Thursday, July 30, 2020

A Shelter For Our Veterans Programs, Horse Training and Educational Programs

Thanks to a grant from TC Energy and the hard work and planning of several of our most dedicated program participants, we are going to come out of this pandemic with a better educational and programming infrastructure than we have ever had.

For over seven years those who were in the inpatient PTSD program at the Hampton VA Hospital came over weekly for sessions with our horses. Constructed of heavy timbers the shelter that is now around this round pen will last for decades to come. Native vines have been planted and are starting to climb up to the top where they will provide cool shade in the hot summer months.

While we await their growth, shade is provided by well reinforced fabric.

It is ironic the twists that our language takes as trite phrases are used and reused. Today when we say that something is a "work in progress" we use the term as a sort of an apology that the project is not where it should be. It is a shame that the phrase has taken on such negative connotations.

This shelter is a living shelter. The vines are longer this morning than they were yesterday. As a living shelter it will continue to grow. That continuous growth makes it a "work in progress," which is a perfect metaphor for our program. Like the rest of the nation the we are limping through the summer with very limited programming--but that is not going to last forever.

Our program is a  "work in progress" and even in this environment we are continuing to work and progress.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Waking Up

I guess that this is what it is like to wake up from a coma. Moving back into life is stranger than I imagined. Since the virus struck, this is the third time that we have attempted to get together to play music. The first two efforts were very sad. We were without a fiddler and we were so far apart that we could not hear each other enough to stitch the tunes together.

I was not looking forward to getting together last night. I had lost my recollection of how much I enjoyed playing music with the kids. But I got reminded last night. Chris had to work late so we missed his dobro, but the little girls have gotten older over the past six months and they song with much more power. We had a fiddler. the kids sounded good and they were having fun.

Grace Cofer was raised in England and during World War II flower gardens were replaced with vegetable gardens to feed the nation under Nazi assault. She told me that when the war was over the flowers seemed prettier than they seemed before the war. I hope that our war will end soon.

I am looking forward to listening to some beautiful flowers.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

When Exposed to The Withering Sun

What can you as a horse owner, as in you, you directly, you the person who is reading this and who I am pointing at at this moment,  do to make this a better, safer nation? 

I just finished "MindHunter", John Douglas' memoir , written along with Mark Olshaker, of the development of the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit. For over twenty years I have been a prosecutor of crimes against children, child molestation, sexual assault and murder, along with a range of other criminal offenses. For nearly as long I have been teaching natural horsemanship to people who come from a range of backgrounds, including some who have suffered the most severe childhood trauma that one could imagine. 

I have watched immersion in equine relationships completely change lives.

One can search key words on this blog, such as "trauma", PTSD, "Prey Animal," and "healing" to get more information on this aspect of our program. A few years ago I learned of the significance of Adverse Childhood Experiences. If you are not aware of the ACE score importance please see 

The most important lesson that I have learned from the ACE research is that we can often  change future behavior , and reduce future suffering by intervening in a positive manner with young people regardless of how high their ACE score is. 

I am a believer in counselling. I am a believer in medication. I am a believer in science. But most of all I am a believer in love. One need not develop a program as large as ours to ease the suffering of young people. I have been told by numerous visitors over the years, in nearly the same terms-"I had a neighbor who had a horse. She knew some of what I was going through. If it had not been for her and that old horse I would not have survived."

If you have a horse be that neighbor. Be the intervenor that changes lives. Here's what John Douglas,a man who hunted serial killers, a professional crime fighter, a hard nosed lawman wrote, over 20 years ago in "Mindhunter":

"But twenty-five years of observation has also told me that criminals are more "made" than "born" which means that somewhere along the line, someone who provided a profound negative influence could have provided a profound positive one instead. So what I truly believe is that, along with more money and police and prisons, what we most need more of  is love. This is not being simplistic:
it's at the very heart of the issue."

And you and your horse can provide that love. And while your horse is standing there idly in the stable and while you are scrolling through your phone there is a kid in your community reaching over to find an old razor blade.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Grow Up--Ride A Donkey

Do you feel too old to ride a horse? Did you love riding years ago but think it an impossible dream now? Are you acutely aware of how easy it is for your bones to break?

Buy a well trained saddle donkey. A large standard donkey can carry much more weight than a horse of similar size. A mammoth donkey can carry more than you'd imagine.

Here is the part that people don't realize--not only can they carry you, chances are they can carry you with a smoother, steadier gait than a horse--yes, even a Colonial Spanish horse. The only down side is that one does not get a hard workout from riding a donkey. They are too smooth.

Finding a well trained saddle donkey is not easy or cheap, but if you are old enough to start thinking about things that medicare covers a well trained donkey is a sound investment

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Can You Hear Silent Cries?

"Wonderful things of folks are said
When they have passed away
Roses adorn the narrow bed
Over the sleeping clay
Give me the roses while I live
Trying to cheer me on
Useless the flowers that we give
After the soul is gone"
                                     A.P. Carter, "Give Me The Roses While I Live"

Have you ever heard a kid talk about suicide? Suicides are at an all time high among young people. By the time a teenager starts to verbalize the thought the risk of carrying out that thought is quite high. A much higher risk than I ever want to take.

When that happens one must know how important it is to work to postpone any effort to follow through on the thought. "Postpone" is a shocking term. By using this term I do not mean to suggest that it is inevitable that the thought will lead to an attempt at self destruction. Instead the term is used to emphasize the urgency of the situation.

That means telling adults even if you promised your friend that you would keep the conversation confidential. Even if doing so will make your friend mad. Let them be mad. One must be alive to be mad and that is a great trade off.

Refer them immediately to suicide prevention hotlines and services. If you are an adult who works with young people you should have a card made up with phone numbers and other contact information for service providers.

But all of that is a detailed topic for another post. This discussion is for all of the times that suicide has not been verbalized. this discussion is for all of the times that pain has been verbalized, but not heard.

Think how often you have heard it said, in a strong tone of derision and scorn--"Well she just said that to get attention."

A young person who must go to those lengths in order to get attention must be in desperate need of that attention. It is the silent cries for attention that we must become better at listening for.

I have no science to support  this belief, but I strongly suspect that the verbalization of a desire to end one's life makes it much more likely that a young person will follow through on that verbalization.

If I am correct, it makes it very important to make sure that the young person receive attention before having to ever say or write anything about ending their life.

When a young person says something like, "Everyone in school hates me,' that is the time to put down everything that you are doing and have a meaningful conversation.

That is not the time to say, "Oh, I'm sure that it is not all that bad."

When a young person says, "I feel like I am always letting everyone down.", put your phone down and find out what it going on in that child's life.

When an adopted child says, "I don't understand why my parents did not love me.", that is not a time for bumper sticker platitudes. It is a time to help that child understand their own worth as a human.

Young people talk to me. They always have, even when I was only 13 or 14 little kids at school talked to me about problems that they were having on the bus, at home, at recess, or in class. Often they are so tentative in what they are saying to me that I am unable to identify the problem.

At those times I bluntly say, "I know something is wrong but I am not sure what it is, based on what you are saying. Tell me in another way so I can understand."

And they do. I never fall back on silly thoughts like, "Well, when they are ready to talk to me I am sure they will."  If I see a kid that is hurting and I ask them what is wrong, only to see tears being quickly wiped away as the child whimpers out "nothing." I do not let the conversation end there.

I do not mind being direct. More direct than most others might think appropriate. I do not feel bad for responding, "Hey, don't play that stuff with me. Who do you think I am, just some old man to be blown off that easy? Now lets talk about what is wrong."

Talking to young people is not brain surgery. It is no harder than communicating with a wild horse. You can learn to hear what a horse is saying with its eyes.

You can also learn to hear silent cries of young people in pain.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

A Blog Post From Tam

Tam sent me this wonderful note about a subject that is very important to me--bridging cultural differences. For a moment it flashed through my mind that sharing this with others might seem like shameless self promotion. The I quickly remembered that I am not a Presbyterian and decided to make this a blog entry.

(Whew, that was a close one!)

From Tam:

Right now is a very difficult time for everyone. We have a global pandemic, political disagreements, and division. When we view the world with hatred and/or stereotypes, it clouds our vision. Our perception of people changes, and we use our differences and opinions as weapons. When we do this, we can miss important moments, even ones that can change the path of your life. We completely forget that the best and most meaningful moments could come from unexpected places.

Enter Steve Edwards. I've known him for a few years. When I first met him at the horse lot, I had a minimal understanding of who he is. He runs a horse conservation program, he is the deputy prosecutor of Isle of Wight, and he is a southerner.

One of the important things Steve talked about on the first day was security. After chatting for a bit, he looked over and said "Go hug that horse. You're safer than you think you are." In truth, I wasn't entirely sure if that was true. But he was correct. I was safe, and the little Marsh Tacky mare was safe too. I realized that he can be trusted. He gave words of wisdom about his experiences, his ideas, and even his mistakes. It became clear that Steve is a fascinating person to cross paths with. Prosecutor intelligence, mixed with fatherly mannerisms. I admire him and his wisdom, it's never a dull moment with a "Steve lesson". Learning from him became such an enjoyable part of the horse lot, that it was weird to suddenly think about our personal differences.

Some of the differences are small, like his peculiar taste in food. Kimchi with walnuts and wasabi is an "interesting" choice for breakfast. But sometimes it's bigger than that. Steve is a life-long southerner, while I became a northerner from a New England family. Northerners and southerners can have a complicated connection, and the historical rivalries can still carry over to today. And honestly, there were times where I worried that the views between the north and south would affect my ability to befriend people in Virginia. I wondered if being friends with a southerner might be impossible if there was the slightest hint of rivalry or regional pride from either of us, even with a level headed man like Steve.

My thoughts were incorrect. That has never been an issue, especially with Steve, not in the slightest way. After spending 3 or 4 years at the horse lot, he surprised me with a horse. And sometimes I spend weekends at his house. The evenings include cooking with his oldest granddaughter, often while musing at the events of our day. Sometimes we'll watch an interesting documentary, or Steve will put on a crime show with his prosecutor insight. And we sleep soundly to the white noise of the television, accompanied by wagging tails of the two dogs. And we wake up happy. Tired, but happy. 

Steve and I could easily ruin this by using our differences against each other. As a northerner, I have heard many stereotypes about the south, some of which are used in the north to judge the south. I'm sure Steve is aware of some southern stereotypes about northerners, and it has probably painted a bad picture of northerners. But we don't go down that path. We know that putting differences first won't make us better people, and it wouldn't prove that one is better than the other. We accepted that we exist in the same world, with open minds and a willingness to keep that open mindedness.

Obviously, we can't always solve all of the world's problems. We can't change our history, and we can't completely stop political or regional wars. But we can start by turning ourselves into better people. We can start to peel away assumptions from regional views and generalizations. We can listen and learn, replacing assumptions with facts. Of course, this is easier said than done, and I can't promise that it will work for everyone. But we should always try. When we start to show more acceptance and open mindedness, the world becomes a little less intimidating, and daily life becomes easier to navigate. 


Tam and her beautiful high percentage Grand Canyon mare

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Why Would a Mule Put A Smile On a Young Rider's Face?

Because this young rider understands what it means to have a relationship with a great equine. Kate is becoming a very good rider. She is also becoming a young  person who understands the importance of realty over appearance.

Not enough people have experience with horses. Even fewer have experience with donkeys and a fraction of that number have experience with mules. That lack of exposure causes people to fall for the comedic stereotypes of the mule as dumb, lazy and stubborn.

Kate and Belle know better. She goes as fast a Kate wants to go. She goes as far as Kate wants to go. And most of all, she goes where Kate asks her to go.

They are a great team. Riding with Kate and Belle exposes one to contagious happiness. There might have been a time when the horses were the best thing in my life. Now the best thing in my life is the chance to be around so many kids who are growing as riders and as people. I never forget how lucky I am to be able to see kids grown in skill, confidence, but most of all in caring and compassion.

We practice natural horsemanship, not because it makes better horses, but because it makes better people.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Do You Remember The Day When You Stopped Blaming Your Horse?

Do you remember the day when you got in from the ride, angry, frustrated, but most of all hurt and disappointed? As you detacked you huffed to yourself and everyone around you about how your horse had banged you into trees--about how your horse was stubborn--about how your horse would not do anything that you asked him to do.

Do you remember thinking it over, trying to decide if you should just sell your horse, or maybe even quit riding all together? Do you remember thinking that maybe the horse just needed a trainer?

Do you remember when it flashed through your mind that your horse treated you with the same lack of respect that very single person in your life did?

Do you remember when you ruminated on each problem that you had with your horse on the trail that day? Do you remember when you stopped ruminating and began analyzing? You started to think less about what your horse was doing on the ride and more about what you were doing on the ride. You started thinking about how you created stress for the horse the moment you nervously mounted up. You realized that you only gave your horse partial cues because you thought that he was going to ignore them anyway. You realize that your mixture of fear and frustration created so much emotional noise that your horse could not hear anything that your body asked him to do. You realized that you were the only person on the ride carrying on a vocal argument with your horse instead of using a few perfectly consistent verbal cues.

You realized that instead of simply telling your horse "no" when he reached over to nibble tall wild grasses, you actually told your horse how much the feed cost that you were buying for him and that according to the directions on the bag he had had enough to eat and that he should not be trying to eat more. 

And that day became one of the most important days in your life. You decided to learn how to ask your horse to comply in a way that the horse could understand. You decided to insist that your horse do as you instructed. You began to complain less and enjoy more. You began talking more at the office and you even spoke up to clarify a misunderstanding that your boss had about last week's shipment. You began telling your child that go to bed. And you began telling him only once. Gradually you noticed that there was less arguing between you and the kids. You started thinking about it and realized that you argued less with your kids beginning at the same time that you stopped arguing with your horse.

You even noticed that instead of getting your Whopper with onions on it the way that you always had--even though onions nearly always caused indigestion--you ordered your hamburger without onions. You looked in the mirror after you got a hair  cut and  thought that your hair looked better than it ever had. Then you remembered that you told your barber, for the first time in the decade that you had been his regular customer, exactly how you wanted your hair cut.

Of course, there were those few scary days when you realized that the horse was not to blame and you instead blamed yourself. And you blamed yourself hard. You were good at blaming yourself because the reality is that you have been blaming yourself for everything from the the earliest years of your life. That was when your parents steadily salted their language with words to make sure that you understood  that you really were not good enough.

And then you made the most important change in your life that you ever had. You came to realize that one can only be fairly blamed for something that one has control over.

And you realized that you could have more control over your horse, your job, your family, and your life.

It took a while, but you did it and it all began the day that you stopped blaming your horse.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Riding With Focus Helps One Live With Focus

Perhaps it is the hardest thing for riding students to learn. We "steer" the horses with our reins as a last resort, the final step before effectuating a turn. Pulling on the horse's head is not the first step in turning. It is a step to be used only if necessary.

A turn is accomplished in four steps--the same is  steps every single time that the turn is to be made. First one looks hard in to the direction that one wishes to go--not a quick fleeting glance but an intense stare, even if only for a moment. Then one leans in that direction. The third step is to push the horse's hip away using the leg on the same side that one wishes to turn.

If, after completing all of these steps, the horse has not begun to make the turn one may pull the rein back (not up, back) until the horse begins to make the turn.

The very instant that the horse begins to consider thinking about the possibility of perhaps making the turn is the time that  the pressure comes off of the rein. If this technique is used with 100% consistency the result  is a horse that begins to make the turn the moment the rider focuses on the direction in which the horse is to turn. Such a horse can often be guided by sight and leg and the lightest of contact with the rein.

There are many other systems of cues that can be used to turn horses.  Provided that those systems are used with perfect consistency they will get good results. I like our system of cues because it teaches focus and intense, momentary concentration.

The ability to shift into a mode of intense alertness and concentration is a an important life skill for humans. It is of particular benefit in an emergency situation where a clear head and quick thinking can make the difference between life and death.

It also is a great exercise to help kids develop the most important skill to enhance the ability to learn. It helps kids learn to pay attention.  There is no learning without paying attention and focus makes that possible.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

The Opposite Of Factory Farming

"Astrophysics at our fingertips
And we're standing at the summit
And some man with a joystick
Lands a rocket on a comet
We're living in an age
Where limitations are forgotten
The outer edges move and dazzle us
But the core is something rotten
And we're standing on the precipice
Of prejudice and fear
We trust science just as long
As it tells us what we want to hear
We want our truths all fair and balanced
As long as our notions lie within it" 

  "What It Means" Patterson Hood

"It's not too late. It's not too late, to build a newer world." 

Robert Francis Kennedy, referencing Tennyson in "Ulysses"

This is a trying time. It is also one of the most exciting times to be an American that we have ever had.  We are beginning to slice open the abscess that has crippled our nation from its beginning. As the infection pours away we have opportunities to finally build a more perfect union.

This is not a time for tinkering. It is a time to build a newer world. It is a time to reach back and find the positive values that have held us together over the past few hundred years and work to strengthen those values.

One of those values has been a connection to the soil. It gave us authenticity. It gave us pride in work. It gave us an appreciation of creation. It made us physically and spiritually stronger.

Modern agribusiness with its factory farming system destroys our authenticity. It radically decreased the number of farmers. It gives no appreciation of creation. It has made us physically and spiritually weaker.

As we rebuild our nation we have a chance to rebuild our food production system. We have a chance to reimagine and recreate a system of farming and animal husbandry.

We have a chance to build a world in which city kids and suburban kids can come together to learn to work the soil, and, most importantly, to work that soil together.

Does this sound too vague and amorphous? I understand if you can't understand what I mean. I would not be able to understand either, had I not observed the improvement in the quality of young people's lives that occurs when they put down the cell phone and pick up a shovel or a bridle.

The first step is to make it a national priority to expand agricultural education in our public schools. We must do so without allowing that education to become mere propaganda for agribusiness conglomerates.

The second step is to promote nontraditional educational opportunities though both non-profits and for profit businesses that will draw young people from the cities and suburbs out into the sunshine. It is this second step that I am working on at the moment.

One could suggest that  this is a horrible time to try to bring people together to patch up a broken world.

 I could not agree more.

It is also the best time that we have ever had to work together to build a newer world.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Writhing Around Like A Worm On A Hook

It takes confidence to make decisions on one's own. It takes successes to have confidence. It takes risks to gain successes. And it takes opportunities to take risks.

And it is the failure to give kids the opportunity to take risks that is one of the causes of  the epidemic of anxiety disorders found among young people today. Too many kids are given a veto proof power to make life altering decisions, often when they are as young as grade school. The most horrible irony is that allowing small children to make these decisions makes it impossible for them to develop the judgement needed to consistently make sound decisions as they get older.

I am sixty years old. When I was fifteen years old I can say with the greatest of certainly that everyone in my school my age counted down the days until we could get our driver's license. I did not know of anyone who waited until they were eighteen before getting their license.

Today it is commonplace to do so. Many kids lack the confidence to take on driving. The simple reality is that they are afraid to do so.

Many kids my age were afraid to drive. We did so anyway. It would have never occurred to any of us to put off getting a license simply because we were afraid of getting in a wreck.

But this is not simply about automobiles. It is about raising children in a manner that allows them to try to live as children when they are adults. That is a promise of a very unhappy adult life.

But conflict in the home is reduced when little children are allowed to decide that they will step back from all activities that might cause them fear. Parents are allowed to convince themselves that they are doing a great job because there is less conflict when they allow the child to "decide on their own."

As a child we were taught that being a "quitter" was a horrible thing. The word is not even used today. The result is that each of us knows that there are very few people in our lives that we can absolutely count on to do whatever they say they will do. We have raised a nation of people who are perfectly comfortable in saying that they gave something a try "but it was just not my thing." so they quit.

That ethos makes it very easy to quit marriages and other complex relationships when they stop "just being (your) thing." That ethos make it very easy to complete 60% of a task and consider the job done.

Perhaps it would be worth it if this lack of parental guidance produced happy adults, but who can even suggest that that is the result. We produce too many adults who cannot make decisions, who agonize over every alternative put before them, who live as if "planning" to do something is as good as actually fulfilling commitments.

And they are profoundly unhappy people. Kids need to be tough, because life is tough. Toughening your kids does not make you a bad parent. It does not mean that you lack compassion. Your  love, coupled with wisdom and understanding, will give your kids a better shot at a happy, meaningful life if you give the the chance to take chances.

The lesson of the round pen is the recipe for that happy, meaningful life. That lesson is hard for many modern parents to accept. When a kid is tossed from a horse there are really only three questions that matter--Are you injured or just in pain? Is the horse injured? What is taking you so long to get back on the horse?

A kid that learns this in the horse lot applies it to every time life tosses that kid.

To deprive a child of the confidence that that child earns (and earn is the correct word because getting back on is a true accomplishment) in overcoming fear is to fail as a parent.

Without being given that chance to earn confidence the child ( and future adult) will  face each challenge with as little hope as has a worm on a fish hook.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

The Journey From Overwhelmed to Whelmed

The nation tied up in a threefold  crisis of leadership and a profound lack of moral clarity, the complications of keeping our program going in this financial and health crisis and the natural consequences of the battle between the  clock and the body will wear one out.

It is in such a time that accomplishments and successes take on a heightened importance. It is in such a time that the advice that I have given to scores of young people who find themselves nearly paralyzed by depression becomes even more important.

Get up. Get going. Move--and move in the sunshine.

I find myself bound tight, knowing that there is more to do than I am doing. And then I remind myself--just because you can't do everything does not mean that you cannot do anything.

So I am doing something. Scoundrel Days is a high percentage Grand Canyon stallion. He has been ridden in the past but is not even close to being green broke.

But he will be soon.

 Not long ago I rode his daughter from Queen Jane, Bella Note. It has been a decade since I felt such power in such a small package. She carries my 220 pound frame as if I weighed no more than  a bare back pad.

And Scoundrel will too. I am in my third day of training him to saddle and we spent a nice time riding in the round pen without incident this morning. He will become one of my main trail horses.

And it will not change the world. It will not provide a cure to the virus. It will not convert neo-nazis and Klansmen into decent people. It will not provide anyone a single job.

But it will be important. It will remind me of who I am. And the entire experience will be whelming.