Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Our March Special Rides

This picture was from our first long ride, years ago--46 miles.

As this year comes to an end it is time to look forward to some special events. Deer season ends the first Saturday in January. That will be when we begin to seriously condition ourselves and our horses for March. Our new riders will be given a chance to do their first twenty mile ride.

On another Saturday in March we will have a fifty mile trotting ride for those who are up to it. and on the last Saturday of the month we may have a March Mudness timed 25 mile run for horses and riders who are in top condition.

I probably am supposed to keep this a secret...but I think that the big girls are planning a night ride/bonfire/camp out for March that all program participants can join in on.

The best way to get out of a dark room is to keep your eyes on a glimmer of light.

Of Course That is His Natural Color

Sparrow Hawk is the most distinctive horse in our pasture. Marsh Tacky/Kentucky Mountain Horse--Elise has done a great job of settling her horse's mind and getting him ready for heavy riding. By Easter she will have him perfectly trained.

(Actually, I think she will have him perfectly trained by Valentine's Day but I am not going to say that out loud. It might put too much pressure on the two of them.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Eating Through The Woods Like Termites

The nearly twenty acres that Beth and I purchased for pasture for the program had more trees on it than I realized. Though the land is adjacent to the horse lot, I had not walked through hardly any of it in the past decade.

The progress that we are making in clearing the land is phenomenal.

Wendell purchased a brush buster and has walked many miles behind it in the last few weeks. We have had several chainsaws going at it hard, but the moving, the lifting,the toting, and  the piling is all being done by volunteers.

Most of those volunteers were young enough to order off of the kids menu a few short years ago.

The kids are doing great work, learning a lot and ......having fun.

Monday, November 28, 2016

For Whom Do You Ride?

Don't ride for other people. It is sad to see so many posts on Facebook and various horse forums that, in one form or another, beg people to approve of their horse, its size, its breed, its weight, its color,its conformation,its pedigree, its movement, its sales price, its stable, its blanket,its feed, its supplements and all of its tack.

Ride for your horse. Ride to give your horse the pleasure that movement and exercise give all living creatures. Ride for your horse's emotional health. Ride to give him confidence and to let him know that as long as you are with him he is in his herd. Ride to let him know that he is not, nor will he ever be, alone.

Ride for yourself. Ride to give yourself the pleasure that movement and exercise give all living creatures. Ride for your emotional health. Ride to gain confidence and to know that as long as your horse is with you you are in your herd. Ride to remind yourself that you are not, nor will you ever be, alone.

Do not march to the beat of a different drummer. Doing so only gives you a different drummer to surrender to.

The key is to not march at all--to walk,run, and rest as is best for you and your horse.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

My Empire Of Dirt

My wife and I just purchased a bit less than twenty acres of land adjacent to the horse lot for the use of the program. It was all part of Granddaddy Horace's farm and as recent as the very early 2000's it was a dense pasture. Since then it has over grown with pine, ash, wild cherry and sweet gum.

I had originally planned to fence it in with woven wire. That was before I realized how many trees stood there. The largest are pines that are about 18 inches across at the stump. We are using treated posts to support the poles that we are cutting, toting, and skinning by hand.

It will be a lot of work, but it will be unique for our area. I like that very much. The thought of anything that I am associated with being simply a run of the mill version of what others have or do gives me a claustrophobic feeling and makes it a bit hard to breathe.

I do not think that my land would look any better wearing a Mao suit than I would.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Forcing A Square Peg In A Round Pen: PTSD, Security and Autonomy

To very briefly summarize, a horse is a prey animal who responds best to prey animal body language, is repelled by predator body language and has a set of motivations and desires that are the polar opposite of those of predators. Adult humans evolved as predators and our body language motivations and desires are perfectly in keeping with those of other predators. Except...

for people who have experienced severe trauma. Whether diagnosed with PTSD or not, severely traumatized people, entirely without recognizing it, respond as prey animals. That does not mean that they are cowards. It means that in order to survive their entire response to the world around them changes.

Again, to oversimplify, predators have as one of their absolute supreme desires to achieve autonomy and experience excitement. Their prey, on the other hand, have as one of their absolute supreme desires to achieve security and experience calm.

Without completely understanding these concepts it is impossible for one to understand how natural horsemanship can so radically improve the lives of those who have lived through extraordinary trauma. There are many books to be written and studies to be done on this transformation and one cannot do it justice in the limits of a blog post.

But rest assured, it is real. I see it in our PTSD program done in conjunction with the VA. I see it in the lives of people who have been touched by our horses. Most of all, I see it as I watch Ashley Edwards doing programs through Road to Repair.

I do not believe that interaction with the horses using natural horsemanship in either a structured program or an individual journey, by itself, will invariably lead to healing. In fact, this belief is damaging both to the individual and the future of these treatment breakthroughs.

One who develops a trusting relationship with a horse and uses the insights gained from that experience still has a prey animal outlook. As the quality of life improves the predator outlook, which is natural for humans and is not a pejorative term, strengthens.

And herein is the danger. As changes occur the desire for autonomy begins to replace the desire for security as a primary motivator. The desire for excitement begins to return. These are good things, great things--but unless the person has first found a sense of security then it will be impossible to lead a functional life. Autonomy and excitement will not produce happiness or peace unless one has first found the feeling of security that has been robbed from them. That step is an absolute prerequisite for happiness.

As the desire for autonomy strengthens the threat is that one will come to believe that becoming autonomous, in what ever way one defines it at that point in one's life, will be the solution to the pain created by trauma and abuse. And therein lies the root of wanderlust--the belief that "all I need is a change of scenery" or, as Jimmy Rogers sang "When a man gets the blues, he hops on a train and he rides."  It is at that point that the desire for autonomy causes the person to leave every bit of the support system that they may have developed to run away to seek "adventure". The result generally being another round of depression and a downward spiral.Gram Parson's understood, "It hard way to find out that trouble is real, in a far away city, with a faraway feel." (Hickory Wind).

And if you think that I am condescendingly saying that those who have experienced severe trauma are so broken and their healing so fragile that they can never experience the pleasures of excitement and freedom--that autonomy is simply too high a goal for them to aspire to you sadly misread the point. 

Working the horses, migrating away from a prey animal's instinctive reaction to the world and seeking to be, and becoming, fully autonomous is well within reach.....

....provided that one, in making this migration, finds security first. That will require a life of consistency instead of chaos. It will require the person to be able to return to those who help provide that sense of peace and security. It requires the person to develop a schedule and manage time. It requires that the person take control of the events around them. 

Security has many features, but one its most important features is knowing that one has a tremendous degree of control over the events in their lives and that knowledge comes with the experience  of consistently taking that control and noting the outcome. Winning begets winning. 

When that sense of security is achieved autonomy and its enjoyment becomes possible. In chaos there is not security.

Think about this simple example. I know exactly where I will be sleeping three Thursday's from now. Now think about how many people there who are caught up in an existence where they cannot make such a prediction with any degree of certainty--and I am not even talking about homeless people, just the enormous number of people living without any control over their future.

Working with horses can be the most important step in overcoming a Hellish existence that many people will ever take. But healing is a process.

People who are hurting bad often approach healing with three different beliefs:

1. It won't work for me.
2. It will work for me and it must happen immediately.
3. It will work if I put everything that I have into it, struggle, fight, refuse to give up, take one step at a time and refuse to pretend "that everything would be fine if only (fill in the blank )

Of course, only the third belief enables healing.

The horses are the door. You still have to be willing to walk through that door.

Makes for an entirely new 4-H "Healing's Hard, Horse's Help"

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Those Good Deals Always Have A Catch To Them

Completely off hand comment--don't even remember the question that prompted it--John McCain said "You get more sentimental as you get older." Powerful observation.

Youth is a time for selfishness, not sentimentality. When you are old and sentimental and those you care about are youthful and selfish a painful clash is inevitable. I rarely find myself close to people of my generation. I find myself drawn to the vitality and innovation of younger minds.

I was born old. Really struck me when someone posted a question about what age children change their views of Santa Claus. I realized that I have no memory of ever believing the story. It seemed patently illogical to me--always.

I was always the oldest kid in the room. That is why when I was a young politician I was always the youngest person in the meeting--always. (What other teenager has a candidate for state wide office at a large gathering turn to them and ask them to " go up there to the microphone and warm up the audience before I speak?"

I was never a kid. I was never irresponsible. I did not get in trouble.

I got people out of trouble.

And now I am a sentimental old man. That means that, whether it looks like it or not, my feelings cover every bit of the surface of an ever thinning skin. Playing music is not so much of a performance to me as it is the sharing of a sacrament with those I care about. I do not play music with strangers. I do not "jam." Even after all of  these years the majority of the times that I have been on stage have been with my brothers and a sister, Daddy, my wife, or my daughters.

Or with young people about whom I care very deeply.

Recently, my sentimentality clashed hard with the natural and entirely age appropriate selfishness of some of these young people. It sent me reeling.

It sent me reeling to the degree that I have been working very hard to come up with options to keep the program running successfully and growing without my active participation in any of the programming.

But that is not going to work. Those I have asked to take over are not being modest--they are simply being realistic--they really cannot run this program the way that it needs to be run.

So I remain the oldest kid in the room and I will continue to run the program and keep it growing and working. That means returning to this blog and getting on a horse again.

It has been a while.

Thursday, November 17, 2016


....that is what they used to call tuberculosis. The disease, when untreated, caused significant bleeding until the lungs of its victim seemed to have been consumed. Sufferers were essentially eaten from the inside.

Running a program like ours is more like that than I want to imagine or admit to myself. For a few years there is just a lot of coughing and a bit of blood. You get used to it and often think nothing of it. Then as symptoms worsen the coughing and blood is the only thing that you notice.

As amazing as it is, in the nineteenth century many of those wracked by the disease lived on and worked for many years.

They simply persevered.

I believe that there are four major virtues that define character--courage, generosity, honesty, and perseverance. Of these, perseverance is the most important. When courage fails one who perseveres can stand back up and fight on for another round. In a world of selfishness one who perseveres can continue to give. In a filthy, dishonest world one who perseveres can continue to be honest.

The bottom line is that even when life is defined by coughing and spitting blood as long as one gets up every day and fights back one is persevering.

Of all the virtues, perseverance is the hardest to consume.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Expect A Horse To Act Like A Horse

Expect a billy goat to act like a billy goat......

and expect kids and young people to act like kids and young people.

Horses are not people and they are not dogs. Assuming that they should act as either people or dogs is the first, and perhaps most significant, wall that one must breach in order to develop a meaningful relationship with a horse.

I am always amazed to hear people complaining about the smell of Spicer, our San Clemente Island billy goat. People actually ask, why does he smell like that?

Because he is a goat! He is doing what billy goats do and he smells like billy goats smell!

I recently received wonderful news from a  lady who is going to develop a, as she described it, "therapy like" riding program. She is going to be great for  the job and is going to touch a lot of lives. I offered to be available when she wanted to discuss program development.

It struck me that the first thing that anyone who is developing a program should do is prepare for kids and young people to act like kids and young people. That does not mean that one should not set high standards of behavior and have high expectations of program participants. That does not mean that one should not work to develop a program that increases the maturity and responsibility of participants.

But it does mean to thicken one's own skin and recognize that kids and young adults will act as kids and young adults. Some will act out of an abundance of selfishness and self interest. Some will act and react out of nothing but their current insecurities and lack of comfort. In doing so they may very well act without recognizing how much their actions utterly shred the feelings of the people around them.

But that is how many kids and young people act--and that is how kids and young people have always acted. To expect program participants to have the empathy that one would rightfully expect of an old person is to expect them to have had the same experiences  in their short lives that a sixty year old has had in theirs.

It can't be done.

But stick with it. Don't give up on them.

Just hunker down like you would do in a very bad storm. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Control of A Horse Cannot Be Purchased

You cannot use pay pal to buy trust. No bit, however expensive, ever trained a horse.

Control of a horse cannot be purchased, but it can be earned. Control of the horse comes from understanding his fears, perfect consistency in pressure and release and, perhaps most importantly, never, ever, puling back on the reins, even to the slightest degree, when the horse is moving forward in the direction and speed that is desired.

It is that simple. The whining and hand wringing that comes up constantly on this question on horse forums has become very tedious to read.

The horse that bolts does not trust his rider.

If that rider has not spent hours with the horse, simply standing around in the pasture, walking the horse through a myriad of obstacles, and teaching the horse that he is safe the horse will have utterly no reason to trust.

Monday, November 14, 2016

We Don't Get The Hate Mail That We Once Did

In fact, it has been a long time since I got a note advising me that the writer hoped that "one of those kids gets killed and you get sued." It is more common to get unsolicited input concerning the conformation of the horses that we work to preserve. Of course, there is the constant clamor that these "poor little ponies" are simply too small to be ridden by adults.

The longest and most vitriolic note that I received came years ago after I posted a picture of Medicine Iron, shown above, when he was quite young. The writer urged me to "stop breeding worthless crap with no market value." I was urged to spend some time with a veterinarian so I could actually learn something about horses. The writer eventually went on to explain that horses such as ours ended up filling up needed places at horse rescues and eventually simply wound up in slaughter houses.

Take a look at the breed statistics of the American horses that go to slaughter. You will find that the established horse world works overtime to produce Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds. They need to produce huge numbers of these horses in order to have enough "quality" horses left after the others are culled.

For much of the established horse world the circle of life involves birth, being deemed unworthy of preservation, going through a culling process, and then being disposed of. It is that world, inhabited by "true horse professionals", that we want no part of.

And I think that the simple numbers concerning horse slaughter bear this out. In the last decade the established horse world has supported a system that sent over 100,000 horses to slaughter annually.

None of those horses came from Mill Swamp Indian Horses.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Victim Assistance Award Winner Teaches Natural Horsmanship To Investigate Abuse

On November 17, 2016 the Virginia Victim Assistance Network will recognize Ashley Edwards, of Road To Repair, with its Award For Innovation in the provision of services to victims of crime. Ashley's revolutionary programs teach effective communication skills for those who work with people who have been severely traumatized uses natural horsemanship as its model.

Ashley survived the worse abuse that I have encountered in my nearly twenty years of prosecuting sexual assault and crimes against children. She lived essentially as a hostage in her teenage years while maintaining a GPA of 4.2. During those years her survival depended on being able to read every sound and sight around her. Her life taught her to not only understand the body language of prey animals--nor even to be fluent in it--but more, to be eloquent in interpreting and explaining that language.

Nothing could be more important for those who want to effectively communicate with traumatized people. As humans we naturally use the body language of predators--unless we have been shattered by trauma. At that point we become intimidated by the body language of predators and are instinctively drawn to the body language of prey animals--particularly that prey animal body language associated with security, leadership and trust.

And she teaches all of this by putting professionals in a round pen with a horse and showing them why it is such a horrible idea to look a traumatized child in the eye, reach out to shake their hand before developing any trust with them, sit across from them instead of beside them, and to shut the office door behind them.

She also provides direct service to survivors by teaching them how to enter the world of trust and security that can be found through horses.

In short, she teaches that everything that we naturally do gets in the way of solid communication with those whose lives would have to radically improve before it could be described as hellish.

In short, she is seeking to create a revolution in the investigation of these cases and the services the survivors receive.

We are looking at different models that will make this possible. We are considering forming a non-profit corporation to fund video production and publications to make it possible to reach a much broader audience.

For years I have said that she is the most impressive kid that I have ever known--I guess that we are reaching the point for me to concede that she is now the most impressive young lady that I have ever known.

WTKR news did a great segment on Ashley's programs. Here is the tag to google search it. If you have not seen it take a look--it shows what is possible

Saturday, November 5, 2016

The Best Things In Life Might Be Free, But Fence Posts Aren't

Yesterday Joe Walters, of Freedom Hunters, and his wife Chris, visited the horse lot. Freedom Hunters provides opportunities for outdoor adventures to veterans, active military members, and their families. They are a non-profit and by coincidence the visit coincided with a session that we do for veterans who are in the in-patient program at the Hampton VA hospital. We very much look forward to working with them for everything to providing demonstrations on how we tame wild horses, to joining in on a ride, and even providing the opportunity for kids whose parents are deployed to become regular program participants.

When I adopted my first wild horse about fifteen years ago it never even entered my mind that one day that would grow to the kind of program that we have become. No paid staff, all volunteers--horses eat 10-12,000 pounds of hay each week, new water system being put in---and Beth and I purchased nearly twenty acres of land adjacent to the horse lot for use by the program this week. Wendell bought a heavy duty brush mower and I have been cutting down small trees all week. Fencing for that land and paying for the well and watering system will be extraordinarily expensive. The good news is that we are able to do so much work ourselves and rarely have to hire out or rent expensive equipment. (This week I moved many tons of compost material and the only equipment used was a donated snow shovel) However, we will be in need of some significant cash donations to cover the fencing and water system costs--and we need it as soon as possible. We are a 501 (c) 5 breed conservation non-profit. Unlike a 501 (c) 3 donations to Gwaltney Frontier Farm are not tax deductible. We would be in pretty good shape if we raised five thousand dollars this month. Donations may be made by check to Gwaltney Frontier Farm, 16 Dashiell Drive, Smithfield Va 23430. (Gwaltney Frontier Farm, Inc is the legal name of the organization. Mill Swamp Indian Horses is our program name.)

 These improvements will make it much easier for us to work to preserve nearly extinct strains of historic Colonial Spanish horses, such as the Corollas, Choctaws, and Marsh Tackies. I am not a salesman or a great pitchman for fund raising. Perhaps it is a genetic deficit. When Momma or Lido knew about people in the community who needed a hand they simply would ask me "You got your check book with you?"

With that in mind, I would appreciate it if you would all look around the house and see if you can find your check book.