Tag Archives: HORSES

The Silence Between the Notes – Developing Harmony and Trust with Horses

Guest Post by Mattie Cowherd – Licensed Parelli Professional, 3-Star Instructor

 

woman on horse

For me, there is a certain peace achieved after a day of riding. In that moment, I can drift away from the past, or my distraction of the future. This allows me to simply BE – soothed by the passing of the moments rather than the struggle of my thoughts. I believe that peace and calmness are essential to developing the true art of horsemanship.

I still laugh when I remember my students’ faces as I galloped past them on a fat little cob during a trail clinic in Wales — eating an apple! The concept of peacefulness in full motion didn’t make sense to them. But, if I have true harmony and partnership with my horses, not even galloping at full speed should separate us.

Peacefulness should also extend to teaching your horse something that is scary or new. Pressuring a horse when it is on adrenaline is never a good idea. This natural drug in the horses’s system sets off its flight-or-flight responses. Horses don’t think when they are on adrenaline. Yes, you can force a horse through the experience, but you are likely going to have to repeat this lesson – again and again and again — because the horse is not mentally present. The horse’s brain is shut off, and it is operating strictly on instinct. If you use calmness, clear communication with your body, and patience, your horse will learn that he can make mistakes, and retreat when he is fearful. He will trust you to show him the way through a problem.

I believe that peaceful horsemanship starts with awareness – first of yourself, and then of your horse’s  internal and external states. Are you tight? Are you worried? Is there a good reason for this? Can you foresee any issues during your groundwork session or your riding and if so, can you simply avert it by being passively proactive? And can your horse check in with you and see that things are indeed okay? Can he see that you have been a patient and progressive leader for him? Can he trust that you will not be afraid or offended by what he needs to do?

Perhaps I notice more strongly now what a true partnership feels like because I also know what a false partnership feels like. I can feel the lack of attention and the lack of trust. I feel the discordant communications when a horse is terrified and unable to think.

I can also feel the harmony and the moments of true oneness. I can see my horse reaching across our communication to ask me a question or answer confidently when he understands.

I feel the moments when my horse and I are slightly out of sync, and yet, I can refocus my energy and my intentions to bring us back to harmony in an instant. If I feel my horse and I are out of sync during new lessons or a moment of fear, I can ask my horse to trust me and let me guide him to the right answer.

It’s like a dance. You can’t dance with another person when you are both intent on correcting or defending yourselves.

You need silence between the notes.

Stillness between moments of movement is vitally important to your horse’s understanding. If you do not pause or release completely, your horse does not have a chance to learn.

It is in moments of stress or learning with our horses that our attention to PRESENCE is so important to our communication and relationship with them. Horses are only in the now – adjusting to the present with reference to memories of past experiences. Create your best self when you are with your horses. Strengthen the positive responses with reassurance and attention. Your horses will seek this praise with enthusiasm and will approach future learning opportunities knowing that their partners have their backs.

To learn more about Mattie, go to her website here.

Trailer Loading – Solving the Mystery

Horses in trailerFor many horses and horse owners, happy trailer loading is a mystery. Let’s face it, to a horse, the trailer is just a metal box on wheels where they can be trapped for an indeterminate amount of time. For an animal whose natural environment is thousands of acres to roam, it is easy to understand why trailer loading and transport can be harried for everyone involved. Not all horses have the luck or luxury of traveling in big semi rigs with a  controlled climate and the cush of air ride.

Every summer for the past few years, I have taken natural horsemanship courses at the Parelli campus in Pagosa Springs, CO. It is a great way for me to further the bond, connection, and relationships with my horses. This summer will be no exception, and this time, I will take my youngest horse, Stormy, an 8-year old half-arabian mare.

As I thought about taking Stormy to the ranch, it occurred to me she has not been in the trailer by herself very often. As a foal, she accompanied her mother for a visit to the vet a few times. My husband also played with her for the first year of her life, and they worked on trailer loading and other introductory experiences. In her adulthood, I’d taken her to several shows, but always in the company of one of my other horses.

I took for granted that Stormy loads when led, and rides quietly with another horse. I remembered the few times I have trailered her by herself, the distance only a handful of miles, and she pawed and called for help the whole way. It hardly seemed fair that I will expect her to travel 4-5 hours to Pagosa Springs by herself. I decided to start trailer loading with Stormy from square one. What better way to test the foundation, right?

The first day provided many distractions. Dogs barking, people riding bikes on the ditch behind our property, and the other three horses of her herd looking on like kids watching a movie. She wanted to look and be everywhere but the trailer. I had to remind myself what Pat Parelli always says – “It’s not about the trailer.” It is about the relationship.

Here are some of the steps I’ve taken to help Stormy feel confident and secure enough with the trailer to load and travel alone. It is important to note that my trailer is a two horse slant load with a ramp. Slant loads provide more room for the horse to get into the trailer and are less claustrophobic than straight loads.

  1. First, we hung out at the back of the trailer with the doors open and ramp down. An extroverted horse, Stormy needs to move her feet when nervous, so I worked on yields (hindquarter yields and forequarter yields) near the opening of the trailer. I kept my stance relaxed and when she yielded well, I gave lots of praise. Then I asked her to investigate the trailer using the “approach and retreat” method. I asked her to touch the ramp with her nose and when she did, I took her away from the trailer. I did this several more times.stormy looking at ramp
  2. Horses are naturally curious when they don’ts feel threatened. After we worked with “approach and retreat” for a while, Stormy soon found it comfortable to stand at the ramp. She sniffed it, pawed at it, and then put both feet on it. I knew she wasn’t ready to go in yet, so I let her hang out there for a little while and then backed her away. After doing this three times, I asked her to step further onto the ramp. This time, she got all four feet onto the ramp and started investigating the walls, the floor, the windows, etc. I heaped lots of praise, with “good girl” and rubs.

(As I mentioned before, this was not Stormy’s first time loading onto a trailer or riding in a trailer. Because of this, I knew she could advance a little faster than a horse who’d had horrible experiences in a trailer or who’d never loaded onto a trailer before. If your horse has had trouble before, you might want to stop at this point. Use your best judgement.)

  1. I knew I could ask for more, so I backed her out and asked her to walk onto the ramp and put her two front feet inside the trailer. After she’d accomplished this a few times, I asked for four feet. She managed the task, but flipped around and rushed out head first. I am not comfortable with horses turning around in a trailer and going out head first, but I wanted her to know she could get out. I let her do this a few times. At the third or fourth time, she turned around and stood in the trailer backwards. Progress! I let her stand there for as long as she wanted. When she walked out, I repeated the process of asking her to load all the way in. I did this three or four times. The next time she loaded with all four feet, I blocked her with my stick so she couldn’t turn around. With gentle bounces of the rope, I asked her to back out. Stormy understands this suggestion, so she backed out without issue.stormy looking at me
  1. After Stormy felt comfortable standing in the trailer for several minutes at a time, and could back out calmly, the next time I asked her to load, I closed the partition and stood in the trailer with her. I continued to praise and rub while she stood quietly, and after a minute I opened the partition and backed her out. We did this three or four more times.

stormy in windowWe had accomplished so much in this session, that I felt it a good time to stop. It is important to know when to stop – when your horse accomplishes the task in a relaxed and confident manner. This is hard to do because when things are going well, it is natural to want to keep going. It’s important to remember that trailer loading, or doing anything that is out of your horse’s comfort zone, can be mentally and emotionally taxing for them. Quit while you are ahead. Your next session will go so much faster!

  1. In the following session we repeated the above four steps, and once Stormy could stand quietly with the partition closed for several minutes, I closed the door and took her for a ten-minute ride.

Stormy and I are still working on our trailer loading until we leave for Pagosa at the end of July. I will slowly increase our excursions and unload at different “safe” areas around town, like the public arena or trail heads near the Rio Grande. We’ll do some exploring either on line or under saddle while we are out, and then load up again, and head home.

I will keep you informed on our progress! To learn more about the Parelli Program and trailer loading click here.

 

 

 

 

 

cowboy on horse

Get the Most Out of Your Play-Date with Your Horse

riding on beachMaking time to spend with your horse can sometimes be a challenge. Family responsibilities, work, and everyday life commitments sometimes don’t allow us to be with our horses as much as we want. When we do get the opportunity, we want to be able to make the most it. We want to ensure that our relationship with our favorite horse pal is still on track. Here are some tips to get the most out of your play date with your horse.

1. Schedule an appointment with your horse at least once a week and stick to it.

As you know, this is harder than it sounds. With responsibilities and distractions pressing  on us every day, it’s easy to put off our horse time for more “important” things. I know I have been guilty of this myself. But, we have to remember—we have a responsibility to our equine pal. You probably didn’t purchase him or rescue him to have him sit in a pen by himself, or never have any human interaction. Tending your relationship with your horse is as important as tending your personal or business relationships. Your horse needs you to check in with him on a regular basis. You have to make time for him to get the most out of  your relationship.

2. Greet our horse with respect and friendliness.

Sometimes we get so focused on what we are going to do with our horses, we just walk straight in to the pen or field and halter up. If you think about it, isn’t that kind of rude? If you made a date to pick up a friend for lunch, you wouldn’t just storm into her house, grab her hand, and drag her to the car, would you? I hope not! The same applies to your horse. Approach the pen with a friendly, non-rushed demeanor. Bring carrots or cookies. Scratch your horse’s favorite itchy spots. Talk to them. Greet them. Then slip on the halter. I promise, it will make a difference in whatever you plan to do with your horse that day.

3. Use essential oils with your horse during your grooming session.

Everyone likes to be pampered, even horses! Once you’ve greeted your horse and gotten him out of the pen or the field, set up a pleasant grooming experience. Read your horse’s expression or body language to see how he might be feeling. Does he seem cranky or sullen? Present him with a bottle of peppermint essential oils. Let him sniff the bottle with the cap on. If he seems receptive, put a few drops of peppermint essential oil mixed with some olive oil in your palms and rub them together. Then stroke your horse between the ears or down his neck. If your horse seems nervous or anxious, do the same with lavender oil. Lavender is very gentle, so a carrier oil isn’t necessary. If your mare is a little moody, see my article “Unlocking the Mystery of the Mare”

4. Have a plan.

As I mentioned before, with our crazy schedules, we need to make the most out of the time we get to spend with our horses. It’s good to have an idea of what you want to work on, whether it’s working on the ground or in the saddle. Keep a list of the things you’d like to accomplish with your horse, and then pick one or two for the day. Have a third in your back pocket in case things are going swell and you are both game for more fun. Have a backup plan in case of inclement weather or other obstacles come your way. You’ve scheduled this time, so make the most of it by being organized. Your horse will see and feel your leadership, and it will help her from getting bored.

For ideas on what to do with your horse if you cannot ride that day see my previous article “Can’t Ride Your Horse? 10 Non Riding Activities”

5. Adjust if the plan gets derailed.

cowboy on horseOne of the most important things about having a plan is being able to make a new plan on the fly. If you wanted to practice your leg yields that day, and the communication between you and your horse seems off, break down the task. Go back to the basics, if only for a little while. Remind your horse, and yourself, how subtle your communication can be. Work on yielding the hind quarters, then the shoulders. Then maybe work on your sideways. See how refined and light your communication can be. If nothing is working, stop and breathe. Give your horse some love. Maybe it’s a better day for a trail ride, or a nice bath. The worst thing you can do in a frustrating situation is to push the agenda. Be kind to your horse, be kind to yourself. As Scarlett O’Hara said, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”

 

Horsemanship Foundation Needs Revisiting

I first started studying natural horsemanship in 2012. At that time, I thought I had a good foundation in my knowledge and skills. My relationship with my horses seemed solid. Once I started learning about the principals and practices of natural horsemanship, I realized that I had little understanding of what it is to be a good partner to my horse. My knowledge, my practice, and my “feel”, needed improvement.

I had basic handling skills, decent riding skills, and I did fairly well at competition. To many, that would be enough—and there is nothing wrong with that. But, I wanted more. Seeing the holes in my knowledge, my understanding, and my foundation was startling, humbling, and even a little dispiriting. Yet, recognizing my weaknesses only made me want to turn them into strengths. I had found a challenge.

And, nothing excites me more than a challenge!

As Karen Rohlf says in her book, Dressage Naturally … Results in Harmony, “to find holes in your foundation, it is a gift.” She further explains that we must continue to work on our foundation, and constantly nurture it.

One of the things I have learned in my own  journey is that to excel at anything in life, we must always go back to the basics. We must revisit our weaknesses, work on them, and challenge them. Having patience with the process and with ourselves is never easy, but it can be well worth the time it takes to go back.

While surfing the internet, I stumbled across the video below that was shot in 2016. One of the Parelli Natural Horsemanship instructors asked me to say a few words about the Parelli program and what I valued most about it. What I saw then, is the value of going back to the basics.

Now, while taking an online “healthy biomechanics course” with Karen Rolhf, I am again reminded how important it is to revisit and refine that foundation. (See my previous post https://equusplus.com/creating-clear-communication-with-biomechanics/)

The biomechanics course starts with basic communication with our body language, energy, and intent. These are always things we must be aware of when playing with or working with our horses—they are so sensitive to our physical and emotional cues. (For more information on healthy biomechanics visit http://dressagenaturally.net )

Like with anything in life, if we want to learn and move forward, we often must take a few steps back. It never hurts to go back to the beginning—especially with fresh eyes and a new perspective. I like to think of it like adding on to a beautiful quilt. Sometimes we have to go back and repair some of the stitches that have worn over time, but it only makes the new patches we sew on all the more beautiful and bright.

 

 

 

Can’t Ride Your Horse? 10 Non-Riding Activities

Ever have one of those weeks where no matter how hard you try, you just can’t seem to work in a ride? Sometimes the weather is bad, or the arena is out of commission, or the trails are too “buggy.” It’s too hot, it’s too cold, too windy, or you just can’t fit riding your horse in your schedule.

Sometimes life just gets in the way of your riding fun.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t have some quality time with your horse, or do other “horse-related things.”

Here is a list of things to do “out of the saddle” when you can’t get that ride in, for whatever reason.

#1. Spend undemanding time with your horse. Take 15 minutes to go out and sit with your horse. Turn over a bucket in the stall, pen, or even the field, and just “be” with your horse. Take some cookies or carrots. Share an apple. Often we get in a rush to “do something” with our horses. Take the time to just enjoy his or her company.

#2. Watch instructional videos or work on your online courses. Rainy days are great for this kind of activity. Get out your favorite notebook, pop some popcorn, and settle in for some good horsie education. I watch Parelli Natural Horsemanship videos or Karen Rolhf Dressage Naturally videos. If you aren’t a member of these communities, YouTube has a plethora of other fun videos to watch that will help you learn new skills.

#3. Clip and bathe. Give your pony a beauty treatment. This is especially nice in hot weather. Use a conditioning shampoo and ultra-hydrating conditioner.  Summer weather can wreak havoc on manes and tails. Clipping the hair around your horse’s fetlocks can help thwart scratches. Set up a hay bag for your buddy to much away while you clip and scrub, and then later when he or she dries. They’ll thank you for it! Don’t forget to use fly spray afterward!

#4. Work on your communication on-line. See if you can get your horse to move his/her hindquarters and forequarters with the lightest possible signal. Can you get them to back up without pulling or pushing? See if you can accomplish these tasks with just your mental intent and energy. It’s amazing how little it often takes for us to communicate with our horse partners.

#5. Organize the tack room. Make “keep”, “donate”, and “sell” piles of things you don’t plan to use any more. It might be a great way to help a horse rescue or make a little extra cash.

#6. Clean your tack. Don’t wait for the next horse show or clinic. It’s good to keep your leather clean and supple. Take a tooth brush and scrub the grime off your horse’s bit. Polish the silver on your western saddle or the stirrups of your English saddle. You’ll feel spiffy the next time you get to ride.

#7. Wash winter blankets and fly sheets. There is nothing worse than having to use a crusty, stinky fly sheet or blanket. Don’t wait until it’s time to use it. Most laundromats have large, industrial-sized washers that can handle the load of a horse blanket or sheet. Air dry in the sun for less shrinkage and freshness.

#8.  Wash brushes and grooming tools. Soak brushes in a bucket full of sudsy water. Let them air dry in the sun. Pull hair out of mane and tail brushes—use that trusty toothbrush to get the crud from between the tines. Clean out your grooming bucket and reorganize your newly shined and clean grooming tools. There is nothing like the instant gratification of seeing what was once dirty, clean again.

#9. Journal about your last ride and what you hope to do the next time you are playing with your equine friend. What could you do differently? What could you refine? Been on the trail lately? If not, maybe hand-walk your horse pal on the trail for you to get some exercise and to help desensitize your buddy to the monsters that lurk outside the pen or arena.

#10 Set up some play-dates or trail rides with friends. Being with your horse is fun, but being with your horse, your horse friends, and their horses is even more fun! Come up with some games to play or obstacles to work with. Plan a picnic lunch for that morning trail ride. What about an evening or night ride? If going out after dark, don’t forget to plan for adequate lighting and bug spray—for you and your horse!

Biomechanics – The Key to Communication with Your Horse

Since I’ve been studying natural horsemanship, I’ve come to realize the importance of understanding good biomechanics.

Last week I started an online course called “The Sweet Spot of Healthy Biomechanics” in Karen Rohlf’s Dressage Naturally “Virtual Arena.”

You might be wondering what in the heck is healthy biomechanics? Here in the dictionary definition:

Noun: biomechanics; 1. The study of the mechanical laws relating to the movement or structure of living organisms.

Fascinating, I know. But, really, it is.

To me and to many of my fellow natural horsemanship enthusiasts, the art of good riding is to become one with the horse—emotionally, mentally, and physically. Since horses do not have the luxury of verbal language, it is up to us to hear and read their body language and to communicate clearly with ours. It only makes sense that if we want better communication with our horses, we must understand our own biomechanics when we ride or work with them on the ground so that we cal allow and also influence the horse’s biomechanics to work properly.

In the first module of the course, we are focusing on foundation—assessing our own foundation with our horse and then working to build an even better one. In the first lesson, we worked on yields—using our own intention, energy, and body to influence the horse to move certain “zones” or parts of their body, both on the ground and in the saddle.

I worked with three of my horses on this lesson and received some interesting feedback.

Handsome (photo by Kim Mathewson)

Handsome, my lovely Half-Arab palomino gelding, mostly a right-brained introvert, became quickly confused and overwhelmed. I realized that in trying to be super subtle, I was only mucking things up for him. I had to turn up my focus to be clear with my energy and my body isolation, all the while moving slowly and taking lots of breaks.

Stormy, my sassy, right-brained extrovert (she’s so Type-A! Ok, I know I am anthrophomorsis-ing, but it takes one to know one) caught on right away. She is the horse who always calls me out when I am not communicating clearly. Fortunately for her, I did all of my experimenting on Handsome. Next time, she goes first!

Stormy

Chaco, my gregarious left-brained extrovert needed a bit more convincing, but he actually comes to life and decides to “join the party” when we have good, clear, communication. He forgets about trying to resist and gets into the flow. He is so much fun to ride. We ended up having an engaging and focused session.

Chaco – I used an app called Waterlogue for this pic. Cool, right?

The next step in the process of creating a good foundation is to practice these yields until they are solid (not perfect) and then move on. I can’t wait to start the next lesson and share it with you. Please feel free to comment or ask questions. I’d love to hear about your journey with your four-legged equine fur babies.