From the Trainer’s Perspective: Feedback after session working with an insecure horse

I know many students wonder “what it is like” when I work with a horse; this week I had a nine year old mustang that I worked with a few times and thought it would be a good example to share with you of an “alternative” perspective, my thought process, things that I asked of the horse and evaluation. 

Most people I find are surprised that I do way less than the “normal” hour of cardiac inducing workout (for both horse and rider) when working with a horse.  For me, the horse’s brain is the priority.  The horse in this case was brought in from the wild a few years back, had been a stud until late in life (had a history of trying to dominate the mares) , and had a lot of excessive “movement”- pacing, weaving, etc. when tied, in his stall, waiting for feed due to his insecurity and worry. 

When his current owner got him he was uncatchable- even in a small stall.  He has issues with the farrier, other horses (if mares are in season), etc.  No aggressive behavior towards people at all- but a LOT of excessive movement- constantly.

His current owner brought him here to the property when I re-opened it in the fall, and has been a bit shocked at the change in her horse’s personality in the past two months; just from the “energy” of a mellow facility, horses that get turned out with a laid back herd (including mares) most of the day, large stalls (single bar 24x40), and grass hay.  I actually saw him lay down and enjoy the morning sun for the first time a week ago.

The following is my feedback to the owner as she was unable to watch the last two sessions I worked with her horse… Enjoy!

On Sunday even though we had sheep move past the property in the morning (which got him a bit concerned) he seemed more focused and participative.  He was more relaxed about being saddled at the trailer, though we had to work on standing balanced- as oppose to all four legs in four different directions.  I reviewed with him in the halter on looking to his left and right without moving the rest of his body or creating a brace, being able to “relax” into quietly moving forward, sideways or backwards from light pressure directing him through use of the lead rope.  I ask him to focus on looking “around” his circle as he walked it- as oppose to careening his neck and head towards the outside of the circle.  We focused on his transitions from walk to trot on the lead rope without dramatic movement (falling in on the circle with his shoulders or leaking out of the circle with his hindquarters.)  Being able to “think forward” when I bumped the stirrup at his sides (similar to where my lower leg would be if I were sitting on him.)  Then I worked him loose.  He seemed a bit patternized and his brain was all of the place, so we worked on slowing down his gaits and getting his brain to think about what his body was doing.  My saddle has leather ties at the rear and they gently smack him on the rump as he moves- he was a bit shocked at the “goosing” he was getting.  He really wanted to think everywhere BUT where he was moving, or he just wanted to stop and come in to the center of the pen.  So we worked with me increasing and decreasing my energy until he was able to offer a fluid walk, trot, and canter with quiet upward and downward transitions.  He breathed, blew, relaxed, etc. so we called it a day.  Untacking I dangled the lead rope on my arm, as oppose to tying him, and he was really relaxed and just stood nicely by the door of the trailer.  I also noticed that night bringing him in from the pasture, he really wanted to “address me” instead of just trying to sneak into his stall.

Today even though he was turned out with all the other horses he came at a brisk walk over to be caught and dove his head into the halter.  Again we focused on “thinking” while being tacked and not just swinging his body brainlessly around.  We reviewed his “lightness” on the lead rope and then I turned him loose.  Transitions were better, so we worked longer staying within a gait (he was distracted by the fruit pickers in the orange groves next door and wanted to resort to “fleeing” mode if he stayed within a gait too long).  He couldn’t fathom that he couldn’t just creep in on me, stop, or reverse directions at his own whim.  Then he started to realize I was “going with him” with my energy and movement in the pen and started to relax.  Still a bit bothered by the leather straps flapping, but way better.  So I got up on the mounting block and he sidled right up so that I was in line with the saddle, but if I waited longer than 20 seconds, he had to move.  So we played with me “hanging out” on the block; touching him (really bothered by my hands running along his neck, touching towards his ears, lifting my hand above the saddle horn,) and then just standing, then leaning on him along his shoulder/saddle/rump, and  finally just standing, etc.  He couldn’t believe I wasn’t just going to get on.  He breathed.  Then breathed some more.  Then he finally relaxed.  Then finally let down and stretched his neck out, cocked a foot and chilled out.  Then we ended the session.  At the end I untacked him again, while he wasn’t tied, and let him loose to graze on the parking side of the property and he just stood there staring at me not really wanted to leave for the grass!

So the goal should be about first slowing his brain down, then engaging it so that his movement can slow and have some thought as oppose to his natural “reacting” all the time.  The nice part is he can very quickly let go of his worry, concern and fear.  BUT he needs to be clear on the standard asked of him; otherwise he checks out mentally and then physically starts getting busy.

Riding without a Saddle-Not just a brainless session

The temperatures have definitely dropped here in the Southwest and our version of winter hit; we even had ice in the water buckets over the past few mornings…

On one recent chilly day, after doing morning chores I didn’t have much time so I decided to hop on Pico with just the hackamore and ride him bareback.  I know many riders who began riding as children used to tear bareback around the field clinging to their horse or pony with sheer joy.  Later, as the ground seemed farther and harder and they had less “bounce” in them, riders rarely seem to ride without their saddles. 

I find though hopping on once in a while sans saddle can actually improve the quality of your feel, timing and understanding biomechanically of how and when your horse is moving underneath you.  Many times a rider’s tack can actually interfere with the sensitivity of the rider, along with how, when the accuracy with which they use their aids.

One of the basic exercises I ask of my students is to first learn when each hoof leaves and touches the ground at a slow walk; then you would start to get comfortable with doing the same exercise at the trot and canter/lope.  You’d be surprised at how many people have ridden for years without ever thinking about or feeling the timing of their horse’s hoof pattern.  Sometimes riders are so focused on trying to feel, it just mentally messes them up and they stop feeling anything.  So, a great time to practice at the walk “feeling” your horse’s movement is by riding bareback.

Many times lateral movements are ridden without accuracy due to several factors.  First most riders ask a movement without clearly being able to imagine where they would like to place each of the horse’s four feet in order to perform the movement accurately.  Next, the rider does not use or know how to use their body to effectively and correctly ask the horse to move a specific body part, or interfere if the horse offers an unwanted movement. 

Again, by riding at a slow walk bareback a rider can actually “play” with first sitting correctly; you’ll feel if your seat bones are “plugged in” evenly or not.  If not, you’ll continually feel like you are slipping towards the side of the horse that you are sitting “heavier” on.  The side you are more coordinated on you are more likely to slip towards, so if you’re right handed you will consistently slip to your right.

Next you can thinking about your lower leg and how you use it.  Do you find yourself “gripping” with your calf? (Is your horse constantly speeding up? If so, you’re probably trying to hold with your lower leg (from the inside of your knee to the inside of your heel.)  Instead, imagine looking at a bow legged cowboy head on; you want your leg to simulate that look. 

Take your toes and turn them towards your horse’s nose and imagine drawing your heels away from your horse’s rib cage, this way your upper leg (from the inside of your groin to the inside of your knee) will lie flat against your horse and will help reinforce your balance that began with your seat bones.

Now practice being able to apply your lower leg in multiple areas along your horse’s ribcage in order to influence his shoulder, ribs, and hindquarters.  Keep mind as you apply one leg for your horse to yield away from, your opposite leg will need to be able to move “out of the way” of whatever body part you are asking your horse to move.  At the same time that same leg that moved out of the way, will have to create an imaginary “wall” so that your horse doesn’t accidentally allow another body part to “drift” along with the one you were originally asking to move.

This brings up another topic to mention; being able to move their horse’s head, neck, shoulders, ribcage and hindquarters, independently of one another.  Too many times riders have way too much motion, without accuracy.  As you ride around bareback, have your goal be literally slow, baby steps of quality.

Play with picking a specific spot in the dirt (or snow) and being able to quietly ask your horse to move a specific body part to that spot.  This should be able to be accomplished in a calm, quiet and great way to help your horse slow down his brain and think about what you are asking before he physically moves.  It also gives you the rider, a clear intention.  This in turn allows you to truly feel your horse shifting his weight or energy in response to your aid in “real time.”   By being able to really feel what your horse is offering, you can then assess what and how you are asking for a movement and then perhaps change (literally) how much energy or where your leg is in order to get a different response in your horse. 

By riding slow, intentional and bareback can often help you start to really learn more about the physical resistance, or brace, you might be feeling when you are working your horse.  It is an opportunity to experiment with how you physically are riding your horse, and will often tell you a lot about areas of your communication that may be lacking, or where the effectiveness of your aids is diminishing. 

Plus on one of those cold winter days where you may not have time for a “regular” ride or worry about being able to cool down your horse properly, you can hop on for fifteen minutes of intentional riding that can greatly influence the quality of your future rides. 

The best part about riding bareback is it does not allow us a “false sense of security”, therefor forcing us to raise our focus, intention, timing and feel, if not motivated by the simple desire to “stay on.”

One last note, if you have never ridden your horse bareback before, don’t assume that he will be “okay” with it.  You’d be surprised how many horses are used to their saddle, but the motion of someone “sliding” around on their backs can bother them.  So you’d want to start slowly in just half way mounting and dismounting, to sitting on them, to a few steps of walk to get them used to you directly touch them with your seat and upper leg. 

Also, many “warm” winter clothes are made of textures that can sound crinkly and create static when rubbed against horse hair, so try and introduce your “loud clothing” from on the ground first, or rubbing just perhaps a “loud jacket” on your horse’s body before riding in one.

Our journey of Horsemanship: Leaving Room for Interpretation

I’ve never had an “English” language conversation with a horse, but over the years I feel that I’ve found some degree of a “common language” with which I use to communicate with them.  I explain to students there is no “one” way to do things, and I always tell people “take what you like, leave what you don’t” from any learning situation.  I finished reading a horse blog the other day and realized that in this day and age I don’t think you can participate in any aspect of the horse world without hearing the word “pressure” in reference to communicating with the horse.

Over the past few days while I worked around the property, I casually watched the horses happily grazing.  As they meandered about the field, I started thinking about what “pressure” might mean to others; ideas and questions started to pop into my head, thus creating the platform for this blog. 
Most moments of every day I have horse related thoughts floating through my brain.  After enough years of “the lifestyle” I often forget what it was like to NOT live this way.  I believe that the qualities with which you understand and the clarity with which you communicate are reliant upon one another.  As I’m sure you’ve heard me say in other blogs, I feel it is my responsibility as an equine professional to attempt to explain, help interpret and teach in a manner to those unaccustomed to spending most of their day’s energy focused on their horse.
With that in mind, the word “pressure” can have multiple interpretations as to “what it really means” such as in the scenario of the horse within the herd, in the horse’s interaction with its handler, as in to the rider, as in to the coach, etc. 
I believe that the word “pressure” is just as casually “thrown out there” as often as you hear people talking about “collection.”  As with most things within a language, there is always room for further clarification and interpretation.  There of course is also plenty of room for lack of understanding, as what all too often happens when a word, explanation, statement or example is taken out of context.  For example take religion, philosophy and written literature, how many times have documents been “re-interpreted” for better or easier understanding and clarification? I think it is human nature to “want it better.” 
For me, the “wanting it better” applies to all aspects of my understanding, teaching and ability to communicate both to equine and human students.  I’m continually revisiting previous thoughts, ideas, epiphanies, etc. in order to propel my “forward moving” journey of horsemanship.  I find that my teaching often improves my training, just as much as my hands on training improve the clarity with which I teach. 
As much as I talk A LOT, I’ve also learned over the years to ask questions of my students.  To assume that they understand my words as I meant them to be taken would be wrong.  So questioning the student is never done in a challenging way, but rather in trying to understand their mindset.  I want to hear them have to “think through” and explain the how, why and when to be sure they are not just “repeating” what I’ve taught them, but are able to grasp the theories, which in turn will help them when they are on their own and will “have options” in how they influence changes in their horse’s brain and body.
So I want to play a bit of a game for a moment- I’m going to use one word, and I want you think of the first scenario that pops into your mind in response.  Here it goes, the word is:
Did you think of applying leg pressure to your horse’s side when in the saddle?

Did you think of using rein pressure?

Did you imagine a horse yielding from creating physical pressure with the lead rope?

Did you think of working at liberty and using your own physical movement as spatial pressure to influence your horse?

Did you think of your horse either spatially or physically “leaning on you” creating an uncomfortable spatial pressure from him being in your personal space?

Did you think of a horse showing physical signs of stress due to mental pressure such as swishing its tail, grinding its teeth/the bit, short/tight and inconsistent movement?

Did you think of a tool such as a lead rope, flag, or whip, to create both spatial and physical pressure to get a change in your horse?

Did you imagine changing your energy (increasing and decreasing the pressure of your seat) to influence the energy of your horse’s gaits?
Did you imagine walking past the “scary” spot and “pushing” your horse forward with pressure from your entire body?
As you can see the list can go on and on.  My point being that depending on your past education, exposure, riding discipline, and experience, your interpretation of the word pressure could mean many things to you.  As with all horse things, there is no definitive “right and wrong” as we explore translating a theory, word or manner of interacting with our horse.
For me, as both an ongoing student and current teacher; I don’t just accept a theory or statement.  I don’t try to “beat it into the ground,” but over time I return to it to explore and experiment with the concept presented.  Every encounter with the horses offers the opportunity to fine tune “what I thought I already knew.” 
Someone once asked what my goals are if ride with a mentor to continue my own education process, and I said, “I go not to ‘work on’ a specific problem, but rather to recognize the things I don’t even realize might be happening.” This often is the case with folks who come to me with "only one problem," without realizing their issue is a symptom, rather than the root cause.
Here’s to keeping an open mind towards what you think you know, and realizing you may have change your assumed understanding to improve the relationship with your horse!


Confessions of a Horse Trainer- Our own horses get the least of our attention…

About a month ago, before I left my summer facility in the northwestern US, I had my vet come out to do my horses' annual dentistry.  As we were looking at the previous year’s exam records, I noticed the date on my colt, “Pico”, said that he was born in 2004.  Wait a minute.  How was my “colt” seven years old???  That couldn’t be right.  But with a little further investigation, it turned out that it was. 

I think the old saying was, “The cobbler’s children had no shoes.”  Well the horse professional’s saying should be, “The trainer’s horses are the least trained!”  Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of trainers who have what I call “blue sky potential” horses that they put many hours into with hopes of selling or promoting, but in most barns or facilities, there always seem to be a few “project” horses that were usually acquired accidentally and somehow time had quickly passed leaving those equines pretty much as they were when they first arrived.
Now granted, in my own case, Pico finally had his “fair share” of attention this summer.  I had a working student whose personality seemed to mirror Pico’s and they just clicked.  It was great that the student had the opportunity to work with an “unfinished” horse.  Poor Pico on the other hand was a little shocked at being “harassed” more than once every few weeks; but as he started to believe that his new “partner in crime” was relentless and NOT going to leave him alone after five minutes Pico changed his tune and soon enough the two of them were sneaking off into the woods like a pair of youngsters whose imaginations were running wild (I think “cowboys and Indians” might have been their theme.)  I have a “loop” through the woods that usually takes riders about 15-20 minutes if they are really taking their time.  Pico and his new partner would slink off and disappear for 45 minutes- by the time they showed up, I didn’t even ask…
Now for a moment, bear with me as I go back to the beginning when I “accidentally” wound up with Pico at three months of age. He’d been orphaned at birth and a gal had rescued him from his “get rich quick with horses owner whose stallion had gotten out of pasture and visited all the mares who were now having babies that the owner can no longer afford”.  My vet had heard that I might, I said, might want a baby… So I showed up to meet the little red dun colt and of course, he came home with me.  Even then, as much as babies are cute, Pico was quite plain.  No real flash, no real movement, oh yeah, and that slightly clubbed foot.  But as with everything, once you take them in, they’re part of the “gang” and Pico quickly fit in with my motley crew of misfits. 
I think Pico was about nine months old when he made his first trip south to the warm winters of Arizona.  At that time I was on a “ horse collecting” streak, and that winter I picked up a 17.2H bay thoroughbred from New Mexico that had been saved from the slaughter truck.  It was so cold, icy, windy and frozen when I looked at the horse, we took him out of the stall, when I had him trot down the outdoor barn alley as chickens were flapping around and a tractor was zooming by.  I asked, “Does he load?” and that is how he made his way into my life- unexpected and unintentionally of course.
He was the third horse bought from a person with the same name, so I started naming these newbies after their previous owner’s last name, and this horse, Houston, fit perfect.  Now Houston had run and won over $70K at the track, and was somehow still sound and semi sane.  He was just one of those “good guy” horses, but he was also very inexperienced in “the real world.” 
From the moment I unloaded Houston, he and Pico fell in love.  Now you have to remember Pico was nine months and very small for his age, and here was this very large, lanky thoroughbred.  The two of them would pal around the pastures like they were soul mates.  Talk about the odd couple.  But the funniest part of it all was that Houston would follow Pico.  So here was this rambunctious little colt storming about the pasture, splashing through our flood irrigation and for every short sprint or gallop where Pico gave his all, Houston would effortlessly offer a slow,  long trot and easily keep up.  All day long, round and round they’d go, with breaks in between to mouth, chew, rear, and climb on each other…
Anyways as time passed I dinked around with Pico, for fun.  For the most part I never really felt compelled to do much as Pico’s mental, physical and emotional maturity seemed to take the “slow route.”  So if I had a moment here or there we’d work ten or fifteen minutes…  The day I first got on him I hadn’t even meant to.  I had taught him to line up to the mounting block, as I do with all horses and was “desensitizing” him.  Leaning on him, banging on him, banging on the saddle, clunking the stirrups, fussing with different “stuff.”  He finally turned his head around to look at me, took this huge sigh, and I swear he said, “Just get on ALREADY.”  So I did.  Our first boring and slow ride (for those who have worked with me my GOAL for my students, the horses and myself when working with them is for the experience to be boring and uneventful) turned into another, and then another… and so on. 
He started to be the “go to” horse I rode for “fun” once in a while because it was easy.  He was light.  He was a quick learner.  Hey, he was actually fun.  BUT his attention span was about 20 minutes or less.  And honestly, in my life of training, teaching, office work, property maintenance, etc. that was all I needed for a fun ride. 
Now don’t get me wrong.  I knew he had some major “holes” in his education… But kind of like that diet we all talk about going on “someday,” I had the same perspective with addressing Pico’s missing links in his training.  Yeah the “horse trainer” has a horse scared of plastic bags.  (Pico’s enthusiasm and curiosity got the best of him as a two year old and he picked up a plastic grocery bag in his mouth.  He took it to share with the other horses in the pasture, from which they all fled.  He started freaking out because they kept running away from him.  Then he couldn’t figure out how to “let go” of the bag.)  Or the famous, “I clipped him a few years back, but now he won’t let me near him.”  Or things like the water hose.  WHAT???  Not my horse. 
I have clients who on a daily basis bring me horses with serious behavioral “issues” and I spend hours helping them get long term changes through revisiting the basics and using clear communication in order to build their horse’s confidence so that the horse learns how to be “reasonable” in how they address life’s scenarios.  Why didn’t one of my own horses have that same time put into him? 
I made that diet reference earlier.  How many of you have ever committed to going on a diet?  Okay, now how long did it take you to FIRST mentally convince yourself that a.) you need to go on a diet, and b.) that you actually will commit to one?  The same thought process went for my attitude with Pico.  That little voice in my head had a million reasons (all the explanations my clients get on a daily basis) about WHY it is so important to create the quality foundation, and that time was ticking… But somehow, it just kept ticking.
Eventually as I decreased the size of my herd and I could feel Pico at first staring at me longingly then after enough of my ignoring him, he started to act like the unaddressed teenager being dramatic in his small annoying behaviors.  (Example:  All the horses know how to “put themselves away” and he would insist on taking an extra lap, exploring, and then, sigh, eventually heading over to an empty stall for the night.)  Just little stuff.  But his attitude was clear.
So fast forward to this summer and the new student who “took on” Pico. I realized after the first month that the student had ridden my horse more than I had in all the time that I had owned him.  We’d do sessions together each day, and then they would head out on their own to do who knows what… But in that time, Pico’s brain, enthusiasm, and experience expanded.  He started greeting us at the pastures again; he started offering a “try” without being asked.  His mental endurance slowly started to increase from his “usual” 20 minutes… And yes these days, rubbing bags all over doesn't faze him...
Needless to say, I’d taught Pico to bow a few years back.  Again, for those who do or don’t know, I’m NOT into teaching “tricks” but rather my goal is that I can ask anything of my horse and he can offer a try.  In the case of bowing, it was asking a balance of mental relaxation and trust along with a physical yielding of his front end lowering it to the ground; to the rest of the world it looks like a bow.
Two days ago was the first time I “played” with Pico in probably two months… I hopped on and we had a great ride.  The next day I worked with him from the ground on suppling exercises (even though he is petite, he is the most stiff-as-a-board Quarter Horse I’ve ever encountered.)  At the end of our session I asked him to bow.  He did so easily even though we hadn’t done if for a good six months or so.  It was so easy in fact, that I then continued using a light “yielding to pressure” that he was familiar with, asking him to bow lower and lower until the moment I saw him switch his thought from bowing, to, saying “More?”  I released and asked him to stand and we dinked around for a minute scratching his “itchy” spots.  Then I asked for the bow again, and then a little more, a little more, and then he gently sighed, and laid himself down for me.  He lay flat out, with the side of his head on the ground, and as I rubbed and sat on him, he started nibbling grass as if that were the most natural thing to do while having been asked to unnaturally and unnecessarily lie down.  That is SO Pico.  After a few minutes I asked him to get up which he quietly did, and then looked at me, and like his partner in crime from the past summer, it was as if he asked, “What next boss?”  I turned him out to graze with an ear to ear smile on my face.
So the point of this blog, whether you have a “regular” job, family, life, or yes, even if you are a “horse trainer” – don’t feel bad if your training goals/accomplishment or “schedule” hasn’t gone “according to plan.”  You have time, your horse has time.  As long as in the meantime he gets to “act” like a horse living a balanced social life with room for natural movement, don’t beat yourself up for not accomplishing “what you thought you would have” by now.  Instead enjoy the time you do spend with your equine partner and appreciate what you have accomplished.  It will make each experience more positive for the both of you.
Have fun,

Blast from the Past- Then and Now: A perspective on our experiences

The idea for this latest blog came about unexpectedly… This past week I was out of town attending a non-horse related event, when as with most horse people, a group of us found ourselves standing around trying to remember the “good ol’ days” of our Three Day Eventing careers and/or experiences…  Out of the seven of us chatting I turned out to be the only one still involved with horses though of course my “world” today is as far removed from “that” world as could be; the other most recent rider sold her Advanced level horse three years ago and has tried to replace the emptiness with golf. 

I really didn’t say much at first, just listened.  What struck me as we started listing and trying to remember who had done what, when and where they were today, was to realize that during “our time” when all 25 to 30 of us “regulars” had been on the road traveling almost every weekend and competing, that somehow a good majority had “survived” (literally) and became a percentage of today’s top rated US competitors.  We reminisced about our regular “dinner out” during a competition.  Although of course we were competitive, it was an incredibly tight knit group of people.  The camaraderie and support for one another when we crashed and burned (literally) to truly being happy for when someone won an event or championship was amazing.  I really hadn’t ever thought about just how many of us had toughed it out and “learned the ropes” together. 

Then amidst memory lane and exchanging “remember when…” stories, trying to remember who rode what horse, what person ended up marrying what other equine enthusiast, etc. and what horse had “made it” to the top, a friend suddenly blurted out mid-sentence, “If I ever do ride again I want a really, really broke horse.  Something like, a quiet Quarter Horse.”  The gal standing next her chimed in, “Yeah something with NO bucking, rearing or other dramatic issues.  Something boring.” 

By then, a few of them turned to me and kinda gave me a look and said, “Something like what Sam probably has at her place.”  I had to laugh… The gal who had initiated this new comment had “learned the ropes” on literally “free” horses.  Now I know these days it has become common to find cheap or free horses, but back then to be handed a free horse meant it had a really, really, REALLY long list of “quirks” as we politely called it back then.  A few of the others in the group had experienced the “growing up with their horse,” which at the time with our trainers meant you had a 50/50 chance of either surviving the ride in one piece or not.  Most of us could remember the E.R. doctors about to cut off those custom made leather boots we had saved several years for and although in more pain then imaginable, us shrieking, “DON’T CUT THE BOOTS!” no matter how much pain would be involved in trying to pull a tall, leather field boot off of a quickly swelling broken ankle or foot. 

As much as we had wonderful memories and most of us wouldn’t have traded them for the world, they were bitter sweet.  Among seven of us we had at least four horses that prematurely went lame or had to be put down far earlier than they should have due to excessive wear and tear from all the competitions.  As much as we were proud of the  high levels we had competed at, it seemed that subconsciously we winced thinking back to ALL the blood, sweat and tears we shed to get there.  It was common at the time to have a love/hate relationship with your trainer and horse.  They could bring you to the highest highs, but also the lowest lows.  As much as we were proud of all the craziness we had survived, at the time buying into the concept that what didn’t kill you made you stronger, hindsight, being 20/20, has  allowed us some distance and perspective, then of course causing you to start questioning, “WHY did I think such and such was a normal situation???”

The conversation then took another turn and others started asking what exactly is it that I do.  It was funny because as I explained my training philosophy in working with the horse’s mental availability in order to get the desired physical results, I found myself staring at blank faces.  It was almost like I could explain to a non-horsey person more clearly than those that had been so ingrained into believing “this is the only way it’s done” sort of riding, training and routines. 

For those of you who have been involved with horses for less  than fifteen years you have to remember the whole “natural horsemanship” concept, clinicians, articles, TV shows and DVDs did not exist or was not easily accessible.  And back then you only rode “one discipline” and that was all that you did with your horse.  And if there was someone who didn’t do “stuff” the way the rest of us did it, they were considered a little “goofy” and more often than not their ideas were disregarded before they were ever really listened to or tried.

As I was comparing a “then and now” perspective, I almost felt guilty, because my current perspective has allowed me to take off the personal blinders created by my past “mainstream” ways of training and riding.  Today I think, question and try things outside the “conventional” box and have no qualms about whether I try something with a horse that works, or if it doesn’t, move on and try a different approach.  Whereas the people I was talking to from the past, had no idea that “my” present day world even existed.  As I was talking, a brief slide show of horse moments from roping cattle on the north rim of the Grand Canyon to this summer’s 6000’ mountain pack trip (think The Man from Snowy River snow/cliff scene) to jumping my horse over large fallen trees and splashing through creeks- everything we needed in our Three Day Event horses, that we trained and practiced and went round and round, with the inability to truly “do” in a comfortable, quiet way. 

Now I’d like to make a note here- I’m only talking about MY experiences and perspective and am in no way naysaying the sport.  For me, I went through these experiences and after enough years of out of control horses that I “survived” the ride on, I finally had to find a different way to do things.  Don’t get me wrong- I still get a thrill watch a few navigate world class courses such as Badminton or Rolex.

I always wonder if I had been able back then to have had an instructor who taught like I do now, what would have happened.  I never had anyone who mentioned my energy in the saddle.  Nor did a single person ever tell me to have my horse LOOK where he was going.  I know it sounds really obvious when you’re cantering at 20mph and aiming at a solid jump the size of a pickup truck!  I thought it was normal that my horse was resistant, heavy and on the forehand, because hey, he was a jumping horse or he was built “on the forehand.”  No one thought twice about how strong of a bit they had to use in order to resemble a level of control on cross country.  We all had those experiences of just being happy to have stayed within the Dressage arena’s borders during our test.

It didn’t have to be that way.  Today I taught a student who showed up in a jumping saddle and halter with clip-on western reins.  We rode in an open field that had cows mooing, goats scampering about and assorted fowl crying and squawking.  The grass was still damp from the flood irrigation and due to a leak there was a huge flooded section to splash through.  It was the first lesson after  light summer riding (they do after all experience a norm of 110+ degree temperatures) and we included things such as shoulder in, haunches in, spiral in and out, leg yielding across our “fake” diagonal, transitions and much more.  It was casual, calm and quiet.  We used “that red barrel lying down” as a marker instead of “E”, or that “railroad tie in line with that fence post” for our “centerline.”  Were we “doing” Dressage? No.  We were riding.  We were revisiting the basics and yes, it was fun.  No the horse was not swishing his tail, grinding his teeth, or showing other stressful or irritated behaviors.  And yet, it would have been “a lot” to have done all that in a lesson during the “old days.”

But in the end, the saying that goes, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ I guess held true.  Even for those who had been out of the sport for fifteen years, still had hands that looked like they hadn’t ever seen a manicure.  I would bet money that every one of us could have backed a trailer through an obstacle course without knocking a cone over.  I’m sure in their heyday they would have thought it was normal to walk three horses at the same time and have a pack of dogs ambling around their feet while “conducting business” with a client. 

Out of the group chatting at the event, one is a nationally respected vet that specializes in Ophthalmology and is a professor at the University of Illinois, another is ranked among American Airlines top 150 pilots, another leads guided bicycle and hiking tours thinking nothing of covering several hundred miles in a few days with up to 120 guests in the wilderness.  Another is a physical therapist who just happens to be a personal assistant to high profile business woman that allows her to travel the world coordinating and organizing. 

There’s just something in the mindset of these strong people that is so refreshing, even if they are no longer involved in the horse world.  As with most things, horse folk can be some of the best and some of the worst characters you meet.  With this particular group you could be comfortably frank, direct and honest with no one thinking it odd or that you were “too forward.”   

The conversation ended with everyone agreeing, that even though the timing wasn’t “right now”, someday, somewhere, somehow, yeah, they probably would get back in the saddle again.  Like I always say, if it’s in your blood, there’s nothing you can do about it, except enjoy it!  So here is to those who have endured, for better or worse, and still find at the end of the day, your current or past equine partner still brings a smile to your face and teaches you to be a better person.


How to decrease the stress of trailering/hauling horses

As with most things, after each experience, you become more comfortable.  I'm always amazed when I meet people that have never had a pet- either as a child or adult.  But animals here on the farm have become "a lifestyle" for me.  That means things that I don't think twice about, such as loading up my dogs in the truck anytime I go anywhere, having the dog ride on the back of the ATV as I drag pastures, or heading out into the mountains with four of five of them is "normal" to me. 

Riding with Sam- Assessment, Awareness, Communication

My opinion is that all disciplines require the same basics, from jumpers to gaming horses, from trail riders to dressage competitors. An ideal ride would be on an enthusiastic, attentive mount that responds when asked and performs as asked.
Key words and questions Sam Harvey uses to start off a ride:

· Where: Where is your horse’s mind today? Is he physically next to you but mentally somewhere else?

· How: How effective is your physical communication with your horse?

· Why: Why do you use the tack and equipment you are using? Is it necessary?

· When: When does your horse respond to you? When do you use one aid versus another?

· Can: Can you see the whole picture - or do you get distracted and focus on small details?

· What: What are your riding goals? For:

Each ride?
Short term? Long term?
What can you do to achieve them?
Are they realistic?

What, who, when and where, and why do we ASSESS?

What: This is a combination of evaluating, measuring, considering, and attempting to gauge the mental and physical status of each the horse and rider.

What can your assessment tell you about your ride? Your assessment will help you understand that although you may have certain expectations or goals for your ride that day, your horse may have other ideas.

Who: You -- Attitude Attention Emotion Physical condition

Are you distracted with: the bills you have to pay, being on time to pick up the kids from school or extra curricular activities, the errands you still have to run, deciding what to cook for dinner, stress from work, or ???

If the rider is not 100% present mentally, it is unfair to ask the horse to be. We are supposed to be their leaders, but if we are distracted or have other things on our minds, they know.

Horses are constantly assessing and reacting -- this is their instinct for survival. We humans have to concentrate to do it. As soon as the horse is caught in the field or stable, he is evaluating and assessing us. He knows when we’re not paying attention. So by the time we get on, he has already made the decision whether or not to respect us and respond to our aids.

Your Horse -- Where is his mind? How is he physically today?
Is he emotionally present?

Is his brain with his buddies? Is he stiff or sore from age, health or earlier exertion? Has he recently been vaccinated or received other medication? Is it feeding or breeding time?

When and where should the assessment begin?

· For me the assessment begins when I catch my horse. Did he come up and “happily” greet me? Did he turn his tail to me, but tolerate my catching him? Did he run away?

· As I closed the gate, was his attention with me or was his head on the ground looking for grass? As I moved away from the enclosure, did he follow promptly or was his focus elsewhere?

· When I led him to the grooming area, did he walk along happily and pay attention to where I was? Or was he distracted by the other horses or events? Did he bump into me? Did he stand still when I tacked him up or was he fidgeting constantly?

By the time you get to where you’re ready to get on, your horse will have told you a lot about the upcoming ride -- did you listen? This ground assessment can help you decide what expectations to have for your horse that day.

Why do we assess?

We assess because we view the rider and horse as a partnership rather than a dictatorship. We need to have the patience and understanding to recognize realistically what can be achieved in a ride and what might not. This is not to say that your horse is permitted to decide what you will and won’t do, but rather a way to better educate yourself about your horse’s feelings, mood, mind set, and physical state -- and how it will affect the quality and enjoyment of the ride for both the horse and you.

When we get on…

What basics should our horses have so that we can accomplish our goals?

· Lightness- carrying themselves so they are not hanging on the bit dragging you around

· Suppleness- relaxation while carrying himself with the ability to bend and give any part of his body

· Bending- starting at the ribcage flowing in two directions: towards the neck and the tail- causing the haunches and the shoulders to operate independently of one another

· Flexion- starting at the spine, a stretching of the neck while staying relaxed, light and balanced

· Balance- ability to go in any direction and carry his own weight equally

· Relaxed- no tension in any part of his body no matter what is asked of him

· Engaged- lifting of the back so that the hindquarters can come underneath the spine to shift his weight from the front end to the haunches, causing the power to come from the rear so that the horse’s shoulders and neck are free and light to bend, flex, be supple and maintain balance

· Responsiveness- reaction time to an aid

· Creation of a smile: the look on our face when the above is achieved :) and you experience a fabulous ride and have a great time

how to create clear communication with the horse and have a quality ride

· Efficient- doing as little as necessary to achieve as large a result as possible

· Effective- promptly getting the reaction you asked for

· Sensitive- feeling, seeing and sensing what is happening underneath you

· Aware- not just seeing the “now,” but being ready for what might come next

· Evaluation- constant checking of results -- self and horse -- to make future decisions

· Preparing- always expect the unexpected

· Planning Ahead- if something were to happen what would/could you do to resolve, fix, or isolate the issue and make it a positive experience?

· “Taking” the horse- are you telling the horse where to go or is he “taking” you

· Establishing Respect- does he really believe you i.e. that what you ask is what you mean

· Feeling what is happening- not just seeing and focusing on the obvious, but maintaining sensitivity to feel your horse

By teaching ourselves to become this aware and focused every time we play with our horses, their respect and desire to please increases. We also become improved riders because we are now open-minded about communicating with the horse rather than just making demands of him.

A day in the life...

I laugh every time I meet a non horse person who sighs when they hear about my life and see them get a dreamy look on their face as I'm sure they're conjuring up some romantic image of what my days must be like.  Then there's potential new clients who can't understand why you would need notice or deposit policies for training and lessons- as if this "horse thing" is something I do just for fun.  In fact I even had family visit my Idaho facility for the first time and stood on the property and looked around and went, "Whoa, you take care of ALL this by yourself?" Until that point I was pretty sure their impression was that I just spent my days playing with the horses... In the last few weeks I have had quite a few inquiries about how DO YOU become a horse trainer... But as much as this is a 24/7 lifestyle- not just a job- there are many unexpected perks.

I'm going to use this past week as an example, although these two weeks are my slow time each year as I'm in transition of closing the Idaho facility and preparing for the semiannual move to the Arizona facility (1400 miles away.)  This year I'll be taking seven horses, dogs and of course all horse, office, outdoor stuff south. 

Typically I feed around 6a.m. then spend the next two hours doing office work, banking, blogging/website editing/updating, etc. I head out around 8am and start working horses.  In between or while working with horses things such as cleaning the waterers (hiking up the hill to do so,) mending fences/hot wires, dragging the pastures/infields to break up manure, cleaning out the tack room, pulling weeds or spraying, gathering newly upturned rocks, cutting back the hedges, moving the jumps so that the grass in the arena isn't killed from them sitting in one place too long, picking up trash/bailing twine, raking loose hay from the feeding area, riding through the "beginner" trails assessing what branches need to be cut back again, or what paths need mowing.

Most mornings have me working with four to six horses before noon... and then teaching lessons in the afternoon.  Usually a quick lunch, during which in between mouthfuls I'm again doing more computer correspondence, returning phone calls- which reminds me, I need to call the hay guy and order another ton, set a date with the farrier, confirm with the vet for the health and coggins paperwork, call the bank regarding an error, talk to that client about when they are taking their horses home...

Between the office work, website work/promotion, property maintenance (about 20 hours/wk between mowing on the riding mower, with the tractor and using the weed eater,) I could be getting paid for each of those three jobs alone.  A lot of folks say, why don't you just hire someone to do that work? But as with most things, it's hard to find quality people employees who do "above and beyond" in their work.  It's far more stressful for me to watch the guy on my mower (please don't run over anything or break the mower as I can't afford the time without it or the money it'll take to fix it) than to just wind up doing the job myself.

Then again, as I went out to feed this morning there were seven deer in the yard.  And a few days back a young black bear was playing around inspecting the ant hill piles I have yet to remove. 

Oh and there was that young moose that came crashing through the woods last week.  Never mind the ever present turkeys. 

Plus the pleasure of looking out in the field and seeing horses of assorted colors and breeds cruising around playing, grazing and just being horses!

Yes it's not a 9-5 job, and there is NO guaranteed salary or income or profit, BUT the opportunity for simple pleasures, appreciation of the little unexpected moments and NOT ever worrying about sitting in traffic, dealing with a boss or not having an office window make it all worth it!

Humans, Horses, and Common Sense- Don't ignore the horse's behavior

Humans, Horses, and Common Sense- Don't ignore the horse's behavior

People lack awareness.  We trip, we misstep, we are clumsy, we are slow, we forget, we get distracted, we are inconsistent, we are unaware, we are insensitive.  We have lost our ability to think, smell, taste, and breathe clearly and with intention.   We make decisions usually within different shades of "gray" rather than seeing things in either black or white. Because of this "gray" area in many aspects of our life, people tend to move in a physically crooked or tight manner.

Grizzly & Horse Encounter- MUST READ

*Rich Landers* The Spokesman-Review

September 18, 2011 - Updated: September 20, 1:25 p.m.

Grizzlies are high profile this year.

A lingering winter and late berry crop kept bears in proximity to humans longer than normal, perhaps contributing to a stream of headlines about grizzlies killing people and people killing grizzlies.

Meanwhile, a young lady on a big horse charged out of the pack of grizzly stories near Glacier National Park. In a cloud of dust, the 25-year-old wrangler likely saved a boy’s life while demonstrating that skill, quick-thinking and guts sometimes are the best weapons against a head-on charging grizzly.

On July 30, Erin Bolster of Swan Mountain Outfitters was guiding eight clients on a horse ride on the Flathead National Forest between West Glacier and Hungry Horse, Mont.

“It’s the shortest ride we offer,” she said Wednesday, recalling the incident. “We’d already led two trips that morning. It’s always been a very routine hour-long loop, until that day.”

The group included a family of six plus a vacationing Illinois man, who’d booked the trip for his 8-year-old son’s first horse-riding experience.

The young boy was riding Scout, a steady obedient mount, following directly behind Bolster, who was leading the group on Tonk, a burly 10-year-old white horse of questionable lineage.

Tonk isn’t the typical trail mount. Best anyone knows, he’s the result of cross-breeding a quarter horse with a Percheron – a draft horse. Bolster is 5-foot-10, yet she relies on her athleticism to climb into the saddle aboard Tonk.

“He was one of the horses we lease from Wyoming and bring in every year,” Bolster said, noting that she’d picked him from the stable in May to be hers for the season.

“He’s a very large horse – 18 hands high. That intimidates a lot of riders. But I’ve always loved big horses. He’s kind of high-strung and spooky, the largest of our wrangling horses. I like a horse with a lot of spirit, and I was really glad to be on him that day.”

Bolster has accumulated a wealth of experience on and around horses of national and even world class. She started riding at 4 years old, became a pro trainer at 15, graduated from high school at 16 in Roanoke, Va., and ran a riding academy for several years.

Seeking a more laid-back lifestyle, she wrangled in Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic before moving to Whitefish three years ago to guide tourists during the summer around Glacier National Park and ski through winter.

“It’s the country, the mountains and the idea of seeing lot of wildlife that appealed to me, ironically enough,” she said.

Bolster quickly racked bear experience, too, although until July 30, it was always at a distance.

“At the peak of the season, we were seeing bears daily,” she said. “The wranglers name them so we can let each other know where they are. Usually the bears just keep feeding in the distance or they run away when we come.  Just seeing them is a treat for us and our guests.”

Because they guide around Glacier Park, bear awareness is part of thepreparation wranglers get when hired by Swan Mountain Outfitters.

“We go over a lot of wildlife scenarios in our training,” Bolster said. “We learn to watch our horses for signals of possible trouble so we can steer clear.”

That’s the key, she said: Avoid trouble with a moose or a bear.

“We can’t use pepper spray when we’re riding because that could blind the horse,” she said. “And using a gun would spook the horses and probably produce more danger than safety.”

That’s how she went to work that day: a young but seasoned pro rider on a new, huge and spirited horse, unarmed in the wilderness with eight dudes.

“It was a pleasant ride until we came around a corner on the trail and my horse stopped firm and wouldn’t move,” Bolster said. “He never refuses to go, so that caught my attention quick.”

But not fast enough to avoid the spike white-tailed deer that burst out of the brush and glanced off Tonk’s left front shoulder.

As Tonk spun from the impact, Bolster saw a huge grizzly bear crashing through the forest right at the group in pursuit of the deer. Horses panicked and guests grabbed saddle horns for the ride of their lives.

“No amount of training could keep a horse from running from a 700-pound charging bear,” she said.

Seven of the horses sensed the danger, scrambled around and galloped back on the trail toward the barn.

But Scout bolted perpendicular to the trail into the timber packing the 8-year-old boy.

“The deer peeled off and joined the horses sprinting down the trail,” Bolster said. “So the bear just continued running right past me. I’m not sure the bear even knew the roles had changed, but now it was chasing a horse instead of a deer.”

The grizzly was zeroed in on Scout and the boy – the isolated prey in the woods.

Adding to the drama, the boy’s father, an experienced rider, could not convince his horse that it was a good plan to ride to his son’s rescue.

“The last thing he saw over his shoulder as his horse ran away was the grizzly chasing his boy,” Bolster said.

With the bear on Scout’s heels, Tonk’s instinct was to flee with the group of horses. But Tonk responded to Bolster’s heels in his ribs as she spun the big fella around. They wheeled out of a 360 and bolted into the trees to wedge between the predator and the prey.

“The boy was bent over, feet out of the stirrups, clutching the saddle horn and the horse’s neck,” she said. “That kept him from hitting a tree limb.

“But all I could think about was the boy falling off in the path of that grizzly.

“I bent down, screamed and yelled, but the bear was growling and snarling and staying very focused on Scout.

“As it tried to circle back toward Scout, I realized I had to get Tonk to square off and face the bear. We had to get the bear to acknowledge us.

“We did. We got its attention – and the bear charged.

“So I charged at the bear.”

Did she think twice about that?

“I had no hesitation, honestly,” Bolster said. “Nothing in my body was going to let that little boy get hurt by that bear. That wasn’t an option.”

Tonk was on the same page.

*With a ton of horse*, boulder-size hooves and a fire-breathing blonde thundering at it, the bear came within about 10 feet before skittering off to the side.

But it quickly angled to make yet another stab at getting to Scout and the boy – who had just fallen to the ground.

“Tonk and I had to go at the bear a third time before we finally hazed him away,” she said.

“The boy had landed in some beargrass and was OK. Scout was standing nearby.”

Bolster gathered the boy up with her on Tonk, grabbed Scout’s lead and trotted down the trail.

“The boy was in shock,” she said. “I looked back and could see the bear had continued to go away through he woods, but I had another five or 10 minutes of riding before I got back with the group.”

Not until she reunited with her riders – all OK and standing in various stages of confusion with their horses – did she start to shake.

“I looked at Tonk, and he was wet with sweat and shaking, too,” she said.

She was especially concerned for the boy’s father, who probably suffered the most terror in the ordeal.

“He was fine, and I got my biggest tip of the season,” Bolster said. “My biggest hope is that the boy isn’t discouraged from riding. This was a one-in-a-million event.”

*For the next few days*, the outfitter shut down the trail rides and Bolster joined other wranglers and a federal grizzly bear expert to ride horses through the area looking for the bear.

“They tracked it for a long way and concluded that it kept going out of the area,” she said. “Judging from the tracks and my description of how high the bear came up on Tonk, the grizzly expert estimated it weighed 700-750 pounds.

“This was a case of us being in the wrong place as a bear was already in the act of chasing its natural prey. He was probably more persistent because he was really hungry.”

Bolster and the other wranglers vowed to have bear spray on their belts to make sure they can defend their guests during breaks on the ground.

“But when you’re riding, the horse is your best protection, if you can stay on,” she said.

“Some of the horses I’ve ridden would have absolutely refused to do what Tonk did; others would have thrown me off in the process. Some horses can never overcome their flight-animal instinct to run away.”

*In those minutes *of crisis, the big lug of mongrel mount proved his mettle in a test few trail horses will face in their careers.

Tonk’s grit moved Bolster. She wasn’t about to send him back to Wyoming with the other leased horses.

“Two weeks ago, I closed the deal and bought him,” Bolster said as she was wrapping up her 2011 wrangling season.

“After what he did that day, he had to be mine.”

Horse Help- Improving your Equine Communication- Eliminating the Brace

Have you ever felt any of the following when you work with a horse:

Heavy on the lead rope- as you were dragging the horse around?

Lifting the blinders: "Over-educated" horse owners can often lead to underthinking horsemen

Clients that work with me often realize that many horse owners (usually them self included ) seek "help" from a professional only AFTER something has gone terribly wrong in their relationship and/or interaction with their horse.  And most would admit that they could have "seen it coming" way before the actual dangerous or dramatic event occurred.  For some reason though, people never really believe how fast or how bad a situation with a horse can get, until they've reached that point.
I was working horses the other day and non-horse person happened to be watching while his granddaughter was doing a lesson on a pony with another instructor.  He was watching what I was doing (working a mare at liberty) and watching a client "catching" her horse in the pasture- but using my "hot wire" technique to help support that mare to try all of her options until she decided she wanted to come over and present herself to be caught.  I mentioned a few general theories as to what he was seeing and why we were doing what we were with the horses.

As the gentleman was standing watching both of us he casually made the following remarks:
"Why would someone want to impose them self on a horse to be caught in order to work with it?"
"Why force a horse to do anything, wouldn't it get really upset if you do?"
"The bit really doesn't stop a horse does it?"

Over the years I've encountered these scenarios more than a few times.  The horse "ignorant" person can make crystal clear and almost overly simplistic assessments and literally "see" what is happening with the horses. 

On the other hand, all too often, the "over-educated" horse person has accidentally developed the "mainstream horse world's" imposed blinders created by too many avenues of generalized information causing a lack of clarity in understanding. Years of accepting things because "that's how everybody else does it" can lead to a lack of self imposed honestly, awareness, sensitivity and thinking therefor hindering clear communication with their horse. 

The other major negative created by these "blinders" is that it consistently seems to "push down" that little voice in the back of a person's head that says things like, "Doesn't that seem like a bad idea?" therefor causing the horseman to either have a false sense of security or to ignore their instincts to NOT do something.  By dismissing that voice,  all too often a traumatic incident for either horse and/or rider occurs.  Then the now scared, injured, frustrated, traumatized person and/or horse finds someone like me and say "please fix us." I wish these "blinders" could be removed BEFORE things get to extremes, but somehow the "hopefulness" people carry with them when they work with horses seems to outweigh the general common sense.

We always joke that hindsight is 20/20; but really for me, most incidents, issues, "vices" or dangerous behavior can usually be tracked to down to an initial point where they horse tried to communicate with the person and either was ignored, not addressed, or addressed but not helped to "let down" from what was bothering it.  Too many times all three of these options occur because instead of equine "professionals" slowing down and "breaking down" and explaining what exactly is going on, why, and then offering bits and pieces in how to address it, they tend to offer a "faster" alternative with less of a standard for both the owner and their equine partner. 

Without the clarity, understanding or a standard people usually 1.) don't understand what is really going on when their horse is offering unwanted behavior- i.e. they get distracted by the "big" physical movement rather than seeking to influence their horse mentally and emotionally, 2.) cannot assess why their horse is offering what he is, and 3.) do not have quality and effective "tools" in order to influence a change in their horse.

So the next time you watch something and don't understand it, don't just accept it.  The next time you offer your horse something and you don't know why, stop, and figure that out before you try with your horse.  The next time that little voice starts to pop up in your head, leave "society's opinions" at the door and trust your instincts.

Keeping things simple, honest and real will bring the fun back into your ride and will remove the "surviving the ride" feeling- I promise!