Sunday, February 28, 2021

" If Your Students Don't Participate In Horse Shows How Do You Know Your Program Is Working?"

At the core of our program is an utter and complete rejection of every aspect of the established horse world, particularly its emphasis on using competitions and shows to determine the "worth" of a horse.   Our program focuses on the preservation of nearly extinct strains of Colonial Spanish horses and the use of those horses to improve the quality of the lives of the people around them, including people who have experienced debilitating trauma.

One measure of our success is the range of opportunities that we provide to program participants. Many of our riders learn to tame and train horses to saddle and learn to provide natural hoof trimmings. Doing so will make horse ownership much more affordable for them when they are adults and are on their own. Being able to train your own colt and provide him with quality hoof care on your own at no cost more than the cost of buying nippers, rasp, knife, and hoof pick radically reduces the cost of horse ownership.

Another measure of our success is the number of miles that program participants put on our horses, often in rough, swampy terrain. In 2019, the cumulative number of miles that program participants rode exceeded the distance from Norfolk, Virginia to Oslo, Norway.

The Horse of the Americas Registry has an annual award for national Pleasure Trail Horse. It is based on number of miles or number of hours a horse is ridden on trials in a year. Three of our horses, Ta Sunka Witco, Tradewind, and Uncle Harley have won this award over the years.  The Carol Stone Ambassador Award for work promoting the preservation and conservation of Colonial Spanish horses has been awarded to a participant in our program three times.  Our efforts to preserve the Banker strain of Colonial Spanish horses were rewarded with the Currituck Star Award and the American Indian Horse Registry awarded our program the Keeper of the Flame Award. 

Kay Kerr's great children's book on Croatoan, one of our early Corolla stallions, went on to be the basis for a film that won "Best Short Film' at the New York Equus Film Festival. Kay has a soon to be published book coming out on Edward Teach, the severely injured wild Corolla stallion that we nursed back to health and trained to saddle. Linda Whittington Hurst wrote two wonderful children's book on Red Feather, the most athletic horse with whom I ever shared a round pen. Program participants regularly provide articles for Pony Pals Magazine 

When these horses are handled using principles of natural horsemanship by people who have experienced significant trauma, particularely those with PTSD, the result can appear magical. Lives are utterly transformed. The Virginia Attorney General's office recognized the work that goes on with victims of sexual assault and molestation with the "Unsung Hero Award".  For seven years we provided weekly programming for those in the Hampton Veterans Hospitals PTSD program. The AARP recently celebrated  that work with a national runner up  designation in their Create The Good: Honoring Heroes program.

We use no modern fertilizers or poisons on our property. We teach and practice microbial pasture development, vermiculture, wild life habitat enhancement, and soil and water conservation. As a result we are a "Certified Wild Life Habitat" by the National Wildlife Federation. The environmental aspects of our program are coordinated by a Virginia Master Naturalist.

And all of this is accomplished with no paid staff. Everything is done by volunteers. We are funded by program fees, contributions, and grants and awards. We have never turned anyone away for inability to pay program fees. 

 And I am looking forward to exploding back on the scene with a bigger and better program when the virus permits. 

Saturday, February 27, 2021

Resource Conservation--Don't Guess--Put It To The Test

Fence posts are very expensive. They hurt our program's bottom line. Waste of timber teaches the wrong lesson to program participants. I wish that every tree that is thinned out could have a use.

Last fall I thinned several 12-14 year old ash trees in a small break inaccessible to vehicles. The truck  could not get to where the trees were, but the donkeys could. The kids placed the poles on the sled that we made last year for my Scottish Highlands cattle and the donkey pulled the load up to the truck with ease. 

The next step was to remove the bark from each pole with draw knives.
The posts are then cut into shape and will be dried further over hot coals, without allowing them to ignite. The final step is to apply a coat of water repellant and then they are ready to use.

But won't these poles eventually rot and have to be replaced? Of course they will. However, last year I experimented with several poles using this system and was delighted to see no decomposition in the ash poles even though they actually spent the year laying in the mud and sunlight. 

The belief that every construction project must be forever unyielding to the elements is a peculiar aspect of modern suburbanite culture. Perhaps it is rooted in ancient Greek philosophies that held that only things that were not subject to change were "perfect" and that the proof of the imperfection of the human body was the fact that it changed with age.   More likely, it is an out growth of urban and suburban resentment of rural life and rural culture. 

The belief that a task is only done correctly if it is done in a manner that it will never have to be repeated is utterly alien to the cyclical nature of agricultural life. The stone castle, the marble temple, and the pyramid could only be created by cultures that had the hubris to believe that human creation could be eternal. The wattle fence, the log cabin, and the hand dug well were created to solve specific, immediate problems--the need to keep livestock in or out--the need for a warm, dry dwelling, or the need for a drink of water. They were not designed to shake a fist at the gods and demonstrate a mortal's ability to create something that could outlast time.

But at the same time, the story of the Three Little Pigs teaches that the structure must be sufficient to be functional for its purpose. And herein lies the point. Were the poles simply cut and put in the ground, bark on and untreated they would be subject to becoming rot weakened and breaking off at ground level in a season or two. However, by experimenting we have come on a system that will allow us to get several years use from each pole, thereby saving money and eliminating the waste of a resource. 

Will they last as long as commercial fence posts? No they will not. However, they will last several years. We cannot allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. 

Look around you. The good already has a plenty of enemies. 

Friday, February 19, 2021

Effective Leadership In Riding Program

 I used to lament having not started the program twenty years sooner. But if I had I am not sure that it would exist today and I am sure that it would not be as effective as it is today. Self reflection and age allow me to understand things that I completely misunderstood when I was younger. Even up to about age forty I believed that sound leadership was essentially the ability to put in place, and carry out, a plan and an organizational system that would have at its root the ability to control the behavior of others.

Running  a natural horsemanship program has little in common with running a business. Leading a trauma informed, natural horsemanship program has even less than nothing to do with running a business. In fact, few things get in the way more than trying to lead a program based on concepts of organization and structure.

Though the thought might seem heretical to fight fans, I am not sure that Muhammed Ali would have beaten George Forman if Ali had fought him when Ali was young and in his natural prime. A young man might punch hard and try to dominate a powerful opponent like Foreman. Instead, as an older man he bore the indignity of leaning against the ropes and allowing Forman to  pummel him until George Forman wore himself out. He then proceeded to fight against a tired young man who could not give more than Ali could take. 

When I was young I was embarrassed at the way Ali fought that fight. Now I see the effectiveness of that strategy.  The bottom line is that leadership requires one to be able to absorb punches and stay on your feet until the fight is over.  I did not understand that fully until I was in my fifties. 

It is easy to create a program that appears to be successful. It is easy to appear to be a great kindergarten teacher if one is only given the most educationally advanced, well adjusted, well behaved kids. The reality is that only the teacher who can bring learning to each child, regardless of the child's background and talent can only be called great. And in dealing with the difficult children over the years the great teacher takes many figurative blows. 

One need not acquire new traits to lead effectively . Instead one needs to get rid of the traits that one often brings to the table. The first step, and it is only the first step, is to work hard to utterly disregard self interest. In the eighties the profoundly wicked concept of "self care" came to leach itself into popular psychology.  People do not need to be taught to care more for themselves. Greed, selfishness, materialism, and laziness are so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that pretending that growing more of it is a virtue is as absurd as teaching that we need to learn how to absorb oxygen.

When one learns to ignore self interest one finds that one has much more time to accomplish things that need doing. Time is not wasted seeking additional "comfort."

Ignoring self interest opens the door to effective leadership in a natural horsemanship program, but one can only walk all the way through that door when one learns to ignore an innate drive nearly as strong as that of being self interested--the drive to control the behavior of others.

Much of what we call "planning", "organization", and "structure" in our society is nothing more than an allocation of how power is to be exercised over other people. The need for such coercive techniques is so deeply ingrained in our concept of leadership that we actually view coercion as leadership.

One simple example best illustrates the power of non-coercive, effective leadership. Our program has no paid employees. Everything that is done is done by volunteers. There is nearly always work that needs to be done. 

Consider the very simple question of how to get more hours of productive volunteer work out of program participants. One could have a rule requiring all participants to put in a certain number of hours of volunteer work each month. How could that be enforced? Well, one could have another rule that called for the expulsion of any members that do not do so? I cannot imagine how such a policy would build cohesion. I can easily see how it would create division.

So how can power be effectively  used? Is complete anarchy what is called for?

No, if one wants to increase the amount of volunteer hours that program participants invest in the program to, say, up to five hours a month one can best do so by personally putting in forty hours a month of volunteer time. This must be done without resentment, without calling attention to oneself, and most of all without appearing to be a martyr. 

Effective leadership is leadership by example. One could try to enforce the virtue of generosity in a program or one can learn what is perhaps the most important lesson from the book, "Black Elk Speaks".  

Black Elk mentions, in what seems nearly like a side comment, that Crazy Horse never kept a great horse. Whenever he acquired a truly great animal he gave it away to a poor family.

That is leadership.  By the the time of the fight at Little Big Horn Crazy Horse was no longer a Shirt Wearer. Without any formal authority, without any power to order others to follow him, he rounded up a band of fighting men to go into battle with him urging them to be thinking of "the old people and the children."

With such leadership one can build a powerful program. 


Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Stranger Things: Heading Into the Upside Down

The kids cannot understand why I was drawn so strongly into the Netflix series Stranger Things. Only a handful of people really understand how important "Criminal Minds" is to me. When not in the horse lot I live in a very different world. Over twenty years of  prosecuting crimes against children, molestation and sexual assault cases have caused me, (in the words of a priest who was a close friend of Rossie in a great Criminal Minds episode) "to invite evil into my world."

In "Stranger Things" a little girl is held prisoner all of her life, abused, and forced to enter another reality, called the "Upside Down."  She has special powers of concentration and, while she has no understanding of the normal world, she understands the hellish existence in the "Upside Down" but has to learn how to live in a normal world. She escapes and comes under the wing of an overweight, aging law enforcement officer whose existence is marked by the death of his own daughter years earlier.  

In short, it is a wonderful story about me, Ashley, and Lido. 

The show must be great for entertainment. It has been tremendously popular. I don't watch for entertainment. It is a "how to" book for me. I re-watch every episode to try to learn how to overcome the next trip back into the Upside Down.

I do not understand those professionals who are like air plane pilots who can fly over a bombed out city, observe and record the damage, and then fly home to land in their safe, secure airports. 

I have a crash landing into every bombed out city that I fly over. Every horrible case is another trip into the Upside Down. And just about every time I go into the Upside Down I am able to bring some one out with me. I cannot keep them from being drawn back into the Upside Down but I can (and have)  pulled a lot of them out. 

But it is the time of the year when instruments don't sound in tune regardless of what the digital tuner says. It is the time of year when all of the earth is mud. It is the time of year when Lido is the most dead. It is the time of year when one has the hardest time distinguishing between the real world and the Upside Down.

But, if past experience holds true, it will not always be that way.

(Picture is of Lido and Sand Creek in one of the first clinics that we ever did. The little girl who owned Sand Creek was having problems controlling him. Lido taught Sand Creek to stop on the cue of Lido exhaling deeply)

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Creating Silvopasture

App. fifteen acres of mixed woodlot last harvested in 1966, hard work from program participants, great work from our local Boy Scout Troop, enthusiastic work from our local Girl Scouts, several chain saws and no heavy equipment--with the work done over two winters....and we are nearly finished with the clearing of the land!

We left the larger pines, coppiced the wild blueberries and sourwoods, and took down over 300 hundred fairly strait logs of maple, pine, and various oaks, which will be used for pole based construction projects.

This project, when completed will increase the area available for livestock use by nearly 1/3.

Take a good look at the top picture. Look in the back. That is where the brush and limbs went--into the longest continuous brush piles that I have ever seen. We are not just making better land use for our livestock we are creating special habitat for wild rabbits and quail.

When Kids Understand

When families first begin to participate in our program they do not understand.

 They cannot understand how things work and why we have such a wide range of activities going on at the horse lot. It is not readily appearant that developing musical skills and learning to beat back stage fright can translate into more confidence in the saddle. Nor is it obvious that learning to complete only against oneself instead of against others can make a child a very successful competitor.

 Few people imagine that learning to understand and effectively communicate with a horse will help make it easier to understand and communicate with others who come from a different culture. Even fewer understand that natural horsemanship requires empathy and, even more importantly, hones empathetic skills.

 It certainly is not obvious that learning to work a green horse in a round pen can give a child confidence in every other walk in that child's life. I have yet to meet a family that brought a child out to the horse lot with an eye towards teaching the child to have "stage presence", yet the development of "stage presence" is the natural result of taking one's horsemanship skills to the level of being able to conduct an instructional round pen demonstration for an audience of strangers. 

 No one brings their child to the horse lot with an eye towards having that child become a riding instructor. Yet, some of the best instruction that occurs at our horse lot is when the teenage riders mentor newer riders. That is true whether the newer riders are kids or grand parents.

The volunteers who are at the core of our program come to understand all of those things. And the kids who ride with us for years also come to understand. 

One of the most important notes that I have ever received from a teenage rider included this powerful phrase, "Thank you for teaching me to play music and to work hard."

Think about that, "...and to work hard."  When a kid understands the importance of  that lesson that kid has a huge step up on the rest of the world. 

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Taney Town, A Marsh Tacky for Our Program's Future

It was not the kind of conversation that most doctors have with a patient who is a lawyer. It was even more remarkable in that I barely knew the doctor.  He told me that my spine had a little glitch in it and that if it took a hard blow I would be much more likely to become paralyzed than are those who do not have th3 little glitch.

The news took me back a bit. I asked him if he was saying that I had to stop riding. he told me that riding was not a problem at all, but that falling off was. He said that I should stop riding horses that were not trained well to saddle.

To my surprise, he asked me if I had some young people that could ride the rough out of any that I was training. Well, it turns out that I do have a few first rate young riders who are also first rate young horse trainers.

I only wanted young people over 18 to begin the early training under saddle for program horses, although some other teens do great work training their own horses.  One must understand what it means to do early saddle training on our horses.

It is not a rodeo. Our horses tend to be quite easy to train under saddle for several reasons:

1. Genetics--Colonial Spanish horses simply tend to have a better temperament than modern horses.

2. Lifestyle--Our horses live in bands and are outside 24/7. They do not experience the  chronic stress that most modern horses are subjected to through living solitary existences in stables. Most of our horses live most of the year entirely on grass, forbs, and hay and are not subjected to  sugar ingestion. (At the moment we are feed horses more commercial feed in order to stretch our hay stores out into the spring. I do not like doing this but a few months of eating a regular diet of horse feed is not something that will be impossible to detox from their systems.)

3. Human interaction--Our horses rarely have negative interaction with people. Being handled appropriately by people who understand natural horsemanship and show neither inappropriate hostility or, even worse, unwarranted fear of  the animal allows the horse to feel secure in the presence of humans.

4. Our horses have generally had many hours of training and handling before a rider mounts up and takes the reins.

With all of that said, I had a great deal of unease with the training of a five year old Marsh Tacky Mare, Taney Town. My unease was not so much with the horse as it was with the horse's intended purpose. For the next two or three years I expect to be her principle rider. She can join  Janie, Joey, and Peter to give me a string of horses to use in trial riding teaching and training that could give me a comfortable 1,200 miles in a year of riding. I felt rather selfish asking Abigail to continue to work with her to get her ready for me.

I should not have felt that way. Abigail seems to have not minded at all. Before long I will be in the saddle and carrying me will build a lot of muscle on the mare. 

In this picture she is behind Holland, a Shackleford Island horse. I suspect that it has been quite a while since these two strains have shared a ring together.