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

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Different Strokes

It's been raining for about 12 hours straight. I finally took pity on the horses and moved them into the pasture with the shelter. I even put hay in there for them. But they had no interest in getting out of the rain and immediately settled down to grazing the new grass that has emerged since the end of the drought.

Not so the dogs. They had fun running around, and then they said, "Yikes, let's get out of the rain!" and they went to dry themselves off on my duvet. Thanks, guys.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Make Way for Duckling

Well now, looking at things squarely, George really doesn't like to be asked to move his feet. I mean, he'll do it, and he'll do it on the slightest hint of a request usually. But he just always looks a little resentful. Now KFH points out that horses sometimes look a bit off when they realize you're going to start telling them what to do, but I just don't like his not liking it.

However .... if I tuck him into the soft spot, just behind and to the side, and get him to walk along with me like the good little duckling he is, he doesn't mind. And he doesn't show annoyance if I re-position us when he gets ahead.

And since I've started doing this, he's moved my duckling position from his left hip to his left shoulder, which may mean something, good or bad, or may mean nothing at all. Anyway, I think the forward movement of this leading practice sort of shakes out the kinks of resentment. Standing still or working in a small area, the negative chi can build up, you know? (Not that I have the slightest idea of what I'm talking about.) Besides, the leading thing is maternal, whereas the "move-your-feet-please" thing is more straightforwardly dominating.

Also, I've been thinking - showing annoyance to George should be resisted, because that's the last thing I want him to copy. So, like, today I was trying to do that KFH thing where you stand still in yogic serenity for minutes on end, while your horse gazes at you, transfixed. Well, George is just all up in my grill, and if I don't let him chew my face, he'll turn his attention to my feet. So then I stand further away and keep putting him back when he moves. But then it's Goodbye Yogic Serenity. So sometimes I just really want to kick him. But that wouldn't be a good idea at all.

So while I plan to keep on with my insistence of a moment of peace in between doing things, I think the best way for now induce George to pay some some kind of attention to my views, is to practice leading.

Cute Overload

Oh my gosh, I just trimmed the feet of two 5-month old miniature horses. They were the most adorable creatures I ever did see.

When I say trimmed, that is an overstatement, as they've never really had their feet handled before. Their owner is really nice, and we agreed that the important thing was to make the whole experience a pleasant one, rather than to focus on git-r-done.

They were both very cooperative, and I got the front feet of one of them more or less trimmed. The other is more self-protective, and so we were satisfied with his becoming comfortable with picking his feet up for me, and letting me hold them for just a millisecond. His heels are curling under, though, so I hope that quitting while we were ahead this time means that next time we'll be able to get those heels down some.

If I had those little cuties, you know they'd be in my house in about two seconds.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

What Does It All Mean?

George has promoted me. Or maybe I've been demoted. Or maybe it's a lateral move. Anyway, he's moved me. Lately he's taken to putting me here, by his left shoulder. (The ear scratches are a bonus and did not affect his decision.)

Does it mean something? Who knows.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Time to Fill

The other day I found myself in Hagerstown, finished with one thing, but without enough time to get home and back before the next thing. So I hied myself over to Borders, scene of last year's Spilkerization.

I sat down with a book of heart-warming horse stories, only to put it aside in frustration upon reading that Secretariat died of "laminitis, an incurable foot disease." A glance on the back cover revealed that the authors had written a whole series of heart-warming books and, one presumes, had no particular interest in the horse stories over, say, the stamp-collecting ones.

A second visit to the horse shelf (is there another shelf in Borders?) produced much better results: Mark Rashid's Whole Heart, Whole Horse.  Over the next hour and a half, I skimmed through the book and found it to be full of wisdom.

Lately I've been thinking about koans, construing not only George's bite to be one, but also a host of other questions involving either/or, this-or-that, yes-or-no.

So I was delighted to find that Rashid's book opens with a dream question that came to him. A voice in his head asks - Which is stronger - the water in the river or the rocks of the canyon? The answer comes to him - The water of course, because it has worn away the rock. But, later, a different answer presents itself: The rock is stronger, because it has remained, while the water which shaped the rock has long since disappeared. And then finally, he realizes - neither is stronger, it's a draw. He concludes that this dream was a response to the constant either/or training questions with which he is bombarded. Is it better to use a bit, or not? Is it better to do this, or that?

As I wasn't planning to buy the book (yet!), I copied out a few noteworthy passages and herewith share them with you.
I believe a mistake in the training or handling of a horse isn't wrong[.] A "mistake" just doesn't get the result we were expecting; it does, however, get a result. If we didn't get the result we were looking for, we try again. We need to remember that what the horse offers in response to our request is simply information - nothing more nothing less. It's not good or bad, it just is. The response to a request is simply a compass pointing us in the direction we should be traveling. It's not the end; it's often just the beginning. What we do next, not what we just did, will determine whether or not we make forward progress. (p. 20)
 A behavior that's caught when it's in the form of a thought takes much less energy to redirect in the first place. Consequently, once the thought has turned into an action, that action becomes increasingly more difficult to redirect and often requires much more energy, to boot. (p.33)
Most of the time when we talk about establishing boundaries we are referring to making sure the horse is comfortable enough with himself that he doesn't feel like he has to be on top of us all the time. However, sometimes boundaries are also about opening ourselves up enough to let the horse know that being close isn't all that bad either. (p. 44)
A couple of other points he makes which are worth remembering and repeating:
  - When a horse runs, it exorcizes trauma; when he runs because we're chasing him, the trauma is exacerbated.
- With a horse, an emotional reaction immediately becomes a physical reaction. So a horse's behavior is always an indicator of how he feels.
Rashid, like Widdicombe, is a down-to-earth kind of a guy. Ok, so he does Aikido and stuff, but he's a cowboy at heart, and reading his books makes you feel maybe this whole thing doesn't have to be quite as complicated as you've made it. Or does it?  Another koan.

To conclude, here is a nose. Bridget's to be precise - checking out what goes on inside that thing the humans like to get into all the time.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

I reckon George's bite was a koan. One of those paradoxical Zen riddles, to which there is no rational answer. As the thinker puzzles over the question, he finds himself up against a wall, at which point the only recourse is to abandon linear thinking and seek an answer elsewhere.

A rational answer to the bite might be: a) You're basically doing the right thing, but you just weren't enough "in the moment;" or b) That's what you get for not teaching that horse respect.

I find the answer is broader than either of these responses, although there's an element of truth in both. The question is partly not even a question at all, but a goad - a stimulus to look further and deeper than before.

I am challenging George more now. I'm asking more. But at the same time, I'm trying to be softer and more aware also.

Today we went for another walk, and I'm asking him to keep in the nice soft spot beside me. He knows about this spot now, and although he'll sneak ahead, he'll put himself back there if I call him on it. If he stops to graze when it's not my idea, I keep walking. If the reason for stopping is for him to listen or look, then I stop with him.

When we got back, we found Rose apparently having the same symptoms Bridget had the other day - she was rolling and looking back at her belly, as well as pawing the ground and stretching. I was reassured by seeing her pass manure twice. I went out to check her pulse so I'd have something to tell the vet if I called. It was normal. She's not a demonstrative mare, but I could tell she was appreciative of my sympathy, and she relaxed and closed her eyes while I stood with her. After a while, she started nibbling the grass again, so I decided we'd wait it out and see how she is tomorrow. I wonder if there's something wrong with our hay or feed.

While I was with Rose, George was doing his prowling shark act, and I had to be very strict to keep him off. "Young man, if I catch you coming one step closer to us, there's going to be trouble!" As long as I keep my attention pointed at him like a sharpened rapier, he'll stay away.

It was a lovely evening for a walk

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Nice Walk, etc.

It may not have escaped attention that I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude to George. On the one hand, I want to be tactful, tolerant, accepting, and courteous, which he appreciates. On the other hand, I don't want to be a doormat, and he often "tunes me out" in a way which makes me feel uncomfortable and which I don't want to just accept, especially because of his propensity to be aggressive to the mares. On the one hand, he and I are fine-tuning our communication, and I'm discovering how sensitive he is. On the other hand, he is defensive and often reluctant to cede control of his movements. On the one hand, I believe he wants to be trusted and appreciated, and on the other hand, sometimes, well ... he's not quite trustworthy.

Today, I took him out for a walk. After he'd grazed for a while, I set off to lead him around the fields and back home. Widdicombe talks about working with a young horse named Alf, whom he teaches to lead nicely:
For those three days I walked about 20 miles with that horse, asking for his attention whenever he wandered off. I provided a nice soft place for him just behind me and to the side ... On the second day, as we were on our way home I suddenly realized that things had gone very quiet. Yes, Alf had found the soft spot and, blow me, he had relaxed right into it. (p. 167)
I decided I was going to ask George to walk in the "nice soft place just behind me and to the side." Whenever he got ahead of me, it was easy to do a circle, or a little turn and return, to bring him back into the "soft spot." After a while, it was obvious that he knew what I was up to. I needed less movement and less pressure to bring him back. He started to relax, and as he grew more comfortable and confident in knowing what I was talking about, he offered a little suggestion - How about we go side by side? Sure, no problem - because in that side-by-side position, he also felt nice and relaxed and soft and attentive.

Now, I tried this approach, which worked for George in about three minutes, with Chloe for hmm, let's see, about six years. She was having none of it. She will settle for nothing less than leading the way. But of course the difference is that when Chloe leads the way, she still knows where I am and will wait up for me if she gets too far ahead.  Which of course I only discovered when I gave up and let her take charge. But, you know, maybe she might have changed her mind a little too if I ask her.

I took Bridget out for a walk too. Her default position seems to be side-by-side; and I feel as if we're tuned in to each other without having to ask her. As far as I remember, she didn't start out exactly like this, but that's how it is at the moment.

When I took Bridget out of the field, George was very cross. Bridget was clearly afraid of him (an indication that all is not peaceful in Georgeland). He backed up to let us get by, but was closer than we felt comfortable with. He kept giving Bridget evil looks and was putting the pressure on. I felt rather threatened and so resorted to shouting at him, flapping my arms and looking stern. Exit was accomplished.

The only time Bridget and George have direct contact (which I think they both crave) is when there's a fence or gate between them. When I brought Bridget back, the two of them exchanged some nuzzling over the top of the gate. Then suddenly, without apparent warning (and seemingly taking Bridget quite by surprise), George lunged at her, baring his teeth. What is wrong with you, George?

But then he was quite cooperative about me bringing Bridget through the gate, and when I took her halter off, instead of getting the heck away from George as she usually does, she just stood there, and on the other side of me, George just stood quietly, and for a few minutes peace and harmony reigned.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Me and George Again

Today I took George out to graze for over an hour. At first I thought I'd ask him to check in with me from time to time, by kissing at him and asking him to raise his head and look at me. But as this is his all-important time for his greens fix, and as I'm trying to be tactful and considerate, I amended this plan to asking him to check in with me whenever he lifted his head to move to another area.

After a while, we got into a very relaxing rhythm together. So relaxing that I thought maybe this would be a good time to try getting on him bareback and letting him carry on grazing. But when I climbed aboard from the picnic table, he became very tense and started trotting. So - emergency dismount. I've got to stop doing dumb things!

Sometimes I get discouraged and think that maybe those people are right who say that horses never really want to be ridden. That the only way you can get on a horse is to hold it captive while you mount. But then I remind myself that someone has probably only climbed on top of George a total of less than 50 times in his life, and he was probably startled to find that I had disappeared and something was on top of him. When I was on the ground again, he was like, "Oh - hey there."

Yes, we need a picadero, where we can have a new conversation. Outside the pasture, it's all about eat, eat, eat, or else going-for-a-walk. Inside the pasture, it's all about r&r and friendly interaction. We need a space designated for friendly interaction which is somewhat goal-oriented.

It was a nice moonlit night tonight, and I went to hang out - first with Chloe, then with Bridget. Then George came over, and we played dueling positions. He wanted me by his tail, and I wanted him under my wing, with his head close to my side. At first he wouldn't let me have a turn. But then he did, a couple of times for a minute or so. But only a couple of times; then he said No More, so I did too. What a pair we are.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Horsey See, Horsey Do

I'm now convinced.

When my friend was over and chased Bridget, I noticed that for the next day or two Rose chased Bridget (and was possibly the cause of her leg injury). When I chased Rose for eating the black walnut leaves, George lunged at her and bit her.

And since the colic incident, George has been very aggressive to Bridget. In my anxiety to prevent her lying down and rolling, I was very forceful toward her - smacking the ground with the rope when she lay down, and twirling the rope at her to keep her walking if she started to show signs of going down. I think he thinks Bridget is fair game now.

I'm convinced now it's no coincidence. I'm sure that they copy us - making it all the more important that we mind our manners, stay tactful, always say please and thank you, and generally model the kind of behavior that we'd like to see from them.

The Horse and His Girl

Today my daughter went for a ride on George.

By the time she was ready, he had been pre-sweetened by me taking him out to graze for about 50 minutes. So he was very placid while she brushed him and put his tack on.

However, when it came time to mount, he was not quite pleased. As I've said, I'm trying to interfere as little as possible with the two of them. When my niece rode him the other day, I swapped the bridle for the halter when he wasn't happy at the prospect of mounting. Whether because of that or because he just got distracted, he was fine after the switch. My daughter doesn't want to ride in the halter, however, so we couldn't try that, and she got up despite some very sour looks from Mr. George.

They set off down the driveway. I watched from a distance and saw her employing a trick I taught her, which I learned from someone online - a trick I probably wouldn't use myself any more. If the horse resists going forward by backing up, you simply turn him in the direction he wants to go, and then ask him to back up. If he wants to go home, he ought to then resist by going forward, but the logic of this seems to escape all horses, and they find themselves backing up in the wrong direction. After a while, they generally throw their hands up and go "Oh well, what the heck, I may as well go forward in the direction she wants."

I saw my daughter turn and back George several times before he agreed to go forward down the drive. I was proud of her that she stayed patient and unruffled the whole time and praised George for backing up when she asked him. She didn't make it punitive - just an exercise. He finally relaxed, lengthened, and set off for the ride.

I think part of the problem is that he doesn't like to lead. Despite his macho nature, he'd much rather have one of the girls go in front of him.

I'm not sure what to make of the sourness at mounting. My daughter is very no-nonsense and doesn't agonize over it - he's fine once she's up, why worry? I'd be interested to give her a leg up when he's bareback, and also see what he does when she mounts into the saddle if he's wearing just a halter. It may not be the tack. He may feel that moment of mounting is a moment when to some extent he relinquishes control. It's also the case that the spot you stand in to mount is a vulnerable spot. He's also, frankly, still as green as grass.

When they returned after half on hour, my daughter said he had been nice. I will feel better if we can figure out what is bugging him about mounting.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Another First


Yes, that's right. In my 25 years, all told, of horse ownership, I have never yet had a case of colic. Until Miss Bridget decided to break my streak.

I put her dinner out, and she came over and sat down beside it. This - I said to myself - cannot be a good sign. I went in, and she rubbed her head on me, and waggled her neck from side to side, and then rolled, but didn't get up.

That's it. I'm getting the halter. I put it on, make her get up, and call the vet. I describe her symptoms, which include the classic looking-back-at-the-belly. There follows 40 minutes of walking her around in the rain while waiting for the vet to arrive. (Yay! Finally, rain!) Thankfully she passes normal-looking manure a couple of times.

The other horses are getting progressively more and more disturbed, so I take Bridget out the gate, whereupon pandemonium ensues back in the pasture. Chloe is prancing around in passage, Rose is stomping and leaping and bucking and kicking, and George is galloping flat out all over the place - all unprecedented behaviors. What the heck? Is it the rain? Are they weirded out by my anxious  behavior? Whatever it is, it's plumb loco.

The vet arrives. Lest I think that I have this lovely Peaceful New Way of Being With Horses down pat, let me be reminded that I DO NOT! Bridget does not want her banamine shot. She kicks at the vet. The vet gets tough. She gets her shot. I am apologizing to the vet, the vet is apologizing to me, we're both apologizing to Bridget. Bridget is not apologizing to us, but is very forgiving and accepts horse treats from the dear vet, who spends ages before he leaves, sweet-talking Bridget and trying to make amends.

It is only "gas colic." Bridget is not the world's most stoic horse. She is a sensitive child and obviously feels things more than some other horses do. She is allowed to have more dinner, mixed with water. The other horses come back to planet Earth. omg.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Mama George

Today, as I was over visiting The Journal of Ravenseyrie, I was struck by a photo of Zorita and her filly, Levada. Levada is standing in the exact position beside her mother where George always likes me to stand. This prompted me to Google-image search "mare and foal," and I found many photos where the foal is standing in this same position - close in to his mother's flank, near the hip.

So George thinks of me as a kid. Fair enough. I'm always quoting Isaiah and saying that in the Kingdom, the leader is a little child. I'm not going to get anywhere being tough or scary - it's just not convincing. But I can be stubborn, and I can be calm, and apparently I can evoke maternal emotions in a rather testosteroney gelding.

Today, I took George out to graze - the plan was for 20 minutes. But then I wondered how long he would like to graze if he had the choice, and what would happen at the end of that period. After an hour, he finally had had his fill, and I discovered what he would like to do next. He made a beeline for the porch, climbed up, and went to the open door. He really, really, really wanted to go inside.

I was almost on the point of giving in, when I realized that the floor is way too slippy to be safe. Plus also, our porch is none too sturdy, and I think that's the last time I'm letting him up. I always wanted to be one of those crazy people whose horse comes in the house. (Now, if Chloe wanted to come in ......)

It shows how long it took for him to be satisfied with grazing and be ready to move on to other activities. If/when we have grass growing in the pasture again, I think coming out for work/play will be a more attractive option. I've increased his feed, and there's plenty of hay, but they'll often leave the hay unfinished and go off in search of a few morsels of something green. There's just nothing like the green stuff, and that's all they can think about when they get out of the pasture.

Chloe often runs free in the yard when I have one of the others out on a leadrope. Today when I returned her to the pasture, George was super-nice about letting her in the gate. He came to the gate; I asked him to move by touching him very gently, and he immediately got out of the way, turned, and waited with a calm expression on his face, and Chloe came in happily.

I've noticed how very responsive George is when you ask him to move his hindquarters over. His front end is another matter. In his old home, there used to be battles over this. His former owner likes to point to a silver-dollar-size scar on his shoulder, put there by a more dominant gelding. She says that's how strong the other horse had to be with him to make him move over, and it shows how strong we have to be.

But then I was thinking - why does he move his quarters so quickly and not his front end? Well, more weight is on the front. What if we encouraged the weight to move back and then asked for the forehand to move over? So I asked him to step back and then to the side. He moved over readily. I'm trying to be ultra-tactful and soft with him, to do everything from a peaceful place.

After all this time, I am still a complete beginner. George is right.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sharing Space

The trouble with taking the horses out of the pasture is that there is way more edible green stuff growing outside the pasture than within. That is to say, there is no edible green stuff growing anywhere on all 12 acres of pasture and a little tiny bit growing outside. So when you take the horses out, they have pretty much one thought:  Food!!! Can't blame them.

Lately, it seems, the horses and I have been asking each other for things. I ask them to take us for rides or to practice being polite or to stand still to get their feet trimmed. And they are often found standing by the fence, going: "Hey, what time do you call this? Where's dinner?" or "We're getting low on hay over here!" or "Let me out! It's my turn!"

Today, I went into the field with no agenda. As long as I was on the other side of the fence, I was fair game - on call to perform my butler duties - but as soon as I entered the field, closed the gate and moved a few yards into the hinterland, it was clear the horses no longer viewed me as a butler but as a buddy. George came right over and stationed me in his favorite spot by his left hip and started grazing. (Grazing = pulling out a few last, sad vestiges of shriveled grass.) Then Bridget wanted to play. And then Chloe wanted me to stand beside her while she had a nap.
Chloe's sleepy little ears
I guess you always have to keep coming back to Sharing Space. It's the time when everyone's free to come and go as they please, when you can re-establish friendship, where everyone's equal.

When I took George out today to graze, we paused, as per our new custom, to establish a moment of quiet before proceeding. He remembered and settled right away - he poked his nose at me gently, but it wasn't an impatient nudge - more of an understanding nudge. I've been thinking about Widdicombe's advice to be soft. I asked George to move his quarters over. All I had to do was move slightly in that direction and look, and he immediately moved. I backed off right away, because he feels threatened by being asked to do that. I think it's important for him to learn that not all feet-movers are like he is - that it's possible to be polite. I'm not going to ask him to move the way he tells the mares to move. He was very helpful today about the gate. He moved aside promptly for Rose, and then later for Chloe. Both times he turned around but didn't move back towards us.

It's probably just my fond fancy, but I like to imagine that George is getting a little nicer to the mares, that Chloe feels just a little more confident around him. Here are the two of them today, resting by the fence - I don't think I've ever seen Chloe so relaxed in such close proximity to him.

Later, I went out into the pasture again while they were eating their hay. George never lets the mares eat out of his pile, and he frequently chases them away from whichever pile they're eating. I thought: maybe I don't have to move George off his food - maybe I could just ask him to share it with me. So I went and sat down on the edge of his pile. Of course he didn't mind at all. If I want him to copy me, shouldn't I confine myself to asking him to share, rather than asking him to move? I dunno.
Sharing space with George's nose

Monday, September 13, 2010

Riding Rose

Today my daughter and I took George and Rose out for a wee trail ride.

I wonder what they think of it all. George came over enthusiastically when he saw us arriving with the tack, and Rose came right up for her halter to be put on.

However, when my daughter went to mount, George was not all that keen. She is adamant about using the bridle, although if I got her a pretty bitless one (such as this), she might feel differently. When my niece rode him, swapping the bridle for a halter and two ropes seemed to be the key to happiness.

I don't blame my daughter for not liking the halter/rope arrangement, as I experienced it myself today. Rose was fine with her saddle going on, but when it came time to offer the bridle, she turned away two or three times.  So ... no bridle ... I put the halter back on, with two very cumbersome and unwieldy ropes clipped to each side.

Rose is just green-broke and really has no idea about anything. She is very calm, though, and I don't know if our experience the other day, when we let her turn for home, gave her more confidence, but today she showed no interest in an early retreat, and in fact she was all for going off in some new direction at the point where we were turning back. She whinnied once or twice to Bridget and Chloe, who were having nervous breakdowns back in the pasture, but remained uninterested in a shortcut home.

When we started out, her ears were straight ahead. About half-way around, one ear started coming back to me, and then towards the end of the ride, both ears were pointed backwards.

When we go out for a ride, it may be pleasant for the horses, but at this stage it's all a bit vague and woolly. I think we need a "picadero" to work in - somewhere we can invite the horses to work, where it's clear that that's what the purpose is, and where we can spend time figuring out what we mean, an area which delineates a space/time where certain goals are considered. Spilker says that none of her horses ever leave manure in the arena - they consider that space to be important and special.

Out with Rose today, I could feel at times the engagement of her hind legs.  Sometimes it even seemed like I could encourage it. I would like to be able to consciously work on things like that in a safe, designated area. Previously, in the old days, I could insist on a certain working attitude out on the trail.  I am reluctant to insist on anything much these days, especially out on an excursion that's supposed to be fun for all of us. A picadero would be a place where the expectation was pre-set, where the horse would be free to enter or not, depending on its desire to "work" that day. If the horse chose to enter, it would know what it was choosing.

I guess what the horses thought of our ride will be revealed by their attitude next time we appear with tack and invite them to join us!

We are testing our soil to see how much lime it needs, prior to re-seeding.  Here's George helping out with the soil sampling ...

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Various disparate phenomena ....

Chloe comes toward me with an admiring You're-My-Hero look whenever I drive George away.

I've discovered that the source of energy is in the belly and not the chest.  Also that horses accelerate when they're driving other horses off.  When they plan a friendly approach, they keep a constant speed.  So George is standing at the fence, and I ask him to move back with the fire-in-the-belly accelerated approach.  It works. But he then turns around and drives all the mares away. Not the reaction I want.

I wake up Saturday morning with a start, having a dream image suddenly in my mind of Bridget chasing a large venomous snake out of the horses' field. Later, I realize - Bridget is the patron saint of Ireland, the land whence St. Patrick banished all snakes. My previous entry referred to Paradise, a time and place before snakes were bad. And KFH in What Horses Reveal talks about how the serpent represents the dark side of the horse.

I take George out to graze and ask him to stand still and do nothing (something both Widdicombe and KFH set store by).  He finds it hard, as he wants to get to the grass.  While grazing, every now and then I ask him to get up and move a little. It gets easier as we go along. After getting back into the pasture, before removing the halter, I ask him to be still, as he is squirrelly because Chloe is nearby and he might need to go chase her.  All of a sudden, it clicks, he gets it, he relaxes and sighs. I remove the halter. A little later I return to the field. George marches over, plants me in the quiet spot next to him, and stops. Is he saying, "This is it, right?"

Bridget gets into my space unasked.  But she will get out of it at the slightest request. I don't think you do need to prevent a horse from coming into your space unasked. Would I want George not to feel he could come over and put me into the good spot? It's the motivation that counts. If they come in peace, they don't need permission. If they don't come in peace, they can't come at all.

More synchronicity:  On Friday morning, as I ate breakfast, I read in Widdicombe's book:
At the point when you realize that you are the main project, then the real work and the real progress begins. (p. 148)
  and then a little while later at daily mass, the following Gospel was read:
Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher. How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,' when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye. (Luke 6:39-42)
I think George needs my help. But I can't help him if I'm blind. What am I asking him? For whose benefit? How can I recognize it? He's taught me about his quiet spot. He put me there the other day when he wanted me to calm down. I have to teach him about my quiet spot - his head near me, being still. He needs to know this is an option.

When I first started working with George - when my friend still owned him - I was conscious of not quite trusting him and that this was connected to the fact that he didn't quite trust me. The mares do not trust George, and his lack of trustworthiness reflects his lack of trust in them.

Saturday, I took him out again to graze. Several times I asked him to be quiet, even though he wanted to move or eat. I realized that he has two ways of shoving his nose at me - one is impatient and frustrated:  I didn't let him do that. The other was a softer gesture - a connecting gesture of acquiescence, when he was ready to quiet down. It's ok for him to come into my space like that.

I think it's better to work on chilling out like this - asking him to stand by me peacefully - than to ask him to work around food. I need to be clear about what I'm asking, and he needs to be clear about what I'm asking.

After George's turn, I took Bridget out, and he had to move aside to let her in when we returned. He moved fairly soon after we got into position. After we were through the gate, he came back and inserted himself between Bridget and me, her leadrope actually going over his neck. She pulled back and was all for running away, but I stood my ground, and George came to a non-threatening halt, allowing Bridget to settle. Then I brought Chloe in through the gate; George moved aside very quickly and, despite of a bit of an evil look, allowed Chloe some space.

On Friday, George and Chloe were grazing in the top field and spotted me in the distance, working in the yard. They stopped, fixated on me, and had a rest:
Chloe is fond of George, although she doesn't like to get too close to him. She and Bridget are the most mutually trusting pair combination.

When George bit me, I was asking him to do something he'd done before, to work on something which is good for us to work on. But .... I was asking him to do it in the wrong situation, when there was pressure on him. I'm sure I'll make mistakes like that again. So I'm still not sorry I tried to kill him at the time.
These wounds I had on Crispin's Day ...

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Trouble in Paradise

George bit me. I have never in all my life been bitten for real by a horse - nipped occasionally maybe, never bitten.  Well, I guess there had to be a first time (hopefully an only time).

As usual, the synchronicity of everything is quite remarkable.

Haven't I just been complaining about my lack of convincing leadership/or whatever the concept is?  Wasn't I, yesterday morning in church, for some reason repeatedly touching the part of my body which George was subsequently to bite? When I picked up the Widdicombe book later that day, what did I find on the next page? This passage:
On a practical level, one thing I really struggled with early on ... was projecting my energy towards the horse in such a way that he would move away from me.  ... I was 'Mr. Accommodating' on a grand scale and, as I've since realized, that is one thing horses don't find so easy to deal with. (pp. 98-99)
I was very angry with George. I chased him, hurled imprecations and sundry solid objects in his direction, and generally went banshee.  It may not have been the best reaction, but frankly I'm not sorry.  John Lyons says that if a horse bites or kicks you, you have three seconds to try to kill the horse (hitting on the head or legs not allowed). Well, let's just say it's a good thing I didn't have a machine gun handy.

And also, of course, I was very shaken.

Here's what happened. I was headed out yesterday to sit in the pasture and read a book when I suddenly decided to take some treats with me and practice what George and I had practiced to good effect before - namely remaining calm in the face of food. Along comes George to get treats.  I'm like, "Whoa there, we have to calm down first."  Well, the others were hot on his tail, and he really wanted those treats, and he was feeling very pressured by all this, and suddenly his head snaked out and bit my right side, and then he took off.

After I had tried and failed to kill him, the mares gathered around me, concerned. Bridget even planted herself in between me and George - don't know if she thought she was protecting him or me!  (I imagine me, as she was facing him.) I gave all the treats to the mares, wouldn't let George come near me, and stomped off.

Naturally, one of my first thoughts was:  "Well, I guess everyone was right.  I should've been showing him who's boss all along." But although that thought kept popping up, I also kept remembering the good things that have happened by not following that path. And in some ways I have been teaching him respect and boundaries in our normal daily interactions.

Of course, it was partly my fault.  Food is a huge stressor for George. (My friend, who used to own him, first encountered him in a pitched battle over a pile of hay, wherein he charged at her, teeth bared, and knocked her arm with his teeth. And I first won his confidence by plying him with treats.) The situation I put him in was just too much. I should have been more "in the moment" and seen it coming - food in front of him which I'm blockading, mares coming up behind him ... his frustration exploded. But, George my friend, that is no excuse.

As time went by, I was conscious that I did not need to have a rational, verbal response to this. And wouldn't you know, later I read in the Widdicombe book the following very apt comment:  "There seems to be a higher plane of consciousness that is more efficient than the level of the thinking mind, and I'm pretty sure that horses appreciate it and can pick up on it very easily." (p. 125) I did not need to say:  This shows I was wrong about a, b, or c.  Or: I must teach George a, b, or c. I needed to wait, percolate, and see what came up.

What came up this morning at church was the following passage from Luke:
But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. ... But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6, 27-28,35-36)

So I decided the first order of business was to forgive George and try to re-establish some trust. After I got home, he came over to the fence.  I went into the field.  He was rather distant.  He came over a couple of times and rubbed against me but didn't stop. Finally, he came to a stop, with me in the good position next to him. After a few moments, I moved away. We reconnected in a different location.  He stood with his head next to me and had a nap.

So, we felt better. But I realized the next order of business was to confront him again in the context of food. I told him that I was going into the house for a minute and that if he wanted to come out of the pasture he should move down toward the gate. Sure enough, when I came out, there he was. I put the halter on and took him out.

The first thing I did was tell him we were just going to stand still for a minute.  Very hard for him.  Then we walked over to where I had a pile of treats, and I asked him to wait again. Very hard, but he managed it for a short minute. I gave him a treat or two in between asking him to back up, or move in a circle, or stand still. All this elicited an assortment of grouchy faces.

But guess what - my level of my body energy had magically been raised. Now that I know what lurks within, I know what I have to keep at bay.

I still don't believe I have to be the leader all the time, or the boss. But George has some serious issues with frustration, especially where food is concerned, and I need to be able to say to him, with conviction:  Chill out.

We're only one day on from the bite, and I'm sure I've nowhere near plumbed the depths of what it all means. I'm conscious of wishing to keep my thoughts amorphous still, the way they say a caterpillar kind of decomposes inside its cocoon before reshaping into its new form. My confidence is still shaken - and it's even affecting my interactions with Bridget. But after it happened, although I was angry and upset, I had a feeling of inevitability, as if it were meant to happen, as if I was being shaken out of a rut, as if it were almost a gift. And to get back to church - yesterday during mass, I had distinctly prayed for a horse-related gift of some kind. And - synchronicity again - last night before going to sleep, here's what I read in Widdicombe:
[S]ometimes it looks as if we are in control when in reality we're not. In some ways, the only tool in our box really is a prayer. (p. 141)

 p.s. Don't nobody tell my husband about this.  He would be really pissed off.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Another Good Read

On the recommendation of Maire over at Ponies at Home, I've been reading Tom Widdicombe's Be With Your Horse.

There are several things I like about this book. One is that the author is self-deprecating and full of humor; he's not afraid to tell stories against himself, and his motto is, "If I can do this, anyone can." Another thing I appreciate is that he resolutely refuses to base anything on herd dynamics.  Not that there's anything wrong with studying herd dynamics. Far from it, but as Widdicombe says:
[W]hy do we have to justify everything with theories? If, say, a horse backs out of our space, why do we then have to turn around and say 'Ah, that's what happens in the herd between the alpha and beta horses' or whatever? The theory may be correct, and there's no harm in knowing it, but is it actually of any consequence? If something works for me, do I really need to know the reason why? If I'm not going to eat to end my hunger or stand up to stretch my legs until I understand the process of how it works ... well, I wouldn't get out of bed in the morning using that kind of logic. (p.21)
 Widdicombe is also refreshing in that he recognizes the gray areas of horsemanship.  Ideally, of course, we would like to always be clear, always be gentle, always be upbeat, etc., etc.  However, there are situations where, thanks to the fact that we are perennially imperfect beings living in an imperfect world, things get kind of murky. He gives an example of holding fast to the rope of a horse who is violently trying to get away from him.  He succeeds in holding on, and the horse quickly learns that he can't get away in this manner. He is aware, however, that the horse could easily have won the fight and that it would have been much better to avoid the confrontation in the first place:
Ideally, I would rather not have ended up in that situation, but I did.  I would have dearly loved to have had a few warm, sunny days with no wind over which to build up such a good relationship with the horse that the thought of running off wouldn't even enter his head.  I was on such a potential loser in all that wind that maybe I should have let the horse go on his first try, because I knew that with each subsequent try the stakes for me became even higher. ... I know I got lucky with that one, and I also know I should try not to get into that kind of thing in the first place, but that is what happened and how I dealt with it at the time. (pp. 67-68)
He talks some common sense about the much-vilified round pen:
A round pen provides a safe enclosed environment in which to work the horse. .... Also, for starting young horses, it allows the handler to work the horse loose. ... It is true that it is also a piece of equipment that can be used badly, but this applies to any equipment, doesn't it? The round pen does put the handler in a very powerful position, because the horse cannot run away. Personally, I would not be looking to do anything that would encourage the horse to run away anyway.
I like his insistence that you should always ask rather than tell the horse:
There is a fine line between ask and tell, almost finer than a human can feel, but if we watch the horse and are sensitive to him, he will tell us exactly where that line is.  If you cross the line, it often causes the horse to react in the opposite way to the one that you had hoped. (p. 39)
For Widdicombe, there is no formula, no system, no program. It is all about your attitude toward the horse and setting up a good relationship. (p.32) He has a lot of helpful suggestions - setting boundaries, getting the horse's attention, doing "nothing" with the horse, simplifying, etc.  But these are not rules or formulae: it all comes down to "how you are" with the horse, treating each horse as an individual, and using the least amount of pressure possible. I like his comment, "With gentle comes respect - with rough comes fear." (p. 56)

Widdicombe's claim that he does not espouse any theory about horses, however, is not 100% accurate, as he believes in that good old idea - you have to be "in charge" in order for the horse to feel safe:
If, in the eyes of your horse, you are not up to the job of looking after him, then he will not be able to relax with you.  He won't feel safe and, probably even worse for you, he may well feel the need to start taking care of himself. (p. 32)
Most horses I've met are only too happy to hand over the responsibility of choice if they can find a good strong leader. (p. 37)
I don't really question the truth of these assertions. However, I cannot flatter myself that at present my horses feel I'm the sort of person who is obviously able to take care of business. There is much evidence that I am not that sort of person. However, despite my shortcomings, the horses seem to be pretty cooperative and nice and happy to be with me. They might be happier if I developed a bit more backbone, but in the meantime this is the me that we've got to work with.  I feel that the horses are satisfied that, failing my own ability to, say, chase away a bear (or keep George at bay), at least I'm willing to allow them the option to deal with things on their own initiative. Perhaps the insecurity horses experience comes not so much from the handler failing to exude confidence, but rather from a feeling of being trapped - by a human who isn't in charge but won't let them be in charge either. Jenny Pearce, in Zen Connection With Horses, does not set very much store by the necessity for leadership and believes that it is appropriate for the horse and human to take turns at being leader.

Widdicombe has obviously arrived at a very good place with horses. His idea of leadership may be a little theory he has added in as an afterthought, and in fact it may make very little difference to the way he actually behaves. Similarly, he has the idea that you should not allow a horse uninvited into your space, as he believes it creates confusion for the horse if you do not consciously establish a boundary.  I imagine that in his personal interactions with horses, he is very calm and clear about what level of encroachment he is comfortable with, which probably is comforting for the horses.  But again, I think his "rule" of no-uninvited-space-entering is the result of his good experiences, rather than the cause of them.

Here's something he says which I like a lot:
People who understand everything worry me a lot. People who speak with conviction about worldly matters worry me even more.  I've never really believed that we are equipped to understand everything that's going on here, or that we're supposed to understand it either. So when people say they do understand things, my feeling tends to be that they are either bluffing or suffering from some kind of delusion. (p. 73)
So far, so good - I'm only half-way through though, so ... more on this book later!

Nice Lady at the Vet's

I recently had to take our 2 1/2 year old Shepherd mix dog, Malcolm, to the vet.  Malcolm is a sensitive child.  He was crying the whole time we were in the waiting room, and when the time came for him to step on the scale to be weighed, he was very reluctant.

But the nice Vet Tech knew what to do.  She said, "Watch me, Malcolm, I'm going to step on first - so you can see how it's done, and that it's safe."

Well, I'm sorry to admit this - but I was pretty sure her approach wasn't going to work.

Wrong again.  Malcolm, wide-eyed and clearly a bit dubious still, crept onto the scales after her, and stayed on long enough to be weighed.

I thought that was nice.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Rose and Bridget Have a Little Too Much Adventure

The plan is for Rose to become buddies with my husband.  He has not had much to do with horses in the course of his life, but he would like to learn more and become more involved. Today I decided we should take Bridget and Rose out for a walk, me leading Bridget, and he leading Rose.

Well, the first thing I learn, when we go to get the horses, is how very different it is trying to interact with the horses when there's someone else in the field I have to be concerned about.

Bridget can tell that I'm just not on top of things.  After I put her halter on, I leave her to go help my husband with Rose's halter. She comes over and nips me on the arm - "Get it together, woman!" I smack her nose, which bothers her not at all, but in retrospect I guess, instead, I should have said, "Thanks - I needed that." Bridget's nips are always well-timed.

We finally get organized, halters on, out the gate (thank you, George), and off into the hay field to graze.
The main advice I give my husband is that if he finds himself thinking in anthropomorphic terms about the horse, he should go with it.  And that if he finds himself being dragged along at the end of the leadrope, it's ok to plant his feet and refuse to move. And that if he wants Rose to look at him, he can call to her and put a little pressure on the rope, and ask her to re-connect.

So, we have a nice little grazing walk, and then it's time to go back and cross the bridge with the George Troll sitting underneath it.

I explain to my husband that we have to Wait, which doesn't make him happy, as we have to Be Somewhere in Less Than an Hour. The gate opens inward on the right; so when I open it, I want George to move off to the left, positioning him behind the gate as Bridget enters.  He paws for a while. I push him off gently to the left.  I ask nicely.  Then he says, "Nope, not going left, going right, so there."  And off he goes to the right, far enough for Bridget to enter comfortably.  He comes back, and Bridget looks nervous, but he has no intention of interfering and lets me take her halter off.  Then I cheat, put the rope around his neck and lead him away to allow my husband to bring Rose in.

Mission accomplished?  Nope.  Bridget sees her chance and darts through the still-open gate, Rose breaks free, leadrope trailing, and the two of them trot merrily over to the neighbor's alfalfa. I walk over, retrieve Rose, give her to my husband, and go get Bridget.

On the way back, Bridget and I enjoy the longest trot together we've ever had, with Bridget kindly letting me keep abreast. In the meantime, my husband and Rose enter the pasture with no interference from George, and he lets us in too. Phew.

I put some hay out.  When Rose's halter is off, however, she chooses to stay standing next to my husband, and she looks rather happy.  So maybe this buddy thing will work out.

George is a Good Sport

George technically 'belongs' to my youngest daughter.  She hasn't done much with him over the summer, for various reasons, but this morning she decided to go for a ride.

I used to be very laisser faire about her and George - if she wanted to do things in a more traditional way, then it was up to her.  But now ....  not so much.

She tied George up to a fence post.  Fine.  Then it came time to put the saddle on.  Now in the past, George was rather grouchy about having his girth done up, and my daughter used to smack him and tell him to cut it out.  So I said, "If he gets pissy about having his girth done up, you can't smack him.  You should just wait until he's ready for you to try again." This advice was met with counter-advice to the effect that I should butt out and mind my own business.  (Although, to be fair, couched in more tactful terms.)  So I did.

George is very fond of his Girl, and as I watched from a safe distance, I could see that he was quite content and had no intention of becoming grouchy at all.  My daughter, for her part, thanked him nicely whenever he let her do something.

My daughter vetoed my suggestion of using a halter and rope instead of a bridle.  He fussed a little at first, but we gave him a treat to chew, and he made the best of it. Mounting was less welcome to George than I would have liked.  He moved out of position once or twice, but my daughter swung herself into the saddle from the picnic bench a couple of feet away.

As they set off down the drive, I called after them (I couldn't help myself):  "It's all about the dialog! Remember!  He wants to cooperate - he wants to help you out!" George has revealed enough of himself that I could say this not as mere wishful thinking, but with absolute conviction.
Rein too tight, but I think she's turning.  George maintaining positive attitude!
Earlier, my advice to "use her words" and just ask George for what she wants, rather than demand, had been met with a degree of eye-rolling.  However, as I sat on the porch and watched them in the distance, I could hear non-stop girlish chatter wafting through the air from their vicinity.

They rode around the hay field a few times, and I was happy to see my daughter allowing George to stop and look whenever he wanted to.  Many times they paused, and George stared off into the distance. They both looked relaxed.

When they returned, I said - "You guys looked good out there." My daughter replied, "He was being really nice."

Of course he was.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Getting to Know You

Today I spent a long time Sharing Space with the horses, which meant I spent most of the time in this position:

I put some hay out for everyone, brought out the grooming box, took a pile of hay for myself, and interacted with whoever chose to come over - mostly Bridget.
Bridget inspects contents
When the horses had all had their fill of hay and of attention, they dispersed, and I wandered over to be near Rose, who had not yet come over to say hello.

I remembered Sandra's description on her blog, Two Horses, of one of her mares, Minnie, who doesn't come into her space uninvited, and into whose space, therefore, she does not go uninvited. Rose does not push into one's space, and so I thought I'd better just give her space and let her decide if she wanted to get closer. 

I sat down. She grazed her way over to me until she was nibbling next to my leg.  I stood up and positioned myself close to her shoulder a few feet away.  Again she grazed her way over until she was standing next to me, just touching. I started scratching her neck, which she liked. What she really wanted, though, was for me to stand close to her head and let her have a nap. She got cross when Bridget came close and snaked her head out.

We stood together for a while, until the spell was broken by another Bridget-approach, and then it was time to go into the house.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Rose Steps Out of Her Comfort Zone

We've just had a visit from two very lovely young women.  My grownup niece and a friend are on a road trip and came to stay for a couple of days.  They expressed an interest in Going for a Ride.

Naturally I had to explain that we would ask the horses if they were willing to participate in this venture, and if they weren't, we'd have to settle for taking them for a walk or just hanging out. I ended up talking at length about how we're trying to do things these days.  Our guests were enthusiastic about this approach and said they were perfectly happy to abide by whatever the horses decided.

Lately Rose has been showing signs of wishing to move forward in her relationship with us.  I'd already formed the intention of bringing George and Rose out for the girls to try riding, and when I went outside, I saw George and Rose striding purposefully up toward the house. The horses were happy to have their halters on; we lead them out and let them graze. I brought the saddle over to Rose, who looked askance, so I said, "That's ok," walked away, and waited for a while.  When I asked again, she didn't mind, and I put the saddle on.

George didn't have any objections to being saddled.  He accepted his bridle very readily but was fussy with the bit.  When my niece went to mount, he objected. I thought perhaps he didn't like his bit. I swapped the bridle for his halter with two ropes attached, and then he was fine with my niece climbing on board.

Rose didn't object to the bridle and stood like a saint, while I gave the other young lady a leg up, which involved a lot of scrambling and kicking.

Then we set off, with me accompanying on foot.

Rose strode forward, leading the way, ears forward, relaxed.  George brought up the rear, looking cheerful, and stopping for frequent bites of grass.

We went along the road, turned down the lane, and after about 50 yards, Rose became anxious about Bridget whinnying in the distance.  We stopped, and I discussed with Rose's rider whether or not we should turn around.  We agreed that Rose would feel more confident next time if we turned back.  Rose stayed rather anxious until we got back to the corner of the field, where she immediately dropped her head and was tranquil again as we walked along the road next to the fence.

After being untacked and turned out, both the horses very much wanted to stay and socialize with us - a testament, I think, to whole experience having been a pleasant one. The horses had obviously formed a very favorable impression of our guests and were welcoming and warm towards them.

I was so happy that these two wonderful young women immediately grasped the importance of treating the horses in this way.  I was also happy that the horses so very obligingly reacted positively!  It was great to see Rose accepting the saddle on her own terms after being allowed to reject it. To see that George was not objecting to a rider but to the bit, and that when we accommodated his concerns, he was willing to cooperate with our request. (I am now convinced that we need to go bitless right away, certainly with George, and probably also with Rose.) We discussed how if a person has arachnophobia, you don't start by sticking a spider in front of them and then slapping them if they run away.  You gradually desensitize them.  So by allowing Rose to only go as far as she felt comfortable going, we were building up her confidence, and next time she'd be able to go further.

My niece, who grew up with horses off and on, was particularly aware of the contrast between our way of doing things and the "traditional" way.  At first (well, still!) it's hard to see how one balances the horse's needs and desires with one's own legitimate concerns/needs/boundaries.  I explained that it's not like we want the horse to ride roughshod over us and that it's ok to say to the horse, "Look, I really need you to do this for me now" - e.g. stop eating so many apples.  I told her about going to the end of the leadrope and saying, "We need to go this way now," with or without a very light pressure.  She practiced and found herself getting the hang of it - of having a dialog with George and having him respond, not to pressure or coercion, but to her direct requests.

Before they drove off this morning, my niece's friend said our horses were "very charismatic and charming." I don't think our horses are innately unusual but that they have started to become Kommunikative Pferde, who as Spilker says, "are different."

Rose and my niece become friends