Discovery Part 2

The next piece in the continuing saga of figuring out How To Live My Life came in the reading of Mark Rashid’s latest book, A Journey To Softness.  I had pre-ordered it long before, and it arrived shortly after my fall in November.  Just in time.  It’s not about “tips and tricks” to ride better or how to get your horse to behave.  It’s about how – whether we want to or not – we bring everything that we are to our horse when we show up at the barn.  We may not know that, but the horse does.

Mark writes about how softness is a way of life, not something we turn on and off depending on what we’re doing.  How hard to you grip the steering wheel?  Is it necessary to grip it that hard, or can you hold it more softly?  He writes:

If a person were only trying to be soft with a horse but not when driving a car; setting down a glass; shoveling manure; sitting in a chair; talking with [others]… it seems to me that the art is not being practiced in an overall mindful way.  For those folks, softness is something they do but not who they are.

He tells the story of when, as a kid, he worked for an old horseman.  The Old Man (as Mark calls him) kept after him to quit pulling on a horse’s mouth.  But Mark didn’t know any other way to turn the horse.  As he was leaving for the day, the Old Man asked him to ride his bike in a circle, a few laps this way, a few laps the other way, larger and smaller circles.  Then he said, “The way you steer your bike, that’s how you ride a horse without pulling on ‘im.”  With softness you can hear what your horse is trying to tell you. You can steer him without annoying him.

It is my belief that becoming aware of how we participate in the world on a daily basis and how we perform our everyday, mundane, or not-so-mundane tasks adds to our ability, or inability, to develop the kind of awareness and sensitivity it takes to be really good at working with horses.  Developing the kind of awareness and “feel” it takes to realize when we are working against our horse doesn’t begin with working with our horse.  It begins by doing all of those everyday things with as much feel and awareness as we possibly can, and then bringing that awareness to our horse.

I wrote Mark a letter, which explains pretty well how this “journey to softness” is helping me.  Most of it is below:

You write, “Becoming aware of how we participate in the world on a daily basis and how we perform our everyday … tasks adds to our ability, or inability, to develop the kind of awareness and sensitivity it takes to be really good at working with horses.”  That hit me where I live.

The past 18 months have been difficult.  In July 2012 I twisted my foot on uneven pavement and broke a bone.  In both denial and an ortho boot, I didn’t take proper care of it and it didn’t heal.  Then surgery to wire the break, cast, and one of those knee walkers for 8 weeks and, of course, no riding.  Out of the cast and back in the ortho boot for another month.  Damaged my Achilles tendon.  Later, got the hardware out of my foot and was back in an ortho shoe.  Tripped in the ortho shoe and landed hard enough on the pavement to crack a rib.  Icing on the cake: a hard spill off of Angel that injured my back.

As you write, “Our body and our emotions operate as a unit, not as separate entities.” Even before the fall off of Angel, I’d been questioning why I keep hurting myself and what the universe might be trying to tell me.  But it was that fall that broke my heart.

I was back to riding regularly and felt that we were doing well.  Angel has never been an unusually spooky horse and takes most new things in stride.  But for some time he’d been getting more and more unsure of things that caught his eye.  That day we were in the arena, and there was the usual pile of stuff in the middle.  For some reason this bothered him.  He hesitated, and I asked him to go on by – not even very close, just by it.  The next thing I knew I was on the ground.  He’d spun 180 and I went flying like batter off of mixing blades, landing flat on the small of my back.  He didn’t run away though, and when I was finally able to get up and we looked at each other, he had the saddest look in his eyes.

When I was physically able, I got back in the saddle and felt a kind of fear that I haven’t experienced in a long, long time.  Every time Angel perked his ears at something I freaked inside.  Kept working at it and was getting better – but not 100% – when your book arrived.

I realize now that my own inner turmoil has disconnected me from Angel, and it started long before the spook, long before I broke my foot, and probably long before that.  There was no softness there, just panic, fear and frustration.  What has been the hardest to acknowledge is that when he spun away from the scary thing, in that exact moment, he didn’t trust me enough to follow me.

Reading your book was one big “Aha” moment.  The first time I rode after finishing your book, I concentrated on making my own insides as soft as I could be.  No fuss, no impatience, no fear.  I didn’t rush Angel along, tacked up quietly, mounted up quietly, and softly asked for a walk.  I was blown away by the difference.  He was calm, and during the entire ride he kept his ears tilted back to me.  I know I have a long way to go to achieve consistent softness, but at least now I know what I’m looking for.


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Discovery Part 1

I haven’t posted anything since January, so I’m way overdue.  But I’ve been doing a lot of reading, thinking, and applying things I’ve learned, so I haven’t been idle.  Here I’ll try to get my thoughts in order.

544925_586913921321593_1443331156_nBefore my fall off of Angel last November, I had spoken with my priest about the number of times I have been injured since I broke my foot in July, 2012.  Besides the initial stumble that broke a bone, I’ve had a stress fracture, tripped and fell again cracking a rib.  Why am I so clumsy?  Why can’t I take better care of myself?  Is there something going on beyond the normal vagaries of life?  I told her I wanted do to something about this – if something could be done – before I broke my neck!  Within a couple of weeks I sent her an email: “Remember when I said I wanted to talk about this before I broke my neck?”  And then went on to explain about my fall off of Angel.

My riding recovered.  It took a little while; I was nervous and afraid.  Every time Angel pointed his ears at something I tensed up.  Rod helped me through it and now I feel like my old self in the saddle again.  There are three other things that have really impacted how I think and feel, and I want to articulate them here.  The first one is a major change in my blood pressure medication.  What I was on was making me so lethargic I seemed to have no energy to catch myself or jump out of the way.  It crept up on me and I really didn’t notice right away. With a different Rx I feel like a new person.  That is a relief!

Of the other two, one is “equestrian” and one is “theology.”

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The Handshake Between Horse and Rider

“Forgive them, give them a pat, tell them thank you, show them you care. Find a place in your heart for them and they will find a place in theirs. Watch them, study them, understand them and they will do the same to you. Helping them enjoy, helps you enjoy. Showing them true self- carriage, will give you true self-carriage. Allowing them to find their place in life, will give you a place in their life. When their life ends, you think yours does too. Your love for them will be forever, as theirs is for you. Your companionship, your partnership, will last a lifetime, giving you memories to cherish. This is the true handshake, the handshake between horse and rider. Recognize this time, for both of you have been truly blessed.”
~Garn Walker

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Like Batter off Mixer Blades

On Sunday Angel spooked at something – I have no idea what – spun 180 degrees as only mixera Quarter horse can and I went flying off like batter off of mixer blades. Landed on my lower back/upper pelvis. Fortunately no broken bones, just bruised and sore as can be. Knocked the wind out of me and I was so frustrated. I haven’t come off in years, and after my foot surgery, getting the hardware out of my foot, tripping and falling on the way to the bus terminal in San Francisco and cracking a rib, this was just too much.

This is also the first time ever that I have come off of a horse and not gotten right back on. But physically I just couldn’t.

Then, the very next day, there’s a new post from my hero over at Mugwump Chronicles, writing about what it takes to have a reliable steed.  She recounts a trail ride with her friend:

At one point, Kathy and I did talk about the day, our horses and how far we’ve come.
“Did you ever think we’d be riding down the trail, on these horses, like a couple of old ladies?”
“We are old ladies.”
We grinned at each other.
“You know why they’re like this, don’t you?”
“I think so.”
“Because this is what you get when you don’t quit, when you keep learning, when you keep trying.”

Ok then.  Angel wasn’t being bad.  He didn’t buck me off.  He just did what horses do – run from a perceived danger.  He didn’t even run away; once I came off he stopped and just stood by until help came.  He really is quite a good boy.  He could have run out the open arena gate and to his stall to hide.  He didn’t.  When a horse spooks and doesn’t try to buck you off, that means he’s trying to save both of you from the horse-eating monster.

As soon as I’m able to get on again, we’ll be back at it, still learning, still trying.

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Believe it or not, fall is here.  Days are still (mostly) warm, and nights are getting cooler.  We had a rain storm – unusual for September – last Saturday and quite a wind storm last night.  I like it!

Autumn also brings some changes for us.  I’ve moved Angel back to Applecreek Farms where he lived for a number of years before we moved to the “stable on the hill.”  It was a good choice to move out 18 months ago.  It gave me room to breathe, get confidence in my own ability to take care of and handle my horse, and to explore a little bit of trail.  But it is also good to be back home.  Angel is very happy – there’s much more interaction for him with other horses and people.  The flies don’t bother him there and he’s put on a few pounds – I don’t see his ribs any more.  (You’re supposed to be able to feel them but not see them.)  I can tell that he’s happy and comfortable in his roomy stall and paddock.  That’s all that matters.

I said to a friend that “It’s good to be riding again with the people I learned to ride with.”   We’re all on the same page.  It’s like how my sisters and I all work together well in the kitchen; we were all taught by the same mother.

I had Angel’s new halter blessed at the Celebration of the Feast of St. Francis at church on Sunday.  A good way to begin our new adventure!

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The Option to Move

I’m pasting a chunk from a post today from one of my favorite bloggers, Mugwump:

Let’s take the instinctive flight/fight response horses come with. They all have it. How we shape it determines the horse we end up with.
Ideally, we want to train our horses to carry us along, go where we point them, stop when we say stop and not kick, smash, buck, bite, throw us into trees, in other words, let us live.
By it’s nature a horse will run first, fight second when it feels threatened.
Fight comes first when flight won’t fix it. Defending young, territory, mares etc.
My personal thoughts while training a horse are that a flight response doesn’t hurt me or the horse, but a fight sure can. So I’d rather not fight.
This is why I always offer an escape to a horse. Even one that’s securely tied to an iron rail with a rope halter has the option to move it’s hip away from me and get a release of pressure.
Having an escape available for a horse is so automatic for me I don’t have to think about it anymore, but it took a lot of years. I rarely get in fights with my horses.

I’ve been doing some of the same with Angel, and a couple of incidents have shown me that it’s working.

Some metal junk left near the path.  Oooh, he didn’t like it!  I led him up to it and let him dance around while I dragged the junk to a safer spot.  I just kept doing my task and let him dance at the end of the lead rope.  He didn’t try to run away.

Another day, grazing near the metal junk. He grazed right up to it and touched it with his nose. It moved and he jumped back faster than a rabbit.  But not over me, and not beyond the end of the rope.

Another day, grazing.  Windy day.  He spooked at something (metal junk not in evidence) and made a complete circle around me.  Didn’t mow me over, didn’t go beyond the end of the rope.  I didn’t move, just let him move around me.  He circled around and went right back to grazing.

I was calm, and just let my horse move as God intended.  Problem – if it even was a “problem” – over and done in a moment with very little fuss.  “Perfect love and perfect trust.”

I learned a while ago that if the basic nature of horses scares me, I should find something else to do with my time.

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My Birthday Present to Myself

Angel closeupFor my birthday I took a vacation day Friday and Monday (today), giving myself a 4-day weekend.  I was able to ride all 4 days.  My goal was to get out on the trail, and we did!

It’s been hard.  I used to go out on these trails all the time when Angel was stabled here before.  But now I’m older and dealing with fears and he’s lost his “I’m-used-to-it”-ness (that’s not a word). Trail riding was my goal when we moved back to this stable.  First I was scared. Then it was winter and the trails were muddy.  Then I was scared some more.  Then I broke my foot and couldn’t ride for months.  Then it was winter again and the trails were muddy.

Waah waah waah.

Friday it was really (I mean really windy) so I rode in the indoor arena.  (See post: What I’ve Learned: “The only thing I have to prove is that I’m not stupid.”}  But Saturday we hit the trail and it was fine.  Sunday we hit the trail and successfully negotiated a cyclist and his dog, and a hiker and his dog, and it was fine.  Today we went even further out, and it started to feel like old times.  Passed a few scary things, and it was fine.  Got back to the stable with a big grin on my face.

Angel is settling in to negotiating that big scary world out there, and I’m getting more and more confident.  It’s about time!  Happy birthday to me!

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What is Equestrian Theology?

It occurred to me today that Angel doesn’t care what religion I hold to, or if I hold to any.  He only cares that I am kind, that I treat him well, and that I take good care of him.

It matters not whether I am Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Wiccan or Druid.  Or nothing.  All that matters to him is that I am kind, that I treat him well, and that I take good care of him.

That’s it.

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What I’ve Learned

2012-Angel-being-silly.jpgBelow are some valuable things I’ve learned about equestrianship – and myself.  Attribution given where I remember who said it!

“Horses don’t care about which trainer we follow, or which clinic we went to, or what kind of tack we use. They care that we offer them the best of who we are today…at this very moment…not the best of who we want to be, or the best of who we used to be.”
~ Mark Rashid

“The only thing I have to prove to anyone is that I’m not stupid.” OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Avoidance is not an option.” ~ Jerry Tindell

Ride the horse you have today. ~ Mark Rashid

“Ride where you can, not where you can’t.”


“Keep a leg on each side and your mind in the middle!”
~ Old cowboy saying

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Earning Your Spurs

One of the trainers I respect the most, Mark Rashid, recently posted on his Facebook spurs2page:

Twenty-one years ago this coming Wednesday, I took the spurs off my boots and hung them on the wall in our living room. I did this as an experiment to see what kind of responsiveness I might be able to develop with my horses without having to use them. The experiment is still under way.

I’ve had the pleasure of riding with Mark three times over the past 9 years, and I have always learned something new and valuable.  Also, he has always asked me to remove my spurs, trying to get me and Angel to work together without them.  I confess, that has been a struggle.

Responses to Mark’s post were very interesting.  Notice, he didn’t say, “nobody should ever use spurs,” or “all spurs are evil,” or that he had achieved complete success in his experiment.  Still, most of the responses were like this: “I would NEVER use spurs!  Spurs are evil!  I don’t use spurs or bits or shoes on my horses!  I’ve seen horrible abuse from new riders wearing spurs! Using any aids other than hands, legs and seat is unnatural!” (Really? You don’t use any sort of halter or bridle or saddle, ever? You just jump on and off you go?)

One person wrote a long and thoughtful response about how spurs could be abusive, spurs
but aren’t in the hands (on the feet?) of riders who know what they’re doing, and that they have a place in certain types of riding and on certain horses.  They are aids, nothing more or less.

This is my position as well.  When I got back into horses in 2002, my first trainer – who was pretty much a disaster in every way – still taught me a few things of value.  One was, “you have to earn your spurs.”  In other words, you don’t get to wear spurs until you learn how to ride well enough so that you don’t torture your horse with them.  Why do I wear spurs?  Honestly, one reason is laziness on my part.  Angel is pretty laid back, and wearing spurs keeps him moving when I want him to go.  Understand, I’m not jabbing him.  I use them gently.  And if I use too much spur, he lets me know about it!  Another reason is that Angel is trained to respond to spurs; Rod has always used spurs.  None of his horses have ever been hurt or even marked by them.  Clear and concise aids are good; I would rather press once with my spur than kick my boot heels against my horse’s sides until he decides he might move.  Some horses are very forward, and as a friend once said, “I don’t need ‘go’, I need ‘whoa’!”  Maybe if I were more in tune with Angel and my intent was clear and strong, I wouldn’t need spurs.  But, there it is.  Maybe that is what Mark meant by, “The experiment is still underway.”

The spurs pictured above are actually fairly benign.  The rowels (points) are short and blunt.  I took the picture  spurs3on the left of some spurs from the 1800s which were on display at the Alamo   I would never use spurs like these, and I would never work with someone who did.

But, here’s the thing.  I broke my foot in July.  I am now back in shoes, but per my doctor I have to wear only laced shoes as my foot is still swollen and will continue to be for several months.  That means that I cannot wear my regular riding boots, but only my barn boots which lace up.  My spurs don’t fit very well on those boots.  And because my right foot is still a bit swollen, the spur on that foot pinches.  So, I am now beginning an experiment of my own, out of necessity.  I will be riding without spurs for a few months.  Maybe the consistency of not using spurs over the next several months will make a difference.  I’m willing to find out.

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