Love how liberty work works!

20150505 one pile in pasture G (7)Well, what an interesting day! I invited two of the women who will be attending Teddie Ziegler’s clinic next month to get a refresher lesson on moving a horse away from them and setting boundaries around their personal space. Both of these skills are necessary to be safe around horses at liberty.

These two women are very nice, easy-going, and fun to be around. They both have good instincts around the horses—they move forward when a horse approaches, not back and away, and they seem to have good natural boundaries in spite of wanting to hug and love on the horses—which they did NOT do.

We met with Nevada in the indoor arena, and she was very well behaved, though also a bit confused about why we didn’t want her to come close. (She WANTED all that loving and hugging!) Then we took her back and went out into the pasture to meet Galahad, who gave us the perfect demonstration of why liberty work is a very good thing:

When we first arrived, he didn’t want to be bothered with us, for whatever reason—he indicated that he preferred to be with his buddies, and pretended not to see us. So we stood around, halfway across the pasture, and talked among ourselves for a five or ten minutes, really and truly ignoring him. And what happened? His curiosity got the better of him, and he lumbered over to see what we were up to.

We then spent a few minutes working with him, mostly having him back off and stop mugging my two friends for treats (which we didn’t have anyway). After a bit, because he was being a pest and wasn’t actually staying away when asked, I sent him off in no uncertain terms, and chased him to the point where he didn’t come back to us. Then we resumed talking among ourselves.

After a while, we noticed him standing with his buddies, but facing us, head up, very interested in what we were up to. I signaled him to come over, and he did, slowly and attentively. About 15 feet away, I asked him to stop, and he did. There he stood, watching, until I invited him in. And he approached with a lot more respect than he had exhibited earlier. I was so pleased!

So he showed us some of the wonders of liberty work—thing that make no sense at all to people who don’t really understand horses. Ignoring your horse makes him “easy to catch” (in fact, he “catches” himself) because he wants to be with you. And sending your horse away strongly makes him want even more to be with you, but at the same time makes him pay way more attention to how he approaches when you do ask him to come back, and to how he behaves when he gets there.

Pretty cool!!!

Can’t wait for Teddie’s clinic!!!

Courting Nevada

20140417150946 (8)The vet came out to see Nevada the other day to check out some possible causes for the violent itching that she’s suffered from, off and on, as long as we’ve had her. It wasn’t pleasant for her—it involved shaving squares on her neck, skin scrapings, worming, shots. She stayed calm and willing during the interaction, which seems amazing but is normal for her.

The next afternoon I went out to the pasture to get her. True to form after an unpleasant experience the day before, Nevada let me know she hadn’t enjoyed it. She’s always been this way—never complaining during whatever the not-fun event is, but being hard to catch the next day.

This time, she came to me in the pasture, all right. She quickly checked me over to see if I had dinner or treats (nope). Then she was willing to follow me, without a halter, to the gate of the summer pasture and go through it into the winter pasture. Once there, though, she wouldn’t stay with me—she trotted off toward the main gate to the barn and arena area, where I usually feed her before we work on anything. I just let her go.

When I didn’t follow her to the gate, she watched me for a while (I was walking the other way, pretending to ignore her). Then she ran back toward her girlfriends, whinnying. I didn’t chase her, but just kept on pulling weeds and “ignoring” her. She stopped near the fence between her and her buddies and started grazing.

I’m beginning to enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to get my horse to want to follow my lead, especially when they’re “not in the mood,” distracted, or disinterested, without resorting to making them do it in the natural horsemanship way. That way is effective, all right, but this one is way more fun. “Courting” is a great Carolyn Resnick concept; Linda Salinas, one of Carolyn’s certified trainers, has a blog post on the topic here.

So I decided to court my mare.

After pulling weeds at the other end of the pasture for ten minutes or so, I walked slowly toward her, stopping every time she twitched an ear or looked up at me, in order to show her that I understood and respected her boundaries. She didn’t move her feet.

Finally I worked myself around to the front of her and went up and said hello, offering my hand. She snuffled me willingly enough, but she went back to grazing, and I backed away. A few minutes later I greeted her again, and again backed away. At that point she started slowly and casually taking one step at a time toward me while she grazed, and each time she did, I backed up an equal amount. I wanted to draw her to me, but not in an obvious or insistent way. This felt respectful: I wanted to wait until she was ready and wanted to come to me.

Finally she put her head up, looked at me intently for a few seconds, and walked over so I could put her halter on. It was her idea at that point, not mine, and after that there were no problems between us.

It was such an interesting and rewarding experience. It felt like a real conversation: She got to tell me how displeased she was with what had happened the day before, and I could respond that I understood and didn’t blame her for it. Once she felt “heard,” she was willing to come to me. I’m certain that’s not exactly how Nevada perceived it, but I do believe her version wouldn’t be too different.

It feels like magic to relate to my horses in this way. There’s no confrontation, no force, no “well, that’s fine, but you have to come with me.” They always have the option to say “no.” Sure, there are times (vet visits, for instance) where I will have to override their wishes, but that won’t be a problem, because in the majority of instances, they get to choose. I can always pick a different game, or a different approach: one that will be easy and fun for them to get involved in.

I’m so happy about the way Nevada and I handled this situation. I think it will make a big difference in our relationship, and that’s wonderful!

“Leading” Galahad

20150421 G 5 piles (9)Yesterday afternoon I wanted to work with Galahad in the west pasture—the one they are resting at the moment. Open space to work, and no other horses to try to eat his treats. I brought him in at liberty, with no halter to control him. That meant that there could be no “cheating” on my part. This was about me figuring out a way to get him to want to walk with me over to the south fence where I had set up the little piles of hay and soaked grass hay/alfalfa cubes (this time of year, the horses have ZERO interest in plain hay).

I knew he would be very happy to work with me over by the fence once he discovered that there were yummy hay cubes involved. The challenge was to get him to walk with me over to that area instead of going where he wanted to go: to the main pasture gate and out to where I usually feed and work with him.

When he first followed me into the west pasture, Galahad immediately started walking toward the main gate. I stopped him (which he does willingly) and asked him to walk with me toward where the treat piles were set up. He followed for a few steps, then refused and put on his “stubborn face.” That’s the expression he often uses when you first ask him to do anything that’s not his own idea.

Galahad isn’t categorically unwilling to do what’s asked, by any means. The thing is, if he perceives it as an order, he will almost always balk and get sulky. I really believe that’s a leftover response to the way he was trained initially, by the so-called “trainer” who was his original owner (yes, the one who starved him nearly to death). My own trainer used the same kinds of Natural Horsemanship methods (though with way more skill and understanding), and Galahad seems to think that anything that seems like “training” and not “fun” is something he needs to refuse, if he can. “No” is his default setting.

That’s why Carolyn Resnick’s methods work so very well for this horse: One of the most important ideas in her method is to make the training fun for both horse and human. Galahad responds to that beautifully!

(Disclaimer: I am NOT certified by Carolyn Resnick, and anything I talk about or show here is MY INTERPRETATION of what she teaches, not something she has approved. If you like what you see, I urge you to take one of her online courses, or go to a clinic like the one we’re offering this June here in Missouri with Certified Master Trainer Teddie Ziegler.)

So my task yesterday was to figure out a way to make Galahad WANT to walk with me instead of checking out each pile of poop on his way to the main gate. It was a fun challenge! I’ve got a little video clip of the process–quite by accident, and only because I had the camera running when I went to get him. Watch it full-screen if you can.

The first thing I did was walk away and ignore him for a while. He knows he needs me to open the gate, so he stayed pretty close. I just hung out, following him slowly but pulling weeds and doing my own thing, not pestering him. I tried catching his eye and drawing him to me, but he was having none of that. Too “natural horsemanship” for him. I needed to be more subtle.

I also knew that if I tried too hard to influence WHERE he walked right then, he’d take off at a trot and head directly for the main gate. So I just waited. After a while I went and stood beside him, letting him look around and graze. When I could feel his attention shift to me, I moved a little ways away from him and resumed pulling weeds.

It took a while, but he had turned his body and was keeping an eye on me. I continued to wait.

Eventually, he moved closer and I was able to call him over. I wanted to use a draw to get him to walk with me, not to push him, but I was on the wrong side; so after a while I moved carefully to his other side, turned slightly away from him, and he came along with me. Yippee! Still had to be careful, though, and wait when he stopped to look at something or other. But suddenly he was willing!

Times like this, when all the study and observation I’ve done pays off, are just magic. Even such a little thing as this is so special to me, because it means that the bond my horse and I have, the relationship we’re building, is growing. My Galahad loves me, there is no doubt, in the way horses love. But horses are not dogs, and “obedience” and “leadership” have different meanings to them. How amazing it is to know how to time my requests just right and express them in a language that he understands, so that he’s willing to follow my leadership!

So yesterday turned out to be a fun game for both of us, just like Carolyn suggests. No pressure, no time frame, and staying very much in the moment. Woohoo!

Wow…. This is a dream come true for me.


Snapshot 1 (6-8-2013 1-23 PM)

Had a lovely afternoon on Wednesday. Galahad, when he first caught sight of me coming through the fence, galloped over. It was clear that he was really glad I was there, and happy to come over and greet me. I squirted him with some fly spray and we chatted for a couple of minutes. Then I walked off. He followed me for a ways, then trotted back to the other geldings, who were standing in and around the shed.

He went back to his herd the same way he had come to me—happily. It was obvious that he really liked going back to the herd. The key word is “happy.” It wasn’t that he was just going back to the herd because that’s what he was supposed to do, or that he just kind of wanted to, that he didn’t have anything better to do. He went back to the herd the same way he came over to see me—he was happy! He really liked being with his herd—he exuded happiness.

Then a few minutes later, one of the horses took off at a walk toward the water tank (with a planned stop to check on me, which I discouraged with a wave of my reed). The other three followed—and again, I could feel how happy Galahad was to be in his herd, to hang out with his buddies.

I begin to see what Carolyn Resnick’s method is after. There will come a point where Galahad will be happy to do whatever activity I want to do, too. With his herd, it doesn’t look like it matters to him in the least what they’re doing. Eventually that’s the kind of feeling I’m going to have with him. It’s really beautiful to watch, and I’m excited to look forward to that.

It will take time, but however long it takes, it will be so worth it! He and I have years. There’s no rush.

Galahad is my teacher

Galahad 1 by Aiming High PhotographyAn interesting late afternoon with the horses. I spent some time with Nevada, who’s just a sweetheart: she hangs out with us, content to just stand around if that’s what we’re doing, or to trot around or do groundwork or (especially) eat grass.

Galahad’s a harder one for me to understand, or so it sometimes seems. But I think it’s just that Galahad has so much to teach me, instead of the other way around. I need to learn from him, instead of beating myself up about it when things don’t go as I plan.

This afternoon I had him in the small indoor arena, supposedly just to hang out (I’m starting a Carolyn Resnick course this month). But I started out by trying to round-pen him in there, which Nevada does easily, probably because she thinks it’s fun. Galahad has been round-penned a lot, and it has NOT been fun, by and large, so he’s not as willing.

After a while I remembered that my original idea had been to just hang out with him. Oh. Yes. Forgot that part.

Galahad kind of wandered around the arena, checking out the “messages” left in the sand by other horses, hanging his head over the fence and watching horses and people outside. He did come over to me a couple of times, checking in. But not often enough to satisfy me, I guess.

He came by when I knelt down and started scratching the sand with my hand—he wanted to see what I was up to. Then he left, which was fine. I went over and sat on the mounting block for a while, and he came over once.

As I write this, I’m noticing that what actually happened was not what I initially remembered. The way I remembered it, he totally ignored me. Um no, it wasn’t like that.

I mean, really! What do I expect from him? Can we say, “unreasonable”?

I started walking around the arena, pretending to pay no attention to him, and he was standing looking out over the gate to the outside. I walked past him and away, with my back to him. Then I heard what I thought were a person’s footsteps, and I swung my head around to see who had dared to disturb our space.

The sound was actually Galahad’s footsteps, following me. But he stopped instantly when I swung around. The message I unintentionally sent, oh so clear in horse language, was “Stay back. Don’t bother me!” The equivalent of swinging my head with my ears pinned.

I was so disappointed with myself! That wasn’t at all what I had in mind! There was no way to take it back, of course. I kept walking, but he didn’t follow any more.

I immediately started beating myself up about it, and I know he felt that disappointment. Nevada can deal with me when I’m like that: she just lets it blow right on past.

But Galahad is the most sensitive soul I’ve ever encountered, and his ego really isn’t all that strong. Galahad isn’t like Nevada. He worries. If I’m disappointed, he worries that he’s done something wrong—he has no idea what, but he expects to be blamed.

That’s another remnant of his unfortunate experiences as a youngster before he was rescued. And even our first trainer, successful though he is, used methods that demand pretty much instant obedience, not thinking about building up the horse’s self-confidence.

And then there’s me: I took to those early training methods so well because they are exactly what my dad would have used. That’s how I was taught: obey instantly, or face the consequences. Dad’s love was conditional on my behaving in a way that he could approve of, and preferably in a way that made him look good. So I get it.

The hard part is realizing how much of that internalized, patriarchal, “Arthur” energy I still have inside me, and how far I still have to go to learn what it’s like to express unconditional love. I would love Galahad no matter what he did, but he has no way of knowing that, and until he does know that, we can’t have the kind of relationship I’m looking for.

So he’s shown me, once again, exactly what I need to learn. And I will learn—but it’s going to take a lot of time and patience. I’m hoping the new course will help me develop better habits and learn to be patient and loving not just with Galahad, but with myself, too.

The real student here is me, not my horse.

[Note: This lovely photograph is by my good friend Aimée at Aiming High Photography.]