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.