Sunday, August 25, 2019

Mill Swamp Indian Horses: This is What "Different" Looks Like

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 having your third riding lesson on the grandson of Choctaw Sundance.

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

The Marsh Tacky: Appearance and Reality

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

Why The Horse Understands What Most People Do Not

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 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

Lilly and the Saddle

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

Time Travel: Conserving the Choctaw Horses

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 to learn how you can obtain one of these horses and start your own conservation breeding program.

Janie's Incredible Weight Loss Plan

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.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Big Announcement: Choctaw Summer 2019--Big Muddy Comes to MSIH

He embodies the spirit of Mill Swamp Indian Horses. He is lean with the high spine and sloping, rafter hips that help give the Colonial Spanish horse not only its unprecedented endurance, but also its smooth gaits and long strides. He is resilient and his story is so remarkable that he deserves his registered name of Big Muddy Miracle. He has overcome tremendous odds and he will be passing that grit, that refusal to give up, on to generations of Choctaw and other Colonial Spanish horses for years to come.

He is as resilient as the people that his ancestors carried on the Trail of Tears. In the 1830's Choctaw, Cherokee, Creeks, Seminoles, Chickasaws, Muskogees and other natives of the southeast were detained and deported to what is now Oklahoma. Only a few hundred of the horses, perhaps the finest riding horses in the nation at the time, remain today.

According to Dr. Phillip Sponenberg in "North American Colonial Spanish Horse July 2011 Update",

"The major families that preserved the Choctaw horses until recently were the Brame, Crisp, Locke, Self, Helms, Thurman, and Carter families. Horses were run on the open range in areas where other types of horses were not kept. These families had hundreds of horses of consistent Spanish type and widely varying colors including the "Spanish roan" sabino type, leopard and blanketed, and  others such as overo paints. The Choctaw horses are occasionally gaited." 

He went on to say that by 1985 the number of these horses was likely as few as fifty.

Big Muddy is not just a survivor. He is a stunning example of the Colonial Spanish horses that were bred by the natives of the southeast. He is predominately of Choctaw lineage but also carries the genes of Cherokee tribal horses. His elegant gait would have fit in well among the tribal horses of the early nineteenth century.

While stuck in the mud very early in his life in Oklahoma he was viciously torn by coyotes. The scars that remain today speak of wounds that would have seemed impossible to heal. Mary McConnell, who maintains one of the largest herds of Choctaw horses in the nation at her home in Rappahannock county Virginia, loaned this beautiful stallion to Mill Swamp Indian Horses for the fall breeding season.

He runs now in a band of three Choctaw mares and several other Colonial Spanish mares who carry a high percentage of Choctaw lineage. His offspring will increase the number of these nearly extinct horses and will also be used to reintroduce the lineage to the Corolla horses that are also bred, trained and promoted at the non-profit breed conservation program in Smithfield, Virginia. The Corollas and Shacklefords are Banker strain Colonial Spanish horses who hail from the Outer Banks of North Carolina. During the nineteenth century strains of native horses of the Southeast were introduced into the breeding population of Banker horses.

Big Muddy's presence at Mill Swamp Indian Horses will allow for an increase in genetic diversity of the Corolla offsite breeding program without bringing in any non-Colonial Spanish blood into the program.  Foals that are born next summer will be available for those who are willing  to continue the work of breeding, raising and training these smooth gaited horses whose endurance exceeds that of most modern horse horse breeds.

See for further information on the breeding program at Mill Swamp Indian Horses. To discuss becoming a part of the breed conservation programs at Mill Swamp Indian Horses send an email to

Friday, August 9, 2019

Saving The Colonial Spanish Horse: Waiting For The Day That Never Arrives

Of all of the different strains of Colonial Spanish Horse how many are left? Perhaps 2,500--more likely closer to 2,000. How many breeding stallions are left? 200-250 is my guess.

Here is the scarier question to ponder--what is the average age of the few preservationists that are left--and what is their average household income?

Their income is nearly as important as their age. One does not get rich preserving these horses. I will never forget the phrase that a breeder casually used years ago when describing the preservationists as people who "are willing to impoverish their families" for the horses.

Cold economic analysis would yield the verdict of death to these horses. In monetary terms, if the horses cannot be marketed for a profit sufficient to attract potential preservationists then their extinction is a fact waiting to happen.

The same could  be said of art, music, and folk culture. But we still have the songs of the mountains of southern Appalachia, the paintings of the great masters, and regional celebrations of folk culture because preservationist looked to enrich the lives of unborn generations instead of worrying about enriching their wallets.

We have the tools to preserve the horses that built this nation. We have the resources in strong registries like the Horse of The Americas Registry and the Spanish Mustang Registry. We have the technical support and networking opportunities that the Livestock Breeds Conservancy provides. Social media gives us a potential to collaborate and communicate in ways that Robert Brislawn could have never imagined when he began the effort to preserve these horses nearly ninety years ago.

But we have to act now. We can't continue to wait until our family circumstances and finances are perfect before making the leap into promoting and preserving these horses. For most of us that day will never come. The pool of breeders and the pool of breeding horses is on the downswing.

Of course, it would be outrageously irresponsible to seek to solve this crisis by merely increasing the supply of these horses. We have to increase the demand for them. For many decades promoters and preservationists have sought to build demand among the loudest demographic of horse owners--those who compete. A casual observer of the horse world might believe that competitors and horse show participants make up the majority of horse owners.

They do not. Most studies show that this demographic makes up less than a third of horse owners.

The established horse world is filled with those who have chosen a breed of horse and turned that breed into a brand of horse. They are  satisfied with the world that they have created for themselves and consider our horses too small, too narrow of chest and sloping of hip...etc...etc.

In short they have evaluated our horses and have come to the conclusion that they are not Quarter horses, Warm Bloods, Arabians, or Thoroughbreds and as such they are without "value."

Entirely too much energy has been wasted on seeking the approval of such people. We have piped for them and they did not dance. We have invited them to the feast and they did not come to eat. I see nothing in such people that gives me any reason to think that that will change.

However, the novice can appreciate the smooth gaits, warm affection, easy keeping, super healthy, strong hooved nature of our horses. It is the novice that we must reach out to. It is the family that has moved from the city or suburb out to the country to try to find meaning in their lives and to give that meaning to their children that we must reach out to. It is the PTSD survivor whose pain can be wiped nearly all the way away from having a relationship with a horse that we must reach out to. It is the survivor of sexual assault who has lost the ability to feel secure and safe, and worst of all has lost the ability to trust, that we must reach out to.

But most of all, it is the child who does not know how to ride that we must reach out to. Nothing helps preserve the Colonial Spanish horse as much as teaching a child to ride one.

And we must have horses to offer them. And...those horses must be trained to a level that fits each purchaser.

At the moment we have a wonderful stallion who has just turned two years old who is available to someone who will use him to keep his breed going. His mother was a wild Banker horse from Shackleford Island and his father was a wild Banker horse from Corolla. His ancestors came here nearly 100 years before the English arrived at Jamestown.

Yes , but he is s STALLION , and everyone knows that a STALLION can never be made safe!

Turns out, that like so many other horses, his father is also a stallion. His name is Corn Stalk. He was captured at Corolla because of a tendency to get into automobile traffic. He arrived at our horse lot on a Wednesday. On Friday he took a saddle without incident. On Saturday he took his first rider. He has never bucked nor reared. He is often ridden in groups deep in the woods with several mares and there has never been a problem with them.

Our horses bring so much to the table--history, endurance smooth gaits, strong desires to bond with people--but for the rider of the 21st century perhaps the most important thing that they bring is their temperament. I will never forget the offhand comment, made with no hint of irony, that one family got into raising Colonial Spanish horses because they "were going to be having children and got out of the Arabian breed because {they} needed something safe, like a Spanish mustang."

Those of us who raise Colonial Spanish horses understand exactly what she meant.

Here is a picture of Corn Stalk. Mingo, his paddock mate in the back ground, is a Marsh Tacky stallion.  If you want to be part of enriching the lives of generations to be born after you are gone, contact ms as to discuss becoming a breeder of these historic horses.