Conversations with Taj: Two Steps, Forward and Back

Two steps forward, one step back. Apparently, this saying originated from a story about a frog trying to climb out of a well, making his progress slow and torturous. The effort to bring more enjoyment into Taj’s life can feel a lot like trying to crawl out of a well.

For more than a week, she has been stricken with this unique and particularly unseemly form of intestinal distress. Without embellishing in graphic detail, the mess this gastric problem creates has been too awful for me not to wash her up every day. Any other time of year, this would not be an issue. This past week, we had freezing and sub-freezing temperatures here in Maryland, creating a less-than-pleasant bathing experience. I called a friend, lamenting that I didn’t think I could clean the mess in that weather, and that her tail had become a heavy, brown icicle. My friend consoled me, saying “We can only do the best we can do.” Little did she know that she was actually giving me motivation to see what the best I could do would be.

My hot and cold wash stall is a hose connected to a laundry sink, run up through the basement to a tree in the back yard. But when daytime highs were around 20 degrees with winds at about 20 miles per hour, I elected to go for a sponge bath and a hair dryer running from an outlet in the garage. Imagine the look on Taj’s face when I backed her up to the garage door and did a full blow out of her tail. Conditioner included. Accompanied by a bucket of hay.

What I am learning about Taj is that she can enjoy new things. That is, if they are interesting enough to her or involve food. If I can provide opportunities to do things that hold her interest, and give her a chance to eat, I am ahead of the curve. If she thinks I am going to take her away from her food, or away from her familiar comforts to do something mundane and uninteresting, I can pretty much forget about my plan. Read: no tacking up and practicing walk-trot-canter circles.

I continue to wonder: Can I make riding interesting for her – so interesting that she shifts out of having a mounting block trigger old pain, stress or fear? This question encompasses more than just riding. My goal is to help Taj enjoy life more in general. I figure I need to make it interesting for her. I am currently taking her on walks, much like one would take a dog on a walk. In fact, I have been walking Taj and my dog at the same time. At first, she pinned her ears and was downright disapproving of this unruly pup, but she seems to be warming up as long as he doesn’t get too close. Currently, when we are walking through a grassy field, her drive to eat is much stronger than her interest to “explore the possibly interesting” on a walk. When we are on a trail devoid of grass, however, she is a pleasant, contented walking companion.

This week, with the help of some flax seed meal, a lower protein feed and some hind gut ulcer supplements, her gastric distress has begun to subside. With that discomfort decreasing, her capacity to be open and interested in taking walks has increased. Taj has always been very reactive to physical discomfort. A former owner told me that she knew better than to try and ride her at all when she was in season – a “time of month” for her that predictably brings on severe cramps and irritability. I, too, learned this quickly about her. Taj’s aversion to the saddle has always increased dramatically when she is in season.

That said, her aversion to the prospect of riding seems to be present, sometimes to a large degree, even when there is no evidence of physical pain, leading me to believe that she assumes there will be discomfort or there is still “emotional baggage.” The challenge is to determine where her physical discomfort ends and her emotional discomfort, or fear of discomfort, begins… and then, how to work with it to make life better.

Taking this one step further, practicing Freedom Based Training with her has shown me that she demonstrates an aversion to almost any interruption and request to move, unless I spend a significant amount of time easing her into the prospect, gaining her trust and earning her curiosity, or unless I use dominance, which can be as simple as bringing out a halter and lead. If I enter her pasture with a halter, put it on her, and ask her to stop what she’s doing, back up, move her front end and move her hind end in both directions, her resistance might be barely discernible, nothing more than the absence of any enthusiasm or real connection. She is a horse who has been trained thoroughly, and she understands cues on the ground and in the saddle. And she has little to no intrinsic interest in doing any of what she’s been trained.

If I enter her pasture and just ask her to stop what she’s doing and take any backwards or lateral steps, she typically pins her ears and walks away, or begrudgingly moves with a foot stomp and disapproving tail swish. If I enter her pasture and use some finesse, moving around her, scanning the environment, scratching her neck or the top of her tail now and then, she starts to warm up to the idea of doing something together. She starts to feel that interacting with me could be an experience at least as pleasant as standing around foraging in the dead grass. This approach, one of building on natural curiosity and intrinsic motivation, is an underpinning of Freedom Based Training. Without tools, without any dominance or consequences for saying “no,” what a horse chooses to do with you when you ask directly corresponds to the amount of enjoyment they believe they will get out of it.

 

From a more traditional perspective, one might believe that this horse is just stubborn, ornery, or “misbehaving because she gets away with it.” Could I use dominance and force her to lunge and ride for the sake of at least keeping her physically fit? Yes, and I’ve tried that. What doesn’t change with that approach is her emotional fitness, and I am a firm believer that she and all the rest of us need both. I am using this freedom based work as a foundation for our relationship, as well as a way to expand her capacity for enjoyment. The more time she can spend enjoying different things, the less time she spends in any form of worry, fear, or stress. What I am learning is how to work with the moods, with the fear and with the stress. If I look at these things as information about what choices to make around and with the horse, I feel like they are helping me make progress towards enjoyment.

Whereas the frog in the well would make two steps forward and one step back, or in the worst of times, one step forward and two steps back, I am focusing on the two steps. In my elementary study of aikido, I learned a fundamental practice called “Two-Step.” Essentially, a person takes two steps forward and two steps back, arriving back at the start. The elegance of it is, each step is in a semi-circle, so the person is turning, seeing and feeling all around, and gaining from the rounded-out perspective.

In creating this short video of a walk with Taj, I realized how much more like a Two-Step this journey towards enjoyment with Taj actually is.

A Walk in the Woods with Taj  (click to see video)

 

Conversations with Taj: Should I Stop or Should I Go (For It)?

Ten days ago, I began a dedicated conversation with Taj about whether or not she could enjoy riding again. The sight of a saddle, the act of stepping up on a mounting block next to her – these things trigger a response in her that, at its most extreme appears to be fear and loathing, and at best, is an expression of discomfort.

For six years, I have tried various approaches to saddling and mounting, as well as varied and “fun” trail and other riding experiences in an effort to give her a new and acceptable, if not enjoyable, experience around riding. There are better days and worse days, and to date, I have not been able to consistently change her negative opinion about the prospect of a rider getting on. Once a rider is on, she does not communicate that she is in pain or distress; she seems to be perfectly fine, as long as I do not ask her to do flat work in an arena. She also balks at the transition from a trot to a canter, likely due to a lack of strength and balance in her hind end.

 

My approach now is to slowly, regularly be with her on the mounting block in the paddock, in the field, in the barnyard – sometimes getting on bareback, sometimes just standing in meditation there with her, sometimes while she is eating her mash, sometimes while grooming her. Taj tends to be focused on herself and her immediate desires – and she does not appreciate interruption. What she really dislikes, is the threat of being interrupted and forced to do something other than what she’s chosen to do. I can relate. I’m pretty sure my former husband can attest to that.

Part of my process is to learn how to change her focus away from herself in a way that promotes curiosity, so that she enjoys the transition to looking at something in the environment or to engaging with me. It reminds me of trying to “get myself out of a funk.” It is when I am self-focused and dwelling on anticipated pain or hardship that I am the least accessible, the least open to a new idea and the most miserable.

 

The better she is feeling overall, but especially physically, on any given day, the easier this effort is to change her focus to something new. For the past week, she has been stricken with a bout of intestinal distress, causing intermittent liquid discharge from her bowels. After an initial three days of willingness to engage, ease in mounting, and much reduced ear pinning, the last seven days have been riddled with displays of aggravation and aversion to me just carrying the mounting block over to her. I have chosen not to get on, sensing her physical discomfort.

 

I decided to add the practice of free lunging, as I’d seen her trotting and cantering in the field when I threw hay to the horses, so I figured her tummy trouble couldn’t be too bad. Taj has historically been averse to lunging on a line, and more open, at least on occasion, to free lunging with a flag. In order to build strength and endurance, I have found some success in free lunging with Taj in an arena. Some days, and I imagine these are days when she is feeling ill or sore, she is very difficult to start. Such was the case yesterday.

 

I was initially surprised at Taj’s refusal to stop grazing and move. Just the previous day, I had asked her to trot around the area and introduced a ground pole. She actually moved into a more extended trot and seemed interested in going over the ground pole. Knowing that she had once loved jumping, I wanted to give her the opportunity to try it out. My plan was to continue to build her fitness through free lunging, hiking together, and trail riding, if she proved willing, and I wanted to start with a tiny six-inch jump to see whether she was interested and inclined.  She seemed absolutely inclined, and moved over it twice with ease. I did not want to do too much too soon, so although she seemed eager to go around again, I brought the exercise to a close.

 

Yesterday, when I asked her to stop grazing and move around me in the arena, it took several minutes to get her to even walk forward. She refused repeatedly, would take a few steps forward when I insisted, and then stop and graze again. I forced the issue, by waving the flag vigorously in front of her nose to block the grazing, and then toward her hind end to propel her forward. When she broke into a trot, it was stiff, awkward, and short-stepped. She looked like she was sore and uncomfortable and as she rounded the turn toward the 6-inch jump, I lowered the flag and thought, “oh no, don’t jump that,” to which she responded by slowing to a walk, stepping over the rail, and then picking up her trot again afterwards.

 

This horse seemed to know what was okay for her to do. I wanted her to keep moving, to see if once she was warmed up, her trot would become easier and smoother. She went around again with very little insistence from me, and once again, walked over the rail, and began trotting again afterwards. The trot did improve as she loosened up, but not to the point where either of us felt it was safe to jump. She had used some muscles the previous day that she hadn’t used in quite a long time, and needed some time to let them adjust. It’s not much different at all from how sore a person feels after riding, even for a short time, after months or years of not riding.

 

Free lunging with Taj is a lot like riding with her, in that she may be really resistant to getting started, but once she gets going, she seems to be willing and at ease, except if something in particular is bothering her, physically or emotionally. If she feels her hind end is weak or sore, she will often refuse to transition to a canter. If she feels insecure about leaving the other horses’ sight, she will balk and often stop.

 

I believe that the more I listen to her and acknowledge that she has feelings about what we are doing, the more she will trust me and be willing to shift focus and, eventually, her assumed feelings and habitual reactions. The difficulty arises when I have to push her beyond her comfort zone in order to progress. Push too little, and nothing changes. Push too much, and she can react with hostility, making me feel like I might be eroding trust rather than building it. There also feels like a fine line between her taking a stand against something because she doesn’t want to be bothered or interrupted or because she is truly concerned or afraid of some form of pain. It is in this space that the conversation becomes more layered and requires more listening skill and more intuition.

 

Yesterday, when I stepped on the mounting block placed next to her bowl of mash, she pinned her ears and clarified she did not want to be bothered. Today, she was completely at ease with me stepping up on the mounting block placed next to her mash. She was so comfortable, in fact, that I went ahead and got on. Finding that she was still perfectly comfortable and slurping away at the mash, I lay down and breathed deeply for a few moments. Perhaps the intestinal distress is diminishing. Perhaps my timing and her mood were both better today. What I knew in those moments was, there was more in the column of indicators to keep going for it than in the column of signs to stop trying.

Conversations With Taj: To Ride or Not To Ride?

“Horses don’t have words, they have movement.” One of my favorite statements from Elsa Sinclair, creator of Freedom Based Training for horses, is also the basis of my own Equine Guided work with horses and the inspiration for my mission to determine “to ride or not to ride?” with Taj this winter. Horses operate and communicate on an energetic and sensate level, responding to the world with as little as the twitch of one, isolated muscle, or as much as the hurtle of a thousand pounds of coordinated muscle in any given direction. Human beings operate from that energetic and sensate plane as well, but all too often, we employ the ability to override intuition, instinct and our own authenticity according to the mandates of things like social conditioning, ulterior motives and ego.

When we ask a horse to help us solve or resolve something in our lives, bringing that question forward from the fibers of our being and with open curiosity, the horse replies with movements. It is up to us to feel into and interpret those movements in a way that resonates with us and makes sense to our brains. We can rely on the fact that horses never operate from a hidden agenda nor from a place of judgment, so what we receive is an unadulterated bodily response to the energy generated by our inquiry. If I want to know more about what is blocking me from a romantic relationship, I can go ask my horse, and she will tell me. Therefore, I steer clear of that topic and safely discuss business with her.

Taj is a 23-year-old paint mare whose stunning appearance and athletic potential landed her in the demanding, high-pressured environment of competitive show jumping and eventing at an early age. Though people may refer to show barns and the equestrians who frequent them as the “horse world,” the hours of rigorous training, trailering and competing as well as even more hours spent living in a box stall surrounded by the pent up stress and emotion of others, is most definitely a construct of and for the human world. When the humans surrounding these horses are not willing to listen to and accommodate the horses’ physical and emotional needs, the horses are left with finding their own ways to cope. Often that means developing what humans call “bad habits,” and in some cases, they will shut down.

This was the case with Taj. She learned that she had to pin her ears, stomp her feet, bare her teeth and resort to actually biting and kicking in order to get humans to listen. She learned not to trust easily because not only were humans terrible listeners, but they were unreliable and tended to abandon her. By the time I met Taj, she was 18 years old and had had six owners and many more riders training on her. Instead of learning to accept multiple riders she did not know, she feared them and their lack of listening skills, and had become a master at shutting down.

It is no wonder why she immediately took to Equine Guided work with people: this work is all about humans listening to horses. I see a contented, proud being when Taj is engaged in working with people – a far cry from the angry, withdrawn mare she learned to be in order to defend herself against things like painful, ill-fitting saddles and people brandishing pitchforks and riding crops at her in her stall.

Taj had one owner for six years who did listen. She loved her and learned from her as she overcame past fears of her own. It was this woman who tracked Taj to me a few months after I adopted her. The happy, confident horse I see doing coaching work is the horse this woman saw jumping. “If you let Taj loose in an arena with a jumps course, she would take herself over the jumps,” she told me. “She hated dressage, but would tolerate it for 20 minutes if she knew we could go jump as her reward!” But a career-ending break in her left hind has kept her from jumping since she was 14.

The horse that I met hated the prospect of riding so much that she bit and crushed the tip of my finger as I was trying to saddle her. One might think I ought to have taken that as a clear “no, I do not want to ride ever again.” But I look back at my hastiness in saddling, my assumptions that her ear pinning was an idle threat, and my not-so-finely tuned listening skills in general, and I believe I did not offer riding in a way that she was able to accept and try again. I did not realize the extent of her emotional block against the prospect of being ridden, particularly because once I made it on, she seemed to be fine – at least with trail riding. The arena is another story.

I do understand that horses always have a reason for the things they say, for the movements they make. For six years, I have diligently paid attention to her physical health – from digestive health to musculoskeletal restriction and alignment. She has had visits from chiropractors, nutritionists, massage therapists, cranial sacral practitioners, acupuncturists, osteopaths, reiki practitioners and animal communicators. Oh, and traditional veterinary care, dentistry and hoof trimming. No one has ever come up with a physical reason (or a psychic reading) indicating that she should not be ridden.

Knowing that riding is a great way to keep a horse fit, and knowing that she did, at one point, demonstrate enjoyment around some form of riding, it is my mission to offer Taj the option to ride again, and to find out if there are aspects of it that she might enjoy. I have begun conversations with Taj through movement, and I do my best to listen more than I speak.

 

I am sharing two videos here, the first from April when I started these conversations about riding in a Freedom Based Training context, and the second from yesterday in November, 2017. I had tried to understand whether I could get Taj to accept saddling and mounting in various ways in the past, but was not able to have the kind of conversations that we are getting to in Freedom Based Training. To learn more about this unique method of training and deepening your bond with horses, visit: http://www.tamingwild.com/ where you can read about the original documentary film, Taming Wild, and Elsa Sinclair’s development of this approach.

Since last winter, I have been studying Freedom Based Training with Elsa, and blending these concepts with my Equine Guided work. In this way, I have been able to make more progress with Taj on her defensive habits and her shutting down in one year than in all the other five I’ve been with her. I’ll be documenting our efforts and sharing it here as we progress and discuss the question together, “To ride or not to ride?”

Post session selfie with hay.

 

 

 

Humanity, Horses and a Grief that Touches Us All

My friend is suffering. She has been suffering for several months, as she watched her horse slowly deteriorate, with no way to reverse the process. She suffered in silence because she hoped it wasn’t true, and to put the words out there, to tell the story of what she was witnessing would make it more real. 

This horse was not just any horse. No horse is. And this horse started a new chapter in her life. He was found, half starved and abandoned six years ago in Castro Valley, CA, wandering, searching for sustenance, licking the ground until there were holes in his tongue. My friend saw through the emaciated frame and into him, seeing his potential and her own. She began a horse rescue, one that would blend saving horses and giving those horses the opportunity to serve people in a new way, through Equine Guided Education. 

For six years, my friend learned everything she could about the rehabilitation, care and maintenance, and the arduous process of rehoming horses. She learned how to run a non-profit organization, how to train volunteers, how to put on fundraising events, speak to audiences, and put on her own programs for individuals and groups in the community who were eager to develop new awareness and new life skills by working with horses.

Through it all, she continued to search for the best possible life for her first rescued horse. She had discovered that he was a former racehorse, in fact a great great grandson of Secretariat. Though she was able to track down the people formerly associated with his racing career, they were not interested in helping him or donating to his cause. This pained her deeply, yet drove her to learn more, offer more.

You see my friend is motivated by humanity, by a love and reverence for horses, and a commitment to raising the bar for the treatment of and appreciation for these gracious creatures who have more to offer humans than many people realize. 

She had experienced trainers work with the horse and help in his rehabilitation. She tried entering him in a separate rehoming program that promised the best possible chance for him to find a “forever home” with someone. Through it all, the horse remained her inspiration, her guide in navigating this incredibly challenging journey. Eventually, or perhaps inevitably, she brought him back to her organization, realizing that his best chance for a happy and healthy life was going to be with her, helping humans learn new ways of seeing and new ways of being in the face of all of life’s challenges.

This horse had sustained physical damage during his racing career and in the aftermath of neglect that was unfortunately going to continue to get worse instead of better. The best thing she could do for him was to keep him comfortable, well fed, and engaged in connecting with others for as long as possible.

Yesterday turned out to be as long as possible. When she saw him crumple to the ground while trying to stand, she knew his quality of life was no longer good enough. She had learned, though the most difficult of repeated experiences, that sometimes the best gift we can give a horse is the freedom from suffering. So yesterday, she loaded him into the trailer and took him to the hospital. She did this alone. She did not want to ruin anyone’s Independence Day celebration. 

She wrapped her arms around his beautiful body as he gently departed. 

He is no longer suffering. But she is. The grief is monumental. If we, as a community with humanity, could do anything to alleviate such suffering, I believe we would. I’d like to acknowledge the tremendous courage, strength and determination my friend has shown these past six years, and especially yesterday. I know she drove an empty trailer home, feeling an emptiness in her heart. I know she is questioning whether she can go on, whether she can continue this enormous undertaking of her organization, her mission to facilitate how horses heal hearts.

My friend is Melissa Austin, and the horse she said good bye to yesterday was Spirit. Anyone who had the pleasure of interacting with him can attest to the fact that he had a huge heart and will be sorely missed. Anyone who has the great pleasure of knowing Melissa – I am sure can attest to the fact that her heart is as big as they come. Her passion is contagious, her impact on horses and human beings tremendous. I only wish there was a way to heal her heart right now. 

 

To find out more about Melissa’s organization, Horses Healing Hearts, please visit http://horseshealingheartsinc.org/

 

Embodied Dominance

The older mare is tense as I approach her in the pasture to practice some basic groundwork at liberty. She is grazing, and I notice as I get closer that she is ripping the grass up in fierce bites, while eyeing me with wariness. I pause, still several feet from her. When I take another step I see her ears flatten against her head for a quick and severe warning. “Don’t you dare bother me right now,” she seems to be saying, as she carries on furiously grazing. To a casual observer, it might seem that she is ignoring me, but after six years together, I can feel the signals she is sending me loud and clear. Even before the more overt signal of ear-pinning, I can feel the dominant power she is embodying so clearly that I start to feel my own body want to go into flight mode. My challenge is to find a way to engage in this moment, so that she trusts me and opens up instead of shutting down or threatening to lash out.

In the horse world, as in the human world, there are horses who embody dominance, and there are horses who just utilize dominant actions as a way of trying to make themselves feel better. Dominance is usually perceived as a strength in a group of horses, since they can push other horses around, or eat whichever pile of hay they want when they want it. However, these horses are often craving safety and would love a break from being hyper-vigilant and trying to be “in charge of everything.” I have a feeling it is the same way for people who are hardwired to be dominant.

When people are embodying dominance, if it is healthily integrated, it can be a trait that is cultivated into their overall confidence, and they are able to actively and productively engage and negotiate with others. However, there are times when people are embodying dominance in a habitual and defensive a way, just as my horse does. The characteristics I observe in people who embody dominance are: a rigidity in the body – their posture seems tense, often the tension comes through the eyes which are very “hard,” and/or the jaw is firmly set. They have a way of emitting an energy that makes them feel unapproachable, very much like my mare Taj can be. They will often take actions that make themselves physically unapproachable – they will walk away, not answer their phone/email/text, cut others off from contact for long periods of time. Another thing I have observed is, if forced into a conversation confronting something, they tend to say the opposite of what they are emitting that they feel. Common statements might be “It doesn’t matter,” or “I’m the victim.” If pushed further, they may very well become explosive in their words and interaction.

 

When I have encountered a person habitually embodying dominance in a position of significant influence over me (teacher, landlord, employer, senior family member) I often become triggered by the perceived threat of ostracism, eviction, termination or more generally, disconnection / abandonment. In response to embodied dominance, when I am not able to assert or express myself, I have experienced various forms of somatic illness, lack of sleep, dissociation when a confrontation does “blow up” and become hostile, and the overwhelming longer term suffering of anxiety from the lack of clarity or closure that this person will allow, even as I try to work through the “issues.”

 

Right after wishing I could run away or dive into the core of the earth, my conditioned tendency is to react to the embodied dominance by freezing / appeasing. I joke, deflect, and avoid confrontation by trying to smooth everything over in the moment. Then, however, if I seek dialogue or discussion with them later, they are the ones who avoid me. In these instances, I have not been able to build trust.

 

If I fall into this habit of placation with Taj, she simply continues the dominant behaviors, sometimes escalating them, and by no means exhibiting trust in me nor my authority. If I follow the often historically recommended path of becoming more dominant, exerting my will upon her through the threat of force with tools and tack, she submits temporarily, but does not appear to be relieved of her stress, and reverts to the same behavior the next time. What I am learning and practicing now is the art of passive leadership with horses in order to build trust and depth of relationship. This is the art of knowing where to be, when to be there, how to be when you’re there in order to hold one’s own decisive presence and authority. Slowly, choosing new responses to my defensive, dominant mare is creating more and more space in which she can relax.

What does it mean to be a passive leader around other people? Certainly there is an element of “leading by example,” and that means we must be very aware of what it is we are embodying ourselves and how it impacts others and affects the relationship. There is also an essential element which I believe is the compassionate desire to relate to others, and to alleviate discomfort for all involved. As I look back on my life, it seems there has always been at least one person, in a role that is significant in my daily life, who impacts me in this extremely stressful way. I can trace it all the way back to my great-grandmother, a true matriarch who ruled with a white but iron glove. If I did anything to evoke her disapproval, she needed only to give me a look, and I would feel desperately ashamed.

 

But beyond her opinion of right and wrong and what length my hair should have been, was a world full of possibilities for where to be, when to be there, and how to be while I was there that would lead me to become the being who I truly wanted to be… the being who can embody confidence and commitment, compassion and enthusiasm. We don’t embody only one thing, and neither does my mare.

I walk towards her in the pasture to determine what would be the best activity for both of us this afternoon. She is grazing, and she is taking measured mouthfuls of the short, spring grass. I pause, a few feet from her, and I see her eye on me, watching with a sentiment between wariness and wonder. I take a few steps closer and she lifts her nose toward me, ears forward. I move in closer, scratching the underside of her head. She rests her head on my shoulder and exhales as I scan the woods behind her for what other creatures are out enjoying today.

 

When Fear Becomes Fascinating

Monday morning was calm and sunny and as beautiful as a winter morning gets. I was walking two of my horses from the field to the barn, one on either side of me, as I had done hundreds of times. Suddenly, Zorro, on my left, was gripped by surprise and panic, which rippled through his body and mine and Daisy’s, the lead ropes acting as power lines, conducting this energy through the three of us in an instant. Within a fraction of a second, all three of us had lost our footing and were on the ground. Daisy regained her ground first, and my brain had not even processed the danger before my own body found its way safely distanced from Zorro’s thrashing hooves and I was upright once again. Struggling with the slippery earth and with the fear flooding his body, Zorro finally hoisted himself up and regained balance – at least physically.

Emotionally, he was still charged with fear and I could feel my mind racing to solve the mystery of its origin. I scanned the area for any sign of something new or someone approaching. I could not detect a cause and, as any reasonable person might do, I chalked it up to a ghost.

As we continued into the barn, with distinctly deeper conscious breathing on my part, Daisy was on high alert, and Zorro was through the roof with worry – the routine of entering the stall and eating his grain mash became a challenge of epic proportion. He actually burst back out of his stall and out the barn door as soon as I unsnapped the lead rope. When he returned from his apparent and fruitless search for the ghost outside, he still carried with him tremendous anxiety, puffing through his nose, cowering at the back of the stall, and finally eating his mash but not finishing it.

He was able to relax at least somewhat that day, eating and drinking as usual later on, but his body carried signs of muscle tension and his reactivity was heightened to every small request or change in the environment. As the days progressed, he let go of that elevated tension and anxiety, but after six days, he is still looking warily around him and tensing up every time we pass the site of the incident. Daisy, on the other hand, never had another worried moment after about twenty minutes, licking her bowl clean, and being returned calmly to a pasture. I find myself still working to more fully relax my entire body upon approaching that location with Zorro, to breathe more deeply, and to provide the comfort and support he desperately wants.

Zorro has been taking me through the paces of what happens to me in my own life when something or someone frightens, worries or triggers me in some way. I find myself wishing I had someone to lead me through my fears, to help me settle myself when something or someone triggers me and I know am letting anxiety get the better of me but I can’t seem to stop it. As much as I will always crave someone to be there to do this for me, I know that when it comes right down to it, I need to get better at doing it for myself.

 

For whatever reason, there is an instinctive desire in me, and I believe in most people, to help a horse settle and get comfortable when something has unraveled him. The beauty of this is, every time I help a horse through a fearful moment or experience, I am practicing that skill in myself and for myself.

Does this mean I no longer have fear? No. Do I think there will come a day when I no longer have anything trigger my anxiety? No. But can I look at my ability to cope with fear, anxiety, stress and discomfort and recognize that I’ve come a long way since I started working on it with horses? Yes. Absolutely.

 

The first marked difference in me is that now I am fascinated by fear as opposed to just being “afraid of fear itself.” I focus on observing what a fear reaction does to my own body: how quickly my heart starts racing, my breathing gets shallow, my gut feels queasy. How amazing that a person’s words, spoken or written, can transform my calm and healthily functioning body into an alarmed and not-so-functional basket case! Is this that far off from an apparent ghost unhinging a horse?

A critical step to working through fear has been to be able to step outside of myself and observe the process of how fear takes hold and what happens to me. Observing its behavior, where it is manifesting in the body, and experimenting with what actions make fear subside are very much akin to working with horses. It is a process that takes patience and persistence. If I can get past the initial grip which seems to shut down all creative ability, I can work with myself just like I would with a frightened or worried horse.

 

This evening, for the first time, Zorro asked to be led out to the big field first, all by himself. He shied away ever-so-slightly from some new ice blocks on the ground, recently removed from frozen water buckets, but he didn’t flinch in the trigger zone. What we can do for horses, we can do for ourselves, of that I am convinced.

Getting Productive With Horses

It’s a Sunday. It’s a Sunday after a long holiday weekend and I am predictably launching myself into a day of what is intended to be productive enough to atone for all that I did not accomplish over the course of the last three days. I’ve spent the early morning hours replying to Friday’s business emails, scrubbing the toilet, reorganizing a drawer, addressing invitations and ultimately growing older rapidly while on hold with an internet service company. Now it’s time to get productive with the horses.

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After tidying the tack room, filling water buckets and feeding the barn cat, I bring the horses into the barn for their grain and supplements. They don’t seem particularly remarkable in mood, not straying from their typical behavior in any way. The two mares get a bit pushy on the way through the barn door and wind up changing the typical order of things, but then they all eat and drink merrily as usual. I set about grooming and practicing the fine art of tick removal, about which the horses are quite pleased, since that is accompanied by a thorough, customized neck scratching, unparalleled by anything they can find to rub up against in the barn or field.

 

Nearly methodically, I gather all three horses from their stalls and walk them around to the flat, sunny pasture behind the barn. I find myself forcing my mind to stay present with them, and not allow it to wander back to how frustrated I am with the internet service company who failed to send me a sim card last week, and who clearly has not hired enough customer service representatives to answer the phones.

 

The horses safely in the pasture, happily greeting the goats in the neighboring paddock, I pause only to warm my face in the sun while reviewing my mental checklist of chores. I glance at the time and it’s nearing 1:00 pm, but I imagine I can still make it to town to return an ill-fitting horse blanket and purchase a sorely-needed drill so I can check yet more tasks off of the list. First I grab the pitchfork and muck bucket to squeeze in a quick clean up in the area near the gate where manure accumulates with ever-amazing alacrity.

 

No sooner do I step inside the gate, mucking tools in hand, than my younger mare, Daisy, steps toward me and promptly lies down at my feet, literally blocking my way. It has been nearly twelve weeks since we left Petaluma, California and journeyed east together to make our home in Maryland. It was common practice for the horses and me to lie down together in our arena out west, but this was the first time I had the opportunity to lie down with a horse here.

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Or was it? What had I been overlooking? For Daisy to make such a definitive and emphatic invitation, I realized that perhaps she recognized the need for an intervention. The muck bucket and pitchfork are immediately cast aside and I get down and lay with her in the midday sun of late autumn. Zorro is standing watch over the two of us while Taj stands watch over the goats, one of whom is also lying down.

 

I let my breath begin to synchronize with Daisy’s. She is breathing heavily, deeply, slowly. I start to feel the earth and the tufts of soft, dying grass beneath me. A vulture floats by overhead, teetering ever so slightly side to side. What have I been overlooking? Exactly this opportunity.

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With the transcontinental trip, the search for a home together, the adjustments we are all making to this climate and community, I had neglected my work and my practice with the horses as I fell into the rut of organizing my time by checklists, of working on my business through planning and restructuring, by prioritizing everything from light bulbs to life insurance in order to try to get settled. Here, now, is my smart and sensitive horse, reminding me of the fundamental premise in my own life’s work: to stay present to what is here, now, and find spirit and well-being in connection to it.

 

Taj soon decides to join us on the welcoming ground, both goats napping in the adjacent paddock now, and Zorro alternating between casually patrolling the perimeter and standing guard, half dozing. The simplicity of animals at peace with each other and their surroundings washes over me like a salve for the endless busyness that creeps into life in the guise of “things that need to be done.”

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I’ll get to those. Eventually.

For now, now is much more necessary.

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Confidantes and Confidence: Horses and Girls

There is a precious moment that exists when a girl feels a horse with her, really with her, with that horse’s magnificent trust and curiosity flooding her body. It may last a few seconds or it may last a whole morning practicing together, but it is the magic of that connection that nurtures not only a love of horses, but a love of ourselves.

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What is it that fuels the powerful effect that horses have had on the lives and characters of so many girls throughout the ages? Is it that horses are kind-hearted and willing to trust, thereby becoming a dependable ally in a tumultuous life? Or is it that horses are strong-willed, powerful and free-spirited, thereby presenting a challenge for us to learn and grow from as we make our way in the world?

 

Part of the magic and marvel of learning from horses is realizing that both are true: horses are naturally curious and open, cautious but willing to trust and wanting to connect, and they are natural leaders of themselves, consistently doing whatever they need to find comfort and safety, which can sometimes be at odds with what we humans want or expect.

 

Where we really begin to learn is in the effort to change our own behavior in order to gain more time in connection with horses. That heart-swelling feeling that arises when we walk, run, or even rest truly together is well within our grasp when we, too are open and curious. The mistake we humans make sometimes is to react to the powerful, free-spirited nature of the horse by becoming frustrated and trying to force or dominate it.

 

Force and domination may appear to garner results, but what is missing, with a horse or with other human beings, is true connection. We crave that closeness, that intimacy, that sense of being valued that comes with connection. Horses are the ultimate confidantes, allowing us to reveal all our thoughts and feelings without judgment. We are never “not enough” in their view.

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In order to continue to experience the serenity and the exhilaration of such connection, we learn to practice being patient. We learn to listen more. We learn to be creative in our responses. We learn the skills we need to relate to and connect with anyone and everyone in this world. We learn the feeling of confidence. Horses are much better able to forgive our missteps and to be the “bigger person.”

 

Inside so many women still lives a girl who wonders whether she is good enough, strong enough, smart enough, brave enough to keep moving forward towards what she wants in life. It is in those moments, with the heart and mind of a horse trained on her, that she is living the courage, the strength and the excellence that is uniquely her own.

Pallet Palace


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Fate would have it that, while I was living in Italy this year, the horses decided to dismantle the t-posts and hotwire round pen I had constructed in their field. It did cross my mind that this demonstration was a kind of political statement, coming from them. It wasn’t too difficult a feat since I never hooked up a battery to the hotwire, rendering it something akin to a lot of yarn and three bored cats. When I returned, I found a ring of mostly cockeyed t-posts barely visible amidst the field of horseweed that had grown up around them – cockeyed because the dismantling process apparently included removing everything, but lacking hands, the horses succeeded in only bending the metal posts in various directions.

I immediately set about the daunting task of pulling all the weeds in a 40-foot diameter circle and pondering how to best reconstruct the round pen without actually purchasing anything. My attention kept being drawn back to the four stacks of discarded wooden pallets just outside the fence line. I imagined that wooden pallets might make an aesthetically pleasing structure, and if I placed them over t-posts, they might be fairly durable. What I did not imagine was exactly how heavy pallets actually are to carry.

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My stamina allowed me to put up one per day of the required eight to create the basic octagonal frame. Early on, I came up with a novel idea, only partially inspired by the weight of the pallets and the exhausting task of pounding t-posts: why not leave the round pen open between pallets, creating the idea of the round pen without making it something the horse was forced to stay inside? In this way, I could experiment with inviting the horses to be in the round pen with me, to keep their interest enough to stay and even to free lunge. Practicing one’s connection and energetic commitment would be taken to another level when the horse could opt out.

Today, my friend, Mike, volunteered to help me put up the final two pallets. I was ecstatic to behold the completed Stonehenge-like pallet structure. When Mike first heard my description of the structure, he suggested I call it “Woodhenge.” When he saw how excited I was to stand in the completed circle of cast-off pallets and bent old t-posts, he dubbed it “Pallet Palace.”

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After Mike left, I walked out toward Pallet Palace to admire it, and to see if the horses would even take interest. Standing in the center, feeling the sun on my right cheek and the December breeze on my left, I realized I must be facing somewhat North. Within three minutes, all three horses had entered the circle, one on each side of me close to the perimeter, and Taj standing just in front of me. I dropped to the ground to sit and enjoy the moment. Taj dropped to the ground almost immediately, facing me and letting out a deep sigh. She drifted off into a dream, conjuring for me feelings of peace, comfort and safety. The four of us stayed in those same spots together inside that circle for at least twenty minutes. Ravens called to us with their confident voices. Vultures soared overhead, circling in an upward spiral until they were two black specks in the white sun. By this time I was lying on my back, soaking in the feeling of being sure.

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Embodying YES and NO, a Practice to Start Young

It is my belief that basic horsemanship skills are inextricably linked to taking responsibility for what we do and how we show up in every moment with every horse. Basic “humanship” depends on that same self-awareness and self-responsibility. Learning to successfully communicate with a horse translates into the experiential learning of life skills. Social skills, authenticity, clarity, confidence… students can’t learn these things from books, but they can learn them from horses.

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One particularly shy young girl of about 11 or 12 was struggling with how to ask the horse with clarity and authority to move forward and to stop. Because she had come to us in Montebelli stables for riding sessions, we had done our best to help her use her body and her breath to relax and center herself, and to understand how to give direction to the horse with her energy, not with her muscle…

After two sessions, it was apparent that the 500-kilo former racehorse was still calling the shots most of the time while she was riding. For the third session, we decided to do something different. Her mother obliged, as we explained that sometimes a totally different interaction with a horse can help people have breakthroughs in their riding. (It can also help them have breakthroughs in all kinds of areas of their lives.) One interesting fact to note: The girl spoke no Italian and very little English, so her mother had been translating at the stables the whole time. In today’s session, I explained that we wouldn’t need translation, as it was going to be all about body language.

The basic idea was to walk into a paddock with three horses at liberty, and to make ourselves open and inviting enough for them to come to us. At first, she was unsure of the instructions, of herself, of pretty much the whole activity. We spent some very long minutes trying to relax into the unknowingness and the uncertainty she was feeling. When she finally stopped looking back at me to see if she was doing everything right, she began to focus on the horses in the middle of the paddock. Her strides began to take on more weight and conviction. I could see her chest rise and fall with deep breaths, and her arms were slightly raised away from her hips, palms forward.

The horses one by one took notice, at first just pausing between bites of hay. Then they raised their heads. Two horses turned their heads toward her. She stopped and stood, continuing to look to them, holding herself as if she was welcoming them to come to her for a hug. I stood a short distance behind her, allowing her energy to be the focal point as much as possible. In only a few seconds, two horses started walking towards her. The joy on her face was beaming. As they arrived, she began stroking their heads and necks, and they eagerly moved in even closer for more attention. She started to giggle a bit as one horse nudged her torso with his head. In that moment, however, she was taken off balance. Though there was no immediate danger, I reminded her about the practice of staying balanced and centered. She got her feet back evenly and squarely beneath her shoulders, and faced into the horses again.

She continued to say,”Yes, come in!” The horses kept pushing on her. Though she was not distressed, she was concerned, realizing how easily she might be overpowered, and it was time for the lesson to shift. Without any words, I showed her how to make her body like a mountain, and to send her energy from her center, supported by her arms coming up and forward to say “No more!” and the horses immediately backed off. As I backed away, the horses began to turn towards her, and when one horse’s head started to come close in to her body, she practiced one of the strongest “No!” stances I’ve seen. In fact, she continued to back them further away, and they seemed visibly surprised at this radical change. We practiced being inviting, accepting and then setting limits.

We thanked all the horses for their work, and as we walked back toward her mother, I could see that witnessing this experience had brought up some emotion in her. I, too, felt the emotion stirring around the tremendous importance of young girls safely, quickly and obviously learning to embody their boundaries, and learning the power of their own bodies’ energy.