastating.  As you can see in the picture above, our barn door was completely blown off during the early stages of the storm--when there was still light out.  It got much worse later.

The horses were all okay, but Beautiful Girl, still locked in her stall from her injury, was understandably scared, especially with the barn door blown off and the winds powering in.

It howled and pounded for hours, and our lights were flickering off and on throughout it all, losing power here and there.  By storm's end, we had power, but had lost our water pump to an electrical surge and short in the panel.  They replaced the panel first thing Wednesday morning, and our water was working again.  We were pretty much back to normal, minus a barn door that won't be fixed until late this week or early next.

We were extremely lucky because, in all, 206,000 local residents totally lost their power, and two people were killed during the storm.  Many private homes and businesses are still without power--one week afterward.

Our office didn't regain power until yesterday, Sunday, so we had to cancel most of last week's appointments.  My brother's families moved in with us until each of their homes had the power restored--one of them yesterday afternoon.  

All and all, compared to others, our damage was minor.

My favorite Birch tree was split in two during the storm, but in truth, it had already mostly died, and I just couldn't cut it down.  The winds took care of it for me and snapped it. 

But I loved that tree from the moment I planted it, and I couldn't part with it.


I didn't. 

A few days after the storm, I went outside, gathered up the branches and carted them into the house.  Like, "It's my party, and I'll cry if I want to," but a happier version--It's my house, and I'll bring in my dead tree if I want to.

I put the largest section of the tree in my personal space--my music, reading, computer room.  Now I can sit under my tree and play my piano.  Kind of magical.

And I didn't stop there.  I put branches ALL over the house.

They're in almost every corner.

During the storm, my sons, who also lost the power in their shared home, came over to the house and made us dinner.  Brook made a salmon with lemon, pepper and goat cheese. He worked as fast as he could to have it done before we lost power.  At one point, the power went completely off and we thought it was done, but after a minute or so it popped back on.

 We had a cozy dinner--a little bit of heaven, in a hell storm.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Be Still My Heart

"Hold my brain; be still my beating heart."

William Mountfort's Zelmane

In the last few weeks I've had two instances of Tachycardia (rapid heart rate).  The first event happened while I was reading Uncle Tom's Cabin.  I was sitting in my comfy chair, fire going, reading the most heart-breaking account of human nihilism--the part of the story where Arthur Shelby has sold his trusted, noble slave, Tom, and Eliza's young son, to a slave trader to cover his debts.

From seemingly nowhere, my heart started beating super fast--I could only describe it, on the phone to my husband, like a hummingbird's wings.  It lasted about a minute, and then went back to normal.

It had never happened before, and it scared me, but I chalked it up to stress from what I was reading, possibly tapping into other, underlying, stresses such as my parent's illnesses, my father-in-law's passing, and my son going off to the Guard.

Last night, it returned again.  I was cleaning the kitchen, when all of a sudden my heart started beating rapidly.  At first, knowing what had happened before, I had a brief internal panic, but then I comforted myself, sat down, and did some deep breathing.  It lasted about 20 seconds and went back to normal instantly, rather than gradually.  After a weekend in front of the television watching the Paris attacks, and their aftermath, I figured that was the source.

This morning I was almost afraid to get out of bed because I wasn't sure if it was going to happen again--a sort of mild paralysis--but I had things to do before going to work, most importantly taking care of my horses, so I made myself.

Before I went out, I took some time to pray for the victims and their families, our leaders, our country and everyone, enemies included, and acknowledged it's out of my control.  Then I went to the barn to spend some time with the Zen Masters.  

I walked over to every one of them--I have eight horses--and petted them, talked to them, and got into their world.  I discovered that they burrow really long, really cool tunnels in their round bales.  I stuck my head into Cowboy's tunnel just to see what he sees.  It's warm down there.  I wish I'd taken a picture.

But I did take a picture of some of the horses so that I could take them to work with me today and remember our time this morning.

Beautiful Girl: She's almost back to 100 percent sound, but still on stall rest since we don't know exactly why she went lame in the first place.  I love her intensity.

Penny: She's such a sweet heart and lover girl.

Talk about "be still my beating heart," when I see my heart horse, Cowboy, I still get butterflies.  And, little Lily, the pony--she's a hand full--stealing Red's Equine Senior and getting fat.   Red is in the background behind them.  He's our old man--the force is strong in him at 35 years old.

And, Leah.  She walked away from me when I first went out, but when she realized I wasn't taking her anywhere, she started following me around for some love.

I didn't get a photo of Shadow, but he was at the round bale with his head burrowed deep into that hay tunnel.  I did spend some time with him, too, and my daughter's horse, Cowgirl--ALL 8.

I don't know what's going to happen with my Tachycardia.  I'm leaning toward making an appointment just to make sure everything's okay.  Whatever the case, the best medicine, for now, is time with the herd.

Does anyone else have (or had) this issue?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Sometimes Bad Judgement Can Be Pretty Horriffic: Unbranded the Film Review

"Good judgement comes from experience.
Experience comes from bad Judgement.
And sometimes that bad judgement can be pretty horrific."
Val Geissler, Unbranded

I have been waiting so long to watch the Unbranded film: four guys riding fresh-out-of-the-holding-pen BLM Mustangs from Texas to Canada, and I was not disappointed.

I can still remember when Cindy Meehl, director of the "Buck" documentary and Executive Producer of Unbranded, first told me about it, just as they were getting started on the journey, and I thought--how fantastic...and scary!  Actually, I thought someone might get killed.

Last night I downloaded it from Amazon, and finally got to see how they did.  I knew it was going to be a tough ride, but I wasn't prepared for the amount of bush-whacking and treacherous mountain climbs.  The path to Canada by horse is not well traveled and, in fact, crosses through private lands, steep mountains, and dangerous rivers.

Much of the movie seemed like my bucket list...

Of things I never want to do on a horse.

For example, riding through the Grand Canyon. 

Through the Arizona cactus. (Spoiler: they spent a lot of time pulling these out of the Mustangs.)

Leading a string of horses across this river.
The suspension bridge.

Some of the situations they got into were "horriffic" and deadly and, in fact, they did lose a horse, and two were injured badly enough to be pulled off the ride.

It was a long (over 5 months, 5 states, and 3,000 miles), tough, emotionally turbulent and stinky journey for the young men, who were friends when they started out, but were strained by the trip's end.  

The riders were:

Ben Masters (wildlife biologist, CEO of Fin and Fur Films and the mastermind behind the ride and corresponding, Unbranded, book). 

Thomas Glover (Construction Science degree, horseback guide).

Ben Thamer (Agricultural Economics degree, vet and cooking skills).

Jonny Fitzsimons (History degree and worked on dude and cattle ranches and, surprisingly, purposely ended his journey one mile short of Canada for "too many reasons to enumerate".  

I'm curious, since it's been a while, if any of them would like to do it again.  I'd also like to hear Jonny Fitzsimons enumerate the reasons he ended his journey one mile short of the Canadian border, leaving his buddies to celebrate without him.  And, why is it called "Unbranded" when all the horses are branded from the BLM?

The best part of the movie, for me, as an American Mustang adopter, was its exploration of wild horses in the United States.

What is their value?  
What is their history?
What are their rights?
What do we do to achieve a balance for the wild horses, federal land, and the cattle?
What do we do with the 50,000 Mustangs in holding when we're only adopting out 3,000 a year, and they're still rounding them up?

They didn't give a black and white answer to those tough questions, but towards the end they did bring up wild horse birth control--PZP, a topic we've discussed on this blog, and maybe the only humane course--though not without its own set of issues.

I think the Mustangs answered the "value" question themselves all along the ride.  What other horses could have survived those scenes where they were scaling sheer rock?

The Mustangs gave them their hearts and souls, and I loved to see the relationships develop.  In fact, I got teary-eyed at the beginning of the movie as they were selecting them from the pens and then starting the training.  Mustangs have more to lose and more to give than domestic horses.  They don't know much or anything about humans and they're incredibly vulnerable.  (Read the story about Tom Davis buying and selling 1,800 wild horses from the BLM and taking them to slaughter in Mexico.)


Fly fishing on horseback.  Everyone's got to try that someday.  You can read about Ben's fly fishing (it didn't go as smoothly as you see in the movie) at his Western Horseman Blog.

Luke, the Mustang pictured above and below, was auctioned, two weeks after the adventure, for $25,000, to support the Mustang Heritage Foundation. The winning bidder then donated him back to Ben Masters.

You can watch a clip from the Unbranded horse Luke's auction below.

Luke Auction-H.264 for Apple TV from Unbranded The Film on Vimeo.

Here's an update on where all the Unbranded horses are now:

Donquita is the queen leader of a six mustang pack (Luke, Tuf, Violet, C-Star, Stumbles, and Dinosaur) near Fayetteville, TX.  Simmie and Gilley are cowboying in the Texas Panhandle. Django and Tamale are living in south Texas. And JR and Bam Bam are teaching kids to ride at a guest ranch in Wyoming. These horses found their home but most mustangs don't. In fact, there's almost 50,000 in holding. Go here to learn how to adopt:

And here's a trailer if you'd like to see what it's all about.  You'll love it.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

No More Trainy Wheels & Update on Beautiful Girl

“Master your hands and your legs to create a rectangle of support around and for the horse. He will learn you can be a resource for his safety. Sometimes a horse APPEARS to spook or act-up or doesn’t listen. A horse looks for a way out of trouble. He has all these open doors; front, sides, but you have the ability to close these doors with your hands and legs. The horse not only respects that, but craves it.” - Buck Brannaman

This was a special week for Leah and me.  I don't have a round pen at home, but I felt confidant to start working with her trainer-free in the arena.  That time, building trust, and today's lesson, gave me the confidence to hit the trails.  The skills I learned could all be summed up in the Buck Brannaman quote above.  It was all about learning how to support her.

She's still very green and I'm super green with green horses, but we mastered enough skills to keep it together out in the open spaces.  The worst thing she did was break into a trot to get that forward escape, but we circled back to the trail, and she moved right back into a nice forward walk.

(Warming up in the arena at Riverside State Park)

I wanted to update you on Beautiful Girl, too.  My farrier came out, but couldn't find an abscess.  She did express pain around the upper portion of the frog.  Her ankle is a little swollen today, but my vet said it's probably because she isn't putting weight on that foot. We're going to give it one more day to see what happens.  My farrier is coming by in the morning to take another look.  It could still be an abscess.  She's putting more weight on it tonight than she did yesterday or earlier today.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Beautiful Girl is Lame

Today, it's my turn again--my turn for bad news.  I found Beautiful Girl limping.

No heat, swelling, abrasions.  Nothing.  I'd say she's 4/5 to 5/5.  She can walk a little on the back right, but doesn't want to bear weight.  She's eating, drinking and acting normal, except for the lameness.

I put her in a stall and observed her until I had to come to work, and  I'm going to have my farrier come out and test her hoof for an abscess.

Wish me luck.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Finding the Right Place & Name

"Try to find the right place for yourself.

If you can't find it, at least dream of it."

Mary Oliver, "Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way", Felicity

Yesterday morning was cold and foggy, and I dreaded the thought of hooking up the trailer and driving to a lesson.  But I had faith.  Hallelujah!  That the clouds would part and the sun would shine.  Hallelujah!  

There she is.  The star of the show.  I wish I had more pictures, but I feel awkward stopping the lesson to ask my instructor to take one.  I usually just snap a quickie before the lesson begins.

You're going to think I'm wishy washy when I tell  you what I'm thinking next--but I've probably earned that title long before this.  Remember the whole changing her name thing?  Well, I did, but in last week's lesson I was told to call her name and get her attention when she was free lunging.  

"Quincy," I said.  Nothing.  "Quincy," I said louder.  Nothing.  "Cya," I said, desperately.  She turned to me.

This led to a few restless nights, tossing and turning, and thinking through the question, do they really know their names? 

Off I trudged into the fog and mud yesterday morning, truck running, trailer waiting, and Cya was like, Um, I'd rather not enter your mobile-rat-trap, thank you, and walked away slowly.  The kind of walk that says, I don't want to go, but I still want to be friends.

Fortunately, all those restless nights had produced another name to try--one that sounds like Cya 

"Leah," I said.  She stopped. Her eyes softened.  She turned to look at me. I walked up and placed the halter gently over her head.

I'm not an expert, but I'm pretty sure they know the sound of their names.  For example, Cowboy's name for me, is "hu, hu, hu," said in a gentle, throaty, grumbly way. Just three "hu's". He's greeted me that way forever, and I can hear him call me from wherever he is and know where he is instantly.  I even hear him call me in my dreams. 

Anyway, if you're still willing to follow along with my many name changes, the one I've settled on is Leah.

Leah. Leah. Leah.

Forget the Quincy.  Forget the Cya.

At yesterday's lesson, I was still working on turns.  Turning left, I was to hold my left rein steady (contact) and execute two pulls with my right rein (closed fist--turn it down, turn it down) and light contact with my right leg.  It worked remarkably well.  I had to stop though and ask my instructor why we were doing it.  Why that, rather than plough reining a turn?  Her answer was that the pressure put on my right (outside) rein--those gentle downward tugs that you wouldn't think a horse would pick up, but since they're such sensitive animals, they do, is the precursor to the pressure I'll put on their neck when we advance to neck reining.

In fact, she's showing me several ways to execute a turn and, depending on how Leah responds with her energy and balance, which to use when.  The goal is to have her balanced and moving forward from her hind end.  I believe that's called impulsion.  Rather than on the forehand, which is where they are unbalanced, heavy on the front, and not using their hind end.  It's hard work for them, especially when they're not used to it, and Leah tired after 15-20 minutes and began to trip a little. 

After the lesson, when the clouds separated and the sun shined, I took Leah home, traded out for Cowboy and went on the most glorious fall ride you can imagine. 

Here's a picture of hu-hu-hu with her horse, Cowboy, in the Spokane River.

Next lesson is Friday.  I can't wait!  Riding Leah is super fantastic.  I love working with her and building our relationship.  Bring it on.