A Dream of Horses

If you have horses in your blood, you know it’s an incurable disease. The only relief for the ache is more horses. It’s an affliction that can come on suddenly, with no warning. It may be genetic, but for some, it’s occurrence is just luck of the draw. And when you’re the middle child of seven children in a horse-less military family, the need for horses is like a thirst for water in a barren desert. Horses were my dream.

This dream carried me through my young life. Through the stress of frequent moving, constant change, new schools, new language, there was always the dream of horses. I couldn’t quite make out what the cool kids were doing at the new school, my uniform wasn’t right, and my teachers were frustrated with the curriculum I came with from my old school- but there was always horses.

In the bedroom of my tenth floor apartment,
I could look out the window down to the street packed with cars, taxis, buses, and horse drawn carts. Smog settled over it all in thick clouds. Dark clouds of exhaust billowed out of buses, but inbetween it all, the horse drawn cart- the horse quietly providing transportation, income and a spark of joy for that one person. A shred of hope and beauty in a sea of garbage, misery, and noise.

It didn’t matter if the horses were the sleek, well fed thoroughbreds I jumped at the military riding school, or the bony nags tethered to the strip of grass on the highway. If there were horses nearby, I knew I could carry my dream alive.

My daughter learned to walk in grassy fields. She wakes up every day to birds chirping, not buses and taxis honking. A soft muzzle is always a touch away. It doesn’t matter to me if she never rides, or if horses don’t stir her heart the way they have mine. But I’m proud to watch her grow with the freedom to be who she is, whatever that may be, surrounded by animals who offer unconditional caring. If she never chooses to ride, she will at least carry the strength and joy that horses so generously offer in the core of her being.

Calm in Chaos

When things go wrong, people tend to escalate emotionally.

Say a horse gets out, horses are fighting in their pasture, a horse isn’t getting in the trailer, whatever it may be, at any given barn, you see people running around, flapping their arms, waving ropes, maybe yelling.

Logically, I think we all know that adding intense emotions and commotion to an already escalated animal will not produce the desired result. Trying to de-escalate a prey animal with our out of control emotions and behavior is a fool’s game.

In order to stay calm during these intense moments, I think it has to be our go-to state. Take, for example, emergency responders, policemen, and anyone frequently working in intense scenarios: they are able to stay calm because they are executing what they practice day in and day out.

If you find yourself emotionally escalating when things aren’t easy or pretty, firstly, understand it is normal to feel that way. The cure for this is 1- experience and knowledge, and 2- practicing the right mind frame; day by day.

I Chose a Different Path

I chose a different path –

There was a time I was practicing upper level movements, and really enjoying it. I felt like a good rider, and that I could accomplish things. There was always an inkling of tension in the horses, something that wasn’t quite right, but there was either a bandaid fix, or the horse just wasn’t up to the task.

I knew somewhere it wasn’t right, and was frequently told my own horses just couldn’t do the work. They were unsound and unhappy. They said I needed a different horse if I was going to do dressage.

Somewhere along the line I knew I needed help with my hoses. It was messy and uncomfortable for a good while- I went from practicing tempis and pirouettes to learning how to sit all over again, how to guide, and walking like a total beginner. The results are irrefutable- my horses became sound, beautiful, happy.

The work isn’t fancy, exciting or flashy. I was at an uncomfortable crossroads- dressage clients fired me all the time because they weren’t familiar with this type of work, and it seemed painfully slow and basic to them. Like I once did, they felt they far ahead of what I had presented.

I still plan to make my way back up the levels, but this time, it will be on the swinging backs of relaxed horses who breathe and are satisfied with their work.

Other trainers probably thought (and think) I was crazy- they had medals, show scores, and reputations, and here I was walking around, getting necks long and backs swinging. Who was I with nothing to show for my work?

It still sometimes gets me- I could have had medals and recognition. Instead, all I have to show for my work are sound, relaxed, happy horses who finally feel at peace in their bodies. ❤️

Lunging

What is its purpose, and what are its benefits?

There are many ways to go about it, and the different ways to lunge create vastly different results.

First it’s important to know why you are lunging.

1- Are you looking to get the energy/bucks/silliness out of the horse before you get on?

2-Are you hoping to teach the horse to develop a frame without riding?

3- Are you looking to develop fitness, strength or balance?

I don’t like to speak in terms of always and nevers for most topics, because there is a time and a place for many things, but here are some thoughts to examine next time you pick up the lunge line and whip.

1- lunging out the sillies: what we practice is what we perfect. We often think of “getting the energy out” as productive time, and think we are producing a calmer, more focused horse. But I urge you to think of this: how much time did you horse spend disconnected from you while lunging? How much time did your horse spend practicing movements you prefer not to ride, such as bucking, quick, unbalanced steps, sudden turning in toward you, head tossing, etc? How much time did your horse spend out of balance? So what are we actually teaching here?

2- developing a frame, especially with the use of auxiliary reins, bungee systems, and other such things: it’s important to understand how a frame is truly accomplished. Collection is the ability of the horse to weight bear equally on both hind legs, with downward flexion of all the joints equally. Take a good look at a horse in side reins, bungee systems, Vienna reins or whatever is around and just watch, maybe even video and slow it down. Are both hind legs flexing equally? Are both front legs floating through the air equally, gracefully placing the front foot down? Or are the front legs quick to the ground, with the hind legs hydroplaning to the side?

A fixed position can never produce suppleness. Trying to achieve collection by fixing the head position, especially on a circle, in the same direction for any length of time, will produce tension, remove the horses’ ability to balance, and will degrade instead of improve joint health and balance.

3- fitness, strength, balance- a horse can only develop balance when asked to perform movements where he can stay rhythmic and keep all four legs working at the same rate. This is where the size of circle, or deciding to work on a circle at all, is highly individual. Can your horse maintain a steady rhythm in the movement you’re asking? If not, it’s not the right figure to work on. You can certainly develop cardiovascular stamina by lunging in circles, but suppleness, weight bearing capacity of the hind legs and core strength require more accurate work.

If your horse is excessively energetic or too unbalanced for you to ride before lunging, there are more productive ways to approach the problem – ones that don’t create side effects you will inevitably have to fix later.

And again, there is no “never” to this topic – there are appropriate times and reasons and ways to lunge. But by and large, horses being chased around in a circle are practicing movements, mind frames, and ways of going that are not what their riders intended to train. If there is only one takeaway from this, it’s that what you practice is what you perfect. Ask yourself in your work, is this a way of going that I would like to ride?

Community

A big draw for many of us in our riding and horsemanship circles is a sense of community. We love to ride and love horses, but we love the sense of belonging, the friendship, the socializing and having something in common with the group we are in.

For some, this can go to the unfortunate end of trying to fit in to a group with the right horse, the right tack, the right outfit, and losing sight of the actual work being done.

For others, there is quite the discomfort that arises when they find themselves on a different path than their friends. Trying to explain the work they’re doing with their friends can often create confusion, frustration or sadness when their friends just don’t get it. It can make you feel alienated, and for many, the pull back to the comfortable crowd is too strong.

If you have a community that supports the work you feel is right, good for you. I am truly happy to know the horse world can provide this. How lucky and wonderful to be in such a community!

If you find yourselves at odds with your peers, and they can’t understand or don’t support your journey, I know how uncomfortable and lonely that can feel. When your friends are off at shows, buying fancy horses, riding in clinics, practicing fancy maneuvers, and you are still walking, still rehabbing, still trying to perfect the slow basics, I know the pull toward doubt can be strong.

Don’t get so lost in the pull that you miss your horses soft eye, easy breathing, and rhythmic footfalls. You may have to change your definition of fun- I used to think all that stuff was fun too, but now I can’t find myself having any fun when the horse isn’t on board 100%.

Letting Others In

I am working extremely hard to fix some bad habits of mine, many of them picked up from years of riding dangerous or young horses that have created defensive postures. It’s been hard work, but the connection and balance I find with horses now is better than I’ve ever experienced. The cool thing is when I ride this way, young horses are balanced more quickly and I don’t have to ride defensively in the first place.

I have some students I invite to watch my lessons. One said to me yesterday, “it just shows you have no ego that you let me watch!”

I thought about that a lot. It isn’t true, I do have an ego. I’d love nothing more for my teacher to say, “everything is perfect, wow you’re amazing,” and then my students would go, “wow she is perfect!” Hehe. But the discomfort of having people watch my own learning struggles is an important lesson for me – I have always been nervous when others watch me ride, and learning to let go of that is essential.

The other thing is that I think students need to know that their struggle, discomforts and trials are not unique to them. They need to see someone else struggling, and know that they can come out ok.

I am not a naturally gifted rider. I’ve been riding my whole life and have essentially survived it for a long time, learning ways of getting by, and then having to unlearn years of poor muscle memory later. I work very hard at riding well, and have learned to be proud of my small achievements instead of beating myself up for the other 9,002 mistakes I need to work on. I think that the struggle helps me empathize with my students and teach more clearly too.

And a huge lesson for me is to get over trying to protect myself, my image, and my ego, and allow others into my journey- because I think it really helps all of us.

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.

A Daily Lesson

Here’s a daily lesson in a nutshell:

The horse isn’t lazy, they’re tight, probably painful, likely wearing a poorly fitting saddle and most likely inhibited by a rider too

The horse is not making things up, and is not spooking at nothing

Your horse wants security and balance. Provide them those things and all else outside the arena falls away

Think about why they did that. Don’t just react, prepare, prevent, redirect and GUIDE.

Your horse doesn’t speak english and can’t understand long monologues, use your aids and equipment

Make the right thing obvious and forget about making anything hard, everything’s already hard enough

Don’t forget to release your leg and rein. No horse gets lighter with a leg and rein clamped on

It’s supposed to be fun!

And most importantly….

No matter where you are starting, what your experience, or what you’ve been through….

You’re not too old, it’s not too late, you can do it even if it’s hard, and you are not too poor of a rider to learn. You can and will get better. You can do it!

Tuning In

A big obstacle for developing quality horsemanship is our desire to talk that takes us out of our ability to observe. To really guide and interact with a horse, we need to be here right where our feet are, noticing the needs of the horse and responding. This allows us to create smooth conversations with our horse and avoid unnecessary corrections.

Many people often complain that their horse isn’t attentive to them, or is tuning them out, but what I find is quite frequently people tune their horse out until the horse does something they don’t like. It’s easy to get caught up in talking about a problem, especially telling stories about what we’ve done to fix it or what the problem is rooted in, instead of really feeling where that problem begins and heading it off. Many times when someone tells me about a problem, they’re so busy talking about it that I have to interrupt to point out what can be done to fix it right NOW. It’s also easy to get caught up in talking about what we do or want to do, instead of really doing it in the moment.

There is nothing wrong with talking, but for many people, talking interrupts their ability to feel and notice. From the moment you step out to halter your horse, each step belongs to you – you are building patterns of awareness and connection, or teaching your horse there is nothing to tune in to by being tuned out yourself.

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.