Saturday, April 26, 2014

Who's listened to you lately?

Horses have a lot to say but humans are not always good at hearing it. We get caught up in our own timelines, our own plans, and stop hearing anything outside of our own heads as we pursue that goal on the horizon, whatever it may be. This strategy can keep us focused on the end game but might make us miss some things on the way. Like an opportunity to connect with a big, brown racehorse. Or the universe. Could be the same thing some days of the week.

He says great things every day
As they transition away from their life on the track, ex-racehorses can be surprised by the new things they encounter in this strange new world of not-the-track. They adapt well--with a little time and patience--to cross-ties, being outdoors, dirt, heavy western saddles, weird games non-track people play and more. What sometimes surprises them most is having someone slow down and listen to them.

The people on the track (for the most part) do love and care for their horses. They know them, their personalities and quirks, and do what needs to get done to keep horses healthy and running. And they spend a lot of time doing that. But it is a business and very often things have to happen on a timeline--a human timeline around workout times and race days and the ticking of a clock that a horse doesn't necessarily hear.

Despite the human energy around them, some horses expect you to be listening. Lena not only expects it, she demands it and woe betide you if you go off somewhere else while you're riding. The ground can be nearly as unforgiving. She is a very expressive (some might say dramatic) mare. Not very affectionate in general but you can always tell when she doesn't feel well because suddenly her big head is in your chest with the likelihood being that she'd sit in your lap if she could. That's when--if you're listening--you be sure you have the vet's phone number close at hand. She's also extremely good at telling you when you are off-kilter in the saddle. "I think I'll zig zag now because you are posting on some crazy diagonal." 

Calabar did not expect anyone to hear what he had to say. Not really. He came to me certain he had to take charge because it was unlikely I would fathom the thoughts going on inside his big brown head. He was right at first, but he--more than any other horse--taught me to listen. There have been many incidents along the way that have cemented our relationship--from what liniment he prefers to saving him from the yellow jackets--and I've had the enormous pleasure to watch others prove themselves to him by simply hearing what he had to say. 

"Oh, I think I ran a hot nail," said my farrier after Calabar reared slightly in the cross ties while Mike held a front foot. Did Mike get mad? Nope. And not without cause. Calabar has not always been overly-cooperative for Mike. Mike stopped, pulled the nail and I swear I saw relief flow across that big brown horse's face. He even smooched Mike and has become easier to shoe since then.

Often the racehorses I've worked with are like Calabar. They've seen a lot, they've been handled a lot, but they haven't always been listened to a lot. Or not always when it mattered. And it's not just racehorses in that boat, there are plenty of horses out in the world with owners who don't want to or can't listen for whatever their reasons are. Those humans are missing a very important part of the conversation, of the relationship they could have with their horse, but they must like that path through the world.

I have seen that look of surprise and relief on more than one of the Neigh Savers horses I've worked with when I didn't get mad, when I didn't force an issue, when I stopped and said, "How can I explain this to you better so you understand me?" Or, "Why is this thing hard for you?" Or "What do you feel like doing today?" Or even just, "How do you like to be groomed?" Maybe this spot is sore or that spot needs a little massage or there is an itchy spot that just has to get scratched. Find them and show that you are paying attention, that you hear them even when they don't use words.

Nick is saying "I need something to do!"
Many of the horses also like to know what it is your doing. Show them the product you're going to spray on them, let them smell it. Take the time to let them understand and agree and you start to build that conversation so when the bigger issues come up--like cross ties and western saddles and large bodies of water--you've got a track record of trust behind you. 

It can get frustrating sometimes, of course. You've got stuff to do and the horse is bouncing away from you for some unknown (to you) reason. Lena likes to move. She likes to dance and prance and will spook just to entertain herself on occasion. Getting aggravated really doesn't help and merely lets her know she's won the latest round. Pretending you actually knew what she was going to do, however, that accomplishes many feats. In other words, go with it then find a way to slow her down and engage her brain more so there is less mental energy going towards practicing her sideways canter.

In other words, you also have to know when they are playing a game and call them on it. Ironically, this ends up building trust because they realize you have them figured out at least a little bit which means you were actually paying attention. Listening. Observing. Smothering laughter on occasion.

When you've been practicing your listening skills, it means you can often anticipate behavior.Any chance to prove you know what you're doing gives you that much more confidence and leadership which goes a very long way with 1,200 pounds. Not over-reacting when they do their silly thing and controlling it when they do it is sometimes anti-climactic but much more fun. Especially when they realize they've been had.

After a lunge session in the indoor arena awhile back, Calabar spied Peter doing battle with the terrifying patch of blackberry bushes in the back corner of the outdoor arena and we absolutely had to investigate. He didn't drag me but our pace was brisk and he would have had his nose in the bushes as Peter flung cut pieces around us if I hadn't kept the brown horse back a step or two. 

After our inspection, we turned to leave and I KNEW as soon as the butt end of my horse was pointed towards Peter and the bushes, Calabar would do what I call a "spin and face the danger." I could say I am so connected to my horse that I picked up on his psychic energy but it's really just as simple as sensing his more obvious Thoroughbred energy and reviewing past experiences.

So, yes. He did spin--a beautiful pivot off his front end, his butt swinging away from me at an impressive rate of speed--just so he could see what he'd just been looking at two seconds ago.. I looked up at him and asked if he was done. He looked at me, sighed and dropped his head to a normal level as we sauntered back up the hill so he could finish his dinner. There was a time I would have gotten mad and over-corrected him, but over time I stopped that silly human behavior (because he learned to stay out of my space with all his antics) and our adventures ceased escalating into madness. Funny how that works.

Listening, tuning out the background noise in your own head and just paying attention, is hard. But man is it ever worth it when they know you've actually heard them and give you their trust. Even if it's just for an instant, it's an instant you can build on, an instant you won't get without stopping to hear.

The journey doesn't end, it is ever-evolving

Recently, someone responded to a message in a way that intimated they thought I was under delusions of grandeur about my horsemanship abilities.

Not an expert for sure, just willing to keep trying to be better.
Good gravy, no. Obviously, they have never read this blog wherein I frequently highlight my foibles, faults and faux pas and where many of you ever-so-kindly remind me not to be too hard on myself.

All the steps we take, especially the ones that go backwards, are part of the journey towards being a better horse person but there is no ultimate finish, no golden carrot of perfect horsemanship. There is only the next thing to learn and the next "Aha!" be it with Calabar or Lena or any other horse that might cross my path.

Calabar has probably taught me the most but Lena has offered her own version of the world as she knows (and prefers) it. Using Calabar tools on Lena won't always work. In fact, they rarely work. Going over a jump is a great way to get Calabar to have fun and relax so we can go back to (as he says) "dumb" trot work. To Lena, going over a jump  is a horrid form of torture to be rushed through as quickly as possible so we can get back to more fun things. Like cantering big, lazy circles or running barrels.

Learning is hard and sometimes frustrating but without the willingness to question what you're doing and try new things, it is hard to improve or grow in anything you do. Some people have a hard time with this, hate getting out of their comfort zone and facing a little risk. Steve recently came back from a work trip where he suggested some of the other programmers learn a new version of a programming language in order to update one of the systems. They looked at him like he had three heads.

I sometimes feel like I have three heads--all of them telling me to do something else--when I'm working through something with the horses, but that's actually the best part. There is always more to learn, more they can teach you, about everything. How to ride is only part of it. Your energy and the way it impacts those around you. How to listen. How to treat mystery wounds and sporadic ailments that appear out of nowhere.

Even my grand-horse has given me lessons. Forrest recently moved to the big pasture and has been instrumental in teaching me more about herd dynamics. He is definitely a lover, not a fighter, and is luckily faster than the horse in charge of the small band of four (now five) horses. My attempts to show him how to send "Go away" vibes towards that alpha horse have so far resulted in Forrest hiding behind me, but there is hope he will learn and the observations have been valuable to me in any case. Apparently, I'm a little scary. Who knew?

Forrest trying to squeeze into Calabar's paddock
Figuring out the best path forward, being willing to try, to keep evolving my skills, my relationships with my horses--that is the only real goal worth pursuing. Anything else, like someday actually looking like I know how to ride, is just icing on the cake. 

Friday, April 04, 2014

Bouncy horses

Yee haw!
Remember these? I can still hear the sound of the springs squeaking maniacally as I did my level best to launch myself to the sky.

My horse (and several others at the barn) are channeling their plastic imitator this week. Spring, green grass, cool weather and some sunshine have all added up to wild ponies showing off their inner dragons. Or maybe just showing off to one another in the ageless dance of spring, trying to prove they are a good mate.

I'm not sure what good bucking and farting does for him, but Calabar put on quite a show last night when I turned him loose in the arena--highest bucks I've seen him do in quite awhile. Maybe he was adjusting his pelvis? Or maybe he was just feeling strong and healthy and thrilled to be able to run a little.

Lena just likes to wander around and sniff things--probably looking for stray carrots--but it's good for her to relax and wander a bit. She reserves her silliness for spooky corners and the dreaded jump poles. We practice WALKING over the jump. Not hopping. Not bolting over it. WALKING. Thinking is good, too.

Even though the horses are all spring-loaded at the moment, I'm looking forward to spring and sunny days after all this much-needed rain. And thankful we finally got all this rain. Having the hills summertime brown in late winter was disturbing for horses and humans alike.

Happy Spring!

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Of wet poop and gratitude

Steve has been in Minnesota for over a week, now. The house is too quiet, the bed is too cold, and I've lost weight because I'm too lazy to cook so I just eat a salad when I get home.

Cry me a river, right?

It is not that I don't appreciate Steve when he's here, I absolutely do. I'd like to think my gratitude is ever-present and obvious, given whole-heartedly and with much enthusiasm, but perhaps I had forgotten just how much there is to be thankful for around here.

This wet week in Northern California has dumped quite a lot of rain on us. This is another reason to be happy and grateful, but it adds weight to horse poop and unused hay.

Who needs CrossFit? I have wet, soggy, heavy horse poop to swing up, over and then into the poop cart. Pretty sure that move has a much cooler name in some gym somewhere. Once upon a time, I think I used a fancy machine in a gym that mimicked that tighten-twist-lift thing that is oh-so-much better with a rake full of soggy poop. Never underestimate the added benefit of weight at the end of a poo-rake for building core strength. Or throwing out your back if you're not careful. That, too. Add to that wrestling heavy bales of hay into their proper storage place. Bales that weigh almost as much as I do and are pokey--it's like wrestling a porcupine into a shoe box.

Muddy brown horse saying more hay would be great.
But while I'm getting a great workout, I am also burning daylight hours that could be spent riding. And I could absolutely ride after I clean. If I didn't want to eat at 9 o'clock (which I don't) or go to bed at an hour that makes my 5:30 a.m. wake up time not so horrid. (Gotta have my eight hours or things get ugly.)

So this temporary routine while Steve is gone makes me deeply appreciate the fact that the poop is normally cleaned up and the horses have already been grained by the time I get to the barn. All I have to do is groom and ride and make it home for dinner. Which is usually cooked and waiting for me.

Makes me sound like a princess a little, yeah?

Apparently, Lena is not the only one who needs a tiara.

Steve says cooking is self-preservation. I know it's really that he wants to eat well and relying on me for that is NOT A GOOD PLAN. Ever. I burn things. A lot.

Am I glad he's coming home Thursday? Why yes, yes I am.