The Boogeyman in the Field

Our 17-acre 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.

Over the 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.

This past 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 their behavior.

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Magic Happened in the Mountains of Wyoming

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.

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A Different Horse…….

In my last blog I wrote about the paradigm shift that I’ve had to go through in order to truly meet horses’ needs. It has required me to let go of my agenda, get out of my “trainers brain” and stop going first to the “tools” that I’ve built up over a lifetime.  The shift begins with taking a few moments to look, listen, and feel of the horse before approaching him. Then you have to learn the language well enough so you can translate the information you are receiving and respond appropriately, in a way the horse can understand.  

A common sight, especially at events where horses are in a new environment, is the horse with his head up, eyes wide, and nostrils flaring, as he looks off into the distance. He is asking, “What about that?” Before I proceed with my agenda I have to offer him a meaningful, believable answer.  In Horse Speak© this could be a look, a point, a shout, a sentry breath or all of the above. Then, most importantly, those must be followed by the “all clear” signs by the leader of a few big, deep, audible breaths and postural relaxation. By doing this I have answered his most pressing question, is it safe? He will always tell you how each conversation needs to begin if you are observant and listening.  

A recent experience with my Cheval Canadian Riley was the opposite of the last one I wrote about. (In case you haven’t read it, The Paradigm Shift, is the last Blog I wrote.) Our previous interaction consisted of him basically saying, “No” to everything from catching to mounting.

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The Paradigm Shift

Sharon Wilsie, the founder of Horse Speak©, discussed this topic in last week’s Horse Speak Winter Webinar series. It brought to mind an experience I had with my Cheval Canadian Riley a few weeks ago.

Letting Go of Your Agenda……

Riley, “If you hitch me to that rail I’m going to pull back.” I knew the look because I’d seen it before, albeit rarely. And last time it happened just like he said it would, because I didn’t listen. It happened when I had an agenda and thought, “You are 13 years old. You are a trained horse. You are not a puller”….… until he was.

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Holistic Horsemanship-Beyond “Natural Horsemanship”

If you are looking for a different way to connect with horses then Holistic Horsemanship may be the answer you are seeking. My holistic approach to horses has evolved over a lifetime of caring for, riding, living with and working with horses. In my quest for knowledge I studied under many different trainers with a focus on “Natural Horsemanship”. After years of study I still felt like something was missing. I could get horses to do what I wanted them to do but felt that the relationship with the horse was lacking. I didn’t want a trained robot. I wanted a willing, happy, interested, invested partner. One that wanted to stay when turned back out to the herd.

I’ve learned that when looking for answers it is always best to return to the herd. Observing them in their natural state offers us a deeper understanding of how they achieve leadership and co-exist in a harmonious, peaceful way. We don’t see them repeatedly disengaging one another’s haunches or driving each other in circles. They communicate with amazing subtlety, releasing the request and returning to neutral the moment the request is granted. What they really value is harmony and peace in herd.

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Naked Night Ride

Tuesdays are dedicated to Snow Frye‘s amazing Body Awareness class followed by work with Sharon & Laura Wilsie on our Horse Speak Educational program. Upon arriving home last night I headed down to the paddock. Everything was blanketed in the newly fallen snow and it was finally, a warm, lovely evening. Riley was standing by himself in the middle of the paddock. We shared a quiet greeting, I inhaled the wondrous smell of his neck and offered him some long, low strokes. Then I walked around a bit, called him to me and wondered what we should do. Riley looked at me and held up his foreleg, indicating that he wanted to do some copycat tricks. I had a few treats in my pocket so we played. We crossed our front legs, worked on bowing, danced back and forth a bit, backed up and just had fun. He was all in! I moved the mounting block into the paddock and got one of his fetch toys. We played fetch a few times and then I stood on the block. He came up, but not quite in the right spot for me to mount. We talked about that for a while and I could tell he wasn’t sure this was a good idea. I threw his toy down about where I wanted his head. He understood that, went to retrieve it, handed it to me and stood still for me to mount. I shared some breaths with him, rocked the baby a bit on his withers and asked permission. He stood still and I climbed aboard, not really sure where he might take us.

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Awareness Through Adversity

I’ve much to be thankful for but an ankle tendon injury is trying to get me down. It’s challenging me to find the “good” in it. One rewarding and hopefully long lasting “gift” came last Wednesday when I took my monthly Western Dressage lesson from Cathy Drumm at Mount Holyoke Equestrian Center, host of the Northeast Western Dressage Championships. I might have cancelled this lesson due to my discomfort, not being able to put my foot in a stirrup and feeling low. However, as a fellow instructor I didn’t want to cancel on Cathy. Deep down I also knew that if I sucked it up I would feel better for it. Riley and I needed this last chance to practice with “eyes on” before the Championships which were two weeks away.

I ride bareback as much as I ride in a saddle and actually prefer it. Therefore, riding without stirrups in my lesson was not a big deal. About half way through the lesson Cathy mentioned how much she loved my position without stirrups. We discussed this a bit and continued on with the lesson. Riley came up beneath me beautifully when I focused a little less on forward and more on upward, as Cathy prescribed. At the lope we are still working to improve strength, balance and rhythm in hopes of moving up a level next season. Therefore, we always throw in a few lope transitions to check our progress. The transitions happened easily with Riley getting both leads correctly on the first try.

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Offering a BLM Mustang Something New

Fiddle at the end of our session………

Last winter in Florida I was asked by friend, student and Yoga teacher Melissa to do a session with her horse. Fiddle was a BLM Mustang that was captured as a three-year-old stallion, gelded and adopted out three times, only to be returned three times. This earned him the title of a “Three-Striker”. Not a good place for a horse to be. Melissa was planning on adopting a different horse but then noticed Fiddle. She watched him canter across a field and felt him canter straight into her heart.

Fast forward three years to last winter. Melissa had made some very good progress with Fiddle using Natural Horsemanship and Positive Reinforcement training techniques that she had learned. She hired a few different trainers to help her problem solve and start him under saddle. However, there were still some issues that needed resolving. Fiddle could become very fearful and skittish in the ring. At other times he would just take charge of the ride and give Melissa a very hard time.

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Bringing Leadership Qualities in 4 Sessions!

These photos represent where we finished on our fourth session with Vaka. Our goal was to achieve relaxation under saddle. Check!

A few weeks ago Vaka’s owner Tahnit contacted me about helping her develop more meaningful, trusting relationships with her two Icelandic horses. In our first session we focused on creating a safe, peaceful environment within the 4-horse herd and on helping Tahnit become all that her horses needed her to be. Vaka is the lead mare and Galen, her gelding, is at the bottom of the pecking order. In the paddock we practiced being centered, grounded, aware and clear in all that we did. The horses took note of our calm, effective leadership as that is of high value to them. We created meaningful conversations about space and who moves who, keeping the energy as low as possible.

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A New Experience

Yesterday I had a profound, new experience with Riley. I walked up into the back pasture where the herd was nibbling some late winter grass. I checked in with a couple of the horses and then stopped about 30′ from Riley. I just stood quietly, breathing and relaxed, hoping that he would come up to me. He stood looking at me, but didn’t move. After a few moments the young Morgan named Night came over to say hello. I greeted him and then asked him gently to move off as he is a bit of a trouble maker. Next Mike, the old QH/Percheron came over to check in with me. I greeted him and then moved away, returning my attention back to Riley. I was then about about 20′ away and once again stood quietly with relaxed posture, just breathing deeply. Riley kept his eyes focused on me and then proceeded in my direction.

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