Is it possible to do death well?

The day Rio and Kastani taught me how to receive support from them.

This morning marks one week since I found Rio down in the paddock, and by end of day had to make the most difficult decision ever, to let him go. I’ve had my fair share of losses in the last 5 years. Death seems a constant presence. It can be particularly challenging when we live in a culture that seems to see death as a failure of medicine rather than something inevitable. If it is possible to do death well, then Rio is a beautiful example. Maybe I am also learning how let go and witness the passing of loved with more grace. I hope so because Rio won’t be the last.

Cultivating my empathic abilities over the years opens me up to feel more all the time. I’m grateful for that, but sometimes it can be quite confusing. In Rio’s case, I felt nothing from him but peace – calm acceptance of whatever the outcome. So that’s what I felt as well. Calm, peace, acceptance. On some level I knew he would be leaving me on this day, and yet I still felt that peace and acceptance radiating as the primary emotions.

Underneath that, part of me railed against another loss. It’s too much. Too many beings, both human and animal have departed from my life in the last 5 years. My aching heart barely has time to recover before the next passing. That part of me said ‘ENOUGH’ as I looked around at the 16 equines still with me. Most are far older than Rio, and some likely to pass within the next year or so. It is the price we pay when we opt in to being in relationship with others. It is the price we pay for loving deeply.

I guess that’s the thing about opening up those empathic senses. We get to feel all of it. Everything. The deep wells of grief, the peace, the joy, and the rage. It can be a bit overwhelming and confusing at times. But also, how lucky I am to experience Rio’s sense of peace and calm acceptance as I witnessed him consciously working with his body to resolve this issue with his gut. His sense of peace kept me hopeful, but also preparing myself for what seemed the most likely outcome as the day wore on with little improvement of symptoms. When Mom was sick, I remember a friend sharing with me the notion of resting in the unknown where all things are still possible. That was a life saver and I found myself resting in that place while we took one step and then the next in Rio’s care.

This morning, I asked Rio for his help in what to share about this experience. His Spirit self has been so close all week. He is right there assisting me in finding my connection to myself, to horses I’m checking in with for others, and showing me the feeling of what it means to be supported, by reminding me what it felt like to rest my body against his shoulder. He’s got my back. We are still partners, just in a different way now. There is such comfort in that, wrapped up of course in the hollow place I still feel inside my chest when I miss his physical presence.

My friend Lizzy really helped me at the end. We got on the phone in those final minutes when I had to make the call to let him go. I flat out asked her to tell me what Rio wanted me to do. Not fair to ask that of her, but I was desperate and grief stricken. She told me that she couldn’t make that call for me, but she could help me get into a state where I could find my connection to Rio so that we could make that decision together. She helped me find my feet on the ground, breathe, and let go of all the tension. She helped me feel my connection to Rio and then we started going through all the questions I had, the doubts. Each time we came to a question related to allowing him to pass now, I felt a yes with every fiber of my being and Rio, down the barn aisle, would sigh audibly. He could not have been clearer about his wishes. I could not be more grateful for his clarity.

Something Lizzy said that stuck with me, that I’ve heard myself say to others in a similar position: this is a decision that is yours to make and yours alone. You and Rio are so connected and only the two of you know what’s best. Don’t ever let anyone tell you differently, or cause you to doubt yourself, your connection, or the decision you make. Those were the most powerfully soothing words to hear in that moment.

What Rio wants to share is that it was just his time. It’s easy to start looking for reasons why something like this happens. He chose to go because he didn’t want me to ride him, that’s one thought that came to my mind. He got sick because he was mirroring me in some way or trying to give me some kind of message. There are so many places we can go with these things that really just make us feel like we failed our horses. What if I had acted earlier in assessing him? What if I had hauled him to the vet clinic right away? It’s a bit of unnecessary self-torture. Rio says, life begins and life ends and we have very little say in how or when that end comes. It’s best to just live life to the fullest and do your best to be fully present with the ones you love so that when that time comes there are minimal regrets.

I asked Rio why now? He says he doesn’t know. If he’d had his way, he would have liked to stick around a bit longer and see what we could have done together riding in our new places of awareness. He feels confident that we both did the best we could to resolve the situation. It just was not meant to be. He assures me there is nothing I could have done to change the outcome. Sometimes these things just happen. That’s why he felt such a sense of peace and acceptance. Whatever happened he had no regrets. He was healthy, vibrant, sound, and ready to go into our next level of partnership. He knew that he had a voice and choice and that I would honor his wishes, come what may.

As for myself, I suppose I do still wish for that one more ride. Sometimes it’s impossible to reconcile the loss of a sound, healthy horse. But then again, as a friend of mine said, he had one bad day. Hard to complain about being in a really good place and having one bad day before you exit this life. How lucky am I to have shared the last 10 years with this amazing being? How lucky am I to have so many wonderful memories of the time we spent in each other’s company, and the things we learned together? How lucky am I to feel him still with me in this other form?

No regrets. Just love, peace and acceptance.

Thank you a million times over for the outpouring of prayers, love and support from everyone during this transition for Rio and I.

Until next time

Andrea

Thank you to Khrys for this wonderful image and message

Look for my blogs on Sunday mornings from now on. I post a regular Sunday article to Tango with Horses Online and it just makes sense to tie the two together.

Lizzy was such a great support during those final hours with Rio. She’s going to be our guest speaker for our live community call over on Tango with Horses Online this month: Friday June 25th, 2021 at 9:30 am MT. We’ll be talking about how to stay calm in a crisis with your animals, or any loved one, for that matter. It’s free and open to all members of Tango with Horses Online (which is also free). Here’s a link should you care to join us:

LINK: Tango with Horses Online Events: Live Community Call with Elizabeth Meyer

Can’t make it? No worries, contact me for a link to the recording.

LINK: Contact Andrea

Looking for support with your horses along these lines? Feel free to book a free 30 minute consult. I’m happy to help you sort through some options and find your next best step.

LINK: 30 minute consult with Andrea

Overcoming the Culture of Powering Through

Recently I became aware of how often I push through.

I think of myself as fairly self-aware. I like to think that I place a high priority on self-care. Given that, it was a bit of a shock to realize how frequently I find myself plowing ahead without noticing the less than subtle signs from my body, my mind, and my emotions – that a pause might be in order…

It should come as no surprise, really. Going to school to study Equine Science, graduating and managing barns, it was drilled into my head early on that to succeed in this industry you must be tough. You must have a thick skin. You must be willing to work as long and as hard as necessary to get the job done, even if that means you start before dawn and end after dark. You must always be on call, ready to drop everything to handle a crisis. And let’s not forget, you must get back on when you get bucked off, you must not let the fear take you.

The message I got was the same message I was taught to give my horses. Horse, you must be willing to work no matter what. You must power through any pain or discomfort and work for me. When I make a ‘request’ you must respond immediately, or expect consequences. You must, essentially, be on call 24/7, ready and willing whenever I show up, and regardless of the mood I bring with me. Hurry up and do what I say, don’t stop to think, don’t act anxious, don’t be pushy, don’t question me, and don’t let the fear take you…

Both horse and human learn what sorts of behaviors allow them to survive, and maybe even thrive in this demanding, often unforgiving, culture of horsemanship. It’s no wonder our horses learn to hide their physical pain and power on through. It’s no wonder we do the same, overriding fear from past accidents, becoming dependent upon those we place in positions of authority to tell us what to do. It’s no wonder so many of us that have horses in our lives feel inadequate, not good enough. Is it even possible to be good enough in this world designed for perfectionists?

The type A part of my personality leaned into this demanding life-style, taking pride in my willingness to work hard and power through. But it took its toll. My body and my nervous system lived in a state of perpetual shock and I lost my ability to listen well to my own needs. The horses here taught me how to listen to them, and in turn I am still learning how to listen ever more deeply to myself, to that place of placing a priority on my own needs.

What if I don’t force that horse that doesn’t want to be caught to be caught? What horrible thing might happen? What if I don’t force my body that is filled with anxiety to step into that stirrup? What if I pause? What if I wait until something feels right for ME before I proceed? Does that make me a rebel? An outlier? So what if it does? What horrible thing will happen if I’m different from how I was back then? What if I found a new way to be, and for my horses to be, that allows us to proceed only when it feels good to us, that gives us room to breathe, and process the things that don’t?

There are so many options available when we allow for a pause, a breath, a feeling in…

And that’s the place where real change, lasting healing happens. When we realize we have options and the world won’t end if we choose something different that might just suit who we are now a bit better.

Life is short, you’ll find me out with the herd this morning, taking time to breathe it all in. I was so proud of myself for having this post done and dusted on Saturday. Little did I know that I would spend yesterday at the vet clinic with my dear Rio battling for his life. Never did I appreciate the time I’d taken to nurture my own needs that morning so that could really be there for Rio. So that I had the fortitude to make that final call with him, to let his his physical body go.

Normally, this would be the point where I’d create some invitation to learn more. But that doesn’t feel right this morning. So instead, I leave with hope that today you’ll pause, listen to the calling of your own heart and appreciate each moment.

Rest in Peace sweet Rio. I love you more than words can say…

Gin’s Message

This is all that matters.

This moment.

Right here, right now.

– Gin

This message goes all the way back to 2017 and was plucked from a hand written note made by my friend Jean Hennen in one of many notebooks gifted me recently. She printed everything I ever produced going back as far 2009. In addition, she shared her own explorations and notes from live workshops. Jean was a student of the horse, literally, until the day she died. I’ll share more from her notebooks over time, so many treasures there…

Jean had plucked these words from an email I sent sharing a story, highlighted at the top of the page as: Gin’s wisdom.

But the rest of the story gives her words context and so I’ll share that with you as well, should you care to read my funny story:

January 21, 2017

Last night I got pulled up into the fray by some things happening on FB, and in another group I follow. It was a bunch of folks who feel like they are either holing up and isolating themselves or itching for a fight and I got sucked into the energy of it all. I felt such frustration. Imagine what it’s like to tap into that deeper sense of knowing and then watch everyone you care about in such turmoil – unable to see the deeper truth. I kind of lost it.

But, it was time to go feed the horses, so I put my big girl pants on, sucked it up (as my dear friend Cori used to quip in such situations – suck it up  buttercup!) and headed out to feed. When I got out to the pens, Gin stood near the gate. So I step into the paddock with her, stand there and let all my emotions stand bare before her. She looks me up and down. I can feel her sensing and acknowledging my strong emotions. She walks past me to stop with her butt facing me. I briefly run all the thoughts of  – ‘she doesn’t care’, ‘she can’t deal with me’,  ‘I’m too much for her’ and so forth. Then, shutting that part of my mind down, instead, I ask her: ‘Gin – what are trying to tell me?’ She paws the ground and my mind goes to – ‘geez! Snap out of it, maybe she’s colicky and you’re just too caught up in your crap to hear her!’ – so I ask again, ‘what are you trying to tell me?’ – she turns her head and looks at me like ‘really?’ – and backs her butt up towards me again.

She does this. It’s her standard greeting for most people. A brief hello and then she puts her butt in your face. She wants her tail scratched, it’s her favorite! So I step over and start scratching her butt. I hear her saying something to the effect that this is all that matters. This moment, right here, right now. Peppy, her son, comes over and starts breathing into my mouth and nostrils and nibbling gently on my scarf. This is all that matters. This, right here, right now. Don’t let all that other stuff consume your energy and burn you up so you have nothing left for what’s really needed from you.

That’s my Gin: ‘You’re freaking out? Here, scratch my butt.’

Can you begin to see the wisdom the horses offer us? This is why I’m here!

A big thank you to Jean for saving all this work I produced over all these years. And to Gin, of course, for her continued wisdom. She is such a bringer of peace in my world!

Until next week,

Andrea

PS:

I plucked this from our daily messages from the herd post over on Tango with Horses Online. The irony of this story is not lost on me as I have stepped away from Facebook other than to keep in touch with friends and family. If you’d like to join our Tango with Horses Free Community and be the receiver of daily wisdom from the herd, click the link here to join us. It just takes a few minutes:

Tango with Horses Online

How my horses teach me….

Kastani and I working in hand

In my world, my horses talk to me all the time. Not in a Dr. Doolittle kind of way, but no less magical, in my opinion!

As I write this I can, and do, ‘tune into’ my herd and ask for their input on what I write and how I should say things. Sometimes that input comes as a feeling, an emotion, an image, and sometimes as words in my head. Right now, it feels as though they are waiting to see where I decide to go with this, but I feel supported by them. I know they have confidence in me and love it when I share these things with others. This way of communicating is not magic or make believe. Go digging a bit into how indigenous cultures relate to their environment and you find they learned about the properties of medicinal plants in much the same way I have learned to connect to, and learn from, my horses. This kind of connection can be intentionally cultivated by anyone.

Okay, so yea, it’s pretty neat to feel this connection and level of communication with my horses all the time, but where it gets most exciting for me is when I interact with them in person. This last week I did a deep dive into work in hand. I have a group of clients, online and in person, who are ready to learn to how to be in physical connection with their horses, ready to prepare themselves and their horses for riding. In my world, in hand is a key component of developing our connection (it really is Tango with horses) as well as developing the strength and balance control for riding. In order to teach this well I must be able to break it down into small steps, and importantly, understand why I do it the way I do it, and how and why my way differs from other in hand methods. So much of what we do in the horse world we do because someone told us we should, somewhere along the line, but we rarely know why.

So I decided to go out and ask my horses to show me how they feel about different ways of approaching work in hand. I can always count on them to be honest. That, in my opinion, is the best thing about working with horses the way I do, nine times out of ten, they teach me what to do and how to it in a way that works well for both of us. Seriously, I walked away from some of my experimental sessions last week feeling like I just left my favorite body worker’s massage table! And I’m not joking… It was amazing.

The first day I went out with some questions in mind about the different techniques for work in hand. I inquired both within myself (how did it feel for me) and with my horses (asking them show me how they felt). In the first, more classical approach to holding the reins, Gin went soundly asleep and I found that I could not feel anything coming from her, no movement, nothing. Not because there was no movement. There is always movement. She was, after all, breathing and breath is motion, motion that I could not feel.

When I switched to my modified version of in hand it kind of blew my mind. Gin immediately shifted her weight, shifted her center of gravity back and walked off spontaneously in good balance. What blew me away even more is that from my position I could feel every nuance of her breath, her shifting weight, such that it was easy to seamlessly follow along as she stepped off. The only way I can think to describe the sensation is that we were connected and every single tiny movement was shared between us in such a way that we moved as one.

Thanking Gin, I moved on to Huey.

The more classical variations of position had Huey instantly reaching around, bumping me with his nose in a most irritated fashion. Huey has some arthritis near his poll that can be quite painful if he is forced to place his head and neck in a particular position that I decide. It was clear that no matter how light I tried to be, variations of the classical position/technique were not comfortable for him. And once again, I felt no nuance in our connection.

When I shifted to my version, he straightened his head and neck, shifted his balance, sighed and walked off in perfect balance. Susan even picked him up and tried with the same results. Watching from a spectator’s vantage his walk in this new way of in hand was free and relaxed. When Susan shifted to any other technique he might still go but his body bunched up and compressed and his movement became stilted. Also interesting is that Susan appeared to be getting left behind all the time (behind his movement) so the whole picture for horse and human had a stilted quality.

This is how my horses talk to me and help me understand how to best support them in our work together. They wouldn’t give me such great insight and information if I was only interested in how promptly they respond to my requests. We have these kinds of conversations because I am more concerned with the quality of our movement together than I am with promptness of response. It takes time and attention to research what it feels like to connect and move together. Research between the two of us making micro adjustments to find the perfect way to come together without restricting each other, or blocking each other. It takes attention to internal research where I notice what’s happening in myself to organize this movement, and my horse has time to do the same.

Maybe we can think of it as conscious trial and error. We learn together through exploring the quality of our connection and how we move together in simple ways at first, but then the complexity and duration increases over time.

The feedback Huey and Gin gave me sent me down a rabbit hole, researching how the different ways of connecting influence my own body. Why would I be able to feel more from the horse one way than the other? How could I break the process of learning my way down into pieces that foster the connection that allows for feel before we even pick up the reins? When I took the ideas I developed over the next week out to the horses for their feedback they made it clear that I had it just right. And then yesterday, I got to teach two lessons with folks new to my way of doing in hand and prove the theory. By the time these ladies picked up the reins they had already grasped how to move with their horses and use their whole body instead of just their hands to communicate with their horses. It was a beautiful thing to see. No excess tension, no pulling or restriction. Happy humans and happy horses!

This is what it’s like in my world where my horses talk to me all the time. They help me solve problems and point me in directions I may never have thought of otherwise. It wasn’t always easy learning to listen to them, especially early on when all they seemed to want to do was hang out with me doing what felt like nothing. Doing seemingly nothing was a huge challenge for this person who is generally more comfortable doing than being. Horses used to being told what to do and expected to respond promptly had to learn to trust that they had time to think, and they were allowed to give me feedback. It isn’t always an easy transition to make away from what was always done. Both horse and human learn how to survive in our partnerships based on our training. But in my case, it’s been so worth it. It’s set me on a path that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.

Now I’m asking the horses if they have anything they want to add today…

Gin invites you to be gentle with yourselves as you ponder your own relationships with your horses and others in your life. It’s easy, she says, to read about what other people are doing and judge yourself, or compare yourself. But each and every horse and human partnership is unique and perfectly evolving. You’ll find YOUR way over time. It works best for both horse and human to make changes in how you do things slowly. Changing everything all at once, like Andrea tends to do in her own life, sets the stage for massive growth that can be more challenging than necessary. Even Andrea is learning now how to pace herself and her growth. One step at a time. We are ready when you are.

Until next week!

Andrea and the herd, of course…


PS.

If you’re curious about developing your own version of this way of being with horses, I highly recommend it and I’m happy to help you figure out a good first step down down that path. You can book a free 30 minute visit with me via Calendly to talk options: Calendly link

If you’re curious about work in hand, I’m building an online course on the subject and I’m happy to put you on my wait list. There are some prerequisites to in hand: ensuring your horse doesn’t have any issues in the upper cervical region and the neck is a good place to start. The Seeing Beyond the Obvious Course where you learn how to assess your horse for areas of restriction or pain covers those bits. I’ll be doing an introductory session for that in the next few weeks. Again, happy to put you on a list to notify when I open registration.

We’re having a lot of fun over at Tango with Horses Online. It’s a free community where my co-hosts (animal communicator Diane Barrett and the multi-talented and knowledgeable in all things horse, Kim Walnes) share daily messages from the herd, articles, monthly community calls with guest speakers, and you have early access to any courses offered! It’s not on Facebook. It’s over on Mighty Networks where we have a little space all to ourselves. Tango with Horses Online link

Maybe it’s not your fault?

Do you ever feel like throwing in the towel? Like your horse’s issues are all your fault and you may as well just quit horses for good? It’s easy to feel that way when you’re dealing with behavior issues. Sometimes it can feel like you’ve exhausted all options to no avail so it must be you that’s the problem. Especially when you watch a trainer work with your horse and they can get them to do everything your horse refuses to do for you with apparent ease. A good trainer can do that for reasons I won’t get into now, but with you, your horse likely feels comfortable enough to tell you how they really feel. Sure, almost always there are things we could do better as a ‘trainer’ of our horses. More clarity, more consistency, but there are also times when their behavior has nothing whatsoever to do with us…That’s what I want to share today.

More than 30 people participated in a workshop this last month called Seeing Beyond the Obvious. Our focus was learning to interpret our horse’s movement, behavior and response to touch as a way to determine if they might be experiencing mental, emotional or physical discomfort. It does my heart good to see so many people recognizing that something isn’t right with their horses, and being willing to ferret out what that something is, often in the face of professional opinions to the contrary. If you read my blogs regularly, you know that I spend a fair bit of time talking about the sticky issue of sub-clinical pain, and how hard it can be to get a diagnosis. I love seeing people advocating so strongly for their horse’s welfare and it does my heart good to see the kind of diligence participants exhibited.

I want to acknowledge that it is especially challenging when your horse communicates that something is bothering them by acting out in some way. It can be hard to see the forest for the trees when the behaviors we deal with are most often interpreted as training issues: he’s being rude, taking advantage of you, you’re afraid of him, he’s lazy, he’s fat, he just needs you to commit…. These are all statements I heard from people when I sought expert advice with one of my horses. I felt something was off in his right front, but there was no obvious lameness. Ultimately, he did go lame, and was diagnosed with sesmoiditis in his right front. His behavior under saddle, in particular, going right, was likely caused by the discomfort in that limb, not that he was lazy, fat, or that I was afraid of him. I can tell you, I felt like a loser as a trainer not able to get him to canter to the right, but I felt like even more of a loser when I found a way to train him through it and he turned up lame a year later…

Time and again, the horses that come to me with challenging behaviors end up with something physically very wrong. Another horse that came to me years ago just absolutely panicked and bolted anytime he was asked to engage in movement that caused him to flex at the poll. Picking up contact with a bit in mouth put him over the edge. He was obviously incredibly stressed by any kind of training. All the usual suspects were ruled out (teeth and chiro and osteopathy and). I never did pushed him or try to make him do anything. Now I’m glad, because ten years on he has a large lump just behind his poll that could be arthritis in the cervical vertebra, or some kind of calcification of the nuchal ligament (x-rays or ultrasound in his near future). There was likely a very good physical reason for his panic about flexion at the poll.

I may not see the evidence of the physical issue when a horse first comes to me, and we may not get a diagnosis early on, but if they stay here long enough, something always shows up as they age that explains the behaviors during training.

But really, I want to say today that I understand it can be difficult to accept that a horse’s behaviors are signs of pain. It’s easy to get down on ourselves and think it’s all our fault. We’ve ruined them by not training them properly, or something we are doing or not doing is causing the behaviors. Sometimes, it has absolutely nothing to do with us. If you have tried everything else and nothing is shifting your horse’s behavior, start looking for possible sources of stress (other than you). More often than not, something is bothering your horse that just hasn’t been discovered yet. It can be as simple, sometimes, as them being uncomfortable in the tack you use, to needing teeth floated, to shifting the diet or balance of the feet. If all of the usual suspects have been ruled out, keep digging.

Signs that your horse might be coping with some degree of physical discomfort are varied and many. Some of the things I learned to recognize as possible signs of discomfort include (but not limited to):

  • If your horse seems to struggle to learn the most basic things, or don’t seem to retain lessons. Horses in chronic discomfort are stressed, and stressed horses do not learn well.
  • If they seem to make progress one day only to regress badly in a few days or a week with no discernable explanation.
  • Unpredictable changes in behavior with no clear trigger. It’s like they just snap and might include things like bolting, bucking out of the blue, spooking, biting, kicking, and otherwise coming after us. I can’t recall in my entire career meeting a horse who was aggressive towards humans or other horses just because that’s who they were.
  • Being picky about what they eat, and having a history of colic or other digestive issues.
  • And I think, metabolic syndromes may develop in some horses due to the chronic stress of sub-clinical, undiagnosed sources of pain.

I know it isn’t an easy thing to consider that your horse might be uncomfortable, that you somehow missed something, or that you did things you regret now by way of ‘training them through it’. Try not to get stuck in your own regrets so that you can be there for your horse now. Ferreting out sub-clinical pain is not easy, and you’ll often feel quite unsupported by the pros. It’s often a process of elimination. Sometimes it can take years to find the source of the problem. Just keep looking, keep listening, and don’t give up. Once you identify the source of the problem, know that it’s not easy supporting a horse through rehabilitation. It is hard to step out of the training mindset and into a therapeutic mindset. When you do though, the bond you build with your horse as you help them to feel better in their body and mind is like no other.

If you are struggling with your horse please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Keep being awesome advocates for yourselves and your horses! To all who participated in the workshop this last month – thank you! You make me so proud.

Until next week.

Andrea


PS: If you are interested in the next iteration of the Seeing Beyond the Obvious workshop drop me a line and put you on the wait list. I know I’ll do something short, sweet and introductory about sustainable horsemanship in the near future… Send me an email here to get on the list: Contact Andrea at ardatz@acsol.net – or if you think something might be brewing with your horse that you’d like to discuss, I’m happy to help.

And, if you’d like to join a great group of conscious horse folk we’d welcome you over at Tango with Horses Online. It’s not on Facebook, it’s here: Tango with Horses Online

Land Matters: Role Models

It’s easy to get caught up in how bad things are for the environment and our planet. If you go looking you’ll find an increasing number of people learning how to live in harmony with their little patch of earth. What I want to share here is how just one or two people can change the ecology of entire communities. That patchwork of communities starts to influence more and more widely until we reach a tipping point of goodness. I think that sometimes it feels like ‘I’m just one person, I can’t possibly make a difference on my own’ – but you can. Just you, doing your part, in your own back yard, can have a wider influence. Don’t underestimate the power of the individual. I do believe that if we wait on, or expect that, the government is going to be able to fix it, we’re doomed. But enough of that, I want to share a story…

Last week, Steve and I went on a much needed vacation to one of our favorite places on earth. The Grand Staircase/Escalante Canyon National Monument. The town of Boulder, Utah is nestled, literally, in the transition zone between the ecology of Boulder Mountain and the canyon country carved by the Escalante River. Staying at the Boulder Mountain Lodge and eating at the restaurant next door called Hell’s Backbone Grill, has been on my bucket list for nearly 20 years.

While it may seem odd, chef owned restaurants are often at the heart of big changes on an ecological level. A great chef knows that you can’t make great food without great ingredients. There is a show on Netflix called Chef’s Table that was my Sunday morning inspiration until I sadly, ran out of episodes. Every single one of these great chefs quickly realized that in order to make great food they had to source locally to have the freshness they wanted. They ended up supporting the local economy and the farmers who’s food is the best tasting. As it happens, the best tasting food comes from plants and animals raised in sustainable, humane ways. So the culture of the restaurant ends up supporting a whole network of sustainability in the community surrounding them…

Twenty one years ago two women (Blake Spalding and Jennifer Castle) came up with this idea of opening a restaurant in Boulder, Utah. This is a very conservative, Mormon community with a population in the several hundreds. It’s not a community that’s super open to change, or strangers. These ladies wanted to open a high end restaurant in the middle of no where and support local agriculture and local workers. They persevered and have created a restaurant that is considered one of the best in the western United States. That’s why it was on my bucket list to go stay in Boulder and eat at this restaurant. I wanted to see what they had built.

Twenty one years down the line, we’re here for their first week open of the season. When we arrive in the evening, the lot is filled and cars are parked down the street on a Monday night. When we finally got our table, on the patio as they’re still cautious about Covid in this small place, with a view of the setting sun over the canyon country, I couldn’t have been happier. Can you tell I love food? That night, I ate the best meal I’ve had in a very long time. That was true of every meal we ate there, and since it was the only place open for dinner in the whole town on the nights we were there, that was every night.

Blake and Jen have fulfilled their vision and now own their own farm as well. Everything they grow is used at the restaurant, in addition to supporting the local ranchers. This beautiful valley has become a bit of a Meca for sustainable agriculture largely because of this one restaurant. Every little grocery store and gas station carries organic foods. Every meal we ate on that trip, from Green River to Escalante, Utah was delicious. To me, that’s a direct reflection of the consciousness of the people living in these areas. Caring about the food you eat has a direct correlation with caring about the land, ecology, and sustainability. These ladies and their vision seem to have influenced the entire food, and hence farming/ranching, culture in the desert southwest.

In Boulder, Utah the land is in balance.

Understanding sustainability means understanding the role that plants, animals and humans play in a healthy environment. We all have our role to play. Boulder proves to me, at least, that humans can make a positive difference. We are not meant to be hands off, we are meant to be stewards. When we care for the land and the animals properly all of life benefits. And you get to eat great food as an added bonus!

Home again and looking forward to watching my little patch of land transform. I have so many ideas. Now to implement them!

’til next time

Andrea

PS:

I’m thinking of doing a roughly one hour talk about how to make our horsemanship sustainable – as in how can we learn to observe our horse’s for signs of unhealthy levels of physical, mental, emotional stress or strain. Drop me a line if you’re interested in being on the mailing list for that one. I’d love to hear from you.

Contact Andrea

Learning, Safety and Trust

According to the Collective Herd

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea that learning can’t really take place in the absence of a sense of relative safety, without a sense of having a solid foundation to stand on. It helps to understand the fundamentals, to have some consistency from day to day, week to week. This is true for anyone, human or horse, doubly so if one has experienced events that exceeded their ability to cope, or is under chronic stress. So once again, I asked the herd to talk to me about this sense of developing a safe environment for learning to take place between horse and human.

Here is what they had to say:

It’s true, we do need to feel safe with you in order to be able to learn the things you humans need to teach us in order for us to thrive as domestic beings. Humans domesticated themselves a long time ago and those animals that chose to come along for the ride are part of your world now. We are happy enough to come along for the ride, but it does help to understand why you want us to do the things you want us to do. Horses and cats are still quite in touch with our wild roots. We know how to survive in a wild world to this day. Humans have largely lost that connection and so sometimes, the things you ask of us make no sense at all in terms of the wild world and how we survive there. Some of the things you ask us to do feel inherently dangerous from a surviving in the wild perspective. Remember that when you seek to teach us things.

Often times, humans expect us to do things without a clear understanding of why they want us to do them. If you don’t even really understand the purpose behind an exercise or practice, then how can you explain it to us? How can you own that skill and bring it to us with confidence? We cannot feel safe if you don’t.

Here’s an example

So many humans are now seeking a kinder, gentler way with us. Which is great. However, this shift leads you to question what and how you did things in the past. If you come to us feeling unsure whether or not you even have a right to ask anything of us… Worrying over whether we’re really saying yes to working with your not… Afraid that the bit is going to hurt our mouth when you go to put it on… We experience your uncertainty on a visceral level and find it terrifically confusing. If you aren’t sure what you’re doing or why you’re doing it, don’t do it until you are. Most of us don’t have any big issues in being asked to do things with humans so long as you are willing to listen and allow us to choose. Even in the absence of real choice, if we understand why, we adapt and learn what’s expected and thrive.

We cannot thrive when there is confusion. Please, sort yourselves out before you come to us. Find your reasons why you want to do the things you do with us. Commit to and believe in yourself, the tools, and the exercises you decide are important for us to do together to reach your goals. Bring that committed self to us and explain what you’re doing and why. Until or unless you can commit to what and why we cannot trust you and it will seem like we aren’t learning or progressing. We’re ready, though, just waiting for you.

Also, understand that if you go do this piece of work after being inconsistent and difficult to understand for a period of time, it will take us a little while to learn to trust you. Don’t expect a miracle. In order to help us learn to trust you the next phase of your development depends upon your capacity to observe. Every interaction between us is communication. When you try something, the way we respond is a non-verbal answer to your suggestion. Learn how we respond when we are stressed, confused, uncomfortable, in pain, frustrated, content, processing something, happy, enthusiastic, angry and more. Once you learn how to accurately observe our reactions then you can adjust what and how you ask to provide more clarity and ease. When we know you are capable of noticing our subtle signals, and this is key, that you respond to those signals (even if it’s just by pausing for a moment to acknowledge something happened), then, and only then, can we begin to trust you enough to learn the things you want to do with us.

When things really aren’t going well, never underestimate the power of stopping. Stop and take a breath. Feel your feet on the ground. Put some space between us and just let things settle. Worst case scenario end the session and come back later or another day. Let go of the idea that you have to end on a good note and just end anytime you feel that uncertainty or agenda creeping back in. Come back and try again only when you feel clear and certain about what you’re doing and why. We love to spend time with you that is undefined. If you don’t know how to proceed with training, just be with us. We can learn a lot about feeling safe together by just being near each other. You have to learn to trust us too…

Looking forward to my next chat with the herd!

Andrea

PS.

If you like these sorts of messages from the herd, we share a daily quote from the horses over at Tango with Horses Online. It’s free to join.

Link to join Tango with Horses Online

I’m thinking about doing some short little workshops around how our horses communicate with us. Drop me a line if that sounds interesting.

Land Matters 6: What are Weeds Anyway?

The Earth perceives bare dirt as an open wound in need of first aid. Here in the desert southwest, bare dirt is extremely prone to erosion. Dry, it blows away in the high spring winds. When it rains it runs off in milk chocolate floods, rather than soaking in where the water can do some real good. What most of us think of as weeds are really Mother Nature’s bandaids. Termed early succession plants, weeds are purpose built to cover the land’s open wounds, providing first aid to compacted, or otherwise disturbed land.

Left undisturbed, it is remarkable to watch the succession of plants that take up residence in my pastures. In areas where it’s difficult to impossible to get irrigation to flow without ripping deep trenches, the annual grasses that were originally planted and require irrigation to grow, have faded. In those now bare patches various weeds take hold, providing much needed shade for the ground. Clover absolutely took over the place the last few years. Clover roots bind the soil and prevent erosion, but they also fix nitrogen in the soil, helping to create topsoil that supports other plants to grow in the long run.

All the Dandelions this morning after the wind and rain blew away their seed heads.

This year I see less clover and the pastures are positively overrun with Dandelion. My hero, Dandelion is a powerhouse when it comes to it’s benefits! The long tap roots of Dandelion work their way through the most compacted soils. Reaching deep into the earth, they bring a wide variety of minerals into their roots, leaves and flowers. These minerals then become available to the topsoil and other plants as the Dandelion leaves die, mulching the soil. Those deep tap roots also create a way for water to perk through, replenishing ground water and aquifers. Every part of the Dandelion plant is edible and highly nourishing. Many of these early succession plants are highly nutritious and/or medicinal.

Did you know that the entire Dandelion plant from roots to leaves to flowers are edible? In fact, if you eat the entire plant it provides a source of complete protein! Dandelions, of course, are rich in minerals. They bring the following minerals into the topsoil: Ca,Cu,Fe,P,K, Na, S, Mg and Co. No other weed brings in so many minerals! Considered in herbal circles as a spring tonic, it seems no accident that it’s a fabulous liver cleanser. It also seems no accident that these beneficial weeds follow along in the wake of human activity. Not just cleaning up after us, but providing valuable sources of nutrition that are freely available.

So, the weeds provide first aid to the open wounds of bare ground through their roots, by binding the soil to protect from erosion and by penetrating to allow for water absorption. The roots gather minerals from deep in the ground and make them available for other plants to follow. The leaves keep the ground cooler and act like little umbrellas, preventing the rain from washing the newly forming topsoil away. When the leaves die they act as mulch, releasing nutrients into the topsoil so they are available to other plants to grow. You see, these plants are making the land ready for more permanent residents.

As I look at my land I just want to cover as much as possible with something that shades the soil, and makes it so water can soak in rather than run off. I find myself wanting to avoid hardscaping with gravel and rock and instead seek plant life. The growing land creates its own little micro-climate that helps generate more rain. Something much needed in our part of the world…

Here are a few great videos if you want to learn more.

Why Dandelions are an Excellent Permaculture Plant – 15 minutes

The Science of Soil Health: Going Deeper – 3:48 minutes – this guy did a whole series of short videos that really helped me understand what cover crops are doing. Weeds like Clover and Dandelion are really Mother Nature’s version of cover crops that I don’t have to plant! But if you want to see what is actually happening in the soil, this is the video to watch.

Mother Nature is truly amazing. Sometimes we just have to stand back and let time do the work for us. Sometimes we can offer aid selectively that makes everything healthier and stronger. Humans can contribute in positive ways, we just have to remember how.

Talk again soon!

Andrea

Stop. And Smell the Roses…

Yesterday I reached out to the horses and asked them if there is anything they want to share with us humans. It’s a recently developed practice, to wake up in the morning and reach out to the herd in my meditation.

There is so much wisdom and comfort to be found in nature and animals, both wild and domestic. Indigenous cultures still know how to access this wisdom. To be in direct communication with the land, the plants, and the animals they depend upon for their very survival. They know the importance of being in harmony with all the beings that share their home.

Domestication has removed the necessity for modern humans to maintain that kind of deep connection to the environment. Urban culture encourages us to rush through the world so quickly we barely comprehend the things that grab our attention for just that split second…

But we still retain our inborn capacity to form this deeper connection to the world around us. All that’s required is a strong enough sense of curiosity to begin an inquiry, and the patience to sit still long enough to learn to listen with something other than our ears.

“Breathe.

“Humans tend to rush through life, always trying to pack in one more thing. Most of you have forgotten how to ‘stop and smell the roses’. There is so much beauty in the world if you only stop long enough to notice. It’s easy to see everything that’s wrong in the world when all you do is rush. It’s just as easy to see all that’s right in the world if you just slow down long enough to see the butterfly fluttering on the spring breeze, the new buds on the enlivening trees, the clouds scudding along through the upper atmosphere…

“There is beauty everywhere.

“Nature has its own time. When you pause and breathe, you might notice that everything in nature is moving much slower than you are. The resistance and difficulty humans often experience as they rush through life comes, in part, from ‘pushing the river’. Pushing against the flow of nature. When you try to move quickly through life it’s like trying to run through a wall of molasses. It takes effort. If you slow down and move at the pace of life around you, the sense of resistance vanishes as you come into harmony with your environment.

“Pause.

“Take a moment when you enter our world to notice what we are doing. Notice where our attention is, and what’s going on in our environment. Notice how it feels.

“Does your attitude and energy harmonize with the environment or clash with it?

“Are you bringing peace, or the chaos of your day?

“Most humans have little awareness of how their energy, emotions and speedy pace impact the environment when they come into it. It’s like having someone show up at your house and just walk right in without knocking, stomping around and shouting while you’re trying to take a nap. Take a moment to notice how we respond when you arrive – can you harmonize your energy with us?

“We long to share the wonders of both stillness, and of moving together with peaceful hearts and minds.

“Will you join us?”


If you enjoyed this message from the herd, they are a daily occurrence over at Tango with Horses Online. It’s literally free to join us there. Come check it out by clicking the link below.

Link: Join the Tango with Horses Community now

See you soon.

Andrea and the herd

Are you taking the easy way out?

Yesterday, a friend and client brought the assessment offered by a popular trainer on Facebook to my attention.  When one of their followers mentioned they thought their horse’s behavior issue might be a result of underlying pain this trainer made the bold statement that blaming your horse’s behavior problems on pain is, essentially, a cop out. Or as they said: taking the easy way out. This individual made this statement with no history taken, no questions asked, not even a photo of the horse, simply based on a description of the behavior…

Do I need to say that this makes my blood boil, or can you feel the heat roiling through your computer screen right now?

My rebuttal to this statement is that if you ignore the possibility that pain might be an underlying factor in your horse’s behavior and choose instead to train them through it, THAT is taking the easy way out.

You might ask why I would say that choosing to train a horse to change an offending behavior is the easy way out? After all, it doesn’t always feel easy to train a horse to change a behavior, and it might even take a little time. But here’s the thing: horses are eminently trainable. They’ll do just about anything we ask if we acknowledge their efforts with a little food, or other positive affirmation. They’ll also do just about anything to avoid disharmony, so we can, fairly easily, change a behavior by making it uncomfortable for them to engage in that behavior, and relatively more comfortable when they cease the behavior.

You don’t have to be a genius to train a horse to change a behavior you find undesirable or dangerous.

I can sure see why people might think that blaming pain for a behavior problem is taking the easy way out. After all, there are a lot of horses with underlying issues that go undiagnosed. And a horse WILL stop telling us how they feel about how they feel, and comply, when sufficiently motivated to do so. The fact that a halfway competent trainer/rider can take a horse with sub-clinical lameness and make them behave and appear sound makes it hard to believe that there is legitimately something wrong.

While it is not easy, you also don’t have to be a genius to determine if there is reason for the ‘undesirable behavior’ your horse is exhibiting beyond ‘they are being a jerk, lazy, disobedient, or disrespectful’. I have come to think of those early changes in behavior as an early warning sign. I want to know why they are doing what they are doing before I resort to training them to change that behavior.

You don’t have to be a genius to figure out if your horse is in fact in pain, you do have to be very very brave and quite persistent. You may even have to learn how to assess your own horse to find the answers you seek…

So…

It is certainly NOT taking the easy way out to think there might be pain influencing your horse’s behavior when there is no visible lameness. I’ve been there. I could tell countless stories about horses that came to me with catastrophic, career ending injuries or extreme behavior that started out as something small and seemingly insignificant…

  • The little mare that refused to pick up her right lead, but nobody could find anything ‘wrong’. Finally, the right trainer got her to do the right lead canter by essentially putting her in a position where she had no choice. Bingo, she did right lead canter. Shortly after she pulls up visibly lame right hind – diagnosis – torn cartilage in her stifle. Career ending injury.
  • The gelding that always felt funny traveling to the right in any gait and refused to pick up his right lead. He was labeled lazy, and his owner told he was challenging her and she was afraid of him. If she would just commit, he would do as he was told. A few years later he was working well when he came up lame. Sesmoiditis in his right front.
  • The Warmblood gelding who panicked over everything, especially contact on the bit. Never could find any clinical sign of lameness. He retired with me and just this year he has visible evidence of what is probably calcification of the nuchal ligament 3 inches back from his ears.
  • The gelding sent to me to figure out why he was so itchy. He would bite at his chest while being groomed. He was so body sore grooming was painful. He bit his chest because he was too kind to bite the person grooming him.
  • The mare that always had her ears pinned and had started biting and kicking. Her owner spent over a year trying to find in roads with her mare who used to be a sweetheart. No one could see any lameness but to me, she acted like she was in pain. It took a trip to a specialist and a full body scan to find all the places where she had issues that were indeed causing her pain. Once her pain was addressed that sweet mare came right back.

I could go on like this for days. What all of these horses have in common is that the first indication of a physical issue brewing was a change in behavior during training. If you think that it’s taking the easy way out to think that your horse’s behavior might be related to pain, let me tell you, that second horse belongs to me and I was the one told that my horse was walking all over me and it was all in my head.

I sought help from everyone I could think of, and not one single expert could see a thing wrong with him. But I could feel it. And yet, it was relatively easy to train him to travel right and work through it. Until the underlying condition blew up. Feeling like an incompetent idiot in the face of professionals telling me I was just copping out because I was afraid to ride my horse was nothing compared to how I felt when my beloved horse turned up lame and I realized I had been right all along. If only I had listened to him. If only I had listened to myself…

Blaming pain on your horse’s behavior is far from taking the easy way out. It is anything but easy to keep fighting and keep seeking until you find answers. My friend who shared her story describes literally begging the vet to keep looking. That is not easy. When her farrier told her that her horse was walking all over her when he wouldn’t stand still for trimming and she begged him to be patient because she thought he had foot pain. That is not easy.

Right here, right now, I want to say to all of you who have been shamed by a professional because you think your horse might be in pain – hang in there. You are not alone. If no one else believes you, know that I do. And there are countless others like me who have been there. Ten years of rehabbing horses from catastrophic injuries and behavior problems caused by pain that had gone undiagnosed or misinterpreted tells me that if you think your horse might be in pain it’s worth investigating. And sometimes that requires enormous persistence and courage to stand in the face of the people who will tell you you’re making it up and using it as an excuse not to ride your horse. Keep seeking. It’s worth it.

If you still think this a bunch of BS take a look at the Facebook page Apollo and the Story of his Bones, or this post from a blog called The Horse’s Back, or Equus-Soma Equine Osteology and Anatomy Learning Center where they are digging up skeletal remains of horses and studying the bony changes. It is truly remarkable what our horses will work through. The evidence is there, and when we know better, we can do better. So, let’s do better. And let’s stop taking it on the chin from professionals who frankly do not know our horses as well as we do.

Thank you Jacqui, for sharing your story and galvanizing me to keep going.

Until next week..

Andrea and the herd


PS.

If you think your horse might be one of those struggling with undiagnosed pain, it just so happens I am running two mini workshops this month. This week (people are already in the course preparing for our live session this Friday) we are talking about how to use a figure 8 pattern to assess movement and behavior. Movement inefficiencies are most easily identified in a walk, in a relaxed horse. So much so that anyone can learn to see it.

Next week we take what we discovered and learn how to gather more information through hands on palpation and letting our horse’s guide us to doing bodywork that helps them resolve those movement inefficiencies.

If you’d like to join us, there’s still time. I truly believe every horse owner should know how to assess their own horse for pain. You don’t have to know anatomy. No prerequisites required. And if you try it and don’t like it, I’ll give you your money back, no questions asked. I’ve kept the cost low because I believe everyone needs this information and I don’t want finances to be a barrier to participation. $24.99 for one course, or $45.99 for both. If you have need and the money is still a deal breaker please reach out, I’m happy to work with you.

Contact me here for more information or a link to register: email Andrea


And in case you’re interested, and I hope you are, here is Jacqui’s story that inspired me to write this:

Thank you Jacqui and Dica:

OK, I’ve got my serious face on for this post guys, as it’s something I feel very strongly about, and for me to post this on FB has required some courage. Anyone who has the time and inclination to read, thank you!

I read this post by Andrea Datz today and I felt compelled to write something in response. Thank you Andrea for highlighting these important points in this blog post about pain in horses.

As many will know I had my lovely chap Dica PTS late last year. I said after he died that I would write our story for people to read, so if it could help one other horse and person that would make it worth while. Well, I feel sad to say I have found it very hard to re live our experiences together by writing them out, and it is taking much longer than I would have hoped. I am not even sure writing about him and what we went through is ever going to be possible. But when I read this post by Andrea I felt the need to share a few thoughts, so to make a start.

The whole time I knew Dica (Deek as I like to call him) he was in various degrees of pain, so it was impossible for me to know who he was without that burden on his shoulders. As you do when you first get a new horse, you give the horse time to settle to new environments, new handlers, new lives, and that I did. I spent our first year together helping him through his emotional challenges as best I could, and because I was no expert I enlisted the help of many wonderful and compassionate horse people and trainers. One of which was Andrea who wrote this post. Andrea has an awesome skill set to offer horses and horse people but also a tonne of experience, and with that she has lots of compassion for horse and human a like. She helped me through some rough times, and even after Deek had gone I sought her wisdom for reassurance in those initial horribly dark days of trying to come to terms with his loss and what had to be done.

What Andrea’s post highlights is what I want to highlight. Pain in our equines is real, and common, and often times very very hard to diagnose. Please read her post, it is enlightening and speaks right from my heart. She can say it way better then I ever could.

A year into our journey together Deek made it apparent he had pain and it needed sorting. I had done all the behavioural retraining he had responded beautifully, so much so that to most peoples eyes there shouldn’t have been any further problems. Low and behold there was, and a whole slew at that, each problem to be highlighted at various points in the future.

My experience with the equine vets was what I would call frustrating. Don’t get me wrong, I am not here to bash vets (obviously!!). But I want to make it clear that often it isn’t easy even with something that people generally consider should be. We had to go through the very slow process of finding out the extent of the physical problems and coming up with solutions for them. I remember the hardest conversation I ever had with my vet vividly. It went along the lines of me pleading with him to do more tests, there’s more things wrong, I cannot ignore what Deek was telling me. NO ONE knows your horse like you do, if you feel there is something wrong, there is. Simple as that. And you push like I did to get answers. If that means pleading with your vet. If that means a second opinion. If that means consulting with other equine professionals. Whatever it takes.

A very well known and highly regarded horse trainer upset me recently. Disregarding pain as the cause to a particular behavioural problem in a particular horse when they hadn’t even seen the horse in action, not even a photo (sometimes you can see pain in a photo, if it is obvious enough), and had just gone off a description of the problem and made assumptions based on that. In all honesty, I was horrified. A public figure outwardly eliminating pain as a cause to behavioural problems and stating it as a definite training issue. Now I don’t know the particular ins and outs of this particular horse but what got me was the blatant disregard for pain being important and a major cause of behaviour problems. Please, go with your gut and if something someone says doesn’t feel right then chances are they aren’t.

It was made out that pain was in fact the ‘’easy way out’’, implying that training issues are harder to work through and it’s easy to blame on pain. From my experience I have to disagree. As pointed out by Andrea here, pain is hidden, missed by many equine professionals, horses who have passed vettings can still have pain and not actually be sound. If the vet doesn’t believe there is a problem in some cases it doesn’t eliminate pain as the problem, it just means you have to search harder and go way outside of your comfort zone trying to figure out what the heck to do next. Been there, done that, got the T shirt.

Another thing that Andrea touches on in the post is about asking the horse to show us where it hurts. This part might be going too far for many people, but these animals are way more than just quad bikes, they pick up on your intention, they hear us and they respond however they can to get us to listen. I am sure all horse people can come up with stories that couldn’t otherwise be explained ‘’logically’’. So I asked Deek in utter desperation one day to tell me where it hurt, pouring my soul out. He picked up my intention of wanting to know and being open to hear. He stopped abruptly the next day when walking out and my usual ‘’come on Deek’’ reaction kicked in, but then a realisation came over me and in complete disbelief I realised he was actually communicating with me that his feet hurt. I felt it in every cell in my body, this was his response for me. Now, I am no animal communicator, I am just someone who loves their horse and was open enough to allow him to show me what I didn’t think could be possible. This is available to everyone, I think we just need to learn to listen.

If eliminating pain was the ‘’easy way out’’ to deciphering what’s going on with your horse, why to this day does it kill me to think about what we went through to get a diagnosis and what he went through to have to tell me where it hurt. If pain is the easy way out then why do I still live every day with a heavy heart thinking about his life and his loss. Please, please do not underestimate the almost universal problem that is pain in our domesticated equine world, it is far far more prevalent than people might think.

May be one day I will talk more about Dica, but for now thank you for reading anyone who may have gotten this far. And thank you again Andrea for this post and for all your help, Deek and I are forever grateful.