Finding Harmony with Horses

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What if it could be easy?

These things we do with our horses…. What if we could just be at ease within ourselves and let our minds rest? Trust our horse to guide us down the perfect path for this moment. The path that supports both what they need and what we need. There’s always another day. Heck, there’s another minute! If it doesn’t work in this moment be open to the possibility it will work in the next.

The peaceful path is a choice. It’s a choice we have the opportunity to make from moment to moment. The peaceful path, the path of ease, doesn’t mean we become passive or complacent. Peaceful is a place in our heart and mind that is flexible, calm and adaptable. We can be strong and still be peaceful. We can have boundaries and still be peaceful.

Finding ease is a choice that fosters harmony in our interactions with our horses. Horses naturally seek harmony so when we find that place of peace and ease our horses happily join us there, both receptive and respectful.

Partnership evolves out of a sense of mutual trust and desire to do something together. We don’t enter into partnership with someone without getting to know them first. Horses are no different in that regard, they need to get to know us before they offer up partnership. We put an awful lot of pressure on our relationships with our horses, and that puts a lot of pressure on us to do it right, to be perfect, to succeed.

What if we found ease instead?

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You might have noticed I’ve been absent for a while from the blogging world. I’m sorry to have left you for so long! I’ve been so busy traveling to teach, and teaching in my online classes that I allowed myself to step back from the blog for a little while. But I’m back with a lot of new things in the works that I’m really excited about!

Thanks for coming back!

Andrea

 

Risk Reward

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Steve and I started Parkour lessons about two years ago. Just once a week for a bit under an hour. Even that small input allowed for steady improvement in my physical capability from week to week. Some of the things that were completely out of reach when we began became relatively easy to accomplish within a few weeks or months. Other things only just became attainable in the last few weeks. What I love about Parkour is how this activity puts me in situations where I have to be extremely focused, present in the moment, because there are consequences if I falter. Failure is going to hurt. Hopefully not badly, because we are in a relatively safe environment, but that sense of consequences sure puts me in the moment like nothing else.

When I tell people my age or older that we are doing Parkour I get one of two reactions: 1) “What is Parkour?” And 2) “Holy crap! Isn’t that that crazy thing young people do where they jump off of buildings?!” I think there is a perception that these ‘crazy young people’ are doing something really dangerous, even stupid risky. But hanging around these athletes I learned they are keenly aware of their own abilities and limitations. Any ‘trick’ they attempt is rehearsed and tested until they are confident they can do it. If they can’t find a way to be reasonably sure they’ll succeed they abort mission. Because there are real world consequences, they are acutely aware of and train their capabilities.

Our instructor, Vinnie, catches Steve now and again, eying some new challenge. He always chimes in with these wise words:

‘Risk, reward Steve. Risk, reward.’

Is the potential reward for what you are about to attempt worth the risk? Are you prepared well enough that the risk is minimal? Learning Parkour taught me how to take any new thing I wish to attempt and break it down into smaller steps that assure success when I finally take that leap.

The irony is not lost on me that the people who look at me like I have five eyes when I say I’m doing Parkour ride horses…

How many articles and stories do we see each week, heck, each day, about the latest horse related wreck? As Anna Blake quoted in a recent blog: Be Here Now: Focus on Safety (Helmets and Response Time):

“Most TBIs (traumatic brain injuries) happen when we’re riding but injuries on the ground are common enough. “Dismounted injuries require hospitalization approximately 42% of the time, while mounted injuries require hospitalization in only 30% of incidents,” according to Brainline.org.”

Risk, reward….

Horses have a reaction time that is seven times faster than humans. Honestly, I think it’s pretty easy for just about any being to have a faster reaction time than humans. What causes a horse to have such a fast response time? Survival. Instinct. Their brain is hardwired to act first and think later as a matter of survival. We get into trouble when we get complacent and forget that no amount of training can override that instinct given the right (or wrong) set of circumstances.

This guy went from that moment of startle you see in the first image in this post, to bolt, buck, kick and back to grazing in a matter of seconds… a great catch by Susan White!

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Training Parkour, I understand the level of complacency we experience as modern humans. Rarely do we engage in activities where there are serious consequences if we aren’t paying enough attention. We tend to be easily distracted. Our minds always on the next thing or checking our phone. We aren’t aware of ourselves, let alone the truck that’s about to hit us as we step blindly into the intersection. I cannot count how many times I’ve watched people get body slammed by a horse because they were nonchalantly standing in the horse’s flight path while chatting, texting, or surfing the web. We live in a world that does not require us to pay attention and react swiftly, or die. Our horses are still deeply connected to that world.

I think the missing link for us when it comes to safety around our horses lies in embracing more of what our horses have to share with us about safety and reaction time. Instead of trying to teach our horses to be less reactive perhaps we should spend a bit more time improving our own reaction time. Improve our ability to remain present, aware and responsive the entire time we are with our horses. Take a moment to consider the risk versus reward as we engage in our training sessions.

We have the ‘bigger’ brain, capable of taking a moment to pause and consider the risk, reward scenario. Let’s say I want to do something I’ve never done with my horse before. If I take a moment to consider risk, reward I have the opportunity to consider what could go wrong? If something goes wrong, do I have the relationship and trust with my horse that we can get through it? Do I have the skill set to support my horse through whatever comes up? Are there other people and horses in the vicinity I put at risk if said thing goes wrong? Am I putting my horse or my own welfare at stake by taking this risk?

Everything we do with our horses comes with the risk of something going wrong. Horses know this. They are always aware of what’s going on in their environment. They pay attention to everything and are ready to respond. When we put our horses in a position where they have no choice but to override their instinctive responses, we put them in a huge bind. Their only choice is to numb themselves to their environment and try not to react, or succumb to their instincts. Horses don’t really want to step on us, run over us, into us, etc. I see remorse in the eyes of horses who hurt humans. We can save everyone the trauma of a wreck simply by paying attention.

Weigh the risk versus the reward. Teach those new to horses the basics of safety. Know that horses, no matter how trustworthy one might be, are still horses. You just never know what might happen that overrides their desire to keep us safe. Do your due diligence. Be as fit and agile as you can be. Know your limitations and act accordingly. Practice good situational awareness and plan for those what ifs. Much like Parkour, there are real life consequences when we get complacent around our horses. The better we know a horse, the longer we work them, the easier it is to forget that they can always get triggered into fight or flight. We stay safe by avoiding the flight path and staying on our toes. We keep ourselves, our horses and those around us safe by maintaining good situational awareness and using that big brain of ours to think a few steps ahead. Don’t proceed if the risk outweighs the reward or if you realize you are unprepared for the possible outcomes.

Our response time may never be as fast as a horse, but we can sure use our mind and body to our best advantage by taking a moment to assess each situation and act accordingly.

For two excellent commentaries about safety around horses:

Anna Blake: Be Here Now: Focus on Safety (Helmets and Response Time):

Warwick Schiller: How to Avoid a Freak Accident with Horses.

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To learn more about developing your own reaction time and building your own skill set, check out upcoming workshops at: andreadatz.com

 

 

 

 

Does your horse like to be groomed?

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Have you asked them?

How do you ask them?

Last week I read an article about a study where researchers observed 69 horses being groomed. They found the vast majority of horses exhibited body language, behavior, and other signs that grooming was anything from stressful to downright painful. I’m not surprised by this discovery based on the number of horses that come my way that genuinely dislike being groomed. There are so many reasons a horse might dislike grooming, but in my experience, at the end of the day, it comes down to me. How I go about engaging in this quite intimate activity.

Grooming provides an opportunity to learn if there is anything going on with our horses that needs our attention. It can be an important part of maintaining healthy skin and hygiene, depending on a horse’s living conditions. But it only works if we accept the things a horse does in response to grooming as communication. I’m not surprised studies show horses don’t like being groomed all that much because touch is extremely powerful. Touch amplifies everything – what we feel, what we’re thinking about, our mood, our energy – it’s all transmitted to our horses. Then we go grabbing for those feet to pick them out. Never underestimate what a big deal that can be to a horse, to give us a leg, taking away their ability to flee…

We know horses have a vast array of facial expressions and body language gestures by which they communicate. It’s easy enough to turn grooming into a pleasant experience for a horse. All that’s required is for me to groom mindfully rather than treating it as just another task to be completed as efficiently as possible so I can get on to the fun stuff. By paying attention to how my horse feels as I groom him, I can sense when he is giving me permission to touch him, when he is worried, when I’m touching a place that is sensitive, painful or itchy. If grooming is treated as a conversation it makes all the difference and can be a tremendous bonding experience for both horse and human. It is also the time where I discover if my horse is in pain so that I can skip riding that day or modify my training plan to assist him so that I don’t ask him to work through pain.

So how do I know how my horse feels about being groomed? What do I do with this bit of research? Do I assume he hates it and stop grooming? No, I take this new knowledge and I go ask my horse to show me how he feels.

Merlin is a great example of a horse who genuinely seemed to dislike grooming when he came a few years ago. When I began exploring grooming with him, he fidgeted, and twitched, wiggling his lips and constantly moved away. His eye would go dull and he would shut himself down if I groomed like I was taught – that task-oriented scrubbing. I tried a variety of grooming tools, even my bare hand. He still seemed to hate it. I took a step away and felt my feet on the ground. Breathing and standing back from him I could feel/sense/see his anxiety.

When a horse expresses anxiety about something like grooming, tacking up, being haltered, or having their feet handled, it’s important to acknowledge their feelings by taking that step back. Understand that whatever they are experiencing and feeling is valid for them – whether we understand it or not. It doesn’t always matter what caused the anxiety to build. I don’t know when or why or how Merlin developed his anxiety about being groomed, and it doesn’t matter. Focusing too much on the story behind the behavior puts me into the realm of intellectual exercise, taking me out of the moment with Merlin. He can feel that and it only adds to his anxiety.

As I stand back and breathe, I can see Merlin visibly relax. The next time I approach with a soft grooming mitt that seemed the least offensive to him, he tenses as I reach out with the gloved hand. So I pause, take my hand away and breathe again, thanking him for telling me how he feels. Horses can only really let go of anxiety around us when they believe we understand what they communicate and then (and this is extremely important) respond appropriately to that communication. It does no good for me to recognize Merlin tensing and just go in and touch him anyway. If I do that I only prove to him what is likely the cause of his anxiety to begin with – I don’t listen well and I’m just going to do what I want to do regardless how he feels about it.

When Merlin tenses I pause, hand hovering in midair, waiting to see if he invites me in or not. If he remains tense or leans away, I take my hand away and step back. Who wants to be touched without giving permission, without an invitation? By taking this time to re-negotiate contact, I get to let Merlin know I listen and I won’t do anything without his permission. With every fiber of my being I let him know I hear him and I won’t just blow through this process. I know it’s uncomfortable and I want to figure out why.

Grooming is an act of intimacy. Merlin taught me that he needed me to feel my feet on the ground and groom slowly. I could do one small circle and swipe and take my hand away. Give him a moment to relax and then do another slow circle and swipe. The first day he let me do 5 strokes along his shoulder. The next day he let me do a few more. Within a week I was grooming him from head to toe, mindfully, and he was able to relax. Merlin doesn’t mind being groomed so long as it’s done mindfully. But he doesn’t love it so we don’t belabor it.

Most of my horses come running when the grooming bucket comes out. They gather around, jostling for position, shifting to where they want to be brushed next. They actively show me where they have sore spots, itchy spots, anything that needs my attention. They know I work hard to make them as comfortable as possible. They know I listen, and so they both trust and enjoy our interactions around grooming. Take the time to find what your horse likes, discover what underlies any behaviors that occur during grooming and make this important first interaction with your horse something that sets the stage for a stress free, peaceful, and mutually enjoyable session.

 

A Little Animal Instinct

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All horses are born extraordinarily sensitive. It’s written in their DNA, part of their survival instinct, to be acutely aware of their environment. Wild or domestic, horses are instinctive, intuitive animals. We hold it in our hands to determine if that sensitivity is retained by a healthy, happy horse as we work together. It’s all too easy for our training method to amp up a horse’s sensitivity or dull it way down. Their personality determines which path they take. Our early interactions shape behavior, and impact long-term health and well being. It’s a responsibility I do not take lightly.

While all horses are born with a similar kind of sensitivity, each has their own distinct personality. Personality plays a huge role in how each horse responds to their environment. I am part of their environment, and a big one. It’s up to me to learn about each herd member’s personality and adapt my leadership style so that it fosters self-expression and confidence. Do they feel safe and confident enough to retain their personality when I work with them?

Dancing Tango lent me intensely personal insight into what it’s like to follow someone else’s lead. My personality falls on the side of introverted, empathic and highly sensitive. A heavy-handed leader sends me into survival mode. A speedy, anticipatory mess. The critical, frustrated, it’s-never-good-enough leader shuts me right down. I become dull and unresponsive. The tentative leader leaves me guessing, no idea what I’m supposed to do. On a night when my confidence is high, I fill the gaps with my own creativity, but if I’m feeling off, guessing makes me nervous. My innate sensitivity never leaves me. But I am more, or less responsive depending on how safe and comfortable I feel with a given dance partner. Subconsciously, I adopt coping strategies to protect myself. My personality is either encouraged to express, or it’s shut down in favor of the leader expressing his personality through me.

Creating partnerships with horses that allow their sensitivity and personality to thrive really comes down to me. A great deal hinges on my capacity to show up with my own confidence, clarity, and enthusiasm in place. Doubt undermines my ability to make any request with conviction, leaving my horses guessing, or in the case of my herd, studiously uninterested in interacting with me. It takes too much energy to guess!

I work on the things that make me that confident, clear and adaptable leader all the time. It’s not something I was able to develop by working with horses alone, as it turns out. Most of us live highly domesticated lives. I’ve come to realize that on a subconscious level I didn’t feel safe in the world. My fight or flight instinct was still online but my body and mind had no physical capacity to act on my own behalf in a crisis. I realized that I needed to feel strong and capable in my own body and mind before I could show up for my horses and be okay with them expressing themselves. I had to tap into my own animal instinct.

What a glorious experience to follow the lead of a confident, intuitive, and empathic dancer! Every leader has their unique style. When we come together, we create an equally unique partnership as we discover how our personalities meld and express. This kind of dance is intoxicating. It’s hard to describe. I find myself being guided through movements I didn’t even know I could do with ease. I feel graceful, unbound, and limitless. All of my senses engage. I see more, smell more, taste more and feel absolutely every nuance. Completely present with the intimacy of our connection. I could dance like this all night! There is something liberating and special about sharing movement in this closely connected way.

It leaves me wanting more, and that’s how I want my horses to feel about their interactions with me. Curious, interested and enthusiastic about how it feels when we move together. I help my horse retain that inborn sensitivity, that unique and precious personality, by doing my own work so that I come to the relationship adaptable, instinctive and intuitively sensitive. I meet my horses where they live instead of dulling them down to meet me where I used to live. That dullness of domestication is leaving me bit by bit…

And so it turns out the horse inspires me to rediscover my own sensitivity to be the partner that fosters theirs.

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Care to learn more about cultivating your own wildness? I’ll be teaching workshops this fall focused on developing the human side of the dance through the principles of natural movement education. For more information:

You can find me on Facebook at Tango with Horses: A Slow Horsemanship Revolution

Or on the web at:  www.andreadatz.com

Allowing Horses to Give Feedback

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Horses give accurate feedback. They always do. Unless we train them to believe they are not allowed. It takes time to discover how to communicate effectively without taking away a horse’s voice, and it is hard work. I understand why most people don’t train this way. It means digging deep to uncover how I become interesting and engaging to a horse, and to add insult to injury there is no one way because every horse is unique. I can’t interact with highly sensitive Huey (pictured above) the same way I work with Peppy, the master of conserving energy. They are completely different from one another, with completely different history, background and ways of responding. I must be able to adapt – horse to horse, moment to moment.

It took a long time for me to let go of my interpretation of what it means to train horses. I had come to believe that the only way I can be safe around them is if I enforce certain ground rules. I interpreted what I was learning to imply that by allowing horses to express their opinion, they would take advantage of me, and likely hurt me. Over the years of rehabilitating horses with behavior problems and lameness, I came to realize the opposite might be true. That restricting their ability to express themselves puts both myself and my horses at risk. Now I see everything my horse does, or does not do in response to me, as information. It’s nothing personal, they are not plotting against me. Their actions and behaviors are simply information that helps me determine how a ‘training’ session unfolds.

Most often, lack of apparent cooperation when we endeavor to move together, stems from a lack of clarity, or lack of consistency on my part. Peppy and Kastani are absolute masters of energy conservation. They simply will not waste time and energy guessing what I might want. They wait patiently for me to find clarity in my movement, and consistency in how I make requests. When I do, they jump right in with great enthusiasm, participating with all their heart. It took a while for me to find that clarity in myself. To feel strong, confident and committed.

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Huey and I building the beginnings of a conversation about lateral movement

It’s easy to forget that horses notice every tiny nuance of body language. The more consistent I am the better. We may experiment in the beginning, discovering what movements, patterns, figures, entice a given horse. Once I know that when I do this movement or gesture my horse does that, I can repeat it, and reliably get the same response from my horse. We now have our fist dance step. The smallest changes in my position, posture, tone, and energy influence his actions. It means I can’t be at all random or mindless.

When I get a handle on my own movement it allows me to make conscious, intentional decisions about every single step. More, every single nuance within that one step. My goal is that when I step my horse steps with me. Not because I reinforced him taking that step by escalating pressure or giving him a cookie. He steps with me because I offered clarity in my request, and allowed him time to research for himself. He needs time to explore. He not only has to experiment to discover what I want him to do, but engage in internal research to discover how to coordinate his body to execute the movement I have in mind.

A horse that learns he’s allowed to explore and take a little time to figure things out ends up really enjoying our interactions. Not only that, but how he responds gives me extremely valuable information. If he does not fluidly move when I move, I check in with myself first, making micro adjustments to my posture and position. One small adjustment, then pause to see how that change influenced my horse. Then one more small change and so on, until I discover the piece I was missing. Often those micro adjustments provide the last bit of clarification he needed to move. There are, of course, many times when the problem does not originate with my request. He might be unsure and I just need to add a little energy to encourage him he’s on the right track. More often, there is something going on physically, mentally, or emotionally preventing him from following my suggestion.

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Freeing up Libby’s poll so she can be more comfortable moving with me.

When I discover he’s having difficulty because something is blocking his ability to follow my lead it affords me an opportunity to help him. By assessing where the blockage might be and offering bits of body work, or changing the movement pattern to help him free up, I let him know that I care, I’m listening, I value his input in the dialogue, and I’m here to support him so that our time together gives as much to him as it does to me. I make it as easy as possible for him to join in the dance and feel good about it!

Believing that I have something of value to offer my horses, that interacting with me can enrich their lives, and that they might actually want to spend time with me is key. I think so much of what we are taught about horse training stems from a belief that if a horse were given a choice they would always choose to hang out with their friends, eating grass or hay, hanging out in the shade. And it’s easy to think that way when I haven’t done anything with my horses in a while. It takes a bit of persistence for them to break out of their routines and give me a chance. If I do my job right, then they enjoyed our dance enough they are more interested the next day, and even more interested the next. Little by little we build on this mutual enjoyment of shared movement.

Little by little my horses feel encouraged to respond accurately to my suggestions. Their feedback guides me to better myself at the same time it shows me where a problem might be brewing for them. If we allow them, our horses become our best teachers. All that’s required is that we remain open to their feedback and trust that they give accurate feedback!

Above all, remember to enjoy the dance!

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Live workshops focused on the human side of the conversation with horses coming in September!

September 6, 7, 8: Symposium in Fruita, CO – Foundation workshop for anyone interested in learning how to remove roadblocks to effective communication with horses. The foundation workshop focuses on removing our own road blocks so that we can help our horses.

Contact me for details

 

 

 

 

Getting our horses on board

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For this mare, this is what it looked and felt like when she decided she was all in. When I initially walked into the pen with her she wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence. It only took a few minutes of helping her get a sense of who I am for her to come on board.

Nothing inspires me more than interacting with horses and other people. Between the farrier, Dr. Madalyn Ward, lots of collaboration with horses, and fellow ‘students of the horse’, these last few weeks, my wheels are seriously turning. So much fodder for blogs! Yay!

But this week I really want to focus on the power of taking our time so that a horse is able to come on board with our idea. If you follow my work, you’ll know how important it is to me that my horses feel they have a voice, that they have a choice about what happens to them, and they guide how it happens to them. That does not mean that I turn everything over to the horse and never ask them to do anything with me or for me. Sometimes it even means asking them to trust me enough to do something they don’t think they want to do…

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This little mare had a lot to say. I asked her questions, she responded in answer. She guided me to the areas of her body that are painful and because I responded appropriately to her input she allowed me to help her. It takes a lot of trust for a horse to let you touch their lower jaw. She’s in because I took the time to build trust and show her what’s in it for her if she works with me.

Horses understand how to respond to input appropriately. They respond to one another as they interact. Whatever they do or do not do is a response to input from another horse, their own body, the environment, me. What they do is not at all random, or without purpose. That means that if I want to give my horses choices, I have to offer them some to begin with. If I don’t ask them anything they won’t offer anything. Period.

 

 

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It also means that their response is in answer to my question. Just because they don’t respond by giving themselves over and doing exactly what I want all at once, does not mean I should stop asking questions. Just because my horse initially walks away when I approach does not necessarily mean he doesn’t want to do anything at all. I mean think about it, how do you feel if someone comes along that wants you to do something with them but they won’t tell you what, or for how long? Would you enthusiastically go along, or would you maybe ask a few questions first? That’s what are horses are doing when they walk away, they are letting us know they feel unsure, or that our enthusiasm is a bit too much, or our sneakiness (I see that halter you have hiding behind your back) is not appreciated. He’s responding to me, now it’s my job to respond back, in ways appropriate to carrying on a ‘conversation’.

You might recall these images of Sundance last week.

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He frequently walks away when we approach with a halter. I know him well enough now to know that in part, that comes from him being a bit stuck in the past. Something confirmed by Dr. Madalyn Ward when she came to work on him last week. I get it. He had a rough go and he may always be skeptical. If I follow along and spend time breathing, silently sharing my heart and my intention, he pauses and checks in every few strides. I don’t compulsively reach for him every time he stops. I believe in his ability to say yes, and I believe in his willingness to hang in and continue the conversation. I show him I trust him by waiting until I feel him come on board.

When a horse is ready, when they come on board, it’s an easily recognizable shift, once you learn to see it, you can’t unsee it. Just because he stopped walking away doesn’t necessarily mean he’s okay with me haltering him yet. I wait for him to breathe. I wait until the knot in my own throat, the butterflies in my stomach dissipate. I’m feeling him. Yet another way horses communicate. They radiate their emotional state so that it’s palpable.

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Sometimes Gandalf comes in really hot. It’s not aggression. He sends a wave of fear out ahead of him that hits you like a brick wall. It’s all I can do to step forward in the face of that wave and breathe. What I love about this image is that he found a place of peace standing near me. He slowed himself down.

When he’s ready, Sundance turns his head toward me, puts his nose on the halter, and leans in when I touch his neck. Every horse is different. Every ‘conversation’ unique to the horse and human partnership. What I just described with Sundance likely isn’t what’s going to happen with you and your horse. There is no formula. We must learn to be like horses and respond appropriately to stimuli from them.

One of the questions I’m most often asked is ‘how do I give my horse a voice when it comes to something I have to do?’ Like trim their feet, deworm, vaccinate, have a lameness exam done, work on their teeth. It does take some time and due diligence to develop rapport with a horse. If I’m working with my own horses trust is built through consistently listening to them, within the context of every interaction we have. But, I can also build enough rapport to really help a horse in just a few minutes of developing a dialogue so there is enough trust to negotiate the more difficult ‘conversations’. ‘Conversations that might require a horse to make a passage through discomfort.

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I’d never met this mare before this day. I took a few minutes in the beginning to help her understand how I communicate and for me to learn how she communicates. Touching the lower jaw is a big deal. Libby was all in at this point because I responded appropriately to her communications.

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Dr. Ward working with Huey. This is a big deal. Huey has a lot going on around his head that is painful and he gets easily scared. Madalyn recognized that right away. She could tell by how he responded when she approached that he was nervous. She showed him that she could hear him by responding appropriately to his feedback. Because she took her time and worked with him he came on board.

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He came on board to such an extent that she was able to work inside his mouth!

There is absolutely no reason to fight with a horse about anything. There is no need to force our will upon them. Take the time to communicate with clarity in a language they understand and they happily come on board. When they do, they guide us to exactly what they need. Even those difficult conversations that require a passage through discomfort.

A few more examples of horses and humans working together from this last week.

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Sundance got his feet trimmed!

Sundance let us trim his feet on July 1st.

Not just with “we barely got the job done trimming” tolerance, either, but honest to goodness, all in cooperation for the first time in the five years he’s lived with me. And not only did he cooperate but he acted like he’d had his feet trimmed like this his whole life. Feet in the cradle, swung forward onto the hoof stand, nipped, rasped, even conditioned. He contained himself. I did not have to restrain him. And that’s not because I spent hours upon hours picking up his feet and ‘training’ him to accept this work. He allowed it because I recognized the problem that was preventing his cooperation and we resolved it sufficiently that he could.

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Last year, Sunny decided he didn’t want to be caught. At all. He didn’t want his feet messed with. At all. He was done.

I could look at this as ‘bad behavior’ or a ‘training issue’ to be tackled. Instead I saw it as communication. He let me know, in the only way he knew how, that I was not on the right track. I spent a lot of time with Sunny this year reassuring him that I could listen. He got a lot of bodywork. A lot of layers of old physical and emotional trauma got worked through. He became more open minded about being haltered. We started him on some pain management. And slowly he began to trust us enough to communicate even more.

He began allowing me to pick up his front feet for moments at a time. Sometimes I could even trim a little here and there but then I’d lose him again. I kept trying different approaches, watching, feeling, seeking the underlying cause for his difficulty – because clearly this was not simply Sundance saying ‘I don’t want to’ – this was Sundance saying ‘I can’t’. One day while I was asking him to explore the idea of shifting his weight enough that he could give me his left front, he offered it up. ‘Good boy!’ By observing and feeling what was happening in his whole body while I held up that front leg, I realized he was desperately trying to find stability in his pelvis, and couldn’t. He literally did not have the strength and coordination to balance on three legs.

The only reason I discovered the true nature of Sundance’s concern with picking up his feet is that I never bypassed the issue by punishing him for taking a foot away, or succumbing to the intense temptation to clicker train him to accept having his feet handled. You see, this wasn’t about teaching Sundance to accept having his feet trimmed to satisfy my need to have his feet look good. My need to have him be sound so that I look like I know what I’m doing. Nor was it about assuming Sundance has his reasons for wanting his feet this way. This was about discovering what Sundance was trying to tell me by not letting me work with his feet. Soundness only happens, in my experience, when a horse feels safe and has a sense of purpose. What incentive does a horse have to be sound and healthy if no one listens to them anyway? Better to stay lame and be left alone…

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Sundance a few years ago. Always with one foot out the door.

Horses communicate non-verbally. They use their entire body as an instrument of communication. Every movement, every gesture means something. What is meaningful to a horse is our capacity to communicate clearly with our own body language, and be appropriately responsive to theirs. A conversation ensues when I ask a question by say, walking towards Sundance with the halter. He answers my question via his response. I approach with the halter and he walks away. That’s just the beginning of the conversation, not the end. By walking away, he lets me know, in simplest terms, that he’s not okay with being haltered. That doesn’t mean he won’t change his mind in a few minutes. He has a right to say no, absolutely, but if I’m going to help him, I have to be willing to repeat the question a few times. Ask a few different ways and dig deeper into why he’s saying no.

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When Sundance walks away, he’s reminding me that his body hurts. He’s letting me know he has no idea what I’m going to ask him to do and he’s worried about it. I see it as my job to reassure him. Now that I know he can’t keep his balance I have to find a way to do some physical therapy style ground work to help him build functional strength and balance control. But he doesn’t know what I have in mind and it might hurt! I’ve spent the last five years cultivating a relationship with this horse so when he does allow me to put the halter on he’s willing to engage in conversation instead of having one foot out the door. I know he’s mentally ready for this work.

It takes some experimentation to figure out how to create a body language conversation that meets Sunny’s needs – both physical and emotional. He’s so lame that it’s not a question of doing normal things we might consider doing to get a horse in better shape. Any movement he engages in that reinforces protecting the injured/weak areas is only making the overall situation worse. With a lame horse we walk. Think Tai Chi walk. Mindful, self-contained, focused on balance control. One. Step. At. A. Time.

It doesn’t work if I just grab hold of the halter and make him walk while physically restraining him every stride. First of all, that is not a conversation. More importantly, he isn’t able to feel into his own pattern and become aware of it. I can’t focus on him walking slowly as a training goal. It’s a conversation about balance, self-control and self-awareness.

It’s a slow dance.

Try taking something you do every day – like walking – and slow it way down. Slow it down to where you are literally taking one step at a time and feeling the nuances of each of those steps. If you do this all the time it’ll be easy, but if you never slow down this much you quickly discover how hard it is to keep your balance, how you fall from one step into the other with little control. It’s hard work both mentally and physically, to break something we do all the time down into such small chunks. If walking is easy try getting down onto the floor or sitting in a chair slowly and mindfully. What muscles have to work? Which ones have to let go? Can you control the movement all the way up and all the way down or do you fall into it?

This is what I’m asking Sundance to do. Pause.

Screenshot_2019-07-08 (15) Sundance in hand July 7 2019 - YouTube(2)

Take your time, boy.

Feel how you are carrying all your weight on your left front.

Can you shift your weight off of that leg and find your center of gravity?

Can you take a step without falling forward?

Screenshot_2019-07-08 (15) Sundance in hand July 7 2019 - YouTube(3)

And another?

It takes time for him to research and explore his balance to even take one step. Once in motion he’ll want to default to his normal, shuffling, hurried gait. That’s how he learned to move to work around the parts that hurt, the parts that don’t feel stable. I’m asking him to move through the painful, dicey places to restore healthy mobility because the shuffling gait is only reinforcing his weakness and lameness. He has to relearn how to walk and move in a way that builds his strength in a functional way.

It’s truly amazing to do this work with a horse. Just one week of short sessions of mindful walking and he was able to have a first round of trimming done on both front feet. Another week of mindful walking sessions and he was able to have all four feet trimmed like a pro. He’s nowhere near sound, but being able to have his feet trimmed and balanced properly is going to help tremendously.

I know I’m on the right track because Sundance meets me at the gate most days now. He may still walk away when I bring out the halter if he’s had a few days off, but once we start back into our routine, he happily accepts the halter at the gate. He does this because what we’re doing together has tangible benefit to him. He is feeling better in his body and he feels better in his mind. He’s learning to curb his impulsiveness and take his time. He’s learning he won’t get punished if he doesn’t hurry up and find the right answer. He no longer has to guess what I want because he’s responding to my very precise body language cues. There is no force here. It’s all conversation. Responding fluidly to one another.

That’s how Sundance came to be capable of standing quietly and having all four feet trimmed. Because we engaged in an ongoing conversation that took place over years of building trust between us. A conversation is adaptable, scalable and unique to each horse and human pair.

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