The Gift of a Ride

Kastani Christmas ride 90's

Kastani and I about 18 years ago.  I know, no helmet.  It was a long time ago.  I wear one now.  Kastani was the first horse I ever started.  Dad got into Polish Arabians when I was in my early 20’s.  Kastani, his Mom (Trabina) and half-brother (Dillenger) have been treasured members of our family.  Kastani moved on to a home where he could go on long trail rides (which he loved!) for about 8 years.  He came back to my place a few years ago (in his early 20’s now)  and we’ve enjoyed getting re-acquainted with one another.

Seat settles onto bare back, feeling muscles shift and tense beneath me as they adapt to carrying this unaccustomed weight. His head and neck pop up, his way of asking questions: “what do you want?” “Are you going to make me do something?” “Do I have a choice?” Breathing in response to his question. Pausing. The muscles beneath my seat soften.

Makeshift cotton reins connect spine to spine. Hands feel everything through that cotton rope: his emotions, his balance and his willingness to connect in kind. At first he’s one big brace. It’s been three years since he carried the weight of a human on his back. Sitting over his center of gravity I have a great deal of influence over his balance and he knows it. Bareback in a soft, flexible halter, I still have so much control. He’s afraid he’ll have no voice: “is this a conversation or a dictatorship?”

There is a balance point up here on this broad, flat, wide sprung barrel. This human body hasn’t been on a horse bareback in many years. This human body feels his tension and has to work not to match it. Work to find the point of equilibrium, the sweet spot where we two can move as one. Where my weight does not disrupt his balance.

Timeless moments before a single step is taken. Time means nothing in the face of mutual trust, the spine-to-spine communion that encompasses what it means to ride a horse honorably. But not too long, it’s hard work to stand still with human weight centered over the thoracic sling. Millions of tiny soft tissue connections firing to keep the trunk lifted between the shoulder blades. Movement is easier, even if it is tentative.

He has asked his questions, he’s awaiting my answer. Balance point found, feel what it feels like to walk. Legs wrap softly around his barrel as body creates the forward intention that would set me walking had I been on the ground. I know him well enough after long months of exploring our version of a conversation. His head pops up – back hollows and tightens beneath my seat. He’s asking questions: “Did you say something?” “I think you said something?” Breathing and maintaining the forward intention is the affirmative answer to his question and so he walks.

Balance is as shaky for me as it is for him. We both wobble as he steps forward. He feels me behind his motion and hesitates – head pops up again: “You okay up there?” “I can stop if you’re not”. Breathing, finding my center, catching up with his motion, I answer his question. “Yes, I’m okay up here, I appreciate you asking.” Tense and tentative we explore each other’s balance in motion, finding ourselves and finding each other. The sweet spot with just enough tone, just enough connection through those soft cotton reins to feel each other move.

Not only does this human sit over his center of gravity, I sit over his heart. He feels everything: my thoughts, emotions, how I feel about him, how I feel about myself. Touch, the physical connection of body to body intensifies everything. He’s tense as he feels excitement vibrate through this human body that sits astride his back. “You’re making me nervous up there.”

Touch, physical contact, magnifies everything. I feel his heart beat through my seat, the tension and the questions. Instinctively my body wants to match him, just as his body is matching mine. My heart beat, my emotions, want to synch up with him, just as his sync up with mine. My body hums with excitement. It’s been a long time since I sat astride a horse! But he’s asking questions and it’s my turn to answer. Breathe. Let go of the humming vibration of excitement and settle. It’s easier for him to hear me when I’m calm, easier for him to carry a peaceful body and mind.

This conversation through shared movement is subtle stuff. This first ride is all about finding our mutual balance point: physically, mentally and emotionally.

“Can you feel my body shift gears from walking to stopping?”

His head pops up:

“Did you say something?”

“I think you might have said something?”

“Did you want me to stop?”

Exhaling, my body says – “yes” as he settles into halt.

Even in stillness the conversation continues. “Can you feel how tight your back is?”

“Let me show you.” My seat tenses, then slowly releases, bringing his awareness to the tension in the muscles either side of his spine. He answers affirmatively by softening his back and lowering his head, breathing.

“Can you feel my intention shift to walking?”

Head pops up and back tones – but less this time.

“Did you say something?”

“I think you want me to walk?”

“Is this what you asked for?” – as he walks off with slightly more confidence. “YES!” Body responds by creating even more space for him to walk freely. We are coming into sync with one another.

He knows how much of himself he’s willing to surrender to the human on his back. He makes choices about how much he’s willing to let go and allow himself to be guided. She has to prove to him that she won’t stop listening – that she won’t hurt him, and that she won’t scare or intimidate him. Only once she’s proven herself will he let go and give her access to his spine and his heart.

Kastani dozing in Rifle

Kastani dreaming in the pasture in Rifle about 15 years ago.

This conversation will continue over many rides as we learn to trust each other again. Assuming I don’t betray his trust he’ll continue to relinquish control of his body a little bit at a time. Allowing me to access his spine and his heart so we can move as one. It’s a gift he gives me – I cannot make him offer up his back to me. He’ll lift me up, arch his neck and shift his center of gravity so that we can dance together when he’s ready.

It’s easy enough to wait for such a treasured gift.

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Kastani and I this summer.

2018 Online Classes:  Communication through Movement

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Beyond Body Language: Having a Conversation

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This is one of my favorite images of Gin and I.  What a cool moment to capture.  If you look closely you’ll see that we are in sync right down to the gestures of our feet.

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Our connection in this moment was so soft and light.  Light on the inside and the outside.  This kind of synchronous movement can’t be forced.  It only happens when the horse and human are flowing naturally together.  Our conversation on this day did not start out with this level of connection.  This level of connection came about as a result of conversation.

A conversation through movement.

Though we are connected by a halter and lead, I never pulled or drove or coerced.  Given she started out so skeptical, how did we ultimately end up so nicely in sync?  We ended up so nicely in sync because Gin communicated with me through her movement and gestures, and I communicated with her through mine.  We had a conversation based on the body language inherent in moving together.

Horses are masters of the non-verbal language of the body.  They speak to each other with small movements and gestures.  Every cock of an ear, tilt of a hip, or squint of an eye means something.  We might spend a lifetime learning to listen to our horses!  Look at Gin in these images – see how she tilts her head away, the position of her ears and the look in her eye in the first image.  See how all of those things change in each image?  That’s her way of letting me know how she feels about what I’m asking on a moment to moment basis.

Now notice my body language.  Listening carefully to her side of the conversation, but I am not passively listening.  I am asking or answering questions in response to her feedback just as she is asking or answering my questions in how she responds.  It’s a conversation in which we both have a voice.  Neither of us is so passive as to be unresponsive to the other.  If we were, there would be no conversation.

There are a great many things that impact our ability to connect and move together with horses!  One key to harmoniously shared movement is that both horse and human speak fluently the unspoken language of the body.

We’ll begin by talking about our side of the conversation.  Until we understand what we are unconsciously communicating we won’t be able to make sense of what makes a partnership in movement fluid, fluent and lovely – or hesitant, bumpy and jarring!

Let’s get started then!

This is an excerpt from the FREE two-week online Introduction to Body Language I’ll be hosting in January!  We’d love to have you join us: Click here to find out more and to request an invitation to join the group.

Stories from the Herd: The Scene of the Crime!

Rifle Ranch View

The former cattle ranch in Rifle Colorado.  This was the view from above where our house was.

Circa 2002

Ever felt like a detective walking into the scene of a crime? The network of pens and paddocks was bordered on one side by a long alleyway with a cattle chute at one end. Aero and Jiminy had the run of the extensive corral system and usually spent their time glued to each other’s sides.

But not this morning.

This morning, Jiminy was in a pen by himself and every time Aero would go into the pen Jiminy occupied he would pin his ears and stalk off to an adjacent pen, diligently separating himself from Aero. Jiminy, clearly angry with Aero, wanted nothing to do with him.

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This is a rare photo – Steve with a horse!  Jiminy was the sweetest guy.

Upon closer inspection, Jiminy bore a nasty wound right in the middle of his back. As large as my hand, the hair was stripped from a one inch wide swath in a half-moon arc away from his spine, culminating in an open wound that, had Aero been wearing shoes I might have thought the result of being struck in the back by the heel of a shoe. Thankfully the injury was not serious but the wound to their relationship was.

Here’s where the detective work comes in. You see, Aero had proven he could be frighteningly aggressive towards other horses. Deep into the dicey process of getting him socialized and integrated into the herd, this injury and Jiminy’s lack of trust in his friend had me concerned. Had Aero attacked him?

At a loss, I contacted Theresa and asked her if she could find out from Aero and Jiminy what had happened.

Listening to the blow-by-blow was quite comical. Like questioning two suspects in a crime, their stories didn’t quite match up. Jiminy was furious with Aero, insisting it was Aero’s fault he’d been injured. Aero was equally adamant that it wasn’t his fault and he was only trying to protect Jiminy. Protect him from what?

Jiminy’s version of events went something like this: “I was minding my own business, hanging out in the alleyway when the herd came over for a visit. We were greeting each other when out of the blue Aero came charging at me down the alley. He chased me and as I ran down the hill I saw a pile of rocks. I tried to go around them and slipped in the mud and fell down. My back hit the fence and I got hurt.”

“If Aero hadn’t been chasing me I would not have gotten hurt!”

Aero’s version of events went something like this: “I was hanging out in the paddock minding my own business when I saw the herd come over to attack Jiminy! Jiminy didn’t seem to notice that he was in danger so I had to protect him! I wasn’t chasing him I was protecting him! I wasn’t trying to hurt him….”

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That’s Aero out in front and Jiminy hanging in the back.

Now for those of you who read the story of how Aero found his way into the herd, you’ll already know that at that time he didn’t have much sense of proportion, and his social skills were limited. I’m sure in his mind his actions were protective, and equally sure it didn’t feel that way to be on the receiving end of those protective instincts!

Being the good detective, it seemed appropriate to attempt to verify their version of events.   Whenever I work with animal communicators I do what I can to verify to make sure I have the whole picture – something that’s proven useful over the years, and a story for another day! Theresa had described the pen and alley setup to a “T” even though she has never seen it or seen pictures of it and I had never described it to her. If their version of events was accurate there should be evidence.

Walking the alley I hear Jiminy’s words echoing – “he chased me down a hill” – and here it is the place where the gently sloping alley steepens briefly before leveling off again. “I saw a pile of rocks” – and there, against the fence is a pile of rocks. I’d been diligently making a pile of the larger rocks I found, planning to clear them out so no one would trip or step on them!

“I slid in the mud trying to avoid the rocks” – and here are the long straight skid marks as he slid out. “I fell down and hit my back against the fence” – the fence is one of those old school post and rail fences designed to contain cows and calves. There is very little space between the rails as they stack one atop another almost 6 feet high. The second rail from the bottom, maybe a foot off the ground, is snapped in two. And the clincher, where a knot sticks out from the rail there is fresh blood, hair and hide.

The wound was not caused by a shoe but by a knot on a fence rail that he slid into when he fell!

As is often the case, both horses were telling the truth of what happened. They just had very different perspectives! Jiminy did end up forgiving Aero and Aero did learn to temper his responses!

ET Clinic Rifle

We used to host clinics for The Equine Touch.  That’s Jiminy in the middle and his herd mates assisting students.

Hard to believe it’s been 15 years. The time we spent on that former cattle ranch in the mountains was hugely formative for me. It was the first time I got to spend days on end with horses without the influence of anyone else. The first time I felt free to experiment and explore, to try things that someone else might think crazy. Much of what I learned during that time shaped who I am today and certainly made me a believer in animal communication, and the sentience and intelligence of horses!

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Jiminy was a member of our herd for ten years or so before his passing about four years ago.  He was a kind and gentle soul, the only horse Gin was ever willing to entrust with the safety of the herd when she spent time with me.  He absolutely loved humans and horses alike.  We sure miss his presence around here!

 

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Aero is 30 years old now and doing as well as one can at 30 years old!  He still gives himself baths in the water trough – shoveling water out of the tank with his head, splashing himself then rocketing around the pen before having a good roll.  Winter, summer, he doesn’t care, any day is a good day for a bath!

 

Beyond Body Language: Flexion

730158414_stdIt’s a beautiful picture of a beautiful horse isn’t it?  His pose so gracefully highlighting the subject of my interest.

Have you ever thought about the graceful arc of the horse’s neck?  Many of our ridden disciplines encourage flexion at the poll.  Have you ever questioned why?  If you seek flexion at the poll how do you get it?

Regardless what you believe, ride or don’t ride, work with a bit or without, here’s something to consider and watch for:

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Notice the graceful arc of Sundance’s neck.  His open throatlatch with plenty of room.

Three different horses, the space between the atlas and mandible widely varied.  Why does this matter?  Why should I pay attention to this space?

If we are going to ask a horse to flex at the poll there needs to be enough room in the throatlatch to allow for flexion.

Some horses have a large gap but also have large glands that bulge and get squeezed when they are flexed at the poll.  Some horses have such a tight gap between atlas and mandible that the bones touch when they are asked to flex at the poll.

Look at your horse’s neck, their throat, their jaw when you work with them.  Do they look comfortable?  Are they objecting or shutting down?  If they happen to have hooks on the rear molars and a tight gap they are likely to go through the roof from pain if asked to flex.

Comfort is key to a happy cooperative horse.  What if flexion, the graceful arc of the neck could or should come from somewhere other than flexion at the poll?

Destined to be Pampered

The story of how Aero found his way into the herd

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That’s Aero on the left, Gin in the middle and Romeo on the right. I always joke that I think Aero was a fish in a former life! He loves water SO much. They had a blast on this early spring day.

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Aero at the ranch

Too fancy to be a racehorse, too volatile for eventing, hated dressage. Aero was fortunate to land in the hands of someone who cared about him. Cared enough to find out why he had been labeled crazy and dangerous by the trainers she hired. Cared enough to find him someplace to go where he could learn a new way of life. Where he could find himself.

It used to be a cattle ranch. Not at all what Aero was used to! Born among the elite athletes of the Thoroughbred world, destined to be pampered. He was born fancy, treated like a hothouse flower. An ex-cattle ranch was the last place he ever expected to end up.

Aero had never lived with another horse until shortly before his move to the ranch. Part of living the life of a fancy horse is being protected, as best as possible, from injuries that might impact his career as a shining star in the industry. Limited turnout, only in “safe places” and never with another horse!

Before coming to the ranch he had 30 days of bliss. Turned out on 40 acres twenty four seven with his new friend Jiminy. It was the perfect opportunity to blow off steam and let go all the pent up energy he’d been storing his whole confined and solitary life.

Aero posing in Rifle

Some months into his rehab program and looking good!

But the ex-cattle ranch was a whole new ballgame. Stalls for the cautiously segregated were replaced by herds of horses living together outdoors. Trees for shelter, hills, wide open spaces, coyotes howling, the occasional mountain lion scream or lost cow wandering through.

Aero in Rifle summer

That’s Aero in the foreground on the ranch with his herd.  His stalwart, first horse friend, Jiminy bringing up the rear.

Integrating Aero into a herd was no small feat. After weeks of living with Jiminy, sharing a fence line with his intended new herd, the time came to let him in with them. He just couldn’t get the hang of group dynamics. He’d pin his ears when anyone came near him or his pile of hay. They’d turn to leave and he’d charge after them, on the attack! Social graces were definitely not his strong suit!

Each time he went on the attack he was pulled back into his own space with Jiminy. Time to ponder and re-group until next time. Day after day he struggled with over reacting to the other horses. Constantly thinking he needed to defend himself.

Gin is great with everyone. Maybe she could successfully coach Aero on equine manners? They were together less than three minutes before Gin requested removal from that duty! Social graces with mares? Well, he had none and Gin wanted out.

Aero watching over the herd with view rifle

Aero watching over the herd

Always sheepish after his awkward and graceless encounters with the herd, it was obvious he was trying to figure this whole thing out. He wanted to understand how to have functional relationships with the others.

Perhaps an animal communicator could help shed some light on where Aero was coming from and lend a hand in offering him a few suggestions about how he might change about his approach. Sheepish indeed, he thought he shared with Theresa that he thought he was doing what he was supposed to do and was confused about how to proceed.

Aero watching over the herd in rifleHaving pondered his options, Aero came up with his own solution. He told Theresa: he would separate himself from the herd next time he went in with them. He thought it might help if he hung back and watched how they interacted with each other so he could learn. And so he did just that, standing still and focused at the far end of the pasture, watching the others interact day and night. His focus so absolute he barely took time for food and water.

At last, after three long days of studious observation, he made his first tentative foray into the herd. Success! His sweet, gentle nature revealed he was quickly accepted into the group. He and Romeo hit it off and became fast friends. An inseparable bond that lasted a lifetime.

But that’s not the end of the story…

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Very curious about Steve and I practicing our tango routine in the arena a few years ago!

A few months after Aero had found his place, a new girl came into the mix. Young and inexperienced in being in a larger group, she charged into the herd, ears flat, ready for a fight. Swooping in, Aero ushered her off away from the herd, conferring with her as if to say – “I’ve got this. Let me explain to you how this is done.”

After several minutes she proceeded back towards the herd while Aero kept watch. She made it most of the way there, then lost it again, ears pinned. Moving swiftly, Aero intervened, ushering her off again. “No, no. Not like that” – he seemed to be saying – “like this.” This time he led the way and she followed him peacefully into the herd.

From then on Aero became a steadfast leader of his band. He was ten years old when he first came to the ex-cattle ranch. He’s 30 now and has his hands full with some young upstarts. Not bad for a horse destined to be pampered!

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Aero still lives with me in a new place.  He’s 30 years old and still cooking along.  His friends Jiminy and Romeo passed on a few years back but he still has the bulk of his herd mates from those early days. Growing old together as gracefully as is possible.

This is the first in a series of stories about the horses I have been fortunate to share my life with and how I came to be a believer in animal communication and the consciousness/intelligence of all animals, human and non-human.

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Racing Jack in his pasture in Grand Junction a few years ago.

Beyond Body Language: Chronic Stress

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The nervous system is a marvel.  Sensory organs gathering vast amounts of information from both the external and internal environment on a moment to moment basis. Only the bits the brain deems noteworthy come into our conscious awareness, an appropriate response mobilized.  Some responses are reflexive – outside our conscious control.

The startle reflex is one such response.

All mammals are equipped with this most important of reflexes. In a feat of coordinated effort the body and mind work together sending signals back and forth from mind to body and body to mind. In the horse: head pops up, back hollows and tenses, adrenaline floods the body.  All systems are mobilized, ready to fight or flee a perceived threat.

Threat assessment is instantaneous. In a healthy horse, if no threat is pending, most go back to eating as thought nothing ever happened. Lowering the head and chewing releases another flood of chemicals to counteract the adrenaline, signalling to mind and body that all is well.  Some horses prefer a good shake or run to blow off steam and discharge the energy mobilized but no longer needed.

When stress is ongoing or severe enough the body and mind can enter a feedback loop. The nervous system sending an ongoing message of perceived threat. The horse in the image is stuck in startle reflex.  Locked in a feedback loop that manifests not only in his posture and way of moving, but in his unpredictably reactive and erratic behavior.

These horses need guidance to help their nervous system re-set back to neutral, to get out of the feedback loop they are stuck in.  The posture of fight or flight released.  Confidence restored.  The body transforms along with the nervous system.

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Same horse, no longer trapped.

Silent Teachers

Gin and gang

She stands still. Head high. Listening. Waiting. Watching. Wondering what’s going to happen next. Alert to every nuance, every gesture, every movement, she’s expectant and a bit apprehensive. There is a human being lurking in her pen.

What do they want?

Imagine.

Imagine what it must be like.

What it must be like to communicate with all of your senses. You don’t have words. You rely on scent. Fear has a smell. So does confidence. You rely on sight. Every movement, every gesture means something. Letting your senses guide you, you converse with your herd mates with a glance and a gesture.

Imagine how much focused intention it takes to communicate clearly – without words to explain your actions. How much thought do you give to what you’re communicating non-verbally? Do you know what you want when you step into your horse’s pen?

Because, when we enter her pen, she’s reading every silent nuance. She can tell how I feel, if I have a plan, how confident I am about my plan, and how committed I am to my plan in a split second. Imagine bringing all your senses to bear to discover how to communicate with someone. Someone who is largely unaware that fear, self-doubt, aggression, confidence, have a smell, a way of standing and moving.

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Our silent horses are our best teachers.

But, only when we allow them to keep their instincts intact – only when they feel free to answer our questions honestly. Are you aware of what you are saying by how you move, how you carry yourself, what you’re thinking and how you feel? Rest assured your horse is, and she’s responding accurately to all of it.

Imagine.

Imagine responding accurately to a lack of energy or intention by not moving. And then being pushed to move anyway. Responding accurately to someone who is fearful or aggressive by running away. Only to be punished for being reactive. Feeling your rider hanging back and waiting to feel them ready to move with you. Only to be kicked in the ribs for being lazy.

How do you continue to trust your instincts if everything you sense and respond to accurately is punished? What does that do to your sense of self, your confidence?

And then imagine once more.

Imagine how it might change how we think about training horses if we could instead learn to let them train us? Let them guide us. Let them give us accurate feedback about our energy and intention. If they move like a slug, don’t move at all or are frantic what does that tell us about ourselves? If they bump into us, crowd us or try to kick us, what are they trying to tell us?

If we truly want our horses to have a voice, we must learn their silent language. We must allow them to guide us, so we understand what we are saying in that same silent language.

In gratitude to my best silent teacher, Gin has and always will respond accurately to what I’m saying.

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If you’d like to see Gin in action, here is a 5 minute video of her responding accurately, as always, to my energy, intention and way of moving.

Video Link