Hoof Trimming – Victory!

Sundance got his feet trimmed last week!

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If you follow my posts about trimming feet, you know this is cause for celebration around here! More than a year ago I made the commitment not to force him to have his feet trimmed. Every time we muddled our way through to get the job done it set us back in the trust department. I suppose I could have sedated him or used treats to worm my way in but he is so dang smart. He feels tricked or betrayed easily.

This last year I made it a project to trim my own horse’s feet. It was shocking to discover the amount of worry each shared about having feet handled. As I offer them the opportunity to engage in a conversation about their feet being trimmed my awareness of the subtler aspects of communication deepens, and they feel free to share how they really feel. Understand we never did anything out of the ordinary here. No horses were abused or beaten. I work with patient, kind farriers.

And yet…

It makes sense if you think about it. Horses have a nervous system designed to prioritize coordination of movement. The ability to move is such a primal part of a horse feeling safe. And here we come along and ask them to stand quietly while we hold onto their leg. It is surprisingly difficult for an older horse, or a horse with physical issues to balance on three legs for any length of time. Every horse here falls into one of those categories. If said leg is held in a position that is uncomfortable, doubly so.

Noticing how he responds as I approach his shoulder with the intention of reaching for a front leg, Sundance used to react with a dramatic arching of his neck, a small snort as he hastily sidestepped away. I learned to recognize the feeling of anxiety, stop everything and just breathe in order to avoid his exiting stage left. Once I slowed down, working with him gently and progressively, it was so clear he simply could not hold his balance long enough to stand with a foot up.

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Sundance has been a complicated case. I know he has physical issues but he is wound so tight, so skeptical and resentful of human agenda, as to make it nearly impossible to accurately evaluate his physical challenges. If he even thinks I might try to tell him what to do he exits stage left, carting me off toward the paddock that has become his safe space. Make no mistake, this is not disobedience, this is not rude behavior, this is pain, fear, and anxiety. Every time we explored past his comfort zone and he carted me off to his safety zone I lost him, sometimes for weeks. He would refuse to come near me, especially if I had a halter. This is not about correcting bad behavior this is about helping him recover from his traumatic experiences at the hands of humans. It is about giving him a voice…

Before he came to me his previous owners tried to have his issues diagnosed. Vets could only guess what might be going on. It is really challenging to diagnose lameness in a horse when they are wound so tight. The mental emotional anxiety translates into physical tension and reactivity to being touched or handled. Add to that that horses are masters of disguise. They make it their business not to limp around like predator bait. If we act like predators there is no advantage to showing us they are lame! Sundance had to learn to trust me implicitly, to feel safe here, in order to show me his physical and emotional vulnerability.

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That trust burgeoned when I started working with his feet. As he realized I was not going to force him, or punish him, or grab that leg and hang on, he began trying to figure out how to have a conversation with me. We treated working with his legs as physical therapy. I had to find a way to ask him to lift his left front leg without causing him to lose his balance and fall to the right. He had to explore how to find his balance on his vulnerable hindquarters. Where he used to be defensive about me moving past his shoulders he began turning his butt to me, placing me in spots he felt needed attention.

Finally, he was allowing me to help him release the patterns of anxiety that kept him from opening up before. Then we had the luck of having Dr. Madalyn Ward come to visit. She confirmed my suspicions about his physical issues, releasing some of the worst scar tissue from his gelding scar she had ever encountered. I felt the same and had done what I knew how to do to release it, but it was so much more extensive than I knew how to work with. His whole nervous system shifted gears after that, all the excess tension melting from his body. He looked terrible for about a week as he figured out how to move without all that tension!

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With all the horses doing so well with their feet I decided to try a new farrier. The night before he came I approached Sundance and asked if he was game to try again. He let me pick up and clean all four feet with only a tiny bit of trepidation. I told him I thought he was ready and we would try tomorrow.

Having a new farrier come after all this work to rebuild my horse’s confidence was a bit nerve wracking. AJ proved to be well educated and kind, willing to listen to my requests about how to work with these guys. As he worked on Huey’s feet Sundance wandered over to observe. This is how Sundance has learned to cope with most of the stuff we humans do with horses. He wanders over and watches, sticks his nose in and investigates. He decides after that if he is interested in trying it himself.

When we finished with Huey I asked Sunny if he wanted to try. At first he thought about bailing out but when I asked him if he could try again he stopped, allowing me to halter him. All of the horses I work with show me that it is easier for them if I pick out all four feet first. It sets the tone of the conversation and they begin to find their balance, understanding what is coming. Sundance held his breath and only breathed a sigh of relief when he realized AJ was listening, and working with his mind and body.

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A little empathy and patience go a long way. Sundance got all four feet trimmed. Rasping can come another day. Sundance was flat shocked when he got a handful of treats from this relative stranger for doing something so simple. Those of you that know him, know he wears his heart on his sleeve. His expression of shock, such an eloquent statement that he expected to be asked for more than he could give. He expected to be punished or criticized. Instead he was rewarded, praised and thanked for his efforts. I see him letting his guard down inch by inch. This experience has him thinking. I will not let him down as we continue onward.

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AJ giving Sunny a handful of treats. He was so surprised by how little he had to do to get praise!

A big thank you to Dr. Madalyn Ward DVM and A.J. at Cochise Horseshoeing for playing their roles in our journey!

And Now for a Word

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As you can see, it is a foggy and rather soggy morning here. Fog is a fitting image for my thoughts today.

My blog has been a bit quiet lately. After a year or so of being fully committed to writing twice a week I found I ran out of words. Not ideas, just the words to describe them. As my attention shifted to teaching live workshops the horses helped me remember how crazy we humans can make ourselves, trying to meet self imposed deadlines, constantly on the run. I teach using Argentine Tango as a metaphor. Argentine Tango is an improvisational dance that is infinitely creative. A creative dance incorporates pauses, sometimes improbably long pauses…

In fact, there are Tango leaders known for not getting up to dance at a Milonga unless the song moves them. Some get up to dance but do not move until there is something in the song that moves them. For a long time I wrote twice a week as a way to develop my skill as a writer and create a discipline around writing. Now I feel like those Tangeros, waiting until I feel moved enough by something for the words to come.

Ironically, words themselves have me pondering this week. The famous dancer and choreographer, Martha Graham, said, ‘the body says what words cannot’. Horses teach us to let go of words and focus on the language of the body – gesture, emotional content, and movement. The things we convey when we interact on this level are complete, instantaneous and unmistakable, far more efficient than words.

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Sometimes I think language is a burden more than an asset to human communication and connection. We get so hung up on words. Half the time we get so involved in speaking we forget to involve our body and our senses. No wonder horses often struggle to know what we mean, our body language is not so finely tuned as it could be. We spend so little time moving in ways that express how we feel that we get self-conscious about non-verbal self-expression (now that is a mouthful!)

What do words have that body language does not? The same word can have different meanings in different cultures. The same word can mean different things to different people. People often re-define words according to personal experience until their meaning has little to do with the dictionary definition. Some words that have multiple uses get narrowed down and are only associated with one usage that carries a strong emotional charge. The body language behind the words, their context, those are the things that give them meaning. Body language, our ability to feel and sense the meaning behind the words, is universal.

The world of words is not easy to navigate. As a teacher I always run the risk of triggering an emotional response in people. As a teacher interested in getting people to make use of their senses and feel more the risk is even greater. The energy and support of a clinic group allows for things to get stirred up. I often hear it said that words have power. Yes they do. Words have the power to inspire, to intimidate, to educate, to shame, to empower, and to challenge.

Ultimately words only have the power we give them.

One of my favorite self-help programs is called The Presence Process. A book written by Michael Brown, it takes you through daily readings and exercises designed to help you navigate what you feel. What a gift to someone as sensitive as I am! Among his many gems is this one, ‘don’t shoot the messenger’. When someone says or does something that makes us feel uncomfortable, rather than lash out at the person or get upset because they triggered us, he suggests we instead thank them for bringing the uncomfortable feeling or emotion to our attention. Once we are aware we can take that uncomfortable sensation and explore it to discover its source.

Such a simple exercise and yet the act of owning how I feel, little by little, put the power back in my own hands. Words no longer have the power they once did to squash me, shame me, shut me down, embarrass me or make me feel uncomfortable. I enjoy paying attention to how I feel when I read things people write. Sometimes I like reading things that challenge my perceptions and make me feel uncomfortable. Some days I am not in the mood and I might not read those words. When I attend a workshop, and even when I teach with other people I respect, I may not agree with everything I hear. I often think I would use different words to describe the same concept. How boring would life be if we all use the same words and concepts? Life is meant to be diverse, challenging, creative and marvelous.

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My life has not been easy. Has anyone really had an easy life? When I was a kid I never felt I fit in anywhere, I still feel that way most of the time. The only thing in my life that made sense was horses, dogs and cats. But, if it had been easy I would never have found the tools I found to help myself find a way to be a healthy, balanced person capable of going out into the world and sharing my gifts. We are given adversity so we become stronger, resilient, and so that things like words no longer have the power to squash us! I still may not feel like I fit in but I am comfortable in my own skin and comfortable that my differences are what I have to offer to the world.

‘The body says what words cannot.’ Martha Graham really nailed it with that one. Horses do not rely on words. They read body language. The more we learn to convey and receive what is said with our whole body and whole heart the less chance for misinterpretation or misunderstanding. Oh, there will always be things that trigger us but take heart because this to shall pass. Revel in the diversity of ideas and experience, and thank the messengers that challenge you. Words and ideas only have power if we give it to them!

Next time you feel uncomfortable with what someone says or the words they choose, take a moment to feel deeper. See if you can use all of your senses to grasp their intentions. Words are, at best, imprecise ways to describe our experience. If we step out of our intellect and back into our bodily experience we may find we have more in common than we ever imagined.

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Have a little faith

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Dancing with someone in close embrace is a leap of faith.

We must trust each other implicitly. If I send my horse an impulse to move I trust her to receive the impulse and respond. She must be able to trust that I will not rush her, or do anything that might disrupt her balance, as she interprets, and then acts on my lead. It is a delicate balance when we are in physical contact with one another. Whether through tack or touch, physical proximity amplifies everything. Feelings, emotions, movement, all intensify when we come together in shared motion.

The invitation to move is a tiny impulse, almost imperceptible to the eye of an observer. Never a demand, we explore, seeking a common understanding that forms the basis of our conversation. When my tone and movement have enough clarity she naturally recognizes and responds instinctively to the suggestion.

Always begin as unobtrusively as possible. I want to discover how responsive my dance partner might be by whispering my suggestion. Whispering encourages her to listen more closely, be more attentive to what I might have to say. This first whispered request for movement may seemingly go unnoticed. It doesn’t matter. I release and ask again without changing anything – the same impulse, the same whisper soft suggestion.

Most likely she noticed I asked for something that she missed. She is preparing internally, making sure she notices the next time I offer something up. The second time I generate an impulse she responds instantly! Lifting her head and neck, engaging her core, but I feel no movement to follow and so I release the request. She just said – ‘I think you are asking me to do something? Am I right?’ – I answer in the affirmative by creating that impulse a third time, the exact same whisper soft impulse with no increase in pressure or volume. ‘Yes, I am asking you to move with me, you heard me correctly, let me clarify for you.’

This time when I invite her to move she lifts her head and neck, elevates her core, shifting to un-weight the foot nearest me. And then I wait. Softly holding the intention, creating the space for my equine partner to move into. I must always remember that she has four legs to coordinate to my two. She needs more time than I do to organize herself to gracefully embody my suggestions. While I wait I feel for a sense of impending movement. Is she balanced enough to take the step? Does she have enough clarity to know what I want or is she still working it out?

If I do not feel a sense of her movement expanding to fill the space I created I step back, letting her know she is on the right track, giving her a moment to reorganize herself. These incremental steps toward movement are key to establishing her trust in me. She knows I will never rush her to respond, disregarding her desire to understand what I want and figure out how to coordinate her body to carry out the request. This kind of trust allows her to relax, surrendering to my whispered suggestions so that we might dance.

Yes, I recreate my impulse a fourth time. And yes, it is exactly the same as it was the previous three times. No increase in pressure or intensity. She has already shown me she can hear my whisper. She has offered up an answering response every time and I have let her know she did hear me correctly, she is on the right track in her responses. The fourth time she lifts her head and neck, elevates her core, shifts her weight and I feel her entire body filling the space I created for her to move into. As I feel her take her step I take mine, our feet landing together, following her into a space that is now shared as we move together.

It might only be one step!

I never stop feeling for the sense of her filling the space I open for us to move into. The instant she doubts or loses her balance or hesitates I pause. I pause for as long as it takes for her to calm herself and re-center. It might be for the barest moment or it might be a full stop. And then for the fifth time I repeat that impulse. The same intensity as that first whisper, maybe even a little less, and this time she flows seamlessly into the space I created and we are dancing.

Together we create a shared dialogue. This is not about training my horse to respond to my cues. This is an honest exchange. My horse and I are having a conversation about moving together. She might tell me my whisper was too soft for her to hear. She might tell me my request or intention is too complicated for her to successfully execute. She might tell me I am making no sense at all and confusing her or throwing her off balance! As the initiator of the conversation it is my responsibility to adapt to her responses. Encouraging her that I am listening, responsive to her needs. She can do nothing wrong in my eyes. It is imperative for her confidence that she never feels she has made a mistake. This is what allows her to blossom into a creative, expressive dance partner.

Physical contact amplifies everything. Dancing in close embrace requires a leap of faith. I must believe that my horse is responsive, intuitive, intelligent and willing. It is my leap of faith in her that allows her to have faith in me.

 

The Joy and the Heartache

Fafnir Christmas Day 2013

It is impossible to live with horses and not feel profoundly. My core herd has been with me for at least 20 years, hard to believe. I love my horses like family. We don’t tend to part ways unless it is a mutual decision and they find a perfect human match. They are my best teachers. They motivate me to get out of bed every single day and keep going no matter what.

Inevitably my heart is going to get ripped out. Every few years another of the old guard passes. Every time we make that decision together and I walk through it with them, holding the lead until I am no longer allowed to, reassuring them it will be quick, breathing a sight of relief as they slump heavily to the ground, released from the burden of an aging body that no longer serves their huge Spirit. How will I survive the pain of letting another one go?

We make a habit of sitting with them until we feel sure they are gone. Say our goodbyes with tears of remembrance and appreciation. Sometimes even relief. It can be such a vigil with some. Waiting, watching, trying to get the timing right. Don’t want to wait too long but don’t want to rob them of life they still want to live. Not always an easy balance to strike.

We said goodbye to one of the good ones on Saturday during a clinic here at my place. Fafnir chose his timing well. He always did love to be loved on by a bunch of women at a clinic. No accident he spent his final days with eight amazing women at his beck and call. I have no words for the depth of gratitude to the ladies who were here with us this weekend. Everyone took it in turn to spend time with him, check in, offer him water and food. When it was clear he couldn’t recover from this there was no question, we all stopped and sat with him, kept him sheltered from the sun, giving him water, and comfort until the vet arrived.

He told the animal communicator he would sure love to stay if possible. I’ll take that as the highest of compliments. We had to negotiate about that one and I explained my feelings about his chances. He had to admit it would be nice not to be in pain anymore.

And so he went.

Of course we had another day of clinic to get through. Thoughtfully, the ladies asked if I wanted to continue. Wouldn’t it be hard for me? There was no question for me, of course we continue. One of the reasons I so appreciate having horses in my life is the lessons they teach about living life. Because, despite pain of my battered heart I have to attend to his burial and the 15 horses who still need to be fed. They are all processing Fafnir’s passing as well. He was a strong presence in the herd.

We carry on, even in the wake of such loss. We carry on.

Watching the horses I can see how they grieve like I do. They grieve in the moments when there’s space for it and then they get on with the business of living. The clinic went on yesterday and we danced Tango with horses in Fafnir’s honor, sharing our joys, our tears, and the honor we felt at being present with him as he moved on from this life. In typical fashion he had a profound impact on everyone here, as he has done for the last 20 years.

Even though I feel like my heart got ripped out I would never trade the time I had with Fafnir for anything. He brought so much humor and joy to all of those he touched, and he touched many. With great joy comes great sorrow. And life goes on.

I am happy to have known you Fafnir. I feel your presence strongly with me every time I close my eyes. I cannot wait to see what you have to teach from this new perspective you have. All of us who learned from you over the years will miss your physical presence in our lives.

Thank you to everyone who was here this weekend. You ladies are amazing!

And thank you to all the horses in my life – past, present and future.

Onward.

Enjoy your freedom old friend!

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Fafnir this summer, claiming his space, as usual.

 

 

A Trip Down Memory Lane

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

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

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

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

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

Come Along for The Ride Podcast with Tracy Malone

Thank you Tracy for the asking such great questions!

 

Partnership lessons from Gin

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

‘Like that?’

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

‘No, that’s not it.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything else is more of a dictatorship than a dialogue.

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

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

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

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

In Boulder Colorado on October 5, 6, 7

and in South Carolina 26, 27 and 28. Full

 

 

 

 

Beyond Body Language: Trimming Feet 2

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Yes, I’m talking about trimming feet again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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