Common Ground

When I was a young guy eager to learn the ranching business and the cowboy trade, I had the opportunity to work around some older hands who taught me a ton. I grew up in town and had just enough of a taste of ranch life through an uncle and some summer situations that I wanted more. I looked for chances to spend time around livestock people. I’d go to the Arizona National Livestock show held in Phoenix each year, I’d spend time at the local feed store and the stables in our area and I’d talk to anyone who didn’t mind visiting with a green kid about horses, cattle, and ranching. Even though I didn’t know much, my wanting to learn and their willingness to teach gave us something in common.

Yesterday and the day before I spent time with the Double Diamond Halter Co. crew setting up a booth at the Western English Sales Association Show held at the Denver Merchandise Mart. The owner, Pete, his wife, Sharon, and a friend, Nancy got the booth set-up, put product out, and looked at ways to promote Double Diamond’s product line. They make the best halters, leads, reins, dog leashes, and tons of other things useful to horse owners like us. We’ve used these products for more than 20 years and found them to work well and last a very long time.

Pete cowboyed, rode colts, and shoed some horses as a young guy. Sharon and Nancy help run businesses or departments and have spent a good amount of time around horses and livestock. Even though their lives are different than mine we have common interests of cattle, horses, and business. We have some common ground that we’ve built a friendship around. I enjoy spending time around Pete, Sharon, and Nancy because we have things in common and we work to reach a worthwhile goal for a couple of days each year.

Wouldn’t it be great to find some common ground with our horses through a worthwhile goal? Getting our ideas to become their ideas and then allowing them to do our thing their way? When we are working with the horses mind, we create a goal and attempt to reach that goal as a team, as partners. Learning and practicing the tools that allow us to communicate clearly with our horse and then offering them a chance to help us reach our goal would put us on some real solid common ground.

Attention, Attention, can you hear me now?

We were at a meeting tonight. As part of the proceedings, an entertainer was hired to well….entertain. He was very good. He had songs that related to the groups interests and had humorous stories that we all could put ourselves in. In spite of this fellows talent and topics, there were several in the crowd that were more interested in listening to themselves talk than to listen to the entertainer entertain. For those of us who seldom have the opportunity to hear this kind of thing it was very, very annoying.

I was helping a lady today whose horse was a little like those folks at the meeting we went to tonight, he just would not focus on the entertainer. He is a nice horse. He’s gentle, sweet, kind and totally uninterested in what the human has to say. I get that! There are plenty of folks we run into on a daily basis that use a lot of words to say very little. Our goal with this gelding was to let him know that what we are saying is important to us, therefore, important to him. We needed him to make plans to help us. And, without listening to us, hearing what we had to say, he had no way of knowing what was happening with us right now or in the near future so, he wasn’t getting prepared to help.

We needed to make ourselves more interesting. We couldn’t do what we had been doing and expect him to get more interested. Changing how we presented our ideas and working at keeping things fresh seemed to help him help us. To me, that’s a big part of what horsemanship is all about.

Mother’s Day

Happy Mother’s Day to all of you hard working, dedicated mothers.  Raising young ones is one of the toughest, most frustrating, most rewarding things to undertake on the planet.  Our daughter, Liz, is a new Mom and celebrated her first Mother’s Day today.  Liz has a great example in Amy of what a mother can be.  She’s her own person and a great Mom in her own right; doing a fantastic job of raising Ella. I don’t know what the ideal mother is but, I imagine she has to be tough as nails in one moment and soft as silk in another.  She must struggle to find the balance between being the supporter of trying new things and attempting new challenges but, the keeper of common sense and the compass that keeps her youngster from straying too far from acceptable boundaries.  I don’t pretend to have a good grasp of all that entails, I just know that our kids are adults that I really enjoy spending time with and that’s a result of what Amy did and does as their Mother.

We’ve been blessed with three little fillies this Spring.  They are all healthy and seem to be doing really well.  We are firm believers in allowing the mare to raise their young.  We insert ourselves into a foal’s life just enough for them to know that we mean them no harm and that we can be relied upon to be comfortable to be around.  Whether for good or for bad, we want the mare to raise her foal to be a horse.  We don’t want our foals to be confused by too much human interaction at an early age.  I know I’m prejudice but, I think that the horses we allow our mares to raise and then we halter start are well balanced, well-adjusted horses that know where they stand in a herd of horses and where they stand with a human.

Over the years and recently we have had horses come in for training that don’t have a good feel for the human.  They don’t have the respect for a human we expect a horse to have and as a result they are not good on the end of a halter rope and are tougher to get started under saddle.  We feel bad for those horses because in order for us to be safe around them and to get them safe for their owner, we have to rock their world.  Many of the habits they’ve developed have to be changed or eliminated.  They have to stop ignoring the human and begin to focus on what they are offering.  It sounds simple and easy but, for the horse it’s very difficult.  They’ve learned what they’ve lived and they have settled into getting their own way.  They have little regard for what the human needs or wants.  Learning to respect the leadership of the human is a whole new concept to them.  Creating enough pressure for the horse to look for a different answer is sometimes very challenging for the human.

As we all celebrate the wonderful mothers that gave us life and direction we would encourage you to think about allowing the mothers of your foals to raise their young to be good horses.  Give those foals the chance to know what you are without influencing too much what they are.  The time will come soon enough for those weanlings to get a glimpse of what the human’s world has in store for them.  But, by then they will come into our world knowing well the world they come from.  Happy Mother’s Day!

The Certainty of Change

I’ve heard that the only two things in life that are certain are death and taxes.  I’d like to propose that a third certainty is change.  In our lives, we’ve seen a lot of changes and I’d bet that most of you have too.  We’ve changed some big things like having children, where we live, and what jobs we’ve had.  We’ve survived or enjoyed changes in the weather and changes of season.  We change little things like where we shop, what we eat, what we wear, and what we drive.  The net result is that very few things stay the same.

Change, even good change, is stressful.  If it’s planned and the timing is good it’s much less so but, if the change is sudden and the timing of it is poor, stress levels can soar.  Stressing livestock is one of the things that we try very hard to minimize.  Weather stress, the stress of weaning, or any other stress brought on by sudden changes can lead to sickness in young livestock.  We can use good management practices to lessen the stress caused by those changes but, the stress still exists and needs to be recognized and dealt with as it shows up in each individual.

Our horses feel the stress of change.  Changing what they eat, where they live, or how they are worked with can add to their stress levels.  We work to make changes with our horses as gradual and accommodating as possible.  Preparing a horse mentally and physically for change makes the change easier.  Feed changes made over several days or a week, short trailer rides in preparation for a longer trip, stalling a pasture horse for several hours a day a few days before they are to be confined for longer times, and working into a training routine a little at a time are all things we do to help a horse transition.  As we change riding habits or change riding gear, we might make shorter rides with more frequent breaks to allow our horses to soak in the changes.  Giving ourselves and our horses time to make a change reduces both of our stress levels and provides an opportunity for a better outcome.

This week, we saw some significant changes coming to our operation.  The owner of the barn we are using for our training, lesson, and clinic business has decided to go back to being a boarding barn with guest clinicians and trainers coming in at her invitation.  It’s a relatively big change for us because of the timing of it all.  We get pretty busy this time of year so, Amy has had to scramble to rearrange horses, lessons, and clinics that had all been scheduled based on using that facility.  Fortunately for us, we had seen signs that changes were coming and we had done some preparation to position ourselves for a transition.  We will be bringing some horses to our place and will be using various facilities in the area to conduct lessons and clinics.  We feel blessed to have the ability to travel to so many really nice facilities in this area and to work with so many great people.

Between changing schedules and getting projects related to the change completed, our stress levels rose just a bit this week.  Knowing that we have a plan and the tools to accomplish that plan, reduces that stress some.  Doesn’t that sound a little like what we try to do with our horse?

Did You Feel That?

Tom Dorrance was the man credited with first talking about feel, timing, and balance being the three key elements in horsemanship.  He passed it on to Ray Hunt who took it to the world with his demonstrations and clinics.  In some of Tom’s writings he talked about wishing he could cut the top off of his students’ heads and pour in what he felt.  Feel was the thing that he wanted people to have but, couldn’t teach.

In preparation for this latest Spring storm we had moved a group of younger mares into a pasture with more shelter than their home pasture.  This new pasture is closer to the house so we could catch glimpses of the horses from the kitchen windows.  The storm didn’t materialize on the timeline that was predicted and the mares had grown restless searching the shortgrass pasture for little nibbles of green poking-up along the fence lines after they had consumed the hay we fed.  Four or five of the mares had drifted to the northwest corner of the pasture.  As if on cue, their heads came up, tails flagged, and the whole group raced toward shelter bucking and kicking-up their heels the whole way.  There was no visible sign of rain or snow and we didn’t see or feel the wind increase.  The horses felt and reacted to something that we didn’t; probably a pressure change.

Amy’s Dad used to use the horses as a barometer.  They could predict the Chugwater, WY weather better than any man-made instrument he had.  His horses’ knowledge of their environment and their sensitivity to changes in that environment were valuable to him.  He could tell by their behavior when the storm was likely to arrive and just how bad it might be.  The horses could feel the changes long before we did.

We used to have to check cattle along the creek during the summer months.  The bugs were terrible.  Mosquitos and Deer Flies were prolific.  When the wind was blowing, we couldn’t feel those little devils land on us until they were taking a bite but, our horses could.  Their hair and hide were sensitive enough to feel those bugs land.  Tails would swish them away or heads would swing around and chase them off before they could bite.

Even the horse that has learned to become dull to the human is sensitive.  Some are more sensitive than others but, our experience has been that all of them are more sensitive than we are.  They are more in tune to their environment and read body language better than any human I’ve been around.  They feel us much better than we feel them.  We tend to do too much.  Our brains must tell us that we need to dominate and control the horse.  We do need control but, we can gain that control better by working with the horse and its sensitivity rather than by attempting to desensitize it.

We are constantly working on ourselves to improve our awareness of the horses’ sensitivity.  When we feel of our horse and work with his abilities, our movements flow better.  His legs become our legs, his feet our feet.  As we become more aware of our horses sensitivities, we can allow our horse to teach us better feel.  As our feel improves our timing gets better. As our timing gets better our horse becomes more responsive and refined.  I think that’s something we could all strive to feel!

Going Home

One of the happiest and yet saddest times of my year are the times that horses leave our care and tutelage.  Happiest, because, most of the time, it means that the horse and I have reached enough of the owner’s goals that the owner can ride safely to do what they enjoy.  Saddest, because, it also means that a piece of us is leaving.  The bond that we develop with each horse requires us to give of ourselves in a very personal and special way.  In return, most of the horses give a big piece of themselves back to us as trust and confidence.

I often wonder what the horse is thinking and feeling when they first arrive.  If they are anything like me when I’m thrown into a new situation, they’re unsure, a little anxious, and looking for a friendly face.  The wonderful thing about most horses is how highly adaptable they are.  We see horses in all kinds of living and working situations and, unless they are starving or being abused, most seem to adapt to where they live and how they are handled pretty well.  It’s the horses that adapt less easily that we seem to see most often.  A big part of our job is to get the horse to become more secure in who they are so they can deal with change in a more appropriate way.  Getting the owner to recognize the unique characteristics of their horse and make some changes in their behavior to reinforce the horses’ new-found confidence is the other part.

Because we see our job this way, Amy and I strongly recommend that the owners be as much a part of the “training” process as possible.  We believe in preparing for the transition in all phases of our lives.  Proper preparation makes the transition simple and easy.  Preparing properly may mean that we start the process of transitioning the horse back home the first day he arrives.  Having the owner be a part of the discovery of who her horse is, and can become, is a good part of that preparation.  Preparing both horse and owner for the next transition seems to give them both the confidence needed to make that transition smoother.

I don’t look at horses going home as another success for our business.  Instead, I hope that a happy horse going home to a happy owner is more about each of them learning how to give to the other in a way that inspires confidence and trust.  Amy and I are such a small part of horses’ and peoples’ lives when compared to the sum of what they are and what they experience.  But, if we can leave them with something good to work with and build upon, that little piece that we give to each one can grow into something really special.  We sincerely hope it’s that way for you!

Tune-up Time

Spring is a great time to renew, refresh, and rejuvenate.  We get out the garden tools to get the yard, beds, and gardens ready for clean-up and planting.  We go through the lawn mowers, string trimmers, and roto-tillers to make sure they can do the jobs they vacationed from all winter.

If our horses sat around most of the winter eating hay and growing hair, Spring is a great time to pull them out of the pasture or paddock and give them a good dusting-off.  It’s this time of year we groom off piles of dead winter hair, get feet shaped-up, and see if there’s any muscle left under that hide to carry us around.

We had an awesome time this weekend with a group of people doing just that.  Our “Spring Tune-up Clinic” is one of my favorites.  Amy and I have a chance to get our hands on all of the horses attending the clinic to see where they are and what we can do to help them improve.  It’s one of the rare times that we have recent, first-hand knowledge of the horses.  Getting information straight from the horse, not through a human filter, is a big deal to us.  That insight really helps us help the riders as they get their horse “tuned-up” for the riding season.  The riders this year did an outstanding job of taking in the information about their horse, feeling what the horse was offering, and making good adjustments to improve their communication and relationship with their horse.

Everyone had a chance to dust-off their horsemanship tool bag, pull out some tools they forgot they had, and add a few new ones to the pile.  Knowledge builds confidence and having he right tools to work with only adds to that confidence.  A confident rider providing leadership to their horse makes for a confident, secure horse.  Together, that kind of horse and rider team can get out and really enjoy our beautiful state and all the activities our equestrian community offers.

We hope you had a safe and enjoyable weekend too.  Let’s hear it for a riding season filled with new trails, challenging events, happy horses, and safe rides!

A Natural Process

Easter, the blizzard of last week, warmer weather, and greening pastures made me think about how we often travel through some pretty rough times to get to the good stuff.  Mothers, especially new mothers like our daughter, Liz, live through some pretty painful, tiring times to experience the joy of a new child.  In both animal and crop agriculture we go through periods of time where we wonder just how we’re going to make it through.  Calving, foaling, or lambing in cold, wet, muddy or frozen conditions for weeks takes its toll on both mind and body.  But, the 2 A.M. checks, the confused heifer, the frozen gate latch, the snow drifts, and the mud soon give way to young livestock bouncing across green pastures to full stock ponds.  Nature keeps us humble and mindful of the processes that must be honored to come out the other side of rough patches with good results.

In our world of modern convenience it’s often easy to forget how honest and sometimes brutal the natural world is.  Our forefathers worked hard to mitigate the trials that they endured.  They wanted life for their children and grandchildren to be better.  I appreciate their efforts.  Especially after living through a short power outage in a house that is 100 percent reliant on electricity.  For those of us who attempt to walk between the modern and the natural, we are challenged to put aside the easy and instant for the difficult and sometimes slow processes that crops and livestock present.

In a lesson this past week, I overheard Amy admonish her student to “be present” and “in the moment” with her horse.  That can be very difficult.  We have so many demands on our time, attention, and thoughts.  But, in the sometimes unforgiving world of horses, to not be fully aware of what’s going on with your horse and the situation you both are in, is dangerous.  We have heard people say that, “all of a sudden for no reason at all, my horse jumped out from under me”.  To the rider, that’s the way it happened!  To the horse, it may be more like, “I told him I wasn’t sure about that rock but, he wouldn’t listen….I don’t know where his mind was but, it sure wasn’t on supporting me….I didn’t know what else to do!”

Because horse people find themselves bridging the gap between their modern, complicated world and the simple, natural world of their horse, they will find themselves going through some growing pains.  We look at these pains as opportunities to learn from our horse.  We cannot overlay the complicated, agenda laden, human-to-human relationship rules on our relationship with our horse.  It’s not that hard!  Our horses need us to be “all in” during our time with them.  We should expect the same from them.  Once we develop that intention, the blizzards and other storms become less frequent.  We slog through the snow and mud a little less.  We enjoy the sunshine and good warm rain a little more.  So, don’t dread the storms you travel through with your horse.  Be there with them and for them.  When you do that, you’ll surely ride some pretty green pastures too!

The Connection Question

We all want to develop a good solid connection with our horse.  Even folks that ride in completely different styles agree that if their horse is really connected to them, the ride or the job goes much smoother.  How we develop that connection and how we test it can help us improve our awareness and understanding of our horse’s connection to us.

As with a lot of things with our horse, the answer to the question of whether our horse is connected to us or not lies in their feet.  Are the feet connected to the lead rope?  Are they connected to the reins or our seat or our leg?  Ray Hunt would talk about how he wanted to communicate with his horse through its mind, down through its body and legs to its feet.  Watch some old video of Ray on his horses and you’ll get a good picture of what it’s like to have a horse really connected to its rider.

Developing a good and real connection to our horses requires an understanding and awareness of when they are and when they aren’t connected.  To check that out, try this simple test.  Go out to catch your horse.  Be particularly aware of when he sees you coming and how he reacts.  Be particular about whether he helps you get the halter on or whether you’re chasing his nose around with the halter.  Ask yourself if you feel your horse being interested in what you’re offering or if he would rather be somewhere else.  When you lead him off, does he match your pace or does he hurry ahead or drag behind?  When you stop, does he stop with you or does he walk on by?  All of these things matter to the horse.  As we become aware of how he is responding to our direction, we can become more particular about how we direct and how accurate we expect his response to be.  It seems that the more particular we become and the higher our expectations are, the better our horses connect to us.  With that improved connection, I’m predicting you’ll see much more accurate responses to your leadership.

Another piece of the connection question revolves around consistency.  If, as the leader in our horse’s life, we develop some kind of consistency in our presentations and expectations, our horses can become more comfortable with us.  We want them aware of us, not wary of us.  For example, if I consistently expect my horse to offer to put the halter on and make sure that the halter does not go on until I get his assistance, I’m developing a good habit based on consistent expectation.  If, however, part of the time I go to catch him in a big hurry and just slap the halter on and other times slow down to get his assistance, I’m being inconsistent enough to keep some doubt in his mind of just what I am and how I’m going to behave.  Inconsistency can be one of the things that short circuit the development of a good connection with our horse.  They need to be comfortable with who we are even when we change things up a bit.  We don’t have to develop routines, that is, doing things in the same order, but, we should be consistent in how we present things and what we expect as a response.

I hope this gets some thoughts and questions popping in your mind.  We’d love to hear what you think about ways to better connect with horses.

Simply Put

Horses are simple creatures full of complexities and nuances.  Horsemen, over the ages, have developed “methods” of working with horses.  Some of those methods relied on domination of the horse to make him do what was required.  Others looked for ways to understand how the horse thinks and reacts and use that understanding to offer him a place in the human’s world.

Horsemanship can be very simple.  Horses are one of the most adaptable creatures on earth.  Provide them with good feed, clean water, a little shelter from the worst weather, and they’ll be happy.  If you’re going to work with them, show them the job they need to do, support them through any uncertainties they may have, and allow them to be comfortable when they find the right answer.  Simple….not necessarily easy!

In my opinion, we humans fail as horsemen when we look for someone to give us a “method” to work with our horses.  There’s something inside us that needs to have the “recipe” for success.  If you think about the hundreds of “self-help” books on the market, horsemen aren’t the only ones looking for answers from others.  The difference between horsemanship and other areas where we seek help is the horse.  The horse is real.  He is a true reflection of his genetics and environment.  He learns what he lives and lives what he learns.  He never lies.  He is not a complicated corporation or market with set trigger points.  He is a thinking, feeling creature with reactions to us and his environment.  The more consistently we can make him comfortable with what we are asking him to do, the more predictable his reactions will be.  The stronger the bond between the horseman and his horse, the more likely it is that the horse will look to the horseman for leadership and comfort in challenging situations.

If you’re looking for someone to help you get through the rough spots with your horse, I’d suggest that you look for a horseman who is truly interested in you and your horse and your unique situation.  I would shy away from the circus acts, the “rock stars”, and the salesman offering you the gimmick that will cure everything.  If what you’re being offered is complicated, confusing, or requires an investment in certain equipment…!  Our relationship with a horse is special.  There is no easy way to develop a leadership role in your horse’s life.  It is, however, simple.  Watch horses in a herd and listen to your horse when you’re with him. Stop trying to do things to him and start working with him.  Offer yourself to your horse and wait for the return on that offer.  Not complicated, not confusing…..simple.