At one facility today I worked under a blue “roof” scattered with brilliant white clouds, while in the distance the skies were darker, more threatening, and there was an ever-so-faint rumble of thunder. Such a strange thing to hear in the early spring when the mesquite trees are still skeletal forms with just the hint of pale green buds. I think we’re in for a summer of extremes, my fellow Arizonans.
Many years ago when I was first venturing out onto the Internet via a second-hand computer and noisy dial-up modem, I blundered into an email listserve group dedicated to equine massage and other complementary healing therapies.
I was just starting to learn about alternatives to conventional veterinary medicine, thanks to a horse who faced me with a series of health issues that defied conventional treatment. And I found in this group a handful of experienced, skilled healers who were willing to share their knowledge with each other and inform all the newbies, as well.
One of these people was Mary Debono, a California Feldenkrais practitioner who had adapted the neuromuscular re-education exercises from that technique to work with horses and other animals. She called her work the SENSE Method, now known as Debono Moves.
At the time I was working with an old Arabian gelding who, after standing in a pasture for the better part of a decade, had been offered to me as a school horse for his owner’s niece and her horse-crazy friends. He was willing, even happy, to be working. But how in the world to 1) fit a saddle on his deeply swayed back and 2) ensure the ground and mounted work we did improved his carriage and comfort?
I posed this question to the group and got several helpful replies from skilled practitioners of TTOUCH, massage, aromatherapy and homeopathy. But the technique suggested by Mary was by far the one that both best resonated with me and immediately had a positive effect on the horse.
Information packrat that I am, I still have her incredibly detailed and clear instructions in a WordPerfect file saved on my current hard drive in a folder titled with the horse’s name, Rambler. And having just re-read it for the first time in 15-plus years, I see that in addition to giving me step-by-step directions how to work with the horse, she also took the trouble to instruct me in proper posture and movement for my own ease and comfort. Nice.
Several years later I had the chance to work with Mary in a weekend clinic, and the powerful subtlety of her methods stuck with me, as did the techniques themselves, which I have used and adapted to bring comfort to countless horses over the years.
I have contacted Mary a handful of times over the intervening years – once to find a CA bodyworker for a racehorse belonging to a business contact –and she has been consistently kind, helpful and generous.
That generosity extends to this very day, when she is launching a new project – an E-book detailing her special approach to working on and with dogs. Grow Young with Your Dog is available for free download for three days, November 12-14. (It’s formatted for Kindle, but Amazon offers a free app that lets you read on a PC or phone, as well.)
In the book, Mary tells the stories of several dogs she has helped over the years. Then she instructs readers, with pictures and detailed directions, how to use her gentle, effective hands-on techniques with their own dogs.
She also includes awareness exercises for humans complete with links to audio instructions talking you through them. Having clear and simple instruction from an experienced Feldenkrais practitioner for your own body is reason enough to take advantage of this free download even if you don’t have dogs.
But if you do have a dog – especially one with physical limitations from injury or age – do him and you a favor and download Mary’s book.
Every fall for the past several years I’ve put on my graphic designer hat to create the program for the Grass Ridge Horse Trials, the longest-running recognized event in Southern Arizona.
This will be the event’s 46th year and, sadly, its last. The decision to close Grass Ridge Farm to future competition came after the January 2014 death of equestrien Nina Masik, who with her husband George owned the facility and founded the event in 1968.
Designed in part as a keepsake for exhibitors at the final horse trial, the 2014 program features a number of historical photos, including this one of Nina from 1975.
I know many Arizona equestrians hold fond memories of Grass Ridge Farm and its annual competitions. I even dug out my own little piece of Grass Ridge history, a few photos from 1992 when I competed at Novice level – my first real horse trial and my first visit to the southern Arizona grasslands.
If you’ve never attended the event, October 18-19 will be your last chance. And if you’ve been before and want a last look around this beautiful facility, don’t miss this opportunity. An active monsoon season left the grasslands gorgeous this year and the weekend is predicted to be sunny and warm.
Dressage starts at 8 a.m. and show jumping at 11 a.m. on Saturday. Cross Country begins at 8:30 a.m. on Sunday. As expected, the final event has attracted a large field of competitors, so come out to support the riders as they take part in this historic event.
As the caretaker and owner of an old horse – a 31-year-old gelding – I am often reminded that he and I do not have time on our side.
The question “How long?” tickles my brain when I look at pictures from Ichobod’s younger, stronger and more vibrant past play with my other horse. I feel a special pain any time a friend or client loses a horse to colic or injury or illness.
Every time he lies down to roll – one of his absolute favorite things to do, especially in sloppy mud – my breath catches a bit because I know what it will mean when one of these days he doesn’t manage to get up. But then, sometimes after a few tries, he’s back on his feet and I whisper to myself a relieved, ” Not today.”
For the last year-plus Ichy’s been living in happy retirement with a friend, whose 20-something Arabian mare needed a companion to keep her happy and sassy. From the moment he met her, he was devoted to his girl. As long as she was with him, everything was right in his mildly dementia-addled world. And I was so grateful that she kept him moving and engaged, making him happy and, I firmly believe, both enriching and prolonging his life.
Ich has been a bit of a lady’s man ever since I got him at 14. At many of the places he’s boarded over the years at least one mare would single him out to flirt with and tease. And he’d respond with prancing and spinning and all manner of manly silliness and acting half his age, regardless how muscle sore he’d be the next day. Several years ago the last girl he tried to impress, a young buckskin beauty, blew him off with barely a glance. I figured that was it for him: no more girlfriends.
But the petite black Lady was one of those mares who loves to torment the boys, a full-on hussy who teased Ich when she was in heat, hung out with him when she wasn’t and and randomly squealed at him just because she could. He watched her every move and followed her around and worried when he couldn’t see her (sometimes even when she was in plain sight but he had gone to that sweetly zoned-out place he sometimes drifts off to these days.)
You may remember I wrote about hosting a party in May to celebrate Ichy’s 31st birthday. Most of the attendees dutifully trekked down to the barn/corral complex shared by Ich and his Lady to feed them his birthday carrots and smile at how he enjoyed the human attention but never really left off gazing adoringly at the refined black mare.
Sadly for all her human friends and for Ichobod, Lady died Wednesday evening after a day that started with her down in what looked like a serious colic, then progressed to an apparent recovery but ended with her lying down and leaving her body.
As you might imagine, along with feeling the loss myself and having great sympathy for my friend who owned and loved Lady for decades, I worried how my old man would cope. Strange, but I never pictured Ich’s future without his adored Lady, never dreamed that, at his advanced age, he wouldn’t be the first to go. But there we were.
Thanks to the generosity of Lady’s person, he had plenty of time to say good-bye to his girl, with plaintive cries of his distinctive breathy high-pitched whinny. He alternated between standing over her remains sniffing and walking around looking just plain confused, especially after a cover was laid over the body.
She was buried on the property in sight of his pen and when I arrived to check on him after that process, I found him hanging his head over the fence gazing in the direction of the grave and intermittently whinnying. He stayed on watch all afternoon the way he had done when Lady went out for a walk with her owner, not seeming to understand that she wasn’t coming back this time. That just broke my heart.
But dementia apparently has its benefits and by today he seems to have simply moved on, adjusted to his new normal. His big draft-cross guy pal has moved, at least temporarily, into Lady’s old pen and his newer male acquaintance, a slightly cranky mule, is also available for hanging out across the fence. He’s eating and drinking and all the other important things horse owners watch for, so the universe seems to have settled back into place for him, if maybe not yet for the humans who knew and loved Lady.
I know, of course, that his day will come sooner rather than later. But for now, I can whisper “not today” and go on enjoying our borrowed time, even while I miss Lady and all the sweetness and sassiness she brought to our world.
What a fascinating week this has been since an article from my website “went viral” online thanks to social media and a web-based horse publication. Written by Allana Kereluk, one of my guest authors, “Why I Don’t Do Natural Horsemanship Anymore” had more than 17,000 views on HorseNation.com as of this writing.
This little whirlwind started when a friend shared a Facebook post of the article. I was pleasantly surprised to see something that old from my website show up on my FB timeline. Curious whether the article had been traveling wider on social media, I did a search and found that it had, indeed, circulated among about a dozen people on FB. Interesting, especially for a piece that had languished on my site after a few responses when I ran it in my December 2010 newsletter.
I figured a few more FB shares would be mark end of the article’s second life. But the next day got a nice email from one of the editors at HorseNation.com asking for permission to re-publish the article. Allana gave her blessing and I granted permission with a bit of trepidation. We agreed that while we relished the chance to start a conversation about whether some of these training techniques are detrimental to horses, we fully expected a nasty backlash from the NH hardliners.
We’re both surprised that the comments have been very balanced, both on HorseNationand on social media sites like SnarkyRider (from where it’s shared just under 250 times at this writing). The people who disagree have, for the most part, been polite and sensible. What truly fascinates me is the sheer volume of people who wrote things like “This post really resonated with me.” and “Interesting!” and “Amen.”
And I got a number of very nice private emails of the “thank goodness I’m not alone and someone else thinks the way I do” variety.
I’ve been quite encouraged by the overall civil tone of the “conversation.” I haven’t seen a single really nasty personal attack on Allana. Although, inevitably, there are a number of “she must just be a bad rider/trainer/horsewoman” and “she must just be doing it wrong” type of comments, they’re generally lacking the vitriol I admit I was fully expecting. Even the commenters who scolded Allana, assuming she must have been trying to learn NH only by watching YouTube or the NH training gurus’ DVDs weren’t overly pedantic. (And I can assure them their assumption is absolutely not the case.)
The only FB commenter whose two-cents-worth irked me aimed his disdain at me, not at my invited “guest.” Seems he spent enough time looking at (but clearly not “getting”) the informational articles on my site to pick out and criticize one about using the TTEAM bodywrap to improve horses’ balance. “I can’t [take] this person’s opinion seriously when they promote something like this,” he wrote.
Too funny. Pretty sure he’s not going to gain much traction dissing Linda Tellington-Jones, whose TTEAM and TTOUCH work predates all the “natural” horsemanship marketing geniuses, if I’m not mistaken. Stick that in your Brannaman-wannabe hat and stir it with your $50 orange training stick buddy. (Yeah, that was a bit snarky. I’m over it now.) What I really meant to say was, “Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.”
Seriously, though, I know versions of these “natural” techniques were used by honest-to-goodness Horsemen and Horsewomen for ages before the marketing geniuses turned them into mass-market, dumbed-down, grade-school circus acts. What I have serious issues with is the the lack of knowledge of and attention to posture and biomechanics and correct carriage. Addressing this lack by teaching anatomy and movement and feel and an eye is what I do, one horse and human at a time.
So I’m very grateful to Allana for agreeing to take public the quiet cyber conversations we had been having four years ago and for allowing the re-publication of her piece to a wider audience this week. And a big thank-you to everyone who read and shared and commented and emailed, keeping the topic alive.
Is it just me? Or does this happen to other people, too?
I’m talking about being involuntarily sucked into the world of what I refer to in my head as “alternate-reality people,” the sort of militantly “enlightened” or “spiritual” people who use all the trendy lingo and create “enlightened” drama so everyone can see just how spiritual they are.
Every time I get even superficially acquainted with these types, eventually they dream up some nonsense about an entirely mundane thing or experience involving me to prove, well, I’m not sure what exactly. That they’re more enlightened than I am, I guess.
Do you know the kind of people I mean? The ones who seem to constantly work to show you just how they find some deeper meaning in the everyday things that to you might seem mundane or even random.
A woman I knew (briefly) swore the very ordinary (to my unenlightened eyes) decorative floral wreath on her neighbor’s door was placed there in a deliberate attempt to direct bad energy at her apartment.
Really. It happened. And resulted in a bizarre one-sided feud during which my acquaintance often tried to enlist me in bad-mouthing the wreath people and regularly did things to disrupt their space without actually ever having so much as a conversation with them. Really, I doubt they knew she kept her shades tilted at a certain angle to send “cutting energy” toward their front door.
I have blundered into acquaintance or ended up employed with these types a number of times and I have learned that, inevitably, at some point I will (in their minds) do or not do something with or at or to them that will prove me to be unworthy and unenlightened and generally all-around bad. Very bad.
I was once accused of parking my vehicle “passive-aggressively” (in my own driveway) because I hadn’t left space under the carport for a guest I hadn’t invited and so wasn’t expecting. What’s that about? I get the concept of aggressive parking. (Think Kathy Bates in Fried Green Tomatoes.) But what the heck is passive-aggressive parking?
Another time I was told that a person’s unprovoked upsetting behavior toward one of my clients was completely excused by my subsequent blatant misuse of the word “mortified” to describe how embarrassed I was in front of said client. Huh? (I looked it up; it does mean profoundly embarrassed. I knew that.)
Do other people encounter these types of people, or is it just me who gets pulled into these bizarre non-situation situations? (Surely it can’t be just me.)
I’m not saying it occurs often, but it has happened several times and the part where I seemingly breach some cosmic rule I never knew existed always shocks me for some reason.
I’ve even had this type of experience several times involving horses, usually some version of the “enlightened” person’s horse paying attention to me and me being accused of nefariously causing the horse to do so.
Once I spent several uncomfortable months repeatedly fending off a horse who would follow me around when I was working with others in a pasture. Her “enlightened” owner couldn’t even catch her in the pasture, so clearly I was doing something untoward to be able to walk right up to her horse. I was actually dressed down by my employer and told I was henceforth never allowed to touch the horse. (Who, of course, couldn’t understand why I had to shoo her away when she just wanted to hang with me.)
In the most recent incident, I was standing in a barn aisle talking with a client and a horse cross-tied nearby stretched her neck out ever-so-politely to sniff a wad of empty plastic bags I was holding. (The bags had held herbs for my horses.) “Enlightened” owner looked up from behind the horse and said “Don’t feed my horse!” I showed her that the bags were entirely empty and explained the horse was only sniffing.
Later she made a point, in front of another boarder, to thank me for “showing me what kind of person you are” because in that encounter I was obviously expressing a secret belief that her horse needed supplements.
Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.
I did not ask her to elaborate; I was too busy re-arranging my brain to puzzle out how my completely inadvertent proximity and an entirely random bit of nothing somehow got elevated to “deep inner meaning” status. I could choose to believe she meant I showed her my deep commitment to the well-being of horses. But my experience of similar brain-twisting encounters in the past leads me to suspect she meant I was some version of unenlightened undesirable who had accosted her horse for nefarious reasons.
So, what am I missing here? Is there really such a thing as passive-aggressive parking? Ill-wishing wreaths? Secret supplement compulsion? Where do these people come from? (And, more important, could they be sent back there?)
But, really, is it just me? Do the rest of you also sometimes encounter this type of alternate-reality person? Or (yikes!) am I the one whose reality is flawed because I don’t imagine every other being’s every action is somehow deeply centered on me?
I don’t have an answer, but I am suddenly very motivated to lock myself inside my home with my animals, whose motivations and actions make much more sense. That’s where you’ll find us if you have something enlightening to share on this topic.
From a Facebook “conversation,” here’s a new one: using religion as a reason to employ the horse “training” technique known as “laying a horse down.”
The spirited discussion started when a friend shared a post promoting a horse-training demonstration by Paul Daily of Wild Horse Ministries, a portion of whose online photo gallery is shown in the screenshot below.
The Facebook poster used the bottom picture with the caption “No life is more secure than a life totally surrendered to God.”
Apparently one way this trainer illustrates “surrender” is to make the young horses in his training demonstrations lie down in full tack. From his website:
Paul does not “break horses”, he “gentles” them, with words and pats, until they let him bridle, saddle and ride them – all within two hours. Occasionally, Paul can get the horse to totally submit by lying down. Paul says the Lord has given him this ability and is using him to reach people who shy away from organized religion and church. As the horse submits to Paul’s ministrations, people submit to God’s. “We have witnessed individual lives being changed because of their willingness to submit to Jesus Christ”, says Paul.
I’m sorry, the average young horse being saddled for the first time in a public setting is not going to simply choose to lie down and rest in response to “words and pats.” The “laying a horse down” method is accomplished with the force of leverage.
Mr. Daily’s demonstrations require that organizers provide “an untamed but rope/halter broke colt two to three years old.” For a young, inexperienced horse all the new sensory input of being in a strange place plus wearing a bridle and saddle plus the spectators surrounding him equals the type of stressful situation in which a flight animal needs to be allowed to move. Take away his legs and he has no relief, no hope of escaping to safety and surviving this encounter. He does what any prey animal is hard-wired to do – he checks out, freezes, plays dead.
Therefore, just because some horses who experience this “laying down” technique stay down without restraint doesn’t mean they enjoy or are even okay with being rubbed all over and sat or laid on as some “trainers” do. They have checked out, disconnected their brains from their bodies, so to speak.
It’s a function of neurobiology called “tonic immobility.” Search and you’ll find the condition referenced in relation to instinctive behavior of prey animals when facing imminent death, as well as to humans experiencing such trauma as physical abuse or sexual assualt.
For a prey animal, “to surrender all” is to die. I have written about this before and I also recently came across an excellent blog post on the same topic. The thoughtful writer has researched (and footnoted) her journey from supporting the “laying down” technique to questioning it.
I’ve seen “laying a horse down” defended as an effective way of creating trust, making the horse safe to work with, ensuring obedience and “extinguishing” a horse’s fear and I think they’re all nonsense. Dangerous nonsense that creates a horse with PTSD that’s going to show up sometime, maybe many years and several owners later. You know the one: that tried-and-true horse who just completely blows up one day with no apparent provocation, seriously injuring himself or his rider/handler?
The person posting the photo of Mr. Daily’s use of the technique on social media was all about the importance of “submission” and wrote passionately about her relationship with God. I support her right to choose to submit to whatever or whomever; what I don’t support is anyone forcing a horse or any other flight animal into a submissive position that triggers the same autonomic response as being captured by a predator.
I want to be absolutely clear here that I have no objection to either the poster’s or the trainer’s references to religion or to the latter’s attempt to find parallels between horse training and being a good Christian.
I firmly subscribe to the version of “religious freedom” I grew up with: everyone is free to worship – or not to worship – as he or she sees fit. That means nobody has the right to impose his or her religious choices on anyone else; that would be denying religious freedom, not practicing it.
Organized religion is not a priority in my life, but I readily acknowledge there can be a spiritual element to the human connection with horses. And I also know from decades of experience that working with horses inevitably brings up issues from and teaches lessons applicable to the lives we live away from the barn. If your religion is of prime importance to your daily life and your relationships with other people, that’s going to show up the way you connect with your horse, as well.
I just don’t think that connection is best explored by forcing a horse to submit to this traumatic technique. No matter how gently it’s done or how pure the motives, making a horse lie down while you touch him, stand over him or sit/stand/lie on him is not training.
I would go so far to say that in any situation other than, perhaps, to administer life-saving medical treatment, “laying a horse down” is plain and simple abuse right down to a very deep cellular level. The animal’s own physiology belies any assertion that this method should be regarded as humanely training or gentling a horse.
There’s a video making the rounds on social media that perfectly illustrates one of my biggest fears as a professional horsewoman: that the perversion of horses’ natural movement I see in most show disciplines today will persist – to the detriment of horses – for generations.
For example, I can’t stand the idea that today’s young riders, the professional trainers and judges of the next generation, may have never seen a pleasure Quarter Horse who doesn’t four-beat “lope” jammed on the forehand popping up and down like an oil pumpjack. How will they ever know that’s not how a stock horse should (or even must) move.
The clearly intelligent, accomplished young woman who posted this “educational” video to her Facebook page is exactly the type of professional I’m worried about. She seems honestly to believe this perhaps slightly less egregious peanut-roller posture should be celebrated.
Compared to the worst of what has been in the showring in the past three-plus decades, it’s just parsing degrees of awfulness, I’d say. Considering how stock horses were shown up until the late 1970s, there’s just no comparison.
I keep asking myself what can this winning trainer possibly be seeing when she remarks how “forward” these horses are moving when clearly not one of them is stepping through from the hindquarters?
How can she not see that all of these horses are dumped on the forehand, four-beating and their polls remain well below the withers except in that portion of the lope when they have to pop their necks up to drag themselves forward? There’s no push, no engagement, no impulsion at all in these horses.
The answer must be that she’s seeing what she’s used to seeing, what she has likely seen every minute of her equestrian life from the first time she sat on a horse or went to a show. Hence my fear. When horrific, unbalanced, joint pounding gaits are all that stock-horse show riders have been taught and practiced and rewarded with ribbons, how can we expect them to cringe at every step of this awfulness? They simply can’t see what I see.
I give the video’s poster credit if she really is working to move her industry to back from the brink of absurdity and encourage more sensible and humane standards. But this video’s value for showing the industry’s return to biomechanically correct movement is miniscule and this performance is certainly worthy of kudos for the AQHA or anyone else involved.
The only thing I do agree with the FB poster about is her statement that this class of the top 20 youth pleasure contestants in the nation “.. is not your grandpa’s Pleasure class.” Well, I’m old enough to be these riders’ grandmother and I still have the buckstitched tack to prove it. I can tell you no stock horse of any breed moved like these horses back when I was showing Quarter Horses.
Here’s a little background: I had my first horse in 1967 at age four and I grew up riding daily except in the worst of winter on a ranch in northeastern Colorado. Although in my family the lines between men’s and women’s tasks were pretty traditionally drawn, at those times of the year when riders were needed to work the 400-head Hereford herd it was all hands on horseback.
I gathered and drove cattle in all weather, rode fence lines looking for strays, and roped and dragged calves to the branding fire. My absolute favorite horseback task was pasture sorting steers bound for the sale-barn from heifers retained for breeding.
I also showed my horses, starting out at open shows at age six, adding 4-H shows when I was old enough and then expanding into Quarter Horse shows after I got a young registered horse in junior high.
All my horses, from the bomb-proof Welsh pony who was my first show mount to the cranky King Ranch mare who neither of my parents could ride to my really nice papered Hancock gelding, had to do double duty: working ranch horse during the week and prettied-up show horse on the weekend.
I guarantee you not a single horse shown in the video above could do that, at least not without some serious re-training including months of bodywork and rehab.
My only hope for the “AQHA Pro Horseman” who created the post and others like her is that they spend a good long time with some of the folks who excel in the increasingly popular Ranch Versatility competitions. I’m so thankful there are still ranches where the wonderful working Quarter Horse bloodlines have been preserved and that those people have some public outlet to show how a stock horse should move.
Here are some examples of what grandma’s pleasure horse actually looked like:
This young horse and rider could easily have been one of my competitors in youth Western Horsemanship at a show in the 1970s. The rider’s turnout and way of sitting the horse, the horse’s conformation and flat movement, and even the pattern look very similar to what would have been in the ring back in my show days.
The only obvious difference is the tail; back then we shortened tails to hock level on working horses to avoid picking up brush and stickers on the ranch and to emphasize the powerful hindquarters in the ring.
Here’s a bit more experienced horse and rider pair that also could have been plucked right out of the ring at any Quarter Horse show I went to in the late ’60s and through the ’70s. This solid, workmanlike pattern probably would have earned a ribbon the open Western Horsemanship class.
You would even have seen a few horses with suspension like this mare’s both on the ranch and in the ring. She wouldn’t have won the Western Pleasure, which was strictly a walk/trot/lope rail class back in the day. But any rider who could sit that trot well would surely win Western Horsemanship, the class judged on equitation and often run as a “pattern class.”
These horses really could work stock, and some of them probably do. A Quarter Horse is, above all, supposed to be able to perform the work he is bred for. And that’s what makes a beautiful horse.
I hope there will, some day soon, be a full-scale revolt against the showring peanut-roller parades so horses with sound minds and bodies will once again be prized.
Start the two videos and and tell me that I’m not the only one who sees the similarity between these loping Western Pleasure horses and pumpjacks.