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. 

Sunday, April 8, 2018

This is me. This is my journey.

I don’t know if it is just me or if it is just human nature to constantly, persistently and unmercifully compare yourself to your peers.  Our journey through this wonderful thing called life is as personal and unique as our finger prints.  We are all learning at our own individual pace and perfecting our own unique skill set in our own way.  Judging ourselves by anything other than our own individual scale is unfair and potentially damaging.   Both myself and my husband are on our own different yet parallel horsemanship journeys.  We make the pilgrimage to Wolf Creek Ranch annually to further our understanding of principles of advanced horsemanship and almost always end up learning more about ourselves and life along the way.   Each year the growth is unique and different and typically not at all what was anticipated.  This year, this was my journey. 

Let me start off by saying that I am not a horse trainer.  I am a horse lover.  I am a competitor.  I am a veterinarian.  I am a fierce student aspiring to greatness.  But, I am not a horse trainer, at least not a professional one.  Instead, I attend to their health on a more than full time basis in the wilds of rural North Idaho.  In my “free time”, I chase this dream of Cowboy Dressage for myself and for all of you out there just like me that are trying your best to be everything you can be for your horses. 

Because I am not a horse trainer I look to many of my fellow CDWPA members and friends with great awe and I will admit, deep envy.  In a different life I may have pursued a career in training, showing and teaching.  It is certainly near and dear to my heart.  To be able to spend all day long every day in the saddle?  That sounds like “purt near” heaven to me.  I can’t help but think how much more advanced myself and my horses would be if I only had the time to ride and train consistently.   So, I often tell myself that if only I was a horse trainer my horses would be magnificent.  Instead it’s just little ol’ me carving out the saddle time between fielding emergency calls and traveling in support of CDW.  But, since I am not a horse trainer I also have the ability to work completely by my own faulty inconsistent schedule without financial consequences.  I am beholden to no one in my training but myself.  There is freedom in that that allows me to explore, fail, and try again without losing my way of life. 

Each horse in our lives teaches us different lessons.  We learn and grow by exploring our feel and timing and understanding of horses and the horses are our greatest teachers.  If we have the commitment and the time and the passion we can learn from each horse we meet.  In my current herd of Morgans I have one gelding that is much more challenging than the rest.  He has met me at every step in our training with a new problem, new challenge and forced me to find a new way to attempt to communicate.  He is willful, opinionated, strong and engagingly disobedient in the best of times.  At his worst he can be a bit frightening and even dangerous.  He is different than any horse I have worked with in my short repertoire of horses in my lifetime.  He also has rare moments of shear greatness that keeps me inspired to keep trying. 
On Kit during one of our only nice days in the arena

This is the horse that went with me to Wolf Creek Ranch this year.  We traveled with fellow CDW of Idaho Professionals at MM Training and Consulting as well as a brave new comer to Cowboy Dressage, our friend, Janet.  It was a bit intimidating to be traveling with my most difficult horse to take a course with competitors, friends and professional trainers and coaches that I have so much respect for.  Marcia is currently our top showman two years running.  To say she knows her stuff is an understatement.  Davalee has been training colts for years and is also working her way up the CDW professional level.  But, once you get in the round pen with Eitan all of that disappears.  For that hour it is just you, your horse and Eitan riding your horse to the best of his ability from the sidelines.  Eitan has a unique teaching style in that he attempts to be you on the horse.  That means the instruction comes fast and furious at times and the feel and timing can be a challenge because ideally you would be doing what he is saying right when he is saying it.  Instead you are always just a touch behind.  What I find is so valuable about riding with Eitan is that if you let him ride through you, you can discover the feel you have been looking for.  You quit thinking and attempt to quit anticipating and just ride.  It’s not easy but it sure is rewarding.  Anyway, our instruction time was invaluable.  Due to the inclement weather we were in the round pen almost the entire week with intense one on one sessions.  It was exactly what we needed and gave me a few of the necessary tools I had been missing to help me with my horse. 

As I look back on the lessons learned this year and attempt to process the growth that took place during our yearly pilgrimage I think back not only to my time in the round pen but also to the times of discussion that happened after school.  Sharing our views and ideas and exchanging perspectives was as valuable as any of the in the saddle instruction.  We spent one morning just in classroom discussion with Eitan, listening to his wisdom and take on where each of us where in our own journeys was golden.  

Eitan said one thing that has resonated with me over and over since we have returned home.  I think about it several times a day as it applies to every aspect of my career, my relationships and my time with my horses. 

“It’s not about being perfect, it’s about being decent.” 

He isn’t talking about being decent at something, he was talking about being decent human beings.  Good people.  Being perfect doesn’t matter one iota if you are a nasty person when you do it.   Eitan was also talking about the competitive world out there and how in the pursuit of winning you can lose site of being decent. 

The drive for perfection is deep in me.  My busy lifestyle means I am unable to dedicate the time to the pursuit of this passion like I would like.  I look with envy on my friends that have more time to perfect these skills than I ever will.  But, this is my journey.  It is unique to me.  I may never be able to be a Top Hand Rider or have a horse that is perfectly trained and able to execute all the advanced maneuvers.  I can work on being decent though.  That’s something I can do both in and out of the saddle.  It’s something I can remember each time I am working late or another weekend.  I can be decent.  In my life of unpredictability, that is the one thing that I absolutely have control over. 

It is not how far we go in our journey towards whatever definition of perfection we strive to achieve that matters in this life.  It is not the accolades, awards and buckles.  In the end, it is how we went along that path, being decent, kind and true.  True to our own strengths, true to our own abilities and true to our own ideals. 
Soaking up the wisdom as 8 coaches another rider

Photos courtesy of Marcia Moore-Harrison

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Spring Training

Living in the northern part of the US we end up having a prolonged off season for both horse and rider.  As the snows pile up and the footing becomes treacherous our training schedule takes a necessary break.  The cold temperatures mean our horses (and ourselves) often pile on the pounds as added protection from those brutal elements.  All of this means that spring can be a very trying time as we attempt to put both ourselves and our mounts back into action and rebuild the muscles that may have been lost over the winter months.

As a rider I try to get ahead of this curve by adding some sort of exercise program into my winter regime.  Not only does that help to fight off the winter "fluff" but also keeps the core strength that I rely on as a balanced rider.  I like to use core building exercises like Pilates and Yoga to help with balance, focus and core strength.  Today as I was trying to smoothly go through the motions while becoming more and more aware of the fatigue in my winter soft muscles I was forcibly reminded of what my horses go through in the spring. For me, I am able to see beyond the burn and the shaking and the sweating (and, I'll admit, the swearing under my breath) to see the goal and the payoff for the hard work.  As a human I am able to set a goal and work towards that goal with conscious determination.  But, what about our equine partners?

The cruel trick of physiology is that the muscles that we lose first are the ones that we have to work the hardest to develop.  The smaller muscles of inner core strength and posture for both us, and our horses are the most difficult to maintain.  Those are the muscles that our sedentary lifestyles find they don't need for survival.  So, while I haven't done any weight lifting this winter, my biceps aren't too far off from my typical summer condition.  My abdominus rectus, hip flexors and extensor spinea muscles are unfortunately far below what their normal strength is in peak riding season.  These three muscle groups are at the core of good strength, posture and balance for humans, and coincidentally, for horses as well.
Human muscles of balance and core strength. They function to keep us aligned like a perfectly balanced Jenga block pile. Image from

Equine muscles of balance, and core strength. They function as a draw bride to help raise the back. Image from Eitan Beth-Halachmy.
As I began my own spring training season, I had to first adjust my weight.  Like my horse, I had been turned out to pasture a bit this winter and was enjoying the fruits of communal eating at the "round bale" of the family table over the holidays.  The extra weight makes exercise that much more difficult by diminishing my flexibility and adding stress to my joints.  Therefore, diet was the first step to my spring training regime.  For our horses we tend to do the opposite and start first with exercise, pushing our horses to "work up a sweat" so we know they are burning calories and taking that fat off.  If we are trying to build athletes with a good work ethic, I don't think this is the best approach.  While "fat and sassy" is a thing for some horses, especially the youngsters, some older horses will find their work more difficult with the added weight.  Consider adjusting your horse's diet before beginning (or in concert with) your spring training program.  Cutting calories while maintaining dry weight intake is generally the best approach which is why I prefer a moderate forage first approach to feeding for horses that are under moderate to light work.  I don't like to cut their dry matter intake to less than 2.5% of their body weight but by feeding a less calorie dense feed you can diminish those calories and still keep food in front of them.  It is important to remember not to cut important nutrients when cutting calories and a forage balancer or mineral supplement is a great way to ensure your horse is still getting the vitamin and minerals he needs (especially salt in the northern states in winter).

You can use the body condition scale to assess your horse's weight prior to beginning your spring training program.  For horses that are a body condition score of  7 or below, they can probably handle light work without too much stress to the joints and muscles, keeping in mind, of course, any pre-existing conditions like tendon injuries or mild arthritis.  Warming up those joints prior to increasing intensity is so important for joint health.  If your horse tends to go out on the end of the lunge line and re-enact the Pendleton Round-Up before settling down to work, consider instead hand walking for 10-15 minutes prior putting on the lunge line.  Those full on leaps of unrestrained joy prior to really getting warmed up can be more damaging than the rest of the work out.
The areas of interest when examining a horse to determine body condition score.  A score of 1 is a severely emaciated horse while a score of 9 is an obese horse.  We like our performance horses to lie between the 5-7 range, closer to 5 the more demanding their work. Image from

Understanding muscle fatigue is a very important part of understanding how to strengthen those muscles and prevent the overall body soreness that will limit the try in our equine partners.  I am going to discuss specifically working with muscles for strength and form, and not endurance.  Endurance conditioning relies on building the capacity for anaerobic respiration within the muscles.  For our purpose I am considering the strength it requires for the horse to hold himself in self carriage, like a yoga pose.

Without going into the nitty gritty nerdy details, it is important to have a working understanding of muscle physiology.  The muscles function like an engine that has two sources of energy.  The most efficient form of energy is the gas that the body provides.  This gas (glucose) is delivered to the muscles via the blood stream.  Like the gas sitting in the carburetor (perhaps dating myself here) there is always just a little gas sitting in the muscles for basic function.  Under work the muscles can quickly deplete the local supply of glucose and then have to switch over to the reserve tank.  This reserve tank is not as efficient and burns fuel in the absence of oxygen.  Though the body can produce fuel in the absence of oxygen, the bi-product, is continuously converted to lactic acid which is responsible for the stinging burning feeling in tiring muscles.  Through conditioning we increase the time it takes between the first tank and the reserve tank as well as make the secondary reserve tank conversion more efficient causing less build up of lactic acid.

The good news is that the muscle fatigue process is fairly quickly reversible with the influx of oxygen from the blood stream which allows for the rapid conversion of lactic acid back to it's precursor form. This is the importance of the rest phase of exercise, especially as we are building muscle strength.  So, the old, "no pain, no gain" thing is true to a point.  But the more the burn, the longer the recovery rate should be.  It's also pretty difficult to explain the theory to your horse which is likely experiencing the exact same pain and struggles that we are as we are reconditioning these poor fatiguing muscles.

Horses are blessedly programed and built a little bit differently than we are.  As prey animals they are genetically programed to not show weakness.  So, a horse that is experiencing muscle fatigue may or may not show this overt discomfort to it's owner.  The physical desire to continue to perform may override the pain to the point of actual damage to the horse.  This is why horses get overwork injuries frequently.  They just don't know to show discomfort while they are working.  But, what they are also very good at is remembering how something felt the last time they did it.  Have you ever had the experience of working your horse with a new concept which the horse seemed to pick up with relative ease only to come back a few days later and have nothing but trouble with it?  Odds are the horse experienced some degree of pain with the exercise, mastered through it at the time but in the infinite and wise equine wisdom, decided that exercise was best avoided in the future.

So, it is up to us as riders, coaches, and partners for our equine athletes to recognize and understand the limits of the body and work to build those languid winter muscles back up to super star strength over a period of time.  Short periods of contraction, paired with adequate periods of rest are the best way to begin to build those muscles back to working strength.  Any of the maneuvers that require the horse to engage those small core muscles of balance should be done in short intervals in the beginning of spring training with periods of rest and release through stretching exercises.  If you do yoga yourself you know that in the beginning, any of the strength and balance poses are difficult to maintain over an extended period of time and would be impossible without intermittent breaks using child's pose.  The free frame is our horse's child's pose.  The free frame allows the horse to stretch those long muscles that work in apposition to the smaller, shorter muscles of balance and self carriage.  Those must stretch to develop suppleness to work in opposition the shorter muscles of flexion.  As your horse becomes stronger with consistent work we can hold those poses longer and longer with less periods of rest.

How can you be sure you are not asking too much of your horse?  Be a conscious rider.  You can feel how easy or difficult it is for your horse to hold a specific maneuver with softness and correctness.  As I struggle to build strength, the first thing that happens to me as I fatigue are the whispered cuss words.  For my horse it is loss of softness to my aids, and generally my hands first.  If a maneuver (say shoulder in) requires strong aids from the rider, it is likely a difficult maneuver for the horse.  It doesn't mean your horse is dull, or unwilling.  It may just mean those muscles are weak and unconditioned.  Those are the times where you look for that moment of softness and settling into the maneuver before releasing and rewarding with the free frame and stretching.

Pushing boundaries and rewarding the try is a delicate balance that we walk as we work towards making our horses the athletes that we envision.  When in doubt, I recommend rewarding try always.  The muscle strength and development will happen.  Our horses are built to be better athletes than most of us are.  Do not make the mistake of pushing muscle development in exchange for damaging try.  It doesn't matter how great of a pep talk you give your horse, the peppy encouragement of "one more time!" that may work so well on exercise tapes is meaningless to the horse.  The blessed relief of that long stretch, however is something they can definitely appreciate.