A Trip Down Memory Lane

I was recently invited to do an interview for a podcast that aired yesterday. We talked a lot about the things that have influenced my life with horses. It was fun to go back and listen and realize how much it’s those horses who have guided me to the path I’m on now. Each and every one of them points me in a direction that, when I follow their lead, takes me to ever deeper levels of understanding.

I’ve gotten to know myself through each of the horses I interact with.

My first horse, Ricky, let me feel truly alive and free. Galloping through irrigated pastures, water splashing on my bare feet as I felt his body lunging beneath me bareback to the top of the hill. I could be unadulterated self with Ricky. No judgement. Just the sheer jot of being alive with no limits.

And Gin who has been with me for 28 years now. Words can’t begin to describe the depth of what she’s taught me. She rocked my world in so many ways and still does. Gin held me accountable and taught me how to find inner stillness and peace even when I was completely overwhelmed. You’ll know if you read my post last week – Gin is the one who put me squarely on this path to seeking true partnership with horses.

It was fun to take a trip down memory lane. Should you care to listen, here’s a link to the podcast:

Come Along for The Ride Podcast with Tracy Malone

Thank you Tracy for the asking such great questions!

 

Partnership lessons from Gin

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I credit Gin with a lot of what I feel/sense to be true in regards to building functional relationships with horses. After all, it was Gin, early on, who asked me to show her examples of the kind of relationship I wanted to have with her. Each time we’d encounter a horse and human doing something together she’d stop and look at me pointedly:

‘Like that?’

I’d stop and observe, considering. Most often I’d have to shake my head:

‘No, that’s not it.’

Gin would sigh with relief and we’d go on, continually seeking our ideal.

Truly, I feel fortunate to have good examples of horse/human interactions for us to aspire to, but Gin and I shared a vision that nothing we saw ever matched. I wanted a 50/50 partnership and was consistently told that wasn’t possible. Someone has to take the lead and it has to be you! I get it. I mean really, someone has to take the first step.

What Gin and I have since worked out (in our now 26 year long relationship) is that it can indeed be a 50/50 partnership. In our day-to-day interactions I’ve learned to respect Gin’s autonomy. Respect her right to be part of the process of deciding what activities she will participate in and which she’ll decline. I respect her intelligence and her sentience. I respect her ability to clearly communicate how she feels about the things we do together. In that sense our partnership is equal, she has as much right to have an opinion and a choice as I do.

In the context of the things we do together someone must take the lead. Someone must be the one to initiate and idea. Sometimes it’s her – suggesting that I put my hands on her body in a place where she needs some release before she can move freely with me. Sometimes it’s me suggesting we move together in a certain way. Dances don’t happen if someone isn’t willing to take the lead and offer up a suggestion, take the first step.

This is especially true if we are actively doing something that is my idea, or something that needs to be done for the sake of her health and well being, then I must take the lead. I must take charge and provide her with enough confident assurance she feels safe surrendering herself into my competent hands. That she knows I will advocate for her and do my best to ensure she is not manhandled or otherwise disrespected.

Taking the lead doesn’t mean that I reduce her percentage in our partnership. Even when I take the lead with more confidence and determination I can still listen to Gin’s voice as she expresses her opinions about things. Taking the lead is never about dominating her, it’s about inspiring confidence in her so that she feels safe enough to surrender to having her feet trimmed, loading in the trailer, being dewormed, or having a wound doctored. There are times in the partnership where she needs to feel my strength there to support her. Just as when I’m on her back I need to feel her strength, that she can carry my weight solidly and safely.

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When we move together it is a 50/50 partnership in that both of us have to come to the table willing to do our part. That’s the nature of partnership. When we dance together it only works if Gin is a willing participant. She comes to the interaction willing, open and perfectly capa

ble of doing as I suggest. I must do my part and communicate clearly, listening to her feedback when she lets me know I wasn’t as clear as I thought and adapting accordingly. It’s 50/50 in the sense that it’s a conversation, a mutual exchange of energy, intention and movement.

Anything else is more of a dictatorship than a dialogue.

The lessons Gin has taught me over the years carry over into my other equine relationships. The more I respect their autonomy the more they respect me and are inclined to participate in my ideas. The more I open myself to receiving subtle communications from them the more the flood gates open and the more they have to say. The more willing they are to share how they really feel.

It’s not a hand’s off approach. It’s not like I just hang out and never ask anything of them. On the contrary I ask a lot of them. But they are allowed to have opinions about what I ask. They are allowed to give me feedback and make requests. We have a functional dialogue, a relationship, a partnership. It’s not always pretty, we don’t always agree on everything but we at least converse! Horses are fabulous communicators when given the opportunity!

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If you’d like to learn more about finding your own version of partnership with horses I’ll be teaching this fall:

September 22, 23 come learn with the herd and I at the home place in Fruita, Colorado

In Boulder Colorado on October 5, 6, 7

and in South Carolina 26, 27 and 28. Full

 

 

 

 

Beyond Body Language: Trimming Feet 2

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Yes, I’m talking about trimming feet again.

This little guy had a habit of yanking his front foot away during trimming. Thankfully his person filled me in on that before I started working on his feet. It’s always helpful when you know going in what a horse’s habits are!

Knowing he had a problem allowed me to take a little extra time to notice how he seemed to feel about me standing at his side, then bending over to touch his leg, then asking him if he could pick his leg up. Pausing between each phase to acknowledge and visual or felt sign that he was okay or not before proceeding to the next step.

It was immediately obvious he was uncomfortable with me. He tensed, stopped breathing and leaned away. So I stood and breathed beside him until he relaxed. When I touched his front leg I felt him stiffen so I removed my hand and breathed some more until I felt him relax. When he finally gave me the okay to ask for a foot he had spent quite a lot of time shifting position and moving around. He knew exactly what I wanted and took the time he needed to organize himself so he could pick up that leg.

It was abundantly clear during that process that it might be challenging for him to hold that leg up for very long. Fair enough. I picked it out and sat it down, thanking him for letting me clean his foot. He breathed deep in response. Next I set his foot in the hoof cradle on my stand and nipped just one half of his foot before setting it down and allowing him to adjust himself. He breathed with relief again. Good boy!

Only once did I feel him tense as though he might need to take his foot away. I felt him tense and set the foot down so that he would have to take it away.

The end result – a relaxed horse who was a willing participant in the process of trimming his feet. He was never trying to pick a fight he just couldn’t quite organize himself well enough to hold a leg up through an entire trim.

I see this a lot in horses who fight trimming. They just have a hard time standing on three legs long enough for us to get the job done. Doing a little at a time helps them find their balance and work with us. This is especially true of elderly horses who might be retired or have a lot of physical challenges. It’s also true of horses who are developing physical challenges that may or may not be overtly apparent, or horses who’ve had a history of abusive treatment during trimming.

Whatever the case may be you can’t go wrong by acknowledging their concerns and taking the time to work with them. They’re smart enough to work out how to stand if we give them the opportunity.

Finding Balance

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I know. It’s not a picture of a horse or of me working with a horse. This post is about balance. Taking time to pause…

shadow playSteve and I are on vacation. This is the first real vacation we’ve taken in years. By real I mean more than 4 days. If you have horses at home you know why. It’s tough to get away. The amount of work you have to do to be able to leave home makes you wonder if it’s worth the effort. But we did it. We’re away, visiting my sister north of San Francisco, then off north for a few days of ocean and red wood forests.

Balance is important. The horses teach me that each and every time I interact with them. Horses are attracted to leaders with a good sense of balance. Balance in all things.

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Last time I was in California I was with my friend Corrine. She was undergoing immunotherapy as a last ditch effort to beat back aggressive, end stage cancer. We spent 16 days together in Santa Barbara. She taught me to build rock cairns on the beach. Now there’s an exercise in balance!

I’ll never forget her cairn-building lesson. She explained, as she deftly handled each stone, how she’s not just feeling for the balance of one stone on top of another, she’s feeling for potential balance points in each new stone and within the stack of stones she’s already created. Adding a new stone to the top requires feeling for where that stone is disrupting the balance of the entire stack and adjusting the stone further down to a new potential balance point that allows the entire stack to hold the new addition.

She was able to create masterpieces of gravity defying balance using this method and it seems so applicable to all of life. To balance stones this way requires enormous presence, inner stillness, focus.. You have to keep breathing and be patient.

This trip to CA is bitter sweet. All around me I see things that remind me of Cori. I miss her. I remember all of the docs on her team, at one time or another, talking to her about eliminating sources of stress in her life – balance again. Cori earnestly said to each of them that she thought she was very good at managing her stress levels. Finally the one doc said: ‘No, no, I’m not talking about managing your stress levels, I’m talking about ELIMINATING SOURCES of stress.

Eliminating sources of stress….

That phrase really got me thinking about my own life. How did I manage my stress? How did I keep my balance?

Right before that trip to California I’d spent some time with a woman who had successfully eliminated stress in her life. She did so by disconnecting from her family, not being in a relationship, she didn’t work with horses anymore, she didn’t have any animals and she lived in a shared living arrangement she didn’t own. No huge expenses, no real commitments to anything but her own self-exploration. She was only obligated to herself and no one else. I guess that’s one way to do it!

Looking at my own life, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love that Steve and I have our own place. Technically the bank still owns it but one day it will be all ours! I love nesting there, nurturing the land and animals we share space with there. I take care of 19 horses who require lots of feed that’s expensive to purchase. I have obligations – lots of them. I work hard to keep it all going. And I can get quite stressed about it. I know all of you horse folk who take care of horses for other people know my stress. I don’t know how you do this business without being in debt up to your eyeballs!

How does someone like me eliminate sources of stress!?

Hiking around feeding horses after I got home from Santa Barbara I spent a lot of time pondering what causes me stress. I realized my days are full on a good day. If anything goes wrong – an injured or sick horse, a downed fence, a flat tire – anything that goes wrong adds time and energy to an already full day. My emotions would spin out of control and I’d feel frustrated and stressed out about this new thing added to my plate.

I realized that I don’t want to change what I do in my life to avoid that stress. What I can do though is take charge of my mental and emotional response to the things that happen. It is within my power to stay calm in a crisis. And as long as I keep a good balance in my life I do that very well in the years since Cori and I went to Santa Barbara.

That’s why this trip is so important. As hard as it is to pack myself up and organize to leave it’s part of what keeps me mentally and emotionally balanced so that I can respond well in a crisis. And there have been a few in the last couple of months. It happens when you care for retired horses. They get sick. Eventually they die. I have a lot of elderly horses right now. The responsibility for their care and the inevitable decisions that have to be made on their behalf can weigh heavily. I want to get the timing right, for all our sakes.

Finding balance.

So here I am back in California and I see things that remind me of my friend Cori all around me. She was a force of nature. She was a beautiful singer with a unique voice. An artist who was endlessly creative. A lifelong horsewoman. A body worker. A dancer. A Mother. A true rennosance woman! Watching her move through life in her flamboyant, often hand made clothes, inspired me to find more of who I am, to stop caring so much about what others might think of me.

Cori passed away within a few months of our trip to California. Talk about incentive to find balance in my life! To live life fully! When I came home I decided I was going to learn to sing. That led to learning to play the guitar so I can accompany myself. When I discovered I was afraid to walk across a couple of logs on a trail in Utah I found Parkour and discovered a fantastic outlet for pent up energy and emotions.

When I went to get some body work done on myself a few weeks ago, she asked me what I have in my life that resources and recharges me. Singing, dancing, Parkour, and taking the time to work with my own horses. It struck me that that’s the first time in my adult life with horses that I could say that. Balance between work and play.

My horses remind me every day to balance the challenging movements with simple movements. To balance intense work with pauses to rest and relax, simply enjoy each other’s company. Cori and the horses seem to conspire to remind me to live a full, rich life. The more I do that the more I realize how life teaches me the things I need to find in myself to be a better horse woman. Horsemanship teaches me things I need to find in myself to be a better person.

Everything is connected.

Headed off to the redwoods to find more balance.

How about you?

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Beyond Body Language: Anticipation!

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I love this horse. Just look at him. Even though it looks like we’re hanging out all relaxed, there take a closer look. He looks pretty chill on first glance but look closer. He’s got one ear on me and his left front foot is placed in such a way he’s on his toes, ready to move at a moment’s notice.

He’s a great teacher of presence. He’ll respond instantly, quickly, to whatever I ask. It’s beyond prompt, it’s anticipatory.

I’ll never forget the time I was doing groundwork with him and he was just so with me. It was like we were one. We were dancing! I got so excited I started thinking about the next thing I could do and the thing after that!

In that split second my mind shifted to excitement he lost it. It felt like he was all over the place. What the heck was he doing and what happened??? It didn’t take long to realize he was dutifully attempting to execute all of my cool ideas for what to do next all at the same time! Poor guy.

Laughing, I apologized profusely, took a deep breath, felt my feet on the ground and asked once more for just the one thing. He took a breath with me and all was well. Back in unison. Phew.

To this day he anticipates what’s next. His default if he’s unsure or thinking he knows what’s coming is to hurry up. Speedy, mincing steps and a tense mind. It’s tempting to hurry up and match his energy. The trick is to maintain the tone I’ve set. Take a breath. Invite him to do the same.

He’s been a great teacher. No other horse I dance with is so good at requiring me to maintain the tone I set, to not slip accidentally into matching his tone when he gets worried.

There’s a difference between forward, obedient to aids and anticipatory. Ho do you tell the difference?

Leadership Angst

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Steve often complains when we dance and things go wrong that it’s always his fault. And while that’s not strictly true, the appointed leader does have a great deal of responsibility. After all, I’m walking backwards in high heels, and he has enormous influence over my center of gravity and balance. This is especially true in the close embrace in Tango. And especially true early on when I didn’t have good independent control of my own balance.

More often than not we assume the role of leader when we interact with our horses. Being the leader doesn’t mean we have to be a dictator. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a leader. It doesn’t mean we take away our horse’s voice or their ability to choose. In fact, following a really good leader in dancing is one of the most liberating things I’ve ever done!

The truth is, if we’re going to move together with our horses then someone has to make the first move. Someone has to follow. It helps if we can let go of any stigma we have attached to the concepts of leading and following. A leader in dance is not a dictator and a follower is not weak. In a well established partnership lead and follow may swap seamlessly back and forth to the degree onlookers only see unity, unable to tell who’s leading and who’s following.

In horsemanship a lot of folks and a lot of horses have a bad taste or bad experience of leadership. I’m talking about something different here. Be open to the possibility of leading in a way that empowers your partner and liberates them to express themselves. Take responsibility for your role as leader and recognize your horse IS following your suggestions to the best of their ability.

When Steve and I dance I feel and respond to absolutely everything he does or does not do. So in a sense, if I don’t do what he expected it is his ‘fault’. His emotions, his posture, how he initiates a movement, his timing, his balance, all impact how I receive his signals and how they are interpreted. I always do my best to stay focused and be accurate. Sometimes what he thinks he’s asking for isn’t at all what I do. Steve knows now that it’s better if he ignores the ‘mistake’ and simply asks again or continues on with something else. If he criticizes me or tries to force me to the step he wants it only serves to put me on the defensive. The rest of the dance can easily turn into a battle.

It may not really be his fault. I might have lost my balance or gotten momentarily distracted. Often I know I missed his lead and there’s nothing I can do about it now. The moment has passed. But if Steve blames me or calls me out on my mistake it only serves to make me tense and anticipatory. That never improves our dance.

Everything Steve does is amplified by the time it gets to me.

This amplification was a big surprise to me when I put myself in the position of follower. I was always doing more than Steve intended. I was accused of anticipating, overreacting and the like. But on my end I felt like I was being launched into the steps with no ability to control by how much. It took years to figure out that Steve didn’t always trust I’d feel subtler cues so he tended to default to something he thought would be obvious enough. Obvious to him felt like a bulldozer to me. He had to learn to do less and less until he discovered just the right amount of impulse to get me to do no more and no less then he intended.

When we sit on a horse’s back we sit over their center of gravity. It doesn’t matter if we are bareback and bridle-less – we still have enormous control simply by virtue of our position over their center of gravity. If we have something on their head we have enormous control. If we use food rewards we have enormous control over their instinctive drive and motivation to eat. I understand why people who desire to give their horses a voice get touchy about being a leader. It’s all too easy to overstep and take away their sense of choice.

It’s no different on the dance floor. Some leaders capitalize on the control they can take and you feel you have no choice but to surrender, and pay attention. If you don’t you’ll both fall in a heap of tangled limbs on the floor. It feels like pure survival. But there are also leaders who empower and liberate their partner. Dances that flow where you feel like you could fly!

I think the biggest trick to being one of these liberating leaders is trusting your horse is following you to the very best of their ability. They are accurately interpreting your signals and responding to them to the best of their ability. Chances are good, if they aren’t doing what you want them to do, it is your fault. Doesn’t that just suck?

Assuming, of course, your horse is sound, happy and willing.

There are, of course, a great many things that interfere with a horse’s ability to follow well: bad experiences with leaders in the past, physical discomfort or pain, poor balance control, lack of fitness, and stress, are just a few examples of the many things that adversely impact their ability to respond accurately to our signals. Part of our leadership role is to recognize the things that make it challenging for a horse to follow easily and willingly and adapt accordingly.

Leading and following end up being two sides of the same coin. To do things together someone has to take the initiative to ask the first question, make the first request. Someone has to answer that question, follow that suggestion. Otherwise there is no conversation. Conversations with horses are conversations in movement, body language. Someone is always leading and someone is always following. After all, every step that’s led must ultimately be followed!

Are you willing to take the lead? Are you willing to follow? What kind of conversations do you want to have with your horses?

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond Body Language: Be the calm in the storm

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New horses arrived the beginning of the week, a small herd of four escaping smoke from the fire burning near their home. They’ve moved around a bit in the last month since being evacuated early in July. I know these horses well as individuals. Each of them has spent time with me over the years. I don’t know them as a herd.

It’s easy to be complacent around horses you think you know well. But when you’re dealing with a herd of horses with jangled nerves from all the upheaval in their lives, all bets are off. I wonder how they must feel about the fires and the smoke? It has to be stressful.

This little herd is pretty excitable. They are in a familiar place but they’ve never been here together before. They aren’t the same as the horses I know individually. A bit more wired, a bit more unpredictable.

Their body language is edgy. The first few days none of them wanted a thing to do with me if I had a halter in my hand. Putting fly masks on was not happening. It’s easy to get insistent about the things we think are in their best interests. But there’s also no harm in waiting a day or two. Let them have their eyes uncovered long enough to explore the new territory unimpeded. Reassure them that I can work on their timetable.

Within a few days all four are starting to settle. They’re interested in interacting with me. As long as I don’t feed or match their easily amped energy, as long as I keep breathing, maintaining a measured, quiet pace, they allow themselves to be fly sprayed, masks put on.

Horses appreciate it when we stay internally calm. Especially when they are nervous. It’s easy to pick up on that energy and match our horse’s jangled nerves. If we can instead refuse to be hurried, take that little bit of extra time to pause and breath again, our horses can relax too.

I want these horses to know that I am the calm place in the storm. No matter what’s going on around them or within them they can find peace with me.