Friday, October 18, 2013

adding to the herd

I'd thought, back when we first started talking about adding a horse to the herd, that I'd get a proven endurance mount. An Arab or part-Arab with some miles and experience to share. I've dreamed of participating in endurance for years and have yet to complete a ride (though I crewed for Tevis one year, which was awesome!) because, for one reason and another, my mustangs proved less amenable to my ambitions than I'd hoped. I still think Brisa is an awesome little trail pony and I intend to do some LDs with her, but Ranger... Well, at some point I think I'm going to have to admit that either Ranger is never going to be a reliable trail horse and/or I'm never going to be the right rider for him. Gypsy is too old for competition (in my opinion - she might disagree) so my husband and I agreed that, if this is something I'm really going to do, I'm going to need another horse to do it.

After investing so much time, energy, heartache and hope into gentling and training my mustangs only to discover they aren't the endurance prospects I'd hoped for (and I don't regret anything - I truly don't), I told my husband I was tired of doing things the hard way. I told him I was ready for something easy.

I wanted an Arab, as I said above. I wanted a gelding, because I have two mares already and I know what a bad mare day looks like. I wanted something around 5 or 6 - old enough to be settled and sane, but young enough to be hungry for action. I had visions of a horse I could just saddle up and sit on. :P

But... we went to Wyoming and rode several hours a day, every day for a week. I talked to wranglers and trainers, real cowboys and a dressage queen. Talked to people from France who ride Grand Prix jumpers and a couple who also ride mustangs, and... I realized that I really, really, really love my scruffy wild rogues.

I love the challenge of getting a horse bred by nature to survive and guessing what s/he will grow into. There's no pedigree or parentage to fall back on - no way to gauge expectations. A wild horse is a study in evolution and individualism, herd dynamics and communication, curiosity and caution and contradictions. I love that mustangs come with a wealth of experience and instinct - they're canny and quick, observant and sensitive. They're smart and sturdy.

And they need homes.

So I told my husband maybe I needed to focus on mustangs and forget endurance. He said, "Why not do both? Just because your mustangs aren't meant for endurance careers doesn't mean you can't find one that is."

And then I started watching the internet adoptions. I found a gelding already started under saddle and I thought, "Hey! I can have a mustang AND an easy project! I don't have to start from the beginning!"

I bid on him. I got outbid. I bid again. I got outbid. I bid again. I got outbid. My husband told me to leave him, because there are so many mustangs who need homes and this guy obviously wasn't one of them.

And the whole time, I kept looking at this little filly.

She wasn't what I wanted. At all. Only a yearling - too young to be fully developed, too young to know what sort of mind she'll have. Too young to start under saddle. And a filly rather than a gelding! And even though she looks buckskin now (I've always loved buckskins!), I suspect she's really a grey just beginning to fade out. I've never really wanted a grey...

But I kept looking at her stride. (Look at that extension! Look at her reach, her energy!) And I kept looking at her face, and her ears...

I waited to see if anyone else would bid on her, but no one did. And then I found out she'd been relinquished at an earlier adoption with a high bid well over what I could afford, and it just didn't seem fair to send her back to the pens with another strike against her, so...

...I bid, and won.

I pick her up Wednesday, and I am sick to my stomach with anxious butterflies. It's been a long time since I last gentled a wild one. Will I remember what my other mustangs have taught me? Will we click, or clash? Will she be willing and eager and friendly, or fiercely resistant and hard to tame? Will she learn to be bold and confident on the trail, or will she worry herself into ulcers every time the routine changes at all? Will she be sound and healthy?

I know I took a risk, choosing a horse I know NOTHING about. It's a gamble, and I have no idea if I've done something smart or incredibly stupid.

At this point, all I know is that one little wild horse has the chance to leave the BLM corrals and join my herd, where she'll have access to grass and hay and water, dozens of acres to roam, gentle training, and endless love and appreciation.

I hope it's enough.

I guess I'm not done doing things the hard way, after all.

Monday, July 1, 2013

the feather and the arrow

The air smells of growing corn and cut hay, last year's dust and this year's wishes. 

Sadie, our white German Shepherd (or, to be more accurate, our son's white German Shepherd :)), follows me to the pasture with mischief in her eyes and trouble in the brush of her tail. I snap my fingers and tell her to sit outside the gate; she sighs and drops to her belly, resigned but whiny. She hates it when I walk amongst the horses. She would rather chase them, herd them, drive them away from me. But she lays in the patch of grass by the gate like a good dog should, and waits for me to get bored.

Gypsy and Maisy, the two Grumpy Old Mares, doze in the shade of the cedars. They stand nose to tail, almost but not quite touching. Like flame and shadow, one blazing red and the other a fading black.

Brisa nickers at me, impatient for attention. She shoves my hand with her nose and then takes two steps back - clever pony knows she isn't supposed to push my personal boundaries, but she thrives on physical contact and affection. This is the compromise we've reached - she can (politely) nudge, but then she must back up and wait for acknowledgement. 

I climb the gate, because who has time to unlatch and relatch a mustang-proof lock? I rub the little white feather mark on her soft, soft nose and scratch behind her ears and between her legs and beneath her belly and the base of her tail, and she sighs and snorts and lets her eyelids droop. Her lips twitch and soon she's almost dozing.

I have my saddle with me, because today is supposed to be a Riding Day. But she looks so blissfully happy and in the meantime Ranger has approached and stands behind me, quietly waiting.

I turn and lift my hand, slowly, offering him a rub and a scratch too. He cocks a leg, flicks an ear, purses his lips and thinks about it. After all this time, he still isn't sure he is meant to be tame. Trading wind and wildness for human touch and free carrots isn't, always, a deal he likes.

But we've gotten to know each other in the years we've spent together, and lately he has changed his mind about some things. Today he bends his proud neck and breathes into my palm. I run my hand over the arrow on his lip, the star on his forehead. I untangle his knotted mane and smooth my hand across the whorls of his crushed-velvet coat - I've never seen a horse with hair like his, growing in all different directions, but I think he's beautiful.

I offer him the saddle because, with a horse like him, you can't tell or ask or order. You offer, and wait, and hope, and know that if you've done your work well he will accept. And he does. Ranger nods his head - I swear he does, twice as if to be clear - and I don't bother with a halter or lead because once he gives consent he means it. He stands while I set the pad across his back and place the saddle and adjust the stirrups and fasten the breastcollar. He stands while I tighten the girth and stretch his legs and smooth the cowlick of hair just above his withers.

I'm curious, now, about what we might do. I climb on without a halter or bridle or sidepull or bosal - it's just me on his back and my hands in his mane and my soul filled with the scent of his sweat. I'm half-afraid because this horse - this wild, wild horse - is spooky and distrustful and yet also the bravest, noblest, most earnest horse I've ever met. He worries, and now I'm on his back and feeling vulnerable. I know he might panic and dump me off and I'm thinking about my ankle and my hip and my middle-aged bones and knowing I'm making a mistake even as I feel my face grin.

He tenses, braces, raises his head and pins his ears. I can feel that moment - that compression of a second - where all the energy in the world is contained within his body. His muscles quiver and I'm just about to jump off when he breathes and the quicksilver ebbs. Softness fills the space left behind and he steps off, lightly, carefully, his ears flicking backwards to make certain I'm okay and still with him.

We walk, and trot, and wander the pasture - he goes where I look, my hands balanced lightly on the base of his neck, my hips melting against his back. 

My ankle starts to ache and when I take my feet out of the stirrups Ranger spooks - just a small skiff sideways, a step and snort and tail-swish, but the spell between us is broken and I can feel him twitching. Perhaps I've pushed my luck far enough. I let him stop and I slip off, thanking him for the ride. He stands and waits for me to remove the saddle, to brush the sweat off his back, to check his hooves and legs, and then follows me back to the gate. 

He watches me, and when I lift my leg to climb back over the gate he nudges my hand - once, with slow deliberation - and then takes two steps back.

He never does this. This is Brisa's trick. Ranger is all about dodging, evading, escaping touch.

I step toward him, hand raised, and he lowers his head to the ground. He lets me rub him everywhere - everywhere - and when my arm gets tired he curls his neck around to rub my back with his lips - softly, so, so, softly - and then he breathes his clover-breath into my hair and backs away.

When I was a girl I dreamed of a magic horse.

And now I think I've got something even better, because this? This is real magic.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Liebster Award

So, Hannah over at The Longest Format nominated me for a Liebster Award - which was awfully sweet, given the fact I've only started blogging recently and still don't quite know how to navigate around here. Thank you, Hannah!

Here are the rules:

HOW TO ACCEPT THE AWARD: The Liebster Blog Award is a way to recognize blogs who have less than 200 followers.  Liebster is a German word that means beloved and valued.  Here are the rules for accepting the award:

    Thank the person who nominated you and include a link back to their blog.
    List 11 random facts about yourself.
    Answer the 11 questions given to you.
    Create 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate.
    Choose 11 bloggers with 200 or fewer followers to nominate and include links to their blogs.
    Go to each blogger's page and let them know you have nominated them.

Eleven random facts about myself:

1. I was bitten by a brown recluse spider last year. It was a horrible, horrible, horrible experience and now a general dislike of spiders has become a full-blown phobia. Just the sight of a spider sends me into a shuddering, helpless, sweaty panic attack. It is inconvenient and embarrassing and, so far, totally out of my control. My kids find it hilarious.

2. For a long time I thought I would be a ballerina when I grew up. My parents indulged my obsession with ballet - assuming, I think, that it was just a phase and one of those clich├ęs you expect from a girl-child - until I started getting invitations to audition for very prestigious ballet schools, summer intensives, and competitions. Suddenly ballet became more than just the typical childhood activity, and they decided they didn't want me to pursue something with such high risk and low chance of success. (Yes, their vote of confidence did not go unnoticed, she says with only a trace of bitterness. :P) They pulled me out of the ballet school I was currently attending and bribed me with horseback riding lessons (horses were my other great passion). I also discovered the joy of running, but my love of ballet never faded. I continued taking lessons through college. I quit when I got married, but managed to make it back en pointe as a middle-aged woman. Now I occasionally teach lessons as a substitute at the local dance studio and I'm writing a novel about a ballerina - and, y'know, for the first time in my life I am content with my level of ballet engagement. I've decided that running and riding horses more than make up for a lack of dancing. :)

3. I got my first mustang on accident - I was actually shopping for an Arabian, but she caught my eye and I couldn't stop thinking about her. Gypsy had been traumatized by her original adopters and our journey was more difficult than I'd expected, but when we finally bonded it was the most incredible experience of my life. I ended up adopting two more mustangs (Brisa and Ranger) myself. I love my wild, scruffy outlaws fiercely. :) (But I'd still like to have an Arabian someday.)

4. My favorite snack is a square of dark chocolate (okay, maybe more than one) with a slice of avocado on top. SO YUMMY.

5. I've been to 38 states so far, with plans to visit #39 (Wyoming) this summer. I'd like to reach all 50 before I die. 

6. I've been stopped by border guards, and it was a terrifying experience! My husband and I had gone to Canada to pick up a platform head for the combine. The Canadian border guards were WONDERFUL. On our way back home, though, (in a truck that says PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN FARMER) we were pulled in for questioning by the American guards. They put us in separate rooms, and then a man in a dark suit and SUNGLASSES (inside! I kid you not) started grilling me about where my kids were and who was watching them and did I feel guilty for leaving them and how long had I been married and did I trust my husband and had I ever had an affair and WHY THE F*CK WERE ANY OF THESE QUESTIONS ANY OF HIS BUSINESS??? Seriously, I was in tears by the time it was over. So, even though I have a passport, I am freaked out by the thought of going through customs or leaving the country ever again. Canada, I am sorry because I love you. But I can't take the stress of getting back into my own country!

7. I am a compulsive book hoarder.

8. I am weird about colors. A plate of food that is all one color, or nearly one color, will make me sick to my stomach. (My kids love a bowl of macaroni and cheese. And nothing else. BLUGH.) And I CANNOT wash different colored clothes together. I do not have "darks", "whites," and "delicates." I have red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, black, white, brown, gray. Striped or plaid clothes get washed separately, because TOO MANY COLORS TO MATCH. My daughter gave me some of those color-catch sheets, and they do work! but I still can't wash different colors together. It gives me a headache.

9. I love fossils. I love the idea of long-dead creatures leaving traces for us to find, and I love thinking about how our planet has changed over eons. I read paleobiology textbooks for fun. I cherish this dream of discovering a dinosaur skeleton on our farm someday. :) Also, Jurassic Park is one of my favorite books AND movies. (How often does a movie do fair justice to a book? Answer: not often at all. But this one I adore.)

10. I love to rollerskate almost as much as I love to ride horses and run half-marathons. There is an old-fashioned rink about an hour away and it is one of my favorite places. :) I would love to participate in roller derby. (I'm not that big, but I do have pointy elbows and quick feet! :D)

11. I ran my first half marathon this April and ended up wrecking my ankle. But once my ankle heals, I can't wait to get back to running. I would love to do a full marathon one of these days, and I will admit that ultra-marathoning fascinates me...

Okay! Now questions from Hannah:

1) Why did you choose your current horse sport or discipline?
I chose endurance because I've always been fascinated by the idea of testing the limits of what I can accomplish both as an individual and as a horsewoman. I love the thought of bringing myself and my horse to a level of athletic achievement that most people don't get to experience. Also, I love exploring trails on horseback, and I love spending time with horses, and I love being outside.

2) What is your horse-related Big Goal, if any?
My biggest goal - or dream - is to complete Tevis someday. Though I would be happy just to complete any 100 mile ride, at this point.

3) Pick a horse-related thing about which you have changed your mind.  Why?

Treeless saddles! I learned to ride by spending a lot of time without stirrups or bareback, so close contact feels natural to me. Also, I am more comfortable using leg contact than a lot of bit contact. I knew there were disadvantages to treeless saddles, but I'm a lightweight rider and figured it would be okay with a really good saddle pad. I've used my treeless for years and I do still love it for what it can do - it's great for backing horses, I think, and teaching kids to develop a decent seat. But it isn't as secure as it could be, and now that I'm in my mid-30s I kind of crave something with a little more substance. Also, when I get tired I curl my right side and put a lot of pressure on my right hipbone. There is no excuse for this and I'm working on it, but it seems to me that a traditional saddle might be more supportive (and more protective of the horse's back.) I would love a proper endurance saddle. (I do love my western saddle, but dang, that thing is HEAVY.)

4) Favorite apocalypse?

Snow! I hate cold weather, so if it has to be winter it might as well snow and snow and snow so I have an excuse to hide under the blankets with books and tea and chocolate. Also, I love the quiet hush of a deep snowfall.

5) Horses and riding as social outlet: pro, con, or it's complicated?

Oh, it's complicated! I do most (nearly all) my riding alone, and as much as I love the peace and solitude of time with my horses, sometimes I miss the camaraderie and support of a barn. I wish I had more friends to trail ride with, and sometimes having someone there would make new things less scary. And yet - some horsepeople are... well, you know... there's a special brand of crazy that hangs around horses sometimes, right? And I have no desire to get sucked into that sort of drama.

6) What's the oldest piece of tack you own?

A gorgeous trail saddle made by H. R. Miller Saddlery from Kansas City sometime in the 1930s. It was given to my uncle in the late 70s/early 80s as payment for a favor and he kept it as decoration until a few years ago. He gave it to me, and I took it to Dave Golian - a local saddlemaker. Golian repaired some loose stitching and reconditioned all the leather so the saddle is safe to ride in, but I keep it in my dining room on a gorgeous solid walnut stand and just admire it. The saddle is super comfortable for me - has a narrower twist than most saddles do, now - and because the leather is single-ply on the skirts and fenders it's actually quite light. But I'm afraid it wouldn't fit any of my horses and I didn't feel like spending the additional money to get it reflocked, so it's just for looks. :)

7) Is the glass half-empty or half-full, with what?

Half-full, but don't tip it or it will all spill. Um, how about raspberry Italian cream soda?

8) Time to colonize some other planet!  It's a one-way trip.  Do you go?

No. I am all about exploring and vacationing, but I have deep, deep roots and don't like change. I would love to visit! But only after the colony is established, and only if I can get back home again.

9) What's the best horse-related time- and/or labor-saving trick you know?

Ooof. I feel like I do everything the hard, slow way because I have to trudge out to the pasture with all my tack and gear every time I want to ride. A barn would make things so much easier! But, um, I have gotten pretty good at attaching things to my saddle with a variety of clips, pet collars, and bungee cords. That way I only have to drag one armful out.

10) Recommend me a poem.

My favorite poet is Denise Levertov, and right now my favorite poem is A Tree Telling of Orpheus.

11) What's on your keychain?

A paracord fob, just in case I come across a loose horse or dog that needs catching. A key to the box in the back of my truck, and my regular keys. Nothing special, because we leave the keys in the truck all the time and my husband doesn't want a bunch of "dangly junk" getting in the way. :P

I do not know enough bloggers to nominate anyone, sadly, but I'll post 11 questions in case anyone wants to answer. 
1. Sea or swimming pool?
2. Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey? (Or both? Or other?)
3. Shakespeare or Marlowe?
4. After a bad day, how do you most like to reward yourself?
5. What is the most significant influence that has shaped the horseperson you are today?
6. What are you most proud of?
7. What is one thing you've never done but always wanted to try? What holds you back?
8. Have you watched a moon rise and set?
9. Have you watched a horse being born? Have you watched one die?
10. What do you still want to learn?
11. How do you pick your friends?

a slow start

So, my first tentative plan was to ride Brisa in a 25 mile LD next spring, followed by another in the fall with a couple 10-15 mile organized but non-sanctioned trail rides in between. I figured I would put the long rides on her and let Taryn ride the shorter trails for practice, maybe while I rode Ranger for exposure.

I knew, when I first outlined the sketch of the plan, that Brisa wasn't really fit. She's not exactly a pasture puff - I mean, she spends 24/7 on 8-12 acres of slightly rolling pasture, and we've gone rambling around the farm - but she hasn't been in anything even resembling regular work for years. She's... shall we call her plump? - and lazy, to be honest. I intended to begin with brief "arena"* work 2x a week to smooth her transitions and focus on quality of movement, with a 3 mile easy ride 1x a week. Then we would transition to "arena" work 2x a week and add another easy trail ride, giving her 4 rides a week. Eventually I would drop one of the arena rides and slowly add distance, until we were covering 5 miles 3x a week. I intended to sustain this for a couple of weeks, just to get her legged back up and in the mood, and then I would slowly add distance over the fall and winter until she peaked in time for the spring ride.

The problem  - or one of the problems, anyway - is that I can't reliably ride all winter long. Though we've had mild winters before, the last three have been icy, snowy, or both. I love riding in snow! But when it covers 6" of slick ice, I won't risk it. And when the windchill is much below 0 I just can't handle it, so depending on the winter season to condition Brisa in time for a spring ride is just too much of a gamble, I think. (Oh, how I wish wish wish I had access to an indoor arena!!!)

Also, my ankle is proving a bigger problem than I'd expected. I can manage short rides (15-20 minutes) if I keep it wrapped and remember to swallow my ibuprofen, but even a 5 mile ride at an easy pace is too much.

(And the last thing I want to do is push Brisa as hard as I pushed myself and wreck her legs the way I wrecked mine. Considering she's already suffered a fetlock injury**, I think I need to be careful.)

So. New plan:
Ride Brisa 3x a week. Something like 5 min walk, 10 min walk/trot transitions, 5 min trot, 5-10 min walk?
Continue until my ankle is strong enough to handle longer rides, then swap one arena workout for a 2-3  mile trail ride.
Increase intensity of arena work - focus on trot/canter and walk/canter transitions, as well as rhythm and straightness.
Gradually increase distance ride to 5 miles.
Swap another arena workout for a 3 mile ride, and build distance.
Work up to 5 miles 3x a week.
Begin adding distance to one ride, sustain for 2 weeks, then add speed to one of the shorter rides.
And so on.

Hopefully, we'll be ready to enter the 25 LD in fall, using the 10-15 mile trail rides over the summer as both practice and conditioning. This gives me more than a year to build up her strength and stamina (as well as my own), so... I think it's reasonable??

In the meantime, Ranger is surprising the hell out of me by becoming bolder than I've ever seen him, and far more eager to work with me. I haven't taken him out on the trail yet this year, but he's like a different horse. I keep waiting for the spook! to show up, but so far, he's so focused and earnest and honest and... I'm afraid to put any pressure on him, or to let myself voice any real goals, yet, but he's impressing me. A lot.

* I don't actually have an arena. What I have is a fenced pen, 100x200 feet. The footing is soft dirt (or sometimes mud), but it's all I have to work with, so we call it the arena and make do.

**The vet says she's sound for work. She has a scar on her pastern and a small lump near the fetlock joint where the bone chip fused, but that's a far better result than a loose chip migrating through soft tissue. It's definitely a blemish meriting full disclosure at a ride check-in, but he doesn't think it will cause any issues. Still, I want to be careful not to ask too much of her. And this is also why she'll only be a LD horse - I think she has a great temperament to enjoy it, and she should - if all goes well - be a good horse to practice on and gain confidence with for both me and my daughter, but she isn't really a serious endurance prospect for me.

Friday, June 21, 2013


There's a new rhythm to my days, a new focus. I'm busier than I've ever been and yet I feel more energized and awake, which is nice.

The weird thing is, it's not like all that much has changed. Not on the surface, anyway. I go out to check the horses a couple of times a day, as I always have. I skip social events and trim my budget to make room for horse expenses and tack replacements, as I always have. I fill my house with horse-related paraphernalia and decor, as I always have.

And yet, somehow, it's all different. The time I spend checking on the horses is, now, focused. Consistent. Goal-oriented, even if that goal is just "get more comfortable doing [x] or [y] together." Instead of going out to check and feed twice a day, I go out three or four or five times, briefly, just because I can and because I want to.

It's like... I've always made horses a not-insignificant factor in my life, but now I have a reason, an excuse, to pour more energy into the aspects of my life influenced by them. And I love that. I've missed that more than I thought.

And despite my doubts, I'm finding a truer sense of balance. I still have time to write - less than before, but somehow it's more productive. I am more productive. I sit down and words fall from my fingers faster than they did before, so I get more done in less time and I'm happier doing it. The house is... not perfectly clean, but then it never was before. And honestly, I'm spending so much time outside (and so are the kids) that we don't really get a chance to make messes in the house.

I know that this balance won't last - something will come up and I'll have to reevaluate and adjust. But you know, I think I"m okay with that. I'm finally getting that balance isn't a static state, that it is made up of all those micro-moments of change and movement. I think I'm okay with shifting and dancing and changing things as they come up, because at least now I have purpose and direction (murky as it might be, still).

We'll see. All I know is that right now, I'm loving my summer of all-horses-most-of-the-time. :)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

at the center

Questions buzz around my ears like biting blackflies and doubts sting my confidence.

I've been here before, after all, standing here at the crossroads where paths converge and possibilities merge. Where devils play fiddles and fairies play tricks.

I'm not good at picking paths. Oh, I know the general direction I want to go in, and I know where I'd like to end up. But finding the road to take me there... that is more difficult. What if I get lost? What if the road is overgrown with weeds or falls to rock or turns to mud and I am left to flounder?

Because I've been there, too.

So I stand still and I think and I think and I think and I feel my courage fading bit by bit until all I really want to do is flee back to familiar ground.

And then I walk to the horse pasture in the first light of day, when the air is pink and gold and sweet as peaches. When dew sparkles on every blade of grass and silvers the cobwebs laced between the fence rails. Birds sing in the trees and in the distance a deer leaps the hedge and bounds away.

They come to greet me at the gate: Brisa, with her pricked ears and bold eyes and delicate muzzle; Ranger all quicksilver energy and motion and light; and Gypsy, my spirit horse. Sister of my soul. They eat carrots from my hands, these wild horses, and Brisa licks the salt from my palms. I rub the whorls on their foreheads and trace the white line of an old scar on Gypsy's. I brush flies away and run my hands down legs as straight and strong as truth, pick stones from feet that hold the thunder in the cup of their soles.

There's work I need to do. Habits I need to break and reshape, lessons I somehow need to both teach and learn at the same time.

But for one moment, for this moment, I sit on the rail and breathe the peace of the herd. I fill my heart with a comforting silence composed of tiny sounds: the flick of an ear, blink of an eye, whisper of breath. The swish of a tail, toss of a mane, shiver of satin skin. I listen to them bite and tear the grass, hear them chew.

It feels like home, here. Like peace and safety and everything I ever wanted.

Sometimes I feel guilty asking for more, but the view between those ears is intoxicating and the rush of wind from the saddle tastes like freedom.

Today I will ride and I will think and I will wonder and I will try - ineffectually - to banish the clouds of questions buzzing in my mind. But for now, I sit and give thanks.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

conventional wisdom and an unconventional horse

I was taught a couple of key truths about horses:

1. Being prey animals, horses are programmed to flee danger. They tend to run first, ask questions later. We cannot change or eliminate this instinct, but we can a) teach the horse how and where to move away, and b) change his definition of "danger."

2. Horses are, essentially, lazy creatures strongly motivated by comfort. Though they initially push against physical pressure, their desire to move away from mental or emotional pressure means we can teach them to move off physical pressure and give them comfort as a reward.

3. Conventional wisdom holds that the best - for some value of "best" - way to train a horse is to make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy. Comfort - generally in the form of removing a stimuli and/or adding a reward - is the signal to the horse that he's done what was asked.

When I started breaking colts, I used standing still as a reward. And it didn't take long for colts to recognize that the faster/better they responded to a cue, the sooner they could stand still. In the saddle, I used removing pressure as a reward. Again, didn't take most colts long to learn. Even the colts who liked to fidget, the ones who maybe liked to move around, quickly learned that fidgeting meant being asked to work harder and that standing still, quietly and patiently, meant the chance to chill out and maybe get a few scritches, too.

It wasn't all that tricky to make the transition to allowing forward movement in the direction I asked, under the circumstances I chose. Colts that liked to move liked moving forward at a brisk trot and pleasant lope, following my cues and keeping us both happy. Spooky colts could mostly learn to spook in place, or to maybe give a quick lunge forward rather than a spin-and-bolt number.

I thought I was ready to apply the same methods and principles to my first mustang, Gypsy. Only... nothing worked the way I thought it would.

She didn't want to stand still. For her, moving was the release. And there was no possible way to make her work hard enough that standing still would become a reward, because she would have gladly run herself to death first. Years on the range had taught her that survival = moving, and no amount of sensitivity, savvy, or practice I applied could change that.

I settled on an extreme program of advance and retreat. I call it extreme because it took years. YEARS. We regressed and progressed so many times I literally considered just leaving her be on the farm, a perpetually wild mustang in captivity. But after enough times of walking up, walking away, walking up, walking away over and over and over and over and over again, I managed to teach her to tolerate a halter. A saddle. A brush. Me.

(She would still rather move than stand still, so I never tie her. I do everything in the middle of the pasture with her ground tied. EVERYTHING. She knows that she is free to walk away at any time, and she also knows that if she stands still the stimuli will eventually be removed so she might as well just tolerate it until it's over and then she can move away. She trusts me because I don't confine her and because I've learned never to push farther than she can tolerate.)

The thing is, she grew up on the range, was left wild by her first adopters for years until they decided to try training her. When they discovered she didn't react or respond the way domestic horses do, they resorted to increasingly violent and aggressive means of forcing her to do things, until she snapped and they got rid of her.

I was left to piece together her fragile confidence and slowly build some sense of security. I had to accept that there would always be some limits with her, given her background. I taught her to stand still beside me only because being beside me meant that nothing could hurt her, that my circle of influence was safe. This hasn't extended to anyone else because she hasn't really internalized the lessons. She doesn't generalize - just because something is safe and comfortable in one set of parameters doesn't make it so in another. After exhausting myself trying to teach her otherwise, I finally just accepted her boundaries and decided to appreciate how far we've come.

Knowing she was an extreme case, I adopted two more mustangs myself and figured they wouldn't be too hard to train. After all, I had managed with HER, so I could manage any horse.

And Brisa was a breeze. Other than her BLM freezebrand, she behaves like any other friendly, opinionated mare. Conventional "natural" methods mostly worked, especially when I used my experiences with Gypsy to adapt them to a mustang with limited human contact.

But I also had a gelding I named Ranger to train.

Ranger wanted to go and go and go and go. I thought he was being driven by intense fear - and he IS a reactive kind of horse - but compared to Gypsy, who was genuinely terrified, he seemed inconsistent. For a fearful horse, he seemed oddly willing to play with mysterious objects, to investigate, to wander through gates and paddocks, to walk on tarps and plastic and bridges. I thought he was just afraid of people, of me, but even after using all the tools in my metaphorical box of tricks I still couldn't quite break through.

He wouldn't respond consistently to conventional natural methods. Advance and retreat methods worked - but only up to a point. I've tried incorporating clicker training, which has also worked - up to a point. But I've been feeling, all this time, like I'm missing something. Some key to him that would help clarify our communication.

It dawned on me that if moving is his release, then why don't I use that? Why do I keep trying to teach him that the real release is standing still? Or that the real reward is the removal of pressure?

Is he truly spooky, or is he just a horse with a massive forward drive?

I started experimenting with allowing movement as a reward. The catch is that it has to be cued by me. He can't just walk off when he wants, or step aside when he's confused. He has to make an effort, and then I send him away for a circle or two of the round pen. Most trainers I know use a few circles as work, as a way of expending excess energy and refocusing the brain and showing the horse that he hasn't quite got it - whatever "it" is for the moment -  yet and needs to try again. But me? Today I used it as the reward. For Ranger, work = standing still and/or performing whatever exercise I asked for. It would appear that reward = moving.

And the results, so far, have been AMAZING. The little avoidance behaviors that have always driven me batty - the way he purses his lips when his head is touched, or the way he braces his neck before haltering, or the way he rocks back on his haunches for a second every.single.time I ask him to walk forward are slowly dissolving, replaced by genuine effort and eagerness. He likes being invited to trot a couple of circles, and that is - or seems to be - translating into a recognition that work - the work I ask for - isn't as bad as he thought.

For me, this is an opposite approach to anything I've ever been taught, anything I've read. If horses are supposed to be lazy and standing still is supposed to be pleasant and comfortable, it seems counterintuitive to ask for motion as a reward, but for Ranger, it seems to be working.

My problem now is deciphering how this could apply and work from the saddle. How I can build on it to fix all the other little holes I've struggled with so long and so hard.

But right now? Right now I think I've maybe found the key to him.


*knocks wood*