Saturday, December 7, 2019

Natural Horsemanship: Transitioning to A Trauma Informed Approach

For nearly seven years we have been conducting weekly programming in conjunction with the local Veterans Hospital at no charge. We have monthly programming with Mid-Atlantic Teen Challenge, a substance abuse program for teens. Our program has been on the forefront of using horses to teach better communication techniques to professionals who interact with severely traumatized people. These sessions have included everything from law enforcement to social workers, to teachers, to victim witness coordinators, to prosecutors, and parents. Ashley Edwards has conducted powerful Road To Repair programs on site.

If you are new to our program go to our website  and look under the tab "News" for some good back ground on how we have grown.

We have provided off site training programs to law enforcement professionals. This blog and our group Facebook page have often highlighted or provided links to important information on trauma and natural horsemanship. We do not have a separate riding program or natural horsemanship program for severely traumatized people because of our strong belief that the very same program that enriches the lives of those who have not suffered severe trauma does the same for even the most serious PTSD sufferer.

Our programs have never turned anyone away for inability to pay program fees.

So with all of that already going on what changes will we be looking to make?

First of all, we will work to do no harm. Participants will learn to understand that a severely traumatized person has much in common with large heard prey animals. The same body language that intimidates a horse intimidates a severely traumatized person. Large predatory mammals seek autonomy. Indeed, we often equate maturity with having become independent. The horse and the severely traumatized person seek security over autonomy.

So the first step in making our program more trauma informed is to work hard to make the horse lot a place where one can feel secure. Here is where we have to draw a distinct line between the approach that we will take and the stereotypical "safe" places where one can hide from stressors. Security does not come from merely having a place to hide. Horses can help one confront and conquer the fears whose bars made of anxiety imprison an increasing number of people each year.

For example, the person whose anxiety makes it difficult to mount up will be given support, encouragement, and taught the skills to successfully ride. They will neither be made to feel that they are weak for having that fear nor will they be made to feel that it is perfectly fine to allow that fear to permanently keep them in chains.

Providing security means that each participant will have to become acutely aware of the impact that their behavior has on others. No adult should allow expressions of anger to cause pain or fear in other participants. That simply cannot be tolerated.

Part and parcel of this transition is the requirement that program participants work to become trauma informed. Doing so benefits both the participant who has experienced extreme trauma and those who have not, but need to understand how those that have might react to a given situation. I was proud to see three of our Board members and three of our young adult and teen participants attending a local training on suicide prevention. The transition will include more formal training for program participants and leaders.

We will expand use of our group Facebook page to include more research on trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences. We will place more emphasis on teaching all program participants the lessons of the round pen so that they can truly understand the mind of the horse. Doing so provides insight, self awareness and a better understanding of trauma induced responses.

And most of all, we will emphasize healing--not merely accepting pain--but working hard to fight that pain and begin to heal.

Many people have  largely evaded the effects of trauma and have no one in their immediate life that would benefit from the lessons learned in a trauma informed approach to riding and horse training. Those people, whether they ever have to apply the lessons learned in our program or not, will simply become better people.

They will learn empathy and compassion.

Natural horsemanship makes good horses, but it makes better people.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

And Their Worm Shall Never Die: Vermicomposting On Thanksgiving

I cannot retire right now from my job as a prosecutor--might not ever be able to do so. Several years ago my wife and I purchased twenty acres of  partially wooded land adjacent to the horse lot for the use of our program. We have nearly completed clearing that land and for the past two years it has provided wonderful forage for our horses and goats.

We cleared the land by hand using a chainsaw and we made our first fence around the land entirely from the poles that we cut from those trees. The perimeter of the pasture is .64 miles and the actual construction of that post and pole fence was done by a few volunteers and many hours of work by program participants.

We are a non-profit with no paid staff, yet we got that job done.

We have now begun to convert about fifteen acres of mature pine and occasional hardwood trees into silvopasture. Again, all of the work is done by hand by program participants. Each morning before going to the office I saw down everything but large pines and oak trees that I hope will be large enough to produce acorns for wild life at some point. (If they will not be able to do so they will be removed)

The limbs and tree tops are being stacked in long windrows about six feet tall and five yards wide along the perimeter of the land. These brush piles will make wonderful wildlife habitat. We use no chemical fertilizers or poisons on our land, so we are already a preferred vacation spot for rabbits.

The land has not been timbered in at least forty years (I think closer to fifty) so the soil has a ratio of fungus to bacteria way too high to support immediate pasture growth.  By flooding the land with a mixture of livestock and rolling hay for that livestock we will infuse the soil with bacteria.

We have a large herd of Colonial Spanish horses and heritage breed  livestock that includes Ossabaw hogs, San Clemente Goats, Syfan goats, a Hog Island ram, Highland cattle, and turkeys and a small band of roosters.  These animals give us a nearly inexhaustible source of organic material. We practice soil and water conservation programs that keep runoff from the pastures to a minimum.

In past years I buried the tank of an old hot tub to ground level and filled it with composting material and eventually added worms to turn it into a vermicomposting operation. The worms flourished so well that they have colonized the pastures adjacent to their original containers to the point that nightly deposited worm casting are visible all over those pastures.

We have done some experimenting with vermicompost tea and direct infusion of small  amounts of living compost into the pastures. The results show that on a larger scale  we should be able to radically increase the amount of forage produced, reduce soil compaction, increase rain water absorption and reduce runnoff even further by increasing our use of vermicompost.

Toward that end I received another five thousand worms in the mail last night and will be putting them in the compost today.

But I cannot retire from my job. The project will only work if every program participant is willing to simply add a shovel full of manure to the compost with each and every visit to the horse lot. I will only be able to turn fifteen acres of  Jacob's Woods into silvopasture if each participant in our program puts in time each and every week to drag the limbs and tops from the trees that I cut down every morning over to the brush piles.

In short, all of this will only work if everyone in our program works. Under most circumstances that would be a recipe for failure. I know that some participants will not take up the challenge to get the work done, but I also know that other participants will do the work of ten people.

The down side for me is that I cannot get all of this work done and still have time to ride as much as I want, and need, to. But we are building something that matters here. Mill Swamp Indian Horses is a program of Gwaltney Frontier Farm, a 501 (c) 5 breed conservation program. We recently formed a 501 (c) 3 educational foundation to help fund some of the educational programs that we administer at the horse lot.

We are an educational institution that teaches, and learns, by doing.

And we will keep on doing

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Is It Worth It?

Yes, not for the reason that it once was, but yes, it is still worth it. We strive to preserve and promote several strains of nearly extinct Colonial Spanish horses, most of all the Corollas and the Choctaws. There was a time that that was enough reason to get up every morning. Go to our website at to learn more about our preservation efforts.

But I am older than that now. Now, as Lydia once said to me, "The people matter more than the horses."

When you go to our website check out the tab that is labeled "News". Look at those TV clips and newspaper articles about our program. It will help you begin to understand why we run a program of this scope and why we are willing to do it with no paid staff.

I got a great note this morning from my youngest daughter, Ashley. (If you have not checked out the tv and newspaper stories about Ashley that are on our website you really need to stop what you are doing and look at them now and then return to reading this post.)

Ashley told me that she will again be speaking to criminology classes at Virginia Commonwealth University this semester. During the question and answer session at her last appearance she was asked how she was able to discuss the horror that she had been through. She was asked about whether the presentations that she gives cause nightmares.

She responded  with  precision. She said that, yes, the presentations can cause  nightmares, but that she "gets nightmares so other people won't have to have as many nightmares."

Our program helps make it so other people won't have to have so many nightmares.

This morning I got to do one of the most important things that I ever do. I responded to a gentleman in Texas who was seeking my advice on how to develop a program like ours. I am always available to answer those questions. Nothing would make me happier than to see a program like ours spread all over the nation. Of course, we don't charge for assisting in the development of such programs. We are not selling anything. We are not seeking to license anything. We are not franchising anything.

Most of the advice that I give covers the nuts and bolts of running a program, but one thing that I urge anyone thinking having an equine program with meaning to do might come as a surprise. Of course, one must know natural horsemanship inside and out, but equally important one must know the effects of trauma on human behavior inside and out.

Without being trauma informed one can have a well intentioned program. Becoming completely trauma informed will allow one to have a well intentioned program that changes people's lives.

It's worth it to watch people ride horses out of Hell.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Kumbaya Is Not A Song For a Revolution

People new to our program are often struck by the beauty of our horses, how much happier and healthier they are for being given the opportunity to live as close to a natural state as possible, and how easy it is to train gentle, happy horses. They are often shocked to see children riding extraordinary distances while learning to safely control their horses. (During the first 10 months of 2019 the cumulative recorded miles that horses in our program were ridden is further than from Norfolk to San Francisco).

As they learn more about the program and see how the weekly sessions for veterans with PTSD are changing lives they begin to truly understand what we are doing. When they understand how hard we work to preserve, breed and promote some of the nations rarest strains of historic American horses they start to realize that they have stumbled into something special. Learning about our programing with Teen Challenge helps them understand what even limited exposure to the horses can do to help put young people on an entirely new path.

Perhaps the third biggest surprise that they find is when they watch children learning to work together on major soil and water conservation projects and listen as kids as young as ten years old explain regenerative farming.

The second biggest surprise is when they come to understand that all of this work is done by volunteers and that no one is paid to lead this program.

And for many the biggest surprise comes when they first hear attacks made against our program by adherents to the edicts of the established horse world. Some of these attacks come from simple misinformation. The more deeply rooted invectives come not from those who misunderstand the purpose of our program, but instead from those who understand it very well.

They understand that the values and principles that drive our program are antithetical to an established order in which horses are simply items of commerce. They understand, and deeply resent, our lack of willingness to seek their approval and permission to work to promote a new model of  horse/human relationships.

The best hope for horses (and people) lies not in the edicts of the commercial horse world. It lies in the potential for those with no experience in that world to be given a chance to enter the horse's natural world.

And that is a revolutionary idea.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

First You Learn To Not Fear It. Then You learn to Love it. Then You Learn To Do It.

I got my first pony when I was two and he was one. When I was three I rode him in the Christmas parade. Emily Marble once told me that I do not teach kids to ride. What I do is to inspire them to ride.

Daddy put it differently, but was equally correct. He once said that I do not teach kids to ride because everyone is born knowing how to ride. He said that what I do is to give them the confidence to go ahead and do it.

That is why kids at the horse lot begin their exposure to horses when they are very young. That is why kids in our music program begin their exposure to being on stage when they are very young.

This is a picture taken between sets of a performance last night.. One little girl that she "wanted to be in the show." In short order I had a collection of little ones around me learning the chorus to "Will You Miss Me?" and "I'll Fly Away."

And that is how we begin to learn to play music. And that is how we begin to learn to ride horses. And that is how we begin to learn how to clear land. And that is how we begin to learn how to sow pastures.

And that is how we begin to learn to work together.

And that is how we do things at Mill Swamp Indian Horses.