Friday, February 27, 2015

Still Evaluating The Same Old Way

This year I plan to take a moment or two to answer questions that I get outside of the "comments" section of blogger. Here is my first stab at it.

 "You do not have your riders compete in shows. How can you possibly gauge the success of your program?"

 I think that there are better measures for the success of a riding program than show ribbons.

 I think the evaluation is pretty simple:
 1. When your riders are small do they come to you with the fears that paralyze them?
 2. When they are a bit older do they come to you with the dreams that inspire them?
3. When they are young teens do they come to you with the plans that drive them?
 4. And after they grow up do they come back to you for help with the problems that are facing them?

 If the answer to each of these questions is "yes" then your riding program is succeeding.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Vaughn Deel

We do not have a music program at Mill Swamp Indian Horses in the sense that no program funds go into our music. Nor do we have a breathing program. I could no more imagine having kids learn to ride and train wild horses without access music than I could imagine teaching them to do so without breathing.

We do not charge riders or community members who want to come and learn to play and sing ancient songs. We simply get together once a week and work up some songs. Being able to get up on stage and perform does wonderful things for young people.

And that is where Vaughn Deel comes in.

Vaughn has been an integral part of local music for decades. Vaughn,Sueanne Doyer,and Ray Bruce worked together as the group Susie-Ray-Vaughn. He is still out front performing regularly. He, with Sueanne's assistance, runs the best open mic sessions that I have ever attended. Monday night is at Cozzy's Comedy Club--Wednesday night Goody's in Old Hampton, and Thursday is the session at Victorian Station Tea Room in Phoebus. I love all three but I do not see how Victorian Station can be improved on. It recently won the Veer Magazine award for best area open mic. The first Thursday of each month at Victorian Station is singer songwriter night with only original music on stage.

Several years ago I started bringing some of my little riders who were fairly new to their instruments and their songs over to do a set or two. I was a bit apprehensive at first. I was not sure how the kids would be received, both by the audience and the other performers, many of whom are working to make a career of performing.

The wrong look, the wrong word, the wrong gesture can be all it takes to discourage some kids from playing, causing them to just decide that music is not for them.

I did not need to worry. Vaughn always makes the little ones feel welcome, and the older ones, like KC and Ashley, feel respected.

And he respects the music. Performers any given night might bring a range of genres to the stage. Regardless of the genre Vaughn accords the music the respect that the performers give it. It has been a hard thing for me to do that. For about the first 45 years of my life music was only Old Time, Carter Family, some blues, and ancient ballads. Emmylou Harris said that there was a time before she began to play with Gram Parsons that she thought "drums were the Devil." I was a bit more conservative than that.

At that time I could not forgive Earle Scruggs for leaving Lester Flatt and performing with his son's, one of whom played drums. Now I have learned to play what I want to but to respect what others play.

Last summer was perhaps the most important summer of KC and Ashley's lives. They learned to perform together on stage and to do it well. They worked hard to get better and they looked forward to the next chance to be on stage at one of Vaughn's sessions. They wore me out. I never stayed out so late, so often in my entire life (including college).

But I loved it.

Likely the best summer that I have ever had.

And I know that whatever collection of rider/musicians that I bring over to any of the open mic sessions will be welcomed by Vaughn and Sueanne.

 That means an awful lot to these kids.

Means a lot to me too.

Horse Slaughter--Some things Never Change--A Post from 2011

Horse Slaughter, A Debate Misdirected

Legislation has been advanced that will make it more likely that horse slaughter houses will return to our nation. The debate over horse slaughter has, to date, been played on a playing field created by the biggest agribusiness and factory farm interests. It is sad that so many people that would otherwise be expected to stand up for horses have been lured away from taking a strong stand against horse slaughter by a savvy media and public relations strategy. This effort, designed to show that horse slaughter is the best thing that could happen to the equine industry and a practice so kind and humane that those who slit the throat of horses should be lauded as humanitarians who only seek to end the suffering of unwanted and abused horses, has found fertile ground.

We must first look at the actual issue here. The factory farms and agribusiness corporations that are funding the return to horse slaughter do not have a financial stake in the slaughter houses. Only a handful of such facilities will exist either way. They are looking down the road and fear that efforts to end horse slaughter could one day lead to efforts to end the factory farm system. Their ultimate concern is that it could lead to the banning of the slaughter of other livestock. That is what underlies this debate.

There is nothing unusual about such a strategy. It has been employed through out our history by institutions both of the right and left, both good and bad. The ACLU supports the right of Nazis and Klansman to parade, not because of support of either group but for fear of what their suppression could lead to. The ACLU is open about its motivations. Other groups are not always so open. The NRA opposes every effort at firearms regulation because of the fear that the passage of one restriction, however minor, could lead to the passage of more restrictions.

Of course, some of the major horse registries that support slaughter have a direct financial interest in the spilling of horse blood. Few of the other entities that are funding the efforts to make the slaughter of horses seems like the work of angels have such a direct financial interest, yet they are spending a fortune on lobbying and public relations.

Make no mistake about it, the concern that such groups have is not for the good of horses today, but instead is aimed at protecting potential threats to their coffers twenty to fifty years down the road.

They have succeeded in causing too many opponents of horse slaughter to play their game and engage their claims. I decline to do so. Of course, they have completely mislead people into believing that the closing of slaughter houses in America has had any impact on horse prices. The simple reality is that the export for slaughter market coupled with the extreme reduction in of breeding over the past decade has resulted in a horse supply much smaller than it was when we still had slaughter houses in America. The truth is that we had very few death houses and they had a minimal impact on horse prices.

The remainder of their policy arguments are equally vapid and I will not engage them because each ignores the only issue that is relevant to the discussion--"Is horse slaughter immoral?"

If slaughter of horses is immoral than none of the other issues matter. Morality does not adjust itself to suit practicality. If a practice is immoral it does not matter how many advantages its acceptance would bring to society. That is why we do not look at the economic advantages of euthanizing "unwanted senior citizens."

If one accepts that the slaughter of other livestock is not immoral one must either accept that horse slaughter is moral or that their is a fundamental difference between eating a horse and eating a cow. In short, one must assert that the life of a horse is of a different value than the life of a sheep.

I believe that it is. In making such a determination I look to several factors, religion, tradition, reason, and the intangible recognition of what is.

It is easy to look at the views of various religions on the issue. The consumption of horse meat is banned by the Torah, the Koran, and has faced condemnation by the Pope dating back several hundred years. I am not a student of Eastern religions but I am not aware of the promotion of equine consumption by humans in any of the larger Eastern systems of belief.

In looking to tradition, western civilization has never placed the consumption of horse meat on the same level as the consumption of other livestock. The French fondness of horse meat is relatively modern and dates back when horse meat was considered a food of the people and not as "elitist" as the consumption of beef and mutton. Eating horses was a political statement, not one based in hundreds of years of tradition.

The most difficult case to make against horse slaughter is to rely on simple reason. Reason tells us that a horse is not a human and there is no logic in distinguishing between the flesh of horses and that of any other beast. Such an argument is compelling and were the issue only examined on that basis it is impossible to argue against horse slaughter. But reason has its limitations. The use of pure reason can lead, and historically has lead, to justification for the most horrific acts of cruelty perpetuated by man.

The ability to use reason is a great part of what makes us human, but it is the ability to go beyond reason that harnesses the brute that is our nature. It is that view beyond reason, the ability to recognize what simply is, which, when coupled with reason, that brings out what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.

The recognition of what is must lead to the conclusion that the horse is spiritually linked to us as is no other animal. Humanity is not characterized by merely what we build or that which we create. The core of the human experience, that which distinguishes us from the apes, is our system of beliefs, dreams, aspirations, and ideals. The human body rarely lasts over a century but those beliefs, hopes and ideals can continue to last until the last human no longer does.

It is the spread, advancement, refinement, and improvement of those ideals that give us hope for a better future. It is our innate flaws as humans that hamper that spread, that advancement, that refinement and that improvement.

That which is "me" is not only that which I do, but that which I believe. And those ideas, beliefs and ideals were brought to me and to all of us on the backs of horses. Until quite recently in human history the spread of knowledge, culture, and belief could travel no faster than could a horse. For two decades now much of what is known has been communicated via computer. For several millenia much of what was known was communicated via horse back or horse drawn conveyance.

I do not suggest that we should not eat horses because we owe them a debt of gratitude for their service. I believe that it was the horses unique ability to form a bond with humans that made that service possible. It is that bond that distinguishes the horse from the sheep. I do not suggest that there are no other animals to which some people can bond. Nor do I suggest that all people can form such a bond with a horse.

I believe that the slaughter of horses is immoral primarily because of that intangible recognition of what is. The ability to reach into the human spirit and lift it is what makes horses different than other livestock. This is not because of a classification that people make regarding animals. It does not matter if a horse was "raised for slaughter" anymore than it would matter if a child was cloned for spare parts for future organ transplants. We cannot classify. We cannot designate. We can recognize what is. We can deny what is. We cannot designate what is. God has done so already.

The intangible recognition of what is--the recognition of the spiritual connection between humans and horses is what caused Crow chief, Plenty Coups, to express in exasperation, "The white man, who is almost a god, yet still a child, says that the horse has no soul. How can that be? Many times I have looked into my horse's eye and have seen his soul."

Is banning horse slaughter practical? Of course not. However, practicality has no place in considering issues of morality. One must simply do that which is right.

What gives me the right to say that horse slaughter is immoral? I am bound to do so because, like Plenty Coups, I have looked in my horse's eyes.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Avoiding Short Cuts

More and more I find myself questioning the efficacy and safety of the modern model for riding lessons. For several years I declined to teach riding to kids because I was not trained as a riding instructor.

In short, I had no training in collecting $45.00 for having a child ride around me in circles once a  week for an hour. Looking back over the great horse cultures of history one must note that none of these cultures, which produced the world's most talented riders, had professional riding instructors. Granted, if one's goal is to win ribbons in artificial competitions one must have an instructor to teach one how to ride in compliance with the rules of that competition, be it dressage, western pleasure, hunter/jumper or any other discipline.

Unfortunately riding in compliance with those rules often becomes the exemplar of "correct riding." That is true regardless of whether such riding increases the comfort of the rider or the horse and regardless of whether such riding increases safety of the rider or the horse.

Those are my only considerations in evaluating a particular style of riding--comfort and safety of horse and rider. An uncomfortable and unsafe rider is one who does not know how to get in, and remain in, a position that allows him to control the horse while remaining secure in the saddle using the least amount of force possible to obtain compliance from the horse.

The two greatest obstacles to over come in learning to ride in such a way is lack of knowledge as to position and control (which can be learned very fast), and, the more difficult obstacle,  fear of being thrown.

Confidence often takes a very long time to gain. Many people can never become confident riding in a lesson setting one or two hours a week. For most people it takes many hours of challenging riding to gain that confidence. I believe that Daddy put it correctly when he said that I do not teach children to ride. I merely give them the confidence to ride.

And the opportunity to ride, and ride and ride.

 I am convinced that the safest way for me to teach trail riding (which is by far the most common use of recreational horses today, completely dwarfing the number that compete) is to demonstrate and reinforce correct form and as soon as possible beginning  to trot. Trotting then quickly becomes long trotting. A person who trots through the woods for 45 minutes without a break allows their body to learn how to balance itself. Riding until exhausted reduces anxiety (very hard to be physically exhausted and filled with anxiety at the same time.) Riding for hours at a time with 80% of the ride being at a trot creates muscle memory very quickly. Riding hours at a time builds confidence.

I prefer this model. It is physically demanding (which is an added benefit) and it gives the rider time to learn how simple it actually is to ride a trained horse. It allows the rider to move into a canter when the rider decides to do so. Of course, this always results in the rider exclaiming that cantering is easier than trotting. Cantering is easier than trotting, but there are very few people who can confidently and competently canter without having mastered trotting.

The lack of structure to this method of learning rattles some people. But I am convinced that the safest and best way to learn to ride is to ride, and ride, and ride.

One learns to ride the same way one gets to Carnegie Hall---practice.

( A picture of my Grandson on Wind In His Hair, a Chincoteague. )

Always Darkest Before The Dawn

It is February 25. Normally by February 25 I am in pretty good shape. We can't ride as hard during deer season, so from November 1 through early January we can't hit the woods as hard. I begin getting back in shape when deer season ends. Generally January has a bit of rough weather but I still get a chance to ride hard.

This January and February the weather has prevented heavy miles of riding and my body is telling--triglycerides doubled, a bit of weight gain, horrible time sleeping, much more joint pain and stiffness.

But there is a positive side. When I can start cantering five miles each morning I know that I will be much healthier. I know that I will feel better and I know that every aspect of my life will be better.

Makes it a lot easier to find time for that five mile canter before work.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Too Old To Ride?

Nearly as often as I hear people say that my riders are too young to ride so hard, I hear others say that they are too old to ride at all. One day I might be too infirm to ride. I might be too sick to ride. I might even be too dead to ride.

But I will never be too old to ride.

The health benefits, physical and emotional outweigh the risk of injury. Terry and I rode 109 miles in 18 hours last spring to commemorate our combined ages (55 and 54). Even at this stage in life it is good to have a winning card to serve as a reminder when faced with any sort of challenge. (e.g. "There is no way that I can do this. But on the other hand I rode 109 miles and no one thought I could do that either).

(You never know when you might need to reach for those cards. Not too long ago a city lawyer was seeking to intimidate me before trial by listing all of the big cases that he had tried over his career. I listened patiently,told him that I once ate 54 raw oysters at a single sitting, and then turned and walked away. Obviously he had no idea what kind of man he was up against.)

Adults, including adults my age and older, show the same increases in confidence, compassion and courage that the little riders show as they reach higher and higher benchmarks.

Look at the Shoshone chief, Washikie, in the center of this picture. He was older than me at the time this picture was taken.

That is not a barco lounger he is sitting on.

Saving the Sand Horses :Part 10 "You Can't Let Chidren Get In a Pen With a Wild Horse!"

Ten or twelve years ago I used to hear that a lot. I knew they were wrong for two reasons: 1. we were training horses, not alligators 2. My little brother had cerebral palsy and from about age 10 on he was the first person that got on the wild horses that he and I trained together.

As Lido used to reassure the other kids out there, "I can do it--you can too."

If we were training horses the way that was traditional when I was growing up it would have been impossible. Then we trained by getting on the horse and staying on until he got tired of trying to get rid of you.

That would have been to dangerous for city kids.

But that is not how we do things. My little riders learn natural horsemanship. They learn to understand the horse and to use leadership to teach the horse to follow. My little riders learn to become leaders. The more they understand about the horse the more they understand about themselves.

The picture above is the most important picture ever taken at the horse lot. I do not know exactly what year it was taken but many of these kids are now grown. It was near the conclusion of a hot summer in which this group of kids and I got seven wild horses or colts and a donkey tamed and trained well enough to be ridden in the woods with the other horses.

And it was all done without a buck--not without a kid getting bucked off--without a horse ever bucking.

Now imagine a picture of all of those same kids in expensive horse show gear standing there with the ribbons that they won at a horse show and ask yourself one simple question---"Which of those pictures would have demonstrated the most growth in character, confidence, courage, and compassion?"

We practice natural horsemanship not only to make better horses, but to make better people.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Cold Hard Lesson

Natural horsemanship requires one to understand, to the degree possible, the mind of a horse. That requires us to realize that a horse is not a human and is not driven by human desires. The harder lesson for many people to learn is that a horse is not a dog and is not driven by the desires of a dog.

Of course, human, horse, and dog are all driven by a will to survive but their strategies for survival cause them to exhibit radically different behaviors. A horse wants nothing more than security. A dog is driven by the excitement of the hunt. Horses do not find being hunted to be positive experience. A dog finds warmth and comfort in a small, cozy den.

A horse has evolved to view that warm, cozy den as a life threatening potential trap. A horse needs to be in a place where it can see, hear and smell any oncoming threats to its safety. A dog has no such worries. Puppies will quickly die if exposed to cold weather shortly after being born. Foals are often born on the snow or on frozen ground.

As a predator the dog could afford the luxury of seeking warm comfort and evolved into needing that warmth for survival. The horse's evolution and adaptations took a very different route.

This morning really bore this out. I went out to the horse lot. The wind chill was barely above zero. The dogs were cold. They did not want to come out of their warm house. When they did come out to eat they were clearly uncomfortable and quickly returned to their cozy straw bed in their house. The wind was howling.

The horses acted no differently than they did yesterday when it was nearly thirty degrees warmer. They did not seek windbreaks and the red shelter in the mare's pasture stood empty. The horses ate hay or simply stood in the sunshine. None showed the slightest hint of discomfort.

I was layered heavily and the exposed skin on my face was starting to take on an unfamiliar burning feeling. I looked over to see two horses standing in the shade, not even taking advantage of the bright sunlight. How could this be--with all of my clothing and with the dog's thick hair we were miserable and the horses were completely oblivious to the cold.

On the other hand I sit here in a small room typing. Perhaps there is someone wishing to do me harm in another room--I cannot tell. The door is shut. If someone is sneaking up on me I could not tell. This comfortable, high backed chair blocks my view. I could not even smell the villain--all I smell is this left over pizza that I am eating.

And I am completely oblivious to the threat.

If I was a horse I would not oblivious to the threat.

But I am not a horse--and even more important for me to truly understand, is that a horse is not me.

And that is a cold, hard truth.

Saving the Sand Horses:Part 9

The kids were rolling out of the van/station wagon as soon as it came to a halt. They were among the first kids in my riding program. They were excited to a degree that one rarely reaches after about age eleven. They were yelling and racing to be the first one to tell me of the urgent matter at hand.

"Mister Edwards there are horses on an island that need our help. They need someone to adopt them. You have to go help them now."

I assumed that they were referring to Chincoteague.

"No they are in Carolina and they need our help now.!!!!"

The regional paper had run a story on the Corollas. I had not seen it but the kids had and the ride from Portsmouth had given them plenty of time to get whipped into a frenzy. They remembered the key words "wild horses", "Spanish mustangs", "injured" and "adoption."

They were yelling these words as they ran across the pasture to me. One of them had the article which was about the herd management program at Corolla.  I promised them that I would call.

I only had two concerns--one based on the ignorance of others and one based on my own ignorance. I wanted a stallion if we were to adopt one for use in breeding. I knew that many such horses were immediately gelded because of the misplaced terror that so many horse people have of stallions.

My other concern was that these horses were simply too small, even to use in a breeding program.

 There was absolutely no way that one of these little ponies could carry a grown man, I thought

I was wrong.

This is Manteo, my first Corolla stallion. We adopted him when he was about 18 months old. He was captured because he had a long term problem with a locked stifle that required minor surgery.

Who knows, maybe one day I would get a Corolla mare and breed some of these horses, which I understood were nearly extinct.

Maybe her name would be Baton Rouge.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

General Crook Rode A Mule

when he was pursuing Geronimo. I suspect that it was gaited. No doubt it was tough. He understood a bit about Indian horses. He is one of many soldiers who pointed out that unless the cavalry immediately overtook fleeing Indians they simply could not be run down.

The Morgan/Thoroughbred rooted stock of the mounted soldier simply could not cover ground the way the little Spanish ponies that the Indians rode could. I never really understood how fast these horses could cover ground until I got my first Choctaw. Joey is a touch over 14 hands, a bit taller than I prefer but not so big as to be clumsy. He is gaited and has a touch of Cherokee lineage. One of his gaits is significantly faster than the normal canter of most of my other horses. His trot is as fast as the lope that my other horses use when being ridden for stretches of five miles or more.

"My other" horses are also Colonial Spanish horses. Each of them cover fifty miles of rough terrain at a steady, wonderful speed. "My other" horses would leave most modern horses behind after about the fifteenth mile. "My other" horses are highly impressive athletes.

Yet, "my other" horses cannot keep up with my Choctaw. Terry and Emily are putting heavy miles on him. Terry plans to enter him in a 25 mile timed race in a few more weeks. It will be his first competition. It will be her first also. He will have had no formal training. All he will have is a lifestyle that allows him to remain outside 24/7, eat hay, and remain shoeless. I am curious as to how he will do.

In a few weeks I want him to do a good 25 mile run for time. I want some of my big kids to join Terry on that run.

 I hope they can keep her within sight now and then.