How to Defuse a Horse Bomb

WMPMUgiantshadow

Maybe you’re mentally arranging your to-do list, or rehashing an imaginary rant about something that happened at work, or just daydreaming with the sun on your skin. But that’s when the UPS truck backs over the trash can. Or the wild turkey drops out of a tree on top of your head. Or some kids on dirt bikes come screeching out of nowhere. Life is just a bit more complicated if you’re on top of a horse.

If the reason for his spooking isn’t obvious, riders say that their horse just came apart for no good reason–a random coincidence. It’s the common excuse used when our inadequate human senses don’t pick up on what’s actually going on around us. Or the opposite; riders frantically try to see what their horse saw, as if intellectualized trash-can-physics can resolve anything. At this point it doesn’t really matter how it started.

Horses come apart just one step at a time, but if he’s already leaving at a dead gallop, it’s probably too late to negotiate. If things have gone that far, best to hang on, be glad you wear a helmet, and perhaps consider what cues your horse gave that you might have missed.

What happened just before he spooked? Did he freeze for a moment? Did he toss his head? Did his gait change? The sooner we recognize a change in his emotions, the sooner we can help. The challenge is that it’s our first instinct to tense and speed up just like a horse does. Anxiety and fear are contagious.

Here’s what we know: As much as we’d like to, we can’t control the universe. Beyond that, we can’t control how a horse will respond–even to ordinary things. Horses have a mind of their own. It seems our only option is to control ourselves. We can become our own bomb squad.

Adding energy to a volatile situation is a bad idea so how to start defusing the situation?

Don’t yell, don’t chase, don’t panic. Then tell your horse don’t pull, don’t run, don’t go nuts. But it doesn’t work to give negative cues. Just DON’T isn’t a cue either of you can take. Less correction; more direction.

Begin again. Take a breath. In a hot environment, breath the best calming cue you can give your horse. And leadership means you do it first. Please don’t underestimate the value of breathing; then take a deeper breath. Especially now.

Then instead of telling him what NOT to do, give him a simple task that he can succeed at. Then even if he only thinks of doing it, reward him generously. A verbal “Good Boy” warms his ear, builds confidence, and now the conversation has started.

In dressage we believe we get a horse’s attention by doing transitions and a transition is anything that you and your horse aren’t doing now.  Start with you: Require elasticity and softness in your arms. It’s counter-intuitive, but at the very least, force yourself to slightly slack one rein. Then alter the length of his stride up and down, and get positive. Let responsiveness be the goal and work light and happy. Replace his anxiety with a conversation about partnership. It won’t come naturally for either of you. Do it anyway.

And just like every other moment in the saddle, go slow and aim for the peace of consistency.

Can you plan ahead for the next bad situation? Yes! If there is something that you routinely do to relax your horse, perhaps at the beginning of each ride, you can ask him to do that and the familiar routine will help him settle.

My favorite warm up exercise is what I call a Flat Figure Eight. Walking on the rail, (or an imaginary straight line in a field), on a long rein, do a 5-to-10-meter half-circle, and return in a diagonal line to the rail. In other words, walk a pear-shape or teardrop-shape on the long side of the arena, and then once you have returned to the rail, repeat that pattern the other direction. (So this figure eight isn’t two round circles, but rather, round half-circles connected with long diagonal lines, that’s flat or a straight line on the rail side.)

The value of this exercise in a warm-up is that the half-circles, cued by the rider turning her waist, warms up the horse’s shoulders and rib-cage, as well as encouraging suppleness and connection, on both sides alternately.  It can be done as a leading or ground driving exercise, or under-saddle. Gaits could be the walk or trot or best, a combination of walk on the half-circles with trots on the diagonals–making more transitions within the exercise. As your horse advances, canter, lateral work, and extended gaits can be added. This exercise is kind of like a soup starter; you can add your favorite ingredients. Best of all, it warms up the horse’s responsiveness mentally as well as his body physically. I start every ride this way.

If you have an exercise like this ready-to-go in your training toolbox, both of you can have easier access to it for an emergency, especially if you’ve both lost time over-reacting—like most of us do—in a fearful situation.

So many incidents happen when riders become complacent. Have more respect for your horse and take nothing for granted, whether you are riding or on the ground. Stay aware of your horse’s body language and calming signals. Most of all, don’t ignore what he’s saying. It can feel inconvenient, especially if you are riding in a group, but do it anyway. Slow down before things explode. Take the time necessary to relieve the stress or fear your horse is feeling.

Instead of paying lip-service—only talking about putting your horse first—actually develop habits that meet that goal. Then mentor your horse, over time, to return the favor. The other word for that is trust.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Jubilant

WM Edgar Scratch

When understatement is enough.

 

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.)

Jubilant

Do You Inspire Your Horse?

WM Eary2Do you inspire your horse? Does he volunteer more than you ask? Are you proud of who you are in his eyes?

And yes, this is a donkey. There is no better trainer for a human who wants to work with horses. Look him in the eye. You are out-matched in strength and wits. Don’t just lay your ego down. Lay it down, walk over it a few times, and then spit. If you feel confident that you’ve succeeded in defusing your ego, then repeat the process until you stop judging. Quantify nothing.

Next, commit to using all your senses. Put your brain on mute, and instead of intellectualizing, become aware of what you sense. Breathe in, as if the air is fluid and nourishing. Is a part of your body tense or painful? Send breath there and allow relaxation to melt your stress. Soften your eyes and let your peripheral vision inform you. Listen for small sounds. Be still and focus on the present. Sure, thoughts will flit through, but let them pass. Be. Here. Now.

Listen.

Does this meditative part feel tedious? It matters because our senses are pitiful when compared to horses. Their eyes, their noses, their hearing, their sense of touch, are each better than ours. And if that isn’t enough, their response time is significantly faster than ours.  So this is us; the only chance we have of being a worthy partner to a horse is to learn to pay attention to the physical world and communicate in that realm.

Now fast-forward through your slow preparations: you’ve given him time to volunteer to be caught. The grooming session was curry heaven and he’s warmed-up and feeling good in his skin. And finally ready to learn. The next part–what you are planning to train–actually doesn’t matter much. It could be on the ground or mounted. It could be working with a simple obstacle, fine-tuning your riding position for jumping, training a spin or a flying change of lead. Something as advanced as a piaffe or as introductory as teaching a weanling to pick up his feet.

To begin, cut the task into tiny, bite-sized pieces and pick a piece to start with. Let’s assume he has no idea at all what you are asking for, because it’s more fun. Then ask your horse to engage with that small part. If he only acts remotely interested, give him a huge reward/release. All of a sudden he’s wondering what he did for all this praise and it’s game on!

If you ask again, and get a good answer, another reward/release. If he responds differently (notice I didn’t say wrong?) then no correction. Just take a breath and ask again. Give him time to choose the right answer. Check your focus and let your energy be calm. If he slows down his effort too much, percolate your energy up a bit. If he is reactive, fussy, or trying too hard, then exhale and slow everything down. Trust that he’ll come back to you, because we have to offer the thing that we want to train.

It’s our nature to panic when a horse’s energy spikes, but flat-out refuse to take that cue. Exhale again, even slower. Most of all, keep your mental focus on your horse and ignore the task. Losing your connection with him is like a game of bait and switch; if your focus flicks away from your horse, there is no reason to expect his attention on you will be any better.

Now for the donkey information: they are wicked smart and you have to be agile if you want to keep up. Give your horse that respect and then, if you can reward him for thinking about doing the task, before the task is completed even, then you are rewarding him for effort, for listening. If you can see his eye, or feel a slight softening of his will through the saddle, in the second before he begins to do the task, give him a huge reward. Too many times we drill and drill, and the joy of learning becomes drudgery and repetition. In other words, horses can get donkey stubborn for being used like a tool without a thank you. When you think about it, it’s demeaning. So sometimes reward the try, and call it a day. The real win is that they want to do a thing for us. A positive release for his intention is enough. Chances are that he will do the entire task next time, faster than expected, and somehow like the right thing was his idea.

This part seems almost unfair: the difference between training a horse to resist or try harder is usually just a scant few seconds. When you think of it that way, it’s impersonal. It isn’t about blame. It’s the timing that’s off. Just as he’s preparing to do the task, we ask again louder, and the result is that his effort gets interrupted. In other words the conversation between you gets sticky. Things can come apart when the rhythm of the work is broken, so the first thing to repair is the fluid conversation between you and your horse. No task is more important than your horse. Focus again.

How you can tell it’s time to stop is that your horse is happy and you both want more. Now walk him on a long rein, and enjoy the moment. But that doesn’t mean stopping the conversation. Focus on this part with all the energy and attention that you did the original task, because it’s just as important. Engage your horse in conscious relaxation. It might be the most important thing to train anyway.

I want to be with the crazy, psychotic one with spurs, said no horse ever. 

I want to be with the slow-witted one checking her messages, said no horse ever.

Humans are so hopelessly human; so addicted to punishment, as if pointing out the problem is the hard part. It isn’t. But if you still feel that need to show him who’s boss–fine.  Dominate something that will benefit your horse; dominate your own emotions and breathing. Listen less critically and more with your senses, and then model the behavior that you want your horse to have. Leadership means kindly setting an example.

Earn the respect of your horse by putting him first each and every moment. From that centered place of awareness, good training flows effortlessly. Because we aren’t really training the horse at all.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Face

WM Donk

 

“Curiosity is a sign of courage,” my teacher said,

enthusiastic praise for my young gelding, chasing her dog along a fence line.

I’m older now than she was then,

but this visitor’s weathered and wind-burnt face is donkey years older than either of us.

Still I recognize that eye

and the courage required to approach the unfamiliar

with a cynical old heart

that’s not done yet.

___

 

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.)

Face

Talking About the Future with Your Vet.

WMNube BlkWhtAre you happy with your veterinarian? It’s the question I ask when a client loses a horse or has a long-term issue. I’m not sure it’s important that they actually have the best vet in the world, but it is important that they think they do. The reason to talk about it now is obvious; there may not be time later.

Acknowledged, vets have a very hard job. It’s an expensive education, long hours in lousy conditions, and some level of constant danger. Add to that a high level of life-or-death stress. If all of that isn’t enough, the occupation calls for good communication skills with humans and animals. And even then sometimes it still all comes down to luck in the end. Veterinary medicine is as much an art as a science.

Lots of us wanted to become vets at some point in our youth, and most of us came to our senses. I usually think vets are saints, just on general principle. But our animals are family members, so it isn’t that easy.

Last winter one of my dogs had an eye condition that required a specialist. The prognosis was complicated. We were several visits and a few hundred dollars into the process. My dog had four different medications, administered three times a day, with ten minutes between each medication. It added up to two and a half hours of medicating a day. Okay, it could be worse. On top of that, the vet’s manner was a bit stilted. We didn’t need to be friends, but my dog was uncomfortable with him. On one visit, the vet abruptly grabbed my dog’s face, and sure enough, my dog nipped at him. I asked that my dog be muzzled, hoping to mitigate the increasing stress on all sides.

Then I asked for the prognosis. It was chronic. “Try hard with the medication,” he said, “because if it doesn’t work the next step is surgery and the surgery rarely works.” That didn’t sound good; my dog’s condition wasn’t improving and his easy-going temperament was turning dark. And if the possible surgery rarely works, why would we even consider it?

I asked the vet to slow down during one visit, my dog was cowering, but the vet snapped at me. Again, he doesn’t know me; we don’t have to be friends. Later I asked if there was some point when removing the eye would be considered. It seemed to me like the treatment was starting to be a bigger issue to my dog than the initial ailment. “I won’t talk about that,” he said.

I assured him that I did need to know–for financial reasons as well as quality of life questions. “Well, I can’t help you with that,” he said as the door closed behind him. I paid one more staggering bill, and heaved a sigh once we were in the truck. We both felt a bit roughed up; what would these visits be like a year from now? I’m an experienced owner and I don’t need hand-holding but this was starting to feel adversarial. I felt cornered and I wasn’t the one having things poked into my eye. Is this the meaning of purgatory?

The moment stood in stark contrast to a similar process with a different vet for another dog. There were monthly visits for years, a blood draw every time, and my dog couldn’t wait to get in the door. One day I initiated the hard talk; I asked what to look for as things progressed. She spent twenty minutes detailing possibilities that we would weigh as time went on. Quality of life mattered to her as much as it did to my dog. I left heartbroken, but also knowledgeable.

It’s almost unfair to vets, after all they have to accomplish to even be standing in an exam room, that horsemanship (or the dog or human equivalent) matters… but it does. Perhaps even more so for animals; their sensual perception is so much keener than ours that they’re hardly ever fooled.

If you are like me, you have a few vets on your contact list. Okay, I have eighteen vets in my phone, including specialists. I don’t want to marry any of them, but I have more respect for some than others.

Lately, I find myself scrutinizing the list a bit more closely. I have a dog who’s thirteen, a twenty-one-year-old llama, and my Grandfather Horse is a very frail thirty. At this point, I have survived the loss of beloved animals on a fairly routine basis. I’m not being callous, just realistic–losing them never gets easier emotionally, but trusting the vet is essential.

Last month we had the routine spring barn call for the horses. A few of them have sordid histories with humans, and as we enter the first run, I remind the vet to go slow. It’s a conversation that we’ve had before. He remembers how it started with this horse and as I hold the horse gently, breathing deep, the shot’s given with no fuss. Two horses later, the process has changed. He does the “good” horses differently; the vet tech is braced holding the halter. It’s a gradual change–almost passive. Then the donkey gets shoved into a fence panel, as my vet explains to me that they should give to pressure. It’s more thoughtless than cruel but my farrier will pay the price for this rudeness at his next trim. And I might know something more about giving to pressure than my vet thinks I do. Finally, my young mare–who has ground-tied for two years of weekly shots for her stifle–is running backward across the pen with the vet tech dangling from her halter.

I understand both sides; I want to be reasonable. How many times have I gone back to re-train softness and trust with an animal after a fearful vet experience? How many times do I ask my animals to make up for the shortcomings of humans?

Am I over-reacting? It was only spring shots but I know how it goes. Eventually it always ends up being life or death.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Earth

WM equine sunset

Proclaim the ordinary for its singular wonder.

 

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.)

Earth

What I Didn’t Know Then

Baby SpiritIt seems that most things I learn about horses, I learn in hindsight. It’s not a bad thing. Horses learn that way, too.

When I was younger I had a great grasp of the little picture. And by that I mean the same way Wile E. Coyote had a fist around the Roadrunner’s long skinny throat…tight enough for a reality blackout–his own. I’m not saying I was no fun, but I also believed that patience was an excuse for procrastination. Type A people seemed lazy to me. Clearly it was going to take a horse to get my attention. In a moment of divine intervention, an Appaloosa crossed my path–a weanling naturally. It was the perfect situation. If you’re not averse changing everything.

I have a shoe-box theory of life. The short version is that the universe has perfect order and reason and love. Sometimes it doesn’t look that way because I live in a shoe-box and I can’t see over the top. If I was taller, I’d understand, but as it is, I can just do the best I can. Oh, and my shoe-box has a barn in it.

The biggest thing that escaped my limited view, is that there’s always a continuum of change: there’s the horse you started with, the horse you have now, and the horse he eventually became. Change is a constant but what they don’t tell you, is that the largest changes won’t involve your horse at all.

“For a seed to achieve its greatest expression, it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.” ― Cynthia Occelli

When is the best time to start a young horse? The disagreement starts early; studies say that growth plates don’t convert to bone for several years. Now some conservatives say wait to start a horse until they’re as old as six. It could feel like a waste for an impatient human but horses don’t believe in wasted time. Or time at all. On the other hand, the racing industry runs two-year-olds hard. And to spread the blame evenly, a few years ago at a nutrition seminar, most of the questions asked were about how to get Quarter horses ready to go as long yearlings. Horses live short lives and so we hurry.

In the beginning my young gelding had many huge issues, and by that I mean, I had many huge shortcomings that I was very committed to. I’m not proud to say he paid for some of that–not that I blamed him. I blamed everything else instead. That’s how he knew I was a keeper.

So I waited forever and started him at three. In hindsight, I wish I’d given him another year. It’s what I’ve done with every horse since him. With a little more mental maturity some of the issues can be avoided entirely.

Years flew by and we hardly noticed. Then his tendon injury gave me time to question my chosen discipline; lots of reining horses retired early. It was the first time I heard the clock ticking, so I took the leap to dressage. In those days, competition dressage horses were elders, by comparison. That has changed some in the last twenty years, to the shame of contemporary dressage. Practiced properly, dressage can make a horse stronger and buy you more time. That was my new goal.

At the same time, I was learning the art of consistency; to quietly ask for his best every day. It wasn’t hard for him. By then we were partners and our bickering was replaced by high-level negotiations. But it required more diplomacy and mental focus than I possessed. And physical control was a huge issue; my body, not his.

Is there anything more beautiful than a horse in his prime with a rider who has figured out how to get out of his way? It feels like a shaft of golden light follows the two of you every stride. The line between horse and rider gets blurred and if you find a breath of focus so light and open, there are moments when it’s impossible to tell where the horse stops and the human starts. Oneness is a shabby, flat word for moments like those.

There’s this sweet spot that we call a horse’s prime. It’s when they are at the height of their physical strength and mental ability; the intersection of fully developed muscles and confident minds, and if a rider happens upon this precious moment with an open heart, magic happens, but it’s elation combined with dread. It’s why we see professional riders always looking for new horses, even as they ride world-class horses. The work doesn’t necessarily destroy them but everyone knows the clock is ticking; that sweet spot is temporary. It isn’t’ going to last longer than any other flower of a moment.

Blink and it’s over. Most horses start a slow decline but my gelding had an injury as definite as the flip of a light switch. I’ve been lucky, my Grandfather Horse survived, and now we’ve had as many retired years as we had riding years. It’s given me extra time for hindsight learning and the horses who have come after have all benefited. We owe him a debt, but it’s still bittersweet.

Even now we want them to live longer.

WMspirithuggoatIt’s unkind to force the work past that sweet spot and unkind to force the work before its time. The sad truth about my Grandfather Horse, now thirty, is that his physical prime was truly the shortest time of his life. There was no need to hurry to get there.

In early years, blame was an issue…for me–horses aren’t nearly as attracted to it as humans. With my usual shoe-box hindsight, I had to acknowledge that our years of connection didn’t start when we got it right. My loud thoughts had made a racket inside his head from the beginning. We shared a shoe-box; of course my horse felt those dark feelings. Better to give up blame entirely. With all that extra room, forgiveness could stretch out and brighten the place up.

If I had it to do over again, on day one I’d start by forgiving him for having a shorter life. Those were the good old days already.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.