Riley and I got out for a bareback ride a couple days ago. The goal was some exercise and some foraging for grass through the snow. We ride these woods and neighboring fields year-round, avoiding the two known ground hog holes in the far field. Unfortunately, we discovered a 3rd one on this ride.
Suddenly Riley’s right front leg disappeared, dropping him completely down onto his left knee……..and then the scramble started! Time seemed to stand still, as is often the case in these types of situations. I sat pondering my dismount because it was clear to me that we were both going down in some unknown fashion. Suddenly, Riley rose up beneath me and continued walking along calmly like nothing happened. I was filled with relief that we were both upright and he seemed to be uninjured.
What I found so interesting was the visceral reaction my body had to this event. My lizard brain was triggered and I found my heart racing as we walked along. I don’t even remember the last time I felt like this on a horse. It was such a good lesson for me because I work with many anxious riders who are trying to overcome these feelings. I was able to practice what I preach……deep breathing and returning to the present moment. In addition to my wonderful horse, I credit my Centered Riding background for staying on top.
For over 25 years now I have taught students about breath being their most important tool. It is always the place to return to, during daily life, in crisis and for just trying to be in the present moment. If you are interested in learning about how breath and mindfulness can lead you to more safe, enjoyable experiences there are several lessons and exercises in my book, Open Heart, Open Mind-A Pathway to Rediscovering Horsemanship. You can order your copy on this website. Just click on “Shopping”. Ride safe and enjoy the journey.
Could Equine Asthma Be A Sign of Emotional Stress? A couple months ago Riley developed a deep, throaty cough, loss of energy and an increased respiratory rate. Our veterinarian was a bit perplexed based on our horse keeping practices, but eventually diagnosed him with the equivalent of Equine Asthma. He was prescribed a two-week course of Zyrtec with further discussions about how to manage this disease long term. I struggled with this diagnosis as Riley is a 15-year-old Canadian who was born outside and has lived outside his entire life. It was winter in Vermont, the ground had been covered in snow and our second cut hay was of great quality.
Listening To Your Gut My gut told me that his symptoms were a result of the stress he was feeling due to a couple changes in his life. The first one was a concern regarding Jordie, an energetic playful Morgan and Mike, our herd elder. Mike’s owner was concerned that their playful antics were getting too tough on him physically. A trusted intuitive suggested that Riley could perhaps step up to help manage Jordie’s energy. I explained the situation to Riley and asked for his help. He took this request seriously. To watch how things unfolded was quite astonishing, especially for a PB & J, Peacemaker sort of horse. Riley prefers to be in the middle of the herd, neither leading nor being last in line. He stays well out of the way of conflict (unless it involves feeding time and the gate😉). However, he took this request from me seriously. More than once I saw him standing on the bridge to the back pasture with Mike on one side and Jordie on the other, wanting to cross. He stood calmly, quietly, and grounded for long periods of time, holding space and keeping things calm. In the 7 years he has been with me I had never seen him do this.
The second and more stressful change was a difficult integration we were going through with a horse that arrived in the fall. After a very slow process it was time to turn them out together. It was fine at first but then at some point Mike began challenging the new gelding in big, aggressive ways. During that time this horse had begun to randomly chase Riley away, thus causing him to often stand apart from the herd for long periods of time. I watched this for a couple of weeks waiting for things to settle down. The lead horse Scout spent a lot of time “talking” to the new guy about manners, respecting bubbles of personal space, calming down, etc. He was separated from the herd at night, staying with Jordie who he got along with. This allowed time for Riley, Scout and Mike to rest and restore.
My gut had been telling me that Riley’s symptoms were caused by stress. His lungs were “depressed” as I’m certain he was, at the loss of the herd harmony. In Traditional Chinese Medicine the lungs are believed to be connected to emotions of grief, sadness, and detachment. It all lined up. We stopped the Zrytec as it didn’t seem to be helping. I released him from his responsibility, asking him to focus on healing himself, and we stopped the integration. Riley’s recovery was swift after that. His energy returned and his cough subsided. Three days later we looked down from the house and saw him playing all by himself in the paddock. He was rolling our plastic “safety” barrel across the paddock, trying to stand it up on end and bouncing it around. My horse was back!
This was a lesson in listening to my intuition and realizing how especially volatile sensitive horses can be. If your horse begins experiencing troubling physical symptoms that seem mysterious to you and your vet, try checking in with your gut and your heart. Sit in quiet meditation with your horse. Open yourself up, allowing pictures, thoughts or feelings to be exchanged. Consider that environmental changes, changes in herd dynamics and or human interactions, can affect our horse’s physical well-being. Just like humans, mental and emotional stress can manifest itself in physical ways with our horses. Always seek the help of professionals but count yourself in as an important part of the team. Listen to you your gut and listen to your horse.
A few weeks ago I was getting on bareback for a little winter ride. Mounting up on Riley without stirrups takes a bit of effort as he is just under 16 hands. As I pushed off my left leg from the mounting block I experienced an intense pain in my knee. I doubled over on his back, did some deep breathing, and waited for the pain to subside. Riley stood stock still there in the paddock with the other horses looking on. After regaining my composure, I considered my options. I could stay on and ride, or I could get off. Of course, I chose staying on 😉 Whatever was going on with my knee surely wasn’t going to get worse by sitting on my horse. We had a nice ride. I returned to the paddock and carefully dismounted. The intense pain returned as soon as I found the ground. My husband and son came to my rescue and helped me get up to the house.
Fast forward a week later and my knee was feeling much better. Ice and elevation seemed to have made a difference. The swelling behind my knee only flared up when I did too much. I grabbed my helmet one day and moved the block into the paddock. I decided to stand on it and see what Riley might offer me. The thoughts that flittered through my brain were that my knee wasn’t really 100% and there was still some ice in the paddock and pasture. However, I had decided that everything would likely be fine. Riley approached me within a few moments. He stood by me and we hung out for a while. I invited him to step up to the block, but he didn’t take me up on my offer. He responded by reaching out and lightly touching my left knee with his muzzle. He lingered there for a bit, never moving his feet. We continued to relax together for a while and then I turned to leave. It wasn’t until I was walking away that I realized what had happened. Was it just coincidental?? Possibly. Either way I’m quite certain he made the best decision on my behalf that day. It was still a bit icy, I wasn’t 100% and he was naked.
A brace, ice and elevation mostly controlled the swelling and discomfort in my knee while I waited for the X-ray and MRI appointments. I realized that mounting and carefully dismounting on the off-side worked quite well and prevented reinjury. One day I decided it was time to get back to more serious riding and tacked up with full gear. Riley was a bit edgy that day, protesting about almost everything I did in preparation. I took my time and we were finally ready to head out to the newly dried out ring. Anxious to get on and begin some real work I led him up to the block.
His attitude for the day continued at the block with him refusing to step up. Every time I lined him up and prepared to mount he would slowly take one step backwards. Ugh!!! I tried to remain patient but admit to feeling a little frustrated, knowing that I could just insist he do it. However, I have worked hard over the last few years to really listen to him and not fall back to using my “training tools” to get things done. That is when it happened, again. Riley reached out and touched my left knee. I stood there a moment in disbelief. He was right! I had forgotten to line him up on the off-side. Last time I had mounted from the left it had turned out badly. I turned him around, he lined up perfectly and stood calmly while I got on. Clearly, this was no coincidence. Horses are more sensitive than we are. Why should we doubt their ability to communicate with us in this way? Science has proven that other species, such as dogs, can sniff out cancer, notify people in advance of seizures, etc. One of my clinic students told a story about her horse of many years suddenly not letting her mount up. During that time she went to a routine Dr. appointment where it was discovered that she had Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a condition that causes rapid heartbeats. She was totally unaware of this. Once she was on medication to regulate her heart rhythm the horse again allowed her to mount him.
Over the last few years I have gotten much better at slowing down and listening to the horse. Horse Speak® has taught me how to create space for the horse to communicate more freely and how to better understand his messages. It has also taught me how to respond in a way that is natural to him. Horses do NOTHING by mistake. Every gesture, posture, and signal mean something and are done purposefully. Often, they are incredibly subtle and easily missed. If we can become present and open, letting go of our intentions and agendas, we will be able to “hear” what they are saying to us. We can answer their most pressing questions, create enrichment and assure safety, thus demonstrating our strong leadership skills. Then we become the one they want to follow with trust and heart. It is an amazing journey.
Next time you are with your horse try spending a few quiet minutes just “being”. Open yourself up to receiving the subtle messages that come your way. Resist the urge to touch him, allow him to touch you. Notice how and where he does that. Is there a message he is giving you? Learn how to respond in his language. (Horse Speak will get you there.) This is how, where and when the magic happens. Enjoy!
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that I am writing this as I recover from knee surgery to remove a torn meniscus and cyst. Looking forward to getting back to the barn, back to my friends and back in the saddle in a few weeks 🙂
Horses and humans playing at liberty has always excited me. I love the idea of the horse being free to interact and play. When I watch horses I innately become aware of how it “feels” to them. I am elated when filled with feelings of joy, concentration, desire, and pride. I feel great sadness when the the feelings represent a horse that is just doing his “duty”, not being allowed to express himself. Like a trained “soldier”, he performs what is asked through fear of repercussion, not through willingness and not with joy.
As a Trainer for the International Horse Agility Club of England I never forgot feedback I received from the club founder, Vanessa Bee, many years ago. After viewing one of my Liberty Competition videos she commented that while it was good, I needed to allow things to go “wrong”. The point was that liberty play should always be a dynamic conversation between the horse and human, allowing space for the horse to express himself. The point was not to “micro-manage” it with the goal of perfection and obedience. It should be a demonstration of connection, conversation, mutual respect and fun.
Trusting Me, Trusting You…….
On trail rides with Riley I balance elements of fitness with time for enrichment. For Riley the enrichment moments generally involve food, especially in winter. We go out into the fields to forage through the snow for buried acorns or patches of grass.
A few rides ago I sat on a rock while he was foraging with the lead line draped over his neck. I reflected on how strong our connection was and how much he trusts me. Because he lacks confidence he does things for me that he would never otherwise “choose” to do. I realized that I needed to trust him and our relationship as well, so I turned him loose. I let him forage for quite some time and then it was time to head home. We were two fields away, off property, but far from any roads or houses. There was no reason to think that he would want to go anywhere else than back home with me. Turns out I was right. It took a little extra time, because he had a voice, and because it was a conversation. Below are a couple clips of our liberty excursions this winter. Think about the partnership you have created with your horse. Consider some scenarios where you could put all that work to the test and show him how much you trust him. Be safe and have fun.
Evaluating What You Are Observing
Can you determine if a horse is happy in work or play with a human, or just being obedient? Watch his expression and observe his body. Are his ears floppy, perky, back slightly in concentration or pinned? Is his tail swinging and lifted, or clamped and tight? Are his facial features and expressions bright, interested, and relaxed, or pinched and dull?
If you want to improve your observation skills I recommend learning Horse Speak®, the exact and specific language of the horse. Founder, Sharon Wilsie has created a learnable, teachable format based on the postures, gestures and signals that horses use naturally in communication with each other. Begin your journey by watching some of the free videos on https://sharonwilsie.com/webinars-and-online-courses/
Off-Property Liberty Walk Video–See video below
“Thank you, thank you. I have just begun this transition in thinking with my horse and myself. After years of mastering traditional natural horsemanship training and “liberty” work, I realized there was no liberty in what I was doing. Such a lot of rethinking for me to learn but I am experiencing a shift in our relationship that I feel is right. I am in Ontario Canada. Your article and Off-Property Liberty Walk video was just what I needed to read.“
Trail Ride Conversation & Bare Naked Stroll Home-See video below
Conversations during our ride…….
Riley: We can’t pass by Captain because he walks through fences (which is true!). After lots of breathing, requests for movement, getting mini steps and waiting some more, I finally really listened. I broke a branch off the tree and moved Captain away from the fence. Riley thanked me by willingly moving forward right away.
Riley: This is A LOT of work, stopping several times in the deep snow.
Me: The snow mobile trail is just up there………
Me on the way home: Let’s stop and I’ll wear the bitless bridle.
However, Riley vacillated between being okay and feeling a bit stressed. Sometimes he followed and twice he went ahead, waiting for me both times, once at the wood line and once at the bridge. Once home he stopped before the paddock, took inventory of the herd, nibbled the tree and dumped a lot of stress. After watching the video clips, I promised him I would remain present and fully connected on our next venture out. Filming and sharing is fun but prevents me from being fully in the moment. Thank you Mother Nature for sunshine, mild temps (30’s) and good footing, all at one time!!
This past summer I was asked to ride this silly boy Cooper by his owner. On this trail lesson I was also working with the farm owner riding her horse Rhett, Cooper’s best buddy and herd leader. Cooper’s owner had been working on his confidence and had varying degrees of success, even just hand walking him away from the farm had its challenges. Sometimes his balking began in the arena before they even got to the driveway. Having owned this little chestnut Quarter Horse for many years myself I understood the balance of sensitivity and leadership he required. He could really dig his heels in and just refuse to move. I felt his apprehension as soon as we left the barnyard.
During the ride he vacillated between looking behind him for the boogeyman, being jittery and accepting some calming cues from me. Once we were headed back to the farm his pace picked up a bit, clearly stating how much he wanted the safety and security of home.
About a football field away from the farm I dropped my “magic wand” in the field. I decided to use retrieving it as a training opportunity. I dismounted a bit before the entrance to the farm and clearly stated our mission to Cooper as Rhett proceeded back to the barn. Knowing this would be a challenge for him I exaggerated my language. I pointed in the direction of the whip, verbalized out loud what my intent was, and took off marching at a good clip, keeping my eyes and energy focused on where I thought the whip was. I was thrilled when he matched his energy to mine without an ounce of apprehension. Occasionally he had to pick up a jog to keep up. He did so willing with the reins remaining slack in my hand.
Suddenly he stopped. I was envisioning that the wand was still about 20’ ahead and to the left of us. I backed up a step to better align myself with him and began to request that we continue. He was squared up in front and pretty committed to not moving. That is when I saw it. The wand was lined up exactly to the right of his front legs. I promised him that we were only leaving the farm to go get the whip……….and he held me to it.
It is amazing how much horses understand us when we pay attention to our intention. Being congruent, honest, and clear is the way of the horse. They don’t know any other way to be. Amazing things happen when we base our interactions on how horses interact with one another. They are never not listening. Be honest, be clear, be a good listener and reap the benefits of a safer, calmer more enjoyable relationship with your equine friends.
to me for training as a 2-year old with the goal of helping him overcome his many
fear issues. One of his biggest hurdles was trailer loading and this still plagues
him 13 years later. We trailer out a few times a month and he always loads, but
with varying levels of anxiety. Over the last 6 weeks I have used a Horse Speak® routine that has had amazing, lasting effects. This routine
takes less than two minutes and has a calming, grounding, centering effect on
both the horse and the human.
I use was discovered during a filming session for the 2020 Horse Speak® Buttons Webinar Series at my farm. (visithttps://horse-speak.teachable.com/) One aspect of
our work involved combining a “Hold Hand” and a breath on two Buttons
simultaneously. With Riley standing at liberty in the barn aisle Sharon
instructed me to place a soft, open palm on Riley’s Follow Me Button and the
other one on the Bridge of the Nose Button. I held for one breath, released, and
paused, repeating it three times. After a short set of three I stepped away and
relaxed. When I stepped back Riley took a sideways step towards me, saying “Do
it again.” I did as he requested, repeating the series multiple times. Previously,
he had been nudgy and restless. After each sequence he became calmer and
calmer, softening his eyes, deepening his breathing and lowering his head.
“Horse Speaking” with young Dillion at Maple Woods Farm last March was one of the highlights of this clinic. Although lovable, confident and cute, Dillion was a “Bubble Popper”. Using the language of Horse Speak, his “Go Away Face” (GAF) Button was non-existent. He just had no idea that a sending of energy or touch to that part of his face was a request for space. He crowded me in an attempt for affection, protection, connection, you name it. When I gently asked him for a little space he didn’t know how to respond. To clarify my need for space I added the Mid-Neck and Shoulder Buttons to the GAF Button. I did this by facing him, pointing my center in the direction I wanted him to move towards and asking him to not only turn his face away but take his front feet and shoulders with him. That’s when the light bulb went on and he began to understand.
He honored my request for space by stepping over with his front end, and then he bounced right back saying, “Do it again……” After repeating the same request multiple times he suddenly didn’t bounce back. He stood quietly, keeping space between us. That’s when it was clear that the seed had been sown and we could take a pause, allowing time for processing. We quietly shared space with me stepping away a bit but leaving a “Hold Hand” up to define the edges of our bubbles. We were still connected, our Bubbles still touching, but not collapsing into one another.
What would make a horse seek out an object to stand near? The answer is easier to understand than you think, because we are not that different. If you were alone and sleeping outside would you choose to sleep near something or out in an large open space? What feelings would both scenarios evoke?
I’m guessing that like horses, most of us would choose to sleep near a tree, an outcropping of ledge, a large rock, etc. Like us, horses inherently know that being out in the open leaves us vulnerable. There is safety in numbers, but if that isn’t possible a “Safety Object” can do the trick.
Observe your horses at rest and notice the surrounding environment. Are they near other horses? Are their butts towards a shelter, tree, a post or the fence line? This gives us the answer to their preferences.
Horse Speak® founder Sharon Wilsie has coined the phrase, “Safety Object” and taught us how to replicate the feeling of safety for the horses we keep on our farms or travel abroad with.
Southern Vermont property provides our horses with several grazing areas, one
of which takes them up to what we refer to as the “back pasture”. The pathway leads
along a brook, over a bridge, up a little rise and through the gate.
past 7 years their ritual has been to graze for several hours, head back to the
barn for water and brief respite, and return to grazing until being called in
for dinner. Scout is the herd leader and in general dictates their schedule,
which they dutifully follow.
summer something changed. They would follow me up to the back pasture only to
return to the barn within a half hour or so. Then they would stand around in
the shelters for hours. Not normal behavior! I would go out, walk back up, they
would follow me, graze for a bit or sometimes not even at all and head back to
the barn. I searched the field multiple times never finding any reason for
Some of the most magical, heart centered experiences of my annual Wyoming Retreats come from our evenings spent up on “the bench” with the big herd. The bench is where approximately 140 horses spend the night grazing, eating hay, wandering about and just “being”. This flat open plain is surrounded by mountains where one can simultaneously watch the sunset in the west and the moon rise in the east. It is a magical place to meditate, observe horse behavior and immerse yourself into their world.