Sunday, March 7, 2021

Horses And The Nature of Evil

I am not qualified to argue with Capt. Gilbert. He studied the matter from a much better vantage point than I ever will. 

 “In my work with the defendants (at the Nuremberg Trials 1945-1949) I was searching for the nature of evil and I now think I have come close to defining it. 

A lack of empathy. It’s the one characteristic that connects all the defendants, a genuine incapacity to feel with their fellow men. 

 Evil, I think, is the absence of empathy.” -Captain G. M. Gilbert, U.S. Army psychologist.

Natural horsemanship is the most effective tool to enhance one's ability to empathize with one from another culture or walk of life that I have ever encountered. I now understand that it is the reason that our program's teenage participants behave in such a caring, mature manner.

The irony of it all--it is a worn out cliche to to cast aspersions on the behavior of another by sarcastically asking, "Were you raised in a barn?"

With a lot of my program participants the answer is, "Of course not. I was raised in a round pen."

More on empathy and natural horsemanship coming in future posts--but for now keep in mind a statement that came from a TV show on our program many years ago

"Natural horsemanship makes better horses, but what matters is that it makes better people."

Sunday, February 28, 2021

" If Your Students Don't Participate In Horse Shows How Do You Know Your Program Is Working?"

At the core of our program is an utter and complete rejection of every aspect of the established horse world, particularly its emphasis on using competitions and shows to determine the "worth" of a horse.   Our program focuses on the preservation of nearly extinct strains of Colonial Spanish horses and the use of those horses to improve the quality of the lives of the people around them, including people who have experienced debilitating trauma.

One measure of our success is the range of opportunities that we provide to program participants. Many of our riders learn to tame and train horses to saddle and learn to provide natural hoof trimmings. Doing so will make horse ownership much more affordable for them when they are adults and are on their own. Being able to train your own colt and provide him with quality hoof care on your own at no cost more than the cost of buying nippers, rasp, knife, and hoof pick radically reduces the cost of horse ownership.

Another measure of our success is the number of miles that program participants put on our horses, often in rough, swampy terrain. In 2019, the cumulative number of miles that program participants rode exceeded the distance from Norfolk, Virginia to Oslo, Norway.

The Horse of the Americas Registry has an annual award for national Pleasure Trail Horse. It is based on number of miles or number of hours a horse is ridden on trials in a year. Three of our horses, Ta Sunka Witco, Tradewind, and Uncle Harley have won this award over the years.  The Carol Stone Ambassador Award for work promoting the preservation and conservation of Colonial Spanish horses has been awarded to a participant in our program three times.  Our efforts to preserve the Banker strain of Colonial Spanish horses were rewarded with the Currituck Star Award and the American Indian Horse Registry awarded our program the Keeper of the Flame Award. 

Kay Kerr's great children's book on Croatoan, one of our early Corolla stallions, went on to be the basis for a film that won "Best Short Film' at the New York Equus Film Festival. Kay has a soon to be published book coming out on Edward Teach, the severely injured wild Corolla stallion that we nursed back to health and trained to saddle. Linda Whittington Hurst wrote two wonderful children's book on Red Feather, the most athletic horse with whom I ever shared a round pen. Program participants regularly provide articles for Pony Pals Magazine 

When these horses are handled using principles of natural horsemanship by people who have experienced significant trauma, particularely those with PTSD, the result can appear magical. Lives are utterly transformed. The Virginia Attorney General's office recognized the work that goes on with victims of sexual assault and molestation with the "Unsung Hero Award".  For seven years we provided weekly programming for those in the Hampton Veterans Hospitals PTSD program. The AARP recently celebrated  that work with a national runner up  designation in their Create The Good: Honoring Heroes program.

We use no modern fertilizers or poisons on our property. We teach and practice microbial pasture development, vermiculture, wild life habitat enhancement, and soil and water conservation. As a result we are a "Certified Wild Life Habitat" by the National Wildlife Federation. The environmental aspects of our program are coordinated by a Virginia Master Naturalist.

And all of this is accomplished with no paid staff. Everything is done by volunteers. We are funded by program fees, contributions, and grants and awards. We have never turned anyone away for inability to pay program fees. 

 And I am looking forward to exploding back on the scene with a bigger and better program when the virus permits. 

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Returning To Our Roots: The Old Farm

Those new to the program will not understand the importance of this picture. Those who think of Mill Swamp Indian Horses as simply a riding program will be equally at a loss of understanding.

We strive to be much more. At our core we are an educational institution that teaches livestock conservation, natural horsemanship, soil and water conservation, wildlife habitat enhancement, history, music, microbial pasture development, natural horse care, and the use of horses to improve the lives of severely traumatized people. 

The Settlers Farm  is the nexus from which many of our programs spring. As we find ourselves coming out of the virus and exploding in growth over the next year the Settlers Farm will be replaced and restored to its place of importance in our program. 

Resource Conservation--Don't Guess--Put It To The Test

Fence posts are very expensive. They hurt our program's bottom line. Waste of timber teaches the wrong lesson to program participants. I wish that every tree that is thinned out could have a use.

Last fall I thinned several 12-14 year old ash trees in a small break inaccessible to vehicles. The truck  could not get to where the trees were, but the donkeys could. The kids placed the poles on the sled that we made last year for my Scottish Highlands cattle and the donkey pulled the load up to the truck with ease. 

The next step was to remove the bark from each pole with draw knives.
The posts are then cut into shape and will be dried further over hot coals, without allowing them to ignite. The final step is to apply a coat of water repellant and then they are ready to use.

But won't these poles eventually rot and have to be replaced? Of course they will. However, last year I experimented with several poles using this system and was delighted to see no decomposition in the ash poles even though they actually spent the year laying in the mud and sunlight. 

The belief that every construction project must be forever unyielding to the elements is a peculiar aspect of modern suburbanite culture. Perhaps it is rooted in ancient Greek philosophies that held that only things that were not subject to change were "perfect" and that the proof of the imperfection of the human body was the fact that it changed with age.   More likely, it is an out growth of urban and suburban resentment of rural life and rural culture. 

The belief that a task is only done correctly if it is done in a manner that it will never have to be repeated is utterly alien to the cyclical nature of agricultural life. The stone castle, the marble temple, and the pyramid could only be created by cultures that had the hubris to believe that human creation could be eternal. The wattle fence, the log cabin, and the hand dug well were created to solve specific, immediate problems--the need to keep livestock in or out--the need for a warm, dry dwelling, or the need for a drink of water. They were not designed to shake a fist at the gods and demonstrate a mortal's ability to create something that could outlast time.

But at the same time, the story of the Three Little Pigs teaches that the structure must be sufficient to be functional for its purpose. And herein lies the point. Were the poles simply cut and put in the ground, bark on and untreated they would be subject to becoming rot weakened and breaking off at ground level in a season or two. However, by experimenting we have come on a system that will allow us to get several years use from each pole, thereby saving money and eliminating the waste of a resource. 

Will they last as long as commercial fence posts? No they will not. However, they will last several years. We cannot allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. 

Look around you. The good already has a plenty of enemies. 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Effective Leadership In Riding Program

 I used to lament having not started the program twenty years sooner. But if I had I am not sure that it would exist today and I am sure that it would not be as effective as it is today. Self reflection and age allow me to understand things that I completely misunderstood when I was younger. Even up to about age forty I believed that sound leadership was essentially the ability to put in place, and carry out, a plan and an organizational system that would have at its root the ability to control the behavior of others.

Running  a natural horsemanship program has little in common with running a business. Leading a trauma informed, natural horsemanship program has even less than nothing to do with running a business. In fact, few things get in the way more than trying to lead a program based on concepts of organization and structure.

Though the thought might seem heretical to fight fans, I am not sure that Muhammed Ali would have beaten George Forman if Ali had fought him when Ali was young and in his natural prime. A young man might punch hard and try to dominate a powerful opponent like Foreman. Instead, as an older man he bore the indignity of leaning against the ropes and allowing Forman to  pummel him until George Forman wore himself out. He then proceeded to fight against a tired young man who could not give more than Ali could take. 

When I was young I was embarrassed at the way Ali fought that fight. Now I see the effectiveness of that strategy.  The bottom line is that leadership requires one to be able to absorb punches and stay on your feet until the fight is over.  I did not understand that fully until I was in my fifties. 

It is easy to create a program that appears to be successful. It is easy to appear to be a great kindergarten teacher if one is only given the most educationally advanced, well adjusted, well behaved kids. The reality is that only the teacher who can bring learning to each child, regardless of the child's background and talent can only be called great. And in dealing with the difficult children over the years the great teacher takes many figurative blows. 

One need not acquire new traits to lead effectively . Instead one needs to get rid of the traits that one often brings to the table. The first step, and it is only the first step, is to work hard to utterly disregard self interest. In the eighties the profoundly wicked concept of "self care" came to leach itself into popular psychology.  People do not need to be taught to care more for themselves. Greed, selfishness, materialism, and laziness are so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that pretending that growing more of it is a virtue is as absurd as teaching that we need to learn how to absorb oxygen.

When one learns to ignore self interest one finds that one has much more time to accomplish things that need doing. Time is not wasted seeking additional "comfort."

Ignoring self interest opens the door to effective leadership in a natural horsemanship program, but one can only walk all the way through that door when one learns to ignore an innate drive nearly as strong as that of being self interested--the drive to control the behavior of others.

Much of what we call "planning", "organization", and "structure" in our society is nothing more than an allocation of how power is to be exercised over other people. The need for such coercive techniques is so deeply ingrained in our concept of leadership that we actually view coercion as leadership.

One simple example best illustrates the power of non-coercive, effective leadership. Our program has no paid employees. Everything that is done is done by volunteers. There is nearly always work that needs to be done. 

Consider the very simple question of how to get more hours of productive volunteer work out of program participants. One could have a rule requiring all participants to put in a certain number of hours of volunteer work each month. How could that be enforced? Well, one could have another rule that called for the expulsion of any members that do not do so? I cannot imagine how such a policy would build cohesion. I can easily see how it would create division.

So how can power be effectively  used? Is complete anarchy what is called for?

No, if one wants to increase the amount of volunteer hours that program participants invest in the program to, say, up to five hours a month one can best do so by personally putting in forty hours a month of volunteer time. This must be done without resentment, without calling attention to oneself, and most of all without appearing to be a martyr. 

Effective leadership is leadership by example. One could try to enforce the virtue of generosity in a program or one can learn what is perhaps the most important lesson from the book, "Black Elk Speaks".  

Black Elk mentions, in what seems nearly like a side comment, that Crazy Horse never kept a great horse. Whenever he acquired a truly great animal he gave it away to a poor family.

That is leadership.  By the the time of the fight at Little Big Horn Crazy Horse was no longer a Shirt Wearer. Without any formal authority, without any power to order others to follow him, he rounded up a band of fighting men to go into battle with him urging them to be thinking of "the old people and the children."

With such leadership one can build a powerful program.