Saturday, March 31, 2018

Giving Your Pony What He Needs: Hug That Horse!

From the moment of its birth a horse is on a constant search for security. That drive to be safe is what kept them alive for thousands of generations in the wild. The first security that a foal finds is from physical contact with its mother. It will never stop needing that contact and the best way to become close to your horse is to shower him with physical contact.

Horses form alliances with each other through physical contact. Comet, the appaloosa, is the lead horse in his band. Holland, the bay Shackleford Colonial Spanish mustang is his second in command. As other horses rise in status in the band they will copy this behavior. Given enough time and space the band will nearly always work out their conflicts so that the lower ranking horses feel secure in the presence of the lead horses.

Sometime this affection is misread by people. Their skin is very tough. Horses do not like to be tickled by super soft strokes. They seek out the same kind of strong contact that they remember their mothers giving them when they were foals.

The key to natural horsemanship is to adjust one's behavior and body language so that horses can understand it. Your physical contact with your horse is most appreciated when it feels natural to him.

When you rub him as a friendly horse would rub him you give that horse a tremendous sense of peacefulness. Note how the physical contact here with Bell, a wonderful little white mule, is similar to how horses interact with each other. Do not make unnatural contact with them. Horses do not pat each other. They rub each other. Your horse might learn to stand still while you clap your hand against his neck, but he will not instinctively enjoy it. When you are making contact with your horse get very close to him. Do not stand back and stretch your claws out towards his neck like a mountain lion would. People often stand back because they are afraid of having their toes stepped on. The best way to keep your toes from being stepped on is to always be alert. Know where your feet are. Know where your horse's feet are and push him away if he is getting to close to your feet.

Dog's love treats. Treats are a great way to establish a relationship with a dog. The first lesson to learn about building a relationship with a horse is to always understand that your horse is not a dog. Dogs are predators. Predators love excitement. When you hug a dog there is a very good chance that the dog will become rambunctious and playful. Horses are prey animals. They do not like excitement. When you hug a horse there is a very good chance that the horse will relax and even look bored! That is not boredom. That is peacefulness.

There is nothing wrong with occasionally giving your horse treats, but if your entire relationship is based on those treats you have taught your horse that you are simply a food delivery system. Doing so does not teach your horse that he is safe with you. Doing so does not teach your horse that you are a leader. Doing so does not bring him a feeling of peacefulness.

Every time you are in your horse's presence you are training him. You are training him to feel safe in your presence or you are training him that your presence does not make him safe.

When a horse is being brushed he relaxes with the physical stimulation that he receives. Having his mane braided or decorated in other ways does not create that same relaxation. That does not mean that you should not braid manes or do other things to make him look beautiful to you. It does mean that you should not neglect brushing, rubbing and hugging. That is what he needs. He really does not care if his mane is braided.

Horses are tuned in to every sight, sound, and smell around them. That is how they survived in the wilderness. As night begins to fall the wind often dies down. They can hear better without that wind and they can identify and locate the sources of scents better as the humidity rises as night approaches.

Take him outside of his stable as the day ends.  That is the very best time to give your horse what he really wants. That is the perfect time to go stand so close to his shoulder that the two of you are touching each other. Completely relax your body. Be still. Notice his breathing. Breath in rhythm with him. Notice that his breathing is slowing. Watch his head lower a bit. Watch his ears relax. Watch him look as if he is so bored that he is about to fall asleep.

Spend at least a half an hour like that with him.

And understand why he is enjoying this experience more than anything else that has happened that day.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Refocus on Things That Matter

Everyone has the same 24 hours in each day. Every second lost is never recovered.

I am 58 years old and I need more time to Refocus on Things that Matter. I want to get back to hard riding and training horses. I want to get back to reading books. For much of the 70's I tried to read three books each week. In the 80's  I often read four newspapers before breakfast.

In the 90's I exercised an hour and a half each morning of the week. In 2016 I rode 1002 miles in six months.

But things have changed and I am going to clean up my schedule. When I turn on my computer around 3:00 am it is not unusual to find over fifty emails waiting for me. The wait is going to have to get much longer. I think that I am going to get rid of the internet connection to my computer at home.

Taking those two hours spent at the computer back each day will improve my life.

I suspect that it will also improve Stitch's life.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Patience: It's More Important Than Planning

Planning has its place in program development. Depending on one's particular peculiarities it can be a spur for success, a security blanket, or a process that allows one to sit quietly while spinning wheels and going no where, yet still feeling good about one's "progress" in planning. I prefer innovation and creativity over planning in nearly every endeavor. Others may differ and find proceeding without detailed planning to be a terrifying concept. My point being is that one size does not fit all. I am not certain that one style is even better than the other or can even be counted on to produce better results than the other.

I have been told by exasperated people, in a tone that makes it sound like an accusation, that I "just get up in the morning and come up with a new idea and then just do it."

I plead guilty.

And for the last fifteen or so years of developing this program that has worked fine for me. I do not insist that it is how others should build their programs. I only point out that this is how I do things and I have no interest in being enlightened or informed so that I can learn to conform to more acceptable growth and management strategies.

But I am certain of one thing. Regardless of one's style of program development one must be patient, and even more difficult, one must require others to be patient. Today is the first Saturday that I am doing something that I should have been doing for years. I have cancelled riding because of the soil conditions. The ground is too wet and horse and human foot traffic will lead to soil compaction that will damage the pastures for months to come.

In a similar vein, too often I have allowed people to take horses out of a sacrifice paddock to "just let them have a little grass" in pastures that were resting. The result was fleeting enjoyment of pasture for the horse, a feeling of doing something good by the person, and season long damage to the pasture. This year that will stop.

Program participants will learn the importance of microbial development to the soil. They will learn the importance of pasture development for the actual health of the herd and will learn to completely disregard the momentary, false feeling of doing something healthy for a horse by letting it retard the growth of a resting pasture.

Like planning, patience is something that can also be a detriment to program development if abused. We have a very diverse group of program participants. Over the years I have sought to gently encourage and explain why we have certain practices involving natural horse care that are important for the health of the herd. I have been too patient in that approach and that too will end.

As with any program it is necessary to step back and evaluate management practices from time to time and to make corrections as needed. In recent years I have come to understand that the health of the horses is dependent of the health of the soil. Maintaining the health of the soil will be a top priority for the program.

It will take several years of sound soil conservation practices before we reach optimum pasture development. But that is alright. We will become a program in which participants learn the value of patience.

(The picture above is of a round bale rolled out on the New Land. the rolling out of the hay is of tremendous value to the soil and it helps the horses build much stronger top lines than standing and eating from a round bale. It is one of the changes that we are making to enhance the health of our soil and our horses.)

Monday, March 19, 2018

Virginia Agri-tourism Conference: Bringing Visitors To Your Farm

On March 22, 2018 I will be addressing the Virginia Agri-tourism Conference in Williamsburg. In November we presented a day long session at the horse lot for the annual meeting of the Livestock Breeds Conservancy on using entertainment, education, and public service to promote nearly extinct strains of Colonial Spanish horses.

The upcoming presentation will  highlight what we do at the horse lot in our unconventional approach to attract novices to riding and horse ownership. I will spend less time on how we do things than I will on why we do things.

Agri-tourism can bring additional revenue to farmers, but even more important is what it can bring to the visitors. It can bring meaning to the lives of the visitors. Our nation has not been as divided as we now are since the Civil War. Too many techno kids live lives trapped inside a smart phone or video games. Too many parents have no idea how to connect with their kids. Too many people struggle with depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

A renaissance of rural culture and cultural education, linked with a strong effort to expose urban and suburban families to the soil can help alleviate the emptiness of the soul felt by too many people. I know how much our program changes lives. I know how few of our participants are from rural families. I know what it does for them to exchange the fleeting pleasure of technology for the time worn satisfaction of hard work, production of livestock and crops, and development of the creativity to produce art and music.

Take a look at what goes on at the Wayne C. Henderson School of Appalachian Arts. Though there is not a horse at that facility, people who truly understand our program will readily see that much of what we provide to our visitors and program participants is the same connectedness that places like the Henderson School provide.

Virginia needs to facilitate the development of more programs that bring people out of the cities and suburbs to learn to apply the best of rural values to their lives.

And the visitors are not the only ones who benefit from these programs. Connecting with urban and suburban kids and families gives country people the opportunity to better understand the common humanity that we all share.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Mid Atlantic Teen Challenge:That They Might Have Life And Have It More Aboundantly

Last night I had a wonderful surprise. Mid-Atlantic Teen Challenge is a powerfully effective program that treats substance abuse in teenage boys. I was invited to their annual banquet and when Beth and I sat down at our table I noticed that the center piece included two photos of Teen Challenge participants with our horses. I looked around at the other tables and noticed that most of the center pieces included such pictures.

It took a while but eventually I noticed large poster sized photos of the boys with the horses or walking through the new land. During the wonderful meal some of the young men in the program came up and talked about their lives and the new life that they have received while living at Teen Challenge. It was a powerful presentation. It was uplifting and inspiring. Most of all it served as a reminder of what is possible and that hands are wasted when only used for wringing or throwing them up over one's head.

It was not just a reminder of what can be done, it was a call reminding us what must be done.

As it appeared that the program was wrapping up the boys were called up front. They stood there in a long line in front of the banquet tables. The executive director of Mid Atlantic Teen Challenge then began to talk about the boys' experiences coming out to the horse lot over the years. Most of all he talked about them learning about trust with the horses. Beth and I were then called up to the front where, to my surprise, our program was honored for its impact on the boys in the program.

I was more than pleased.

What good are these little horses? Why is all of this worth the hard work to preserve them? How much money are they worth? Is there a good market for them?

Our horses help give abundant life. It's hard to convert that to money.

I hope that in future years we will develop a stronger programing partnership with teen challenge. It is often more important to find that one missing sheep than it is to be complacent about the ninety nine that one already has.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Horselot Home Coming

We are looking forward to a visit from one of our interns from several years go. I recently got a note from Christina Caro indicating that she will be coming in this summer and will be bringing several friends with her.

Our interns get exposed to a side of horsemanship that is hard to find at other equine establishments. They learn to establish relationships with horses and they learn to teach others to do so.

And some of them, like Christina, end up carrying their experience even beyond our nation's borders.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Building Fences-Tearing Down Walls

So here is what is going on at the horse lot. A volunteer crew came out from Dominion Energy and cleared land Friday. Kids from the home school program hauled ash saplings that we have cut from the new land and are using it to construct a wattle fence in the settler's farm. Cub scouts and their families came out and worked hard building brush piles and then enjoyed a demonstration of natural horsemanship training in the round pen with a beautiful Marsh Tacky mare.

Several volunteers spent the morning in line picking up free saplings that we will plant as part of our soil and water conservation and agricultural education programs. Others spent the afternoon putting those saplings in pots inside our plastic storage building which makes for a perfect greenhouse.

While the afternoon's activities were going on, our Board of Directors was meeting to plan for program development and expansion for the year. And tomorrow night music program participants will gather to learn to perform more ancient songs on American traditional instruments. We are expecting our first Colonial Spanish foal of the year to be born any moment and three of our colonial goats will be having little ones in a couple of weeks. A new family joined our riding program.

And....time has changed and with the longer days many hours will be spent in the saddle after leaving the office.

History, horses, music, hard work, permaculture, soil conservation, rare breeds preservation, animal husbandry, natural horsemanship, education, entertainment, and public service--that's what is going on at the horse lot.

 We are building fences and tearing down the walls that separate and isolate people.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Volunteerism At Mill Swamp Indian Horses

We have had more volunteer participation at Mill Swamp Indian Horses in the past year than at any previous time. The core of the volunteer work comes from program participants. This year the number of individuals in the community who are simply looking for a place to use their talent to improve the quality of the lives of others has gone through the roof. We have had a great deal of work put in by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Church youth groups have been out and worked hard. A community volunteer group from Dominion Energy was out yesterday and put a full day of hard work into clearing the new land.

The financial support that we have received from individuals and civic organizations have allowed us to continue to grow. We are a 501 (c) 5 non profit breed conservation program. We have no paid staff.

Everything is done by volunteers.

See our website at and check out our group Mill Swamp Indian Horses face book page.

If you want to be part of something bigger than you are this is a great place to do it.