The Nature of Things

Continued from last time…

permiedef9. In the problem lies the solution.

I knew very little about Zoe when I saw her for the first time, but her owner, Romy, had told me that no one except her groom could take her out of her paddock, that she didn’t like to be touched, and that she was dangerous to ride. The fact that she would not budge from the horse trailer upon arriving, and then, after some coaxing, could not be safely lead from the trailer to the large round pen by her owner indicated extreme tension. It took me quite a while to hand-walk her the short distance to the round pen using a long, 15-foot lead rope. I am familiar with using a rope for the purpose of keeping a horse at some distance behind me and did so with Zoe so that she would remain out of striking and kicking range. My 120 lbs was not enough to contain the 2000 lb, 18-hand mare from leaping, bolting and rearing, but with the rope I could set a parameter so that she wouldn’t harm me when her feet left the ground.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce in the round pen she seemed unmanageable, throwing her head and her tail straight up in the air, bolting, bucking, whinnying, and sweating. By her behavior, she seemed not to be at all cognizant of Romy and me just outside the pen. Fortunately, other horses had taught me that these kinds of superficial interpretations of behavior did not tell a complete story. How things appear to us do not always reveal the underlying truth. Perhaps never do they…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs we remained outside the pen to observe, I began to search Zoe’s demeanor for more clues. First, in spite of the tension that was coursing through her entire being, she was not running herself into the fence, into the ground, or anywhere accept in fits and starts within the pen. It takes some presence of mind to respect such parameters while under the influence of so much turmoil. This allowed me to question the label of “insane mare” that she came with.


Unfortunately, I did not have a camera with me that first day and these photos, taken more recently, do not reflect the degree of tension I describe. However, they do reflect a now-manageable horse who has some residual tension and that “need to look,” more common among horses we experience everyday. For this reason I’m including them here because the process of helping a horse at this stage remains the same.

Secondly, Zoe definitely wanted to look, and rushed to and fro to then stop and gaze at everything between bolts. Maybe it’s that we forget what it’s like to be a child, needing to explore all that lies around us. Or maybe it’s just that we’ve heard the phrase, “get that horse to pay attention to you,” for so long that we have lost the ability to appreciate one of life’s natural functions at work: the gift of raw awareness, an “on-site resource” that allows us — both horses and people — to process and interpret the meaning of the world around us, and to do so to the point where we are settled, or confident, with our place in it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThirdly, the tensions that Zoe exhibited — head and neck pariscoping, back hollow, tail high and arched, body rigid — were typical of any horse filled with fear and insecurity. For a person to step in at this point to get a response would have been asking for disappointment, a fight, an escalation of reactivity, or all of the above. She was not yet capable of freeing her mind from trying to figure out where she was, to then also respond to the requirements of a human.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a while, however, her sudden bursts of movement began to include sniffing the ground, the rail, the wind. With each lowering of her head the muscles in her body could release some modicum of tension, even if only for a few seconds at a time. Her prance and dart from one side of the round pen to the other eased into a sporadic trot and even an occasional walk. By this time, she had still not looked our way, nor seemed to care about our human presence… oh, but wait… there was that little twitch of an ear, cocked in our direction for a few nanoseconds now and again. It’s something that’s easy to miss, but it reflected the fact that she was aware of us.


Zoe performing a “drive-by.” Sure seems like she’s blowing me off… but wait… what’s up with that right ear?

At this point, I had Romy move inside the pen and wait in the middle. Although Zoe still appeared transfixed with all that was happening around her, she would often arc in close to Romy on her way from one side of the pen to the other. For many people, this behavior is particularly annoying. The horse seems like it’s finally coming in to acknowledge you, but then turns and moves off like you never existed.

But there’s another way to interpret it. Just as a child who is barely old enough to be aware of the world outside its mother wanders off before coming back in for reassurance, so will a horse come close before their inherent need to assess their world pulls them out again to gaze at their surroundings. A “drive-by,” I call it, indicating that there was something positive Zoe received by veering close to her person before going back out toward the rail to look away some more.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat were we supposed to do about that?

Nothing. Zoe’s inherent processes were already busy at work, helping her to bit by bit calm and settle herself. That was a lesson no one would be able to make her learn. But by staying out of her way, we could give her the opportunity to learn it for herself. In other words, we were using her wandering attention, normally considered a liability, to our benefit, and for the benefit of Zoe as well. In the problem lies the solution.

Tune in next time for more of Zoe’s journey…

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The Nature of Things


permiedef7. Optimize Yields
8. Use On-site Resourses

What I like about the term “optimize yields” is that it at first hooks us in to our usual way of looking at things, luring us into thinking we’ll need to get very busy producing a lot of stuff. When working with horses, that gets translated into fixing all the things that aren’t working while training them up to do all the “stuff” we’d like them to do. But even though working with horses requires energy, active participation, and oftentimes strength, stamina and fortitude, these qualities do not require coercion and strain in order to manipulate outcomes and have things go our way. The same is true about growing a garden.

GLawtonGeoff Lawton has become famous for his understanding of natural systems, so when asked to design and grow a garden in one of the hottest and driest places on earth, he didn’t hesitate. In fact, you can see how he did it in this short 5-minute video, an example of how a seeming wasteland can transform into an amazing food forest without the use of fertilizers, pesticides or, for that matter, much water. You’ll see that he spends little time worrying or complaining about what isn’t available or what isn’t working, he just gets busy assessing what will allow for success, and then puts that into practice.

The beds where trees are born.

The beds where trees are born.

If you watch the video closely, you will see that everything that requires action has first been studied and considered. Second, Lawton works with natural systems rather than spending unnecessary energy superimposing uncomplimentary landscapes with no regard for what is already there. Thirdly, the area is appreciated for what can be garnered on site. The effort needed for production is spent on “creating conditions conducive to life.” What follows next is a stepping back, if you will, to allow life to do what it does best. Thrive!

The fruits of one's efficiency.

The fruits of one’s efficiency.

In other words, this approach is not based on exploiting productivity — even though the need to eat makes productivity just as important as ever — but from observing life’s generative nature. A willingness to take time for this kind of observation (#1 on our list of permaculture principles), and then applying the knowledge we gain from doing so is what develops skill. If we don’t operate from this basis, we will feel compelled to band-aid outcomes, compensating for our ignorance about how nature actually works.

The same thing could be said about working with horses. We are all taught to fix what is broken, so when we find ourselves getting bucked off, run away with, or trying to manage a pan1rear, a spook, balking, pawing, excessive whinnying, a duck-and-run, separation anxiety, general unresponsiveness or simple tension of any kind, most of us tend to think of the equipment we can use or what technique or method we can impose in order to “train” our horse not to express that undesirable behavior — until we’ve eliminated everything that frightens, irritates or in some way displeases us.

But what if we knew enough about the horse to trust their own inherent nature to solve the problem for us?


Devonwell17dysWhat if we knew enough about the horse to work with the very aspects of their nature they currently use to resist us? Just as a desert that initially appears inhospitable can transform itself into an oasis through our respect and understanding of its nature, so can a horse transform itself into a working partner via the same approach, the operative words being “transform itself.” In other words, our job is not to change them. Our job is to create the conditions whereby they can find a reason to trust us, to let down their guard and blossom into everything their nature already intended — utilizing on-site resources indeed! 😀

A consideration for the horse is vital to understanding their perspectives, goals, and reference points, as well as their innate ability to think and feel for themselves.

A consideration for the horse is vital to understanding their perspectives, goals, and reference points, as well as their innate ability to think and feel for themselves.

This does not mean that we sit back and do nothing. It does means that we need to be a lot better educated about our horses and what motivates, concerns and interests them. It also means we will need to put a lot more thought into what it is we are doing and why we are doing it. If we do this first, what we decide to act upon can be done without (or with less) strain, worry, fear, anger, or impatience.

Consider Zoe, a sensitive mare who, at nearly 18 hands, was perfectly capable of intimidation. It was not entirely difficult


Denise Lesnik, owner of Inside-Out Horse Training, is working with Zoe for the first time at the Monkey Tail Ranch in Hollister, CA. (P.S. Note what “working” often entails as Zoe accepts a rub on the rump).

to understand why the people she was entrusted to for a time resorted to a range of equipment and punishment in an effort to get the upper hand. Their attempt was to set boundaries on her movements, coercing her to submit and thereby rendering her manageable. But true to any good alpha horse, she merely rebelled. Motivated by fear and anger, she developed herself as her own unique model of a ticking time bomb, and explode she did!

Deemed mentally unsound and pronounced too dangerous to ride or handle, the owner was forced to consider euthanasia. What would you do with a horse who was either too scared to pay a mere human any mind or too pissed off to try?

Find out more about Zoe and her journey next time…

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The Nature of Things


permiedef4. Think spatially in 3 dimensions
5. Work in the dimension of time
6. Optimize ecotones (edges)

It’s good to be back at the blog after a rather lengthy hiatus. Writing helps me clarify what I think and feel about horses and so, too, about life. But it’s one thing to think about ideas and to expound on them. No time or space is required. It’s another thing to put those same ideas into practice. Working in the dimension of time and space allows us to do just that.

In last post’s recounting of my work with a friend’s gelding, for example, I had to back down from asserting my agenda

tcrobinbecause that horse was not in a place of my preference. He was in the place where he was. I was not going to be able to move forward until I “came to” him and acknowledged that place, no matter how disappointing that felt. The place I thought he should be seemed much better, and I could justify why I was right! But the face of time and space often mirror a different set of circumstances. I had to (finally) take note of them, otherwise I would be trying to get from him what he was not prepared to give.

imageSo how does one go about bringing a horse from where they are to where we’d like them to be, and do that without being forceful, intimidating, insensitive, coercive, or threatening?

As ever, there are many ways to answer that question, but I thought it interesting that the next definition in the list of permaculture principles gives us a clue:

6. Optimize Ecotones (Edges)

edge1Right. And what does that mean?

In the field of biology, ecotone or edge means “a region of transition between two biological communities.” In natural settings, the space between field and forest or pond and hillside attract a great variety and density of plants and animals along with high productivity.

Abrupt EdgeIn human settings, however, the transition from woods to field tends to be more abrupt, giving it what we often interpret as a “clean” look — neat and tidy.

It’s the way most of us learned to make transitions on a horse. We want the trot to spring suddenly out of a walk and the canter to come suddenly out of a trot without noting if our horses were stiff, tight, or backed-off to begin with. Do we ever consider what it took our horse to prepare itself to go from one gait to the next or whether the transition was smooth, well coordinated, or strained in order to comply with our demand? Do we know if our horse’s movement came anywhere near their potential for athleticism, or whether it came out of habit, driven by a rote training regimen?

OhioClinicWe tend to think of the walk as one gait, the trot as another, and the canter another, rather than realizing that each gait has numerous shades of impulsion and scope and, if developed, give the horse far greater proficiency and deftness of movement. Just as diversity provides nature with resiliency and productivity by offering habitat for beneficial insects (natural pest control), and allowing species to create symbiotic or mutually-beneficial relationships for longevity and disease prevention, so does expanding our horse’s range of movement decrease tension (less strain on joints and muscles), increase suppleness (greater elasticity and blood flow), develop a fluid stride (provide us cushier gaits to ride), and build

Layered canopy

A layered and diverse garden “edge” for health, higher yields, and beauty.

strength (the horse no longer needs to rely on strain to compensate for a weak muscle), thereby toning the body to maintain itself to a higher standard. In both cases, the overall health of the ecosystem and the health of our horse is substantially improved.

So… how can we change for the better?

Try a simple walk from the ground in a round pen or arena, or on a longe line, or in the saddle. If asked for more energy, how much can your horse expand their

stride at the walk before breaking over? Do they automatically transition to jog or trot? Horses who are not accustomed to “letting go” and lengthening their steps will find it more expedient to move up to the next gait instead. For them it has become easier to hold their walk at a monotone (unchanging) rather than expand (diversify) their reach to create a sweeping, fluid stride, engaging their neck, back and underbelly into a full-bodied, harmonious “swing.”

panThe effort in dressage to name specific differences in each gait: the collected walk, medium walk, extended, and free walk; the collected trot, working trot, lengthening at the trot, medium trot, extended trot, etc. has helped, but not produced many horses with true freedom of stride. While official terms serve as guidelines, I found out the hard way that they prepare us to compartmentalize a horse’s movement, when in reality a truly athletic transition has no boundaries. In other words, achieving a fluid stride means that each transition is seamless and unique, depending on time of day, footing, venue, surroundings, terrain, etc.

Terry Church Clinic August 2008 243I still laugh remembering the day I rode my troubled horse, “Blackie,” with Tom. It took me about a year to figure out that he wasn’t looking for the “8” (a good score at a dressage show) transition to canter that I’d spent years honing. “Don’t try and do anything fancy,” he kept repeating until one day it occurred to me to just drop the reins and see what my horse would do if I encouraged him forward out of the trot. To my surprise, he dropped his head and lengthened his stride, the suspension between footfalls throwing my seat high out of the saddle with each attempt to post. He continued that way all the way down the long side of the pipe fencing surrounding the sand arena. As we came to the turn, he had to gather himself and voila! He delivered the smoothest transition to canter I’d ever felt.

That simple action provided a contrast to the way I’d been riding up to that point, and that contrast was what made the light bulbs go off in my head. The transition was smooth, effortless, and all I’d had to do was let it happen. I never wanted to feel another contortion of that movement again.

Tune in next time for more…

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Presence and Permaculture…


permiedef4. Think spatially in 3 dimensions
5. Work in the dimension of time

I thought the phrasing of these two points interesting. Most people assume that one must work in the dimensions of space and time — it’s the reality we live in, right? We get up, go through our day in some kind of sequence, encounter other objects and beings who appear solid just like us, then sleep — or not — and get up and do it all again the next day. So why take up two whole lines to mention the obvious? It’s as if the authors knew what Einstein knew when he said, “Time and space are not conditions in which we live, but modes by which we think,” acknowledging other dimensions of awareness.

einsteinSo… Is our reality not what it seems? And if so, why is it important to work in the dimensions of space and time? What does it mean for us in practical terms?

Spatially, when we imagine a garden, most of us will picture it planted in the ground. It takes up a certain length and width, making up our plot. If we live in the suburbs with some kind of yard or in more rural areas with room to spare, we are not usually prompted to think beyond this conventional style of sowing a neat little row of one type of vegetable into the ground. But if we live in the city, does this mean we can’t grow a garden?

Seven commonly thought-of layers of a food forest.

Seven commonly thought-of layers of a food forest.

In nature, a food forest has a variety of layers, vertical growth complementing length and width. Such patterns can offer us far more possibilities in how we plant to suit our lifestyle and circumstance. Being observant of these patterns allows us to become creative in our thinking, and suddenly we “see” more options as our viewpoint becomes enhanced. Now we are no longer “working” (taking action) in the dimension of time. We are changing our

Urban buildings of the future?

Urban buildings of the future?

way of thinking. Thoughts are not solid nor do they take up space, yet we can add more and more of them to develop an expanded idea that becomes the catalyst for more appropriate action, design, or other modes of creation.

growth succession

Beginning at the top right and moving clockwise, a clearing or bare soil provides space for perennials creating conditions for shrubs leading to woodlands before attaining the status of a mature forest.

Working in the dimension of time can mean that we are aware of a succession of growth happening all around us, all the time. For example, if we were to observe an un-grazed, abandoned field over 50 to 100 years, we would see an inevitable transformation, illustrated in the diagram to the left.

Okay, okay, okay… but remember, we’re horse people. What do all these plants have to do with horses?

Well, I often find that using metaphors can be helpful. Sometimes we’ve become so acclimated to seeing what we think we know that we rely on what we’re familiar with, and not what is actually right in front of our nose.

This happened to me recently. I was excited to be working once again with a Hanovarian gelding belonging to a friend and client of mine. She and I have been working together for a number of years and have spent a lot of time re-schooling Robin, as he is called, out of tensions he developed by being pushed too hard too fast during his early years in training as a dressage horse. This past year, he has been doing exceptionally well. Reliably well, making great strides (pun intended) without strain, irritation or excitability. So when I got on him again for the first time in a month, I expected him to be butter in my hands.

He was not butter in my hands.


Robin, owned by Elise Lalor of the Monkey Tail Ranch:

I began to do suppling exercises, and when he did not improve I became firmer, asking more poignantly, and when he still did not improve, I became firmer still. I mean, they were suppling exercises. What could be wrong with that? But at the end of the ride, I had a vague sense of being disappointed in myself. I quickly buried that thought and went home.

The following day I did ground work, the uncomfortable taste of the prior day’s ride still in my mouth. He started out sticky, but ended well, so the next day I rode again.

Again, he was not butter in my hands.

At that point I had to admit that I had made an assumption of what he should feel like based on the last time I’d ridden him. In other words, I was living in the past. Then, when he turned out not to feel the way he had in the past, I began to push for him to feel better than he did in that moment. Now, I was living in the future. Because I could not achieve what I wanted in either dimension, I felt compelled to try harder to “fix” the “problem.” Now I was straining.

Looking oneself in the mirror is often a good way to reflect.

Looking oneself in the mirror is often a good way to reflect.

When I finally stopped to think, I recalled that the first night Robin arrived he had merely picked at his food. This horse is normally a voracious eater. In addition, for the first 2 or 3 days, he had not engaged with the other horses in his pasture, also an anomaly. But he’d had no temperature, he was sound and moving with energy, and well, he was eating, albeit slowly. I dismounted, removed his tack, and continued to ruminate.

It then occurred to me to palpate his back. There was no real “reason” to. He had been relaxed at the mounting block, did not react to the girth, my seat, or the saddle. Indeed, he was not sore over his withers or where the saddle sat. But when my hands glided into the muscles of his lower back and sacrum, he made a sudden dip with his hips, trying to get away from the pressure. He was sore.

In the beginning, we usually have no idea how things will turn out later on.

In the beginning, we usually know little about how things will turn out later on. It’s the nature of life, and gives us good reason to remain observant.

Okay, but what did that mean? Again I had to accept the fact that, in that moment, I did not know the answer. But now it was clear to me that I could not proceed in the usual way until I found out.

Because this was happening during the holidays, attempting to locate an available chiropractor or body worker was an impossibility. And so I was left to spend more than a week doing ground work and light riding only, noting the minute changes in his progressively favorable or unfavorable responses to me each day. This, interspersed with several conversations with his owner via telephone and email, allowed us to come up with an understanding of what his issues were and how to address them.

Sometimes it's surprising what we can get away with when we take the "time" to feel our way.

Sometimes it’s surprising what we can get away with when we take the “time” to feel our way.

Getting to this point took time, but in order to simply allow myself to observe what was happening, I had to abandon all concerns about time, about being held back, and about not being able to go some where. For me, time and space could not exist, else I’d place too much importance on them, thereby devaluing the depth of heart and spirit presenting itself as flesh and bone in each moment.

At the same time, I had to observe the effects of my actions as they became apparent, using them to inform me of the appropriateness of my decisions. In short, I had to approach this horse with awareness and feeling, and let that be my guide through time and space.

einstein“A human being is a part of the whole called-by-us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” Albert Einstein

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Presence and Permaculture

…continued from last time.

permiedef3. Work from patterns to details

Los Angeles County needs water. To slake its thirsty millions, it supplements most of its potables from elsewhere, a major source being the Colorado River. At the same time, in order to divert flood waters during the winter rains, it has lined what was once the meandering Los Angeles River with cement, sending literally billions of gallons of (polluted) run-off directly into the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, ground water tables drop and the land gets dryer.

That’s the pattern, and that pattern has been going on since before I was born. Because I grew up there, I knew nothing else, and because of that, I thought nothing of it. That particular pattern was insignificant and therefore essentially invisible to me (and to most of the other nine million people in the vicinity).

pan1Tom used to say, “If you have a pattern that’s working for you, you might not want to change it because it’s probably okay as far as it goes, at least for the time being. But if you see a pattern that’s not working, then it might be worth going to the trouble of redirecting the situation.”

The problem is — or perhaps it would be better to say, the interesting thing is — we don’t seem to notice a pattern that’s not working until something “shocking” happens: we find ourselves on a runaway, or thrown to the ground, or on a horse who balks or pins his ears or bites or becomes barn sour or doesn’t want to be away from the other horses or doesn’t want to be with the other horses or doesn’t want to get in the trailer or get out of the trailer or who has become so stiff and rigid and full of tension that we need to go to the gym to lift weights just to keep an edge on our controls, and so on.

co river mapIn the case of a water source for Los Angeles, the Colorado River, already siphoned by six other states besides California, is now running dry. Suddenly, more than a few obscure whistle-blowers are aware of a problem. Enter Andy Lipkis, permaculturist and founder of Tree People, based in L.A. Long before anyone with broad appeal was posing serious concerns about the Colorado, he saw the pattern of his county diverting billions of gallons of water “away” every year while simultaneously crying out for more. Like Tom, he was eager to “get there earlier before the thing you don’t want to have happen happens.”

The ability that Tom had to see a pattern that would inevitably lead to a wreck before he had to get into a wreck in order to see it, had to do with knowing what a real working partnership was between himself and a horse. He hadn’t just seen it. He had felt it, experienced it, and therefore knew how the actions of humans could enhance a mutually beneficial relationship, or muck it up. From then on, anything that didn’t feel harmonious deserved attention and an adjustment to his approach.

andy lipkisAndy’s primary relationships were not with horses, they were with trees and soil, but the sentiment was the same. He didn’t just note their commonplace existence by the side of the road, taking for granted their presence while driving around in his car, rushing from place to place, the way most of us do. He felt the magnitude of their beauty and natural grace, an experience that had essentially saved his life. In contrast, any lesser connection with the natural world stood out like a sore thumb. The county of Los Angeles and its relationship to water was one of them.

The dry skeleton of the Colorado River where water used to flow, 25 miles from its historical end..

The dry skeleton of the Colorado River where water used to flow, 25 miles from its historical end at the Gulf of California. (The black spot in the middle is the shadow cast by a small boat, beached where it once floated downstream). Photo by Peter McBride

So, he set about raising money to design and build a project to demonstrate that it was technically and economically feasible to retrofit cities to function as living ecosystems, rather than merely as drought and flood-control managers. A hundred visionary landscape architects and engineers came up with a design that was applied to a house in south Los Angeles. Skeptical government agencies were then invited to a planned flash flood and witnessed four thousand gallons of water being dumped on the house within a 5-minute time frame. But instead of flowing off the roof, down the drive and

In contrast to the Colorado river basin, here is the Los Angeles River during the rainy season.

In contrast to the evaporating Colorado River shown above, here is a small section of the 48-mile long, cemented-in Los Angeles River during the rainy season, none of which is currently being used for irrigation or ground water refill.

into the street where curbside rain-gutters would have carried the spill-off into the Los Angeles River and “away,” the down-spouts were turned, directing the deluge into a lawn edged with swales and berms filled with mulch and planted with vegetation designed to absorb, sink and filter water, resulting in every inch of moisture remaining on site. No runoff. No flooding. Water-catchment cisterns could be filled and aquifers replenished. The jaw-dropping reaction from the county board of supervisors initiated a chain reaction that led to a re-routing of twenty billion dollars and a completely new approach to water.

Imagine the thought, energy and effort put into the details of that kind of project.

30So, when our horse balks, rears, runs away, rips a rope or a rein out of our hands, is too wired up or too lazy, what is our initial response? Sell the horse? Give it to someone else to fix? While those options may in fact be the most appropriate to our circumstance, what do we do when we get a replacement? Do we notice the same patterns reemerging after a time? In the same way that Andy approached L.A.’s water issue by working with natural systems rather than opposing them, dealing with a “problem” horse usually requires the acquisition of a new skill-set borne of seeing things from a different vantage point. This skill-set makes up the details that can be applied to the specific pattern we’ve become aware of.

Whether we keep our “problem” horse or not, what might it mean for us to explore the patterns of our relationship (rather than ignoring the dynamic) in order to learn and grow from the experience? Do we value our horse enough to grant the attention it takes to make a difference in our interactions? Do we see ourselves as an integral part of the relationship, or a superior authority with the right to impose our manipulations for an expedient “fix?”

It is often a vulnerable or scary feeling to step into the unknown in order to address an issue we have no experience with, even when we have help in doing so. And yet that is exactly the feeling that lets us know we are seeing a pattern we hadn’t before recognized the significance of, and are contemplating details necessary to make a change for the better.

Continued next time…

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Presence and Permaculture

permiedefI am currently attending a permaculture design course with Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden. One of the guest speakers in our latest class happened to be friend Brock Dolman who, in preparation for this year’s International Permaculture Convergence in Cuba, put together a condensed definition for this complex field of whole-systems thinking. After reading through the list that he projected on the overhead screen, I laughed. It sounded just like the best round pen session I ever had with a horse.

Developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren with the intention of solving the world’s most pressing problems, the term permaculture is a contraction of the words permanent culture or permanent agriculture. It is “a design method for creating regenerative human settlement systems based in natural patterns and processes.” This basically means that there is a way for humans to exist on the planet that creates a mutually enhancing relationship with each other and the natural world, rather than a mindless, domineering, toxic, and destructive one. What does this have to do with working horses? Just replace the words “natural world” in the last sentence with “horses” and you begin to see the correlation. Going through the list of “Permaculture Principles” will help to further clarify what I mean.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA1. PATO (Protracted —long and drawn-out— And Thoughtful Observation)

Tom often said, “You can learn so much about a horse just by observing them in their natural state.” He was very clever in finding ways to slow me down and inhibit me from being so quick to take action before I’d given myself the opportunity to really think about what I was doing. So much of what I did around horses — and the way I did them — came out of my assumptions about what I thought was expected of me, rather than what I had reasoned about based on what the horse was actually telling me.

tom&tcart2With Tom, it was not uncommon for me to spend an entire day beside him in the golf cart observing horses out in pasture, horses turned loose in the round pen or arena, horses rolling, horses and cows turned out together, horses vying for position during feeding time; or watching the expressions on their faces when standing in the sun, under the shade of a tree, while being being worked or while being groomed. When a friend of mine arrived with her troubled

hillsgelding, Tom had her turn him loose in his paddock and we spent both morning and afternoon watching her explore different ways of petting him; how to work her hands over his face, around his eyes and on the inside of his mouth, then down his neck in slow, firm strokes, her fingers pressing in along each side of his wind pipe. There were many ways for her to explore rubbing around his withers, around his girth and over his rib cage, sometimes lightening the pressure with feather-like quality, other times digging in with rapid nail action for a real scratch. We must have watched her spend well over an hour on his tail alone, Tom’s soft words guiding her through the process.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAEach stroke of her hand was dictated by her horse’s expression, sometimes offering a soft eye, an extended lip or a lowered head when she’d discovered just the right touch, but other times informing her of his uncertainty or displeasure with a raised head, tight back and cocked ear no longer soft and pliable. I remember having the vague notion that I should grab my video camera to tape the entire session. But by that time I was transfixed, knowing I would miss so much in the time it would take me to remove myself from the cart, walk to my truck, and rummage around with the battery pack. I had finally gotten to the place inside myself where what had once seemed boring and insignificant had become beautiful and fascinating, and all I wanted was to be there to witness it. To be present.

2. Compose with, instead of impose upon

eliseBy the end of the petting session, my friend had gotten pretty good at adjusting her strokes to elicit the best expressions from her gelding. Instead of moving away when he became uncomfortable with her touch, he learned that if he “voiced” his sentiment with a “look,” she would change to something he liked. It was an understanding that developed between the two of them as the day progressed. She got better at observing him, he began to trust that she would respond to his needs. The next morning when she went out to halter him, he walked right up to her for the first time instead of doing what he had always done before, which was to turn in the opposite direction and make himself unavailable the second he saw her coming. The change that occurred between them is what Tom often referred to as “a respect that works both ways,” or the cornerstone of a real partnership.

Tune in for more next week… or sometime shortly thereafter. 😀

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Suppleness and Relaxation: the Gateway to Being Present, continued…

Letting your horse roll is an easy and effective way to allow your horse to stretch, loosen, and relax. Worried that he'll try to roll all the time when you don't want him to means you haven't developed enough respect in your partnership. Horses do learn to ask for permission, and to comply when the time is not appropriate for the person.

Giving your horse permission to roll is an easy and effective way to allow him to stretch, loosen, and relax. Worried that he’ll try to roll when you don’t want him to? Could be you haven’t developed enough respect in your partnership. When we set clear boundaries, horses learn to ask for permission and to comply when the time is not appropriate for us — just remember, respect is a 2-way street.

In my last post I mentioned suppleness and its interconnectedness to everything else, such as responsiveness, freedom of movement, straightness, and forward, to name a few tangibles, but also to another important factor we don’t often consider: the horse’s state of mind. Anyone who practices Feldenkrais or a similar type of movement awareness regimen knows how relieving it can feel to loosen the body. Likewise, those who engage in yoga, gymnastics or dance know there is a substantial amount of limbering before the work-out begins. Even cats stretch on a regular basis, and have you noticed they never do it when worried or upset? A relaxed mind and body go hand in hand, along with our ability to focus and be present. Most of us don’t think of taking time out to do yoga when we’re hurried or stressed, but it’s also true that we generally find it unappealing to get stressed when we’re feeling relaxed or at ease. It’s a preferred state for any species.

A young horse learns to relax with her rider before tension has a chance to set in.

A young horse learns to relax with her rider before tension has had a chance to become the norm.

So why would it be different for your horse? Give him “room” to let go, to stretch and relax and you will elicit quite a personality change, let alone the ability for enhanced movement (which includes straightness). There are many places to go for instruction on suppling and tension release. The Natural Sporthorse website has several related articles. The Masterson Method website has articles and free video clips — or Google “horse relaxation techniques” and you’ll find a number of sites to explore.

You can also go an alternate route and pursue various types of equipment advertised as suppling aids, such as side reins, draw reins, chambons, more severe bits, pulley reins, tie-downs, and on and on. I never recommend these things. I am not prepared to say that there is never a use for some of them, but they condition us to superimpose an idea, an image, or more specifically, a “head-set” that mimics suppleness without allowing the horse to discover for himself how to let go of a brace from the inside. The latter requires much more patience, acquired skill, and feel.

Four eyes are often better than two for observing.

Four eyes are often better than two for observing what goes into having a horse be relaxed for bridling — including where the bit rests, and yes, it should literally “rest” in the mouth. Most of us are taught to create a wrinkle or two in the lips without considering the constant pressure we subject our horses to — then wonder why they become unresponsive to the rein, stiff in the hand or develop tongue problems.

The fact that we are more likely to lay the responsibility on a device to “train” our horses rather than on the manner in which we engage that device does not change the fact that we are responsible either way. Using such “aids” simply makes it easier to tune out — to go by what we assume should happen rather than by what we notice… if we were paying attention. If we were being present.

The really good news about going through the process of learning what it means to supple your horse by your own feel, timing and acquired skill is, 1) You will subsequently learn how to support him regardless of his job or what you’re attempting to do with him, and 2) It’s a fabulous example of going slow to get there faster (two of the original subjects I was asked to write about). In other words, it takes much longer up front to learn to supple a horse at each gait and in every movement. But once you begin to hone this skill the rewards are immeasurable and eliminate the need to spend years undoing tensions patterned into your horse’s psyche and way of being by not taking the time he needed to learn to let go of them in the first place. Once he can stay consistently supple, you will then be capable of reminding him to relax in tense situations as well.

The test is to remain calm no matter what else is going on around you.

The test is to remain calm no matter what else is going on around you.


As long as you’re providing consistent leadership and thus proving yourself reliable to him, he will much prefer to stop worrying if you give him cause to relax. It’s the preferred state for any species, remember?

Well, actually, you might not remember if you haven’t experienced for yourself what that feels like. So, I will digress with another short story, although it’s difficult to convey with words the dismay I felt when my horse went on a bucking spree inside a round pen one afternoon in front of a crowd of bystanders. Eventually, the billets on my good dressage saddle popped off and the saddle slammed to the ground. At first I just didn’t believe it when Tom announced to everyone, “You see, Blackie doesn’t want to be carrying on that way any more than we want him to.”

Taking time to assess the situation is a very important step when learning how to relax amid uncertainty.

Taking time to assess the situation is very important when learning how to relax amid uncertainty.

Oh please, I heard my internal exasperation offer up a very different opinion. It seemed pretty clear to me that my horse was quite determined to be doing exactly what he was doing. But after traveling the long road to deconstructing  years of tension I’d unwittingly generated, I discovered a difference between being determined to act a certain way because it’s your only recourse for expressing discomfort, and wanting to act a certain way because it brings you pleasure. My job then, was to figure out how to make the road to pleasure available to my horses so that they would choose that option rather than what they already knew, which was how to brace themselves against me. That transformation did not happen overnight. But very quickly I saw (and felt) little changes that let me know I was on the right track, and that was key.

Resuming presence of mind between two species.

Resuming respectful presence between two species.

Of course, keeping a horse supple and thereby relaxed in a tense situation also means maintaining a “presence of mind” by not becoming distracted by what he’s worried about, and then not becoming worried about what he might do. 😀 But honing this ability builds confidence like nothing else. It’s also proof that your horse can learn to be “with you,” or present (as opposed to being in a state of mind that’s anticipating a monster jumping out of the bush up ahead). My rule of thumb is: if your horse can remain soft, he’s in “control.”

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Being Present, continued…

Peace in presence

Peace in presence

Of course, more than a week has now gone by since my last post. But I’d like to resume the subject of straightness as one of many good examples that can help describe what it means to be present with our horse. If you jotted down a few of your own ideas about it, you can compare your notes with mine. If you prefer pondering a different subject or are working on something other than straightness, feel free to insert whatever issue you’re sorting out with your horse. You might be surprised at how much all issues are related.

Being with your horse, mindfully.

Being with your horse, mindfully.

Whatever you choose, the thing you’d like to work on becomes the goal. You know what you want to be able to do, but in order to reside here in the present you will need to put your goal to the back of your mind. It is still there, guiding you, hopefully inspiring you. You can review it at any time. But if you hold on too tightly to that future event, it will blind you to what is happening in the present moment and you’ll miss many important clues that might make achieving your goal that much easier if you had only been paying attention to things you thought weren’t important.

This is exactly the way it was for me when I began working with Tom. During my first session with him, he had me turn my horse loose in the round pen to “send him around.” Tom began noting aloud everything he was seeing. “You see how Blackie leans in here? You see how he tucks his nose there? You see how his tail curves now? You see how he flips his head when he steps up there?”

Being observant in the present moment sometimes means not liking what you see, while being able to sit with that realization without having to fix anything before you have a better idea of what’s actually going on. What you see may be a symptom of something else you haven’t yet thought of.

Well, yes, I could see all of those things. Nothing I hadn’t seen before. Trivial details that meant nothing to me.

Ah… they meant nothing to me because I was seeing them through the filters of my past assumptions that told me that all those “little” things had no meaning, and so I tuned them out the moment they appeared. I mean really, what did it matter that my horse tucked his nose two inches for a split second when he transitioned from walk to trot? I still didn’t know the answer to that when he seemed to miraculously stop tucking his nose in the transition about a year later, but it sure got me asking a lot of questions. Looking back, it was my willingness to ask them that marked the dawn of my ability to begin learning, which set the stage to knowing what it meant to be in present time.

Looking to the unknown for new ideas and answers often takes courage — and a letting go of needing to bolster one's ego.

Looking to the unknown for new ideas and answers often takes courage — and letting go of needing to bolster one’s ego.

Assuming an inquisitive mind means we are admitting we don’t have all the answers and are looking to assess each situation with new eyes. This doesn’t mean we don’t rely on past experience and know-how. It means that no two situations are exactly the same, and while we may begin to look at things with some ideas already in mind, we are simultaneously asking, “What more?” For example, getting back to straightness (or whatever else you had in mind):

How does your horse move when you walk him in a straight line on a loose rein? Is he forward or hesitant? Nervous or calm? Settled or unpredictable? Does he list toward one direction or another? Do his hind feet track up into the tracks of his front feet? Do you even know what that feels like?

Paying attention. Feeling your way.

Paying attention. Feeling your way.

Which shoulder does he put more weight on? Is he soft in both reins, or more on one rein than the other, or not at all? Do you automatically step in to make “corrections” with your hands or your legs or both? What are his reactions to your aids? Is he perfectly responsive? Do you have to make the same corrections every time?

Do you feel (that kinesthetic, inner knowing) the relationship between the softness or stiffness in your hands and whether or not your horse is settled? Unpredictable? Shut down?

Do you feel the relationship between the softness or stiffness in your hands and whether or not your horse is easy to move forward, on the muscle, or slow to go?

If you're present, time does not exist.

If you’re present, time does not exist. There is only now.

And do you feel the relationship between all of that and whether or not your horse is straight? Or balanced, if that is your preferred goal? Or bending evenly on a turn? Or spooky when you try to ride past that certain spot in the arena or in the field somewhere? Or hesitant going down a hill or through a ditch?

Wait… what does spookiness and going through ditches have to do with softness in the hand? And what does that have to do with straightness… and all those other things that surely aren’t related?

Gustav Steinbrecht (1808-1885), considered one of the German “Masters of Dressage,” coined a phrase that can be seen posted above many entrances to riding halls throughout Europe. It says: “Ride your horse forward and make it straight.” (Yes, “it.” The German word for “horse” is neither masculine nor feminine).

gymnasium At first glance the words appear simplistic, but distilled within their meaning is the foundation of dressage or any discipline mindfully practiced. Why? Because if you know what goes into bringing about forward and straightness, you know that it all comes back to the horse becoming free of a history of tension and stiffness, or said in a positive way, becoming supple. Ray Hunt used to talk about “getting back to the original horse” — the horse that existed before he developed a need to armor himself against us humans and the world. Only muscles that are supple and loose are free to stride forward and evenly on both sides. Think about it. If there is no brace to restrict the natural reach of the stride, you have forward. If there is no brace to armor your horse against your touch, you have responsiveness. If there is no brace to resist your hand, you have softness. If there is no brace on one side of the horse vs. the other side, you take away crookedness entrenched in the musculature. (The horse may still be crooked for other reasons… we’ll get to that later… maybe even next week?).

Meanwhile, feel free to ponder, and ask lots of questions. 😀

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Being Present

present definitionAfter completing my latest blog, I posed a question to some of my readers asking for ideas on what they’d like to see me write about. I received three replies: 1) to talk about how going slow when working with your horse actually translates into “getting there” faster, 2) ways of supporting our horse in various situations, and 3) how to know when to step in to help a student or fellow horseman and when to stay out of their way. At first glance, these suggestions appear to represent three very different ideas. And yes, one could probably write a book on each subject. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that they all require the same thing: an ability to be present, or said another way, an ability to focus on what is at hand rather than everything we think we already know.

Nature's beauty has a way of reminding us of the wonder of now.

Nature’s beauty has a way of reminding us of the wonder of now.

This ability is already inherent within each of us, but because we are a part of a society that values outcomes above all else, we tend to focus on getting to the end-product at the expense of what we had to go through to get there. I am not saying that end-products are not valuable, or that we don’t need goals to carry us forward. Indeed, the goal creates the purpose of our process. For example, if I want to ride my horse in a straight line, it’s important to know where I’m headed so that I very clearly understand my points of reference. But here’s where it gets interesting. Along the way I have several choices about how I ride that straight line. 1) I can focus primarily on getting to point B from point A, 2) I can focus primarily on trying to keep my horse straight along the way, 3) I can focus on what constitutes straightness without referring to points A or B, or 4) some combination of the above.

Moving "straight" (in balance and alignment) on a circle.

Moving “straight” (in balance and alignment) on a circle.

Here’s the other really interesting thing: any of these methods followed to their conclusion will get me to my goal of riding a straight line. But not every choice will get me to my goal with a feeling of harmony, with my horse’s comfort and happiness intact, or in a way that expands my understanding of my horse, what I’m trying to do with my horse, or why I’m doing it in the first place! For starters, how many of us really understand the importance of straightness? Is it only important because it’s given a score in dressage tests? Who among all competitors riding tense horses have ever bothered to ask, “Why is straightness important to my horse?” If they had, and then followed through on learning what actually constitutes straightness, they would not be riding tense horses.

Knowing were to look for a way through is often exemplified by the animals we're close to.

Knowing were to look for a way through is often exemplified by the animals we’re close to.

Hmmmmm… So… what was the topic of this blog again?

Being present.

Okay, and what does that have to do with straightness?

Learning how to ride a horse straight is just one of an infinite number of examples that can inform us about being present in order to slow time down but get “there” faster, support our horse, and know when to step in to advise someone else and when to stay out of their way, among many other things. Mastery is not about having all the answers, it’s about honing a frame of mind that allows us to discern where to look for a way through. We can only do that when we’re present and focused on what is at hand, seeing things for what they are rather than what we once supposed they were.

So, how can riding our horse straight help us learn about being present?

Jot down a few of your own answers, then tune in next week for a continued discussion.

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Final Chapter on Learning (at least for now)…

…from the inside out

Denise on Louie, with Danny

Denise on Louie, with Danny.
Love comes in all shapes and sizes.

In May/June 2013 I gave a clinic at the site of Denise Lesnik’s Inside Out Horse Training in Elgin, Illinois. As an instructor and coach, I am always trying to discern what the student needs in order to be able to find their way to “feel,” or to an experience of what I’m saying rather than merely an intellectual understanding of my words. Most people who ride with me have already learned basic horsemanship skills, and so I have more leeway to delve beyond their initial technical response — a response that is perfectly necessary at first, but innately superficial.

Discussing concepts with Stuart while the other participants used the time, without interruption, to "feel" for what I was trying to communicate.

Discussing concepts with Stuart while other participants use the time, without interruption, to “feel” for what I’m trying to communicate.

During one of the group sessions at the clinic, I presented some general themes and specific assignments for the riders. Stuart, in western saddle, had to translate what I was saying into what he had learned from other clinicians who used different terms to communicate similar ideas. He was particularly good at stopping for clarification, then working on his own to see what he could put into practice before coming back for feedback on his progress. He knew that principles of dressage could help him develop better horsemanship skills, but he needed to work out what that meant to him before he would be able to apply it to his particular discipline.

Stuart in the background, making use of his ability to work things out for himself while another student takes my attention.

Stuart in the background, making use of his ability to experiment on his own while another student takes my attention.

This kind of approach takes a willingness from the student to be responsible for their own learning, even as I am taking responsibility for imparting what I know in a patient and supportive manner in as many ways as necessary until essential points are grasped. But after the clinic, I will board a plane, or get in my car, and go home. I want to know that everyone has had enough “application time” to begin to trust their own ability to problem-solve.

Sometimes I'm saying something I think will be helpful...

Sometimes I’m interjecting something I think will be helpful…

...other times I'm quietly observing, not wanting to interrupt the student's train of thought. I have confidence in their abilities and know that everything they are thinking, feeling and working out for themselves has more value than anything I've already said.

…other times I’m quietly observing, not wanting to interrupt the student’s train of thought. I know that everything they are thinking, feeling and working out for themselves will be more useful to them after I’m gone than anything I have already said.

But, you might still be asking, what exactly does it look like to go from relying on information fed from the outside, to having a “feel” for it it from the inside?

Here is one example of riding from the outside-in: You are taking a dressage lesson and asked by your instructor to track right at sitting trot, turn right at E (a 90 degree turn) and head toward the opposite side of the court. You are trying to become a better rider and it’s important

Leaning into the turn allows the horse to remain rigid and stiff.

Leaning into the turn allows the horse to remain rigid and stiff because there is no bend to supple and balance him.

to do well for your upcoming show. You make a transition to the sitting trot and your focus is immediately taken up by your effort to stay with your horse’s movement. But when you get to the turn at E, he leans in like a motorcycle. His stride quickens and he becomes stiff. You feel a flush of anger and the need to correct him, so you “half-halt” with your reins and punch him in the side with your inside leg for weighting his inside shoulder — the reason he leaned into the turn. You assumed your horse was at fault because “he should have known better,” so you gave him a “what for.” Your actions are rewarded by your instructor and you move on to the next task.

An example of riding from the inside-out might look more like this: You are taking a dressage lesson and asked by your instructor to track right at sitting trot, turn right at E (a 90 degree turn) and head toward the opposite side of the court. You are trying to become a better rider and so it’s important for you to learn. You make a transition to the sitting trot and your focus is immediately taken up by your effort to stay with your horse’s movement. But when you get to the turn at E, he leans in like a motorcycle. His stride quickens and he becomes stiff. You feel a flush of anger and the need to correct him, so you “half-halt” with your reins and punch him in the side with your inside leg for weighting his inside shoulder — the reason he leaned into the turn. You assumed your horse was at fault because “he should have known better,” so you gave him a “what for.” Your “try” was rewarded, but you do not move on. Your instructor reminds you that by the time you felt your horse lean into the turn, your response was already too late.

Liz, host of the <a href="">Woodside, CA clinics</a>, achieves a nice bend on Ally through the turn by balancing her off the inside shoulder and maintaining softness, roundness, and a fluid, rhythmic stride.

Liz Arrington, host of the Woodside, CA clinics, achieves a good 90 degree turn on Ally by creating a bend in her body, and maintaining softness, roundness, and a fluid, rhythmic stride.

Remembering that your horse only does what you ask or unknowingly allow him to do, you accept the mistake as a learning opportunity. You can do this because you’ve already sorted out in your mind that there is no shame in not having all the answers, and that learning does not always appear neat and tidy. Rescinding the blame you laid on him for your lack of know-how, you think of what would help you be better at communicating with him to maneuver the turn the way you’d like him to the next time — good enough for a show, even.

When your horse can bend its body according to the circumference of a circle, no matter the size, then he is in balance. A 90 degree turn is approximate to the arc of a 10 m circle.

When your horse can bend its body according to the circumference of a circle, no matter the size, then he can remain supple as he balances more evenly on all fours, rather than “leaning in.” Prior to FEI levels, a 90 degree turn is approximate to the arc of an 8 or 10 meter circle.

You make a circle at the walk in order to review leg-yields. It’s one of several options you have. A leg-yield in a circle allows you to practice repeatedly how you want your horse to respond to your aids in a single 90 degree turn. You’ll be able to ensure that a light touch of your inside and outside leg is all that is needed for a response forward, but also a step sideways to keep weight off the inside shoulder, preventing a lean into the turn. You’ll clarify the various meanings of your inside and outside reins, i.e. whether you’re using them to create a flexion in your horse’s neck, to help create a bend through his body, to direct him into a turn, to soften him onto the bit, to help balance him off the inside shoulder, to align his body, or to achieve some combination of those aids. You will also practice initiating your half-halt through your body, not your reins, making sure your legs and torso work interdependently of each other. In this way your horse will be better able to distinguish your many nuanced intentions expressed through a finite number of aids.

Openly reassessing what to do next time to make things work better.

Stuart, openly reassessing how to adjust himself to make things work better for his horse the next time around.

As you break down these complex set of aids into bite-sized pieces, your horse is able to sort their meaning and begin to respond better. You contrast this with how things went the first time you rode the 90 degree turn and now you can feel the difference. What you thought you had “shouted” plainly to your horse had actually come across in a jumble because you hadn’t yet developed sufficient awareness of your aids nor the coordination of your body parts to apply them adequately for that particular task. You also now realize that your horse had told you ahead of time that he was going to lean into that 90 degree arc when he hollowed and braced in the transition from walk to trot — long before the turn itself.

As you mentally trace your steps back to the point before things did not feel right, you acknowledge your mistake without beating yourself up (making mistakes is the whole point, remember?). And after all, you have met your most important goal: to learn.

Hanging out together provides a good change of pace, allows for reflection, and promotes bonding.

Melissa and Bromwell, hanging out together. It’s all about relationship.

It’s a much more lengthy process — or so it would seem, unless you have gone down the other road, like I did, and have to undo everything years later and only then realize how much faster it would have been to do it right the first time. Still, deep learning is not for the faint of heart. It requires continual self-review and an acceptance of our imperfections, for any harboring of shame will not allow us to admit them. But abandoning that critical voice and it’s corresponding need for controlling everything and everyone else means that we enable ourselves to the wonder of discovery. Like children before the onset of self-doubt, we can renew our inherent sense of curiosity and take comfort (rather than dread) in the fact that there will always be more to learn.

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