Ground Play, Cavalia style!

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My Clara, at liberty and trotting up fast.

This week, I attended Cavalia, the Cirque du Soleil-inspired performance event combining horses, acrobats and dancers. There were beautiful horses, an outlandishly great live band, and a stage that altered time and space. Unrecognizably. It’s the largest traveling show in the world, mind boggling in it’s scope. And yet, there were moments so heartfelt and impossibly beautiful that they will be forever intimately tattooed on my brain.

Disclaimer: This isn’t a review. And generally, I am not much fun at equine events. I can never just look at the pretty because the language of the horse is always louder to my ear than anything else. We don’t always put the horse first. I say it enough that my clients mock-lip sync along with me, “I work for the horse.” It makes me a party-pooper on Kentucky Derby Day.

So I am about to give Cavalia the biggest compliment that I can: For the most part, the Cavalia horses seemed happy. The liberty segments were by far my favorite. In our world of controlling horses into a human frame of obedience, there was an overwhelming feeling of natural freedom, watching as over 30 horses galloped at liberty, tails-flagged and moving as a herd with their humans. Equine personalities were more individually obvious than the humans were, as if everyone agreed the horses were the stars. There was a generous spirit of partnership and volunteering on the part of all of the performers. Quite an accomplishment!

Not to take anything away from Cavalia‘s ethereal performance -at the same time, moving as a herd is a horse’s first language. Mares teach it to their foals on day one. It’s about the most natural thing to do with a horse. Training a horse never negates this fundamental species trait and insightful trainers have found methods of supportive and kind partnership using the language of the horse, since Xenophon, (b. 430BC) said this:

“For what the horse does under compulsion… is done without understanding; and there is no beauty in it either, any more than if one should whip and spur a dancer.”

Humans can get in a hurry. We’re born dominators, it’s hard for us to listen. Some of us think that a horse is not capable of doing advanced work without intimidation. In my experience, it isn’t true. But it’s us that has to change. We have to give up control for cooperation.

Do you and your horse do ground play? I don’t think there is a better tool for building a relationship with a horse. It’s something lots of us did as kids before we had a name for it. We went into the pasture and pretended to be horses. Remember? I am always surprised at the resistance riders have to start a ride with some of that now.

Maybe the term ground work has a bad connotation? You know that this kind of horse interaction existed long before there were videos of trainers waving trademarked sticks at a horse’s face, right?

Natural horsemanship is a relatively new name. At the beginning of this trend, a friend of mine had a thought that intrigued me. She said she saw the benefits of ground work for starting horses, but she wanted to know how it benefited advanced dressage horses. It’s a question I’ve been asking my horses ever since, with huge success. It can seem like there is a fundamental disagreement between the disciplines of dressage and natural horsemanship, but to me they are the exact same thing. The disagreement is more about technique than anything else; it’s really over the definition of leadership. One side believes domination is required and one side says, “Let’s dance!”

Just give it a try. In the beginning, you won’t make the exact same performance art impression as Cavalia. Riding to the music on your smartphone isn’t the same as having a private orchestra and if you have an arena, it might not have mood lighting. You probably don’t have a flowing costume that glides magically in the air. Your horse might have a manure stain here or there. Maybe you’re bittersweet, being at an age where some kinds of riding are behind you. Or maybe you’re a novice rider and still a bit nervous about the canter.

WHO CARES? You have the same timeless dream in your heart.

Get inspired! Get carried away with Cavalia, they are art and magic. And then take some home to your horse. If that isn’t possible, find motivation on YouTube, or in your own pasture. If you lack youthful exuberance, make up for it with wisdom and patience. Not to mention a good helmet to protect your valuables. Sure, it means that there are some cues that we take from them. Learn to speak with your body and watch for an answer from him.

Expect that it might go slow at first but at the same time, know that both you and your horse are part of a rich and valuable tradition, handed down through history. Even in your own round pen, you share in the beauty and freedom that are part of the ageless conversation between a horse and a human. With no apology or intended disrespect, know that you and your horse are Cavalia, too.

Celebrate today by letting that lead rope go and suspending your own disbelief. He’s waiting for you to ask him to dance…

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Humanity

The virtue, humanity, is a set of strengths focused on “tending and befriending others.” The three strengths associated with humanity are love, kindness, and social intelligence, (as defined by Wikipedia.)

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Humanity seems a missing ingredient is so many places humans abide: Politics. Business. Even some churches. On a cynical day, you might wonder how the human got into human-ity in the first place.

Edgar Rice Burro profoundly believes in the concept but he taught us all to call it by a different name. Donkeyality.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo- I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. My photos are taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high tech.

 

A Cowgirl looks (squints) at 60.

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88 Years of (combined) excellence.

I notice I wear my glasses in the shower more often these days. Unintentionally. I mention it because as I write this, it’s my 60th birthday and I had a revelation in the shower. Wait, it gets worse.

I’ve decided it’s time to start riding naked. Who’s in? Naked Dressage. It’s an idea whose time has come. Anybody? Okay, I get that dressage has a stuffy reputation and I’m forever defending it.. but think about it. It might be just what the sport needs. Really… no one wants to ride with me? How about spectators? No? None?

I’m shocked. (Not.) If the truth be told, no women look good riding naked at any age. (Fashion ‘stills’ don’t count, I’m talking actual riding.) A person of my calendar accumulation and… dimensional quality, least of all. And I couldn’t be more pleased. One of the very best things about being 60 is that no one wants to see me naked- on a horse or anywhere else. That makes me really happy. Liberated. Free. The meat wagon has left. Friends I have now love me without cosmetic correction, for the same reason horses and dogs have from the beginning. It’s dependable.

But back to the shower. Is revelation a bad word choice? I was surveying the landscape and thinking about skin. I remember waking up on my 50th birthday and noticing that someone had switched the skin on my forearms. I was more confused than outraged, but it was undeniable. My skin was gone and left in its place was some old lady skin that was looking papery and a bit hacked up. My arm hairs practically had split ends. It was a crime.

In the last decade but there’s been more lawlessness. My neck has developed a wattle, when I squint in the sun, my eyes totally disappear in my happy wrinkles, and tops of my hands have turned into torn and bruised parchment. I won’t mention, in this marginally polite company, what’s happened under my shirt but they make B-grade disaster movies about less.

We women keep plastic surgeons rich, while we go nuts about our skin aging. It’s easy to feel squeezed by the grip of judgment from a critical culture, who would like women to stay contained in tight skins. And it’s an equal opportunity betrayal of women of all sizes, careers, income, and of course, numbers of cats. Even rebels who left the cosmetic circus years ago are forced to notice when squinting creates temporary blindness.

I have a ridiculously optimistic question I ask myself when everything looks like a huge disaster: What if this isn’t wrong? And the answer about skin came to me in the shower.

When I was younger, my skin had to hold it all together. My brains scattered all the time and my heart was always breaking. Sometimes I puked my guts out. My feet marched off in bad directions and my hands should have stayed in my pockets more than they did. My skin had the nearly impossible job of holding me together.

These days my skin slouches around me. I look like a pasty, white basset hound, with rolls of this and that migrating to the oddest places. At first I thought my skin had lost it’s grip, but that’s not it. I think now, at 60, my skin trusts me more. That’s what all the sagging and bagging and general lumpiness is about: Trust and maybe it’s gained some confidence in me as well.

My brain stays steady now for the most part. It used to explode about a dozen times a day but I’ve gained a some tolerance of change. My body stays in line, a little stiff some days, but like they say, if something didn’t hurt when I got up in the morning, I’d think I was dead…

My heart used to need both skin and ribs to protect it. At this point, I’ve had a huge herd of horses stomping around in there for so long that it’s all stretched out and softened. It’s been padded with dog hair and sure, there’s a hole left when I lose a friend, but the truth is my heart has been so enlarged by loving all of them in the first place, that I survive. Like stretched out socks, there is always room for more; I like my heart better this way.

Feeling comfortable in your own skin can’t be over-rated.  It’s good horsemanship; probably the thing horses and dogs notice about us first. It’s not a crime to pack a few years on. We should wear it with the confidence of an old sweatshirt and be proud: sagging isn’t a failure of our skin, but really it’s the opposite. It’s a compliment when your skin says, “Good job, you can hold your own self together now.”

I also notice from time to time that I’ve sprouted a thick hair or two on my chin, just above my wattle. They are white and coarse… It’s good news, I’m sure this means I am being rewarded by turning into a horse. Evolution is a wonder.

I’m not special, just one more in a herd of feisty old cowgirls who are not anywhere near done yet. I just want to say thank you on this birthday, to all the horses and dogs who gave my skin a reason to relax. They’ve taught me well, especially my Grandfather Horse. It isn’t just great to be alive. It’s great to be so..so..ripe.

Thanks to all my friends who stuck with me since when my skin was tight. I’m especially grateful to you all who make time to read this blog over the years. I appreciate it so much more than you can imagine. Your comments and emails are a daily inspiration to me. Thanks for sharing the ride.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Adventure

Tommi morning 005

 

Morning chores with Tomboy, the briard. It’s more of an adventure for some of us than others but she’s right. It’s good to be reminded: There is a fresh new world out there every day. Chase some varmints and protect your herd. Good girl!

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo- I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. My photos are taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high tech.

 

Breath: The Miracle Cue.

WMgracebreatheIt might be the word I say more often than any other during a lesson. I know it’s the cue that does the most good. It’s certainly the cue that’s the most natural:

Breathe.

Alas, it’s also the cue most under-rated. I see riders disregard the suggestion immediately. It’s like they want a real tool that works every time, not some airy-fairy imaginary, breath-y thing. They want a magic body position or a leg aid that gets dramatic results, like a spur with an electric cattle prod attachment… only kinder and more compassionate. Something that commands respect and undeniable leadership, not some puny suggestion to just breathe. Such an insignificant suggestion barely warrants a try.

Well, not to horses. Breath is the universal animal language. It’s the initial tell-all greeting between animals. They size us up by the way we breathe and the emotions carried in our breath. It is a major part of leadership, communication, and relaxation in the herd. We are prone to diminish the horse’s behavior from taking intuitive stock of who we are, to begging for a treat. But then our sense of smell usually doesn’t even point out manure before we step in it. However we try to depreciate their greeting, they sense so much more about us than what we had for lunch.

When our breath is shallow, our chest is inhibited and tight, sometimes even concave, with a tight jaw and tense eyes. It sends a message of restriction, fear, resistance. Our movements can even seem coyote-like in a stalking, nervous way. Clearly we not leadership material.

A change in breathing is the very first message a horse sends his rider that things aren’t okay. When we see a horse taking shallow breaths, we know he’s tense. That’s our cue; we seize up to a flat, shallow breath ourselves. The horse feels that concern and as a prey animal, and looks for the source of trouble. Then his poll gets tense in the process and his oxygen intake is impacted. His head comes up and our shoulders get tight in response, along with our hands on the reins. He feels restriction on his bit, and now he’s sure there is a problem, so he loses forward, which is exactly like losing confidence. Then the rider either gets more tense or more adversarial.

You can see where the ride is headed by now, right? There are a million outcomes from here, but it all started with breath. Breathing was the first cue and it doesn’t matter who started it, good or bad, the horse or the rider. In the end, the mood was set and the leadership defined in the first few seconds by breathing.

But if we do manage to breathe, our chests expand and our vertebrae re-align. Muscles soften, jaws relax. Elbows unlock and legs get long and soft. Oxygen gets to our brains and we think more clearly. Communication is calm, responses acknowledged. Our body cues softness and rhythm. A horse will follow us on this ride too.

Breath shared with a horse is an actual, literal cue either to relax or come apart. Now is it worth paying attention to?

“Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.”
Thích Nhất Hạnh

Uh-huh. Breathing is also the thing that can bring a horse back. If your brain panicked or lost focus, if you notice that things have sped up -and you’re being more reactive than proactive -and the clock ticking is getting louder, faster, -and things are a bit out of control… Slow it all down with your breath. Whether your mind has an anxiety runaway or it just wanders away from your horse to those pesky thoughts of self-doubt or frustration or what a lousy day you had at work, shut all that negative chatter down with a breath, just a disciplined breath.

Yes, they make drugs for that. Breathing seems like a lame suggestion in the face of the pharmaceutical universe, in the face of a training wreck or world angst. It can even seem insignificant standing next to a horse. That doesn’t make it any less of a miracle.

I like 1- 2- 3- breathing. It’s simple. Count to three on an inhale, let the air inflate your ribs in all directions, let it rest in the bottom of your belly for a count. Then exhale slowly and count to three. Do it in rhythm with your horse’s stride. Breathe into all the tight spots, up to your eye brows and down to your ankles. Breathe into your horse’s spine, to the tip of his tail, into his very heart.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that talking to yourself about being in the moment with your horse isn’t the same thing as authentically being in the moment. Breath is the how-to aid, the thing that fills the gap between thought and reality. I have never met a horse that didn’t respond. Learn to discipline your breathing so you can have a better ride with your horse, and let your blood pressure benefit as well.

All bad things for a horse happen with a loss of rhythm: Spooking, bucking, bolting. All good things things for a horse happen rhythmically: Trotting, grazing, breathing. And when they relax, they give a big blow from deep inside. We can learn it from them.

Drop your shoulders and let go. Breathe deep, expand those ribs to give your generous heart room, then exhale peace. Inhale. What if we stopped fighting ourselves and suppleness became our greatest strength? Exhale. A deep breath is an act of confidence in itself. 

It isn’t the least you can do, it’s the very most. Keep breathing. 

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

WordPress Photo Challenge: Dialogue

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A dialogue with teeth: A conversation with a donkey always, always involves reciprocation… just so you know.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo- I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. My photos are taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high tech.

 

*Needs Confident Rider*

WMNubeTackSky*Needs a confident rider*. If you see those words while paging though horse ads, what do you think? Used car salesmen don’t have a thing on horse traders. Would you climb in the saddle? Is it the punchline for a joke?

Maybe the real question is what horse doesn’t need a confident rider? It’s kind of a no-brainer when you look at it from that direction.

Where do you rank on the confidence scale?

I’m about to make an unpopular statement: I think a rider can have too much confidence. When an overly-confident rider gets into a rough spot, they ride through it. It’s a good idea but not in the extreme. Just because you are tough enough to ride through it, it doesn’t mean that was the best choice for the horse. Horses don’t learn when they are frightened. If the answer is always forward-forward-forward, without understanding, then a certain percentage of horses don’t get over it, but instead learn to be more fearful. Ignoring the horse isn’t the same as helping him. I wonder how many horses described as *hot* are actually habitually frightened.

On the other hand, I don’t think there are many horses who prefer a timid rider with a body language that’s a bit like stalking, or walking on egg shells. It’s an overall feeling of reluctance or even resistance. Each time the environment changes and the rider flinches, she slows down the horse, often pulling on the bit with each stride or micro-managing or just moving too slow. The result is to unbalance the horse. For them it’s like having a coyote in the saddle. One aspect of being a prey animal is the need to move forward freely, it is intrinsically necessary to their well-being and a horse that is always held back starts to act spooky or erratic.

Ironically, these two riding styles might produce a horse that acts pretty similarly.

Most horses fall into one of two categories in these situations: they either shut down or over-react. When things get too overwhelming, the horses prone to shutting down get quiet and almost bored looking. We call them lazy or stupid, our cues get louder and the louder the cues get, the more deaf the horse appears. Sometimes in nature an animal’s best defense is to play dead. He may be stoic in his actions but this horse is still sensitive. He is just being less honest about it.

The horse we are likely to call over-sensitive is prancing or tossing his head or wild-eyed and tense. He over-reacts to every cue and spooks often. His feet barely reach the ground. He is so overwhelmed that he is kind of hysterical. He is feeling all the same confusion that the shut down horse feels, he is just being more honest.

There is a middle place for the horse between these extremes. In Dressage we use the word losgelassenheit. There is some debate about literal translation but the concept is a balance of relaxation, combined with rhythmic, ground covering strides. Relaxed and forward is the goal, and each behavior is important and shouldn’t be sacrificed for the other.

There is a middle place for the rider, too. It isn’t quite as easy as telling a over-confident rider to slow down and the timid rider to speed up. It’s the quality of connection between the horse and rider that should change.

There are technical skills to improve: Breathe deeply and go slow. Keep elastic elbows. Ride transitions softly and clearly. Give all cues in rhythm with the horse’s movement. Reward your horse frequently.

And then there is a mental quick fix. It’s almost like cheating, but it works…

A couple years ago, Edgar Rice Burro had an acting gig. (See post here) The script called for Edgar and one of the actors to greet everyone at the door. The sun was setting altering the visibility and there were lots of spontaneous people and unpredictable behaviors. Edgar hasn’t done a lot of stage work. The actor with him had not been around donkeys; no experience with horses either. If something went wrong and Edgar got frightened, she might not be able to help him. She might even get hurt.

I watched from a short distance. The actor played a Calamity Jane sort of character; loud, ‘drunk-ish’, and a little too comfortable in her skin, if you know what I mean. She called to every attendee, “Would you like to pet my ass?” and cackled.  Edgar had the time of his life, not because the actor knew donkeys, but because she stayed in character. Again and again, I saw things that might challenge him, but Calamity Jane was also acting the part of a good leader, so it was all right. She acted relaxed and didn’t ignore Edgar; she included him in the conversation, like her character would have, and he felt supported. It was a bizarre experience to get a riding lesson from an actor who doesn’t ride.

“Assume a virtue, if you have it not.” -Shakespeare.

Do you have to be confident, or is it enough to act that way? If you play the part long enough, does it leak over into real life and become habit? I confess, there are times around horses, while riding or giving a lesson, where things start to come apart, but acting like everything is good, gives that exact result.

Try this experiment: Pick your best version of confident and ride that way. Let me know what your horse thinks of your performance.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.