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

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Baby Steps

Well.  I have made a wee tiny bit of progress.  I don't react quite as much when something sudden or unexpected happens -  for example when Bridget spooks at the dog lurking in the underbrush. Reality has slowed down a smidge, allowing me time to see what's happening, and act appropriately, rather than going, as heretofore, "ARGHBLEAGRUGHBLUH!" So.  Over 40 years with horses, and I have only just learned not to go "ARGHBLEAGRUGHBLUH!" Better late than never.

Here's something Bridget and I are working on.  I don't bother about our mutual position when on the leadrope.  We saunter along, Bridget moving from one side of me to the other, sometimes taking the lead, sometimes not. But every now and then she takes it into her head to haul me off to some particularly choice patch of greenery. I take exception to being hauled. So, I am endeavouring to convey to her, by stopping and refusing to move, that hauling is not the solution.  I would like to be gently suggested to.  I think she's getting it. The key is to use my newly-learned technique of finding my own center (oh that just sounds so cliched) and refusing to be yanked about -- I convey this by means of mind vibes.  Oh yes, that's what I'm talking about.  And reciprocally, I realize that I mustn't haul or yank on her.  When I wish us to move, I convey extremely meaningful thoughts down the rope.  I pull with direction. She gets it.

My desire to move faster must have been timely, because today Bridget and I had quite a good trot.  She got ahead of me, but, hey, we were moving.  And Chloe!  Today, after Bridget had been turned out in the pasture, Chloe again hung back and led me off away from the barn for some Chloe time.  We had a brisk jog as we set off, and then another one on the way back to the barn. Before, if she would run while on the leadrope, she would forge way ahead, and I would have quite a hard time keeping up.  But today she kept me on a loose rope, about level with her shoulder.  She had a very intense look on her face - almost as if she were annoyed - but I think it was just that she was very focused on keeping an eye on my position.

George and my daughter joined
us on the grazing walk today

Sometimes Bridget is a little too intrepid

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Catching the Wave

I find myself a little .... thwarted, perhaps.  I'd like some action, I'd like to do something, to move forward a little.

Thus I felt today, while out on our grazing walk.  I'd caught a surge of energy from Bridget as we left the barn, and the two of us trotted for a short while before settling down to graze. I'd hoped for more. There seems to be a limit to my ability to enjoy watching other people consume tender green shoots, no matter how beautiful the day or how lovely the eater. So I said, "Hey, Bridget - let's go do something."  Well, she was up for it, and we traversed the scary, dark tractor barn to the magical land beyond ....

where another burst of energy carried us forward at a run.  Then after scoping out some horses on the other side of a fence, it was time to eat some more.

When I look at videos of Hempfling or Resnick or Nevzorov working, their horses seem to be bubbling over with that energy which at the moment is so elusive in my relationship with our horses. Experiencing a release of that force today, rather than satisfying me, has made me hungry for more, has made me see that it is the raw material of any "work" that is to be done, and without it, it feels like we're doddering about like old ladies. (Which, ahem, in my case, is a little too close to home.)

When it was time to go back to the barn, Bridget did not approve of leaving Chloe in the candy store,

and although she followed me, after a few steps she reached over and nipped my arm.  I'm getting better at not reacting to stuff like that - I just said, "No" and kept going. Chloe realized we'd left without her and came cantering along after us.

Today the sky was very fine.


When I was a lass, here's what they said about catching a horse in the field:  you should go up to it with the halter behind your back, and then when the horse is distracted, you slip the rope around its neck, and then put the halter on.

Nowadays I take a different approach.  I go up to the horse with the halter clearly visible and say:  "Hey, horse, here's a halter.  Whaddya think?"

No need to be duplicitous or sneaky.  It only makes the horse sneaky back.  The transition from not-wearing-the-halter to wearing it should be smooth, agreeable and mutually consensual.  When I show Bridget the halter, she always says, "Treats first!"  After treats, she says "Scratches next!"  And then she'll agree to wearing the halter so she can go for an expedition.

It should be the same with mounting I think.  The transition from being on the ground with the horse to being with it on its back should be seamless.  Without that awkward moment of "holding" the horse still, or hopping around, or arguing about positioning next to the mounting block.

I've been hearing a lot lately that a feeling of something being not quite right usually means something isn't quite right. The not-quite-right feeling I have about riding is not concerned with actually being on the horse but with the moment of mounting. It's a feeling that for that moment, you have to capture and control the horse.  Before that moment, there was a dialog; after that moment, the dialog resumes.  But during that moment, you have assumed unilateral control.

I think, too, the paraphernalia of riding gets in the way - the saddle with the potential to slip, the stirrups, the mounting block.  Somehow even the kicking and scrambling and grabbing of hair with my old pony was not as intrusive as all that man-made equipment.  I envy people like Hempfling who can lithely vault onto their horses.

I've owned two horses in my life who would let you climb on their backs while they were out at liberty in a field, both horses who didn't hesitate to let you know if something displeased them.  Not being very dainty or athletic, I used to haul myself up onto my first pony's back by grabbing handfuls of his winter coat on the far side of his back. (This was after knowing him for several years!) You didn't have to be diplomatic or sneaky - you could be up front. You had the feeling, standing beside him, that there was no barrier to climbing onto his back, that it was ok.

If I'm going to continue riding, I need to have that feeling.

I have faith that it will work out in the end.  The only way I can really keep up with my horse is to be on his back. I want to be there.  It may take a long time, the riding we do may not fit into any recognizable category, and I don't have a plan of how to achieve it - but I hope.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Too Darn Hot

Today at the barn, the atmosphere was different.  It was very muggy. The horses had been cooped up for hours during a tornado watch and were eager to get out and eat.  I took Chloe and Bridget for a grazing walk - they were very focused on eating, and Chloe didn't even notice when Bridget and I had gone back to the pasture.  She came to, and ran up to the fence whinnying until I reappeared and suggested she follow me back. George was off at the far end of his pasture, head down.

I think when I come to the barn, I'm often thinking about the last time I was there - perhaps thinking of trying to recreate the mood, or continue something we were doing.  It can take me a while to adjust to the new mood of the day.  Obviously the horses remember the past - an awareness manifested by fear or trust or anticipation - but they are always already slotted into the new day.

Here's the tractor barn.  I like images of portals.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Quiet Morning at the Barn

Today I took George out for a little excursion.  We snooped around the barn and then wandered up the drive, grazing. Since I've given up trying to make him be respectful, he has become much more considerate. He acknowledges my presence to a greater extent, and I feel more relaxed and comfortable being with him.

I'm including a video of me feeding George treats.  He used to be over-eager about snatching treats from one's hand, as were a couple of other horses here. I've found the solution to be a) feed more treats, and b) ask him to move his mouth away from the treat-holding hand before I give it to him. Moving his mouth just a half an inch is enough - or even just having the thought of moving it. I'm feeding treats with one hand and holding my phone with the other, so it's very wobbly, but you can see at least one instance of him obviously moving his mouth away at around 14-17 seconds. I'll be able to dispense with this exercise pretty soon, I think.

Since I've been being nice to him, he's not that keen on rejoining his buddies. Here he is standing by the gate after I left to take Chloe and Bridget out--

After Chloe and Bridget's grazing walk, a thunderstorm was threatening, so the horses were all brought in.  I brought the mounting block into Chloe's stall and sat beside her while she dozed. Her door was open, and after a while she ventured out to graze beside the barn.  When it was time for her to come in, I walked out and called her name -- she turned around and came right back in to her stall.  I can't get over the transformation in this little horse.  But of course it's not really her that's changed - it's me.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Peaceful George

Dominance schmominance.  I've taken to giving George everything he asks for.

If he wants treats, he gets them.  He bangs on the gate - I open it.  When he nudges me with his head, I scratch it.

He still seems somewhat inarticulate, or reserved.  If I don't respond by complying when he makes his wishes known, how will he ever have the confidence to learn to speak his mind clearly?

Today when I was turning him out in the pasture, I fed him a pocketful of treats.  Then, rather than going off to join his buddies, he stayed with me, getting me to scratch his neck and chest.  After a while, he tucked me into a cozy corner by his shoulder and became very relaxed.  Standing there, I felt so peaceful, a feeling I have up til now never experienced in the context of George.

Standing inside George's space

I know there's a place for dominance.  One day I'll figure it out.  But for now, the way to George's heart (which is, after all, the part of George I'm interested in) is by another route.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Back in the Saddle Again

Today I did a peculiar thing.  I went for a ride.

The thing is, my daughter likes to go for a trail ride with George and, understandably, doesn't want to go alone.  She used to ride around the farm on Kelsey, just the two of them.  But Kelsey was a grand old lady, who would always take care of things, while George, on the other hand, needs to be taken care of.  He's pretty laid back, but he's inexperienced, and you never know.

I'm not even going into whether or not my daughter and George ought to be riding around the farm in the first place.  As I said before, I'm leaving the two of them pretty much to their own devices.  However, today I decided to try and accompany them so they could get out of the arena and enjoy a change of scenery.  I say "try", because one never knows if Gus will agree to come along when you show up with a halter.  Today when I arrived, however, he was in his stall, which always bodes well for an affirmative answer to an invitation.

He readily accompanied me out of his stall and half way down the drive to the boarding barn.  Then things slowed down.  With Gus you never know if you've entered "Gus Time," which is a zone where time slows to a glacial pace, or if he just feels like hanging out and having some snacks. Whichever it was, I cajoled, wheedled, flattered and bribed; and as Gus is at heart a Really Good Guy, he came along.

Having ruled out bareback, not fancying much for my chances out in the wide world without a saddle if Gus jumped suddenly, I put his saddle on.  However, today was the day to break out the bitless bridle.

Up on Gus's back, the first thing we have to do is Eat (well, Gus does).  Then when he lifts his head up, I suggest forward locomotion.  Yes!  He agrees, and sets off into the sand area.  I can immediately tell that the bitless bridle is a big improvement.  When I first started riding him, he was very heavy on his forehand.  He has improved a great deal, but with this bridle, there was a palpable difference straight away.  I guess removing the discomfort, and the anticipation of even greater discomfort, produces a relaxation which translates into lightness.

A couple of Cloverleaf Maneuvers (interspersed with turns around the arena) later, Gus decides to leave the arena and find something to eat outside.  Fortunately my daughter and George are ready to hit the trail.  So off we go.

This is all new territory now.  I used to be In Charge - tactfully so, I hope, responsively so .... but now I'm trying to be democratic.  Of course, it's bit disingenuous because I'm not really going to let him go home.  So I guess you could say I kindasorta split the difference.  I'm giving in to Gus as much as possible, but still expecting him to come on the ride even if he changes his mind and wants to leave. (Of course George is ahead of us, and Gus isn't going to go off and leave him.)  Anyway, whenever he wants to stop, we stop.  I try to let him pick the pace. And with the bitless bridle, he's going rather nicely with minimal input from me. There was no moment when we directly disagreed.

A funny thing happened when we were almost home. We strayed into the edge of some luscious half-grown hay, bright green, about 12 inches tall.  I let Gus have a bite or two.

Then - and I hadn't asked him to do anything - he suddenly got annoyed and started walking backwards, as if in rebellion at being asked to walk forwards.  Which I hadn't asked.  He must have been having an internal battle between the Gus who thought we should keep going after George and the Gus who wanted to stay and eat delicious grass.  All I had to do was sit there while the struggle between Gus and his Conscience enacted itself, until he shrugged his shoulders, turned, and headed for home.

Later, after Gus and George were turned out again, I went to see Bridget and Chloe, feeling awfully guilty at having used up all my time without taking them out.  I gave them treats and scratched them a bit.  Bridget was ok, but Chloe I think is very mad at me.

My daughter's riding has improved so much in the months since she has had George.  Under her care and tutelage, he has made great strides too.  The challenge of working with a green horse has made her focused and conscious in a new way. It's ironic that this should happen at a time when I am ambivalent about the whole riding project.  I am not going to let my ambivalence cloud her achievement, however.  She deserves praise and encouragement, and I intend to give it. Just because I'm heading off in some weird new direction doesn't mean that she is required to be on the same track. Today, though, when George was showing a little reluctance to go through a narrow passage between some trees, I said, "Remember Janosch and Hempfling!  Don't insist on him going through - ask him to stay in position and wait for him to decide to go on his own!  It'll be a bonding experience!"  I don't believe her response was entirely gracious - but maybe she listened.

So, yeah, riding .... we'll see.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A Brief Visit to the Barn

My husband was up for some exercise today.  He was going to walk to the Post Office.  Now really, when there's a barn to go to and two dogs who need a run, it's a no-brainer.  Go with your wife to visit the horses, and drop the letters in the mail en route.

So off we went to the barn, where he set off round the fields with the dogs and I spent a short time with the horses.

When the time came to return Bridget and Chloe to their pasture, Chloe stayed behind, but I think she sensed the Presence of Husband (who had meanwhile returned and was getting anxious to leave) as having a chilling effect on our togetherness.  So, after a little one-on-one time, she agreed to go back into the pasture without demur.

Before taking Chloe and Bridget out, I spent a little time with George.  The difference between him and the girls today seemed very clear.  Bridget and Chloe are overflowing with opinions and suggestions (although I'm far from understanding all they're saying), while George remains very reserved.  He continues to strike me as having a duality in his character - one part of him is a hard, self-sufficient guy, and the other is a floppy-eared little sweetie.  He is calm and unreactive,yet sensitive. We don't know anything of his background prior to about four years of age. I wonder if his reserve is due to his having, at some point in his former life, been "shut down".  Today I felt that if he shows signs of irritation, rather than trying to shut him down, I should respect what he is saying.  If he pins his ears at a certain approach, I should give him space - not in fear, but out of consideration - trying to keep a connection to him even as I back off.  If he paws his feet when he's impatient, I should sympathize, not criticize.  I need to spend some patient time with him, learning to listen.  Chloe and I have come such a long way in our mutual understanding in such a short time, that I should be optimistic about George too.

We heard some sad news today too - Chloe and Bridget's pasture mate, a 22-year old Arabian mare belonging to a little 11-year old girl, died at a vet's office on the way to a polocrosse tournament.  A post-mortem revealed multiple tumors in her intestine.  They'd stopped at the vet's because she showed signs of colic in the truck, and they left her overnight; she bounced back somewhat but was dead in the morning.  With hindsight, she's not been looking quite happy for a long time.  I guess it's better that she went quickly in the end. She and her little girl seemed very fond of each other.  Things seemed rather flat at the barn today without her, even though I never much to do with her.  I wonder if the other horses know.

Next time I go to the barn - I keep promising myself - I will go for the whole day.  We'll see.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Manners 101

Here's something Gus and George and Bridget have taught me:  Broadside approaches are to be avoided.

I have remarked that Gus and George have a sense of vulnerability about being approached on their flank.  Recently, when they were being especially nice to me, they each deliberately put me next to their flank.  They did not achieve this position by sidepassing up to me, or pivoting toward me.  Instead, they started with their head next to me, and moved forward, sliding against me until I was level with their flank.

When Bridget wants me to scratch her quarters, she doesn't just come up and swing her tail end into me. Again, she starts at her head or shoulder and rubs against me like a cat and then pushes her quarters against me.

I think to be in that potentially threatening position as a friend, you have to "enter the house by the front door."  That is - you have to start at the head.  George and Gus showed me the way to enter.  On the other hand, I think Bridget, who is not nearly as picky as they are, slides against me for my benefit to show that it is not a hostile butt-slam which is coming up, but a friendly one.

Of course, that's how horses are mounted - from a broadside approach.  And a horse in cross ties is constantly bombarded by humans coming up to him from the side.

Us humans are not very mannerly.

A Couple of Observations

Sometimes, as I walk beside Bridget, she moves with a little extra impulsion, as if she could spring forward at the slightest touch.  On such occasions I have asked if she'd like to run with me.  But always she has declined.  Bridget is a little horse with her head screwed on and her feet on the ground - not one to go running ahead at the slightest provocation.

But today, while she and I were out alone (Chloe, having decided to stay with George, to whom she had become very attached today during Social Hour), I felt that energy again and started to jog.  Bridget started to jog too, and the two of us ran along together for a few strides, with a feeling of pleasant synchronicity. It felt for a moment that we were together in the same bubble, as Spilker puts it.

When I need her to head back to the barn, I have found it quite useless to direct energy at her in an attempt to get her to move sideways, forwards, or wherever.  It might work once, but then she's wise to it.  What does work, however, is to head out to the end of the length of rope in the direction I want us to go, wait, and look at her.  Then she'll come with me.  It's as if she refuses to be manipulated and will only respond to a direct request.

I am glad that Bridget, as it were, insists that we learn to walk before we run, both literally and metaphorically. Despite her youth and spirit, she is patient and grounded.  Which hopefully makes up in some measure for my inadequacy in both those areas!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Malcolm Chimes In, and Bridget Seems to Agree

Yesterday, as I didn't go to the barn, the dogs were deprived of their exercise.  So in the evening, my husband and I put their leashes on and took them for a walk.

We have those extra-long retractable leashes to allow the dogs to explore and run more freely than if they had to stay close by our side.  The quiet enjoyment of my stroll is sometimes rudely jolted by Malcolm running to the end of his leash and yanking. One of the techniques that I've used to try and fix this issue, both with Malcolm, and (in the past) with Chloe, is to stop when I feel a pull and refuse to move until the pressure is relaxed.  This has met with only limited success, as Malcolm will back up to let the pressure off but then repeat the whole process a few minutes later.

Last night, for some reason, I reacted a little differently.  I've always focussed on what the dog is doing - stop when he pulls, wait until he is not pulling and proceed.  But this time, my attention turned to myself - I thought:  I'm not moving until I feel comfortable, until I'm not being pulled out of balance.  At the moment when I felt safely back in my own balance, I continued walking - regardless of whether or not there was a slight tug. And while walking, if I felt a little tension, I didn't stop unless I felt it interfered with my serenity.

Well, I'd like to say that Malcolm was perfect for the rest of the walk.  That would be an exaggeration.  However, I can definitely say things went a lot better than usual. Malcolm, although visibly oblivious to my presence on the other end of the leash, was behaving differently.

Today at the barn I remembered this when Bridget did her usual wham-here's-my-butt-scratch-it-now shove, a move which definitely carries topple potential for the bipedal recipient. So, today, rather than focussing on pushing Bridget off me when she slammed into me, I thought about how I felt.  I thought about it only once - and for the rest of the time, she behaved completely differently. She leads into the shove by sliding next to me - but today, after the slide, rather than slamming into me, she kindof sidled her back legs away a little.

She (and Malcolm) must be about 1000% more sensitive than us humans, which is what everyone keeps saying, but when you see it in action it is very, well, humbling.

So I'm glad I didn't go the barn yesterday. And thank you, Malcolm.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Chloe Takes Matters Into Her Own Hands

Today, after Bridget was tucked back into the pasture following our grazing walk, Chloe hung back, as is becoming her habit.

She proceeded to go in and out of gates and doors and stalls, stopping every now and then for a micro-nap.  Sometimes I'm not sure if she's telling me something or just wants to take a break.  Today, for instance, she insisted she wanted to go into her stall, so I finally opened the door for her, which made me wonder if she wanted to do knee bends and neck stretches, since that's the first place we did them.  She really likes her "exercises," and I do think her sway back has improved since we started them. When she touches my hand with her nose, I wonder if she's telling me to work on her.  But I'm not sure!

We were pottering about in a rather sleepy way, when all of a sudden she snapped to attention and whinnied.  She strode purposefully out of the barn, up the driveway and toward the other barn.  She seems to be in heat at the moment, and Gus, a rather high-testosterone gelding, lives up at the other barn.  The door leading to his pasture was closed, however, and Chloe tracked down three handsome Friesian geldings.  On closer inspection, they failed to impress, and she led us back to her own barn.

Are there any Real Men around here?

Returning to the barn is all very well, but then there is the question:  How do we persuade Chloe to go back to the pasture?  Following Jenny's advice, I offered treats and explained the matter sympathetically to her. Didn't work.  Finally my tact gave way to exasperation:  Oh for goodness sake, Chloe, you've got to come now. Whereupon she sweetly stepped forward and accompanied me back to the pasture gate.

A few short months ago, Chloe never ever wished to leave the pasture, and would take every opportunity to try and get back there as quickly as possible. When she was being lead, she would either refuse to move or rush forward, dragging whoever was on the other end of the leadrope behind her. Today she walked calmly forward, about half a length ahead of me, the rope loose, and she has absolutely no desire to go back to her pasture!

When we first went to see Chloe (seven years ago!), I saw a little mare who, although rather anxious and oppressed on the surface, seemed as if she could be sweet and helpful and kind.  I kept that Chloe suppressed for all these years, and she has only been able to emerge when given the freedom to choose for herself.

By George, She's Got It

This is my week for apologies.  Carolyn Resnick surely knows what she's doing, but I think Carrots' Last Stand is not for me at the moment.  I'm sure there are circumstances where it is helpful to establish your superior claim to food or territory or other desiderata - but I've been going about things all the wrong way.

Today, while anticipating going to the barn, I just didn't quite feel good about it.  Why?  I wondered and thought and wondered some more. Then all of a sudden it hit me:  the image of George a couple of days ago, standing rather forlornly nudging his feed tray when I went into his stall.  It dawned on me: that wasn't just a random dumb-horse-doesn't-know-it's-already-had-its-dinner moment - George was telling me something.  He was saying, How come you never feed me treats?

Now, I've been "told" by more than one person that I shouldn't feed George treats because he is "grabby" and "disrespectful."  I bought into this well-meaning advice.  So I would hardly ever give him any treats, or I would place them in his dish, as I did the other day.  Meanwhile he can see me handing out treats to Chloe and Bridget like I'm the Easter Bunny.

As soon as I had thought of this, I was consumed with eagerness to get to the barn.  After attending to some human business, I finally made it - went to the tack room, stuffed my pocket as full as it would go with treats and went out to see George.  He came up to me, and I fed him all the treats one by one until there were none left.  When the treats were gone, I scratched his jaw for a little, and then he slid along next to me, placing me in the "bad spot" on his right flank, exactly where he doesn't normally want me to be.

I stayed to hang out with him (and Stoney, the dominant gelding, whom I would not allow to approach me) for a while.  George came up to me several times, not at all grabby or looking for treats, but just friendly like. He didn't repeat that initial moment of closeness, and I tried to be aware of his reactions and give him distance when he seemed to want it.

Eventually, I began to get a little bored.  Chloe and Bridget had, all this time, been in the next-door pasture ignoring my presence in a most uncharacteristic way. Right when I began to  be bored, Chloe walked up to the fence and looked over at me:  It's our turn now!

I begin to see the sense behind Imke Spilker giving treats to Max, the dangerously aggressive gelding. George's former owner (my good friend) and I agreed that George's owner-before-former owner had exacerbated his tendency to be irascible by reacting with fear when he showed anger.  This may well be the case, but we thought that the solution was to react with dominance and sternness.  Spilker sees that the opposite of fear is not force, but love.  I guess that's what it means to turn the other cheek.  Stormy May has an interesting perspective on this in her recent post about Ghandi and horses, equating turning the other cheek not with passivity but with courage, which, after all, derives from the word for heart.
There is no fear in love; but perfect love casteth out fear: because fear hath torment. He that feareth is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18)

So.... sorry, George.  But he already forgave me.

Horseman Hears a Who

Then the Lord said, "Go outside and stand on the mountain before the Lord; the Lord will be passing by."  A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord--but the Lord was not in the wind.  After the wind there was an earthquake--but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake there was fire--but the Lord was not in the fire.  After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.  When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak...."                                                                                (1 Kings 19:11-13) 

We are not horse whisperers.  We are the ones whispered to.  The horse's voice is a tiny sound, like a rustling of leaves.

Not always, of course. When Bridget slams her butt up against me to make me scratch her, that's more like a shout than a whisper. But there are other times ... when Gus crept up to me yesterday and mentioned that he had a moment to spare if I would like to work on his foot.  He spoke in a very soft little voice which seemed to rise up from a great depth to my normally deaf ears.

And when you hear the horse's voice, it's as if there are a thousand other whispering voices behind his, a world of murmuring creatures waiting to be heard.
For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.  We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now[.]                                                      (Romans 8:19-22)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Gus is Magnanimous, George is a Conundrum, and Chloe Plans an Expedition

This morning I hurried off to the barn, anxious to make amends to Gus for having treated him rudely yesterday.  Bearing a peace offering of carrots in my pocket, I went out to Gus and Skipper's pasture.  They were  hanging out in the area by the gate, always a sign that they are available for conversation and interaction.  They both came right over when they saw me.  I gave them their treats and told Gus I was sorry.  He was particularly affectionate, and I do not believe this was because I was bossy to him yesterday;  I believe it was because he could tell I was determined not to be bossy today.  He even slid past me, putting me next to his flank so I could scratch him - something he has never done before.

After a while, they set out on a Grazing Mission.  They leave their area by the gate and take off on a wide loop of the pasture, heads down, doing some serious eating.  At this time, they are usually not too interested in interacting, especially Gus.  However, Gus's front toes needed a little trimming, and I decided to follow him with the rasp and ask him to give me his foot every so often, when it was convenient for him.  He was very nice about it, and whenever that foot was free, he would voluntarily pick it up for a moment or two and let me work on it.  I felt as if I were a hairdresser, cutting the hair of an important tycoon on a conference call - most of the time I had to back off while he shuffled papers or talked - but whenever there was a lull he would beckon me over to take another snip.  At one point, when I was just standing by myself, Gus even came up to me, very gently nosed my rasp hand, and kindof sortof drew my attention to his right forefoot. I bent down, he lifted his foot for me, and let me work on it for a moment.

After  a while, they returned to their hangout area by the gate, where I was able to work for a longer period of time on the outside of Gus's feet.  Before I left, he expressed a little interest in the halter, but when I put it on, he didn't want to come - so I took it off again.

I think Gus, rather than having no bubble, has a rather thin one.  And that he kind of has to let you slide under and into it.  And that, today, he let me do that.

It's interesting to me that Gus, who is Mr. Dominant in the pasture, hangs out in Skipper's shadow the way George hangs out by the more dominant gelding's side.  It's almost like they both want a mom, but Gus says, "Hey you, I'm making you my mom, ok, but you still have to do what I say."  And George says, "You must be my mom cos you're taking care of things."

Even the Prince likes to shelter under
the kindly wing of the Friend.

Feeling happy about Gus and Skipper, I headed down to the boarding barn to find George, alone in the pasture without his buddies, hovering by the pasture gate.  Fetching a long stick, I went in to reprise my territory-staking exercise.  George tried a couple of times to come up to me, looking innocent.  But I wasn't buying it.  I have been told on several occasions that George lacks respect.  I believe, however, that the issue is not respect but trust.  I don't have to concern myself about whether Gus respects me, because he seems to trust me, and he knows that I cannot be pushed around.  And George doesn't respect me because he doesn't trust me.

George seems to be, as I may have said  before, a mixture of Sergeant and Dandy.  The Sergeant wants clear boundaries, wants to know who's in charge, and especially wants to know that the person in charge is reliable - and will feel isolated, alienated and, eventually, angry if he can't count on that person.  The Dandy is sweet, amiable, childlike and somewhat vulnerable.  It is the Dandy in George that makes so many people - women especially - say, "Oh George, he's so sweet, he's so cute."   I think he sometimes uses that facade - like today when he was trying to slide past me.  I think one reason he and my daughter get along well is that her bossiness satisfies the Sergeant, and her 13-year old girliness satisfies the Dandy.

George's former owner astutely remarked to me one day that she didn't feel it was a good idea to sweet-talk George when working with him.  Today,  whenever I would drive him out of my territory, I would congratulate him in a sweet tone for having done what I asked.  Then it hit me that this was a bad idea, that I am not going to win his trust by being sweet.  I decided I had a bubble, as big as the area I was defending - that it was cold and dangerous outside my bubble, a place where there was no sweet talk, and only by entering in and accepting the terms of my bubble would he ever hear any kind words. Well, that didn't happen today, because after about - oh, maybe 20 minutes of this game, he headed off to the other end of his pasture because he saw his buddy going by on the other side of the fence. Well ... more another day, I guess.

Then it was time to take Chloe and Bridget, who had been waiting for me, for their grazing walk.

As we were coming back into the pasture from the barn paddock, Chloe hung back.  I took Bridget's halter off, closed the gate, and went to see what Chloe wanted.  First we did some of those knee bends that she likes, and some of the neck relaxing that she likes.  Then she went to graze a little.  I went over with the rope loop to offer it to her - when she glimpsed me, she startled.  I wonder if she doesn't see well out of that eye, because after she'd turned around and saw what it was, she came up to have me put the rope on. 

She walked to the gate into the barn and waited.  I waited.  When she rattled the gate with her nose, I opened it, and we  went through into the barn.  I thought for sure she just wanted to go into her nice cool stall, but no -- she led us out of the barn, out into the open.  She set off purposefully down the side of the equipment barn (pictured above with the overhanging roof), turned right and went straight to the arena gate.  I opened it.  She walked to the far end of the arena, stopped and started grazing.  After about ten minutes, she decided it was time to leave - headed back to the gate, back to the barn, back to the pasture. And this time she didn't scurry back but strode calmly all the way.

Chloe is awesome.

If someone had been watching me today, it probably would have been about as exciting as watching paint dry.  But it was a really good day.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

You Gotta Have Friends

I don't know if Skipper is a Friend, but he's definitely a friend.  He's just so reassuring. Since I noticed the other day how very benevolent he is, he now seems to positively radiate a halo of beneficence.  I wonder if this is what Hempfling means about having the "key to the house."

Today I spent time "sharing space" with Gus and Skipper.  After my conversation with George yesterday about who's boss, I thought it might be instructive to see what Gus thinks on the subject - which was perhaps a mistake, because the other day he politely asked me if he was the boss, and I politely said no.  So come to think of it, and I'm thinking of it now as I write with a similar kind of embarrassment as if recalling a gaffe committed at a social gathering -- it was perhaps very rude of me indeed to bring it up again.

So - committing the mistake of acting by rote, or because I "read" that I should do this - I asked Gus occasionally to move for me.  Which he did.  But I think he was quite offended and pointedly ignored me for the whole time, except for coming up to graze close to my feet a couple of times. And just because George really seems to need a leader, doesn't mean Gus wants one.  I really think he wants an egalitarian relationship.

Skipper kept looking at me, inviting me to come over.  He seems to say, "You and me, we don't care who's boss, do we?  We don't need to worry about all that stuff.  We're just feelin' the love." Omigosh, he's so nice, and what a relief to not have to go through all the thought processes, trying to gauge how to interpret and react to things.  I mean, not like I'm just oblivious to him, but it's like being with ... a friend, who isn't going to judge you too harshly when you say something stupid.

And speaking of friends, tomorrow I have to go and apologize to Gus. 

Here's Skipper.  What Hempfling type might he be?

Deconstructing Dominance - George Helps Out

I've found establishing dominance to be a clear help in establishing a trusting relationship when dealing with shy, mistrustful, young horses.  (The other most helpful time involved a "King" - but more about that another time.)

George brought this to mind yesterday when I went to take him out to pasture.  Normally I leave George and my daughter to their own devices - they are fond of each other, and I've found it best to stand back and give advice only from a distance.  Yesterday, however, on arriving alone at the barn, and finding the horses  waiting to be let out, I went to fetch George.  I stood inside the stall door with the halter, waiting.  He didn't come over but stood by his feed dish (although he'd already had dinner) and nudged it, pathetically, a couple of times.  So off I went to get a handful of treats, which I put in his dish.  After he'd eaten them, he came over to me, and I put his halter on.

Remembering my thoughts about horses who lack a protective coating, or bubble wrap - of whom George is one - I cast an intentional eye down his right flank, causing him to immediately stiffen and pin his ears.  Aha. But not sure how to proceed.  

Thinking on it, I lead him to the pasture.  If, as I suspect, the personal space issue does not reflect an its-my-bubbleturf-you-keep-out attitude, but rather a raw vulnerability brought about by the lack of a buffer zone - then George's "aggression" is fear-based, and not an attempt to assert himself.  

Putting some thoughts together:

1)  Establishing dominance builds trust and confidence in shy horses.

2)  George has personal space issues, which I believe reflects a sense of vulnerability.

3)  Foals are first dominated by their mother, with whom they naturally feel very secure.

Ok, dominance is called for.  But I'm finding that the random exercise of dominance, such as the Waterhole thing of asking the horse to move, doesn't work well for me.  I just can't muster up the clarity of intention to convince the horse that I really care whether it moves or not. Because actually I don't care.  Every now and then I can sortof puff myself up mentally and produce a convincing "git along" approach - but not usually. (I'm sure a stick would help too!)

Here's where Resnick's exercise with the feed dish comes in.  There's a video on Youtube, showing how she keeps a young stallion off a tray of carrots.  You can use the horse's own strong intentionality and turn it against him to drive him away (Grasshopper).

I turn George out in the pasture.  There's no dish of carrots, but there's something else George wants.  He wants to be in the corner of the field by the gate.  There is a clearly delineated quarter-circle in the corner, marked by strewn hay, where the horses hang out a lot, and that's where George wants to be - especially because his buddies haven't come out yet, and he wants to wait for them there.

So I decide he can't come in.  I patrol the perimeter of the quarter circle, and George runs back and forth just outside the line, occasionally managing to dodge past me, only to be driven out again. I keep my affect very low key.  No big deal, you just can't come in. Finally he stops running and we walk up and down the line, me on my side, he on his.  Then he stops.  He looks at me.  He half lowers his head.  He approaches slowly.  But just as he reaches me, his head comes up again and he starts to slide past me.  I drive him off again.  This happens several times.


Finally, he stops, looks at me for a long time, drops his head low and comes all the way up, stopping in front of me with his head still drooping. I scratch his neck for a moment and then leave the pasture, George following me to the gate.

Later, from the mares' pasture next door, I watch George hanging out with the dominant gelding, Stoney.  George is placidly cozied up to his side the whole time, keeping his head about 1/3 horse length behind Stoney's head. This is how he used to act with his very dominant pasture mate in his previous home.

I think our thoughts on the matter are muddied because we use the word "dominance," which for humans carries a connotation of exploitation and self-advancement at the expense of others. Among horses, the dominant one does not oppress and manipulate his herd mates.  The dominant horse exercises certain specific rights of leadership which benefit the whole group.

George although not shy, is somewhat mistrustful. I think in order to truly gain his confidence, we should continue to engage in these kinds of activities, where he can be convinced that we are in charge.  I'm going to have my daughter do the Carrots' Last Stand exercise with him.  I believe he prefers her to me because she's just, well, bossier than I am!  But I won't leave it at that and definitely plan to have her explore how he views her as a leader.

Gus also has personal space issues.  He, however, is himself dominant and does not show aggression - is it the case that his strong, confident persona compensates for his lack of a bubble?  Or did George, in a previous home, suffer something which made him afraid?  Questions, questions, questions.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Opposite Problem

Once your horses learn that coming out of their pasture does not mean pressure, coercion and stress, but that, instead, they get to choose their own activities, they quickly come to the conclusion that there's not much percentage in being returned whence they came.

Chloe and Bridget scurry to the gate as soon as they see me arrive.  They are showing less and less interest in going back into their pasture.

This "problem" highlights the fact that the pasture is actually not a very interesting place.  There's just not much going on in there.

I don't have to deal with this issue right now, as we're probably moving soon.  But I can see it's something I may have to address later on.  Does anyone out there have any good ideas for making a happy horse habitat?

Chloe is Quite Clear in Her Own Mind

Today I had Chloe and Bridget in the barn paddock.  Chloe went to stand by the gate into the barn while Bridget wandered about.  After a little while, Chloe walked up to me, tugged gently on my shirt with her teeth, and went back to the gate.  A very clear instruction! So I put the rope loop round her neck and lead her through the gate; this time she turned back with me to shut it. Bridget soon rushed over and demanded to come out too, so after setting Chloe at liberty, I put a halter on Bridget and brought her out. We went for our grazing walk.

Later, when I was putting Bridget back in the pasture, Chloe declined to come, opting instead to stay in the barn.  She stood by her stall door, which was closed, until I came and let her in.  I don't blame her - it was nice and cool inside the barn and still hot outside, and perhaps dinner had not yet been fed. I couldn't persuade her to come out again.

I hung out in Chloe's stall with her, working on this and that.  She's long-backed, and is getting a bit sway-backed.  So I picked up her hind leg and pushed it under her toward her tummy, stretching her lower back. She must have liked it, because when I asked if she wanted me to do it again, she lifted her leg up right away. I also encouraged her to lengthen her back by releasing her neck, and asked her for some lengthening turns. In between each maneuver, I left her and walked to the other side of the stall, leaving her alone until she came over to me again.  She volunteered to play at shaking hands, which she hasn't done for a while.

It was getting past time to leave, so I asked her again to come out.  She thought about it, then started licking and chewing and stepped out of the stall.  She followed me through the gate to the barn paddock, and then refused to go any further.

I was able to "herd" her hind legs sideways - but could induce no forward movement at all. Not knowing whether the horses had been fed yet (they come in for dinner and then go out again), I didn't want to let  her go back and stay inside - if they had already been fed, she'd be stuck inside alone until next morning.

So, I resorted to a most undignified pulling and tugging.  I didn't actually have to haul her all the way - once she realized I wasn't going to quit pulling, she reluctantly agreed to proceed.  But .... aargh! .... what to do in that situation?  I felt really bad, too, because she'd been so nice to come out of her stall with me when she didn't want to.

I guess it's ok that she learns that it's not an option to refuse to go back into her pasture.  I hope it was obvious to her that I understood what she wanted but that I just couldn't grant it this time.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Note to Anyone Tuning in for the First Time

In the unlikely event that an innocent passer-by has strayed into this blog, this is for them.

We're doing something weird here.  It is not Natural Horsemanship, or any kind of training.  We do not expect horses to perform, or compete or provide a service.

The three main tenets of this way of being with the horse are:

1)  If the horse says, "No," you say, "OK." For example, you think what fun it will be to go for a nice trail ride on such a lovely day.  You go the pasture with the halter and put it on your horse.  Your horse declines to move.  You can wheedle and whine and beg for a short while if you must.  But if your horse continues to say no, you take off the halter and either go away or do something mutually agreeable together out in the pasture. (Ahem, but this doesn't work the other way - if you're out, and the horse doesn't want to go home, you may insist. Inconsistent?  Not really.) This applies to the whole process - if your horse comes out with you but then declines to have the saddle put on, then ... uh uh, no saddle today.

2)  You don't punish your horse.  If the horse refuses to cooperate, you just have to keep finding another way to ask.  And you don't get to use "pressure/release" either. You don't have to let yourself actually be trodden on and bitten and kicked, but if your horse produces any of these undesirable behaviors, you confine your reaction to an immediate and passionate expression of grief, pain, and alarm.  You may shoo your horse away, however.

3)  Most importantly - you expect that the horse has a lot to say and you try to learn how to hear it.

Here are some frequently asked questions:

What's the point in all this?

You may well ask.  I don't know what the point is. But I'm beginning to see a glimpse of what the reward is.

Well, what can you do with your horse?

I don't know, but I'm sure spending a lot more time doing it than I used to spend doing the conventionally recognizable things I used to do. Alexander Nevzorov spends time with his horses teaching them Latin - that's something you could aspire to.

But if I let my horse have his say, won't I find out that he really just wants to get rid of me and go off and munch clover with his buddies?

Amazingly - no!

Can you ever ride?

Omg i hope so.

Earlier there was a mention of "insisting" - if you can't pressure and release or punish, how on earth do you insist?

Go figure.

What made you get started on this crazy stuff anyway?


More Bubble Thoughts

Ok, so maybe the thing about horses who appear to have a protective "bubble" around them isn't that they have a bubble but that they lack a bubble.

Here's my thinking:

Once, when I had an episode of depression, I was prescribed an anti-depressant.  As I began to feel better, I noticed (which I hadn't cottoned onto while depressed) that my sense of self had shrunk internally to the point where "I" did not quite extend to the outer edge of my epidermis.  As the medicine took effect, I found that I began to "fill" my own body until "I" coincided with the physical space I filled.  But it didn't stop there - that sense of life (as opposed to the cold world "out there") continued expanding until I was coated with a protective bubble wrap.  I called it my "magic bubble."  And it kept growing, until I began to feel that it had spread to cover the whole world, with me at the center.

One of my daughters has a strong dislike of having her personal space invaded.  She becomes depressed easily.  She dislikes dogs - probably because they are much more headlong in their approach to a person.  She likes cats and horses.  She dislikes having her space invaded not because she has a bubble, but because she has no bubble to protect her.  An unwelcome touch from the outside brings the cold, hard world directly up against her being.

Yesterday, hanging out with Gus and Skipper, I found that Skipper projected a welcoming warmth.  Perhaps that is his bubble.  He's happy to have you come into it, because it protects him as well as the person entering. Gus, perhaps, has no such magic bubble and so likes to meet you head on.  Perhaps his assertiveness is the closest thing he has to armor.

Our George also dislikes having his personal space invaded.  Like Gus, he does not care to be scratched or groomed. Again like Gus, he prefers to interact using his head and face and mouth.

Perhaps instead of asking the horse for permission to enter their bubble, we could try suggesting to the horse the possibility of developing a bubble ..... ?

Here's a Cool Article to Read

The earth itself awaits resurrection:

The Resurrection of Jesus and Physical Creation
by Ron Rolheiser, OMI

Friday, April 9, 2010

A Spot of Training Revisited

Today, I looked to see if Bridget remembered the new "vocabulary" I introduced the other day - moving toward a gently poking finger with her hind end or her front end. She did indeed - and moved quite extravagantly.  She learned it the first time I suggested it to her, and she has remembered it perfectly.  I don't think it would be nice to now "practice" it.  If I ever need her to move toward me, I have this way of asking - who knows, it may come in handy - but until then, there's no point in turning it into a meaningless repetitive exercise.

Red Letter Day

Today was the first day ever that Chloe, of her own accord, decided that she would like to come out with me by herself, with no other horses accompanying us.

I had George and Bridget and Chloe in the barn paddock for a social hour.  After I'd put George and Bridget back into their pastures, Chloe said she wasn't ready to go back.  She's taught me that it's ok to put the rope loop around her neck if she doesn't turn away and if she touches my hand with her nose.  So I put the rope on, opened the gate, and she followed me  into the barn.  She didn't want to turn with me to close the gate, so I let her go, and she waited for me while I shut it.

We then proceeded cautiously out of the barn.  We got no more than a few feet outside, when Chloe decided we'd better go back in.  We checked out another horse's stall, had a drink, and then she lead me outside again.

We got as far as the shavings shed before Chloe took us back in.  Again, we visited another stall. Again, she headed out.

This time we made it about 50 yards, ate some clover and looked around.  All of sudden, Chloe said, "ok-that's-it-time-to-go-gotta-run," and lead me back at a fast clip through the barn and to the barn paddock gate.  I opened it, she very politely turned with me to close it, and I lead her across the paddock to her own pasture, where she agreed that she was now ready to be returned.
Chloe has taken me into the shavings shed

Plan for the Day

Today I had a plan. I was going to ask some questions and get some answers.

I've been thinking about Gus. Specifically about riding Gus. A couple of things I've read in the last few days got me thinking hard - Jenny's remarks, on Stormy May's blog, about fear; and the concept of "not quite right" described on Jenny Pearce's Books with Spirit website, again thanks to Stormy May's recommendation.

I often just don't feel "quite right" about riding Gus. Nothing bad has ever happened, and I feel that we have made excellent progress. However (there it is again), there's just that vague feeling in the back of my mind, like a thin wisp of smoke rising up in the distance. Gus recently, quite deliberately, bucked someone off. Now, he's always been very nice to me, and has never threatened to do anything like that. But still, maybe he's nice out of consideration for my feelings and not because he's actually on board with the whole project.

So today my plan was to invite him to the round pen, where we were going to examine, at liberty, the various accessories of riding: saddle, bridle (or how do you like this bitless one?), mounting block, etc.

As soon as I went into the pasture, however, I took one look at his brother Skipper's hoofs and decided that trimming them was the first order of the day. Skipper has been laminitic off and on, and has heel pain, and if we don't keep up with his feet, I fear he's likely to get worse again. So, Skipper came out with me, and we tidied up his feet a bit, and then I returned to the pasture to ask Gus if he'd like to come out.

To my surprise, as the pasture is chock full at the moment of yummy green plants, he said yes. Gus has a predilection for taking his time, and so when he crept forward at a snail's pace, I wasn't surprised. I sat down on the ground to wait for him, which actually speeded him up, as he thought it would be interesting to hurry forward to check out my boots and my knees. After a few minutes of this kind of thing, I think it struck both of us at the same time: Gee, it's getting awful hot out here - I don't think this is going to be much fun after all. But only Gus had enough sense to decide we should call it off.

He swung his head meaningfully back toward his gate, twice in a row. So of course I had to return him to his pasture. Once back in the pasture, I hung out with him and Skipper for a while, sometimes following along, sometimes walking off by myself, sometimes interacting.

Skipper kept coming up to me. He is a sweet horse. I'm not sure what Hempfling type he is - perhaps the Guardian of the Fire, perhaps the Modest One. If I ever get a good photo of him, I'll post it and see if anyone has any suggestions. He enjoys being scratched. Today I felt that he emanates a kind of motherly, welcoming warmth, which draws you to him, and and makes you want to stand close next to his side. You feel that he is content to have you there.


Gus, on the other hand, likes to meet you head-on. He wants to check out your pockets, chew on your watch, get hold of your cell phone. He does not really like for you to get into the space around his body and does not particularly care to be scratched, except sometimes his ears. I believe he is the "Prince." He has a very unusual face, not exactly like the illustration of the Prince in What Horses Reveal, but he has the "veiled" look that Hempfling describes. He is tactful and courteous; he likes humans, but maintains a certain distance, keeping his own counsel. He is also very dominant, and today politely inquired if he might be the boss of me perhaps.

What is that in your hand? Please give it to me.

So we never made it to the round pen, and we never discussed riding.  But we learned a number of things about each other.  Gus found out that I would take him back when he asked me.  He learned that I wasn't going to let him be my boss.  I realized for the first time how little he likes people being in the bubble around his body.  I learned that Skipper is just the opposite and is happy to provide a warm space for a person to enter into.

Somebody had put together a much better lesson plan than mine.

Four Experiences with Boundary Setting

Bridget - today while scratching Bridget, I received a rather painful, toothy reciprocation. I think I shrieked. For the rest of the day, she confined herself to poking me with her nose, not even using her upper lip.

More Bridget
- Later, I was standing by her tail and Chloe was milling about in the same vicinity. Bridget aimed a half-kick at Chloe, whereupon I reacted with alarm - I think I shouted and waved my arms. Bridget took off to the other side of the paddock and returned, affectionately, a minute later.

George - George was flirting with the mares in the next-door pasture, pawing the ground and kicking the gate. Summoning the spirit of Resnick, I decided it would be better if we established that they were my mares and he couldn't have them. So I ran at him roaring, and off he went, looking something like: "OK, guv, it's a fair cop."

Gus - Gus has a way of moving his brother Skipper wherever he wants by means of carefully placed nips. Today as I was hanging out with them in the pasture, Gus found me in his grazing path. He fixed me with a quizzical look (as only Gus can) and very deliberately and gently opened his mouth and placed his teeth on my arm. A polite question deserves a polite answer, so I just shook my head and said, "Nuh uh, buddy, not a chance." The next time he came up, he grazed around me, giving my feet about a six-inch berth.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Veni Spiritus

I see it as an inflatable balloon, rather like the one that features in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Until it is filled with air, its full shape is invisible. Kermit, or Shrek, or Betty Boop, or one of the many other iconic figures who have featured in the parade, would be amputated, disfigured, if the balloon went up half-filled, or with one of its members stapled shut.

That's how I'm coming to see riding. Perhaps when our balloon is all filled up, a shape that includes riding will take form. At this point, I feel that if I go out and catch Gus, stick a saddle on his back, and mount up, our balloon might float - it might even look like something recognizable - but it won't be a glorious image, floating high above the crowd, making the assembled gasp, "Aaah!"

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Evening Adventures

It was probably not the greatest idea.  My daughter and George went on a trail ride, with me tagging along behind, leading Bridget, and Chloe following in our wake.  Chloe kept losing sight of the other horses and then charging up behind us.  George didn't mind this too much, but then Chloe completely lost track of us and headed in the wrong direction.  At this point she whinnied and started sending panic vibes our way. So George got a little worried - after all, he hasn't been out on the trail that many times yet.  My daughter remained unruffled and kept him calm, while Chloe, on finding a lush patch of clover, soon decided that she didn't need us after all.  However, we decided we should probably head back and round up Chloe en route.

On the way, something spooked Bridget and she ran into me and stepped on my foot (thank you, steel-toed boots!).  I didn't react and get mad or push her off - instead I let out the leadrope and sortof projected a bubble around myself.  Her reaction was very interesting.  Where before she had been distracted by whatever spooked her, she suddenly became very focused on me, and moved around me in a very graceful, leaving-me-space kind of way, before we both moved forward again together.

It only took an instant, and we were soon back into our former pattern - with me being less focused, and Bridget bumping her shoulder into me periodically.  But for a moment, everything was crystal clear - it was almost like I could feel the space between us as a solid thing.

We went back to the barn, where the horses are spending the night tonight as a storm is forecast.  We witnessed Bridget unlocking the spring-loaded bolt on her door. (Fortunately, it's not the only thing which keeps the door closed.) I hoped she might do it again so I could film it, but she didn't oblige, so here, instead, is my daughter saying goodnight to Bridget and Chloe:


I know y'all have seen that movie - The Trouble With Angels, where Hayley Mills plays a mischievous young girl at a convent boarding school. There's a scene where, in an attempt to get with it, the school hires a dance teacher who instructs the girls in interpretive dance - they pretend to be trees and wave their arms expressively while the teacher intones "Willoo-oows, willoo-oows" in a mystical tone.  My kids loved that movie and to this day will periodically burst into a Willows rendition.

Well, when my daughter was doing up George's girth today, I did the Willows, willows, complete with mystical incantations in front of him.  He was very impressed, not to say hypnotized.  Although when my daughter came up to talk to him, he agreed that if he had to choose between the willows person and the sane person, he'd choose the sane one.  Be that as it may, the Willows Dance had a very soothing effect on him.  You might try it.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Spot of Training

I've been indulging in a bit of training with Bridget.  Things have come to such a pass that I question my every motive, wondering if such a thing is, by its very nature, oppressive and imperialistic toward the Horse People.  Good grief.

Casting doubt aside, I ventured that, as our little Bridget is very clever, it it might be fun to start consciously developing a mutually intelligible vocabulary.

I started the other day. Bridget loves to be scratched. I mean she loooves  to be scratched.  When she wants me to scratch her hindquarters, she'll rub the whole length of her body against me like a cat and then pointedly push her butt into me.  Banking on her natural desire to have me continue scratching, I scratched for a while, then stopped and gently prodded her hip with a finger, asking her to move toward me. The mental gears spun for a second, and then she shifted her quarters in my direction.  Scratch, prod again, ditto.  We practiced a little on the other side. Today, she instantly moved when I asked her.  So I moved up to try it on her shoulders - again, when I asked, there was a pause while the gears meshed, and then she scooted her shoulders toward me, crossing her front legs.  Switch to the other side - no pause - this time she knew right away.

This kind of thing is artificial and a little mechanical.  The horses tend to gracefully move as need requires in the course of our daily activities together.  For example, today as I was leading Chloe on a rope back to the pasture through the gate, she very politely turned back with me toward the gate, without prompting, when I went to close it. The more natural way to develop a mutual understanding is probably through lively interactions of this nature rather by "encoding" rote responses to predetermined stimuli.

But ... we'll try a little of this kind of thing - see what happens - see what we think of it - see what the horses think of it.

Note to Self

Ok.  So when Bridget nipped me yesterday, I automatically smacked her.  The way I see it, it's like those neuron thingies that react, without your whole brain being involved, to lift your hand off the hot plate if you accidentally touch it.

However, (and there often seems to be a however) today I read Stormy May's latest post, where she describes interacting with her erstwhile "mean" pony. I think if Bridget nips in an attempt to get me to do something I don't want to, that doesn't mean I have to do what she wants - but neither does it mean I have to react so negatively.

Right now my neurons are sometimes firing a little too quickly for my mind to step in and mediate.  Got to work on that.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Way We Were

This is not a very good photo - it's blurry, and the horses are off in the distance.  But it shows our little herd back in the old days before we moved barns and before ... well, let me tell you who they are.

On the left is Kelsey.  We bought her for our then 8-year old eldest daughter, and she remained with our family until said daughter was 23.  She died late last year - at age 26, old enough to say she died "of old age," but there was something else wrong with her that the vet couldn't figure out.  We added calories, had her teeth floated, had tests done - but she went downhill pretty quickly.  I think she was a Hempfling "North Wind."  She was a trooper, and although she had her own opinions and was never a "quiet" horse, she would stand like a rock at liberty in the field and let you scramble onto her back.

Second from the left is Miscato.  He was given to us as an 8-year old ex-racehorse in 2000.  He was a little on the anxious side at times, but gentle and sweet and kind.  He loved people and would always stay with you as long as you were in the field, following you to the gate and looking after you as you walked away. He died  last spring of osteosarcoma.  With hindsight, we think he must have been sick for quite a while.  He had lacked energy for a long time, and I'm very glad I never succumbed to the advice to "use a stick" on him.

Third from the left is Misty, queen of the herd, an Arab/QH mare - we adopted her when she was 22.  She died last year at age 35, very thin but cheerful to the end.  When she first came to live with us, she was stiff and arthritic.  I had just started learning about dressage, and Misty became my partner.  We would go and work at a walk in the neighbor's arena.  After about ten minutes, Misty would walk to the center and say, "I'm done."  And I always let her quit.  As time went by, with joint supplements and exercise, she would work for longer and longer periods of time before asking to quit, until eventually she would go for as much as an hour. At the end of her life, she was too thin and I had grown too heavy for me to ride her.  The last time I rode her was a year or so before she died - we walked down the trail for about half a mile, and then she stopped and said, "I'm done with you."  I swapped horses with my much lighter daughter, and she continued happily for the rest of the ride.

These three were a tight-knit little group.  They all passed away before the strange new Spilker regime hit our household.  Each one of them was a good teacher, and I'd love to know what more they could have taught if I had known how to listen better.

Then on the far right, we see Chloe, looking at the human taking the photo.  She is the one who has survived into the new era. As she looks at the camera, I can see that she was, even then, curious about us - willing to listen and be heard.  I am very grateful to have that second chance with her.

What Does Chloe Want?

In a recent post - "Tete a Tete," I described how Chloe wanted me to put the rope around her neck.

Today it became clearer what that was about.

We were entering the pasture from the barn paddock.  Bridget went first; I took her halter off and re-shut the gate to prevent Bridget's egress while Chloe (who follows us at liberty) positioned herself for ingress.  Chloe stopped in front of the gate and showed no interest in going through.  I picked up the rope loop and asked her if she wanted to put it on.  She was kindof like, "Ok, it's fine, whatever, if you like." So after putting it on and off a couple of times without Chloe seeming to care much either way, I left it off.  And then Chloe relaxed, her eyes drooping; I stroked her neck while we enjoyed some quiet time.

I think that in the pasture with Miss Bridget enthusiastically breathing down our necks, Chloe felt like the rope represented a guarantee of safety - that if she was attached to the rope, I would keep Bridget away from her so that she could relax and enjoy some quiet companionship.   However, today we were separated from Bridget by the fence, and she probably felt like the rope was unnecessary.

What Do You Do With a Bridget?

Our new routine is: I go into the pasture; Bridget and Chloe come over. I put Bridget's halter and leadrope on and invite her to leave the pasture with me. Chloe follows us out. In the barn they check to make sure no one's left any food in their stall. Then we head outside to graze and snoop.

Evening Grazing

Certain questions arise:

1.  What do you do when Bridget is busy eating and doesn't want to move when it's time to go back to her pasture?  Well, I don't like to pull on her head.   So I reprise my energetic polka in the direction of her hindquarters.  If she moves them away from me, chances are she'll continue in a forward direction if I ask her.  Ok, that seems to work.

2.  What do you do when Bridget is ticked off that you're walking down the driveway and you don't agree with her that there's time for more grazing before going home?  And when she emphasizes her disapproval by reaching over and nipping your hand? Answer:  your brain reacts with a whack on her neck before your mind has time to think.  I may be ok with this for now.

3.  What do you do when Chloe wants to go through the gate and Bridget is in the way?  You remember Carolyn Resnick, and you confidently shoo Bridget away.  Twice.  Then you discover that she's a little nervous when you want to approach her - she edges away - you sweet-talk her back into kissing distance and say goodnight.  I think I'm ok with this too.

Saturday, April 3, 2010


We call her Bridget now, and I do believe that is her Real Name. But clearly her former name was well chosen too:

Thursday, April 1, 2010

More thoughts on dominance

Today I twice had occasion to shoo Bridget away.  Once (as described in the previous entry) was to make her leave so that Chloe and I could spend some time together.  The other time was when I was talking to a friend over the gate.  Bridget came up and kept backing into me so that I could scratch her tail.  I finally got sick of it and sent her away so I could continue my conversation in peace.

Both times, I sent her out of my space for a valid reason, rather than as a random exercise of authority.

I wonder if that's the right way to think of dominance - you should exercise it only when you have a legitimate need to do so.

Still thinking this over.

Tete a Tete

Today I had an interesting conversation with Chloe.

Lately she's been a bit standoffish with me. I didn't know whether she felt left out because I've been paying attention to Bridget or if, now that she has her own friend, she doesn't need a silly old human.

She's been coming up to me, getting her treats, staying for a minute, and then heading off to graze by herself. Today was no different. After Chloe left, I spent some time with Bridget, brushing her, and admiring her ability to open and close the lid of the mounting block. Then I went over to Chloe, stood beside her, and started to put a rope over her neck. It startled her; she moved off but immediately returned. This time she didn't object when I put the rope loop around her neck. I asked her if she wanted to come with me anywhere, but she didn't. I took the loop off; she touched my hand with her nose, and I put it back. Waited a minute, took it off, she touched my hand, I put it back. We did this over and over again. She started lowering her head after touching my hand so the loop would slide over her head more easily.

When Bridget came up, Chloe tried to send her off with the evil eye. But it doesn't work any more. So I shooed Bridget away, and she went off to tidy up the grooming box. Chloe and I continued our conversation. I stopped taking off the rope; asked her again if she wanted to move - no. What she seemed to want was for us just to stay put. Her head lowered, and her eyelids started to droop. I sat down beside her, and we stayed like that until Bridget hove into view again. Chloe seemed to want to move away from her this time - I took the rope off and said goodnight.

I wonder if the rope represented some kind of connection between us that Chloe wanted to maintain, and if she enjoyed having some quiet time together, with the rope joining us.

If I had taken Chloe's initial departure as a "no" to contact with me, I would have been mistaken. Without the rope, she did not display annoyance toward Bridget or try to stake a claim on my attention. But the rope seemed to give her confidence to stand her ground. (Either that or she felt more vulnerable with the rope around her neck and thus needed more space.)  But she was very clear that she wanted me to keep putting the rope back on, and then was very content to keep it on.

On the way to the barn today, I felt very tired and was thankful that all I had to do was go and visit, with no need to muster up the energy to exercise, to train, to ride. I went looking forward to some quiet time - and lo and behold, Chloe had the exact same idea!

Bridget has tidied up the grooming box.

Mea Culpa

I do not believe in smacking horses. I really don't. But when a wee hoofie comes flying in the direction of my head, my philosophy re-adjusts.

I was trimming the hoofs of a two-year old gelding, who may or may not have ever had his feet trimmed before. It is quite difficult, I think, and a bit scary, for a horse to yield control of one leg and stand precariously balanced on the other three for an extended period of time. Experienced horses know what to expect and are familiar with the adjustments they need to make to their stance. But you have to be patient with a youngster and let him figure out what's going on and what he needs to do to make himself reasonably comfortable during the process of trimming.

This little guy was being very thoughtful and cooperative, and we were almost done. I just had to work on the outside of his right (or, as we Brits used to call it, aptly as it may turn out, his "off") hind.

He cowkicked. Not once, but three times, as I recall. I think I let it go the first time, but then I whacked his butt with my hand and yelled. After that we had no problems, and I finished.

However - I felt bad. He had been so helpful up to that point. I think if I had explained to him nicely that cowkicking is not cool, he would have been ok. After we were done, I apologized to him, and he forgave me and blew in my face. But I continued to feel guilty.

I got to thinking: this has happened before. And it's always been with the right hind. So, I thought, maybe I'm habitually doing something unpleasant and uncomfortable, due to my own "sidedness" when I pick up that particular foot. But then why do horses who are used to being trimmed not mind when I work on that foot?

Then I got to thinking some more - in my experience, and in that of one or two others whom I've polled, horses are often more protective of their right side than their left. I ran this by a friend, who said she has a theory that this goes back to the foal's sidedness and its preference for nursing more on one side than the other.

When you pick up the horse's right foreleg, you're still by the head, and it's ok. But when you move down to the right hind, you're in the "don't-go-there" zone, making the horse extra-vulnerable by immobilizing that leg.

I believe this is one of the things Parelli works on - they just demand that the horse give up their self-defence on all fronts. But I think there's a better way. It's called using your words. You know, like in kindergarten:

"Teacher, teacher - the horsey won't give me his right side."

"Now, Johnny, don't snatch - ask nicely."

"Please, horsey, can I have your right side for a minute?"

"Ok, sure."

The other day in the barn, I heard my daughter scolding George. I went over to see what was going on - he was objecting to her doing up his girth on the right side. (Yes, we do still sometimes do this weird politically-incorrect thing called "saddling up.") In the bad old days, I might have told him to shut up and make nice or else and that's that. (Well, he is part Sergeant you know, and in a previous home he used to terrorize people.) But instead I said, "Hey, I know, it's your right side, it's ok, no big deal." And I swear he looked at me like, "OK, well, just be careful then."

I used to think leading on the left was just because it's more convenient for the humans, but perhaps it originated in an understanding that the horse is more comfortable if you are on the left.

When I'm leading Bridget (or, rather, vice versa), she seems to sometimes deliberately switch me from one side to the other. I'll have to pay attention and see if there's some kind of rhyme or reason to this.

In the meantime, I will be especially tactful when trimming off hind hoofs, and - repeat after me - I Will Not Whack the Horse If It Cowkicks. My bad.