Thursday, February 4, 2021

Tricks or Treats

 So many topics in the equestrian world spark fierce debate and I suppose that's just human nature all over.  Shoes or no shoes, blanket or no blanket, bridles or bitless are all topics of much heated debate in horsey chatrooms and there are avid and well referenced Karens on both sides of the keyboard as well established and successful professional horsemen.  The issue of whether it is good and appropriate to "treat" a horse is another one where you can see heated impassioned debate on both sides of the issue.   So, let's delve into the ins and outs and whys and why nots of hand feeding treats to your equine partner. 

First of all it is important to understand the strength of the nature of association in the brain with positive reinforcement.  It is universally understood that positive reinforcement is the strongest training tool that we currently understand in all facets of animal behavior.  The association between a behavior and a positive reward can form behavior links that are so strong they can be recreated years after the initial behavior modification is instilled.  I had the distinct pleasure of talking to a marine animal trainer when I visited Sea World a few years ago and when he learned I was a visiting veterinarian we spoke at length about how they train the animals to actively cooperate with difficult veterinary procedures like blood sample collection without the aid of any physical restraint.  As an equine veterinarian that has to deal with needle shy and sometimes dangerous patients I found this fascinating and it made me realize how barbaric our handling and training of our domestic animals is by comparison.  Yes leaping through a hoop and balancing a ball is cool but the real success in operant conditioning in my opinion is having a dolphin swim to you and present a fin for blood draw without a qualm.  

Positive reinforcement in operant conditioning is a behavior modification technique in which a pleasant stimulus is added to the environment in direct association with the desired behavior with the purpose of encouraging the frequency of the behavior.  This is the method of training universally used in training marine mammals, zoo animals and most circus performing animals as well.  While you hear the horror stories of negative reinforcement and barbaric techniques like shocks, whips, and prods being applied in those settings, they are actually much more common in our domestic training programs, specifically in all equestrian fields.  Indeed our entire training program that relies on the use of physical aids is negative reinforcement.  You apply an uncomfortable stimuli (even if it's very mild) and the horse responds and the stimuli is taken away.  That is negative reinforcement.  It is also a safe, effective and humane way of training but that is not the method of training that is traditionally most effective for long term behavior changes. 

Animals trained with positive reinforcement will often offer the behavior in an attempt to garner the reward that they are used to receiving.  An animal trained in negative reinforcement will seldom do the same as they have been taught that the status quo of being left alone is the ultimate reward.  

Because every single horseman is by default an amateur trainer it is imperative that we understand behavior modification and the ramifications of each type if we are going to make decisions and continue to train our animals to have the behaviors that we desire whatever their intended purpose or use in our lives from pleasant companion to elite athlete.  Timing and feel of the addition of stimuli or removal of stimuli are essential for creating the behaviors we desire.  You may have heard the horseman's refrain, horse's learn from the release of pressure not the pressure  itself.  That is an elemental pillar of behavior modification through negative reinforcement.  The timing of the reward in both positive and negative reinforcement is imperative for the association to be paired with the appropriate behavior and here in lies the rub.  

It is possible, through poor timing to create positive reinforcement associations for the WRONG BEHAVIOR and this is what gives food rewards such a bad name in horsemanship circles.  This is why you will hear people say that using food rewards creates dangerous horses that will bite you or that it teaches them disrespect for the person or that they will get to the point that they will only do something for the reward.  These are all examples of the horse training the human through poor timing of positive reinforcement.  The wrong behaviors are rewarded, which creates very strong behavior pathways that are challenging to rewire and often are rewired through the use of another form of operant conditioning which is punishment.  

Punishment in terms of behavior modification is the opposite of reinforcement and may also be termed positive or negative punishment.  Punishment is stimuli in response to a behavior that will decrease the frequency of that behavior.  An example of positive punishment in the equestrian world is "shanking" or jerking the lead rope in response to a horse walking forward uninvited.  I'm sure you can think of many instances of positive punishment that are very common in most equestrian circles.  Negative punishment is the removal of  a pleasant stimuli that is meant to decrease a behavior.  Leaving a horse tied until they are able to stand quietly would be an example.  You remove the pleasant stimuli of comfort of moving or of companionship until they cease the undesirable behavior of equine temper tantrum.  It's essentially the time out philosophy.   While there is debate among behaviorists as to the ultimate effectiveness of punishment in behavior modification there is little doubt that the biggest down side to punishment is the likeliness of side effects related to the punishment.  Again, we can see many examples in our equestrian world.  Horse bites (maybe because they've taught the human to give them a treat that way) owner reacts by whacking said horse, horse responds by flipping it's head and becoming "head shy" in response to sudden movements of the hand. Repeat 3 times and it's a well established behavior pattern.  

So, how can we as horsemen use the exceptionally potent training modality of positive reinforcement within the constructs of traditional horsemanship?  A few years back I had the opportunity to discuss this with renowned equine behaviorist Dr. Sue McDonnell of New Bolton Center, University of Pennsylvania.  Dr. McDonnell has long been one of my veterinary heroes as she specializes in reproductive behavior modification in horses.  I find her work absolutely fascinating and the studies she has performed on basic herd dynamics in feral ponies is well worth the read for any horseman.  After listening to Dr. McDonnell lecture for several hours on the effectiveness of positive reinforcement in horses I asked her how in the world can we use this in horses when our entire riding tradition is based on negative reinforcement and the application of aides?  It would require an entirely different method of riding.  The best we could come up with is a bit that would dispense something tasty when the right behavior was achieved.  Not at all practical when trying to teach a horse to chase down a steer!!  

While I don't see that we will ever be able to replace the use of negative reinforcement and training aids in our ridden horses I do believe that the piece that can be strongly cultivated through positive reinforcement is partnership.  In Cowboy Dressage we place partnership right at the top of our list of equestrian goals.  We want our horses to be with us, mind, heart, and soul and to desire our company as much as we desire theirs.  We also want our horses to be safe and easy to handle and man, if we can encourage their active participation in the training process as much as possible, I'm all for that as well!  Using well timed positive reinforcement we can encourage the horses to crave the training and interaction.  

We use positive reinforcement to create a training environment that the horses crave.  As a matter of fact, we often have trouble convincing them to leave when their training session is over.  The desire to be with you and to be engaged in the activity becomes stronger and stronger through the proper application of positive rewards.  This isn't bribery.  This isn't about being a human Pez dispenser every time the horse sticks his nose out.  It also isn't about riding around with a pocket full of treats to dispense when ever the horse does something amazing.  Unless you are able to give the horse a food reward the moment the appropriate maneuver is performed you are ultimately rewarding them for stopping work while you fish a treat out of your pocket. (Although I have used this exact method for a horse that was anxious and unable to stand still in the middle of the dressage court!) So, while we can and do use positive reinforcement to train things like picking up the feet or putting on the bridle, mostly we use it to encourage quiet togetherness.  We reward the horses just for hanging out with us and once they want to be with you, anything is possible, I believe.   

Now, remember what I cautioned early on, there is a good reason why many very great horsemen discourage hand feeding of treats.  Positive reinforcement can quickly and strongly influence the wrong behavior when used with poor timing.  Rewarding a horse even once for aggressively frisking your pockets and you just reinforced the mugging behavior.  Give a horse a treat because they are pawing and wont stand still and you want to distract them will quickly create a horse that is a chronic pawer.  Bribing a horse to stand still by dispensing treats when they try to walk off will create a horse that is likely to never stand still.  You absolutely must be 100% cognizant of the behavior you are trying to create and the environment you are trying to encourage if you are going to try to use positive reinforcement and that is why so many trainers tell their clients not to use it at all.  But, if you are aware of the ramifications of this powerful tool, I think it is a great thing to experiment with.  We readily encourage positive punishment in the equine world; "Whack him! Don't let him get away with that!!" which can also create unwanted behaviors as a side effect.  Maybe it's time we started accepting the power of positive reinforcement as well!  


Friday, January 29, 2021

A Pandemic of Peace: Lessons of 2020

 They say everyone has one book in them.  Maybe that is true, but how do you know if you have more than one?  I will freely admit that since completing the book Dressage The Cowboy Way, I have been very remiss in the creation of any piece of written word.  As I begin to start planning the next book project (projects, if I am honest) I realize that the writing muscle is just like any other muscle and goes soft when allowed to sit fallow for too long.  So, dear reader, if you can bear with me, I think it's time to get back to the ol' keyboard.  Welcome to the first blog of 2021.  

I suppose the other reason that I have had more trouble than usual writing about the topic of horsemanship is that it has always been my struggles that have dictated my horsemanship musings.  The written word is often how I delve into the mental process of understanding how the horse's mind works.  It's how I come to grip with my huge blunders, small accomplishments and big concepts understood (or misunderstood).  Since my horses have grown up a bit and I have been able to make slow but steady progress I have been less mired in the breakdown of horsemanship minutia in order to try to understand what goes on in those equine brains.  And let's face it, 2020 was unconventional.  It's pretty hard to say anything earth shattering on the greater topic of horsemanship when the entire globe is a dumpster fire of TP hording, murder hornets and plaque! 

So, we look to 2021 and back on the lessons of 2020 with a grateful heart just to be here and an open mind and appreciation for every minute that we get to spend in the saddle.  It is that grateful quiet heart that has been the greatest gift of this past year.  

When COVID hit early in 2020 and the world started to shut down, Idaho was slow to follow.  We watched what was happening in the rest of the world wondering how it would affect us here in N. Idaho.  Surely we would just stay in for a couple of weeks and then things would get back to normal.  I think we are all beginning to realize that normal will never be the same normal again.  The shut down occurred for us as we were packing and preparing to head to California for our annual horsemanship school.  We spend a week every spring with our second family down in Grass Valley, California.  Under the watchful eye of Eitan Beth-Halachmy we hone our skills, check our progress and chart our course for the work we will do with our horses for the rest of the year.  I can't understate how important that week of school is for us.   When we lost that benchmark followed closely by the loss of our live shows I think we all felt adrift.  All of the goals I had sketched out on my vision board for 2020 suddenly seemed trite, narcissistic and purposeless.  

I have always been a big goal setter.  I think having a road map for my progress is essential to success.  I've been setting lofty goals for myself for as long as I can remember then working diligently towards that goal until I can check that box and then as soon as it is checked set an other goal even loftier and more difficult to achieve.  It has served me well for goal reaching and box checking if not for smelling the roses and appreciating the moment.  When 2020 removed all of my goals and structure and left me with an open ended flight plan, I had to learn how to embrace the moment.  It may have been the biggest benefit of 2020.

As social distancing became the way of the world I took to the mountains and saw more back country than I have seen in my 16 years in this amazing county.  I found a renewed love for the high mountains that I had really missed since my riding time got carved into smaller pieces often happening while I was teaching someone.  Instead of spending every minute of my time in the arena attempting to tune my horse for the next show or to reach the next goal I remembered what it felt like to play and to hop on bareback and prance down to the lake at sunset or race around the arena just because.  I remembered that sometimes just sitting on your horse in the middle of the arena watching the clouds roll over head is the most beautiful piece of training you can do.  I was reminded of the joy of leisurely brushing my horse's tail in the sunshine instead of obsessing about keeping it clean and long and white for the next show.  

The virtual show format was also a gift.  Instead of the hours traveling, setting up, nervously getting your horse acclimated to the new venue then rushing about to get to your class only to wait around sweating by the in gate, we were able to ride right here at home.  While there are definitely very good things that come from traveling and showing our horse, the stress free environment of the virtual show allowed us to just ride and remove the stress that comes with showing. 

I didn't win any big awards in 2020.  I didn't check any big goals off my vision board.  I didn't set the Cowboy Dressage world on fire with any of my spectacular performances.  But the rewards that I did receive were enormous and priceless and irreplaceable.  Partnership, harmony, and an inner peace that is hard to obtain in any other way than in the quiet spaces of time when it is just you and your horse and the peace of a stolen moment. 

I still take my horsemanship very seriously.  I still work hard every single time I am in the arena.  But what I have made sure to add each time I ride whether I have the time for it or not, is the peace and appreciation for the moment that 2020 taught me we cannot take for granted.  Maybe my ride is cut short by life or the dang phone that never seems far away.  Maybe I only get 15 minutes of actual saddle time.  But what I don't skimp on is the connection and the time to just sit and be, whether in the saddle or out.  To just be at peace and tell my horse how thankful I am for the time I get to spend with them.  That time, and that partnership is more valuable in the long run that the fabulous feats of horsemanship that we chase.  

So thank you 2020 for reminding us that we aren't really in the driver's seat.  Life and all that comes with it is precious and fleeting.  The gift of the sun on our shoulders and the smell of leather and horse sweat is enough.  I hope that it doesn't take another global pandemic to remind us of the simple pleasures in life.  I hope that normalcy returns in some form as the decade marches on.  I will continue to scratch out some goals each year, but I'm not going to loose the forest for the valuable TP producing trees as I march down my horsemanship trail.  


Thursday, November 28, 2019

Horse Husbandry

Being a mobile veterinarian for the past 17 years has taught me an awful lot about about the variation in husbandry practices in our region.  We really do see it all down our country roads from beloved but rarely haltered ponies to the very elite expensive performance horse.  When I first started practicing in this county I would say more than half of my clients with horses had little to no shelter provided other than trees.  Many of those horses were turned out with round bales and given the majority of the winter off while their owners pursued the other leisure activities common in the 7B;  skiing and outdoor sports, hunting and ice fishing.  Horses, for many, were a summer activity and other than making sure they had food and water through the winter there was little else provided.  Blankets were as rare as barns for many of these clients and on the occasion when I would be called to treat an ill horse in sub zero weather, my requests for a sheltered spot or warm blanket were often met with blank stares.  In the spring, both the vets and the farriers would be summoned to get the horses ready for the summer riding season.  I can remember so many of those spring appointments being the first time the horses had been handled since the end of elk season last fall.  To say they were a little bit exuberant would be an understatement.  It was at those times I was especially glad to be the vet and not the farrier! 

Times change, populations change, society changes.  Husbandry practices and what is widely accepted as "normal" change as well.  Over the past 2 decades I have seen more warm barns, more supplements, more blankets and more horses that are fussed over rather than turned out for the winter.  We still see the horses that spend the majority of the winter surviving our temps with all the god given defenses that they were born with while others spend the winter cozied up in a wardrobe Victoria Beckham would be proud of and sampling a buffet of carefully prepared food. 

As our days get shorter and our nights become interminable here in the northwest social media experts began to share loads of articles, blogs and "scientific evidence" about how horses don't need all of the human trappings to survive.  There are jokes about how humans clothe their horses when they are cold, not when the horses are cold.  As with everything on the internet there are vehement experts on either side of the argument often stating how the opposing views are not only ignorant but damaging to the horse and if they would only read this article or watch this informational you tube video they would see the errors of their ways and change their husbandry practices forever!

This is one of the reason why I am leery of animal abuse laws and husbandry requirements for livestock.  The variation in husbandry practices and beliefs about what is right, prudent and safe for animals varies so much.  We can all agree that water, food and shelter are necessary but what forms those three things take can vary from a stand of cedar trees, a round bale, and a creek to a 5 star equine facility with heated automatic waters, deeply bedded stalls and carefully prepared individually tailored meal plans.  With experts shouting on both sides of the argument it's hard to make an informed decision and it comes down to what each person feels is the best for their animals, their property and their abilities to take care of their own horses. 


We have quite a bit of variation in husbandry just within our own herd of horses.  We have horses that live outside with only the shelter of trees through the winter.  We also have horses that sleep in a barn overnight but spend their days outside.  We also have one horse that has a complete wardrobe, special diet and a warm barn at night.  We try to meet the individual needs of each horse and I will admit, pamper the horses that tolerate and seem to enjoy our pampering while the ones that feel overly confined and restless inside stay out, even in the coldest, nastiest weather.  There is not one right answer for managing this particular herd of horses.

I think it's also important to address the concept of thriving vs surviving.  Horses are incredibly well adapted for survival.  In the right conditions with the right diet and the ability to move around at will they can survive some awful conditions in the wild.   It's also important to realize that in those conditions survival may include significant weight loss over the winter months.  For older or weaker horses it may mean succumbing to conditions that fat healthy 8 year old horse is able to quite contentedly endure.  If you believe your horses are better off surviving with only the tools that mother nature has given them than you also have to be accepting of the mortality rate and life expectancy that mother nature dictates as well.  Surviving isn't always thriving and for many owners, survival isn't quite enough when they are pursing performance goals with their horses. 


So if you are looking for me to take sides on the debate about blankets vs no blankets or barn vs no barn and which is better for the health of the horse, I am going to defer to that rarest of qualities known as common sense.  I know what keeps my horses thriving.  I would hate to see the day that someone who doesn't know my horses or my husbandry practices were to dictate either me leaving my "pampered" stallion outside or bringing my claustrophobic gelding inside. 

So to those of you proudly touting the toughness of your horses standing with tails to the wind in the blizzard and to those of you reaching for the heavy weight blanket to put over the medium blanket before turning your horses out for an hour, I say bless you.  Give your horse's a kiss, whether their muzzles are covered with icicles or free from even a trace of a misplaced whisker.   I know from experience that both camps love their horses equally no matter what they might say about the other!


Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Managing Teenage Angst



I like to believe that I have a special relationship with my young Morgan.  At home he is like a dog.  He comes when he is called, leaving friends and hay at any time of the day or night to trot up to me with a willing expression on his face.  We can work and ride away from his friends without a single bobble.  The events we have attended up until this weekend have confirmed in my mind that he is a willing steady partner relying on our special relationship to keep a cool, calm head in any setting.  Yea, me! Yea, for my exceptional training skills! Yea, for finally getting one of those quiet, calm, cool and collected horses!

Then this weekend we had our regional Gathering that we had been looking forward to and working hard to be ready for all summer.  I was excited to finally be able to ride into any arena without having to drag the retinue of support horses that Chico (my previous CD partner) always required to go anywhere.  Finally, I was going to be one of those big time professionals with a nice calm horse standing sedately and waiting outside the arena.  We started off on our first evening walking the horses around the arenas we would be showing in and he took it all in stride.  Nothing phases him as he is not one to spook or be watchy in a new environment.  I was feeling pretty dang good. 

The next morning we headed off for our first class of Partnership on the Ground confident our winning performance would turn heads.  My goal for this show was to earn my qualifying scores to move to the liberty division at Finals.  Partnership on the Ground is designed to showcase quiet partnership, subtle cues, correct movement and execution of maneuvers. We walked away from the barn on a loose lead, together and focused.  Once Ernie and I walked into the arena he suddenly became some other horse I had never seen before.  Out of nowhere (at least that I could tell)  I had a screaming, rearing, pawing, dancing dervish.  While we watched the other folks do their tests I did my best to quietly reassure my suddenly needy boy before we did our test.  When I couldn’t make any progress I told Dan to go get his pasture mate that we had left in the barn.  Maybe he was more herd bound than I knew!  Nope, no improvement.  It distracted him for just a bit but then he was right back to being anything but connected and focused on our partnership as I tried to get him to refocus and join me in the task at hand.  I tried everything I could think of, petting, soothing, talking, blowing, lowering his head because horses raise their heads to scream (nope, he kept his head down and screamed at my boots).  Finally, it was my turn to go in.  I told the judge there was a possibility this would turn into a training session rather than a judged test because I wasn’t sure he could keep it together through an entire test.  As soon as we stepped across the boards at A he was all business.  Admittedly a bit more distracted and over sensitive than at home but ready to go to work.  Huh, another surprise.  When Chico had these meltdowns, he was incapable of working; things only got worse on the court.  At least we had that going for us.

We kept his support horse with him for the rest of the day though he was definitely not looking towards him for comfort.  Then during our final riding tests that day one of the horses in the barn raised a bit of a ruckus.  The arena we were showing in is right next to the barn.  Ernie immediately checked out and wanted only to get back to the barn to see why he hadn’t been invited to the party.  We made it through our test, barely, but I knew it was time for me to attempt to figure this situation out and nip this behavior in the bud.

In Cowboy Dressage we are all about supporting the horse, helping them to feel safe and comfortable and able to focus.  We allow support horses so that horses nervous in a new environment don’t feel overwhelmed.  We encourage quite connection and reassurance.  We have ground classes just to emphasize how important we believe this connection to be in building a better partnership under saddle.  It’s is therefore rare at a Cowboy Dressage show to see a horse so completely off his rocker.  Especially one that can be standing amongst his horsey buddies and still looking for the better party to join. 

So, how do you handle a horse in this situation?  Well, I’m not sure I have the perfect answer or the right one.  Time will tell.  But, this is how we handled it this weekend.  When I realized that Ernie wasn’t scared, or missing his buddies (since we offered those solutions to no effect) I decided that perhaps he was acting out because he wasn’t getting what he wanted in that moment.  My social butterfly really wanted to be wherever he thought the party was and he believed it must be where he wasn’t.  It didn’t matter how many horses he had around him at the time, the horse that walked by at the other end of the grounds was obviously having more fun.  He wanted to be there.  His ability to focus once in the arena (for the most part) told me he needed to go to work and move his feet.  So, that’s what we did.  Every time his mind left me and what we were doing he got to move his feet.  If his mind left accompanied by airs above ground and screaming he got to move his feet with a fair bit of energy in order to keep as many of his feet on the ground as possible.  If his mind left with just a little look and a call he got to do a turn on the forehand or a turn on the haunches.  It wasn’t always pretty and there were times he had to do quite a bit of moving but more and more he came back to me and was able to focus again.  He tried rearing, pawing with all four feet (a trademark move of his) and various other dance moves.  If his feet were still he tried orally satisfying himself on my hat, the whip, the lead rope, the chair etc.  

By our last class he was pretty dang good.  The show was running late at the end of the day and we had over an hour to hang out in the wings of the indoor arena waiting while horse after horse walked by where we were standing.  He had one other horse from our group (not a pasture mate) waiting there with him.  When he got bothered he moved but the movements became smaller and smaller until it was maybe just stepping back with one foot.  Eventually my sweet yellow kid came back to me by inches.  When all was said and done we ended the show with our personal high score and the Open Partnership High Point.  Not bad for a horse that spent a good part of the show leaping around like a BLM Mustang just off the range. 

As always when I get hit with a training situation that I’m not 100% ready to handle I do A LOT of introspection and thinking the situation through.  I try to think about what my mentors would do in this situation.  Then I try some stuff and see what works.  I used to be frozen with the fear of doing the wrong thing and making the situation worse.  Now I know I can feel my way through it and figure out if I need to keep pushing until it gets better or if I need to change tactics.  It’s still scary sometimes when you feel like you are in over your head or wonder if you are capable of fixing this particular problem.  Maybe truly great trainers never feel that way, but I know I do. 

I guess what I’m trying to say with this blog post isn’t, wow, look at me and my fabulous training skills.  It’s also not meant to be a how to for when your horse is acting like a lunatic because I wouldn’t necessarily handle another horse the same way.  I think the take home message (or at least what I took home from this) is don’t be afraid to step outside of your box and try some stuff.  Try to imagine why your horse is acting out.  Had Ernie been scared, nervous or otherwise fearful I could have made things much worse for him this weekend.  I knew him well enough to realize that wasn’t the case this time.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t some people scratching their heads watching our rodeo wondering why I didn’t just go get him his buddy so he could take a breath and focus.  It was because it didn’t help this time.  Not at all.  I had to try some other stuff until I found something that worked and built on it.  Even in a world built on soft feel sometimes stuff is going to get a little ugly before it gets better.  Sometimes we must up the pressure enough to be effective and make a breakthrough.  Sometimes you have to wing it a little.  I hope by the next show I’ll have less of this teenage nonsense to deal with.  Maybe not.  It may take a couple of years.  But, if he keeps showing me the good stuff once we go to work, we’ll keep managing the baby stuff as long as it takes.  So, my apologies to all of my fellow showmen this weekend.  I hope my teenager didn’t interfere with any of your rides.  Thank you to all the offers of support and understanding.  Next time, hopefully we won’t be the ones throwing the tantrum in the cereal isle.


Saturday, March 2, 2019

Student of Life: Student for Life



Every so often I will run into someone who expresses the opinion that clinics are a waste of time.  They will talk about the money they have thrown away to ride with this big name trainer or that big name trainer only to come away having not learned a single thing.  They ultimately conclude that their money is best spent somewhere else and that they can do a better job training their horse on their own.  While clinics are designed to be more of a survey course than replacement for weekly lessons, I do think they are very educational for horse and rider and you can learn something from every experience you have with an instructor or fellow rider, if you know how to be a good student.   I recently heard wise words from a fellow clinician that enjoys learning from other horsemen.  “I always go into a clinic with an empty cup.   That way nothing gets in the way of putting stuff into it.”   So, if want to get the most out of your clinic experience, here is how to do it!

1:  Do your research.  Before attending a clinic get a working knowledge of the clinician and the discipline that you will be participating in.  I am all for stepping outside of your comfort zone and trying something you’ve never done before.  That’s how we learn and grow and it’s definitely the best thing about a clinic.  Most clinics are meant to introduce a broad topic to a group of riders of varying experiences and skills.  It is helpful, though to have a vague idea of what you may be learning.  This allows you to have a reasonable expectation for the basic skill set you will need to be using in the clinic and the level of physical fitness your horse (and you) may need in order to participate fully.  The clinic host should have all that information for you so that you can be thoroughly prepared.

2. Prepare your horse for the clinic.  This goes along with doing your research.  Be as prepared as you can before attending a 2+ day clinic.  If you haven’t ridden in the past 2 months, spending 2 days in the saddle is going to be uncomfortable for both you and your horse.  This will limit your ability to participate and neither horse or rider concentrate and learn well when they are unprepared, sore, and distracted.   This preparation also allows you to be sure that your horse is healthy and sound.  Be sure that your vaccinations are up to date and that you are in compliance with any requirements for the facility you will be visiting.  If this is a riding clinic, make sure your horse’s feet have been attended to so that sore feet, loose shoes or long toes don’t side line you before the clinic is over. 

3. Listen without interrupting and without giving excuses.   As an instructor as well as a participant, this a big one for me.  When given instruction by a professional do your absolute best to comply.  If it is something that is difficult for you or is stretching your ability, a good instructor will see that and will help you through it.  If you spend the majority of your instruction time explaining in great deal why you are unable to execute whatever instruction has been given you will waste time, which is always at a premium in a clinic setting.  If you are scared, nervous or believe it is beyond your ability, definitely express that, but remember you are at the clinic to try new things.  This may be the time to conquer those fears.  A good clinician will keep you safe and will see your fears and your horse’s issues and physical limitations quickly.  We watch every horse that comes into the arena and it takes us about 3 minutes to identify the horse and rider pairs we need to keep an eye on.  Safety is number one, always, we definitely want everybody to be safe but allow us to help you through it by doing more listening and less talking. 

4. Be ready on time.  Unless directed otherwise, be tacked up, warmed up and ready for instruction when the clinic is scheduled to start.  If the clinic starts at 9 am, we are there ready to teach at 9 am.  If people are still lunging, doing ground work, tacking up and wandering in to begin warm up we are forced to wait until everyone is ready to begin, losing valuable time.  Ultimately it’s your time that you are wasting, but have respect for the clinician and other participants by making sure you are ready to go at the designated start time. 

5. Ask questions while attempting to avoid the large back story.   Horse people love to share.   Ask any horse person to tell you about their horse and they will wax rhapsodically until interrupted or out of breath.  I have had clients give me a 2 month history on a 2 hour old laceration going back to why the horse was moved into the pen that caused the trauma.  None of that is relevant to the question, “when did this happen?”   In the interest of time, attempt to whittle the story down to only the pertinent information that will give context to your question.  If you are asking how to do a one rein stop, we don’t need to hear about the time you were out of control on a narrow trail with one foot out of the stirrup and a cloud of bees on your tail.  Those stories are best saved for meet and greets, lunch time sharing or wrap up chats.  Believe me, I want to hear that story, but be sensitive to whether the story adds context to the learning currently taking place. 

6. Have respect for your fellow participants.  We are all on our own journey.  That has been one of the toughest lessons for me to learn as a horseman with a deep drive to learn and grow.   You may have lofty goals of precision maneuvers and flying lead changes but the lady next to you on her 25 year old draft cross may just be looking for a way to get her horse to stop when she wants it to.  Everybody has their own path, goals and journey and as long as it all leads to better partnership with your horse in the end, I’m all for it.  Both participants deserve equal time and attention from the clinician. 

7. Have an open mind.  I usually have a little speech that I share on the first day with folks that are taking my clinics.  What I say may not jive with what your trainer says.  It may be different than how you have heard it explained by other horsemen.  You may ultimately find not all of it helps you with your horse.  That is 100% okay.  All I ask is that you give it a try for the time that we are together and if it doesn’t work and you don’t like it, you never have to do it again.  There is more than one way to do everything that we do with horses.  This is an art form more than a science and we all must find our own brush.  Every clinician is doing their best to share with you the brushes that work for them.  If they end up not working for you, fantastic.  That’s something learned in and of itself.  But, you won’t know if you don’t try.  You may be surprised at what works for you in the end. 

8.  If there is specific tack suggested for the clinic, do your best to comply.   Now, by no means do we expect you to show up in brand new tack for every intro clinic that you attend.  But, if in your research you learn there is a preference for a specific tack item and you have the ability to bring that item, I highly recommend you bring it.   Ultimately my preference is that you come in tack that both you and your horse and comfortable and confident in, but sometimes different tack choices make different exercises more easily understood for the horse.  If your desire to ride one handed in reins and a romel interferes with my ability to teach you and your horse lateral bend we are both going to be dissatisfied with the clinic experience. 

9.  Watch and learn.  This is a big one, especially for the types of clinics that we teach.  Unfortunately in most clinic settings there is a good deal of standing around and waiting your turn for individual instruction.  You have two options during that time.  You can work independently on something that was instructed upon earlier in the day, or you can watch your fellow participant be instructed.  Both activities can be benefial depending on your goals and the format of the clinic.  What isn’t helpful is chatting with your neighbor, checking your phone or sitting in the shade.  When I ride in a clinic I learn the most from watching the instruction of the other riders.  I can give my entire attention to what is happening without trying to listen, ride, and concentrate like I do during my turn.  I can put myself in that rider’s shoes and watch how the instructor attempts to help with a problem I may be experiencing now or will experience in the future.  Watching your fellow riders is instrumental to your growth AND helps keep the clinician from repeating instructions over and over again for the same rider mistake! Especially if there is a pattern to be ridden. 

Taking a clinic is an excellent opportunity for you to try new things, meet new people and spend a fabulous couple of days with your horse.  It opens you up to new ways of looking at things and it’s usually a great experience in socialization for your horse.  It’s also generally cheaper than a horse show!  I have had clinics I LOVED and clinics that weren’t so hot and one that changed my life forever.  I have learned something valuable at every one.  Get out there and let yourself explore and learn.  Empty your cup.  Who knows where it might take you!  Happy Trails! 

Unpack the Bags


We all have our histories that help make us who we are.  Our stories and our past experiences shape the way that we approach relationships and how we process the world.  Our fears, perceptions and misperceptions become the face of how we interact with those around us.  Our horses are the same.  Every horse has a reason for the way they behave and perceive the world.   For many they are simply acting on the foundation of years of social evolution and the hard wiring that makes them a species described as a fight or flight.  The tendency to swing more towards the flight than the fight is an individual variation that may be a product of experience but may also just be who that horse is on the inside. 

As a veterinarian as well as a Cowboy Dressage instructor I encounter horses in my life daily that I do not know.  Sometimes the owners are anxious to tell me every detail known or presumed about the horse to aid in my interaction with the horse, and sometimes they let me figure it out on my own.  This is the same way that we as people must learn to interact with others of our species.  When you meet a new person, you feel your way along with polite societal caution until you understand a little more about how that person thinks and interacts.  Rarely do we receive a full history before meeting someone for the first time. 

Sometimes I find a detailed history with a horse to be a detriment to furthering the relationship between horse and rider.  Maybe you and the horse have shared a bad experience with an object, say an oral dosing syringe.  You decide the horse has a fear or dislike of oral dosing syringes.  You may wonder if the horse was abused, twitched, cowboyed or rodeoed with a dosing syringe.  Due to that perception you may decide it isn’t worth the hassle to attempt to correct the problem and go to alternative routes of administration of oral medications.  What tends to happen in my line of work is the owner may ask me to administer the medication in the course of my exam or treatment and then is dismayed when I didn’t have any trouble.  The reason?  I didn’t expect to have any trouble.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that I can magically walk up to any horse at any time and smoothly and efficiently administer an oral medication.  If I ever get to that point, I think I will be able to retire happily as the Horse Whispering Vet and sit back and let the royalties come pouring in.  Sometimes those aversions take days, weeks or months of careful training or retraining until the horse can accept whatever they are averse to accept.  Where I am often successful when owners are not is when they expect the horse to be difficult to deworm and the horse obliges, often resulting in a bit of a tussle and often some derogative name calling (from both parties, I am sure) and the owner and horse end the episode thankful that we no longer deworm every 8 weeks. 

You see, when we have a thorough knowledge of all the mishaps of yesterday and can mentally picture all the ways that things have gone wrong in the past with whatever we are attempting to do with our horses we project that negative association onto the horse.  Horses are so sensitive to our intentions and our motivations.  Every horse has a doctorate in body language while we are still wallowing around in middle school (and for some new to horses in kindergarten).   This is true for handling our horses on the ground as well as for events under saddle.  If you see something on the trail which you assume your horse will spook at he will almost always prove you right. 

While it is true that horses can carry baggage from the past into our daily interactions, they can also be taught to forget that pain or fear when it is consistently replaced with new experiences.  It takes time and patience but surprisingly it doesn’t necessarily take knowledge of the inciting incident.  The true horseman is the one that approaches the horse with confidence and quiet leadership remaining calm and free of crippling emotions when the horse is nervous, worried or scared. 

Since the economic crash of 2007 and the end of humane equine slaughter in the United States we have seen an uptick in the equine rescue industry.  Horses that were once starved or neglected have been given a second chance by horse people with large hearts.  Owners of these rescued horses can be very protective of them and will be the first to inform me to be careful when dealing with the horse, “because, it’s a rescue and I don’t know what happened to him before.”  I should probably tell you that hearing those words changes the way I approach a horse but it generally does not (unless the horse is overtly fearful).  What I may do in those situations is to ask the owner to hand the horse over to my assistant who also has no expectations of the horse other than for it to be good during my examination.  I will tell the owners (I’m letting you on trade secrets here!) that I would prefer not to have them associated with anything “bad” the horse is experiencing so the horse doesn’t blame them later.  Many owners are more than ready to step aside because they have been afraid of just that very thing! Then my assistant and I go about business as usual and the horse doesn’t know any different. 

Another projection we will see from owners onto their horses is to create a trauma for anything for which the horse is unaccepting.  For example, it is quite common for many horses to have trouble with their ears being handled.  An owner new to a horse that dislikes his ears being handled will often tell me, “Somebody must have ‘eared this horse down’ because you can’t touch his ears.”  Maybe, they have sensitive ears. Maybe, they experienced a bad bug season causing aural plaques that can be quite sensitive.  Maybe, they just never had their ears handled before and learned that raising the head prevents them being handled.  And, yes, maybe, they were roughly handled at some point.  All those things cause the same problem requiring the same response.  Careful, consistent, polite handling of the ears until the aversion, bad memory or previous pain is forgotten and replaced with good memories corrects the problem regardless of the cause.  It simply doesn’t matter how the problem got there.  What matters is how we help the horse to get through that problem to a better place. 

We all would like to be taken at face value, for the person that we are in that moment in time and not judged for our past deeds.  Our horses are the same.  They would like us to politely and confidently approach them with an open heart one step at a time assessing their reactions, fears, and sensitivities as they occur and only as they occur.  We can raise our expectations for our horses when we forgive them and forget their past and invite them to forget the past as well. Ultimately, yes, horses can carry baggage with them into their new lives.  Every horse and every person are a product of their experiences.  It is up to us, as their leaders and partners to either choose to forgive and forget that baggage or pick it up and carry it with us for the rest of our lives together.  Every day is a brand-new day to the horse.  It is a chance to begin anew and it is that resurgent feeling of hope that brings us addicts back again and again.  We are endlessly addicted to the potential in the horse for improvement in our partnership.  Work the horse you have in front of you, no matter what happened yesterday, last week, or 3 years ago.  Your horse will go forward faster without the heavy bags of the past.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

A Quietness of Mind

To say it has been a busy year is a gross understatement of the chaos that describes the better part of 2018.  It's been all I could do to just tread water and keep my nose above the waterline to keep breathing and searching for the high ground.  I can't complain, really, after 14 years in business for myself I have seen huge growth in the business and we are experiencing growth in our secondary business of Cowboy Dressage as well as we attempt to build a community for like minded horseman to congregate and learn from each other in northern Idaho. Busy is good!  Busy is profitable!  Busy is flat exhausting!

But, the shear weight of my responsibilities this year and the days away from home has definitely had an affect on my riding and training.  My 4 year old went out for a 30 day refresher course this spring with friend and horseman, Jon Ensign and ended up staying for 60 days just because I couldn't get the time off to go pick him up! 

But, now that things have calmed a bit and I have some time to just focus on my own horses I can feel the secret ingredient that has been missing each time I've carved out 30 minutes for some arena time.  A quietness of mind.

I have trouble quieting my mind when it gets really busy.  I have trouble sitting down, sitting still and ceasing to do 5 or 6 thing at once.  The miracle of this modern age allows folks to communicate with me in several different forms from several different devices meaning that by the grace of technology I can be having multiple conversations at once.  Even now I as write this blog about the importance of focus and quietness of mind I have several different apps open on the computer allowing me to flip back and forth.  Bad habits are harder than heck to break, aren't they? 

So, because of my crazy schedule this summer my few "training" rides have been short and oft interrupted by calls, texts, messages and emails while my mind churns desperately on the goat that isn't improving or the mare I referred to WSU.  My horses have received precious little of my full attention this summer.

That all changed last week.  I wasn't supposed to be home last week.  I was supposed to be traveling down to California to pick up a horse.  A very special and important horse who is also causing us to expand and revamp many of our fences and outdoor shelters.  Unfortunately we just couldn't get those projects done in time so low and behold suddenly I had a week off call with no appointments scheduled and no trip. 

Suddenly I had some time to dedicate to my horses.  I could take my time grooming them and meticulously comb out their manes and tails like I didn't have a care in the world.  I could spend 20 minutes on ground work or fixing a piece of tack or attempting a lesson I haven't had time to deal with.  I could quiet my mind, slow down and focus just on being with my horses in the moment and giving them my entire mind and attention. 

Oh it was glorious.  My horses all responded uniformly with giving me their very best.  They could tell I was actually there with them instead of just going through the motions because I happened to have a spare 30 minutes.  Instead of a crammed forced lesson that had to fit in between other chores and concerns I had no agenda, no time schedule and nothing but the sun on my face to tell me how much time had passed. 

Time is a precious commodity that we so often take for granted.  We are all busy and few of us have the luxury of really taking our time.  But, I think that many people have the trouble, like I do of really being in the moment and giving 100% of themselves to their horses.  Yet, isn't that exactly what we ask from them every time we get on?  We want their full attention and get very frustrated if they are distracted or ignoring our cues.  I'm no different.  I do everything I can to make sure my horses don't have any distractions when we ride because trying to get them to focus is so important.  But, me?  Nope.  My phone is right there where I can get to it and hear the messages coming in.  Sometimes I'll even be riding and texting or fielding phone calls.  And even when I'm not touching my phone my brain is still half on my the calls I saw that day or the calls I have to see tomorrow or the blood work pending  . . . The list is endless.  No wonder my horses don't feel the need to give me 100% during our lessons.  I'm not giving them anywhere near that.

I don't know that there is much I can do about my crazy life style other than retire, so I'm going to have to find a way to show up with a quiet mind for my horses more often than I am.  It was so good to see this past week how amazing my horses can be when I can be there for them.  It was a stark reminder that if I am going to get the best from my horses, I have to give them my very best as well.  There is definitely a lesson there that transcends even time in the saddle.  It's time to close a few of those apps.