Memory Building Exercise from a Horse, of Course

Working with a friend and her horse this morning gave me a great feeling. I initially just went into the barn to tell her how exciting it was for me to have heard her voice and known it while I was working with one of my horses. I could picture in my mind both her and her horse and remember their names, as well. All while being present enough in my own body to work with my super-sensitive gelding at the same time.

Not a great achievement for a normal adult, but given the weird couple years I have had – with a total breakdown of body and brain – it felt wonderful. I went in to tell her and she gave me another memory exercise, asking me to watch her horse’s movement and tell me if he looked a bit unsound.

The horse is a very sensitive thoroughbred gelding who had been pushed around and forced into work he wasn’t really physically or mentally prepared for by a past owner. The signatures of his inevitable resistance still remain, giving him a tendency to lock his back and overweight his forelegs – the classic heavy on the forehand posture. His preference is to brace most on the left fore, very common because horses are typically handled most from the left side. When I started exploring biomechanics, it was rare for a person to even lead a horse other than from the left because that’s what we were all taught.

The woman does not have the ideal body type for a rider, with a small stature that gives her a slightly long torso compared to short legs. That makes it very easy for her to get her balance tipped too far forward like her horse. And, having been taught to lead her horse from the left, her imbalance was strongest to the left, as well.

Hmm. Chicken/Egg here, right?

Happily, I don’t care which imbalance came first because the only way to rebalance the team is to make the human aware of both asymetries and then help her work mentally and physically to overcome both simultaneously. The horse’s body will follow the human’s by instinct and long practice, though it can take many, many repetitions to build a solid new pattern.

This morning she just asked me to look at her horse, who had been sore and unhappy. As I had taught her years ago, she stood on her horse’s left side and hooked a couple of fingers of her right hand onto the noseband of his halter just in front of the cheekpiece. She took a nice breath, wiggle-waggled her body side to side and asked the horse to step forward with her in the barn aisle, then turned her torso left and asked him to bend and turn and walk on.

I could see her leaning just a bit forward and left and the horse following her postural lead. I had her stop and reminded her to breathe deep into her butt and wait to feel the horse release to go with her so she didn’t give him any brace excuse by pulling. She took a few moments to do that and repeated the walk and bend left and the horse was much more even, stepping through better with both hind legs and bending a couple degrees more to make the turn feel easier for both of them. She could feel the difference in her own body and the slight easing in her horse’s body that allowed him to step under himself enough to balance the bend from his back instead of his shoulders.

Then she asked me to watch him walk over the threshold into his stall, another longstanding issue when he tends to dump on the forehand and whack his front feet on the three-inch-high line of concrete. He demonstrated that habit quite clearly on the first go. Again, I reminded the handler to organize her body to intentionally bend the horse for the turn into the stall, then to equally intentionally straighten him while remembering to breathe and drop her core deeply into balance so she could easily lift her own feet to step across the concrete. She stepped cleanly into the stall and so did her horse – one, two, three, four without a sound. She repeated the exercise a couple times to remind herself and the horse to take those important few seconds that make the difference between feeding the habit in both bodies or making a conscious choice not to perpetuate the unwanted.

Building new movement habits in human and equine bodies can take months or even years because like the cliché, old habits die hard. But if the human can stay mentally organized and physically present, the horse is instinctively programmed to try to match. If you’re in a herd and your movements make you stand out for some reason, you draw the focus of the predators. If the whole herd blends into one unit much bigger than the predator, every member is safer.

It was really great both to be able to really see the horse and human at a deep level that used to seem easy to me and to process what I was seeing to both understand the problem and formulate a solution. All the while I was holding my Sport, who used to be so super-sensitive that he wouldn’t have been able to cope with me dividing my attention between him and the horse/handler pair. He had a moment of the old “Oh my gosh, I can’t take this” when we first went into the enclosed space of the barn, but when I softened my contact, breathed and found balance and confidence, he read and understood. I reminded him again that he’s my senior assistant now, so he’s got to make some changes too. His answer was to go with the program and I even got a lick/chew, so I guess we’ve all learned some interesting things.

Love these moments when I really know I’m making progress back to health. Thanks to the horses, I feel fully confident that I’ll get my body and my brain back at some point in 2017, both in a version that will serve me well for many years to come. And until then, I’m being patient and enjoying the simple pleasure of being able to do a bit more each week.

(Not quite able to walk and think and teach and take photos yet, but you can see an old photo of the rider and horse featured in this post and another, even better one here.)

A Look Back at My Life With Ichobod


byeichyThis week I had my old horse Ichobod put down. He had gotten so frail that he couldn’t lay down without having real difficulty getting up. He would have turned 34 on May 1, so he had a good long life that would have completely astonished the wonderful accomplished horsewoman who gave him to me in 1983. He was a 14-year-old failed ranch horse at the time and little did I know how much the 16-hand, long-backed physical wreck had to teach me. He pretty much forced me to learn several forms of bodywork to help put his imperfect body into working order. He was also a highly sensitive neurotic mess, so I had to learn to communicate with him very quietly and with great patience, skills I have found over the years to work with all horses.

In honor of Ichobod, here’s a retrospective of blogs I wrote about our time together over the years.

Funny “Ha, Ha” or Funny Strange? 
Ichy makes me overcome my skepticism about animal communicators and then makes the perfect stall come available for him.

What’s in a Name?
Pondering on how and why people come up with the names they call their horses. Ichobod has an awful registered name and his nickname has a good reason behind it.

My Horse is One Hundred Today 
Marking Ichy’s 31st birthday and sending thanks to the woman who gave him to me.

Ichobod and I Lose a Friend 
Ich’s neighbor/girlfriend dies and I worry he will pine for her.

Senile Old Man or Evil Genius? 
Ichy somehow gets himself stuck in a room he shouldn’t have been able to access.

Ichobod, the Pony Pincushion
Acupuncture to help heal a minor injury.

Rainy-day Non-riding Lesson

When my phone rang on this dim, rainy morning, I knew it was my teenage student calling to confirm that her lesson was, indeed, canceled due to weather. She’s a busy high-school student in an academically challenging school, so I figured she’d be glad of the extra time to complete weekend homework.

Instead, she asked could we please meet at our usual time and do some alternative activity. Her suggestion: an anatomy lesson of some kind.

Grace and her student on a nice, sunny day.

She was too busy to ride the last two Saturdays, is going away for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and she said she was missing the horse we work with, a quirky Paint mare who belongs to one of her distant family members. The mare only works on our lesson days, living a life of privileged leisure the rest of the week.

Grace is not the easiest horse foe a novice rider to learn on. She requires quite a bit of motivation to take part. We joke that her favorite word is “whoa.” Though she’s sound and safe, she’s often cranky, always looking for a way to get a ruder to let out of work. She has driven other riders and trainers to despairingly give up on her. But I like Grace and get along with her and my young student “gets” her, laughing at some of the bitchy behavior and correcting what needs correcting, all the while appreciating the four-legged “princess” for who she is.

So, of course, I bundled up and dodged intrepid (crazy!?) El Tour riders so my student could spend time with the horse she who has been her challenging teacher for a couple of years. We did acupressure for the immune system, which required identifying and locating various bony landmarks to locate specific points. (Our reference was Tallgrass’ classic “Equine Acupressure: A Working Manual.”)

It was a good hands-on anatomy practice for us and Grace got so relaxed her knees actually buckled at one point. All in all, a good way to spend part of a wet winter morning. (Better than riding a bike 100+ miles in cold rain!)

Sorrow for South Dakota

I’ve been following the story of the devastating blizzard that decimated South Dakota’s ranches earlier this month with deep sorrow, a kind of visceral kinship that belies the distance between my sunny Arizona home and the winter-whipped plains.

Every photo I see and story I read about the estimated 100,000 head of cattle and horses who died so terribly in the harsh weather brings tears to my eyes. I have no connection with the cattle or horses whose bloated bodies litter the range and I never met the people who raised and cared for them. Yet for all that, I still KNOW them. But for the geography, they might be my family and my friends and my neighbors from the small cattle ranch where I grew up in northeastern Colorado.

We had a 400-head breeding herd of Herefords on 13,000 acres and we also raised hay and corn. Winter pasture was 600-plus acres of low ground where we harvested hay in the summer and stacked it for winter feed. On the north edge of these meadows, the South Platte River waters a strip of  cottonwoods and willows, the “river bottom” that provides cover for cattle in bad weather.

Summer pastures were about eight miles away, high-desert sandhills with mesquite, prickly pear and, if the spring rains came, plentiful grass. Moving from one season’s grazing area to another was the work of days. First the cows (whose calves had already been shipped to sale) had to be gathered off the 8,000-odd acres and confined to one big pasture. Then we’d spend a long day in the saddle trailing the herd across several ranches down a winding dirt road and across a busy state highway. Time it just right and you got to move cattle on a glorious late-autumn day. Miss one of Mother Nature’s subtle cues and you’d ride in freezing rain or snow all day, your toes turning to icicles in your boots and your face numb from the bitter wind.

Every spring 400-odd bright-faced Hereford calves were born on our place. A fair few needed help into the world, especially heifers’ first calves. Inevitably a few cows died and we ended up with newborn orphans in our enclosed front porch, trying to get them warm and coax them to suck bottles of colostrum and milk replacer. We were sad when they didn’t make it, and not just because it meant a diminished return on the investment of years of hard work.

People who raise livestock genuinely like the animals, something that seems to puzzle outsiders who see only that most of them are headed to slaughter. For farmers and ranchers all over the world, that’s the job: nurture the land to grow the feed crops to nourish the animals that feed the people. Nobody would work as hard as they do for the small return most family farms and ranches provide if they didn’t deeply love the land and the animals. Trust me, there have been plenty of big, tough men privately sobbing as they find their dead cattle and horses and take care of the grisly business of counting and disposing of the carcasses. I guarantee it.

I’m not talking about big corporate food-producing enterprises here – to me, that’s not agriculture. I’m thinking about the family farm, which is in every way much more than a business, a profit-making entity. These are communities of people who chose to live on and care for the land, to be their own bosses and take the risk that at the end of the year they’ll at least break even. They are willing to labor day in, day out in all weather and to face the uncertainties of weather and fickle markets driven by forces they don’t control. And it’s a good thing there are people willing to do all this because, I don’t know about you, but I kinda like to eat.

The losses in South Dakota will drive some ranchers out of business, inching our country ever closer to what I consider a dangerous situation – a food monopoly in which a few mega-corporations control the production and dissemination of something we all need to live. (How many times do we need to see that power of any kind concentrated in the hands of a few greed-motivated entities or self-aggrandizing people never serves the good of the majority.)

The financial ruin wrought by the storm will tear apart communities, as families who might have been on the land for generations are forced to sell out and leave to find work elsewhere. And more kids will grow up far from the land, not understanding the complex balance of nature and hard work it takes to feed the world. It’s already difficult in urban areas to find people who think about the milk and meat and vegetables they consume originating beyond the back side of a grocery store. It’s that kind of ignorance that fueled the unfeeling and downright rude comments left by readers of the media accounts of the blizzard.

Those inspired a brilliant and heartfelt blog post by someone not unlike me, a transplanted daughter of generations of farm and ranch folk. If you want to understand how events collided to create such a terrible situation, take a few minutes to read what she writes. Or watch the surprisingly good CBS News piece in the video above. Or just ask me. I’ll be happy to tell you what I know from my own experiences. Just realize, there will be tears in the telling.

What’s the Story?

Bit of a surprise when I was at one client’s place to work with horses today.



Here’s what I saw first. Boggled my brain for a moment – I’m not really seeing what I’m seeing, am I? Oh. Yes, I am. (Click on the pictures to see a larger version.)


Here’s what I saw next, as I walked around to the left side of the horse to halter him. Uh oh. More confirmation that what I first saw was, really, what I saw. Poor guy.


Need a close-up? Here it is.





Well, it is the season. Change of weather. Not as hot. Prime conditions for, well, certain conditions.

Owners away, caretaker not on site. Just these items. They told me a story. Do you know what it might have been?

And that story determined that I would not be working this horse today. Or massaging him. A bit of scritching on itchy bits, a little TTOUCH and acupressure to balance the chi and strict instructions to drink water. (Yes, I did lead him to water and no, he did not opt to drink.)

So, what’s the story?

Open Wide

This was dentist week for two of my equine charges, Ginger the draft mare and Junior the Quarter Horse gelding. In their first appointments with equine dentist Jana Echols last year, both had serious issues basically from lack of proper routine dental care. I was very happy to get good reports on both this year and improved mobility of Ginger’s mouth, which had been impeded for several years.

Yes, that’s right: several years. Why? Because despite routine spring and fall vet exams (at which I requested the owner specifically ask about dental issues) she had a top tooth that wasn’t being ground evenly and was, instead, protruding into the space below where a tooth was overly worn. Not something that should have been missed and very obvious to Jana the first time she examined the big mare’s mouth.

Very frustrating, both from a general welfare perspective and in the problems it has caused in the horse’s training, but not that unusual a story. I have known quite a number of vets who dislike dental work, in past because using the hand tools is quite physically taxing and now perhaps because they aren’t adept with the new power tools. And I’ve known a couple of otherwise good horse vets who would go to great lengths to avoid even the most routine floating.

To be fair, some vets are just plain bad dentists. And it’s not entirely their fault: the average vet-school curriculum doesn’t include much time for specialties such as dentistry. One newly trained vet told me a few years ago her program included only a half day of practical instruction in floating teeth and only those students who intended to pursue horse-specialty practices actually got to do any hands-on work.

If at all possible where you live, find a veterinarian who specializes in equine dentistry or a well-trained lay dentist. They have better tools, more up-to-date knowledge and are genuinely interested in your horse’s dental health. And please, if your vet brushes you off when you ask about teeth or has told you for more than a year or two that your horses teeth are “fine” – especially if you have either health or training issues that could be caused by mouth pain/discomfort – check for dental problems yourself or get another opinion.

(Find more information about the importance of good equine dentistry.)


Equine Dentist Listings:
American Veterinary Dental Society
International Association of Equine Dentistry

Horse of a Different Color

This otherwise plain sorrel horse with very unusual white markings on his hindquarters recently visited one of the barns where I teach, causing people to speculate whether he was a Paint with spots inside spots or an Appaloosa whose blanket didn’t quite form.

According to the owner, who had clearly (cheerfully) answered the question before, neither. He’s a crop-out Quarter Horse. (Named Bulls-eye!)

Of course I knew sometimes Quarter Horses produced a little too much white, though rules have been relaxed so horses that used to be ineligible for QH registry are now welcomed. But in digging around for information on crop-outs, I learned that there also have been instances of Quarter Horses producing Appaloosa coloring.

Celebrate Geeks!

A great interview with Dr. Temple Grandin right in her little office at Colorado State University. I love the closing line:

“Get interested in something! Get out and do stuff!”

Good advice on a Friday afternoon. Hope you get out and do something interesting this weekend.