COVID19, Social Distancing, and Horse Boarding Facilities

While I am fortunate enough to be able to keep my horses at home with me, this is not the norm. Many horse owners have to entrust the care of their equine friends to someone else. Normally, this isn’t an issue, but lately, with the outbreak of the Novel Coronovirus and new social distancing regulations, things have gotten a little tense in the horse boarding world.

Boarding facilities are not considered essential businesses and, therefore, should remain closed. Suddenly, the horse owners have been cut off from their four-legged loved ones. And while nursing homes must prohibit outside visitors to protect the health of the residents, it is a little difficult to Skype with your horse.

Choosing to close the boarding facility is not easy. The owner of the facility isn’t doing it on a whim. It will mean a tremendous amount of extra work for her. She may choose to continue to pay her staff, even though they are no longer able to come to work. She is now doing the work of several people- alone. To make matters worse, boarding is not profitable. Income generally comes from lessons and training. No students = no income. So to recap: more work, less money.

The training horses still have to be ridden, the stalls still have to be cleaned, the horses fed and turned out, the arenas maintained, the feed purchased and stored, the list continues. Trust me, the facility owner will do her very best to update you on what your little Snookums is doing, but suffice it to say, Snookums is eating and pooping. A lot. And if he isn’t, trust me, you will be the second person she calls- right after the veterinarian.

I have had several calls this month from individuals asking if I had stalls available. Horse owners all over the region are beyond upset that they are not being permitted to see/ ride their horses at their current boarding facilities and, well, they feel that is simply unacceptable.

Seriously? If the barn owner were to get sick, well then, who would care for their equine friends? What if, God forbid, that virus were deadly? There goes the nice arena, the pastures, the trainer.

Here is the big take away from all of this. YOU chose the facility where your horse is. YOU chose that person to care for your horse. If you chose that particular facility because it was close to your house or had a fabulous arena, or you loved the trainer, I think you just now realized what is actually important- THE CARE.

I thought long and hard about this. I cannot remember a single place I ever boarded that I would have had a second thought about the care my horse was receiving if I had not been able to visit for any length of time. As a matter of fact, that was always a big consideration for me when choosing someone to care for my horses- the “what if” scenarios.  And while fabulous indoor arenas and excellent pastures are certainly nice, nothing- absolutely nothing- takes the place of the primary caregiver. When you board your horse, you are NOT his primary caregiver. Sorry, but you aren’t.

I have a small, private facility where I choose to care for  horses I do not own, as well as my personal horses. I struggled and struggled with how to handle this COVID business when it comes to my boarders. It caused me a great deal of anguish to tell the owners they could not see their equine friends. I knew it would upset them and I hated being the cause of one more anxiety in their lives. But, you know what? Every single one of them reached out to tell me that it was for the best and they understood. And, you know why? Because they trust me. They chose to leave their horses in my care, not because I have a fabulous arena (I do) and terrific pastures (I do) and am a good teacher (I hope I am), but because I give those horses the very best care I possibly can and my owners know it. And while spending time at my farm with their horses would normally give them an escape from their daily stress and may help relieve their anxiety during this strange situation, they are finding some relief just knowing their equine friends are safe.

Everyone is in the same situation. The horse shows are cancelled until further notice. The clinics are cancelled. The rodeos are cancelled. The parades are cancelled. The Olympics are cancelled. EVERYTHING is cancelled.  Your horse is not going to die if he doesn’t get ridden for a month- or months. In all actuality, he will probably be better for the time off. My veterinarian once told me that rest is the hardest prescription to fill.

What I have seen at my own little farm, is a return to “natural.” The horses seem so much less anxious and freer in their movements. They are able to spend even more time in the pastures grazing and socializing. Without the feeding/ turn out/ bring in/ treats/ tacking up/ grooming/ standing still anxieties, the whole place has breathed a giant sigh. With fewer people around in the day, I have seen much more wildlife. And while I know that people need their horses, well, the horses don’t need us. Not really. They need one other. Humans need humans. Horses need horses.

So, for just a little while. Let’s focus on that. Let’s take a deep breath and know that our horses will be fine. We will be fine. And we will all be together again, soon.




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The Electric Company

Scroll through your social media feeds. What do you see among the cute videos, memes, and gifs? I’ll tell you what I have been seeing: too much negativity.

The Power of Kindness

The Power of Kindness

For some reason, we seem to highlight the negative. Someone sees an offensive post on their feed and PRESTO, it is shared along with a rant about how that post is offensive, how they have blocked the original poster, and while we are at it, let’s recruit more people to block and shame.

On my groups advocating kinder, gentler methods of dressage training for horses, I consistently see posts asking followers to critique videos of riders. Let the bashing begin! On my vegan groups, people are quick to point out the “mistakes” others are making. Ask for some advice? A hundred people will tell you what an idiot you are. A saw a post today asking what everyone’s favorite vegan drink was to order at Starbuck’s. The comment thread was a spectacular flurry of insults about how no one should ever patronize Starbuck’s. Umm… that wasn’t what the poster asked.

What happened to the Golden Rule. What happened to “he who is without sin cast the first stone?” What happened to “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all?” What happened to kindness? Has it all been lost behind the anonymity of the internet? Or, are we all just trying to share our feelings and be heard? Sigh.

If you are offended by someone’s post, by all means silently block the poster, if that makes you feel better. However, I can promise you- and science will back me up on this- shaming and bringing even more light to the offender WILL NOT make you feel better. In fact, it will make you feel worse.  Oh, but Misery loves company, you say. Exactly! That is my point.  Why choose to be miserable? Yes, it is a choice. I choose better company. I choose to surround myself with upbeat, positive people. No, I am not one of those people. I am not a Disney princess skipping through the woods whistling with a bluebird on my shoulder whilst talking to small woodland creatures.  No, I can bitch and moan with the best of them- for a quick minute and then I gather my self up and GET OVER IT!  I just don’t see a point in giving negativity power. If I am offended by something I see or hear, I ignore it. Move on. Change the subject. Put a different spin on it.

Ignore the negative and accentuate the positive. Show videos that are examples of the riding you want to see. Share articles of people doing good. Give advice – when asked. Don’t comment/ hold your tongue. Count to ten. Take a deep breath. Post what makes you happy- not what makes you angry. Be the change you want to see.

When you give power to negativity, it grows. When you give power to kindness it grows. I think our social media can be a new kind of electric company- one that powers kindness.

Now, if you are offended, please keep scrolling. No need to tell me about it. 🙂

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Continuing Education or It Takes a Village….

My horses keep getting better. They are getting better because I am. They are getting better because, most important, I am riding them more often. The more I ride, the better they get. I balance my time in the saddle with groundwork, as well as “undemanding” time, and, yes, lots of yummy Skode’s treats for a job well done. (And, yes, sometimes just for being handsome or beautiful or just because I really love them.) However, I must work with my horses correctly. If all I do is practice my bad habits over and again or give them treats when they beg or are being pushy, the horses certainly cannot improve. Well, they can, they can get really good at doing things incorrectly.
So, I have trainers. And a wonderful vet. And a super farrier. And a fabulous body worker. And a professional saddle fitter. And a really terrific support group of friends and family. My horses are getting better because of them. No, they are getting better because of me. Because I am willing to have a village of assistance. Because I am willing to set my ego aside and admit I do not have all of the answers. If there are people who can ride my horses better than I, then boy-howdy, let them! It is only going to help me and my horses in the long run. I do not know of any athlete that doesn’t have a coach or trainer. Not one. Everyone needs an extra set of eyes to keep them on track. Every worker has a boss. Heck, every boss has a boss. We need supervision. We need continuing eduction. Surgeons, pharmacists, real estates agents, attorneys, teachers, 002hair dressers – every career field has mandatory continuing education requirements. And, while there are many self-study programs available to me as a horseman, nothing- absolutely nothing- trumps having an expert set of eyes on the ground. Whether I am doing ground work with my horses, practicing my dressage, or jumping small fences. My trainers are invaluable to me. My dressage trainer has a fabulous eye. She can tell me if my gelding is a little weak on his hind right today. With this knowledge I can schedule a visit from the cranial-sacral expert, if necessary. Or maybe, we need to work on exercises to strengthen that leg in order to prevent further damage. Or maybe it is farrier issue. My trainer can remind me about my position so I am not riding crooked. If I am balance, my horse has a better chance at being correctly balanced so he can move and develop to the best of his ability. My jump trainer helps me realize when the mare is coming crooked to a fence. I may not feel it, as she is very crooked naturally, and the jump work is helping to straighten and strengthen her. (Done correctly, of course, again, thanks to an extremely talented trainer.) She can also help me feel when the mare is jumping flat or really using herself. And, my trainer incorporates exercises appropriate for my mare to bring her along at her pace, so she doesn’t feel overwhelmed or unconfident.
If my horses are over-bent in the ground work or not using themselves correctly, they cannot progress, and, consequently, neither can I. Another set of eyes outside of the circle can really be a benefit.
My horses are getting better. They are getting better because I am riding more. They are getting better because I am willing to ask for- and perhaps more importantly- accept help. My horses are getting better because I am willing to make changes in myself.

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Reflections on Rehabilitation

The majority of horses that come to my farm are ones that most people would consider “head cases.” For some reason, their human partner has given up and the horse has gotten to the point of not being marketable. Since the physical and mental aspects of wellness are both sides of the same coin, we address both equally. In some cases, it is a physical issue that is “making the horse crazy, ” and sometimes the mental aspect is causing the horse to be so tense as to cause physical pain. It is my job to figure out which is the primary problem.

As with any horse, there are no quick-fixes. Each horse needs as much time as he needs to decompress from his previous life. Although, I do have a standard format for all new arrivals at my farm- no matter what their background. First, group turnout. No horse is isolated at my property. All live together, always. Next, we design a nutrition plan based on the horse’s condition. Then, we have a chiropractic exam and complete physical to address any physical issues. If any joints need to be injected, we do this now. Next up is saddle fit. The saddle fitter will adjust a saddle to fit the horse as he is now and then again in a few weeks as his new muscling develops. Now it is time to begin the re-training. It is important at this step to ferret out any holes in the horse’s foundation. For instance, every horse that goes through my program must have basic skills such as hind-quarter and fore-quarter yields, back up, stand without being tied, trailer loading, and must present himself to be mounted for riding, to name just a few.

Under saddle and on the lunge, relaxation is first and foremost. Without relaxation, the horse will not have energy or balance. All three are necessary for the horse to be at his best. Relaxation is not the same thing as lazy: there are many lazy horses that are extremely nervous. Those horses have simply found a way to cope with stress. A good education in horse psychology and being able to read horses is what enables me to be successful as an Equine Wellness Specialist.

Generally, once a horse learns how to relax and let loose of his tension, things begin to change for the better. In the case of an injured horse, the original injury may have been masked as the horse learned to compensate. It may be difficult to determine the source of a horse’s pain- it may seem to travel. Once the horse has relaxed his built-up tension, the original injury may surface and can now be treated. If the horse has been holding tension due to an emotional trauma, teaching him relaxation is a way of helping him to “manage” himself in a more positive fashion.

The most challenging horse I have had to date is a rather large Holsteiner mare called GG. From what I understand, her first career was as a jumper, or perhaps show hunter. She was retired at age 6, I believe, and began her new career as a mounted patrol horse for Houston Police Department. At some time during her tenure with HPD, she developed a hind end lameness that just wouldn’t resolve itself. It was recommended by a staff veterinarian that GG be retired and turned out for a year. So, GG came to my farm. My veterinarian likes to say that the hardest prescription to fill is “time off.” I think he might be right! I didn’t like the idea of not working GG for a year. I have a successful rehab program, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Well, GG surprised me. She was certainly lame, but not one vet could agree on where or why- and we saw several. And by several I mean seven. Yep, seven vets and they all had differing opinions. Oh, and did I mention that the first time I rode the mare she decided to take off with me at a full gallop? And there was no stopping her. At all. I thought, well, I’ll direct her toward the very tall fence, surely she’ll stop then. Nope. She jumped it. Okay. So now we have a physical issue AND a training issue. How can this be? She was a police horse! I was picturing a horse who was calm and relaxed in any situation; a gentle giant. I was even told she was the horse they used to train the new recruits. Umm, I think I might have gotten the wrong horse…
Not to mention, GG was- and is- the most lovely horse to be around; her ground manners are amazing. This simply could not be the same horse, I thought.

Well, GG under saddle and GG on the ground are two different animals. As soon as someone slips onto her back, she becomes a fire-breathing dragon, ready to run the Derby- and win, By Golly. I have always been taught- and still believe- that what a horse learns on the ground will transfer to what you do in the saddle. GG is the exception to this rule. I have been working with this mare for 4 years now. She is twelve and is just now learning to relax. Turns out that every one of GG’s physical issues came from emotional ones. Her inner-turmoil was causing such muscle tension that she was making herself sore- all over. (She still does, just not to the same extreme.) I tried every training technique in the book with this mare and just about every suggestion I was given. I tried riding without a bit and with a bit. I tried riding with no contact. I tried lots of contact. I tried riding. I tried not riding. I tried just about every therapy known to equine. I found the answer for GG two years ago, and it is just now really starting to work. (Well, there was a period of about six months when she was confined to stall for a fractured splint bone during this time.)

GG is the second horse I have worked with that is really good at hiding her true feelings. The first horse took me a year to sort out. GG is still a work in progress. So what is my plan for this horse? Simple, really. I plan to keep doing what I am doing. I am going to keep helping her learn to manage herself and when she does get scared, to remember that I will be here to avenge her monsters. She will never be a Grand Prix jumper or a Fourth Level dressage horse. She isn’t going to Rolex, but she will be my life partner. I will never re-home her. She will die in my arms- hopefully of old age. I believe there is only one other person on this planet that understands GG as I do, and if it weren’t for her, I probably would have considered GG my first failure. I was ready to give up when a wonderful woman came along who saw GG as I did- a magnificent soul who just needed someone to understand her. In her words, ” But Miss GG is your greatest and most shining jewel in your tiara! I think of her so often and wonder how she is doing. An amazing mare with such huge power from within who is so deserving of someone who can match that energy and knows how to sculpt it gently without putting a ‘crack in the marble’. That would be you, my dear, and don’t you know that although she may be the most difficult, she is also The BEST!!!”

I couldn’t agree more.

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On horses and Stockholm Syndrome: Part 2

About a year and a half ago, I wrote an article comparing some of the modern day horse training techniques to Stockholm Syndrome. (See ) And although I was mostly referring to some of the “natural horsemanship” techniques for getting a horse to “bond” with a human, I recently heard a poignant example from a non-natural trainer I wanted to share.

I was speaking with a very nice lady about her lovely little mare that is absolutely the wrong match personality-wise for this human. Whereas the horse is quite shy and unconfident and carries quite a bit of baggage and mishandling from her prior human/horse interactions, the trainer is very out-going and confident with a “time is money” type philosophy.

When the woman acquired the mare about 2 years ago, the mare was choosing not to be caught or really have anything at all to do with her new human “owner.” Since time is money, the owner/trainer was not willing to put into practice some of the suggestions she had received for getting the mare’s trust and ideas on how to build a relationship with the mare.  The trainer has a very successful show history and really couldn’t see the need to add any tools to her toolbox. She knows what she needs to know about how to win a ribbon. But how to win a horse’s heart? Well, I contend there is room for improvement.

So, the quick-fix begun. Enter the ingredients for traumatic bonding. #1 Isolation. The trainer placed the mare in a pen away from all other horses. #2 Dependence. The mare was completely reliant on the human for all food, water, and companionship. #3 Survival. Without “joining-up” with the human, the mare believed she would not survive.

The trainer was ecstatic the day the mare finally nickered to her in greeting when the woman brought the mare’s daily meal. The trainer believed the mare had finally grown to respect her. The trainer recounted to me how she was able to win every class in every show they entered and how the other participants and trainers were amazed at how well the pair had become an unrivaled team. Wow! What a great story! So, the isolation technique must have really worked. And, it didn’t take very long at all.

Ah, but all “good” things must come to an end. At a show one day, a piece of the mare’s bridle needed an adjustment. While mounted, the trainer leaned forward to make the adjustment and the mare, for lack of a better term, freaked out. She flipped over, threw herself to the ground, and well, the rest isn’t worth mentioning. Suffice it to say, things were very bad.

So, the little mare is back in isolation. She is no longer being ridden, but any “trust” she had in the trainer has been shattered- and, well, vice verse, I suppose. The trainer still brings the food and water, but as for companionship, well, not so much. The trainer tells me “they aren’t on speaking terms” and “they each stay on their sides of the pen.” And, as for right now, she has no future plans for the mare. (I must interject here to say that a mutual friend is encouraging the trainer to re-home the mare. However, all involved realize this will be no easy feat.)

When I heard the story of the mare, I couldn’t help but think about how it paralleled an autobiography I read a few months ago by Jacyee Dugard. Jaycee had been kidnapped when she was only eleven years old and spent the next eighteen with her captor. She even had children by him. There were many opportunities during her ordeal in which she could have quite easily escaped. She did not and, in fact, told of her affection for her captor. (For more information: )

And another example:

In 1985, shortly after TWA Flight 847 took off from Athens, two gun-toting terrorists forced their way into the cockpit, demanding that the plane touch down in Lebanon. Once on the ground, they held passengers captive, threatened them with guns and murdered one hostage, dumping his body onto the tarmac. Nonetheless, after the captives were rescued, one of them reportedly later said of his captors, “They weren’t bad people; they let me eat, they let me sleep, they gave me my life.”

Wonder how many horses think those exact thoughts?

I would like to think that my interactions with the horses make me a better, kinder, more patient human. (Well, at least with respect to the horses!)  It helps that I am in a situation that allows me to take the time it takes and that I am not under the “thirty day” pressure that most trainers face.

I think I will count myself and my horses as the lucky ones….

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“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.”~ Anthony Robbins

When we play with our horses, we have to think of them as strangers from a foreign land. They know the customs and what is expected of them in their own country, but they are a bit unsure of what may be expected of them in ours. If I am extremely consistent in my requests, my horse will begin to understand my habits. For example, I love to eat at the same restaurant for lunch several days a week. The staff there obviously knows me quite well at this point. When I first started patronizing the joint, however, the waitress would ask me what I would like to drink. After a while, instead of asking, “May I take your drink order?”, the request became more like,”Flavored tea?” To which my response is generally, a smile and a nod. However, it leaves the option open for me to change my mind. If I ask my horse to jump an obstacle he has jumped a dozen times before, he will probably glance my way with a look as if to say, “Jump, right?” I will support the idea and off he goes. Of course, this leaves me the option of communicating that I would like a different response, perhaps stopping in front of the obstacle instead.

If I am handling a horse that is not as familiar with my communication style, I may have to support the horse the very second he is wondering if he has the same idea as I. If, for example, I lead him to a trailer and he looks in and hesitates as if to say, “Am I supposed to get in?’ I have to be quick to strongly support the idea. If I hesitate the slightest bit and my timing is at all off, the horse will think he had the wrong idea and start trying a billion different things to try to figure out what the heck I want. Nine times out of ten, this is where the human gets terribly frustrated and thinks, “Bad Horse!” or something of the sort.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” ~George Bernard Shaw

As humans, we think we have made ourselves perfectly clear and the horse is simply ignoring our requests. This is usually NOT the case. Same goes for the horse. He does all sorts of things to try to get our attention, but more often than not, we miss the subtle signs. (Traditionally, this ends up looking a lot like bucking and a nasty bruise on the human’s hind end.) The majority of “undesirable” behaviors we see in our horses are nothing more than communication- the horse equivalent of screaming.

“Skill in the art of communication is crucial to a leader’s success. He can accomplish nothing unless he can communicate effectively.”

So I was lamenting a particular problem I was having today when a friend responded, (to paraphrase)  “When we ask our horse(s) to do something and they don’t, we assume they can’t/won’t. In reality, our horses can do just about anything. What is comes down to is OUR communication. Is it crystal clear?” Great point. The best part is I got to use her own logic on her not an hour later.

She was hesitant to ask her horse a bit more strongly for a response. She assumed that simply because the horse did not respond, perhaps she was not able to perform the task. I was, ever the most humble creature, thrilled to point out, that indeed her horse was capable of the movement she had suggested, even though perhaps the horse wasn’t as certain she could execute it. When the request was a bit more assertive, the mare quickly tried a bit harder and the response was favorable. Was it perfect? Of course not. The mare  is, in fact, still learning to execute these movements upon request. But I would be willing to bet that the mare can do all of this and more when no human is around!

“Effective communication is 20% what you know and 80% how you feel about what you know.”~Jim Rohn

To be effective, I have to believe I am effective. There is no such thing as a wishy-washy leader. I have to be able to read the horse and he has to be able to read my intentions as well. If I were to lead the same horse to the trailer, he looks in and thinks, “Hmm, wonder if I am supposed to get in? Better check with the human” and the human is thinking, “I wonder if he is going to get in?”, all bets are off. I promise. This is the whole What Do You Want for Dinner? I Don’t Know What Do You Want? Syndrome. UUGH!

I like the mental picture of the horse getting on the trailer with the first try. (Of course if he doesn’t, I am prepared for that, as well. I am just not going to expect that scenario.) Or, as I am riding up to a jump I certainly can’t be thinking, “Hmmm, he hasn’t ever seen this before, wonder how he’ll react?” DISASTER! I have to think, “No worries here, he is a great jumper. We have been practicing for a long time. We’ve got this covered. Again, I have a back-up plan ready just in case, but I am certainly not expecting the worst. I am PREPARED for it. Big difference.

“Developing excellent communication skills is absolutely essential to effective leadership. The leader must be able to share knowledge and ideas to transmit a sense of urgency and enthusiasm to others. If a leader can’t get a message across clearly and motivate others to act on it, then having a message doesn’t even matter.”  ~Gilbert Amelio

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I have an amazing friend. We have known each other for more than twenty years. Her family has been mine and vice versa. To say the recent unexpected passing of her father was a shock is an understatement. I am crushed. Norm was a terrific man.

He was an executive, a business owner, a mentor, and a bit of a nomad.  He could fix and build anything. He built an entire house out of straw bales and lived off the grid in Arizona for while. He has been married to the same wonderful woman he has loved since high school. But even more importantly, he was an amazing father.

There is not one thing on Earth he would not do for his two children. While Kim’s passion is horses, Kevin’s is art. I do not think there has ever been a horse show or art exhibit he has missed. His support was not only for his children; I was so very fortunate to be in Norm’s circle. Some of my very happiest memories involve Norm.

He invited me to share Sundays in their church on several occasions. He never blinked when Kim and I missed days in high school to go ride our horses and when it was time for me, or rather, my horse, to leave for college, Norm was there to capture the memories on camera for me as my gelding boarded the van for his first cross-country excursion. Norm took Kim and I fishing, always baiting my hook for me. Once, with his assistance, I caught a rather large flounder and Norm fried it for our dinner. It was the best fish I have ever eaten. He took us hiking in Arizona- more than once. He joked and teased with me endlessly. We would laugh so hard our sides hurt. He came to my first wedding and gave me a stern lecture when I got a divorce. Not one to hold it against me, Norm helped my new husband install the floors in our house.  Several days a week, as he drove past my farm on his way to work,  Norm would slow and wave to me as I rode my horses. I am still looking for him to wave. Maybe I always will.

Norman Chupik was way more than my best friend’s dad. He was mine too.

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Flight Attendants and Horse Owners

A new horse came to my farm last week who got me thinking. This horse was so very different from any horse I had handled in a very long time and I couldn’t figure out why. She has been owned by the same person since the moment she was conceived. She has always had the very best care money could buy. Her owner thinks she is the kindest horse on the planet. Oh, and the mare is now twenty-seven years old. Yep. Twenty-seven and never had a rough moment in her life. Seems terrific, doesn’t it? All horses should be so lucky.

So what is my problem with the horse, then? Really, the mare should be perfect. But, she really isn’t. She cannot stand to be left without another horse, even for a minute. She becomes extremely agitated even if put in her stall, because she is “separated” from the others. The agitation runs so deeply, the mare cannot calm down long enough to eat. And just try to lead her away from the barn and the other horses. She will scream and fret like the world is ending. This, of course, leaves me wondering if the horse has been like this all along, or is this a relatively new development now that she is in her retirement years? If the mare has always been so very herd-bound, I imagine that riding her would have been less than enjoyable. (Of course to hear the owner tell it, the mare has always been “perfect in every way.” Sound familiar?)

Okay. So why is it that every other horse we have on the farm can be lead away from the herd, ridden, groomed, whatever, without issue? No screaming. No tantrums. No worries? Why in the world would a horse with what seems like the idyllic up-bringing have so much trouble seeing a human being as providing as much comfort as another horse? Wait, wait! I know the answer to this one…..

She was never taught that humans were valuable as anything other than food providers!

I wonder how many people actually know what a flight attendant’s primary responsibility is? Do you? I do. It is to ensure passenger safety. Yep. It really is. I bet you thought it was serving a really crappy meal and beverage service, didn’t you?

Well, that is exactly the same mentality the mare has! She doesn’t realize that humans can provide safety just as well as her herd-mates. She thinks we are only in her life as food and beverage service, when in fact, our main function (at least at my farm) is to ensure her safety. Same as the flight attendant. And, just as that flight attendant, I require a certain level of respect for my oh-so-important role in the horse’s life. Ask any flight attendant and I am certain he or she will be more than happy to discuss all of the ways in which they are disrespected on a daily basis by their passengers. However, I am also quite certain that there is a great deal of respect among the flight attendants, as there exists among the horses in the herd. But here is the main difference between my farm and many others, I require the same amount of respect that exists between the horses as I do between myself and the horses; I like to think we are all on the same flight, metaphorically speaking.

I understand that the flight attendants are primarily present to ensure my safety, and that meal and beverage service is simply an aspect of their job. Well, same goes for my relationship with the horses. My main priority is to ensure the health and safety of my herd, so a part of that includes meal service. However, a larger part of that involves respect. If I am on a plane that is in distress, I promise I am going to turn my very respectful attention to the nearest flight attendant and do whatever he or she instructs me to do. It will serve me not at all to pay attention to panicking passengers in the event of a mechanical failure. They are not the ones trained to handle such a circumstance. In the same way, my herd of horses have LEARNED to look to me when things are looking dicey. They have learned that it will not serve them to rely on the instincts of panicking horses. If something spooks a horse of mine, that horse will look to me to see how to react. As long as I am calm and seemingly in control, the horse will relax and hang with me. After all, as a human, wouldn’t you rather follow a calm, assertive person when faced with scary situation? I know I would! But, I think even as humans, we have to learn this.

Maybe my standards are too high. Maybe it is wrong for me to expect mutual respect. Is it so crazy for me to expect not to be shoved around and stepped upon? Not to want to be dragged from one place to the next? I really do not think so. I do not expect the flight attendants to come running  if I push the call button because I want a refill of soda. Heck, if I am rude to the attendants, why on earth would they rush to my aid in the event of a crash?

So. Back to the mare. Maybe since she has had twenty-seven years to learn how not to follow humans, she won’t learn it now. Or maybe, just maybe,  my calm assertive leadership and my wonderfully balanced herd will help her realize that I am more than just  food and beverage service. I want to think that is the case.

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A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook an interesting video discussing nutritional changes for the gorillas in a zoo in Cleveland. Apparently, heart disease is the leading cause of death of male gorillas in zoos. In order to have healthier gorillas, researchers decided to change the animals’ diets by eliminating the processed nutritional biscuits that were a staple of the diet. Although high in nutritional content, the biscuits were also quite high in sugars and starch.  But something very interesting happened. Not only did the gorillas lose weight and become healthier, many of their undesirable behaviors disappeared- behaviors that are not found in feral gorillas. These zoo-kept gorillas were not only plucking their own hair and eating it, they were also bringing up their food and re-ingesting it- up to four times per hour.

So, here we have wild animals kept in artificial conditions eating artificial diets. Although the environment and diet were enriched, the gorillas had problems- man made problems, it would seem. Don’t get me wrong, I am not about to condemn zoos or anything. I have a different point to make. I want to talk about addictions.

It is my firm belief that human addiction is caused by an imbalance in that human’s life. The imbalance can be emotional, physical,  nutritional, or environmental. Or, in more extreme situations, a combination of some or all of those. A person does not simply start smoking  because he sees another person doing it. A person who is emotionally and physically well-balanced will not find a need to smoke. A person does not start over-eating simply because she sees others doing it. People do not become alcoholics from hanging out in bars. One does not start smoking crack just because everyone else is.  Heck no. Humans develop addictions from imbalances in their lives. So do horses. (Okay, you knew it was coming.)

I want to talk about the “created behaviors”  horse owners face daily. Referred to as “vices,” these undesirable behaviors include weaving, cribbing, wind sucking, head bobbing, pawing and – at the extreme- self mutilation. I call these “created behaviors,” because they are not seen in feral equine populations. I have heard every excuse in the book for why a horse does any of these aforementioned behaviors, but my favorite is, “he learned it from the other horses.”  What a load of crap. These so-called vices are addictive behaviors, the same as alcoholism and smoking.

When a person wishes to rid himself of an addiction, he will usually enroll in some type of rehabilitation program. One of the core beliefs of any rehabilitation program is that in order for one to change his behavior, he must change his environment, his diet, his interpersonal relationships- everything. When he would normally go to the local pub after work to unwind, our alcoholic could go the gym instead, for example. Our over-eater could take the dog for a walk instead of grabbing a bag of chips and sitting in front of the TV.  Of course, ridding oneself of an addiction does not happen overnight. Remember our gorillas? They were pretty unhappy at first about having fewer sugar snacks, but at least they are no longer regurgitating their food!

So, back to the horses. Cribbing is probably the most misunderstood of all equine behaviors. (For those that don’t know, cribbing  involves the horse grabbing a solid object, such as a stall door or fence post, with its front teeth, arching its neck, pulling against the object, and sucking in air. Cribbing is thought to cause the release of endorphins in the horse’s brain, causing a sensation of pleasure- just like any of our favorite human addictions.) Now, why oh why, does the horse need an endorphin release? Why isn’t our favorite companion happy enough? Don’t suppose an artificial environment and artificial diet have anything to do with it…hmm.

As you well know, horses are not meant to be kept in small enclosures for endless hours and feed high-calorie, high-sugar meals. They are designed (forgive my word-choice- no offense to the Pastafarians* or creationists or evolutionists or whatever) to roam and graze. Horses do not have gall bladders to store and secrete digestive juices when needed- they secrete them all the time. Horses must have forage to munch 24/7.  An empty stomach causes a build up of digestive acid and can lead to gastric upset, reflux, and ulcers. Excess stress can also be a cause for increased acid production, same as in humans. So here we have a horse in stress-inducing environment with a diet wholly unsuited to his design. Of course we are going to have problems!

Turns out, these “problems” are relatively easy to “fix.” As with humans, all it takes is balance. A very knowledgeable friend of mine refers to it as a three-legged stool. If environment, nutrition, and exercise represent the three legs, all it takes is a deficit in one of those areas and the stool falls over. Here is the critical point, we, as the equine care-giver, can either correct what is missing and right the stool, or the horse will fill in what is missing with undesirable behavior(s). Obviously, once the behavior is there, it might be a bit of a task to eradicate it completely, but it can be done. I have seen it happen time and again.

Two weeks ago I brought a horse to my farm who was, yep was, a chronic cribber. My task was to find out what was imbalanced in his previous situation and correct it- quickly. The horse was not stalled and had a large pasture and other horses to keep him company. Environment, check. Exercise, check. What about diet? Well, in this case this one was way obvious- the horse was significantly underweight. He wasn’t eating enough food and his medical records showed a history of gastric reflux. Most likely, his stomach gets upset so he doesn’t want to eat, so his stomach gets more upset. As a human, we take a swig of Mylanta and feel all better. But what about a horse? Since this little guy couldn’t tell anyone he was feeling bad, he tried to make himself feel better. So, he took up cribbing. Although it sort of worked for him, it did not address the root problem.

Fortunately, I brought him to my place, so I was able to remove him from his favorite place to crib. And before he could find a new place to do it here, I started him on a diet that would better help to keep him from over-producing the stomach acid- or at least buffer it better.  Now I am not saying that he won’t crib ever again. Just like a recovering alcoholic at a bar, he probably would be tempted. But, if I am astute enough, I can help him manage his stress levels and keep him exercised and fed correctly and in an environment suited to a horse. That is my responsibility as his care-giver.

And I relish the opportunity to be his sponsor. 🙂


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On Horses and Stockholm Syndrome

Horse training has seen considerable changes over the last several decades. And while it seems that it has changed for the better, there are, of course, some hold-outs out there who believe “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Fear, force and intimidation continue to run rampant in the horse training world. It seems they always have. On the flip-side, there are those who choose to follow the teachings of who we horse-people refer to as the “Old Masters.” These are a handful of men who saw the true beauty in the freedom of movements of the horse and sought to bring out the best in these magnificent creatures- without the misuse of spurs or whips or the bridle. And, as all things seem to be circuitous, some “cowboys” came along in recent times and began “whispering” to horses. Instead of fear, force, and intimidation of the horse, this method of training, coined “natural horsemanship”,  is based on the psychology of horse behavior.

But even the well-intentioned “whisperers” may be slightly off-track, here. It seems that many of their training methods use the concepts of pressure and release (or comfort/discomfort.) These “trainers” can frequently be heard saying, “make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult.” In other words, as long as the horse is doing what the human deems desirable, all is well. If not, well then there will be “consequences.” For example, there is a training technique known as “round-penning” that has shown a great deal of effectiveness. (You may have heard of it described as join-up or some other such term.) In this scenario, the horse is made to run laps inside a small round corral until he makes some effort to look at the human in the center of the pen. As soon as the horse turns to look at the human, all pressure ceases and the horse is allowed to rest. If the horse chooses to turn and leave the company of the human, the pressure is resumed and the horse is again encouraged to run. See? Comfort vs. discomfort. Of course, it usually doesn’t take very long for the horse to realize that it is a way better deal for the horse to hang out (willingly?) with the human. Again, this is generally a very effective way for the horse and the human to form a respectful “bond.” The horse quickly sees the human as a leader. But is it really any more “kind” than using fear, force, and intimidation? Wait. It is fear and force and intimidation! How interesting? So can this “natural” stuff be just as harmful to the horse as the misuse of whips and spurs and bridles? Absolutely! And here is why: Stockholm syndrome.

According to everyone’s favorite on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia, “Stockholm syndrome is a term used to describe a paradoxical psychological phenomenon wherein hostages express adulation and have positive feelings towards their captors that appear irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, essentially mistaking a lack of abuse from their captors as an act of kindness.”  Here are two very interesting points regarding Stockholm syndrome:

1) Hostages who develop Stockholm syndrome often view the perpetrator as giving life by simply not taking it. In this sense, the captor becomes the person in control of the captive’s basic needs for survival and the victim’s life itself.

2) The captive sees the perpetrator as showing some degree of kindness. Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often misinterpret a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But, if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors’ “good side” to protect themselves.
In cases where Stockholm Syndrome has occurred, the captive is in a situation where the captor has stripped nearly all forms of independence and gained control of the victim’s life, as well as basic needs for survival. The victim then begins a struggle for survival, both relying on and identifying with the captor. Possibly, hostages’ motivation to live outweighs their impulse to hate the person who created their dilemma.

Anyone seeing a correlation here? I think that last sentence is central to my point, so I’ll state it again this time from a horsemanship perspective: Possibly, the horse’s motivation to live outweighs his impulse to hate the human who created his dilemma.

So the question now becomes, Is the comfort/discomfort way of training really the best way to establish a bond between the horse and the human? The natural horsemanship crowd believe their way of training horses is based not only on horse psychology, but also on how horses behave in the wild. This has two major flaws. First, today’s horses are not wild horses- they are genetically man-made. Second, they don’t live in the wild. They live with humans. Don’t get me wrong, I completely believe that to gain the respect and understanding necessary to work with horses, humans must understand where the horse is coming from, so to speak, but the horse also must adapt a bit to living in the human world. Or another way to look at it, “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.”  We must have an understanding of  how the other party thinks in order to relate and communicate effectively.

Okay, now what? For the most part, horses are no longer necessary in the lives of humans. Except in rare instances, we don’t need them for transportation or to plow fields.  Much like pets, we keep them around for our enjoyment. So, even though these horses are, in fact, our hostages, what can we do to make them feel less like victims and more like sentient beings who have choices that don’t require discomfort? What changes can we make so that the horses actually want to be with us, not because they have to be with us for survival? Ever heard someone say they stayed in a bad marriage because they could not afford to live on their own. Seems like a similar situation.

I am certainly not saying I have an answer or a solution. I am, however trying something I believe is different. I am going with the “comfort only” route. Now this is where it gets tricky. I am not saying that my horses never have to do anything they don’t want; that would be unrealistic.  I do ride them. When I ride, however, I do so with the goal of making them feel better- both physically and mentally. Think of it as “yoga for horses.”  As with child-rearing, I must sometimes ask things of my horse that are for their “own good.” Again, as with parenting, these things actually strengthen the bond I have with my horses- perhaps not at the time, but certainly as the horse develops.

If my horses were allowed to do nothing other than eat and roam around day after day, they would, in fact, be miserable. I have an idea I know what you, Dear Reader, are thinking just now: “But that is what wild horses do all day. Right?” Wrong! Much like humans, they have to work every day for survival. Humans get up and go to work to make money for food and shelter. They reproduce. They raise their kids. Well, so do the wild horses. They spend their days fighting for breeding rights, looking for better pastures, running from predators, and raising their young. At some point in a human’s life, he is no longer able- or willing- to get up and go to work anymore. Now tell me, Dear Reader, what reason does this human living at his nursing home have to get up in the morning? Oh, goody! It is Tuna Noodle Casserole day in the cafeteria! I don’t think so. Perhaps that is the reason that just about every resident of a “retirement home” is on some sort of anti-depressant. Just saying. How is that any different from having a horse with no purpose in life? The food is brought every day. Most are not rearing young. (Thank goodness- we have too many unwanted horses in this country as it is. But that is a soapbox for another day.) In most cases, their environments are safe from predators. Now, I am not saying that all horses should be ridden. Certainly not. Just because our horses are not “wild” horses doesn’t mean they don’t need a reason to “get out of bed in the morning” – other than for a meal. So, too much dependence on the human for survival and we again end up back in the definition of Stockholm syndrome: the captive is in a situation where the captor has stripped nearly all forms of independence and gained control of the victim’s life, as well as basic needs for survival.

And so, back to the idea of “comfort only” horse training.

If I need to use force to get my horse to do something, then I should never have been asking him to do it. Common sense, perhaps, but common sense isn’t always common. When dealing with an animal weighing about eight times more than oneself, the only way you can work is with his consent. However, as I said before, it is how we get that consent that makes the difference. The political prisoner who signs his untrue confession in a gesture of consent may only be consenting as a result of the tortures to which he has been subjected, and which he knows will continue if he does not sign. In a marriage, for example, we often do things for our spouses that may not necessarily be things we want to do, but we do them out of love for one another. There is no other motive. No bribery. No fear. No force. No intimidation. Except, perhaps in an abusive relationship. Hmm. How interesting.

I guess what I am trying to say is just as there are many ways to do just about anything, there are also many ways to train horses. Some good, some mediocre, and some very bad. I only hope that at the end of it all I have found an ideology that rises slightly above the rest for the betterment of myself and my horses.

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