Cherry Picking Optimizes My Riding Experience

Editor’s Note: We hear this week from Nancy Lowery of Calgary, Alberta. Lowery has been blogging about her Leadership Learning through Horsemanship Experiences for more than a decade. A recent interview series began as “One Foot in the Arena” to explore what Calgary leaders have learned through their relationships with horses.

Lowery writes:

I love horses, riding, and the comfort of my Western saddle. For winter riding, shotgun chaps are perfect. But that’s about where my love affair with the Old West ends. I guess you could say I’m a ‘metro cowboy’ as my wardrobe is outdoor technical and I choose ball caps over brims.

I don’t listen to country music, cowboy poetry, or go to the rodeo. It just seems to rob me of time I’d rather spend riding. I don’t compete. For me, riding has no end game; it’s all process.

With all that cherry-picking, how do I fit into a culture that seems to attract a certain religiosity, a certain uniformity?

Go to any Western horse event and you’ll see spectators dressed like they stepped out of a fashionable 1880’s scene. If the guys walked downtown in any big city dressed like that, it wouldn’t be girls hitting on them. The strangest sight to me: straw cowboy hats worn in the middle of winter. (In the summer, I find that chaps are too hot.)

I have been to events where the emphasis on wardrobe seems to take precedence over horsemanship. My first run-in with the perfectly attired was at a Ray Hunt clinic. Ray said ‘Stop your horses,’ so, I did. This well-dressed rider plowed into the back end of my mare. Needless to say, my mare wasn’t comfortable and I wasn’t impressed to learn that the rider and her husband spent the rest of the clinic warning everyone to stay away from us.

On Day Three, when the gentleman asked Ray to talk about soft feel, Ray replied “If you haven’t been listening these past three days, there is no point me repeating it now.” Ah, Karma.

My goal is to develop a bridle horse and I will consider myself lucky if end up with a pretty good snaffle bit horse. I have shelves full of books on lightness, dressage, bridle horses, and traditional Vaquero style riding. I attend clinics when I can and I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about the connections between what I offer and what the horse understands. I now see the accuracy of the statement: “The first horse you start will be the worst job you ever do.”

I admit there was a time I wished to be included. At one clinic, I was invited to the ‘circle’ at the end of the day. It was not what I’d expected; when people ran out of shared clinic experiences there was an uncomfortable silence. It seems the only topics allowed are ones in common and agreed on. Politics, religion, the environment – all topics of importance to me – were out. When I brought up a recent event, I was told “this is not the place to talk about that.”

I’ve reached a point in my life where I brace against compliance simply for the sake of it. I care less about what others think and more about what my horses tell me. If we are brave enough to get away from mindless compliance, horses can bring out our creativity. I am endlessly curious about what will engage a horse. The more curious I am, the more creative I become.

I’ve gained some wisdom over the years along with quite a few bruises and trips to the emergency room. It isn’t about fitting in to a crowd as much as being comfortable in what I know and how my horses respond to me. How I do something might not comply with someone else’s approach, but my priority is being consistent with the horse.

So, yes, nowadays I cherry pick my moments, my engagements, and with whom I hang out with. I gravitate to people who inspire me, challenge me, and are willing to engage in meaningful conversations and ask great questions.

My life and my business focus on those connections. I’ve come along way since I started and I’ve had some amazing teachers along the way, horse and human.

Horsemanship and leadership are journeys that require endless curiosity, care, and concern. That same curiosity and concern apply to everything and everyone in my life. I believe I’ll continue to cherry pick.

10 Minutes Well Spent

This week, we hear from Julie Kenney, an incoming member of the Best Horse Practices Summit steering committee. She lives and rides in Harpswell, Maine.

Read her Focus on Fitness articles here. 

By Julie Kenney

Recently, I read an Eclectic Horseman article titled “The Ten-Minute Horseman.” It certainly seemed appropriate given the shorter days we are all now experiencing. My horses are on outside turnout all the time, except when they are brought in the barn during nasty storms. Lately, ten minutes may be all I can spend with them beyond feeding hay, tending to water, and removing manure.

In the evenings, I like to start early enough to get chores done before it is completely dark out. Sometimes, though, I’m running late or we have cloudy, drizzly, snowy skies which brings on the dark earlier.

Ten minutes:

  • To talk quietly with my horses.
  • To look them over or rub them where they aren’t covered in mud.

I ask myself:

  • Are the horses looking relaxed and content?
  • Are they moving around without indication of pain or soreness?
  • How are their winter coats coming in?
  • Are they maintaining, or even adding, weight for the winter?
  • Is the herd hierarchy the same? Changes in hierarchy are a sure sign one of them isn’t feeling well, especially in the Northeast where Lyme Disease is so prevalent.

Ten minutes is enough time to get a handle on herd health. It’s certainly nice to spend more time, but when daylight wanes and the cold wind is blowing, ten minutes is enough. Don’t beat yourself up if you cannot be out there longer. Just make your minutes count.

  • Ask yourself if you are leaving your horse better or worse off at the end of that short time.
  • Are you talking softly or hollering at your horse?
  • Are they moving out of your space or impolitely crowding you?
  • Do they stay soft and relaxed in your presence or are they uptight and on-guard?

If you find that the time spent is stressful, then set aside some time during the brighter, warmer part of the day for some groundwork:

  • With a halter on, ask them to move their feet in all directions.
  • Ask them to release any tension in their head and neck by giving to light pressure.
  • See if you can have them respond to the lightest pressure possible to get a correct response to your question.

Eli

My main riding horse, Eli, was recently diagnosed with Lyme Disease. He started taking almost imperceptibly shorter strides with his front end. Now that he’s been on medication for a week, I wanted to check if his shoulders and front legs were indicating continued pain. I put him in a halter with an eight-foot lead and asked him for a balanced walk and then a trot. I was pleased to see he was moving nicely with an even cadence front and back. Because it was 15 degrees with a wind chill, I kept the session short.

After I took off his halter, he stood there hanging out with me. I gave him a rub, then asked him to soften his head left and right with his feet still. I asked him to move his front end away from me, crossing his outside front foot in front of his inside front foot.

After he moved correctly, I asked him to back up with my fingertips gently touching his chest. I rewarded his correct answers with an immediate release of pressure and a soft rub on the neck. Next, I asked him to follow me and to then stop his feet and back up a step, so there was no crowding. He accomplished all of this calmly, quietly, gently, and correctly in about five minutes, with no halter.

If you have worked with your horse and he knows the correct answers to your clear questions, ten minutes is enough time to connect. If you encounter resistance, be sure you are allowing enough time for him to find a correct answer. You are training your horse every second you are in his presence. Be aware and conscious of his answers.

Then again, some of my favorite horse times are when it gets so far past sunset that the sky turns black. I love to sit and listen to my herd.

Cowboy Poetry? Parade without Motors? Yes!

Julie Kenney traveled from Harpswell, Maine, to take in the Best Horse Practices Summit and check out southwestern Colorado. She was also a Strater Hotel guest and an awesome Summit volunteer. She filed this report as a first-time visitor to the Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering:

By Julie Kenney

Cowboy Poetry: an unfamiliar term to a woman who was born and raised in Maine. The term isn’t distasteful, but it certainly didn’t sound interesting. It reminded me of high school English classes that required poetry reading and writing as part of its curriculum. Boring! The thought of making me do something that didn’t interest me in the first place was the problem.

In early October, I had the great privilege to attend the inaugural Best Horse Practices Summit in Durango, Colorado. I’ve been planning the trip for over a year, ever since Summit director Maddy Butcher and I had a quick meet-up in Maine the previous summer and she told me about this idea she was working on. I was on board from the beginning. This Summit was just where I wanted to be!

Hotel arrangements were made. Money was saved. Airline tickets were purchased. I knew traveling to about 6,300 feet elevation coming from an average of 38 feet elevation might require an adjustment period. So, my flight arrangements had me arriving in Durango two days ahead of the conference.

It just so happens that my hotel, The Strater, and all of Durango for that matter, was playing host to the Cowboy Poetry Gathering at that time. I met some really nice people at the Strater and even had breakfast with one of the participants, a cowboy poet.

That’s how I ended up buying tickets for a couple of Poetry Gathering events. It was worth it! This poetry was stories told, with a little rhyming, or in song format. That’s all. Simple but also intricate. Nothing like the boring stuff required in high school. I was moved to tears, brought to a full belly-laugh, and everything in between. It was patriotic, touching, funny, and uplifting. I was so happy to have been there listening.

On Saturday, there was also a parade that consisted of only non-motorized participants. That meant a lot of horses of all different breeds and sizes, mules, donkeys, llamas, and even a long-horn bull. Coming from a town in Maine that worries about any amount of manure along the roads or on our beaches, it was refreshing to see a whole parade dedicated to the animals that help us move from place to place. They just used a John Deere tractor to follow behind the parade route with volunteers cleaning up the road. No big deal.

If you have the desire to head out to next year’s Best Horse Practices Summit (and I highly recommend it), go a couple of days ahead of time. Watch a parade and listen to the stories told and sung at the Cowboy Poetry Gathering. You will not be disappointed.

Seven Sins of Horsemanship

Editor’s Note: Guest columnist Katrin Silva grew up riding dressage in Germany before moving to the United States at age 19 to learn to ride Western. She’s been riding both disciplines for the last twenty years. Read her article on Contact here.

Katrin Silva

Silva has competed successfully through fourth level dressage on quarter horses, Morgans, Arabians, Hanoverians, and many other breeds. Based in New Mexico, she enjoys improving horse-rider partnerships and firmly believes that good riding is always good riding, no matter which type of tack a horse is wearing. Check out her blog here.

Drawings by Norman Thelwell. Check out this website dedicated to his iconic work.

By Katrin Silva

I may be a lapsed Catholic, but some concepts still ring true for me. Take the Seven Deadly Sins. Working with horses has taught me that these concepts still make sense. They won’t send you into eternal hellfire, but they will keep you from acheiving a harmony-filled horse-human connection. A worse fate, for sure.

Greed

When your horse learns a new skill, be content with little at first.

Greed can sneak into your practice of any new movement or skill. Let’s say you’re teaching your horse to leg yield. After some trial and error, your horse finally takes a couple of steps forward and sideways. You feel elated. You’re excited to show off the new maneuver to anyone who is watching. You also want to make sure it wasn’t just a fluke, so you keep asking for more steps.

Pretty soon, one of two things happens:

  • your horse loses interest in going sideways and starts to resist,
  • your horse enjoys going sideways so much that he now uses it to avoid other things he knows but finds more difficult

Greed likes to disguise itself as diligence and dedication. Practicing something over and over works fine in golf or tennis, but in working with horses, greed is the enemy of progress. It’s easy to get greedy in training, especially with willing, talented horses. Stay strong. Resist the temptation. Be happy with a little, reward often, take breaks before your horse forces you to.

Envy

This green-eyed monster will suck all joy out of your horse time if you let it. Comparing yourself to other riders, and your horse to other horses, can be a positive thing because great riders make great role models. Participating in shows and clinics exposes us to the type of horsemanship we may want to practice. Watching a rider with truly soft, following hands and perfect body alignment can help fuel our ambition.

But those things can be a recipes for feeling less than satisfied with our own riding, and our own horse. I’ve slunk away from shows and clinics feeling like the world’s worst equestrian.

When you quit enjoying the here and now of your riding or quit appreciating your relationship with your horse you’re riding, step back and walk away from envy.

Lust

St. Augustine originally defined lust as “disordered love.” In horsemanship, disordered love takes the form of a smothering, misguided affection, which leads to a lack of clear boundaries between you and your horse.

Loving your horse means letting him be the best he can be. Rewarding him is great, but rewarding for random things at random times will only confuse him. Horses thrive on consistency. Many riders who claim to love their horses give them mixed messages instead: rewards for no reason, or rewards the horse does not perceive as a reward. Don’t go there – be clear, be consistent.

Gluttony

Overfeeding your horse is not kind and can lead to all sorts of equine health problems. Overfeeding yourself can have the same effect. Horses should not carry more than 20 percent of their weight. An average full-size horse weighs in around 1000 pounds, the average Western saddle about 30 pounds or more. Do the math and be considerate. Riding is more than sitting on top of a horse – it’s a sport that requires physical fitness and body awareness. Do your horse a favor and get yourself into the best shape you can be.

Sloth

Laziness is not working with your horse on a regular basis. There’s a difference between skipping a session for a legitimate reason and looking for all sorts of flimsy excuses to avoid getting on the horse.

A blizzard is legitimate, a breeze is not. Of course you shouldn’t ride a sick or lame horse, but often, some exercise, like hand walking, is better than none even then. Shortcuts are lazy, too:

  • No, using a thinner bit will not make a horse’s mouth softer.
  • No, using draw reins will not teach the horse to accept contact. There is no substitute for spending the time it takes to develop a responsive horse.

Wrath

Good riders are calm riders. Horses can be good at testing human patience – so good that most of us have reached the limit of that patience at some point or other. But two minutes of anger can undo two years’ worth of careful training. Take a deep breath, or five, or ten.

When all else fails, get off the horse. Kick a rock, or use the angry energy to clean a couple of stalls. It helps to think of your horse as a great Zen master – someone who helps you find you inner yogi.

Pride

Like Envy, pride can be a positive thing in small doses. Taking pride in what you do will make you want to do it better. But too much pride can keep you and your horse from making progress, or worse, get you hurt.

It’s ok to admit you don’t know something.

It’s to ask for help when things get difficult.

I wish I had sought the advice of my mentors sooner, and more often, when I was younger, instead of muddling through training issues by myself. It’s possible to problem-solve through trial and error, but sound advice from a professional you trust works much more quickly.

Giving Thanks to Horsey Moms

Sally Butcher’s looking good!

Mother’s Day is Sunday and I’m guessing many of us have our moms to thank for nurturing the horse love. I know I do.

My mother, Sally Butcher, can also thank her mom. That’s how it sometimes lovingly goes.

Elden Olsen, a reader from Utah remembers his mother, Rae Low Whitlock Olsen, pictured at right with her mustang, Desert Storm.

“She would put the grandkids on Storm and he would follow her around the yard like a puppy dog. He would eat the weeds that she would pick out. He’d give the grandkids a ride and be tended to at the same time.”

Another horsey mom, Rae Low Whitlock Olsen

I’m recalling with fondness the knowledge, respect, and admiration my mother showed for equines and that she passed on to me. She and her mother, Louise Baldwin King, got me horseback in my preteen years. I was sent to riding lessons and even to a summer riding camp.

The best times were on the trails. By middle school and thanks to my mom, I became capable enough to head out on my own. That meant freedom, equine connection, and exhilaration all wrapped into these regular, positive experiences. The outings helped color those challenging teenage years in a happy light. They nurtured my confidence and connection with animals and the outdoors. They kept me out of trouble.

Louise Baldwin King, my grandmother, rides in costume with her husband

Thankfully, my mom also taught me about the heavy responsibility and expense of ownership. Girls grow up and ponies get left behind. I managed to not own any, but worked (feeding, cleaning stalls, etc.) for the privilege of riding. It was another set of lessons that my mother nurtured.

This winter, my parents left Maine’s winter chill for several days at the Circle Z Ranch in Patagonia, Arizona. There, a wrangler named Maddy helped Sally (who suffers from arthritis and scoliosis) get horseback for the first time in many years.

“She did great,” said Circle Z owner, Diana Nash. “We called her ‘Mustang Sally.’”

Here’s hoping we’re all stepping into the saddle when we’re good and grey!

Queen Elizabeth II rides at age 91.

Speaking of mothers and daughters:

Author and horsewoman Ann Campanella has an award-winning memoir: Motherhood: Lost and Found.

Campanella is a former magazine and newspaper editor. She lives on a small horse farm in North Carolina.

Mother-daughter pair Lynn Raven and Nancy Raven Smith assisted Bradford M. Smith in the publication of a fun book: The Reluctant Farmer of Whimsey Hill.

Don’t let the goofy cover fool you. It’s an easy, entertaining read of the trials of a beginner farmer.

Happy trails and happy reading!

Horse Time Cherished and Your Brain as a Puppy

Trish Lemke is an equine-guided coaching specialist. Her business, Joy Rides, is based in Durango, Colorado. She hosts trips to Ireland, Costa Rica, Italy, and elsewhere.

Lemke writes:

It seems that we are all living with quite a bit of uncertainty right now.   And a lot of people I talk with are carrying this uncertainty around with them. They get stuck in those heavy emotions of worry, fear, dread and doubt and cause themselves suffering and constant angst.  They are giving away their present life with worries about their future life.

But life never has been certain.  We don’t know how our future is going to unfold from one moment to the next. That is why I love the practice of mindfulness.  It helps me cope with the fear of uncertainty.  

What is certain at this moment?  

  • Are you safe, fed, housed, loved, right now? Today?  
  • Are your kids happy and healthy?  Are you?  

If the answer is “yes” to those questions, then simply sitting in gratitude for a few moments will help to make that major shift from the “what-if?” anxiety of the future to the truth of the here and now.  

Animals, nature and being with my family are the quickest ways for me to come to my present moment truth. But this mindfulness stuff is a practice of training your brain, because even after sitting in gratitude and awareness, your brain may want to take you back to the stress and worry.

Don’t let it!  

You are the boss of your brain, not the other way around.  Treat it as gently and as firmly as you would treat a puppy that you are training.  A nice dialogue to have would be:

“Brain, I understand your desire to keep me safe and be in your comfort zone with the stress and worry, but you need to stay where I put you, with thoughts that are true and that make me happy.”

This was one of the biggest pieces of learning that I received several years ago in my training and it really has helped me stay a lot more balanced and happy.  You CAN follow the thoughts that make you happy.  So simple, yet so true.  

The Return of Wild West Journalism

You might think we journalists struggle more than other folks when accusations of “fake news” and “alternative facts” splash across our virtual desktops.

That’s because the attack is not just on liberal news outlets but on media and the propagation of information in general. It’s an attack on journalism’s basic mission to fairly inform readers.

I may be a reporter but I’m also a reader. And when university research shows that most people think that we journalists are actually enemies of the state, well, let’s just say I can take a hint. (For those of you who are so darn persnickety about sources, I’m referring to the recent Suffolk University poll which shows that two-thirds of Fox News watchers believe that mainstream media is the enemy of the people.),

I’ve seen a lawyer! I’ve seen the light!

Party line! Party on!

Wild West journalism is so much more fun anyway. Remember when frontier reports promised water and farmland aplenty to any Easterner with an ear to bend? Remember when reports of “Gold in Them Thar Hills” was the real, honest-to-god headline on news stands?

Author Timothy Snyder reminded me of Wild West journalism in a recent interview. He said:

“In the descent from a world of factual discourse into a world of emotions and alternative realities, the first step you take… [is to] manufacture lots of stuff that isn’t true. The second step is that you claim that everyone is like this. You spread this kind of cynicism that you shouldn’t really trust anybody…Once that belief spreads we’re then in the world …which is ripe for fascism.”

His book is called “On Tyranny” and he teaches at Yale. But the guy lacks a sense of humor, don’t you think?

We need writers and reporters who are more easy-going and have better senses of humor. More and more, I look at my old journalism life and laugh.

I remember, for example, reporting on a large, intense animal cruelty case. Thanks to the coverage, the animal welfare officials investigated. Thanks to the coverage, the county District Attorney prosecuted. Scores of horses, goats, pigs, and other animals were removed from the abusers’ possession and the couple in question was convicted.

Not surprisingly, these folks did not appreciate the coverage and called it untrue and “fake news.”

I see their point of view now. More and more, the truth is just so much trouble. More and more, I prefer the news to reflect my social media newsfeed: sound bites and images that affirm my beliefs. No questioning or contrariness please. Embracing an ideology of doubt? No thanks!

When I was a young mom, I used to love meal times with my three sons. It was a time to bounce around ideas. I tried to extoll the French essayist Joseph Joubert: “The aim of an argument or discussion should be not victory but progress.”

Back then, I said.

— If we only listen to the news that makes us feel good, how do we grow?

— If journalists only write about approved topics with supportive bias, how is the reader (and therefore the greater society) helped?

— If we are not encouraged to ask questions, think critically, and occasionally argue, what’s the point of having a thinking brain and living in a community?

Back then, I thought that as reporters and readers we should be encouraged to dig deep, look for the sources’ angles, and weigh alternative points of view. We should be aware of conflicts of interests and ulterior motives. Abusers, people with something to hide, vested parties all routinely blame the messengers, I thought.

Around the dinner table and around the newsroom, I thought transparency and objectivity were good things. Discourse and shining the mirror back on ourselves? All good!

Now, thankfully, I’ve been liberated from the fray. If I was back at the table with my boys and they said something like “sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me” I would scold them for not thinking about the math. You know – If A = B and B = C, then A = C. C’mon folks, learn it with me!

Discussion is Argument.

Argument is Verbal Combat.

Verbal Combat is Combat.

Combat is War.

War is bad.

We need more love in this world!

Some folks might say I’m slipping from Synder’s “fact-based discourse into an alternative reality promulgated mostly by emotions.”

But love is emotions, right? And even journalists want to be loved.

Linda Mannix: Sounds of Silence


One of my favorite gals around these parts is Linda Mannix. The director of the Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Mannix is a walking, talking fireball. She has more energy, ideas, and initiative than I could ever hope for. Technically, she is a senior citizen. But practically, she’s more a 30-year old overachiever. Yet her drive and productivity do not preclude her from appreciating quiet times.

Here, Mannix shares a moment of downtime with her beloved equines:

It is late winter in southwestern Colorado, a time when icy cold storms are followed by brilliant blue-sky days bearing a hint of spring.  My husband and I live on an old ranch where we raised cattle to sell all-natural beef at the local Farmer’s Market.  Now we just raise hay.  Weather, livestock, and wildlife are a constant in our lives.

Linda and Tio

On the ranch, we used horses to work cattle. Several years ago, we bought a nice six-month old colt from another ranch.  I named him “Tio” after a dear friend.  Tio and I have had our ups and downs (Literally: I was bucked off while rounding up bulls in a rainstorm. That incident led me in search of newer and better ways of training a young horse, strategies better than just riding the buck out of them.)

Tio and I are older and wiser now, with a balanced sense of trust and respect between us.  Two other horses and three donkeys fill out the remains of our string.  Our ranch does not have a barn, so the horses and donks are turned out in a large, dry trap all winter.  I feed them three times a day, keeping hay in their bellies to fend off the cold.

Last week, I went out on a moonless night to do late feeding about 11 pm.  These journeys always afford me a vigorous walk after dinner, some excellent star gazing, and quality nose time breathing cold air next to frosty whiskers on the horse’s muzzles.

When I got to the feed ground, there were no horses or donkeys to be seen.  They hang out in the trees at night, so I went ahead and spread the hay out.  The longer I stood there, the more I realized I could hear nothing.  The sound of silence. No braying, no crunching hooves on snow and ice.  Nothing.

As I headed back towards the house I had second thoughts about leaving them unaccounted for.  Our property backs up to a canyon which is home to mountain lion and coyote.  I began searching with headlamp to find my tiny herd.

Finally, a beam caught the glint of reflection in eyes.  Still, not a sound.  I looked closer and they were all there.  Horses and donkeys standing ankle deep in half frozen mud in our old branding pen.

Tio gave a concerned nicker and moved towards the walk-through gate.  I looked at the footing and realized there was no way I could go in there.  It was suck-yer-boots-off mud.   So I circled around the outside of the pen and walked past an open stock panel where the horses could get out.

My big red horse looked at me. I looked at him, and kept on walking.  He slogged his way out of the pen and followed me.  No halter, no lead rope.  He trusted me and I trusted him.  He did not panic nor barge past me.  Just walked steadily behind.  It was an invisible bond between us which we have worked for years to build.

As we walked back around to where the feed was, the others followed.  When they were all there, I clicked off my headlamp and sat down on a log.  All the bustle, noise, and news of the day meant nothing compared to the simple joy of listening to those animals chew their feed on a cold, starry night.  I realized once again how much these large, flighty animals touch our souls.  The depth of their being reminds us to savor every moment in our lives.

Thanks, Linda!

The Horse is NOT a Mirror

Guest columnist Tim Jobe runs NaturalLifemanship and is a leader in equine-assisted therapy. The Texan, who is also an accomplished cowboy poet and horseman, shared this point of view with us:

Tim Jobe

The horse is not a mirror. Before you start shooting, give me a chance to explain:

Would you say your spouse is a mirror? I don’t think I could get away with that. My spouse will react or respond to my emotions, thoughts, or feelings, but definitely doesn’t mirror them back to me. This also happens in a relationship with a horse. The horse responds or reacts to whatever is going on with me and hopefully I do the same thing for the horse. The horse doesn’t mirror my actions. In fact, horse training would be much easier if only this was the case.

If I am too aggressive, the horse may become passive and try to appease me. This often shows up as lowering his head and licking his lips. Some people see this as a good sign. I don’t think that it is. I don’t want my horse to try to appease or submit to me. I want him to make an intelligent, informed decision about the right thing to do.

Appeasing turns into resentment which turns into aggression. If I am too aggressive, the horse may become aggressive which could be mistaken for mirroring but is really just a reaction to my aggression. On the other hand, if I am passive, the horse doesn’t become passive. It will eventually become aggressive.

Have you ever seen passive parents produce passive kids? I think that is pretty rare. It has been my experience that passive parents have overbearing, aggressive kids. I have worked with lots of people who have horses that bully them all the time. These people are usually too passive with their horses and it ends up causing aggression in the horse. That is in no way a mirroring effect.

It is true that when I am calm my horse has a tendency to become calm. Again, this is merely a response to me, not mirroring. If my energy goes up, so does that of the horse.

Sometimes the horse recognizes some of my needs and tries to provide for them, just like my spouse does or anyone else with whom I have a functional relationship. Yawning is a great example of this: when a horse repeatedly yawns she is trying to release tension, either in herself or in the person working with her.

During sessions, frequently, the horse seems to magically do things to meet the client’s needs. We see this in our other relationships but it doesn’t seem as magical because it is what we expect from good relationships. It is a response to our emotions, thoughts, or feelings – not mirroring.

When we categorize it as mirroring, we take away the most valuable element of therapeutic work with horses. That is, the ability to build a relationship in which the emotions, thoughts, and feelings of each are important to both and responded to by both. A relationship with a mirror is called Narcissism. A mirror has a passive role in that relationship, and we believe a horse is more valuable when he/she has an active role.

Horses can only have that role when we understand that they are responding or reacting to us. If we assign the role of mirror to horses we are robbing them of an active status in the relationship. If we want the client to move to a place where they have an understanding of the patterns they create relationships, then the horse must have an active role in that relationship.

The horse is not a mirror. It is a living, breathing being capable of either a functional or dysfunctional relationship depending on what the human wants to build.

Quick End for Beloved Belle

Since many of us count animals as companions and friends, and since many of us have dogs, please Dear Reader, allow me to remember Belle and recount how she died this week.

Photo by Beau Gaughran

You may recall her in another piece here. The Basset hound mutt with a yard-long body and short legs even made it into A Rider’s Reader. Notable as an independent spirit, Belle was her own dog.

On New Year’s Eve, as the day was fading into evening, Belle joined the rest of us on a walk down the road. The road is gravel, four miles long, and follows a north-south canyon with steep ridges on each side. Only eight homes have full time residents. It’s quiet, beautiful, and bordered by undeveloped public and private lands.

When we turned for home, it didn’t surprise or bother me that Belle wasn’t with us. She has a history of civil disobedience and I have loved her through gritted teeth. After all, she’s a hound and her nose demands far more attention than my calls ever did. In her 12-year old form, she’d also become a dawdler. She’d come home in due course. She’d stand at the door, give me that high-toned woof, and be let in. It happened every day, several times a day.

After an hour, though, we grew concerned. With my son, Cormick (home on college break), and dogs, I headed back out, into the dark and snow. We retraced our steps and took long detours into the juniper and scrub oak, using headlamps and calling her name. We followed the dogs as they picked up scents and dropped them. We listened.

Belle as a younger dog

Over the last week, Belle had been rejuvenated by short-but-sweet visits from my three sons. She loved them and they loved her. Aside from me, she was the only being who’d journeyed these 12 years with them. They shared histories of porcupine and skunk run-ins, humid Maine summers by the ocean, long wilderness treks, and long cross-country road trips. While less than obedient in the field, Belle was an in-house ham. She would sit, stay, lie down, and roll over, often in rapid succession. She would bark loudly or “air bark” depending on the request.

When I’d last seen her, she was bounding like a puppy, big ears flapping. She’d caught a scent and was following it with obvious glee.

As the calendar turned from last year to this year, I tromped through brush and snow with a fading headlamp.

Could she have fallen into a drainage?

Could she have tussled with coyotes?

I checked the shallow ravines and watched for any sign of struggle. (Productively following her tracks was nearly impossible with our other dogs in the mix.) We searched by truck, too, covering the length of the road with high beams, stopping to call and to listen.

In the morning, I got horseback and rode the fields, checking streams and peering into the timber for any signs. The challenge of searching miles of snow-patched ground for a snow-and-dirt colored dog struck hard. I started thinking about closure, the need to know, and how I might never know.

In the early afternoon, I headed out again. The falling snow made it too wet for a saddle, so I fitted Shea with a towel and bareback pad. Checking drainages, ditches, and scrub oak crannies, we worked our way up the ridge from where I’d last seen her.

The search had become something of a mind game. In the face of needle-in-haystack odds, methodologies of reason and intuition blend like chocolate syrup and milk. Doubt and determination ebb and flow.

The dogs, horse, and I continued to climb. Four years ago, a wildfire moved through the canyon. Scads of standing, charred trees remain. My white chinks streaked black.

We paused along the side of the ridge and I looked south across miles of country. Had the dogs not gathered to inspect, I might have missed her body, perfectly inconspicuous 15 feet down the hill. Belle looked asleep and almost unharmed save some blood on her side and her head.

Had she been shot?

Did she hurt herself and then die of exposure?

I took the towel from Shea’s back, wrapped her in it, and with Cormick’s help, carried her home, placed her in the bed of the truck, and studied her body. I called some ranching friends. Belle had rough puncture wounds above one eye and under her jaw. It appeared that her neck had been broken.

From all indications, I learned, this was a mountain lion kill. It had been quick and not motivated by hunger but more likely by aggravation. Belle pursued it and the cat had disposed of her. The image at right was taken by my friend a few miles away, earlier this year.

I’ve trained my dogs not to chase game, especially in the winter. They often wear electronic collars so if necessary they can be reminded with a tone or vibration that they must not bother the wildlife. Belle, I’d figured, didn’t need a collar. She’d grown too old and slow to be a threat. Most recently, she seemed to enjoy watching her buddies do all the running and playing.

A mountain lion after a deer kill, a mile from our home. photo by Cecil Thurman

I don’t harbor any ill will towards the cat. (Though that might change if it gets a taste for domestic dog.) It was doing what cats do. Belle was being Belle. Living here requires a balance of considerations: respectful coexistence whenever possible. Mostly, I think us humans get it wrong. William Kittredge wrote about land ownership and stewardship as he reflected on the unwitting havoc his family wreaked on thousands of acres in southern Oregon. His people never owned the land “not in any significant way,” he wrote in Hole in the Sky: A Memoir. We’re all just passing through.

It took a while to dig through the frozen ground and shovel deep enough to discourage coyotes from rooting out her body. We buried her on a knoll above the house, under a tree. It was a spot Belle often chose to survey the neighborhood. I think the old explorer might have approved.

Photo by Beau Gaughran

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