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.

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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?

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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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Movement before Touch

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Last week I spent time with two mustangs that are not yet comfortable being handled or haltered. I’m fascinated by the puzzle of how you entice a wild horse to want to be in your presence, and then to actually enjoy being touched. If you think about it, how alien must it be to allow an entirely different species to touch you from head to toe? I can almost feel in my own body as I remember standing with these horses, the buzz of electric energy that repels me as surely as if we were opposing sides of a magnet trying to come together.

Given my recent experiences, I understand the excitement of being allowed our first touch with these wild horses. What a sign of trust, right? It’s like the first touch becomes the Holy Grail in those early days with a newly adopted mustang. We largely get to bypass that step with domestic horses by getting our hands on newborn foals while they are still too wobbly to escape.  I wonder how the horses feel about all this touching? With every fiber of their being, both of the horses I spent time with last week, let me know that they were not okay with me touching them.

I think it’s important to honor that.

We don’t need touch to communicate. Every time I interact with a horse it’s a dance. We communicate through movement, shared energy, intention. The language we discover as we dance around each other without touching is incredibly important. Horses, especially wild born horses, notice (and try to interpret and act on) every single thing we do. Our facial expression, the position of our feet, arms, hands, our body position relative to them, our gestures, posture, pace, energetic tone, and emotions. All of it carries meaning to them.  Horses that have been domesticated for a while simply learn to tune most of what we do out as meaningless noise, which I honestly find quite sad.

I’m shifting my weight back in response to him looking away. He has one foot out the door. In the next instant he’s coming my way and I shift forward again to meet him. He responds to me and I to him from moment to moment.

I wrote about the little bay mare a while back. She’s come a long way since my last visit in terms of her acceptance of human presence. What I noticed though is that she was not engaged with me when I entered her pen. It took a little time to get her moving with me, something I had to do tactfully because her pen is so small. Kind of like dancing Tango on a tabletop! The movements have to be quite small and refined but we can still move together.

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Towards the end of my hour with her she is okay with me touching her chin and her eye is soft.

Sometimes it feels like we get so excited about touch that that becomes the priority. But really, if you think about it, most of what we want to do with our horses centers around moving together. We don’t need to halter first and move second. A halter is not required to guide a horse, in fact, in an ideal world, the halter and lead are only there to clarify or provide support. Hopefully our horses follow us because they want to, not because they have to.

Working in that tiny space with the bay mare was fascinating. I could get within millimeters of her side and make the smallest intention to move, wait, and she would shift her weight with me and then walk with me so very close but not touching her. All I had to do was take my time and let her think and feel through what I was asking and she was right there, fully engaged, walking with me at her side, beginning to follow my lead. We’re feeling each other out, developing a shared language.

If my shirt sleeve even barely touched her side she’d scoot away. If I reached towards her with the intention of touching her she would shrink away, but not leave. If I backed off and stopped trying to touch her she was perfectly happy to hang with me. By the end of the session she was offering to sniff me and she even let me lean in to share a breath. I don’t think that sweet moment of intimacy could have happened had I not listened and just tried touching her anyway.

The gelding I interacted with was a similar dance, but his pen was quite large so we had room to really move in relation to one another. He is so alert, notices absolutely everything. He wants to figure me out but he’s so uncomfortable about being in proximity to humans. The halter and lead were put on him when he was adopted from the BLM. We have no idea how long it’s been on him and the desire to get it off is strong. I had to let go of any agenda around that and just take time to encourage this guy that I actually hear him when he speaks.

Here’s a series of screen shots and photos from our hour together.

As you can see, in the beginning he needed a lot of space between us to feel comfortable. It didn’t take long for him to realize I was responding to him as he responded to me. Moving around him I was able to make notes about the things I did that seemed meaningful to him. I discovered movements and gestures that reliably elicited the same response from him. We ended up with the beginnings of a shared vocabulary.

When a horse feels confident that we are listening. When our communication is reliable and we are predictable it builds their confidence in us. With this guy my movement had to be absolutely precise. My priority for him was to work on shrinking his bubble so that he could be comfortable closer to me. And then when he was closer, to feel comfortable just hanging out in that proximity.

Every single thing you do means something to a horse. Wild horses make it obvious by reacting to every nuance in a big way, but our domestic horses are just as communicative if we learn to read the subtle meaning behind the twitch of an ear and the shifting of weight. We owe it to our horses to keep refining our own body language and body awareness so we can communicate clearly and effectively.

Touch that’s meaningful will come with both of these horses but only when they initiate it. Only when they give permission. When they decide they are ready to be touched they’ll be all in. No tricks, no bribes, no shutting down and tolerating us. Remember, touch amplifies everything. Touch is intimate. Trust must come before touch. And horses trust people when we listen, are predictable, and communicate clearly. We develop that language through sharing movement.

 

 

Life is too Short

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Life really is too short. Too short to sweat the small stuff. Too short to hang on to grudges. Too short not to forgive. Too short to let dreams go by unfulfilled. People always say it’s important to tell those you love how you feel, spend time with them while you can, because you never know…

I feel her presence cheering me on, sending me love, and for the first few days after her passing just so much peace.

I have no regrets. We spoke daily for the last the six months, with few exceptions. We shared absolutely everything. Left nothing unsaid. We didn’t get to do all the things we wanted to do together. Time worked against us, robbing her of her strength and energy first, then flat taking her way too soon. I plan to follow through on our plans with the certainty that she walks beside me always.

Late last year I started taking stock. Looking at my herd of horses, I realized my core herd has been with me for more than twenty years. One by one those horses that have taught me so much, made me the horse woman I am today, are passing. Romeo, Jiminy, Hercules, Fafnir.. Now, Dillenger is 35, Gin 30, Aero 31… I had the feeling 2019 could be a tough year with lots of good byes. How do I wrap my head around letting go?

It feels like the end of an era. I found solace in looking forward to what the new era might bring. Never in a million years did I think the end of that era would include losing my Mom to cancer with such abrupt finality. She taught me so much in her last weeks! She was absolutely furious that she spent all year in doctor’s offices and didn’t get to go on any vacations. When she found out she wasn’t going to make it, she insisted on one last family road trip.

Shaking in our boots the whole time, my family made it happen. We managed to pull together a family trip to stay on a house boat on Lake Powell for 5 days. One week to the day from receiving the news that her cancer metastasized to her brain and spinal fluid we were loaded up and driving. In that one week, Mom went from feeling weak but walking with the help of a walker to needing a wheel chair and not being able to help herself stand. Mom had to adapt to being totally dependent and we had to learn on the fly how to care for someone in a wheel chair on a boat with no wheel chair accessibility, no reliable cell service, and a group of people having to come to grips with the new reality that our family matriarch was dying before our eyes.

I can’t believe how brave Mom was to take that plunge and go on that boat in her condition. It seemed like a crazy idea at the time, but in hind sight it was a great gift she gave us. We came off the boat one day earlier than planned. By the time we got her home she was fully bed ridden and on morphine to manage her increasing pain. That was Monday evening. She was gone by Wednesday evening, two weeks to the day that we got the news she had 4-6 weeks to live. I still can’t wrap my head around it.

The end of an era indeed.

I have no idea how this loss will shape me, what this new era holds. But I do know that Mom taught me to embrace life and live it fully. No regrets. Nothing left unsaid.

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Fear

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“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Frank Herbert. Dune

When I was a teenager I was terrified all the time. I lived in a state of constant anxiety, finding my refuge in the art room, in books, and with my horses out in nature. When I read Dune, Frank Herbert’s quote about fear became my mantra. It would be many years before I understood the sources of my fear, even more years before I learned how to work with what I felt. Oddly enough, the method I learned that allows me to work with whatever I feel follows along the lines of the quote:

I face may fear: I allow myself to feel what I feel and acknowledge that it’s valid
I permit it to pass over me and through me: I feel what I feel fully and breathe until the fear has dissipated
And when it has gone past I turn the inner eye to see its path: In the process of feeling and breathing my fear might intensify, I might feel it land in various parts of my body and I often identify the source of the fear
Where the fear has gone there is nothing: As I identify the source of my fear and keep breathing it vanishes, leaving me at peace
Only I remain.

This technique of allowing myself to feel what I feel, to fully experience it and breathe through it, came from Michael Brown’s Presence Process, a technique he developed to help himself manage the chronic pain he experienced.

“It’s about becoming authentic, growing up emotionally, and reclaiming integrity. It’s about grasping life intimately, with both hands, and raising ourselves up from being “the emotionally dead.”

Michael Brown, The Presence Process – A Journey Into Present Moment Awareness

Fear has been a strong presence in my life in the last two years. I care for an array of older horses, most of whom have been with me for a good twenty years or more. Perhaps one of our greatest fears is losing those we love. The inevitability of their passing weighs on me a little more each year. When this group of old guys passes it marks the end of an era. This little herd taught me everything about how I work with horses now.

A few weeks ago Aero gave me a scare. He acted like something was very wrong, like he might be in a lot of pain, and I thought, this is it, this is the day. I gave him a little pain management and by noon he seemed back to his normal self. He told the animal communicator I work with that he was still with us and when my friend did some bodywork on him she told me she had the feeling he was sticking around for me. That statement stuck with me, and I made a mental note. Because I was able to let the initial fear move through, I could act objectively to help him through this small setback.

Last November my Mom received a cancer diagnosis and embarked on an aggressive treatment regime. Talk about fear. I have never experienced the kind of fear I felt when the surgeon had us pinned against the wall with a portable table, sat a foot in front of us, then rapid fire delivered the diagnosis and treatment options without pausing. She kept talking to me and I couldn’t figure out why. I kept trying to use body language to get her to talk to my Mom. Then I looked at Mom and realized she was paralyzed – like a deer caught in the headlights. I realized I was not in my body either, only catching about every other word, and that Mom was definitely not hearing what she was saying anymore. I snapped myself back into my body and tried to take it all in.

The kind of fear one experiences when faced with a scary diagnosis, or the inevitable proximity of death, is paralyzing. From that moment on I felt I was chasing after a freight train that just took off down a track and left me in the dust…

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is that causes us to abandon our own senses, our own sovereignty in the face of ‘experts’. I remember going to a clinic with Rio a number of years ago, swearing to him that I would prioritize our relationship over anything the guy said. That if either one of us didn’t like what he was saying we’d walk away. After barely watching us warm up, without even introducing himself or asking for our names, goals, history, he says to me: ‘you have nothing. No impulsion, no nothing. You are afraid of your horse. He challenges you all the time and you do nothing about it.’ I was in total shock, and from that place of shock the lesson began.

I couldn’t think. Rio clearly wasn’t happy and instead of walking away or challenging this guy some part of me decided the only way out was to jump off this moving train. And I did just that the next time Rio bucked, I jumped off and landed not so gracefully, knocking the wind out of myself, gasping like a fish out of water while someone else caught Rio and proceeded to ride him ‘through it’. And yea, then I found myself in pain, back on Rio, on a lunge line for the rest of the lesson.

How did that happen? I completely abandoned my horse and myself to this authority figure.

Since then I’ve become quite aware of how people use shock and awe, or fear, to manipulate people. I saw it in spades in the last 5 months walking through cancer treatment with Mom. When the fear is so strong that you will die, and die quickly if you don’t take swift action it leaves no room to digest what you’ve been told, to seek a second opinion, or to explore all the options available. Before you know it you are walking a path and you might not even know how you got there.

The week after Aero gave me that scare I was hanging out with him and Gin. Feeling fear again as Mom’s symptoms continued to worsen even after pulling the plug on chemo the first of May. Numb and shell shocked I found Aero standing beside me just oozing waves of love. I felt an invitation from him, to lean on him a bit. So I did. I rested with my back nestled into his ‘armpit’ and he settled into me. Soon Gin came over and positioned herself in front of me so I was oh so gently squeezed between them. They literally held me up as I let tears flow for the first time since Mom’s diagnosis in November. It’s all happened so fast and I’ve sat with her through every single appointment and infusion in the intervening months. It’s endurance on a whole other level to walk a path with someone through all this scary stuff!

Last week we learned that Mom’s cancer has spread to the lining of her brain and into her spinal fluid. Western medicine has nothing left to offer her and of course, they stamped a very short expiration date on her before discharging her into our care.

Talk about shock.

The day after we received this devastating news Aero walked up to me, looked me in the eye and I knew – this is what he meant when he said he was sticking around for me. He knows I’ll need support and the kind of love only a horse can give.

And now, finally, our family is taking time to digest what we probably needed to take time to digest last November before ever embarking down a treatment path.

Fear. It is insidious. It can so easily rob us of our will to stand up for ourselves, our will to stop, breathe, take stock – even if just for a moment – to discover the path that is best for us, rather than the path those in authority push us onto. I’ve been numb with fear since November. Only now I find myself thawing, capable of looking at this new reality in a way that is adaptable, responsive, creative and intuitive. To see possibilities in the face of dire news is the gift inherent in all these years of practice: allow myself to feel what I feel, breathe, let the feelings wash over and through, somewhere beyond those intense feelings I can access myself and all the knowledge available to me.

Mom wants to go on a road trip. I applaud her desire to be bold in the face of death. And so we work swiftly to get all our ducks in a row to take a trip to Lake Powell and hopefully spend some days on a houseboat floating on still waters. It would be so easy to succumb to the fear, all the ‘what if’s’? But Mom wants to be bold and focus on living. Mom wants to explore her options and live as well as she can for as long as she can. As she said, ‘she has too much to do’. Who am I to let fear stand in the way of her courage! In the face of imminent death, what else is there to fear?

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Please, be bold, be courageous and don’t let anyone use fear to manipulate you. When you feel fear, pause long enough to breathe and get your bearings. It might only be a split second but that split second is often enough to get you on the right path instead of that runaway freight train.

‘A life lived in fear is a life half lived’

– From the movie Strictly Ballroom

Obviously, this one is dedicated to my Mom – and to my family who are throwing caution to the wind and finding a way to make this trip happen! Life is short. Live it well my friends.

Becoming Adaptable

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The little gelding and I walked side by side, working in hand as part of his rehabilitation from a tendon injury. I remember the feeling of excitement that bubbled up inside me as he quietly executed the movement. He wasn’t always so easy. More often he tipped toward that edge of ‘overly sensitive’ and ‘reactive’. It had taken a year of patient, consistent practice to get to this point. It felt like a huge breakthrough!

When a horse is really with you there’s nothing quite like it. I feel this sense of potential energy where the possibilities of what we might do together become infinite. That’s how it felt with this gelding, like we could move in any direction, at any speed, in any sequence I could imagine! That feeling of excitement that bubbled up inside me went to my head. I began imagining all the movements we could do from here, movements that would be so good for his body and….

In a split second my partner turned into an anticipatory mess, dancing and prancing and hyperventilating. It took a moment for me to realize what was happening. Just before I asked him to stop and collect himself I realized he was obediently trying to execute all the ideas I had formed in my mind at the same time. I had, in rapid-fire succession, imagined him going from one move to another and he was trying to comply!

In that instant I realized what a huge responsibility I have when I begin the training process. I am the self appointed leader in a partnership I chose, not the horse. One of the hallmarks of the greatest leaders in Tango is their ability to adapt to each new partner, giving their follower the best experience possible. In this moment with this gelding I realized how critical it is to acknowledge my communication was confusing rather than rush to blame the horse. It was so clear he was responding, accurately I might add, to something I wasn’t even aware I requested. This is the kind of thing that no doubt got this horse in trouble with people in the past, the reason he had come to me for his rehabilitation, his ‘behavior’ was getting him into trouble.

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”   – Abraham Maslow

I think one of the greatest challenges when coaching people to work with horses is giving them enough structure to be effective and safe, without leading them to believe there is only one way to interact with horses. It’s normal, even necessary, when we first start learning, to have some structure that helps us build a solid foundation of useful skills. Some programs take such structure to an extreme, perhaps with an eye towards marketing, certification programs and the use of specialty equipment. These are all things that make a system or approach recognizable and repeatable – effective and maybe even efficient, but not necessarily adaptable.

When I look back on my own learning curve I see how I started out within various programs or systems, then branched out and away as my own skill set expanded such that the system became a barrier instead of a benefit. It’s also normal, as our aptitude expands to need less structure to feel safe and confident, allowing our instinct and intuition to guide us when we encounter something new or unfamiliar. This is a necessary part of mastery, and part of skill development that often gets left behind when we get stuck in a system or approach. We unintentionally limit our ability to adapt to new or challenging situations.

I can easily use myself as an example.

Not every horse is as light as a feather and tuned into my every thought like this gelding was. Over the years I tended to attract horses considered overly sensitive. I learned to whisper, to refine my movements and requests so that these feather light horses could dance with me without anxiety. My personal system evolved to be soft and light. And that worked great for the horses that were feathers.

One of our very favorite Tango lessons included an exploration our instructors called ‘feather and fridge’. They explained how some people are light as feathers in how they move and others heavy, more like moving a refrigerator. The ‘leader’ has to adapt to what the ‘follower’ presents in each moment. As the designated ‘follower’ it was my job to become a feather or a fridge so Steve could practice adapting his ‘leading’ style to accommodate a partner that is light as a feather or heavy as a fridge.

I never realized I was developing a personal style in response to the kinds of horses I was ‘dancing’ with until I encountered my first horse that was a ‘fridge’ instead of a ‘feather’.

A few years ago a friend brought her gelding to board here with me. He was the polar opposite of the responsive gelding that actively responded to my thoughts. Of course, I started out whispering my requests as though he were as sensitive as these other horses I’d honed my skills with. And he is just as sensitive. He does pick up on my thoughts. It’s just that instead of becoming anticipatory when people confused him he went the opposite direction and blocked it all out as meaningless noise. He shut down and became quite unresponsive. Or so it seemed, if I assumed he should be feather light.

It took some time for me to discover how to be effective moving a ‘fridge’ of a horse. At first it didn’t feel good to me to be so overt and direct in my requests. But anything less caused him anxiety. He’d go sullen and worried in an inward way, moving with uncertainty or wiggling his lip in his version of anxiety. All he wants is clarity. It took some time to develop my own movement aptitude to discover how to present clarity without aggression. I’m not going to ‘hit’ a horse to ‘make’ them go, so I had to dig deep inside myself to discover determination and perseverance that he could respond to.

There is no way I could approach all the horses I know in the same way, with the same energy and intention. Part of our necessary skill development is learning to expand beyond technique, to be creative and confidently adapt to each horse, each situation, fluidly. To stop seeing every horse as a fridge, or every horse as a feather, to expand our tool box to include more than just a hammer!