Did you know that Luke’s real name is Millennium? And that he’s for sale? And that I’m actually kind of excited about that? Let me step back and explain that last bit.
About six months ago (and yes, I had to look in my schooling journal to come up with that number), Batman left to go live closer to his human so that she could ride him more often, and Dazzle went with him to take some time to heal from what we’re pretty sure was a muscle tear. With two horses gone, Amanda brought back Sugar for some training and bought Little Joe with the hope that they would both be appropriate for lessons. Initially I thought that I could work with both of them, but it was Louisiana in June, so that was a terrible idea. I was already getting heat exhaustion every few days, and two horses a day was begging for massive headaches on a daily basis and trips to the hospital for saline IVs every weekend. So I had to cut back to working only one horse, and Amanda told me to work with Sugar, so… I did.
…and tongue sticking out.
It was a really frustrating for me initially, but it was a really important learning experience. Up until then I had mostly worked with eager, willing horses, some frightened, abused horses that just needed some confidence building, and the occasional pushy mare. Sugar was… well, she’s like my ten pound dog that thinks that the world is ending if he doesn’t have constant body contact and love. She hadn’t learned to be pushy yet, but it gave me a great opportunity to practice setting boundaries gently without losing my temper (which is a really easy trap for me to fall into with the pushier mares). And Sugar turned out to be a gem. Once you set up a line of communication with her, her eagerness and desire to be with people was a huge asset, and she was willing to give anything a shot. She’s got this great, compact build that gives her a strong back and core, she’s quite responsive to your seat and legs, and her motion is flat while still resembling the motion of a much bigger horse. She gave me an opportunity to (basically) perfect my rising trot, to learn to ride softly while maintaining firm, clear aids, and so much more. By the end of my time working with Sugar, Amanda was saying every few days that she was liking her more and more. I managed to hold on to her until about Halloween before Amanda took her for herself.
You might think that I’d be bummed about that. I mean, my boss just took my project horse. But I’m actually ecstatic about it, because Amanda stole my pony for all the right reasons. She didn’t take Sugar because I messed her up and now she has to fix my mistakes: just the opposite. Now, I didn’t do a perfect job because there are some things that I still don’t know how to do, like getting nice, round, connected transitions. In my defense though, even if it was something in my skill set, I’m still not sure that I could have taught her. She had a loose wolf tooth banging around in her mouth, and until her teeth got done it would have been… not impossible, but it definitely would have involved borrowing a two hundred dollar bridle a lot sooner, and I think that it might have only made the pain bearable, not eliminated it. So now that her teeth are done, Amanda can do what I couldn’t, and I think Sugar will be able to jump up to 2nd level very quickly. But there’s another perk to Amanda taking Sugar.
Amanda basically handed me her retired holsteiner jumper who was originally bought and imported for the modest price of $33,000 and said “Here’s your next project. Get the muscles in his back (and everywhere else) properly developed again so that he’s ready to sell, and try to learn something along the way. You know what to do: Now go to work.”
A year and a half ago, I got on Luke, thinking I could ride any horse. But he was totally unlike any horse I had ever ridden before. He was so sensitive and had such big motion that I was completely unprepared. I ended up sending him messages that I didn’t know that I was sending, and I got eaten alive. It was embarrassing to say the least.
Eight months ago I climbed on him again. It was still like speaking a whole new language, but this time I knew what language it was and I could at least say “Hello” and “Goodbye.” It became very apparent to me that Luke is an absolute gentleman: Even though he had a completely unprepared rider flopping around on his back, he still made the effort to communicate with me, although I wasn’t sure if I was saying something normal or very foul indeed (this happens when you try to learn another language, but at least you can usually guess when someone is swearing at you based on their tone of voice, no matter what language they’re speaking speaking).
And now I’m working with Luke on a regular basis. I have been looking forward to this for a year and a half (honestly, I thought it would take longer to get to this point), and he does not disappoint.
His massive motion forces me to have a stronger core than I’ve ever had in my life, and his sensitivity pushes me to ride softer than ever before. He reminds me of all of my flaws (getting tipped forward, bracing on my toes, weak right hip, left leg that always swinging forward, seat falling to the outside, to name a few) and forces me to fix them. And then on top of that, he’s constantly teaching me more. There are all of these concepts that I knew about from what I’ve read and what I’ve discussed with Amanda, but now I’m having the chance to feel them. For example, I learned to be strong enough to rise the trot mostly using the lower half of my body while I was riding all of the flat little quarter horses. Now I’m learning to rise and sit the trot with my whole body, which is the most bizarre concept to try to explain. I find myself trying to sink down into my knees and heels while I’m rising out of the saddle and then to grow into my spine and shoulders and neck while I’m sitting. It sounds so counterintuitive, but it helps me absorb his massive movement more effectively.
I also strongly suspect that Luke will help me learn to develop those connected transitions, and I think that he’ll have a few more unexpected lessons in store for me as well (Amanda said something about how if I get him strong enough that he could teach me half passes and canter pirouettes, which is both awesome and totally overwhelming). For all of his massive motion and unbelievable sensitivity, it’s all tempered by one of the most willing personalities I’ve encountered (it’s on par with Spook, and that’s really saying something).
I don’t think that Amanda will sell him for anywhere near $33,000, but I do think whoever buys him is going to be very lucky indeed. Since my husband is owned by the army and it’s not practical for me to buy a horse until his contract ends and we settle down somewhere, I’m sad to say that it probably won’t be me. (So whoever buys him better love him as much as he deserves. Hint Hint, Nudge Nudge.)
Now if you’re thinking that I’m inclined to get cocky after working with Luke, don’t worry. Since it’s finally cooling off I can work more than one horse a day again, and I’ve gone back to working with Little Joe. Nothing keeps you humble like riding a pony.
The more I study horsemanship (particularly dressage), the higher my standards become. There are two main results from this change. The first is that I now have a healthy respect for fundamentals and theory. The second is that I am being called a snob with greater frequency. That’s fine, I get it: a few years ago I would have done the same. But as I continue to study, I’m discovering that so many of these things that I used to (and still sometimes do) consider “snobby” are just part of being a professional horsewoman. More importantly, there are reasons behind those snobby behaviors, and none of them seem to be “Because I’m better than you.” With my growing sympathy for the horse snobs of the world, I think that it is time to compile some tips for behaving like a professional. So for your educational and entertainment value, I present to you “How to Snob:” Otherwise known as “Five Tips for Behaving Like a Professional.”
Snobby Tip #1: Safety Always Comes First
I imagine that this has been drummed into every horse lover’s head from day one, and I think it should be pretty obvious. We wrestle 1200 pound animals for fun and are about 20 times more likely to fall and suffer a serious head injury than motorcycle riders: something to do with the fact that motorcycles generally don’t get startled by flying leaves. Just ask Robert Downey Jr.
But there’s another reason that we have to put safety first, and we generally don’t think about it until it’s too late: As professionals, we will need legal protection for when something eventually goes wrong.
I’m not saying to go out and hire a lawyer to have on retainer. Most of us don’t deal with enough cash or high profile clients to do that. For the most part, horse people are pretty understanding and recognize that riding horses is inherently dangerous, and accidents are going to happen no matter what we do. But there’s always going to be that person who will blame us for any mistakes, and it’s a good idea to be prepared for that. Even if we only consider ourselves to be amateurs, remember that one of the top hobbies in the US is suing people. Here are some questions to ask yourself to know if you should worry about potential legal repercussions:
Are you or another person near you an adult?
Is someone near you a child?
Is someone else riding or handling your horse?
Are you riding or handling another person’s horse?
Are you on someone else’s land or property?
Is someone else on your land or property?
Are you engaging in horse related activities in public?
Are you moving horses from one location to another?
Are you taking money for your work with horses?
There are plenty more that we could worry about, but I think those will do quite nicely to start. If somehow none of these apply to you, cool! But if you answered yes to any of those questions, ever could have answered yes to those questions, or can foresee a time when you will answer yes to any of those questions, then congratulations! You could totally face legal issues at some point.
Think of it this way: Working with horses is like walking on a tightrope, and safety measures are like the net waiting to catch you if you fall. If you’re on your own, sure, you can take away the net and walk on the tight rope 50 feet above the ground. That’s your decision and you accept the consequences. But if you allow anyone else onto that tight rope for any reason and you don’t have a safety net in place? You. Are. Screwed.
This is why it’s also important to think about having multiple safety measures in place. I was in a gun class recently where the instructor told us very simply that the safety mechanism on guns can fail, so assume they will. That’s why we have multiple safety procedures when we handle guns. It’s the same way with horsemanship. Every safety measure that we put in place is like adding another rope to our safety net. The bigger, stronger, and better our safety net, the less likely it will fail, and the better protected we will all be.
So with that in mind, here’s some safety measures you can consider adding to your safety net:
Know the laws about horsemanship and farm based activities for your area. Some will be great at protecting you, some will not. Know what you’re dealing with.
Have clients sign waivers and contracts. This is just another rope in your legal safety net, but if you have your agreements written out neatly and signed, it’s going to save a lot of trouble for both you and the client.
Bite the bullet and buy the helmet. Yes, I know, they’re bulky and hot and smelly and annoying, and yes, it took me six months to get into the habit of wearing one. If you’re an adult, yeah, legally you can’t be forced to wear one. But if you have a kid on your horse and they get a head injury that could have been prevented by wearing a helmet? If nothing else, just get the helmet to protect yourself from legal issues. (Side note: it does need to be a helmet designed specifically for horse activities. A regular bike helmet isn’t rated for the impact or stress factors involved in horse accidents.)
Pay attention to the health and condition of your horses. If a horse that you own, manage, or train, trips or bucks because of an injury or health issue and someone gets hurt, legally that’s your fault because you neglected to take proper care of the horse ahead of time. Get the farrier out regularly. Make sure you’re up to date on vaccines and wormers. Get teeth floated as needed. The happier your horses are, the better they will be able to take care of their riders.
Make sure your equipment is up to date. If you’re tying bits and pieces back onto your saddle, it’s time to either replace the broken parts or get a whole new saddle. I know that tack can be expensive: Sorry, but there’s really no way around it. If your equipment fails and you knew that it was faulty and chose to use it anyhow, you’re in deep crap.
Do not let your reins hang on the ground where the horse can step on them.
I think every discipline is guilty, but just as an example, a lot of ropers use split reins when they ride and compete. That’s fine, except that part of roping usually involves jumping off of the horse to tie the calf/ goat, and the reins often fall to the ground where the horse can step on them. The issue isn’t that the reins might get broken- reins can be replaced. The issue is that the reins are either attached to a piece of metal in the horse’s mouth or to something that’s working on pressure points in the horse’s face, and a sudden jerk to either one of those can cause massive amounts of damage. It might be that you split the horse’s tongue open, or it might be that you break the horse’s jaw. For ropers, the solution is simple- use barrel or roping reins. If they’re too short for you to keep a hold of when the horse stretches out, buy a set of English reins. They’re longer, but aren’t as likely to slip off of the horse’s neck as split reins.
Do not let the horse eat with a bit in. I’m guilty too, I’ve done it (not all of us remember to bring halters on cattle drives), but even if you use a grazing bit, and even if it’s convenient, don’t do it.
And no, it’s not just about teaching the horse good manners. What can happen is that the grass or hay gets stuck behind the bit, and if it goes on long enough, a big green ball of half chewed, slimy food will form behind the bit, and when it gets big enough, your horse will choke. ‘Nuff said.
Have a Plan. These are called Milestones. Whether you focus on training horses or teaching students, you need to have a coherent, logical learning process in place. With students, it might be as simple as “You may not ride Lightning until after you have learned to manage Dusty and Freckles,” but having something a little better defined is appreciated (what makes a beginning rider vs. an intermediate rider and so on). One of the best rules I’ve come across so far is that at HES we don’t allow students to enter into group lessons until after they’ve shown that they can canter and down transition in a private lesson. The reason is simple: when one horse canters in a group, odds are that they all will. Milestones are also important for trainers. If you ask a horse to jump or run speed events before they are athletically developed enough to do it, you run a greater risk of injuring the horse. Remember: as a trainer, your first priority has to be turning out a Riding Horse. Cutting, Jumping, and Barrels can wait until after the horse has simply been trained to respond calmly and quietly to a rider. If the horses you produce are always looking for the next fence or the next barrel or the next cow, yes, they’ll be great performance horses, but horses that don’t know how to function without a barrel or cow or a jump in their immediate future are commonly known as “Psycho.” Psycho horses are not safe and increase the likelihood of injury for both the horse and rider. If you would like an example of some excellent riding milestones, check these out, which I very carefully stole from Samantha Fellin at Gallifrey Farms, LLC.
Post Signs. Some state laws are great about protecting horse facilities, but sometimes they require that signs be posted around the facility warning people that animal related activities are inherently dangerous and that people engaging in animal related activities do so at their own risk. Check your state laws: that will help you significantly. Have barn rules posted clearly so that students, workers, and visitors know what you expect from them while they are in your facility to keep everyone safe. And of course, this is the most important sign of all. You need to have some version of this sign around your barn, preferably pretty much everywhere. A lot of the time the bedding and feed that we use for horses produces as much heat as gasoline, and while it may not ignite as quickly, it’s still going to light fast enough to be a problem. If a fire in a stall is 4′ in diameter, the horse in that stall is most likely going to be seriously injured. If it spreads to 6′ in diameter, the horse’s lungs will be seared. Once the fire hits 8′, the horse will be suffocating and dead by the time the fire reaches 10′. It only takes two or three minutes for a stall fire to cover a 10′ diameter, which means that you have about 30 seconds to get a fire extinguished if you want to save your horses. What this all comes down to is that fire prevention is HUGE. If you catch someone smoking in your barn, around your shavings, near the stalls, close to your hay, or around anything flammable, you are well within your rights to boot their smoldering butts out the door and tell them that they are no longer welcome in your barn. If it goes to court for some reason, no judge in their right mind will fault you for that.
Snobby Tip #2: Learn to Talk to People
This is probably the hardest part of any job, and it’s especially awful for a lot of horse people. Equestrians are usually more inclined to be introverts, the same as artists and writers and musicians. We all go to the barn to hide from people, not to hang out with them. But as I am constantly being reminded whenever I try to hide from new faces appearing at the barn, “Horses don’t write checks. People write checks.” In a lot of facilities, this means that you are expected to dress professionally in polo shirts and breeches and boots, at the very least. Personally, I really don’t expect you to always dress professionally- a lot of this job involves manual labor and tee shirts are fabulous for that. However, I do expect you to behave like a decent human being. Here are some tips if you really need help.
Figure out how to communicate with people of all ages. If you can successfully communicate the same concept to a four year old and a forty year old, you’re on the right track.
Try to refrain from foul language. I know that’s hard if you get kicked or bit by a horse, but if a parent comes to pick up their child and the first thing that the child asks them is “Mommy, what does %#&^ mean?”, it may not be a great impression to make on the people who are paying you for your services.
Don’t get angry at your clients. In this case, clients means both your students and your horses. Anger is the most counterproductive emotion in the barn- learn to control it and to walk away when you can’t.
Learn to formulate a thoughtful explanations for everything you do. If you need a template, try this: “<Trainer 1> uses <Method 1> to achieve <Positive Results a, b, and c.> I am not a fan of <Method 1> because of <Drawbacks A, B, and C.> I prefer to use <Method 2> from <Trainer 2> because it produces <Positive Results d, e, and f>, but if it’s used improperly, it can produce <Drawbacks D,E and F>, so it still has to be used wisely.”
For goodness sake, if someone calls you to offer you business (asks for a lesson, wants to lease a horse, wants to come test ride a prospect horse, etc), be courteous enough to call them back and discuss options with them. I’m not saying that you have to do business with everyone that comes to you: sometimes there are people who show up that won’t make good clients or be good for your business (or for your mental health), and you can turn them away. But you still have to attempt to be polite about it.
Snobby Tip #3: Keep Studying
You cannot teach what you do not know. Obviously the best thing would be to learn from a master horseman/woman who knows absolutely everything about horses, but that’s probably not going to happen because no one can claim to know everything about horses. So take lessons from multiple teachers in multiple disciplines. If you don’t have access to teachers in multiple disciplines, find books about those disciplines and experiment on your own. It’s not a perfect substitute by any means, but it can provide a solid starting point for when you do find a teacher in that discipline. I would caution against relying too much on videos on the internet: Anyone can post anything on YouTube. Not every book is going to be great, but books have to be reviewed by an editor, a publisher, and possibly a review board of peers. Those measures will help to produce more reliable information. If you need somewhere to start, you’re always welcome to check out what’s in my library.
Bear in mind, when you are studying as a professional, you do need to research horsemanship techniques with the same serious, critical thinking that you would if you were a medical professional. When you go to a doctor with an issue, you hope that they will investigate your complaints further and rule out physical and psychological issues before they write you off as a hypochondriac. As equine professionals, we are often the doctors, physical therapists, coaches, dietitians, chiropractors, and therapists for our horses, and we bear all of the responsibility to care for them appropriately. We cannot care for them if we are using faulty knowledge. Dabble in all fields: ask your farrier exactly what they are doing and why, follow around a vet on horse calls for a while, and ask your equine dentist to let you feel inside the horse’s mouth when they float your horse’s teeth. Learn some biomechanics, some basic first aid, and take a psychology 101 class. If you wonder if the information you have is worthwhile, apply the CRAAP test. Everything you learn will influence the way you care for your horses, so make it good.
Snobby Tip #4: Cross Train
Whether you’re a teacher or a trainer, your basic goal is to produce athletes. To do that, it’s a good idea to be one yourself. You can learn a lot from studying in different disciplines: Western teaches agility and quick responses to the aids. Classical Dressage provides knowledge and practice of basic, healthy, riding fundamentals. Jumping gives you great balance and wicked strong leg and core muscles.
Cross training doesn’t just apply to riding in different disciplines. One of my favorite books (Centered Riding by Sally Swift) draws on T’ai Chi, Alexander Technique, and even Skiing. I draw constantly on my Voice Lessons, Dancing, Snowboarding, Fencing, Yoga, and even Archery. As riders and trainers, other hobbies help develop the discipline, balance, strength, and patience that is so often required for good horsemanship. As teachers, the more hobbies we study, the more we are able to connect with our students and explain challenging concepts.
Snobby Tip #5: Use Thoughtful Advertising
Often when I travel to visit family I find myself itching to ride a horse, and so I browse online to find an instructor. I learn a lot from the way people advertise their businesses, and I feel like it’s appropriate to pass some tips on.
Show Your Best Work. Number one, it’s a good idea to always try to do your best work. Then when people snap pictures or take videos without you realizing, you’re not ashamed. But also, remember that your website, page on Facebook, Twitter ID, whatever it is that you use most, acts like a portfolio. Essentially, you’re showing your work to potential employers and clients. Which actually makes me a little worried about this blog- I always worry that it’s just not up to snuff.
Brag Wisely. When you’re advertising, it’s the one place where modesty really doesn’t pay. However, not all bragging is equal. I am more inclined to ask for a lesson from someone that shows that they have certifications from well known organizations or have competed at national or international levels. It tells me that you’ve taken a lot of initiative to advance their career. Unfortunately, simply saying that you’ve been riding for twenty or thirty years doesn’t impress me much anymore: a lot of people in this industry were essentially born into it, so of course they’ve been riding for twenty years. The time you’ve been riding doesn’t matter as much as what you’ve been doing with that time. Show where you’ve been studying, what clinics you’ve been to, and most importantly, show that you’re always branching out and striving to become a better horseman/ horsewoman.
Use Pictures Showing Good Safety Practices. This is especially important if you’re advertising yourself as an instructor. Here are two pictures side by side (both are of me). If you were a parent looking for an instructor for your child, which would you be more drawn to?
I’m not happy with my weight in these pictures, but they help illustrate my point. The first one is a fun picture, but I’m actually still a little wary about posting it. The reason I am willing to post it is because a) it’s me, so there’s no copyright issues b) I’m over 18 and I signed a waiver, so legally no one else would suffer if I got hurt by taking a tumble off of this horse. But the first picture shows just about every unsafe practice- riding with a halter, side saddle with no saddle, no helmet, slippery skirt material… The only thing I have right is that I’m wearing close toed shoes. The second picture is much better for advertising lessons: my student is wearing protective headgear, closed toed shoes and long pants, she has a good fitting saddle, grab strap, reins, the horse is on a lunge line, and she has an instructor paying constant attention to what’s going on with her and the horse. Choose your pictures wisely.
Use Pictures Showing Good Form. I might be a snob for this, but I do judge people by the pictures they post of their riding. It doesn’t matter whether you’re riding English or Western, I do expect to see you using good form. If you’re riding Dressage or Western, I want to see that you have a nice plumb line from the ear to the shoulder to the hip to the heel. If you’re jumping, I want to see you with a nice, low center of gravity in your half seat and looking up and forward.
These pictures are from a while back and I was (and am) still learning, but I like to think that I was at least a competent rider at the time, so these can help illustrate some pretty common mistakes. The first picture is from about a year and a half ago, and I have two main qualms with my form: I have a case of chair seat and my arms are too stiff and too far forward, so my seat is too spread out to be centered and balanced. The second picture is from about a year ago, and in it I’m trying to circle to the left. There should be a straight line down my spine, down the center of the back of the saddle and the saddle pad, then down the horse’s spine. As it is, the centripetal force is pushing me to the outside of the circle, and I don’t have the strength or skill to resist it. Because of that, my balance is also throwing off the horse’s, so he won’t be able to form a balanced, soft, effective circle either. They’re just little things, but they’re things that experienced horsemen will see. Even if you’re not advertising to an experienced crowd, pictures that show good form are more aesthetically pleasing all around, so even an untrained eye will appreciate them more.
Be Precise. Be precise about what services you offer, what your prices are, what milestones you lay out for your students, what your facilities look like and the commodities you can provide for boarders, and what age groups and riding levels you are willing to teach. No client should have to search to find out if you teach lessons or what you charge for them. Have it in a nice, clean format, and you’ll be rewarded.
The last piece of advice I can give is the most basic: step back and evaluate yourself from the outside. If you were a client, would you be impressed?
Actually, I think the insanity started sometime in June or July, when Rabea and I first cleaned out the office. I feel like since then it’s been one thing after the other. Like there was that day that we pulled 350 bales (about 8.75 tons) out of the fields and stored it in every nook and cranny around the barn, then there was the day that I went with Amanda to take the First Aid/ CPR class (that woman is a baaaaaad influence when you’re trying to sit still and be respectful in a classroom), there was the day that Rabea and I cleaned everything out of the office and stuffed it in the wash bay to sort out later, then the day that I actually went and sorted all of it out, which was during the week that we just spent cleaning and organizing around the barn, including pressure washing half of the barn, and then the Halloween Fundraiser and the two weeks it took me to sew my costume ahead of time… none of this includes just the every day projects that we do around the barn or the lessons that we teach or the training that we do.
First 150-200 bales
Late night finish
It’s exhausting, but it makes me realize some stuff. 1) This is exactly what it takes to build and maintain a business. 2) Nothing gets done as fast as I want it to because it takes time and money and we can’t just throw things together because this is a business and so a lot of things have to be done right and not made up along the way (which is the way I usually handle things). 3) I don’t think that it’s really that things have been picking up (even though the frequency of lessons actually has because for some reason everyone starts taking lessons again once school starts up), but more because I’m actually getting involved and making more of an effort to help with the big projects instead of just cleaning the barn and riding horses and hoping that that frees up Amanda enough to magically make her big projects happen.
Basically, it’s been crazy, posting blogs has not been on the top of my list of priorities, and there’s no way to go back and review everything that has been happening, even though some really good stuff has been going on for several months.
But I can still talk about the last week or two.
So let’s start with the Halloween Fundraiser.
HES now has a non-profit side called Harmony Riding Academy. What we want to do is to provide equine therapy for veterans with PTSD or physical trauma (which is pretty much everyone- even the people who have only been in for a few years have arthritis in their knees or ankles or somewhere, and the ones who have been in for 15 years or so seem to all have herniated disks in their spines), family members who have been struggling with deployments, children with physical disabilities or mental or emotional issues… basically we want to help everyone with everything, because we all know horses are just that good. But the thing is that we need funding to a) pay for Amanda’s PATH certification so that she can do equine therapy lessons, and b) to pay for people to have equine therapy sessions. Insurance companies aren’t great at paying for therapy in the first place, and equine therapy doesn’t make their list of things to pay for at all. So we basically have to do it through bake sales and donations, and donations are slow. So we had our first fundraiser for the non-profit.
So what we did was we all dressed up in our Halloween costumes, dressed up the horses, got some hot dogs and drinks, and made our way to Tractor Supply, where we gave pony rides and “pictures with the unicorn” and sold drinks and hot dogs. Rabea looked fabulous as Snow White, Kelly handled the money, Beth handled the food, Amanda herded everyone around masterfully, and I just got horribly sunburnt. Two weeks later my chest is still itching from where it hasn’t quite healed all the way. But it was fun, we got some good pictures, and we know what we should and shouldn’t do for our next fundraiser. The hot dogs were our biggest mistake, because that’s where we lost money, but we still managed to break even over all. Here’s my favorite pictures, which we took afterwards.
Priceless. Snow White looks so freaked out by the unicorn slobber.
Rabea and Dazzle
So once that was all done, we all collapsed for a day or two and then it was on to the next thing: ARIA lesson videos.
I’m pretty sure that we triple booked that day, so we had a family of four kids coming out to take lessons, our riding team out to ride (and to use as guinea pigs for my certification videos), and we had the equine dentists drugging up horses. It was a really good day, and we got a lot done. My husband was kind enough to come and video one of the lessons, but he left right around the time that the dentists drugged up Sugar to remove a stray wolf tooth and to float her teeth. I think he was pretty weirded out by the dentists shoving their hands up inside of a horse’s mouth, not to mention that we let all of the students poke and squish her tongue as it was hanging out of her mouth. I know that sounds totally warped, but if you ever get the chance to put your hand inside a horse’s mouth and feel what the dentist is actually doing for your horse, take it. It’s very informative and cool. Once they were finished with Sugar, they were also kind enough to drug up Sassy and Little Joe so that we could treat them for various issues safely. After that, Amanda recorded my second lesson video, which went quite well. We finished around 2 pm, and that was plenty for one day.
The only problem was that the next morning I woke up, loaded videos onto the computer, and discovered something very unfortunate: one of them mixed up my video with old data from some trip a few years ago, and too much of the file was corrupted to use. So now I have to redo it, which irritating. It means that I have to delay signing up for my test date until I have my ducks all in a row again.
My last task for a while was spending two days altering Amanda’s dress for military ball. With that done, that means I can go back to the relatively quiet task of cleaning tack for a while.
So once again the issue of horse slaughter has come up, as it seems to do every few months or so. Under normal circumstances, it’s a subject I refuse to touch with a ten foot pole. As a matter of fact, it’s a subject that I purposely run away from whenever it presents itself because it is such an inherently ugly subject. The only reason I’m touching it this time is because when this article came up on my news feed-
-followed by this post-
they also came with questions. And because you asked, I must answer. Please bear in mind that I am not an investigative reporter, and so I have to work with what I can glean from the internet (which as we all know is a terribly reliable news source) and try to base things off of logic. Also, I am only one opinion, and while I’m talking about large groups having just one opinion, I am generalizing and obviously cannot speak for everyone who (figuratively) has a dog in this fight. And yes, I’m so wary of this subject that I have to put in a disclaimer that I don’t know everything and am not an authoritative source. It’s an ugly subject, and I’m trying to represent both sides with as much depth and fairness as possible. Just remember as you read: This is a blog, not an academic research inquiry, and I’m doing the best I can.
These questions were along the lines of “Why are they even considering this? Why would anyone do this? Can’t they come up with any other options?”
The first thing I’m going to say is that when it comes down to it, nobody wants to slaughter these horses. Yes, there are plenty of advocates of horse slaughter being brought back in the US for both domestic and wild horses, but even the most avid advocates for horse slaughter don’t wake up in the morning and say, “You know what would make this day perfect? Going out and killing some ponies.” If you have that kind of mentality, you have much bigger problems than horse slaughter and I would recommend starting with psychoanalysis and therapy to start sorting those out. Even if you are a stone cold career politician, being responsible for the slaughter of 44,000 horses is not a great resume builder. So whenever horse slaughter comes up and is followed by public outrage, I imagine that the people who would be responsible for the horse slaughter are relieved because then they can say “Due to public outrage, we cannot follow through with this decision.”
So if no one wants to be responsible for the slaughter of all of these horses, why does it keep coming up?
The main reason that the BLM has to consider it very seriously is that even when you’re not doing anything with them, horses cost money.
Bear in mind, this isn’t like picking up a new household pet, like a goldfish, where you spend thirty to a hundred bucks on a big fish tank and then buy a few dollars worth of fish food every few months. Horses take up a lot of space and need a lot of good food. If you don’t want to buy hay, one adult horse needs approximately three acres of good forage for grazing. I would prefer more, but three acres is the minimum. I want to say that a lot of the horses that they are talking about are in places like Nevada. Nevada is famous for two things: Las Vegas and being America’s Frying Pan. Where you may only need three acres in Pennsylvania or Ohio to feed a single horse, that amount of land could easily triple (or more) for an arid state like Nevada. If there’s not enough grass for the horses to graze on, then the BLM has to buy hay for them, and they may not have the budget or infrastructure to make sure that all of the horses get the food they need. On top of that, whatever land the BLM runs these horses on, they also have to try to maintain, which also costs money. Without the funds to back them, even wild horses suffer.
Even wild horses
have to be funded
The cattle industry is obviously going to advocate for horse slaughter because they want access to that BLM land to graze cattle on. The reason that the cattle industry wants access to the BLM land is because they can lease it for about a third of the cost of what it would take to lease private property. The BLM has to consider what the cattle industry is offering because a) right now no one is leasing that land, so the cost of maintenance isn’t even being covered b) cattle will usually be run on BLM land seasonally, so overgrazing isn’t nearly so much of a hazard c) cattle have stronger stomachs than horses (having four stomachs each really helps) and can eat some forage that horses usually avoid, so it’s more efficient use of the land, and of course, the most obvious of all reasons d) The cattle industry has a lot of money (I think my husband and his love for 72 oz steaks has contributed greatly to their wealth), and the BLM needs it.
Now, what may be surprising is how many people in the horse industry condone horse slaughter. Now, before you go wondering what is wrong with horse people, remember that every time we see these horses, we see our friends, our coworkers, and our partners. For the horse industry, it’s a socioeconomic issue, and unfortunately it’s one where the wild horses are most inclined to suffer.
Horses are like diamonds. They’re shiny, pretty, make girls happy, and the going price is greatly determined by supply and demand. The difference is that 85% of the diamond industry is controlled by De Beers; from mines to distribution. Because De Beers just about has a monopoly on the diamond industry, they can control the industry’s supply. Diamonds aren’t actually all that rare nor all that valuable; they’re essentially shiny pieces of pressure-cooked coal. (Even if we occasionally use them for industrial purposes, we pay the big bucks for a bunch of rocks because they’re shiny. That is the marvel of advertising.) The horse industry is NOT controlled by one body, which is great, because I think I would curl up and cry if the horse industry was controlled by one corporation. We need a lot of diversity in this business. But this means that we can’t control supply and demand, and right now, we have a lot of supply and not enough demand.
For the sake of brevity (and clarity), I’m going to break down horse breeding into three main categories: Registered Horses, Grade Horses, and Wild Horses.
Registered Horses are animals that have been bred within the restrictions and confines of a governing body or association. Probably the most common of the breeding associations in the US are the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) and the Jockey Club (which governs Thoroughbred breeding in the US). The main requirement for a horse to be a “Registered Horse” is that they are documented in the breed book, which means that they have paperwork showing the horse’s illustrious pedigree. There can be additional requirements, like the coloration of the horse (ex: Friesians), or requirements based on the horse’s conformation and capacity to reach a certain level of training by a certain age (ex: Trakehners and Holsteiners). Stereotypically, the way that you produce really nice registered horses is that you pay a stud fee, bring your expensive mare to a pretty expensive stable to meet a very expensive stallion and hope that they produce exceptionally expensive babies, and then you raise those expensive babies to become very expensive grown up horses who can make even more expensive babies. It doesn’t correlate exactly, but Registered Horses are about the equivalent of purebred dogs, just without so many genetic issues from severe inbreeding.
American Quarter Horse
Grade Horses are more like the mutts of the horse world. Now, they may be pure bred horses that the owner/breeder never bothered to register with the governing association, or they may have no specific breeding whatsoever. A lot of the time, these horses are “backyard bred.” Essentially, all that means is that two domestic horses got put in a pasture together and decided that they liked each other very much, and the owner walked out a little while later and discovered that the mare was pregnant and the stallion was looking very pleased with himself.
Wild Horses are, well, wild. The closest equivalent might be that they are like the dingoes of the horse world, where they can be domesticated and trained, but they’re generally considered feral and prefer not to have a whole lot to do with humans. Most of the wild horses that the BLM deals with are Mustangs, but there are some horses that just got turned loose because the owner couldn’t take care of them, and within a generation or two their offspring don’t have much desire to deal with humans either.
Now, in places like Germany, where breeding regulations are pretty strict, they are producing some really nice horses that go for a lot of money (I usually see them selling for approximately $30,000-$100,000, depending on the amount of training). We have Registered Horses in the US, but they often don’t sell for nearly so much. The problem that we have in the US is that the horse market is completely flooded with grade horses that have been backyard bred and that people are trying to sell because they can’t afford to take care of so many horses, and selling their excess animals is a way to make a quick buck. It used to be that you could sell a grade horse with minimal training (30-90 days, usually) for about $2,000. Now, I would say that you’re lucky to get $500-$1,000 for one of those horses, and it’s not necessarily that the quality of training has gone down, it’s just that everyone has a greenbroke, grade horse to sell, and no one is buying.
I wish that I could say that the increased supply of horses and the drop in prices means that more people are getting interested in horses and buying them and taking lessons and generally falling in love with horses again, but that’s just not really the case. The main reason is the same reason that the BLM is considering slaughtering so many wild horses, which is that horses are not cheap. Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that part of it is that you can’t sneak a horse into your dorm room when you go to college and expect to get away with it.
The reason I say that is because I tried to convince my mom to let me keep a horse in my closet when I was younger, and for some reason she didn’t fall for it. With the way that the US’s economy is right now, with the cost of living rising, and with increasing expectations for all of the things that people are supposed to do with their lives, I think a lot of people know that they can’t devote the time that a horse deserves, and they realize that it’s more cost effective to just buy a gaming system instead.
Do you see the problem? We did kind of shoot ourselves in the foot with all of the backyard breeding, but many horse people find themselves condoning and advocating for horse slaughter (of both domestic and wild horses) because since we cannot increase demand, all we can think to do is decrease supply.
Okay, whatever, that’s nice. Now we know why a bunch of people want to kill horses. But aren’t there other options besides horse slaughter? What about adoption? What about castration? Why aren’t those on the table?
Those options are on the table. The BLM is trying soooooooo hard to get these wild horses adopted. They will PAY you to adopt these horses and train them. For a while I was going to start doing this, but I ran into a few issues along the way. Number one was that it involved a surprising amount of paperwork. Some of this was to describe your capabilities as a humane horse trainer, some of it was to help develop a budget for how much it would cost for you to train and sell these horses, and some of it was to set your business up as a government contractor. Eventually, I chose not to do it at this time because a) I don’t own the land and facilities that would be required, and b) I am not confident enough in my own skill yet to set myself up as a business (ever tried thinking up a really good, original business name?), let alone to become a government contractor. If I find myself in a place where I can do it, will I do it someday? Heck yeah. But for some people, the reason to not adopt a Mustang doesn’t have to do with paperwork: it has to do with the Mustang.
Mustangs are almost notoriously hard to train. They’ve usually had very few positive interactions with humans, and it shows. Training horses can be hard enough, but training one that is legitimately wild takes a lot of time and patience, and not every horse trainer has those in spades. For example, trying to get a domestic horse into a trailer for the first time can be an extremely trying experience. The idea of getting a wild horse (who has never been so trapped before) to climb into a metal box on wheels kind of makes me cringe. Not a lot of trainers look forward to that. Many of the trainers who take on Mustangs do so as a way to test and show their training prowess. But most trainers out there will choose a cheap, grade horse who has had the chance at positive interactions with humans long before they take on a scared Mustang.
Okay, so what about castration? That’s a way to reduce the mustang population without slaughtering them all, right?
Yes, it is. As a matter of fact, we castrate a lot of domestic male horses because a) they’re easier to work with when you don’t have all that extra testosterone mucking things up, and b) you can keep them in a pasture with all of the mares without coming out one morning to find a new little life that you weren’t prepared for out there. But the reason that works is because we can regulate the fact that those geldings and mares are out in the field together and that there is not a stallion out there with them. That’s not really possible for the BLM, because even if they were to turn 90% of the males into geldings, the 10% who remained stallions would be perfectly happy to step up their game. So the population wouldn’t really be reduced: it’s just that the gene pool would be less varied.
If the BLM wanted to go with the castration route, what they would have to consider doing is castrating some of the mares as well as the stallions, which is how we’re able to keep so much of the dog population manageable, and it really is a great tactic to use when you want to reduce the population of stray dogs over time. There are two problems with that though.
1) The reason that you castrate both male and female stray dogs is because then the dogs are able to maintain control over their territories and keep other stray dogs from moving in. Horses aren’t territorial in the same way that dogs are though, so it sort of defeats the purpose.
2) When you castrate a mare, you greatly reduce the likelihood of her being adopted. Even though many trainers will choose a grade horse over a Mustang, there are still people out there who will adopt a mare for her breeding capacity. The foal will be much easier to work with because it will have had exposure to humans, and one thing Mustangs are valued for is their toughness. If I recall correctly, I think the US Cavalry (back in the day when they still used horses) used to cross breed Thoroughbreds and Mustangs. It gave the offspring the speed and athleticism of the Thoroughbred and the stamina and toughness of the Mustang. Apparently it was a pretty potent cross; one that I wouldn’t mind testing out one day.
One Final Thought
When you talk to some horse people about horse slaughter, they will specifically say that they are advocates for bringing back horse slaughter, specifically in the US. The reason for this is that some time ago, the sale of horse meat was banned in the US, and that effectively shut down most of the horse slaughter industry. Now, I totally appreciate why that ban was passed, because the idea of eating horse meat makes me want to cry and vomit all at once, and I’m pretty sure a lot of people feel the same way. The big reason that so many horse people want to bring horse slaughter back to the US is because horses are still being slaughtered: just not here. They’re being shipped across the border into Mexico to be slaughtered, and it’s not an easy trip. As often as not, the horses are neglected, starved, dehydrated, and abused by the time they reach a slaughter house in Mexico. The reason so many people want horse slaughter brought back to the US is so that it can be regulated, and as far as I’m concerned, you can regulate the crap out of it and I will be fine with that. Deciding to put down a horse, whether it’s domestic or wild, is an ugly decision to make. But many horse people want to know that if they have to make that call, that their horses won’t suffer, and that’s a fair thing to ask.
Not Good Enough? Here’s some more to get you started.
Consider donating- just type “Wild Mustang Donations” into Google and you can take your pick. However, bear in mind that some of the charities may not put donations directly toward the horses, so do your research and choose wisely.
JUST KEEP LOOKING for more information and learning everything you can
As you encounter more and more information, keep as open of a mind as possible and examine all the facts carefully.
I am not able to post any links directly to groups who advocate horse slaughter at this time because I cannot sort through all of the impossible and ugly websites out there to find the good ones. I apologize for the inconvenience.
Manners: The habit of treating everyone with respect. What we hope parents will instill in their children so that we don’t have to call in Nanny McFee. And the thing that we try to train into our horses so that someday when someone else rides them, no one has his/her face bitten off by an over-exuberant pony. And of course, even if you have never been around horses before, you may be able to guess what kinds of manners we like to teach our horses. No kicking or biting. Don’t step on my feet. Don’t eat the grass with a bit in your mouth. Please refrain from bucking me off. Do not pin your ears back at the horse next to you when we are working. Don’t bolt across the pasture with the small child on your back. When I’m leading you, do not take off in front of me and drag me along. Do not run me over to get at the grain bucket when I’m trying to feed you. Essentially, Say “Please” and “Thank You.”
But what happens when “Please” and “Thank You” just don’t quite cut it? More importantly, what happens when “Please” and “Thank You” don’t mean anything?
When I was in college, I had a roommate who I loved very much, and she was raised to be very polite. She said please and thank you for everything, which was great. The problem was that after a while I discovered something curious about her: “Please” and “Thank You” didn’t actually mean anything. They were just words coming out of her mouth. “Please” sometimes translated to “Give it to me now because I already expected to have it” and “Thank you” was just a hollow response. Now remember, I love this roommate dearly. But I think that because she had never wanted for anything in life, she didn’t really have any deep appreciation for what she was given. “Please” and “Thank You” were nothing but words, with no honest feeling behind them. Essentially, the manners that she had been taught were not much more than a learned response to a situation.
You remember Little Joe? Cute little pony, part halflinger, supposed to be a kid’s horse, still bucked me off four times in the course of an hour? He’s the sweetest little pony, and he has grown so much in such a short time that I am frequently boggled and astonished. But I struggled for quite a while with him to hold a conversation, and I think that it’s because when he was initially trained, he wasn’t trained to have a conversation with a person, he was trained to give a response. When he was trained, no one was listening to him, no one was paying attention to what he had to say about something. His discomfort didn’t matter: what mattered was that he obey right now, instantly.
For example, let’s talk about the Down Under method of lunging, which I am quite certain he was trained with. Here’s how it should have been working:
I guide him through a circle with a whip. When he’s ready to give me his full and undivided attention, he should turn in toward me and stop while facing me, allowing me to approach and give him love.
Here’s what was actually happening:
I started to guide him gently through a circle with a whip. He saw the whip, bolted across the round pen, nearly slipped and fell in the mud, almost crashed into the fence, and then suddenly froze and turned in, staring at me with nostrils flared and eyes wide. When I tried to approach him, he startled away from my hand and then froze again, thinking that if he moved he was going to be in trouble.
Do you see the problem? We’re getting the same response both ways: he stops and turns in. Either way, I guess you could say that I have his attention. But even though he was giving me the “correct” response, it was exactly what I DIDN’T want. He had been taught that his side of the conversation didn’t matter, and so he had essentially shut down and was falling back on a trained response: one that was useless and potentially dangerous to both of us.
I don’t want a response parroted back at me. I want to be able to hold a conversation.
As I started working with him, I found myself saying the same things over and over again: “He’s not a bad horse; he’s actually really sweet.” “He’s just scared of everything, it’s like he thinks everything is going to eat him.” “I feel like whoever trained him initially just trained him to have a specific response.” “It’s like he doesn’t know how to have a conversation with me; he just keeps doing what he thinks I want.” “I don’t think whoever trained him really ever listened to him and what he had to say.” And Amanda, being a good teacher, nodded and said, “You’re right. So what can you do as you work with him to start changing that?”
So I thought about it for a while and then went to work.
A little while later Amanda came back out to the barn after taking care of some business (which took her a good hour, probably), and saw me standing in a stall with Little Joe with the bridle and surcingle and side reins and halter on. Thinking that we had just finished lunging, she said “How did it go?” and then just sort of smiled when I explained that we hadn’t actually even gone to lunge yet: that I had just been in the stall with him for the last hour grooming him all over and flapping all of the jingly tack in a calm, rhythmic manner until I could see that he didn’t think that it was going to eat him anymore.
The next time I came back and we did that whole routine all over again, except that this time it went markedly quicker. He was starting to have more interest in what hay might be left behind in the stall than what jingly stuff I was swinging around. This time we went to the arena, and before we started lunging, we just walked around the arena together, practicing a method called “heeding” (which may be one of the best training techniques I have run across). For the first few times around the arena, he kept trying to dodge back behind me and hide away. I put him between me and the fence and made my goal to stay next to his shoulder. And then he stopped suddenly, thinking that I would keep walking and he could slip into his learned response of hiding behind me.
I stopped with him.
He looked at me, and I kid you not, I could see the wheels turning in his head as he considered what had just happened. He decided to experiment with this.
He started forward again.
I started with him.
After a few steps, he stopped suddenly again, this time just to see what I would do.
I stopped with him.
That was when it clicked for him, and it was incredible to see. I think for the first time he realized that I didn’t just want a learned response from him- I genuinely wanted to hear what he had to say. The fact that I took the time to respond to him instead of the other way around let him know that he had some power in this relationship too. And that led to an almost magical transformation.
Little Joe was no longer scared. His ears went forward, his breathing slowed, his steps became more fluid. He understood that we were just walking together and just talking and listening to each other. And that changed everything. No more trying to hide ten feet behind me. No more bolting away from the whip. No more senseless turning and freezing on the lunge line. No more acting like I was a demon trying to chase him down and eat him.
Now I grant you, it’s not a complete transformation. When he’s not quite sure what it is going on, he still tries to find the response that he thinks I want. He’s still a bit bothered by mounting practice, because that’s a time when we’re all still scary cougars trying to eat him. Honestly, I don’t ride him much because, ummm, I’ve gained a lot of weight, and I don’t want to break him. But he’s been developing in leaps and bounds.
So far, the crowning achievement came when one of our 4-H girls (Miss M) came out to ride Bonnie, who she has always loved more than any other horse. Because she’s small and light, I asked her to come help me with Little Joe. I had her catch him and groom him and get him ready to work, and she took her time and he was gentle and they were both listening really well to each other. So we went out to the arena together (supervised by Amanda), and we did some mounting practice. When Miss M got on, I started to lunge them, and this girl started to go through and do some different warm up exercises. Little Joe was a bit bothered by some of them, still thinking that her hands going toward his head meant that she was a cougar trying to jump on his face. But we all just walked and practiced, and after a little while, Joe calmed down. He stretched into the side reins. He started chewing on the bit. He started to enjoy having Miss M rub his neck and butt.
We were all ecstatic.
The next day Miss M came out again, and she was excited to work with Little Joe. So we did it all again. This time he was a little bit quicker to trust us to not eat him, and we were able to do a little more, like trot on the lunge line and start introducing some leg aids. After 45 minutes we stopped (I was running out of new ideas), and Miss M said “Are we done already? I don’t want to be done!” Bear in mind that it’s about a hundred degrees down here, and 45 minutes on a horse in the Louisiana sun is usually more than enough to drive us all to giving the horse a break.
So I took her off the lunge line.
Now in case you think that I’m an irresponsible teacher, I did NOT take them off the lunge line and then just leave a student with a training horse while I went off to eat ice cream or something. I stayed with them, I walked with them, and I told Miss M that she probably should just practice walk and halt transitions off the lunge line (no trotting or cantering today!), and I gave her some advice as they made their way around the arena.
THEY. ROCKED. IT. Now Miss M doesn’t even want to ride Bonnie anymore: she just wants to ride Little Joe.
Amanda came to watch and said (and I’m treasuring this, by the way) “I’m not sure who to be the most proud of: You, Miss M, or Little Joe.”
Honestly though, I don’t feel like I can even take credit for everything that has happened (Which is obviously why I wrote a full blog post talking about all the great things I did). The only thing I did was open up a possibility for Little Joe, which is that he is being heard.
So for the last month or two it has been kind of hectic because of trips that my husband and I have taken and will be taking still. So my time with the horses has been somewhat limited, and I’m afraid that in some ways it shows as I continue to try to work with both Little Joe and Sugar.
Little Joe is doing marvelously. He’s sensitive and sweet and gentle and willing, and when you take the time to have a conversation with him, he learns so quickly what you want and is eager to please. I have another post all about him in the works which is just awaiting more pictures (because I rarely have my phone on me when I’m picking up horse poop or riding, and I never remember to take pictures anyhow), so more about him later. Today we’re talking about Sugar.
Sugar is well and truly my Achilles Heel right now. There are some things she does that really irritate me, the chief of which is that a) she tends to be spastic when she’s excited or nervous, and b) she has a really bad habit of getting into my personal space, and since she weighs 900 pounds more than me, I am not a great fan of that bundle of spastic energy stepping all over me.
My first instinct is to assume that she’s purposely being disrespectful and naughty when she’s not listening or when she runs me over with her shoulder or butt. And that train of thought really bit me in the butt last week, because I lost control over my own emotions. Amanda had to pull me out of the stall and go in to work with Sugar instead, because both Sugar and I were too frustrated and confused to get anything done, particularly done right. I was on the verge of tears, because when it came down to it, I KNEW that it wasn’t Sugar’s fault: I KNEW it was because I wasn’t communicating with her the way that she needed. I made assumptions about her that were completely incorrect, and it was unfair to her and useless to me.
Assumption 1: Sugar is already trained and ready for work.
Yeah, that was a dumb assumption to make. Just because Amanda had worked with her for a few weeks a few years ago does not mean that she’s a finished dressage pony who is ready to go ride in the Olympics. ‘Nuff said.
Assumption 2: When Sugar gets into my space, it’s because she’s being deliberately disrespectful, and she needs to be put in her place.
Massive fail on my part. Sugar is actually not trying to be disrespectful at all. She has the approximate personality of an extremely friendly (and slightly drunk) sorority girl: She’s very friendly and curious and really wants to be with people, and she has no inhibitions about showing it. She essentially wants to be cuddled and loved on as much as possible. She loves to be groomed, pet, fed treats… essentially, she would have been a great lapdog in another life. That’s actually great for a lesson horse, but it means that I do have to set some boundaries because I am physically incapable of cuddling a thousand pounds of horsey goodness, however much I may want to.
Assumption 3: When Sugar gets loud and spastic, it’s because she’s trying to dominate me.
Actually, no, and I am okay with giving myself a break for not figuring this one out faster, because I don’t think I’ve ever really encountered this before. Sugar gets loud with her body language when she’s nervous or excited. Generally when a horse is nervous, they go into fight or flight (or freeze). I was pretty sure it wasn’t flight, because I know exactly what flight looks like, and it wasn’t freezing, so that meant that it HAD to be Fight.
Not so much.
Picture this. Sugar has the personality of a very friendly frat girl with no inhibitions about personal space. When she’s feeling calm you can set some boundaries with her about personal space and she really works hard to respect those boundaries.
Now take that frat girl and put her in a haunted house and imagine exactly what her reaction will be. (Hint: A lot of people have it. Except for me. I walk out in front of the group, straight through the horrors, and leave my husband to the killer clowns. I may not be the best wife in the world.)
Sugar doesn’t really have fight or flight reactions to stressful situations, at least not the way that I expect. Instead she goes into what I can only call “‘Save Me Mommy!’ Mode.” She loves people so much that she already trusts them to protect her when she’s scared. Honestly, that should be a gift for a trainer, because that means that when she does something for you, she doesn’t do it because she’s afraid that she’s going to get in trouble: she does it because she loves you and wants to please you.
Assumption 4: When Sugar gets loud, I have to be louder still to talk over her.
I guess any grade school teacher near the end of the school year can tell you that that’s not always the most effective thing. Sometimes, yes, I think it is, but the more frequently you yell to be heard above everyone else, the more likely you are to be ignored, especially when the person you’re talking to is either a) a really excited kindergartner who is seeing the class pet for the first time, or b) a thousand pound animal who is wondering why the arena looks different because you chopped down some low hanging branches so that students didn’t get whacked in the face anymore. Sometimes it’s more effective to let your student explore the source of their excitement and let them come back to pay attention to you when they’re ready again.
Also, we want to be as quietly effective with our riding as possible, because if you have to “scream” at a horse to get them to walk forward, you’re gonna get really tired really fast.
So after Amanda sat down with me and essentially told me that I needed to get my act together if I wanted to make any progress with Sugar, she then gave me a reason to put in the effort. Essentially, it went something like this, “If you really want to train in the horse industry, you’re going to run across a lot of mares that are way pushier than Sugar, and you know why? Because those are the horses that are hard to train, and people can’t do it themselves, so they’ll bring them to you to fix.”
The problem is that I do want to be a trainer, and there’s no way around that argument. So we did one work session on the lunge line (which was totally terrifying for Sugar, and she really, really wanted hugs from Amanda the whole time because she had no idea what was going on), and then I went home for the weekend to ponder, get my head on straight, and come up with a game plan for how to approach Sugar. Here’s about what I came up with:
Lower your expectations. You’ve been asking too much of her.
Be okay with setting your boundaries about personal space.
After you reprimand her for something naughty (aka, knocking you into a wall with her butt), be done reprimanding her. Go back to being quiet and working on the next thing so that you don’t get locked in an angry cycle.
Use her friendliness to your advantage. Every time she does something well, give her love and scratches and tell her she’s a good girl, because she responds to that positive reinforcement very well.
When she’s curious or distracted by something, consider letting her investigate. That doesn’t mean letting her put absolutely everything in her mouth like a two year old (Saddles are too expensive to be chew toys), but let her investigate on her own terms. When she’s done, let her bring her focus back to you, and you can go back to working quietly together.
A lot of these things probably would be easier for me if it was some other horse who I communicate more naturally with, but none of this comes easily for me with Sugar. So when I came back on Monday we went into a stall and we just practiced things that most people take for granted. Walk together. Stop. Back up. Turn away. Walk together. Turn towards me. Stop. Back up. Start thinking about moving away from pressure instead of coming in toward it. As soon as she moves away from my finger, release. Praise, praise, praise.
Tuesday, we came back to the stall and did it all again, and I discovered something: Sugar is a fast learner. If you show her how to do something, she remembers. So we got a little more complex. Walk together. Stop and back. Walk together. Turn on the haunches away from me. Turn on the forehand. Bend away from my pressure on your shoulder. Back and turn all at once. I was able to start mixing some signals together for more complex commands, and after a little bit of initial confusion, she picked up on it. So we went out to the arena to try it all again, just to challenge ourselves with new surroundings. Perfect.
I had an appointment on Wednesday, so Thursday we came back and started it all again. And she was so quick to listen and to communicate with me that day that we ran through everything within ten minutes, and I was delighted. So I groomed and saddled and we went to ride.
It was a downright miraculous ride. We were both quiet and listening to each other. She was relaxed and willing, and oh so soft and supple. I was able to communicate without hardly any use of the reins. There was no bracing on my aids, no running off in confusion. We could set a quiet rhythm in the walk and the trot without discomfort, and do it all through seat and legs. She was stretching for contact with my hands and chewing cheerfully on the bit. It was such a good ride that when Amanda came back down to the house and saw us working, she stopped and said “If you stopped right now with that beautiful stretch, I would be tickled to death.” and I was able to look at her and say, “She has already exceeded my expectations for today. This stretch is just a bonus.” So we went back to the barn, I gave Sugar a bath and kisses (Amanda gave Sugar treats, which she never does), and I was totally euphoric for the rest of the day.
What astounded me was that it only took three days to reach that point. Three days of quiet consistency, even though Sugar is not a horse that I naturally work well with. Three days of just managing my own emotions. Three days of making it my priority to communicate with her, to have a conversation with her. I thought it would take months for me to get to that point with Sugar, simply because of my own issues and limitations. But there it was. The surprisingly perfect ride.
Now, it may be that the next time we go to work together, we slip back to just having to do some work in the stall again. One step forward, two steps back, and all that. Right now, I’m figuring out that I’m pretty much okay with that. The world is a much more pleasant place when you forgive yourself for not making the perfect progress toward the perfect goal. Turns out, Sugar does better when we only take things one day at a time and when we only work on that day’s needs. Frankly, so do I.
The bruise that is already beginning on my ankle may suggest otherwise.
Meet Little Joe, who is some kind of a haflinger pony cross. At 12 or 13 hands, he is actually pretty stinkin’ sweet and adorable. He is also the first horse at Harmony Equestrian Services who has managed to toss me onto the ground. And honestly, he did a marvelous job of it. I’ve been here for a little over a year now, and until today, I’ve managed to avoid letting gravity take its toll. Little Joe decided to give gravity that little extra edge. He managed to toss me today not once, not twice, but FOUR times, with a little step on top of me for toss number three.
Now, to be fair, I had several things working against me today.
I haven’t ridden a pony in YEARS. I think it’s been about twelve or thirteen years since I bounced around on top of Pete the Pony.
I didn’t saddle him because I’m not entirely certain how well any of my saddles would fit him (even though measuring at 16.5″, my english saddles are almost considered kid saddles). Also, it’s hot and I was feeling lazy. And I really miss riding bareback.
I haven’t ridden bareback in a few months either.
I’m not entirely certain how long it’s been since Little Joe has actively been ridden.
I don’t care what people say, just because ponies are smaller does NOT make them easier to ride.
You know what’s so sick and twisted about this? Even though Little Joe ran out from underneath me and bucked me off at least twice and stepped on me once (this had better turn into a really awesome bruise!), I’m really not fussed about it. Matter of fact, I’m actually pretty happy. The reason for this bizarre response? We made progress. And by progress, I think what I really mean is “it was a good learning process.”
Little Joe tossed me off twice before I managed to even sit on him. I had to go back and just lean my weight over the top of him and pat him while he turned his face and investigated my face and butt. Then I stood on top of the mounting block and just put one leg over the top of him and let him investigate that (fortunately he’s small enough that I can do that). Then I slid very gently on top of him, waited a few seconds for him to buck, and then gently squeezed to see if we could make our way around the arena.
Turns out, when I asked him to walk, I may have been moving too fast, because it wasn’t long before I made friends with the ground again. So back we went to the mounting block, and we started all over. Lean on top, slide my leg over, keep patting until he calms down, then slip on top of him. This time I waited and let him decide when to walk.
That was better, but it turns out, you have to be really careful with how you balance on him, and my attempt to ride him on a long, comfortable rein seems to have backfired. Apparently thinking that a loose rein means “let’s go faster,” he started trotting off, whereupon I lost my balance. Little Joe then spotted the jump that was still set up, decided that it was going to eat him, and I ended up kissing dirt again.
So we went back to the beginning, all over again. Lean on top of him, pat him. Slide a leg over, pat him. Slide my body on top of him, pat him. Let him decide when to start moving. Don’t use loopy reins; tighten them and use some contact. Rejoice to yourself when he doesn’t stick his head up in the air and start freaking out. Try to have a nice, soft holding seat. Be very careful with your balance. Let him choose the direction. Occasionally, suggest moving a different way. Let him investigate the jump and decide whether or not it’s carnivorous. Then after about ten minutes of successful riding when you see that he’s starting to breathe hard (I don’t exactly weigh 40 lbs you know), ask him to stop somewhere else than at the gate. Discover that stopping isn’t his strong suit. Practice it another time or two. When you stop and he holds for about two seconds, swing off of him.
Praise profusely and bring him back to the barn for some after-ride loving.
The experience really kind of makes me question myself a little bit though. Like, why am I so pleased after having what should qualify as a crappy ride? Amanda has been accusing me lately of being a disciplinarian: After all of my talk in my last post about how I draw the line on behavior that could get people hurt, why wasn’t I doing more to discipline Little Joe when he bucked me off? Why am I not all that bothered or angry about being tossed so much? Did I really handle it the way I should have? And for goodness sake, why am I so lenient with Little Joe when I’m a disciplinarian with Sugar?
Well, I guess I have some answers for some of those. I guess I’m happy with my ride today because we made progress. Rather than getting more and more frustrated every time I fell, I chose to take it as a sign that we needed to go back to the beginning and go a little slower. I could see that Little Joe was nervous and maybe a little overwhelmed by everything (although judging by the four falls, I might still be pretty slow on the uptake). I think punishing him wouldn’t have discouraged the bucking; I think it would have frightened him even more. I wanted for him to be able to trust me. I guess my first priority was to try to help him feel secure enough that maybe learning could happen. I grant you, that learning seems to have been “how to let someone sit on top of you” and “how to walk around the arena without a carnivorous jump eating you.” But we found little solutions that made it possible to continue working. As small as it was, it was progress, and I’m delighted.
Of course, there remains one final question that I have no answer for. I am willing to be lenient and open with the nervous Little Joe, but I am still too much of a disciplinarian with the outspoken Sugar. Why is that? And how do I change it?
Not just because I haven’t written any blog posts for the last two months or something (I have about 4 or 5 blog posts that I’m working on). I made a big boo-boo working with horses this month.
So let’s start at the beginning (ish).
Batman is gone. He’s now at Miss Amanda’s mom’s place enjoying the good grass and piles of donuts. This makes it infinitely more convenient for Miss Hannah to actually spend time with her horse. I think she feels bad for “taking him away from me,” but honestly, I’m very okay with it. I mean, Batman is her horse. It’s only fair that she should have the opportunity to ride her horse more than I do. I had my fun, I learned a lot, now it’s time for him to enjoy his time with someone who will spoil him rotten. At this point, I feel like he’s pretty well earned it.
Dazzle also went out to Amanda’s mom’s place, as she’s been having some recurring strained muscles. We’re hoping a few months of good pasture rest will help her recover, because otherwise we will have to have her in a stall for a few months without any turnout time, and we don’t want that. So Amanda brought back one of her mom’s horses to fill Dazzle’s slot as a lesson horse, and she looked at me and said “It’s your responsibility to get her ready to go into lessons.”
I’ve been noticing a pattern. When Amanda “gives” me a horse to work with it usually has very little to do with my skill as a rider or as a trainer. I think it has more to do with the fact that Amanda has figured out that if she lets me think that I am training a horse instead of the other way around, I tend to work harder and learn more. Essentially, she’s using my arrogance against me and letting the horse prepare me to listen to her instructions. I think she knows that in the long run it will save her time and energy. Sneaky Amanda.
World, meet Sugar.
Sugar is a new type of experience for me. I feel like I’ve progressed enough with my work with Einstein and Batman to be able to start Sugar on her training journey, but considering the pattern that seems to be developing with Amanda giving me horses, I’m starting to think I may be deluding myself again. But I do have to draw on a different set of skills with her than I did with Batman and Einstein, simply because her physiology and psychology are a little bit different. She’s pretty decently balanced, she has a nice strong back, and she really does want to please. But she’s still pretty young in her training, she has very little sense of personal space, and she is FAT. She has fat deposits in places I never would have suspected. Like above her eyes. That was both endearing and bizarre.
Amanda had worked with her for about two weeks a few years ago, and so she told me that Sugar just needed some consistent work before she went into lessons. And so I thought to myself “Alright, she seems to be a pretty sweet girl, and Amanda did some work with her, so this should be pretty quick, easy work.”
That was mistake number one.
My first day working with her was… unpleasant. I had gone out to do some ground work with her, just to get her moving and listening. Probably because I didn’t have any treats on me (she is on a strict diet right now– NO TREATS!), she decided that she wasn’t going to do either. She went over to the gate, turned her nose to the barn, and no matter how much I tried to get her attention, she turned her butt to me and ignored me.
Was it particularly malicious? Not really. But it was rude, and I don’t like being ignored. If she’s ignoring me (and I’m not easy to ignore when I want attention), I didn’t think the odds of her listening to a timid little kid were going to be great either. So we spent that work session having a “Come to Jesus” sort of discussion, where I laid out my expectations and my boundaries and she discovered that I was serious. By the by, I hate having work sessions like that. They’re exhausting and emotionally upsetting. To her credit, after that she really got her act together. She no longer stood in the corner and said “Screw you:” she became more of a “Yes, ma’am” sort of horse.
Mistake number two: When she had clearly corrected her attitude problem, I failed to correct mine.
The next time I went to work her, I came prepared to have another “Come to Jesus” session, even though there was no reason to be so belligerent. And then I made mistake number three, where I left her alone in a stall without being tied up and with my saddle perched on top. I came back and found her down on the ground, preparing to roll on my saddle. And I got mad.
So we went out, and I continued on to make mistake number four: I let my emotions get the better of me. This led to mistake number five, where I pushed her too hard and asked for too much. She doesn’t really have much of an idea about what to do with leg aids yet, but I was demanding that she work like a Grand Prix pony (I’m exaggerating a little bit: it was more like level two) when she wasn’t even ready for training level work. And Amanda came out and watched the way I was riding and said very kindly “Why don’t you ride her like a western pleasure horse?”
A few days later I returned to work with her again, having had enough time to mull over my decisions and feel properly ashamed of myself. I went to Amanda and declared that I had really screwed up. And Amanda, knowing that I was now in a place to listen, said “Yeah, you really did. These are all of the ways you screwed up, and here’s some ideas about how to fix it. Now what are you going to do?” And I hung my head in shame and decided that it was time to start all over again and do it right this time.
One of my greatest failures with this whole experience was my perception of my role as a teacher and a trainer. I fell into the trap of thinking that my job was to lay down the law and to discipline the horse into proper behavior. But here’s the thing about discipline: it has very little to do with the teacher or the trainer. It has everything to do with the student.
The word “Discipline” actually comes from the Greek word “Disculpulos,” which means student. That should be a reminder that discipline is not meant to be a teacher punishing a student. Discipline is about the student choosing to take steps in their education. Once we realize that, it should open us all up to greater possibilities.
So what is my role as a trainer?
Well, yes, trainers should and do set some boundaries that are non-negotiable. For me, I think of these boundaries as societal rules that are specifically meant to keep the horse and rider safe. For example, I ask that Sugar doesn’t turn her butt to me and ignore me, because if that behavior continues and someone startles her, that puts her in a perfect place to kick someone. I don’t let a horse get too much into my space because I don’t want to get stepped on or run over (it happens more frequently than I’d like). I tell a horse that putting their teeth on me (“but it was just a love bite!”) is not okay. And I set out the same rules for riders that I do for horses. I ask riders to be conscientious of the horse’s personal space and state of mind. I ask that riders wait to give treats until after the horse has finished working because I don’t want the horses to think that humans are treat machines and start biting.
Those are the points where I put my foot down. But outside of that… my role is never to dominate the horse. I am not producing a machine or a slave to do my bidding. Just like how Amanda lets me experiment until I figure out what I’m doing, my job is to do the same for the horses. My job is to train a partner in crime and to open up a world of possibilities for the horse.
Half of my goal is to encourage good behavior and teach proper manners. Horses respond very well to positive reinforcement. This can be a “good boy!” or a pat on the neck or a break from a difficult exercise. Horses are great at leaving the negative behind them and taking the positive with them. Give them lots of positive to work with. You’ll see great results that way.
The other half of my goal is to help develop a horse athletically. This includes things like moving off of aids correctly, and it’s a slow process. Trying to rush it is counterproductive. You cannot demand half passes from a horse before the horse has learned how to walk in a straight line. All you’ll do is confuse the horse. Probably the best thing that you can do is to provide the clearest aids possible and then simply give the horse time to figure out what they mean. When they catch on, reward away! Don’t punish for failure. That horse is probably trying as hard as it can, and punishment will only lead to confusion. Just be patient and provide the horse with possibilities.
I’m pleased to say I seem to be making progress on that front again. Sugar and I have had pretty successful rides since. I think yesterday was the day that it clicked for her that I keep coming back. She’s quick and eager to please. I’m looking forward to seeing where we can go from here.
A few weeks ago my husband brought home a coffee table that he bought for $20 at the thrift shop. It was a bit broken down and wobbly, but the bones were good, and I think he thought it would be a good woodworking project for me.
My husband, bless him, seemed to think that I was just going to sand down the top and maybe glue some fresh pieces of wood wherever they seemed to be needed. It was a rainy, soggy, nasty week and I didn’t think I could do a lot to help in the barn. So I took measurements, ripped apart the table, took more measurements, went to town to buy a sander, new wood, screws, and all kinds of other junk, and I set to work.
I spent a few days working on it, cutting out the mis-matched lattices, sanding and reinforcing the frame, and gluing together my nice new wood for the top and the shelf. And then once it was all reassembled (to prevent myself from going completely insane), I set it in the living room and left it.
Fast forward a few weeks, and I’m happily continuing to study for the ARIA certification and compiling a list of riding exercises, and over the course of a few days my husband keeps “hinting” that I should finish working on the coffee table. So since it was a little bit drizzly the last few days, I buckled down and did just that. I pulled it all apart again and sanded and cleaned and pre-stained and stained and cleaned it some more before I reassembled it all over again.
I won’t go into the intricacies of what went into fumbling my way through it, like the fact that the $150 budget that I was planning to spend on my own breeches (that fit correctly) all got spent on this project, or how I ended up using three different stains instead of the one that I had planned on. Is it perfect? Since I know (and created) most of its flaws, the answer is obviously no. But it’s sturdier, it’s all real wood (not the particle board that the original top was made out of), it’s an okay color (even if the top does look a little pink in some lights), and it’s totally serviceable. The biggest downside is that I had to bring it in almost right after the stain dried, so now I’m getting a headache from the leftover fumes.
Happy (early) Anniversary, Honey. Enjoy your smelly present. Now we can stare at Netflix while eating dinner with style.
… Now can I please go back to cleaning horse poop and playing with ponies?
And now, Dear Readers, let us delve deep into the world of biomechanics.
Actually, not that deep. Usually I find myself shying away from subjects like this, because as important as they are to good riding, if I don’t have a degree or certification or some kind of formal education about a subject like this, I feel less than qualified to write about it. I think to truly understand it well I would need a degree in sports medicine and a subscription to a couple of medical journals. As it is, I have neither of those things, and my knowledge consists of what tidbits of research I’ve been picking up along the way, my making logical guesses as to how it all connects. It’s a bit like gluing together pieces of a broken vase and hoping that when you’re done that it holds water. Messy and substandard as my knowledge is though, I’m still going to give it a shot.
Since the pelvis is literally at the center of your body, having a healthy and properly aligned pelvis can be a key factor in maintaining body conditioning for any activity. Personally, I notice that when my pelvis isn’t nicely aligned I tend to have pain in my lower back and in my knees, particularly when I try to run. Just for kicks and giggles, take a look at this advertisement for a Japanese Pelvic Alignment Belt.
I can’t vouch for accuracy because if you look closely you may notice that they misspelled “constipation” in their first draft. Besides, it’s an advertisement. The goal is to sell a product, not provide accurate information. Still, I think it’s an entertaining sales tactic.
For horseback riding, ideally we need to be balanced on our seat bones (or “butt spears,” as my brother-in-law has ever so lovingly dubbed them) without tipping forward onto the pubic area or back onto the tailbone. The seat bones are essentially supposed to be our center of balance when we’re on a horse. If we tip forward or backward, our balance essentially becomes stuck, throwing off the horse’s balance as well. One of the better images I’ve come across in my research is to think of your pelvis as a bucket of water. In order to not spill, that bucket must be balanced vertically. If we sit with our pelvis tipped forward or backward, the bucket will spill. The same goes for when we cock our hips side to side, but I can only focus on the front to back aspect today. We’ll play with lateral balance some other day.
In a lot of ways, it sounds pretty simple. The problem is that there is a lot that goes into having a vertically aligned pelvis because so many muscles play into the way our pelvis sits. There are at least four major muscle groups that all pull on the pelvis, and if any one of them is tighter, stronger, looser, or weaker than the others, the pelvis gets tipped.
There are all kinds of fancy names for different kinds of pelvic alignment and issues, but for the moment I’m mostly concerned with Anterior Tilt and Posterior Tilt (aka, tipping forward and tipping backward), as these are the ones that we see most commonly in the horse world. This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but these posture issues look something like this.
Personally, I struggle with Anterior Tilt because I have very strong quads, a tight lower back, and super weak hamstrings. I think my abdominal muscles are getting stronger (finally!), but my next step is to balance it out with some hamstring strength. I feel like a great many women are inclined to have an Anterior Tilt to their pelvis, which I occasionally refer to as “Ghetto Booty,” where we tend to stick out our butts to make it look more fabulous than it really is. In terms of the mold behind this, I blame high heels. Even if you don’t wear heels, odds are you see enough women who do that unconsciously you may pick up on the posture and mimic it. In my case, it’s because a) sometimes I love to wear a sweet pair of high heels and b) because I think that if I stick my butt out it will help hide how thick my thighs are.
The opposite issue is the Posterior Tilt, which I occasionally think of as “Saggy Pants Syndrome” or “Gamer’s Seat.” Most of the time I see this it’s in teenagers or preteens who probably sit in front of the television playing video games. Of course, this can come from anything where you sit hunched forward for long periods of time, but the only things I can think of that keep me entertained long enough to sit in that pose is playing video games or watching TV. You may also see this in boys who wear their pants low enough to show off their underwear (and yes, I know I sound like an old, unfashionable grump). Since the point of the hip and the butt aren’t being used to hold up the pants, one way to keep them up while walking is to slouch back so that your thighs prevent gravity from taking its toll. The other way as well as walking with a massive side to side swagger, which is murder on your hip joints. However, I’m not saying that Posterior Tilt is limited to teenage boys. You may also see a version of Posterior Tilt in women who are well endowed because the instinct is to try to disguise the size of the chest.
If you find that you have either of these, that doesn’t mean that you will never be a good rider or a strong athlete. For the most part, having a tilted pelvis is just a posture issue, and can be remedied by simply being conscientious of your body and constantly practicing good posture.
I find that probably the biggest part of having good posture is engaging your core. There’s a fairly significant gap between the base of the rib cage and the top of the pelvis, with only the spine connecting the two. Rather than demanding that only your spine hold you up (the spine is supposed to be flexible!) or relying on only one or two sets of muscles and straining them (hurrah for back pain), use all of your core muscles. That doesn’t mean just your abs: engage your abs, obliques, and your back. It becomes almost a circular wall of support, taking the stress off of your spine. If you need some practice finding the feeling, here are two poses that may be worth trying.
This is one of the basic yoga poses, and I find that when I’m talked through it, it’s a great exercise to help me ground myself down through my heels and really stretch out through my back and up through my head. This is a good way to practice good standing posture.
This is one borrowed from Martial Arts. Bear in mind, this is not a squat! With a squat, the butt sinks out behind the feet. Horse Stance demands that the heels be in line with the hips. If you need practice getting your feet under you, try standing with your back and heels pushed against a wall. This wide stance encourages an open chest, a strong core, a properly placed pelvis, and centered gravity.
The core strength and the properly aligned pelvis are critical to having proper balance on the horse. The wild card is the Iliopsoas muscle group.
I talked about this before in this post. When these muscles are tight, they pull our legs up to our chests, and vice versa. What I have gathered is that even though the iliopsoas is so important and does so much work, for many of us it’s actually relatively weak because most of us don’t use its full range of motion. When we sit and when we sleep and when we do a great many exercises, many of us usually keep our hips around a 90 degree angle, which seems to be the psoas’ favorite resting place. This is what gives us riders “chair seat.”
While we all praise crunches and sit ups as being wonderful for building up your abs, it’s sort of terrible for your iliopsoas. As you bring your torso up to your knees, you are shortening and tightening those muscles. You would think it would make it stronger, but I don’t think it really is. For good riding, running hurdles, doing gymnastics, dance, rock climbing, or many other activities, we need our psoas to be strong, and more importantly, flexible. We need it to be very limber to allow us full freedom of movement. Probably the best example of a beautifully limber psoas is the backbend. Take a look at these two pictures and guess which one displays a flexible, strong psoas.
While both of these images kind of freak me out (He’s sticking his head between his feet backwards!) and I don’t think I’m at a place where I can safely perform any version of a back bend without having to be taken to the hospital afterwards, I will say this: As much as I admire the lady in the second picture for her strength, she really doesn’t display a flexible psoas.
If you google “iliopsoas stretches” or “psoas exercises,” there’s not really a lot that comes up. Two of the main articles that I found are here and here. It may be that when you start, you just can’t stretch all that far. And that is just fine. Be patient with your body. As you practice, it will get better.
As you recognize many of the patterns in these poses and stretches, you may want to look up “hip flexor stretches” and browse for similar stretches that may work for you. But the remainder of this post I have decided to turn into a compilation of stretches and poses aimed at opening up the psoas muscle, developing core strength, or both. I hope that you enjoy.
This one is a good beginning stretch. The trick is to keep your resting leg still and your hips even.
These three are all variations on the runner’s lunge or crescent pose. I also ran across pictures of people placing their hind foot on a raised area like a chair for increased difficulty. This is one of my favorite stretches so far, because it’s the only one that I have managed to truly sink in to the stretch. It makes me feel very accomplished.
I can’t do the second one of these. I want to say that it’s some variation on Warrior Pose, but I am not a Yogi, so I can’t be sure.
These three all seem to be back bend related. Camel pose is plenty challenging for me right now.
Sphinx Pose and Cobra Pose are both good preparatory poses leading up to Upward Dog, which requires a lot of core strength.
Pigeon pose is one of the most marvelous stretches ever, and there’s a variation which can be done on a horse. It feels amazing after a tough riding lesson.
I haven’t tried this one yet, but it looks very interesting. I imagine that this would also be useful for strengthening quad and hamstring muscles.
And just for extra credit, there’s this guy, doing all kinds of hip flexor stretches.