Thursday, December 30, 2021

Managing Riding Anxiety With 21st Century Science and Two Thousand Year Old Wisdom

Have you ever known anyone who had no problems with fear or anxiety in any other aspect of their lives, only when it comes to riding a horse? 

I have not. 

 Anxiety around horses is generally the tip of the iceberg. Deeper fears of everyday life experiences generally haunt such people. They may be good at hiding it. They may be not only functional, but successful. 

But they worry. They might mask the fear with alcohol. They might live their lives in full pursuit of "control", of making rules that somehow will take the risk out of risky situation. As they get older, they are more and more likely to fall into avoidance behaviors. They make the horrible mistake of labeling themselves as "introverts" or other convenient labels that explain their avoidance behaviors. and the inevitable social isolation that it produces. They procrastinate because making decisions is stressful.

Many people desperately want to ride but their fear holds them back. They need to ride, but their fear holds them back. They could achieve enormous personal breakthroughs, but their fear holds them back. 

Some people push through it. They admirably build the courage to ride and the more they ride the less anxiety they feel. They start to see improvements in other parts of their lives. But the monster of anxiety and its fellow traveler, depression, continue to dog them--though admittedly to a lesser degree. 

And here is where groundbreaking new understanding of the links between the body and the mind come into play. While learning to increase skill and confidence with horses, one can also take on the entire monster of anxiety. 

And I do not mean just with counselling and medication, although I am a strong supporter of both counselling and medication. There are other lifestyle changes that can bring peace and calmness to anxious, ruminating minds. 

Read all of this before you give up and decide that these steps could never help you.

The first step is to learn everything that one can about the workings of anxiety, its relation to past trauma and what fuels the fires of fear. Then be bold and look at the impact that avoidance behaviors have had on one's life. The only thing good about living in a prison cell that you constructed for yourself is that you can understand its design and can use that knowledge to burst free.

Nothing is better than working with a first-rate counselor. For various reasons that might not be possible for everyone. The good news is that there is some great science out there concerning how the brain works and how to make it work better that can be found from Andrew Huberman of Stanford University that is easily accessed on YouTube as are a great set of videos called Therapy in a Nutshell.

Studying Huberman's work will give one an understanding of how exercise and nutrition can be two of the biggest weapons that one has to overcome depression and anxiety. This is especially important as the world struggles with the virus and as we are just beginning to understand the incredible damage done to young minds by the dopamine flooding that results from video games, internet pornography, and the tyranny of social media. 

But humans do not face new problems. We only face new variations of old problems. As a child Harry Tuman thought about this and decided that all he would have to do is learn all of the history that has been written and it would give him all of the answers to vexing situations as they arose in his future. It was a profound, yet not practical, thought for a small child. 

We cannot read all of the history that has been written but we can read and learn from a handful of writers that made up the Stoic system of learning and we can see that their teachings directly apply to life in this century. It has been said that cognitive behavioral therapy is rooted in Stoic thought. Take a look at Ryan Holliday's great site, The Dailey Stoic and you will find some of the clearest direction for living an ethical, fearless and peaceful life that one will ever find.

It is sad that nearly everyone who rides horses goes through life without learning what the experience can truly do for them, mentally, physically, and even spiritually. Such people are like those who never learn the taste of an onion because they only eat the thin skin of the plant.

It does not have to be that way. 

You can change. And a horse can help you change.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

New Rules For 2022

In addition to the safety and conduct rules in the handbook, beginning on January 1 we will institute the following aspirational rules: 

1. When confronted with selfishness demonstrate generosity. 
2. When confronted with arrogance demonstrate humility. 
3. When confronted with fear demonstrate courage.
4. When confronted with ignorance demonstrate knowledge.
5. When confronted with foolishness demonstrate wisdom.
6. When confronted with hate demonstrate love. 

Every day at the horse lot gives you a chance to achieve two goals--to become a better horseperson...and to become a better person.

Friday, December 24, 2021

Why Teach Endurance Riding To Kids?

This year we are going to build an endurance riding team. We will have several in house events restricted to program participants and will do a few off site rides. I want the kids to learn to be part of a pit crew, how and why to do vet checks, how to condition the horses and themselves and to learn to compete against no one but the person that they were the day before.

Distance riding does great things for kids. My niece was seven years old when she set out on her first forty-four-mile ride. It was in the twenties when we tacked up but warmed up nicely for a great day of riding. Even when you are seven you know that it is a big deal to have forty-four miles under your belt.

Conditioning the horse takes time and time is what kids need to spend with horses. Long steady trots with friends and great horses are a great way to spend half a day. Conditioning requires a deep understanding of equine nutritional and emotional needs. The work that goes into conditioning the horse teaches patience and responsibility. 

It provides for competition with meaning. It is not a contest of a judge deciding which fat horse best meets the current fad in conformation. It is a competition in which the goal is to get one's horse in the best health that it can possibly be in. It is a competition in which the horse is never at fault and the inability to blame the horse helps kids to take responsibility for their role in caring for and conditioning the horse.

I do not know of any other kind of equine activity that can provide young people with as much exercise as long, steady, consistent training rides. Training rides through the woods are constant opportunities to view wildlife and to learn about the natural world all around them. It improves core strength and balance. And it can become a gateway into learning more about human nutrition and exercise benefits. 

Best of all, when we build our team, we are strengthening social bonds that have been frayed during the virus. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Lydia Dog: For Everything There Is A Season

Many years ago Emily and Lydia recognized that I had need of a dog after having kept a kennel of a dozen to thirty deerhounds for many years. They got me a wonderful little puppy, coon hound and boxer cross. I named her Lydia because she lacked arrogance and never caused me problems.

For many years she accompanied us on nearly all of the rides that we went on. She joined in on the long rides and did many twenty and forty mile rides. 

In later years she had to become a house dog because bikers were afraid of her. I wish she could have always roamed free as she did during the first half of her life.

She has been remarkably healthy up until about six weeks ago when she had her first seizure. We knew her time was coming soon, but we did not know when. 

It came today. 

She lived a happier and healthier life than any dog that I have known. She lived a long life, loved her family, and liked most strangers (unless they were riding bikes).

Sunday, December 19, 2021

He Grew Up With Us, Now He's Helping Us Grow

He began riding with our program as a child, the better part of a decade ago. Now Chris is grown and he has grown into a first rate horse trainer. Chris understands the mind of a horse. He is developing the skill to teach others what he knows.

 Chris will be taking on a major new role in our program. He will be in charge of our training team program. In late February, as the days get longer and we have a bit of sunlight after work, we will be doing focused sessions weekly. With the help of a few other experienced trainers Chris will be training horses and teaching those new to the round pen how a horse's mind works. 

 This is one of several major new efforts that will begin in 2022. We are ready to explode out of the virus and reach more people than ever.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

When I Look In The Mirror I See You

It really is not that I am a know it all. Nor am I domineering or controlling. Over the last 14 months I have made significant lifestyle changes that have had a more positive impact than I ever dreamed possible. If only I had understood how to do these things even as little as ten years ago my life would be radically different. 

It comes down to this--intense research and understanding of trauma, ketogenic eating, intermittent fasting, intense exercise, more sleep, immersing myself in Stoicism, purchase of, and heavy use of a home sauna and starting with cold showers and moving on to daily ice baths.

I have always rigidly refrained from giving advice to anyone over 30 unless they asked for it very clearly. I have never minded advising kids and, in fact, felt that was my duty to do so. Whenever I give unsolicited advice to very young adults I try to do it so subtly that they don't realize that some old man is sticking his nose in their business.

And that was a system that worked wonderfully for me for the past 20 years.

But over the past year I have been very seriously examining my life. I have found thought patterns and behaviors that have served me very poorly. Worst of all, I either did not notice them or if I did I simply believed that it was not in my power to change them. As this examination made things about myself clear to me it also made the same things about those around me very, very clear. 

When I see people that I care about being held hostage  by their own minds, it is not so easy to keep my mouth shut. I would love for everyone that I care about to learn how to stop being concerned about the ways things are and learn to control what they think about how those things impact them. 

So now and then I will cast bread upon the waters and anyone who might benefit from me doing so is free to make a great big sandwich from that bread.

So here is what I learned this morning. I slept poorly last night, very poorly--as I knew that I would. I needed to write a grant proposal and I had intended to do so before I went to bed. I did not and knew that I would have to jump on it early.

And hence the revelation. When ever I procrastinate about something important it produces a deep sense of dread. The more I procrastinate, the worse comes the dread. I have always focused on the fact that, "Hey, it has to be done, Shut up and get it done. And besides think how relieved you will be when it is completed."

The math never added up. When dread is a negative seven and relief is only a plus two. I am still at minus five after the job is done.

This morning was different. When I completed the budget for the grant I did not feel relieved. I felt proud. I thought about what an accomplishment that was. I had taken things that I don't enjoy (math and money) and did a great job of making something happen. As I was exercising I continued to think about what an accomplishment this was. I do not remember ever handling such a thing by myself. 

I mean, I really was pleased with what I had done. If my dread was a negative seven, my satisfaction was a plus fourteen. That is a big win instead of the close loss that relief  would have given me. 

And I will not forget this feeling. When I procrastinate again I will remember how good getting this done made me feel. Eventually I will begin having dread that is likely down to only a minus 2. And every success will make it easier to reduce future procrastination.

And all of this difference simply from taking a pause from being relieved and really  thinking about what an accomplishment it was. 

Do you see why it is so hard to keep from having a little talk with all the procrastinators that I care about?  

I sure would dread doing that.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

What Kind Of Place Is Mill Swamp Indian Horses?

What kind indeed? To describe it as a place where kids take riding lessons would be about as descriptive as referring to your child as a kid who lives in your house. As we climb out of the virus and continue to expand our programing we will be hosting an open house on Saturday December 4, from 2-4 at 9299 Moonlight Road, Smithfield Va 23430. Those who come out and learn about the new programs that we will begin and how we will continue the programs we currently have will understand we are so much more than a place to come and learn to ride.

Mill Swamp Indian Horses , of Gwaltney Frontier Farm, is a non-profit cultural and educational institution that provides a wide range of educational opportunities while working to preserve and promote several breeds of Heritage American Livestock, with its focus being on the Colonial Spanish Horses of the Southeast that serves the community by providing trauma informed programming both for people who have been affected by significant trauma and the professionals that work with them.

Our flagship educational program is the Homeschool Program that includes  in school students during the summer. That day of weekly programming focuses on teaching such varied topics as Colonial and Native American history, soil and water conservation, microbial pasture development, wild life habitat preservation and creation,  animal husbandry, clearing land and fence construction and repair, and a bit of horse training. During these programs we have had such special events as lard making, cinch weaving, knitting the wool from our sheep, a big display and discussion of artifacts recovered from the area ranging from from ancient Indian artifacts to coins and buttons from the 19th century. We practice and teach vermicomposting and use no herbicides or pesticides on our land. We have recently included bee hives as part of our plant growing program.

Our Heritage livestock conservation program includes Colonial Spanish Horses from several strains, Bankers from Corolla and Shackleford, Choctaws, remnants of the Grand Canyon horses, Marsh Tackys, Galiceno, and Spanish Mustang Registry horses, Spanish goats, Hog Island Sheep, Leichester sheep, Ossabaw hogs, Bourbon Red Turkey and Narragannsett turkeys, Mammoth Donkeys, Scottish Highland Cattle, and we even have a pet Kuni Kuni. 

Our horsemanship program teaches trail riding, natural horsemanship, hoof trimming, natural horse care, endurance riding,  and colt training. Our riding equines include a wonderful band of Mammoth and  Mammoth cross donkeys, a mule and a hinny. Even during the pandemic we have been able to conduct a month long series on Introduction to Natural Horsemanship and a three week session on Introduction to Donkey Training. I even went up to Pennsylvania in September and did a clinic on Natural Horsemanship and using horses horses to understand and combat the effects of trauma. Riding lessons include an introduction to collection and effective control of all parts of the horse's body. We document the number of cumulative miles ridden in our program. In 2019 we rode  (in cumulative miles) further than from Norfolk, Va to Oslo Norway.

Our music program teaching the performance of Roots and Americana music, all taught using only oral tradition includes performances on such varied instruments as banjo, guitar, mandolin, dobro, wash tub bass, fiddles, bouzouki, bodhrun, wash board, kazoo, and slide guitar. We practice weekly and as the virus breaks we are returning to the stage. On the morning of Saturday Dec 4 from 9-12 we will be performing at the Smithfield Farmers Market. Our  group, Pasture #3, is one of the largest traditional music programs for young people in the region.

For seven years, before the virus, we provided weekly programming with the horses for those in the in patient PTSD program at the Hampton Veterans Hospital. We did so for no charge and I am looking forward to being able to get that program going again. Over the years we have provided free training for law enforcement, prosecutors, probation officers, educators, counsellors, and others who can serve their students and clients better with the trauma informed communication information that they obtain from working with the horses. We have offered direct trauma programs for first responders who are dealing with the effects of the virus at no charge. We encourage those whose lives have been hampered by past trauma to participate in our programs. 

This summer and fall we offered a four session program, focused on young people, on applying the lessons of Natural Horsemanship to Life. And in November Dr. Samantha Shoemaker did a wonderful four session series on improving communication. We have begun an ongoing effort to film the different strains of Spanish horses in slow motion at all of their gaits. The final product should be of great value to those who are interested in the uniqueness of these horses. 

My top priorities for the year are to construct a storage area (library) for the tremendous amount of educational materials that we have on every topic that we teach.  We need a small settler's home and a smokehouse in order to build a living history/drama program for young people. Over the winter we need to fence in several paddocks of thicket for the use of the goats and sheep.

And we do all of this with no paid staff. Everyone who works in our program volunteers. Program fees are only $160.00 per family, per month but we have never turned anyone away for lack of ability to pay program fees.  

If you would like to see how we do things please come on out to our open house Saturday December 4 at 2:00 pm. 9299 Moonlight Road, Smithfield Va 23430