Labels

Friday, January 14, 2022

Am I TooTall? Too Heavy? Too Old? Too Young? ...For A Colonial Spanish Horse?

If the answer that you are hoping for is "yes", then you will easily find a slew of devotees of the established horse world spewing forth a collection of formulas, percentages, and rules "that every serious horse person knows" who will certainly give you that "yes."

The pool gets smaller when we eliminate from the calculation all the experts who feel comfortable making a ruling on these questions but have never seen a Colonial Spanish horse. The number of these experts who have actually ridden a Colonial Spanish horse gets even smaller. Spokesman for the established horse world who have ridden Colonial Spanish horses for decades and have chalked several thousand miles on these horses are even harder to find.

The way to test any proposition is to experiment. Those experiments were done on a daily basis when the Colonial Spanish horse was the only horse in America. The horses have stood the test of time. 

The only opinion that is based in reality concerning what these horses can do is the opinion of those who speak from years of experience doing those "experiments" without having ever thought of themselves as scientists. I am happy to discuss the carrying capacity, endurance, temperament, and over all fitness of these horses with any of their critics, provided that such discussion occurs at the conclusion of a fifty-mile ride through the woods on them. 

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Riding in Cold Weather

I live in Tidewater Virginia. The weather is "variable." If one is to ride 2,000 miles in a year one must ride in all kinds of weather. I find extreme summer heat to be a true threat. It can be dangerous for both horse and rider. Teenage boys whose lives revolve around video games, eating sugar, and laying around in air conditioning are particularly at risk.

Cold and wet weather is different. It does not get cold enough around here to be a significant health risk. It is primarily a matter of comfort. One can bundle up enough to make winter rides merely uncomfortable, or one can simply refrain from riding. At least that was what I thought, until I learned that there is a third option. One can become cold adapted and simply choose not to be uncomfortable in cold weather.

As it is with anything involving one's health, one should always consult a doctor before taking on significant lifestyle changes.

I am not going to go through the science of becoming cold adapted. I learned what I practice by studying Wim Hoff. I began with a brief cold shower, one leg at a time, then cold water baths, then filling the bathtub with ice packs and cold water, and finally on to a 110 gallon container that we keep outside. After working out I spend half an hour in our sauna and then anywhere from 3-10 minutes in the cold-water tank.

This practice has radically expanded the range of temperatures in which I can feel comfortable. As an experiment, I worked out in 22-degree weather with a mild wind for forty-five minutes without a shirt on and only wearing gym shorts and tennis shoes. I experienced no discomfort and never shivered. 

I did not seek to become heat and cold adapted so that riding would be easier. That is just a wonderful side benefit.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Is the Pandemic Affecting Your Horsemanship?

It is certainly affecting mine. I have to work very hard to fight it off both consciously and subconsciously.  There is the general, pervasive feeling of frustration that comes about each time I am ready to really roll out a new, expanded program only to see a new variant of the virus come around.

It has made teaching more complicated. I have always been alert to safety issues, but now it seems that the need to protect my riders is stifling the need to teach them. I also have found myself doing something that I have never done before, being fearful about the health of others. 

I have painful, new responsibilities at the horse lot. In the past I have had to decide which songs to teach the kids in the music program. That was my most difficult musical decision. Now I have to consider whether bringing everyone in to learn a new song could lead to someone's death.

Perhaps as insulation against future pain, I find that I have lost my emotional connection to individual horses. This is a risky time to become emotionally invested in anything. Every time I hear a damn phone ring I know that it could be another call about another death. I despised phones before the pandemic, but now I am at loss to see how anyone can surrender their piece of mind to those devices. 

This shows up more when working an untrained horse in the round pen than anywhere else. For well over a decade, within a few moments of entering the round pen I reach a level, both of calm and focus, that draws the horse to me in a way that appears magical to those who do not know any better. That is gone now. Instead of focus, all I feel is emotional static in the round pen.

Just as I see myself pulling away from emotional connection, I see others being pulled into more "worry" about their horses. Some are deeply concerned with any change in the weather, or even if a horse walks a bit slow one day. I don't blame them. I understand. When one spends each waking moment is with low grade fear for the health and safety of loved ones, before long it is going to spill.  over.

And the horses are acting different than they have ever acted. They are high strung, nervous, and exponentially more vocal than our herds have ever been. I have been writing this off to being ridden less during hunting season and to exceptionally high energy hay that resulted from our warm, wet summer. But I have my doubts. 

All horses are sensitive to the emotions of the humans around them. Horses that were born wild or are only a generation or two from the wild are super sensitive to those emotions. Stressed people stress horses. Are our horses being affected by constant exposure to humans who are awash in cortisol? I am afraid so. 

But this will end. Throughout history that has been the case. And when it does, I intend for my relationship with my horses and my riders to go back to what it once was. But it will not happen by itself. I will have to be very deliberate in my efforts to become one with horses the way that I used to. I will have to be careful to examine every thought, every assumption, every changed behavior, in order to determine if it is a true and sound belief or if it is one of the side effects of living in this very strange time.

I suspect that many of you will have to do the same thing. 

Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Privilege That Is In the Struggle


One must pay attention to the snap shots--the quick, completely unanticipated ways that understanding can come to us. I have had many such experiences in my life--things that could be simple off hand comments that impacted me in ways that I could have never imagined. When I read that Black Elk said that Crazy Horse never kept a great horse for himself, that when one came into his possession, he quickly gave it away to a poor family or a widow, I realized how immoral it would be for me to use my ownership of our horses to in any way restrict the pleasure that they could bring others.

 When Fred Thompson told me the morning after my first election as a young political figure that now my sole duty was to "Do that which is right." I learned how easy it is to make the right decision if doing what is right is the only option that one considers. 

I was seventeen years old when Grandaddy Horace said, after I told him that he was carrying the buckets of hog feed surprisingly well (although he was terminally ill with cancer) that, "If I did not know any better, I would think that I was getting better. But you know pretending a thing is going to happen don't make it happen." I immediately came to despise appearances, facades, pretenses and all things that mask truth and reality. 

The list of such turning points in my life could fill many posts but one came up in the last year that I am only beginning to fully understand now. A rider pointed out that when I discussed any major physical challenge like a very long-distance ride or other tests of myself or of our horses, I seemed to savor the inherent difficulty of the test. She pointed out that I never seemed to consider any reward or mention any reason to do the test. 

A few months later I was seeing a doctor that I had never met before. He was asking preliminary questions and asked me about exercise. As I was explaining the various things that I do I mentioned walking with 50-pound weights in each hand. To my surprise (actually to my shock) he blurted out, "Why do you do that?" All I could do was to immediately, and without thinking, blurt right back at him, "Because other men my age can't."

I was not pleased with that response and have put a great deal of thought into a deeper answer to that question. 

Over the last several months I have spent countless hours going beyond my years of study of the impact of trauma on human behavior and health and have been looking at other factors that affect the why's and how's of our feelings and emotions. As I have done so, I find myself constantly amazed at how often Stoic thought, some of which is over 2000 years old, is echoed by the advances in the study of the human brain. Dr. Andrew Huberman, of Stanford University, explains what we now know about dopamine, cortisol, adrenalin, and other hormones and enzymes in a way that I can understand it. 

His observations on what has (unfortunately) been called the "pain/pleasure" nexus gives vital insight on how working with a horse (although he never uses any equine related experiences that I have yet come across) can radically improve one's emotional health. (here is brief excerpt of a video of his thoughts on the role of dopamine as a motivator instead of merely as a reward mechanism If You Are Feeling Lazy and Unmotivated, LISTEN TO THIS CLOSELY! | Andrew Huberman - Bing video) After viewing this and looking into it further I can understand why such tests make me feel so much better and why I do not often remember details of various accomplishments years later.

As hard as it is to understand, most of the satisfaction comes from the struggle and very little of it comes from the reward. I have never purchased a lottery ticket, not because I fear losing money, but because I fear winning it. I have always instinctively known that having a large sum of cash that I did not earn would certainly make me miserable. It is the earning, the struggle, the work, that brings most true pleasure and receiving constant hits of dopamine as a result of pleasure that one did not work to earn merely serves to reduce motivation to act in any theater of one's life that requires effort. 

Why is training a horse using natural horsemanship so deeply rewarding? Because it is hard. Because it takes patience. Because it takes effort. Because it takes commitment. 

Why is owning a horse that is well trained by someone else so less rewarding? Because it merely takes the writing of a check. Why does the established horse world, which depends entirely on the never-ending writing of checks, have so much resentment against our program? Because we show that children and novices, with proper direction and motivation, can learn to train their own horses. 

And to compete the circle further, there was something a bit familiar about what Dr. Huberman was saying about dopamine and unearned rewards. It was another example of ancient Stoic teaching being fleshed out by modern scientific knowledge. When Marcus Aurelius wrote that "the obstacle is the way"
he meant that going over the obstructions in life was not a detour from life's path, but that it was the direction, it was the way, that we must seek to go. 

We are privileged to be able to take part in what can be a long, slow struggle to fully understand our horses.  

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Managing Riding Anxiety With 21st Century Science and Two Thousand Year Old Wisdom

Have you ever known anyone who had no problems with fear or anxiety in any other aspect of their lives, only when it comes to riding a horse? 

I have not. 

 Anxiety around horses is generally the tip of the iceberg. Deeper fears of everyday life experiences generally haunt such people. They may be good at hiding it. They may be not only functional, but successful. 

But they worry. They might mask the fear with alcohol. They might live their lives in full pursuit of "control", of making rules that somehow will take the risk out of risky situation. As they get older, they are more and more likely to fall into avoidance behaviors. They make the horrible mistake of labeling themselves as "introverts" or other convenient labels that explain their avoidance behaviors. and the inevitable social isolation that it produces. They procrastinate because making decisions is stressful.

Many people desperately want to ride but their fear holds them back. They need to ride, but their fear holds them back. They could achieve enormous personal breakthroughs, but their fear holds them back. 

Some people push through it. They admirably build the courage to ride and the more they ride the less anxiety they feel. They start to see improvements in other parts of their lives. But the monster of anxiety and its fellow traveler, depression, continue to dog them--though admittedly to a lesser degree. 

And here is where groundbreaking new understanding of the links between the body and the mind come into play. While learning to increase skill and confidence with horses, one can also take on the entire monster of anxiety. 

And I do not mean just with counselling and medication, although I am a strong supporter of both counselling and medication. There are other lifestyle changes that can bring peace and calmness to anxious, ruminating minds. 

Read all of this before you give up and decide that these steps could never help you.

The first step is to learn everything that one can about the workings of anxiety, its relation to past trauma and what fuels the fires of fear. Then be bold and look at the impact that avoidance behaviors have had on one's life. The only thing good about living in a prison cell that you constructed for yourself is that you can understand its design and can use that knowledge to burst free.

Nothing is better than working with a first-rate counselor. For various reasons that might not be possible for everyone. The good news is that there is some great science out there concerning how the brain works and how to make it work better that can be found from Andrew Huberman of Stanford University that is easily accessed on YouTube as are a great set of videos called Therapy in a Nutshell.

Studying Huberman's work will give one an understanding of how exercise and nutrition can be two of the biggest weapons that one has to overcome depression and anxiety. This is especially important as the world struggles with the virus and as we are just beginning to understand the incredible damage done to young minds by the dopamine flooding that results from video games, internet pornography, and the tyranny of social media. 

But humans do not face new problems. We only face new variations of old problems. As a child Harry Tuman thought about this and decided that all he would have to do is learn all of the history that has been written and it would give him all of the answers to vexing situations as they arose in his future. It was a profound, yet not practical, thought for a small child. 

We cannot read all of the history that has been written but we can read and learn from a handful of writers that made up the Stoic system of learning and we can see that their teachings directly apply to life in this century. It has been said that cognitive behavioral therapy is rooted in Stoic thought. Take a look at Ryan Holliday's great site, The Dailey Stoic and you will find some of the clearest direction for living an ethical, fearless and peaceful life that one will ever find.

It is sad that nearly everyone who rides horses goes through life without learning what the experience can truly do for them, mentally, physically, and even spiritually. Such people are like those who never learn the taste of an onion because they only eat the thin skin of the plant.

It does not have to be that way. 

You can change. And a horse can help you change.