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

Saturday, November 22, 2014

George in the Rain

Although our cold snap has been replaced by more usual Texan temperatures, George knows that winter is coming. The food supply is undiminished, but he is anxious about food again. From the minute I arrive, he stands with his head over the gate, waiting to be taken out to the greener grass. After his grazing excursion is over, he returns to his gate vigil, staring after me, even as I drive away.

Today it was raining quite heavily when I took him out. We were accompanied by the barn manager's little boy, and we wandered about, looking at machinery and eating clover. Then the little boy found a lovely big puddle in the round pen to splash in, and George surprisingly left off eating and expressed an interest in entering the pen too. We did, and I turned him loose.

The boy and I pretended to be horses running around in circles and sploshed around in the puddle in our wellies. George came over to see what all the fun was about.

He dipped his nose in the water a couple of times and then wandered off to potter about the pen - peering over the fence, nibbling strands of grass, and finally settling with his back to the wind, patiently enduring the rain. He was kind and patient with the little boy.

When he finally walked to the round pen gate and stuck his head over, it was time to let him out again to resume his grazing. For a little while, he had chosen to leave his food and spend time with the humans and their enigmatic activities.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Time and Trust

The much-anticipated workshop of November 15 has taken place! At Harmony Ranch in Van Vleck, Texas, I joined Christin Staszesky Harper, her five horses, and seven other students for a day of the Yoga of Equine Wisdom.

There's a lot to unpack from this workshop, and a lot to say, but I won't try to do it all at once. One thing - "Yoga" in this case has the meaning "Union," not a bunch of asanas.

Among the themes which emerged during the course of the day, trust and taking time were two which stood out. The issue of trust was introduced initially in human-to-human exercises, such leading each other and falling (not very far) backwards into a partner's waiting hands. Then as an exploration of horse/human trust, we took turns picking up a horse's foot. Most of the people at the workshop were not experienced with horses, and so this was something which might induce a degree of trepidation or uncertainty, perhaps on both sides. The human had to trust that it was safe to pick up the foot of the horse, and the horse had to feel confidence in the human in order to allow its foot to be picked up.

One horse had already picked up his forefeet a couple of times, and when the next human approached and asked for his foot, he refused. Very calmly and politely, but a refusal nonetheless. Then again, refusal is probably the wrong word. In humanspeak, we think of a refusal as a loud, or least emphatic,  "No!" The horse's No was more like the No of a rock that is just too heavy to lift. Our coach did not try to coach the human in a better or more explicit way to induce the horse to pick up his foot. And the student did not get flustered. The coach eventually questioned the student as to whether she perhaps could find some inner resistance on her part. No, she really couldn't. Then finally, our coach said, "You see - being with horses takes time!" And no sooner were the words out of her mouth than up came the foot.

Coincidence? Hmm.

Thinking back, there were many examples during the day of trust and taking time. And when I went to the barn today, I pondered the many examples I encountered there.

I bring some treats with me to the pasture. George, Rose and Bridget all come up and stand in a semi-circle around me, each waiting politely for their turn to receive a treat. Each one trusts that they will get their share and trusts that the other horses will not steal from them or bite them or drive them away. I trust them not to hurt me. It has taken a long time to reach this point - four years. Chloe still doesn't trust the others and stands in the background. But she trusts that I will throw her a treat and waits expectantly.

George is fearful of the cold; he doesn't trust the future food supply and feels he may starve. When I arrive he stands by the gate, trusting that I will take him out and let him graze. I take the time to stand beside him for an hour while he tries to satisfy his craving for calories.

Clover has carbs!
When it's Bridget's turn to come out of the pasture, I hold her leadrope and stand with her by the gate. George stands there too. It's hard for him to let her leave. At times, George comes between Bridget and me, his chest pressing against the rope. In the past this would have been a dangerous situation which I would have avoided at all costs, otherwise he would end up biting her and driving her away, possibly causing her to run me over in the process. Today, however, Bridget trusts George to control himself. She stands alert, but calm and patient, on the other end of the rope, giving George the time he needs to relinquish the gate. Which eventually he does - he ups and walks definitively away, allowing me plenty of time to open the gate, extract Bridget, and close the gate again.

Bridget, having been well-fed since birth does trust the food supply. While she is very happy to have snack breaks, she's more interested in exploring. Sometimes we run together.

Chloe has been giving me the Look since I arrived. She stands in the background, fixing me pointedly with her eyes and intention. The Look generally means, "Take (or let) me out." When I return Bridget to the field, George decides to stay near the gate, Bridget goes for a drink, and Rose tries to do what she always does when she wants to be in charge of where to go - she tries to gather Chloe up and shoo her ahead. I defend Chloe, who stands close by me, trusting that I will keep Rose away. Finally Rose, slightly huffy, walks off, and Chloe and I walk together to the far gate. Bridget follows us, but I convince her to keep her distance. Still Chloe trusts that I will keep her safe. When we reach the gate, I open it and invite Chloe to exit. She watches and waits for the right moment, then out she goes. When I first began allowing Chloe to say No, it took time - six months - before she trusted me enough to leave the pasture with me. And I trust Chloe to behave appropriately outside the confines of the fence, wearing no tack.

Chloe and I have a little walk, Chloe grazes, I sit down, and Chloe remembers her foot trick. She puts her foot on top of my bended knee and then looks for a treat, but I'm all out. She doesn't mind.

When it's time for me to leave, I realize that I have actually no way of getting Chloe back into the field. She doesn't buy me leading from behind - she knows I don't really mean it. I try taking off my belt and using it as a collar but that's about as much use as trying to move her by blowing at her. In the end, I run back and fetch a halter and leadrope (and apple). As soon as halter and rope are on, Chloe moves off readily, and we run together back to the gate. Rose is waiting, and the two of them stand trustingly side by side while I hand them bites of apple. Bridget comes up in time for the last morsel.

Sometimes Chloe lets me climb on her back. She trusts that I will not insist and will only go ahead with her permission. Today was not one of those days, but last week she allowed me the privilege. For me, that is the biggest leap (scramble!) of trust of all. Usually, I try to get up quickly, uneasy that she might take off or move. Then I realized that on those occasions when she decides it's ok, it really is ok. Last week, when Chloe stood still to let me clamber aboard, I think I managed to let go of my uncertainty and allow myself to take all the time I needed to climb up, allowing myself to feel her trustworthiness.

After Saturday's workshop, I feel I have a clearer mandate to continue waiting and trusting. Trusting not just the horses as individuals, but the whole process of unfolding. As Chloe and I were walking to the gate today, I felt a moment of anxiety - Will she come out? Will I fail? And then I realized that it didn't matter - that if I was serious about trusting the horses and trusting the future, I would accept with equanimity either outcome. There is so much to be grateful for; and so much in my life for which I am grateful was unplanned and unforeseen. Unexpected gifts can be better than the ones we hope for.

Monday, November 10, 2014


For two weeks in October, I returned to Pennsylvania to take care of hoof trimming clients, a trip I plan to repeat regularly. While there I went to work on three horses whom I first met just over two years ago and saw regularly for a year or so until financial and other difficulties made them and their owner disappear from the scene for a while.

Because this little herd runs on hilly, rough ground, the lack of trimming for almost a year was not as harmful as it might have been. The thoroughbred had had abscesses this summer (probably due to a bout of laminitis combined with long toes), but he'd broken off most of his excess hoof wall since then and was acting pretty sound.

Now these were the horses who really taught me about asking the horse's permission. The first time I went, the thoroughbred was extremely anxious, had nervous diarrhea, cowkicked, and wouldn't stand still - despite obviously being a sweet, cooperative horse. His buddy, a paint gelding, escaped from his owner's grasp and would not be re-caught when he saw the trimmer was here. The dominant mare grudgingly let me work a little after I got bossy.

I knew when I returned the next time that something had to be different, so I worked out a plan, described in a previous post. This plan, in a nutshell, if you don't wish to go back and read the whole thing, basically means allowing the horse to refuse to give its foot. It doesn't mean letting the horse eat grass or wander off, but it does mean the horse gets to keep its foot on the ground if that's what it really wants. Using this approach produced a dramatic difference, and I was able to get a lot of work done.

Now, I've had my ups and downs with these horses since then. Sometimes the thoroughbred is ouchy with laminitis and finds it much harder to stand on three legs. When his feet have gotten sore, he has reverted to having nervous diarrhea. The paint has stringhalt, which has gotten progressively worse, so although he tries to let me work on his hind legs, he often finds it too difficult. The mare has an ongoing stifle issue which causes her discomfort when I pick up one of her forefeet. However, we never regressed to the situation of my first visit, and I tried to continue to implement my principles.

When I went back this time, I wasn't sure how we'd all behave. Having overcome the initial hurdle of how to work with them, I fear I had perhaps regressed somewhat to a git-r-done way of thinking. They, on the other hand, had no doubts at all. They had remembered our m.o., and despite my uncertainty, they were able to show me how to behave. The first gelding began by assuming an air of unassailable calm. He stood  there radiating Zen waves, and absolutely would not pick up any feet. His demeanor was so convincing and kind, that I had no choice but to remember that he was demonstrating proper behavior rather than being "stubborn." Pretty soon, when I returned to ask again, he picked up a foot. He then allowed me to finish both forefeet and to rough out his hinds (harder for him, as it means putting weight on his recovering fores).

The second gelding did exactly the same thing. He began by saying some sort of equine version of "om," did his pranayama breathing, and wouldn't pick up a foot. But only for a little while. He too allowed me to finish his front feet. His stringhalty hinds were too much for him, and although he gamely lifted them for me, the lift would turn into an involuntary flexion, and he was unable to let me hold them. They chip and break well, and look pretty good, so hopefully this is not a problem. The mare was not quite so steadfastly serene, but I remembered my manners, and she was kind and helpful in return.

I look back with gratitude on the time spent with these horses and feel I can, even now, tune into their stillness and plant my own feet more firmly onto the ground. They remembered the proper way to trim, they embraced it and made it their own, and were able to offer it back to me.

George's Entourage

George and Rose's friendship took six months from first meeting to the point where they could be together in the same space without Rose feeling fearful or George feeling the need to bite her. Then they went through a short phase when George broke the ice by acting all studdish and mounting her. And gradually from there they developed the beautiful relationship they have now, where George has nominated Rose as his mom, but he's still in charge. Rose's sweetness has been a balm to him, I think, and her presence has given him a safe place to relax and unwind. He has grown generous toward her and will stand by while she takes treats.

Rose is a nice napping partner.

George and Bridget's relationship, on the other hand, remained stormy and tense for much longer. For four years they couldn't occupy the same space. There was a certain curiosity between them, however, which they would sometimes try to satisfy by talking to each other over a fence, or even over a person. At home in PA, there are two adjoining fields with an open gate between, and I've observed them use that set-up to go one on each side of a fence in order to squeal at each other. 

Finally, this year there has been a rapprochement. They can stand fairly close together, and occasionally they'll touch noses or one will nose the other's flank without ensuing drama. I feel that their long journey to Texas together has helped their relationship.

As for Chloe - she has absolutely avoided George; no way was she ever going to allow herself to get anywhere near that dreadful ogre. And his behavior pretty much justified her fears, as if Chloe got in his vicinity, he'd usually offer to bite her. Even with a barrier between, the George-bites/Chloe-flees scenario remained.


Yesterday, I prevailed on Chloe to exit the field with me. She was very engaged in the process of getting through the gate and did not change her mind or want to quit when we had to run the George gauntlet. My strategy was basically to keep nicely reminding George that he was supposed to let us get out and to keep plying him with treats (not as rewards, but as morale boosters). He was in a high state of tension and clearly fighting with himself, but Chloe (a more acute George observer than I) did not falter. We dodged and sidestepped, and I kept swiveling to keep George in my sights, and we made it through the gate with no bites and no unauthorized escapees. 

Chloe then spent some time grazing, and (on account of she's a little angel) she let me clamber onto her back and sit there. When it was time to take her back, George stuck his head over the gate to greet us, and - lo and behold - he and Chloe touched noses FOR THE VERY FIRST TIME. Only for a micro-second to be sure, but they did it again, just to be sure I didn't think I'd imagined it. And then George nicely let us back into the field.

This photo makes it look like Chloe is huge and I am tiny,
whereas in fact, as everyone knows, the opposite is true.

A New Friend for George

My husband is not a horsey person. He'd sort of like to be, and he fancies the idea of going for a nice ride, but our horses are not exactly dead-broke, and he doesn't enjoy all the ancillary activities preceding and following a ride - catching, grooming, tacking up, etc. etc. Not to mention all the activities preceding the preceding activities - the stuff I'm interested in - e.g. hanging out in the field, taking the horses for walks, finding out what they want to do, that kind of thing.

However, now that we live in the city, he appreciates a jaunt to the country and an opportunity to let the dogs run free, so off we went yesterday together to the barn. He hadn't been counting on having to do this, but he girded up his loins and agreed to take George out for a walk, while I took Bridget.

It's fun to see how keen the horses (well, some of them) are on going out. Bridget was really eager, especially as it's usually George who gets to venture forth. However, I have to say my poor husband could not be said to enjoy the expedition very much. He felt like he couldn't keep up with George and was constantly being pushed into thorn bushes.

Then when we turned the horses loose again (at the first possibly opportunity at the nearest gate), he wasn't really interested in staying in the field and made a beeline for the far gate. I'm not sure if this is because fundamentally he feels nervous around them, or if he's bored, or what.  I told him to not let them do anything he didn't feel comfortable with and not to let himself get wedged in between them, which unfortunately I think added to the feeling of danger.

Be that as it may, the horses thought it was awesome to have a new person in their field with them. They wanted to follow him and get close to him. He did hand out some treats, but that really wasn't their main interest. George even came up and put him in the friendly spot on his left side. George likes people who aren't very familiar with horses and enjoyed being with him on the walk.

Much more tension in the human than in the horse.

The human is now paying attention to the horse, and look how sweetly
George is taking in the presence of his walking companion.

Here are the horses with their reluctant new friend.

I've yet to get to the bottom of why this human is not very keen on spending time with horses. Even if you remove the threatening scenario of having all the horses clustering round, he's still not interested in spending time with just one horse. He loves dogs. But here's what I'm doing this weekend, which I'm SUPER-EXCITED about: I'm going to a day-long workshop, run by a yoga instructor, which is designed for people who are attracted to horses but fearful of them (part of a program called Authenticity Training Through the Yoga of Equine Wisdom). Maybe I can gain me some insights into how to help my husband enjoy the horses. And the new barn owner has already agreed to give him riding lessons, which unaccountably he's more interested in than ground work/play. Because, gee, you can't fall off the ground, but whatever.

George Likes to Walk

I think George really likes the new barn. Certainly he enjoys exploring in a way that he didn't in his old home. Of course often when he comes out of the pasture, he wants to spend time eating the grass-that's-greener, but he always wants to have a tour of inspection too. And if it looks like I'm going to make him stop eating and go back to the pasture, he'll say, "No no! It's time to go out on Patrol!" And off he'll march, with me huffing and puffing to keep up.

There's a field of mares - very interesting - but he doesn't want to get too close.

We pass the gelding pasture. They must be shown that George is way more studly and important than they are. He snorts and struts and paws the ground. From a safe distance.

Sometimes he has to check out something unusual in the distance. The other day it was a big white crane.

I need to get my new helmet and figure out which saddle works for both me and George so that we can go out riding. He likes to walk considerably faster than me, and I hope he'll enjoy the opportunity to go out exploring at his own pace instead of my poky one.

George's Practice

Our new barn in Texas boasts a 60' Round Pen.

Now, a round pen is a useful accessory, and I'm glad to have it, but not nearly as glad as I once would have been. On account of, thanks to Ms. Spilker, my horses no longer really have to do anything they don't want. So, pretty much, those round-and-round-we-go-this-way-then-that-at-this-speed-then-that-stop-only-when-I-tell-you days are over.

What we do we instead, you might ask?

Well, here's something George has been working on, and the round pen was part of his equipment.

Our formerly aggressive horse, George, hates for you to stand by his shoulder and ask him to move it away from you. At one time, such a heinous suggestion might have elicited the threat of a bite. At the very least eyes would narrow, ears would pin back, head would snake - drama drama drama.

I've backed off more and more to the point where I'd be standing about two or more feet away, gently just point a little finger at his shoulder, and whisper, "Georgie pie, would you like to move over maybe just maybe?" Even this would cause the smoke to start coming out of his ears.

He'll move over if you ask him other ways, but that shoulder spot is super sensitive, and it just irks him no end.

Well, the other day we were in the round pen. Sometimes when we go in there, George'll go, "Oh yeah, I know what we do - I'll trot round this way, and then I'll trot round the other way once or twice, and --- that's enough now! What else shall we do?" And of course I don't make him go around any more.

So we might do a little shifting his quarters over, and maybe backing up a bit (all at liberty). We might visit other ways to ask him to move his shoulder, or we might just stand still together. The nice thing about a round pen is that the horse and human are contained within a limited safe space, both free to come together or separate as each desires.

The other day, in the round pen, after a few preliminaries, George came up on my right side and stopped with me in the BAD SPOT next to his shoulder. (Normally he likes to put me by his waist.) Then he reached around away from me and bit himself. After a moment, one of us moved away. But immediately he returned to the same position and did the same thing - tensed up and reached round to bite himself.

This continued several more times. I really didn't say anything - I just stood there and let George use me to probe his fears. He kept returning to the dreaded spot, biting himself each time.

Finally, after several tries, when George came up beside me, he sighed, settled, and dropped his head. Here he is. All his own work.

Later that day we were all out in the field together. When I headed back to the gate, the horses all came with me, and George walked beside me, shoulder to shoulder. He's a fast walker, and after a while I couldn't keep up with him and fell behind. I thought he'd keep going, but he stopped and turned back to look at me. When I caught up, he nudged me with his head, and we set off again together.

George's work is a witness to how seriously a horse can approach his life, his relationships, his fears. George seems aware of the conflict that sometimes exists between his own inner demons and an ideal peaceful world. He faces that disconnect and seeks ways of reconciliation.

I've been enjoying the educational author Alfie Kohn, who has written many interesting books, including one called Punished by Rewards. I believe it's obvious that using negative reinforcement to "train" George to give up his hostile ways would pre-empt and stymie his own dedication to self-improvement. But observing George practicing in the round pen really brought home to me (again) that to offer positive reinforcement is not necessarily benign; it can trivialize and distract from a person's accomplishments and efforts. If I were practicing a difficult piano piece and finally mastered it, how inappropriate and beside-the-point it would be for my teacher to say, "Good job! Now you can have a cookie!" Punishments and rewards are for work that others are making you do.

When my friend who gave us George first encountered him, he was an angry young horse called Buddy. I feel that back in his early, early days, before whatever happened that turned him fearful and mad, there must have been something about him which made the person who named him think of him as a "buddy."  I changed his name, because I call every male animal and every little boy "buddy," but I hope he is re-discovering his original self, which does indeed seem to be a true friend.

George and his sweet friend Rose