Saturday, February 27, 2010

Pass it on

I was not raised around horses. Then, I did not know anyone who was. Even fewer have that opportunity today.

Just as this did not deter me from finding and creating a life with horses, it also need not be the demise of the horse industry. Perhaps it is just time to readjust our way of looking at the horse world.

If the numbers are fewer for those of us who live and work with horses, perhaps our responsibility for sharing our knowledge and experience is now greater. We can reach more people, teach more people, and share our life – and horses – with more, especially the younger generation who just might get the same “horse crazy” bug that many of us found ourselves with.

In fact, the sharing of our horse understanding, passions and skills need not be limited to the young. There are plenty of excellent and dedicated horsepersons – both professionals and enthusiasts – that were not “exposed” to horses until later in life. But they would never have turned to the world of horses if they never had the opportunity, the simple introduction.

That’s our job. It should be the job of all us horsemen and women to be not only ambassadors of the sport, but representatives for the horse. All we need to do is open the window to this world a little bit and let the fresh breeze flow through.

It is no longer easy. For most, horses are not readily accessible, just down the road, and part of the extended family. Demographics show our society as a whole is now further removed from the rural lifestyle – and the ensuing knowledge and experience with horses that this could allow. Horses are no longer a way of life, or even a part of life, for most families. Two generations ago, many folks still had or knew families living and working on farms with horses. With each generation, these numbers dwindle. Thus the opportunities for even the extended family and friends to “get to know” horses – say, the young suburban family coming for the weekend to visit the grandfolks who are still managing the old farm – are fewer and fewer.

But not gone. The opportunities are still there. We may just have to work a little harder to find them. And for those of us with horses, working with horses, we may just have to work a little harder to share them.

Now, I don’t want to share my horses, per say. They are not only my business and my work partners, but they are a part of my family. But what I can do is share my knowledge, share my experiences, and help pass on the passion I have for my horses, even if it means taking a friend out to the pasture to just walk by and talk to the horses, or a child out to groom and learn to pick a hoof.

It is up to those of us who still do live and work with horses to share our knowledge and pass it on. Our responsibility to teach, to share, to pass on the skills, the traditions, the ethics, manners, dedication and hard work. As an outfitter, horses have also been a part of my job. At times I am as awkward charging for my services and lesson as I often feel charging for cabin rentals when I feel like folks are here as my guests. But horses aren’t free, and they sure aren’t cheap. Feed, supplements, vet bills, shoeing expenses, transportation, insurance, tack and tools, etc., etc., etc. So yes, like it or not, sometime we do have to charge… it is a practicality we can not avoid. But it is not one that should limit us in our ability to reach others, just a minor detail.

The largest burden here seems to fall on the grandparents. And for grandfolks with horses, I’ve been told, it is not such a tough part of the job! Probably more like of the best. Sharing horses with grandkids.

Well, I don’t have grandkids yet, but I do have a bunch of young nieces and nephews. These are my surrogate grandkids for now, and the focus of my “passing it on.”

We share and show what we can, when we can. Sometimes, here, with us, will be the child’s only opportunity to glimpse into another world and take a bite, and hopefully, as is with a small but important percentage, taste enough to be hooked, to get the horse fever.

It’s not just horses; it’s the whole rural lifestyle. Camping, campfires, baking bread, gathering eggs, shoveling manure. It’s a package deal, and few kids don’t enjoy at least parts of it. They may not choose to live it, but they can love it. They will always remember this, and for those lucky enough to have had the chance to be exposed to our lifestyle and our horses, the memories and skills and understanding will remain with them forever.

Take a kid riding. Take a friend riding. Have someone share in the chores, the care, the companionship. Bring a friend to a horse show, on a trail ride, to a lesson. It can no longer be about “me and my horse.” Perhaps it’s time we began to consider it is more about “us and our horses.” All of us. So, let’s share our passion and enthusiasm for horses and riding. Let’s pass it on.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Confidence and Knowledge

We begin in ignorance. Without knowing how little we know, we have complete confidence. A good example of “ignorance is bliss.” A great place to be, but fragile, it does not last. Reality sets in.

We begin to learn. We start to see how little we know, how little control we have, how lost we are. We can get hurt, and perhaps we do. And something happens to that confidence. A dose of reality pops our bubble of bliss. We find ourselves feeling exposed, unprotected…. And scared.

Confidence, or lack there of, is something I deal with regularly in both my riders and myself. In my riders, I can asses their level of horsemanship often based on their confidence. The complete beginner will come to the riding experience full of excitement, and without fear. They have nothing to fear yet. One who has spent some time, unfortunately this can be just one bad ride, will come in fear. They have minimal knowledge, but a healthy dose of fear. Those who have spent plenty of time riding, and time studying the horse, return to self-assurance, though one at this level still must be warned of overconfidence – the false sense of knowing enough that can block us from realizing how much we still have to learn, or prevent us from being open to learning more. This is the "good enough, it works for me" syndrome. Then the highest levels of horsemen I observe, and strive to be like. I have a long ways to go. They come in a quiet, confident air of humility. They have an abundance of knowledge and understanding, but part of that knowledge is the fact that they know there is always more to learn.

So, how do we achieve confidence?

Let me tell you, I have to work on this one regularly in everything I do. I was not born with the comfortable ego of many. Mine is frail and wavering. For years, this bothered me. I felt inferior because of it. But what I have found was that this very trait, insecurity, is what is ultimately allowing me to grow into a good horseman.

The only way I have found one can overcome fear and insecurity is through knowledge. Confidence, and I don’t mean a false sense of over inflated ego, but a true sense of quiet understanding, comes from one thing: knowledge. The more knowledge we have, the more our fears and insecurities are replaced by facts. We learn to understand, and are able to act with positive assurance because we know what works and why.

Mind you, since the best horsemen I know are always learning and growing, we must remain with an open mind, and constantly adjust, grow, and expand this base of knowledge.
And the process of replacing fear with knowledge is an enjoyable journey. We can’t learn if we aren’t willing to try. What we can do is enjoy learning. It means being with our horse, growing with our horse, and growing in our hearts and minds.

We do learn by listening. (Likewise do we miss out when we don’t listen.) One great horseman said, “Listen to the horse. He’ll tell you when you find the right answer.” For those of us desperately seeking right answers but without direct human guidance (no mentor, teacher, trainer, etc.), the horse ultimately is our best educator, and yes, will be the one to let us know when we by chance stumble on the right way of doing things.

But how do we know where to begin, what to try first? What action to take to give the horse the chance of approval or disapproval, acceptance or suggestion or revision? We are not born with this knowledge. We must strive to ascertain and achieve.

I believe a good trainer, teacher or mentor would be the best first step. They have already a base of information to share. But be warned. We can not learn it all from one person. All we learn is their way. There are many other ways. Be open. Take what knowledge you can, what works for your and your horse then and there, and be willing to move on, to try new things, to listen to others. (This is, or should be, what the best of trainers and teacher have done.) No well rounded education comes from one book.

Without a trainer/teacher/mentor, as I have been, how do we learn? Where do we begin? Clinics are one possibility, but I have seen more damage done for the insecure (not uncommonly due in part to the rudeness of the auditors than anything else). Clinics are not for everyone. If you choose this route, know what you are getting into. Auditors are a pet peeve of mine, folks who in the safety of the stands feel they are in a position to throw insults and advice at will. No one, and I mean no one, paid to learn from one not brave enough to even participate. Learn to ignore these folks and see them for what they are.

For me, books, articles and DVDs have been the best teacher. They are available even way up here on my mountain. Who do I watch and read? Everyone! Every book, magazine and DVD I can afford each year written by any horseperson of any discipline on any level. If I can not find at least one thing to learn from each, chances are I am not really watching/listening/reading.

Everyone, every experience, and every horse present an opportunity for learning if our minds are open enough to absorb. It is only when we look at life with a closed mind (“I already know that…”) that we miss the obvious lessons.

So, I strive to learn more with every encounter, every ride, every book and every DVD. And with each small piece, every tiny tidbit of information that I absorb, I find a little trace of insecurity is magically replaced with an equal amount of confidence.

If I do not seek knowledge, my insecurities have every right to remain. But the equation is simple. Knowledge brings confidence. A real, solid true confidence, like a foundation that can forever be build upon.

I read recently something like this:

We must do something we have never done before
To get where we have never been before

We must try new methods if we wish to achieve new results.

I have yet to find a horseman who could not learn more.

An open mind is essential for the growth of the rider, the understanding of the horse, the relation of the student/teacher, and an appreciation for the fullness and beauty of life.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


I’m lucky to have the opportunity to work with beginner riders. Each new person is a new opportunity for me to improve not only my teaching methods, but my own riding skills and horsemanship. Not to mention my communication skills with my riders, which has by necessity improved tremendously over the years. At least as far as lessons are concerned. I suppose I am not the only horseman to feel I communicate better with the four leggeds than the two.

I’m learning one of the most important things I can teach – and one I overlooked for years, considering it unnecessary and taking for granted that it would just be done.


Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

I have found it to be one of most complicated lessons to teach, to put into words. And yet, one of the most essential, basic skills, and the perfect starting point for any rider.

Once we learn to sit, we can learn to ride.
When we sit well, we can enjoy the ride, and the horse can too.

A proper seat is taught from day one in English lessons, at least it was back in the day (we don’t need to count how many days ago) when I was taking English lessons. But for the Western rider, is it not considered until more advanced levels, and sometimes I question, if at all.

Why not?
I’m learning to bring it back to the beginning, and introducing “the seat” to my beginner riders, to help them sit comfortably and solidly on the horse from day one.

Trouble tends to be with the more experienced riders. As you’ve all seen, often the more time someone has spent riding, the more set in their ways they may be, or the more convinced they are of their way being the best way. Of course. It is easier to stick to the old way than having to learn something completely new.

Sitting does not need to be new. A good seat seems obvious, or at least, when you have it right, is hugely apparent. Likewise, when you have it wrong…

We start with breathing. How many beginner riders (or advanced riders, facing any challenge –from riding along a steep drop-off to concentrating on a new skill) hold their breath?

So we start by breathing. We remind the rider to breath. And then, with each breath, the air is taken in deeper – no longer shallow and tight in the chest, but deeper, fuller, down into the diaphragm. You can see the rider up there on the horse. When that first deep breath is taken in and then slowly released out, somehow, suddenly, they are now sitting deeper on the horse.

And yes, a deeper seat is a safer seat, a more comfortable seat, for both rider and horse.

I love to see this instant transformation. Out on trail rides, I can remind the rider of the same when I notice them perched forward in tension, already half way out of the saddle. All it would take is one quick spook of the horse to send that rider flying out and down. We remind them to breath (yes, we all need to be reminded to breath sometimes!) and there they go, settling back in, solidly in the saddle.

For myself, I must remind myself regularly as well. In any tense situation - and for any trail rider, these can come suddenly, without notice, around any corner – my common reaction is to tighten up, rise out of the saddle, lean slightly forward, and hold my breath. I catch myself doing this regularly, and remind myself to sit back. In a tense situation, the last thing my horse needs is to feel that obvious tension in me. Better for him (and therefore, for me), if I lower my energy, breath more deeply, and sit back in the saddle in times of stress. This not only calms me down, but it calms my horse down. It allows him more confidence in my leadership when he needs it most.

So, we start to learn to sit by breathing. Then we learn to move with the horse, sitting soundly with the motion below us. Again, this is commonly taught in English riding, but the Western rider is usually not taught at all, or else taught an exaggerated form of movement, an over abundance of “life” in the rider, with the rider pumping the horse beneath him to encourage each step. This translates to a great deal of constant rocking and movement in the saddle. After a couple hours – or even all day – in the saddle – that would be not only tiring for the rider, but exhausting for the horse.

Give the horse a break. Consider his back, his comfort. Become conscious of your movements. There is a pretty solid line you will find between the over-abundant rocking form of riding, and that which keeps the rider tensely perched atop the saddle, never feeling the movement below. I strive to find and ride that line, and encourage my riders to do the same.

I believe this starts with breathing. If we settle solidly into the saddle, or better yet for learning, directly on to the horses back, we can learn to feel his movements. We can learn our most solid position and see how little motion it takes from us to allow the horses freedom of movement. Consider the leverage involved with the rider atop the horse. Due to the fact that we rise up several feet from the middle of the horses back, each of our movements creates a need for shifting weight, compensation, on the part of the horse.

When we begin to see how little motion we need to allow the horse the freedom of his own movements, we begin to allow ourselves to gently shift with the horse, and allow our horse to move with greater ease. We need not encourage and pump his every movement beneath our hips with an exaggeration of movement and effort that the horse then has to adjust his own movements to compensate for the movement of the rider. Instead, we strive to find harmony with horse and his movements. We allow the horse to move, and flow with his movements. The more subtle our movements become, the more the horse can move with ease and grace and fluidity.

Several teachers suggest “playing” horse to learn such feelings. This is a great lesson to try in order to learn first hand what the horse is feeling. Start by “being” the horse. Kneel on the floor on your hands and knees, and have a friend play “rider.” Start by feeling that person gently shift with your movements. Now, ask the “rider” to tighten, tense up, and lean forward. Then ask the “rider” to exaggerate her movements, bring that abundance of life in their seat. Feel the tension and stress this creates. Pretty annoying and uncomfortable, isn’t it?

This motion is great for teaching, both horse and rider, the initial feel. But once that feel is learned, let it go, stop nagging, and allow the horse to move on his own. Movement is his job, not something I have to constantly work at by “driving” him with my own movements. Instead, I consider getting out of his way, sitting solidly, and helping the horse do the job he is most capable of doing with the least amount of interference from me as the rider.

Size is not important – I have seen excellent riders be very tall, very wide, and very small. The key is moving your body, whatever the size and shape, with horse, in harmony with the horse. Start by sitting, then by breathing. Then consider sinking in with open hips onto the horses back. Next I urge the rider to sit tall, be bigger with every breath, remaining centered. I suggest they feel one string coming up from the top and back of their spine, lifting and straightening them. Then they feel a second string dropping from their ears, through their shoulders, down past their elbow, their hips, their heels, and dropping all the way to the ground, to the solid substance beneath them.

This is the beginning of sitting, of what grounds the rider in the saddle, keeps them straight, gives them contact with and feel for the horse. This is what I try to explain to my beginner riders. Likewise, this is what I work on with myself every ride, every time.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The ethics of breeding

Without wasting time softening the facts and candy coating the bitter pill, I’m just going to go out and say it outright: The horse market is in bad shape. Sales are down. Registrations are down. Prices are plummeting. Think what you want about horse slaughter, it has had an impact on the horse market, along with the recessive economy and the decreasing and aging horse community.

There, I said it.

Now, what am I going to do about it?

I am a small time horse breeder. We buy, train and sell, and breed and raise our own. We love horses and have enjoyed the opportunity to “share” our talents and our stock.

Now we find ourselves having a hard time trying to sell good, solid and sound pleasure/trail horses for nearly give-away prices. We waste our time. Or rather, our time is wasted…

I’m picky. I don’t want our horses going to anything but a good home. I want them to be loved. Yes, I do. Otherwise, I’d just assume keep the horse in my care and wait to find a really good home, a really good relationship for that horse. They are like children. We care for them and work with them to teach them, and then send them on their way. We want the best for them. I imagine many horse trainers and traders feel the same.

Last years colts are sold, and I am thrilled with their new and future homes. Now we have three on the way this summer. Then what? Time to think this one through. Think it through now, before letting my mares run with the stallion again (because bred mares are easier to keep, and allowing the stud to run with the mares keeps him happier, too).

Lots to think about. I consider the horse market, the horse industry, and the management of my own herd. I don’t have easy answers. What I want and what I should do may not be the same thing here.

Really now, do I keep my stallion at stud just for the fun of it (and indeed he his a "fun" riding horse) because I don’t know if I should use him for breeding this season. Or next. How long will it take for the horse market to bounce back? Or will it?

I don’t see it happening right away. I don’t see it happening any time soon. Do I continue to add to the over abundance of horses out there, and possibly have one I raised and trained be one of those “unwanted?” Small time breeder that I am, I’d rather blame the big guys and wonder why the ‘ranch horse’ farms are still breeding 20, 50, 100 mares every year when I’m questioning my responsibility of breeding just a handful.

But you know, they say if you want a change, start with yourself. So as a small breeder, what do I do? Stop breeding?

Selfishly, I love it. I don’t do it for the money; I do it for my love of the horses. I once read, “A year without a foal is a very bad year…” I agree.

But what about my responsibility to the horses and the industry? Do I allow my stallion to breed, even just one? Or do I (gulp) have him gelded and make life easier?

I’ve never been into “easy.” I always love a challenge, which is why I purchased the stud in the first place. But I also consider responsibility. And I just don’t know.

Perhaps I can keep him out of trouble for a few years until the market picks up… if it picks up…

Oh, what to do???