“Stall Rest”

20170628_130416 (2)Galahad’s in a stall for the next few days; he refused to go back into the pasture last night.

His best friend Dancer’s owner put Dancer in the barn, unfortunately, because of the heat. It’s supposed to top 100 degrees for the next four or five days, and the thinking is that it’s better for Dance to be out of the sun.

Dance’s owner texted me mid-afternoon to let me know what was planned, and was concerned at that time about Galahad. Apparently Galahad was very upset (as was Dancer). Somehow both horses knew that this wasn’t a “take Dance out for a ride” event. How do they do that? But they knew.

I got a call from Midnight’s neighbor’s owner around dinnertime. Galahad, she said, was completely soaked with sweat and behaving strangely—standing in the corner of the pasture, then running over to the mares fence, then running back to his corner.

I dropped everything, of course, and raced out there. Poor Galahad was huddled in the far southwest corner of the pasture, as far as he could get from the other two horses—Stewart the Pony and Moose—and obviously very stressed. I took him out, and instead of standing to wait for me to close the pasture gate like he usually does, he took off for the barn at a fast walk, and I had to scramble behind him to pick up his lead rope.

I could hear Dancer screaming in the barn, and I guess that he had been screaming all afternoon, because Galahad knew exactly where he was and went directly there. They nuzzled noses a bit, and Galahad must have decided his buddy was all right, because then we went walking around for a while.

He was on edge the entire time. I  hosed him down—he had been sweating and rolling—and although that cooled him off, it did nothing for his nerves. Between bouts of standing at attention and staring at the pasture, he lawnmowered the grass between the barns, spooking at every noise. I wanted to walk him down to Midnight’s paddock to get flyspray, which I had forgotten to bring; he would have none of it. He flat-out refused to go down the lane. This was beyond his usual stubbornness. There was just no way that he was going down the road.

Finally I started to calm down and listen to him, and stop trying to get him to do anything in particular. Poor guy was so tense! About that time a friend came by and offered us some of her fly spray, and Galahad was willing to walk over to her horse’s stall and stand there while I sprayed him down. We grazed a bit longer, but I was getting hot (though the sun was behind clouds and it really wasn’t too bad, considering…), so I suggested to him that we go back to the car and get carrots, go say good night to Dancer, and head back for the pasture.

All went reasonably well, except that he wouldn’t leave Dancer’s stall…and then he parked himself out and peed, right there in the barn aisle. I don’t think I have ever seen Galahad pee outside his own stall or the pasture in the entire time I’ve had him. Nevada, yes. She’d pee while you were sitting on her—she didn’t care. But Galahad prefers not to do that kind of thing “in public.” He peed, and then he went over and looked in at Dancer—there was no question that it was deliberate.

I thought he’d leave the barn with me after that, but he wouldn’t. Apparently he was planning on spending the night right there in the aisle. After some persuasion, I got him back out and we started off to the pasture—but he was having none of that, either.

Now, Galahad is always reluctant to go back to the pasture after he’s been out, but this was really different. This was a sullen, foot-planted, leaning-back kind of refusal to move. I’d persuade him to take a step, and he’d either plant himself again or dive for grass. Either way, he was not moving. Ten minutes later, we were fifteen feet closer to the gate, and he started to side-pass toward me. That’s his way of pleading with me not to make him do whatever it is I’m asking…but there’s also a feeling of threat buried in there someplace, covering desperation. Hard to explain it but you can feel it if you’re paying attention.

It was hot, and I was tired and frustrated and worried—I’m not nearly as convinced as Dancer’s owner that a stall is a good place for horses in the heat. So I wanted to get him back into the pasture. No dice. When sidepassing didn’t work, he started to spin and dance around on the end of the rope, getting more and more agitated.

Yes, I could have MADE him go. I could have used all the Natural Horsemanship methods, “moved his feet,” and he would eventually have walked over there. I could have put him back, locked the gate, and left. But there would have been a lot of drama…and that was definitely NOT going to help his nerves. It was too much of a betrayal of our growing relationship for me to be willing to do that. And once I left, then what? A night of terror for him? “He’s just a horse; he’ll get used to it.” Yes; but at what cost?

Finally, I gave up—should have done that an hour earlier. We went back to the barn, found an open stall across from Dancer, and called the barn owners to be sure he could stay there. He went right in, and though he wasn’t best pleased when I locked him in (with lots of hay and water), he didn’t argue.

So in the end, I figured it out, the message he’d been sending me so clearly all evening long: He’s afraid to be out in the pasture without Dancer. He doesn’t feel safe there; he doesn’t trust the other two horses, all that’s left of his herd, to keep him safe. He and Dancer are OK together, but once they’re separated, he’s on his own—the worst possible thing for a herd animal.

Once I understood that, everything fell into place. This has been a terribly stressful time for the gelding herd—new members, lots of fighting, and then the loss of the two herd leaders. Charlie, mean and domineering as he is, still left Galahad feeling safe. And bossy little Otto actually would be a great herd leader if he could take his little band off by themselves—he’s very protective and capable. But those two are both gone now. Stewart the Pony apparently doesn’t inspire confidence, and easygoing Moose isn’t leader material.

Poor Galahad. His herd members are being “picked off,” one by one…maybe he’s next, eh? No wonder the poor guy is terrified to be out there alone.

So he’s on “stall rest” until the weather breaks. Wouldn’t be my choice for him, but it’s the only one I can see at the moment.

I hate Missouri summers….

 

“Attunement”

20170628113955 whinny whinney(1)Thank goodness, things have turned a corner for Galahad and me. Actually, of course, I’m the one who has turned the corner; he’s still his own horsey self.

I’m working differently with him the last few weeks—not so goal-focused, mostly just being with him, either in the pasture or taking walks, sometimes spending short amounts of time in one or the other of the arenas but not drilling anything. It’s been almost entirely about what he’s willing to do, rather than what I want him to do. I ask him to do something, and then wait to see what his answer is. If it’s “no,” I might ask once more, in a different way, but I don’t argue (except about going back to the pasture—that’s a different issue entirely, alas!).

It’s making a big difference. Galahad seems to be more relaxed, and I certainly am. He’s much more “with me” than he had been—checking in with me as we’re walking, coming over to check on me when we’re in the arena (where he mostly grazes along the sides, at this point). The other day he actually told me when he was ready to leave the arena—he came over and pointed to his halter, then stood for me to put it on him.

So that’s wonderful!

Things have been kind of crazy at the barn this last ten days or so, though. There are three new horses—two mares and a gelding—in the pastures, Stewart (the small-but-fierce pony) is back in the geldings pasture after a couple of months in a stall, and the dominant gelding has left permanently. The boys are in an uproar with all of these changes. The mares, other than all being in heat, have settled into their usual peaceful state.

The biggest issue in the pasture is actually not the new horses, though—it’s “Hans” the Fjord, who’s just a bully. He was a real pain in the hind end when he first arrived, but over the course of a couple of years he’s mostly settled down. Now, however, he’s reverted to his aggressive, nasty self in spite of the grazing muzzle he’s been forced to wear for several months. He chases all the horses away from the mares, attacks the new gelding, and in general keeps everyone riled up and stressed. Darn guy.

All the commotion has made me even more glad to have discovered this new way of working with Galahad. Like all the geldings, he’s been upset by the changes. He’s had a very hard time paying attention to me the few times he’s been outside the pasture, because he’s been so focused on what’s going on back with the boys. That’s not like him. I’ve never heard him whinny so much in his entire life as he has in the past week–check out this video!

For a couple of days, Galahad seemed to be “making his move” in the pasture, thinking about becoming the Big Man On Campus and being just ridiculous about it. That was while Stewart the Pony was still in the west pasture for six hours a day. I got Galahad OUT just fine, but when I went to put him back (we have to walk across the west pasture to get back to the east side where the herd is), Stewart kept threatening to charge us, and they got into quite a yelling contest (“I’m gonna stomp you!” “No you’re not! I’m gonna stomp YOU!”) and I ended up having to call the barn staff to come get Stewart.

While waiting for that to happen, though, I had to take Galahad back to the arena—and he did NOT want to go. He shifted, strutted, barged into me, and threatened to go up on his hind legs. That’s the moment I really discovered the value in this new way of staying attuned to my horse.

The Natural Horsemanship requirement in that situation would be that he pay attention to me, that he “respect” me, and that he obey my commands. There would have been a lot of running him back and forth in front of me, making him circle, or various other things, but all of it would involve “moving his feet,” making him put his attention on me and do what I was asking.

If I had tried that (I could have done it, no question—I’ve done it many times when he’s been “bad” or “opinionated” about something, or when he didn’t want to go back to the pasture and tried to block me) there would have been a lot of drama.

What I did instead was require him to be mindful around me, so that I wasn’t in danger. I did that, in the moment, using a stern voice, grounded energy and body language,  and bumping his nose with the halter a couple of times to get his attention, when he was threatening to go up on two legs or turn around and run back to the pasture to beat up Stewart. But the big voice, the bump on the nose, and me saying “Cut it out NOW! You’re scaring me!” worked just fine. I calmed down, and so did he. Almost immediately. Then we walked on.

I could feel that he was still really excited, but it brought him back to himself without pain or threat or any drama, and with no requirement that he obey anything other than basic manners to keep me safe. He was still prancy, but it was OK—it accomplished exactly what all the other stuff would have done, without the drama. I was afraid, and I told him so—“You’re scaring me. Cut it out!” (bump bump)—and he knew exactly what I meant.

It was different—it’s hard to explain, but it felt really different. It was the same thing I’d have done with a human friend if they had been being nuts and putting me in danger—I’d have grabbed their arm and said, “Cut it out! You’re scaring me, and I need to be safe. Stop it!” And that would have been it. That’s what I did with Galahad, and it worked. He walked with me, but making the choice to control himself.

What I sense from Galahad more than anything these days, honestly, is appreciation. I think he appreciates that I’m not asking of him more than he can give. Does that make sense? It’s like I’m acknowledging his perspective—“I know you’re distracted, and I know you’re having a really hard time coping with all this and paying attention to me too.” I just feel like this way is good for our relationship where some of this other stuff would not have been. It might or might not have damaged it, but it certainly wouldn’t have furthered it in the way that I’m looking for.

So I’m so glad to have that understanding at this point.

 

[Disclaimer: I’m studying online with Paulette Evans of Ribbleton Attunement in Australia. I make NO claim to deep knowledge of her methods, which I greatly admire. Anything I say about them here in my blogs represents my own current understanding. I highly recommend that you take a look at her site and consider signing up for her courses!]

 

Another Lesson from Midnight

20160421_134742So much in the world seems to be getting more angry, more violent, and more hate-filled these days. It’s uncomfortable and worrisome. What on earth can a person do to counteract all that? Developing a better, kinder, gentler way of dealing with others would surely be helpful. But how? And while still maintaining one’s own individuality and boundaries?

The horses, through our relationship with them, have some answers for us.

I realized yesterday that I’ve been developing a gentler way of relating to Midnight for some time now—several years, actually. It probably started when I quit riding him, and came on gradually without my noticing; but our way of interacting now is more like friends, not like owner and animal or whatever.

Of course I do get more of a say when there are things that have to be done—grooming (which he’s not too fond of), vet visits, and stuff like that. Or when we’re out for a walk and I actually have to leave, so we need to head back to his house before he’s quite ready. But here’s how it goes at the best of times, like yesterday:

Midders bangs on his stall door to get my attention while I’m hanging out in the pasture across the lane with Galahad and Dancer. Since it’s Galahad’s day off, I have time to take Midnight out for a walk, so we get his halter on and head out the door. He wants to go directly down the road, but I need to stop at the car for a couple of things. I ask, and he’s willing to come over there with me. After all, there are cookies in the back, right?

After a few minutes (and some video) we start off down the lane toward the barns. He has a pattern that he likes to do, but we negotiate a couple of changes, since one of his favorite grazing areas is still muddy. He easily takes the redirection—there are good patches of clover elsewhere, after all.

After ten minutes or so I suggest we head up toward the main barn, and he says, “Sure!” and takes off at a clip. When I say “suggest,” I actually mean this: “Midnight, shall we go over there” (I point to the barn) “and see what’s going on?” No pressure on the lead rope—just words, body language, and intention. He looks where I’m pointing and trundles off in that direction.

He gets to choose the pace and direction of his walk, for the most part, and he has certain places he wants to check out. I just hold the lead rope in order to keep it from dragging. There’s lots of stopping and sniffing and grazing. Once in a while, if he decides to go sniff noses with another horse, I might tell him no and put the slightest pressure on the rope, but generally he’s OK with just the sound of my voice.

One of his must-check spots is the cement area under the grain bins—there’s usually some spilled grain there, and he likes to mop it up. Today, though, it’s pretty moldy-looking because of all the rain recently, so there’s no way I’m going to let him eat it. This results in a little bit of a tussle, but not much. He’s not buying my explanation, but he understands that I’m serious, so he’s willing to leave after only a little pulling. And I do mean a little bit—Midders may be small but he’s mighty, and when he gets stubborn with that head of his, it’s not easy to pull him away. This discussion was still in the range of a few seconds of mild pressure on the lead rope.

Then we headed over to the mares pasture to see “his” girls, who all came over to the fence and grazed along with us for a while. It was getting late, and I had errands to run on the way home, so after a few minutes I suggested (with words and body language, not the lead rope) that we head back home to his place. Surprisingly (to me), he picked his head up at my suggestion and off we went.

Along the way Midnight’s buddy Nick was returning horses to their stalls after turnout. Midders, seeing Nick, insisted on taking a detour to say hi. After a greeting and a little conversation (and a couple more stops for especially nice patches of clover), we headed back down the lane at a good clip. He seemed as happy to go home as he had been to go out in the first place.

This has been our routine for the last few years, and I hadn’t thought much about it. There just isn’t any drama any more with Midnight—we go and have our walk and chat a little bit, then go back home. But something about it caught my attention yesterday, and I realized just how amazing (for me) this lack of drama is, and how different my mindset is when I’m with Midders.

Midnight isn’t in training for anything. I’m not going to ride him, and there aren’t any expectations. When I’m with him, I’m just out to enjoy his company and have a good time together. There’s no agenda; I’m not hoping to get any certain behavior from him. We’re just walking together like the old friends that we are.

No agenda…no drama. Wow…ya think there might be a connection?

THIS is what Paulette Evans at Ribbleton Attunement (whose online courses I’ve been taking lately) is trying to teach us to do! And it’s SO HARD! Yet I’m doing it on my own with Midnight, effortlessly, without thinking about it. HAVE been doing it for a few years now, actually.

Wow….

But it’s a mindset that I clearly do not have with Galahad, and that’s the rub. I DO have expectations of him, and hopes, and desires…. So my challenge is to see what I can do to get to this place of quiet non-expectation with my Best Boy, and see what develops from there.

And also, I’m thinking, with my human friends. The fewer expectations I have with them, the more quiet curiosity and friendship I can develop, the less drama and the more satisfaction. Will that help the world? Dunno…but it should make my life more peaceful.

How interesting….

 

Update

DSC_9660E2The Alchemical Horse is in transition. Looking back, it’s been happening for some months now, but I just wasn’t aware of it. Some time during the winter “vacation,” when the weather got too cold and unpredictable to schedule clients, the energy shifted. I met some lovely, talented horse people; we talked about maybe working together. But for some reason, I felt “stuck.” I talked about re-vamping this web site, but just never could get up the energy or the ideas to do it.

Then came March…and Nevada died.

Nevada’s sudden passing really threw me. It feels like someone pulled the rug out from under me—I just crashed into the ground, and now, two months later, I’m finally trying to stand up after spending a very long time just sitting there on the floor, holding my head and blinking, looking around to try to see what the hell happens now. And I still don’t have an answer.

Here’s what I do know:

First of all, my equine-guided learning and dreamwork practice is definitely on hold. Galahad, bless him, is not interested in being any kind of therapy horse. He just doesn’t care sufficiently about anyone else’s issues. Nevada did care; she was always interested in new people, and would gently breathe them in, stand with them, and really pay attention. At least for a little while—she usually went back to eating grass pretty quickly. But I could depend on her to interact with whoever I brought to her. Galahad—not so much, unless they have cookies.

Galahad’s just not interested. He doesn’t have Nevada’s gift of somehow conjuring up situations that bring about a epiphany, and I’ve never had him “speak” to a client the way Nevada so often did. He pays no attention to whether or not the client understands what we’re talking about; Nevada would regularly stop walking and just stand still when someone missed the point, or suddenly had an emotional reaction to something. She was my co-therapist and partner, without a doubt.

Galahad has so many other abilities and talents that are important to me, and he’s my personal friend and teacher, no doubt about it. But as far as my practice goes, I can no longer just assume that I can bring a client and have my horse work well with them. Plus there’s his size and energy: He can be quite intimidating, and that puts limits on whom he can work with successfully.

Nevada’s death feels to me like a great big red STOP sign for this part of my work. Am I overreacting? Dunno…. But without an absolute confidence in my horse’s willingness, and now with only one horse, the “business” of my business no longer works. So. Now what?

I’m not sure. My own personal journey with the horses continues, and I’ll be sharing that just as I always have. Guess time will tell….

The next steps on my own journey involve deepening my understanding of liberty work. I’ve recently been studying online with Paulette Evans of Ribbleton Attunement and learning a huge amount.

The most exciting development is my upcoming trip to Wisconsin for a five-day clinic with Frédéric Pignon and Magali Delgado. Those two, who were the original artistic directors of the amazing show Cavalia, are my idols—Pignon in particular. Studying with them is a many-year dream come true. So this spring and summer I’ll be getting myself physically back in shape and working as much as possible with my Galahad at liberty, so that I’m prepared to soak up every single thing that I possibly can during those five days.

I’m finally moving into acceptance of Nevada’s death, though I miss her every single day. No other horse has appeared on the horizon; but if another one shows up in my life, then things might change again. We’ll just have to see.

 

A change for the better!

 

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Yesterday afternoon I spent a wonderful hour in the pasture with Galahad. I told him that I was ready to change my way of being with him. I told him about my intention to be calm and present, without expectations, and to really listen to him. I didn’t know if it would make any difference at all—would I be any different? Would he notice, if I was?

And it was blissful. I really did manage to be in the moment, without an agenda, and with (almost) no expectations. When something did show up in my mind, I was at least aware of it, and was able to let it go. Most of the time, actually, I was just there with him—not even thinking about trying to do anything at all. That so rarely happens.

And Galahad really could feel the difference! He showed his happiness in horsey ways—nuzzling me even though he knew I had no treats on me, leaning gently on me, breathing in my ear, staying close. And “guarding” me—he stayed between me and his friend Dancer most of the time, preferring that I pay attention to him only. That was sweet! The interesting thing was my re-interpretation of things he often does—especially the “leaning” on me. He has done that before, but not often, and  I have always interpreted it as him being “pushy.” Therefore, it was always something I needed to correct strongly. Yesterday, though, I was paying attention to the energy behind it. There wasn’t any pushiness, particularly—he was just being affectionate—and I could respond by leaning back and just thanking him for his love. So different!

After a while—at least 20 minutes, I’d say, and maybe longer, I moved away from him and headed off to see HRH in the mares pasture. She had been grazing in the same spot the whole time, keeping an eye on me. The other mares were elsewhere, but she hadn’t moved.

Just as I got near the fence, Galahad came trotting over to me “yelling” that there was a fly on his neck (there actually was—interesting timing) and would I please kill it for him, which I did. Then he got between me and the fence and gently persuaded me to come back with him. Oh my goodness…. I love that horse so much. It was pretty astounding.

So I stood around with him some more, showing him some choice bits of grass—he always comes right over to see what I’ve found—and just being with him. It was really a magical time. So unusual for me to be in a space where there’s no sense of time, no sense of wanting or needing to be elsewhere or to do something different. Very peaceful.

After a while I did go over to the mares pasture, and this time Galahad let me go. Nevada (still grazing in the same spot) greeted my outstretched hand, but as soon as I dropped it, she scooted off and into the shed, where she got behind the other horses and watched me. She still doesn’t trust me, I guess. I went in and stood near the door of the shed, too, but didn’t do anything but greet her. After a few minutes I just left. Moments later, she came out of the shed and resumed grazing. I’m not sure what to make of that, except that she’s still uncomfortable around me. Disappointing; I can’t help but feel sad about it. But there’s really nothing I can do except continue to just hang around with her, taking her out when I need to but otherwise leaving her alone. Or at least that’s how it feels to me…I’ll continue to play it by ear, by feel.

But my sweet Galahad continues to teach me, thank goodness, and it feels like I’m actually, finally, ready to learn the next step.

 

Trust is a precious thing

20160108131912 (9)It’s been a long-time dream of mine to learn dressage—just the basics, nothing fancy. I’ve had my eye on my mare Nevada, because she’s a natural athlete and has a wonderful way of moving. Now that she’s six, we figured it was time to start her under saddle again.

Originally, she was taught to carry a rider when she was really young—there was an error on her papers from the Rescue Ranch. She took to it quite well, and I actually rode her a couple of times, including out on the trail. She did wonderfully! But when we realized how young she actually was, we gave her a few years off to let her bones mature.

I didn’t anticipate any problems with the re-training, given how well she had done the first time. But I had forgotten one BIG and important rule: Don’t make assumptions.

One of the reasons we hadn’t started her last summer was that for the past two or three years an underlying skin condition had gotten worse. Poor Nevada was just so itchy and miserable, for no reason that we or the vet could discern. We even tried steroids, which helped, but she also gained a couple of hundred pounds, and we decided that it was too great a risk to her health to continue. Once we tapered her off the dose, the itching returned.

This winter, we decided to try freshly ground organic flax seed, and by early this spring, the itching had diminished considerably. These days, she doesn’t scratch any more than any other horse out there.

Unless, that is, she gets nervous. Then, she starts biting at her side and front leg. Once she settles down, she quits scratching.

All this is background to the real “drama.”

Back in February, I made the decision to hire a trainer to bring my little mare back up to speed. This woman has years of experience and is someone I really like and respect. I especially like her firm-but-gentle hand with the horses, and they respond well to her. So again, I didn’t anticipate any difficulty at all.

My first inkling that something was amiss came when I tried to saddle Nevada. We’d gotten the saddle on her a couple of times, and the fit was good. The first few times we put it on, she gave no more trouble than you’d expect from a green horse. But things got worse, not better, once the lessons started. And she’d try to scratch throughout the lesson. We and the trainer thought it was likely just a nervous habit that she could unlearn.

Her very first lesson seemed fine. She responded well to the bitless bridle and moved forward readily. But there was that pesky saddling issue. I noted it in my journal: “I do think it makes her itch a bit; that’s unfortunate, for sure. But I don’t think it’s bad enough to not put a saddle on her.”

Key phrase: “I don’t think it’s bad enough to not put a saddle on her.”

Second lesson, and my journal entry doesn’t mention the saddle. I was just so proud of her:

I am so happy and excited, and I can’t stop thinking about it. This really is a childhood dream come true—Nevada and I are going to be able to dance together, to ride together beautifully and enjoy the experience. So wonderful!

I had decided that the fix was to practice with the saddle in between the weekly lessons. Two days later, I tried saddling her again. Nevada was really clear that she didn’t want any part of it. She’d evade and spook and walk away from me (I refused to tie her up and force it on her). It took me half an hour to get the thing on her back. She was clearly NOT enjoying this business at all.

I kept at it:

Yesterday I didn’t try to saddle her—just left the stuff in the arena on the mounting block while we did other things. She said it was too scary to go sniff it—but then when I left the arena to get carrots, I caught her sniffing it when she didn’t know I was watching. She is a drama queen….

“Drama queen”?

It may be that she associates the saddle with itching—which is a nervous habit, for the most part, at this point. She can be persuaded to keep moving through it, but it’s not easy. We can’t catch every instance, and if we try, it makes our interactions kind of jagged and not-fun. Our trainer says it won’t be too hard to get rid of the habit, but I’m not so sure.

Dunno…. But I think that with patience she’ll be just fine about it. I’m just going to keep at it until she gives in. It isn’t, after all, such a big deal that she can’t do it. I watch horses go through the process every time I’m out at the Rescue Ranch, and I know how it works.

Finally, a month into the process, I really started to question:

I’m kind of sad this morning—I think I won’t be able to continue lessons with Nevada under saddle. I question whether I have the right to demand that she do something that so obviously makes her uncomfortable. She is my friend, a sentient being…and if I force this on her, then what’s all that liberty work for? If, in the end, I still force her into service, that it’s all been a sham.

So. We’ll see. Wish I could ask her how she feels about it.

Really? You “can’t ask her how she feels about it”? Could she be any more clear?

And again, the next day:

I had a kind of come-to-Jesus moment yesterday morning—the simmering concerns from the other night coalesced, and I realized that what was really bothering me was that I was well on the way to forcing Nevada to wear that saddle regardless of her feelings…. That was pretty painful. If I’m going to insist that she do something that she really dislikes, then all the liberty work, and the pretty words about how she gets to say no, is meaningless. That was pretty shocking. I was so upset!

So I argued with myself for a while, but finally and tearfully admitted that if Nevada really hates the saddle, I will simply not ride that way. Bareback, if she’s OK with it (and she does know how to tell me yes or no on that one), even though that’s more dangerous for me. But if she truly hates it, no saddle.

Poor Nevada. Since I clearly was NOT listening to her, she started “acting out” in the pasture:

Nevada came over willingly to get her food, but let me know in no uncertain terms that she did NOT want to leave the pasture. She wasn’t unpleasant about it, but moved off as soon as I showed her the halter. I let her do her thing.

My response? None. Lesson day came, and when she wouldn’t let me catch her easily, I “walked her down” and made her come out. The lesson that day was memorable:

We did the lesson in the big indoor arena. I had worked with her in there a number of times, but she was still nervous about it—and the trainer came off. Evidently the saddle shifted just a little when she got on, and when she tried to shift it back, Nevada got scared and bucked her off. Gently, or as gently as a horse can buck, and the trainer did a tuck-and-roll dismount, with no harm done. Nevada stopped a few paces away and waited, apologetically. After walking her around for a few minutes, the trainer got back on and continued the lesson. Whew….

And my comment? In my own defense (I don’t really feel like I have much of a defense, actually), this was after consultation with the trainer herself and my partner:

We all decided that the little horse is doing really well, all things considered. It’s just going to take time. I’ll continue to take her in there and walk her, trot her, lunge her, and anything else I can think of to do. She’ll come around, eventually. This is a tough point in our journey—we’re going to feel like it’s just too hard, and that maybe we should just give up, but we need to press on and work through it.

By early May, the trainer had come off once more, and Nevada was not “getting used” to the saddle. I continued to worry, and thought about pulling the plug on the lessons. Left to my own devices, I certainly would have done so. Unfortunately, the others involved still felt like we needed to “not give up on Nevada,” and to “give her another chance.” And there was that long-time dream of mine to learn to ride dressage…. But my journal records that I knew that I was lying to myself:

Nevada is not ready for it, wants no part of it, and I’m pushing past the limits of our “contract.” Not good…and I’m not sure what I’m going to do about it. I also realized that the problem I’m having with Nevada is a failure in my leadership. She no longer trusts me to look after her. And damned if I can figure out how to use liberty methods to fix that….

No, Kay, it’s not a failure of leadership. Or actually, it is—but first and foremost, it’s a failure to listen. And no, you cannot use liberty methods to accomplish something that is completely against the basic tenets of liberty work.

Wow…I really didn’t want to see what was going on.

Toward the end of May, I had one wonderful day with her—a day where she regained, for a little while, the softness and trust that I was so sure I had lost for good. On that day, we did real liberty work, and played with obstacles like ground poles that she enjoys working with. It was wonderful—and it really reminded me of what we were missing.

But true to form, I let the lessons go on. The final lesson was memorable indeed:

Well. No more riding lessons for Nevada; she has been expelled from school. She bucked the trainer off again yesterday, and this one was pretty dramatic, apparently: Nevada got spooked by something; she bucked and twisted; the trainer went up, the saddle pad (!) somehow went sideways, the saddle went down, and Nevada careened around the arena for some time with the saddle under her belly and the reins around her legs. OMG. I am so glad I was not there to see it. Bad enough hearing about it. The trainer, thank God, wasn’t badly hurt, and neither was Nevada.

OMG. I should have listened to my horse—she has been trying and trying to tell us that she can’t do this, but all of us thought we knew better. Nope.

OMG.

Anyway, there go my dreams of riding my little mustang and learning dressage. She’ll have to become my liberty horse, I guess. Maybe I can find another horse to ride….

I am a wreck….

That was a month ago. During that month, Nevada steadfastly refused to let herself be caught in the pasture without half an hour of “walking her down.” Mostly, I don’t try; I just bring her food to her in the pasture. Sometimes, though, I need to get her out—for the farrier or the vet—so we go around and around in the blazing sun until she finally tires out or I’m able to bribe her to stand still. It has been heartbreaking.

I would love to just sit with her and share space in the pasture—sharing territory is the best possible way to bring back the bond. It’s mid-summer, though, and it’s been a hot one. The older I get, the less well I handle heat, so sitting out there is not an option.

Trust is so easy to win, initially, but once it’s broken, it’s nearly impossible to win back. Worst of all, I knew better, but wasn’t strong enough to stand up for my horse. I don’t deserve her trust, at this point. It’s been a painful lesson.

Wish I could say it was the first time this kind of thing has happened, or that it will be the last. It happened with Galahad several times when I first got him, but didn’t know enough to call a halt when my then-trainer worked him hard for hours at a time.

But then just two weeks ago, during a session with a client, I was trying to get Galahad to go over a tiny cross-rail jump. At first he was willing—but then he hit the rail on the way over, and the pole moved and he got scared. I asked him to go over it again, and he refused, frightened…but rather than acknowledging his fear and changing the subject, I went straight back to natural horsemanship and tried to make him do it.

Poor Galahad! He was trying in every way to explain to me that it wasn’t that he didn’t want to do it, but that it was a terrible, horse-eating creature that I was asking him to step over. “Please, don’t make me do it! I’m scared!”

He was so clear: He was turning his head away and pointing at the gate to the arena—not trying to run, just pointing to the gate. SO clear…but did I listen? Nope. I was deep into “making him do it” and refused to hear him.

Then suddenly I realized what was happening. Oh my…how embarrassing. At first I tried to blame it on Galahad, and explain to my client that what I was doing was for Galahad’s benefit. But then I realized that NOBODY was fooled. Not me, not my client, and certainly not the horse…. So in the end I just said, “I really screwed up.”  It turned out to be a good learning experience for the client, but oh my goodness….

Fortunately, Galahad and I have worked through a lot of things together, and this was a pretty small and isolated incident. He didn’t hold it against me, other than to be a little standoffish for about five minutes the next day—but after that, no problem. He still hesitates to go over those ground poles, though—and I haven’t even suggested cross-rails.

Sheesh.

I’m hopeful that Nevada and I can work things out, too. Just the last couple of days, she has come over to me when I crawled through the pasture fence—something she had not done for two months, at least—and didn’t run off when I started to put the halter on her. The weather is cooler this week, too, and that means I can spend some time just hanging out with her and her girlfriends in the pasture. No more saddles, no more forcing her to do things just because I want her to. Maybe this time I’ve finally learned my lesson…or at least, maybe the next time I do something stupid, I’ll see it sooner.

Yeah. That’s probably more likely. There’ll just be a shorter time between doing the stupid thing and seeing the stupid thing. Maybe I’m just being too hard on myself, but still….

Sigh.

Just as I finished this blog piece, I got the Horse Conscious newsletter from my friend Mark Mottershead. In it I found this quote—could NOT have been more appropriate:

“When your horse shows resistance to compliance with a request, rather than saying he doesn’t want to do this or that, consider saying he is afraid to do this or that. If you do this your approach to the entire situation will change and will put you on the path to a successful outcome.”

Absolutely spot on.

 

 

Note: There is NOTHING wrong with using natural horsemanship techniques, if a person knows what they’re doing and they remember that the horse is a sentient being who deserves to be treated with an eye to respect and relationship, not simply dominance and fear. However, natural horsemanship is not the paradigm from which I try to work with my horses, and it’s not the “contract” we have together.

 

Fun with my best boy

20140613110116 (2)I had such fun with Galahad yesterday afternoon. We ran around just a little in the big arena by the pastures, but it was way too hot for me to chase him and persuade him to do much more than trot. He was happy, though. Then I took him down to the outdoor jump arena by the indoor arena, and since no one was there, turned him loose.

Not such a good idea. First of all, there were two mares in an adjacent paddock. I should have known better, but was focused on “doing stuff” with my horse. Still learning to PAY ATTENTION from the horse’s point of view, after seven years….

He got all puffed up and full of himself and decided to show off for them. One of the mares took offense at something he said to her and squealed mightily. I discovered later, from the bloody gash under his mane, that she also took a chunk out of his neck. (He does know how to court a mare, when he has a mind to do it.)

He huffed and chuffed and snorted all over the place, then pranced out of the arena (!) through a gate I didn’t even know was there. It leads to an alleyway along the side, probably where they would move their calves around when they used to do calf-roping. The fact that it was narrow and fenced on the other side made the opening all but invisible to me. Oops…. But fortunately, he got sidetracked by the yummy clover in there, and I was able to get his halter back on before he wandered into the cattle pen. After that, the halter stayed on. Enough adventures.

I love how Galahad has developed so much self-control the last couple of years. As I walked him out, I could feel him vibrating, on the edge of a head-toss and a prance and maybe a rear—but I spoke quietly to him, and he didn’t do any of it. Such a wonderful fellow he is. (And this makes me absolutely certain that I could ride him if I weren’t afraid to do it. One firm word to him from on his back, and probably a one-rein stop and some disengaging of his hind end, and he would be just fine.)

After that we went into the big indoor arena to look at stuff and walk over one of the little jumps. He was willing to do that on the lead, but once the other horse and rider left and I took off his halter, not so much. But that’s OK. I only asked him for what he was willing to do. He had fun, got to roll in the sand, and felt good about what he did for me. That’s all I want. More willingness will follow as we work more and more together.