Thursday, March 28, 2013

Horse Training and PAP Smears By Kris Garrett If you’re a guy, you might as well move on to someone else’s blog. You’re not going to “get” this. If you’re a woman of a certain age, you’ll get it. Read on. And yes, I really did title this one, “PAP Smears.” What the heck does horse training and a pelvic exam have in common? More that you might think. Perhaps I found a connection because my mind is still cooking what I’ve learned from Tom this week. Whatever the reason, his horse training concepts are coating everything in my life like cold winter ice on the branches of a pine tree. There are few things more unpleasant than submitting oneself to a PAP smear. I personally have a phobia of the procedure. So much so that I’ve not had one since my son was born, and he’s a couple of months away from being able to legally buy whiskey. I wasn’t sure where my phobia came from until today. I’m not feeling well, and I finally submitted my name to doctor’s scheduling book. On the way to the doc’s office, an unwanted memory cracked through the wall of my resolve and left me shaking and nearly in tears. I wasn’t kidding when I begged John to turn the car around and take me home. It was thirty years ago. I was young and brave and determined to save the world. It would be many years before for my rosy-colored glasses were to be cracked beyond recognition. I was going to make a difference. I wanted to be important. I was going to do something that mattered. I was good at taking employment tests, and was offered jobs by three police departments at the same time. Aurora P.D. was first on my list, so I showed up at Aurora Presbyterian Hospital for my pre-hiring physical, very fit, excited, and ready to go. Thirty years ago women cops were as rare as buckskin Andalusians so it was not surprising that people stared. Back then, even other officers stared. The waiting room stank with testosterone from the fourteen male recruits as they gaped at the one female recruit walking to my place in line. I turned my attention inward and ignored them. The Doc must have been former military. He marched in all serious and ramrod straight like a drill sergeant. He shouted out names and broke us into groups like we had just arrived for boot camp. One group was to get chest x-rays. One group was to get blood drawn. One group was to get a treadmill ECG test. Once done, we would then switch. He walked down the line of nervous young cop wanna-bes, handing out medical orders printed on yellow paper. Then he came to me. “Hummm..” he hummed, brow pinched. “I guess you should have a breast exam and a PAP. You want me to do it, or do you want a female nurse?” “Ah…uh a nurse, I suppose,” I stammered. I was not prepared for this. Treadmill, sure. Blood, sure. But spread-eagling to a total stranger had not been on my mental agenda for the day. But I was young, determined, and mentally tough, so I buried my angst and squinted my eyes to a single narrow slit. I could do this. I’d just suck it up and deal with it. I’d prove to them that I was as tough as any guy. I’d be a “man” about it. I was pulled from the line and led to an exam room just off the waiting room. The foot stirrups poking out of the front of the table made it look like a medieval torture rack. My breath stuck in my throat. I pushed my anxiety a little deeper into my body. ”Take your clothes off and I’ll send in a nurse,” the Doc demanded as he stuffed my file in the plastic holder on the door. I found a too-small gown on a shelf and slipped it on over my nakedness. I could feel sweat running down my bare sides, even though I was shivering cold. A woman walked in, introduced herself, and told me to lie back and put my feet in the stirrups. With a gulp of air, I promptly did as ordered. She quietly poked and prodded while I stared at the ceiling counting the little holes in the tiles. I was trying hard not to hold my breath. Suddenly, without a knock or warning, the exam room door popped open. I didn’t mean to squeal when I saw the Doctor standing in the doorway, my knees framing his surprised face. Behind him was one of the groups of young police recruits, several with virginal eyes popping out of their heads. “Oops. Sorry,” the Doc muttered as he quickly closed the door. I went numb. I was so horrified, I refused to even think about what had just happened. I stuffed the humiliation deep inside my mind where I didn’t have to feel it. I clasped a chastity belt of steel over my reeling psyche. In a few minutes I’d have to stand in that line again, face those men eye to eye, and I could not afford to show that I’d been damaged. I had to stay anesthetized to my shame. I stopped caring if I held my breath or not. I don’t recall the rest of the day. Not one minute of it. I know I passed all the tests, but when it came time to pick a job, I did not pick Aurora. I picked less money, less prestige, and a lousy retirement plan, but I picked a place where my face and my private parts were unknown. Thirty years later, I still can’t bear the thought of being hung in a doctor’s exam table stirrups. Even going through childbirth and all the unavoidable exams and drama that entails did not acclimate me to that most vulnerable of positions. I’d rather be dragged through the desert cactus from a dangling saddle stirrup attached to an angry wild mustang. Cervical cancer is less frightening to me than a PAP test. For two decades I’ve simply refused to submit. So what does this have to do with horse training? With my dear hubby holding my hand, I made it to the Doc today. I was x-rayed and ECGed and poked and prodded. When the young, dewy skinned nurse asked how long it had been since my last PAP, I blushed. “Oh, about twenty years or so.” “Well, we should make you an appointment for that,” she said through a smile as she checked off something on the chart. “Our nurse who does that will be here next Monday.” “I thought that was part of today’s exam,” I stammered, feeling a sense of both panic and relief. I had been dreading that part of the exam for weeks, and now I just might be off the hook. But, that meant another wait, and another week of dread. “Oh,” she replied. “I guess I can do it. I have time today,” Panic returned. I steeled myself. “Okay, let’s get this over with.” I knew if I left without getting the test, it was not likely that I’d be seeing her pretty smiling face again. Ever. One doctor’s visit a decade was my limit. What I didn’t’ realize until we began was that she was as nervous as I was. She was shy and hesitant with her verbal requests and her physical movements. She fumbled with the instruments. She asked me over and over if I was okay, as though she was not sure that she was okay. She moved excruciatingly slow, like a predator sneaking up on its prey. When we finally got to the point where I was counting holes in the ceiling tiles, I realized that this must be how horses feel when the person who’s supposed to be in charge is nervous and unsure. I had accepted that the nurse was in charge, I gave her power over my body, she had me in a completely defenseless position, and SHE was the one who was afraid. It was sheer torture. Her angst was amazingly contagious. I wanted to get up and leave. I wanted to kick her in the head and take back my personal space. I held my breath and counted holes, losing count over and over. Her hesitation and insecurity really scared me. Did she actually know what she was doing? What if she did something wrong? Did she have any clue what was going on down there? I found myself wishing that she was stronger, would move faster, and yearned for her to demonstrate some confident decisiveness. Only then could I trust her to take care of me. As I lay back in that most vulnerable of positions, I gave up counting holes in the ceiling and closed my eyes tight. I floated away to another place and time, far from pokes and prods and cold metal instruments. I thought about my horse Feldspar and how nervous he got if I took him away from home. I remembered that I was always nervous too, away from the safety and familiarity of our private arena. Perhaps if I had been stronger, more decisive in my actions, more assertive in my commands, he’d have felt like I knew what I was doing, Perhaps if I’d had some self-confidence, it would have rubbed off on him. I was a street cop for ten years. I was afraid, plenty. I won’t deny it. But I learned real quick not to show it. I got really good at stuffing how I felt. I had no idea how much damage that was doing behind the strong brick emotional wall of my mind, but that’s another story for another time. My job was to be the safe harbor in the storm, the rock, the one the public could count on to make it all okay. When I was in uniform I was the very symbol of safety, security, and protection. And people in trouble clung to me like a lifeboat in a hurricane. It became more than just pretending to be brave. After a few years and some pretty intense successes, I WAS brave. My confidence grew with each triumph over evil. My self-assurance rose with each victory over the bad guys. Even being shot at (he missed) and then catching the guy myself as he tried to run, made me feel strong and absolutely invincible. For a while, I felt like I was WONDER WOMAN! I could do anything! Could I find a way to be that again, only this time for my horse? Could I resurrect the cop-me to be present for my four-legged friend, or had age and too many disappointments and failures killed off that brave young woman? Surely that part of me is still alive somewhere deep in my psyche. Surely I can mentally put on my make-believe gun and my pretend bullet-proof vest and take charge when my horse feels threatened, be it real or imagined. In the mean time, my once every two decades PAP test is done. My heart indicates I’m going to remain on this side of the grass, at least for a while longer. Now I just need to work on making that grass a bit greener so I really WANT to stay on this side of the roots. I believe that will require the presence of horses. -Kris

Monday, March 25, 2013

It Depends… By Kris Garrett “It Depends…” are words that live in a world of gray. The left-brained, analytical side of me hates gray. Black and white makes sense and is easy to visualize. Black and white represents yes and no, good and bad, always and never. But gray? Well, it depends…. I asked Tom a lot of questions yesterday. Too often his answer was, “it depends.” It got to be somewhat of a joke, so a snicker and a grin often preceded his words. I found myself giggling just about the time my question left my lips, instantly knowing what two-word answer was about to be floated back across the arena dust. When the skills you’re hoping to learn depend on so many diverse factors, they can be tricky for the mind to grasp. I figure that’s why, after watching Tom work horses for several months, I’m just now starting to comprehend the big picture regarding what he’s been trying to get me and his other clients to understand about the minds of horses. A few dozen horses and a tall stack of videotapes later, I’m just starting to recognize the power of his work. And I really do mean just starting. The more I learn, the more I realize that I need to learn. I’m a novice, a baby, a slab of cold wet clay waiting to be molded. I humbly admit that hanging out with horses on a daily basis for the past 45 years has not made me a true horsewoman. But at least now I know that I don’t know. I grovel at my Master’s feet. My cup is empty. There is no better, and in reality - no other, place to begin. Predator and prey. Those words are fairly black and white. Horses are prey animals and humans are predators. No secret there. But how does a human predator step fully into the mind of the prey animal so we can understand what they are thinking? Many people believe they can do this through the intellect. Our big human brains have enough computing power to analyze the evidence and figure out, almost without fail, how a horse is going to react to the specific stimulus we offer. Many people call this “whispering,” and have hung their shingle on the doorway of understanding without fully entering the building. At my encouragement, a good friend agreed to let Tom help her with her lovely and very sensitive half-Andalusian mare. I could tell my buddy was a little hesitant, but she trusts me and let me set it up. I promised to film the event, no charge. Just let me be there. I figured her concern might be because Tom is not a dressage rider and has no “level” or fancy credential attached to his name. He doesn’t fit her usual mold of “horse trainer.” He’s a quiet, self-assured Eastern Plains rancher, usually found in a dusty feedstore baseball cap and blue jeans. He prefers the company of mules to that of horses. I assured her there was little chance that Tom would actually ride the horse so there was no worry that he didn’t understand her style of training. Riding was not the point. I’ve known this gal for over ten years, and I have always been impressed with her riding skills. She’s had tons of formal instruction in dressage and jumping, as well as the natural sensitivity that allows her to be light with her hands and kind to the horse. She rode my horses for many years, helping me keep them fit while her own were still at her folk’s ranch, a mountain range away. My Andalusian mare, Lumina, consistently trotted up to the gate whenever her car pulled into the driveway. This spoke volumes to me. If my horse liked to be ridden by her, she certainly had passed the hardest test I could offer. It ‘s clear to me now that good technical riding instruction and years in the saddle do not always equate to a good equestrian experience. The lovely and talented mare my friend recently purchased has had tons of training, but like so many Iberian horses, is incredibly sensitive. Educated hands and a quiet seat are not enough for a hyper-alert horse like this. More lunging or roundy-round the arena kicking up dust at an energetic trot is not going to make things better. Neither was sending the mare off to another trainer. No doubt, the horse would benefit and come back with more knowledge, but more of the same kind of training was not going to fix the dangerous crack in the foundation of their personal relationship. The first issue to be healed requires building a strong bridge between my friend and her mare’s very dissimilar minds. That bridge, that understanding, is the basis for everything else. It’s personal. Another trainer showing the horse what kind of horse/human relationship was possible was invaluable. But my friend also needed to reestablish her own position in the relationship. Without that, another trainer’s work would be almost useless. “She’s a piece of popcorn ready to pop,” Tom explained as he held the end of the long leadrope, the float of the rope lying quiet on the ground. His personal energy and his calm voice was as low and relaxed as he could make it. The mare was stock-still in her body, but her eyes were wide and concerned. She was frozen with tension. Tom knew she could blow at any minute, and in any direction. Tom had watched my friend handle her horse before touching the leadrope himself. She moved the horse’s feet, backed her up with a side-to-side shake of the rope, Parelli-game style, and calmly moved the mare’s hind-end away with a waving hand, pivoting around the front legs in a decent turn on the forehand. When she stopped, the mare walked up close and nuzzled her chest. My friend stroked the mare’s soft nose contentedly. Obviously they had great affection for each other. My heart swelled at the touching tableau, recalling my own moments of snuggly affection with my beloved horses. Tom praised my friend for her clarity of the requests. But I knew what was coming next. I’d seen I before. “Your horse just ran over you…” he’d begin. While he didn’t mean it literally, he did mean that the mare’s thoughts, her energy, had just figuratively trampled over my friend. When that mind-set was accompanied by a startle or spook, the horse’s thousand-pounds of flesh and bone most likely WOULD go right over the top of my pal. And for us fragile humans, that could mean severe injury and even death. Tom took the leadrope and began the process of establishing his own personal space. He didn’t do so by become overly protective of himself as much as making a clear decision in his own mind and indication to the mare where a good, quiet , safe place would be established for the horse be. When she was in that space, all pressure from him stopped. If she moved toward him and got in his space, he used just enough energy through his body and the leadrope to make it uncomfortable for her to stay. “She always has the option to leave…” he’d say, over and over again when the horse took a step toward him. “…but she must leave going AWAY from me. And I have to give her enough rope to do it.” Teaching the horse that he or she always has the option of leaving is one of the first foundational pillars of the mind-bridge. Knowing that there’s always an option of a way out that fits the prey animal’s innate need to flee, establishes that first keystone of trust. A hungry wolf would not give the struggling mustang, held tight in his bloody jaws, the option to leave. It would hold on tight and try to make the horse stay in one place until it was dead. If fight and flight are both denied the horse, he’s either going to have to shut down in shock and “die”, or explode beyond the predator’s ability to maintain control. Tom calls it the “door” in the “box.” We put our horses in the “box” when we ask them to let us ride them or otherwise control them. The simple act of picking up a foot to clean it out is a type of putting them in the “box.” We take away a leg, and therefore diminish their ability to flee. We confine them in a box with our reins and seat when we ride, asking them to give up control of their bodies to our every whim. To the horse’s mind, a “door” that allows him the ability to flee must be left open for him to tolerate and submit to our control. Once he realizes that his natural desire for flight is still an option, the beginnings of trust in the human handler take root. The presence of the door is the very thing that gives the horse the ability to not actually need to use the door at all. This perceived trustworthiness and leadership of the handler is what gives the horse the security to willingly stay in the box. Some horses live in the box easily. They rarely, if ever, challenge their rider or handler’s control. But sensitive, insecure horses, like the one my friend now owns, become worse and worse as the box tightens in around them. Harsher bits, tie downs, increased feelings of confinement, and abusive physical punishment only exacerbates the problem. These sensitive horses often end up being sold again and again, many times leaving a long line of injured and frustrated owners in their wake. The mare Tom had at the end of his rope HAD to know that she could leave, that she had the option to escape the human imposed box, or she would continue to escalate to her much more dangerous “fight” behavior. To her mind, she had no other options. Flight or fight. That’s it. Once she realized she could flee if she had to, her mind would then open to a third possibility. Only when she knew that she had the ability to escape, could she calm her own mind enough to confidently hand over leadership to a person who she believed would keep her out of harm's way. By letting her leave when she needed to, Tom assured the mare that she was not trapped. She was able to keep her mind working and make good choices. Leaving doesn’t mean running away and going back to the barn, it means leaving the immediate energy of the stressful situation. If a horse decides to leave, Tom lets him or her go. He couldn’t physically stop them anyway. If the horse continues to leave to the point he or she hits the end of the long leadrope, Tom does not let go of the rope, he simply redirects the horse’s body and changes the direction the horse is going. He may let the horse hit the end of the rope hard, but he doesn’t pull back and hold. This would create a brace or a fight. He may draw hard on the rope to turn the horse’s head so the horse changes direction, but then he releases the pressure and lets the do whatever it takes for the horse to satisfy his need for movement. This adrenaline release lets the horse calm down on his own terms. When he’s ready to look for another option, Tom is still there, quiet and consistent. Tom never snubs the horse tight or demands that he or she stay. He lets them out the “door.” There is one black and white rule to this door in the box. The horse can jump and kick and blow off adrenaline with as much activity as needed as long as the energy is going AWAY from Tom’s personal space. If the horse comes at Tom, he makes himself big by raising his hands and the flapping leadrope toward the animal to say, “Not toward ME!” He uses his own body language and energy as loud as necessary to change the horse’s direction. “I’ll be just as rude to the horse as he is to me,” Tom says. “It may look big and scary, but I have no interest in beating up on the horse, I just want to direct his energy away from my space. He can go any other direction, just not toward me. I make this very clear. I don’t lie to the horse and let him trample me one time but not the next. I’m honest with him. I never lie.” Eventually, the signal to the horses that says, “you’re in my space,” is as subtle as a blink of Tom’s eye or a raising of the energy in his body. Sometimes he lifts the leadrope an inch, changing the weight of the float in the rope. All of these messages are a type of “pressure” that require the horse to think about a response. The smaller the effective signal, the “lighter” the horse. Never does Tom take up contact with the halter and physically push the horse way. “The horse has to be responsible for the decision to move. I don’t move the horse. I give the smallest signal I can to tell the horse to move away from the pressure, and stop asking the moment he decides to do so.” In the beginning, it rarely looks “light.” The horse may not know what to do other than run away. And that’s okay as long as it’s away from Tom’s space. Once the horse uses up the flight adrenaline, Tom goes back to asking him to move his feet to reestablish leadership. He “speaks” in the horse’s own language, which is “he who causes the other guy’s feet to move, is the leader.” Of course, Tom doesn’t always get the answer he’s asking for. He doesn’t make a big deal about it, he calmly starts over wherever they left off. When he gets the answer he’s looking for, he stops asking and waits. It’s the magical moment of nothingness. This release of pressure is where learning really occurs. A lot of time is spent in quiet stillness as the horse “bakes” the new information in his mind. It doesn’t take long before the horse realizes that it feels safer and more comfortable to simply give leadership to the fellow at the other end of the leadrope than it does being hyper-alert and reactive. Tom teaches the horse to FEEL CONFIDENT in him, and therefore safe in letting that him fill the role of dependable leader. His directions are clear and consistent. It’s the very best kind of carrot one can offer a prey animal. A horse who’s trained though fear, force, and suppression of his fight or flight instincts will almost never become a true partner. We’ve all seen those numb, glassy-eyed horses who’ve been forced into submission by violence and domination. They may seem quiet and safe to the untrained eye, but the energy of fight or flight is never truly extinguished. Having submitted and shut down as a way to survive the intense pressure applied by humans is only temporary for most of these poor beasts. If they wake up enough to spot an opportunity that reignites their natural instincts to fight or flee, they can become the most dangerous horses of all. These numb, equine-robots just might be tightly packed kegs of dynamite, waiting for a match. Tom taught the mare that there was a good feeling place to be. Then he asked my friend to take over. The horse obviously liked my friend a great deal, but she just as obviously didn’t respect her as her leader. Not owning that respect caused the mare to lack confidence in her human partner’s ability to keep her safe. So she took on that role herself, becoming more and more hyper-vigilant to protect them both. This looks like spooking and overreacting to the human partner, but it was simple survival instinct to the horse. The realization that our horses don’t respect us tends to hurt us humans, as lack of respect equates to rejection to our human “predator” minds. But to a horse, it’s simply a matter of herd hierarchy and perceptions of safety. Someone needs to be the leader, and if the human is not up to the job, the horse is going to take over. I watched through my camera lens as Tom and my friend took turns “talking” to the mare through alternating requests of movement, and releases of quiet stillness. I could tell my friend was a bit overwhelmed by the shear volume of information she’d been challenged to understand in a short couple of hours. I felt her pain. That’s why I’m videoing Tom any chance I get. He’s not so sure this work will translate well to being shared in books or videos, because each situation and each horse is so different. There’s no pat answer or black and white response that fits every circumstance. “It depends…” is much more common a remark than, “this is what you do…” But after a lifetime of frustration that’s left me wondering where I went wrong with my own imperfect interactions with horses, I’m not about to let this information go unshared. Tom was very resistant at first, but my friend Melanie and I convinced him that not sharing his work was unfair to all the misunderstood horses in the world. Tom may hesitantly tolerate my desire to create media with which to share this work, but he’s certain he’s not interested in being put in a box. I make sure I leave a door wide open where he can stop my camera from rolling at any time. And that open door is why he continues to let me follow him from horse to horse, watching, filming, and learning. Will this collection of “Tom” videos I have stacked on my desk be available to everyone someday? Well, that depends… .

Saturday, July 24, 2010

My Horse Feldspar 1989-2010

March 7, 1989 – July 23, 2010

I lost one of my best friends today. It was an intestinal twist. Why did God design horses like this? WHY? My friend was my very first foal. I've had him his entire life. He carried me through my young adulthood, several careers, my marriage, the birth of my son, and into the autumn of my own life. He was the horse who always greeted me first at the gate, licked my hands when I stroked his head and neck, babysat a myriad of foals without ever hurting a single one, and was the soft, strong shoulder I would cry into whenever tragedy struck our little ranch. He’s been gone for only five hours, and I already feel the emptiness of his passing.

It all started 21 years ago. The call came at 5:00 AM. “You have a new filly!” the excited voice whispered on the other end of the phone. I was still half asleep when I pulled my old tennis shoes on with one hand while I dialed my future husband with the other.

“John!” I shouted excitedly, oblivious to the fact that I had just awakened him from a sound sleep. “The baby’s here! It’s a girl! I'm on my way to the barn. Do you want to go with me?”

”On my way…” he answered without hesitation. He knew how much this foal meant to me, and I had become something that was starting to mean a lot to him. He was not about to miss being part of this important event.

We were both cops at the time, John and I. We were still “just friends” at that point, not sure if we were destined for a real relationship or just friendly work buddies. We were spending more and more time together, but we were cautious and unsure. At least I know I was. But John’s interest in my horses moved him up the possibility for permanence scale by at least 70 percent. A nice guy that liked horses…well, that was rare and that got my attention.

We were at the breeding farm in Larkspur by six. It was a very cold, early March morning and it was still very dark The owner of the mare, Holly, got there a short time later. Holly was a dispatcher at the Sheriff’s Office where John and I were Patrol Deputies. We had become good friends. Holly was an amazing rider and trainer, and had the most lovely and talented mare she had ridden to a regional dressage high point championship. I worshiped her riding and training abilities and modeled myself after her whenever I could. Holly had bred the mare to a gorgeous black Trakehner (a German Warm blood) stallion the two years earlier, and was blessed with an incredible black filly destined for the dressage ring. She let me lease the same mare the following year to breed back to the same stallion. Now I also had a quality black filly of my own. We were grand-moms of sister fillies, which made Holly and me, family.

Like any excited expectant “mother,” I had read up on babies and was ready to put all I had learned to practice. I had purchased a tape of Dr. Miller teaching “imprinting” and had all my desensitizing objects ready. Clippers, plastic bag, paper, a tiny halter, and I can't remember now what else. I rubbed and tapped and familiarized my new baby with everything I could think of before he was four hours old. I spent so much time with him he began to think I was his mother, and not the big brown beast with the milk faucet.

Him… Yes, you read right, I did not just make a mistake. The mistake was made by the young barn manager. She missed a certain piece of anatomy when she had checked the newborn foal in the dark. Neither John nor I had thought to check, and ended up calling him “she” for the first two days. It was hard to change his gender in my own mind, when I found out my darling little filly was actually a handsome little colt. I accidentally called him “she” at least three times a day for a week.

I named him Feldspar. It’s a type of crystal rock. I just liked the way the word rolled off my tongue. As is the tradition of Trakehners, I had to give him a name with the first letter of his dam’s name, which was Feather. It was going to be Feldspar, boy or girl. I was glad I was not also trying to get used to a new name.

He was charcoal gray when he was born, that soon became a strange mousy brown, and then shed out to an elegant and shiny jet black by the time he was a full year old. He was born with a headlight. It was in the shape of a large, almost perfect white diamond smack in the center of is forehead. The side points of the diamond went eye to eye. It was so perfectly shaped and so striking that it was the first thing most people commented on. He was incredibly beautiful.

People would laugh when I'd say that I'd had him since before he was born, but it was true. When he was still inside, I would put my head on his momma’s big belly and talk to him, telling him about how great our life was going to be together. I felt him kick now and then, which was very exciting and only served to increase my anticipation level. When he finally arrived, I could hardly contain my joy at the perfect little creature that came to share my life.

John and I had the following couple of days off so we spent most of it at the breeding barn, playing with the new boy. When we went back to work later that week, I proudly carried in a jar of bubblegum cigars to pass out to my teammates. At that point in my life I figured Feldspar was going to be my only “child,” so I was not going to waste the opportunity to celebrate. My all-male team of fellow cops always did think I was a rather silly girl, which was fine with me. They were good-natured about the teasing and I actually liked it. Being a bit of a clown was a great way of dealing with the tension of police work, and it was a long time before teasing the only woman in the room equated with harassment.

Feldspar grew fast. Our life changed fast too. By the time he was three years old, John and I were married, I gave up police work to become a Realtor, we bought our little ranch in Parker, and I was pregnant with our son, Alex. Holly agreed to begin Feldspar’s under saddle training while I prepared myself for human motherhood. (And yes, we gave out another jar of bubblegum cigars when Alex was born.)

Feldspar was a true Trakehner all the way… hot, loving, gorgeous, athletic. And a handful. He was a lot of horse. But back then I was still a brave rider and I loved how forward he was. All you had to do was shape his energy, and he took responsibility for moving his feet. And if he understood what you wanted, he gave it to you. I rode him a lot, those first yeas. We spent hours on the trails around our neighborhood,and then more hours in the arena as I got more serious about learning dressage.

But motherhood and my job become more and more demanding, and I rode less and less. I added pounds exponentially as I lost my riding confidence. Feldspar spent months at a time not being ridden. But he was always well cared for, and our relationship grew in ways other than that of rider and mount.

I got dumped only once in Feldspar’s entire life. We were in our arena here at our house, oblivious to the fact that our neighbors had just purchased two llamas. For some reason horses tend to think llamas are alien invaders who have come to earth to tear out horses’ eyeballs and eat their entrails. Just ask your horse. They KNOW. Feldspar and I were simply trotting along in our usually forward, energetic manner, when two wooly alien heads popped up out of the tall grass in the field next door. A microsecond later, I was lying on my back in the sand and Feldspar was at the far end of the arena at the gate, shaking like a leaf. He'd spun out from under me so fast I never saw it coming and I didn't have time to tense. I wasn't hurt at all. But I certainly had a new opinion about the cohabitation of horses and llamas.

Feldspar never kicked me or hurt me. Never. But John was not so lucky. One evening late, John was walking behind him when Feldspar had his face buried deep in the hay feeder. For some unknown reason, Feldspar kicked out, catching John on the meaty part of his thigh. Feldspar immediately knew he was in big trouble. John said when he realized whom he had just kicked, he took off and wouldn't come back to the barn. John is certain Feldspar thought he had been a horse about to challenge him for his food, not a human, and once he saw what he'd done he knew he had committed a giant unforgivable sin. John realized it was mostly his own fault for startling the horse, but Feldspar subtly gave John a wide berth whenever he could from that day forward.

When I examined John’s leg, I was not very sympathetic. There was no mark, and I began to think John was being a bit wimpy. But a few days later the most horrific, colorful, intense bruise I have ever seen appeared on John’s thigh. I was ashamed that I had not been very sympathetic, and found myself groveling with apologies. To this day, I haven't forgiven myself for doubting John’s level of agony.

Feldspar and I both have/had a little bit of a wicked child streak in us. I know that, anywhere and everywhere you go, horses are simply not allowed in the feed room. That’s a given. Feldspar knew this too, and he would never even try to enter when John was around. But when I fed by myself, which was often, he would calmly follow me in. I don't remember when this started, but for years we've had this unspoken understanding. I am a touchy-feely person who needs lots of physical attention. He wanted food. He would follow me into the feed room and go straight to the barrel of pellets, flip off the lid, and stick his head inside for a quick snack. Once his head was inside the feed barrel, I would lay the length of my body along his lowered neck and breathe the scent of his mane into my face. Sometimes, if I'd had a bad day, I would cry into his soft hair, sometimes I would just lean into him, close my eyes, and smile while my friend and I shared our naughty moment. We did this almost every day. John didn't know about it until today, after Feldspar died, when we started sharing our stories about him. I knew John would not approve, which gave our little ritual a touch of danger along with that excitement of just being a little bit naughty. It was like two teenagers sneaking out at night, not to be really bad, but just because it was pushing the established limits, and the thrill of the possibilty of getting caught felt strangely good.

Feldspar was never hard to get to back out of the feed room. All I had to do was say his name and put the back of my hand gently on his chest. He would immediately step back and out of the room without a fuss and I would go ahead and feed everyone. This was Feldspar’s and my little best friend secret, and it had a unique specialness to it that’s hard to adequately explain.

John retired from law enforcement in 2002. He immediately went back to school and got his real estate license. He’s good at it for the same reason he was a good cop. He’s a stickler for detail, and is as honest a fellow as was ever born. But the real estate market started getting soft for us by 2006. We started to struggle. We didn't know that it was a precursor to this total financial meltdown, but we were concerned enough at the time to know we had to cut back on our expenses. Horses, as any of you who own one (or more) know, are a huge expense. So, reluctantly and with great remorse, we put every horse we had, except for Teme (whom we had solemnly sworn and committed to care for, for the rest of his life) on the market. Feldspar was one of the best trained we had, so he had more than his share of tire kickers.

One day a lady came out with her dressage trainer to try him out. The gal was nice, but was very timid and I was nervous that his habit of going so strongly forward was going to scare her. He never ran away, but he had a Trakehner’s energy and it could be intimidating. She rode him around the arena and he was a perfect gentleman. She was obviously enjoying her ride. I started getting nervous that she was actually going to want to buy him. My heart started to crack. Then her “trainer” got on, immediately took the reins in her hands and pulled his chin to his chest. I felt myself gasp, as he has always been incredibly light in the mouth. This woman pushed and pulled and kicked and whined, and didn't get much out of him. She started kicking him furiously while holding the reins so tight his mouth was gaping open and his chin quivered in pain. She started yelling at me, demanding to know what was wrong with this stupid horse and why did he refused to canter? I felt myself starting to get mad as I told her as politely as I could, to PLEASE lighten up a bit on the reins! She seemed to be angry or frightened, I don't know which, and couldn't let herself give him any release. I wondered what kind of monster horse she rode (or created) that made her feel like she needed to pull that incredibly hard all the time. She continued to kick his sides and he finally cantered, but not for long. He broke back to a trot and started to whinny at me, as though to say, “HELP!” I'd had all I could take and I asked her to get off. Her student saw the emotion in my eyes and said, “I don't think you're ready to give up this horse.” I saw my out and quickly replied, “You're right. I just can't sell him. I'm so sorry I wasted your time…” They left; I pulled the sweat-drenched tack off his back and face, and leaned into his wet neck burying my face in his mane. At that moment, I promised him, out loud where he and the birds and other horses and God Almighty could hear me, that no matter what happened to us, our house, or our finances, I would never, ever, so much as consider selling him. He was safe with me. After all, he was my FRIEND, and true friends don't get rid of each other..

I kept that promise. And I'm so grateful today that I did.

Feldspar started out as the baby and bottom of the herd, but eventually, as horses came and went, he advanced and grew into the position of Alfa. He was the perfect passive leader. He was definitely in charge and no one challenged him. All it took was a twitch of an ear or a sideways look. He never attacked or bullied. For some reason I could not see with my human interpretations, he never needed to. He would allow other horses to eat with him, and became the protector of our little mini mare Ripley as she stood in his shadow while she shared his hay. He was never abusive of his power. When a young filly mistook him for her similarly colored mother and tried to suckle his male parts, he gently put his foot on her side and shoved her away. It was not a strike or an angry admonishment, just a “NO!” with gentle firmness. After witnessing that event, I had a new respect for his wise leadership. I have admired his rule of our herd ever since. I'm concerned now because we have no one even close to his personality ready to take over. I have no idea how the remaining horses are going to work things out.

Lately Feldspar has been licking me more than usual. Anytime he got near me he licked my hands and my arms. I thought perhaps he needed salt, but he had a salt block and free choice loose salt available at all time. I made the comment to John just a couple of days ago that it seemed odd, but that I liked it because it seemed so affectionate. I know I have a habit of anthropomorphizing horse behavior, so I tried to stop myself from seeing his actions as loving on me. But I have to admit that it’s hard not to think that way. Now I wonder if he knew he was not long for this world, and he was saying something to me I couldn't hear any other way.

I don't know if he could hear me through his intense pain today, but I spent his last moments of life right there with him, holding his head in my hands and thanking him for the incredible gifts he has given me throughout his and my life. I thanked him for taking care of the babies and for being so gentle with me. I thanked him for our special secret moments in the feed room, and for licking my hands and making me feel so cared about. I thanked him for always being first at the gate to greet me, and for recognizing me as HIS person. I could have gone on and on thanking him for hours, but the Vet’s needle was waiting and the pain was not waiting, so when the Vet asked if I was ready, I silently prayed that he understood enough to know that, if nothing else, he was deeply and truly loved.

Feldspar was my best equine friend. There will never be another one like him. I will never forget him.

My good friend and trainer TJ came over here tonight and helped me braid, cut, and save Feldspar’s long tail. She stayed with me while his body was being taken away. Her presence reminded me how grateful I am that I have human friends too. And she is one of the best.

I found this poem online and sent it to TJ when she lost her beloved Arab gelding friend a couple of weeks ago. She sent it back to me tonight.

Where to Bury a Horse

If you bury him in this spot, the secret of which you must already have, he will come to you when you call; come to you over the far, dim pastures of death, and though you ride other living horses through life, they shall not shy at him, nor resent his coming. For he is yours and he belongs there.
People may scoff at you, who see no lightest blade of grass bent by his footfall, who hear no nicker pitched too fine for insensitive ears. These are people who may never have really loved a horse. Smile at them then, for you shall know something that is hidden from them, and which is well worth knowing.

The one place to bury a horse is in the heart of his master. "

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What's in a name?

What's in a Name? by Kris Garrett

Everyone runs into hard times now and then. As anyone with horses knows, our equine friends can easily eat us out of house and home in no time. When you are boarding a horse with someone else, you can fall behind very fast.

I did not know the woman who owned the little black Arab stallion, named "Midnight." A friend of mine called and asked if I could find it in my heart to rescue the little fellow from a boarding facility where he had been abandoned. The owner was in financial trouble, and willing to give up ownership rights to this horse in exchange for $200, if he was moved THAT DAY.

"A stallion?" my husband choked, eyes wide. "What are we going to do with a stallion?"

"Um, geld him, I suppose," I stammered. "Please? He really needs a home..."

My dear, sweet husband never has been able to say no to me. It wasn't long before we were in the car heading first to the bank for some cash, and then to the boarding facility to meet "Midnight," and his soon to be former owner.

Sometimes you can feel anger coming off a person, like it is palpable heat. That was my first impression of Midnight's owner. She was radiating anger like a furnace. I held out my hand in a friendly gesture, but she ignored it. "Did you bring the money?" she asked, without returning my hello. I opened my purse and pulled out the bank envelope with the two, crisp, new, one hundred dollar bills. I handed it to her. She glanced inside and thumbed through the bills. Satisfied, she said, "Okay... let's go see him."

The facility was a mix of new and old, with a bright, new indoor arena and an old shed row barn that looked like it had not been painted in several decades. When we came around the corner to the open side, I spotted what looked like a gangly, underdeveloped yearling colt standing in the dark shade of the three sided shed. "How old is he?" I asked, confused.

"Five years old," the woman grumbled. "He's been here for three years, ever since my divorce."

The manure in the shed was literally knee deep, and I quickly calculated that it was probably about three years worth. There was a mound of grass hay on top off the poop, and a rusty water tank buried nearly to the top in old manure. I looked for a gate, but could not find one. That's when I noticed the woman untwisting a strand of baling wire that held the metal panel to the front of the shed. Obviously no one had gone in the stall in a very long time.

"Don't let him get in the sun," she instructed, as she tried to corner him in the back of the stall. "It will make him fade. He is a true black, which is very rare in Arabians, and you don't want the hair damaged by the sun. I've never let him outside, not since the day he was born," she stated with pride.

He was cautious, but not panicked, as she grabbed for the ratty blue halter that he had obviously been wearing for a very long time. Quick as a cat, she latched on to the nylon cheek strap and held on tight as he threw himself back, lifting her a full two feet of the ground. She didn't let go. He realized he was caught and immediately submitted, dropping his head. She snapped a leadrope on the halter ring and handed it to me. "I'm not giving you the papers," she stated firmly, with no room for argument. "Not for only $200. He's worth thousands, and I'm being totally ripped off. But I have to have him out of here NOW. If you want the papers, I want another three thousand."

I looked at the small, scrawny creature standing before me and wanted to cry. He looked so pathetic. He was skinny, though not abusively so, filthy dirty, with extremely long hooves and sad, gooey eyes. He wouldn't have brought $50 at an auction. "I don't care about papers," I replied, feeling anger well up inside me. I needed to get away from the woman before I said something I would regret later.

We had not brought the horse trailer, thinking we were just going to take a look at him first and come back if we decided to take him. But the thought of leaving him in that dark hole for one more minute was more than I could stand. "I'm going to walk him home," I whispered to my husband. It was only about three miles away, all quiet back roads, and I was not going to wait. My husband scowled, but didn't argue.

I thanked the woman and started down the long gravel driveway. The little black stallion whinnied as we passed other horses in their pens. He was obviously worried and was not sure he wanted to leave. When we reached the road he stopped and planted his feet. He'd decided he'd gone far enough.

"Midnight, we need to go," I cooed. "I promise there will be other horses where we are going. You'll be safe. You've just got to trust me right now, please?" I swung the leadrope toward his tail and got his feet moving. Slowly he started forward, one step at a time. My husband was following in the car, not sure what to do to help.

We made it about a hundred yards down the road when the nervous horse stopped again. I could feel his fear growing. I wasn't sure if it was because of my husband following us in the car, emergency lights flashing, or if he was getting too far away from his home of three years. He became agitated and was trying to pull away. I was concerned I was going to lose him, and found myself getting intimidated. I've had horses all my life, but I'd never handled a stallion before and I was getting nervous.

My husband pulled over, got out of the car and walked up to us. He stood with us for a bit, petting the frightened horse on his dusty black neck. We talked and cooed, assuring him that he was going to be okay. "I'm not sure this was a good idea," I admitted. My husband shrugged.

I started toward home again, and got nearly a mile when I realized we were picking up speed. The horse had stopped trying to turn around and had his nose touching the small of my back as we trudged along. I imagined that he had his eyes closed and was simply resigning himself to his fate. My husband was trying to stay far enough back not to interfere and was having trouble keeping the car moving slow enough. I waved him up and told him to go on ahead and get a place ready for our new friend. He was hesitant to leave us, but at my insistence he slowly drove past and headed for home.

I was getting a bit winded as we walked up the long steep hill as we got close to our house. I was chattering away to the horse, passing the time by telling him about our other horses and assuring him he would be okay. That's when I heard it.

"Sky." It was one word. I stopped and turned around to see who was there. "Sky. Call me Sky." I heard again. Suddenly I realized that I was not hearing the words with my ears, but rather in my head!

I'd heard of animal communication, but had never had a conscious experience of it before. I felt myself tremble with excitement, wishing I could call my husband back to tell him what had just happened. I stared into "Sky's" dark eyes, and said out loud, "You want to be called Sky? Okay, we can do that. You've had enough of living in the dark, like it's always midnight, haven't you? You're right, Midnight is a horrid name for a fellow who wants to see the sky!"

"Sky! I want to be under the sky! And I want to be called Sky." I heard him say again in a child-like voice in my mind. I was stunned. I fought the impulse to dismiss what I was hearing as my imagination, and decided the experience was just too strong for me to have made it up. So, for the rest of the walk home, I called my new friend, Sky. Over and over I said his name, and told him how wonderful his life was going to be. And I promised to NEVER lock him up in the dark, where he couldn't see the bright sky.

When we got home I saw that John had put our other horses in the barn so Sky could get acclimated to our place without having to deal with them. I opened the gate and led Sky into the pasture. I tried to take off his old halter, but it was so stiff and the buckle was so rusted that I couldn't get it off. So, I unclipped the lead rope and let him go.

Sky stood for a moment, staring at me. "Go on, Sky! You're FREE!" His eyes grew wide, and suddenly he spun on his haunches and launched himself into a full gallop. Around and around the pasture he ran, as fast as his delicate legs could carrying him. I kept hearing "Free! Free!" in my mind. I'd never seen a horse so happy!

The next few weeks were rough for Sky. We had to cut his halter off with a knife, and the dent in his nose never did go away. He got very foot sore from running on the hard ground after so many years of standing in soft manure. We put him in a smaller paddock so he'd stop running so much, but where he could still get outside and into the sun. We got his feet trimmed right away, but it took him a month before his feet toughened enough that they did not cause him pain.

During that time we had a summer solstice party at our house. We set up a ring of hay bales for people to sit on and had a drumming circle to celebrate the first day of summer. It was great fun. After the ceremony, while people were gathered on the porch for a BBQ, I let all the horses out into the pasture where we had been. Sky went to the exact center of our circle and laid down. He stayed there for the rest of the evening. Many of the party goers were moved to tears as they watched the little horse sleep in the circle. No one disturbed him. My belief is that he felt the healing energy created by our circle and was absorbing the positive charge we had left behind.

Sky filled out quickly and proved himself to be a true gentleman with people and other horses. He has never again been locked up in the dark. He was gelded and trained to ride. And while he remained fairly small, he became an excellent trail horse.

I've never again had a conscious "communication" from an animal. I suppose I probably hear more than I think I do, but only Sky has "talked" to me in such a profound way. Even so, Sky opened up a new world of possibilities for me. I will always be grateful for my experience with the little black Arab stallion who loves to look at the sky.

-Kris Garrett

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Riding Seat Lesson

The Riding Seat Lesson
by Kris Garrett

One of the great things about living where I do, is that I have so many excellent riding instructors close by.

From TJ I have learned to never give up, to accept what I can do in the moment, to sit quietly and not haul my horse around with my reins, how to do (and not over do) a proper shoulder-in, and much more. Without my dear young TJ, I would have given up riding long ago. For the past eight years, she has been there for almost every horse emergency I've had. She has quietly and calmly supported me as a true friend when tragedy struck, handling the more gruesome of details when I was too distraught to take care of the necessary business at hand.

From Melanie I experienced my first western spin. I've learned how to better speak "horse" and recognize that I was already talking equinese without realizing it. I learned how to be a better teacher of young children, maintaining safety and discipline while offering a way to feel good about every success. From Melanie, I've learned how much I value a truly good person who is so congruent with her thoughts, words, and deeds, that I feel totally safe being her friend.

From Frances I learned that I tend to lock my triceps when I am nervous, causing me to bounce on my horse's mouth. Her ability to spot and pin-point the offending muscle group for any given problem, improved my riding with every lesson. It was with Frances that I experienced my first truly collected canter with my gelding, Feldspar. It was a magical experience I will never forget. I was on cloud nine for a week.

From Kari I've learned how a confident person's attitude rubs off on a horse. I watched her take a wild mustang and calmly and gently ride her in less than a week. I could see how safe the horses felt in her presence, and how fair, consistent treatment and clear communication made a horse feel more confident and secure. And I've witnessed amazing courage as this tiny gal patiently masters the biggest, rankest mount with a smile and a chuckle.

This week I finally scheduled a lesson with Eric Zeigler. Eric's classical focus in training begins as it has for centuries, with the rider's seat.

Here's my story:

Nov. 16, 2009

I tossed and turned, the ache in my hip's stretched-out sockets keeping me from sleep. My little dog grunted as I pushed her away from my side, allowing me to turn over without accidentally squashing her flat. I felt her snuggle tight into my warm back with a sigh. Finally the mega dose of Ibuprofen kicked in and my eyes fluttered closed.

In my repetitive dream I kept seeing the dark-haired midget actor from Fantasy Island running up to me in his little white tux, pointing at my backside shouting "Da Seat! Da Seat!" I had this strange impulse to kick him.

The scene faded and suddenly I found myself in Rhett Butler's arms. He had me bent over backwards and was staring lovingly into my eyes as he growled in a low, sultry voice, "Frankly my dear, you don't have a seat..." My dream-self immediately fainted dead away....

Bright lights flashed and suddenly I was staring down the long barrel of a rather large gun! Dirty Harry sneered through slitted eyes as he muttered, "Do ya feel lucky, punk? Go ahead.. make your seat..." The gun when off, but my dream went black before the slow-motion bullet made it to my forehead.

My dream-self was freefalling through dark clouds until I landed with a thump on a bright road. A long, yellow brick road, to be exact. A smiling scarecrow with hay falling out of his ears danced up to me. He opened his stitched cloth mouth and sang in a lilting voice, "if you only had a seeeeeeeat...." I screamed.

A small Toto-like dog instantly appeared from under the scarecrow's hat, jumped on my stomach and started snapping at my face. "Seat! Seat!" he barked.

My eyes fluttered open and I found my little Schnauzer on the bed next to me, her front feet on my arm, frantically licking my chin. I pulled her close and hugged her to my chest and sighed. "There's no place like home..." I muttered into her soft, fluffy ears.

The nap didn't do it. I was still sore and tired. But I was smiling too.

You see, I had my first seat lesson yesterday. For an hour we walked in circles in the snow and mud of my largely unused round pen. My horse had been put on a lunge line and my stirrups taken away, as I began the task of relearning how to ride a horse. Sure, I've ridden off and on for 41 years now, but there are things that you forget that you don't realize that you've forgotten. It's the subtle things, like how to balance yourself at all speeds and gaits, how to maintain your center, how to recognize when your core is correct as opposed to balancing off the stirrups and/or the reins to keep yourself from falling off.

These things were once as natural to me as breathing. But now that I'm half a century old, they are no longer automatic. My body has learned all kinds of bad habits, and my sense of balance has been slowly fading away, right along with my confidence as a horsewoman.

I once was a natural rider. My first horse was a wild mustang named Lonesome who was found wandering the western slopes of the Rockies. He was two years old when I bought him. I paid $35 for him and an old bridle. Neither myself nor my parents knew anything about horses, including that you are supposed to train them before you rode them. I was nine years old and in a big hurry, so I just got on and rode. Lonesome didn't know he was supposed to buck me off so he didn't. We were both as green as a shallow pond in the middle of summer, and didn't know that we didn't know what we didn't know. I didn't have a saddle either, but my ancient, cracked hackamore that was held together with baling wire was all I needed. I didn't even know what a bit was.

I rarely bothered with shoes on myself or my horse. He had tough mustang feet and I wasn't going to be touching the ground with mine, so why bother? My usual attire was shorts and a tank-top. That's it. For years we explored the world together, galloping as fast as we could up and down the Highline Canal road through Greenwood Village and Littleton, just south of Denver. We swam together in the canal when it was full, and enjoyed running in the deep sand when it was empty. We had two speeds... gallop at full tilt, and stop.

I never thought about balance or collection or if I would fall from my horse. It just didn't occur to me to think about it. And yes, I fell off on occasion but it was rare and I was never seriously hurt. My worst injuries were from bug bites and sunburn.

When I joined Pony Club I was required to wear a helmet and use a saddle. I didn't have or want to use either one, but I did want to join the jumping debutante crowd, so I caved. When in Rome... I bought an inexpensive English saddle and bridle from the Sears Catalogue on my Mom's credit card. Yes... I had permission. I remember feeling so grown up as I filled out the boxes on the order form and mailed it in.

As promised, my saddle and bridle arrived in the mail in a big brown box. I was very excited. I got a neighbor to come over and show me how to put them on. I still have and still use both items, 38 years later. They just don't make 'em like they used to...

At first I had a very hard time keeping my stirrups. Before that I had stayed on my horse by virtue of superb balance and strong grip from my inner thighs. What I discovered was, if I lost my balance I would still grip with my thighs which pulled my feet up and out of the stirrups. I got very frustrated with this and would not use the saddle when I practiced jumping at home. I was much more comfortable bareback. It took me years to learn to keep some weight on the stirrups to keep them on my feet. I remember absolutely hating the stirrups.

Learning contact with the reins was similarly difficult. I had never taken up contact and had never used a bit. Hackamore's worked on a completely different premise. Fortunately my poor horse was very generous with his attitude and accepted all the new tack as easily as he had accepted a totally green, horse crazy nine-year-old. Not bad for a "wild" mustang.

So, why is this history important?

I have discovered that using a saddle with stirrups and riding with contact for the past 30 or so years has slowly and almost imperceptibly taken away the thing that made me so unstoppable as a kid... my ability to be completely in balance with my horse. It doesn't matter how many lessons I take, even with the best of the best in the lessons business, I will never improve (or regain) my riding abilities until I fix my unbalanced seat.

Eric Ziegler is a teacher. It is who and what he is. Eric = Teacher = FACT He is a history teacher by trade, but that teaching ability permeates everything he does. He has a wonderful sense of humor, and a way of adding a touch of historical fact and scientific logic to his instructions. The smile on his face is genuine when he is praising the attempts his students make, even if the results are not yet quite up to par. He is never demeaning or impatient, which is a trait that many of us older women with esteem challenges value beyond anything else.

But, he took away my stirrups!!! That makes him an ogre! Then, he took away my reins!!! That made him a troll! I felt a bead of sweat break out on my lip at the thought of having NO control over my mount. What was going to happen to me? As fond as I am of Eric, or "Zieg" as his friends know him, I was not sure I trusted anyone enough to leave me sitting helpless on my horse. I was thinking how glad I was that I had renewed my insurance policy, as I resigned myself to my fate.

I'll confess, the part of me who remembered that I was once part centaur was certain this type of lesson was beneath my level of horsemanship. After all, I've been riding for more than twice as long as Eric. Heck, I've got boots older than he is! What could he possibly teach an old hand like me?

And so, once again, I am humbled.

Zieg had the great fortune of starting out riding with a Classical Master. His first hours on a horse were carefully choreographed so he never learned the wrong way to do things. His hands are as soft as a conductor's baton guiding a gentle lullaby. His seat is as steady and balanced as a high-wire circus performer on a unicycle.

Zieg's mentor's methods are older than most countries, and are founded in solid equestrian theory handed down from teacher to student throughout the centuries. These methods do NOT include how to get a bigger extended trot or how to push and pull a horse through a series of maneuvers that might result in a scrap of blue satin hanging from your browband. These methods were discovered and developed by the true centaurs of historical mankind... the ancient soldiers who's very lives depended on their ability to ride their horses well.

And so, we began. Eric put a cavasson over my bridle and attached a leadrope to my mare's nose. For my mental security more than practical use, he left my knotted reins on her neck within my grasp, even though I knew he was not going to willingly let me use them. I'll admit, it did make me feel better knowing they were there. He had me flip the stirrup leathers over my horses withers and drop my legs down straight. "You can hold on to the pommel of the saddle if you need to," he assured me. I was horrified to realize that the "tire" around my middle was not going to let my short arms reach that far. I grabbed a piece of stirrup leather instead.

So there I was, a middle aged woman who has had horses for over forty years, being led around like a six year old in a leadline class. "Why am I doing this?" I wondered. Three steps into our lesson, and I knew why.

"Nothing about riding a horse is natural," Zieg began. "Our bodies naturally want to do the exact opposite of what we must do to have a good, solid seat." He asked Lumina to walk with him in a circle . Around and around we walked the muddy round pen as they got to know each other and developed their communication. I was to just sit quietly in the saddle and feel how my body was moving. "The movements in your hips should go with the movement of the horse, like a hula dancer," he shared. The image that popped in my mind of my plump, aging body undulating in a grass hula skirt made me cringe.

Lumina is a very calm quiet horse. I value those traits immeasurably. But every time she stopped, I was pitched forward and I frantically grabbed for the reins as though she was about to bolt. I couldn't understand it! I had not realized that this was happening in my body all the time when I had stirrups to stop my forward pitch. "You must keep your weight behind your hips," Zieg repeated. "Lean back! Lean back!", he shouted over and over as he let me find my balance through the starts and stops. We were just walking and stopping, and I could barely stay on!

My body has changed. A lot. The roll round my middle would be a terrific model for a cartoon tire commercial. That's about the only use I can think of for it. I feel the roll when I ride. It changes my balance and my center of gravity. It bounces separately from the rest of my body if I bounce too hard on the horse. I am humiliated by it. I am ashamed of it. When I'm told I need to "love" my body, I scoff. I hate it. I know it is not healthy to send negative thoughts to the flesh that encases my spirit, but I just can't find it in myself to love this pudgy mess that my physical vessel has become. In fact, just thinking about it bugs me so much that I had better go get the decadent, soothing comfort of a Grande triple vanilla latte.

So, I can wait until I can get on The Biggest Loser show and have the fat beat off of me in Fatties-R-Us boot camp, or I can deal with the hand I've been dealt, and ride anyway. But if I'm going to ride anyway, I owe it to myself and my dear, tolerant horse to ride with balance and softness.

So, there I was, my fingers in a white death grip on the leathers of my stirrups as they laid over my horse's withers, praying I would not fall off into the snow and mud that was rapidly being mashed into just cold mud. Zieg asked me to perform all kinds of movements that my old body thought were insane. I did them anyway. My clumsy attempts at horseback gymnastics were rewarded with positive encouragement and a gentle push for just a little bit more from my very patient and aware teacher. He knew I was afraid and uncomfortable, and also knew that my goal to keep riding into my gray-haired years was absolutely dependant on the securing of my balanced riding seat.

My teacher told me that my new name was, "Lift Your Toe and Bend Your Knee", as he helped me retrain my leg muscles to lay quietly on the horse's sides and not brace in the non-existent stirrups. At first Lumina would jig forward when I gripped with an unfamiliar leg pressure as I bent my knee and laid my leg on her barrel. But, as Zieg demonstrated by having me consciously grip and hug Lumina's broad sides as tightly as I could with both my legs, it was not the pressure of my legs that drove her forward, but rather the on and off changes in that pressure that alerted her to change her gait. If I could just find my center, find my balance, find my SEAT, I would have quiet, relaxed legs independent of my seat, and regain what I had lost over the years; the clear communication with my horse, and most importantly, my confidence in my ability to ride.

So to Eric Zeigler, I bestow my greatest honor. that of "First Class Teacher, Extraordinaire...." I am humbled and absolutely thrilled at this experience, and plan to spend many more hours on the lunge line. I'm going to do all I can to resurrect that internal centaur of my youth. I know she is still in there, somewhere.

I may be getting old, but by golly, I'm not going down without a fight.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Blob

The Blob - from Kris

Saturdays are always busy. My job is in demand most often when folks are not at their own jobs.

Today was no exception. I had floor duty at my real estate office for half a day, first thing in the morning, and an appointment in the afternoon. John had promised to transport home a thoroughbred mare we'd just finished breeding to Teme, and then he had hypnosis clients for the rest of the day. Alex was in limbo, not sure which one of us he was going to be forced to accompany, but made it clear if it was up to him he would just stay home and play video games all day.

We were up early. John got the horses fed and drove off with the truck to get the tank filled with gas and the tires filled with air. Alex helped by feeding Teme and his mini-mare, Ripley. I was in charge of breakfast, which these days consists of "green slime" and protein powder. (Don't ask...)

While the boys were busy outside, I picked out my most professional clothes, polished my shoes, ironed my blouse, and then jumped in the shower. The blow-dryer whined as I carefully styled my hair, fluffing it just-so, adding just the right touch of hairspray so it would hold the delicate lift over my bangs. I noticed I needed a hair cut, but with a flip of the brush and a spritz of spray, I got it to look just right. A little touch of makeup and I was ready to go.

I trotted down the stairs and as I passed the open window in the kitchen, I heard a commotion outside. John was not happy. For such a gentle, quiet guy, he has a real knack for turning the air blue. It doesn't happen often, but when he lets loose it can be pretty impressive. I suppose it comes from a long career in the Army, and then another long career as a cop. Four letter words are part of the common vernacular in both of those professions. I have no idea why.

Anyway, I didn't have to spend much time analyzing to figure out what was going on. John's schedule was even tighter than mine, and a balky horse was not on the agenda. She was NOT going to get into the trailer, and in true thoroughbred fashion, she was galloping tight circles around a very frustrated and angry man.

I grinned. This was my specialty. I've yet to find a horse I could not eventually coax into a trailer. Some take longer than others, but a lifetime of practice and a dozen or so clinics had earned me some confidence in this area.

I was needed. My heart swelled two sizes.

I was dressed for success, not for loading an upset horse. To save my nice clothes, I simply donned my horsehair-covered barn jacket and buttoned it tight. I was pulling on my leather gloves as I marched out to the trailer.

"Take a deep breath, John..." I admonished, trying not to sound as condescending as I felt. "She's obviously frightened. Here, give her to me." John hung his head and gave me a sheepish grin.

"I think she scared me a little," he admitted.

It takes a secure man to admit such a thing. Both of us are pretty level headed people, but both of us tend to demonstrate anger when we are actually afraid. It is a very valuable thing to be aware of. I suspect it is something all cops learn to do...after all, you NEVER show fear on the job. It's just not done. Not to your co-workers and certainly not to the citizenry. Frankly, you don't even show it to yourself. You can't afford to. One of the advantages of marrying someone who has also been on the job is that you understand little things like that.

I took deep breath and let it out in a loud blow. In horse language, that means, "'s okay. You can relax now." She heard me loud and clear. True to her predicable species, she stopped jigging, dropped her head and let me scratch her neck.

We stood there a couple seconds simply breathing together. When I thought she was ready, I asked her to take a step toward the trailer. She complied. Then I turned her and lead her a few steps away, both of our backs to the trailer door. In horse language I just said, "hey... just move toward our goal a little bit, and I will reward you with a release of stress about the whole idea." She immediately relaxed and put her attention on the new spring grass. I continued to blow with my breath, forcing the air out as loud as I could, watching as her upset visibly dissolved. At this point I was feeling quite smug.

Alex was holding the trailer door steady, watching. He looked at John and said, "She really likes grain. How about we get some grain and lead her in with it?"

As the adult, all-knowing parents, we smiled tolerantly at our only offspring and both said, almost simultaneously, "No Alex. That won't work." We'd both witnesses people try for hours to get horses in trailers using the carrot or apple on a stick idea. While it might get them closer, I'd not met a horse yet who's stomach could override their fear of that dark, confined space.

I took my time and inched the mare closer to the trailer. Every willing movement forward was rewarded with a step or two away, as a release. It was taking forever, but we had calm, cooperative progress.

Time was running out. I was getting nervous about being late. I hate being late. I mean, I really hate it. Comes from being publicly humiliated by my high school drama teacher when I was late for a rehearsal. From that day forward, at least up until motherhood changed everything, I was chronically early everywhere I went.

I was not going to be early today.

The mare was happy to munch the new grass, and was pretty calm by this time. I knew we would succeed, but I had no idea how long it was going to take. Alex looked a bit bored and tired of the whole thing. He looked at John and said, "Dad, would you hold the door?"

John took door duty, and Alex marched off toward the barn. The mare, startled at the movement, lifted her dark, lovely head. I quickly stepped forward to pet her neck, cooing reassurance to her.

At that moment, she turned her head and met mine with her fuzzy mouth. Her big horse lips gently brushed my forehead. As she pulled away, a huge blob of green horse spit stayed with me, oozing down my face and my freshly blown and styled doo. Globs of saliva quickly smeared my glasses from the inside. I was completely blinded by freshly masticated grass and mouth slime.

"ACK!" I shouted, startling the mare. One huge thoroughbred leap sideways, and we were both a dozen feet from the trailer. My hands stung through my leather gloves, but I didn't let go.

Alex came back with a bucket full of grain. I was too distracted to pay much attention as I tried desperately to clear my glasses of the frightening sticky-green slug that was trying to eat my eyeballs. Alex climbed into the front of the trailer and began to shake the bucket.

This poor, frightened mare, who, seconds earlier was too scared to get within five feet of the trailer door, marched up to the ramp like she'd done it every day of her life, put a foot on the wood planks, hesitated for about a millisecond, then stepped right in and walked all the way to Alex's outstretched offering. Her head immediately disappeared into the bucket.

John quietly closed the door behind us. I petted her for a bit, but her attention was happily elsewhere. Alex gave me that look... the one that teenagers give their parents when they first suspect that their parents may actually be idiots.

John was still standing guard at the door. I slipped out and he locked it closed behind me. I turned to him to talk about what Alex had just done. He glanced at my face, and suddenly started turning red. He was trying SO hard not to laugh! But seeing a huge blob of green horse slime slowly oozing down your wife's forehead is apparently pretty funny. It was not so funny from where I was standing. Good for him that he was more than an arm's length away.

I was late to the office. Four minutes late to be exact. But it takes a little time to wash lime colored toxic goo from a hairdo. My hair was flat and wet as I drove 80 miles an hour down E470. A rolled down window took care of the wet, but I went from dressed for success, to dressed as a mess.

We won't talk about what I found on my freshly polished shoes when I sat down at my office desk.

I sure am glad my boss has a sense of humor....


Square Horse in a Round Pen

A Square Horse in a Round Pen

I found that I have a square horse who doesn't care for the round pen.

Some people think the round pen is the magic tool of the horse whisperer. You can train a horse by allowing this flight-response, prey animal to do what it is wired by nature to do, and that is RUN. All the while, the wall of corral panels controls WHERE he runs, specifically, in a never ending circle. Your rope or whip or whatever you had that encouraged the horse to run in the first place, will always be able to reach the panicked animal because the circle is all they have. There is no where else for them to go.

John Lyons was my first round-pen guru. It was the 1980's and the name Parelli had not yet touched my ears. My soon-to-be husband and I went to the National Western Events Center and watched this soft spoken cowboy run a myriad of horses around the round pen, accurately predicting each move the horse was going to make before the horse made it. He was a master, not only of the horses, but of the crowd. I was more than a little impressed. Horse Master Lyons took a totally green, unbroken horse and rode him calmly and quietly in about two hours. Then he took a dangerous, lathered, rogue horse and put him in the scary monster horse trailer in a matter of twenty minutes. Yes, I did come away with an armload of books and videos. "Carrot Sticks" and not been invented yet. Thank goodness or I'd have been out another $32.95.

I saw a whole lot more of round pens, "natural" horse trainers, and orange whips over the next twenty years. I even own a round pen. I nearly tore it down the day I spent 30 minutes being chased by a "natural horsemanship" trainer around and around the pen while he shook his plastic Walmart bag on a stick at my horse. He'd taken away my bridle and left me clinging to my dressage saddle while I tried desperately to stay on my very angry Andalusian mare. He shook his bag in her face and switched her back and forth in cutting horse turns with increasing speed at every switch. I would have killed for a saddle horn. My mare's ears where pinned tight to her head as she faced the crackling bag, ready to stomp the idiot holding it if he was just give her the opening. He was doing this to cure me from my fear of riding. I never have figured out how that was supposed to work. When I shouted that I was scared to death and to please stop, his reply was, "just ride through it!" In short order I jumped off my moving horse, somehow landing on my feet. I left him standing in the round pen as I ran into my house and hid behind the couch. Two boxes of Kleenex later, I told my husband the horses had to go. I was never getting on the back of a horse again. And I meant NEVER, like for the rest my life.

Within a couple of years, the weeds in the round pen were taller than the corral panels. And we
didn't sell the horses. We started breeding more of them. You'd have to be a horse addict to understand how that happens. You see, a horse addict does not
have to RIDE them, but they will whither and die inside if they are not around them. You think
I'm kidding, don't you... I'm not kidding. It is a sickness just as powerful as smoking or
alcohol or a cocaine addiction. Somehow, I was lucky enough to marry a man who either
understands this, or just simply loves me enough to allow me this illness and not throw me out in
the street along with the hay and vet bills.

Oops.. I digress. Let's fast forward to today....

Grandezo... a name that is full of nobility and promise. I love that name. I found it in the Spanish dictionary the same day I found the horse that bears it. It means, "grandeur." He
is a grand fellow, a rare pure Spanish Andalusian. And a stallion. Okay, he's just a yearling, but he is a STALLION yearling! He is bay, with a black sire and a bay mother. His glossy black daddy is the stuff of fairy tales. He makes me swoon just looking at his picture. Thanks to his father's DNA, there is a good chance Grandezo will father babies who are truly black... a rarity in the Andalusian breed. Oh, there are a few around, but finding a real quality black purebred Andalusian is difficult in a breed where 80% are gray, 15% are bay, and only 5% are black. We expect our fellow to up that 5% in short order, and have our fingers crossed that he will throw is exceptional quality along with the color. A breeder's perfect scenario. Have I mentioned crossed fingers yet? I've discovered that it is hard to type with your fingers like that...

Grandezo is a square. I mean that he is pretty boring. He is very calm and sweet, and does pretty much whatever I ask of him, which isn't much considering he is only a year old and not broke to ride yet. We ask things like, go in that pen to eat, and don't step on my foot. That kind of thing. He's the kind of guy who, if he was human, would sit at the front of the class and sharpen pencils for the teacher, just to earn brownie points. Like a said, he is a square.

I have some time on my hands right now. My real estate business is pretty slow. (Any of you want to buy or sell a house??) But I have 14 horses and I need to work with them before they become spoiled brats. Grandezo is supposed to be our new herd stallion in a few years, so he was the obvious candidate to trod down the weeds in the round pen. After all, it would be suicide to wait until he has testosterone poisoning before I tell him that, despite all the coddling and submissive behavior I've inadvertently projected, I am the BOSS MARE, also known as, "SHE WHO MUST BE OBEYED!"

Have you ever heard a horse laugh?

As I said, Grandezo is like the good kid at school. He is not into confrontation. He will go along with the flow, happy to have his oats and is looking forward to sewing a few someday. He doesn't ask for much. Just something to eat, water to drink, and a few buddies to play "Wild Stallion of the Cimarron" with. He'll lead, tie, go in the trailer, even stand for a cold hose bath. I think he does it because he respects me. But, like the smart kid in school, he knows he is smart, knows how the play the game quite well, and just chooses to avoid confrontation.

Enter the ROUND PEN!

The round pen is all about confrontation. You see, in horse language, he who makes the other guy move, is the boss horse. It's that simple. A "horse whisperer" uses this knowledge to silently, and generally only with body language or with a simple stick or rope, inform the horse that HE (or SHE), the HUMAN, is the "Boss" because he can make the horse move his feet. Every time a person makes a horse move his feet, the horse is clearly being told, "I'm the boss, and you must submit to me." At least, that's what they say at the clinics.

As a flight animal, it is not hard to make a horse move his feet. You can throw something, you can yell at them, you can chase them with a crackly plastic Walmart bag on a stick, or you can take a whip and make scary sounds by slicing the air and smacking the ground. Or you can even go so far as to hit them with the whip. I've yet to see a horse who would not run if encouraged enough.

I'm generally a gentle person. I don't care to hit my horses. At least, unless I really think I am in danger. And I certainly don't see Grandezo as dangerous. I also don't believe in running a horse around in a circle until they are exhausted. The tight circle it just too hard on their legs, especially the young horses. I prefer to keep it quiet and slow, just asking for forward movement without fear or stress. A walk in the park.

I swing my short variation of a lunge whip (okay, okay, it is a cheap rip-off copy of the Parelli "carrot stick" whip... are you satisfied???) at him and he trots nicely and calmly around and around the pen. No upset, no stress, no running 'till he drops.

I've watched the videos. I've been to the clinics. I've read the books. I watched a very good ground work trainer that very morning work with John's new horse. I know that I'm looking for licking and chewing, and a lowered head carriage. I watch for those silent horse language signs that mean, "please let me stop.... Uncle! Uncle! I give up!" Then I know that my buddy on four feet has accepted me as "BOSS" and he will forever and ever "OBEY" me.

It's taking a long time. It is rather hot outside. I wish I'd thought to put on a hat. My eyes are burning. I've already ridden three horses today, and I'm pretty tired. Geeze... I should have had a Gatorade before I started this. Oh dear, my lips are really cracked! Sunburn. Ya know.. it really IS hot out here! Oh come on, Grandezo, give me a sign! A sign! A sign! PLEASE!

Was that licking? Was that a chew? I'll take that as a yes! I turn my shoulder to him and bend at the waist, "inviting" him to stop and talk to me. He's a very smart horse. He looks at me, then comes right to me and stops a step away. I'm thrilled! I take that step to him and pet his lovely forehead. I'm gloating. Yep....I'm a "Whisperer..." I'm two inches taller now. I step to the left. Yep... just like Master Lyons would have predicted, Grandezo does a perfect turn on the haunches and his front feet follow me two steps to the left. I move to the right. He looks left and walks away, his butt in my face.

Wait a minute! That's not right. Okay, he just blew me off. I really hate that. It is SO disrespectful! He forgot that I am the Boss! I mean THE Boss! Well, (I huff) if he's going to do that, then he has to MOVE HIS FEET! I'll tell him who's Boss! I yell and swing my little lunge whip at his hip. He trots off. That'll teach him!

Around and around. Good god it's hot. My feet are killing me. A lick? Was that a lick I saw? Good enough! I turn my shoulder and bend at the waist. He comes in immediately. Smart horse. I walk to the left two steps. He steps with me. I walk to the right. He's gone, head down, tasting what's left of the smashed up weed stumps. My confidence sags and I shrink two inches.

Again ... around and around.. patience. Patience. Patience. The horse trainer's best friend. I forgot to fill up on patience before I started this. Can you buy it in a bottle? Jack Daniel's, perhaps? I'm getting irritated. We do the same scenario FIVE TIMES! He'll come to me to the left, the side he has always be lead from and haltered from, but to the right? No way. He gives me the horsie equivalent of the middle finger every time.

I need another video. A new book, perhaps. An emergency call to the trainer? Oh my ... what do I do?

One more time. I'm insistent. I push him, still at the slow trot. I don't want to push his young legs hard in the round pen. I could damage him for life if I do this too much. But he is winning, and I can't stop here. If he wins now, what will he be like tomorrow? At three? When he is an adult and starts breeding, and testosterone poisoning has taken over his brain? No.. I can't quit. Just keep it soft and easy. Don't push him hard, just keep his feet moving.

One more time. He steps to the left, Perfect. Then I move to the right. A light bulb goes off! His eyes open a little wider. He looks at me. There it was, flashing in his dialating pupils… "Oh my GOD!" he says! "You're trying to…. DOMINATE ME!"

"Ummmm Yes.. well... uh... yep, that's the idea. You see, I move your feet, and then you're dominated. Didn't you read the Monty Robert's brochure I left under your alfalfa last night?" I reply, hopefully.

"Over my dead body!" his eyes scream! He leaps across the little round pen at a dead run! Around and around as fast as he can go, dust flying, sand spitting in my face, bits of mashed up weeds falling like sticky green rain.

He must escape! Can he jump this fence? He body slams one of the unforgiving mental panels when he chickens out at the last minute. Around and around he runs until his quivering body is glistening with sweat.

I just stand there, my mouth open, catching green rain and dirt. I hardly notice. I'm not swinging my little whip, I'm not asking him to move his feet. I'm just silently praying to the horse goddess Epona that she impress upon him the notion that trying to jump a six foot panel fence is definitely NOT the thing to do right now. I sure wish I had paid up his insurance policy. This could get ugly.

I've never seen this gorgeous boy upset before. My heart hurts. I don't like it. I realize that all that cooperation I saw before was him playing a game with his fellow herd-mate. I'm just part of the herd, and nowhere near Boss Mare. He did what I asked because that's what he does. He didn't need me to "dominate" him to get him to be cooperative, at least up to a point. But once he fully understood what I was doing, it blew his sweet little mind!

And here is where I had to make a decision. If I quit, he won. He would be dominant in our little herd of two and four legged members. If I didn't quit, he could get hurt, or end up dead with a broken leg or something. This colt is to eventually be a breeding stallion as well as a show horse. He MUST respect humans or he could end up very, very dangerous. That is not good for him, and not good for his humans. It was time for tough love. I hated it, but I am sure it was the right decision. I was going to win, or one of us was goin' down.

Grandezo finally got tired. Thank you, Epona! His frantic gallop had slowed to a canter. I followed his progress around the pen but did not push at him until he slowed to a trot. Then I asked him to keep trotting for one full circle around the pen. I wanted him to think it was MY idea that he keep going. When I was sure I had his attention, I turned my shoulder to him and bent over, inviting him to come to me. He had one eye and one ear turned my direction. He was thinking. It took another full circle around the pen for him to make his decision. He slowed to a walk, and with his head nearly to the ground, he came to me. I petted his sweaty head and took two steps to the left. He came with me. I took a deep breath and took two steps to the right. He stayed with me as though glued to my hip. I took two more steps to the right. He stuck with me. I walked in a circle to the right to the center of the pen with my beautiful boy right at my side,
no halter, no lead rope, just his mind attached to mine. I grew back that two inches in height I had lost ten minutes earlier.

He followed me to the gate where his halter was waiting. I put it on. We walked out of the round pen together, both sweaty and tired. A few steps away from the pen I stopped, gave him a big grateful hug, and took off the halter. I turned away and headed for the barn with him still on my tail. It was feeding time.

Boy, that Gatorade tasted good.