Learning Handling Skills with “Wild” Behavior

1 This is how Donia, a 4-year-old warmblood filly, came out of her paddock one day. To most people, such behavior is intimidating to say the least, and should be punished. But let’s take a look at how her trainer, Sarah Sheehy, handles the issue. To begin with, Sarah is not viewing this behavior as inherently “bad.” Dangerous? It certainly could be. Needing adjustment? Absolutely. But by not pre-judging Donia’s actions in a punitive way, Sarah is free to think tactically rather than reproachfully or vengefully.

2As you continue to observe the filly, watch Sarah’s position and demeanor. It takes a lot of patience in order to resolve this kind of build-up in a horse without penalizing and adding more tension to the situation. As the filly rears, Sarah holds her ground and swings the end of the rope, sending Donia to the left. Sarah then takes a step forward and extends her left arm toward Donia as the filly tries to cut in too close (right photo). Without words, Sarah is making it very clear to Donia to move back and out of the way.

3Donia complies, but lets Sarah know what she thinks by bolting off and showing her prowess. Sarah, however, remains calm, and doesn’t become involved in Donia’s emotional outbursts. Instead she simply holds her ground. When Donia runs out to the end of the line, the pressure causes her to turn, creating a circle around Sarah. This is one of the best and safest ways to deal with all that energy and power. The horse gets to work out their issues in a way that’s natural to them: by moving forward, but the handler actually remains in control by holding their ground in the middle of the circle and directing where the horse goes: forward in a direction.

4As Donia continues to act out, Sarah remains patiently and calmly in position at the center of the circle, or at “the eye of the storm.” Note the rope placed around her right hip with her right hand. Our legs and our core are much stronger than our arms. When the filly runs into the line, it will pull hard, creating a lot of pressure, but by pressing the rope into her hip, Sarah holds her ground and ensures the filly doesn’t snatch the rope out of her hands. If the filly were moving to the right, Sarah would have the rope on her left hip with her left hand. (We expect the horse to be evenly strong, supple and balanced on each side; so should we be).

5Once again you can see Donia (left) lean in toward Sarah with her inside shoulder, trying to get the upper hand by moving Sarah off her ground. Instead of backing away, Sarah moves calmly but determinedly toward Donia, sending the clear message that she is not going to cede her spot, but that Donia is to respect her position.

6In response (right), you can see Donia moving out away from Sarah. Her shoulder is now bulging toward the outside of the circle. But staying true to a young horse’s desire to take over (typical teenager 😉 ), you can see her exaggerate the move by now pulling away from Sarah and creating quite a lot of tension on the line. Sarah is ready, however. The rope is neatly tucked behind her right hip, giving her the strength she

12needs as she bends her knees, half-sitting and adding leverage to her position at the center of the circle.

Horses have a lot of energy and strength. A young horse adds exuberance to that power. Knowing how to let them learn to channel that energy is key. As this filly continues to cavort, Sarah perseveres and keeps Donia moving in the direction she has initiated. Although the filly continues to buck (below)

7 she is now light on the line. Sarah will not try to stop her from acting out, but through continued movement forward, the filly will learn how to work through her emotions and come to terms with her handler. This is very different than longeing our horse ragged in order to make them safe enough to be handled or ridden. At the end of this session, we want Donia to maintain her sense of

8 vitality while remaining calm and good-natured.

Why is the fact that there is no more tension on the line significant? Look at the next photo below. Something has changed. Can you see it? Donia is still acting out but her body is no longer tightly coiled. She is reaching more forward out of this little buck, elongating her muscles and slowing down.

12 Her tail is not in as much of a kink, but flowing more out behind her, and her ears are not as tense and pressed back. Sarah will keep Donia moving as she relaxes so that she can practice that feeling inside herself until it is a familiar way of being.

It’s important that Donia learn how to let go of the tension she carried a moment ago. Horses would rather feel good inside, just like us, but sometimes they don’t know how,

13just like us. We want to help them learn the feeling of “letting go” until it’s second nature and they can relax from the inside. We want them to maintain their composure because they feel at ease inside their own skin, not only because we told them to “behave” or “stay in control.”


Sarah allows Donia to walk (below), but insures that she keeps walking with energy until her emotional attitude is as soft and pliable as her physical demeanor. This is what we want Donia to remember the next time

15 she comes out. In addition, Sarah’s calm consistency has informed Donia that she can rely on Sarah, and that it is much easier to go along with the person rather than to fight them.

17Stopping is great after Donia has cooled down and been willing to go along with her handler. It is key that we have allowed her to finish with a bright expression rather than that dull look of defeat so often seen in horses who are shut down in order to survive their world emotionally. Awwww… Who would have known this was the same filly we saw a moment ago?  😀



All photos in this post were taken by Iga Opanowicz! Thank you, Iga!

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Understanding the 3-Beat Canter

A true canter is a 3-beat movement plus a moment of suspension. It is also known as the “rocking horse” stride because the nature of the gait causes the horse to rock up and down from head to tail. The line of horse figures below show the canter moving to the right on the right lead at each beat or phase of the stride, and gives us the opportunity to parse the gait a little.



The first figure shows beat 1 as the outside (left) hind leg hits the ground first, initiating the stride. The second figure shows beat 2 as the inside (right) hind leg and outside (left) foreleg touch the ground together. The third figure shows beat 3 as the inside foreleg touches the ground, leaving the other three in the air. The fourth figure shows the moment of suspension (all four feet off the ground), completing one canter stride. The last figure shows a return to beat 1. The pink line over the back draws attention to the up and down rocking motion of the canter. (Images were taken from the website http://www.sustainabledressage.net/rollkur/why_not2.php).

1 To view this in real life, the next 3 photographs show Devon, a 5-year-old Hanoverian, being started under saddle. He is moving to the left on the left lead. The canter stride is initiated by the outside (right) hind leg striking the ground first, and his entire front end (legs and all) is elevated or rocking upward. It is also common for the rider’s torso to lean forward at this point in the stride as Stephanie is doing here with a little exaggeration, encouraging Devon to move in an unrestricted way.

2 The second beat of the canter happens when both the inside (left) hind leg and the outside (right) fore leg — or diagonal pair — strike the ground at the same time. You can see how Devon’s topline is now parallel to the ground. At this stage in his training he is not being asked to gather or collect his body, but to move with energy and intent, allowing him to develop the reach and scope of his stride, strengthen his joints, and tone muscle. We can also see the concussive nature of forward movement by how his diagonal pair of fetlocks press toward the ground on impact before springing back into alignment when the leg is in the air. Professional photographs are often taken of the canter at this phase because the horse is level and usually appears more animated. Notice how Stephanie’s torso is now a little more upright with her seat softly in the saddle. In other words, the rider will tend to rock forward on beat 1 and rock toward the rear on beat 2 and 3, and then begin to rock forward again at the moment of suspension in order to absorb or “swing” in harmony with the movement.

3The third beat of the canter occurs when the inside foreleg touches the ground while the other three remain in the air. Devon’s front end is now at its lowest point, or rocking downward, and his rump is more up in the air and slightly higher than his withers. Notice Stephanie’s torso a little farther back, although not much at this stage of his training because her primary aim is to achieve freedom of stride, not collection. Later on, as Devon strengthens and learns to bend his hocks in order to carry more weight to the rear, he will be able to go from one phase of the canter to the next without so much of a rocking sensation. In other words, his legs will express more animation while his topline remains more parallel to the ground throughout all phases of the stride.

4I  did not have a photo of Devon during the final phase of the canter, but the one to the right clearly shows all four feet neatly tucked off the ground in this horse’s “moment of flight” or “moment of suspension.” Although our viewing angle is different, we can still see the horse’s topline parallel to the ground as it was with Devon on beat two, and because this horse is moving at quite a pace cross country, the rider is in a forward seat position as well. This horse is moving in a straight line, neither to the right nor to the left as was Devon, but he is still on the right or the left lead. Do you know which one it is, and if so, how can you tell?

Because I made a referral to collection and how that changes a horse’s way of moving, I thought it would be informative to post a comparison between young Devon at beat 1 of the canter stride on the left below, and a more highly schooled dressage horse in collection on the right, also at beat 1. Note how the schooled horse animates the motion of his legs and bends his joints, giving the appearance of “sitting” as the hindquarters bear the brunt of his weight. As a result, while his front legs are lifted off the ground the same as Devon’s, his topline is more parallel to the ground. The rider, too, will be sitting more upright throughout the stride as the horse’s center of gravity is farther toward the rear.


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Working the Bend From the Ground

What does it mean to “bend” your horse, and why is it such an important part of training? The following series of photos with their corresponding descriptions attempt to address some fundamentals:

1Coradoside Here is Corado, a 17-yr-old warmblood being worked on the longe line in a circle. From a side view such as this one, especially in person, we can see a lot about how he’s traveling: whether he’s calm or tense, quick or slow, even or unlevel in his movement, and his general demeanor. While we cannot see if he is sound in his movement by just observing a photograph, we can see that he is alert (head up, ears forward), traveling at a somewhat easy-going trot (the leg position tells us it’s a trot while the relaxed tail and foot-falls close to the ground reveal a lack of excited animation), and generally at ease (soft eye).  But even in person, it can be difficult for the untrained eye to see the way he’s balancing himself laterally (from side to side).

2CoradoleanNow we are viewing Corado from the front as he continues around the circle at the trot. From this vantage point, we can see how he carries his body straight as he leans into the turn. Leaning is the most expedient way for a horse to make its way through a turn, just like a bicycle or motorcycle would. But as you can see, he is placing more of his weight on his inside fore- and hind legs. Because the travel distance is shorter for the inside legs and longer for the outside legs, his inside legs must take smaller, quicker steps to compensate, creating a tendency to scramble. Having a straight body that leans into the turn also causes a brace that contributes to him moving like a stiff board.

BarrelRaceThere are reasons why we might want our horses to lean into a turn. As mentioned, it is the most expedient way to maneuver that turn — or around an object if you are a barrel racer, for example. But if instead of rushing, your intention is to move in a way that promotes a greater degree of malleability, softness and suppleness, then you will want to first distribute the horse’s weight more equally onto all four legs.

3CoradobendrtTo do just that, Corado’s owner has slowed him down to a walk in order to work on his bend. She is drawing the head in towards her with one hand on the line, while at the same time extending her other hand toward his shoulder to apply pressure, if you will, influencing him to shift his weight off of his inside shoulder and onto the outside fore- and hind legs. Now you can see how Corado is vertically upright and his weight more evenly balanced on all fours as he begins to bend in line with the arc of the circle.

4CoradobendThe same applies to the opposite direction. It takes time, coordination (in the person) and patience to communicate what is meant when pressure is applied at the shoulder as his owner demonstrates here, drawing the head in to initiate the bend while using her opposite hand to encourage Corado to yield his weight away from her toward the outside (for more explanation, see: http://www.naturalsporthorse.com/pyramid2.html under “Lateral Relaxation”). The bend also helps him release any bracing throughout his body that traveling “as straight as a board” can create. Note the slack in the line, indicating that he is, at least for the moment, soft and malleable in the hand.

In the left-hand photo below, Corado begins again at the trot by leaning into the turn. He is not being unwilling or defiant, it is simply his nature to take the more energy-efficient path, but he will eventually learn to do what he can now do at the walk at all three gaits. His owner is farther away in order to give him room to go forward, but in order to renew the bend at the trot her actions are applied the same way as they were at the walk, drawing his head in towards her to initiate the curve in his body while driving the shoulders out as demonstrated in the photo on the right.

5Coradoleanlft 6Coradobendlft

Note how Corado’s inside foreleg crosses over the outside foreleg as he begins to bend his body (his hind leg will do the same in the next stride). This diagonal motion is equalizing the length of stride on each side by allowing the inside legs to travel the longer distance that the outside legs travel on the circle. This crossing action both evens the stride and acts as a suppling action for the legs, shoulders and hip joints.

7Coradobendlft2In this final photo, Corado has achieved both a lateral bend in his body and a longitudinal stretch toward the ground at the trot, suppling the muscle groups both along the sides of his rib cage and over his back. Note his relaxed demeanor and how much play there is in the line, letting us know he is now soft and pliant.

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Benefits of Stretching

There is much controversy in the dressage world about stretching and, God forbid, allowing the horse to travel with its weight on the forehand. But here is that very combination seen from a different perspective. As this horse stretches, you can see the maximum degree of reach with his hind legs at this particular point in the stride. The fact that his weight is on the forehand actually frees up the hindquarters to stretch and reach in this way, which limbers tight sinew and joints and tones the muscle, preparing them to accept their own body weight, without strain, in collected work later on.

LizLoroStretchI have often said that stretching a horse is like you or I bending over to touch our toes (or however far down we can reach). If you try it, you will feel all the parts of your body that aren’t so limber. We don’t walk around that way during our waking hours in the same way we don’t normally ride our horses in this position, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t benefit to doing the exercise. In addition, we would not expect a ballet dancer, a gymnast, an Olympic swimmer, or any person engaged in serious athletic endeavor to begin their work-out without warming up with some form of (often rigorous) stretching. Why would we expect our horses to do so?

Here is an interesting article, recently written, about the stretch: http://www.eurodressage.com/equestrian/2016/05/07/classical-training-its-all-about-stretch

I don’t agree with everything in the article. For example, it doesn’t address  the horse’s inherent (not necessarily conscious) ability to work out their own kinks, knots, braces, and tensions if we could only see that, trust it, and get out of their way. This means that the manner in which they stretch changes accordingly and can’t always be put into a box called “the right kind of stretch” or “the wrong kind of stretch.” There is nothing quite like experiencing all types of mental and physical tension dissipate from the horse when they are allowed the freedom to stretch. But it’s good to see general sentiments in favor of stretching balancing out the current alarm about the exercise.

Below are two interesting contrasts in the different ways that horses can stretch — each for a different reason. The first photo is of a five-year-old Hanoverian recently started under saddle. There’s lots of reach and mobility in his stride even though he’s out behind himself a bit (hind legs extending out past his rear). But for his age, level of schooling and maturity/immaturity, it’s the kind of stretch appropriate to him right now. It is helping him find his own maximum reach in the trot stride and thus use himself to his full potential.


You can see the difference when you compare his stretch to the mare below who is further along in her training, has more muscle, and is therefore carrying her hind legs farther up underneath her belly, often referred to as engaging the hindquarters. As a result, her center of gravity is farther back underneath the saddle rather than directly over the shoulders or “on the forehand:”

AdelheidWhisperstretchMore quick blogs to follow…

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Having a Goal

So, you want to go to a horse show…

Ribbons2…or so you thought, until the alarm goes off at 3:00 or 4:00 or 5:00 a.m. and your fatigue, mixed with adrenaline from the nerves that now seem to be getting the better of you, make you ask yourself the question, “And why did I think this was such a good idea?”

It’s the show, remember? You’ve been planning for months, maybe years for this day, learning the rules and practicing whatever test or pattern or set of expectations are required for your particular event. But now, in the harsh reality of predawn, you feel mostly dread. And yet you push yourself out of bed and go through the motions of getting dressed and readied for your day. Too tense (or maybe too nauseated) to eat, you load the last of what you think you’ll need for the day into the car and drive to the barn.

treeOn the way there you probably do not notice the tree, standing stately at the corner of your drive or on your block or along the highway. The enclosed capsule of your car pushes against the air outside and you will not hear the hawk’s piercing cry as it rides a thermal overhead before alighting for a while in that tree you just passed. The darkness or muffled light will inhibit any interest you might otherwise have in the grass covering the meadows, or the shrubs lining the yards in your as-yet unstirred neighborhood, or the lone wren perched on the balcony of the apartment buildings, identifying that section of the city where you live.

HorseTrailerAt the stables you are immediately taken up with last-minute details before loading your horse into the trailer, and after arriving at the show grounds you are engaged in all the to-do’s in order to prepare for your class. Unloading your horse, getting your number, the final grooming and tacking-up, putting on your good boots, hat and gloves, and heading to the warm-up arena. When it’s time to enter the show ring your emotions may vary but generally there is some form of tension involved. If you do well you are pleased or relieved or elated and if you don’t do as hoped you feel disappointment, usually accompanied with some degree of internal self-flogging. But if you’re like most of us, the immediacy of these feelings tend to fade, and in a few days or weeks after this show you are already gearing up for the next one.

CIMG0709_1While this simplified accounting may sound better or worse than your personal history of showing, chances are you’ve experienced some kind of stress during the process of preparing for, riding in or enduring the aftermath of a competition. For those of us who show regularly, that stress becomes the norm and we tend to become inured to it (i.e. become unconscious of its effects) in order to reap the momentary “high” of getting a good score, winning a ribbon or receiving a medal — or merely having the hope of such an outcome. But it turns out that the way most of us go about coping with the stress of attaining goals is not so good for our health.

stressAt Stanford University’s Medical School, scientific research published in 1998 asserted that stress is the cause of at least 95 percent of illness and disease. Please note that we are talking about the type of stress related to physical, mental and emotional strain, usually borne of unresolved, unknown or unconscious motives (more on this later) as opposed to, let’s say, engaging in a favorite activity that challenges us at the same time. The notion of stress-related illness has been around for centuries, but since the 1998 landmark study stated here in layman’s terms, there is a growing body of work corroborating its findings.

So what does that mean for those of us going to horse shows?

Good question! And in an effort to glean some insights, I invite you to imagine yourself in the following story:

trailheadOne day you go for a hike along a rustic path in the woods. At the trailhead you can already see where you’re headed because the end of the trail is marked by a tall look-out tower that hovers above the treetops about three miles to the north. Your goal is very clear and you set out with enthusiasm. In a short way, however, you come to a fork in the trail and have to make a choice as to which way to go.

Look-outTower Keeping your “eye on the prize” you choose the path that seems to head directly to it and continue on with renewed vigor. But a little farther down the way you trip over a tangle of tree roots at your feet and fall flat on your face. At this point you laugh it off, pick yourself up, and head to the tower. But around the next curve in the path, a low- hanging branch, camouflaged among the dense wood, catches you right between the eyes and sends you reeling backwards. Now you’re openly startled and maybe a little irritated as you swat away the protrusion and huff your way forward.

boulderAs you proceed, you occasionally stub your toe, but since you’re wearing sturdy shoes you don’t feel the pain and are able to catch yourself before enduring another fall. Then, just a mile before your destination, you encounter a huge boulder in the middle of the path. Not wanting to let anything slow you down you scramble over its surface, grabbing for hand and toe holds.

drawreinsHalf the way up your foot misses and you fall to the ground. “Ouch!” you yell and then mumble a few choice swear words while pausing to rub the sore spots and assess the damage. Although openly frustrated, you are as determined as ever to reach your goal. So at length you decide to head back home and get advice on how to scale the hurdle. Giving yourself a pep-talk as you hobble back down the trail, you tell yourself to “buck up” and “hang tough.” After conferring with someone you consider to be an expert on the subject, you are told to gather rope and gear for the climb. Newly armed with additional equipment, you set out once again for the trailhead.


Okay, so I’m partial to the dramatic 😀

Regaining the path with a slight limp but holding the memory of snag points along the way, you are confident that this time you will stay out of harm’s way. Reaching the boulder a second time you nail spikes into the rock’s surface, attach your ropes, and hoist yourself up and over. Emboldened by scaling the top so quickly, you try to make up for lost time and hurry down the other side, but in your zeal you slip again. This time you are seriously injured on the landing and are only able to crawl on hands and knees.

medalWhile your enthusiasm to continue has been forgotten, you are more determined than ever to make your goal and so with great effort you proceed. By the time you reach the tower you’re worn to the nub BUT you have reached your goal! Ta da!


LookoutTower2But wait! Bear with me and re-do this same hike with a different mindset. Let’s begin again at the trailhead. We are enthusiastic about our venture, same as before. We see the same look-out tower and note its importance as our goal. But this time, rather than keeping the tower in our direct sight, we anchor it in our mind’s eye. We know it is there and we trust that it will remain so for the duration of our journey. That means that as we gardenwoods1 start along our path we can turn our focus to what is directly before us, and so as we enter the wood we notice dense growth on either side of the trail. There are many shades of green, and many different shapes of leaves adorning a wide variety of trees. Tall oaks branch out overhead and moss and ferns and herbaceous perennials crowd at our feet. The forest is dark and quiet with occasional swaths of sunlight that has found its way in through the canopy, enabling low-lying shrubs to flower in a splash of pink and red and white blooms amid the greenery. Our senses awaken further by every- thing that surrounds us and we delight birdinwoodin the changing colors and contours around each new bend in the path. Birds chirp and call. A soft breeze whispers through the leaves. The scent of damp soil mixes with the aroma of the wood as we come upon a fork in the trail. Pausing to reflect, it seems a good bet that both options will lead us to our goal and so we pick the way that appears to be the most illuminating.

forest1Soon we feel a rise under our feet and note that some large roots have surfaced from a fallen tree alongside the trail. We pick our way through, noting how the large trunk is already decomposing, volunteering itself to nourish the other living organisms in its wake. Around another bend we come upon a sapling with a damaged limb protruding across our path. Taking hold, we give it a twist and it snaps at the break, allowing us to tuck it under the brush, out of the way of the next traveler who may have otherwise encountered it.

boulderAbout a mile before our destination we come upon a boulder blocking our route. We are eager to keep going but the boulder is way above our head, and although there are indents in the rock where our feet could step, the surface is very uneven and appears somewhat treacherous. But as we continue to observe, we begin to note a variety of ways we could attempt the climb.

giantboulderSome toe and hand holds lead straight up and over, some around to the right and some around to the left. We have never tried anything like this before, so we proceed with caution, picking our way around to the left first. Every indent in the rock is a different shape and distance from another. Some are smooth and some are jagged and some are slippery, requiring a different pressure from each hand and foot to hoist our bodies up to the next. We are just starting to get the hang climbing of it when halfway up one side we run out of toe- holds. At length we realize we have no choice but to back all the way down. We take a deep breath and, shimmying along carefully, we find ourselves on the ground again at square one. Feeling disappointed and a bit defeated, we try the right-hand direction. We think time has been wasted, but embarking in the new direction informs us that our previous effort has actually taught us a few things, like how to secure our foot in the toe-holds and how to position our body against the angle of the slope in order to support ourselves against the solid surface.

forest4In fact, we are now much better prepared to maneuver and this time make it all the way up to the top. Relieved, we relax our focus and notice the look-out tower, so close now that we can almost touch it! The next thing we know we’ve lost our footing and are tumbling down. We land in a heap, scraped and bruised and staring at the treetops, the wind knocked out of our lungs.

sitboulderAt length we sit up and assess the damage. We find that we are well enough to go on, but our aches and soreness cause us to consider our options. For one thing, reaching our goal is not a life-and-death situation no matter how much we want it. The tower will still be there whenever we get there. Secondly, where we have landed to date is not so bad. We are still in one piece, sitting in a place of beauty, and still have the ability to enjoy the wonders in our immediate vicinity. Finally, pushing ourselves on before having had a chance to regroup would be disrespectful of our level of ability and what it will take to proceed without tension — i.e. what we would be relying on to replace our current loss of actual strength.

lookoutviewSo we sit and wait, have a sip of water and nibble on some snacks out of our pack. In a while strength returns and we intuitively feel ready to continue. Now able to focus the rest of the way down we complete the last leg of our journey, arriving at the tower with energy to spare.
• We are happy to have attained our goal ~ but we were happy on the journey, too.
• We have earned new confidence in our ability to reach our destination ~ but it was our confidence to begin with that allowed us to trust that we could learn to address whatever happened along the way, inevitably achieving what we set out to do.

So softWithout strain.
Without serious injury.

Which one of these scenarios sounds more pleasant? More fun? More inviting?

“Why, the second one, of course,” you reply. “But what does any of this have to do with taking my horse to a show?”

drawreinsI encourage you to reread the first scenario, this time substituting your horse for everything you encounter: the tree roots, the protruding branch, the shoes that absorbed the brunt of your carelessness, the giant boulder. Ask yourself if you have occasionally treated so-called resistances and “bad behaviors” with a similar lack of consideration, harshness and even disdain, for the sake of getting to your goal. What have you neglected to learn about your horse that led you to employ contraptions for coercion rather than learning what it would take to elicit a willing response in the first place? If asked the question on your way to a horse show, could you honestly say that you got there via that second path?

Tune in next time for more thoughts on setting goals. In the meantime, happy musings!

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The Nature of Things

Continued from last time…

permiedef14. Locate Elements Relationally

At the end of my last post I posed the question: “How do we show up (for our horse) in a way that allows us to be the leader of our herd of two?” The question referred to the importance of the relationship between our horse and ourselves, and so as you can imagine, how we interact with them has everything to do with our reply. Or, we could simply use the next and last bullet point included in our list of permaculture design principles which, as it turns out, is the same “answer” that Tom used to use on an infinite number of occasions:

15. Remember — IT DEPENDS!

gardenWhile the phrase “it depends” makes it impossible to give a definitive response to the question, I’d like to offer some examples using case scenarios. But in the end, how we go about unraveling whatever knotty circumstance we find ourselves in is what each of us must learn if we are to find the most appropriate response to any given situation. Since we all tend to become habituated to our way of perceiving our horse and our situation, I have enjoyed drawing parallels between similar ideas couched in unfamiliar covers as a way of reinterpreting old concerns and thereby seeing things in a new light. And so, allow me to assert that most of the answers to our question can just as well be found in a garden. 😀

cornfieldAs it turns out, modern industrial farming and common horse training practices have some things in common. Both tend toward reaping high yields quickly and efficiently by using a formulaic approach. A grower will use a “recipe” for fertilizing soil, sowing seed, and spraying pesticides and herbicides on his crop in order to reap row upon row of corn, for example, in acres of nothing but

horserowcorn. By the same token, a horse trainer who needs to reap remuneration through volume will tend to use a monoculture of training techniques on every horse in his stable. Yes, the saddle or bit or equipment might vary. But basically each horse will be expected to respond in a specific way within a specific amount of time as a result of specific techniques applied to train him, just as the crop will be expected to produce a certain yield within a certain amount of time as a result of specific techniques applied to grow it. This approach tends to get quick results up front, but over the long term there are consequences for land and horse, and thereby for everything dependent upon them. (That would include us).

Layered canopyIn the natural world, life is by nature complex and generated by the interactions between species. What one plant lacks, another can provide, so left to their own devices, plants never isolate themselves from other types of plants. Instead they seek communities, forming symbiotic relationships in order to improve their living conditions.  These complementary species mutually assist each other in creating mulch, providing shade and water storage, establishing a nutrient exchange, attracting pollinators and predators that provide pest control, and more. (Click here to watch a really cool documentary on plant behavior). Astute gardeners and small-farm growers will often employ these plant communities or “guilds” to make their work easier and their food more nutrient-rich.


“The Three Sisters” is the name given to the guild of corn, beans and squash, intentionally planted here alongside a few other species without creating “neat” rows. The idea is to mimic nature, which has already evolved over millions of years to come up with the most resilient means for sustaining and regenerating life as we know it.

The Native American triad of corn, beans and squash is one such guild. The cornstalks form a trellis for the bean vines to climb while the beans draw nitrogen from the air, convert- ing it into a plant-available form. These nitrogen-fixing bacteria are fed by special sugars emitting from the corn roots, and the broad-leaved squash shade the ground, inhibiting weeds and keeping the soil cool and moist. Together these three plant species produce more food with a higher nutrient and calorie yield using less water and fertilizer than any one of these three crops in isolation.

Sometimes doing nothing with our horse is the best way to be with them. While we're doing nothing, they're learning patience, the ability to wait without fuss, and how to be OK inside their own skin.

Sometimes doing nothing with our horse is the best way to help them learn. Learning is a process that goes on 24/7. So while we appear to be doing nothing, they’re learning patience, the ability to wait without fuss, and how to be relaxed inside their own skin. (Note to self: we get to watch that process taking place first hand, the result of which is… TA DA! …we learn something, too).

Focusing on the quality of a plant’s life means focusing on what will benefit the plant itself, not its yield. And yet, doing so is the very thing that allows that plant to produce a more robust yield. It takes more time and effort up front to establish the environment within which plants can thrive before enabling those species to sustain themselves, and thereby the cultivator as well. The same mind-set is required when working with a horse destined to be more than a servant. So we might ask ourselves what kinds of relationships our horse has — with us, yes, but within themselves, their environment, and with each other.

zoedoniaTake pasture mates Zoe and Donia, for example. Zoe is a nine-year-old mare with a history of abusive handling, some of which has been talked about on this blog. It has taken more than two years to undo her negative associations with people and reveal her underlying sweet temper. She is now reasonably good to handle and ride for a variety of people on a fairly consistent basis.

zdpastureDonia is a 3-year-old filly who has always had good handling from people who had only her best interests at heart. Pasturing them together has revealed some interest- ing dynamics. Although each mare is on the dominant side, Zoe is a little more so and likes to push Donia around a bit. As a result, where a handler once had trouble convinc- ing Donia to take direction, Zoe has taught her that going along with whomever is taking charge makes life a lot easier, a lesson she can now transfer to people.


Zoe pushing Donia on from behind, just because she can…

In addition, having two horses in one pasture means that every time one is taken out to be handled the other is left alone. At first this created quite a bit of separation anxiety in Donia. Every time Zoe left, Donia would gallop wildly up and down the hills, whinnying hysterically and often working herself up into a lather. This went on for two months, and just last week she figured it out. When I haltered

Donia loves to roll but is hesitant even when allowed to do so on the line. Her people are seen here trying to convince her that it's all right. ;) Do you think she's buying it?

Donia is hesitant when asked to roll on the line, but of course her people would urge her to try. 😉

Zoe and led her away, Donia milled around some, looking a little lost, but she did not get worked up. When we returned a couple of hours later, she was cool and dry and calmly eating. Again, in this particular case, doing less allowed more to be accomplished. Where some people would have fretted to see her carry on, interfering would not have allowed her to learn what will now serve her and her people for the rest of her life.


Even with good handling, Donia was suspicious of a person getting on her back when brought up to the mounting block the first few times. By being observant, her trainer, Sarah Sheehy, saw an opportunity to assuage that fear when she saw Donia resting in her pasture one morning. If we’re straining to rectify a problem in a preconceived way, we’ll miss these golden moments being handed to us on a silver platter.

Helping a horse through separation anxiety can also be accomplished in other ways which can and should be employed, particularly in cases where a person does not have the facilities to let things be worked out on their own. For Donia, her relationships with people were just as important in allowing her to find the kind of support and reassurance that would allow her to generate an inner sense of security. But where the environment and other relationships can do the work for you, it can be a great advantage to let them.

Is there risk of injury by allowing a horse to live in pasture? Of course, just as there is a risk of a horse getting cast in a stall or its legs through the bars of a pipe paddock every time they get down to roll. In my personal experience, there is no place that does not manufacture risk where horses are concerned, but being practically minded and understanding their nature can minimize our anxiety and the likelihood of manifesting something unfortunate.



Preparing a horse to mount is all about the relationship. Here Sarah invites Donia to join her for a good rub. Who wouldn’t want to sidle up to the mounting block after that?


With Zoe, the relationship with Donia has been more subtle but no less profound. Having another horse to interact with has given her a “job” (yes, in her eyes bossing Donia around is her job 😉 ), increasing her sense of place and thereby her self-confidence.

Because of her evolving relationships with people, Zoe offers herself here as more than a servant, but as someone her owner can begin to trust.

Improved relationships with people allows Zoe to offer herself as a partner her owner, Romy, can begin to trust.

In turn, her demeanor around people has softened as well and her overall expression is more relaxed. Paying attention to and actively engaging ourselves in these types of advancements is what it takes to build a good foundation — and is ultimately what requires the most time and patience. But being interested in establishing a good rapport and mutual respect with our horse before asking for specific movements or exacting steps is key to allowing them to be happy and confident in whatever tasks we put them to later on.

donia1Like people, a horse’s natural temperament combined with their history makes them a complex mentality with a unique set of physical attributes all wrapped into one. Combine that with our learning curve in understanding each horse’s particular make-up, which also depends on our temperament and set of experiences. Even if we have the skill to climb on a horse’s back

donia2 for the first time within 30 minutes, what transpires between us and that horse over the long run will be more revealing than anything else.

While Donia has less history to undo, she, like Zoe, has a dominant personality combined with great sensitivity. This translates into her having a strong will while at the same time having the potential to be easily over-faced. She is also a warmblood from a slow-growing line and will not mature until age six or seven. So while she will not require nearly the same volume or intensity of time that was spent with Zoe in

donia3overcoming her past, she will require a similar length of time simply to grow and develop physically before being asked to do anything that would prematurely demand more strength and coordination than she can manage without strain. This does not mean that she is not being challenged to respond to a person in ways that are unfamiliar. It means that she will not be asked to choose between the wants of the person and her own sense of self-preservation, or that which causes her to feel habitually defensive, reactive, or tense.


The naturally willing nature of horses, if cultivated and preserved through establishing good partnerships, will remain a reliable benefit to the human throughout the life-span of that horse. What is a year or two at the beginning to ensure a happy and working relationship that produces a high-quality yield for many more to come?


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The Nature of Things

Continued from last time…

13. Ensure planned redundancy

permiedefPlanned redundancy? I asked myself the first time I heard the concept. Doesn’t that just mire the process down in repeating things you’ve done before?

Honing a skill to the point of real efficiency had become my motto after I’d started working with Tom, something I admired and marveled at every time I watched him make a problem with a troubled horse disappear in a short time — after its owner had been struggling with it for years. I was to learn, however, that redundancy and efficiency are not opposing concepts, but emphasize varying aspects of problem-solving that when applied together, produce a far more well-rounded — and thereby dependable — solution.

at oneIn nature we see planned redundancy everywhere. To walk through a forest or any native habitat is to automatically be in the presence of immense biological diversity. Such diversity provides a wide variety of food for a wide variety of species, from mammals down to the tiniest microbe, ever interacting with one another to produce yet more life. In a healthy food system, if one food source is compromised there are other sources for sustenance and survival as most animals, even insects, are able to eat more than one type of food.

coastr1Other examples of redundancy can be found, for instance, in trees that develop the ability to absorb moisture through their leaves as well as their roots, such as coastal redwoods here in California, surviving drought conditions by “drinking” fog when rain is non-existent. Plants develop thousands of seeds, not just one, for self-propagation. Soil naturally renews its nutritional value through the “waste” or elimination of a

The beds where trees are born.variety of sources such as fallen leaves, twigs, debris and animal feces. Water sources are delivered to all manner of flora and fauna through snow melting into streams, underground aquifers, rain, fog or moisture in the air, condensation, and the ability of the soil to harvest, store and spread water through earth particles.

In other words, planned redundancy ensures that all important functions will be met despite the failure of one or more elements. Systems that are based on this concept are less fragile and more resilient because planned redundancy is not repeating the same thing over and over and over again, rather, it is exposure to a variety of elements that lead to the same end. When working with horses, this is a crucial distinction!

zoemtr21For example, we will find repetition useful when we and our horse are learning a new skill. Repeating a task a number of times is a necessary component of practice and the ability to perform that task competently. However, if we get stuck in drilling the same thing over and over again, we and our horse are led to boredom, stress, strain and even physical symptoms related to overuse. Without a variety of other actions that support our efforts toward real proficiency, we actually limit ourselves to a narrow and superficial understanding of the task we are trying to hone.

spooky horseLet’s say we have a spooky horse and that horse spooks at the same tarp that covers a hay stack at one end of our arena every time the wind picks up. Spending some time working out our horse’s fear of that particular tarp in that particular place is a good thing. But if they get to the point where they are no longer worried about that tarp, we will still not be assured that they won’t spook at something else at some other point in time or in some other place. In fact, we may be successful in getting our horse to be comfortable with that tarp today, only to find that they are spooking at it again tomorrow.

Why is that? we might ask.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is an excellent question, and one we can better hope to answer for ourselves if we begin to observe where our horse’s attention goes before, after, and in between the moments they decide to spook at the tarp. Because we have the tendency to become fixated on the one thing we think is the problem, just as they can have the tendency to keep spooking at the same thing over and over, we miss everything else along the way. As mentioned before, nature is by its very nature complex and multidimensional. A true resolution to a problem is rarely accomplished by proffering simplistic remedies.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALearning to see where the origins of our horse’s spookiness really lie can be a tall order for those of us working on the less subtle challenges of basic horsemanship. So to start, it might be helpful to begin doing tangible things by, say, setting out a number of different items within the relatively controlled environment of our arena or usual riding area. Tarps in various positions, flags and flappy things, tires, logs, cones, umbrellas, things that create shadows, and other items easily obtained can all be used as props to expose our horses to objects they have the potential to be leery about. It will be

umbrellashelpful to us to know that such reactions are perfectly normal. It’s a horse’s instinct to be suspicious of the world around them to one degree or another, as they rely almost entirely on fleeing from danger for their survival from predators.

traffic-cones-isolatedExposure to a variety of odd-looking objects might be the first step in helping our horse learn to assess when things are actually not a danger to them. In fact, for horses who basically feel comfortable in their own skin and have easy-going personalities, this might be all that is needed to take the edge off of a tendency to spook.

"C'mon! Get over it!"However, horses who persist in being spooky as a rule reveal an underlying sense of insecurity. We may notice varying levels of intensity with which they react to the differing objects, but each reaction, whether large or small or nearly imperceptible, represents a corresponding degree of disconnect with us (their person) in favor of an habitual sense of insecurity brought on by their interpretation of the object.

zoemtr7If our horse was at the top of the pecking order in a herd, this reaction would be a signal to its members to flee, and is therefore instinctually useful to them. So, if we don’t show up as the leader of our herd of two (us and our horse), then they will rely on their instincts to take over whenever they perceive something as threatening. If we take on the role as leader, on the other hand, our assertions, if applied consistently and persistently, can allow them to rely on us, giving them the confidence to drop their reactions to the once-scary objects.

Looking to the unknown for new ideas and answers often takes courage — and a letting go of needing to bolster one's ego.Particularly with horses for whom an object triggers a sense of insecurity rather than merely a reaction to the object itself, the connection to “their person” is an essential component to overcoming a habit of spookiness or a tendency to flee.

How do we “show up” in a way that allows us to be the leader of our herd of two?

It’s another great question! Tune in next time for more thoughts on the subject. In the meantime and just for a bit of fun, can you tell where I used planned redundancy in the writing of this article? 😀

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