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.

 

Waterholes Ritual Clinic in October!

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Join us in Fenton, Missouri (near St. Louis) for a three-day clinic with Teddie Ziegler, Certified Master Trainer in the Carolyn Resnick Method. The Waterhole Rituals have been life-changing for me and my horses. Hope you can attend! For more information, you can just leave a comment here and I’ll get back to you right away!

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.

 

Message from Galahad

20140520 ST Galahad (9)The other night, on the edge of sleep, I was jolted by an image: My big buckskin Galahad was right there in front of me. He seemed huge, and his energy was high, with a distinctly unpleasant edge to it. He barged into me and nearly knocked me over; then, just as suddenly, he was gone. I came to complete consciousness as I tried to catch myself to keep from falling.

It was an extraordinary experience whose “reality” was as intense as if it were actually happening. I sat straight up in bed, heart pounding. The image was not related to anything I had been thinking about—I had been peacefully drifting off to sleep.

Knowing that I had a client coming the next morning to work with Galahad, I made a mental note to be a bit more cautious around him, just in case. Then I went on to sleep.

Next morning, my client and I walked out into the pasture to get the big guy. He saw us immediately and headed our way…and just kept coming. His energy was just as he showed me the night before. The flies were driving him mad, and he was in a terrible, sullen mood—I doubt that he got any sleep at all. Fortunately, I was prepared for this attitude. After I moved him around the pasture pretty strongly for a few minutes, he calmed down. Once he had some fly spray, he was much better.

Pretty amazing.

It’s actually not the first time he’s “spoken” to me like that. A year ago, we had to put Galahad in a stall for a couple of nights because he seemed to have some version of the flu. During that time, I took his temperature several times. Each time, he stood like a statue for me.

It turns out that Galahad HATES the thermometer, and he let me know in the same way: I was nearly asleep the second night when suddenly, in my mind’s eye, Galahad jerked his head angrily toward me as I was inserting the thermometer. I came wide awake with a start—it was so obviously real….

He’s contacted me in a gentler way by sharing a dream (you can read about it here), and I can often sense his energy from home. But these “tantrums” are strange and a bit unsettling! However, I’d rather know about his moods ahead of time than discover them accidentally.

How interesting!

 

 

Cross-posted on It’s an Alchemical LIfe.

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.

 

Eye Contact

20160417_153304I gave Nevada a bath the other afternoon. By the time we finished and I put her back out in the pasture, it was getting late and the sun was low in the sky, giving everything that lovely golden glow. From way down by the road, clear across the geldings pasture, I could see Nevada’s coat gleaming copper-bronze. She looked so beautiful!

I wanted to get a photo of her, and I wanted to get it from the side, so that the light would reflect off her flanks. I kept walking back and forth, the length of Midnight’s paddock—quite a distance!—but all I could see in the viewfinder was her blaze. That seemed so odd!

After a couple of trips back and forth without getting a single shot of her standing sideways, I finally figured out what was going on: Nevada, across the pasture, was playing her version of Carolyn Resnick’s “eye contact” game, which she enjoys and is VERY good at: She was keeping her nose facing me, with two eyes watching my every move, no matter where I went.

Of course, by the time I figured that out, she had quit doing it, so I was able to get the photo, sort of…but the sun had gone behind the clouds.

Smart horse, with a sense of humor.

Galahad and the Barrels

IMG_7260The other afternoon, after Nevada’s lesson under saddle (a whole ‘nother story), I brought Galahad out of the pasture. We stopped by the outdoor arena, where he wandered around and rolled; then we went and got him his dinner by the car. I was tired and needed to get home for an evening with friends, but he wasn’t ready to go back to the pasture. The arena was still empty, so we went back in.

They have that particular arena set up for practicing barrels, so Galahad and I went and looked at the them. I decided to try to get him to circle one of them—maybe he’ll enjoy “running barrels” on his own some day—and at first he thought I wanted him to touch the barrel. I said no, “go around” with a new hand signal I made up. That meant he had to figure it out. He loves that! So he tried a few options.

Does it mean bite the barrel? No? Does it mean stick my head inside the barrel, since this one is upside down? No? Then what?

So I showed him—got him to follow me around it. And the light bulb went off! I wish I had video of that—it’s just so clear in his body language when he suddenly understands what I’m asking. So he went around! Then we walked to the next one, and I said, “go around.” A bit tentatively, he first touched it, but then went around it…and we went on to the third one. He went around this one right away. Got it! Good boy!

He loves it when he’s been “good.” He gets very proud of himself, I swear.

I am super careful with this horse not to “drill” anything, so I was going to stop and take him out to the pasture and give him a carrot on the way. But he wasn’t ready to go. He paused at the barrel, looking directly at it. “Can I do it again, please?”

Any time he shows an interest in doing something again, I encourage him, so we “went around” a couple more times—that barrel and the next one. After that, he was willing to leave.

What a good boy! It is a lovely feeling to know that there are things that are such fun for both of us, where we can improve our communication.

I sure love this horse.