Friday, March 26, 2010

Loading Tatanka with my new crew!

I just posted a story about a horse named Tatanka when I suddenly realized I'd not mentioned his loading "story".  So, I will tell it here briefly because it is quite interesting and telling.

During the weeks and months that I was working with Tatanka and his new owners it was slowly revealed that Tatanka did not like trailers.  He disliked them to such an extent that it was just short of impossible to load him or transport him especially in a non-stock trailer where he felt more confined; the exact kind of trailer his new owners had. 

As days and weeks slid by in Tatanka's training the owners and I would often find ourselves discussing the inevitable upcoming trailer training. All horse owners know what a problem it can be to have a horse that is a pain to load and transport.  It can be incredibly frustrating not to mention extremely embarrassing and even dangerous.  At the same time, if we think about it, it makes total sense that horses instinctively just don't like to get closed-up in those steel boxes; I can relate to that. So, we knew that one day soon it would be time to change Tatanka's attitude regarding loading and trailers.

First, we all know that if a horse is put in and out of different trailers from an early age, as part of their training, most of the time there are absolutely no issues.  We also know that the longer we wait to introduce horses to the whole trailer deal the more difficult it can be. And let's not forget that if we introduce a horse to trailering with aggression or violence then, quite naturally, they are going to become afraid and will not trust.  After all what we are really teaching the horse is not necessarily to go into the trailer but to trust us and when they learn to trust us then they will do just about anything for us. The perfect training scenario is to begin by putting a mare, that knows how to load, and her baby into a trailer as soon as the baby can walk, and when I'm working with babies that is a daily aspect of their training routine.  Also, I will use as many different types of trailers as possible and I never, ever get impatient or aggressive, that's a sure-fire way of causing a problem that can last a very long time.

The day finally came for me to see what the scoop was with Tatanka's trailer story. I was thinking that more than likely his difficulty had more to do with the people and their lack of patience and solid technique.  I could hardly imagine that this horse was going to be a problem because for the past weeks I couldn't have asked for a more willing and obedient horse. None-the-less, I gave myself a large time window because the last thing to do is to bring even the slightest feeling of "hurry-up" into the situation. Horses feel "hurry-up" right away and then get suspicious and basically say no. One must simply create an atmosphere of "I've got at least nine years to get this done" and then it will normally take only minutes. The bottom line is to create a situation and an atmosphere where the horse eventually just kind of yawns and saunters in because he wants to and doesn't feel any pressure or anxiety.  As a matter of fact, when they do go in, after no matter how much time it has taken, I'll simply take them right back out again, very softly and quietly, so the pressure is taken off immediately. There's an old saying regarding horses: "act like you have five minutes and it will take you five hours, act like you have five hours and it will take you five minutes".

The first day Tatanka was somewhat worried about the trailer but nothing like I might have expected after what I'd heard. After about fifteen minutes of just letting him stand at the step-up he put both front feet inside and then stepped back out again. Something suddenly said I should end the session for the day and when I thought about it I realized it was a good idea. I had weeks to accomplish the task so why should I hurry and risk causing a problem.  All things considered I felt Tatanka and I had accomplished a lot for the first day.  I should also mention here that one of the issues I had to be concerned about was that, from what I'd been told, he had previously reared-up inside the trailer and banged his head on the trailer roof so that was one of my major concerns; to get him to go in and out of the trailer without even the thought of rearing. Each time a horse rears in a trailer the more he becomes frightened and the harder it is to eventually overcome the bad memories. It is truly an art to teach an older horse, a horse with issues, to load and to trailer without incident.  A little hint here is that I had to make sure I was totally relaxed and calm about the whole thing because horses tap into our energy and act accordingly. If I get anxious the horse will feel it for sure.

At this point I should say that when I am training a horse to do anything I do not really concentrate too much on what it is I'm wanting the horse to do or to learn.  I simply spend time admiring, rubbing and talking to the horse and then when the horse least expects it I'll slip-in the question in such a soft and subtle way that he can't help but answer: to occupy his senses in such a profound way with admiration and the feeling of "you can take forever if you like".  Training speeds along when one creates this type of atmosphere.  And horses love it that we don't bring our world of hurry-up and noise to them.  That's a great part of most people's difficulty with horses; horses just can't handle our world of chaos, aggression and noise not to mention violence.

The second day Tatanka and I stood at the step-up to the trailer once again.  It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and it was warm.  I was in no hurry and could have stood there with Tatanka for the entire day.  It certainly wasn't a bad spot to be.  Within two minutes Tatanka stepped-up into the trailer with his front feet and I immediately and softly asked him to back out again.  This happened two or three times and the fourth time I led him to the front of the trailer where he stood quietly and ate his hay.  We've done this every week now for some months and now my new little helper friends Avery and Dawson hang-out with Tatanka while Trish, their Grandmother, gives our special boy a good brushing.  Later with Dawson in the manger while Tatanka munches hay it solidifies the experience as special and unique for everyone. Thanks Avery, Trish and Dawson for your help , you brought just the perfect element of relaxation and calm to the situation.

Tatanka loads and transports like a champion now and I believe this is because there was not one moment during his trailer training when I allowed him to become concerned. Between the touching, soft words, genuine concern for his well-being and Avery and Dawson's tender touches and innocence Tatanka trusted and that's all there is to it.  Good job Tatanka and hats off to the boys. It's amazing what one can accomplish with patience, honest-to-goodness caring and just a tiny touch of creativity.  It keeps me coming back for more that's for sure.  

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Tatanka the Outlaw?

As I drove up to the ranch it was pretty difficult to miss all the action.  People were running here and there and as I observed the situation closer I noticed a well built sorrel horse who didn't seem to want to be caught.  I later found out that they'd just unloaded him to his new home and he'd broken loose and everyone and their sister was scurrying around trying to figure out how to catch this bad boy.

I'd never been to this ranch before. I'd been hired over the telephone to come take a look at a few Mustangs that some people wanted to put under saddle. I'd pretty much learned in my travels to keep my nose out of other people's business especially if it appeared that there were all ready enough cooks in the kitchen.  In the horse business, especially if one has been around for awhile, one gets a gut feeling when to offer assistance and when to just let things work themselves out. Plus, in our modern world we've become obsessed with doing and to a great extent we have forgotten about the simple art of allowing things to be.  I'm still working on that one.

I parked my truck, spoke with the people about the Mustangs and was observing one of the Mustangs in the round pen when the owner of the ranch approached and asked if I'd have time when I was finished to assess the outlaw horse that had finally been caught.  I have to say that I like outlaw horses.  It is a pleasure to work with their spirits and in some ways I have always felt a curious bond with them; kind of like the exciting opportunity of meeting Jesse James face to face.  I couldn't wait to meet this rebel.

When I was finished with the Mustang I walked over to the indoor arena where the owners of the outlaw horse were talking with the ranch owner.  It seemed that this horse, who they had only owned for a short period of time, had just arrived to the ranch that very day.  He'd broken free while being unloaded from the trailer and had decided to check-out the joint on his own.  You just have to love that about some horses; if they want to do something they're dog gone big enough to usually get their way; and if we're not dealing with them in an honorable manner, heck, they'll just walk away. We should feel lucky that they don't give us a good kick or headbutt prior to exiting.  Bless them for their honesty and courage.

It turns-out the horses name is Tatanka which means Buffalo in the Native American Lakota Sioux language.  He's eight years old, a gelding, about twelve hundred pounds and a nice sorrel with a little white on his left hind foot, a tiny white marking between his eyes and a brand on his right shoulder.  The story goes that the present owner who had just bought Tatanka bought him for a song because he'd tossed his old owner in the dirt a few too many times so down the pipe he was to go.  The new owners wanted my opinion of this outlaw.

Tatanka was brought into the indoor arena and handed to me.  I turned him loose in order to observe his attitude; to see if he was going to ignore me, go to the other end of the arena, stand by me, try to attack me or whatever. For me that's the best way to begin to get a handle on what's going-on inside a horses head; turn him loose in an enclosed area and just watch how he does or doesn't relate.

I should say right here that I never buy a story that comes with a horse and I normally recommend that people adopt the same policy.  I may keep the story that comes with a horse resting lightly in the back of my mind but I never buy it so as to say that this is the way this horse is. The story isn't the horse anyway.  The story's just the story and usually has more to do with who's telling it than with the horse involved.  As I looked into Tatanka's eyes, from moment number one, I didn't see an outlaw at all. From that first time I laid eyes on him I knew I could have saddled him right then and there and it wouldn't have been even a tad of a problem.  As a matter of fact that's just about what happened.  

I groomed him for about twenty minutes that first day because, as I've mentioned in some of my other Blog posts, it's a great way to understand tons of things about the horse in question.  Answers and understandings come a mile a minute when I'm grooming a horse.  The horse is offering-up so much information it's difficult to keep track of it all.  Our Tatanka stood square, still and didn't give even the slightest iota of difficulty.  The Native Americans have a saying as they place their fist over the heart and that is that we get back from the horse what we bring to the horse.  I could write a book on that statement but for right now I'll just say Amen.

I was riding Tatanka within twenty minutes; walk, trot and canter and although he was a bit rusty with the aids and clumsy with his gaits he wanted to please me.  Right in the middle of the ride, as I also mentioned in one or more of my other posts, I dismounted and walked away.  Without missing a step here comes the outlaw right behind me saying with this gesture "Hey, come on, let's do more".  So I mounted once again and off we rode.

So, this horse Tatanka was totally different from his story and if he is approached with gentleness, humility and a kind touch he will be the same for anyone because I'm not that different from anyone else.  I just know that, with horses, I'll get back what I bring to the game; and most times I'll get it now if not sooner. I meet a lot of horses in my travels and Tatanka is a gem. I fell for that horse right off the bat. He's a smart horse and a courageous horse.  If a person comes to him with violence or stupidity, as I feel was the case with his previous owner, then he will stand-up for himself and I take my hat off to him for that.  Generally, horses take a lot of crap from people and many horses, being incredibly intelligent and not wanting trouble, understand their predicament and heartbreakingly (probably not a word) resign themselves to their sad plight.  But once in a while we meet a horse with an incredible heart; a horse that would rather die than conform.  Tatanka, in his matter-of-fact and gentle manner, is just such a horse. You've just gotta love a horse like this.

We humans, like our horses, are asked more and more every day to conform and I pretty much think that many of us also go along because we just don't want any trouble.  But there comes a time when enough is simply enough; when we'd, in this moment, rather fight than switch.  This is the world some of our horses live in and God bless them for their courage.  Thank you Tatanka for being the horse that you are and for allowing me into your sacred world.  I will never forget you.  I still have the honor to ride Tatanka weekly for the new owners and it is my great pleasure to spend time with him.  The new owners of Tatanka understand the heart thing and I am thankful. 


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

How we touch our horses

I'm often called to ride other people's horses and I've learned a lot by doing so. I'd like to share some of my insights with you; insights that I personally feel are not only helpful in most horse/people scenarios but insights that can allow us humans to enter into the wonderful inner world of the majestic horse.  

Many times our world of noise, violence and hurry-up is taken to our horses. Horses don't live in that chaotic world, they live in a soft and quiet world and this is one of the reasons we get ourselves into so much turmoil when we go to our horses. There are a few very simple ways we can approach our horses in order to enhance our odds of creating a situation that works rather than a shituation where someone gets the snot beat out of them whether that is physically, mentally or emotionally.

Whenever I go to meet a horse for the first time I always take my grooming gear.  I always, without exception, spend the first 20 or 30 minutes grooming and touching the horse. This time spent is invaluable in that it gives me the opportunity to touch the horse absolutely everywhere, or at least attempt to, and it offers a unique window through which I can observe the attitude and responses of the horse.Does he like me? Is he just tolerating me? Would he rather be sailing? This time spent grooming and touching can speak volumes about the mind and attitude of horse. Horses don't lie, we've all heard that said, so let's take the opportunity to learn from his honesty and to adjust our approach accordingly.

At this point I'd like to say there are many ways a person can touch a horse. A touch is not a touch is not a touch. I often watch people I first meet when they go to pet my wonderful dog Mr. Parker.  He and I are pretty much together 24/7 so if I'm around then Mr. Parker is not far away. I've watched people bonk my dog on the head as though his head was a watermelon and they were testing for ripeness. Needless to say I didn't hesitate to inform them that I'd appreciate it if they'd cease with the bonking. I've witnessed the same thing with people and their horses. Maybe people are inhibited by the mere size of horses and for this reason they feel inclined to slap on them and be rough with them but whatever the reason, believe me, you'll have great difficulty entering the horses world being rough. And if the horse's world cannot be entered then we remain an outsider and if we remain an outsider then we will never really experience these creatures. If we spend time around and with horses without entering into their world we will never ever really be with them and we will never know their wonder.

It is true that people don't change overnight, or at least most people don't. We've all heard that said however, I none-the-less continually remind people to touch the horse as though it is their favorite child or grandchild. Sometimes I immediately see more tenderness with the next touch but often the slapping and the bonking continues uninterrupted. A touch originates in the heart and the heart is the deepest part of our being. In the German language the word for compassion is mitgefuel which roughly translated means to feel with. Unless we can "feel with", whether we are talking about animals or people, we remain isolated; an outsider and alone.

So, the first twenty or thirty minutes I spend with a horse is my way of requesting permission to enter the horse's inner sanctuary. If he doesn't respond at first then I will intentionally be even more gentle and more quiet and even more soft. And even after only a few moments with a horse, when that horse doesn't know me from Adam, it is incredible to watch the horse open the inner gate and let me in. When I am in the presence of a horse I continuously touch and admire them with my whole being. Horses are so ready to trust and are so willing to forgive and forget. But they will not allow us inside if we are not worthy. So, what I say is, let's learn how to become worthy.
Learn to touch horses as you would pick-up a wounded butterfly or a tiny bird that has fallen from the nest. A touch can say a thousand words and mean a thousand things. As I stated before, you will never truly enter the horses world without a soft touch. A royal seal stands between you and the gateway into the horses inner world and that seal is flung open by earnest heart-felt  tenderness, respect and humility.

See how softly you can go to your horse. See if you can shut down the unending quacking monkey mind which confuses and irritates not only ourselves but terribly irritates the horse. Work towards becoming ever more gentle and watch what happens; a new world will open before you and you will see the horse differently from that moment forward. A true friend, with great honor, will step forward out of the mist to stand by your side and you will be amazed.


Monday, March 8, 2010

Butkus, the horse that wouldn't load?

I was living, training horses and running an equine transport business in the beautiful Santa Ynez Valley just north of Santa Barbara, California.  I remember a phone call I received one day from a woman who wanted a horse delivered to a destination about two hours distance from her home.  She lived about an hour north of the Santa Ynez Valley so for me it was about a six-hour job; no problem.  However, at the very end of our conversation the woman mentioned, and oddly quite incidentally, that the horse had not loaded into a trailer in many years and that when they'd previously attempted the act well, he just wouldn't load.  She asked me if I'd had experience with such horses and I told her quite frankly that it would not be a problem.  Our horse, a stout 16h2, 1300 pound x-police horse was named Butkus. 

For anyone who doesn't know that name I'll briefly say that Dick Butkus was a pro NFL linebacker for the Chicago Bears in the 1960's.  Many still believe him to be one of the best linebackers to ever play the game of professional football.  A word that was often used to describe Butkus' playing style was ferocious.  The NFL offensive teams he played against dreaded this linebacker to death - he was an animal while wearing his famous #51 joursey and he just never stopped his assault while on the field.

As I was driving the next day to pick-up our Mr. Butkus I began to wonder if he could have anything in common with or was maybe even named after our ferocious Hall of Fame linebacker.  Suddenly my mind began to dance around the possibility that I'd not be able to load him either. And why in the heck was I so confident anyway?  And the hassle and embarrasement if I didn't get him loaded plus my horse trainer ego that would more than likely get a serious lesson in humility   And maybe there'd be a crowd of people watching this confident and professional horse transporter not get Mr. Butkus loaded.  Oh Lord, I thought. 

I arrived at the address and since I'd telephoned from fifteen minutes out the woman came to the door before I'd gotten out of the rig.  Somehow I'll never forget the visual of the woman at 11:30 in the morning in her pink bathrobe with a head full of those foamy curlers my sisters wore prior to their dates in the 1950's.  I'll never forget being confused when my sisters would meet with their boyfriends on the very day of a date, with those curlers in their hair, so they'd be beautiful that evening for the date.  I never could wrap my head around that.
Anyway, the woman yelled to me as I stepped out of the cab that her husband would bring Butkus around in a moment so I proceeded to open the trailer doors and prepare for our, by now famous at least in my head, Mr. Butkus.  As I watched in the direction the woman had indicated I suddenly saw the husband and Butkus rounding the corner.  It was quite clear who was bringing who.  The husband had his hands full as Butkus was pushing and pulling him every which way but loose.  They both stopped about five feet in front of me, the man huffing and puffing and eager to hand the monster over to me.  Butkus didn't seem to be flustered in the least, he was used to throwing his weight around and he seemed to like it.  

Butkus was a classis chessnut gelding and really nothing flashy at all although his size was imposing. He had a small white blaze between his eyes and not a hint of white on his feet.  Horsemen know that one can learn a lot from observing a horse's eye.  There are horses with wild eyes, confused eyes, confident eyes, soft eyes, why me eyes, hurt eyes and just about anything and everything inbetween.  Unfortunately, there was no softness in Butkus' eye but there was a well rehearsed confidence and a difficult to be confused with anything other than a look of I'm da boss round these parts.

The man handed me the lead rope and quickly stepped back four feet and put his arm around his wife who by now had joined us at the curb. Wanting to get further information on this horse and his history, so I might get some sort of handle as to how to proceed,  I asked the man, and the curler-headed woman what would usually happen when others had tried loading Butkus in the past.  Well, the man said, he'd always walk right up to that trailer door like he was going to walk right in and he'd even put his front feet in.  Then, when we would think he was going to walk right in he'd shoot backwards like a rocket and stand ten feet away from the trailer door just looking at everyone like they were idiots.  Naturally I was to learn that when Butkus would put those two feet in the trailer the usual procedure was that then the people trying to load him would start their pushing, pulling and whipping etc.  This is what he'd do just about every time someone attempted to load him and in the years past various people had showed-up with pully's and ropes and gadgets to use on Mr. Butkus but he never did load, not once. Those who thought they could come into their fame and break Butkus' routine would invariably end-up walking away after som ehours, humbled sweaty and tired, bent gadgets and gizmos in hand and shaking their heads never to be seen again.

So it appeared quite obvious that I was just the next in line for our little game of I da boss.  In my horse training I'd learned to shut-off my mind in situations like this, to empty everything from inside in order to stand empty and ready to receive inspiration and intuition and that's what I was praying for at this moment. Sure enough I slowly but matter-of factly walked Butkus to the trailer door and sure enough he put his front feet inside and then shot backwards just as I was told he'd do. Then he just looked at me as to say "you know the deal, I heard you and the two idiots over there talking about it so get a grip would ya?" I walked Butkus, who was now acting like nothing had ever happened, around the yard for a few moments, rubbed on him a bit and prayed again, but harder this time, for inspiration.  I walked him back to the trailer and the exact same thing happened again.  In butkus' eye one could even see he enjoyed this.  He knew exactly what I, and all the others from the past, wanted but I began to understand that this was his way of having some control in his life.  Otherwise he's just a prisoner with no say in anything.  Butkus waited for guys like me to show-up so he could play his game  I'm sure he'd just keep on playing this game all day long if didn't just plain tucker folks out so much. 

We have to remember that horses adopt what we consider to be difficult behavior as a result of having to hang around and put up with idiots or people who don't know a darn thing about these incredible animals. They're fenced-in, neglected most of the time, improperly fed, psychologically, emotionally and physically abused, taken away from family and friends of the past, yanked around by people who are clueless as to who they are so horses often choose behaviors that work for them in order to survive all the crap; much like children with abusive parents for that matter.  Sor horses this behavior can mean kicking, biting, bucking, ignoring and even attacking people to name just a few: the list goes on and on. I feel that if horses didn't do this they would eventually just go crazy.  In all my years of training and being around horses and horse people I'd offer one fundamental pearl of wisdom and that is that most horse people don't have a curley clue about these animals and that they need to go away and come back later with a grip. And I'll dedicate an entire post to this subject later but for now let's get back to our Mr. Butkus.

As I was walking Butkus back towards the trailer for the fourth time I really wasn't quite sure what was going to happen but I had the inclination that it could just be a whole lot of what had transpired up until now.  Then a rather strange and amazing thing happened.  As Butkus and I walked back towards the trailer and as he stepped his front feet inside a very gentle and subtle force guided my hand to simply back him out of the trailer.  As I look back on that day and as I run through it again and again in my mind I realize that a force outside of myself stepped in , took my hand ever so gently and simply took a very soft step out of the trailer.  And that was the instant that changed Butkus' world forever. Let me tell you that since that day and never prior to that day had I seen such a look in a horse's eye. It was kind of like the deer's eyes in the headlights in a sort of way.  It was actually comical. Our Mr. Butkus just couldn't compute this new game. Again I walked him back up to the trailer and did the same thing.  He stepped inside the trailer with his front feet and quickly, gently and softly I asked him to step back out, before he was quick enough to implement his routine.  Once again there was that look of disbelief on his face.

Next, and without hesitation, I walked to the rear of the trailer with Butkus under lead, stepped-in and walked into the trailer until the lead rope was fully extended and just waited. Suddenly, and without further adieu, Butkus stepped into the trailer and walked right past me to the window and poked his head out as though he did this every day of his life and what was the big deal? I closed the partition and there he was our ferocious linebacker; our Mr. Butkus, jersey number 51 of the Chicago Bears,  had loaded without a problem.  I'm not totally sure about this but I've considered that maybe this little trick of sorts had, in a harmless manner, blown Butkus' mind. Or maybe at that instant he had himself decided he didn't want to play his game anymore or that he'd just plain and simple been out-foxed him. 

No matter what had really happened that day I delivered Butkus to his destination without incident, said a heartfelt goodbye to this horse I would never, ever forget and proceeded on my way.I called the people about six months later and asked if Butkus was once again up to his trailering game and they said that from that day on he would jump right in without a fuss.

I can't take even the slightest responsibility for that instant of inspiration that changed a portion of Butkus' life and most certainly saved me from possible hours of frustration. I've taught horses to load for many years now and as horse folks know, if a horse doesn't want to load, sure we have our tricks and sometimes they even work, but if that one horse out of ten thousand doesn't feel like it you just might as well pack your lunch and go fishin and come back another day.  Because if you stick around and keep forcing the issue, you can have a monster fight on your hands and it'll certainly ruin your day and maybe even your week.

As I was walking towards the trailer I believe a Presence that just happened to be in the area decided to have some fun.  That presence probably saw my predicament and intervened for the very briefest instant at exactly the right time and everything was changed.  It is an understatement to say I learned a lot that day.  Life gave me a blessing and now that blessing sits gently in my bag of horse tricks to pass-on to folks like you.  There's a lesson here and if you add it to your bag of tricks also it can save mountains of time in the right or wrong situation.  


Friday, March 5, 2010

How our energy affects our horses. Soft training techniques to enter the horses world!


I was hired to work with some baby horses at a ranch in Central California some years ago.  It turned out to be a learning experience that would seriously affect all fundamental areas of my working with and training horses.   

One day I had four baby horses in the round pen together.  I was observing their interactions and was having fun watching how they were relating to each other.  Of course, as I watched, I realized that each little horse quite naturally had a very unique personality and way of relating to the other horses.  It is not only very informative to observe horses without interfering but if a person can just watch their actions objectively a lot can be learned and training techniques can be modified and altered to fit each horse's personality.

On this particular day I felt very relaxed myself and the setting of all four little horses together put me at ease inside of myself.  It was early in the morning and we were all just waking up and beginning our day.  I decided to take my relaxed feeling and to consciously work with it to see how it would affect the horses.  Looking back I'm not really sure where such a thought came from but I didn't have a big agenda at that particular time in the morning so I went with my intuition.  I simply went into the round pen and sat on the ground as though I really had no ideas about what should or could happen.  I just quieted myself and became relaxed and soft;  no anxiety or expectations or desires for anything to be other than how it was at that moment.  

I continued to observe the little horses as I sat there, and suddenly I found that as I became relaxed and let's say "empty inside" of my mind churning away - and all that inner noise - suddenly one little horse laid down right at my back - kerplunk.  He was actually leaning against me.  The next thing I knew another little horse plopped down.  I consciously relaxed myself even further and a third little horse and then a fourth plunked down.  

Suddenly there I was, sitting in the round pen, with four little four-month-old horses lying all around me.  As many people know young horses and horses in general will not normally give up their flight mechanism option or go off their feet unless they feel very safe, relaxed.  That's pretty much a rule.  

Since that day I've learned more and more about how horses can and do constantly read our inner world and energy.  I've also learned that horses are incredibly sensitive to energy in general and in particular to human energy.  Many people get themselves into trouble because they either don't understand this fact or because the exercise of consciously working with the inner energy is unfamiliar and/or unknown.  

I've often been called to various situations in which horses are said to be difficult or aggressive or unwilling to do this, that or the other.  The first thing I do is to consciously drop my energy, adopt an unthreatening body posture, consciously manifest feelings in my inner world of admiration, appreciation for the animal in front of me and invariably the horse's attitude and demeanor changes from night to day in an instant.

To further comment on this theory I remember some years ago I was discussing horses and energy with a man who once and operates a therapeutic riding facility in Germany.  He stated that a particular horse would relate totally differently to adults and totally differently to disabled children.  I found this idea quite remarkable and this is where my energy work began with horses.

I urge people who spend time around horses to experiment with this energy work.  I believe that, like me, you will find a treasure chest of possibilities in this area of relating to horses not to mention that the human to horse relationships will blossom and enter dimensions of communication and fulfillment that are new and unbelievably exciting to say the least.  Have fun and enjoy the process of exploration.


Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Noah & Val: Two Mustangs to put under saddle

 I was invited to a restaurant one evening here in Central Oregon to meet some horse people.  Supposedly there was a couple who had just recently adopted a few Mustangs and the word was that they might need some assistance in bringing the Mustangs further along in their training.  For some reason I favor working with Mustangs, not because they are easier to work with, because that's not usually the case but because I deeply appreciate and respect their integrity and their honesty.  Generally, and to a great extent, unlike domestic horses, Mustangs shoot from the hip and are brutally honest.  I like that even though that kind of honesty can be painful at times. 

I met the couple and we briefly discussed the two young horses.  Both horses were about three years old and both, I believe, had the same mother but had different sires.  Or maybe it was the other way around.  Anyway, we agreed to meet at the boarding facility where the horses were being boarded the following week.  I was excited to meet and work with these beautifully spirited animals.  My job was to gentle them and to put them under saddle. 

The young woman had adopted a buckskin gelding named Noah and her husband had adopted a cute-as-a button little bay mare named Valentine or Val.  Both horses were small, quite normal for Mustangs, and measured about 14h1 or 2 I'd say.  Right off the bat I realized that Val, the little mare, had her mare thing going which means, and I don't mean anything condescending here, but she was simply being a fussy, protective and somewhat difficult female.  And considering the mare's roll within the herd in the wild one has to have respect and admiration for these traits even though they can be sooooooo "I'm-the-bossy female" at times. 
The little gelding, Noah, right away seemed as though he wanted to get along.  Right off the bat he was taking to the ground-work in a very easy manner and he quickly learned and accepted walking over a tarp, having the tarp draped over him,  having ropes touch him on his legs and back, umbrellas, balloons, blankets tossed over him etc.  That is a major aspect of the work; getting Noah and Val to accept these things and to resign themselves to the understanding that nothing was going to happen to them and that these items, although unfamiliar, would cause them no harm.  At the same time a major part of this process is that the horses naturally associate me, the trainer, with the desensitization process so they also learn to trust me.  Survival mechanisms run exceptionally clean and clear in Mustangs so it is important to allow them to express their honesty in the training process whenever it surfaces but my job was to continue introducing these elements slowly, gently and without fuss into their world until they understood that they were harmless; basic sacking-out techniques.

At this point I should say that I have come across what has turned-out to be a very powerful training technique that I use especially on these types of horses; Mustangs that is.  I busy myself with grooming and endearing myself to the horse, just rubbing on them and touching them everywhere and talking to them and then within that context I ask the horse to, for example, take one step back or take one step forward or give me the front foot etc.   I never make a fuss.  As soon as they comply with say that one step back I simply continue softly and gently grooming or rubbing or touching.  In this way the horse is learning without even knowing it because the learning is taking place in a very calm and comfortable setting kind of disguised by other pleasant and non- threatening activities.  

As an example of this I remember an eighty-five year old acupuncturist I'd met while living in Germany many years ago.  He'd have the needles in you before you'd noticed what was happening.  You had to be extremely aware and quick to catch him putting the needles in.  He was a true artist.  He'd put you on the table, get everything ready and then he'd ask you a question or say something and just at that instant when you were thinking about what he'd said  - bingo - the needle was in.  This is kind of what I'm referring to with the training method.  Groom, rub, touch, soft, quiet, whisper, ask the question and get a response then right back to groom, rub, touch, soft, quiet, whisper.  The process is basically uninterrupted and it happens in a fluid uninterrupted manner.
Anyway, by now four weeks had gone by and still Noah was getting gold stars daily.  He was taking the saddle pad, saddle and I'd begun putting weight in the stirrup and bellying over.  Val was also getting gold stars but she continued to be a tad reluctant, she was hesitant to really commit herself.  You could look at her and see the gears turning in her head.  Sometimes, in the middle of training, she would just stand in the middle of the arena staring at me without moving a muscle.  What in the world was all this to mean she was thinking.  And how much do I need to relinquish.  By nature her job is to protect herself and her herd in the wild and trusting quickly was simply not her nature.  I knew she would come along if I just continued to be patient.  But by now she had also taken the saddle and saddle pad and I was also bellying over on her.  She was coming along.

Then the day came for me to throw my leg over and to sit on their backs.  All the ground work until this time had been leading up to this point in time.  Both horses accepted me immediately and we even took a few steps that first day.  I remember that Val stood there for quite a while with me on her back before taking that very  first step into her new life.  I never force them to move in those beginning stages.  I just wait till they feel comfortable to take the first steps.  Sitting on their backs is one thing but when they finally take that first step and feel the weight up above them this is when young horses can become fearful and take to flight or to bucking.  Noah and Val took that first step without incident.  From the saddle I'd rub on them and talk to them and comfort them that everything was o.k.. 

Soon we were walking around the arena.  I kept a light, soft hold on their faces with the hackamore so that they would not forget that I was there because that is another good way to get in trouble.  If they forget you're there and then suddenly they realize it they can become startled and again bolt or buck.  That's why I keep a constant soft feel on their face with the hackamore at the beginning.  Within a few weeks we had also learned the trot without incident.  Each gate i.e. walk, trot and canter have levels of difficulty and fear with young horses.  Just because a horse will walk quietly with you on their back does not mean that a trot and canter are also acceptable.  For this reason it is careful work to gently bring a young horse up into the next gate gracefully and without problems. 

By this time, which is about two months later, Val and Noah were pretty much running parallel in their training.  Saddling, grooming, tarps, umbrellas, walking behind them, even loud noises had all become pretty much accepted.  And we were even riding in the outdoor arena and then even around the ranch.  It was still necessary to be extremely careful with these young horses because an accident or a wreck as they are called could set the training program back quite a bit so it was very important to continue to be extremely watchful.  

Noah was doing exceptionally well.  I'd ridden him on the trail all around the ranch but, until now, I'd not asked him for the canter.  One day in the arena the moment felt right and I opened the door for the canter and he accepted and cantered a few steps on his left lead and since we were headed into the corner of the arena I brought him quickly back to the trot.  Next I decided to ask him for the right canter but my mistake was that I asked for it on the straight away.  I think that opening on the straightaway confused him when he saw all that room and he bolted heading straight for the panels at the end of the arena.  And believe me this all happened in an instant.  One instant all was well and the next instant he had bolted.  Just before Noah reached the end of the arena going full speed (and I had visions of him crashing into the panels) he turned like a shot to the right and I went flying off straight into the panels.  I crashed into the panels like one would if one were to hit a trampoline sideways.  I hit, bounced off, hit the ground and stood up and began brushing myself off wondering how come I wasn't broken somewhere.  So, I mounted him again and we finished our ride at the walk and trot for that day.  But of course I was thinking about how the incident could have been avoided and I always look for where I could have done things differently.

Two days later the owner was leading Noah to the arena for me to work with him and he was being difficult and was challenging her authority, not wanting to be led into the arena.  That should have been my hint for the day because when he did come into the arena there was something new in his eye.  From my experience I know that horses in training can take five steps forward then two steps back and then two steps forward and six steps back so their learning from day to day is not always linear and constantly going forward.  It seemed that Noah was right in the middle of taking some steps backwards in his training for whatever reason and I just didn't act on it.  I should have known not to mount him on that day.  Hindsight being 20/20 I know now that I should have taken him back into the round pen and re-established leadership and herd hierarchy.   

So, my mistake was that I mounted him and he again immediately, as two days prior, bolted and turned on a nickel this time to the left, tossing me head-first into the ground.  Right before I hit the ground I turned my head quickly to the left so I wouldn't land on my head and I hit the ground on the tip of my right shoulder.  I heard something crunch and for a few seconds I imagined that it was my neck.  But after standing-up and brushing myself-off and attempting to mount once again I realized I couldn't lift my right arm - so I figured the shoulder had been broken.  The x-rays confirmed a broken scapula and four broken ribs.

Meanwhile, as Noah was taking some steps backwards Val was blossoming and stepping into herself.  She'd calmed down, was much more sure of herself and was taking huge steps into her new world under saddle.  That's the last time I rode Noah or Val.  I turned them over to a good, soft young trainer who will take them from where I had brought them in their training. 

At 62 years old I guess I must finally realize that I just might have to stop my work with putting Mustangs under saddle.  It can be a rough business even on the best of days and even if just about everything is done correctly.  There comes a time for such changes in life I guess.  I love those little Mustangs and I thank them for offering me the great pleasure to get to know some of them.  It was a ride or rides that I'll never forget.   

Monday, March 1, 2010

In memory of Rio - a little wounded horse that, given the chance, strutted his stuff.

I worked at a ranch in Central California for about a year.  There were ten or twelve head of horses on the ranch and they basically had the run of the 20 acre hacienda.  Other than the fenced-off area right around the house the horses ran where they liked, up on the hills, down the ranch roads, out back by the back gate.  As soon as I would drive through the gate in the morning and across the cattle-guard I would always be greeted by one or more of the horses and little Rio was always there.

Rio was a small white Arab gelding and was about twenty years old from what I was told by the owner.  He was not one of the prettier horses nor was he considered to be worth very much at all by the other horses or by various people that frequented the ranch or by the owner herself.  Sure the owner cared for Rio but she preferred to spend time with and ride the other more attractive, more expensive horses.  You see, Rio had a hay belly, was only about 14h2  high and his nose was crooked and had a large dent in it, I was told,  from an angry previous owner with a 2 x 4.  

Although my job was to assist in putting some of the other horses under saddle and riding the ones that had previously been started under saddle but needed miles and exercise, I took a serious liking to this little guy named Rio.  I've always been attracted to underdog types so I guess this fit Rio to a T.  At first when I'd get a little extra time I'd spend a few minutes brushing and grooming him.  I'd hose him down, curry him, shine-up his hooves, brush his mane and tail and then I'd go about my business with the other horses.  Upon occasion the ranch owner asked me why I was spending time with Rio and I would simply state that I just liked that horse.  She didn't really mind because she also thought it wasn't a terrible idea for Rio to finally get a little attention.  

Slowly, I began spending a little more time with Rio.  I could tell he liked the attention.  Then I began putting a saddle and a bridle on him.  I'd walk him down the hill to the pasture and hang-out with him as he grazed under saddle.  I'd talk to him of his long lineage of champions and of the great horses of history.  Mostly I was just being with Rio and spending what I call soft-time with him.  For some reason I felt it necessary to make him look and feel important and valuable.  Each time I would look at that wound on his nose - and believe me it was impossible not to notice - I'd cringe thinking of who could have done such a thing.  Rio was a sweet horse - he'd been humbled in a pretty serious way by a monster of a person and maybe by life in general.  Rio didn't want any trouble and was a pleasure to be around.  He'd resigned himself - kind of like an old Buddha - to taking each day as it came - you could see his surrender and his wisdom in his eyes.

Then one day I decided I wanted to ride Rio.  Being 6'2" and 185 pounds I thought he could be too small; or maybe I was simply too big for him but I knew that I wanted to ride that horse and to merge with him under saddle.  So, I shampooed him and brushed him and groomed him until he shined.  I combed his mane and tail and then I tacked him up in a black saddle and black headstall. He stood stone still like a champion getting prepared for the Olympics - as I prepared him for our ride. 

From the very first time I rode him I noticed he'd become a totally different horse over the last weeks and months.  At least he was no longer the horse that everyone thought him to be before this process began.  He stood straighter and seemed to suck-in his odd little hay belly.  He held his head high, pointed his poll to the sky and placed his face on the vertical.  I could hardly believe it.  Right before my eyes Rio was blossoming - the owner was also amazed at the transformation.  It took only a few weeks of this type of attention until everyone on the ranch began to notice this little horse.  He would lift himself up as though he was the King of dressage.  He was so proud to have a job and to have someone care for him.  On our rides he was so proud and so concerned to please.  He strutted like a prince who'd just been freed from chains.  Rio became my favorite horse on that ranch - even when compared to the other beautiful, fancy and expensive horses.  

I worked on that ranch for another 6 months and then for many reasons it was time for me to move on.  I dislike this aspect of horse training and working different ranches and working with different horses.  One day I always have to say good-bye to my horses.

That has been some years ago now and when I'm really relaxed and sitting on my back deck looking at the mountains of Central Oregon.  When the day is over and the sun is purposefully sinking behind Smith Rock and it is time to relax.  When the most tender and precious memories of my life rise-up in front of my mind's eye,  my little champion Rio is always standing there proud.  It hurts my heart that I had to leave that little horse behind in my life.  I often wonder if he is well and if anyone is aware of his dignity and his honor, if anyone is spending time with him and caring for him these days.  And I wonder if he ever thinks of me or if I were to see him again if he would come to me as before, stand ever so close to me with his wounded head against my chest or if he would remember me.  Maybe I've become overly sentimental about all the horses I've trained and worked with in my life but of all of those many horses who have touched my life my little Rio is one of my most treasured memories.  Of all the animals on the planet - horses have that incredible ability to burrow into our hearts and Rio is and will always be a part of me.  Thanks Rio.  See you at the big roundup my boy!