The First Dance

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I had the distinct pleasure of interacting with a young mustang mare on the weekend. She is only recently adopted and has yet to form a bond with humans. Despite the trials and tribulations of her early forays into domesticated life, I find a curious young lady communicating exactly how she feels long before I reach the gate to her paddock. It doesn’t take much to learn to read a horse’s language – a little attention to detail, a willingness to be responsive to what they present, and a touch of empathy.

Horses are so exquisitely sensitive and responsive…

This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to spend time with a mustang before they have been ‘trained’. She sees us coming from a long way out and responds by moving off of her hay to create as much distance as possible between herself and us. This is such an opportunity for me to let her know that I hear her. She has already begun conversing with me and it’s critical to the success of our first dance that she knows I can hear her, and that I respond appropriately. I stop walking, lean away, turn my shoulders away, take a step away – progressively but minutely discovering which gesture makes her feel comfortable enough to go back to her hay.

Just a few steps back and she is back to eating, but warily, eyes on us. On an empathic level I feel waves of anxiety pouring off of her. I experience this as a physical sensation burning along my lower rib cage. It’s her way of letting me know how she feels. All mammals convey their emotions this way, including humans, and when we learn to feel, we gain access to our horse’s sensitivity in unimaginable ways. Why? Because now I can stand where I am and breathe until I feel her anxiety diminish, then vanish, before I take one step closer. If I didn’t feel anything from her and went ahead and approached it isn’t the end of the world, she would simply use visual body language to let me know how she feels.

You see how this is going? She is assessing me. Who is this lady? Does she see and respond to my visual cues? Check. Does she feel my emotional signals? Check. Now she knows how sensitive I am, and she has a pretty good idea how subtle she can be in her communication with me. Had I not felt her wave of anxiety and waited for a visual cue, then she would know she needs to be more visual with me.

We could sure learn a lot from horses about how to start a conversation or a dance. She made no assumptions about me. Instead, she simply started communicating how she felt while making note about how I responded. I did the same. In a sense, we started dancing the moment I got out of my car, maybe even sooner! We felt each other out so that by the time I went in the pen with her and began interacting there was a tone between us. A tone that is unique to the relationship I now have with this mare. How many times do we enter our horse’s space with our techniques, our agenda, and our assumptions? How many times do we have our ‘way’ of doing things that we apply equally to all horses regardless of whether or not it’s needed?

There is great power in taking a moment to greet each horse, each day, each moment, as the unique being they are. All that’s required of us is enough creativity and adaptability to read and respond in each moment.

Before I even open the gate into the paddock area, this mare knows I know how to read her signals. I know she has healthy, normal responses, and is interested, maybe even curious, with a healthy does of anxiety. Fair enough. How does she know what I might want from her and how I might go about getting it? I have a clean slate with her. I’ve never met her before. This is my opportunity to show her who I am, setting the stage for all of our future encounters. What I hope to show her is my good side. The person that is patient, kind, consistent, listens well, and is adaptable. The other side is the greedy one who just has to touch her, has to prove I can get the ‘job’, whatever that may be, done. The one that will take what I want from her instead of allowing her to give what she can.

Thankfully, with some force of will, I keep my grubby hands in my pockets and my ego back in the car…

I want to show her exactly who I am, how I move, how I breathe, how I feel. When she seems comfortable enough with our presence (because of course I’m not alone), we just walk to the gate into the paddock area, open it, close it and I set my water bottle on the tub near her gate. I talk to her the whole time, explaining what I’m doing and why, but I don’t focus on her, and I don’t pussy foot around. I want her to know this movement isn’t about her, soft eyes keep her in my peripheral vision so that I can make note of how she responds to our activity. She moves quickly off her hay to the back corner, but she faces us and watches warily. I love that she didn’t spook, charging for the shelter, hiding her head in a corner. She consistently shows me a sensitive, communicative demeanor. As her person says, ‘she’s very workable’. Indeed, she is.

All horses are as willing to communicate as this mare if we give them half a chance. As far as I’m concerned, a horse is a horse regardless of breed or sex. They all have the capacity to be just as sensitive as this young lady. I think mustangs have a reputation for being sharper than domestic horses simply because we aren’t used to being around horses that still have their instincts intact. Horses that have not learned to tone down their natural responsiveness to match humans that just don’t tend to listen so well. It’s our insensitivity and lack of attention to the small details of communication that teach a horse to be dull or reactive.

This little mustang is one that would quickly be labeled reactive, hair-triggered, possibly dangerous. Rather than ‘desensitize’ her by scaring her stiff, I’d hope to maintain her exquisitely delicate communicativeness, learn to work with her fine-tuned instincts rather than against them.

When I open the gate to her small paddock, I do so with the knowledge that I step into her home. This is her territory and I always want her to feel safe in her own home. Every horse needs a place they can go where they feel safe, I don’t want her paddock to be what Anna Blake often refers to as ‘the scene of the crime’. Imagine how stressful it would be to have someone come into your home and force you to do something there, to scare you there?

The first thing I do is go squat in the corner furthest from her and busy myself plucking bits of green grass that are just out of her reach. And I breathe a lot. Smiling helps. Noticing the sun shining warm on my face and the beauty of this Colorado blue sky spring day. I am no threat. I don’t need or want anything. Before long she ventures out of her corner and our dance begins in earnest. I’m thrilled when she goes back to her hay and starts to eat, but also note she’s eating frantically, a sign of stress, so I move back to another spot further away from her, reducing the pressure of my presence as much as I can. We are feeling each other out. I want to know if she can handle me being in her home without it being too stressful. When I move to a less invasive spot she calms down, turns to face me, reaching tentatively for my outstretched offering of grass.

She snatches that first mouthful of grass from my hand, clearly conveying her concern that I might try to grab hold of her or try to touch her. And so, I walk away as I carefully shove that greedy part of myself away, that part of me that so wants to touch her pretty face, her soft muzzle. Resisting the temptation is vital. I hope to prove to her that I really do listen. I will not ‘take’ anything from her. Every move I make is deliberate. There is nothing random about even one step. When I move, I pay attention to my rhythm, speed, direction, intention, making note of how she responds to my position relative to her. This is how we begin developing a shared vocabulary. She has not had great experiences with people around her head, so I try hard to avoid interacting in any direct way with her front end. I always position myself so she has the opportunity to move away, space to move into, and room to turn to face me should she choose to.

She frequently chooses to face me. Sometimes she even walks toward me. Sometimes she lets me walk towards her. My assistants kindly keep me well stocked with a handful of grass. Why not. It keeps her curious about me. After a while, she stops snatching the grass while simultaneously retreating to a safe distance, and chooses to stay. She allows her muzzle to softly brush my palm while she gently takes the blades of grass offered from an open palm. She even starts to reach across my body to see if she might partake of the grass in my other hand. Every action on my part is intentional. I want her to explore me. Sniff my arm, feel safe enough to reach across my body, and trust that I will not try to touch her! Oh boy is that hard!

In less than an hour she is readily engaged, touching my hand, letting my thumb casually stroke her muzzle as she takes the grass from hand. As she reaches across to the other hand, I softly touch her lower jaw and hang out there. I want her to get a sense that my touch is not invasive, that I won’t grab for her. Now she is hanging in my space reliably so I test the waters, carefully assessing how she feels about her face being touched. Leaning toward her, she stays. I begin thinking about touching her face and she stays, but lifts her head and turns it away. Her eye is level with mine. Her soft eye turns hard as a rock. So, I take a breath, lower the hand that was lifting and lean back without stepping out of her space. She stays, turns her head back and sighs with relief. This was probably the most important moment in this newly formed relationship. It’s why every single move I make is mindful, present, and adaptable to her response.

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The moment I leaned back and dropped my hand and she came back to face me with a soft eye again.

By the time I left her she was reliably walking when I walked, I could change my position and stop her, slow her down, and change her direction. She was turning to face me and walking up to me. And so I left her pen with a great big thank you, knowing that the best way to let her know that she did everything right is to remove myself from her personal space, her home.

The reason things went so well with this mare and I is because I did every single thing with focused intention. I made it clear to her that she could not make any mistakes. I paid attention to everything she did in response to my movements so that I could repeat the things that provoked a response in the direction that moves us forward in building mutual trust and connection. The things that will ultimately lead to other things that matter for a domesticated horse. I cannot over emphasize the importance of mindfulness while interacting with horses, all the time, but especially in our early encounters with young horses or horses of any age that are new to us. Those early encounters set the tone for all future interactions.

As Maya Angelou so aptly put it:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

The same is certainly true of our horses!

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Want to learn more about how to be a responsive human for your horse? Come join me online or in person: Andrea Datz Tango with Horses: A Slow Horsemanship Revolution

 

 

 

Expanding My Comfort Zone

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Sundance used to have a very small comfort zone!

It takes time to progress in skills and aptitude.

Sometimes I think we hold ourselves to standards that are so high we get discouraged or feel a failure. Maybe we start out trying something new that’s simply more than we are physically or mentally/emotionally able to do right now. That doesn’t mean we can never do it, but it might mean we need to break it down into smaller chunks, design a logical progression that develops our aptitude over time. Sometimes it seems easier to give up then try to find the time in already packed full lives to develop a new skill. But I think that feeling stems from this quick fix, over achiever, perfectionist that lives in so many of us – at least I know she lives in me! She wants immediate gratification and short-term commitments. It takes dedication to develop a new skill in 5-minute increments on a daily or weekly basis.

I am learning. The smallest progress is still progress. And any progress is better than stagnation!

Developing my personal physical, emotional and spiritual adaptability is a life long journey. Skillful, efficient movement, for example, is refined through careful progression. Never has this been clearer to me than the last few weeks as my body releases holding patterns, some of which go back more than twenty years. Steadily expanding beyond my comfort zone to include types and patterns of movement that challenge my limits shows me where my weaknesses lie while building my strength. This kind of slow, progressive work requires focus, determination and patience. It demands enough mental and emotional discipline to keep listening to my body, to stay present, even when unraveling a pattern means I am in pain.

Releasing holding patterns and uncovering pain is scary. It’s easy to panic and retreat to my comfort zone, back to masking the pain. But on a deeper level I know that the pain is simply letting me know I never truly recovered from that old injury. Being in tune with my body allows me to accurately discern if the pain is an injury I need to attend to, or something I can carefully train through to re-build functional movement in a previously injured area. There is no rushing this process. Changing old patterns and building new ones takes an enormous amount of energy. I am learning to rest when I need to, sleep when I need to. I am finding balance that allows my body to finally heal while simultaneously becoming a fully capable human being. All the while just inserting small bits of movement practice into my daily life.

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The Kolb brothers setting up a photograph while exploring the Grand Canyon.

Have you ever really looked at what humans are capable of? We are movement generalists, not specialists, meaning we can walk, run, crawl, climb, swing, roll, balance, dance….. Our movement possibilities are pretty much limited by our imagination. How much of that innate capacity do we make use of in our modern world? As I explore these evolutionary movement possibilities, I find so many parts of my body I never really used as nature intended. My personal movement aptitude, hence my adaptability and capacity to thrive no matter what life throws at me is also limited. It makes it easy to find a comfort zone and stay there for fear of hurting myself if I venture outside those carefully constructed limits. Paradoxically, by not making full use of my body I am/have been prone to injury from misuse, overuse or compensation. The more I engage all of myself and stretch gently outside my range of comfortable movement, the stronger I become.

But more importantly, the more capable, focused, determined, confident and adaptable. I believe in myself more than ever. I feel completely capable of handling any situation I might find myself in because I know exactly what my body and mind can do, and equally important what I cannot do. As I tap into my own ‘stuff’ I see how my movement patterns impacted my confidence over the years. How those patterns played into the injuries I’ve experienced and the challenges I’ve faced in working with horses. I am beginning to see how not feeling physically capable and adaptable impacted my mental/emotional state. It’s hard to feel confident when you know you have a limited range of ability to respond to things that happen in life, let alone around horses.

Learning to dance is the first time I consciously pushed far outside my comfort zone. It was also the first time I felt a significant shift in my confidence around the horses. Learning to follow someone’s lead, to adapt to the leading style of many different partners, created new neural pathways that showed up with my horses as the ability to seamlessly flow with them no matter what they did.

The first time I became aware of how easily I could flow with a horse I was riding a client’s horse in an indoor arena. We had paused to rest, standing next to the owner on her other horse, you know, hanging out on a loose rein, totally relaxed. In that moment, a herd of cows rushed past such that my horse could just see the movement through the high windows along the long side of the arena. His response was instantaneous. He flew into a 180-degree turn, ready to bolt away from the terrifying cows! Normally this kind of maneuver would have knocked me at least partially loose from the saddle, and I would have grabbed those reins, hauling on his face to stop him. This time, my body instinctively flowed with him. I kept both stirrups, gathered the reins quietly while in motion and steadied him with ease. I remember feeling both stunned and thrilled by the fact my dancing had such a literal translation and benefit in my riding!

About a year and a half ago I stretched that comfort zone again by starting weekly lessons at a local Parkour gym. Here we really started to learn in earnest about these evolutionary movements: jumping, rolling, balancing, climbing. So many things seemed out of reach at the time, but consistent practice, even only once a week for an hour, and within a year I was doing some of those things that were previously ‘out of reach’.

The last few years I stopped riding my horses. I knew there were things in me that were interfering with my ability to communicate clearly and effectively with them. I knew I had a lot of fear about riding. I wanted to figure that out, to find my own path in horsemanship that I could feel good about before I got back on a horse. When I finally did decide to get on a few weeks ago, I found myself able to jump on bareback with more stability and control than I’ve ever had in my life. I rode with more confidence and ease than I ever have.

I am blown away by how much focus, mindfulness and determination it takes for me to move my own body, by myself, over an obstacle. Even a simple one. This process of learning how to move myself through the world with confidence and ease has woken me up to the importance of having this kind of fine motor control, adaptability, mental and emotional control of myself before I even attempt to build a movement-based relationship with a horse. I cannot wait to see how much better riding feels when my body is finished unraveling this current piece of old ‘stuff’. When I feel genuinely strong and balanced, I have no doubt that will translate to my horses.

So much happens in the connection and communication between horse and human. If it takes this much time and focused energy for me to build my own aptitude to move by myself, imagine how much more complexity we add when we endeavor to move in harmony with a horse? It’s a life long journey building that kind of skill. Remember that as you go out to do things with your horses. It’s one thing for them to move themselves around at liberty. It’s several orders of magnitude of added complexity to ask them to move with us attached to them or on their backs. If you find yourself struggling, or your horse getting flustered, remember to break things down. See if you can discover the source of the difficulty. More often than not there is something going on with both you and your horse that needs unraveled so you can progress together. Take the time it takes to unravel yourself, unravel your horse, and keep revisiting those challenging movements until they become easy.

Then don’t rest on your laurels. Find a new challenge that opens you both to another level of movement possibilities. Progressively build your mutual competence, confidence and joy in moving to your evolutionary limits!

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A steadily expanding comfort zone is a beautiful thing!

 

Movement and The Myth of Aging

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I was 49 years old and Steve and I were standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon overlooking the Bright Angel Trail head. It was Steve’s first time seeing the Grand and I hadn’t been here since I was a child. The trailhead sign is covered with cautions about the risks of hiking this particular trail. The bulk of the warnings run along the lines of: it’s long, it’s hot, it’s steep and people die down there – know your limitations and come prepared. Having spent the last year or so plagued by plantar fasciitis in my right foot, something going on with the toes in my left foot, and my knees giving out going up hill from time to time, I looked at that trail and realized it was out of my reach. With a pang of deep regret, I realized I had missed my opportunity. I was too physically damaged to ever hike the Grand Canyon.

On the cusp of my 50th birthday, it was the first time in my life I felt my ‘age’, and that I might be getting ‘too old’ to do certain things, a creeping decrease in confidence and my sense of being ‘capable’.

When we got home I was scrolling through Facebook and came upon a news item that for some reason, grabbed my attention. It was about senior citizens in Great Britain doing Parkour (here’s the video). Feeling a bit senior myself I decided to watch the news clip, with no clue what parkour even was. What I found was a story about elderly folks going out into city parks and creating opportunities to move inspired by the environment. Practicing balance on curbs, using benches like vaults they would sit on and swing their legs over, walking sideways to get through tight spaces and climbing up jungle gyms. I had never seen anything like it but I was intrigued enough to go look up Parkour and find out what it is.

The rest, as they say, is history. I discovered we have a Parkour gym here in town, rallied Steve, and we started going once a week. We’ve been at it for about a year and a half now. And you know, I’m starting to think I might be strong enough one day to do that trail in the Grand Canyon! I’ve a ways to go yet, but I can see things beginning to shift. There is something immensely empowering about tackling these tasks I’ve never done before. We are not doing backflips off of buildings, we learn fundamental skills that are innate to humans: crawling, rolling, balancing, jumping, hanging, swinging and climbing. Skills that get you fit in a real world sense, that make it possible to navigate and adapt to any environment you might find yourself in. The boost to my confidence is crazy as I realize how capable my body is.

This year I’ve committed to expand my knowledge of ‘natural movement’ even further, training to go to a certification for teaching people over 50 in November with MovNat. I look forward to sharing what I learn and adapting my repertoire to include the range of movements and strength specific to working around horses.

I have let go of the myth of aging, that I will inevitably break down and lose physical aptitude as I age. I can do things now I never could have done a year ago, let alone in my 20’s, and now that I’m incorporating these evolutionary movements into my daily life my body is literally getting stronger every day!

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What I learn about my own body and mind is intensely fascinating, and of course it’s got my wheels turning about how all this relates to the horses. Let me share my most recent experience…

Bodies adapt to the movement they get exposed to. Muscles, bones, posture, and movement patterns all shape themselves to support the dominant activities. If we decide to expand our range to include new movement possibilities, we quickly discover just how adapted our body really is to this particular set of activities we engage in day in and day out.

Unfortunately, in this modern and domesticated world movement tends to quickly be specialized according to the ‘jobs’ we do. And movement is constrained or limited by the limited space and demands of domestication. Free roaming humans and horses had to move to survive. They had to be adaptable, moving through a wide variety of terrain in search of food, water, shelter, to escape predators, hunt and so forth. This wild life encourages the use of a full range of species-specific movements that we just no longer explore. Movement, it turns out, is just as important for our overall health and wellbeing as food, air, water and shelter.

So what happens when our bodies adapt to these limited ranges of movement possibilities? Specialized movements that might overuse or stress certain body parts while not using others at all?

Back in my days as an equine body worker I saw a lot of horses that were ‘slightly off’. Not lame enough so a vet could pinpoint the cause, but lame enough that the rider or trainer could sense something wasn’t right. Horses, and I think humans too, are physiologically hard wired to mask pain. By that I mean that the body adapts and compensates for weaknesses or injuries, working to stabilize the ‘weak’ area. The result is a functional sort of movement that allows us to appear ‘sound’ enough that we can still do the things we need to do with minimal discomfort, and in the case of a horse, not become the ideal target for a hungry predator. I always warned people when I worked with these ‘slightly off’ horses, that it was highly possible I might release their compensation patterns, and they could show up quite lame as a result. On the up side that allowed the vet to accurately and easily diagnose the source of lameness, and appropriate management could be planned.

 

 

I never really thought about what the release of compensation patterns means from the horse’s point of view until I experienced it myself last week! The problem with these adaptations our bodies go through to stay functional enough to keep working, is that the compensations put additional stress and strain on a whole host of other parts. If you work around horses you are probably like me, lots of injuries over the years – some large, some small, and you probably powered through a lot of them because that’s what horse people do! Practically speaking, releasing compensation patterns means, in a sense, destabilizing that old injured area and making it painful again.

Here’s what I mean:

I’ve had more than a few injuries to my hips, pelvis and tailbone over the years, and a few good blows to my mid back. Neither of those areas has bothered me much in the last few years, but my shoulders, neck, knees and feet have begun accumulating issues. As I pursue the new movement possibilities available in Parkour I realized my shoulders and neck are not at all adapted to supporting weight – I cannot swing or hang and I struggle with any weight bearing movements (crawling, climbing, pulling myself up onto something). When I engage in these activities I can be sore for days and often end up waking up in the middle of the night with a headache.

So why not just avoid those movements that cause discomfort? Well, because I have had increasing issues with my rotator cuffs over the years. You might say I’ve been ‘slightly off’ and we know that if we ignore ‘slightly off’ in our horses it’s likely to turn into something bigger down the road! It’s worth discovering why I can’t do these movements, why my shoulder joints seem to be a weak point for me.

Last week I spoke to an expert in human biomechanics. She identified the source of the problems with my shoulders and neck, worked to release the areas that were limiting my use, and gave me things to do to increase my awareness and strength appropriately. My neck and shoulders felt fantastic! In just a week I can see my strength and function developing in positive ways! But… her work also released a very well established compensation pattern. The muscles on the right side of my ribs had shortened and tightened in an effort to stabilize my weak left hip. I went looking at the anatomy when the day after my shoulders and rib cage got released my left hip was screaming at me. No big surprise that there is a fascial connection from the right rib area to the left lateral hip area… No wonder my right side had felt tight and short for all these years!

As my shoulders and arms began working correctly, my mid back started screaming. It hurt so bad the morning after Parkour last week that I could barely breathe. I recognized the pain in both my hip and my back as familiar old injuries. Injuries I thought had healed or resolved, but really my body had just cleverly adapted so that those areas were stable enough for me to work relatively pain free. Why not just keep the compensation patterns and continue on then? Because the compensation patterns were creating subtle misalignments, patterns of tension and strain that made it impossible to use my shoulders effectively – straining my shoulder joints and causing damages to my rotator cuffs. The same patterns of stress and strain were impacting my knees, ankles and feet. Over time I would continue to break down from the excessive wear and tear.

I used to think I just would never be able to get really strong and fit. Every time I tried over the years I seemed to ‘throw my back out’, injure my rotator cuffs or dislocate a kneecap. Now I understand how my body compensates and I understand how to build strength that is functional in a real world, adaptable sense. I also understand what it means to release compensation patterns! You can bet I have a whole lot more compassion for my horses as we work through expanding their range of movement possibilities. For a horse that tries so hard not to be vulnerable enough to attract a predator it must be just terrifying to lose those patterns that make them appear only ‘slightly off’ versus limping. Never mind figuring out how to build strength that allows the old injuries to fully heal without creating a new compensation pattern! But it’s worth the effort!

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It can be a challenge to find opportunities for expanding our movement repertoire in our domesticated world. Get creative. Find ways to move more, move better, and move through all the possibilities you are designed for. The benefits are immense! And while you’re at it be equally creative with your horses! Here’s to not only aging gracefully, but aging with strength, courage and the self confidence that comes from being physically capable in real world ways! Bright Angel Trail – I’m coming for you. Maybe not this year, but you no longer seem out of reach!

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If you’d like to join me on this journey please check out my online class or come join me for a movement-based retreat at my place! Don’t see dates that work for you? No problem, get a few friends together and plan a customized group retreat, or contact me about one on one time when it works for you!

2019 Spring workshop schedule

Online Class

 

 

Finding our Voices

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Giving my horses a voice is a basic necessity in our interactions. How else can they show me how they feel? How else can they let me know if my communication is clear? How else can they let me know if they are not feeling well, or in pain? Giving them a voice does not mean I stand back and wait for them to make all the decisions. It does not mean I see myself as less than, having nothing of value to offer. I have a voice too, and in a balanced relationship we converse.

Horses, on a very fundamental level, seek harmony and balance. Working with their nature results in a co-creative process. Nature is filled with examples of these co-creative, mutually beneficial arrangements. Walking a path towards harmonious coexistence with my horses requires waking up to the impact I have – whether I become a contributor to the co-creative process, or simply take what I want without consideration for the consequences.

I haven’t always felt good about how I worked with horses. In trying to implement what I think other people, whom I respect more than myself might do, I lost my own voice, went against my own nature. Working against nature, whether our own or our horses, creates resistance. Everything feels harder than it should be. There is no sense of flow or ease. It takes a lot of time for me to build a relationship with a horse that I can feel really good about because I am still trying to find my own voice. Perhaps this is part of the reason I feel so strongly about ensuring my horses have their voice, because I have struggled to find mine, and I know how it feels to remain silent, for fear of being misunderstood or criticized.

I didn’t realize how hard it is for me to confidently express myself until I started taking voice lessons a few years ago. I was literally terrified to sing. Give me a dangerous horse any day! I can stand in the face of a charging horse far more easily than I can sing out loud in front of someone! Seriously, I had to stare at the wall or look out the window to sing in front of my instructor… Dancing has a similar effect on me. Self-expression through voice and movement are terrifyingly vulnerable things for me. Knowing my own vulnerability gives me even more compassion for the horses as ask them to entrust themselves to me as we move together.

It’s only as I find my own voice as a human being that I see my horsemanship reflecting the newfound sense of peace I feel on the inside showing up in how I express myself on the outside. As I worked to find my true nature I used my interactions with the horses as a testing ground. By allowing them to share how they feel about my requests, my horses became my best teachers as to when I was working with nature (both theirs and my own) and when I was fighting it. In the process my horses found their voices and became the most beautifully clear communicators!

Working with nature is an actively co-creative process that requires I wake up. I am learning to expand my awareness to include the nuances of communication that come from all around me all the time. My own body guides my actions, the earth, the seasons, the weather, the consciousness of the horses I choose to interact with. Absolutely everything is connected and the more I choose to be part of the whole that is nature, the more everything flows and comes into balance.

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I rode Kastani, for the first time in many years, a few days ago. Only a few minutes bareback, but the feeling of connection is indescribable. Kastani also found his voice in these interactions. He went from being a rather sullen and withdrawn horse to a shiny, vital, sparkly guy with so much spunk and personality! This is what I have always wanted for my interactions with horses, for the process of our working together to make both myself and my horse glow with confidence, reveling in the sheer joy of moving our bodies to their fullest potential!

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Be True to Yourself

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My greatest challenge as a horsewoman is finding my own voice. It is there, but it still struggles to be the dominant voice amid the wisdom of my mentors. Good teachers are a blessing, and I am blessed to have had some of the best. They are good people to want to emulate, talented horsemen and women all.

I’ll never forget going to a symposium featuring Mark Rashid, Harry Whitney, Deb Bennett and Dave Siemens. Mark and Harry did several demonstrations together. Watching them side-by-side made it abundantly clear they had quite different approaches to horsemanship. Two clearly effective methods, distinct to each gentleman, a succinct demonstration of the personal development of horsemanship as a product of life experience. Their message hit home. I will never work with horses exactly like them because I will never share the life experiences and perspectives that shaped their style of horsemanship.

There is so much wisdom to be found from those who walk the path longer than I have. I believe in the importance of passing wisdom from generation to generation. My mentors shared their personal ways with me. The technical skills and philosophy they learned from their mentors, and those that came before. The sharing of their knowledge set me on a solid foundation. Their guidance helped me stay safe, and be a reasonably effective horsewoman in my own right, while I began the slow process of finding my unique voice.

By virtue of where I lived, my exposure as a young adult was primarily the newly popular Natural Horsemanship world. I had Gin as my primary horse dance partner and she was having none of it. In fact, none of the horses I ended up with in my younger days thought much of natural horsemanship, which put me in a bit of a quandary about who to learn from! I don’t recall how I heard about them, but I ended up auditing Mark Rashid and Kim Walnes in the same month. The rest is history, as they say. I hosted clinics twice a year with each of them so that I could learn an approach to horse training that seemed acceptable to my horse.

Kim and Mark were both so different in their approach, while still compatible philosophically and technically. The things I learned from them still form the basic framework of my understanding of working with horses. Each person I learned from over the years provided essential bits of new information, validation of things I was discovering on my own, and a deeper understanding of why what I was exploring at the time was working, or not. Mentors and coaches help us learn basic, sound skills, and help us refine, but they cannot define who we are.

The horses that came into my life shaped my path more than anyone. I’ll never forget when I finally took Kim’s advice and called an animal communicator to talk to Gin. She was incredibly challenging to work with and had no interest in connecting with me on the level I so desired. Theresa told me that it took three days for Gin to acknowledge her presence, and in the end, the only reason she agreed to talk with her was because the idea of talking to a human who wasn’t physically there intrigued her.

She told Theresa that she just didn’t think much of humans. When Theresa asked her ‘what about Andrea?’ Her response was ‘she’s better than most, but she’s still a human.’ Theresa did her best to explain to Gin that I wanted something different for us than what we tended to see in the horse human relationships we were exposed to at the time. Gin asked that I please let her know, or show her examples of the kind of relationship I wanted. From then on, every time we encountered other people and horses doing things together Gin would stop, look at me, look at them, with her best ‘is this what you are wanting for us?’ look on her face. Each and every time I had to say ‘no, that’s not what I mean’. And each time she would sigh with what seemed like relief.

I never did see an example of what I hoped was possible…

Gin is 29 years old this spring. We first talked to Theresa when she was maybe 6 or 7. We found ways to work reasonably well together over the years but it took me this twenty plus years to discover the level of sensitivity and tact Gin sought all along. Only now can I genuinely show her what I want from my relationship with horses. She shaped me more than any mentor I could ever have because she is the one who was there every single day asking me to dig deeper!

This journey to find my voice, guided by the horses, is a long game, a lifetime journey.

A host of other horses came along over the years, each sensitive in their own ways. Somehow I always managed to attract the horses for whom all these other methods just didn’t work. I remember, during a lesson with Mark one time, saying that what I really wanted was a 50:50 partnership with my horses. At the time I had to settle for 60:40 because there was no model for a way of interacting with horses where the human wasn’t in the dominant role, no matter how tactfully.

It’s not easy to step outside the box and find my own voice when there is no model for what I have in mind. In the last five years I found a way to access the kind of collaborative, co-creative relationship with horses I always felt was possible. First I had to discover who I am. I had to uncover my own talents, my particular way of seeing things based on my life experience with horses. What have I learned from this quarter century with horses? I finally understand what Mark and Harry meant all those years ago. My personal style with horses is a product of the things I’ve done, the people I’ve learned from, but now, most importantly, the horses I’ve had the privilege to spend time with.

What I know is that the horses respond to honesty and heart. Paradoxically, I had to step away from horses to find myself. Who am I as a human being, not as a horsewoman? I had to learn to stand in my own sovereignty and find my personal identity before I could show up for the horses without falling into mimicking what I learned over the years. How do I see things? How do I move through the world? What are my strengths and weaknesses as a human being? What is my inherent value, and what do I have to offer that is mine and mine alone? As I enter my 51st year on this planet I stride confidently into uncharted territory as I forge my own path with horses. And yea, it is possible to have a 50:50 partnership, a co-created, collaborative relationship with a horse.

Gin, in her typically quiet way, lets me know she is pleased. And that is all that matters.

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If you’d like to learn more about my lifelong journey of ‘slow horsemanship’ come join our online community of fellow travelers or attend a live workshop: andreadatz.com

 

 

 

 

Nutrition

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We had a mini workshop at my place over the weekend. I was asked to talk about horse nutrition, which is such a personal and often charged topic, so I decided to talk about it from the perspective of observation. Let’s learn to look at our horses and respond to their needs rather than assume there is a cookbook recipe for horse nutrition that fits every horse. I’ve been managing anywhere from twelve to forty horses professionally for more than twenty-five years, from young to elderly, performance horses to retired companions. Horses are as individual in what makes them thrive as humans!

Hence my trepidation about talking about nutrition!

At this point I’m pretty intuitive about how I feed. I watch their weight, of course, but there are so many other things that are more important to consider. Unusual fatty deposits, swollen sheaths, fluid retention, coat quality, hoof quality, muscle development, behavior… All of these things and more inform me about a horse’s overall health. Anyone that feeds their own horse can benefit from understanding the components of a balanced diet for horses, and then do a little research on what feeds are readily available in their area. Learn the properties of those feeds and then you know what to add or subtract to meet your horse’s current needs. I find horses change quite remarkably on different feeds so it’s easy enough to fine tune and discover what works for them.

Nutrition encompasses far more than what a horse eats though. I recently began following the teachings of Katy Bowman’s Nutritious Movement. She’s really onto something when she talks about how much we focus on nutrition from the standpoint of what we eat, but rarely from the standpoint of movement. Frequent, varied movement is a key component to living a healthy life. We rarely consider that factor in our horse’s nutrient profile. We can feed the highest quality, perfectly balanced diet and if our horse doesn’t have enough opportunity to move they are not going to thrive. Movement is so important to horses, and critical to the healthy function of their digestive system. I see this in my horses all the time, the moment I start doing more with them their coats gleam, their weight optimizes and everything falls into place without changing a thing about what they eat.

The group of students this weekend was here to talk about mustangs. If you think about it, mustangs are always on the move. They walk and browse on whatever they can find. Likely they end up consuming a wide variety of foods and have the opportunity to choose the foods that they need. Nature provides a remarkable array of plants, each with their own nutrient profile, many with medicinal properties. Horses in the wild listen to their body’s needs and eat the available plants with the properties that support their needs in the moment.

Coming into domestication horses not only lose access to the variety of foods they had in the wild, but they also lose the ability to move, to travel, and to find the things they need. Mustangs are interesting. Their metabolism is geared toward this nomadic lifestyle, their digestive system making efficient use of the very basic foods available to them. The better we can mimic that natural diet when they come into domestication the better it is for them. And if we can do that for our domestic horses it’s helpful for them as well. They have not evolved so far from their wild counterparts…

Modern humans have lived a domesticated life for quite some time. Most of us are pretty out of touch with what we eat and how it makes us feel. Our tendency is to gravitate to foods of convenience. Food production as an industry focuses on the production of quantity, as inexpensively as possible, food that travels well, and has a long shelf life. As I pay more attention to what I feed myself, I discover just how pervasive and complicated this focus on convenience and mass production makes it to find simple, clean, vital, ethically produced food!

In terms of horse feed we look for clean, consistent products, free of weeds and other things we might deem undesirable. In our quest for the perfect hay, the perfect grain, we inadvertently encourage hay producers to spray those weeds. Many hay fields consist of limited varieties of grasses or mono-culture crops that require fertilization, to keep the crop productive each year. I see it play out across the street from my house. There are no animals on the pasture, it’s cultivated, chemically sprayed, and irrigated. Without animals grazing the land, poking holes in the ground, adding manure back into the soil, it’s the only way to keep the production high. But at what cost?

Nutrition is a complex subject. Everything is connected. Stressed, depleted soil produces stressed, depleted crops. Stressed animals that don’t get to move as much as they should don’t thrive, no matter what we feed them. Our horses, just like us, suffer from what Katy Bowman aptly refers to as ‘diseases of domestication’. Thankfully, there is a growing movement in food production toward sustainable farming methods and the production of vital foods. In the meantime I find the closer I can keep my management practices to nature the better my horses do. It’s easy to get caught up in one aspect of nutrition, try to remember the bigger picture, how everything is connected.

Every Moment Matters

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There is something comforting about the warm, dusty smell of horses in the springtime. Sneezing as I try to find a way to wipe the loose hair off my face without adding more instead – what part of my sleeve is less hairy than my face? Why is there always a breeze when it’s shedding season? Treasured moments with the horses at feeding time, the only time I have during the chaos of getting the farm ready for the coming of spring.

The horses haven’t seen much of me outside of feeding this year. It was a wild winter and we all just focused on the business of getting through it. Now they look at me with skepticism when I show up wanting to do something more. Loop of rope in hand, no one jumps to volunteer. I don’t take it personally. Life in the herd goes on with or without me. I know it takes a few days of interaction for them to include me as part of their lives again, to remind them that sometimes I have good ideas that enrich their lives as much as time with them enriches mine.

Kastani stands there, stoic as ever, head high and braced for impact. At least he isn’t leaving. He’s been trying to tell me something for about a year now. I haven’t figured it out all the way, but I think there’s something bothering him in his neck and shoulders. Assuring him that I only want to help him get rid of some of that winter coat he lets me put the loop of rope around his neck.

I like to show up with something like a rope or halter and put it on them. Most of the time the rope ends up tossed over their neck. All the horses here have history. They were required to be obedient to aids and when they see a halter or a rope the subtle, visceral reactions are palpable. I hope to pile on so many positive experiences with a rope around that they eventually outweigh the times where that piece of equipment took away their voice and their sense of choice.

With held breath Kastani is guarded at best. Curry mitts go gently to work removing a first layer of spring shedding hair, feeling for tight muscles and sore spots along the way. Observation is key. Noticing when he cocks a foot and takes a breath, when he tenses, when he blinks. What do I feel beneath my hands? What do I feel in my heart as I make this first connection with his body?

Hands are drawn to a tight spot here, another there. Moving with all the grace and peace I can muster softly pull through his tail, encouraging his spine to release all that anticipatory tension. And he lets go, head finally dropping out of that ‘on guard’ state, relaxing into the sensations of circulation coming to those winter tight muscles and joints. A few precious moments of awareness of tension in his shoulders and neck.

Moments of release here, moments there, and now he wants to move as Huey takes note that something interesting is happening over there. Rope around Huey’s neck now, a different horse, different history. Every muscle tight as a drum so we curry in a way that might stimulate those muscles, bring circulation to the area, warm him up so we can move together. He follows me all over the paddock, but stiffly. We know what we need to work on this spring! His body pulls me to touch his low back, his belly, to breathe and relax, as he follows suit and lets go.

Now Peppy is hanging out looking for attention and Huey is deeply processing so, rope around Peppy’s neck now. Peppy is all about expressing his opinions! The rope is tolerated but it’s clear that all he cares about right now is the grooming. Dark bay, he has the most luxurious coat of three-inch long, silky hair. It sheds out in great swaths, neck first, then shoulders, body last, leaving his neck and shoulders slick but for a few straggly hairs that stick out like old man whiskers.

To my great surprise, Peppy steps into synch with me when I offer a suggestion that we move together. Flowing along smoothly as I step laterally, no need to train him to move or respond, he already knows how. It’s only half a dozen strides before he stops, looking at me with as much surprise as I feel. How did that happen? What did we just do? When he stops he’s deep in thought, as though his body is tracking what it felt like to move that way. He allows me to do some gentle bodywork before I let him go. Time to finish feeding.

The herd has been cooped up for a day or two while the pasture dried out from the last big rain. When I open the gate they race for the grass with delight. And I marvel at the changes in how they each move. Kastani, who usually doesn’t expend much energy, is demonstrating the most beautiful floating trot in large swoopy arcs. Huey leaps and twists, sitting on his haunches and spinning away to leap and run again. Just a few minutes of bodywork, a few minutes of intentional movement and this is how much they change? It’s miraculous really. This is what it’s all about for me – knowing the time I spend with my horses improves the quality of their life, even if it’s just a few stolen moments here and there at feeding time.

andrea-8463These are the moments that build our relationship and lay the foundation for things to come.

 

 

 

If you are curious to learn more from Andrea and the herd this year, check out the workshop schedule here: www.andreadatz.com