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

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Kindred Spirits

I've discovered a very simpatico mentor and online community: Jenny Pearce and her Happiness and Wellbeing for Horse and Riders.

Jenny has a nice free emailed program called "Nine Keys to Happiness with Your Horse," as well as other more extensive programs which she makes available for a very reasonable cost. She's has a nice blog, question-and-answer page, books for sale, and she is responsive to questions and requests for advice.


Friday, March 18, 2016


I have made the following resolution:  I will never again mount a horse without its explicit permission, except in cases of emergency (#balto, #paulrevere).

The newly minted head honcho Bridget didn't want to leave her pasture the other day and was eager to return. She was nice about everything and let me put her saddle on. But when it came time to stand by the mounting block, she kept turning her tail away so that I couldn't reach the saddle.

She was very nice about it and stood very calmly and sweetly with her head next to my body, but every time I re-positioned her, she moved out of position again. I know many horses are trained to stand still on a loose rein for mounting. But that's not good enough for me. I want a freely-given assent from a horse who is secure in the knowledge that a refusal will carry no consequences whatsoever. I don't mind asking politely a few times in a row, but if the answer continues to be no, then that's it.

I know now that Bridget understands about mounting and that she enjoys a trail ride. So when she says no, I trust that she has a good reason. The transition from being annoying kid sister to HBIC in the pasture may take a while, and patience on my part is probably in order.

Round Pen

Prior to anyone riding Rose again, I knew that I should accustom her to the round pen. She's often anxious about leaving her pasture, and she can get quite unthinking when she's anxious - not safe. She's fine if she picks the direction and timing of outings, and she can be reluctant to go back into the pasture, so it's not that she's herd-bound. Just anxious about new things. Both George and Bridget have embraced the round pen as a safe space (as long as someone's in there with them) - they recognize it as a place for conversation and experimentation. I wanted the same for Rose.

So a new Rose-in-the-round-pen campaign was begun. The first time I took her up, she was indeed rather anxious. Horses release emotion through movement, and by my inviting her to use the round pen to run around, she was able to discharge some of that flight/fear reaction in a more controlled way. I say "invite" deliberately, because I no longer use the round pen to insist that the horse run or move in any particular way. The horses will accept an invitation because they recognize that the round pen is a tool which they can use for their own comfort and advantage And if they choose not to accept the invitation, that is fine too.

After a while, I tried to encourage Rose to walk instead of run, but she was not yet able to turn the volume down on her emotions. However, a short while later, without being asked and without being asked to move at all, she took up an active, even walk at the rail of the pen. After several circuits, I asked her if she would like to try the other direction. She accepted, and turned, and continued her energetic walk.

It's exciting that the horses are able to figure out how to use the round pen in different ways to help them feel better, to work through issues and problems, and to try out new things. (For example: George's Practice.)

Since that first time, Rose has been confident in the round pen, and when the time came to bring my husband out to ride her, she was very content to meander about or just stand still and rest beside him.

Rose Finds a Friend

I had the animal communicator talk to my horses! Yes I did!

This is something I've been fence-sitting about for years - curious, sceptical, drawn to it, but doubtful. So finally I had to try it.

One of things I learned (more in another post) - well, not learned, because honestly I knew this already - was that Rose is kind of sad and has a feeling that some part of her is missing. We speculated what this might be, but I've always felt that she wanted her own person, so I informed my husband that there was a Terry-shaped hole in Rose's heart and he was going to have to start to live up to his obligations.

He's only been out twice to the barn since then, but it's a start!

I got them into the round pen - Terry groomed her, and she started following him about. He's never been that patient about the horses, but I guess my years of droning on have made an impression or something, and when it was time to put her bridle on (which takes a lot of asking and waiting and processing for Rose), he said, "Well, we don't have to ride today," which made me proud of him, and was exactly the right approach for our shy Rose.

Despite the mounting block, it was rather a struggle for him to get into the saddle. He was slightly stranded for a few moments in an awkward and vulnerable position with one leg half over the saddle. During all this time, I swear have never experienced a horse standing as still as Rose. It felt like every cell in her body was dormant. What a comforting feeling.

After he was in the saddle, you could tell Rose was thinking, "Whoa, dude's kind of heavy!" She very carefully started to take some steps. I told her that she could walk around and when she was ready to be done, she should go to the center of the round pen and stop. After several minutes of walking around, she went to the center and touched the mounting block with her nose. Once again she stood as still as a rock while Terry scrambled his way down to terra firma.

The following week we just took Rose and Bridget for a walk. Then I was off on my trimming trip for 3 weeks. We're planning to both go out on Sunday again - it'll be interesting to see if the dynamics are different now with the pasture re-shuffle.

Drama and Developments

So this happened: wild dogs killed a horse at our barn here (welcome to Texas). Not one of mine - a mare, one of a group of three horses retired to pasture. I found the horse because of the vultures already swarming, and discovered the wild dogs because one of the other horses told me when I went to check up on him. He gave a tiny gesture with his head - I looked in that direction and saw two of what I thought must be the biggest coyotes in the land. Further reflection caused me (and others when I described what I saw) to think they must be feral or stray dogs - their color was too monochrome and their size too large for coyotes. I saw one of them a week later also.

The barn owners are installing a game camera to see if these felons are still in the area, and we also moved the victim's pasture mates and my horses (who were in the field next door) to a location closer to the barn and house. If the dogs are still around, they'll try to shoot them - or (last resort) use humane traps. These are not ideal, as random innocent coyotes will be caught, which are hard to release without harming or killing them.

Because of the pasture re-shuffle (long story, not worth telling), George is now in with a group of geldings, and Bridget, Rose, and Chloe were moved in with the survivors of the dog attack - an old mare named Sasha and an older gelding called Jack. George is content to be one of the boys and established himself as No. 4 out of 5 without much fuss. The barn manager says he's much easier for her to handle - more laid back. No pesky females for him to keep in line. He and his mares (Rose and Bridget - Chloe doesn't give a damn) are still very bonded and congregate by the dividing fence in a spot where there are some large friendly trees for all to rest in the shade together. The other geldings join them sometimes.

So little Bridget is now Queen of the World. She's the youngest horse in the pasture and in the top spot. Heavy is the head, and all that. She's lording it over the others, but has become anxious about leaving them too. New responsibilities - moving on in life.

I went away on a hoof-trimming visit to Pennsylvania right after George moved ne and Bridget got her promotion. On my return three weeks later, I found things were not quite the same. Bridget was reluctant to leave the pasture and eager to get back - she who used to stand banging on the gate to be taken out and never really wanted to be put back again. She was still just as glad to see me, but not keen for me to put the halter on.

But here's what she did the first time we were together after my return. She saw me, walked over, stood in front of me, took a step backwards, and - I swear to God - bowed.

She knew I would have treats (which I always bring and offload in the first few minutes, and then we're done), and she knows to turn her nose away before being offered one, which she's always done in a rather peremptory fashion. But this was way, way more of a gesture than that.  I don't know where it came from. Another thing: she's always been slow to move for me - if I ask her to back up, the gears have to grind, and she has to unglue her front feet from the ground first. But since her promotion, it appears that she is quicker and more responsive - in backing and turning, her forehand is lighter. Clearly there is a sea change taking place in her psyche and body. We'll see where it all leads us!

 As for Chloe, for the first time since she's been with us, she has her very own best buddy. She and Jack have teamed up and become partners in crime, a term I use justly as they are allowed to roam the property at large and lately have been invading the workshop and barn and generally causing minor mayhem.

Jack and Chloe


Sunday, December 6, 2015

Dominance Revisited

I've been looking back over old posts. Seems I used to fret over the concept and practice of "dominance" a lot. We've all read about herd hierarchy, alpha horses, speaking a language horses can understand, the horse respects the one who can move its feet, and so forth. The technique of "join-up," I believe is predicated on the practice of asserting one's place as a higher-ranking herd member.  On the one hand, Imke Spilker was leading me away from dominance, and on the other hand, received wisdom, and Klaus, were leading me back towards it, or towards a version of it.

There's been a good bit of water under the bridge since I first started blogging, and somehow I don't worry about dominance any more. For one thing, I met someone (now a friend) who actually spent time at Klaus's estate in Denmark, and she assured me that - no - we don't have to be Klaus. Au contraire. We have to be ourselves. For another thing, I've tried at least to take Imke's advice to allow the horse to be my teacher, and the horse doesn't seem to be super-impressed by any displays of dominance I can muster. And I'll admit it does take a bit of mustering on my part. 

I'm not much of a leader, or a boss. But on the other hand I'm definitely not a doormat. And somewhere in learning that about myself, I discovered that the horse doesn't need me to be a Klaus, or a fake horse, or a herd leader, or anything at all except myself.

I believe horses understand very well that human beings are not the same thing as a horse. That we have our own way of doing things. That we cannot be herded and dominated, but at the same time, we can be trusted to suggest things that are worth listening to for their own sake. Not because the safety of the herd is at stake, not because the food supply is being safeguarded, not because the strongest is the best one to breed the mare - we act for our own reasons that have nothing to do with hierarchy. Reasons that the horse is happy to consider. We think the horse is purely pragmatic and that we must talk to it in a mechanistic language of survival, but the horse is idealistic and delights in a world beyond that of daily necessity.

I think of George and Bridget, who jockey for position in their little herd, George always vigilant that Bridget shouldn't topple him from his position as first-in-line-for-good-things. When they were turned loose together the other day in the round pen, the place where non-survival values predominate, they beat their swords into ploughshares and stood together quietly and amicably for the very first time.

Not being dominant doesn't mean being dominated. A lesson that the whole world needs to learn. I think more and more of us are catching on - it's the zeitgeist. There's a good book by Mark Rashid called Horses Never Lie: The Heart of Passive Leadership which talks about the way a non-dominant horse can win the respect and cooperation of a dominant one. And I just finished a book called It's for the Horses by Dutch Henry, a book which made me happy, as it's the first time I've read a book by a man which goes as far as I would hope in its advocacy for non-coercive human/horse relationships.

In the horse world, respect is often thought to be the flip side of dominance - the one dominated respects the one who dominates. Why would horses be so different from us? I certainly don't respect a person who tries to dominate me, but rather the person who is polite, considerate, and respectFUL. Someone like George in fact.

And for this episode's pictographic content, here is Bridget on the trail with me on board, following our little buddy on his trusty steed:

More Riding

I love going for a ride. I really do. Of course hanging out with the horses on the ground is fun and satisfying too. But I do love riding, and there it is.

I wasn't sure I'd be able to do much riding anymore. It's not always obvious whether the horse is 100% behind the project or if you're projecting your own wishes onto the situation. Several years ago I decided that if it's not what the horse would freely choose, then it wasn't worth insisting on. Because what's the point otherwise? I want a friend who enjoys our activities together and not a servant who conforms to my wishes.

So how do you KNOW whether the horse is really on board?

Well, how about if you put the horse into the round pen and he/she goes over to where the saddle is hanging on the rail and tries to pick it up?

Works for me.

Bridget has been doing very well on the trail, and I decided that the time had come to see if she and George would enjoy riding out together. So the plan was for Claire-the-barn-manager and I to give it a try. 

As often is the case, either the two of them had read my mind or they were the ones whose idea it was all along - because when Claire and I arrive at the pasture, George and Bridget come marching over side by side (they who never walk together), while Rose stays away. We lead them up to the barn and turn them loose together in the round pen. As they are often very rude to each other (and George can be extremely threatening to Bridget), my plan was, if necessary, to enforce good mutual manners in the round pen by means of the lunge whip. But they both seem to have decided that the usual laws of nature do not apply inside the round pen. They converse together amicably, and even stand close to each other without twitching, kicking, squealing, lunging, or otherwise tweaking out.  I've never seen them act like this before. Amazing

Then they both make beelines for their saddles.

Still at liberty, they're tacked up, each free to walk away as often as they like in the middle of the process. (Occupational hazard = occasionally saddle may fall on ground; but that doesn't happen today.) I've finally (FINALLY) gotten into my head that George does not wish to be "trained" nor is it necessary to train him. It's ok to ask, and it's ok to ask more than once, as long as each time you accept "No" for an answer. If he's free to leave in the middle of being saddled, he stays benign throughout - no ear pinning, no stink eye, no grinding of teeth. Just a happy George. Even fastening the second side of the girth elicits no negative reaction or emotion. 

Once the saddle's in place, I feel a surge of energy from him. Happy energy. So I ask if he'd like to go around the pen - yes, he would. I sense a canter coming on, so I ask if he'd like to run. He doesn't need to be asked twice, and off he goes, cantering and bucking around the circle. It's a joyful movement - playful and exuberant - and his face is soft. Claire saw him bucking in the field earlier today. I've never seen him buck in the round pen before, and it's very rare for him to buck in the pasture. I point this out to show the confluence of human decision and horse mood/response. You never know which causes which, or if it's one thing.

Clare mounts Bridget, and I climb up on George in the way which currently works for us, i.e. I place the mounting block beside him and step up, he walks off, I reposition the block and step up again, he walks off, etc. - maybe five or six times. No attempt to do anything different - just reposition, try again - no recriminations, no clever techniques, just keep asking politely. He remains sweet and calm, and then magically on the next attempt, he stays put, and up I get.

A happy trail ride ensues. What bliss.