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.

These thoughts led me to move away from round pen training and some of the techniques I had long studied and used. In my search for the “missing link” in how to build safe, trusting and enjoyable relationships I discovered Piet Nibbelink, a student of Klaus Ferdinand Hempfling. Piet opened my mind to a different way of “being” with horses, one where the horse truly has a choice. The round pen became a picadero (square pen) and the work became mostly at liberty. Then, much like my training in Traditional Martial Arts and as a Centered Riding© Clinician, the focus was first on the human. The depth of mindfulness needed to find success in the picadero was refreshing and challenging. The horses were speaking very clearly, offering responses to the most subtle movements or energy from the human. They were given corners to go into whenever they felt a need to disconnect. Re-establishing connection led to a deeper level of awareness and technical knowledge regarding movement, motion, energy, expression, and positioning between horse and human. Horses were not directed or corrected by the use of ropes, sticks, whips or flags. In this particular work we held a rope down by our sides but rarely used it. We were taught to use all of our natural aides before ever lifting the rope.

If things weren’t working it was time to step back, turn away and figure out what YOU did wrong and what YOU had to do differently. This gave the horse the space and time needed to begin a new lesson, for he was our teacher. Learning is difficult, if not impossible, when the horse (or human) is feeling threatened, being chased or is frightened. Creating a calm environment is the top priority in developing a trusting relationship.

After years of study with Piet I was introduced to Sharon Wilsie’s work through her book “Horse Speak.” Sharon’s work offered even further clarity on what horses truly value and perceive, and what is really natural behavior in the herd. Her lessons have brought me to a deeper understanding of myself and how to better communicate with horses in a way that makes sense to them. The results of this work and sharing it have been very rewarding. It has brought about some amazing changes in horses, their humans and in the relationships they share.

We will always need knowledge, tools, techniques and skills to communicate to the horse about movement, boundaries, leadership and partnership. As their keepers it is our responsibility to support their well-being in all ways, for only then can we create more safe and enjoyable interactions for both the horse and the human. My responsibility and commitment is to meet them where they are, in that moment, and offer them compassion and understanding so that trust can grow.

My book, Open Heart, Open Mind, A Pathway to Rediscovering Horsemanship and Sharon’s book, Horse Speak both offer readers great insights into this work. Their pages are filled with case studies, exercises and lessons to help you on your journey of creating safe, enjoyable and mutually respectful relationships with your equine friends. Take advantage of our Multi Book Special-buy both for only $49.95. (Equivalent to or less than your average riding lesson, and you keep the lessons forever:) Visit our website for these and our recommended list of resources. https://www.heidipotter.com & http://www.wilsiewayhorsemanship.com

 

Naked Night Ride

Tuesdays are dedicated to Snow Frye‘s amazing Body Awareness class followed by work with Sharon Wilsie & Laura 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.

Then Riley proceeded to walk directly towards Scout, the lead horse, who was eating the last of the hay in the shelter. I thought, okay…. my first choice would not have been to see if we could get chased off by the lead horse, but I let it happen. Scout reacted exactly as one might imagine. He gave Riley a big, fat NO! Just prior to Scout’s response I had began bumping my calves lightly against Riley’s sides, which is the cue for backing up without the use of reins. He backed out obediently and then took me to the gate, as if to say, “let’s go out.” Trail riding in the dark without a bridle or helmet really wasn’t a good option, so I asked him to walk on. We walked around the paddock a bit, did some turning, halted a couple of times, backed a little and then I slid down. This experience left me with a warm heart, feeling happy and grateful. Riley showed me how empowered he felt with me on his back. Enough so that the first thing he did was to confront the lead horse about the last of the hay, not something he would have done on his own.   

Mutual trust………

We ask for unbelievable trust when we tie our horses up, saddle them, put a piece of metal in their mouth and then climb up on their backs. We are taking away their freedom and possibly their voice. We are asking for them (a prey animal) to give us (a predator) everything. When we get on naked we are saying to them, “I give all of my trust to you, let’s go somewhere together and you can lead.” 

I’m not suggesting you get on “naked”, only that you consider what you do from the horse’s perspective. Remember that it takes two to have a conversation and if you are talking you can’t be listening. Try to spend some time just listening this winter. Go to your horse without an agenda and see what he has in mind. The experience will give you great insight into what he is truly feeling and thinking. Be calm, quiet, open and aware. Maybe just pull up a chair and share space in the herd with him. 

A few weeks ago, after returning from a clinic in California, I needed some quiet time to reconnect with my horse. I brought a chair into the paddock and sat down. The horses each visited me, sometimes hanging out and sometimes leaving. A boarded Morgan named Jordie had visited me, left and was about to return. Riley, who had been standing near me, pinned his ears, chased Jordie away, and then returned, aligning his body beside my chair. From there we both just basked in the sun and relaxed. Riley had created a situation where it was just him and me. What a gift!

Creating true connection and mutual trust comes from “Feeling” first, not “Doing”. The insights you gain don’t come from driving him in circles or disengaging his haunches, for that is not “natural” to a horse. The horse first and foremost cares about how it feels to share space with you. Will you understand his needs? Do you hear what he is saying? Can you keep him safe? Can you “read” his body language well enough to understand him? Are you self-aware and mindful enough to see how your presence affects him? Then, do have the tools to create positive change?

If you approach your horsemanship in this manner you will not need to use whips, ropes, flags and round pens to begin your conversations. You will begin exactly where the horse needs you to begin, with an open heart, an open mind, the ability to create calmness, as well as the ability to create clear boundaries in a non-threatening, meaningful manner. From there all things are possible.  

Let them do the talking and see where it leads you. It’s about the journey and it can be amazing! It can lift your spirits and warm your heart. So go out and enjoy!   

P.S. The stories I shared are just a couple examples of what has developed out of my quest to find  a way to work with horses that is based on what is truly natural to them. I call it Holistic Horsemanship. If you are interested in learning more about creating a true connection with horses check out my list of upcoming events on www.heidipotter.com. One great start that you can gain from the comfort of your own home this winter is the upcoming Horse Speak Webinar-The Fundamentals of Horse Language taught by Sharon Wilsie, the founder of Horse Speak. Learn more by visiting: www.horsespeakeducation.com and began down the pathway to a deeper understanding of these magnificent creatures and a new way of becoming exactly who they need you to be.  

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.

After this lesson I realized that my new goal was to strive for achieving the same lightness, connection and feel when riding with stirrups as I do when riding without. On trail the next day I lengthened my stirrups two holes and tried putting my foot in the home position. I could only maintain this for a couple of short periods but it was enough to offer me some insights into where I carry a bit of unnecessary weight and tension which slightly alters my ride. Shifting back and forth between stirrups and none would be my homework with the goal of obtaining the same rhythm, tempo, balance and movement in both positions.

There was another discovery back at the trailer following my lesson. I untacked Riley, did a quick groom and proceeded with our routine belly lifts. These are always a challenge for him. Last year the lift was almost imperceptible. It has been getting better but on this day his back came up further than ever before. I “clicked” and rewarded him for such a big effort. I had just gotten the belly lift that I’ve envied on other horses many times over. It struck me on the ride home how valuable this information was. Riley physically felt really good after that ride.

So………pick a safe place to ride, on a quiet horse you trust and give bareback a try, or just try dropping your stirrups. Start off just doing it at the walk and ride circles, serpentines, straight lines and lateral exercises. Really feel your horse walk forward into a balanced, square halt. Advance to higher gaits as your balance, connection and confidence grows. I’ll bet you’ll enjoy all the benefits that “letting go” offers both you and your horse.

Be safe & Enjoy The Ride!

Offering a BLM Mustang Something New

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.

I began my session by reviewing breathing, centering and grounding with Melissa. I introduced her to some of the Horse Speak techniques and philosophies that I would be using. (Compliments of Sharon Wilsie) I greeted Fiddle, led him into the arena and allowed him to follow behind me on the lead line as I walked around the rail, scanning the horizon, tapping the fence, kicking the obstacles, touching the posts and basically checking out the whole environment. I asked nothing of him. I wanted to show him that I cared about what he cared about, which was how it felt to be in that space. We checked out his most feared areas, breathing, blowing away the boogeyman and relaxing. Fiddle showed interest in what I was interested in. We became alert together and we relaxed together.

I made some small, light requests to check his sensitivity, responsiveness and attitude. He responded with ease proving that Melissa had done a good job with him. We took time to breathe, blink, lick, chew and relax in between each request. My goal was to show him that I was a calm, empathetic, yet confident, strong member of our herd. I showed him that I could keep him safe, while also respecting his sensitivity. We had a conversation about my space and his space, another important element of horse behavior. About 45 minutes into our session Melissa dropped the “bomb”. She told me that I was the first trainer to work with Fiddle that he hadn’t struck out at. Wow! I would have never imagined that. At first I thought that it might have been good to know that in advance, but later realized it was better that I hadn’t. Melissa trusted my approach and she knew her horse. Seeing you can’t “un-know” something it was best left unsaid. Fiddle may have sensed something a little different in me, whether I wanted him to or not.

Bringing out the “Fight”….

Melissa explained how things had gone terribly wrong in the round pen with other trainers. Their methods used control and dominance to change the horse, causing fear, flight and fight. With many horses this approach will cause submission, but having been a wild stallion for his first three years Fiddle saw things differently. He was trapped and trying to save himself. This method would have never resulted in building a trusting relationship. What was there to trust? It is not natural for a horse to be confined in a small space and made to run in circles. In nature the communication is incredibly subtle. It is rare to see big reactions and when you do it is over quickly with things returning to a peaceful state. I moved on from this type of training many years ago as I discovered better ways to mimic how respect and leadership is actually established in the herd.

Melissa repeated what I had done with Fiddle and was standing by the gate, an area that generally caused anxiety in him. Fiddle began to sniff the ground and tried to circle. I explained that he wanted to roll and she should mimic his movements and let it happen. She mirrored him by lowering her body, pawing and circling and down he went. This had never happened before. Melissa was shocked that he would even attempt it in a space that had previously caused such agitation and fear. Once down Fiddle lowered his head, closed his eyes for a few moments and then enjoyed a good roll. He got up, shook it off and returned to a relaxed state.

Going slowly, mindfully and with compassion, rather than dominance, makes all the difference. My Horse Speak training is such a blessing and has led me to a path of deeper understanding. I am grateful for Sharon’s work, the horses that are willing to converse with me and their owners who trust me with their precious beings.

Here’s a message from Melissa to me the following day:

“He jumped over the moon ❤ Today’s ride was a 180!!! So soft, still forward but his head was dropping beautifully into the bit and his shoulders were much more willing!!! Thank you Heidi!!!! PS-I went back over the breathing in the book and I’m definitely hoping for some more “language” lessons on that tomorrow. 😍

If you are looking for a different approach to horsemanship look up the “Creating Harmony with Horse Speak” clinics that Sharon and I are co-teaching this year in New England. Details can be found at: www.heidipotter.com or www.wilsiewayhorsemanship.com

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. We greeted and interacted with each horse, intervening when the bolder horses attempted to drive others away. Vaka watched closely as we calmly managed the herd and helped create a peaceful environment for all. In the next couple of sessions we added in-hand exercises and continued our work on Tahnit herself. We discussed the impact that the human’s mental, emotional and physical state has on the horse. Because Vaka lacks confidence out on the trail Tahnit hadn’t ridden her in quite some time. Now Vaca was beginning to understand that Tahnit could take care of her and their mutual trust began to grow. They are now well on their way to a deeper, more trusting, enjoyable relationship which makes my heart sing!

This work is a combination of the Centered Riding basics as applied on the ground and under saddle, my holistic approach to horsemanship and Sharon’s Wilsie’s methods of Horse Speak. If this story intrigues you check out the extensive list of learning opportunities on the “Events” page. Thank you for sharing my journey!

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. However, as he approached I noticed that his ears were laid back, which was uncharacteristic for him. As he got closer they became even more expressive. I just maintained the same relaxed posture and did not react. Riley proceeded to walk right past me, just brushing by my right side. He was after Mike! He drove pretty hard at Mike who spun away. However, Mike is actually higher in the pecking order and turned right back around stating “oh no you don’t!” When Riley stood his ground Mike spun his hind end and began to back up towards him. I intervened calmly but clearly, asking Mike to quit, which he did. Riley then walked right up to me, stopping when his back was aligned with my body. He was now in a position between Mike and I. He stood quietly while I got the shedding blade out of my back pocket and went to work on some of his winter coat. I spent a few minutes at this, rubbed some sweet spots and inhaled deeply at his neck, full of gratitude. As I walked back to the barn I realized that this was a huge change for a horse that a year ago may have just walked away from me. The change was in me and this was proof that I was getting it right. Wow! I am so grateful for this horse who has sent me back to the drawing board time and time again. How lucky I am to be able to share my lessons with other horses and their humans. I am blessed to be on this rewarding and magical journey!

 

When You Know You’ve Done It Right

A couple weeks ago Mother Nature blessed us and I was able to spend a couple hours playing with my Cheval Canadien horse Riley. When we were done I returned him to his paddock and 4 pasture mates. After removing his halter I took a moment to just breath and share space standing next to him. I did a couple “go  away faces” and moved the front end over a step when he inquired about treats. I remained there, took a few more breaths, sniffed his yummy neck, turned, gently swishing my “tail” and left. The amazing thing to me was that Riley stood rooted to this spot for nearly 15 minutes.

Our time together had included some liberty play, a couple new and slightly challenging training exercises, riding up and down the hills of our driveway, practicing some lateral work, a few circles, walk, trot, canter transitions and a couple of new tricks taught with clicker training and treats. We finished up with a bit of grooming and some stretches. We had done quite alot and yes, there was even some sweat involved:) What was the most rewarding for me about the whole experience was that once released Riley didn’t run off to join the herd. He simply stood there and kept his attention on me, watching until I had almost reached my house up on a hill. The fact that he stood in that spot for so long, along with his body language, told me that I had done it right. I had shared quality time with him. We had conversations about what he wanted and what I wanted. I balanced out work with fun, learning and some positive reinforcement training. I always try to strike a balance because it is a partnership, not a dictatorship. Done right they should want to linger a bit, not immediately run off the moment they are released.   

As the pictures illustrate, Riley licked and chewed, shook his head to release and relax, then rubbed his nose on his knee, displaying that he had learned something. I just love experiencing how our relationship continues to grow and improve. If you are looking to improve your interactions with horses then take a look at the brand new clinic “Creating Harmony with Horse Speak” that I am co-teaching with Horse Speak founder and author Sharon, Wilsie. This April clinic is being hosted by High Horses TRC in Sharon, Vermont. Horses are provided so you need only to bring yourself and an open mind. This weekend promises to forever change the relationship you share with horses. Click on “Events” to learn more. Hope to see you there!

 

Developing “Feel” & “Connection”

“Your arms and hands, from the shoulder joints to the tips of the fingers and through the reins, belong to the horse.” Sally Swift

Riding is like tapping your head and rubbing your belly, on steroids! Different body parts must be doing different things all at the same time, and all without disturbing the horse. This is no easy task. Luckily for us, and for the horse, Centered Riding founder Sally Swift developed exercises and techniques that offer us the opportunity to “feel” of each other. I personally take a feel of each rider’s hands when I get to the “developing a soft, clear connection” part of my clinics. This exchange of energy and movement gives me great insight into how they might feel to their horse. After helping things go a little smoother I have participants be each other’s horses. They experience how small changes can drastically impact the message and feel that goes through to the horse. These exercises are challenging and sometimes cause distress because nobody wants to be the rider who pulls or troubles their horses mouth. Riding is not about the mouth, it’s about the feet and body of the horse. First as riders we need to focus on our energy, our balance, our clear intent and carrying ourselves, then we can complete the pretty picture with subtle support through our hands to the horses head. These pictures illustrate some of the exercises we do in a clinic. They always serve as one of the most enlightening and effective teaching tools.  Whenever we can experience something from the horse’s perspective things always improve. Check out the event page for a list of clinics near you and experience it for yourself. I guarantee that you will find them fun, educational and inspirational! Your horse will  you for it! 

 

Stay Tuned

Check out the action at New England Center for Horsemanship this winter.  Two of our boarders, 28 year old Mike (gray Percheron cross) and 6 year old Night (Morgan), love to play! And watching it never gets old!