Tuesday, December 31, 2019
Time for a check up.
Got to make sure that none of the rusty spots on my body are becoming too corroded to work. I don't usually delve into alternative medicine, but today I am going to set aside the most accurate measure of a man's health, a digestive and muscular stress test exam (Number of raw oysters that can be eaten in twenty minutes times the number of hand dug post holes that can be dug in one hour) and try a more New Age measure of health.
Recently I find myself in dire need of rest after sawing down trees for two hours. Today and tomorrow I plan to go on a woods clearing tear and cut down trees for at least ten hours over the two days while running fence during my rest breaks.
If my body can handle that, chances are I will last at least another year.
Tuesday, December 17, 2019
We are building soil and I am loving doing it. Last summer I conditioned horses for an endurance race. There has to be a trade off when that happens. The trade off for me was that I did not have time to clear land and build soil. Things fell behind on pasture development. Pastures became over grazed, compacted and weeds infiltrated the New Land.
The New Land is a nearly twenty acre tract that Beth and I purchased for the use of the program. We cleared about 85% of the trees from land and built a fence of the poles that we cut from those trees. That fence lasted several years and we have nearly completed replacing that will wire fence. Doing so will allow more mixed livestock use of that pasture.
By the end of January I hope to have it very heavily stocked with horses, cattle, sheep and poultry eating rolled round bales, putting down manure, spreading microbes, and getting the soil ready for plantings of cool season grasses and clovers by the end of February.
Over the last month we have taken on very heavy project in Jacobs Woods, which is about 15 acres of mature pine, maple, many oak pole trees, holly, and a sea of wild blueberry bushes. I am removing all but the largest trees to create both a silvopasture and a brush pile that is going to be about a third of a mile long for wildlife habitat.
If all goes well, on May 1, we will move a mixed herd in to Jacob's woods and will nearly eliminate grazing pressure on the New Land as the cool season grasses come into strong development. And we will be on the road to practicing effective rotational grazing.
Our pastures on the Old Land will be able to rest, heal and grow during this rotation. This will be more work, and more work done by hand, and more work done by kids than most people would think possible.
But it matters. Not only does it cut our hay bills, it gives us a chance to teach kids how to build soil.
Sunday, December 15, 2019
Penumbra: a shadowy, indefinite, or marginal area.
Our reputations are penumbras of our characters and personalities. It is the penumbra that fills in the blanks when one is defined by others. In short, the existence of certain traits leads to the conscience and sub conscience assumption of the existence of other traits.
Many kids who come out for our programs do not know how to do hard physical work. It is not so much a matter of being lazy. It is that their computer game lifestyle has never given them the opportunity to test their physical limits. That becomes even more obvious when they try to work together on projects.
They cannot fathom how the tree tops that I am cutting down from about 15 acres of woods can ever be removed from the forest floor and placed into brush piles hundreds of yards long that will create ideal wildlife habitat. Those who allow their minds to even get far enough to think of ways that it could be done invariably come to the "solution" that we need to buy some heavy equipment to get the job done or "just hire somebody."
It can take several weeks for the kids to learn to work together. It takes only a short time after that before nearly all of them learn to love working together. By that point they have learned to be proud of their work product. Yes, many of them even get excited about being given the chance to learn to work hard.
And we all want our children to grow up to be successful, happy adults. One of the best gifts that we can give kids is to give them the chance to learn to work together and to work hard and efficiently.
Please do not confuse the concept of being a hard worker with being a workaholic. A workaholic does not know how to work with others. A workaholic does not know how to be part of a team. And most of all, a workaholic does not know how to work efficiently. Workaholics waste time on perfectionism and never achieve the satisfaction of being able to look at their work and see it as good enough.
There are penumbras associated with being known as a hard worker. When we think of hard workers we think of them as honest people--reliable people--generous people--people who give of their time to others. In short, simply being known as a hard worker brings with it a host of other assumptions of good character.
When we began creating our program we made no effort to incorporate learning to work hard into what we do. It evolved as I watched kids in our program become older teens and even young adults. Those who learned to work hard became more confident in all aspects of their lives.
A veterinarian once made a very important observation to me--"Your riders do not act like other riding students. They aren't haughty and condescending."
That is very true. They are not.
They have learned not to be that way and when we say that we are an educational institution it is this form of education that lies at the heart of everything else that we do.
Saturday, December 7, 2019
For nearly seven years we have been conducting weekly programming in conjunction with the local Veterans Hospital at no charge. We have monthly programming with Mid-Atlantic Teen Challenge, a substance abuse program for teens. Our program has been on the forefront of using horses to teach better communication techniques to professionals who interact with severely traumatized people. These sessions have included everything from law enforcement to social workers, to teachers, to victim witness coordinators, to prosecutors, and parents. Ashley Edwards has conducted powerful Road To Repair programs on site.
If you are new to our program go to our website www.millswampindianhorses.com and look under the tab "News" for some good back ground on how we have grown.
We have provided off site training programs to law enforcement professionals. This blog and our group Facebook page have often highlighted or provided links to important information on trauma and natural horsemanship. We do not have a separate riding program or natural horsemanship program for severely traumatized people because of our strong belief that the very same program that enriches the lives of those who have not suffered severe trauma does the same for even the most serious PTSD sufferer.
Our programs have never turned anyone away for inability to pay program fees.
So with all of that already going on what changes will we be looking to make?
First of all, we will work to do no harm. Participants will learn to understand that a severely traumatized person has much in common with large heard prey animals. The same body language that intimidates a horse intimidates a severely traumatized person. Large predatory mammals seek autonomy. Indeed, we often equate maturity with having become independent. The horse and the severely traumatized person seek security over autonomy.
So the first step in making our program more trauma informed is to work hard to make the horse lot a place where one can feel secure. Here is where we have to draw a distinct line between the approach that we will take and the stereotypical "safe" places where one can hide from stressors. Security does not come from merely having a place to hide. Horses can help one confront and conquer the fears whose bars made of anxiety imprison an increasing number of people each year.
For example, the person whose anxiety makes it difficult to mount up will be given support, encouragement, and taught the skills to successfully ride. They will neither be made to feel that they are weak for having that fear nor will they be made to feel that it is perfectly fine to allow that fear to permanently keep them in chains.
Providing security means that each participant will have to become acutely aware of the impact that their behavior has on others. No adult should allow expressions of anger to cause pain or fear in other participants. That simply cannot be tolerated.
Part and parcel of this transition is the requirement that program participants work to become trauma informed. Doing so benefits both the participant who has experienced extreme trauma and those who have not, but need to understand how those that have might react to a given situation. I was proud to see three of our Board members and three of our young adult and teen participants attending a local training on suicide prevention. The transition will include more formal training for program participants and leaders.
We will expand use of our group Facebook page to include more research on trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences. We will place more emphasis on teaching all program participants the lessons of the round pen so that they can truly understand the mind of the horse. Doing so provides insight, self awareness and a better understanding of trauma induced responses.
And most of all, we will emphasize healing--not merely accepting pain--but working hard to fight that pain and begin to heal.
Many people have largely evaded the effects of trauma and have no one in their immediate life that would benefit from the lessons learned in a trauma informed approach to riding and horse training. Those people, whether they ever have to apply the lessons learned in our program or not, will simply become better people.
They will learn empathy and compassion.
Natural horsemanship makes good horses, but it makes better people.
Thursday, November 28, 2019
I cannot retire right now from my job as a prosecutor--might not ever be able to do so. Several years ago my wife and I purchased twenty acres of partially wooded land adjacent to the horse lot for the use of our program. We have nearly completed clearing that land and for the past two years it has provided wonderful forage for our horses and goats.
We cleared the land by hand using a chainsaw and we made our first fence around the land entirely from the poles that we cut from those trees. The perimeter of the pasture is .64 miles and the actual construction of that post and pole fence was done by a few volunteers and many hours of work by program participants.
We are a non-profit with no paid staff, yet we got that job done.
We have now begun to convert about fifteen acres of mature pine and occasional hardwood trees into silvopasture. Again, all of the work is done by hand by program participants. Each morning before going to the office I saw down everything but large pines and oak trees that I hope will be large enough to produce acorns for wild life at some point. (If they will not be able to do so they will be removed)
The limbs and tree tops are being stacked in long windrows about six feet tall and five yards wide along the perimeter of the land. These brush piles will make wonderful wildlife habitat. We use no chemical fertilizers or poisons on our land, so we are already a preferred vacation spot for rabbits.
The land has not been timbered in at least forty years (I think closer to fifty) so the soil has a ratio of fungus to bacteria way too high to support immediate pasture growth. By flooding the land with a mixture of livestock and rolling hay for that livestock we will infuse the soil with bacteria.
We have a large herd of Colonial Spanish horses and heritage breed livestock that includes Ossabaw hogs, San Clemente Goats, Syfan goats, a Hog Island ram, Highland cattle, and turkeys and a small band of roosters. These animals give us a nearly inexhaustible source of organic material. We practice soil and water conservation programs that keep runoff from the pastures to a minimum.
In past years I buried the tank of an old hot tub to ground level and filled it with composting material and eventually added worms to turn it into a vermicomposting operation. The worms flourished so well that they have colonized the pastures adjacent to their original containers to the point that nightly deposited worm casting are visible all over those pastures.
We have done some experimenting with vermicompost tea and direct infusion of small amounts of living compost into the pastures. The results show that on a larger scale we should be able to radically increase the amount of forage produced, reduce soil compaction, increase rain water absorption and reduce runnoff even further by increasing our use of vermicompost.
Toward that end I received another five thousand worms in the mail last night and will be putting them in the compost today.
But I cannot retire from my job. The project will only work if every program participant is willing to simply add a shovel full of manure to the compost with each and every visit to the horse lot. I will only be able to turn fifteen acres of Jacob's Woods into silvopasture if each participant in our program puts in time each and every week to drag the limbs and tops from the trees that I cut down every morning over to the brush piles.
In short, all of this will only work if everyone in our program works. Under most circumstances that would be a recipe for failure. I know that some participants will not take up the challenge to get the work done, but I also know that other participants will do the work of ten people.
The down side for me is that I cannot get all of this work done and still have time to ride as much as I want, and need, to. But we are building something that matters here. Mill Swamp Indian Horses is a program of Gwaltney Frontier Farm, a 501 (c) 5 breed conservation program. We recently formed a 501 (c) 3 educational foundation to help fund some of the educational programs that we administer at the horse lot.
We are an educational institution that teaches, and learns, by doing.
And we will keep on doing
Wednesday, November 27, 2019
Yes, not for the reason that it once was, but yes, it is still worth it. We strive to preserve and promote several strains of nearly extinct Colonial Spanish horses, most of all the Corollas and the Choctaws. There was a time that that was enough reason to get up every morning. Go to our website at www.millswampindianhorses.com to learn more about our preservation efforts.
But I am older than that now. Now, as Lydia once said to me, "The people matter more than the horses."
When you go to our website check out the tab that is labeled "News". Look at those TV clips and newspaper articles about our program. It will help you begin to understand why we run a program of this scope and why we are willing to do it with no paid staff.
I got a great note this morning from my youngest daughter, Ashley. (If you have not checked out the tv and newspaper stories about Ashley that are on our website you really need to stop what you are doing and look at them now and then return to reading this post.)
Ashley told me that she will again be speaking to criminology classes at Virginia Commonwealth University this semester. During the question and answer session at her last appearance she was asked how she was able to discuss the horror that she had been through. She was asked about whether the presentations that she gives cause nightmares.
She responded with precision. She said that, yes, the presentations can cause nightmares, but that she "gets nightmares so other people won't have to have as many nightmares."
Our program helps make it so other people won't have to have so many nightmares.
This morning I got to do one of the most important things that I ever do. I responded to a gentleman in Texas who was seeking my advice on how to develop a program like ours. I am always available to answer those questions. Nothing would make me happier than to see a program like ours spread all over the nation. Of course, we don't charge for assisting in the development of such programs. We are not selling anything. We are not seeking to license anything. We are not franchising anything.
Most of the advice that I give covers the nuts and bolts of running a program, but one thing that I urge anyone thinking having an equine program with meaning to do might come as a surprise. Of course, one must know natural horsemanship inside and out, but equally important one must know the effects of trauma on human behavior inside and out.
Without being trauma informed one can have a well intentioned program. Becoming completely trauma informed will allow one to have a well intentioned program that changes people's lives.
It's worth it to watch people ride horses out of Hell.
Wednesday, November 13, 2019
People new to our program are often struck by the beauty of our horses, how much happier and healthier they are for being given the opportunity to live as close to a natural state as possible, and how easy it is to train gentle, happy horses. They are often shocked to see children riding extraordinary distances while learning to safely control their horses. (During the first 10 months of 2019 the cumulative recorded miles that horses in our program were ridden is further than from Norfolk to San Francisco).
As they learn more about the program and see how the weekly sessions for veterans with PTSD are changing lives they begin to truly understand what we are doing. When they understand how hard we work to preserve, breed and promote some of the nations rarest strains of historic American horses they start to realize that they have stumbled into something special. Learning about our programing with Teen Challenge helps them understand what even limited exposure to the horses can do to help put young people on an entirely new path.
Perhaps the third biggest surprise that they find is when they watch children learning to work together on major soil and water conservation projects and listen as kids as young as ten years old explain regenerative farming.
The second biggest surprise is when they come to understand that all of this work is done by volunteers and that no one is paid to lead this program.
And for many the biggest surprise comes when they first hear attacks made against our program by adherents to the edicts of the established horse world. Some of these attacks come from simple misinformation. The more deeply rooted invectives come not from those who misunderstand the purpose of our program, but instead from those who understand it very well.
They understand that the values and principles that drive our program are antithetical to an established order in which horses are simply items of commerce. They understand, and deeply resent, our lack of willingness to seek their approval and permission to work to promote a new model of horse/human relationships.
The best hope for horses (and people) lies not in the edicts of the commercial horse world. It lies in the potential for those with no experience in that world to be given a chance to enter the horse's natural world.
And that is a revolutionary idea.
Sunday, November 3, 2019
I got my first pony when I was two and he was one. When I was three I rode him in the Christmas parade. Emily Marble once told me that I do not teach kids to ride. What I do is to inspire them to ride.
Daddy put it differently, but was equally correct. He once said that I do not teach kids to ride because everyone is born knowing how to ride. He said that what I do is to give them the confidence to go ahead and do it.
That is why kids at the horse lot begin their exposure to horses when they are very young. That is why kids in our music program begin their exposure to being on stage when they are very young.
This is a picture taken between sets of a performance last night.. One little girl that she "wanted to be in the show." In short order I had a collection of little ones around me learning the chorus to "Will You Miss Me?" and "I'll Fly Away."
And that is how we begin to learn to play music. And that is how we begin to learn to ride horses. And that is how we begin to learn how to clear land. And that is how we begin to learn how to sow pastures.
And that is how we begin to learn to work together.
And that is how we do things at Mill Swamp Indian Horses.
Sunday, October 27, 2019
Success deserves more recognition than does failure.
Too often we only become serious with kids when they exhibit negative behavior. Positive behavior is too often rewarded with insincere, childish sounding praise.
It need not be that way.
Which is the most memorable for a seven year old--"Your leg cues are getting better!!" or "Come over here girl. I watched every time you turned that horse. You focused on where you wanted the horse to go and then you used your leg to push 700 pounds of horse before you ever pulled on the rein and the horse loved that! Your leg spoke and his body listened! You rode that horse like he deserves to be ridden! Every ride you are getting better and one day you will be teaching other kids to ride with the same kind of confidence that you are showing."?
Gruff, effusive, sincere praise is a tool that is too often left in the tool box. Pull it out and use it and watch how much better kids respond.
Saturday, October 26, 2019
I did a foolish thing at a recent session with a large audience of young people. The topic was emotional and intense. I used by body and my voice to give the topic the emphasis that it deserved. I dropped from a boom to a whisper. I moved suddenly, froze and changed from a moving cadence to an eerie monotone.
In short, I did everything that I do to draw an audience into becoming participants instead of mere observers.
I was talking about weakness, power, intimidation, and strength ...and ultimately pain. As I scanned the audience I noticed that several of the young people did not seem to be listening. Instinctively, I turned up the force of what I was saying.
Those who appeared to not be listening were not talking to each other or playing with phones, they simply were not looking up and focusing on what I was saying.
A few hours afterwards I realized how absurd my fear was that they were not paying attention. The topic at hand was something that very well may have touched some of them, their families or their friends.
And who should know better than me that those who have experienced severe trauma often adopt prey animal body language and cues even without knowing that they were doing so? Many of these young people could have looked at me or they could have listened, but they could not do both.
So when the teaching involves pain--the pain of suicide, sexual abuse, addiction, incarceration, physical abuse, or any other form of human suffering, focus on your message and not on the audience's reaction.
They might not be bored. They may be burning up so much inside that the additional pressure of looking up as they listen is simply too much to bear.
Sunday, October 20, 2019
Do you know what an ACE score is? You need to know and understand ACE if you care about the people around you.
Check out this important website. Read it deeply and often: https://acestoohigh.com/aces-101/ . I have spent years learning about and experiencing the impact of trauma, vicarious or direct, in my career as a juvenile court prosecutor who handles primarily cases of crimes against children, family violence and sexual assault.
Every riding instructor should be trauma informed and every riding program should constantly review its practices to insure that their program is trauma informed. A trauma informed riding instructor is constantly on the look out to understand how past experiences shape the behaviour of their students. A trauma informed riding program replaces competitiveness, bullying, cliquishness, and judgemental behavior with inclusion, acceptance and healing.
Few things get in the way of understanding others as much as being judgemental. Nothing gets in the way of that understanding as much as being judgemental without having any understanding of what shaped the subject of that judgment.
As it has been aptly put, the question must be, "What happened to you?" instead of "What is wrong with you?" Without doing so, one goes through life judging those around them only through the narrow prism of one's own life experiences.
It is all to easy to say, "I would never behave like he does" without recognizing that had you been abused as he was your behavior would likely mirror his. It is all to easy to say "That was years ago. She has to just get over it", while doing nothing to help her "get over it." It is all to easy to avoid contact with a difficult person instead of seeking understanding.
Trauma informed living is merely an exercise in advanced empathy. And one must work to learn how to have advanced empathy.
Some might think that while all of that is fine, their program teaches how to compete in hunter-jumper events and is not a program to deal with complex social problems. That is simply too bad. You have no choice. The problem is there. You can choose to ignore it but you cannot opt out of your responsibility to others.
Ultimately, every single youth group, Scout troop, Little League team, or dance class, is also a suicide prevention program. One might night like hearing that fact, but that makes it no less true. One can not opt out of being a suicide prevention program. One can only decide to work to be a program that makes the suicide of kids in the program more or less likely.
When I was little we had a boy in class who was much bigger than most of us. Aside from being naturally tall and strong, he had also failed a few years and was older than the rest of us. He was a bully and one day three of us were talking about his behavior on the playground. We agreed to discuss that matter with our parents that night so that someone would make him behave better.
The next day my two friends proudly announced that their mothers were going to meet with the principle right away to make sure that he was punished.
I was embarrassed at Momma's reaction. I did not want to tell them what she told me.
She said that maybe the reason "Jimmy" was so mean on that day was because it was a Monday and that Jimmy's daddy drank real bad and got mean and beat his family on a lot of weekends. She said that Jimmy did not have friends that understood how things were and that the best thing would be for me to be his friend and make sure that he had someone to play with at recess.
My friend's mothers could not see the problem through Jimmy's eyes. My Momma could. Although he was a good a person as one would ever find when sober, when her Daddy got drunk he had been violent to the point that my great uncle once had to pull a gun off of him that he was threatening his young daughter with.
So kids in our program sometimes "act out." So adults in our program do too. We could simply expel everyone who does not wear a fake, sunny facade of happiness all the time. We could get rid of "problem" kids and adults. We would then be left with a program of people who smile at each other incessantly.
We could all laugh and play at recess. But a church that works more on excommunication than on evangelizing is an institution on its way to collapse.
Monday, October 14, 2019
Yesterday our team of Colonial Spanish Horses and an American Indian Horse participated in our first official 30 mile race, The Blackwater Swamp Stomp. I do not care much for the idea of competition, but still I think it appropriate to announce the list of winners.
Mandy was the biggest winner in yesterday's race. She worked hard to condition Midnight and was riding a horse that could go forever. But he went a little too far. He took off after some horses that passed him and Mandy ended up well off course and separated from the leaders in our team. She rode him down to a walk and dismounted safely. She finished the ride and kept him in control. She was disappointed, but she took it all with the greatest show of maturity.
Brooke came in just after Mandy in the category of over all winner. She had been riding for about a year and a day and finished the race on Red Fox, a Corolla/Tenn Walker (our only horse who was not an HOA horse in our team)
But we also have to rank Curie up there at the top. Not only has she been riding only a year, she did much of the training of Long Knife, a Corolla mare.
Certainly the winner for best relationship with her horse and most concern for her horse's care and safety has to go to Audrey who completely shocked me with the potential that she brought out in the mare, Baton Rouge. I had no idea Baton Rouge had the speed and stamina that Audrey brought out in her.
And Ariyana, who is becoming nearly as tough as Holland, the Shackleford that she rode, came in first in the youth division. She rode Holland the way Holland needs to be ridden, hard and steady.
And Abigail on her Corolla, Little Hawk, who she trained came in 7th over all. a feat made that much more remarkable by the fact that she hung back and rode with the rest of the team for the first 17 miles.
Yesterday a lot of people got the chance to see what is so special about Colonial Spanish Horses and got a chance to understand why it is so vital to prevent their extinction.
And that made everyone there winners.
I hate to waste living things. As we cleared the New land we did not have funds to build a conventional fence around the area that we were converting to pasture. With the help of the kids and a few adults we built a pole and post fence from the green timbers that was .64 miles around the land. As those posts and poles age out we are in a better financial position to replace them with conventional fence.
We have gotten nearly three years of pasture use out of that land that we would not have gotten had we waited to have the funds to put in a conventional fence. On the other hand, we could have put in a conventional fence at 5the time and forgone many other improvements made to the program, like the acquisition of additional breeding stock for our livestock conservation programs.
I have begun another massive undertaking. Jacob's Woods is seventeen acres. I am intensively thinning it, leaving oaks, and large pines and hardwoods. I will be taking out several hundred maple and small pines. We have already begun the project and have builts a massive brush pile wind row from the tree tops that will wonderful wild life habitat. I hope to be able to get a stand of native warm season grasses growing where the sunlight will now find the ground. The area will, if everything breaks right, become a silvopasture for multi species use and will also open up much more of our land to riding.
I can't abide the idea of letting all of these posts lay on the ground to rot. I have a design in my mind of the construction of a building frame of modern two by fours with the poles attached in the frame at six foot intervals. The walls would not be chinked. I would want a modern tin or tin substitute roof with enough over hang to keep the rain out of the structure.
It will be a lot of work, but it will be interesting work and will create great memories for the kids that help create the building.
I can already hear negative thoughts coming through this computer. "Why not make it perfectly historically accurate if you want the kids to have a really first rate learning experience.?" Along with the constant refrain of "If you build it won't it eventually rot and fall in?"
The answer to the first is that I would prefer to build one historically accurate, using only historically accurate tools, but our program is multi faceted and we do many things at one time. Making a quality, 19th century small barn would require every minute of every day that we have music, horse training, riding lessons, soil and water conservation projects, programming for veterans with PTSD, livestock care, breed conservation, and everything else that we do.
The other negative thought has always perplexed me. "Well if you do that won't it just eventually decay and collapse?" Of course it will, and so will I and so will you.
Only the rocks live forever. Not building a structure because we cannot build a perfect structure makes as much sense as not living a life because we cannot live a perfect life.
More work to be done. Time to get up earlier out of bed!
Monday, October 7, 2019
Natural horsemanship teaches one to learn to communicate with a creature with whom we share no fundamental emotional motivations. It teaches that the horse must be accepted as a horse and that silly efforts to humanize the horse get in the way of that communication.
We cannot reach across such a divide and communicate effectively without developing a great deal of empathy. First and foremost, the round pen teaches empathy.
Natural horsemanship teaches one to understand the use and the limitations of power. The horse's fundamental emotional need is security and the horse cannot feel secure in the presence of a human who does not demonstrate sufficient power to allow the horse to feel secure. Secondly, the round pen teaches the use of firm direction instead of intimidation.
Natural horsemanship teaches one to understand that leadership must be given for a horse (or a child) to succeed. Natural horsemanship, when properly applied, simply means to trains and relate to a horse using communication techniques and rewards and sanctions that the horse instinctively understands. In short, instead of trying to teach the horse to speak English, natural horsemanship endeavors to teach the human to speak horse. The round pen teaches effective communication.
Natural horsemanship, when practiced long enough, teaches the limitations of human control over events around us. If a person will put in the hard work to make it happen, natural horsemanship can provide the antidote to perfectionism, obsessive neatness, and the need for artificial structure in one's life. The round pen teaches that no amount of planning, worrying, nitpicking, organizing, and over thinking makes it possible to control the events that shape lives. Working in the round pen long enough teaches a deeper truth--that too often the obsession to control events and people burns time, energy and resources that could have been used to actually solve a problem. The round pen teaches the superiority of action over rumination.
Natural horsemanship teaches self reliance. It teaches that the horse needs you and no one else can come in and do the job for you. Training a wild horse or starting a domesticated colt without teaching the owner every aspect of what is done in the natural training of the horse will result in a bad life for that horse. The round pen teaches that when faced with challenges in life we must take them on. More importantly, the round pen teaches that when we do work hard and take on challenges we are often capable of success
Natural horsemanship creates better horses. More importantly, it creates better people.
Sunday, October 6, 2019
It has been nearly a decade and a half since I conducted my first professional training for prosecutors on using the lessons of natural horsemanship to more effectively communicate with kids who had been molested. It is odd to look back over the notes of that presentation to see that I had urged that no single prosecutor be responsible for these cases for more than a year and a half.
I have been prosecuting these cases for over twenty years. About a decade ago I was doing a training session for detectives when I mentioned that in every case I had succeeded in making the child comfortable enough to testify.
The oldest detective in the room said, much louder than I am sure he ever meant to, "I'm sorry."
I was taken aback by the interjection and I looked over and made eye contact with the the speaker. He looked a bit sheepish for having spoken as loud as he did and simply said, "That means that you have been down there in it with them."
I had never thought of it that way. Please understand that I have never personally experienced any abuse or victimization myself. "Being down there in it with them" is simply a description of the power of empathy. Empathy can lead to self inflicted wounds. Being "down there in it with them" requires one to take on the pain of other people. And sometimes with kids the only way to lessen their pain is to take some of that load on yourself.
Please understand that I am not complaining. What I do has given my life meaning and I prefer a life of meaning to a life of frivolity and air-headed idiocy. I certainly do not feel any resentment towards the victims in my cases. Were it not for these cases Beth and I would have never gotten to know Ashley. Were it not for these cases our program at Mill Swamp Indian Horses would not remotely have the meaning and impact that it now has.
This is not the writing of some kid who just found out that life is not fair and feels the need to whine about that fact to everyone present.
I have spent many hours over the summer in prosecutor training on trauma informed practices. I am delighted to say that I did not learn a great deal that I did not know from the horse lot. I did learn how to sharpen our program for patients at the local veterans hospital who have PTSD. I got great ideas on how to best use the limited time that we have together to help program participants gain insight on trust, communication, and understanding why they feel they way that they do and how to begin climbing out of the pit.
I learned what burnout is. I am not burned out. Burnout is best illustrated by the automaton who goes through the motions without being able to care. I am not close to such feelings.
And this gradual erosion of self is not depression. It is not a symptom of depression.
But there is a deadening that happens over the years. It is as if my taste buds are dying. I eat life as ravenously as I ever did, I just don't taste the flavor of the life that I am consuming. Perhaps it has manifested itself most painfully in the lack of relationships with my horses that I once had. The horses have not changed, but I have. Beginning at the moment that I heard of Lido's death I gradually began to replace the excitement over the birth of a foal with a strong feeling that I needed to keep in mind that, like every foal ever born, this one will eventually die and odds are that I will outlive it.
Putting emotional energy into developing a close relationship with things as ephemeral as living creatures begins to feel like a very unwise investment.
But then the oddest things can happen. Look at that picture above. Her name is Honey. She was the first super success that I ever had training a horse. She is not a Colonial Spanish horse. She is a registered Paint. I had not seen her for a decade. That is how long she had been living out of state with the family of a former rider of mine who has grown up and is getting an advanced degree away from home.
So this week Honey came back to me.
And I touched her.
And it felt like it used to when I touched horses--soothing, powerful and transforming. Who knows how long this feeling will last? For now I will settle for just being very pleasantly surprised to find something that I thought I lost over the years.
Monday, September 30, 2019
Some of the worlds rarest horses-- three Corollas, a Marsh Tacky, and a high percentage Grand Canyon in this picture--deep in the woods on a hot fall afternoon--wading into a sea of marsh cane (one of the main sources of arrow shafts for Powhatan Indians)
It has been a long time since I have even used the word, but we are in the early stages of a drought. Hunting season is coming on us so we will be out of the woods for most of the next ninety days.
That time will be spent honing riding skills, turning 17 acres of woods into silva pasture and additional riding areas, running a sanctioned endurance race in two weeks, training donkeys to pull poles from the woods, building fences, and having a good time playing music and getting to know each other better.
In January we will be back in the woods. Looking forward to seeing the winter wildlife and working our land to improve it as wild life habitat.
Will be spending this week at a training on prosecuting crimes against children. When that is what you do for a living it makes it hard to understand why the sight of this one (walking along in the field beside the Little House) would be a scary thing.
Saturday, September 21, 2019
In two hours the first group of our riders will set out on a 25 mile Limited Distance Endurance Race. Riders range in age from 11 to 60. Every horse will be pure Colonial Spanish Horses, except for three American Indian Horses who are 1/2 Corolla.
Several of the riders have been riding a fairly short time. They have worked hard conditioning the horses and themselves over the last several months. They have learned to be flexible. I am having to be very flexible. I will be riding Peter Maxwell. Janie got a minor girth rub so she will have the day off. She will be ready to go in next month's official Swamp Stomp race.
Ariyana woke up ready to go. "It's race day", she said. She then made me three bratwursts served with a nice little mound of kimchee.
It is a breakfast of champions.
Today several riders are going to achieve something that a year ago they would have never thought possible. Best of all, a few will achieve something that at this very moment they are not sure is possible.
No one will be competing against other riders. Everyone will be competing against their other selves, the other self that doubts, criticizes, tells us that we can't do it, that we are not good enough, that we are not strong enough...that we are simply not enough.
And today my riders will be winners and their other selves will have just a bit less power over them than before running their first 25 mile run.
Monday, September 16, 2019
I think that he might. Wanchese is a formerly wild Shacklford Island stallion. Terry has been putting heavy mileage on him over the summer. He is ready to go.
On Saturday September 21 he will set out at 7:00 am with Holland, another Shackleford, Little Hawk, a Corolla, Feather, a high percentage Choctaw mare from Texas, and Red Fox, a half Corolla. At 7:30 Joey, a Choctaw, Midnight, a Colonial Spanish horse from Texas, and Manteo, a formerly wild Corolla stallion will leave the tack shed.
And at 8:00 Janie, Grand Canyon and Choctaw lineage, Baton Rouge, a Corolla, Long Knife, a Corolla Ta Sunka Witco, a Karma Farms lineage Colonial Spanish horse, Parahunt, a half Corolla, Trouble, a Colonial Spanish horse from Texas will head out for the first fifteen mile leg of the event.
After fifteen miles the horses come in, have pulses taken, are checked out for any injuries and then rested for forty five minutes before running to complete the last ten miles.
My strong hunch is that little Wanchese will have the quickest time of the bunch.
In October these same horses will run in an official LD race in Ivor.
Tuesday, September 10, 2019
You cannot imagine how long I have been looking forward to being able to make this announcement. The Gwaltney Frontier Farm Educational Foundation is now approved as a 501 (c) 3 non-profit corporation. This is a separate entity from the Gwaltney Frontier Farm, Inc, which is a 501 (c) 5 breed conservation non-profit.
Here is what that means. Contributions to the Educational Foundation are now tax deductible. Of much more importance is the fact that we will now be able to apply for grants from charitable foundations to fund our educational programs.
We have never turned anyone away for lack of ability to pay program fees. We have never charged for our veterans program conducted weekly in conjunction with the local Veterans Hospital. We have never had paid staff. Every thing that is done is done by volunteers. Our horses eat 10-14 tonnes of hay a week. For all of these years we have made do with program fees, contributions, fundraisers, and now, contributions of the money earned by performances of Pasture #3 (our music program).
Each month we wait until we have enough money to pay our bills and then we write the checks. When there is a shortfall, contributions and loans from program participants keep us a float. And it is a formula that has worked. We pay no rent for our pastures and structures on the land. That has saved a fortune over the years.
The Foundation will be able to accept contributions that will allow us to pay program fees for families that cannot afford to pay full fees. We have always simply absorbed those costs. Now we can accept funding to provide scholarships for our programs.
The Foundation will be able to accept contributions and grants to help cover the cost of our educational programs, both for riding and natural horsemanship programming and also for our other programming, such as teaching microbial farming, teaching trauma related topics and using horses to understand PTSD, teaching heritage livestock preservation, teaching soil and water conservation projects----in short helping to actually pay for what we teach.
It will provide funding to obtain filming equipment to film and distribute our educational programs. That is a very high priority for me. It will allow people thousands of miles from the horse lot to benefit from our educational programs.
And, eventually, I hope that it will provide funding for a paid Educational Director to develop and conduct current and new educational programs. Few people really understand why I so often stress that , at our core, we are an educational institution. We are a place of learning.
Lastly, this move comes at a good time for us. Though it might seem hard to understand, one of the biggest potential threats that our program faced in years past was to be flush with cash. For example, there was a time, many years ago, when the idea was floated of us having an indoor arena and a show ring. Such additions would have destroyed our program.
Our 501 (c) 3 status will help us expand and enhance our programs. And I have waited along time to be able to announce this .
Sunday, September 8, 2019
Sean and Jerry, Mammoth Donkeys soon to reach their fifth year, arrived here recently. Jenner Thomas has a strong interest in donkeys. It started with Nick, our large standard donkey, born to a BLM jenny that Momma and Daddy adopted years ago.
I will work with Jenner to get these donkeys saddle trained when they are a bit older. We have already begun Sean's training to drive. It is going to be great for he and Jenner to roll our our bales of hay each week as they are delivered to the pastures.
They might be even more affectionate than Choctaw horses. They are smart and learn fast. This is a great addition to our other Heritage breed livestock.
Thursday, September 5, 2019
The practice of natural horsemanship requires young people to learn empathy on the deepest of levels.
Natural horsemanship is simply the art of communicating with a horse in a manner that the horse instinctively understands. Instead of trying to teach a horse to learn English, natural horsemanship requires the human to learn to speak "horse." But learning those lessons only scratch the surface. Students learn what motivates horses, and why they act as they do. In short, it teaches one to understand horses. A child who learns to understand a creature as different from humans as are horses will find it much easier to understand the feelings of the other people around him.
The practice of natural horsemanship requires young people to learn to be leaders and to accept their role as leaders.
Natural horsemanship teaches the difference between providing security and direction to horses and trying to bully horses into compliance. It teaches them that it is ok to be the leader--that it is ok to be the boss.
The practice of natural horsemanship requires young people to learn the importance of showing affection and approval to a horse.
Natural horsemanship works best when it is based on 51% control and 49% affection. Natural horsemanship teaches young people that the horse needs your time, your affection and your leadership more than it needs the treats that you might give him.
The practice of natural horsemanship gives young people greater confidence and a well deserved feeling of accomplishment.
When a shy, timid or traumatized child learns to control the movement of a 700 pound horse in a round pen using only gestures and visual focus the child changes. I have seen it happen too often to ever be convinced otherwise. That confidence can be a strong protection against developing anxiety disorders and it can be a tremendous tool in over coming anxiety and depression.
The practice of natural horsemanship will allow children to grow up to be better parents.
The wisdom gained in the round pen carries over into every other relationship the child will have . We do not practice natural horsemanship merely because it makes better horses. We practice natural horsemanship because it makes better people
Wednesday, September 4, 2019
Over the summer several of our riders have been working to get themselves and our horses in shape for the development of a Colonial Spanish horse endurance team. We are just beginning and are not trying to break any speed records. We are working to show what can be accomplished by these horses and their riders, whether the riders are 11 years old or 60 years old.
We have been conditioning Colonial Spanish horses of the Banker Strain (Corolla and Shackleford), Choctaw Strain, horses of Choctaw and Grand Canyon lineage, two 1/2 Corollas, Karma Farms lineage, and some whose lineage goes back to the Cayuse Ranch.
Generally trotting and cantering on rides of at least five miles, the horses have been brought along slowly in their conditioning. But each horse began with a step up over most modern horses. Living as naturally as possible, living primarily off of hay, grass and forbs, no shoes, and most importantly, no stables gives them a great baseline of health and fitness before they ever begin conditioning.
For now the kids are leaning to ride distances. If we like it, perhaps next summer we will make it a much more serious part of our program.
Monday, September 2, 2019
Do you have any idea what you are looking at in this picture? Unless you spend time at the horse lot I strongly suspect that you are seeing much more than you realize.
...You are seeing learning, but even more importantly, you are seeing teaching. Mandy has become one of my best teachers. She is a good rider, is rapidly becoming a great horse trainer, and when we are on stage her voice is the anchor that holds the songs together.
Our program is diverse. No one gets paid. Everyone is a volunteer. I hate to single out individuals for recognition because for everyone that I mention there are another 8 or 10 doing vital things to keep our program growing.
But our program could not exist without the hard work of several brilliant and dedicated young people. Were I pressed to name a single aspect of our program that gives me the most pleasure it would be watching young people like Mandy become leaders.
Yesterday I rode behind a bit and I watched three kids, ages 11, 12, and 13 ride ahead of me. A Corolla mare, a Corolla stallion, and a Shackleford gelding moving beautifully in the woods with talented riders in the saddle--loping through the woods, laughing and handling their horses well.
And I get to watch these kids become caring, compassionate, hardworking, and tough as nails.
And it makes it possible for me to imagine this program still growing in thirty years
Sunday, August 25, 2019
Every one agrees that learning to ride at Mill Swamp Indian Horses is "different" than learning to ride at other barns. It can be hard to understand exactly what that means. Here are some pictures from yesterday that help explain."Different" might mean spending a little quality time rare heritage breed turkeys like this little Blue Slate hen.
It might mean watching a training session for two rare heritage breed Mammoth Donkeys that just arrived on Friday.
It might mean coming in from a trail riding lesson sitting astride a formerly wild Shackleford Island horse while your instructor gaits along sweetly on a high percentage Choctaw mare.
It might mean using the skills that you have developed from years of practicing natural horsemanship to to help those who will follow in your path.
It might mean learning about heritage breed conservation by looking across the pasture to see Big Muddy, a Choctaw stallion out with several Choctaw mares.
It might mean wrapping up the day learning the ancient ballad "Katy Dear" on the tack shed porch with a guitar, bodhrun, Weissenborn style lap guitar, and ukulele.
And it definitely means riding. Our advanced riders have put in a total of 1,716.63 miles over the last 8 months.
And every bit of this was done with no paid staff. We are a non-profit breed conservation program run completely by volunteers. Our safety record is extraordinary because riders begin to learn natural horsemanship the first day they are at the horse lot. By understanding the horse's mind they learn to protect there own bodies.
Fees are set to make the learning experience affordable. Riding lesson fees are only $160.00 per month, per family.
Yep, very different.
Wednesday, August 21, 2019
Age has many consequences, I am so very glad that getting older has not cost me either my curiosity to learn knew things and my ability to be surprised. I got several pleasant surprises this morning.
I pride myself on an ability to teach and explain complicated concepts so that they can be understood by people from all walks of life. That makes it especially frustrating when I seek to explain to others what is going on inside my head. Lately the inside of my head is not a place that anyone would like to take a vacation in.
Weeks ago I finished the sentencing in a very complex case involving the beating death of a five year old boy. I finished it in the court room but it is not finished in my head. Presenting such cases with the emotion and extraordinary power that they deserve requires me to get down in it. Someone once told me that the description that I gave of the torment of a victim in one case was so vivid that it sounded like I could actually see what had happened.
Of course I can see what happened! The problem is that sometime you can't stop seeing what happened.
I am only throwing this out so you can understand the over all picture as I went out to meet Tanney Town this morning. She is a pure Marsh Tacky. The picture of her above is as a yearling in July of 2016, shortly after we obtained her from the Lowther herd in South Carolina. She had not been handled at that point. It is my preference to have every yearling well halter trained and accepting of a saddle before they begin further training in a little over a year. I saddled her shortly after she joined our program but then set her aside to grow up.
Tanney Town has spent over a year on pasture with a handful of other horses at a farm not far from the horse lot. I had not seen her up close for a very long time. Lydia brought her home yesterday. Lydia told me that she was "huge".
I feared that. Andrew's Marsh Tacky pair that he picked up the same time that we obtained Tanney Town were significantly taller than our Corollas. So I headed out to the horse lot with a preconceived notion of what to expect.
I went to the pasture and put a rope halter on her. She seemed loathsomely tall. She also seemed more nervous than I hoped. As I began to mover her around the round pen her mind was much more on getting out of the pen than in responding to me. She softened up a bit but was slower to learn the head down cue than I had come to expect horses to do.
She did not want my hands touching most of her body and where she allowed touching she did not seem to enjoy the contact.
So...I continued handling her--advance and retreat, teaching that just because something is scary does not mean that it will cause pain. Then she learned to lunge rather well. Her terror of a saddle blanket lasted only moments before she was comfortable with it on her.
In less than fifty minutes she was lunging around with full tack on. She never resisted the saddle or the girth. She never bucked. She never bolted. She showed great presence of mind when turning in the round pen and a great deal of athleticism during the session.
She did everything that I asked of her. She will be able to take a rider soon, but she will have mastered ground work before that happens. She will likely become a super horse bringing everything to the table that all of the Colonial Spanish horses of the Southeast show--agility, endurance, smooth gaits, strong bonding with humans, great hooves and a powerful immune system.
So... I had to measure her. I had to know exactly how much she was too tall. I expected over 15 hands. She appeared that way to me. I braced myself for the bad news.
Appearances don't matter--with horses or with anything else worth caring about. Only reality matters and the reality is that she is barely over 14.2 hands tall--still taller than I prefer but within the range of being tolerable.
But the state of mind that I brought to the training session and the information that I had received concerning her size had set me up to expect disappointment.
What the horse brings into the round pen in its earliest sessions matter.
What the trainer brings with him in those earliest sessions matter more.
Sunday, August 18, 2019
Yesterday Ashley Edwards came down from Richmond to do a session on the use of horses to teach both effective communication and to assist in dealing with severe trauma and PTSD. (Any reader who is unfamiliar with Ashley's work please stop reading and go to our website www.millswampindianhorses.com and hit the tab entitled "News" You will see a few TV clips and newspaper articles about her)
The body language used by herd prey animals is precisely the same as that unknowingly used by people who have been severely traumatized. The horse is instinctively repelled by the body language of predators. Humans who have not experienced severe trauma instinctively use the body language of predators.
As significant as understanding that vital lesson in communication is, another lesson is even more important.
Predators seek autonomy. Prey animals seek security.
Our culture teaches us that the solution to problems is to increase one's autonomy--to achieve--to obtain the things that give us more control over our lives. That instinctive drive for autonomy provides a wonderful spur on to happiness for most people.
But autonomy cannot bring satisfaction to a severely traumatized person until that person first finds security. This is the gift that natural horsemanship can bring to those whose daily existence is shaped by depression, anxiety, self loathing, and fear.
One can find security for oneself by learning to provide security to a horse. When one finds that security one can then move on to enjoy the fruits of autonomy.
For nearly seven years we have been using these principles in weekly sessions with PTSD patients at the local Veteran's Hospital.
This is real.
Saturday, August 17, 2019
She got in from Texas early Thursday. Lilly is a two year old Colonial Spanish horses with a lot of Choctaw and Grand Canyon lineage. All ready I can see that she has the mind that I like more and more in horses as I get older and busier.
She had been at the horse lot for a bit over 24 hours when I began my first training session with her. I don't know if she ever had a saddle on her before, but I know that she has now.
Calm and confident--the result of great genetics but also the result of not having negative experiences with people. Too many people do not understand the impact of negative experiences with people early on in a horses development. Even worse, too many people do not understand what experiences are negative.
One of the most dangerous early experiences that horses can have with people is for people to allow colts to push them around and ignore human direction and leadership. I find it much harder to rehabilitate such a colt than to restore confidence in one who has been beaten or otherwise mistreated.
One of the reasons that we repeat certain phrases so often in our clinics and in our routine horse training sessions is that certain phrases contain principles as important as libraries full of training books.
Two of these are perhaps the most important: "Train with 51% control and 49% affection". Both are vital to the horses happiness. Unlike people, dogs, and other large mammalian predators, horses do not seek autonomy. Their primary goal is security. Being subject to direction and control is a prerequisite to feeling secure. Those who seek silly, romanticized relationships based on trite phrases like "equal partnership", "letting the horse make the decisions"... etc are merely projecting their pain over their own failed human relationships onto the horse.
However, the entire phrase must be applied. Horses need and deserve affection. The horse who is trained only with control and no affection does not feel secure. The horse trained only with affection and no control is every bit as insecure. In both cases the result is a horse that is unhappy, unpredictable and dangerous
The other phrase that we hammer is that every interaction with the horse must be done with body language and communication techniques that tell the horse three things:
"I am not afraid of you."
"I am not going to hurt you."
"I will stay here for as long as it takes for you to learn this next step."
It is also important to remember the two things that are most likely to cause injury to horse and trainer--a watch and a calendar. I am often asked how long it takes to finish training a horse. I have no idea. I have never finished training a horse.
Every time I ride I learn something. Every time I ride I teach something. The process never ends.
Knowing every training technique without understanding the basic concepts behind those techniques will never allow one to be an effective trainer. On the other hand, understanding the concepts will allow one to innovate and adapt the techniques to fit a given horse and a given problem.
In order to learn those techniques one must first begin with two points that the majority of horse owners never fully learn:
1. Your horse is not a dog.
2. Your horse is not a person.
So why did Lilly stand so wonderfully to take a saddle and learn everything that I sought to teach her in little more than an hour? Not because of any cookbook of of training recipes, but because of the concepts set out above.
...not a dog...not a person.
Friday, August 16, 2019
I regularly experience something that only a handful of people in this century ever experience. I ride through the woods on Colonial Spanish horses--the same breed of horse that my ancestors rode through these same woods nearly four hundred years ago.
We work to conserve several strains of Colonial Spanish horses--Bankers (Corollas and Shacklefords), Choctaws, Marsh Tackys--and we work to keep the lineage of the Grand Canyon horses going.
This summer is special--"Choctaw Summer 2019." We have borrowed a stunning Choctaw stallion to breed to our Choctaw mares. Next summer I hope to have a string of Choctaws and very high percentage Choctaw foals born.
The older one gets the more one begins to appreciate the concept of time. If one is lucky enough one can experience the connectedness of doing what was done before, where it was done, and the way it was done.
At such times, one realizes that the concept of "then" does not require one to be resigned to the concept of "was". There are rare moments when "then" and "was" can become "is."
And if we work hard enough, we can create a future in which "is" can become "will be."
Preserving history can become more than an intellectual diversion. It can be a vital tool to connecting us to who we are by understanding who we used to be.
Riding a Choctaw horse anywhere is a wonderful experience. Riding a Choctaw horse in the woods is even better. Riding a Choctaw horse in the woods at night in pitch darkness is a transcendent experience. Riding a Choctaw horse in the woods at night on the remnant of an old Colonial trail allows one to experience then/now and was/is at the same moment.
If you want to become part of preserving yesterday's horses for tomorrow's riders contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn how you can obtain one of these horses and start your own conservation breeding program.
No, not some internet huckster with some pill to change your body forever--I'll be the first to admit that the results are temporary.
But they are still extraordinary.
Over the last two and a half months I have been riding Janie steadily harder in five mile stretches of trotting and cantering. She has gotten into tremendous shape and has developed the power to canter with maximum efficiency.
She has given me much more than I expected from her--or from any horse. Riding her became a different experience as she got stronger.
I realized last week that I could get on her weighing 225 pounds, trot her for a mile and a half--move into a soft lope....and I lost weight. A lot of weight.
In fact, I drop about 225 pounds during those loping sessions.
While I am riding her at her soft canter I feel weightless. The only time that I have ever experienced a similar sensation is when I have first awakened in a dentist chair as the anesthesia wore off.
Like the anesthesia, Janie makes me float--weightless and perfectly peaceful.
Weight loss of 225 pounds--it feels great while it is happening.
It is a shame that so few people ever get to experience such a ride. Unless we buckle down and work hard to prevent the extinction of these super horses there will be a time when no one will experience such rides.