Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Putting the Horse Before the Cart

It’s hard to say exactly what is drawing me to the art of carriage driving, but it has been an obsession of mine for the past year or so. I thought that perhaps it was because I have just always liked things old-fashioned, but I think now that it has more to do with the idea that horses pulling carts seems to be the perfect combination of  human ingenuity and equine power, and therefore the opportunity for a perfect partnership.

I finally bought my pony a cart a few weeks ago, and like in everything else we have done together, she was eager, helpful, and striving to please. She took to it like a horse to grass. In my learning about driving, it is clear that there is always a conversation about whether a driving horse is born or made. It takes a special personality, for sure, as well as a solid amount of training and trust to produce a good driving horse. 

Though I have had the bee in my bonnet for about a year to train my horse to pull a cart, I have been spending the last four years or so working on building a strong partnership, and developing a helpful, handy horse. Everything I have asked Lucy to do, she has stepped up to willingly and bravely, from performing in front of hundreds of people waving a big floppy flag, to carrying disabled riders, to spinning barrels, to pulling this cart. Now, these things all have a varying level of difficulty, and vary in their place on the learning curve. Though Lucy has hitched to the cart like a champ, the ins and outs of driving are still proving to be a learning experience. But one thing I know, is that we know how to learn now.

I have been faced recently with several opportunities to challenge myself in encountering the “rest of” the horse world. These might be people who don’t see things like I do, who have different ideas about training and horsemanship. If you don’t know anything about horse people, you probably don’t realize that they can be a force to be reckoned with. There are lots of opinions, lots of talk, and lots of egos. It’s easy to get wrapped up, chewed up and spit out when trying to find your way through the horse world.

One thing that I have learned in my horsemanship is that it is important to stick to your principles. These are the core beliefs that drive your behavior. They are not the ancillary tidbits such as whether or not I use blinders on my horse, rather they are the motivation behind why I do or do not, like in wanting to have open communication and trust with my horse. Principles are the things that will let you know whether a particular idea or person will work for you, so as to not be led blindly into who knows where.

I have been lucky in my horsemanship program that understanding your principles was a thing that was brought to the forefront and caused thought and effort. Oftentimes we don't think about our principles until we have done something to offend them. Of course there are always the times that even though we proclaim them, we offend them anyway. To me it all seems part of the process of confirming and solidifying what you will allow to guide you.

I have had the opportunity at this point in my journey to have been round and round about my principles a few times already. And I will continue to do so, especially as I move into new areas such as driving, as an opportunity to put my principles first and allow them to guide me in the right way. Before I even thought about buying a cart, I made sure that my horse was ready, knowing that if we did not tread carefully into this discipline that it would certainly lead to harm. I tried to prepare her in as many ways as I could, and find a knowledgeable person to help teach us. When it was time to put her to the cart, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was ready. Now that we are hitched, I have the opportunity to continue to be guided by my principles and concrete them into my behavior, knowing that with this delicate process, my principles will help me keep my horse first.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What was it that you said?

The following post is some words that I found in the back of a drawer today, which I wrote during a creative writing moment in the middle of the woods a few years ago. Funny that it kind of reflected a lot of things that I felt about today.

I keep hearing voices. Noises big and small, here and there. Some are human, some are beast, or fowl. Some are divine, and some are equine. Some are present, some are past. Some are sweet, caring, honest. Some are strong- fierce, even.

I hear some voices and some words that I understand. I make some meaning out of most of them. My brain works a mile a minute to make sense of them. Some voices are annoying, crackling nonsense. Are they really trying to communicate? Some voices seem to never stop. They go on and on, saying the same thing over and over. But there are some voices that I love, I hang on to every word they say. There are some that are resonating with me on the same frequency, and I like that. Like putting my head between the bowls, sometimes the sound went in one ear and out the other. Sometimes the vibrations met in my brain and changed something.

There are voices that I don’t understand. I may like them the best. Sounds of all kinds merging together, creating a music, or a chaotic chorus- but it doesn’t matter. It means something, and because I don’t understand it, it makes it all the more enchanting. Maybe it’s because no-one understands it. Communications without words, without thoughts or intentions or meanings.

When so many things have so much to say, it’s hard to know what to listen to. But I do know, most of the time. My voice tells me what I need and don’t, what to take and leave. And I can hear my voice in others, the good, the bad, the ugly. Like all noise is a huge echo, bouncing back and forth and back and forth.

I can’t always say what I want or what I mean. But maybe it doesn't matter, it’s already been said. Maybe I can find the silence in the sounds, meaning in the chaotic chorus, peace in the nonsense, wisdom in the pauses.

What was it that you said?

Thursday, January 26, 2012


I got in a little fight with Riley at the trailer just before we left for the clinic. It’s not hard to get into a fight with Riley, which is exactly why it shouldn’t have been that way. I had been learning well over the past several months how not to get into fights with her, because they simply don’t work. However, I seemed to be in a fighting mood. How kind of my (human) friend present to point out that she had been noticing a shift in my attitude recently, and that Riley noticed it too.

The clinic was a pleasant experience for myself and Riley and for our relationship. I learned things there that I would not have learned with any other horse, the most significant of which was recognizing the malingering emotions that I was experiencing within, which I most eloquently can only refer to as “grr.”

The particular activity which brought this home to me was a simple one; ride your horse on a circle around some “incentive”, i.e. food. When the horse follows your focus, allow them a bite. I imagine the addition of food was supposed to make the activity easier, but between Riley and I, it only provoked another fight. By the time I was breaking a sweat in the argument and rein wrestling, I began to recognize my embarrassment. Here I was, a supposed enlightened horseman, fighting with my horse about riding a circle. And I was angry, and frustrated.

They say that “wherever you go, there you are.” Riley hadn’t been the only one that was irritating me. I knew that I was feeling frustrated in my work, and that generally my temper was short. I had been snippy with Lucy too, expecting far more than I deserved. As I began to take the lesson to heart, I recognized that this “grr” was affecting every relationship in my life. I was feeling dis-empowered. And when I didn’t know what to do, I would be frustrated, and then angry.

Horses do a magnificent job of mirroring us. A mirror’s purpose is for checking out how you are doing. As Riley and I went through the clinic, I consistently found that if I was focused, she would be with me. If I was distracted, then she would lose it. I recognized too, the impact that my attitude and demeanor had on the people around me. Apart from horses, the next best way to find out who you are being is from an adolescent therapy client. Needless to say, I had been getting a lot of feedback.

There was a picture presented during this clinic that seemed to inspire all that I wanted to have in my relationship with Riley. It was a drawing of a cowboy and his horse bravely leaping over rocks and crevices in seeming retreat from some savages. But it hardly appeared like a retreat. It was like they were suspended in a moment of pure partnership, half in flight, half in fight. They were looking in opposite directions, yet their focus was the same. I realize in reflection that this was an image of a happy unit of measurement. The horse was that man’s mirror and what he was seeing was gold.

Riley gives me opportunities every day to check who I am being. My favorite game with her now is the smile game. If she comes to me with a particularly grumpy look on her face, I will take it as an opportunity to check my demeanor, and smile widely with my face and my heart until I see her do the same. It seems somewhat harder with people. But it really can work just as well if you can recognize yourself in the mirror. 
A bad mirror

Much better!

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Duke learning to ride Bucky, May 2011

  About January 10th is when most people give up on their New Year’s resolutions. I like the turn of the new year; it makes me feel like I have a fresh start. I typically don't make “resolutions” for the very reason just mentioned. Or maybe I really do, I just don’t care to admit it... What I really like is the opportunity to reflect on the year past, and look forward to the next chapter.

At the beginning of 2011, I made a list of horsemanship goals that I wanted to accomplish. Some were specific, such as sending in my Parelli level 3 audition. Some were a little more vague, such as just enjoying my horses. As I looked back on this list, and what I actually did in 2011, I was quite surprised at the difference between the things that I for some reason did not even attempt, and the things that were not even on my list that I was able to accomplish.

At a horsemanship clinic with Riley, November 2011

One thing that seemed to characterize my year was a propensity to injury. Early on in 2011, I turned 30. That, I believe, was my first mistake. Shortly after, I sustained a giant lump on the noggin during one of my first play sessions with Zeta. A few months later, I received a swift kick in the gut from my girl Lucy while doing some ground driving. I believe I made it through summer without much incident, but must have been keenly developing my sense of inbalance, because in early fall, I began to come off horses.

The first was Innocence, a lovely horse that I have never wanted to ride, primarily because of her knack for “athleticism”. This incident dealt me a nastily bruised tailbone and a nicely shaken sense of confidence. I then hit the dust while taking a casual bareback ride on Zeta (thankfully she is not too far from the ground). Then I received a few warning bucks from Riley and Ziggy, which started me thinking... is every horse I ride going to try to buck me off? Finally, my dear Lucy unseated me during our first poles run at a local gaming show. In the middle of the arena. At a full gallop. In front of everyone.
My first ride with Zeta, June 2011

Looking back, however, has its merit. My first bump with Zeta turned into building a relationship, and proudly being able to ride her and trust her. The dangerous driving I did with Lucy, though it had shaken my confidence, caused me to work even harder in that zone. We ended up hitching to a cart in August. Her first hitch was, I can only assume, one of the most serene and lovely of them in the history of the world. The hard landings I had off of Innocence and Lucy caused me to take notice of my physical status and work to fix it. And that miserable buck from Riley did turn into a canter at a clinic in November. 

Lucy's first hitch, August 2011

A lot of other strange things happened in 2011, and just like we do, the horses remember them all. Research shows that horses remember people and learning experiences longer than ten years after being separated from them. And yet, I can give personal testament to how though they remember it all, they also forgive and move on.
How Lucy spent the hurricane of 2011

I am so grateful to know that no matter what has happened in the past, my horses live in the present moment. They are always open to the perfect new experience which can change everything. Every moment provides a fresh opportunity to live life new and better. No need for resolutions. 

Horse-sledding, January 2011