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.