Will you be the one person?

It only takes one person –

We have all been there: the situation doesn’t feel right. The work seems a little rough, or too much. Everyone around you seems to be enjoying it or agreeing with it, but you just don’t feel right about it.

It’s in our nature to not go against the crowd – most of us feel deep fear of rejection or being ostracized from our group. And if everyone around you doesn’t mind it, who are you to say it’s wrong? You doubt yourself, wonder if you are actually seeing what you’re seeing, and think surely the professional or whoever is doing it knows more than you.

One against a crowd is too much. But with one person speaking up, or even agreeing with you, you can feel much more courageous.

One person can turn the tide. One person can be the difference between disaster, ongoing abuse, and harm to horse and human. One person can help another person trust their knowledge, inner feelings, and feel safe again. One person can restore someone’s confidence and prevent years of second guessing and more abuse due to self doubt.

There are many times I wish I’d had that person, and many more times I wish I’d been that person. Now that I have a daughter, I think of past scenarios I was involved in or others were- and I think, would I let that happen to her? Absolutely not. I’d go full blown cray-cray if needed to prevent that from happening to her. But at the risk of sounding corny, we are all connected to each other- if we let it happen to someone else, what’s to stop it from happening to us?

Will you be that one person?
I hope to be that person from now on.

Mental Health and Horses

I find it so fascinating that the training methods and philosophies used with horses tend to be a reflection of the mental health philosophies carried at the time.

Think back to the frontier days – horses were sacked out, overpowered, and essentially “broken” until they cooperated. Any horse who did not cooperate was sold, euthanized or discarded somehow. That method of training is pretty reflective of the cultural beliefs surrounding “toughness” and the ability to have a stiff upper lip. People were tough, overpowered other people, and essentially shut out basic, healthy parts of the range of human emotion.

Come forward in history a little to the explosion of the natural horsemanship movement – many trainers promoting heavy desensitization techniques, where if a horse was afraid of something, they were essentially bombarded with it til they stopped reacting. The over arching presence of sexism was still common – many trainers were using the analogy of a marriage with horse and rider- with the rider being the husband who leads and the horse being the wife who submits.

I receive emails and messages frequently from folks working with people promoting this type of work who were sexually abused, harrassed or otherwise threatened by their teacher. Allegations of abuse to horses arose, and YouTube videos of secret horse abuse circled. These traumas were kept tight, not discussed, and the horse and human victims carried the shame in silence. An anthropomorphized bore of horses as requiring respect for humans and submission, coupled with the desire for power and lack of acceptance of the full range of emotions of horses and humans – left plenty of harm in its wake.

(Before you freak out about me insulting NH as a whole, I offer the disclaimer that obviously not all clinicians were or are like this, and many are evolving past these frames of mind)

I think society in general is becoming more aware of mental health, acceptance of emotion, and how power dynamics in our society have shaped us. Training philosophies are evolving toward more compassionate beliefs and methods, as we are learning more and more about the horses’ brain. We also know far more now about how humans process trauma, and can begin to laterally apply these concepts to horses. We know that a traumatized person does not thrive with the event or thing that traumatized them being bombarded at them – and we can understand why a horse, too, would be forced to shut down in the face of their fears repeatedly exposed to them.

It’s fascinating to me to watch humanity move forward. There is some amazing work being done on both the forefront’s of mental health and horse training. But the reality becomes more evident to me every day- that we must do the work on ourselves in order to find harmony with other living beings.

Mental Health and Horses

I find it so fascinating that the training methods and philosophies used with horses tend to be a reflection of the mental health philosophies carried at the time.

Think back to the frontier days – horses were sacked out, overpowered, and essentially “broken” until they cooperated. Any horse who did not cooperate was sold, euthanized or discarded somehow. That method of training is pretty reflective of the cultural beliefs surrounding “toughness” and the ability to have a stiff upper lip. People were tough, overpowered other people, and essentially shut out basic, healthy parts of the range of human emotion.

Come forward in history a little to the explosion of the natural horsemanship movement – many trainers promoting heavy desensitization techniques, where if a horse was afraid of something, they were essentially bombarded with it til they stopped reacting. The over arching presence of sexism was still common – many trainers were using the analogy of a marriage with horse and rider- with the rider being the husband who leads and the horse being the wife who submits.

I receive emails and messages frequently from folks working with people promoting this type of work who were sexually abused, harrassed or otherwise threatened by their teacher. Allegations of abuse to horses arose, and YouTube videos of secret horse abuse circled. These traumas were kept tight, not discussed, and the horse and human victims carried the shame in silence. An anthropomorphized bore of horses as requiring respect for humans and submission, coupled with the desire for power and lack of acceptance of the full range of emotions of horses and humans – left plenty of harm in its wake.

(Before you freak out about me insulting NH as a whole, I offer the disclaimer that obviously not all clinicians were or are like this, and many are evolving past these frames of mind)

I think society in general is becoming more aware of mental health, acceptance of emotion, and how power dynamics in our society have shaped us. Training philosophies are evolving toward more compassionate beliefs and methods, as we are learning more and more about the horses’ brain. We also know far more now about how humans process trauma, and can begin to laterally apply these concepts to horses. We know that a traumatized person does not thrive with the event or thing that traumatized them being bombarded at them – and we can understand why a horse, too, would be forced to shut down in the face of their fears repeatedly exposed to them.

It’s fascinating to me to watch humanity move forward. There is some amazing work being done on both the forefront’s of mental health and horse training. But the reality becomes more evident to me every day- that we must do the work on ourselves in order to find harmony with other living beings.

Toddlers and Horses

Toddlers and Horses

It’s been said that good horsemanship is the art of mastering not the horse, but your own body and mind.

In my younger training days, I could get a little dogmatic or judge mental about people’s struggle to be patient with horses – ugly emotions coming out at the trailer or in a ride were hard for me to understand sometimes. I don’t pretend to be perfect by any stretch, I just do this for a job and have a lot of practice at being patient because it works out great for me to be patient (ie not getting bucked off, etc).

When my daughter was born, things got a lot messier. My husband worked and I was riding 6-8 horses a day with an infant and two dogs. I was sleep deprived, the dogs were hyper because they weren’t getting as much attention and exercise as they were used to pre baby, and I suddenly found myself understanding how someone could be less patient.

Being tossed into a world of torturous sleep deprivation, poor eating habits that accompany just getting by, unwanted parenting advice and rude comments from strangers – on top of the already sensitive world of riding –
It was a lot.

Every baby phase has its wonderful parts, and parts you hope will pass soon. Josie is a toddler now, almost two. She’s strong, vibrant, beautiful, and testing boundaries. There are no’s that are absolutely essential to her safety (don’t touch the electric fence) and no’s that are really sometimes a battle best avoided.

I love riding, and I love my daughter. And I’m incredibly grateful for so many opportunities in my life to practice being mindful, being patient, being empathetic, and being aware. I’ll take all the help I can get, even if it is Patience Bootcamp, run by a tiny, but adorable, dictator and all her four legged friends.

Trail Riding

People often say “I don’t want to do anything fancy, just trail ride…”
Sometimes they mean they don’t have lofty show goals and enjoy relaxing rides, which is just great! Sometimes, however, they mean they aim to cut corners with their and their horses education.

Let’s examine what’s involved in “just trail riding”:

For the horse:
-ability to trailer load and tie calmly
-ability to stand calmly while saddled and fly sprayed, often while tied to the trailer in a new setting
-ability to stand quietly while mounted, at the trailer and possibly on the trail
-the balance and fitness required to manage uneven terrain, hills, fallen trees, etc
-confidence and exposure enough to deal with the unforeseen: wildlife, ATV’s, bikes, hikers, dogs, etc.
-confidence enough to ride in a group (potentially with people who don’t have great environmental awareness or control of their horse and can potentially get you in some sticky situations) or alone
-confidence enough to ride back home or to the trailer without anxiety or rushing

Now the human:

-environmental awareness – taking note of themselves, the horse, and the environment at all times. Do you tend to zone out and just plod along, reacting once something has happened? Or can you stay aware and head off trouble?

  • a balanced seat enough to manage hills and all kinds of terrain without grabbing the reins or interfering with the horses balance
    -confidence enough to handle a little spook, jog, a canter or whatever movement happens as a result of “real life” on the trail
    -fitness enough to have good posture in the saddle for a length of time

And much more….

A good trail horse can take quite some time to educate, and sometimes even more time than teaching an arena horse. Personally, I don’t want to be out in the woods or mountains without a good seat on a horse who is lacking education, but I like living and aim to live a long life with all my parts 🙂

Photo is of my personal horse who has become a great, reliable trail horse over the years (years!!) and my other, less confident gelding learning the ropes from her.

To my horses

To my horses –

I’ve been down many paths since I’ve had you. Many of them were wrong, misguided and some plain harmful to you. What I did not know at the time caused you fear, pain, and imbalance.

There were many times I thought I was helping you, or teaching you, when you were telling me plain as day you needed something different. Sometimes I was doing my best, but if I’m honest, sometimes I was arrogantly believing I knew better than you.

I see the changes in your expressions, your bodies, your balance now and it makes me very happy, but it also makes me sad – you waited so long for me to figure things out. Your feet, your teeth, your backs suffered while I dabbled here and there trying to find a path that was best for you. Your backs hurt while I tried what my current teacher had said would work – I knew deep down it wasn’t right, because it did not make you better. I should have listened to you, I should have walked away sooner.

I know the path we’re on is a good one because you carry peaceful expressions and your bodies shine. I’m sorry it took me this long – we like to think of human’s superior intelligence, but really, we can be pretty dense.

I’m grateful for all you’ve taught me, because I can pass it along to every horse I meet. I’m just grateful that you live in the moment and treat every day as a new day, willing to give me another shot, even when I have not deserved it many times over.
I’m really grateful that when I get it right, you offer me 110% – the generosity of horses is completely unparalleled.

Photo is of Brent teaching me to listen to horses.

Keeping Farriers Safe

You need to be keeping your professionals safe

I don’t trim for a living, I just do my training horses before they are ready for a pro. I’m significantly safer when someone else is not holding the rope for me, though people offer all the time. The reason is because if they aren’t aware of their horses expression, or if they encourage behavior that isn’t ideal for trimming time, they actually make my job more dangerous. So when I trim, I get to observe the entire horse from a bent over position- thinking about trimming, managing my tools and lead rope alone is still safer than having help holding the horse.

I have a lot of friends who trim or shoe for a living, and more that are vets. A constant complaint is that peoples lack of awareness or reinforcement of poor behavior gets them hurt daily. Luckily for me, that isn’t much of an issue in my job, since my job is to tell people what to do instead of silently provide a service- that and I am extremely blessed to have wonderful students. But if I had horses kicking at me or biting me while somebody was talking on their phone or telling me how much fluffy just loves people, I probably wouldn’t last long in that job.

Good farriers and vets are scarce – there are a lot of horse people and not enough professionals to service all these folks. Are you gonna go to a job where you get beat up every day and then have to hunt down your money? I hope not.

Treat your professionals kindly – paying them on time is a great start, but even better is to keep them safe. Teach your horses good ground manners and when you’re at the head, stay aware. Don’t let your horses bite, rub, kick at or injure your farrier –
Because if your horse hurts them, then he can’t come shoe my horse either. And if the industry is already tough enough – high overhead, no sick days, no insurance, no paid vacation, and tons of financial insecurity- you certainly can do your part to keep them safe.

Because we love to ride, and we can’t ride without vets and farriers.

On being a student –

I’ve been riding since I was 6. I’ve never stopped taking lessons, and I’ve certainly had times where I feel totally inadequate and uncertain, but I’ve been riding most of my life. I forget what it feels like to not even know how to hold a lead rope or reins, and don’t remember a time where I was totally inept around a horse.

I think it’s incredibly important, especially for teachers, to be a beginner again. I’ve always wanted to learn to play guitar. I took a class in college and wasn’t immediately good at it, so I kind of gave up. My class focused a lot on changing chords quickly; and since I was the least experienced one in the class, the material progressed far beyond my ability quickly as well. I felt overwhelmed and kind of embarrassed so I quit trying.

I have a student now who is a guitar teacher, so the urge to play guitar came up again. I have to say- I am a total beginner. I have just enough experience with a guitar to be insecure about my ability. I’m extremely vulnerable as a student – my teacher is experienced, makes it all look smooth and easy; and I can’t figure out how to put my finger on a string without it buzzing half the time.

Luckily for me, she is a very gracious teacher. She encourages me, doesn’t make me feel embarrassed for mistakes, and tells me to slow down while my hands get the feel for where they should go.

As a riding instructor, it’s wonderful to be in such a position. It’s eye opening to remember what it feels like to know nothing, and to feel overwhelmed. It’s even more eye opening to feel how much quicker I learn with an encouraging teacher vs my old college class.

Being a beginner is an important experience – don’t downplay your experience with a horse just because you don’t know how to hold your hands yet. Don’t downplay your ability just because you aren’t sure where to put your leg, and your teacher makes it look so easy. Being a beginner is a wonderful thing to be. It’s a fresh, honest and open way to experience the world.

Changing Your Habits

Learning to ride well can be so hard.

For most of us, the reality is we learned some poor habits at the beginning, either taught intentionally by a teacher we no longer ride with, or habits that have developed out of fear, tension or self protection.

Changing them is incredibly hard. According to current research, it can take a few hundred repetitions to cement a new habit. Breaking a habit, however, can take many thousands of repetitions. Add on top of this any fear, shame, worry, or tension of any kind, and learning new habits is just plain tough.

I’ve personally re-learned how to ride from the ground up many times. Over the years, I’ve bounced back and forth between teachers with differing philosophies looking for the right fit. Each had a way of riding that I did not fit into, and I therefore had to relearn how to do just about everything, from how I haltered to how I held my hands to overall philosophy. It can be exhausting, frustrating and sometimes demoralizing.

I’m inclined to believe when you’re on the right path, you know. Your horse is happier, you feel less tense, and you can see the results. That doesn’t make it mess hard to change, however. So how can you make it survivable?

Here are some tips from yours truly, who is well versed in suffering at the hands of instructors who don’t seem to like anything I’m doing.

1- find a good instructor. Not all good riders are good at teaching, so having someone who can break it down for you can make all the difference. Ask for recommended reading and watching and make it your new world.

2- don’t watch things that will confuse you for a while. Don’t watch warm up arenas if you’re trying to stay away from tension and unsound riding practices. We learn very much by watching, so make sure you aren’t watching things you don’t want to copy.

3- pick ONE thing to focus on per ride. for me personally, in any given ride I can know my hands are too high or wide, my leg is creeping up, and many other blunders. It can be too overwhelming to try to fix them all at once and can easily make you feel inept and just overall yucky. This isn’t productive – so pick one thing per ride.

4- if you can, find a school horse who knows how to do these things well, and allows you the freedom to work on yourself.

5- really reward yourself for changes. Don’t get trapped in the cycle of finding fault, because it will always be there. Be objective but not self deprecating. It’s very easy to think “sure my hands were a little better, but my leg is still wrong.” Celebrate the successes because they build! They are also very motivating – getting something right feels great, and we want to keep doing it!

And above all, try to remember that the most important part of learning to ride is learning self awareness, and learning to settle into the journey. Really we’re always learning- it gets a little easier but then it gets harder again- and so goes the twisty turny path of our journey.

Is My Horse Lazy?

Reluctance to move forward is a problem I run into all the time. It’s also a problem that’s frequently misunderstood. Trainers and instructors and riders around the world mislabel the slowpoke horse as lazy, but if you take a moment to analyze movement patterns and understand the why, it’s easy to see this horse is not actually lazy.

Firstly, in a correctly moving horse, we want the front legs to be free of excess weight and tension. Ideally, the front legs would have more air time and move with a nice “lightness” to them – not slamming down to the ground. This allows their shoulders to lift and the base of their neck and back to lift as well, allowing for graceful and freely forward but controllable movement. This is a wonderful feeling to ride or work with, because the energy feels very accessible, the back feels supple, and things feel just easy. When a horses body is in alignment with freedom in the front end, going forward is easy and enjoyable!

Most horses I encounter have heavy front ends, but some more so than others. It’s natural for a horse to be heavier on the forehand – they are made this way. They weren’t designed to carry riders on their backs, so developing them athletically is essential for happy riding.

So many horses have saddles slapped on them and asked to carry a rider with no clue as to how. Many trainers focus on the behavior they want when starting young horses, but many horses miss out on athletic development to ready them for such a task as carrying a rider. Often they begin at the hardest part physically: all three gaits in a tight circle such as in the round pen.

Circles are physically hard to do in a correct balance, and without education and physical development, the horse has to do their best. They often find ways to lean in or put more weight on their forehand to carry their bodies forward.

A horse doing their best to balance themselves on a tight circle – right shoulder takes the job of stabilizing the body, the neck counter balances to the outside, and the horse loses the diagonal pair in the canter – thus makes him wildly off balance and therefore unhappy and nervous, ie reluctant to participate
Another horse in a similar but less severe posture

Over time, tension patterns creep in. The horse becomes unbalanced, unhappy and resentful about moving forward. We often respond with more pressure: more whipping, spurring, kicking. This often tenses them up more, even if it does get them going, it isn’t sustainable because we haven’t solved the real problem.

The physical ramifications of a horse worked out of balance- excess weight over the front end, overdeveloped under neck, narrow stance behind, wide stance in front, high head and hollow back

So going back to the label of lazy: we know this horse is out of alignment, with front legs taking far too much concussion, has lost diagonal movement and has developed tension patterns. What we don’t realize, however, is that this horse is far from lazy- he’s actually exerting far more energy than he needs to to go forward. He is overworked!

Balance and alignment are self sustaining, and make forward movement a breeze

So what to do if your horse won’t go forward? After ensuring their saddle fits, hooves are balanced, diet is appropriate for energy output expected, and lifestyle is good- Spend time loosening, organizing their body, ensuring diagonal movement and doing all your work at a slower, easier tempo first. Learn to position and relax in rhythm where they can, then you will be surprised at how much more movement they offer.

This slowpoke is learning to balance and loosen before ever being asked to speed up
This very tense horse is learning to confidently go forward after slow balancing work

You wouldn’t go out and win a race without conditioning, right? Fitness and balance require conditioning, education, time, consideration and development. Then you can ask for speed.