To Herd or Not to Herd

We either make ourselves miserable or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same. ~ Carlos Castaneda

After watching the horses throughout the day, I considered the herd as a whole while they were being brought in for dinner on a cool spring evening. Each horse knew the order they would be brought in to the stalls. They had established this order themselves. If the handler respected this order, the horses were quiet, calm, and patient. If routine was interrupted, they became agitated. Suddenly they would pick on one another, trading spots at the gate in an attempt to reset the order. Today, a new bay horse and a gray horse were introduced to the herd early in the day. I reflected on this and realized herd behavior is apparent in human interaction. In our own unique intelligence, we are still very much like these horses.

Bay was allowed into the herd quickly. He showed no resentment toward the rest and seemed forgiving by nature. He did not challenge at all even when the other horses chased him or flattened their ears at him. He kept himself out of distance of the more assertive horses. It was not long before he had picked another horse to comfortably graze with and was indifferent to the more dominant personalities.

Group of wild horses in field at morning.

Gray seemed to spend all day trying to gain acceptance of the herd. He would pace and run, challenge the leaders, and maintained a heightened sense of anxiety. It was not unusual to see him get chased off, sneered at, and would have to run away just fast enough to avoid a bite or kick. It was not until he stopped trying so hard and dropped his attitude and defensiveness that he was forgiven by the herd and accepted in. This type of horse may try the same game for a few days until the herd has “told” it where it will be and the horse comfortably complies. Until then, he grazed a few yards away from the group, always nervously watching.

When I took notice of this herd behavior I felt as if I was watching a replay of personal past lessons and receiving clues to future life lessons. I sadly watched Gray’s efforts over and over as he waxed into acceptance of his situation and slowly relaxed. How many times have I tried the same actions or beliefs over and over only to realize I get the same unwanted conclusion every time? That is the point I stop trying so hard. By shifting my perspective, I can see the answer was usually right in front of me. I had ignored it because I had my own ideas about how the situation should pan out instead of looking for the obvious options.

I was conflicted about Bay and how he had accepted his place so easily. When I am feeling like I am not valued or I am stretching myself thin, I’m sure I should be fighting to be noticed and supported. His herd strategy brought feelings of resentment and disrespect. Why doesn’t he just tell the lead horse off?  Where is the bravado? Doesn’t this horse respect himself? In my braced perspective, I thought he was soft and weak by allowing himself to be tromped upon by the dominate horses. Changing my own perspective did not cross my mind.

When I am feeling comfortable, confident, and happy, I see this horse as saving his energy, getting along with the group, and enjoying himself right away. And then I think why would you want to expend more energy than needed to relax when you can begin that way? This horse was so soft about his intentions. How interesting that I can perceive him so differently. In this more relaxed perspective, I was able to admire his confidence and ability to be comfortable in his own skin. I wanted to be more like him.

Take time to sit and watch the herd for a while. You can learn much about yourself. It takes a lot of confidence to walk into the unknown and accept new situations.  And, on the other end of the spectrum, it wastes a lot of energy trying to control the results by using the same failing tactics over and over again. New ideas and intentions must be formed as different situations are presented. It is very humbling to let go of old ideas in order to allow new ideas to form. This is a large part of accepting change. With confidence, and respect for yourself, the approval of a herd is no longer needed but ironically easily received.

There is so much to be learned just by watching horses in action. Bay and Gray gave great examples of two perspectives. They responded to the new situation differently but both ended with the same conclusion. Acceptance gives way to a sense of innocent excitement that allows a horse or person to gracefully respond to change. By melding into new situations calmly and enjoyably, there is less stress and worry. I came home a different person that spring day excited to have had the chance to learn from great teachers. And, I’m looking forward to the next lesson that presents itself.

That will do for today Bay and Gray, that will do.

 

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Is My Horse Related to a Hippo?

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I began to wonder if hippos and horses are related due to the word “hippology” which can be broken down into its Greek and Latin origins to mean “the study of the horse”. So if “hippo” means horse, then where did the hippopotamus come from?

Well, as it turns out, their name means “river horse”.  I get that they seem like the laziest animal lounging around in water all day letting birds pick their teeth but they look nothing like a horse. In fact, they are not even related to the equid family. Hippos are related to whales and dolphins. At least there is a water connection there.

Rhino   tapir

The horse’s closest family relatives, however, are rhinos and tapirs. Really? Talk about dysfunctional family gatherings! It would include grumpy rhinos, timid tapirs and know-it-all horses. The link that holds them all together is their toes and eating habits. Horses, rhinos and tapirs belong to the odd-toed ungulate group and they either browse (eat trees and bushes) or graze (eat grass). On the mammal family tree equids, rhinos and tapirs are in the Perissodactyla order together.

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If you look at the tapir as an evolutionary link to the horse, the connection is easier to believe. A tapir sort of looks like a rhino who has lost all his cool rhino stuff. He does not have the armor and the impalement gear on the face. In fact, I wonder if tapirs are related at all to Gonzo from The Muppets? The tapir also resembles the horse’s oldest relative, the Eohippus.

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The small-as-a-fox Eohippus made its entrance into the world about 50 million years ago. He went from being a forest dwelling, five-toed little critter to the horse we know and love today. Not all at once though. There were many other forms of modern horse-like equids in between. It would be easy to see that maybe, with the rhino horns, a unicorn came out of this family line. Right?

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So the next time you are out with your horse and he huffs and snorts, think about their relative the rhino because they make those sounds too!

Teleporting Calculators

When something is meant to come back to you, it doesn’t matter where you are or what you are doing, it will make its way back. In the meantime, you just keep moving forward or as Dory says in Finding Nemo “Just keep swimming”.

When I was in high school, I loved technology. Today, I have a love/hate relationship with it. But back a few years, it was exciting and engaging as the world was opening to the idea of home computers and mobile phones. That was just yesterday, right? My absolute favorite and most prized possession was a Casio credit card sized calculator. It was so small that it fit into a plastic sleeve and then in my wallet. I carried it everywhere I went and found reasons to whip it out and peck away at the tiny buttons. I had the meaning of life, the universe and everything in my purse (it’s 42 for those of you who forgot), the knowledge of actual money saved on sales, the fun of spelling words in LCD upside down, and the coolness of owning small tech.

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Until, it was gone. Disappeared. No longer in my possession. I had lost it.

Several months later, after my grieving had passed and I had moved on to other cool bits of technology, I happened to be traveling through Colorado. I was on a bus with fellow high school band members waxing musically. At one point, the bus stopped off at a rest stop and we all got out and laid out lunches at the picnic tables. When I was done eating, I got up to throw away my paper lunch bag and was distracted by a small shiny object on the ground under the table. My curiosity won and I reached down and picked it up. I couldn’t believe what I was holding. It was my beloved Casio calculator – in Colorado – at a rest stop. Very weird. But absolutely awesome!

I had to move on, grieve and open my eyes to what was new in front of me before my calculator came back. In fact, I literally had to travel to find it.

I see this loss and finding again happen continuously with horses. It is so easy to fall into a routine and anticipate certain responses or behavioral situations. Maybe, the ride the day before was really, really good. Finally, all the hard work and hours of practice with your trusty mount is paying off. So you expect to pick up from where you left off. But your horse woke up on the wrong side of the stall and is having none of it. This can lead to frustration, confusion and grievance. What happened to that great connection the day before? And, (wait for it….. ) you feel the loss.

Horses are sentient beings with their own perceptions, opinions and consciousness. They change day to day just like we do. However, our expectations don’t always keep up. Expectations must be flexible. The good news is there are other choices besides disappointment. Look forward and see where your horse is mentally and physically. Acknowledge the limits and encourage the good moments for today. You will notice that those great strides you have made with your horse are still there just waiting for you to see them shine once more. Never really lost, but not always seen. Just keep riding and they will come back!

Now, I realize that calculator was small but it served up a very big life lesson. Loss, even as small as a dashed expectation, is not a reason to look backwards. It is the very inspiration to look forward, be in the present and continue to be happily mystified by the world around you.

Ride facing forward, ride in the present and ride deliriously mystified all at once! But most importantly, just keep riding.

Kim

A Cure for the Cinchy Horse

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I was told as a kid that my horse would hold his breath to expand his ribs and make it difficult to tighten the cinch. That is why it was so important to recheck the cinch before mounting. The adults around me made sure I knew how to raise my knee and make hard contact with the underside of my horse’s chest. It was supposed to force the expulsion of air and make it easier for me to tighten. Although encouraged to repeat this exercise over and over, I do not have any memories of my horse suddenly exhaling a wad of hot air like a gasp gone backwards from previously stubborn lips. Instead, it seemed to just annoy him the more I did it.

Then, I became wiser (not older), and rode many young, old, tall, thin, round and short horses. All of them seemed to do best while tacking up as long as they were relaxed. I learned to walk my horse, check the cinch, walk my horse and check it again before mounting. Technically the ribs are immobile and do not expand. A horse cannot bloat ribs by holding its breath. They can, however, tighten their abdominal muscles and brace the tissue. The chest area becomes hard and unyielding. When the horse relaxes, the tissue softens and thus loosens the cinch. So, all those times I used my knee to bang my horse in the chest, I was actually making the problem worse. the resulting pain was giving my horse a reason to protect himself and brace the muscles.

When cinching up your horse, encourage relaxation. Avoid giving a reason for the horse to brace up in the first place. Put your saddle on your horses back and tighten the girth enough to just hold the saddle on. Walk your horse a few steps and then tighten again. Walking a horse helps to disperse anxiety and bracing. The movement helps them to breathe and relax their abdominal muscles. You can repeat the tighten, walk and check again process as many times as necessary to secure the saddle so that it will not slip sideways or back while riding. I repeat this process 3 to 5 times. You should be able to slip a finger at the cinch between the horse’s legs. That is where the most pressure will be. If you cannot slip one or two fingers between the cinch and the skin, you have tightened too much. This can cause other behavior and performance issues that you want to avoid. And make sure to check you cinch just before mounting. That last check is part of good safety habits and is more for you than the horse.

Whether tightening a western cinch or an English girth, the rules and processes are the same. A good fitting saddle does not need to be excessively tightened. I rode my Arab out on a trail riding event a few years ago for several hours. When I got back to the trailer to unsaddle, I was surprised to see daylight between my horse and my girth. I don’t mean just a little itty bit. The girth was hanging a good inch from his chest. His well fitted saddle and my balanced seat had saved us from slippage. Make sure to check that cinch/girth after riding for a while also.

So, to summarize, check your cinch often and help your horse stay relaxed. Every horse wants the cinch to be like Baby Bear’s porridge – juuuuuust riiiiiight. The largest advantage to keeping your horse relaxed in the tacking up process is that it raises the chances of you having an awesome ride!

Watch For The Little Things

Sunny me and Bella

If you think your horse is oblivious to the world, then you would be oblivious to your horse. Horses always know what is going on around them. They have to. It is instinct fueled by the need to survive. And if you are watching them, you can catch their incredibly subtle responses to their environment.

Let’s set the stage; one gelding, one man, one 16 x 8 water obstacle. The horse is being asked to cross the water obstacle by the man via a connected rope halter and lead. He stands at the dirt in front of the water and is driving the gelding through the obstacle by sending the rope forward. But the gelding is refusing and, in fact, sucking up its back feet as close to the front feet as possible looking like a circus act on a small round pedestal. He is staring across the water and preparing to jump. This is a defining moment for the man. Does he push the gelding to cross now or does he wait for the gelding to figure it out, to relax and think?

I stood quietly a few yards away watching the situation unfold, waiting to see how the problem would get sorted out. About 20 minutes of coercion later and an excessive use of pressure, the horse walked through the water. It took the man at the end of the rope and, at the cost of softness, three people deftly positioned in a fan shape at relatively safe distance from back hooves. They used repetitive assertive pressure by swinging ropes, making loud sounds and sometimes stinging the horse with the ends of their ropes. The scene was predatory and smelled of anxiety. When the gelding crossed, a unified cheer arose from the crowd and kudos were offered the man.

But everyone else watching and those participating in helping, missed why the horse even crossed the water at all. They were focused on the show. The horse had braced, balked, reared sideways, struck out and attempted to run backwards to escape the predatory pack around it. It was not a bad horse. It was just a horse, acting on instincts when faced with a lack of confidence and little support.

The gelding had actually crossed because a little quiet mare standing behind and about 6 yards away issued a command. She lifted her eyes, tossed her head in the gelding’s direction and made a “baaaarummmpt” sound that was assertive and bothered. It was a sound an alpha mare would make. Her command was only loud enough for the mare’s handler and me to hear. But it was enough. The gelding had heard it and his response was immediate. He lowered his head, culled his braces and with both bravery and nervousness crossed the water at a walk. I looked at the mare. She had her head down so far her nose was touching the ground. It was like she was conveying a message of safety. “Look. Look at me. It is safe enough for me to eat and relax. Trust me. Pull courage from me.” Through the whole event she never moved her feet or got excited. I suddenly had great respect for this passive leader. She inspired me to follow her leadership demonstration in my future.

Bloated by their success, the man encouraged the gelding to repeat the exercise. The gelding paused at the edge of the water and suggested another balk. The mare’s head rose level to her back. She flattened her ears and snaked out her neck towards the gelding. Her feet were still and her body was relaxed. But again, the mare’s encouragement was enough and the gelding walked slowly across the water with more intention and confidence. A rumble of approval and pleasure trembled through the crowd. And the mare stood quietly with her head lowered to the ground.

It was amazing to watch the power and encouragement delivered via equine language. And it was easy, very easy to miss. I had been standing in the right place at the right time. I had been fortunate and it made my heart swell.

The story could end here but another equine was also responding to the situation. I realized the full meaning minutes after the gelding first crossed the water obstacle. During the event I had been holding the lead rope to a mid-size mule. The mule had responded to the gelding’s stress and anxiety also. He had set himself up to protect us from the commotion. When I started watching the gelding attempt the obstacle, the mule was standing quietly with his head low at my right shoulder. But as the pressure rose and the gelding’s reactions got bigger, he got bothered. His head lifted and he watched intently. Slowly, a step at a time, he moved forward just a few feet. It was so stealthy and calm that I didn’t take notice until I realized I was staring over his back at the gelding. He had placed himself in between the escalating situation and his herd; the mare, her handler and me. After the gelding had crossed twice and the pressure was diffused, the mule backed up, on his own, and placed himself in his original position with his head by my shoulder. I hadn’t given him a cue to backup. He had just put himself back where we started. His job was done and now he stood calmly with his eyes at half mast, relaxed. I gave him a quiet thank you by taking a deep breath and a long exhale relaxing myself. He lowered his head more, looking as if he would fall asleep. The danger had passed. This was his time to conserve energy.

How much of this quiet language do we miss? The mare and the mule were truly great examples of well-timed encouragement and staying calm in the storm. I’ll never forget that day.

Ride Like You Are 5

When I was five years old, I let the world carry me. Free of adult responsibility, the days were filled with wonder, curiosity and a sense of discovery. I remember that recovery was quick from most disappointment. And distractions were clues to the next adventure. I took joy in the small things. Accomplishments were celebrated in small increments. And lofty goals were dreamed of with a touch of vigor and excitement. I enjoy remembering when I was five years old.

As a trainer, I ride many horses but I am teaching, guiding and refining the horse that I’m on. Although I love riding, when I am training, I’m in a working mode and can get caught up in the “work” of it. When I get tired of puzzling out how to get a desired response from a horse, I ride like I am five.  I let go of the need to make the decisions, teach something new, and get the perfect response. It is during that magical moment that the horse gives the best answers and solves the hardest problems. It is when I most enjoy my ride.

When I ride like I am five, I giggle and smile. The ride is no longer about how to reach a desired goal. It becomes a game of discovery instead. I am no longer riding for the sake of getting the horse to do this or that. Instead, I am allowing the horse to carry me from one place to another. I become a passenger with a ticket to discovery.

This letting go of control and trusting my horse frees up the horse to do their job, think on their own and relax under me. I can think from the horse’s perspective and feel with clarity the feet moving under me.

Watonka

When I ride like I am five, I become a centaur. My body blends into the horse and I am moving along with four feet instead of two. I no longer think about cues. I just think about getting from one place to another. If I don’t make it the first time, I just try again giggling the whole way. Mistakes are no longer mistakes. They are tiny increments to celebrate as we move towards a larger accomplishment, an opportunity to practice using my centaur legs. This is the way to making mistakes with a happy heart, smiling as I learn.

Riding this way reminds me that it is never the horse’s fault. It allows me to participate on a deeper non-mechanical manner. And I am able to maintain a secure balance while the horse carries me. The reins are slack with soft contact and the horse is relaxed.

I tell my students to ride like they are five but some struggle to let go of the decision making and control of each step. It is hard for them to trust that the horse wants to do the job and is willing to align to personal desires. I remove the reins from their tight grip and lead their horse around the arena. Only the adults say at first they feel silly. But then their inner five year old begins to show through. Their concerns melt away. They relax into the gentle movement of a walk and their wonder shines through. I hear a lot of “Oh, I’ve never felt that before” or “I didn’t realize I moved with my horse that way.” By the time we are done with the lesson, I am vicariously riding with them, giggling and smiling like I am five.

Ride like you are 5 years old.

Kim

My Pretty Little Pinky

This is a repost from a blog that no longer exists. I really liked the explanation and thought it would be a good post to revive…. Hope you enjoy!

Why is the pinky finger tucked under the reins when riding using two hands?

I rode western as a kid out on the cattle ranch in Texas, on the trails and on five day rides through streets and sprawls of land with large groups of riders. And I started as a small person. My dad had me start learning my reining technique using two hands and a simple snaffle. I can remember him getting after me if I placed my pinky finger over the reins when riding. So as an instructor I’ve always told my students to do the same. But then someone asked me why and to my surprise I was stumped.

Why did I tuck my pinky finger under my rein? After screwing up my face a little and staring at the ceiling, I remembered two reasons my dad gave me. 1) It’s small and we don’t wanna hurt that pretty little finger. Cowboy translation: The pinky finger is weak and by tucking, it greatly reduces the chances of injury. He used to give me the example of how a strong headed horse would pull the reins through my hands and possibly roll or twist the pinky. 2) Let the fingers do the job. Cowboy translation: When the rein enters between the pinky and the ring finger and exits between the thumb and index finger, the grip is stronger. The security of the hold is stronger as well.

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There are times when using the pinky on top of the reins comes in handy. When using a western leverage bit or when learning to use a double bridle in english riding a rider will wrap the finger around the reins. Some people just feel more comfortable with all their fingers around the rein and that’s OK too. But when using a snaffle or direct reining technique where there is no leverage and the rings of the bit are directly at the horse’s mouth, having the rein between the pinky and ring finger is the standard and most adopted position.

The thumb and index fingers are our gripping fingers and the bottom two fingers are our talking fingers. Talking fingers are a way to create quiet mini conversations with our horse without ever having to grip hard, pull or tighten our elbows and shoulders. If our trusted mount is too busy thinking about his next meal and he does not respond to your talking fingers, then the gripping fingers engage and demand an answer. Keeping the pinky tucked under the rein when using a snaffle bit simply gives us a steady hand to communicate softly but assertively. I’ll probably always use the tucked pinky technique myself because it’s the first method I learned. And…. I don’t wanna hurt my pretty little finger.