Friday, August 20, 2010

The First Step

A couple of days ago, a new boarder at our barn asked how we got started working with horses in this new way and I really had to think back about how it did begin.

As with any change it started with questioning the way things have always been done. I covered some of this in the last blog on the evolution of horsemanship. Once you release the old, then you have to give yourself permission to see things in a new way and from there be open to what shows up.

How many of you have read ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Cuelho? Fun read and from it a phrase has entered our language that we use any time big change is needed. It is ‘Sell the sheep’. Before the shepherd boy could go on his life altering mystical journey he had to step out of what was comfortable and sell his sheep. That first step is never an easy step. Why leave comfortable for the unknown….for the fear and uncertainty. We do it because it is our soulful journey. There is a calling from beyond.

It think it started for me a few years back when I was reading a Jane Smiley’s book that introduced the idea of horse personality typing. The writing of my book ‘Is Your Horse a Rock Star?’ came out of that and this analyzing of horses opened the door to a new way to look at the horse. Due to the book we were out teaching clinics and workshops and doing demos, so it enabled us to sit in a lot of riding arena’s and witness loose horses. We were doing this to figure out their personality but in the process I could not help but notice the varied expressions that went beyond personality. Some horses were truly awake and aware and others appeared to be slogging along in a fog. Their eyes began to show us a bigger story.

We became aware of all the emotions. Anger, boredom, worry, sadness, pain, happiness, joy! We were doing weekend workshops designed to help people learn how to work with their horse from their personality perspective. This understanding of the personality was what started the deeper listening. What I began to see was a difference in the horses’ eyes from the beginning of the weekend to the end. They started to open up and become engaged once we really started to reach out and want to know who they were. The bolder types of course showed this sooner than the shy timid types. How well the owner could honour and respect the horse was also important. The more the riders were aware and willing to change old patterns of behaviour the greater the change within the horse.

Horse owners were seeking a new way to be with their horses. But why were we here and what were we
seeking now that we had let go of our competitive world of ‘bigger, faster, better’? What I was seeking was a real relationship, a chance to get to truly know another, a chance to share a journey, a chance to change, perhaps myself.

Listening seemed to be the key. How do we listen to our horses? We were used to listening to them physically. We knew if they were lame or sick or sore. We knew how to feed them, and blanket them and exercise them. But did we know how to listen to them from an emotional place. We knew the negative emotions and what happened when those got out of hand. Our training had all been about getting control of those negative emotions. We had learned to equate well behaved with emotional control. But was emotional control emotional expression? No. We wanted to know who they truly were. Were they happy? Would our horses choose to be with us? Would they voluntarily leave their herd and enter our world?

We did not know any of these answers. But we had sold the sheep (our old ways) and were heading off seeking a new way. Could I quit trying to control their behaviour and instead see who they really were and accept where that might take me? Now what does this listening look like?

I am aware. I have chosen to change, now what is the next step. Starting to sound like a 12 step program isn’t it…might not be so far off. We have been a bit addicted to our control. There is some step in there about turning your life over to god whatever that means to you. Hmmm. Let’s not go there.

So to begin we need to find common ground. I decide that the one place I am not too annoying with my horses is out in their field. I will ask if I can be with the herd if I behave myself. They are suspicious. What am I up to? What have I done with the halter and the agenda? They come up to see if I have a treat. -No. ‘Good then, see you later’. I have been snubbed. As a matter of fact Liberty turns away and takes a dump right in front of me. So that brings up a few of my own emotions. I won’t go into that here. You do not need to become my therapeutic couch. They move off grazing, I follow rather pathetically. They question for a moment if I am driving them or following. I am sure they are waiting for me to go into my old ‘natural’ ways, which means to drive one of them until they will be caught. My looking pathetic seems to quell any of those worries.

Each day I set a time of 20 minutes that I will spend with the herd doing whatever they are doing. Note: not the farting and pooing part. About day 3 or 4 they have let their guard down and are now just thinking I am odd but harmless. No problem, others have thought that before. I go out to the herd and they are all snoozing. They allow me to come in very close and I lie down with them and a few of them lie down as well. I feel honoured. I love the deep breathing and I am soon travelling off with them into a land of pure awareness even while sleeping.

The herd had accepted me in a small way and so I know the journey had begun. I had stepped onto the first rock. The crossing of the stream is our life journey and we desperately want to be told exactly how to get to the other side but all that ever is presented is the next rock. How shaky or stable the rock will be, we do not know until we take that step. We may be told how to get to the other side, but it is invariably someone else’s journey and we get there only to find disappointment or dissatisfaction. We can also chose to sit in comfort on a rock for awhile but we finally realize we are just watching life flowing by and not really participating in what it has to offer. If we sit too long, we become stagnant like still water. If we resist and refuse to move, grow, change, sometimes a current will come by and sweep us off our high ground. Luckily this action was not required, I had willingly taken my first step without needing to know where the horse journey would take me.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Evolution of Horsemanship

As we move into a new way to be with our horses I couldn't help but think about how horsemanship has evolved in the past century and I noticed some parallels with dog training and child rearing.

Dogs, kids, horses – we have tended to treat them the same over the years. In the past, and not that long ago, certainly within this last century, people relied on corporal punishment to keep all three in line. Encarta describes corporal punishment as ‘the striking of someone’s body as punishment’. All three have had more than their share of that over the centuries.

‘Spare the rod, spoil the child’ – was still a common saying about how to raise children when I was a child. The strap was used in school when I was in grade school ( yeah I am THAT old), fathers still took off their belt, or mother’s threatened about what would happen when ‘dad got home’, all in the name of raising a good, obedient child that would be a valuable member of society. Dogs had the old choke chain on them or a boot to the butt if they were out of line. And horses of course had the whip and spur and the proverbial 2x4 if they did not comply. Corporal punishment was the standard, accepted way to control.

For those new to the horse world, let me go into more detail on what I will occasionally refer to as old horsemanship. It was a time ‘when men were men and horses were horses’. They all had a job to do and it was all about survival. This working style of horsemanship is still used in many places today but that is a natural part of evolution. We are not all early adaptors and it is not appropriate for everyone. In the old system young horses were sent out to be ‘broke’, not trained or started slowly as they are in most places today. And that word ‘broke’ was quite literal, as a lot of horses did not come home from the trainers in one piece physically or emotionally. The desired broke horse was one who turned his will over to his rider completely without question. That is what the working horseman required to get his job done.

In old horsemanship, horses were halter broke and taught to tie by being snubbed to a large post and letting them fight it out. When they had finally accepted that, they would be ‘sacked out’. This term describes a desensitizing process where a blanket or jacket is thrown over the horse numerous times until the horse realizes that he can not get away and that in fact, it does not hurt him. But can you imagine the terror and panic for a prey, flight animal in the meantime?

Restraining horses was the norm. A lot of time horses were hobbled for the same reason, either both front feet or a scotch hobble where one hind leg is tied up to a rope around their neck so they can not resist while being saddled or mounted for the first time. Some trainers used what is called a ‘running W’. This was a loose hobble worn around the front legs that the horse could move freely about with but when the trainer said whoa if the horse did not stop you could pull the rope and take a front leg away or throw them on their nose. Throwing down in general was a common practise to prove dominance. All of these training tools to take away the horses natural instinct which is to run in response to a fearful situation.

Along comes natural horsemanship, where the horse’s natural instincts are allowed, not restrained and restricted. What a breath of fresh air! We were no longer restraining horses but allowing them to move their feet if they were afraid or unsure of something. It seemed natural. We were imprinting them as foals within the first 24 hours of life to make sure they could accept everything that we would later throw at them. We were building trust, talking leadership.

The round pen was no longer just a 6 foot high breaking corral, but became an integral part of ground work no matter what age your horse was. Here the rider not only allowed the horse to move but drove them forward to establish dominance, simulating what they believed the top horses in the herd did. It worked. It dazzled audiences to see a wild young horse following a person around in 20 minutes or so. I tried it, it worked perfectly but I was a bit puzzled about how ‘natural’ it was. I had seen my herd boss push the others away from food or the shed and make them wait while he drank but I had never seen him run another horse in a circle for long periods of time. But this was adopted as a kinder more gentle way to get the horse’s compliance or obedience. Anything he did not agree with from picking up feet, to being touched or handled with various objects was met with sending him out to work. I saw this technique demonstrated very successfully at the Mane Event just last year, with a horse that would not hold up his feet. Most horses will figure out very quickly that running is not the answer and therefore begin thinking and searching for the correct one.

For some horses that are very submissive or afraid, this period of running can be an exhaustive process taking hours. These flighty types, sometimes called right brained or in my personality profiling called Perfectionist or People Pleaser may never find the right answer. I have heard clinicians say that you must win at this, even if it takes all day. As soon as we heard the word ‘win’, we should have realized that there would also be a ‘loser’ in this game. These personality types tended to be the losers, that went from trainer to trainer.

The natural horsemanship has many positive sides, in terms of letting the horse learn and find a right place to be. The trainer makes ‘the wrong thing difficult, the right thing easy’, to quote the daddy of them all – Ray Hunt. He revolutionized horsemanship, especially starting colts. I watched the first clinic with him in the 70’s. It was fascinating. He put riders on colts with only a saddle and turned them loose. Needless to say there was some running (really fast running), but surprisingly not a lot of riders bucked off. This was not for the faint of heart type of rider. I, for one, preferred to watch from the stands. Huge change rippled through the horse world. Colts were now started in halters and allowed to move. Trust was a thing talked about and worked toward.

Following Hunt and Dorrance were clinicians who found ways to break this down for the more timid types of riders. They filled the stadiums showing us all how we could get our horses to do these amazing feats. Every one of us that was looking for a better way signed up. We took the 10 year program that anyone could follow to get their horse to be the safe and solid riding partner they wanted. We signed up for the clinics and put all our horses through the paces. We were all becoming trainers. Our horses were becoming the safe solid ones we had hoped for, but this still seemed to be at a cost. In many cases, behind safe and solid was bored or shut down. Their faces told the story.

Children today, like the horses, are treated much differently than they were in the past. They now are given many privileges and choices, but the culture of fear in our society has insisted that parents micro management their time for almost every waking hour. Parents can no longer say ‘be home before dark’ and turn them loose in their community or even allow them to walk to school in most places. Again we see the safety factor create conditions where movement must be controlled. And a quick comparison to dogs finds most of them on a leash almost any time they are outside. Clicker and positive training tools are now the norm. Dog, horse or child psychology is understood by most. With all three we have moved into more positive training but training for control none the less. What is wrong with that? Doesn’t it keep them safe, healthy, growing old, learning more than they have ever learned? Yes, yes and yes, but here is where I want to leave the door open a crack and suggest, just suggest or throw out a ‘what if’. What if we allowed them to grow up to be what they have come here to be?