Thursday, December 31, 2020

Overcoming the Fear of Being Afraid: Why Getting Back In The Saddle Is So Important

Riders fall off. Riders who wish to remain emotionally healthy get back on. Kids who fall, without strong emotional support and guidance, often make life altering decisions to surrender to fear and never get back in the saddle. For many it is the beginning of a life of anxiety, avoidance behavior, and risk aversion.

Adults need to work hard to help kids understand their feelings. It is not at all unusual to have a child loose control of a trotting, or even cantering, horse and then gently fall off when the horse stops. The child does not want to get back on because  (they think) that they are afraid of falling off. This is true even when the fall itself was a complete non-event that did not cause the slightest injury.

On the other hand, the feeling of being on the horse without having the horse under control  for the seconds prior to the fall is terrifying. Often it is not the fall that is the problem, it is the terror that comes before the fall. No one, child or adult, would look forward to experiencing such a loss of control and its associated feelings of terror. 

Adults can help the child by leading the child to an understanding of exactly what it is that the child fears. There are two important concepts, often quite difficult for a child to accept, that can lead to break throughs in combatting riding anxiety.

Help the child verbalize and relive the event. Let the child talk about how scary it was. Talk to the child about how horrible it feels to be that afraid. Let the child talk about how scary it was to want the horse to stop while having those wishes completely ignored. 

Then move on to the hard part. Talk to the child about how they could have gained control of the horse. Make sure that the child understands and can fully apply the one reined stop. Have them sit in a chair with reins in hand and practice, over and over, what we can do to bring a horse back into control.  Help them learn that they are not helpless when riding. 

Then move on to the part that is even harder. Explain that the fear is natural and that it is ok to be afraid, but help them understand the difference between being scared and being injured. Help them understand that as horrible as it feels to be afraid, fear, in and of itself, will not cause injury or short term pain.

Help them understand that being afraid of fear is a problem that can be over come.

And most of all let them know that you understand how hard it is to get back on and that you admire the maturity and judgement that they are showing when they confront their fears. Every time one confronts a fear and faces it down one has achieved a victory that creates positive emotional capital. Those victories matter as one faces life's future challenges. 

Few things are sadder to see in young people than full blown anxiety disorder. There are few things that horses can do that are more important than presenting challenges and giving opportunities for success to young people. 

A kid who has his pocket filled with specific incidences of times when he successfully over came fear will one day grow up and will likely face dark nights of the soul. At such time a person is forced to conduct  brutal self analysis. As the crisis looms before that adult they must ask at their very deepest level, "Who am I?'

A child who has been guided to take on challenges can often answer that question with the deepest of sincerity.

"Who am I?"

" I am the person who does not give up. I am the person who works hard. I am the person who endures. I am the person who struggles. I have proven that I am the person who does not back down."

There are few times in a kid's life that they are more in need of calm, patient, loving direction than when they confront terror after having fallen. Providing that guidance is not easy. But it is necessary. 

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

The Round Pen's Most Important Lesson

Natural Horsemanship requires the human to communicate with the horse. It requires the human to provide leadership and it requires the human to negotiate with the horse.

The inability to lead, teach and negotiate with another creature is what causes most of the failures that occur in developing a solid relationship with the horse. The round pen forces us to come to grips with one of Lincoln's most important insights. 

" I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me", he wrote in a letter to Albert Hodges.

Our false belief that we can be in control of life around us can be cured by spending time training scores of horses, particularly wild ones. We cannot dictate the behavior of horses, or other people, any more than we can dictate the behavior of the wind and the clouds. The fear of losing control is often the driving force behind the desire to have power over others. I learned to set aside any desire to accumulate material goods scores of years ago. I have only learned to set aside the desire to control the behavior of those around me within the last decade. 

Spending hundreds of hours in the round pen with horses who are without knowledge of people makes it possible to understand how vain and worthless it is to believe that one can control the actions of others by decree.

It is comforting to think that the exercise of power will produce the desired result, but the reality is that the exercise of leadership and communicating by example is often the only way to produce the desired result without creating additional, often unforeseen, problems. 

The round pen teaches the limitations of coercion. 

The lesson applies outside of the round pen as well. We have to make adjustments in our lives as a result of a virus that has now killed one out of every thousand Americans. I want program participants to use good judgment and apply safety precautions at the horse lot. I want masks to be used.

I could make a rule that simply says if you do not wear a mask you are expelled from the program.  In short order, tremendous dissension would be created by those who would religiously wear a mask in my presence , but promptly remove it as soon as I am out of sight. A fault line would be created in our program, separating people and limiting compliance.

Or...I can try to be more diligent in remembering to wear a mask myself when in proximity to others. Doing so will not create complete compliance. Neither would a draconian rule. 

The greatest challenge that our program faces is our need to increase access to grazing and foraging to more land for our livestock. We are doing so by converting about 15 acres of a mature, mixed species wood lot into silvo pasture. It is accurate to say that the future of our program is dependent on getting this job done. It is also accurate to say that regardless of how often I seek to explain the urgency of the task at hand, most of the families in our program fail understand why we need to spend several more hundred manhours of work getting this land cleared before spring.

I could have a rule simply requiring every family to forgo riding until the woodlot is converted to silvo pasture. Doing so would increase the amount of work that some program participants  put into the project. It would also cause some  families to leave the program in hopes of returning when we begin riding again.

Or...I can continue to work to educate program participants on the absolute priority of this task, while putting every bit of personal time and effort that I have into getting the job done. Years of working horses in the round pen have made the soundness of this approach clear to me. 

Look not just to Lincoln to understand leadership. Take a look at the leadership by example shown by Gall and Crazy Horse at Little Big Horn. Jesus' leadership is perfectly exemplified in the call to follow. One cannot  follow another unless that person is walking out ahead. 

Walking out ahead is the essence of leadership.

I have never been cursed with perfectionism. With the exception of substance abuse, I think that perfectionism is responsible for more emotional anguish than any other factor that occurs commonly in our world. Perfectionism is rooted in the belief that we control, that we can control, that we must control, that if we just worked harder we could control...

But life teaches otherwise. 

In about two hours it will be twelve years since my little brother died when his shotgun accidently discharged while he was hunting. No philosophy or theodicy will ever cause me to understand why this could happen. One of the fundamental experiences in shaping the person that I am today was an event utterly beyond my control.

Like Lincoln, I do not profess to control events and I also freely confess to being controlled by them. But I can influence events and I can influence people, particularely young people, and it is my obligation to work to do so in the most effective way possible. That requires providing direction, support, encouragement, and guidance.

And that is the round pen's most important lesson. 

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Impact Of Social Media On Veterinary Care

The internet makes it possible for a teenager growing up without a horse to learn natural horsemanship and gives that kid a chance to understand horses better would a teenager growing up on a ranch fifty years ago. Of course, there is bad information out there, but there always has been bad information passed on about the workings of a horse's mind. The effect is a tremendous net positive.

The same cannot be said of social media's impact on veterinary care. The worst  impact is that it kills veterinarians. 

"The study found that female veterinarians were 2.4 times as likely as the general U.S. population to commit suicide and that the rate for male veterinary technicians was five times higher. Among male veterinarians and female veterinary technicians, the rates were 1.6 and 2.3 times greater, respectively. This is the first study that also considered suicide rates among veterinary technicians.

Witte’s study builds upon previous studies, such as a 2018 study from the CDC, which show suicide rates among those in the veterinary profession were significantly higher than for the general U.S. population. She hopes the results of her study will lead to improved administrative controls for pentobarbital access, raise awareness of the issue and ultimately decrease the number of suicides."   (Link to the article containing this quote)

A myriad of reasons exists for the increase in suicide rates but one cannot look past the constant threat faced by veterinarians each day of having their reputation destroyed by a social media blitz. Twenty years ago a crank client was limited to sending a baseless complaint to the State Veterinary Board or perhaps even filing a lawsuit. 

Now all it takes is a neurotic rant about how a vet "let" a horse die because of whatever action or inaction was taken. So vets are forced to practice defensive medicine. They have to provide appropriate care for the horse but must consider how everything that they do can be twisted on social media. 

Many horse owners use google as their first opinion on veterinary issues. Of course, that leads to finding an explosion of misinformation on what the condition is, what caused the condition, and how the condition must be treated. The anxiety that a horse owner feels when confronted with a health issue is heightened from their miseducation. 

When they call the vet after receiving this information they expect the vet to "do something." So the vet is put in the position of having to "so something" and often finds that it is simply good self protective strategy to mirror the horse owner's unwarranted concern. Reassuring the owner that they have done the right thing by seeking prompt emergency medical attention helps placate the owner.

The vet has to treat both the horse for its condition and deal with the owner's anxiety issues AND has to make sure that whatever action they take will be the alternative least likely to encourage a social media lynching.

It  is sad to think back over some of the experiences that I have had with our first rate vets from The Oaks, only to realize that the pressures that vets are under today imperil any vet who resorts to candor. 

A weanling that I had had been attacked by a coyote. The wound was small , about the size of a fifty cent piece, and was oozing. The skin was missing from the wound. It had occurred several days before these "symptoms" appeared. The vet examined her and asked me which one of my riders the filly belonged to. I told her that it was my filly.

She moved me over to the side and told me that she was a bit confused. Why had I called her out to look at the wound? Was there any other problem?"

I told her know that I was worried about he infection. She looked at me rather surprised  and told me that the oozing was not infection, it was healing serum drainage. She told me to hose it out, put Cut Heal on it and not to worry about it as it would heal wonderfully on its own.

Another vet looked at a horse of mine and said, "Can't really tell what the problem is. Three things can produce symptoms like this. Lets treat for the first two and if she does not get better we can think about treating for the other one."

Or, what is often the very best medical advice--"Lets just leave him alone for two weeks and see if he gets better on his own."

But a vet who gives such sound medical advice today places his career at risk. If we leave him alone to heal and he dies the vet faces cries of "He did nothing to save my soulmate and left him in the pasture to die."

Nothing good comes of this. Horse owners are subject to needless stress by being convinced that every sneeze is evidence of cancer. The relationship between horse owner and horse is hampered as the horse owner gradually moves towards viewing herself as the horse's only lifeline. Saddles and blankets are replaced with supplements and drugs. 

Social media is a constant threat to veterinarians who face the difficulty of trying to diagnose and treat an animal for whom diagnosis is often challenging, at best, and treatments are rarely guaranteed to work.

Like much of this year, and this century, it is a said state of affairs. It did not used to be that way. A lot of things did not used to be that way--I remember back when we could get together and play a little music and then ride horses through the woods at night.

Will we ever be able to return to considering reality relevant to decision making? 

Thursday, December 17, 2020

What Is A Trauma Informed Horsemanship Program?

A trauma informed horsemanship program:

1. Recognizes the impact past trauma can have on a riding student's efforts to learn to ride.
2. Recognizes the role that horses can play in helping people reduce the effects of past trauma.
3. Recognizes that, as a prey animal, a horse responds to outside stimuli as does a person  with PTSD.
4. Recognizes that establishing a relationship of trust with a horse can be the gateway to learning to       
    establish a relationship of trust with another human. 
5. Recognizes that learning to control a horse though humane, effective leadership and communication
    can help erase feelings of helplessness often experienced by those who have experienced significant
6. Recognizes that understanding equine behavior can help people who have experienced significant  
    trauma understand their own behavior.

For over twenty years I have prosecuted crimes against children and sexual assault cases. Early in my career I encountered behaviors in victims that I often did not understand. After years of studying the impact that trauma can have on its victims, I am embarrassed at how ignorant I once was. 

If you share the ignorance I once had, but would like to open your mind, take a look at for a wonderful, eye opening, introduction that can help lead one to an understanding of trauma.  

For over seven years, prior to the impact of the virus, we conducted weekly sessions, weather permitting for those in the in-patient PTSD program at the Hampton Veterans Hospital. Over the years participants have often made it clear, in stark terms, to me exactly how much the program changed their lives. I am  looking forward to resuming to sessions when life returns to normal.

Our program is not limited to participants who have been significantly traumatized. I am  pleased with the opportunity that our program gives people to see the impact that the horses can have on those with PTSD. Those who are in the program who have never suffered significant trauma will be better parents, friends, and spouses because of the understanding that they have gained from observation and participation.

We are a non-profit with no paid staff. We teach riding, natural horsemanship,  heritage breed conservation, preservation and promotion of nearly extinct strains of Colonial Spanish horses, soil and water conservation, microbial farming, Americana and Roots music, and wild life habitat preservation.

And we help people learn how to ride horses out of Hell. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Requiem: Good Bye To Our Most Important Horse

Wind In His Hair was a Chincoteague. He was the first stallion in our program. I bred Wind to several BLM mustangs and produced incredible horses. Like him they had good temperaments, smooth gaits, and bonded closely with young riders.

Quien Es?, Owl Prophet, Curly, Young Joseph, One Bull, Standing Rock, and Medicine Iron were just a few of the spectacular horses that he sired. I also bred him to many outside mares and one of his offspring became a Maryland state champion jumping horse.

Rowan has often called Wind the most important horse in our program. That would be hard for some people to understand. As a Chincoteague he has tremendous Spanish roots, but the horses of Assateague Island also contain a significant amount of modern breed blood and as such cannot be properly called Colonial Spanish horses. He was not part of our breed conservation efforts. 

It was not his DNA that made him the most important horse in our program. It was what he gave, both in life and in death, that made him so important.

For a few hundred kids over the past fifteen years he was the first horse that they ever got on. A few hundred kids were introduced to the horse world through Wind in His Hair. A few hundred kids got a chance to feel the same feeling that others have felt for a few hundred decades as their leg slipped across a horse's spine for the first time. A few hundred kids got a chance to experience the joy of making an emotional connection across species.  

In life he opened doors for a few hundred kids and in death he and Wendell taught a few kids one of life's most important lessons--that life can end in dignity.

Wind was probably over twenty years old when he died. He never had a lame day in his life. Except for dental work I do not recall him ever needing emergency veterinary care. For the past several months Wendell has been providing special care and a wonderful diet for Wind. Wind has spent those months paired with Mace's Spring, young Corolla filly teaching her how to be a horse. Wendell's care for Wind made it possible for him to have life of the highest quality for the past many months. Wendell spent countless hours caring for Wind and when it was time to go Wendell was there with him.

One of the most memorable pieces mail that I ever received concerning our program was bitter note from a stranger insisting that we stop "breeding worthless crap with no marketable value."

Such critics, who only see "value" if it is "marketable", could have learned a lot from Wind...and Wendell. 

Sunday, December 6, 2020

"I'm Just a Pilgrim On This Road, Boys"

Took the trash to the dumpsters yesterday. Saw a piece to a jigsaw puzzle on the ground. Alone--no other parts--just laying there... Not only incomplete but not even on the road to completion.

It was probably even more pitiful than to see a puzzle all assembled but for a missing piece.

Kids don't  need a frivolous set of standards to conform to. They need a set of values to adhere to. They need a place to belong to. 

They need a chance to share interests with other kids. That means that they need exposure to a range of potential interests.

That means giving them a chance to develop new talents and new interests with other young people.
That means giving them a chance to explore their individual talents in a group setting. How else could one learn to become a great donkey trainer?
For much of my life I put together puzzles at the horse lot. I help take individual pieces and make them into a complete picture.

 The rest of my life is spent as a juvenile court prosecutor. The kids that I prosecute, and even more often the children who are the victims of crimes by adults, are like the puzzle piece that I saw on the ground beside the dumpster. They have been thrown away. They have never been given a chance to become part of anything beautiful.

 Living life on such a strange split screen makes me feel like the protagonist in Steve Earle's great song, "Pilgrim On This Road". I feel like I am constantly waiting for that day in which I "will understand it bye and bye."

As we climb out of this virus and begin to rebuild our lives we all need to work to strengthen programs that give a kid a place to belong. We all need to work hard to put puzzles back together.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Who Could That Be Knocking at My Door?

I am writing post this for two reasons. The first is to give a big thank you to Audrey, Ariyanna, and Ella. The second is to talk candidly about the impact that the virus is having on me. I think it important to do so because I am experiencing feelings and emotions that are utterly alien to me. I suspect that the same is happen to many readers of this blog. Not long ago I did a post concerning my extreme desire to own a metal resonating guitar. Such covetedness is not in keeping with my character. It had been decades since I had a strong desire to own anything for myself,

I have always felt an intense responsibility for the safety and happiness of those around me, particularly those in our program. I find that as the pandemic worsens that feeling of responsibility is deepening. 

The horse lot was once a place of great relaxation and security for me. As the virus worsens that is no longer the case. I have even developed paralyzing avoidance behaviors--primarily in terms of not being able to check my emails or keep up with the program's facebook page.

And here is the point of why I am writing this now. Many of our readers are involved in equine and youth programs. I doubt that I am alone in experiencing this reduction in functionality. I suspect that it is very widespread. 

But I am afraid that too few people understand the link between the virus and the changes that they are experiencing in their reactions to the world around them. I am dealing with these issues by exercising hard, doing a lot of hard physical work and eating healthier. 

But that is not enough. The most important thing that I am doing is stepping back and recognizing that these unpleasant changes will go away when we recover from this virus. I remind myself that I have not changed permanently and when the world resumes normality I will be able to go back to who I used to be.

If you do not recognize yourself anymore it might help to understand that the deterioration of your character need not be a permanent wound.

And now for the greatest reason that I am writing this post. Last night Audrey, Ariyanna, and Ella brought over a big box, beautifully wrapped with a deeply touching and meaningful card. When I opened the big box I found a brand new Gretch Honey-Dipper Round Neck Resonator guitar!

The girls took the money that they made from busking and purchased this guitar for me. I cannot tell you how happy it made me to tune it up and start working the slide on it. Over the past decade I have developed an interest in Mississippi Delta blues and now I can expand  my playing into that world. 

Slept better last night than I have in a long time. Will be late getting to the horse lot this morning--got to check in on my new guitar and see how it made it through its first night here in my music room.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

What Is The Connection Between Music and Becoming An Effective Horse Trainer /Rider?

Learning music, especially learning to play multiple instruments, builds confidence. Overcoming stage fright makes it easier to over come riding anxiety. Learning how to use presence, focus, and body language to effectively communicate with an audience makes it easier to use presence, focus, and body language to effectively communicate with horses.

Here are two of my most talented musicians out on their own busking (and becoming quite financially successful at it). They are about thirteen years old. This is also a picture of two of my most talented young horse trainers and riders.

The over lap is not a coincidence. 

Friday, November 27, 2020

How Long Must This Horrible War Go On?

How many times has that cry been uttered throughout history?

 Our war with the virus is a different kind of war but it creates some of the same problems. The neutron bomb was a nuclear bomb that was designed to kill people while leaving most buildings and infrastructure in place. The virus is like that. It only takes people away and leaves their homes and possessions intact.

I have hung with this virus right well until fairly recently. I did not expect this kind of rebound from the virus. It has thrown me greatly off course. It is one of the main reasons that I have not turned on facebook in over a month. (I can post things without having to turn it on and have made occasional posts). I have rarely checked emails and the best thing about my phone is that it rarely works.

I have not hunted in nearly twenty years. It used to be all that I lived for. The seven week long gun season, the month long bow season, and the two week long muzzle loader seasons were the only times of the year that I was fully alive. 

And I was careful, more careful than one can imagine. 

I do not exaggerate when I say that there were at least 200 times that I let a deer go past me because I was not absolutely certain that no human could be down range of where I was shooting. 

I had control over whether or not I accidently shot someone.

I do not have control over whether or not I might have the virus and be spreading it to others. My mind, when left to its own devices used to naturally drift to ways to expand and improve our program. Now my mind only drifts to whether or not our program could lead to a spread of the virus.

But we cannot stay like this forever. The vaccines will come, the virus will fade, and we cannot allow ourselves to loose the taste for living before that happens.

The kids who are skinning the ash and gum poles above are my grand children. They came out Wednesday to help me prepare the poles for drying and curing so that they can be used this summer in the construction of various native structures that symbolize the Indians who were associated with the different strains of Colonial Spanish horses that we seek to preserve and promote.

The poles are for future projects. 

Regardless of the difficulty and uncertainty of the times we can still decide to make sure that our program has a future.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Horses and Healing: Articulating an Inarticulable Hell

The virus. The isolation. The constant frustration of not being able to do what must be done. The constant awareness of the finiteness of life. 

The two minute warning. 

I am taking an intense forty hour session on forensic interviews of children who have been molested. It is all being done on the computer. Yesterday we all introduced ourselves and told how long that we have been involved in the investigation or prosecution of these cases.

Many of the participants looked to be about the ages of my two oldest daughters. I explained that I had been doing these cases for twenty two years and that up until the virus hit had been conducting weekly sessions, (weather permitting) for those in the in patient PTSD program at the local Veterans Hospital for over seven years.

As the words came out of my mouth I remembered a training that I conducted in 2005 for the Virginia Commonwealth Attorney's Conference on effective communication with children and adults with mental retardation who had been sexually assaulted. During that session, over fifteen years ago, I explained that in no office should anyone prosecute these cases for more than a year and a half without taking a significant break from them.

I have now spent over a third of my life working to understand and help heal kids who need someone to help them learn how to claw their way out of Hell. It has  destroyed any shot at a normal life, yet at the same time it has given the life that I have meaning and purpose.

So understand, I am not complaining. I am trying to explain. I said "trying" to explain. I normally can put concepts and feelings into words that can be understood by my audience be it made up of second graders or adult experts in their fields. But I cannot even explain to my wife why my hands are shaking so badly right now. I cannot explain in a way that even she can understand the rage that I felt setting in front of that computer yesterday as the lectures brought back intensely clear memories of the kids whose lives have been put in my hands as a result of the abuse they received.

"Lives in my hands" is not a figure of speech. For many of these kids their futures, if they are to have one at all,  will be greatly shaped by their interaction with me.

And it hurts so  much to know how easy it is to give kids new lives when one exposes them to natural horsemanship. It hurts to know how cheap it is to make natural horsemanship part of the recovery from PTSD while knowing that as a nation we make no investment in these programs. I hope that we can use social media and videography to reach more people in the future. 

But it is a hard row to hoe. 

Programs like ours would be simple to run but for the conflicts among adults in the program. I have never considered leaving the program because the amount of emotional energy that goes into shining light into dark worlds. Every time that I have given serious thought to stepping aside and letting others run the program it has been because of adult conflicts.

I am worn out right now and I have only had one day of this class. I am not sure exactly who I will be by the time the classes end on Friday.

There are four principle virtues --generosity, courage, honesty and resilience. Of these resilience is the most important. Resilience allows one to extend the time that the world has to benefit from  one's generosity, courage, courage and honesty.

Resilience is exhausting.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

A Crisis Of Conscience

Young riders have their own measures of success. As soon as they are comfortable cantering they want to try jumping. If jumping is possible then they want to try riding bare back. Then they want to move on to what is  the ultimate measure of success in our program in their minds.

They want to lead the rides. 

Few of them have any idea what that actually entails. They see only the status that being the lead rider seems to confer. They do not see the awesome responsibility that it carries.

I lead the rides more than 95% of the time. It is exhausting to do so. One must remain focused at every moment to make sure that all the riders behind are learning to become better riders and that their horsemanship is helping their horse to become a more confident mount. The ride leader must be alert to every sound, sight, and even smell that could cause a problem for any of the horses.

Advanced young riders who truly have the skill to lead rides recognize this are willing to lead a ride if needed, but have no desire to do so to demonstrate their power or status. 

I long ago gave up any interest in controlling the behavior of others. The pursuit of power and status is evidence of a serious character flaw. It took me years to realize it, but it is every bit as serious a character flaw as is materialism or conformism. 

Our program can only succeed if we refuse to accept the shallow values of not only the established horse world, but also of our culture as a whole. That means that the starting point of the program must be a radical rejection of self interest. 

Many years ago my uncle sold the timber from his land adjoining the horse lot. He asked Daddy to ask me if I would mind if the lumber trucks went across a section of my land. Daddy told him that he would not ask me because I was not the kind of person who would even think of saying that the trucks could not enter simply because my name was on a deed.

When the girls at the Little House have needed a truck they have always known that they never had to ask for permission to use my truck. They simply had to make sure that I would not be needing it at the time that they would need it. To do otherwise would be to suggest that I was the kind of person who would say that they could not use the truck because it was "mine".

And now for the first time in decades I find myself wanting to own something for myself. I want an all metal resonating guitar. Worst of all, if I did purchase one I could not imagine myself giving it away to some kid down the road who might want to learn to play one but whose family could not afford to make such a purchase.

This does not bode well for the future of our program. 

Whether I purchase such a guitar myself is irrelevant. The harm of wanting to own a thing is already done. What other weaknesses might follow? Might I start thinking that we need to do things to improve the appearance of the horse lot instead of putting all of my energy into improving the reality of our program? Might I start thinking of whether a horse is "mine" instead of thinking whether or not a given rider would have a good experience riding "my" horse?  

During the pandemic I allowed my physical health to slip. When the blood work numbers came in from my last physical I began making radical changes to improve my health. I had a problem and I caught it in time.

It seems that during the pandemic I allowed my ethical health to slip. I need to make radical changes to improve my ethical health. I hope that I have caught it in time. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

I Guess I'm Back

Have been going through the most labor intensive time since I studied for the Bar Exam in 1985. Something had to give and what I gave up was checking my emails, checking facebook posts, and working on this blog.  I went a few weeks without doing any of that.

 Gave me an additional 1.5 to 3 hours a day to get other things done. All of my life I have hated a telephone. I fell in love with email because it gave me a way to communicate with people without  talking to them. 

Now I will reacquaint myself with emails. I generally review and respond to emails as soon as I wake up (generally around 3:00 am). Tomorrow morning I will resume checking emails, but I hope to stay away from facebook messages until January.

Keeping Fear Out of Your Saddle

Certain forms of equine assisted therapy use the horse and the person's reaction to the horse as a diagnostic tool with the primary goal being self understanding. For example, the person enters the round pen, seeks to interact with the horse and then discusses the feelings that resulted from the contact with the horse. If the horse evades the person it is important to understand why the horse was doing so and to examine how that evasion made the person feel.

A similar process can be applied to riding anxiety. All too often the answer to the question of "what are you afraid of when riding?" is the shallow response of "I'm afraid that I am going to fall off."

Of course, the issue is much more complex than that. No one wants to fall off but most experienced riders are not controlled by the fear of falling. Instead they have adapted strategies to control that fear.
Often, the first step in dealing with riding anxiety is to change one's priorities in a manner that can be very surprising. Riders whose top priority is to stay on the horse are much more likely to be injured than are those
whose top priority is to control the horse's speed and direction.

One of the most frightening experiences that one will ever encounter on a horse is to sit astride an uncontrolled horse who has bolted. Riders often make the situation much worse by giving up on controlling the speed and direction of the horse and resorting to simply trying to stay on. In many such cases the rider squeezes with the legs and takes the saddle in hand in a death grip. 

Such a rider is merely holding on and hoping for the best instead of focusing on bringing the animal to a safe stop. The rider who focuses on control of the horse will make sure that he is not squeezing the horse with his legs. If the rider has practiced one rein stops, using the left rein to bring the horse under control by keeping its head down and pulling its nose toward its hip, the horse can generally be brought back under control.

But there is a catch to this simple advice. When we feel an immediate physical threat our instincts prompt us to draw our bodies into a fetal position. When on horseback doing so will often result in feet being pulled from the stirrups at the same time that the head and shoulders  are pulled downward and forward. When in such a position one is at much more risk of falling off and one is in a position that makes it impossible to use the reins to control the horse.

Overcoming learned behavior that is dangerous is hard enough, but learning to overcome instinctual behavior is quite a daunting task. The only way that I have been able to do so is to be perfectly consistent in how I handle the reins and where I place my legs. Every time that I stop a horse I use a left hand, one rein stop.  After doing so for a few decades habit overcomes instinct.

If my horse bolts I do not have to decide what to do. My body instantly works to take control of the horse because each time I get on a horse my top priority is to control the horse's speed and direction.

Knowing that I can control the horse allows me to ride with less fear. Few things scare horses more than exposure to terrified people. the calmer one is around the horse the more likely the horse is to remain calm. One must also understand that being controlled in a perfectly consistent manner provides the horse with the same feeling of security that he feels in a small band of horses with the lead horse present. 

Learn to control your horse. Learn to control your anxiety in the saddle. When it comes to horse/human relation sips fear is contagious. 

So is peacefulness.


Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Dorothy, I'm Afraid That We are In Kansas, Again!

But it is the Kansas of the 1850's. 

The Civil War officially began with the firing on Fort Sumpter. In reality, it began with the years of bloody civil war in Kansas as agents of what Lincoln referred to as "The Slave Power" fought abolitionists over whether slavery was to be allowed in the state. 

Nearly two years ago it occurred to me that the incredible divisiveness that I saw in the nation could lead to massive violence. I set the the thought aside as being merely one of thousands of scary thoughts that  that take brief possession of my thoughts. 

Two weeks from today an election will occur and it is impossible to imagine that we will be closer as a people after that day than we are now.

But healing is what we must do and in order to heal we will need to change hearts more than minds. We will need to strengthen institutions that draw us together, not merely as Americans, but as human beings. 

Only the handful of people who have seen such programs in action will understand what I suggest, but one of the most important steps that we can take for long term healing is to create more programs that draw young people from every race and economic back ground back to the soil. 

Descartes was correct on the individual level when he declared, "I think, therefore I am", but on a collective level it is equally important that we understand as humans, "We farm, therefore we are." 

When we reach back into the finest traditions of the past and apply the African concept of sankofa (bringing forward the very best of the old ways and placing them in our present and our future) we create common ground. We create healing. We create understanding. We create empathy.

We will need to build a nation in which every youth program becomes a diverse youth program. Never separate but equal, always unified and equal. and always seeking to bring about learning experiences that draw us back to our shared human experience of being one with the soil--the soil  from which we all  came and from which we will all return. 

When I was younger I practiced and promoted natural horsemanship to benefit horses. Ashley Edwards taught  me that people benefit more from the practice of natural horsemanship than do horses. The PTSD patients that I have worked with in the round pen for years taught me that the benefits of natural horsemanship can heal the deepest pain that humans experience. 

Sankofa, understanding the best of who we were in order to become better than we are, can be a vital tool of healing. And I fear that this nation  we will need every tool possible to heal. Readers might not understand how teaching vermiculture, heritage livestock preservation, roots music, soil and water conservation, history, folk skills, and animal husbandry can be part of bringing a nation back together. I do not blame those readers. It is a difficult point for people, especially those who are generations from the soil, to understand. 

Over the next few years it will be our job to demonstrate how it does so and to network with other programs to achieve sankofa.  

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Spin Off Lessons: The Side Effects of Our Program

You learn to work. You learn to be proud of your work. You learn that you are not a weather man and that weather is irrelevant when there is work to be done. You learn to push yourself and you learn to enjoy investing time in a project that is bigger than are you.

We are turning about 15 acres of mature mixed woods forest into a pine and oak dominated silvopasture that will radically increase the forage and the living space that we will have for our livestock.

It was raining yesterday. We had a great turnout of program volunteers to cut down the small trees, all of the holly, all of the sourwood, nearly all of the gum and maple and all of the wild blueberry shrubs--leaving the largest pines and the oaks that produce acorns for the deer and squirrels. The limbs are being stacked into a brush pile that will likley be nearly 1/2 mile long when completed. This makes great habitat for quail and rabbits.

Some of the best poles will be taken from the woods, debarked, dried , treated with water repellant and used to build a riding ring. (We are looking seriously at getting into American Indian Horse Registry style shows in 2021)

The picture above is of most of the last hold outs that kept working through. The clearing that they are standing in was a fairly thick forest when the sun came up. Four or five chainsaws, a dozen or more hard working volunteers, and the only heavy equipment in use out there is me.

And we will be back at it again this weekend.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Casting Call: A Key to A Horse's Natural Health

This is a picture of health, and a picture that too few people ever see. This is an overnight buildup of castings from red wiggler worms in one of the pastures close to our vermiculture operation. 

The casting are as potent a soil amendment and organic growth agent as I know of. Our original vermicomposter is an old hot tub that is buried level with the ground so that it does not freeze in the winter.  Over the years we have added many tons of horse manure to fork fulls of old hay. We brought additional microbes in to the mixture by adding much smaller amounts of hog, rabbit, poultry, goat, cow and sheep manure.  We roll out round bales of hay over the pastures and that provides seed, a carbon cover to the soil,  and organic matter to the soil--all while the horses eat hay.

The largest vermicomoposter contains red wiggler composting worms. Over the years many thousands of them have left the container and became feral. The closer the pastures are to the composter the more dense they are in worms. The worms aerate and fertilize the soil. They also attract scores of one of my favorite wild birds, killdeer. 

It is not just a matter of what we put into the soil. Equally important is what we do not put in the soil . There has not been any herbicide or pesticide on the soil in twenty years and there has been no commercial fertilizer on the soil in about ten years.

The super potent soil produces super nutritious grass, forbs, and weeds--everything that a horse needs to thrive.  It takes years of staying away from poison building up a solid microbial base to achieve this state. We are beginning the process on the new pastures that we are developing. and within a decade we will likely have nearly fifty acres of dark, living soil  supporting the nearly extinct Colonial Spanish horse strains that we work to preserve and promote.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Being Able To Be Part Of A Very Big Deal

Last night was one of the most significant nights at the horse lot in over 15 years of programs. And I got to be there.  

 Jenner's family joined our program not quite two years ago.  Jenner quickly became attached to Nick, a Large Standard, older donkey.  I told his mother that, though they were hard to find, there was a larger size donkey known as Mammoths that would be able to carry Jenner's weight with ease. 

In short order she had located two neutered males , half brothers, one of Poitou  stock and the other , smaller but with more conventional hair. Jenner worked hard training the pair with the help of his mother and his father often gave a hand in the work.

But it was Jenner's job and their success was Jenner's success. Jenner had planned and trained hard in hopes of running the donkeys in a local introductory, short, endurance ride. The virus took that ride away from us.

The donkeys were becoming such a popular part of our program that Jenner's mother acquired a pair of full Mammoth jennies. They are sisters, both sweet, one easier to catch than the other.

The ten mile endurance ride was cancelled but we did the next best thing. We did an onsite session of over 6 miles. Jenner was not alone. His mother joined in on Joey, a spectacular Choctaw horse. His father rode Ta Sunka Witco, last year's National Pleasure Trail Horse of the Year for the Horse of the Americas registry. His youngest sister joined in on Trouble, a wonderful little high percentage Book Cliff horse and his middle sister rode Holland, our super fast Shackleford horse. His grand parents were there to see us off.

Lydia set aside wedding preparations and lead the ride on her horse, Owl Prophet.  Ella who recently had her first fall from the saddle and mounted right back up there, rode Quien Es? a Chincoteague/BLM cross. Her sister Audrey is doing great work training one of my Red Feather's last three wild offspring and took her out for ride. Ariyanna rode Lilly, the Grand Canyon/Choctaw mare that she has trained. She and the horse did great. Kate rode the love of her life, Belle, a white mule. Terry rode Nick an older donkey with a smooth stride and a relaxed mind.   I rode the taller of the two donkeys that Jenner has trained and he rode the shorter one. Abigail looked elegant on Daisey the big Mammoth jenny out for her first challenging ride.

And it was donkeys...and it was horses...and it was donkeys and horses trained by skilled, dedicated young riders and trainers...and it was Jenner putting a big one in the win column...and it was family

                                           ........and it was a very big deal.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Breeding The Colonial Spanish Mule

This project all began because during the 90's I lost fifty four pounds. After a decade of walking ten miles a day, five days a weeks with ten or fifteen pound dumbbells held high in each hand, my back was functional enough so that I thought that I could begin riding again. Momma had adopted two wild BLM donkeys. One of them was bred when she was captured and she gave birth to Nick, who still is part of our program. I thought that if I could breed Nick to a wild mustang I could get a mule that I could shuffle along on woods paths at least enough to be reminiscent of riding as a younger person. Nick was picky in his choice of consorts and refused to breed a horse. Instead he produced many offspring with other donkeys. As our riding program grew Nick was gelded and was the main mount for my brother Lido and my daughters.
Nearly twenty years later things are coming full circle. Janie is the beautiful Colonial Spanish mare shown above. She is of significant Choctaw and Grand Canyon lineage. She is the easiest moving horse that I have ever ridden. She came here as a gift from Lothlorien Farm in Texas.

The beautiful red donkey, named Jack, who is shown at the top of the page, belongs to Halie and I am borrowing him to breed to Janie.  If he is successful in breeding her I will also breed him to Snow On Her.

I hope to get a solid transitional equine to ride in my seventies before I graduate on to spending my eighties in the saddle on one of the program's mammoth jennies.

(Now who says that I don't put enough long term planning into our program?)

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Managing Horses, People, and Dreams

Maintaining a meaningful and growing riding program requires more than solid equine management. It requires dealing with humans in a way that encourages them to learn, grow, and participate without hurting the program.Failing to do so will lead to the collapse of the best intended programs.

The toddler believes that everything in life revolves around them.  The preschooler believes that everything that he wants should be provided to him. The teenager believes that he knows more than the adults around them. The young adult believes that life is fundamentally fair. The young professional believes that the solution to problems is found in proper planning and protocol development. 

Some reach wisdom at a young age. For others, wisdom takes root about the same age that arthritis begins to take hold. Wisdom evades the vast majority of people and would do so even if those people could live to be a hundred years old.

Lincoln once observed that some people claim to be able to control events but that he freely admitted that he was controlled by events. Lincoln carefully planned, and spent his adult life developing, his values.  He wasted not a moment of his time developing the minutiae of how such values  were to be put into action. He was governed by his values, not by a set of social expectations. (Though likely an exaggeration, he said that he never combed his hair but simply ran his fingers though his coarse mane to push it into rough shape. With few exceptions, very few great men displayed well coiffed hair. In fact, Grant's moral superiority over Lee is readily apparent simply from examining how much time Lee put into looking superior.)

The first step in achieving any useful degree of wisdom is in understanding both the importance of reality and the absolute insignificance of appearances. 

A business model is of no use to one seeking to have a program with values in line with ours. We are not a business. Making a profit is not even a remote consideration for us.  We have over sixty horses who consume 10-14 thousand pounds of hay a week. Our monthly feed bill is generally around five thousand dollars. We breed, conserve and promote several strains of Colonial Spanish horses and other heritage livestock. Prior to the virus we provided weekly programming for patients in the local Veteran's Hospital's PTSD prgram and had done so for seven years--at no cost to participants. We teach kids to learn to play a range of historic musical instruments with weekly sessions learning Americana, roots, blues, gospel, bluegrass and old time music--at no charge to participants. We practice and teach microbial pasture development, soil and water conservation and wild life habitat enhancement. We use horses to help severely traumatized people claw their way out of Hell.

And we do all of this with absolutely no paid staff. Everything that is done is done by volunteers.

This program depends on a human resources management system that is not easy for a casual viewer of our program to understand.Program management depends on helping every participant  grow to understand that they are part of something that matters, something that is a powerful vehicle to help horse and people. 

We have a set of rules, but we are a set of values. 

We have teenagers who are proud to have the opportunity to help new riders tack up in 90 degree heat. 

That is what we have to offer--a chance to work very hard, with no material compensation, with the goal of improving the lives of others. 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Training Donkeys to Saddle: Speak Less and Say More

Were I to begin my life with equines again, I  might not begin that life with horses. I might use donkeys instead. Donkeys are misunderstood and profoundly underestimated as trail riding partners.

Donkeys do not learn the same way that horses do and they cannot be successfully taught using the same techniques used with horses. Both animals have a fight or flight response to perceived dangers, but while horses tend to flee at all threats unless cornered, a donkey is more likely to freeze and confront the danger.

That is why donkeys are used to protect livestock from coyotes. Most horses simply try to out run predators, but donkeys will often stand and fight. Coyotes are no match for the powerful kicks and bone crushing bites of donkeys who are protecting "their" flock of  goats or sheep.

Donkeys also have a much higher tolerance of pain than do horses. While humane, negative pressure is often at the center of horse training, donkeys can simply ignore that pressure. Donkeys respond wonderfully to rewards.

Clicker training helps donkeys understand what the trainer is asking them to do. Using a clicker to sound off the moment that the donkey responds correctly guides the donkey into the next step of training.

This can lead to having donkeys that are remarkably light to ride. One of my students obtained a young donkey and trained it on her own. She rode bareback and taught the donkey go over jumps. The most amazing part of what she taught her donkey was how it used its "bridle."

There actually was no bridle. The donkey simply opened its mouth and she put a soft rope between its teeth. The rope was not tied in place or connected to the donkey in any way. The donkey held the "rein" in place for the entire ride.

My little brother, Lido, was born with cerebral palsy. This made it difficult for him to mount up by himself. He taught his donkey to stand by a gate as he climbed up and jumped on.
 Mammoth donkeys are large enough to carry adults and large kids. Unfortunately they are very rare. We obtained two Mammoth jennies and we have two males that are a bit smaller. They are becoming a wonderful part of our program and gain more fans each week.

Perhaps because they have less of a flight response to predators, donkeys seem able to form quicker and deeper bonds with humans than do horses. Horses respond to love. Donkeys thrive on love. And I have never met anyone who loved donkeys more than Jenner. In the picture above he is teaching a donkey to walk over a teeter totter. A donkey must have perfect trust in the person that asks them to do such a task in order to be able to walk on such a shifting surface.

Jenner gets wonderful results from the donkeys that he works with because he works so hard to communicate with them. He spends countless hours just being with the donkeys, talking to them, petting them, leading them, and showing them that they can trust him.

There is no substitute for spending time with the equines that one is training. Jenner has learned something important about communication with the donkeys during all of the hours that he spends with them. He has learned that there is a time for "small talk" and a time for "business talk."

When he is not in the saddle Jenner carries on long conversations with the donkeys, but when he is in the saddle and it is time for "business talk" he has learned that the fewer words said the better the response that the donkey gives. While riding, long conversations are replaced with short instructions. "Step".  "Whoa", "Trot", "Canter" are cues that the donkeys can understand and respond to.

But the important part here is that they are so responsive to the one word cues partly because of  all of the long conversations that he has with them when they are spending time together in the pasture. I am not suggesting that the donkeys understand the words that he uses during these conversations. I am emphatically saying that they understand his tone, and that tone conveys love.

And love gets results.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Watch Them Grow

A critic of our program once complained that I treated our horses as if they were "super horses" and expected too much of them. The critic had never ridden a Colonial Spanish horse, yet felt fully qualified to define what expectations of them would be proper.

I continue to be amazed at those who will happily explain the height, weight, and conformation that makes it possible for a horse to carry a rider fifty miles at a time without having ever ridden a horse even twenty miles at a time.

Horses often rise, or fall, precisely to the level of expectation that they are given.

The same is true for kids. Confidence is gained by achieving successes and by experiencing and over coming failures.  

I love hearing one thing said about my riders that I first heard over a decade ago--"Your kids don't act like the brats that I see in other riding programs."

That's right--and not because conformity to meaningless rules has been hammered into their heads, but because they have been given the chance to do things that neither they, nor anyone else in their lives, thought they could do.

An eight year old completing  a 40 mile ride when it was 22 degrees when we set out that morning--adolescents taking responsibility to gently tame and train wild horses--shy, nervous kids learning to do an entire round pen demonstration and training program on their own as an audience of strangers looked on--young people learning to provide proper hoof care for horses--kids teaching on Thursday what they learned on Tuesday--kids learning to teach themselves to play music and perform like professionals--teenagers learning that not everyone has had a life as safe as they have had and learning to help others overcome years of pain and trauma--kids who learn to make helping others become their top priority in life...

That is what we teach. That is what we learn.

Putting the interests of others above self interest--courage, resilience, generosity, and honesty--

and becoming role models for those younger than they are without a hint of arrogance, condescension, or self righteousness--

And that is what our riders learn.

And they can look at Abigail, Lydia, and Chris and see what they can grow into. And they can watch as Mandy, Curie, Ariyanna, Emma, and Audrey continue to grow.

And they can see what success looks like.

. You can help us keep this program going and growing throughout the pandemic. Make a contribution. Gwaltney Frontier Farm, Inc, is a 501 (c)5 breed conservation program that administers all of the programs at Mill Swamp Indian Horses. Contributions to a 501 (c) 5 breed conservation program are not tax deductible. However, the Gwaltney Frontier Farm Educational Foundation is a 501 (c) 3 educational foundation that helps fund our educational programs and helps pay for the physical infrastructure where we conduct our educational and instructional programs. Contributions to Gwaltney Frontier Farm Educational Foundation may be made by check mailed to 16 Dashiel Drive, Smithfield Virginia, 23430.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Volunteers Who Put Their Hearts Into Our Program

People often wonder how we can run all of the programs that we do, for all of the people that we do and care for as many horses as we do---all with no paid staff. It is because we have many volunteers who are as enthusiastic about this program as the participants are. Lydia was eleven years old when she learned to ride in our program. That was over a decade ago. Now she is an integral part of everything we do. Her is what she wrote about our program three years ago.

"My name is Lydia Barr. I ride,volunteer, and train horses, as well as keep my horse out at Mill Swamp Indian Horses.

I started riding and working with horses out there when I was 11yrs old. I was home schooled and my parents were looking for a way to include outdoor work and activities into my schooling as well as an outlet for my delight and curiosity about animals. The freedom to have a whole day of being challenged in an outdoor class room is a rare opportunity and Mill Swamp Indian Horses was the perfect match for me. I am the 5th out of 7 children so it was always a tricky thing for my Mom to work out the schedule for all of us each year. But Mill Swamp was the perfect fit. I was able to count my involvement as extra credits in physical education, community service, and leadership skills. While also gaining confidence, self control and emotional awareness that comes from learning to communicate with horses, other animals, and all the other people who ride and work out there. 

I am now 22 yrs old and my job is professionally training horses several days a week. Because of the rare and incredible opportunity to learn and gain experience training wild horses with Steve, I was able to push myself and develop my natural talent with animals. But through all the different programs at the horselot that focus on using horses for healing and better relationships with people, I have learned and grown up with a deep desire to use my skills and strengths to meet and build up everyone I come in contact with. 

The power of the horse lot comes from it's simplicity and honesty. It doesn't have straight fences and rolling green pastures. There is mud and baling twine fixes. But there is no pretense. We offer what we have to anyone who can come. People from all different backgrounds and stories are able to come and find community because the horses offer comfort and peace.Through the horses I have learned patience, gentleness, courage, compassion, and how to reach out and connect with other people. But it has also been through the people who have opened themselves up to the revealing vulnerability of working with the horses that have taught me some of the most important things about what I want to be, who I want to look like, and where I want to go. 

Steve Edwards, Mill Swamp Indian Horses, and the Gwaltney Frontier Farm have changed my life. Not from something damaged into something healed, or from darkness into light, but simply a deeper understanding, a wider perspective, a more gracious standard, and solid self awareness."

. You can help us keep this program going and growing throughout the pandemic. Make a contribution. Gwaltney Frontier Farm, Inc, is a 501 (c)5 breed conservation program that administers all of the programs at Mill Swamp Indian Horses. Contributions to a 501 (c) 5 breed conservation program are not tax deductible. However, the Gwaltney Frontier Farm Educational Foundation is a 501 (c) 3 educational foundation that helps fund our educational programs and helps pay for the physical infrastructure where we conduct our educational and instructional programs. Contributions to Gwaltney Frontier Farm Educational Foundation may be made by check mailed to 16 Dashiel Drive, Smithfield Virginia, 23430.