The opinions expressed in previous entries may or may not express the current opinion of the author.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Try Try Again

The other day I wrote:
[Bridget] kept getting ahead of me (not pulling, but very much focused on what was in front of us), and I felt (perhaps mistakenly) that she wasn't maintaining an awareness of my presence. So every so often I asked her to do something to remind her that I was on the other end of the leadrope.

Jenny aptly commented:
[H]orses are aware of all things going on around them, people (with their 'tunnel vision', comparing to horses!) tend to focus all their attention in only one thing at a time. So when our attention is pointed away, horses tend to feel they have to take care of themselves as we are busy doing something else.

Today I took Bridget out for a little walk by herself (Chloe having declined to accompany us). This time I was determined not to "mind" if she got ahead. On our last walk, I was busy focusing on Bridget, while Bridget herself, of course, is always very attentive to everything going on around us. This time I tried to not just pay attention to her, but to notice what she was noticing. I might not see exactly what she sees, but at least I can look in the same direction.

I observed that she doesn't just barge ahead willy-nilly - that she will make a slight adjustment in her stride to wait up for me a little, and every now and then she will turn and "consult" by gently touching me with her nose.

On our way back down the drive to the barn, I proved what a numbskull I am. Bridget suddenly turned around - there was a horse and rider coming up behind us which I totally hadn't heard. Guess Bridget is the right one to be leading after all!


The dynamics in the pasture have changed since Chloe and Bridget have become buddies. Chloe has never had a buddy before - at least not one she was able to keep, because the couple of times she made a friend, it was with someone else's horse, and we had no control over whether or not they stayed together. She was very attached to our old mare, but I wouldn't say they were pals. Misty was kind to her, allowing her to share her feed, and letting her keep close to her side, but there wasn't much reciprocity in the relationship. Misty lead; Chloe followed. Chloe and Bridget, however, seem like they goof around a bit and take a playful interest in one another.

Now that the "Keep-out-of-my-space-you-whippersnapper" phase of the relationship is over and Bridget is allowed into Chloe's zone, I almost think that Bridget is getting the upper hand. When the two of them come up, Bridget is the one who manages to monopolize my attention. However, Chloe stays close by, and yesterday I was brushing Bridget with one hand and scratching Chloe's ears with the other. In our old herd configuration (before all the changes of the last year), Chloe was not allowed (if the other horses had their way) to get any attention while they were around.

Yesterday, I was in the pasture when the third mare's owner, a little girl, came in to get her. I noticed Chloe flatten her ears a little and position herself between the girl and Bridget. I wonder if she was saying, "Keep away from my horse."

I'm happy for Chloe - she seems rather content with her new friend. And I'm thankful that her new friend is our horse so that they won't have to be separated any time.

Monday, March 29, 2010

How It All Began

It all began innocently enough. You go to the bookstore to get a coffee and kill some time. You do what any right-thinking person does - you head to the horse section to pick out a volume or three to browse through while you sip your latte. You see the photos of Toppur, and you go "Hmm, cute horse, this book'll do." Imke Spilker's Empowered Horses. A cup of latte becomes the thin end of the wedge.

I sat and read through most of the book, fascinated but mystified. Where was the system? Where was the program? Step A, Step B? I went back the next day to buy the book, kept it by my bed and read it through over the next few days. I was away from our own horses for the summer, and so two horses belonging to a friend were my first companions on this strange new path.

Ella was a charming and communicative two-year old Connemara filly, and Buddy was a slightly enigmatic five-year old Appendix QH, of a genial but often irascible temperament.

The first step was to ask the horses if they'd like to come with me out of their pasture. They both always said "Yes!" but each horse had a different motivation. Ella loved the diversion and the chance to get out of the herd and have some me-time (as they say). Buddy, I believe, loved to come and hang out in the arena because I let him cruise around the perimeter and munch on all the long grass growing on the other side of the fence.

But I really didn't know what on earth to do with either of them. No lunging? No round-penning? What do we do? For Buddy the answer was clear: "We eat!" I tried to entertain him, to engage him in some kind of shared activity - but he was just fine eating grass, thanks. I started to long for the way he used to behave when I was bossy and dictatorial - he would come up to me with his friendly face and follow me around. Sigh. I felt like I was with a stranger at a cocktail party and the conversation had run dry.

Ella made things a little easier, being of a sweet and affectionate nature. She would tell me if I pushed her too hard, and readily forgive me if I did. But I had the same feeling of not knowing quite what to say.

I would like to say I had a breakthrough of understanding, but I did not. I was supposed to be helping my friend with these two horses, and I felt that I had become completely useless overnight.

This was last summer, and it is only after interacting on an almost daily basis with our own horses (as well as others) that I am gradually beginning to see something taking shape. Buddy has come to live with us and is now called George. (Well, all male horses are "Buddy" aren't they?) Our two dear old mares both died of old age over the winter. Bridget came to live with us. And good old Chloe is with us still, demanding, as Hempfling says, "righteousness" from the humans around her.

It is true to say that I still do not know what I am doing. In the beginning, for every three steps I took forward, I'd slip back two. But I can sense the dust settling, or the mist parting (or some such metaphor); strange new forms are emerging from the fog. The inability to have a schedule, to form a plan, to do - all this continues to be frustrating. But today, in the car on the way to the barn, I felt excited at the prospect of seeing the horses. That can't be bad.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Today we had a family outing to the barn - me, my husband, my oldest daughter, my youngest daughter, her best friend, and three dogs.

Under such circumstances, the best thing to do is for everyone to go for a walk together. The two 13-year olds took themselves off on an expedition, while the rest of us went to see if Chloe and Bridget were up for a hike. I lead Bridget out of the pasture, Chloe following eagerly. I'd hoped Chloe would continue to follow us, and she did for a hundred yards or so, before deciding she'd rather go back and hang out near the barn. We went back and retrieved her, put her halter on, and she agreed that it would be ok to come along for the walk.

My daughter had to be in charge of Susie (who's her dog anyway) because her shortsightedness makes it necessary to swoop in and rescue her from under horses' feet at frequent intervals. So I gave Chloe's leadrope to my non-horsey husband. I told him he should think of it as taking a toddler for a walk - he should let her have as much fun as possible and interfere with her freedom as little as possible. In no time the two of them were getting along famously, especially because he handed out treats from his pocket every couple of hundred yards.

I think Chloe looks like she's enjoying her outing.

You can see who's the leader in these photos! You can let Chloe "get away with that" (to use outmoded parlance), because she is always very aware of who is attached to the leadrope behind her, even if she's dragging them along! She'll only drag so far, and then she'll wait for you. But today, I think because of the way we've been trying to treat her recently, she didn't do any dragging but was much more willing to mosey along at the pace of the group. This is her first excursion on a leadrope since the New Regime.

Meanwhile, Bridget and I were walking along together, and I had cause to reflect some more on the dominance issue. So far from the barn, out among strange sights and sounds, I felt it was important for our safety that Bridget stay somewhat tuned to me. She's only two and is high-spirited, although level-headed. She kept getting ahead of me (not pulling, but very much focussed on what was in front of us), and I felt (perhaps mistakenly) that she wasn't maintaining an awareness of my presence. So every so often I asked her to do something to remind her that I was on the other end of the leadrope.

The vision of Hempfling kept dancing before me - a picture of the way he leads Naranjero in the Youtube video. The stallion does not try to barge ahead of him at all.

However, I think we got along pretty well - it was her first time so far from the barn, and she did "come back" to me whenever I asked her to do something for me.

When we got back to the barn, we found one little girl on her horse having jumping lessons, and another girl and boy playing polocrosse. Normal people, doing normal activities - you know. And I wondered, "Am I quite mad?"

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Since their expedition together the other day, Chloe and Bridget are tight. Today when I went into the pasture, they both came up together, Chloe taking off at a trot ahead of Bridget as they drew closer.

I put the halter on Bridget and invited her to come with me. At first, Chloe decided not to come out with us, but after Bridget had looked around inside the barn for a while, inspecting other peoples' stalls, Chloe came to the gate and whinnied. So we got her out; she wanted to snoop in the barn too.

Then we proceeded to the great outdoors for some evening grazing. They heard the other horses coming in for dinner but decided the good grass was better. Finally I had to think about going home to make the humans' meal, and I lead the way back to the barn, where they ate their dinner before being turned out again.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

To Boldly Go

It was a beautiful thing.

Today when I arrived at the barn, I found all the horses in their stalls, as Andrew, the stable guy, had heard that a storm was on its way.

I turned Bridget and George out together in the paddock by the barn to get better acquainted, as - poor little Bridget, I thought - stuck in a pasture with two middle-aged ladies, she needs to have some fun. George, although often studdish with mares, was gentlemanly. I thought maybe they'd cavort and play, but after a short you're-cute-no-you're-cuter conversation, they both started grazing.

Play date

The storm threat having been called off, Andrew arrived to turn everyone out. I put Bridget in the pasture and went to get Chloe. Chloe made a beeline for her pasture gate, but as soon as I started to open it, she stopped. After a pause, she hurried me over to the gate which I had failed to open for her the other day. This time, I complied. She took a quick circuit of the paddock and then lead me out the gate again. I said, "Would it be fun to run toward your pasture?" Yes, and we ran. Back at her own gate, though, she paused again, and there we stood, until the other pasture-mate arrived and was let in by Andrew. Chloe followed through the open gate. I kept the leadrope on her, and followed her for a bit. Then I put the halter on Bridget and invited her to come out for a walk.

This time, Chloe was sure what she wanted to do. She wanted to come too! She followed us out of the pasture, through the barn paddock, into the barn, and out into the great wide world.

And there she was! There was the intrepid, dashing Chloe that I knew was in there somewhere. The Chloe that used to stride past thoroughbreds on the trail, determined to take the lead (until she would suddenly decide to head home without the thoroughbreds) - the Chloe that has been hiding out ever since she realized she didn't have to go out into the world if she didn't want to.

Off she went down the path, at a brisk trot, leaving Bridget and me behind.

where no pony has gone before

We caught up with her, and the two of them lead me on an exploration/grazing expedition around the manure piles, the trailers, and the piles of miscellaneous and interesting junk that accumulate around a barn, Chloe periodically trotting or cantering proudly ahead.


After about 20 minutes, our circuit drew us closer back to the barn, and they headed in that direction. Chloe went into the barn, and I lead Bridget through the barn, into the barn paddock, and then into her pasture. As I stood with the gate open, Bridget having been released, Chloe came up, stopped beside me, looked at me with a kind and frank expression, and then followed Bridget into the pasture.

As I said, it was a beautiful thing.

In Angustias Deducta

This title is in honor of Jenny of Finland, to whose blog describing her interesting Icelandic mare, Olga, she has given the Latin title Pari Passu - Aequo Animo.

The title above is the Latin translation of "in the horns of a dilemma," but I think the Latin gives a much more accurate spin to the situation - translated exactly, it means "drawn (or lead) into the narrows." I like that better. To say I am on the horns of a dilemma implies a static position, trapped like a fly on a web. Much better, although perhaps equally uncomfortable, is to be in the process of being squeezed through a narrow passage - rather like the camel entering through the eye of the needle ... to heaven? Or it suggests being carried down a stretch of river where the water speeds up as it passes through narrower banks -the two sides, rather than forcing you to choose between them, together squeeze you toward calmer waters.

Here's the thing: I see two different approaches to dominance with horses.

All (that is all who count!) agree that if the horse says, "No," and wants to withdraw, the courteous thing to do is to graciously allow the horse to refuse, to let him go, or to suggest an alternative activity.

However, there seems to be a difference of approach when it comes to another kind of dominance. Not the kind of domination which appoints itself absolute master of the horse, but a horse-y kind of dominance which declares, "If I say move, you move. If I say back off, you back off."

On the one hand, we have Imke Spilker. The horse I'm thinking of appears in her book Empowered Horses. I think his name is Max (think, because I have given away both my copies of the book). He became very threatening and aggressive at a certain point in his recovery from oppression. As I recall, Spilker responded to his attacks by apologizing, asking him nicely not to kill her, and feeding him as many treats as he wanted. Pretty radical, huh?

On the other hand, we have Resnick and Hempfling, who say that dominance is an important component in gaining the horse's trust. Hempfling does his hypnotic approach, compelling the horse to move by his awesome presence (aided by a long stick, which he keeps on the ground at all times). And Resnick, who seems a bit more like the rest of us, shoos and chases the horse. She also carries a long stick, although without wielding it obtrusively.

My mind being in a state of pupation (is that a word?) on this matter, I'm assembling a list of pros and cons to help me sort out my thoughts.

CON, i.e. relinquishing the idea of trying to show dominance toward the horse:

1. Max (if that's his name) became a dependable, expressive horse who would safely carry riding students.
2. My first horse - a misanthropic Highland pony - trampled all over me (figuratively speaking). I did not have enough experience to assert myself, and basically adopted the same approach as Spilker with Max - please don't hate me, here's a treat. Gradually, by some mysterious process, he became very fond of me, and we developed a cordial, egalitarian relationship.
3. I forget where I read it (possibly Journal of Ravenseyrie - anyone?) - but there is a certain type of irenic non-alpha horse which the others will follow basically just because they like her. She can't steal their food, but she can make suggestions the others will follow. I know from my limited experience with sheep that the lead ewe was not the alpha ewe - she was the most intelligent, outgoing and, well, likeable one.
4. Spilker knows whereof she speaks.

PRO, i.e. it is helpful to the horse if you establish a certain kind of dominance:

1. I get the impression that Gus has somewhat lost interest in me as a person since I've given up insisting on him working if he doesn't feel like it. I've always let him refuse to come with me, but if he did agree (which was most of the time), I used to ask him (politely) to stay focused and work with me.
2. My Highland pony's girl-trampling tendencies notwithstanding, in hindsight I do believe (although I can't be sure) that he would have moved away from me in the field if I had approached him and told him to.
3. "Herding" horses does seem to help win their trust. I have found it to be very helpful in getting hard-to-catch horses to approach me. After being, not chased, but herded around, skittish horses will approach one confidently.
4. Hempfling and Resnick know whereof they speak.

It is likely that it is not an either/or dilemma, and that part of what I have to learn is how to recognize this.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Natural Diet

Today I took the new filly for a walk (or should I say she took me). Her previous residence, before moving to our barn, was a large field which encompassed an acre or two of woods. Once when I was visiting her there, I saw her eating some moss. I imagine there were other plants in the woods which she used to snack on as well.

In a recent post, Lynne Gerard writes that one of the young Sorraia mustangs started eating cedar fruits after being stuck in the nose by a porcupine. She notes that cedar oils are known to support the immune system.

Today on our walk, the filly ate some acorns which she found on the ground, as well as breaking off and chewing some shrub twigs (which I couldn't identify). I wonder what sources of nutrition she is deprived of by being confined to a pasture containing only grass, clover, and a few weeds.

Although the fields are manicured, the property is surrounded by woods and wooded trails. It would be a good idea to take the horses on regular foraging expeditions to the woods or to make foraging breaks a part of every trail ride.

Yet another reason to go bitless!

Bridget checks out the new place.

Cowardly Lion

Do you remember that scene in The Wizard of Oz where the Lion tries to be scary? That was me today.

I've been trolling through Youtube looking at various Carolyn Resnick and Waterhole Ritual videos and have come to the conclusion that it would not be inappropriate for my horse to move his feet when I ask - no, let's not beat around the bush here - when I tell him.

Today I realized that most of the horses around here (even Chloe) are already of the opinion that I am the sort of creature for whom one moves one's feet when asked. Under the circumstances, I believe it would be inconsiderate to practice asking them to move their feet. My husband is already a good listener - it would be quite rude if I randomly tested to see whether or not he was paying attention to me.

George, on the other hand, is One Tough Guy. Besides which, he has a metabolism like a fiery furnace, which makes him resent any attempts to move him out of a grazing spot.

I decided to go visit George and see what he thinks about me as a foot-mover. After a suitable interval of just hanging out (during which George comes up and says hello), I move assertively toward George's butt and say in a loud voice, "Move along!" No reaction. A couple of tries later I remove my jacket and wave it at his butt. This produces a resentful look and pinned ears but still no foot movement. This cannot be good.

Enter the Cowardly Lion. I pretend to be fierce and scary. I back off about 20 feet, paw the ground a little, wave my jacket over my head, and rush toward George growling and roaring. He moves. I try one or two more King of the Jungle charges, interspersed with episodes of peaceful co-existence. George moves each time.

I try again, using just a confident stride and assertive voice, and sure enough, this time he moves forward. Then Stoney, King of the Paddock, shows how it's done. He comes up and snakes his head meaningfully toward George, who instantly moves off.

Now, if you look that scene with the Cowardly Lion, Dorothy and the others are scared at first - but pretty soon they realize that the Lion can't deliver, that it's all a pantomime. When I charge at George, what makes it different from Stoney's approach is that Stoney is prepared to go all the way, to make contact, to deliver a bite or whatever it takes to assert his dominance. I, on the other hand, like the Cowardly Lion, am hoping that my Thespian abilities will fool George, but all the while knowing that I will back off at the last minute if I fail to convince.

Isn't this where carrying a stick comes in? Carrying a stick would make me feel safer, and therefore braver. I would be able to convince myself, and therefore the horse, that I really meant business. The stick would brace up my mental attitude, which is the key thing after all. I tend to be a very apologetic person, and I believe that while with some horses this is not so much of a problem, with George it is most definitely a hindrance.

What I really need to carry is an inner, absolute conviction that the horse will move for me. This is what Hempfling seems to possess. If I want to learn to be more like KFH, I think George is just the teacher.

That's the Tough Guy on the left, with his best buddy, Taz.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Gimme That Ol' Time Equitation

Sometimes I just want to Go Back - rewind the clock, and return to those good/bad old days when I thought I knew what I was doing.

Take today for instance.

Gus agreed to come out with me, which was nice. My daughter and George rode the whole time in the arena, so we did not go on the trail. I climbed on Gus, and we immediately started the Cloverleaf Exercise (see previous post, Haute Ecole). After a while, bolstered by recently hearing Carolyn Resnick say that your horse likes it when you control his access to food, I persuaded Gus that we might try something else.

We faffed about for a while, trying this and that, me very reluctant to get bossy, and Gus only just keeping his mind off the clover. Gus's trot used to be very headlong and on-the-forehand. At least in the arena, he never even suggests doing such a trot these days. He seems to have embraced the idea that this kind of trot is uncool. But he hasn't replaced it with anything more than a kind of wooden jog. I'm not looking for anything resembling collection -not yet anyway - but I wasn't really sure what I was looking for.

Then all of a sudden I caught a whiff of it - a light, bubbly, enthusiastic trot. I could sense that he wasn't going to keep it up for long, so I did what all good dressage riders do to signal approval. I started whooping at the top of my lungs - "wheeee, yahooo!" - if I'd had a cowboy hat, I'd've waved it in the air. I think he took this in the spirit it was intended. After a few yards, we adjourned to a clover patch for some revitalization - only this time, once again emboldened by Resnick, I insisted he wait for the go-ahead before dropping his head to graze. After a few minutes, I asked him to see if he could repeat the magic. Indeed he could. We did a couple more alternations of happy trot and clover-eating. Before the last Cloverleaf, I asked him to move his shoulder over. "Can't do it." "Yes, you can." "Nuh uh, time to eat." I just read in a recent post of Stormy May's that she has begun to feel it's appropriate to be more challenging with her horses, so I persisted: "Go on, yes you can." "Nope." "Gus, you'll feel great, go ahead." At a moment when I was not asking him, he scooted his shoulder over. Yay! A couple more minutes grazing, and then I was rewarded by a lovely light walk back to barn.

But oh my goodness. The ratio of clover-eating to exercise was - hmm, let's see - about 20:1. This is the horse I'm supposed to be "exercising" for the barn owner. Thankfully, most days he is not there to witness our strange goings on.

Gus executing the challenging Cloverleaf Maneuver

Alexander in the Lyons Den

I pretty much love John Lyons. Especially because he says this: "Horses are important to God .... "

Lyons is not as radical in his approach as the teachers I now try to emulate, and in the past, I have over-pressured horses using his techniques. I feel sure, however, that he himself would not make that same mistake. C'mon, the man's a mensch.

Lyons teaches many useful things, but there is one thing which I have found particularly useful. Several years ago I attended one of his weekend clinics. I was already familiar with the idea of using only one rein for halting, backing, etc. At the clinic I witnessed him sitting backwards on his horse, using one rein to steer the horse every which way, asking the horse to turn forehand or hindquarters at will. Some people were confused as to how this is possible, as he did not appear to be doing anything with the rein at all. What he said was that you think with the rein of the result you want. There is no cause-and-effect push-button technique - the result is achieved by the clarity of your thought communication.

In a previous incarnation, I trained as a teacher of the Alexander Technique. The Alexander Technique teacher places her hands upon her student with the intention of suggesting or "directing" various improvements in the student's "use" of her body. The hands are not supposed to demand the improvements, or manipulate or coerce - rather, the teacher tries to direct her thoughts through her hands into the student, so that the student's body will hear the suggestion and respond accordingly. The teacher's hands are the "aids."

It is extremely important that the hands do not insist or coerce, as the desired improvements largely consist of the release of habitual muscular shortening. You can demand that a muscle shorten, but you can only request that it lengthen.

The Alexander student's primary directive is to go "forward and up." "Forward" refers to the head having a certain "noddability" at the atlanto-occipital joint, i.e. flexing at the poll. And "up" refers to a vertical release along the spine, aka lengthening the topline.

That is why it is not appropriate to talk about "putting" a horse into a frame, or to pull a horse's head into position. The great desiderata of dressage - lengthening of the topline, and flexing at the poll - can only come about through release.

John Lyons made me realize that as you are sitting on the horse, you can use the rein, not only for "thought steering," but also as a remote hand to make suggestions to the horse about possible improvements and ways to think about what he is doing.

For example, you might notice that your horse is tense in the abdomen. Your mind, via your hand, via your rein, can say: "Hey, look at that - you're tightening your tummy too much - how about letting that go?" And the horse will respond. Or you might feel that your horse's head is disconnected from the rest of his back. (Often there is a break at the shoulders.) With your hand, you can ask the horse to sense a connection from his jaw/head/poll back to his withers, or his back, or all the way to his tail. Gus is long-backed, short-legged, and heavy on the forehand. When I started riding him, you could only ask him to connect back to his shoulders. Gradually we've gotten to where he will connect to the part of his back under the saddle. Other horses will immediately be able to connect all the way along the topline if you suggest it to them.

I very much respect the view that collection has to come "from behind." But much of the Alexander teacher's conversation with her student's body takes place between her hands and the student's head. I'm reluctant to totally relinquish the ability to say things to the horse, via his head, with my hand. I think the key thing I have to learn, in order to be able to validly continue using this helpful tool of communication, is to relinquish the use of the reins for control. I don't think I ever really realized this distinction until writing it here - the difference between using the reins for communication and using them for control.

Ok, so I'm going to have to spend even more time at the barn. Dang.

The one and only F.M.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Chloe Reflects

Today I arrived at the barn to find that Chloe and her two pasture mates had been relocated to a square-shaped pasture, with no comfortable "far end" to retreat to. Chloe didn't really want to speak to me, and so I took the new filly out for a walk. (More about her another day.)

After we returned (and the filly had been banished with suitably malevolent stares), Chloe accepted my invitation to leave the pasture with me. We had proceeded only a few steps when Chloe stopped in her tracks. She stood for a while, wondering whether it would be a good idea to follow me any further. Nope - and she beat a hasty retreat back to the pasture gate. When she realized that I was going to go along with this plan, she stopped again and decided she didn't want to go back into the pasture after all.

She then lead me to a gate into another pasture. I told her that under the rotational grazing plan this pasture was temporarily off limits. Looking back, I regret that decision, as it would not have hurt anything to take her in there for a while, and I missed the chance to respond to such a clear communication from her.

Chloe contemplating the conundrum of being out of the pasture and not being required to do anything in particular.

She stood for a while. She had used up all the treats in my pocket (which I had given her gratis), but she started offering to shake hands. She always offers the right leg, as taught. But the other day, I pointed to her left leg and said, "How about this one too?" She cottoned on quickly, and now will offer whichever leg you indicate. (Maybe there's a Spanish Walk in all this somewhere .....?!) She did some spinning in a circle, another "trick" she has learned. Then she stopped again and thought some more. After a while she started grazing. When the time came to return her to her pasture, she was reluctant to move. Finally I resorted to asking her to move in a circle toward me and away from me; she got the message and moved forward to her gate with a good grace.

Free in the pasture, she hung around beside me and offered some more tricks. She even spun around twice in a row. She really seems bent on using her tricks to establish some kind of connection.

After a few minutes, she said, "That's it for today!" and off she went to graze.

Finding the Inner Susie

Susie is a small, elderly West Highland White Terrier. She is short-sighted, hard of hearing, and her gait might best be described as a waddle. Reasonable people disagree as to her mental capacity. Although there are doubters who believe her outer composure reflects an inner lacuna. the more discerning among us believe she has immense spiritual depth and intellectual acumen.

The other dogs, however, are in universal agreement about her: She Must Be Obeyed. I found Susie by the side of the road one day in a thunderstorm - lost, soaking and confused. I drove around to all the neighboring houses to see if she belonged and then brought her home. As she walked through the door, our Anatolian Shepherd dog, who never in all her 15 years had backed down from an argument with man or beast, stepped aside and there and then ceded all power to the diminutive one. Susie, meanwhile, gave no sign of even having noticed her.

That's the thing - she regally ignores the other dogs yet inspires in them the utmost deference. Our pit bull and shepherd mix vie with each other to see who can finish breakfast first and then rush over to try and steal the remainder of the other's food. They both finish long before Susie, who continues eating unmolested, with nary a growl or a scowl, while the other two watch enviously from several feet away.

I'm not unlike Susie in some ways - the advancing years, the awkward gait, the diminishing eyesight, the fondness for a comfy spot on the couch and a drop of gin. (No, Susie so far has not taken to drinking gin, but she then she does so remind one of the Queen Mother.) But I want to be like her in other ways too. I would like to be able to raise a shaggy eyebrow (or whatever she does, because I can't see what it is) and command without recourse to agitated voice or excessive movement. It'd be nice if, as I waddled into the pasture, squinting through my fogged-up glasses, the horses all said to themselves, "Whoa - look at this magnificent creature - It must be our leader."

Susie's secret lies deep within her - a secret manifest to the other dogs, who can see what is hidden from the eyes of us humans. It is an inner strength, a knowledge, a mantle of power assumed onto the shoulders of her soul and worn with such conviction that no one dare question her right.

It is something like this that Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling is talking about - non-violent, unobstrusive authority. But authority in a human person always carries with it the danger of becoming a raw Nietzchean will to power. I certainly do not aspire to stand eating a pile of oats, surrounded by a group of deferential horses who dare not steal a nibble.

The kind of leadership I believe we're looking for is described in Isaiah 11:6:
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them
past the angel with the flaming sword, back into the Garden.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Plan B

Having given up "training" Chloe, today I hit upon an alternative: I'm going to try and help Chloe to train me.

It's not that it's impossible to train Chloe. Chloe is very trainable; indeed I have won many arguments with her in the past. But I don't want to argue with her any more. If she thinks it's a bad idea, then it is.

She seems to like learning "tricks" though. Learning tricks was never compulsory, and maybe she enjoys the ability to elicit a result by producing a certain behavior. Pondering on this point, I thought - what if I react in the same way every time she does certain things, so that she can figure out ways to influence my behavior?

Today, when she nudged me with her head, I moved away from her in the direction of the nudge. I think she got it. Or maybe it was all my imagination. She seemed to herd me to the edge of the pasture and leave me there. She went off to graze nearby, every now and then coming back to make sure I was still in place and glaring daggers at the new filly to make sure she wasn't sneaking closer. She would come up to me, touch me oh-so-gently with her nose, casting her eyes suspiciously over her shoulder, ears suddenly flattening, toward where the filly was grazing.

Finally I got bored and went and stood with her for a while. She knew I was all out of treats, but she offered several times to "shake hands" - trying to communicate something? I didn't come up with a response I could offer, except to enthusiastically "shake" back - I'll have to think about what she might like me to do when she offers a foot - maybe I did the right thing - who knows? I hung out with her for a while longer, scratching her back as she grazed. When I left, she stayed where she was, in her favorite far-off corner of the pasture. When she saw me playing with the filly later in the distance, she didn't move.

I'm beginning to see that Chloe isn't nearly as negative about pony/human interaction as I'd thought. It's just very important for her that it happen on her terms. So we're doing everything at the far end of the pasture. Maybe she'll teach me some new tricks.

Grandmother's Footsteps

I told you Gus was a little quirky, right?

One day I was in his pasture, leaning over the gate, talking to the mare-next-door. Gus and his brother, Skipper, were a few yards off. I chanced to look over at them and saw them both staring at me, enigmatically, heads lowered in unison.

I kept talking to the mare, and every time I looked over they had advanced a step or two. Gus, being the leader, would take half a step forward, and Skipper would follow. Pause. Another half-step, pause, and so on. It must have taken them all of ten minutes to cover 20 yards, and they kept up the enigmatic stare the whole time. They finally reached where I was standing, and we all had a nice chat.

It was about the funniest thing I ever saw.

Gus is the one with the blaze.

Haute Ecole

Gus and I don't always agree. Sometimes out on the trail, we have a difference of opinion. It goes something like this:

Gus: Aarggghhh! There's a log! I think we should be very, very concerned and possibly call the authorities.

Me: Um, Gus, can you hear yourself? It's a log.

Gus: Oh, ok, whatever.


Gus: Here's a great spot for me to start going fast!

Me: You can go as fast as you like, just as soon as you figure out how to do it without leaning your nose almost to the ground. Cos otherwise I'll fall off.

Gus: Ok, I can do it, look I'm doing it, yes, oops, no maybe not. Ok I'll walk.

Friendly differences. But in the arena it's another story. My daughter likes to work with her green horse in the arena before setting out on the trail. So I take Gus in there too. I say, "Yippee! I've got a great idea! Let's do figures of eight and work on engagement!" Whereupon Gus replies, "I've got an even better idea - let's not."

So we have devised a useful and mutually agreeable dressage exercise to pass the time; it's called Cloverleaf, as in Eating the.

This handy exercise has also proved invaluable in getting Gus to let me clamber on board. At first, he used to - oh, so politely - shift himself from the mounting block so I couldn't get on. I would wheedle and plead. Then I'd give him a treat and ask him to reconsider. Whereupon, being a nice guy, he would usually say, "Oh my goodness, if it means that much to you ..." I thought he maybe didn't like his bridle, or his saddle. But I don't think that's it. I think he likes to set the agenda. So now, when I get up, the first thing I say is, "What would you like to do now?" The answer is usually, "Stand here for a minute and think about it." And then, "O.k. now let's go do that fun Cloverleaf exercise." So we amble off into a corner and graze until my daughter and her horse are ready to set out.

Gus and me. A work in progress.


Gus is a bright red, stocky quarter horse from the Skipper W line. He belongs to the barn owner and is my riding buddy. He has an unusually shaped (but very handsome) head, with odd whorls, which if you believe Linda Tellington-Jones, indicates a quirky personality. I prefer the word "mercurial."

Yesterday, when I went to bring Gus in from the pasture for a ride, he approached me as usual and let me put the halter on. But then, when I invited him to follow me towards the barn, he gave me the look that only Gus can give. It seems to say, "I'm so sorry, dear, but today just doesn't work with my schedule. Why don't you have your people call my people in a day or two, and we'll see what can be done."

Every time this happens, I am convinced Gus will never come with me again. I asked his brother Skipper if he would like to come. He replied, "Um, thanks for asking, but no." So I went over to the Morgans' pasture, where Duncan said, "Oh yes please! Take me with you!" So shaggy old Duncan came along, and we trimmed his feet, and then went for walkies along the trail, and we had a lovely time, and he didn't want to go back into the pasture.

So I guess it worked out. Though I still don't know if Gus will ever come with me again .......

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Lesson of German Measles

When my children were small (and still), I was greatly influenced by La Leche League and John Holt, the Imke Spilkers of the child development world. I believed my children were to be trusted, that they were not little monsters bent on manipulating those around them for their own advantage. I believed that all you had to do was to treat them with respect, love, and reason and that the result would be a child who followed his own path while respecting the needs of others.

And then would come a day. The child would whine, the child would fret and be petulant. The child would grow more and more unreasonable, and I would think, "O.k. this is it, I was wrong, sometimes you've just gotta get tough."

And then the child would turn out to have German Measles.

And once again I would re-learn the lesson: Your Child is Not Your Enemy. Listen to Your Child.

This lesson applies to horses. I have still not learned this lesson.

. . . . . . . .
p.s. Well, actually, yes, my kids all had the MMR vaccine, but German Measles just sounds better in the prose than any other disease.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Eponymous Pony

Chloe is a pony of small size but great conviction. Seven years ago, I went out looking for a large, quiet pony and came home with a small spitfire. Why? Chalk it up to destiny, I guess.

She was supposed to be "broke to ride," which meant, it turns out, that the man who owned her had one day pulled her out of the brood mare herd, slapped a saddle on her back, jumped on board, and she had not gone crazy. As time gradually revealed her character to me, I came to realize her ability to withstand this was entirely the result of her stout heart and probably nothing to do with any prior experience under saddle.

She arrived with the name Coco and no love for human beings. Renamed Chloe, she began to be re-educated. I had lately discovered John Lyons and was delighted to find that his techniques brought about many positive changes for Chloe. Didn't want to be caught? No problem - within a short while, she was easier to catch than the easy-to-catch horses. Doesn't want to stand still? No problem - in no time she was standing untied to be groomed and saddled.

I could write volumes about Chloe. But suffice it to say that despite becoming a "fun ride" (for an experienced rider), she never came to embrace the whole project. She just does not approve. She is, I believe, of the type which Hempfling calls "The Origin" - wild in their nature, unyielding, sensitive, independent, noble, honest, demanding righteousness.

I wish I'd known her before whatever happened to her in the first 12 years of her life caused her to become so sceptical. I wish when she first arrived to live with us, I'd known what I know now and had not insisted on various behavioral "improvements" without waiting to find out what she thought about it all. But that is in the past. Today I have instituted the "Chloe Rule," which states: Chloe Never Has To Do Anything She Doesn't Want To. Technically this applies to all the horses. But the other horses want to do a lot of things, whereas Chloe is On Strike. Chloe says, "No, nope, nuh uh, forget it, not likely, nothing doing." But since the institution of the Chloe Rule, she - for the first time - sometimes seems to find me an acceptable companion. She'll play a little in the field; sometimes if I open the gate, she'll come through into the barn and potter around of her own accord. Sometimes she'll come and stand by me so I can brush her. She'll volunteer to do tricks to get treats out of me. She'll even stand placidly while I lean on her and hug her and generally act like a silly sentimental person. Once - memorably - she even followed me out of the barn when I slipped a rope around her neck and invited her to come out and find some clover.

She's about 19 now. I hope she lives to be 40. How long will it take for her to forgive all the impositions that were heaped upon her (by myself and others) in the past? By all accounts, Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling can heal a horse in a few minutes or hours or days. How long will it take if, instead, she's stuck with Harpo Marx?

Catching Sweetie

The other day a friend was out of town and needed me to catch her mare for the natural hoof trimmer. This, of course, was a treat for me as an aspiring trimmer, as it gave me an opportunity to pick the trimmer's brain. However, first I had to bring the mare in.

Out I go with the halter and lead rope. The mare, living up to her name, graciously approaches and allows me to put on the halter. Ah, but that's as far as it goes. She is quite happy out in the pasture and sees no need to proceed to a different location, thank you. What is it Imke says? If the horse's "no" is definite, you take the halter off, give her a treat, and off you go to play with your dog. But what do you do if you've been entrusted to bring her to meet the trimmer who has driven in from upstate and expects you to be on time? I try putting it to her that she should look upon this as going for a spa treatment, that there will be no work involved on her part, and that there may be many treats in store as well. She is unimpressed.

Once upon a time, I would have poked her in the ribs or swatted her with the leadrope. But in my new reality, this is Not Allowed. I find I am unable to overpower her will with my Svengali-like gaze (I love you madly, Klaus, I want to be you). So I try channelling Harpo Marx (whom I slightly resemble anyway) and merrily dance toward her hind legs, causing her to move them over. After this jolly pas de deux, I invite her to proceed in a forward direction. She thinks maybe a step or two wouldn't hurt. Thus we continue to the barn: Harpo dance, couple of steps, dance, steps, dance.

We make it. The trimmer is very nice and answers all my questions. Sweetie finds a nice patch of clover to eat while he does her feet.

I wish I were a brooding German genius. But for now I'll have to settle for being a Marx sister.