Beyond Body Language: Herd Behavior

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Beyond Body Language is the name of a presentation I started doing a number of years ago. By learning to recognize and respond to the things that happen long before a horse pins their ears or lifts a foot we let our horses know we can engage in a conversation, we can hear them. And that gives them great hope, motivating them to join us in the inter-species dance between horse and human.

I think less about how to shape their behavior and movement to suit my needs and more about how to shape my movement and behavior so that I am an attractive herd member. If it feels good to be with me then they will join me in my chosen activities with curiosity and interest. If I consistently prove to be a good herd member they eventually join me with enthusiasm.

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Twenty-seven years of taking care of large numbers of horses provides me with ample opportunity to observe how horses behave when they are isolated from each other versus when they are in groups. Functional, healthy herds with ample food, shelter, water and space to move. What happens within a herd or between individual horses that causes them to move together? How does herd movement happen and what is the advantage to moving and working together?

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These are the things I wanted to understand and apply to my one on one time with my horses. What do I have to find in myself to move and be in a way that is attractive and interesting to my horses? What I find is that they are so very sophisticated in reading body language that we can be equally sophisticated and refined in how we move when we invite them to do things with us.

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So why does this body language based approach to moving with horses work so well?

We all know horses are herd animals. They are stressed when they are kept in isolation and not allowed or able to move freely.

But why is that?

All of life is strongly motivated to survive and thrive. There are some pretty basic things that constitute survival needs: access to air or oxygen, shelter, food, water, room to move, companionship and rest. If any one of these basic survival needs is lacking that thing becomes the horse’s primary focus until the need is satisfied. Our nervous system believes it is a life or death thing. Nothing else matters until that need is satisfied.

So why is companionship a survival need? In a herd of prey animals there is safety in numbers. An isolated herd member makes a much easier target for a predator than a flock or herd. A herd can share the responsibility for looking out for danger, then work together to protect one another, safe from predation. That basic survival need of rest can’t happen in isolation. They look out for each other so while some rest others keep watch. The shared responsibility allows each herd member to have down time in the safety of the herd.

A key component of feeling safe hinges on knowing when to expend energy and when to conserve it. Needless expenditure of energy or an expenditure of energy that leads to exhaustion means there might not be enough gas left in the tank to escape a threat. That level of fatigue taps into basic survival needs again. Horses are masters at knowing just how much to do to stay fit and agile so they stand a better chance at survival.

All that’s required to have a horse happily move with a human is an understanding of how to tap into that herd or flocking behavior. How do we become a member of the herd so they feel safe in an inter-species herd of two? When a horse feels part of a herd with me they have a strong desire to stay with me, to ‘follow my lead’. It’s natural to do so.

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Being a good herd member means: I pay attention to our surroundings and make sure I always place myself between my horse and a potential threat – I have good situational awareness. I defend my herd mate against threats as aggressively as I need to (say another horse decides to charge the horse I’m leading out of the pasture or paddock – I won’t let that happen). I move with confidence, carry myself well and have good balance. I’m not overly emotional. I’m positive and encouraging.

Beyond that I show my horses that I have good ideas by encouraging them to engage in activities and types of movement that make them feel good in their body. We share movement that makes them stronger, more agile, capable herd members in life, not just in our chosen activity. What I ask them to do with their body has tangible benefits to them. I never work them so long or so hard that they feel compromised by their level of soreness or fatigue.

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In doing so I can capitalize on herd behavior by becoming someone my horse wants to stick close to. For safety, companionship and the ability to rest in safety.

Once I tap into this desire to be part of a herd or flock then we naturally synchronize with one another. In fact, horses are so good at mimicking movement it’s best if I move naturally and understated. Any exaggerated movement will be picked up and imitated. Not always to good effect!

Herd dynamics and how horses move together is not complicated. We don’t have to do anything crazy or wild to attract their attention and interest. Be consistent, true and positive. Trust their instinct to follow and flow with others!

If you’d like to learn more about this approach to interacting with horses I’ll be teaching several workshops this fall:

September 21, 22, 23 2018 Fruita, Colorado

October 5, 6, 7 2018 Boulder, Colorado

October 26, 27, 28 2018 Campobello, South Carolina

 

On Being Responsible

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Or should I say ‘response-able’

The price of a good relationship with a horse is your presence. I’m not talking about your physical body there doing something with them. I’m talking fully present when you are with them. Horses require us to be in the moment, ever mindful. Leave all the mental chatter at the door. The kind of focused awareness it takes to recognize and respond appropriately to the subtle non-verbal communication horses speak fluently is challenging for humans.

At the end of the day your horse is the ultimate authority on what works for him and what doesn’t. And that will likely change from day to day. We humans tend to be fans of plans, goals and agendas. We like to know what to expect and have a recipe for getting from point A to point B in a logical fashion. While they do seem to appreciate a consistent, somewhat logical approach in how we develop our relationship, ultimately, horses could care less about our plans…

Folks who come to their first Argentine Tango lesson are always a bit daunted by the steep learning curve. You see, most social dances have a distinct structure. There is a basic step, say a box step, something you learn as a starting point. Everyone you dance with is likely to start with that step. It’s predictable. You learn new steps each week and then you learn how to string the steps together. Each type of music has steps that go with it and a distinct rhythm that dictates those steps.

Tango is improvisational. There is no box step. Every person develops a unique style and interpretation of the music. Coming together on the dance floor with a new, or even an old partner requires a level of focus most people are not used to having. There is a high attrition rate among people new to dancing Tango. They don’t like not having any rules. They don’t like the music. It doesn’t have percussion to follow a distinct beat. Even the music encourages improvisation. You can dance to the rhythm or the melody and there are fiddly bits where it’s fun to add fancy embelishments. It’s endlessly creative. And that can be intimidating.

Consider building a relationship with horses more like dancing Tango than ballroom. Sure, we need to have enough of a plan to offer clear suggestions. We also need to be completely present and aware of our horse partner’s responses. Ready, willing and ABLE to adapt to their interpretation of our suggestion. Willing to change our plan if our horse declines our invitation to dance all together.

To dance improvisationally requires we are fully present – a moving meditation. The quality of the relationship between horse and human always takes precedence over the desire or drive to get something done. You can’t imagine how much it means to a horse when we hear them say ‘not today’ or ‘could you please give me a moment’ and honor their request. It means the world to them when we hear them and respond appropriately, which of course fosters enormous good will and a desire to interact with us in future. But it also affords us the opportunity to learn more about our horses. What motivates them? What do they enjoy and not enjoy?

When we become a fully present, conscious dance partner, we allow our horses to guide us. Letting us know how they feel. When they are struggling and when they are thriving! One of the most common reasons for a horse to be resistant to what we ask of them is pain or physical discomfort. Subclinical lameness. There is nothing more damaging to our bond with our horse than requiring them to work through pain. When we are fully present and willing to adapt to our horse’s responses we have the opportunity to discover underlying issues and take action before they become clinical lameness, injury, health, or behavior ‘problems’.

The price of admission into relationship with horses is presence and response ability.

 

 

 

 

Beyond Body Language: Feel Your Feet

Feel your feet

Feel your feet on the Earth.

What, you might ask, does this have to do with body language? Good question.

Everything.

I smashed my foot the beginning of June. No, it had nothing to do with a horse… I did something foolish while unhooking a horse trailer and found my foot pinned between the trailer and the vehicle. Ouch. I’m quite lucky, nothing broken, just bruised. But hey, when your foot hurts you sure think about and appreciate them a lot more!

Every horse person I know has a small obsession with feet. Not their own, their horse’s. I don’t need to tell any of you how much our horse’s feet impact their posture and movement. We put a lot of time and energy into making sure those feet are as comfortable as possible!

Our feet matter just as much as our horse’s feet in the scheme of our communications with one another. Our feet provide our connection to the Earth and it’s from that connection to the Earth that we generate movement. Movement that happens from feet connected to the Earth is smooth and fluid and dynamic.

When we feel our feet we are more grounded. Our movement makes more sense. We are mobile and agile in a fluid way. Feeling our feet pulls us out of our head and back into our body.

I’m not talking about anchoring our feet to the ground and becoming an immovable object. I’m talking about feeling how our feet interact with the ground to move us. Feeling how our feet interact with the ground to engage our core, change our posture, energy and intention. Staying ‘on your toes’ so that you are an agile and responsive dance partner for your horse.

Feel your feet on the ground and notice how it impacts the rest of your body. Notice how you move when your feet interact with the Earth. Then notice how your horse responds to you when you are fully embodied – from your head to the tips of your toes.

Your horse will thank you!

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Want to learn more about my approach to dancing with horses? I’ll be teaching in Grand Junction Colorado September 21,22, 23 2018,  Boulder Colorado October 5, 6, 7 201 and South Carolina October 26, 27, 28 2018. Contact me for more information.

Or join the Communication through Movement Online Immersion course

The Land

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My flat pasture with remnants of corrugates still in evidence 15 years later. There is a great deal of biodiversity out here. And each plant serves a purpose.

The more I place myself within the network of life that surrounds me the more connected I am to myself, the horses, the land, the trees.

The more connected I am the more I feel my sense of place within this larger ecosystem. This life where we are all related, where we all have a role to play that’s vital to the whole.

Being a good steward for my horses is intimately connected with being a good steward for the land we call home.

We collectively leave a heavy footprint on our small piece of the world. Living in a desert environment has a steep learning curve. The ground is flat where it’s been cultivated. The soil is dense, alkaline clay. The summers are hot and this one is dry as a bone. We are completely dependent on the steady flow of irrigation to keep our pastures green and growing and for our hay supply.

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Flat clay that rain water simply will not soak into (if it does it’s just a tad muddy). The high winds kick up and blow layer after layer of soil away.

As our state scorches and burns in a heavy drought my thoughts turn to building a relationship with this land I call home. How do I cultivate a healthy relationship with this small piece of Earth? How do I become less dependent on things like irrigation?

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This is my dandelion patch near the downspout from our roof. I started grazing on it last year, including the leaves in my breakfast greens each day. Harvesting mindfully, thanking the leaves for their contribution to my health. Yes, I water my dandelions! They were the first flowers to bloom this spring in wild yellow abandon. They fed me well and they teach me. This little dry patch used to be thick with crab grass, white top and other alkaline soil loving plants. This year, for the first time, all that’s growing is the dandelions. Their deep tap roots penetrate the clay allowing water and oxygen and beneficial bacteria to get into the soil. They are one step toward healthy soil. I celebrate my dandelions. They are growing in abundance in the pasture this year as well. Laying the foundation for soil that can absorb rain when it does finally come!

In the fifteen years we’ve lived here I’ve not followed the farming practices of those who came before me. You can still see the remnants of the corrugates in what used to be a hay field but is now a pasture where my horses can graze.

At first I thought I was blowing it –  my pasture appears to be filled with weeds. Last summer I learned what I actually have is biodiversity. Each and every one of those plants tells me something about the quality of the soil, what the land needs in order to thrive. Each of those plants serves a purpose in either directly creating a healthier ecology in my pasture or in guiding me to what’s needed.

The earth will do it’s best to heal itself and restore balance. I can support and nourish what’s happening but if I meddle too much I disturb the burgeoning balance.

I’m learning to develop a relationship with my little piece of land. All that’s required is simply observing long enough to get a sense of the place, long enough for the life that inhabits this niche to come out and introduce themselves. To help me understand their purpose. Nature seeks harmonious balance. When it’s as far out of balance as it has been here it will go to extremes to restore itself.

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These weeds sprout up in the most harsh conditions. Open ground wants to be covered, sheltered from the sun. It’s trying to heal.

 

Last year I was overrun with earwigs and aphids and other insect life that devoured everything I planted. I was also overrun with praying mantis and lady bugs, beneficial insects who were fed by the bugs that were eating everything. In every disturbed patch of land, every bit of bare earth there are weeds growing. Even the weeds serve a purpose.

This year with so little water has spurred me to take action. To discover what my land is telling me. When I look at the desert around me and see where things grow I notice they grow in the dips and valleys where water can accumulate. They grow in places where the soil has structure and life.

Nothing grows on the flat clay hard pack but the most tenacious of weeds.

 

 

 

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My first attempt at a swale designed to capture the water that runs off my roof and through my yard. I designed it so it will mulch over time, mimicking the layers of a forest floor.

Last year I started the process of creating soil that things could grow in. Layer upon layer piled upon the clay. No point in disturbing the soil further. The trick, I’m learning, is to create soil that acts like a sponge, taking in moisture and holding it. This flat clay patch I live on absorbs nothing. What little rain we get runs off in sheets.

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This was my first lasagna composting method experiment from last year. The soil is actually absorbing and holding water remarkably well this year. Now to get just anything growing here to shelter the earth and get life into the soil! I threw wild flower seeds down this year.

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Broken down tiny twigs I left in a pile last year. They continue to break down and have completely suppressed the weeds in this area of my yard. No dust either!

The most stable ecosystem is a forest. The mature elm trees that shelter my house teach me why. I used to pick up and rake every branch or twig that fell. No more. What falls becomes mulch that shelters the the soil, provides habitat for life and eventually breaks down to nourish the soil. The trees are teaching me.

The canopy slows the rain fall down so it lands softly on the earth and has a better chance to soak in rather than run off. The dandelions with their deep tap roots open up the clay, allowing water to soak in, oxygen and bacteria to access this packed lifeless dirt. What the plants don’t use replenishes underground aquifers, storing water for use when there is need.

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This little guy has taken up residence in the flower beds by the house. I never used to see any life other than the bugs that were eating all my plants! This guy showed up in the last few weeks along with a garden snake. I’m taking it as a good sign that my garden feels like a habitable place now.

Last year, my first year with new raised beds. Everything I planted died or got devoured by earwigs, ants, aphids and beetles. So tempting to wage war on the nasty insects! Instead I did what I could to beat them back without chemicals. I trusted the process. All the weeds and devouring bugs are a sign of imbalance but also a part of nature trying to restore balance.

By allowing the bad bugs to flourish the good bugs had ample food and were well fed. This year I’ve seen one earwig. My plants are healthier and I’ve had no aphids. There are more signs of healthy life all the time. Butterflies, frogs and birds abound. We have a long way to go but by working with nature instead of against it I can see the beginnings of our oasis in the desert.

Sponge like land that soaks up and stores the water. Plants that can survive and thrive without being dependent on irrigation. Horses able to browse and wander with no need for dry lots because the soil and plants are strong, healthy and diverse. No more metabolic syndrome triggering stressed mono-cultures.

It’s going to be a process but I can’t wait! Healthy soil = healthy land = healthy plants = healthy people and animals.

Horsemanship isn’t just about riding.

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Can you find Georgie? She loves to hunt in the taller grasses!

I posted on Facebook a while back about my early experiments with reclaiming this land so it can provide for my horse and human family, while we provide for it. There was a lot of enthusiasm and I promised I’d share more of my journey. This will be the first in a series where I’ll share what I learn in hopes of inspiring you to become the best possible steward of your small piece of Heaven here on Earth.

Here are a few of the resources inspiring me on this leg of my journey:

Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm by Stephen Harrod Buhner

The One Straw Revolution and Sowing Seeds in the Desert by Masanobu Fukuoka

The Garden Awakening by Mary Reynolds

 

 

 

Beyond Body Language: Confidence and Doubt

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Confidence has a look about it. A look horses find appealing in a dance partner. We can try to fake confidence, but more often than not that just ends up reading as dissonance to our horses. They can feel what we are feeling. They see such nuance in our facial expression and body language – they can tell we’re faking it. When we fake it we are not so trustworthy in their eyes.

Doubt also has a look about it and it has a distinct feeling. Horses can sense doubt a mile away. If we aren’t sure about asking them to do something why would they think it’s a good idea to comply? Unfortunately, it’s easy to expose ourselves to things that cause doubt to creep in or club us over the head! It’s relatively harder to find things that build us up, increasing our confidence.

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Pay close attention. Close attention to how you feel when you read the latest article about the philosophy and science of life with horses. How do you feel when you read the article? Does it make you feel bad? Ashamed of what you’ve done with your horse? Does it fill you with doubt about something you always felt really good about before?

If what you read makes you feel ashamed or filled with doubt please take it with a grain of salt. There are a lot of passionate people advocating for horse’s well fare out there. Some of those folks have strong opinions and are SO passionate they might use fear, shame or shock and awe to make us stop in our tracks and re-think what we’re doing or how we’re doing it.

Most authors don’t intend to make people feel bad. The same words that tear one person up inside can galvanize another. It’s simply a matter of being aware of how YOU feel. Some folks are so passionate they intentionally provoke an emotional response by posting horrifying images and heavily biased research to prove their point of view. Just pay attention to how you feel and don’t let the folks who use a baseball bat to prove their point get to you.

If they do get to you don’t beat yourself up. Sit with those feelings, questions and doubts and discover what’s eating at you. Perhaps there is something legitimate there that you need to re-evaluate in how you do things with your horse. Try to be objective and consider how YOUR horse feels and responds to YOU. If all is well then don’t bring that doubt to your horse.

Pay attention as well to how you feel in your riding lessons. Not that you don’t want someone who helps you to improve, but if you walk away full of doubt and feeling terrible about yourself all the time you might want to talk to your instructor. It probably isn’t their intention and they might be able to tweak their approach. If it is their intention it might be time to move on.

It’s extremely common to get the wind knocked out of your sails at clinics! We usually clinic with people we think highly of, who have a reputation. We’re mentally/emotionally primed to take a hit, latching on to every bit of criticism and forgetting to hear the positive. Try to let go of the things that make you doubt yourself or your horse and go back to what was working before.

Because if you are filled with doubt when you approach your horse to catch (what if it’s wrong to halter a horse and ask them to do anything?) or put the bridle on (what if this bit is really hurting him and I shouldn’t use bits at all?) or riding him (what if I’m hurting his back by sitting up here?) – you can bet your horse feels that doubt and sees it written all over your body. Why would he want a halter on if you don’t even believe it’s a good thing? Or to be de-wormed or loaded in the trailer or have his feet trimmed?

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Not that we don’t want to be mindful, pay attention and adapt to new understandings about how horses function in this human dominated world. We can learn new things, try new things and pay close attention to how our horse feels about things. We can do all that without doubt.

Find the articles and teachers that inspire you to do better by your horse without scaring you or shaming you or shocking you into it. Trust what you already have that’s working between you and your horse and stick with it. Build on that. And don’t let anyone tear you down.

Of course we’re going to read things and work with people and come away feeling like we got the wind knocked out of our sails from time to time. That’s life. Consider it good practice to dust yourself off and go find those things that were working for you before. Build on that. Trust yourself and trust your horse to guide you to what works for your team. Each horse and human pairing is unique. What works for someone else just might not work for you and your horse.

Find things outside of riding and interacting with your horse that help you get stronger too. Building your physical, mental and emotional agility in a variety of ways does nothing but make you trust yourself more. Then when some person or article or post on Facebook tries to knock you down a peg or shame or shock you, you’ll be that much more capable of standing tall and owning your confidence.

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Next time your horse asks – ‘are you sure you want me to try this?’ – you’ll be able to enthusiastically say – ‘yes! And if it doesn’t work for you, we’ll try something else’.

Confidence comes from deep inside you. It’s not big and blustering, it’s quiet and sure. Horses find peace with us when we have peace within ourselves.

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In Honor of Sunshine

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The new gelding, stayed with me just long enough to find his next home, we barely knew each other. He seemed eager to interact, happy for the grooming and extra attention. We saddled him mindfully, sensing for any sign of discomfort or worry. He seemed curious and interested. His potential new partner took him for a walk, letting him breath, allowing the saddle to settle onto his back. He took it all in stride.

Meanwhile I untangled the hackamore he came with, preparing it to place on his head for this first ride. As they approached I heard her say: ‘Whoa! His whole demeanor just completely changed’. His long, free and easy strides stilted and stuttered as she led him back in my direction.

The moment he saw the hackamore.

Visibly guarded he allowed himself to be led up to me.

Holding the hackamore out in an offering sort of way I asked him: ‘is this what you’re worried about?’

In answer to my query he turned his head as far away from me as he possibly could, practically touching his nose to his right shoulder. We both chuckled at how clearly he communicated his lack of interest in this device.

I wondered if this was his way of saying he didn’t like that piece of equipment or if he he’d rather not be ridden? Given we had no indication of a lack of interest until the hackamore came out we reassured him we were listening by putting it away.

I assured him that I wouldn’t put anything on his head he didn’t approve of. To test the waters I pulled out a bridle with a bit that most horses seem to like just fine. But we didn’t know each other very well. He wasn’t sure I was listening and hadn’t even looked back in my direction since I held the offending hackamore. I had to wave the bridle in front of his nose to get him to even take a look.

‘Check it out, it’s different. Would you rather wear this?’

His facial expressions rapidly shifted in a comical way from pursed lipped skepticism to wide-eyed surprise as he realized he was being offered a different choice. He sighed audibly, tipped his head in my direction and took the bit into his mouth of his own accord. The relief was palpable and his relaxed enthusiasm for going for a ride returned as quickly as it had left.

We both laughed in recognition and appreciation for the unmistakable clarity of his communication. There was no doubt about how he felt. No doubt about how much he appreciated knowing we listened and honored his choice.

Horses are fantastic communicators. Give them a voice and they’ll let you know exactly what they need to be comfortable doing what we want them to do. He wasn’t being rude or disobedient when he balked and turned his head away. He was simply trying to let two relative strangers know that he wasn’t terribly comfortable with our choice of tack.

Learn to appreciate your horse expressing his preferences. He’ll be a better dance partner if he’s comfortable.

Appreciate every moment you have because you never know how long they’ll be with you. Sunshine left us all too soon, succumbing to a violent colic early this week. We’re so grateful to have known you sweet boy, if only for a short time. Thank you for being you.

 

Beyond Body Language: Greetings

img_0709.jpg I spend a lot of time talking to people about what happens on the ground. Often even before grooming and tacking up. It’s the quality of the time spent catching our horse and then leading to the grooming area that sets the tone for the rest of our interaction.

It helps to remember that the session with our horse begins the moment they become aware of our presence. Because that’s when our horse becomes aware of our intention. I can’t tell you how many horses recognize the sound of their person’s vehicle and react to it before I can even see the car! I see them acknowledge their person’s presence the moment they get out of the car.

Some of horses even come in from wherever they are and go get a drink of water or relieve themselves in preparation for what they know is coming. So, make no mistake, from the moment we arrive til the moment we leave we make in impression on our horses!

They read our body language the second we come into their sight and they read our energy and emotions even before that. Their initial response to us is feedback about the state of our being.

Most often I watch people walk into their horse’s paddock like they own the place. Halter in hand they march in and walk right up to their horse as though it’s their right. It’s like having someone knock on your door while they are already walking in, interrupt whatever you’re doing, and get insulted when you don’t drop everything and attend to them.

I like to think of entering my horse’s paddock or pasture as though I’m entering his house. How would I want someone to come into my house? I like to pause at the gate and get a sense of the overall energy of the herd and the horse I want to do something with in particular. With soft focus I send my intention to my would be dance partner. I watch and feel for an invitation to come in.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled “This is Subtle Stuff”. Waiting and watching for those signals is indeed subtle stuff. Taking the time it takes to initiate this first contact, to allow enough time for your horse to volunteer to be haltered. It can seem like it’s taking forever and “I just don’t have time!”

At the end of that post is a video clip of me haltering Kastani out on pasture and then gaining his interest to follow me back to our work space. It took a little more than 5 minutes to have him voluntarily join me that day. It took 20 minutes the first day I did this with him!

Taking the time it takes pays off. Spending time on those greetings pays off.

Here’s the last video I shot of haltering Kastani. It took less than two minutes for him to join me. This was the 6th time in 8 days.  If you watch the clip from the last post and compare it to this one, it’s easy to see how much he shifts from one session to the next. Polite greetings pay off!