Entanglements

One of the most common questions I get is whether I can recommend any videos, books, etc that have inspired me as a horse person. The truth of the matter is that the most influential books in my horsemanship have often had nothing to do with horses, but instead are thought provoking on other subjects that I find connection to horsemanship through. I am going to try and periodically post non-horsey (but entirely horsey) texts on this site that will hopefully inspire and excite your life and horsemanship!

I listened to a great podcast this morning about the concept of Entanglement. http://www.npr.org/podcasts/510307/invisibilia. You can find the podcast below entitled "Entanglement" on this Invisibilia podcast link.

I have gathered inspiration from this concept for years thanks to my exposure in college to a deep thinker named Karen Barad who I have been lucky enough to call my teacher and friend now for many years. She is completely unconnected to the above podcast, but her book delves deep into the question of entanglements and if you are up for a more in depth exploration (and a glimpse into what I consider the foundation of my horsemanship) her brilliant book is called "Meeting the Universe Halfway" and can be found on Amazon.

Be bold with your thinking and with your horses... and enjoy!

Frisbee Horsemanship

This thoughtful horsemanship stuff is a double edged sword.  It seems that it can make horses happier, but a lot of humans less happy.  Once people discover that horses can be happier with us and more engaged, it seems that this elusive goal of having a horse “with you” becomes the blue ribbon of choice.  People start getting to be really good horse people and at the same time they become even more upset by their failures than they were when they were getting bucked off or not winning ribbons.  

I think that thoughtful and engaged horsemanship is a great goal and wonderful concept, and is certainly what I am striving for every day.  But it should not be something that sucks the joy out of horsemanship.  If anything the goal of relationship with your happy horse should add joy!  It seems that for so many people the guilt of their past crimes against horses and the disappointment of every bad day they have, now that they know it can be better, is all consuming.  It becomes difficult for them to even approach their horse and so many people become paralyzed by fear of upsetting their horse.  And in the process, they either ignore their equine friends, or drive them even more nuts by obsessing over every little thing.

I’m certainly not saying that I want people to not care about how a horse feels. I want everyone to care deeply. But in the process, don’t forget that there is more to life than perfection (as long as everyone is safe) and if today’s ride isn’t perfect, tomorrow’s might be.  

Don’t forget that there are a lot more ways to work on a horse feeling good than doing circles on a line and at liberty, or walking straight lines and hindquarter yields and back ups under saddle.  These are important, and I hope you can find joy in them, but they are not the only way to make changes.

Today I had an opportunity come up that allowed me and the horse I was riding to really have fun AND get something accomplished.  I was riding a horse with a pretty strict background of robot show horse circles, who has since come alive with interest and wonder in a beautiful way this winter.  A young friend of mine was hanging out in the arena with a frisbee, and we decided that there were some great opportunities at hand to work on this horse’s interest, his straight lines, his stops, and more.  Oh, and have fun in this beautiful sunny weather, too!  

My friend would practice his various frisbee tosses and the gelding and I would track the frisbee as it flew through the air and find a stop lined up at the frisbee.  Sometimes, I would jump off and grab the frisbee and toss it back, or run and carry it back, or jump back on and bring it back.  Once it went over the arena fence into the street, so my horse lined up to the fence, I climbed off ran to the street, got the frisbee and came back up onto the fence and slid back onto the gelding.  Sometimes, I would let my horse rest and my friend would come pick it up.  We created so many scenarios and the horse slowly began to track the frisbee almost like a cow.  Then we expanded the game to timed events and having the horse mark the frisbee with a front foot, with his nose, or even hold it in his mouth.  The game went in so many directions I’m sure I haven’t even mentioned them all.  And we were all laughing, including the horse.

Now, in the midst of this, there were transitions, stops, backs, straight lines and turns, high quarter yields and stepping the front end across.  I’m sure we did most everything one might see in a “training session.” I certainly was aware of my horse’s experience and helped him when necessary and let him be when that was best.  But none of us were feeling punished, or forced, or..maybe the worst of all…bored.  We all found some joy.  

Horsemanship is about loving an animal. It’s about doing our best.  And it’s about having fun.  In the process I hope everyone gets a little better.  But if not, there is always tomorrow.  There was nothing to win today anyways!

Asking the Tough Questions

There has been a lively conversation on the 3R Friends group page that has inspired me to weigh in with this blog post.  The question up for discussion wondered if a horse’s ability to shut down and internalize their worry can sometimes be a good thing, or if it is inherently a negative.  I think this is a really important thing to talk about because all of the ideas I tend to practice and preach revolve around waking a horse up and it is important to take a critical eye to this work to ensure it doesn’t become a bunch of empty words.

When thinking about this post I realized how difficult it would be to write something thoughtful and critical on the subject because it requires me to think about the difference between what I believe to be right for horses and what I think to be the best option.  I really wish I could say that these two things were always perfectly integrated but I really don’t think that it is as simple as that.  This is one of my longer and less positive posts because it is one of the more complicated questions there is when it comes to horses.

I will start by saying that I completely believe that an engaged and awake equine partner is the way the horse feels best.  In my experience horses are masters at internalizing and compartmentalizing their feelings and I believe that any being is less satisfied, comfortable and happy when they are not fully present for their lives and experiences.  I do not believe that horses are here on Earth simply to work for humans.  It is my belief that horses have intrinsic value as individual beings whether or not they ever interact with a person and so I think that they are as entitled to emotional and physical comfort as we are as people.  

This in and of itself is a problematic notion because horses are domesticated animals.  Without humans most horses in their current state of genetics and in this developed world we live in, would not survive.  All of the qualities that a wild animal would need to survive and breed are incredibly difficult to manage when in captivity and through selective breeding we have created a huge range of job specific horses that do not have the bodies or the minds of a wild animal.  Even if they did, there is simply not enough undeveloped grassland to turn every horse loose if we suddenly decided that domesticating animals was not in their best interest.  So, no matter what, horses are stuck with us.

Because of this I am forced to consider horses not only as both individuals with intrinsic value, but also as companion animals that exist in relation to humans.  This is not easy to rectify, at least not in my mind, knowing what I do about people.  The rest of this conversation gets a little dicey.

With every horse I work I try to wake them up as much as possible so that they engage, but I rarely have the luxury of working a horse for more than a few months, and the work I do with these horses in training is basically therapy.  It is to get them feeling better so they behave better.  I don’t have to compete or do a job outside of that.  I have had plenty of jobs in my life where the horses were a vehicle to get a job done for my boss and the reason I started the business I have now is because I realized quickly that I was not able to fully pursue the sort of horsemanship I believe is right if I had a boss or a goal beyond making the horse feel better because that always required me to make concessions for the sake of employment and completing a task. 

I know that the skills I have now would make me better able to sort out trouble when it came my way, but to say that I could have a fully engaged horse one hundred percent of the time and also be a part of the more typical world of horses that involves bosses, timed events, judges and schedules would be an audacious statement I am in no way able to make.  This typical horse world is completely structured around obedience not engagement.  I don’t know anyone that I know for sure can keep a horse completely happy, engaged and perfectly awake while doing a job that is beyond the horse for an extended period of time.  I have no idea if someone like this exists.  Most of the people I know that are good at waking a horse up do this in a clinic format or a training format and have no need to actually maintain this beyond showing the owners what is possible with their horse.  I know those of us with some skills in this department might be able to make the lives of our horses a little better in the more traditional horsey settings like competition and ranch work, but I doubt we could fit such a round peg in a square hole perfectly.

What I do know is that people are going to do all of these things and a lot more with there horses in order to justify having them around.  I know a lot of really great horse owners, but almost every single one of them has an expectation for their horse that goes beyond that of a  domesticated cat because we want to sit on them and have some sort of performance at a certain time, even if that just means going for a trail ride when our friend is in town.  A cat might be fulfilling its role as long as it uses the litter box and occasionally allows their person to touch them (on the cat’s terms, of course), but to most people a horse better do more than that to be considered a good partner.

Since I’m not convinced that even those of us that work at this niche type of horsemanship professionally can truly keep a horse engaged and happy without ever sacrificing its feelings AND do a job that is beyond the horse, I sure don’t think most horse owners can, and I think even less are interested in doing so.  I also think that a lot of the things people think are fun to do with horses really stink if you are the horse. They are a lot of physical and mental work and often in really unsettling environments toting around a person that is speaking a foreign language and doesn’t even notice that the world is falling apart.  And when the horse tries to tell them that they don’t understand what is being asked, or that something scary is happening, more humans than not will simply see this as incorrect or bad behavior and something punitive happens to the horse. 

In my life with horses I would never ask a horse to not respond accordingly when they think I am being unclear or they perceive their lives as in danger.  But when it comes to the best interest of the horse with the general public I think the horse is better off shutting up and shutting down.  Do your job and get home safely.  This doesn’t mean that there isn’t worry, in fact there is probably more.  The worry is just not on display for their human and most likely they will do better at their job and live to see another day without a spur in the gut or worse.

Do I want my horses to live lives that are about appeasing me enough that I don’t sell them? No.  But I also think that there are a lot of horses and not a lot of homes and if a horse finds one that feeds them well and cares even a little it is probably best they hold onto that.  A horse that shuts down and is well behaved enough by internalizing its worry will probably avoid a worse home and when it is considered the “good” horse it will be treated accordingly.  

Don’t confuse this with me endorsing the way humans see horses.  I think it’s wrong and I don’t like it one bit.  But I think quality of life is a real issue.  So if I am asked the question that was asked on the 3R Friends group page, is there value in a horse shutting down sometimes, I have to say yes.  Not because I think it’s what the horses would prefer or what is ethically the right way of engaging with another species, but because I live in the world every day and know that most love is conditional.  When it comes to horses, that condition is performance and more often than not obedience is the horse’s best option for survival.

There is no way to sugar coat this and that is why I have chosen not to.  With all of this being said, every horse that comes to training with me I work on waking up and engaging. This is what people hire me for and this is what I believe passionately is the best way to be with an animal.  I work with my personal horses and often work towards riding them if they are physically and emotionally able, but if not, that’s okay. If I woke up tomorrow and could never ride again I would absolutely still have horses.  I also believe that I have clients and friends who will make huge differences in the lives of their horses, both those who stay in their chosen discipline and those that forsake discipline for horsemanship.  There is nothing black or white about this issue, but it is so very important to take a critical eye to everything out there and always consider the reality of the horse first.  Since they don’t have any say in any of this.

Interspecies Relationship

I am fascinated by interspecies relationships, which is why I spend all day every day cultivating one in particular between the horse and the human. But I am always extra interested to see how non human animals relate to one another. Today my German Shepherd project, Jackson, and I were doing some chores among my horses. Jackson has a history of extreme reactivity, barking and lunging at just about anything that moved. He has graduated to being off leash most of the time with me and is really working hard to be confident. Today while he was accompanying me to pick poop, one of my horse projects, Lyla, who is also pretty worried and insecure, decided to join us. I hadn't asked any specific of Jackson other than he not wander too far (and not eat the manure!), and I was pleased when suddenly Lyla and Jackson were both hooked on to me helping me out. I stepped back to take a picture, and before I knew it Jackson had laid down and Lyla was grooming him! It is difficult to tell in the photo, but she was using her lip like she would on another horse. Jackson was unconvinced that this was a completely smart idea but seemed to be enjoying it despite himself and didn't move, though he was completely free to do so. She worked her way up and down his back very thoughtfully. I watched and let it all happen, as it was clear that this was not about me. I posted a second photo on my 3R facebook page of Jackson flashing a big ol' smile about his new found friendship!

A Wise Mare

I feel really lucky to have a horse with me from a few different parts of my journey.  This year, I finally got a hold of one of the horses that made the greatest impacts on me in my life, back when I was riding colts and packing mules for an outfitter in Yellowstone National Park. This palomino paint mare (Blondie, now called Maya because she finally became mine the week Dr. Maya Angelou passed away) is without a doubt one of the most brilliant animals I have ever met.  I rode her for only a month packing in camps back in 2007 when I was at the very beginning of shifting my horsemanship to follow my intuition towards the path I'm on now.  I had not yet met Harry Whitney, who has had a large influence on me since, but I had met Tara, my black mare who really started me on this path, less than a year before.  Maya immediately struck me because she was so intelligent, had so much try, and was such an incredible partner.  I could tell she had been treated roughly in the past, but when I offered her a soft feel as best I could at that point, she was remarkably willing and loyal with me.  

I can't describe why I felt so strongly she was exceptional, particularly because I had none of the language available to me at that point that I do now, except to say I felt the same about her mind that I do Tara, and had the same immediate reaction to her.  I can count on one hand the horses I have felt this from (Lyla, my newest filly, is maybe the fourth or fifth).  I tried to make her mine back then, but was never able to.  She was turned out in a big herd without medical or hoof care, with a herd of 50-70 horses, for the seven years since and as far as I know from keeping track of this herd I was the last one to ride her.  I always monitored her, hoping she would come back in my life.  

Then, last summer, at 18 years old, she was destined for the kill pens and I was able to bring her home!  It was an exciting moment.  Because of her lack of medical attention, she is not rideable and will probably never be again, but her mind is as sharp as I remember..if not more so!   I half wondered if my memory of her perhaps was embellished, or if seven years of training horses later I would have a different opinion of her because my understanding of horses has evolved.  But, the second I walked in the pen with her, that feeling came back and her eyes told me that was not the case!   

She led the big herd for all of those years as the head mare and is as attentive as any wild horse I have met, yet her interest in me was immediate.  I have no idea if she remembered me or if she simply appreciated the feel I offered her, but a number of people commented on her attachment to me in those first few days when she came into my care.  I felt honored that she would trust me still, after all these years, whether because of a memory or not.  

She is now a companion horse for my mom's mare, Chloe, and my mom is doing a little basic groundwork with her because Maya is so interested in being worked with.  Today, the most remarkable thing happened.  My mom was working her mare on the line at picking her up from the fence and presenting both her left and right side.  Before she knew it, Maya, who had been watching, was lining up to the fence about five feet ahead of Chloe! To my knowledge, she has never been taught how to do this, particularly not at liberty in her paddock!  She then followed my mom and Chloe around, backing when Chloe was asked to back, coming forward, etc.  She would not let the young mares come in to participate and would send them off if they tried.  This was for mature ladies only, Maya thought!  

Maya can often appear cranky or shut down when someone approaches her, especially if it isn’t me, because of the ill feelings she holds towards people, but her eyes light up when she is being introduced these new concepts or simply mirroring Chloe's work.  It is stunning to see her enthusiasm for participating and watch her search at what is being asked, even when the feel is being presented to Chloe, not her.  While not every horse is quite as engaging and intelligent as Maya is, seeing her do this of her own choice, simply for the joy of working out a puzzle, encourages me to continue trying to figure out how to inspire every horse to have the interest Maya so naturally has.  I am working towards having every moment of training, for every horse, feel like Maya working at sorting out what my mom was asking of Chloe, just because it felt good to work at it.  I am lucky to have this mare in my life and am thankful that all these years later she came back to me.  She will live the snowbird life for her golden years, hanging out with my mom and me and being treated with the respect owed to the wise woman, full of stories, that she is.

 

Pause With Your Horse

"Sometimes we don't need to pursue happiness. We just need to pause and let it catch up with us." (Lord Jonathan Sacks) 

I hope that in this New Year we can all find a moment to pause with our horses and enjoy our relationships more than our accomplishments with them. I wish you all an inspiring and innovative 2015!!!

A New Year

I love the change of the calendar year, though I rarely make it to midnight on December 31.  I love to spend this day reflecting on the year and giving thanks for all of the inspiring moments I’ve had.  At the top of this list is always a thanks to all of you, who allow me to pursue my passions and give me support in so many ways to continue my journey as a horsewoman and as a person.  I hope all of you know that I really listen to the feedback that I get from you and my future will be directly impacted by it. The honesty that the horses and their humans give me about my strengths and weaknesses is really the best compass anyone could have in developing their life and for that gift I am incredibly grateful.

What I love about the new year is all the possibilities it brings.  Those of you who know me personally know that I love to set goals in every aspect of my life.  My goals range from shifts in my day to day living, to business planning, to horsemanship experiments, to working towards greater understandings in my life.

2014 was the fifth year anniversary of Three Rivers Horse Training, which I celebrated by building this new website.  In 2009 I set the crazy goal of building this business for five years and then spending 2014 reflecting in order to begin the next five years.  I thought I would take a moment today to let you all in on some of these reflections and on my new 3R plans for the next five years.  I imagine none of you who work with me will be surprised by them, because they have all been inspired by my time with you.

My last five years have been spent with a single focus of improving my ability to make a horse feel better.  In the process, though, I have realized that I am incredibly interested in working towards having both a horse and a person feel okay.  I’m constantly amazed at what horses are able to bring up in their human.  I have so many clients that do a wonderful job with their horse and technically have been very successful at learning everything I teach them.  I am so proud because these people really have something to offer a horse that will help them feel better.  However, some of these people struggle to execute these skills when I am not with them in a lesson format.  In turn, both the horse and the person feel worse.  

I believe that this phenomenon is due to the fact that when I am around, I can contain all of the worries this person might have, push when necessary, quiet their mind when called for, and simply let the person do their best.  This is strikingly similar to what I have learned to do to cultivate a try in a horse.  This lets things come out of the person as they engage with the horse that they didn’t even know were there.  But, when they leave me, all of the personal issues that I was containing for them come to the front of their mind and the horsemanship deteriorates.

I think that this happens consistently in the work that I do because the focus of my horsemanship is to understand the horse’s experience in order to sort out the issues at hand.  This is vastly different from traditional horsemanship, which focuses on making a horse realize a goal, such as a job or a competition.  In centering the horse, rather than the human, an incredible thing happens.  The person involved cannot hide behind their external goals and expectation, but must purely be there to support the horse.  The result is astounding, as without the protection of goals, people feel incredibly exposed and vulnerable.  The horse serves as a crack in the person’s protective wall from the world.  In these moments, people allow me to see parts of themselves that they rarely share, as they attempt to figure out what issue is holding them back from their ability to support the horse.  The issue is often unrelated to horsemanship.

This is why so many of my clients have taken to calling me their Life Coach rather than their Horse Trainer (I definitely didn’t coin this new term, but it’s sure caught on!).  I don’t take this comment lightly and I’m really privileged that so many of you have let me so far into your lives.  I cannot tell you how appreciative I am that you have this trust in me and I promise I am working hard on improving myself each day so that I continue to deserve your faith.  I also have realized that this really is the next chapter for me. I want to continue working with horses as I have been, but grow the human part of my program.  I think that this will not only benefit the people involved, but their horses.  I do not want to wake up one day as frustrated as so many trainers and behaviorists have before me, disheartened that they cannot teach their clients to be successful with their animals.  Instead, I would like to move away from a traditional training model and towards one of wellness in both species.

In 2015 I will begin offering Wellness Coaching as a part of my horsemanship work.  This coaching service will allow us to meet separately from the horses to work on the things that are coming up in the horsemanship lessons.  Many of you do this with me informally already, but we end up taking time out of the lesson and are often distracted by the horse’s needs.  Ultimately, I would like my more serious students to set aside time for us to discuss personal wellness away from the horses so that when we bring a horse into the equation we are ready to support them more fully and focus on the horsemanship.  

This will be a preamble to eventually offering a similar program that is insurance billable so that this program will be more accessible to everyone financially.  I am currently in the process of applying to Masters of Social Work programs.  I will still be taking in training horses and teaching but I will pursue a part time, online program over the next few years.  Once I have that licensure I will be able to bill as a therapist providing equine assisted therapy and hopefully those of you with health insurance will be able to use your plans to further your horsemanship and wellness (can we even separate those two?!) with me!

I will be offering this program on a very limited basis for the next year or two, but ultimately once I receive the licensure and have made a few more adjustments to my business, I hope to shift my work more fully towards people and their horses on this full journey towards wellness.  This won’t be too big a shift, since I am so lucky to have a group of clients that are as introspective as they are intelligent and I think this will feel like a natural evolution for the business.  I am certainly on this journey myself and will continue to work on my mind, soul and horsemanship to offer as much as I possibly can to my wonderful clients who are truly invested in themselves and their horses.

As I make this shift you will see my blog continue to evolve.  You may have noticed I’m pretty bad at writing anything close to a “how to” blog, but I have a lot to say!  I will always tie things back to horsemanship but I will begin to incorporate the things I am thinking about (almost always inspired by the horses!) about personal wellness outside of the arena into my writing.  I hope that you all continue to give me feedback about what you like and don’t like, because as you can see I take it to heart and really make decisions (including a graduate degree!) based on what you are telling me you like and want more of.  

Thank you again for this inspiration and your continuing love and support.  If you want to talk more about this evolving program, I would love to hear from you! Please call or email and let’s visit.  Remember, I am now taking deposits for the 2015 training schedule and horses will be accepted in the order of deposits received.  I begin receiving horses back in Montana beginning April 1, so if you are looking for an April or May Three Forks spot, please contact me as soon as possible.  Until then, I’m happily down here in Cave Creek, AZ enjoying all of the new faces! I cannot wait to see you all in 2015!

What I Know About Horses

When I think about the last twenty plus years I have ridden horses regularly, I realize I know the same amount I knew when I was three years old and looked at a big horse turned out in an arena who came to the gate to say hello to me, and I felt for the first time the thing that now I am seeking every day: that horses are a life just trying to get us to be real with them.

At three, I didn’t know how to form this sentence.  But one of my few and most vivid memories of that age is staring up at that big horse at the gate.  He was looking at me and when my parents said it was time to go and I walked away up the driveway, I remember he was still looking at me when I looked back.  I remember feeling like he was seeing me and didn’t want me to go.

I am not a person that says things like this lightly.  I don’t believe that he was speaking English or that there was any level of whispering happening.  I do believe that at a young age I felt something important that so many of us lose track of as we age and it had nothing to do with horses.  This feeling was a sense of presence, of knowing exactly where I should stand to be truly in the company of another piece of life. 

I’ve held onto that feeling since, though it goes back and forth between being a memory and being my reality.  When I began riding I was quickly taken on a journey away from the horse and into a sport.  The list of things I thought I knew about horses got very long.  I lost track of that memory of the big horse and the draw I felt because I was learning a skill.  But I never forgot it and I know that because it kept pulling me back, even now.

When I was the deepest into riding as a sport I thought I knew quite a bit about horses, and yet I felt such a sense of discomfort, which I could hardly identify beyond the expression of anxiety.  As the years have gone by I have realized that this dissidence between my practice and that feeling with the big horse was something trying to come out.  The one thing I know for sure about horses was trying to come through and I was trying not to let it by hiding behind knowledge and practices that are performative, able to be memorized and standardized, and utterly forget that riding involves a horse.

I don’t mean to say that horses are the only thing that can call to us, or that they are better in their being than any other for of life.  I think that the world is full of opportunities to search for an honesty and truth that is easy to avoid.  Horses have just always been this beacon for me.  I do think that horses are exceptional in their ability to force this upon us quickly, the second we are ready. They have a vulnerability to them that is incomparable, perhaps because they are prey animals, or because they are so sensitive and expressive, or maybe because they are always already prisoners when we interact with them because they are never in the element of their choosing but always in ours, no matter how far apart the fences.  So this combined with the nature of what we ask of them, to sacrifice their autonomy of thought and body, provides insight into ourselves and our world that is truly exceptional.

What I know about horses is a short list.  I know that horses are able to be with us only if we are able to be with them.  I know that the thing that appealed to me when looking up at the big horse was that I felt real and safe and like I wanted to stay there forever.  That memory has stayed so clear with me for so long that I know even if the order and the shapes of the moment have changed in my mind with age, that the feeling must be true.  Especially since I now feel moments of discomfort and know to go a different way in search of that feeling with every horse I touch, as well as without the horses, as I work towards an authentic experience of life.  It’s not always there, but I know now what I knew when I was three and maybe forgot for a while, which is that it can be there so I better try something else if I don’t have it right now.

I have realized that the reason my three-year old self could feel that so strongly was because there was less in the way.  I lost track of that feeling because other parts of me developed that took away from my ability to simply be with a horse.  I haven’t gotten it all back, but this is why I work so hard not only at my horsemanship, but on myself.  I don’t believe that we should shut out our feelings when we work horses.  I think if we have feelings that are interrupting our connection with a horse it is an opportunity to sort out that feeling separate from the horse, so that we can be more accessible for the true presence and connection when we ask for the partnership the next time.

 

Student Directed Learning- 3R Friends

The traditional view of knowledge, as I have discussed before in this blog, is that there is an expert who gives knowledge to the rest of us.  I take serious issue with this. One important flaw I see in this system is the idea of ownership over ideas, as if some ideas are more original than others and thus owned by that person.  To me, this is the least productive way we can think about ideas.  I believe in no uncertain terms that knowledge should be shared.  If knowledge is shared, it is built upon and improved.  Sure, we may pay that person for their knowledge because we live in a society where this has to happen sometimes, but with the understanding that we appreciate their unique location in the world and the knowledge this provides, not that that person is above everyone else in their knowledge.  

This is why I believe so strongly in student directed learning.  I have created a group (3R Friends) on Facebook that many of you are a part of.  I facilitate the group by monitoring and occasionally prompting conversation, but I work hard not to comment as a teacher. That’s what this blog and my own Three Rivers Facebook page is for.  I do this because I believe that ideas that are produced through organic discovery, whether sitting on our couch, talking to our peers or those who inspire us, working with our horses or reading a completely unrelated book, are the most effective and best incorporated into our actual practice because they are truly ours, not gifted to us by someone else.

Where this takes me is back to the idea of the ownership of knowledge.  I think to appreciate student directed learning one must give up the common belief that certain people come up with an idea, and that idea is unique to them.  This is really hard in a culture where ideas seem to magically appear at some geniuses doorstep and the rest of us just hang out and wait for them to write a book!  I just don’t think that’s how it happens.  Ideas come from infusing and intersecting a million ideas before them and eventually they consolidate into something useful to that particular person, and maybe to the world.  So, twenty different people could come up with that same useful idea at twenty different times using entirely different sets of knowledges.  

I’m certain that some of the ideas I have about horses come directly from horse people I’ve encountered in my life.  Some techniques I use are literal replications of the lessons I’ve taken, the conversations I’ve had, or the things I’ve read from these trainers. I also know that some of my horsemanship comes directly from an interaction with a horse I’m working or an experience while teaching a lesson. But, I know that just as much of my horsemanship comes from sources outside the horse world.  From teachers of other sorts besides horseman, to books I’ve read, to the latest podcast I listened to or movie I watched, we are all a culmination of our experiences.  And most of the time it is impossible to separate these influences and determine a pure lineage for each piece of knowledge.  Yet, I bet some of the ideas I’ve formed on my own, through synthesizing ideas from every corner of my life and implementing them in the round pen, probably mirror ideas of other horse people that got there in a totally different way, and I think they may even have more meaning to me because they came from me, not from a teacher.  

I hope that if you take anything from reading this blog it is that you don’t need someone to tell you exactly what to do all the time.   It doesn’t matter if your horsemanship was inspired by Ray Hunt or Beyonce, if you feel like you and your horse get along better because of it, it is valid.  I hope that you will all join the 3R Friends Facebook group conversation in between discussing things in person and really value the ideas that appear through these dialogues.  The next time you are listening to your favorite podcast and have a wild and crazy idea about how it relates to your horse, go with it! Think that idea through and then see where it takes you.  Just because you didn’t learn it from a horsey guru doesn’t mean it won’t work. 

Love, Goals & Horses

The reality of the horse industry is that the sort of work that I am interested in is in the minority.  This is the work that centers the horse’s experience and focuses on the pursuit of the horse’s willing engagement with both the moment and with the human.  There are very few models for this sort of horsemanship in the horse industry, and even within the few people doing it there is enormous variation.  There are even fewer horse owners who are interested in working with a trainer that prioritizes the horse over goals such as competition, trail rides or another activity.  It seems it is the general consensus that for those who focus on the human experience of horsemanship (meaning, the enjoyment by the person of a ride or time spent with the horse, whatever that looks like) is that an obedient horse is the ideal.  Obedience allows the rider to have fun, relax, win or work with the least amount of human stress. 

What obedience doesn’t automatically include is a connection between the horse and the person.  Sometimes obedience comes with engagement, and the horse is present and willing for the task.  But, obedience does not necessarily mean that a horse is willing and engaged.  In fact, often a horse must not be engaged in order to perform, because the horse feels so poorly about the situation that were they to truly engage the obedient performance would be impossible due to the stress.

This is so curious to me, that we as humans would engage the partnership of another living critter, but then not strive for the connection.  I can reflect back on the time before I was consciously cultivating this engagement and what is striking to me is that many of the moments that stand out to me are the moments that now, with my current vocabulary and understanding, are the great moments where engagement happened without that being the goal. 

Why do we choose to work with a living breathing animal like the horse, if all we want is the automated and consistent responses of a machine?  What does it look like to love a horse that is simply being obedient to avoid conflict..is that even love?  I’m really not sure.  Most of us are uncomfortable with the idea that love would get wrapped up in a relationship where only one party is becoming happier through it.  It seems to cheapen the concept of love when it is part of a literal transaction where one party has the power and the other is subservient.  Yet, I don’t know how often I hear the phrase “well they really do love their animals” evoked to qualify poor treatment of an animal, or to shift the blame from the human to a horse that doesn’t feel the need to cooperate in a raw deal.

Would the majority of horsemanship look that different if we replaced real horses with an excellent artificial intelligence called iHorse that we could manipulate and develop a (training) protocol with and compete on?  I honestly don’t think so.  I think as long as the person could feel  the illusion of progress with the robot, so that they could take credit and feel successful with the task, and we made the robot warm and furry and made it smell like a horse, most people wouldn’t miss the real thing.

What I get from working horses is a fascination and addiction to establishing connection with another creature that is a raw, dynamic and true.  It is finding moments where the horse, who is a prisoner and lost so much of their agency in life, decides to offer something willingly.  One of the greatest moments of autonomy a horse has in a life where we dictate literally every major thing in their lives, from where they exist to when they eat, is whether or not the participate willingly.  They may not have a true choice in coming to the party, but they can choose how they feel about being there.  

I would miss this if I was working with an iHorse. I would miss that moment of agency and autonomy, even if the robot was developing and smelling and behaving exactly as I hope a horse will, letting me practice my skills and even if I were having the fun of the motion of a horse and the power and movement so many of us find amazingly exciting, refreshing, soothing or entertaining.  It is that little bit of agency that makes all the difference to me and why I participate in the sort of horsemanship I do. But it is a challenge and with that little moment of agency from the horse comes an honesty that many people don’t want to see.  If obedience is the goal there is always something to hide behind even if the horse’s feedback is not particularly positive.

The irony is that in centering the horse and de-centering the person the way that I try to, we see so many things about ourselves we may have never seen before because it points out the moments where we are not worth the horse’s engagement, and often these are the same qualities we struggle with in other parts of our lives.  This is the true pain and exhilaration of working with horse.  This would disappear with a robot horse and is eliminated when we work only towards a task with a horse, whatever that task may be, as so much of the horse industry does today.  I know that we as humans will do a lot to avoid honesty like this, but for me this is worth more than a million blue ribbons that my horse doesn’t care at all about.  After all, you can’t even eat them.

Touching

I’ve been reading and thinking lately about touching.  Not touching something in particular, but simply on the idea, the power and the energy behind touch as discussed by those outside the horse world.  I know that touch is a hugely powerful thing when working with horses and though it is discussed often by horse people throughout the industry, to me it is generally framed as something that is done to a horse, not something that is done with a horse.

I don’t think touching is a one way transaction when there is a willingness about it.  In fact, it doesn’t even have to be a physical transaction.  In my reading (Warning: you are about to figure out just exactly how much of a nerd I am…) I’ve discovered that the experience of touching has much to do with the repulsion of electrons of the atoms between two objects or beings.  That’s why you can sometimes experience touching something as you reach out to touch it, or experience being touched when someone or thing is reaching for you, before making any physical contact. 

This makes a lot of sense to me because of what I experience with horses.  The space before the touch of a horse is often as important as the touch itself. Whether this is a physical touch, or an ask at liberty, the moments of the asking are really where it all happens.  There are moments where touches are very one sided and you feel that the horse is not engaged.  Sometimes, this looks like a horse literally dissociating from the touch, whether this touch was supposed to be praise or not, by looking away or moving, and sometimes this just looks like a horse not feeling of me enough to match my offer.  For instance, if I am thinking canter and my energy begins cantering, but I feel a heaviness from the horse. This touch is happening with no physical contact, but there is certainly a mismatch of energies bumping into each other.  When I ready myself to make a change, surely these whacky electrons I’ve learned about are shifting and repelling in all sorts of new ways, and if the horse doesn't get ready with me, the feeling is going to be like that of (physically) running into a wall.

Yet, what I hear about touch in most horsemanship contexts is just the opposite of engaging with the space before the touch, and only shifting this electron/energy around.  What I hear are physical changes full of pressure and contact, where the actual, physical touch is the moment of communication.  To me, this makes me feel like the touch is being done to something, not with!  I can’t help but think of the moment before a genuine hug, when both parties know they will hug but no one has spoken it or begun to touch yet.  This is a togetherness that does not have to be quantified by the physical act, but by the moments leading up to it.  But, if this moment didn’t exist, that hug would be entirely different.  Hugging each other is so different than being hugged when you aren’t hugging back, even if both are done with good and kind intentions!  

One of these moments leaves space for the other being in the situation.  To hug each other means both people are accounted for, both have an understanding, a value and a stake in the moment.  If you are simply being hugged, and are not actively a part of it, you may or may not want to be there.  It may end up being for your own good and you will ultimately soften to the moment, but you may also leave resentful.  There is quite the gamble in this latter scenario.

For me, horsemanship is all about leaving space for the horse.  So to do that, I have to consider my moments of touching, even nonphysical touching, where my presence is touching the horse whether physically or not simply by me taking up space in the pen, or my intention existing in the world.  Is the horse touching me back, or is the horse leaving or only tolerating?  There is certainly time to touch a horse, physically or nonphysically, when it does not want to touch me back.  These are moments where proving that touching will not end poorly, and to prove this it just has to happen.  This is productive and sometimes the kindest way to just get the ill feeling about the situation over and done with.  However, it is certainly me deciding that the horse doesn’t need to feel like that anymore, which is different than the horse engaging with me to solve a problem.  But, there are so many more moments where if we shifted our mindset from us touching the horse to let’s do this together, that our initial touch would have so much more value.  When I begin to reach and touch a horse, with my hand, my energy, my leg, my seat, whatever it may be, I truly hope that the reach can be meaningful and offer the horse a sense of understanding that they should reach back because we are about to do something together. 

Creativity and Self-teaching

In the previous blog I discussed learning without fear and being the best version of yourself.  One of the major issues I see when people go out to explore and experiment on their own is that when they are not in a structured environment such as a lesson, they begin to drift away from the specifics of thinking about the horse’s thought and become preoccupied by a larger, more vague, goal.  The longer this carries on, the less clarity there is for both the horse and the human on a more particular level, and before you know it the person is so focused on their external goal that the horse is hardly even there anymore, and the horse is so frustrated they are either acting out or shutting down.

In thinking about this, I’ve enlisted the help of this YouTube clip where jazz pianist Bill Evans discusses the process of learning and creativity.  I think it is an incredible discussion, and worth the four minutes to watch it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEHWaGuurUk.

I am particularly struck by Bill’s notion of approximation rather than specificity when it comes to the student teaching themselves.

“They tend to approximate the product, rather than attacking it in a realistic true way at any elementary level, regardless of how elementary, but it must be entirely true and entirely real and entirely accurate.  They would rather approximate the entire problem rather than take a small part of it and be real and true about it.”

Bill goes on to demonstrate through musical examples, which I think are quite poignant.  However, I will draw a comparison to a horsemanship issue I see so often, though this is only an example and one of many moments where I believe this issue holds true.  People often see horses ridden in popular (horse) culture in particularly advanced states.  Now, for the sake of this discussion, I won’t go into how most of these “advanced states” are really poor horsemanship, as that is a discussion for another day, but let’s just assume that the picture someone has in their mind is, in fact, good quality riding.  For some, this means canter a perfect circle with a horse collected, for others, this looks like working cows at a fast pace, etc.   Yet, the horse and their person may only be at the point of working on taking a thought around a corner, and unable to sustain it for more than a moment, much less a circle, in collection, or at high speeds after a cow.  So when the person goes to work their horse, they try, as Bill would say, an approximation of what they see in their mind.

Often this leads to turmoil.  The person resorts to physical tactics in order to recreate the picture in their mind.  Collection turns into a heavy hand forcing a head into a frame, with no attention to posture, thought, or clarity.  Chasing a cow turns into ramming and jamming a horse after the cow, heavy on the forehand and with no attempt to have that horse engage with the process.  Resentment builds, and before you know it this “confusion” Bill refers to in the clip that results from vagueness, disintegrates the ride and the relationship.

I love how Bill says that the most successful people at anything have a “realistic view point at the beginning …that the problem is large and he has to take it a step at a time and …enjoy the step by step learning procedure.”  To me, this mindset is magical, freeing and exciting.  It tells me that I don’t have to canter that circle flawlessly today.  I don’t have to canter at all today.  Perhaps it means I don’t even get on that horse today, or if I do, perhaps I don’t go past a walk.  This doesn’t mean that I have not worked, it just changes the goal from the instant gratification of this “approximation” that Bill discusses, to actually doing the work well.

Thoughtful horsemanship really requires an attention to everyone involved in a way that is a long term process, not an immediate training result.  This is so different from how most people approach horsemanship, and life, that sometimes I think it can feel overwhelming and is easy to abandon.  One of the most common blocks I see in progress (both horse and human) is that people are hard on themselves when thoughtful horsemanship looks different than the horsemanship they knew in their past, and so they don't feel like they are accomplishing anything.  I think Bill really does a great job of reminding us that to approximate something badly is never as valuable as it is to do less, better.

So, to paraphrase Bill Evans, have an adventurous spirit and don’t be cautious, but be specific and see the big picture.  Your horses will appreciate it!

The Best Version of You and Your Horse.

I’ve written on the subject of learning before and I continue to be drawn back to it because I think so much about being both a good student, a successful teacher, a thoughtful trainer and a great advocate for both horses and humans.  My next few blogs will be on the subject, as I discuss some of the things that are at the front of my mind. 

Most of my clients love their horses like family and would do anything to give them the best lives and support that they can.  But I find an inherent fear of messing a horse up to be incredibly common and debilitating among the people I meet.  Over and over I discuss being unafraid to take risks and try things you have never tried before as you respond to what your horse needs.  I try so hard to point out moments when I am working a horse in front of someone where I am doing something that I have never tried in quite that way before, so that everyone can see that this isn’t magic.  This also is not all taught.  However, it is all learned.  

There is a difference between something that must be taught and something that must be learned.  In my opinion, everything must be learned.  We don’t come out of the womb knowing much other than staying alive and even that involves some trial and error.  Some people certainly have inherent qualities that make them better suited for certain things than others, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t learn them.  They may learn some things faster than another person might, but they don’t just know it.

Something that must be taught is different.  If you want to do something just like I do it, I certainly have to teach you because you will never naturally do it exactly like me.  Why? Because you aren’t me, you will never be me, and even if I teach you for thirty years I hope you won’t become me.  That would be weird.  I may teach you basic skills and techniques and things that have worked for me to give you tools, but that doesn’t mean you have to use the hammer in your tool belt exactly like I would.  This is just like how I hope that the two fillies I have to start for myself this winter as my personal horses won’t turn out just alike.  I am going to work with both of them and hopefully get them both to where they are great partners for me, but if I somehow turn them into such similar riding horses that if I got on each blind folded I wouldn’t know the difference I would be very upset with myself.  I’m not looking for them to be the same, I’m looking for them to be the best versions of themselves.

I think that a lot of teachers and leaders in this world, both inside and out of the horse industry, are not approaching instruction with this mindset.  They are teaching people to be just like them, and since this is impossible the student is always set to fail.  There will always be a magical cloud surrounding this leader because what they have will always be unattainable.  This is such wonderful job insurance for the teacher, but a pretty poor teaching philosophy.  When there is already an impossibility built into the lesson being taught (the lesson being, this is how you be me, the impossibility being, I can’t swap brains with you) it is really hard to do any learning.

I work with horses and humans with the hope of becoming obsolete.  I want to be a part of the learning process so that the person can be the best version of themselves with their horse, not so that they can become me.  If I do this, hopefully one day you won’t need me.  As a professional who depends on this as a living, this is a built in incentive to keep growing myself, and thus continue to locate myself as a student.  If I don’t keep growing, but I pour my heart into making you grow, eventually you won’t need me and I’ll be out of the job! So hopefully, the student version of myself will continue to grow enough that I will always have something to offer you and your horse as a partner in your learning.

So please, go out, be fearless with your creativity.  Be bold with your learning.  Don’t try to be anyone but the best version of yourself for your horse, and don’t try to make your horse anything other than the best version of him or herself.  If the person you have chosen to work with can’t continue to grow enough to stay relevant to the best version of yourself at that moment, dump them, even if its me.  Nobody, including me, deserves to be a part of this process if they don’t inspire you and make you feel like the best version of yourself is attainable.   I love having a job where my learning benefits not only me, but my clients and their horses.  What incredible motivation to continue on as a student!  If you free yourself of the burden of comparing yourself to what someone else is doing, who knows what you will be able to get done.

Thinking About the Next Step

One of the greatest challenges I think quality horsemanship presents is that as humans we are incredibly driven to correct behavior.  Whether with a horse or in other aspects of life, the urge to rewrite history is strong.  To analyze and attempt to shift the past, living in what ifs and should have beens.  We all do it.  

In horsemanship, if a horse dives its shoulder into us on the ground, the urge is to block with physical pressure and move the shoulder away is what most people express to me.  The same happens when leading, when riding, even things as simple as picking up a foot are prone to the infusion of some sort of punitive reaction.

But where this hits a road block in every part of life is that the act has already happened.  The step has already been taken.  Whatever the horse’s undesirable behavior was, it has already been decided upon and executed by the horse.  The horse already felt the emotion that led to the decision to perform that action. It’s over, it’s done, it’s played out.  Trying to change a step that has already been taken is utterly useless.  Because there is no way to change the past.

The only thing we have control over is the future. We can only control the way we direct and influence the next step and that next step can look like anything in the world.  There are no limitations. If the horse saw fit, that step could be a leap eight feet into the air or it could be a stop, drop and roll.  There are no limitations to that next step.  There is only choice.

All choices are the culmination of many experiences.  Those that are happening now to those that have happened years in the past.  These experiences, past or present, influence the dialogue and life between everything in the space.  From the fence to the halter to the horse’s foot to the human’s hand.  Every decision comes from a complex and integrated relationship of living and non living things, and their present and past interactions.

The choice becomes about how the dynamics of all these relationships are engaged with.   We have to honor where the horse is coming from, understanding what is and is not clear to them in that moment, without dwelling in it.  As the person who has a goal for the next step, it is our responsibility to sort through this and best communicate within these dynamic moments so that the horse can understand our intention and decide within his or her own experiences that their next step should be the same next step we had hoped for.   

While this sounds daunting and impossible, it all comes down to shifting our mindset to focus on what can still be changed.  To focusing on the next step, whether literally or figuratively, rather than the last.  So much of the sort of horsemanship I am working towards is about understanding how to create, engage with and send a thought, rather than blocking a behavior.  One of the biggest challenges this presents is being able to accept the behavior that was wrong.  Accepting that something took place that we didn’t want to take place and responding to it thoughtfully but not reacting.  We often note the difference between a horse responding to our requests versus reacting to a stimuli, but it’s so hard to see in ourselves.  

If a wrong step was taken, I hope it is possible to live within the moment and respond to all the messy histories of experience that everyone involved (horse and human) has, simply by thoughtfully asking for the next step to be different.  Instead of worrying about that shoulder falling in and pushing it back out, I hope to thoughtfully engage with the horse and ask their next step to be towards the line I would like them to be on.  To think a little further out on the circle, because I’m sure their shoulder will follow.  I won’t worry about why, when or how the bad step happened, but I hope I can guide the next step more clearly.  I hope that this will give a sense of security and peace to both the horse and to me, because with this mindset, no last step was wrong and all next steps will be better.  

 

Welcome to the new site! A note from Alex.

Welcome to the new 3R website! I'm so happy to have celebrated my fifth anniversary with Three Rivers Horse Training and all of the wonderful horses and humans that have joined my 3R family in this time.  I decided that as an anniversary gift to myself and to the business, a new website was in order!

When I was writing a business plan and designing a website for Three Rivers Horse Training in 2008 and and 2009, I was just hoping to create a business where I could ride horses all day and make enough money to feed myself.  I knew that my aspirations as a horse person were high enough that I needed to be working horses all day, every day, to begin to make a dent in my goals.  The best way I knew how to do this was to start working horses for the public.  So I took a leap of faith and started a business.  I created a website that felt like me, felt like the beautiful Grey Cliffs Ranch, felt like Montana, and hopefully felt like something everyone with a horse might like!

Well I have been so lucky, because it worked.  Five years later I have ridden A LOT of horses.  I have learned more than I ever could have imagined I could learn in just five years.  My aspirations are only greater now, and I know I better keep doing this! 

But a couple things happened that I wasn't expecting.  The first, was I got to know myself in ways I didn't see coming.  I have been so inspired by the horses and the humans around me, that I have really begun to learn who I am, both in and out of the round pen.  In doing so, I learned what I have to offer this world and the horses in it, and I also learned what I am not.  That is one reason why I felt so strongly I needed a new "look" for my business.  One that wasn't that of me five years ago, just wanting to convince people to hire me.  But of me now, a person who is truly and utterly in love with the horse (I thought I was five years ago! I was wrong, because THIS is love.  Hopefully five years from now I can say the same).  I know that I am not the trainer for everyone, because with hiring me you get a passion and a love that is a little bit...intense.  I now know I am incapable of compromise when it comes to this love and so I need the right clients around me that love their horses as much as I do. 

And this leads me to the second magical thing that has happened.  Three Rivers Horse Training became something separate from me.  It became not just a business, but a feeling.  I love when I'm traveling at a clinic and a group of us are chatting and someone talks about the 3R page on Facebook and what is happening there.  Or how they heard Alex in their ear when they were working a horse or talking to their husband or playing with their kids.  As if somehow I, the person who writes this blog, and Alex and 3R are not all the same thing! But we aren't.  Because this has taken on a life of its own.  This business, this life, this philosophy, is alive and well at my barn in Three Forks living with my boarders while I am in Arizona.  It is alive in Billings where there is a huge contingent of 3R riders who love and support each other in ways I find remarkable, even when I haven't had a clinic there in a while.  It lives in the workplaces of all of my clients who tell me stories about how they have changed how they deal with co-workers after they reflected on their horsemanship.  It is in relationships between friends and spouses that are reconsidering how they treat each other based on their work with the horses.  It is in the parenting I hear people talk about, and how they are considering how to raise their children in a thoughtful and engaged manner after becoming so committed to that with their horses.

It is truly remarkable and such an honor to see this thing become something separate from me.  I can't begin to express how thankful I am to have heard the stories I've heard, to have been a part of relationships, both human and equine, as they grow, and in turn to have been shaped and inspired myself.

So I hope that this website, and the changes I am making to structure my business, can reflect all of these moments and blessings.  I hope that business can reflect life and life can reflect learning and learning can reflect horses.  Because there seems to me nothing more pure and flawed and lovely than working with a horse!

Thank you all for making the last five years the best five years of my life.  I'm so excited to see what is next.

Archive Post: Experience

2014

I have been thinking lately about what the foundation to my horsemanship is, or is becoming.  What is the core understanding that drives each decision I make with a horse?  In the simplest terms, what does everyone need to start thinking about before they begin this type of journey with a horse?

I think it is the understanding that the horse has an experience that is not the same as my experience.  

When I first read this sentence, it sounds utterly ridiculous.  Of course my horse has an experience that is not my experience.  They are ALIVE after all!  But when I think about how horses exist in this world, what they are for, how they are treated, and the decisions we have all made at one point or another, I realize that this concept is incredibly profound.

Horses are generally seen in terms that are relative to us.  A horse has a good day if we enjoy the ride.  A horse is well built if he can perform what we want him to perform.  A horse has earned her keep if she has done the job we have given her that day.  A horse is brave if he goes past something that we think would scare him.  A horse is smart if she accomplishes the task we provide.  A horse is stupid or stubborn if he doesn’t want to do what we think is important. 

But, maybe that wasn’t their experience at all.  Maybe the horse had a bad day because of that ride, you just enjoyed it because they chose to cope.  What if a horse has trouble with how he chews his food or has aches and pains we don’t know about, but because he wins ribbons, we say he is well built.  Perhaps a horse that is held captive inside fences deserves her dinner whether or not she goes for a ride.  Maybe that thing didn’t take much bravery to go past, because it wasn’t very scary at all and he understood what it was, and that’s why he wasn’t afraid.  It’s possible that the horse is not particularly smart, and while she can accomplish the task she’s told to do if given very few options, if she were left to figure out how to manage her own decisions, she would struggle.  Maybe that horse isn’t stubborn and stupid, but actually very smart, and doesn’t want to do something that makes no sense to him.

Horses have their own lives.  They are forced to participate in ours, but they have their own experiences, own ideas, heartbreaks, successes, worries and moments of both sheer brilliance and complete confusion.  It seems so simple, but to take the moment and think, I wonder what this horse’s experience is of this moment, can radically change how you might respond.  Suddenly, that horse who won’t go isn’t stubborn, but worried, and petting that behavior seems a lot more practical than kicking it.  Sometimes noticing that a horse is involved in something else in the world, rather than being haltered, even though they are standing still to be caught, changes how quickly you do it. 

The realization that a horse’s experience is not the same as our experience may be the most obvious and life changing realization of our horsemanship journey.  I think it is so profound that it cannot help but change every interaction from then on.  To separate our experience from that of the horse brings an ability to empathize with their feelings, even if those feelings are inconvenient for our plans and goals.  

For me, it changes the start point and the end point.  I start by considering the horse, and end wherever that takes me.  I have had to let go of a lot of the things I loved about riding a horse that did not locate the horse in the moment, and find new (and greater) appreciation for things that do.  I think I find pleasure in smaller things than I used to.  I think I laugh more around the horses than I used to.  I think my understanding and appreciation for the horse has grown in ways I didn’t expect, and I have come to realize how sophisticated and funny and incredible these animals really are.  I thought I already knew all of that, but I didn’t.  I’m excited to share many more experiences with many more horses, and I’m sure my love for them will only continue to grow.

Archive Post: First Time Feeling

2014

Last week while I was sitting on a filly for the first time, I got to talking with the photographer watching about what she observed as the horse taking comfort when I picked up a rein. That we had already established a feel between us, so even though me being on her was new, she was easily able to find comfort in me despite my new position above her. I've been thinking about how this has changed in me as I've started colts over the years. I now spend less time getting them okay with me being on them, and more time getting them to feel like I have something to offer them. Being able to get on them, having a soft feel between us, helping them to understand how to think in front of them, steer, change speeds, etc, and supporting them when something is scary, just happens after that.

At the end of a first ride (or, at the end of any session, really), I want the horse to be brighter eyed and more confident with me around and in themselves than when we started the day.

It never ceases to amaze me that they let me do this, and no matter how many colts I start, I get such a kick out of it every time I put a first ride on a horse. And, it's certainly not an adrenaline rush, because it's usually pretty boring!

Archive Post: Intensity Without Worry

2014

Intensity without worry? 

Today is my last day in Utah, and over the last few days I've had quite the introduction to what's going on in the dog world right now. I have been surrounded by a huge variety of trainers, and learning about the various schools of thought that are popular at the moment. I've never thought about dog training in such a structured way, because it is not my livelihood, so it's been wonderful to really immerse myself among so many trainers. 

Last night at a BBQ, some bite dogs were pulled out and I got to watch their trainers working them. I certainly was surprised to see some of the softest moments I've seen occur with these animals. That was not what I expected. I have very little exposure to sporting dogs of any sort, but what I have seen in a general sense has been a level of chaos and worry in a very driven dog that makes me rather uncomfortable. The same feeling I get when watching most competitive horses, in any equine sport. The animals are often amazingly obedient, but have to be pretty upset inside to perform at the intensity level desired. 

But the dogs I saw yesterday had been trained by some very thoughtful trainers, and I loved seeing the moments where the dogs could be engaged and certainly intense, but absolutely present. It wasn't worry that was driving them. 

One discussion I had with one of these handlers revolved around how to cultivate the desire to bite. These dogs are certainly genetically predisposed to bite, but one can elicit it in so many ways. To corner a dog and give it no other options but to bite when it feels pressure will create a bite dog. But not one that is trustworthy in the world, and certainly not one that is settled inside. 

I was interested to learn about this, and how he put a strong foundation in these dogs to search. In my language, it sounded to me like the ways to get a dog to bite were just like the ways you can train a horse: they can either perform because they are reacting to something because of a level of worry, or because they are responding because they are thinking and taking an interest. 

Just like I don't want my horse moving simply to avoid a spur instead of taking an interest and going somewhere, it was lovely to see these dogs bite not just to try and create space for themselves. The level of direction, praise and search that were presented to the animal during these training sessions was impressive! Not to mention these dogs were balanced enough emotionally that one of the trainers had his toddler son in on the action, and between training, the dogs were quietly engaging with the baby in a lovely manner. 

I'm not sure where I'm headed with my own work with dogs, but I'm sure enjoying my time spent engaging on these subjects with people that have thought a lot about why they do things the way they do with dogs.

Archive Post: What's So Interesting About Interest?

2014

It seems that all the time, I’m thinking about and discussing what we are trying to cultivate in a horse when working with them.  I say things like “directing the thought” and “being soft” and “taking an interest.”  But what does that really look like?????

Tonight my husband, Tye, came in with a story that really struck me as what this philosophy is really all about.  So I will brag about his creativity for a moment!  I’ve been giving Tye regular lessons with his young mule, Slim, who is about ready to get going under saddle.  Slim, however, would really just like to party all the time.  Who can blame him?  Tye’s recent challenge has been that Slim would prefer not going back into the pen after a session (Tye may be the only person in equine history to have an animal that will run to him to be caught, go wherever he likes, and then throw a fit when it’s time to go back in the large pen with the other horses!).  There is green grass and way more to do outside his paddock than inside it, so Slim wonders what the point of going home really is?

As anyone who has ever played with a mule before knows, when a mule gets a thought, it gets a BIG thought.  And if you match that big thought with any sort of muscle, well, good luck to you.  Tye spends his days with tractors and hammers, and was unpleasantly surprised to find that Slim didn’t really care how hard he pulled on the lead.  Slim was staying at the party, not going home.  Last weekend, I demonstrated to Tye how I would handle this.  I spent time getting Slim’s thought to go forward, regardless of what happened with his feet.  Every time his eyes got bright, his ears went forward, and he showed a glimmer of interest in the right direction, he got a pet.  The take home message for Tye was how little strength any of this required on my part, because I was cultivating the thought, not the feet.  Before you know it, Slim walked quietly and purposefully through the green grass and into his pen.  I think Tye could have killed me!

 

Instead of domestic dispute, though, Tye thought on it.  When he next went to practice the reentering the pen, he said there were a few times he almost got in a fight, but was able to work his way through it.  But then something magical happened (at least magical to me…I don’t think Tye or Slim would describe it as such!).  Tye said he was reaching a point where he wasn’t sure what to do.  So he swung the big gate shut to take Slim for a little walking break.  When the gate swung shut, it bounced a bit off the post, and caused a vibration, which caught Slim’s attention.  Slim became very curious about the vibration, and was looking right at the gate Tye wanted him to go through! So, in a stroke of what I would call genius, Tye pet him.  He asked for him to go towards that interest, which Slim did.  He opened the gate a bit, and Slim got worried about going through, so Tye shut it and caused it to vibrate.  He repeated this.  Each time Slim got worried about going through the gate and leaving the party side of the fence, Tye would vibrate the gate, Slim would get interested, and Tye would pet him.  He said before he knew it, Slim was walking through the gate just as nice as can be! No fighting necessary.

I think this is such a valuable lesson.  It shows that none of this situation had to do with Slim’s feet, or Tye’s strength.  Just where Slim was interested, and if he was allowed to pursue that interest.  Tye did exactly what I had done. He cultivated an interest until Slim wanted to pursue it.  While I made a bit of noise or put a bit of a feel on the rope, Tye just slammed a gate so it vibrated.  No difference.  They all caught Slim’s attention.  Tye probably was smarter about the situation than I was, because he didn’t have to work so hard to catch his attention, or worry much about timing, because he noticed something that did it easily! So here, Tye used the mule’s ability to have a big thought to his advantage!

When we are working our horses (or mules) it is so important to remember that if they wanted to, they can do everything we ask of them.  But why would they want to? Just like Slim wanted to stay out in party-land (i.e: not his paddock), every moment a horse is alive they have feelings, desires, and ideas.  Why fight that? Isn’t that what we love about them? I know that the reason I choose to ride horses and not a motorcycle is because I absolutely love the emotions, the tries, and the intelligence that radiates from a horse.  It is simply a matter of making the ideas we have, their ideas.  We have to direct their thoughts and change their feelings, so that they can take an interest in what we would like them to take an interest in.  This isn’t something that can be done with force, because this is something that is willingly given by the horse.  You can’t force me to be interested in something.  You can force me to do something, but not to be interested in it.  I have to have a reason, a motivation, a desire, in order to be truly interested, and not simply obedient. 

I don’t know why the vibrating gate was so fascinating to Slim, and I hope in the future if Tye continues to cultivate this, the gate won’t need to be there.  Slim will decide that whatever Tye suggests is interesting, truly is interesting, just because he trusts that Tye knows what he’s talking about in that department.  That’s really what my goal is every time I’m with an animal.  For them to feel confident enough in our relationship that if I suggest they take an interest in something, they are excited to do it, and their effort is genuine.  

Our animals must freely give their thoughts to us, because they cannot be taken.  So it is up to us to figure out how to be important enough, interesting enough, and trustworthy enough, to deserve them.

 

Archive Post: The Weight of the World

I was recently reading an article about canine training and the evolution of both dogs and popular training methods, and something struck me about how the article defined a dog versus a wolf.  One of the genetic traits that the article pointed to that separated the dogs we have in our homes from their closely related wolf ancestors was that a dog faced with a problem will instinctually look to a human for support, even if there are other dogs around.
    I think this is true of domesticate bred horses as well. I don’t know if the science exists, but I certainly see this try all of the time in horses.  A horse that has little to no human experience will still engage with a person if given the chance, and when presented a problem will quickly turn towards the human as a solution if they are left the room to search.  When I think of how powerful this is, how much hardwired trust and interest there must be for this to occur, it is staggering to me, because with all great powers come great responsibilities.  What does it mean that there are animals in this world that have a faith in the human so deep inside of them, it is literally written into their genes?  What does it mean for us as humans interacting with these critters?  
    It inspires me.  It inspires me to try to be there the first time, and every time, they look to me.  I want to be a better communicator, so that I have something to offer back when they offer me their trust.  I want to be ready for this profound challenge, so that their faith will grow in me.  I often think about how I hope I can make it clear to the animal I’m handling, that their only job is to watch me.  My job, is to worry about everything else.  This is a tricky subject to navigate.  How to be clear and fair, and demonstrate that I am worthy of their trust, but not slide down that slippery slope where our relationship shifts from one of an engaged and interested animal, to one that is without emotions, and is simply obedient.  But, if this engagement is there, and cultivated, what a relief it would be, it could be, to have someone take the weight of the world off their shoulders!  How clear and easy it must feel to know that, under any circumstance, they should follow their domesticated instincts and look to the human, and the human will never fail, so there is no reason to worry about life when with a person.
    It also intimidates me, because I worry about what will happen when I miss those requests for guidance.  What happens when a core belief is disproven?  Can the animal forgive and ask again, or will they now always have a bit of doubt in them that wasn’t there when they were born, telling them that they might actually be on their own?  I think about this all the time, because I don’t want to be paralyzed by this thought.  Over and over, I see that animals do both of these things; they forgive, and they also retain that sliver of doubt.  For some reason, in most their capacity to forgive seems to outweigh all else when given a reason.  When I watch someone present to their animal that they are willing to take on the weight of the world, so that the animal may just live in the moment with the person, no matter how many years their roles have been reversed, it almost never fails that the animal accepts that offer.  So I suppose the responsibility is always, and completely, on us to know how to make that offer clearly, because the animal is always just waiting for it.