Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Little Breather From History: Lloyd's Swampavarious

We have people in our program that can dream. We have people that can create. We have people that can facilitate. And we have a few people who can do all three. Lloyd is one of those people.

Over the weekend Lloyd made a wash tub bass from a metal trash can. The sound quality is shocking. Even more shocking was how quickly Chris figured out how to play it.

It is not an instrument designed for comedic affect. It sounds great and adds a lot to the the music get togethers. Very soon Chris will be joining us on stage.

Saving the Sand Horses: Part 8 The Early Clinics

"You cannot allow children to get in a pen with a wild horse--ever!" That was the advice that I was given by a person a generation older than me who had spent his life around horses.

I did not just want to teach people how to tame and train wild horses. I wanted to teach children how to tame and train wild horses.  I knew it could be done. The simple reality is that throughout history kids had been the colt starters of horses. Sending a horse off to a trainer to be trained  would make no more sense to the people from whom I descended than it would make to send an ear of corn off to be trained to grow.

Over the millennia training horses truly was child's play. Of course, horses had not changed, but over the last thirty years American children, as a result of a crisis in parenting skills, had changed. The modern parenting model defines good parenting as providing every material possession that the child might have a whim for, making sure that your child is never "forced" into doing any work or chore he does not want to do, and most of all, making sure that he stays far from any risk of physical harm.

This model has produced an epidemic of anxiety disorder, depression, and type II diabetes. When a city kid first comes to my horse lot the odds are (though not in every case) that that child is handicapped. They are not in leg braces or wheel chairs but they are trapped by their upbringing that has denied them the exposure to the kind of challenges that result in failures from which lessons are learned or successes from which pride and self esteem are earned.

The irony is that these kids of well to do families are so often what we used to call "underprivileged". They have never been given the privilege of pushing themselves to the limit. They have no idea what their limits are.  I am not surprised that young suburban mothers fall prey to this parenting model. After all, they were raised to define success as rigid adherence to the social whims dictated to them by the People Magazine society in which they were raised. The modern parenting model is expensive.

It serves Corporate America well.

But I am surprised that so many young, educated suburban mothers continue to accept the definitions of good parenting that come out in TV commercial after TV commercial. If more of them would simply stop and ask themselves a few simple questions things could change. If they asked themselves things like, "Am I happier than my grand parents were?".  "Is my husband less of a man than my grandfather was?" " Am I raising a son to be even less of a man than my husband is?"

No, I am not talking about raising little Rambo's--not at all. I am talking about raising kids who will grow up to be kind, gentle, resilient, generous and courageous. And, yes, being courageous matters because in this life it takes guts to be an ethical person. We should not be surprised that our skill in producing cowards leads inevitably towards the production of unethical adults.

Physical courage generally predates moral courage. Those who do not understand that the reason we practice natural horsemanship is not merely to produce better horses, but primarily to produce better people cannot grasp what we do.

But I knew that I could teach little kids, even modern little kids, to tame, train and ride wild horses. I knew because my first and most important partner in the horse lot was my little 9 year old brother Lido.

He was born with cerebral palsy. His right arm was of no use to him and his right leg was short and weak.

He was the first person to mount all of the early wild horses that we trained.

 And as he told so many others over the years "I can do it. you can too."

(This is Lido on Sand Creek, a mustang colt at one of our earlier clinics.)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Saving The Sand Horses Part 7

It struck me this morning that I do not believe that I have ever used the oft spoken phrase "'s hard for me to explain..." Things have never been hard for me explain. My explanation might be incorrect but I have always found communication to be both simple and fascinating. All the way thorough college I worked at Jamestown as a costumed historical interpreter, occasionally in the fort, but generally in the Indian village. For years I used the opportunity as a laboratory, constantly observing how tourists responded to different inflections, body language, and themes. Although I am a total failure at small talk,(especially with strangers), I have always found the stage or the podium to be a comfortable place. Public speaking is much less stressful for me than discussing the weather with a stranger at a party.

Of course, my curiosity about communication caused me to drink everything that I could read about natural horsemanship as deeply as I could drink it. My handful of BLM mustangs were the first horses upon which I applied what I was learning . My success was hit or miss. It was so very different from everything that I had learned about horses through 4-H and in my experience training horses as a young teenager.

Eventually breakthroughs occurred. People started coming out to watch as I worked with the horses. Early on I learned the first important lesson of wild horse preservation. The only hope that the wild horse, or the Spanish Mustang, has lies in novices. People who always wanted a horse but never had one were fascinated with my wild horses. To my surprise, people with lifelong horse experience would watch a successful round pen session only to note that the horse lacked balance over all and that its head was too big.

These casual sessions lead to my first clinic on horse taming. That session lead to more clinics. Those clinics lead to parents asking me if I could teach their kids to ride.

And that lead to the development of our program, which now likely has the most diverse group of rare and nearly extinct strains of Colonial Spanish horses in the world.

Before I had Corollas I had little riders, at first only a handful, but a very enthusiastic handful of young kids who wanted to become horses. It was those kids who caused me to obtain our first Corolla.

But we need to talk about those early clinics before I get ahead of myself.

(The picture above is of my Corolla Red Feather, the most athletic and most violent horse with whom I have ever shared a round pen. He is still an athlete but now he is sweet---a bionic Teddy Bear.)

Friday, January 9, 2015

Saving The Sand Horses :Part 6

(Although this is a recycled post it fits in perfectly for the discussion of communication as the core of natural horsemanship. The filly pictured above was produced by our off site breeding program and is now one of the mares at Boys Home in Covington, Virginia.)

In the great documentary "Buck" it is pointed out that those who are able to communicate best with horses are often "tortured souls." Many of the best trainers suffered horrific childhoods of abuse and incessant trauma. It is no mystery why this is true.

The body language of humans is that of the predator. That does not mean that humans move like blood thirsty beasts. It simply means that all predatory species use many of the same signals, even when not engaged in hunting. The body language of a high school cheer leader and a Jack Russel terrier is indistinguishable.

But when a person lives in a state in which terror is the norm, he reverts to using the prey animal body language that was natural for him as a toddler. When he is a helpless child he actually is a prey animal. If he continues to be the subject of terror throughout his childhood he will continue to respond positively to prey animal body language and negatively to predator body language. (Ever met an abused child that enjoyed shaking hands? Of course not, and this is why.)

For such a person, a round pen is a place of peace, a refuge from a world that still constantly signals to his subconscious that it wants to do him harm. In the round pen he can find comfort by providing peace to a terrified colt. It may be the only place on earth where he finds such peace.

I did not suffer an abusive life, but my parents had over 100 foster children while I was at home. The vast majority of them had been abused and lived lives that were waking nightmares. I was always the oldest child. Often one or both of my parents worked night shifts. I had a much larger role in caring for the little ones than occurred in the average family. Without having any idea that it was happening,or even knowing what it was, I began to become fluent in prey animal body language.

For over a decade I have prosecuted all of the molestation cases and crimes against children and mentally retarded adults in the localities in which I have prosecuted. I have given formal training to other prosecutors on how to use correct body language to gain the trust and respect of a terrified child. (Yes, it is exactly what I use in the round pen with a terrified horse--advance and retreat, avoid eye contact, standing shoulder to shoulder, slow breathing, never walking in a straight line, etc)

I am constantly amazed that my riders are so often surprised by what their horses do. How could you not know that he was going to turn to the left and go around that tree? He had been telling you with his body that that was what he wanted to do for at least four steps and asking if it would be ok to do so for another two steps. Even very experienced riders seem to have deaf eyes. My eyes hear everything that the horse tells me.

It flows both ways. I have come to realize that I incorporate much of a horse's world view in my own. I get nervous and a bit edgy when the wind is blowing, even a fairly gentle breeze. I much prefer boredom to excitement. I even find myself chewing softly when I find the perfect word to put in a sentence. Few things make me mad as quickly as having people not get out of my way when I am walking into a crowd. The only thing worse for me than being alone is to be in a herd of strangers.

I have not sought to adopt these characteristics. I have simply recognized their existence. The ironic truth is that, although I am a prosecutor and try many cases every week, I actually spend more time each week communicating with horses than I do communicating with people.

Granted the equine communication is of a much simpler nature, e.g. "come here and stand by me" spoken with the eyes and a shoulder only. Ironically, "come here and stand by me" is one of the most rewarding and important things that one will see/hear in a lifetime, be it a tortured lifetime or not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...
This is a great piece, extremely insightful, much to chew on... thank you.

Deb in CA

Saving the Sand Horses: Part 5

After a set back or two I ended up with a pair of wild BLM mustangs and a very violent 3/4 Appaloosa 1/4 Arabian, modern horse, Comet. My book, " And a Little Child Shall Lead Them: Learning From Wild Horses and Little Children", covers my early attempts, successes and failures at applying natural horsemanship to this group of horses. It is also the point where I came to realize one of the most dfficult aspects of teaching , or even discussing natural horsemanship, vocabulary.

What does one mean when one says "natural horsemanship"?  Unfortunately that depends on why one says "natural horsemanship." Properly understood, natural horsemanship is simply a method of teaching and developing relationships with horses using a mode of communication that the horse naturally understands.  Instead of trying to teach a horse to speak English a serious student of natural horsemanship learns to speak horse.

For those who oppose natural horsemanship they use the term to mean a system of non-training in which the horse is completely spoiled, untrained and dangerous. For others it means a passive, whiny, horsemanship in which the horse is allowed to make all of the decisions.  The human's role seems to simply supply hay and to sit around being ashamed that they are humans instead of being horses.For some hucksters it means teaching whatever will sell the next video or book.

It is none of those thing. Natural horsemanship is simply the only way to truly enter the horse's world. Those who think that the horse's world is a world without conflict or violence, a world in which lions and lambs lay down together and watch you tube videos of kittens playing, will shell out big money to those who will "teach" them what they want to hear.

The first step to understanding natural horsemanship is to understand that the horse is not a human and has nearly nothing in common with our most basic wants and needs.  Thinking of the horse as a four legged human is to completely neglect what a horse truly wants and needs. The second step is to understand that the horse is not a dog. That is hard for us. Most people have experience with dogs before they have experience with horses. A dog is a predator, just like we are. A dog shares many of our wants and needs.

People and dogs both look for autonomy, excitement, a warm, cozy nest and near constant sensory stimulation. Hunters depend on those drives. The hunt is exciting for the hunter, but the hunted feel anything but excitement. A predator can be comfortable in a a snug home. A prey animal can feel nothing but trapped in that same environment.

Instead of autonomy a horse's greatest need is for security. A horse prefers calmness to excitement, company to solitariness, and movement to confinement. It will seem heretical to many but the wild horse's dream is not to be able to run through unconfined spaces for eternity. In fact, he would much prefer to not need to flee from anything for eternity. A wild horse that is not able to experience security because of the humans or other stressors in his environment is not happy--regardless of how wild he is. A wild horse that feels completely secure, which essentially means living in a herd or band, without harassment from predators with adequate forage, is happy. 

How can one measure happiness in a horse? By simple observation--is the horse suffering from stress related health problems? Does he exhibit what have come to be known as "vices", or more properly known as stereotypical behavior? Does he exhibit agitation?

My herd includes many formerly wild horses. My horses live in bands and live off of living forage and hay (with the exception of a few who are given a very low sugar feed to supplement their need for extra calories), most drink from water holes, they never enter a confining stable.

All of these things contribute to their feeling of security which translates into natural health and happiness. Our vet bills for our large herd are less than those for most small barns with only a handful of horses.The established horse world and its partners in agribusiness have created a very expensive, unhealthy, and ultimately cruel regimen for horses to suffer under. There is no group out there more threatened by natural horse care than those two greatest enemies of the horse.

And herein lies the reason that our program as stirred the ire of the established horse world. We raise happier, healthier horses for a fraction of the cost that others spend to produce unhealthy, neurotic horses. Anyone who would spend a week with our herd and follow it with a week observing horses in a typical "full stable board" environment would promptly come to the conclusion that the established horse world has failed in every respect except that it has made a lot of money.

Our horses are clothed in shaggy, muddy or dusty, finery.

As for those who live in the model set out by the established world, their Emperor is naked.

The Wild Horse Dilemma: Simply The Best Work On The Subject

The best book ever written about the wild horses of the east coast is now available in print. Bonnie Gruenberg's book "The Wild Horse Dilemma" will remain the premier book on these horses for the next fifty years.

While writing this book Bonnie visited our horse lot and rode with us. Though she had studied these horses for years for years she had never ridden a Banker (a Colonial Spanish mustang from the Outer Banks of North Carolina). Her discussion of riding Manteo through the woods at night is one of the best short examples of why we cannot allow these horses to go extinct.

Preservation of the Corollas must run on two tracks. Everything possible must be done to preserve the wild herd in Corolla. However, we  must also work to preserve these horses domestically. They have existed on two tracks for four hundred years, sometimes running wild, sometimes domesticated, always spectacular.

The oldest and rarest distinct genetic grouping of American horse is at Corolla.

Bonnie's great book is the gateway to understanding their history.

Go ahead and order one from Amazon before you eat breakfast.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Saving The Sand Horses: Part 4

I attended my first BLM mustang auction as ignorant as the vast majority of participants there were. Very few of us had ever seen wild western mustangs. I was concerned when Daddy told me that very few of the horses that I would see there were as big as my mother's horse, Cracker Jack. Cracker Jack had been about 14 hands. I never saw him measured but everyone said that he was 14.2. Those two nonexistent inches became one of my first contacts with society's preference for appearance over reality and it was the first time that I remember resenting that dishonesty.

If an animal was at least 14.2 then it was classified as a horse. Less than that made it a pony. Adults were supposed to ride horses. Ponies were supposed to be only able to carry children. Cracker Jack was Arabian/mustang cross and carried adults with no problem.

Therefore he must have been a horse.

I doubt that anyone ever made the conscious decision to lie about his height. The lie just seemed both self propagating and self authenticating. He must be 14.2 because he must be a horse because he carried adults so he must not be a pony.

My weight was under two hundred pounds, but I wondered if a pony, smaller than Cracker Jack could possibly carry me. I was very concerned.

Daddy told me not to worry, that as long as I did not get one of those little Spanish looking mustangs I would be fine.

White people had been hating the little Spanish looking horse/pony for hundreds of years. English kings had ordered the slaughter of ponies and at times had banned the importation of the of the fleet horses of Iberia and the Middle East. The small horses were ridden by Mediterraneans, Africans, Asians, and American Indians. The proper Englishman need no more proof of the inferiority of these horses than the fact that they were ridden by people that were considered so profoundly inferior to the English.

To make matters even worse, the Irish often rode ponies. Enough to give a proper Englishman a case of the vapors.

The same applied to loudly colored horses. People of color often prized horses of color. The English responded by deciding that only solid colored horses of significant size were  fitting for a gentleman. Throughout history the ruling classes have accorded the same social status to breeds and strains of equines that they accorded to the owners of those horses.

Such bigotry proved lethal to the wild Spanish mustang. In the early 1900's up until the late 1940's the United States government implemented the Remount Program, which was designed to insure a ready source of Cavalry horses should America or our allies need them. Agents were hired to go out into the untamed lands of the west and shoot the small Spanish stallions that lead bands of beautiful wild mares and foals. When the stallions were killed the Army released Morgan and Thoroughbred stallions into the bands. The result was a larger  horse much more likely to be of ordinary, bland color.

The army had a secret about these horses that it did not want to get out. The reality was that extermination of the buffalo, European epidemics, and superior weaponry lead the the relatively quick defeat and subjugation of the natives. However, had the tall, bland colored horses of the whites actually been superior to the little Spanish ponies of the Indians, that subjugation would have come much quicker.

The little Indian pony was superior to the Army horses in ever regard but two, they could not jump as high or pull wagons as heavy as could the big ordinary looking horses of the mounted trooper. But this simply could not be. This was the Victorian Era, the beginning of the development of the Scientific Racism movement, it simply could not be that those believed to be genetically inferior could possess something superior to that owned and developed by those who were certain of their genetic and moral superiority over all other races.

It has been said that white people did not invent racism but that they perfected it.

When a tribe was captured it was de rigor for the horses to be confiscated and generally promptly slaughtered. Custer killed many more Indian ponies than he killed Indians.

One of the themes of the hate mail that our program receives is that it is so horrible that we ride these little Spanish ponies. These critics have no science on their side. They have no equestrian knowledge on their side. They have no experience actually riding these horses.

But, like Custer, they have history on their side.

And for a while I was ignorant enough of the ability of these horses to be concerned that they were correct. As has happened so often the horses provided the answer.

Under what conditions could a 12.2 wild Corolla stallion possibly  carry a man who weighed over 200 pounds fifty miles in a day without showing the slightest wear for the effort?

Admittedly certain factors have to exist before this could be done. It is necessary for there to be oxygen in the atmosphere for this to be done.

 If there is oxygen it can be done.

(In the picture above one sees three adopted BLM mustangs from Nevada watching as a storm rolls in).

Friday, January 2, 2015

Saving The Sand Horses: part 3

I handled western mustangs for years before I saw my first wild Corolla. I was spurred to get back into horses the same way that many adults are--I lost a great deal of weight. When I was about twelve years old I developed Osgood-Schlatters syndrome in my knees. The condition is well known now among doctors, but that was not the case in the early 1970's. Every few years when the pain would become debilitating I would go to the doctor where I was told that I had strained soft tissue and to put ice on my knees and rest a bit. By the time I as seventeen I could barely walk with out significant discomfort and could not run a step without real pain. I was correctly diagnosed eventually and was told to refrain from riding and running until the pain lessened.

That took about four years to happen. When I entered law school I could run without heavy pain. Law school was about the worst thing that I could have done for my physical and emotional health. I loved being an undergraduate at William and Mary. Law school was such a wretched nightmare that I have not set foot on the campus unless required to since graduation in 1985. My wife and I got married after college graduation. We were in all of the same law school classes together. She did not despise it to the degree that I did, but neither of us even considered attending our own law school graduation.

Attending law school was the worst mistake that I ever made. I spend little time thinking about the past, but I do often wonder how much better my life had been had I been a high school history teacher or a college professor. The only positive thing about becoming a lawyer is that  for  over fifteen years that I have prosecuted I have handled the cases with child victims, victims with mental retardation, and all of the sexual assault cases. In that capacity I have made some people's lives better and I am glad for that.

In law school I became rather sedentary and developed serious problems with my back. When I was only in my late twenties the doctor told me to stop playing church league soft ball. The MRI showed that I had the spine of a man nearly sixty years old. The best thing to do for my back was to walk. I began walking before work each morning. I saw improvement. I began adding weights to each hand which I curled and pumped while walking. I started walking at lunch with weights. By the time I was thirty five I was walking six miles every morning and four miles at lunch. I walked those ten miles with ten pounds in each hand.

My knees no longer hurt. My back was tolerable. But I was extraordinarily overweight. I was in a hurry to accomplish what I was to accomplish because I did not expect to live a long life. Neither college nor law school cost me very much money. I was awarded the Century Three Leadership scholarship as an undergraduate and for law school. I planned to work hard to do what I could to improve our foster care system and adoption laws as quickly as I could before a stroke or a heart attack got me.

And then I lost 52 pounds.

I lost the weight with the Atkins diet and since then I have always kept at least thirty of those pounds off. It felt good to feel good. I could run. I could move anyway I wanted to with minimal pain. Things that did not seem possible fifty pounds ago now were within reach.

My mother had adopted two wild donkey jennies from the Bureau of Land Management. One of them was bred and she gave birth to Nick, a large standard jack. I kept my equine related goals simple. I decided that I was healthy enough to ride a nice, gentle mule rather slowly and carefully through the woods. I thought about how much I used to enjoy training horses. Nick was about 18 months old. I decided to adopt a wild mustang mare and breed her to Nick to get a spectacular mule.

I planned to try to train the mare to saddle. It was that part of the plan that drew the most concern from those who knew me. They realized that regardless of how much weight I lost and how good a condition I was in, I was not up for a rodeo.

I decided to cross that bridge when I got to it and I set out to adopt my first wild horse. I was about to go to my first BLM wild mustang adoption. It was an event that changed my life.

(This is a picture of Ghost Dance the second BLM mare that I adopted and the first horse to hospitalize me).

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Saving The Sand Horses: part 2

There is a freshwater cane plant native to Tidewater swamps. Deep in the woods it can grow to be about seven feet tall with only inches separating each plant. It is impenetrable except on the deer trails, which are often no more than six inches wide. The cane shafts stay green until the most frigid temperatures hit. The sun frequently hides in the lead colored skies of our winters, making reckoning by the sun impossible. Some of the biggest patches that I encountered were over twenty acres.

Yes, one can get, as we called, "turned around", in these little jungles. We could not call it being actually "lost", because we were often no more than a mile from a country road. One is turned around when no matter which way one thinks one is going and no matter how long one tries to do so--that country road just can't be found. Getting turned around in a heavy fog with a bit of rain made it even worse.

The lack of ability to see contrasted with the ability to hear the movement of every creature coming through the reeds. The deer paths were so narrow that even a creature the size of a dog crashed the reeds. When all of your concentration was on the sound of that crashing it would seem as if something the size of a care was crashing reeds towards you. A little deer made a racket. A big buck who crashed reeds with his body, feet, and a huge rack that combed through the reeds the sound was like something the size of a tank crashing in towards you.

If the deer did not pickup your scent and wheel to avoid you it might proceed directly on the deer path where you were sitting. The adrenaline flows like water. Sometimes you even feel your heart racing. The reeds are thick enough so that when you are finally able to see the deer, and he is finally able to see you you might be only a couple of steps from each other.

I had the experience happen several times when I was a kid. And every time, after I calmed myself down, my mind would move in the same direction---Less than a hundred miles from where I was there were thickets that contained wild horses. It would be so wonderful to be as close to a wild horse as I got to the deer. I would think about how much noise a horse would make crashing through the reeds, I rode horses in the woods, but I had never ridden one into the vast cane patches.

I knew that the wild horses made it up into Virginia on occasion. I suspected that some might still survive in the Dismal Swamp. To this day, very little of the Dismal Swamp ever feels the touch of a human. I had hoped that when I was old enough to drive perhaps I could go into the Dismal Swamp and see the wild horses that I hoped still remained in the briers and tangles, living off the same browse the deer ate and being every bit as fleet and wary as a big buck.

I was probably incorrect about there still being wild horses in the Dismal Swamp. Oh, but there were still wild ones on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. They were near Nags Head, about the only place we ever went for a summer vacation when I was little. I always kept my eyes open, looking up and down the beach for a mustang. Eventually I learned that the wild ones lived about 20 miles to the north, well beyond where the paved road ended.

I never got to see one of these wild horses when I was a kid. I was in my late forties when I first met these horses. Rebecca and I had been invited to join Tom Norush, Doug Norush, Vickie Ives,  of the Horse of The Americas Registry and representatives of the American Livestock breed conservancy to study the wild herd at Corolla and Shackleford for the express purpose of determining if they remained straight Spanish Colonial Horses. One could only hope they were and the fear was that they  had been mixed with modern horses over the centuries as had those of Chincoteague.

Rebecca and I were slipping though an area of live oak and browse in a very windy brisk late winter day. She had camera in hand. We had seen a pair of little wild pigs and were seeking to get a good picture of them. I slipped through the dense pocket of live oaks and with the sun shining on him so that even in his rough winter coat he glistened, stood a solitary black mustang stallion. The wind made it so he could not hear of smell us coming. He was not one of those who hung around the cottages at Corova. We were in the bush. Those horses were more man shy than the ones who share their summers with hundreds of thousands of tourist.

It did not matter that he could not hear because of the wind--I was speechless. Up to that point in my life he was the most beautiful stallion that I have ever seen. He caught sight of us, snorted, and trotted on out of sight.

Not quite two years later he was found dead. A gun shot to his neck from such close range that the wadding from the shotgun shell was lodged in the dead horse's neck. He was the latest victim of who ever took pleasure in shooting a wild horse.

That is the picture that Rebecca took of him as he slipped away from us.

(Here is a link to the report Vickie Ives wrote of the wild herd inspection tour. it is a must read for anyone who wants to understand what makes these horses significant.)