Sensitizing Humans

Gin and I in Carbondale

Gin and I back in the day…

It is common practice, when training horses, to ‘desensitize’ them to certain stimuli. Time is spent ‘sacking them out’ or some similar tactic designed to derail the horse’s fight or flight instinct and make them less reactive to outside influences when we work with them. Paradoxically, we then want them to be extremely efficient in responding to the slightest aid. We ask them to be less sensitive, but then want them to be selectively more sensitive. Imagine how confusing that must be? Don’t react to ‘x’, but respond instantly to ‘y’ or else.

Personally, I think we ‘desensitize’ horses when should be ‘sensitizing’ ourselves.

Horses are wildly intuitive. Finely tuned senses perceive the subtlest nuances of thought, emotion, gesture and energy. Fully inhabiting their bodies, they respond to their environment without thinking too much about it. Survival in the real world demands appropriate response instantly. Rarely is there time to stop and ponder. React or die, you can think about it later.

I just had a flashback to riding Gin in a reining clinic. The steers we were meant to sort were in a small, anxious herd behind two gates at the end of the arena. The gate latch was broken so if the steers pressed hard enough, they could open the gate, streaming into the arena. The single steer that was reluctantly separated from the herd had one goal, and one goal only, get back through that gate to be with his fellows. The solution to keeping that steer in the arena, and the rest of the herd out, was to line all the riders up side by side, butts to the gate, to deter the steers should either side determine to make a break for it. The result was a line of nervous horses, with even more nervous steers crowding the gate behind them, a handful of people on foot with flags holding the gates closed.

Many times, the steer would succeed, racing through the line of horses, rider’s scrambling to herd him back into the arena, people with flags on sticks behind the gates flailing in a mighty effort to make that spot scarier than the arena. The result was a chaotic swirl of panicked steers, waving flags, and a mob of horses. Gin would put her head low and back up. There was nothing I could do to stop her. She continued to back up until we were well clear of the mob where she stopped to stand quietly observing the ensuing mess. Suited me just fine. In my estimation she was keeping us both safe, and I thanked her kindly for getting us out of the danger zone. The clinician acted as though I was letting her get away with murder…

Sometimes, the horse’s idea is better than the human’s idea. I wish we were trained to listen better.

When I stop thinking in terms of teaching the horse to be less reactive and start thinking in terms of becoming more sensitive to them, a whole new world opens. I work less on the horse and more on myself. The way I see it, I’m the reactive one that needs to refine. They are perfectly sensitive, the kind of sensitivity that can turn into a dance. But only if I don’t teach them to be less responsive.

I think we seek a horse that is safe to be around by trying to get them to be less reactive to things that might happen outside of our control when we ride. We attempt to teach them to be more like us, to stop and think before they react. We want a responsive horse that isn’t reactive. It’s a big ask given horse’s brains are literally built to prioritize the coordination of movement to fight or flee. By attempting to teach them to stop and think we ask them to go against their natural instincts, and that can be quite stressful for some horses. They might learn to contain those natural instincts but that doesn’t necessarily mean it makes them safer to be around.

The thing is, we can have an exquisitely responsive horse that is also safe to be around by cultivating their trust in us. They may not have the same capacity we do to stop and think, but they do have an incredible ability to read emotions. They can learn to look to us to determine if there is something they should worry about or not. They naturally match the energy of those around them.  Especially a trusted ‘leader’. I become that trusted leader by being awake and aware of our shared environment. If my horse knows I’m paying attention then he can relax and follow my lead.

Communication with one another on the level of the horse’s sensitivity is a magical thing. Conversations about simple things, like standing quietly while I approach with a halter, allowing me to touch them or pick up a foot, become nuanced sensory experiences for both of us. The greatest gift my horses give me each day is sensitizing me to see beyond the obvious, to feel more and think less, to be fully present in each moment. There is so much wonder to drink in. I feel fortunate to be part of their world for a little while and they reward my efforts by joining me in the dance and being my dependable partners.


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Skillful Negotiation

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Trimming Wamy last summer with an audience

People often ask me – how do you do the things that must be done with your horses, and still allow them to have a voice? Trimming feet is a great example. The farrier is coming, what if my horse decides not be caught that day? What if he decides he’d rather not pick up his feet? How do I navigate that without resorting to doing what needs to be done to make it happen?

Yesterday I drove an hour and a half to trim my friend’s two horses for her. It’s not like I’m going to drive all that way and not trim them if they aren’t in the mood today. Jean had them penned up already. As I approached Scratch with the halter, he was clearly wary, in his quiet way. His head came up, eyes widened, nostrils flared as he moved away, subtly evading my touch. Had I touched him anyway he would have moved to create distance between us, I would have broken his trust, setting the tone for the rest of our interaction.

Never underestimate the power of those first few minutes with any horse. How we negotiate the first touch and put the halter on sets the tone for the rest of our interaction.

What I had here, was a horse who was kind of wired and jumpy. Potentially reactive. Not an ideal frame of mind for the focused task of trimming feet. But I’m here, and it’s going to get done today. Within the time we have, it takes the time it takes, to negotiate initial contact and allow him time to agree to being haltered. It’s a silent negotiation. My intention is crystal clear so that he picks up on why I’m there and what I want to do with him today. Imagine what it would be like to have someone show up out of the blue and approach YOU with a halter if you had no clue what their intentions were? It must be quite disconcerting, so it seems like common courtesy to make sure he knows why I’m there with that halter hanging on my arm.

It takes him a few minutes to let his guard down, allowing me a brief touch. How I touch him is important too. He needs to feel my intention in my touch. He needs to know I won’t get greedy if he gives an inch. It doesn’t take all that long to negotiate enough understanding between us that he allows me to put the halter on. It wasn’t enthusiastic, cautious, so I know he’s not totally comfortable yet. Fair enough. I take the opportunity to prove to him that I am trustworthy by not simply dragging him off to a dry spot and going to work because he has a halter on, giving me control. Instead, the conversation continues with an invitation to follow my lead. He needs time to consider if he can be all in on my idea. It takes a few tries to find the way to move and connect that feels good to him and he follows me into the dry shelter.

I love trimming feet. I think it’s one of the best places to have cool conversations with horses. A great place to refine our communication and connection. So much has to happen for trimming to go well and feel good to both the horse and I. I never take for granted that it might be hard for some horses to balance on three legs for any amount of time. I created a sequence for doing things that allows for that so they are, in a sense, warming up and finding their balance point on three legs before I get to a point of needing to hold a leg up for any length of time. It feels like a dance on a good day.

Yesterday with Scratch and Wamy was a good day. Once Scratch realized what I was doing and that I wouldn’t force anything, he embraced my idea and cooperated beautifully, practically lifting up the next foot before I was even there. I love the way it feels to move with them and find the best way to support their foot so it doesn’t bother them, and at the same time is easy on my own body. It’s a moment to moment feeling in and negotiating. Negotiating contact, points of balance, fluidity of movement, and strength.

When I really listen, the horses give me instant feedback about how they like their manicure. Placing the newly trimmed foot beneath themselves, exploring how it feels to put weight on it, sighing and lowering their heads. If it isn’t quite right, they might shift positions a bunch or stick it out in front and not want to put weight on it. Then I know I have more fine tuning to do. The better I am at listening to their feedback, the more willing they are to participate freely in the act of getting these feet trimmed.

I had two horses yesterday who were not particularly enthusiastic about the idea of having their feet trimmed. We were able to negotiate a way through it while still allowing them to express their opinions, having a voice in the dialogue. In the end both horses walked away more relaxed then when we began. They were able to stretch outside their comfort zone and increase their adaptability. These conversations around things that have to happen can be brilliant ways to deepen the trust and communication between horse and human. It requires doing more than just listening to your horse’s opinion and honoring that, it requires skillful negotiation.

If you’d like to learn more about these kinds of conversations with horses:

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Appreciate the Small Things


Do you find yourself feeling like what you do with your horses is not enough? As though you should be making more progress than you are? Do you have a horse that asks you to step up in ways that challenge your old paradigms of horse training, stretching your comfort zone to the max?

My 4-year-old mustang gelding, Feather, came home last Sunday. He is officially home for one week.

Those three questions I just asked… I can safely say I answered each of them with a resounding yes in that week! An exhausting roller coaster of emotions, if only I could stop thinking so much and just be. Life is much easier when my mind is centered in the moment, not frantically analyzing what happened ten minutes ago, or projecting out to what might be necessary in a few days or weeks if what I do now is ineffective…

There is some sense of urgency about making in roads with Feather. He is, after all, wearing a halter and lead that need to come off sooner rather than later. I was all set to have the vet come out and dart him with a tranquilizer on Friday and just get it done. Then I realized, he just got to his new home. I have no clue what might be possible if I take a little time, let him settle in, let him get to know me. What if I really could remove that halter with his cooperation? And even if that proves impossible, he should respond better to sedation if he feels safe and settled here.

I canceled the vet appointment and instead, focused on relationship building. And boy, this horse holds me accountable in ways that remind me a lot of Gin. Lucky for Feather, Gin trained me well. I am at least open to the possibility it might be me that needs to adjust and not Feather. He taught me so much about myself during our first few days of a whole lifetime of wonderfully rich shared experiences. This is just the beginning. The first few days of the rest of our lives. So, what IS the hurry?

Feeling like what I do each day is not enough is an easy trap to fall into. Feather carries quite a lot of trauma, and a distinct distrust of humans. While his curiosity is strong, it is stressful for him to have me in his space for any length of time. My objective right now is to do my very best not to be an overt source of stress, for him to begin to feel my presence as a place of peace and ease. It sure feels like I should be spending more than ten minutes with him, but he tells me otherwise. Ten minutes of finding a way to work with his anxiety is enough for him. Spending an hour does not make him better. Spending time in short sessions multiple times per day might be okay one day and out of bounds the next.

My expectation is, if he is good in the morning and we build some trust, he should be even better when I go back in the afternoon. If he we have what feels like a big breakthrough one day, the next day he should be even better. I expect a linear progression with steady improvement dang it! But life is anything but linear, especially with a horse that has some trauma. Our anything but linear progression this last week brought my attention to how easy it is for us to get discouraged when things are not so black and white.


Horses live in the moment. We humans seem to do a lot of projecting into the future. Putting our hopes and dreams, our sense of time is running out, onto each interaction. Our internal sense of pressure spilling out onto our horse and making them feel pressured too. Feather has a zero-tolerance policy for my busy mind. He experiences my thinking too much as a threat. If I am not in the moment, not paying attention to my surroundings, distracted, I become a source of danger – at very least, certainly not a source of peace. I learned that lesson on Wednesday and Thursday when Feather started bolting to put distance between us while I was doing chores in or around his run.

My busy, thinking, judgmental mind said: ‘what is wrong with you! We should be making more progress than this! You were so peaceful the first few days and now you act like I might eat you for breakfast. What the heck?’ My initial thoughts ran along the lines of: ‘suck it up dude – I will be walking by your run and cleaning your pen every day. This is who I am, this is how I move through the world, deal with it.’ But he was not ‘dealing with it’ well. He became increasingly uncomfortable around me over the course of those two days. Which of course, sent my busy mind on overdrive!

When I checked in more deeply about what caused this change in his behavior the words I heard: “you are so unpredictable and inconsistent!” I was baffled. I thought I was being very consistent and predictable, creating a routine he could get used to. Then I realized, it was my busy mind he was referring to. When he first arrived, I was careful to notice how my presence impacted him. I noticed when he noticed and responded. I noticed when he got worried and responded. As he relaxed so did I. I stopped paying attention to how my presence was affecting him when I was in his personal space. I stopped responding to him, and so in his mind I was unpredictable and inconsistent. And he was right. When I started paying attention again, fully present in the moment rather than thinking about who knows what while I did my chores, he stopped bolting.


What a gift he gives me, if I choose to accept it. I spent more time this past week with a quiet mind and peaceful heart than I can remember. He taught me how to appreciate the small things and to see the larger picture of how we progress in our relationship from day to day. Even though it is anything but linear. Trust the process. Take the small wins and let go of the moments when things go south. We make mistakes. Sometimes we ask too much. Sometimes we could ask for more. What matters is the larger picture. The overall progression.

I realize how easy it is for me to focus on what went wrong. Dwelling on what went wrong means I miss the opportunity to feel appreciation for what went right, for the gift of connection my horse gave me in that moment. I lose the significance of those small moments when my horse chose to trust me enough to cooperate of his free will. Feather reminds me to celebrate every day, even the tiniest in road. By focusing on what goes well, I have something to build on. Those tiny wins do accumulate over the course of days, weeks and months. Those tiny wins are the foundation of true partnership.

Did I get as far with Feather this first week as I had hoped?

Heck no! In my wildest dreams we built an instant and magical connection and he put his head in my arms and let me take that halter off on day one! That is not what happened. We had good interactions and not so good interactions. But the overall picture is filled with great strides forward! Believe me, I did not just sit here in a state of bliss appreciating how much he has offered up. I worked on my mindset every single night, writing down all the fears, doubts and insecurities – willing myself to write down the positive changes and own the wins.


And for a first week home there are some significant wins! Allow me to celebrate

How quickly and easily he settled into his new home with the burros in tow.

How many times he has walked quickly past me when we need to pass by one another while I clean his paddock instead of bolting.

That he was able to stand four feet away from me on Friday and hang out with a hind foot resting while he processed through a whole lot of anxiety for a full 5 minutes before needing to move off.

That he has not touched me out of anxiety a single time since he arrived.

That he can stand in my space and not need to touch me, touching me with anxiety is a sign of insecurity and worry. He no longer has that.

That he has not charged me a single time since he’s been here despite the tight quarters.

Yesterday he walked back and forth past me sitting on my muck tub completely peaceful and then stood 20 feet away and went to sleep for 5 minutes. In my presence! That’s huge!

He stands at the gate and nickers when he sees me coming with food.

He can stay at the gate and not bolt while I put his handful of supplements in a pan and slide it under the gate.

He stays at his hay pile when I step into the paddock and keeps eating (not in a stressed way)

As I write, I realize, I could keep going. There are so many small wins that add up to a lot more than the moments when he still loses control of his emotions and bolts. When I lose my focus and freak him out. By focusing on these positive changes, I realize he is overall moving in a direction of releasing his trauma and stress. He IS learning to trust me and feel at peace in my presence. All I have to do is believe in myself. Believe in him, and trust this process we engage in together.

If you answered feel discouraged about taking it slow with your horse, like you should be doing more, time is passing you by and you may never reach your goals, Feather and I encourage you to join us in taking a few deep breaths. Feel your feet on the ground. Go outside and be still. Listen to the birds sing and feel the sun (or the wind in our case) on your face. The journey is richest when we appreciate each moment. The paradox is that when we slow down and do less, the goal is reached before we know it. When we push for it, and try to make it happen faster, the goal becomes elusive, often for years.

What are the small things your horse offers up that might be bigger than you realized? What can you celebrate today?

Those things we think of as small and insignificant are a huge thing for our horses to give. When we fail to appreciate the significance of the little things they offer up it discourages them from offering more. It is so important to appreciate those things we think of as small – we can never know how much courage it took for our horse to take that small step toward trust.


I chronicle my adventures with Feather on Patreon. We welcome you to follow along as we get to know each other. There is a free blog or you can pay a monthly fee to access audio and video where I talk in depth about my philosophy of training. You’ll get to hear all the behind the scenes bits about how I make decisions, what I see and feel, how I interpret that information, and allow it to inform my decisions.

Andrea Datz Tango with Horses on Patreon

Feather also has a Facebook page!

(Gandalf) Gray Feather on Facebook




Heartache and Joy

Merlin in the shadows

Merlin in the evening shadows

Life can be a lot like riding a roller coaster. High highs and low lows coming in such rapid succession you get whiplash. Great heartache and great joy side by side…

Saturday, another morning that didn’t feel like morning yet, cold, damp, socked in and grey. I had plans today. Hustle through the morning feeding and get on the road with Susan to visit our dear friend Jean in Paonia. Then I would go visit Feather before he hitched a ride home after Carla Lays dropped off Shelby for George. It’s been two weeks since I last saw him and I cannot wait to visit and reinforce that we are still going to be partners.

As I near the south end of the property to throw hay and rearrange turnout for the day I scan the property looking for horses. My eye catches on a dark shape in the farthest corner of the arena area that shouldn’t be there…

Every horse person’s worst nightmare. Realizing it’s a horse that is out where he shouldn’t be. That he’s down and rolling into positions that say ‘I’m in so much pain’. Clearly a bad colic. It’s my friend’s horse who’s lived here for three years and has a sensitive system, funky weather can be his nemesis. And in an instant my plan shifts. I know where I’ll be spending my day. I’ve been doing this long enough that I know not to waste any time, get hay to the horses, secure the area and run for the house to call his owner, the vet and reinforcements. Grab an apple, drink some water, and prepare for a marathon.

And a marathon it was. One of those cases where they don’t get dramatically worse, but there’s no improvement either. He wasn’t turning that corner they need to turn for me to feel confident they are going to snap out of it. At 4 pm I hooked up the trailer and we hauled him to the vet clinic for further diagnosis and treatment, to maybe rally in a warm stall with fluids overnight. Sadly, that was not to be. He had twisted his gut and there was nothing more to be done. He did his best and we did our best by him, letting him go before he had to suffer more pain.

Exhausted and frozen to my core I returned home feeling defeated, and relieved that Carla had hit weather delays and Feather would not be coming in the cold, dark night at the end of this very sad day. I missed Merlin at late night feeding, as I cried into my horse’s manes.

Sunday dawned warmer already than yesterday with sun and blue sky peeking through the foggy low clouds. Up early, I feel like a kid on Christmas morning! And I’m getting a new pony today! It’s an odd place to be in, this middle ground between still feeling the loss of one life while preparing to welcome a new life, a new chapter, the very next day. The first morning after the loss of a herd member always seems extra quiet, a moment of silence for the departed perhaps.

In that deep winter morning silence, I hear Merlin speaking to me from his new perspective. He’s telling me how important it is to stay present in the moment. Yesterday is the past, and if I get stuck there, being sad, then I won’t be able to sense where he is now. Still with us, just in a different way. If I am stuck in the past, the loss, then I can’t hear his wisdom and feel his presence now. If I’m stuck in the past, even though it’s only yesterday, I won’t be fully present today to experience the joy of Feather coming to live with us.

I can feel how at peace he is and feel the rightness of what he shares.

Since Steve and I came to live on this piece of land we’ve laid ten horses to rest. Steve’s Dad has passed. My Mom last summer and my dear friend Cori, and countless others. Death walks hand in hand with life. It is inevitable. In my experience it is not the end though. My loved ones, both two and four legged, are still with me. They live on in my heart and share their wisdom from this new perspective they have. So much wisdom.

I remember, the day after Cori passed, I was out watering my garden while tears streamed down my face. Suddenly I felt this insanely joyful presence. I could just about see her, in her typical fashion, dancing a jig around me for the sheer joy of being free. ‘Seriously’, I thought, ‘is that you Cori? And seriously? Are you really dancing a jig around me right now?’ The answer was clearly ‘yes.’

‘Can’t I have one day to grieve?’

From her perspective there was nothing to grieve. She was free. Filled with joy. At peace. I felt that same sense from my Grandmother the day after she passed.

Life and death walk side by side. I wish we had better cultural traditions that gave us a healthy relationship with death and dying.

Thanking Merlin for sharing his wisdom I decide to honor him and all those passed on, by being fully present in each moment today. Rolling with the punches and adapting to what life decides to gift me. The horses fed and enjoying the warmer weather it’s time to rest up after yesterday’s demands and prepare for Feather’s arrival.

I would have loved to be there when he was loading to reassure him and provide support, but the timing just didn’t work out. So, I eat my breakfast with my laptop open to Facebook anxiously awaiting updates! Around 9:30 George posts the photo of Shelby, his new visitor, in the paddock! I’m on pins and needles awaiting word that they have him loaded. Finally, George sends a message that they are starting to work with him to get on the trailer and they are taking it slow. Some time later he calls, with laughter in his voice, and says: ‘well, he’s on the trailer….. With the burros…..’

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Feather at George’s with Fast Eddie

For those of you that don’t know Feather’s story, he is a 4-year-old, unhandled mustang gelding that I adopted on December 4th. He stayed with George (his foster person) until now because I had a trip mid- January and didn’t want my help here having to care for my new wild child while I was gone. Feather has been sharing his paddock with two BLM burros – Sneaky Pete and Fast Eddie (otherwise known as the Flying Burrito Brothers). Feather was not about to get on that trailer so when the burros scooted onto the rig when they went to move them to another paddock, Carla and George made the decision to leave them on and see if Feather would follow them in.

He did.

George laughed as he told me how he asked Carla: ‘so how do we get the burros out and keep Feather in?’ She shrugged in response and George just burst out laughing. He called me to see if I minded if the Burrito Brothers came along for the ride and stayed for a while. Really, it couldn’t be more perfect! For him to come with buddies to his new home makes the transition so much less stressful. Susan had fallen in love with those burros on her weekly visits with me to see Feather. She joked several times that she thought Feather should come with the burros – as a set – so to speak. I knew she’d be tickled pink they were coming and decided I’d make it a surprise!

An hour and 15 minutes later (it seemed like eons!), with brilliant blue skies and warm sun shining on us, the rig pulled in. The look on Susan’s face was priceless when she realized there were burro ears sticking up in there. When I told her what happened, and why they were along for the ride, she giddily started describing all the fun things we could do with the burros this summer! Ha! George might have to arm wrestle her to get those burros back!

The three of them off loaded and settled in so nicely.


Jack acting as welcoming commitee

A bunch of grinning fools for the rest of the day. A day that could not have been more different than Saturday. From cold, damp and grey to bright, sunny and warm. From the end of one life to the early chapters of a new one. That roller coaster with its low lows and high highs. The only way to thrive is to enjoy the ride! Be grateful for, and present, in each and every moment. Great heartache and great joy live within me simultaneously.

I am grateful for all of it!

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If you want to hear more about my journey with Feather you can follow along on Facebook!

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Gandalf Gray Feather

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Compassionate Communication


You just had the best day with your horse, a huge breakthrough, an aha, a moment of pure joy and tenderness. That moment got captured on film and you can’t wait to share this phase or your process! Filled with the warm glow of love for your horses you post your picture to Facebook…

There is a growing movement towards humane, compassionate ways of keeping horses in our lives and doing things with them. It makes my heart sing to see so many moving in the direction of listening to what our horses have to say, honoring how they feel, their intelligence and sensitivity. Most of us wouldn’t dream of harming our horses, causing them stress or pain. We do the best we can with the knowledge we have and feel immense remorse when we unintentionally cause harm. In my experience we mostly admit we are a work in progress and continually seek to do better, learn more.

We are a passionate lot that loves horses with such fervor we’d do just about anything to see them treated fairly, be understood, not taken advantage of or abused. When we find our path, we can become a bit like religious zealots trying to convert everyone to our side. Not because we’re crazy but because we’re so excited about how great what we’re doing is working! How much our horse relationships improved, how happy and healthy our horses are… We want everyone’s horses to have it this good.


We are so lucky to have the internet and social media to connect us to the broader possibilities of what’s out there. To connect us to communities filled with like-minded people, no matter how fringe our particular philosophy might be in our own back yard! Never before has it been possible to have an impact on such a large scale, sharing our ideas, advocating for horses…

The variety of ways to build relationships with horses has never been so broad. We have innumerable options! Innumerable opinions! And everyone, of course, believes their chosen path is the best one, myself included. I spent much of my life loving horses with that fanatical fervor. I swore I would never take anything from the horses, I existed to serve them and help them heal from the damage done by humans. I harbored intense resentment towards people for the damage they caused.

It’s easy, when we feel so strongly, to notice everything that everyone else is doing wrong. To get emotionally triggered by images and videos that run counter to our beliefs. It used to be easy enough to discern what constitutes abuse. That’s not the case anymore. There are extremes now from one end that advocates for letting horses be horses, that we have no right to ask anything of them. All the way to the equine industry where horses are still trained for sport and competition. It’s not just abuse if you beat a horse with a stick, now it might be considered abuse if put a bit in your horse’s mouth, or if you choose not to ride. So many extremes.


In the heat of the moment it’s easy to fire off comments that point out everything that’s wrong. Shame is prevalent in the horse world. We care so much we beat ourselves up over every small error anyway. These comments land hard. They shut doors to communication and cause people to think twice about sharing. Nobody gains a thing.

What if, when we got triggered by something we saw in a photo, we paused, took a breath and recognized that this was a moment in time and we don’t know the whole story? What if we took a moment to ask ourselves what our motive is in hitting send on that comment that will no doubt make this person burn with shame? What if we asked ourselves, how would I treat my horse if they were doing something I didn’t like?


What if we all took a moment to ask a few questions instead of stating the obvious? What if we commented in a way that was kind and opened the door to a friendly conversation? One where we have the whole story and make an educated, compassionate response that inspires someone to continue reaching out for guidance and continue learning?

We have the power to change the world, us passionate, fervent advocates for horse welfare, but only if we start treating each other with the same kindness and compassion we share with our horses.

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Horses that change your life

Gin and I in Carbondale

Gin and I in our youth

Some horses change your life forever.

I first met Gin at Colorado State University. She was one of twenty young mares shipped to Colorado from Texas for the school’s colt starting program. These mares were bred to be tenacious, athletic and whip smart! I graduated from the Equine Science program that spring, watching with tears in my eyes as Gin loaded on a semi stock trailer to ship back to Texas for auction. My heart broke seeing her go but I had no resources to travel to Texas and bid on her.

Fast forward some months later and I get a phone call from a fellow student. He had traveled to Texas and ended up winning the bid on Gin. She was back in Colorado! I told him that if he ever decided not to keep her, he should call me first. Not even a month later he received a job offer and couldn’t take her along. He was willing to sell her to me for what he paid at auction.

Steve and I had just married. I didn’t have a job yet. But Dad had gifted me a pony to use as a lesson horse as a graduation present. I sold him for $800 and Steve let me take all the money given as wedding gifts. Together it was just enough to meet the purchase price and Dad I went on a road trip to pick up Gin.

Gin was never easy.

At CSU she was one of the more challenging among the group of fillies. The first time we caught our horses, the 20 students lined up across the paddock, facing down 20 fillies that had never worn halters. We herded them into an array of fanned out panels along a short side of the paddock. As soon as the mares were in the funnel of fencing, we each grabbed a panel and swung them in to create one long squeeze chute filled nose to tail with squirming young horses. That was how I came to put a halter on Gin for the first time. Climbing the fence panel and wrestling a halter on her head.

The next day all the other fillies ran into that funnel. Gin did not. She paced angrily up and down the line of young college students, neck snaking, ears flattened sideways, looking first one, then another student right in the eyes until she found the weakest link in our chain and charged the person. She knew they would not hold their ground.


Twenty people failed to chase one long yearling filly into a funnel full of her herd mates. If she didn’t want to do something, no one was going to make her! I read Cherry Hill’s book on starting horses, our assigned reading, and learned about approach and retreat. Within two days I was able to develop rapport with Gin and could walk out to the paddock and halter her at will, while the other students continued the rodeo chute affair.

Gin and I riding early days at CSU

Riding Gin at CSU. Both of were SO young!!

What I learned in that colt starting program was a way to train horses that held no appeal. I remember getting through the year and thinking what a tragedy it was that in my senior year, final semester, I was only just learning what it seemed to take to start a horse from scratch, according to industry standard. I did not like it one bit and wondered what on earth I’d signed up for. Was this a life I could really live with any sense of personal integrity? Gin coming home to live with me post-graduation was such a gift. An opportunity to learn with a green horse I felt I knew inside and out.

I was definitely in over my head with her. She was unlike any other horse I had ridden. Volatile and opinionated, she never seemed interested in the kind of connection a twenty something young woman dreams of. Several years into our struggling partnership, Kim Walnes encouraged me, gently prodding and reminding over the course of a year, to consult with an animal communicator she knew and trusted. I did not believe in that nonsense and resisted.

I had a job now, managing a 20-stall dressage barn. It was demanding work that left me very small windows of time for Gin. Usually I was pretty stressed. I’d rush out to the pasture and Gin, seeing me coming, would meet me half way. But she was sizing me up as she came. If she decided I was in a no-good frame of mind she would walk in a circle around me, looking me up and down, and then continue on back out to pasture. Made me so mad when she did that! I’d throw the halter on the ground or chase after her, stomping my feet and shouting…. Well, no wonder she wanted nothing to do with me….

One day, Kim was there to teach a workshop and my lesson time was fast approaching. Gin sensed my stress levels and marched away. This time, in utter exhaustion and defeat, I dropped the halter on the ground, plopped down, dejected on the ditch bank, and burst into tears. My short, intense melt down ended as quickly as it began and I found myself taking a deep breath. Realizing Gin was right. I was in no fit shape to be a worthy partner. I apologized to her. I felt me feet on the ground and sat quietly enjoying the beauty of the day. The next thing I knew Gin was beside me nosing the halter. That was the day that she officially became MY teacher.

I did finally call that animal communicator, with great skepticism. Theresa spent a week corresponding long distance with Gin. I did nothing with her that week. The scientist in me intended to make this an objective experiment. Any changes in her demeanor or attitude at the end of the week would certainly be related to the animal communication session and not something I had done. I’d see her often standing separate from the herd that week, statue still, inward focused. Not like her at all. A few days in boarders started seeking me out to ask me what I’d done to Gin. She had never interacted with them before and was now coming up to them, putting her head over their shoulders, looking for treats and scratches. My mind was blown.

Theresa said it took several days to get Gin to agree to talk with her. She didn’t think humans had much to offer her. Finally, she relented, but only because the novelty of connecting with a human who wasn’t actually there intrigued her. She reiterated that she had little use for humans. Theresa asked about me. Her response: ‘she’s better than most, but she’s still a human’. It was important to me that she understand I was trying to find a different way to work with than what I had learned at CSU. But I had no blueprint for what that looked like. I was trying to find help that was more in line with what I thought I wanted. She asked that if I ever saw another horse and human working together in the way I had in mind, I show her.

Gin and I shoveling together

Helping me drain puddles from the arena many years ago.

From that day forward, every time I was with her and we encountered another horse and rider, she would stop, look at me pointedly, then look back at them. I could almost hear asking: ‘like that?’ I’d watch for a few minutes and every time I’d have to respond: ‘no, not that’. She’d sigh in what felt like relief and we’d continue on our way. And so it was that Gin changed my life. Thanks to her, her strong opinions, and complete lack of willingness to be bullied, I had no choice but to find another way or sell her. I chose to find another way.


A few years ago, finally in sync

Gin lit the way. She pushed me to seek true partnership. 50:50. She and I found a way to cooperate and do a lot of cool things in our life together. Though I wouldn’t say I ever fully understood what she was trying to teach me until just about 5 years ago. She’s thirty years old now and retired from riding, but she loves to teach people still. As her time with me comes to a close I’ve wondered what’s next? How do I do my life without Gin and her wise, quiet presence?

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And along comes Feather. A 4-year-old unhandled mustang wearing a halter and lead that were wrestled onto his head in much the same way I first wrestled a halter onto Gin’s head nearly 30 years ago. All wild reactivity, finely tuned, sensitive doesn’t begin to cover it! In the few short weeks since I adopted him, he’s already changed my life again. The path Gin lit he’s now pushing me to step onto with all my heart. It’s difficult to describe the feeling. When the things you always knew were possible, the thing you’ve spent your life seeking, is within your grasp.


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Finding Balance

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Today I decided to do something a bit different and do a video blog. It’s easy to engage in activities on ends of a spectrum and forget that there is a whole lot of nuance in between all and nothing. This is especially important to remember in building a partnership with a horse that is enriching for both horse and human.

To hear more, click the link:

Video blog

2020 is fast approaching and that means the start of a new year of online classes! Lots of exciting new topics on deck for this year! To keep abreast of the latest news join us on Facebook: The Tango with Horses Tribe

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