Horse Training

The Well of Experiences….

The Well of Our Experiences

AWARENESS

The first step in awareness is to examine the external world. We learn to cherish all that surrounds us. We learn to observe without judgment. We strive to not only preserve life, but to honor and enhance life. Horses do these things effortlessly when they live a natural life. We can learn from their example and we can support their natural awareness.

Horses need to feel that they are participating in life.

“The way horses live their lives is a metaphor for life’s priorities. It’s not always about winning or losing, it’s also about the quality of the experience, the journey itself, and putting your heart into what you do.” -Diane Lane actress, Secretariat

equine eye

Horses start their lives in one of three ways:

  1. Born into the wild with no initial contact with humans
  2. Born into a farm situation with human contact & other horses
  3. Orphaned early or at birth & raised by humans

Each situation creates unique perspectives and expectations in the horse. His language will be formed by the horses that raise him (#1), the horses & people that raise him (#2) or the humans that raise him (#3). This “language” becomes the first series of “drops” in the Well of Experiences for each horse.

We can add positive “drops”/experiences or negative ones to the lives of those around us.

As he matures, the horse’s experiences are positive and negative in nature and begin to fill that “Well”. According to the predominant type of experiences he has, he will learn to expect something positive or something negative with every new situation – if we wish to change this for him in some way, we must provide consistency in the things we bring to his awareness… we must flood a well of negativity with so many clear and compassionate positive experiences that the well no longer holds anything else.

The whole idea of struggle brings you

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Transceivers

 

In radio, you have transmitters and receivers and transceivers – horsewomen have to become “transceivers” to effectively connect with a horse.

My beautiful picture

Riding and teaching lessons yesterday and turning horses out today, I have been thinking about how we communicate our desires and directions to horses through the reins, lead, line, etc.

We must become light, consistent, clear and immediate with our language of the aids through these lines… we will really miss out, though, if we neglect to “hear the horses” through these same lines of communication. When I am leading a horse to the field, I don’t just pull him along like a red wagon, nor leave him floating in the breeze like a bobbing balloon at the end of a string. No. I keep a light feel of the lead rope and listen to every signal and pre-signal he communicates to me as we walk down the lane. This is why I prefer all cotton, long lead ropes with trigger snaps – they just feel right in my hands.

When riding, I stretch my outside rein, feeling what the horse is saying to me. I keep an elastic, massaging inside rein (barely perceptible, the nuance of a tiny vibration…), allowing the horse to ask me questions and tell me how he feels about his balance and his pace.

On the longe, I’m not sending the horse out on a circle like a model airplane to zoom about and possibly crash – I am “riding” with my body language and listening through that longe line to every signal conveyed by my equine partner.

It is more about a conversation than it is about a performance, and, if we think and act this way, our horses sigh a sigh of relief about finally being heard.

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Grandmother Moon

I had an interesting experience this morning while feeding the horses in the mostly dark. My big Thoroughbred, Wally, was ill at ease and acting oddly even after he got his hay. It has cooled down now with the monsoons, at least at night and in the early mornings, so a snake was unlikely, but it was on my mind. A friend had a wild trail ride because of a rattler; another friend found one on his porch. I gridded my place way back with osha root and amethyst to protect us and we have a very big bull snake, Miss Bessie, who stands guard under the giant hawthorn bush.

There was no snake this morning. Now, normally my instincts tell me when to take the pepper spray out with me (back when a friend lost geese to a mountain lion, I wore the spray on my hip)… and, actually, my instincts were right because I did not need it. But, I sure was thinking about what to do if I found a scary snake in Wally’s pen. Miss Bessie, I would catch and carry her to her “apartment”; a rattler… no way. So, while I know we are safe here and I know what to do in case of a bite (my Darjeeling story tells that tale!), the reality of my inability to catch a scary snake has hit home. I use a “tin cat” (humane, catch & release trap) to catch mice in the house, sonic doo-dads in the tackroom to repel them and I only kill black widows because of the damage they can do!

So, I took a moment this morning and watched the crescent moon as the sky became light and just exhaled. It’s okay, I heard me tell myself. You don’t have to solve everything. Just BE.

Visions of the half dozen roadrunners that live here filled my mind. “Oh, nature knows”, I thought. I looked at the goathead crop covering my whole farm and saw the dodder overwhelming it… hmmmm, nature knows. The moon seemed to say, “Relax, don’t make things happen, let things happen” and I listened.

I watched Wally and decided that he is simply feeling the cool, changing weather and pretending to see spooky things for the fun of it. A little excitement… a little adrenalin, I think it can do us all good sometimes. I needed to feel less in charge of and more a part of things this early morning. I’m ready for some adventure and to awaken my heart. Lighthearted – I like that expression, I need to practice on that!

Wally!

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Monsters in the Portable Corral

Years ago I was at a Dressage show in Albuquerque judged by a friend, Brooks Busby, who I also had ridden under a lot. I had my Appy, Breath of Snow (Snookie) and we were “stabled” in pens made of pipe panels. Snookie’s had a bar over the gate where he just missed hitting his head until the second day when… he hit his head going in.

I had my ride time that afternoon for the Adult Medal class at Second Level which required four riders and we had four.

I went to get Snookie to warm up and he was afraid to go back out under the head banging pipe bar. I worked with him quite a bit and decided it was too traumatic to force the situation and sent word to the judge that I had to scratch while I ran to my van for essential oils and a shovel (I thought I might dig under the doorway).

The other riders at second level sent word to me that the judge would allow my ride whenever I got Snookie ready (just please don’t scratch!) and the lady told me, “Brooks said to remind you that a blindfold will do the trick”.

Duh! I thought! I hurried back to the stables. And there I saw a member of the staff of the barn inside with MY horse, beating him with a longe whip while another idiot held the end of a longe line, pulling from outside the pen. I went INSANE!

I won’t repeat the things I said (in the old days, I could reduce anyone to tears if necessary) because it was a tirade of profanity fit for any situation of horror spilling from a sailor’s mouth. The two girls left in a huff, giving Snookie a last swipe with the lash to which I screamed, “Hit him again and I will beat you to a pulp!”

Then, with lavender oil in hand, I sat with him and apologized and cried and held him until I felt I could place my jacket over his face/eyes and slowly ease him out of that horrific pen.

He was so trusting. We got out, went for a walk in hand then I tacked up, rode the test so everyone’s scores would count, untacked, loaded him in the van and left for home, crying.

I no longer compete. That was just one experience in a long line of personal traumas, dramas and observations that convinced me competition was rarely in the horse’s best interest. But, I share this today because of the miracle of that blindfold (my jacket over Snookie’s eyes). Had I thought of it right away, the monsters who attacked my horse in my absence would never have had the opportunity. I never want anyone else to go through such a brutal experience.

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Turn and face the strange

I cannot imagine what it must feel like for a horse to change homes. If he has mostly positive drops in his well of experiences, he will expect good things to happen – if his well is full of negative experiences, he will be expecting more of them. But beyond that is the idea of how he must wonder if he will be fed. I think about the horses that come to Dharmahorse and they get over looking worried after a few meals arrive on schedule.

hank and grits

To be totally dependent upon another for all of life’s requirements must be overwhelming. I started thinking about all of this today when I was with my Mom and she quietly said, “I’m feeling a bit hungry” and I rushed to fix her a sandwich. She is so sweet, she would never be demanding (and she should be, she should tell me exactly what she needs, but she drops hints instead).

A horse stands in his new stall or his pen or his field and I know he wonders what his new life holds for him. And I am not anthropomorphizing. I live directly with a herd of horses. Horses are not the simplistic creatures humanity confined them as in the past.

A horse in a new environment deserves compassion and empathy. We must make him feel secure and cherished.

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A Deep Breath

Years ago, I took my Lipizzaner mare, my friend Judy and my little Iberian bay mare to a Maj. Gen. Jonathan R Burton Dressage Clinic at Ft. Bliss in El Paso, Texas. We were joined by a student of mine, Pam, driving her own truck and trailer while I took us over in my big horse van.

As I pulled off the highway and made my way to the base, the van suddenly began groaning and making scraping sounds that were every bit as scary as the startling sound of a blow-out! I still had control, so I pushed onward to the stables and leaped out of the cab as soon as I could park.

We pulled down the ramp and sides and got our mares out quickly. They both had strange expressions across their faces.

Image

I walked around the van, smelling a hot but not smokey odor… I looked under the box, but didn’t really know what I was looking at. So, I went over to Pam’s pick up and looked under it. I saw that her drive shaft was held up by a little cushioned bracket (I came to know as a “pillow block”). I observed that my van’s drive shaft was tilted downward and there was no similar object supporting it.

We all rode in the Clinic and worked with our horses. Then I started searching through my boxes and bags in the cab of the truck. I found a hugely thick leather strap with a clunky buckle, a can of hoof dressing and a big piece of wire that I figured might serve me.

I pulled the drive shaft up with the wire and secured it to another shaft running along the length of the van’s box. Then I covered the inside of the strap with hoof dressing and fastened it also to lift and hold the turning drive shaft. Then I started the engine, pulled forward and back a few times… it all held, seemed to be balanced… so Judy and I loaded the mares and set off for Las Cruces!

We made it!!

A few years later I was backing my old (very old!) Suburban out of my driveway when it made a hideous sound reminiscent of that horse van – drive shaft episode. I figured I was in real trouble (financially). I called my friend Judy (same Judy). Her husband immediately came out to try and fix my Suburban. Judy and I went in the cottage for tea and biscuits while he crawled under…

He walked in with a tiny stone in his hand, smiling. That stone had gotten itself into my brake pad or shoe or whatever and had made the sound that stopped my breathing for that awful moment.

My car was fixed. No big repairs. No bills. No problems. I taped the stone to the metal glove box as a reminder to think of the simple things first!

And to take a Deep Breath!

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Hitting Horses

Majic reached over and grabbed my thumb the other day just as a special-needs student was mounting from the platform. His big teeth could have bitten my thumb off, but only made two big blood blisters… only! If I were another horse, I would have bitten him back, kicked him, bopped him with my head. If I were his dam when he was a colt, I might have grabbed his neck and held him down to discipline him.

penny with tiny girl

As a lowly human (biting him back might have meant the loss of teeth), I punched him. Carefully. On the neck. My student saw it all. She was safely in the Aussie saddle (the only reason I went ahead and punched Majic – her safety was paramount) and in need of understanding why I would hit a horse.

This is often the case here where we teach and value compassion and communication. We do not “hit” horses. But we do discipline them. And I have to explain to students why I cannot have the herd pushing boundaries and causing harm to anyone. I also cannot have brutality expressed on any level here. That makes for a fine line indeed. Some of my students through the past few years have come from abusive situations themselves. I do not want them seeing aggression in any form just as I do not want aggression expressed toward any animal. Yet, a horse is a large and powerful animal. Boundaries must be taught and respected because horses do not know our “right from wrong” ideals. And those concepts can be quite different from barn to barn, teacher to teacher.

One constant for certain is that horses cannot be allowed to treat us as peers or underlings with the bite/push/kick responses they would use with other horses. “Playing” with some horses can encourage such responses and because of that, I don’t play with a horse as another equine would. It is not fair if I am going to then discipline him for trying to play with me.

Majic actually saw an opportunity to “nip” at me in a playful way and my thumb just happened to be by his mouth as I held his bridle. His intention was not to harm, it never is (those occasions are easy to discern with a horse!). But, if I do not tell him firmly in a manner clear to him and absolutely immediate – he will believe it is okay to nip at a person.

Timing is the key to discipline. It isn’t how severely we teach this lesson, it is when we apply the lesson that matters. A horse can only understand the consequences of the immediate action, so to bop Majic for biting my thumb 10 minutes (or even 30 seconds) after he did it will mean nothing to him. Sometimes, we have to “hit” a horse. It is a kindness to teach horses manners because the properly applied slap and verbal “no” or growl can prevent real abuse later by a person who gets really hurt by the ill mannered equine. We are using horse language in essence by bopping him “a good one” for dangerous behavior just as another horse would. Horses don’t put up with such nonsense from each other. If we do, it is like we are giving permission.

I never want to strike a horse. I hate doing it. But I love my horses enough to teach them boundaries for their sakes as well as ours. Properly done, it should only take once or twice to get the point across. And it is not about hurting them (when I punched Majic, it hurt my hand more than it hurt him) – it is about the impression it makes mentally that I do not allow this behavior.

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Win – Win

A “Win – Win” situation… I hear that often. It is a truly profound statement when it is used. Most times our society is equating winning with being higher, better, stronger, smarter than others who must, therefor, lose.

And it is dramatic when a rider is told to “show him who’s boss”; “you must win the battle with your horse”; etc.

Battle? If a battle ensues within a relationship with a horse, the human is 99% of the time the instigator. A battle can demoralize one of the parties and it invariably ends up being the horse.

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So, this “Win – Win” situation sounds like the best way to approach relationships and dialog with horses… heck, with all beings! I have personally found my way there through decades of experience and relationships with Appaloosas. Oh, I have owned and schooled Arabians, Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, Mules, Quarter Horses… you name it! But the time I have spent with Appaloosas has honed my skills as a proponent of “The Middle Way” and brought me to a place of thoughtful consideration of the other party in each relationship. Appaloosas have an acute sense of what is fair and the ability to know if you are honest and mean what you “say”. They will hold you to task. And I appreciate that.

If we seek that “Middle Way” of partnership with our horses (and family and coworkers and neighbors, etc.), with respect for the others’ feelings – knowing that there are always reasons for how we all respond to life – we will All Be Winners. No One has to lose!

I once was told that my ideas were too “simplistic”; that the way I lived was “idealistic”. How COOL! I will gladly fly the SIMPLE flag and hold myself to the idealistic standards of compassion and trust. If we all just cave in to the idea that struggle, brutality and force are the normal aspects of life and relationships… well, what sort of life and relationships will we experience?

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