Your Horse Knows Who You Are

It’s one of those mornings where I woke up pretty tipped-up.  You know what I’m talking about if you’ve had a day where your spouse avoids you, the horses run to the other end of the corral when you approach, and your dogs lay in their beds and stay very, very quiet.  I’m one of those people that attempts to stay pretty even tempered.  I try to avoid allowing myself to rise with the highs and fall with the lows.  I fail miserably, and often, but, nevertheless, that’s my goal.  I’ve found over the years that it’s just easier for me to try to maintain the facade so I and the folks around me don’t have to deal with the goofball on a high or the man in the dumpster on a low.

The facade works pretty well with most people.  It doesn’t work well at all with most horses.  The horses I’ve spent time around have a keen ability to know exactly what’s going on inside me.  Sometimes they alert me to things going on inside that even I had failed to recognize.  I’m not educated in psychology but, after spending a good bit of time helping people with their horses and seeing the horses improve as the people improved, I know that there is a real connection between the inside of a human and the behavior of the horse.

We have the opportunity to work with a therapeutic riding program horses, instructors, and volunteers.  One of the big issues in a program like that is that the horses take on so much of what clients bring both physically and emotionally.  The horses get burnt out.  Not from the physical exertion of walking or trotting around an arena but, from the things that are going on inside the clients.  The horses are healers.  They are willingly taking the “stuff” from inside a client into themselves and find a way to deal with it.  Some are better than others at dealing.  We try to find ways to help those horses having trouble find an outlet for letting go of the “stuff”.

If we allow ourselves to heighten our awareness of our horses’ reaction to us, we have a better chance of recognizing who we are at that moment.  If we recognize who we are, we have the opportunity to make changes for the better.  Our horse is the most honest reflection of who we really are.  The good new for people like me is that I don’t have to remain who I am today.  I can work on me until my horse says, I respect what you’ve become. Let’s go for a ride!!


We had the opportunity to ride with some really great folks this past Saturday at our Winter Series, Refining Our Horsemanship Clinic.  Everyone was trying hard to understand what their horses needed from them.  Sometimes it was a doing a little more to get a horse to search.  Sometimes it was doing a lot less to give the horse the opportunity to show how much they can do for us.  We worked on becoming aware of when we had succeeded in getting our horse to think about what we wanted. Then, we  worked on the timing of our release for that thought.

When we rode in Ray Hunt’s clinics he would talk about how to look and feel for what it takes to get the horse to understand what we’re asking.  He talked about how sometimes it would take all we had to get our point across but, other times, it would take the littlest thing and they’d be right there.  To us, refinement in our horsemanship has taken the form of seeing how little we can do. Looking for ways to get our thought to become their thought.  Changing their mind and then getting out of the way so our horse can do our thing their way.  We’ve worked on becoming aware of our horses feet and how to get in time with them.

At the clinic, I watched Amy ride a horse that was struggling with his right side.  This gelding was always wanting to look left and pushing his shoulder and rib cage out to the right.  He is 10 years old and had been in this frame for quite a few years.  When Amy first began her ride she thought it  would take quite a little time to get him out of such a strong habit.  But, to Amy’s and our surprise, the gelding came through after just a little bit.  Amy’s timing must have been fitting to what the he needed.  She must have felt what the gelding was thinking he needed to do and changed his mind.  The straightness that Amy offered must have felt good to the him because once he knew through Amy’s release that it was okay to travel that way, he stayed there on his own.  Amy’s experience helped. She knew what she was looking for.  She would allow the gelding to run into his own pressure when he wasn’t right and would release as the gelding thought about getting right. Amy’s timing was good…..according to the horse!

Tom Dorrance and Ray Hunt showed us years ago that feel, timing, and balance were the keys to creating good communication with our horses.  It was true then, it’s true today.  We don’t need to look for anything else!

Make It A Good Day!

One thing that will keep you from getting into trouble with your horse is if you “ride the horse you have today”.  When we look back at a bad day with our horses, we may discover memories of signs that, had we paid attention, could have prevented our unpleasant encounter.  Being that horseman that has good situational awareness and adjusts to what is rather than what we wish for can mean the difference between a good ride and a bad one.

A “bad day” story may sound like:  Yeah, ol’ roanie was a little hard to catch that morning….I pulled him off the best, greenest pasture we have and away from that mare he’s so fond of.  There was a little ear pinning when I cinched him up but, when I rode him 3 months ago, he was fine.  He did walk off from the tie rack with his tail swishing and a big ol’ hump in his back but, when I moved him around a little he only kicked at the cinches once or twice.  Come to think of it, he did have a big ol’ brace on that left side….not good remembrances from a convalescent bed!

A “bad day” turned into a “good day” may sound more like this:  Yeah, ol’ roanie was going to be a little hard to catch so I took my time and made sure that he was catching me before we left the pasture.  A couple of days ago I noticed he was getting pretty attached to our mare so, I moved her to another pen hoping that would help today’s ride go better.  It had been most of the winter since we last rode so, I took some extra time with the grooming.  I kept ahold of roanie so I could move him around me and my brushes hoping he’d get a feel for me again.  When I put my saddle on his back, I took a little time to rub on him and I did a double check on how things were fitting since our last ride.  I brought those cinches up easy and just tight enough to keep the saddle from rolling and then I moved him around me a little to see what he thought about things.  I noticed a brace on that left side so, I took some time to work that out and make sure that left rein was working on that left hind foot.  By the time I was ready to step on, ol’ roanie had blown two or three times and yawned.  He looked like a horse that wanted to go with me.  We had a great ride!

As we all get ready for Spring, now may be a good time to start assessing our tack, our pastures, and our horses.  Getting back into the habit of thinking about what kind of situations we want to try to create to make our riding season one of the best ever!  Looking forward to seeing all of you soon!!

It Matters How You Get There

We were flipping through channels yesterday, trying to catch-up with what is going on in the rest of the world. We like to learn from other’s perspectives. On one of the Sunday morning talk shows a U.S. Senator was being interviewed. He was asked about a lot of different things. His answers were straightforward and appeared to be from his heart as well as his mind. I don’t even remember what the context of his remark was but, what he said was profound and could apply to a lot of different areas of our lives. I’ll paraphrase here because I don’t want to misquote him. I heard him say that, it’s not always about winning; it matters how you get there. Wow! Something we truly believe coming from a sitting Senator!

We’ve lived our lives on that pretext. It really does matter how you get there. It matters how you treat the people that come into your life and it matters how you feel about things happening around you. It matters how you deal with the good and the bad. It’s not about winning the contest, it’s how you play the game.

It matters to our horses how we get there. Because they live what they learn and learn what they live, each moment of the journey with their human matters. For them, it’s not about winning because it’s not about a contest. It’s how the offer is made, how the problem is presented, and how it feels when the right solution is found. There is enough struggle between horse and human in trying to understand each other without making working with our horse a contest. Learn how to live in the moment, deal with the present, and enjoy the way you get there!

More Than Shine

Sunday, after chores, we made our monthly trek to Cheyenne for groceries. I like to shop at the Sam’s Club up there because I’m not overwhelmed by too many choices of each item we need.

One of the items we needed this trip was toothpaste. That’s a product that has changed considerably in just my short time here on earth. When I was a kid, we were told that we needed to brush our teeth so they stayed healthy and didn’t fall out. We needed to maintain healthy gums and teeth by brushing twice daily. As we stood there looking at our choices and trying to remember what we had bought last time, we were struck by the marketing message on the toothpaste and how it had changed. Now, instead of, brush your teeth to save them, the message is brush your teeth to make them whiter and your breath fresher.

We understand that if we want healthy teeth, brushing versus not brushing is not a real question. But, it got us thinking about how we think about brushing versus how other folks might think about it. I need to have meaning and purpose behind the things I do each day or I don’t see value in doing them. Both Amy and I think about the foundation of our projects and how it will support the look of that project in the end. Putting a shine on our teeth without supporting the health of our teeth and gums just wouldn’t make sense to us.

Our horses thrive when they are given the chance to build a strong foundation. Holes in that foundation, like cavities in our teeth, weaken their chance to lead healthy, productive lives when interacting with humans. Trying to put a “finish” on a horse that doesn’t have a good start is like trying to put a shine on a rotten tooth. It might look good for a while but, pretty soon it’s going to fall apart. That’s why we’re always going back to check our horses foundation and filling in the holes. We want a horse that shines from the gum to the crown!

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!

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.