Monday, August 24, 2015

Making History Come Alive

As the sun sets each Saturday in September the curtain will rise on a unique equine experience at Mill Swamp Indian Horses on Moonlight road out side of Smithfield. The Gwaltney Frontier Farm is a replica of what a small farm might have looked like here in Tidewater in the 1650's. Located only a few miles from where the first members of the Gwaltney family owned land at that time, the site has become a favorite of participants in the annual Gwaltney National Homecoming.

At the forefront of the different programs administered by the Gwaltney Frontier Farm is the effort to preserve and promote the nearly extinct Corolla Spanish mustang and other strains of early Colonial horses and livestock. The program's conservation efforts have received national recognition from the American Indian Horse Registry and the Horse of the Americas Registry.

Beginning at 6:30 pm guests will be invited to observe the gentle training techniques that have been used for over a decade here to tame and train wild horses. The formerly wild Corolla horses have been removed from the wild by the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, primarily as a result of a need for medical treatment. Once removed from the wild and potentially exposed to modern equine diseases for which the isolated wild herd at Corolla has no resistance they cannot be returned to the wild. Several of those horses have ended up here in Smithfield where they are trained and bred in an effort to stave off the extinction of these historic horses. The effort to breed these horses domestically through the development of the Corolla Off Site Breeding Program is spearheaded here at Mill Swamp Indian Horses.

As darkness falls guests are invited to come over to the replica farm site to meet see the kinds of livestock, and horses that were here in the seventeenth century. As they walk among the settler's home, his corn crib, smokehouse and his tobacco barn still under construction they will meet a historical re-enactor from the time period who will present life as it was here over 350 years ago.

" If your family traces its roots to anywhere in the southeast before 1700 these are the horses they rode. The little Colonial Spanish horses were the only horses in the region during the early Colonial period, " according to Steve Edwards, Executive Director of the Gwaltney Frontier Farm, Inc.

"Livestock was often purchased in the Caribbean by ship's captains making the trip to America. Even the early English settlers were surrounded by Spanish goats, pigs, chickens, and horses," Edwards said. "These animals are among the earliest to help build this nation and now they are nearly gone. I don't know of anywhere else in America that gives the opportunity to see and learn about these historic horses as they can be seen here."

Seating is limited for the four performances in September. There is no charge to attend. the Gwaltney Frontier Farm, Inc is a 501 (c) 5 non profit breed conservation program that is administered completely by volunteers.

For further information contact Steve Edwards at

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Now Even This Little Trace Is Gone

(I wrote this post several years ago. Since then this stretch of timber has been cut and this old road has been completely eradicated. That should not happen to these horses.)

This is a portion of an old wagon road that went from the interior of the county out to the James river. It was used in the 20th Century for farmers to take goods down to the steam boats. Farm families here rode on those steam boats as they hopped from one place in Tidewater to the next. My Grandmother told me that the trip from this path to Norfolk (about 35 miles directly) would begin before the sun came up and one would be home well after dark. The steam boats went from Smithfield, to the Peninsula, to Norfolk and back.

This might be a portion of the same route used by my great grandfather when he would drive a team of three trained farm horses toward Portsmouth where he would purchase a wild mustang (known then as "Texas Broncs") off of the rail road cars and hook it into the fourth position in the harness and drive them home. The long trip did an awful lot to get the wild horse started in his training.

The white settler's roads often followed the same trek that the Indians had used for centuries. It is very likely that this road, then but a foot trail, had been in use for many years before John Smith first landed in Isle of Wight in 1608.

Now there is only a small section of this trail recognizable to the eye. Just a small trace of history left. That's all.

I am riding Holland, a Spanish Colonial Mustang from Shackleford Island in this picture. When my ancestors rode along this trail in the late 1600's they would have been riding Spanish colonial horses just like Holland. Back then that was the only kind of horse in this part of Virginia.

Now they are nearly extinct.

Just a small trace of history left. That's all.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Why Are Corolla Spanish Mustangs So Easy to Train--an old post revisited

Survival of the Chillest

Why are wild Corollas so gentle and easy to train? Without thinking, the instant answer that comes to mind is that they have been exposed to people all of their lives. That cannot be the answer. A modern domestic horse that has seen people every day of its life but has lived in an open pasture until it is 10 years old, without any training, is likely to be much more difficult to train than a wild ten year old Corolla stallion.

The Corollas are not just the easiest wild horses to train that I have encountered, they are easiest horses of any kind to train that I have encountered. On the other hand, western mustangs tend to have a much more reactive, nervous personalities. Those traits served them well. The horses with the greatest flight instinct were the ones that survived in a world filled with predators of various ilk.

The Spanish mustangs of the the Outer Banks of North Carolina have lived for several hundred years in a world devoid of predators. However, they evolved in an ecosystem that has little if any thing in it that we would consider normal horse forage. A horse's body is as strong as steel, but his digestive system is as fragile as crystal.

In the modern world high strung, high performance horses constantly battle digestive problems, from ulcers to colic. Colic remains the leading cause of death of adult horses. Could it be that the high strung, nervous members of the early Spanish mustang herds on the Outer Banks were more susceptible to digestive threats? If so, could that mean that the calm, relaxed Spanish horses that would have been cougar feed in the west would have been the survivors had they lived on the Outer Banks?

Croatoan was a mature, wild stallion when he was captured outside of Corolla. Yet he was as calm as a Basset Hound. If you find a horse more relaxed than Croatoan check that horse's vital signs right away. (It may already be too late to save him!)

As your doctor will tell you, stress kills. Perhaps the Corollas survived because they became genetically programmed to avoid over reacting to stress.

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Striving After The Wind: The Foolish Quest For Power

Last Monday night was the most contented that I have been on stage in many, many years. I did not have to select songs, keep lyrics tight in my mind, or try to keep people in time and at the correct volume by signaling with my eyes. I was able to relax and play along with some very good musicians. Being able to play without having to coach at the same time was purely simple fun.

Several years ago I lost all interest in trying to control others. I never argue. People are free to agree with me, disagree with me, or carry themselves on away--but there will be no arguing. I do not argue. I find it profoundly undignified.

 I wish everyone felt that way. The root of all dissension and discord is not in a belief, it is in seeking to force others to adhere to that belief.

As much as I love playing music with younger  kids, performing without all the other responsibilities is wonderful.  Over the years I have worked with several young people who understand the importance what  we do at our horse lot. As the years go on I hope that they will take more and more of a role in running our program.

I look forward to being able to one day simply being able to be on the stage of our program instead of having to administer it.

That will be fun.

The Reality Of Breed Conservation

The cliche is true--if it was easy then everyone would do it. Several years ago an experienced mustang person wrote me that the successful preservationists were those who not only made it their life's work but were those who were "willing to impoverish their families" to prevent the extinction of these historic horses.

Pretty strong term.

The reality is that preservationists do not make money--instead they make contributions--and not even contributions to people that that know. The contributions are entirely to future generations. There are few endeavors that one could pursue in which success is defined simply by creating an environment in which someone else, two generations down the road, might be willing to make preserving the horses their life's work.

So long as the ember still glows, however faintly, the flame might burst out.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

September 2015: Our Busiest Month Ever


We will take our educational mission to its most intense level during the month of September. The only chance that these nearly extinct strains of historic horses have is for people to understand how they fit into the history of this nation while also seeing how easy they are to train and how comfortable they are to ride.

In September we will have another month long session of our highly acclaimed four part program, "Introduction to Natural Horsemanship." The cost is only fifty dollars for the entire program for individuals and only seventy five dollars for families. The program will teach the methods that we have been using for over a decade to tame wild horses and to start young, untrained horses.There is a limit of twenty participants in this program.The sessions will run on Saturdays from 2:15-4:15 beginning Sept 5 and going on for the next three Saturday's at the same time.

During the same time, on the same days we will teach "Introduction to Trail Riding." The classes are geared both to complete novices and those who have not ridden in years. It will start at the complete beginning--properly leading your horse from pasture to tack shed (one of the least understood and most important interactions one has with a horse) on into proper saddling , maintaining control, developing consistency in cues, conditioning techniques for both horse and rider, and on the last of the four sessions we will take a ride in the woods. The cost for those entire sessions is only $50.00

For more information on either programs email me at

Our last September program is a unique blend of history and horsemanship and entertainment and education. Beginning about forty five minutes before sunset we will have a great round pen demonstration illustrating how we apply natural horsemanship to tame and train wild horses. As the sun sets guests will walk over to be seated in our replica 1650's era farm site. As they sit there among rare colonial chickens, goats, hogs and horses they will meet a costumed character from the 17th or 18th century who will regale them with true stories that show just how thee horses fit into the history of the Southeast.

There is no charge to attend that program. We are a 501 (c) 5 non profit and we will accept contributions during those programs.

This is going to be a very heavy month. I hope that as our program continues to grow we will look back on September of 2015 as being the time that lead to our greatest expansion. We now have the horses, livestock, expertise, and historical setting to grow into a first rate educational program in addition to being a cutting edge breed conservation and riding program.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Weight and the Colonial Spanish Horse

Too much hand wringing goes on over how much weight the Colonial Spanish horse can carry comfortably. I understand. I was once as ignorant on the topic as the rest of the horse world. People cite non scientific studies and old wives tales to come up with formulas to answer the question.

There have been no meaningful studies on the issue regarding Colonial Spanish horses. Without such studies we are left to simply rely on evidence from practical use. As I began this post it struck me that there are few pieces of evidence better than my experience with these horses.

Over the past seven years I have ridden Carollas, Shacklefords, Choctaws, and SMR Colonial Spanish horses several thousand miles--- in 2011 over one thousand miles just on Tradewind. These rides are mostly trotting and gaiting, with significant cantering, with various amounts of walking thrown in, depending on the experience level of the people that rode with me.

None of these horses have experienced any back or joint problems over the years. Every single one of them was carrying well over 20% of their weight every time that I saddled up.

Though there is a great deal of concern over this non issue, the horse world  continues to ignore the real health crisis caused by weight. That is carrying too much weight around every second of the horse's life.

Equine obesity is an  epidemic. Founder was rare when I was a child, now it is viewed as simply a regular part of a horse's life. I do not know of any breed more susceptible to damage to their health from obesity than the Colonial Spanish horse. 

Consider the Corolla. These horses have rafter hips and high spines. Some have wide pin bones. When one forces these horses to become so fat that they have flat backs, or even worse, gutter backs, one is maintaining the horse in an unsafe manner. 

If a Corolla carries the body fat percentage of a halter Quarter horse it is not healthy. Secotan, shown above, is at her ideal weight. Her spine rises high above her back muscles and her hips rafter off beautifully.

Though at a fine weight, she could lose more weight through hard riding and be even healthier.

Obesity kills horses.

Consider this--the number two reason that adult horses are put down is founder. It is only second to colic. The number one cause of founder is an infusion of simple carbohydrates in an over weight horse.

We can pretend that our horses are healthy and happy by keeping them fat. We can also pretend that we are good parents for allowing our kids to spend every moment possible sitting in their rooms playing video games.

I am too old to play pretend games.

 If you love your horse don't kill it with sugar.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Horse Must Move To Learn

A horse that is hard to catch is frustrating. A horse that cannot be driven easily away is dangerous. A horse that will not move when cued to is not lazy or stubborn--it is refusing to recognize human leadership.

In the horse world power is recognized simply--the horse that can make other horses move their feet is the leader. Some horses simply refuse to move in a round pen. That is not good--it does not show how gentle the horse is--it shows how little regard the horse has for the trainer's leadership.

To move the horse use escalating pressure and release. Never simply take a lunge whip and beat the ground endlessly without causing the horse to move. Doing so simply converts the whip into a desensitizing monster to be ignored. In the same vein, let the whip rest the moment the horse begins to think about considering the possibility of complying.

Be rhythmic and perfectly consistent. I strike the ground twice--the second time with more force than the first. Only then will I give the horse a pop on the hips with the lunge whip.

In very short order the horse learns that if he moves when the first cue comes there will never be a second, mush less the need to make contact with the whip.

Houghton College Sends Us A Spectacular Intern

Things often do not go as well as I hope them to and things nearly never exceed my hopes. Our intern, Cassandra Crego, is the exception. She came here both with solid knowledge of horses and a thirst to learn more. She sure handles horses better than I did when I was her age. She is doing a much better job can I could have ever hoped her to.

She handles horses wonderfully and handles kids equally well. Like a lot of my big girls, she is centered and has a faith that shapes every aspect of her life.

This summer has been a summer of firsts for her including her:

first ride on a wild horse
first night ride
first ride on a stallion
first ride on a stallion accompanied by other stallions
first ride on a Corolla, Shackleford, Choctaw, SMR horse, BLM horse, gaited mule
first training in an amusement park
first time playing a dulcimer
first time going to a comedy club
first time eating sushi
first time ever seeing and then eating a blizzard
first time feeding a baby goat with a bottle
first time seeing horses used to help treat veterans with PTSD
first time seeing heritage breed goats, chickens, and horses at a replica early colonial farm
first time to mount a truly untrained stallion as part of his training
first time seeing a riding program with a music and art component
first time living alone away from home

She will be with us for about two more weeks. She is going to learn to trim hooves in that time period and who knows what else.

She has the potential to run a place like ours and she has the potential to manage it on a for profit business. I want our template to continue to spread and it will be necessary for people to be able to make a living while applying our principles of horse management and instruction to continue to expand.

One person at a time--one horse at a time.