Saturday, July 30, 2011

Liberty Work

For years I have noticed that my mustangs much prefer working at liberty versus with a halter/rope/lunge line. Neither Rascal or Black Elk would really do their best work while attached, but let free in the arena, with no contact they offered me the best they had to give.

In order to keep their attention I 'resorted' to treats. I struggled with - is it OK to give them treats - is this incentive, bribery or just babying them? They were so  willing to work for a small slice of apple, a tiny bite of carrot, a few pellets.  But was this really 'correct training'?
(ah, the Catholic girl is still in there!)

Then I went to a Robin Gates Clinic. Robin was a student of Carolyn Resnick's for 20 years. She is certified to teach her method. Both teach Liberty Work with the goal of 'connecting to the heart of the horse'. Carolyn wandered with a herd of mustangs as a child during her summers and eventually was made a member of the herd, even riding the horses at Liberty. Although both Carolyn and Robin are skilled dressage riders, their work is so far from the military style it makes me giggle. And treats - Well, let me tell you at the clinic - there was a complete snack bar! Buckets of pellets, sliced carrots, LOTS of treats!

What I witnessed at the Clinic at 'FromTheMotherFarm' - was just what I had experienced at home, except MORE .... so much MORE!
The horses had bright, shinny faces. Enthusiasm, joy and attention - even with 25 spectators, a new place, horses in adjacent fields, they were attentive! Moments of pure connection stretched to minutes of connection, stretched to many minutes of connection. This might have been the horse 'companion walking' with the person, or playing one of many 'games.'  One of the games was 'pay attention to me'- what an easy and very powerful game. When the horse focuses on you - you give him/her a treat. No pulling, no tapping with a whip, just waiting and a reward. Pretty soon instead of looking at everything else, your horse is looking at you!
A word about treats. Each horse is taught to be respectful around food, I will stand with a bucket of grain in front of me and my horses will stand 2-3 feet away and wait until I say 'head down' or point to take a bite of the food. Then I say 'head up' and ask them to back. When the horse is done chewing, I will give him a task. It may be a 'simple' as focusing on me, or it may be circling at a trot or a canter, or leaving the bucket to companion walk with me, in sync with my body, stopping when I stop, turning when I turn, slowing down, going faster and then eventually back to the treats. (Robin kept the treats out of the arena) I usually work with treats in a pan, or in a fanny pack, depending on what I am doing.

So, why the treats? What I see is that it's like 'Clicker Training', which is how I gentled Black Elk. The horse goes into seeking mode - thinking, looking for  the answer- motivated by the treat. Soon the horse learns that I am the key to the treats, and like the lead mare, the treats are available only when I say so. That makes me pretty important. And they learn there are things they can do to get what  they want - pay attention, back up, stay in one spot, circle, walk with you... well  the list is endless.
If you have read my earlier blogs you will know that I have walked the trails with my horses at liberty and what a wonderful feeling that was for me.   But, I felt so alone in my journey and I longed for others who could see the benefit and fun of working at liberty. I found that at Robin's Clinic. It was so deeply satisfying to be with a group of like minded souls doing this heart cenerted work that I could hardly speak!

The first week after the clinic I had a student for a week doing an intensive for 2-4 hours a day... so, that is what we did. We had a blast. Shaman and Polly were learning things at lightening speed. It was so much fun!  (Polly also had her first riding lessons on Rascal!)

I feel like this is what I was looking for with horses - the joy and freedom that horses represent - the connection with a kind, generous animal. Interspecies communication, Respect for one another, Love. It's all happening. No pushing, no pulling, no hurting. If the horse is disinterested, he walks away - what could be simplier than that!

So, you may wonder, does the horse just wander off? Sometimes, but less and less as time goes on. Mostly,  they LOVE to play, they WANT to be with me, and they want the treats and it seems that figuring out how to get them is part of the fun.  They get so excited that they offer one thing after another: ' what about a side pass? how about rolling the barrel? how about a nice big trot? what about standing on this stump...or the mounting block?" They are thinking and they are having FUN!!  I am having fun and  laughing - their ears are up, their eyes bright, they look interested, excited -  we are happy with one another.

There have been many gems along the way:  calling to Rascal who is out on grass, having him put his head up, look at me and come happily to go play in the arena. Calling all the horses and having them come as a herd. Watching Rascal figure out something new and seeing how excited he is. Having the horses always be aware of where I am and calling to me. Walking with the horses at liberty in companion walking on the property and on the trail. And we are just beginning.....

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Pat Parelli writes on Learned Helplessness

Walking the Woods with Black Elk at Liberty
Yesterday, I read a recent blog post by Pat Parelli refering to his younger days and how he has grown as a horseman. He said he suffered from Young Man's Disease- as many young men do. When it shows up with horses it's not pretty, but it's very common. It has to do with forcing a horse, making the horse do something - about overpowering the horse, showing him who is boss!

I have thought deeply about  with HOW to Work/Play/Be with a horse, how I want to be with horses. There is LOTS of conflicting advice. I rode in my youth with two Polish Calvery Officers. They were as you might imagine - very Yang in their approach to horses and riding. Their jobs as Officers in the Calvery was to get young men able and trained enough to ride horses into battle. 

While I was happy to have some mentors, it was not a really comfortable fit for me. I wanted the connection with horses, but 40 years ago.. no one was talking about connection/ partnership/respect for the horse. 
I wanted a friend, a companion, a pal who I could go on adventures with, and I actually acheived it!

I had a beautiful,  off the track TB who's father won the Belmont. His name was Especially You, I called him 'Shally".  He was fast, but generally lazy. When he didn't want to do something he'd just back up. Little did I  know how of all the choices he could of made, that one was the easiest for me to deal with!

As time went by, and we spent hours hanging out, and wandering the countryside, he rarely wanted to back up anymore.. we were not only moving forward; we were becoming partners. A few years after I got Shally,  I moved to Martha's Vineyard and although the young party crowd interested me for a while, I soon was back to hanging out with my horse out in nature. He lived in my back yard, and we talked out my bedroom window. We spent days trotting through the pine forests and swimming in ponds, exploring the wonders of Martha's Vineyard.  In the winter we went to the beaches and played at the water's edge, and raced through the woods. 

From the Vineyard we moved to the south of Boston. Again, I found a great spot for him, and daily we would canter the trails, often with a child behind the saddle with me. Then we were off to Vermont, where we lived on a farm along Chunk Brook Road. It was an old ski lodge, and there Shally and I traveled down every dirt road and logging trail we could find. He simply did as I bid. He was my best friend, my buddy, my traveling companion. I realize now how this happened - it was time spent together. Simply, a lot of hours. 

When we traveled, I had an old, awful, single axel, wooden horse trailer. At night we'd stop in a field and I'd tie him to a tire so he could graze. In the morning, I'd ask him to load up and he'd jump right in that awful dangerous box. No matter where I took him, he was relaxed and seemed at home. I didn't even know what I'd acheived!

So, you might say I suffered from "Young Women's Disease". Now, I think I had no illness that needed to be cured. I was on the right path, like many young women and their horse friends.

One of the things I have thought alot about in relation to working with horses is  "Learned Helplessness". When I was able to label certain training methods with this term, it all became much clearer to me. It took it out of  a feeling state  (it makes me feel bad, it doesn't feel right) to something I can get a handle on. The power of words cannot be underestimated! You can see my blogpost about Learned Helplessness in January.  Pat Parelli wrote about the same term in his latest blog. It's nice to know we are thinking many of the same thoughts! Yeah, Pat!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How we Learn

At 10, I wanted to gallop up and down the runway at the little airport in Forked River, NJ. That sweet chestnut pony, Misty was somewhat willing to comply and I had a ball! I rode bareback and with a halter. That is not to say I was sensitive to her feelings, it was all about go!

Ages 11-14, I rode weekends and summers at Frontier Day Camp. I worked all week for the $5 it cost to go riding weekends. I thought nothing of crashing through brush and being run into trees. My favorite horse, Daisy was a mare who was missing her foal and was crazy to get back to the barn. I was lucky in that I wasn't the girl who fell from her, got dragged and later died. I thought she had spunk!

At 15, I was sent off to a convent boarding school and rode some equally spiritless horses at a barn. Awful year!

At 16, I rode horses bought at auction by two old cowboys, father and son (both of them younger than I am now).  Those cowboys didn't ride as they were too busted up. You'd think I'd reconigze the obvious! They saddled up 6 or 8 horses a day for me to try out. I don't think they hand picked them for disposition, and if I asked, 'has he ever been ridden?' They would respond, 'well, we don't really know.' Probably they had, as now they were standing with a saddle on without too much hassel.  Those rides were interesting and I was lucky.

At 18, I began riding an off the track trotting horse, a big Standerbred, who was rescued by a kind and thoughtful man, who spent years gaining that ruined horse's trust. I began to be more gentle, very, very soft with this elegant horse, Squire. We rode the trails and backroads together in Hopewell Township, sometimes we galloped at night on the rolling grass lawns at ETS. I began to think more about how the horse felt.

During the school year, at College in Virginia, I exercised a barn full of horses. The part I loved best was going out in the field, climbing on the lead mare and galloping down to the barn with the herd all around me. Every afternoon I rode 3 or 4 horses, the grooms brushing them and handing them to me ready to go. Hard to develop much relationship that way, but I had my favorites including the "proud cut' Morgan, who's spirit was still so intact.

Then back in Princeton,  there was the Polish Calvery Officer who taught me dicipline. I was made to ride without reins, posting without stirrups, having instructions shot at me like a machine gun. I did things that I would never have dreamed of doing on my own. It was exciting, but there was not much connection to the horse. Who was that horse I was riding?

Learning about horses came so slowly. Horsemanship is primarily an oral tradition. I had no one to really teach me about the horse, what does he think, what does he feel, what makes him feel safe, how to create a bond, how to relate without riding, how to teach without hurting. There must be more than getting on and just going!

This has been my journey this past 15 years... gentle, slow, natural, creating connection and developing relationships with my horses. Always ending on a good note, with the horse happy, relaxed and more confident.  There was lots of learning, plenty of mistakes, good days and bad.. but now, there are mostly good days.. where the horse and I are both happy.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Hanging out with the Boys

After spending the morning studying Chinese Medicine and doing Jin Shin with my friend Teri, I went home to hang out and be with the boys.
The guys love having me there...
Even Black Elk, who let me put a halter on and take it off again without a bit of worry.

I was hoping to get Rascal to look around at the camera, but no luck!
He was keeping his ears tuned in instead.
I was ready to go.. but they, not yet!
I keep hoping somone will show up you just loves to groom horses!
After hanging out, I saddled up Rascal who is busy getting nice and muddy here, and we had a great session. We rode hands-free and at each stop I asked him to 'drop your head'.. which he did on his own accord about half the time and then with just the words. I was so tickled all I could do was laugh!  I was mostly surprised he'd learned the words..or was he just mind reading? You never know with these mustangs.

Week Two at the River Farm

Swans on Cook Road
Finally the weather was in the 40's and not raining! I was off to the River Farm again to work with the girls. I passed fields of swans resting and eating in the fields.
Turning at the Everybody's Store in Deming, I headed down the road to the Farm. On the way I saw a Coyote crossing the road. There was snow along the way and the hills were still covered in places.
I worked with the horses for a while and was just going to pop on bareback when Rosie appeared ready for her lesson. She was dressed for fowl weather and Sadie was sweet as pie.
Rosie played the Seven Games with Sadie
Gave her a few loving scratches......
 And climbed on for the first time this year. Sadie stood steady as a rock.  With only a few rides last year, I was so happy to see how quickly she was progressing.
 After a bit of tune up in turning and stopping and going on cue, they were off down the trail.
Down to the River for a drink, as if she'd done it 100 times!

I wondered who was living in the Tipi.. Looks so wonderful in the trees.

Back down the road with nary a glitch!

Now that is a happy face!! In case you ever wondered why horses.. take a long look at that grin!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Road to The Horse

Ranger, Shaman, Rascal and Black Elk, mustangs adopted from the wild.

If I had a TV, I would have watched Road to the Horse. But, I don't have a TV, so I rely on the internet. Not that I didn't already have opinions about the gentling and riding of a horse within a three hour time period. I have plenty. The first one is why are our top teachers modeling this behavior? Don't they realize this sends all of us a message that faster is better? The one that does it the quickest wins after all! I think this is nuts! Pat Parelli says; Take the time it takes so it takes less time. I say 'walk your talk'!
Ina and Ranger have a good connection- He is willing and feels safe.

I have learned so much from the unique combination of Linda Parelli's  teaching style and Pat's in deapth and intuitive understanding of horses. So, why do this? Why go on national TV and model that 3 hours is enough.  Turns out, he like many of us, made a bit of an error of judgement and either slid off  or fell off, depending on how you look at it. That's no biggie.. except it tells us the horse wasn't ready. Duh!  I think this is a perfect example  'learned helplessness' in the horse.
Mustang from Robert's Mountain in the Nevada Range

I feel the same way about the 'Mustang Makeover'. There the trainers have 100 days. In comparison this sounds like forever. But, it's not! It's a tiny amount of time for a prey animal to accept a predator on his back. I can assure you that rushing horse training will not pay off in the long run.
Betty and her Anglo-Arab Leo

I made a bit of a study of the results of the Mustang Makeover and to see how those horses make out after being adopted. Some seemed to be OK, somehow managed to integrate a massive amount of information in a very short time, some have their nervous system fried- and will hopefully recover with a long rest, some needed to be restarted from the begining and I would imagine many of the new owners are still scratching their heads as to why they can't get the horse to do what they saw the horse do at the Makeover. I know, I know they do that competition to let folks know how smart and amazing mustangs are.. but, like Road to the Horse -  the message is not good. Mustangs are amazing, but they are wild horses.. they need time!
Shaman who drops his head so 5 yr old Nyah can halter him.

I never heard Walter Zettle, or Nuno Oliveria, or any of the great masters brag about how quickly they can gentle and ride a horse. They say instead that the foundation is so very important, that what you do in the begiinning will show up again and again, and that training a horse should be as subtle as grass-growing.
Rascal gives his first riding lesson to a Kiatan

So, what's the rush? Don't think quicker is better! If it's all about the horse, do you think you are doing him any favors by rushing each excercise? I say love your horse and show him that by going slowly and watching for his interest and enjoyment in your play and training. Watch for his relaxation, the softness in his eye, his desire to be with you.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Horse Training at The RiverFarm

Natural Horsemanship Training at the RiverFarm in Whatcom County- Near Bellingham, WA.
Monday found me on the ferry from Orcas Island on my way to the River Farm in Deming,WA to resume  training and teaching with the horses. It was cold but dry in the am, but the weather was supposed to turn later in the day. It's about 90 minutes of 'petal to the metal' to Deming once you get to Anacortes. I had a good ride over on the ferry, studying my Jin Shin and doing some treatments on my feet, which tend to get tired when I train horses and teach most of the day.
River Farm is a suistainable community east of Bellingham on the Nooksack River. The two horses are Sally and Sadie, who are progressing very nicely in their Natural Horsemanship Training. 

These Halflinger/QH cross mares are very sweet- just loook at those eyes! Holly and Rosie had done a good job keeping them tuned up over the winter, but now it was time to start making some progress again.

We reviewed the Seven Games, and worked on Compainion walking to get the horses really tuned in to me. It's like a dance and very relaxing for both trainer and horse. The horse gets really responsive and soft and the trainer/leader gets into the right  mind set. While working on this we wandered down to the River, where an eagle sat perched in a tree. I reflected on how lucky I was to be working out doors in such a beautiful place, with eagles and horses and such great folks.
I was so absorbed in my engagement with Sally, I did not see Holly and Sadie come up behind me. Sally was so tuned in to me, she did not even fuss with her pal catching up with us! Holly and I worked the horses on the River for a while, reviewing what we had done last summer and fall.

It was hard to believe that one day last summer Rosie led Sadie (pictured here) into the River and they swam together!
From the river, we went on to ground driving, as our goal is to get the horses pulling this summer..It was a good thing we started early in the day, as by 4 pm, the rains and then snow started. Burr.. it was cold!
Turns out all that Jin Shin really worked and I went home tired, but my feet did not hurt at all!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Dancing with My Horses

My Wild Boys!
 The quiet rainy months on Orcas Island in the Pacific Northwest are such a contrast to the sunny long days in spring and summer. Now the days are short and the mists draw you inward.

Rascal give me horse kisses!
 I have taken to singing and dancing with my horses. I like for them to have a chance to work in a fun, relaxing way during what is a quiet time on Orcas Island. I want them to be 'in tune' with me.  I have found that the singing relaxes me and my horses and our play just flows. We do circles and changes of direction, changes of gait, lateral movements, frontwards and backwards - like a cha-cha. When I halt, it's their job to lift their shoulders and bring in their noses. Then they get a small slice of apple.
Ranger and Rascal love to Play!
 I want to be more relaxed and dance like in my riding, so I am working at being more fluid in my movements on the ground with my boys and it will be interesting to see if this carries over. I am betting it the meantime, it's fun!

Black Elk - almost FREE from the BLM!
Walter Zettle says: 'do 1,000 transition -  and.. nothing beautiful can be forced'

I know that a  balanced horse is a horse that is fun to ride. I am sure a balanced person is more fun for the horse.

I'd love to hear what you think of my new webiste: Horsemanship on Orcas

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Learned Helplessness in Horse Training

Black Elk, Shaman and Rascal Running Free!
The more I teach and train, the more I have come to question how we go about training and working with our horses. When I was young, I did as I saw people around me do with horses, althought I always was on the gentle end of the spectrum. Still there were plenty of times I was told: 'just kick 'em!' 'make him do it!' or 'show him who's boss!'.


Taking a green horse down the road with no thought to how the horse might be experiencing all the new sounds and sights, as well as the genuine fear about being separated from the herd, was something that we all did casually. When the horse balked,  the mantra was 'just keep 'em going forward'! Don't let him stop!  Barking dogs, traffic, flapping laundry, all this I expected my horse to take in stride. When he didn't I was surprised, when he bolted or froze, I got mad. Not much of a friend to my horse was I?

Polly and Shaman - Relaxed and Confident!

The term 'breaking a horse' always sent a shiver down my spine. I tried to tell myself, it didn't really mean how it sounded...who would want to do that to a horse? That and so many other abusive terms are so ingrained in our language around horses. Recently I read a blog post where the horse was lunged in deep sand until the horse was dripping wet (with a photo to prove it) prior to being ridden. Then the horse bolted in the very small round pen due to a small change in her surrondings. It made my heart pound to read this, and it was hard to fall asleep that night with that image of that amount of  fear. I wonder why the rider and trainer thought the horse had learned something good from that?  The horse was terrified for her very life! Yet, all the comments were about how 'brave' the rider was, and what a good job she did!  When does brave cross the line to stupidity and cruelty?

Black Elk having fun!

Don't get me wrong. We all make mistakes when training, well maybe Walter Zettle doesn't any more, but most of us are a work in progress. I look back at some of the things I did to and with horses in my youth and shudder. I am so ashamed, deeply ashamed. Yet, everyone around me did as much or more. Now, I am looking and exploring a different way of being with horses.

Rascal - Interested in Everything!

I think getting in a hurry gets us into more trouble than just about anything. Having a timeline dictate our 'success'. I am trying in my own way to change that. To put my horse's comfort and happiness in front of my ego. To teach my horses in a way that allows them a measure of choice. To use 'attraction' rather than force.  To judge my time with my horses with the measure of are they happier now than when I started, are they more relaxed?

Many of the ways of gentling a mustang and training horses in general, have to do with flooding the horse with sensations, pressure until the horse stops or gives up. With our first two mustangs, Ranger and Rascal we found that sharing space with them and allowing them to follow us and sniff our hair, graze on the lawn worked wonders. I discovered this when we put up electric fence across the driveway, so we had to walk through their space every time we went to the car or brought groceries home. They loved it! They were curious about us.. we were not focusing on them and they felt safe as a result. It was so easy! The gentling evolved at their pace. When I first went to back Rascal, he stood quietly as if to say: "wow, my girl is all over me now!"  He did not seem fearful and all I asked was that he stand, just stand, it was enough.

Black Elk, first week on Orcas
With Black Elk, it was winter and muddy, using the lawn and the driveway was not an option. So,  I tried Leslie Neuman's Bamboo Pole Method. (This involves putting a bamboo pole lightly on the horse's withers and removing it when he stops. It allows you to have contact with a wild horse) OH.... Black Elk was terrified and he was the calmest mustang I'd ever known! ( he ran in circles, obvously very frightened) It made me feel sick to try to conect with him this way, literally sick. I wrote pages and pages in my journal about it, and I only tried it for a few minutes!  So, instead I just hung out with him, feeding him handfuls of hay and eventually bites of apples. Then I started using the clicker and a language was created between us. He was completely at liberty to interact or to leave but he chose to stay almost always. If he left, then I left. If I left first, he'd often follow me around from the inside of his corral. It made me sad he had to be fenced in, and especialy in the corral that winter. But, I figured he'd trade running free for good grub, and he knew all about starvation in the mountains in the winter.

Ranger and Rascal making friends with Ina
There are lots of ways to flood or overwhelm your horse. Overwhelm means: " To be confronted with more than one can bear." 

Ranger greeting Ina
 This is a training method? Yes, this is a common training method. Look for it, and you will begin to see it many places in the training of horses. 

Ken asking Rascal to flex at the poll
What happens when the horse cannot bear what is happening? Well, they shut down, most of them go inside, they freeze. They may explode later, but for for right now they freeze, like when the know they cannot excape the lion and they are going to die. Is this how we want to train? Is this the relationship we are seeking with our horses? You know these horses.. you see them on Dude strings, Camp horses, you don't have to look far to find them, they look blank, shut down, depressed. They have lost what is the best in them. Their spirits. I realize that this method teaches the horse to be helpless. 

Niah and Kiatan teaching Ranger to drop his head

Learned Helplessness is what you see in abused children and women. It results in depression and a lack of ability to think and act proactively. It makes horses and people 'docile', and sad. It actually prevents learning.
Rascal is always interested and offering new ideas. He makes me laugh!

I think that's what many horse training techniques, including 'breaking a horse' rely on - learned helplessness. 

It's not how I want to teach or train.  I am after something completely different. How about you? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.