Tuesday, May 24, 2022

New Sessions For Young People --Lessons From The Round Pen: Building Resilience and Confidence

We are just beginning to scratch the surface in terms of how horses can help us to become emotionally stronger and happier. As we understand more about how anxiety develops and how resilience can keep it in check, we are in a better position to use our knowledge of natural horsemanship to make that happen. 

 Beginning at 6:00 pm, Thursday, May,26 we will have our next session on this vitally important topic. The sessions last an hour and are directed at teens, parents and professionals who work with young people. They will be held at Mill Swamp Indian Horses, 9299 Moonlight Road, Smithfield, VA.

 There is no charge to attend. To Register please send an email to

Sunday, May 22, 2022

We Can Choose Which World We Live In

It was hot yesterday, the first hot day of spring. By the time the sun came up I had worked out and walked about two more miles. I headed out to the horse lot and rounded up horses for my beginner riding lessons.

 This was her second time out. The first time she came out she told me that she always dreamed about riding a horse, but she never thought that it would actually happen. Turns out that that day was the day of our mounted Easter egg hunt. Kids always loved that event. She loved it more than the others.

Yesterday, we tacked up and she mounted up. She never ceased to smile from the moment we started to ride. I walked along in front and for the first time noticed how hot it was. I also noticed that my feet were beginning to bother me. 

 She immediately told me everything that she noticed. "It is so beautiful here from the ground, but it is more beautiful way up here on a horse...The breeze is so nice up here on this horse...everything in the woods is so pretty.... Today is wonderful fun...", She chattered as much as she smiled.

She would not let me stay in a world of heat and tired feet. She tugged me into her world of beauty and cool breezes. 

If I had resisted, I could have stayed in my world of heat and tired feet. But my kids teach me to do better. They teach me that when a door to happiness opens, I should walk through it. 

Even if I walk there through the heat, on tired feet. 

And as it turns out, everything in the woods was so pretty. And she was right, I had wonderful fun.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

It Is All in the 'Spectin'

This is Harley, an East/West Cross Colonial Spanish Horse from Tom Norush's breeding program, when was quite young in 2008. Jacob, his young rider and owner is seen here mounting up for the first time that Harley had a rider. Jacob rode him so long and hard, that Harley was our first National Champion Pleasure Trail horse of the year. 

With the passage of time he has taken to being a horse who feels that patience is much more important than speed. Audrey and I are planning a special ride and I suggested that she run him in her string on the ride.

She was concerned that he might slow us down. So this morning we gave him a check up. I got on Joey, our fasted Distance horse and told Audrey to keep up. We ran five miles in 28 minutes. 

When we reached the fourth mile I looked to my left to see him tearing out in an effort to pass Joey.  When he was given the opportunity to excel, along with an expectation that he would excel, he excelled.  

In a related event, last night we had a visitor out for our training clinic and he mentioned how "confident" our riders are.  That is not an unusual reaction. The first thing that people notice is that our horses and livestock are beautiful. The next thing that they notice is that the young people to not act like children. 

They are responsible, mature, dedicated, and yes, confident. 

Those attributes come from several sources. The most important is that young riders have wonderful role models when they look to our young adults and teen riders. 

Closely related is the fact that we teach responsibility and hard work. Kids, like horses, rise to the level to which they re asked to rise. It is a two part equation.

It is all in the 'spectin' . 

I ex-pect the kids to think and I re-spect their thoughts. Often when a kid comes to me with an idea and says "I think that we should have a program that does ..." the response that they generally get is  "present me with a plan, let me know what it will cost, and where we can get the needed supplies. " If a kid follows through we then work to see if the project can happen. Sometimes the best programs that we have come entirely from an idea that a young person brings to us.

Our kids are riders. Our kids are trainers. Our kids are researchers. Our kids are workers. Our kids are students. Our kids are teachers. 

Much is expected of our kids and they do not let me down.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Your Vision On The Trail

We pay attention to our hands, legs, seat, and heels, but too few trail riders pay attention to their use of their eyes when riding on the trail.

If you want to learn more about vision, perception, and balance study the work of Dr. Andrew Huberman. If you are new to using the concept of visual focus to assist both in accurate perception of your environment and in relaxation during movement, you can start by noticing how your horse responds to the way that you respond  to what you are seeing while riding.

When I initiate a turn to either side, I first focus all of my attention on a spot the size of my thumbnail in the direction in which I want the horse to go. I look with the exact same intensity as if I were aiming a rifle at that spot. The intensity of my focus is such that I nearly completely loose the perception of anything except for that spot, until the horse begins its turn. When going through difficult terrain I look, with much less focus, about 10 yards ahead of me. Doing so helps the horse bring more attention to its footing. 

In difficult terrain I do not look at the area that is but a few inches from the horse's front feet. If I do that my horses tense up and loose much of their impulsion. 

When the horse is moving well my vision is diffuse so as to absorb the movements around me. Looking ahead, in the direction in which I want to go, without intensely focusing on a small spot, helps me notice potential dangers along the trail. In that mode I am more relaxed and my horse follows suit. 

Please understand that I am not suggesting that I could hop on a horse that did not know me and realistically expect it to respond to my body's response to how I employ my vision. But the horses that I ride as a regular course of action, especially if they are rarely ridden by others, are nearly as affected by my use of my vision as they are by my use of leg cues. 

Friday, May 13, 2022

Finding Meaning In an Equine Lifestyle

Woke up in time to work out for about an hour--go pick up Audrey and ride with Audrey, Tim, Sam, and Terry for a brisk five mile session before going to the office. As the work day winded to a close hustled out to the horse lot where Tam had brought a guest out, an experienced rider who had never ridden a Colonial Spanish horse (Tam fixed that problem!) Sushi supper with Tam and her guest--hustle back to the horse lot to meet a young lady from Kentucky who is doing a study on the wild horses of the Atlantic Islands. 

 They got detained a bit and were running behind schedule--As six pm rolled around we prepared for our final session on natural horsemanship and emotional health. In the mean time we moved a wild BLM mare into the round pen. She had not been handled in a while and eventually she let me slip a rope over her head and brush her and deworm her. She was terrified and hyper reactive. After about 1/2 an hour she settled in so sweetly that I put a pad and saddle on her and lunged her until time for class.

 My wife, Beth and granddaughter arrived.  In the final session of this series on horses and mental health we wrapped things up by reviewing prey animal world view, communication, and moved into what Stoicism and cognitive behavioral therapy teaches about the impact of our thoughts, our words, our actions and our relationships with time. These messages were hammered home with repeated illustrations of how our relationships with horses can give us insight into each of these dynamics. 

 Toward the end of the session our guests from Kentucky arrived. Audrey and I showed them around with special attention to distinguishing the differences between our strains of Colonial Spanish horses--Banker (Corolla and Shackleford), Choctaw, Marsh Tacky,  high percentage Grand Canyon, Galiceno, and what are sometimes called Brislawn horses. The young lady had done her homework. She knew a lot about the horses before she got here, but as darkness was beginning to fall I learned that she had never ridden a Colonial Spanish horse, much less a formerly wild Corolla. Certainly could not have her leaving the horse lot with such a void in her life experiences. We saddled up Samson, our only Corolla who exhibits a strong running-walk gait. She went from being a student of these extraordinary horses to being a rider of them.

 If one's life is empty, go fill it. Bringing horsemanship into the lives of others is the best way to bring meaning into one's life that I have found.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

A Competition to Take Our Riding and Our Lives To The Next Level

Mill Swamp Indian Horses is not a place to come and learn how to ride a horse around a sandy arena. We teach natural horsemanship, natural hoof care, riding, soil and water conservation, wildlife habitat development, Roots and Americana music, Heritage livestock conservation and promotion, direct trauma informed programing and educational and training programs for professionals who work with severely traumatized people, microbial pasture development, and a host of special sessions open to the public on horse training and breed conservation.
We teach and practice working together on projects as big as clearing nearly twenty acres of trees, brambles and brush into a beautiful and highly functional pasture.

And starting June 1, 2022 we will begin a new competitive program for adults and young people. The only form of competition that is uniformly produces winners is that in which one competes against oneself. This special competition fits that bill. Every who takes advantage of this competition will be a winner.

This is a competition that involves exercise and exertion and everyone should check with their doctor before joining in. Minors will need their parent's permission to participate.

Each participant will have to keep their own score sheets and they will be submitted the day after Labor Day.

Activities are broken down into several categories:  

1. Activities to Increase Strength, Balance and Flexibility
2. Activities to Increase Stability in the Saddle
3. Activities to Increase Knowledge of the role of nutrition, sleep, and exercise for better riding
4. Activities to Increase the Ability to set and achieve goals

Activities will be set out in a comprehensive list with a point designation for each activity. Parents are encouraged to make this a family activity and to support young riders in this effort to build stronger bodies, minds and characters. 

The Activities list will be out within a week. This is a great way to come out of this pandemic stronger, healthier and happier than we were when we went into it. 

My Riding Has Taken a Huge Step Backwards

"Knees Over Toes Guy"--odd moniker for a man as innovative as he is, has done more to increase my enjoyment of riding than any lifestyle change that I have yet tried. I am not going to try to summarize any of his theories or practices. You can look up his content for that. 

I have incorporated two of his training techniques into my morning sessions. They have increased my aerobic capacity, quadricep strength, and perhaps most importantly, my balance more than I thought possible.

My driveway is precisely a twentieth of a mile long and has an asphalt surface. Each morning I walk between half a mile to a mile backwards, in the dark, on that driveway. In addition, I pull a homemade, weighted wooden sled backwards and then drag it forwards until I am worn out.

This week I returned to harder riding after my first round of prolotherapy injections and it is as if I have borrowed someone else's body.  I hesitate to say that it makes me feel younger, because I never moved with such ease whether younger or not. 

Friday, May 6, 2022

Chris' Dobro: The Courage to Find Your Own Path

A.P. Carter kept the story in the old songs. He built on the melody with Sara's strong lead voice and Maybelle's, beautiful, simple, guitar work. There was no flash, no glare, no sequins, no rhinestones, no cowboy hats--just reality--plain, unadorned reality. 

That is what draws me the most to the Carter Family. When Chris began playing dobro I did not tell him how I wanted it done. i did not show him the "correct" way to play. I asked him to find the melody with his thumb and find the timing with his finger. 

And now he has built his own style of dobro playing. Like Maybelle Carter's guitar work it is beautiful, and simple

Southern parents have  raised a lot of drunken poets over the years. The beautiful, simple, lyrics that they put together can easily be over shadowed by flashy instrumentals and drunks in the audience yelling "play it faster." .

It takes a bit of courage to find your own path the way A.P. Carter did and the way that Chris has.

The path of conformity must be a very easy road, lest we would not have so many people taking that road.  

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

A Choctaw Spring Ride

How can things not be looking up? 

This morning we set out on five Choctaws for a five mile run. We saw more rabbits than I have seen in a single day in many years. The false azaleas were perfectly fragrant-- a  strong scent and a bright  flower--the air was cool and clear. The horses moved gracefully under us.

Five miles--no walking--Monique cantered nearly every step. Mozelle, Zee, and Manny primarily trotted at a very brisk pace. Joey was under me, constantly shifting from his long trot, to his shuffling gaiting, to his three beat canter--we moved, not at all the fastest that we have done five miles but the best that I have done in several months.

Five miles in 28 minutes and 45 seconds. Yesterday I cantered out in front on Ta Sunka Witco for the same five mile run. Even though he cantered the distance we wrapped it up in a bit over 34 minutes. 

And things will get better and likely faster. In two hours I will be going in for a procedure that may give me use to my left shoulder again. 

If it does not help I will rider harder. If it does work I will ride much, much harder.

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

My Young People Are Not Like Other Young People

This beautiful little calf is a wonderful addition to our program and I was delighted to find the calf nursing in the pasture this morning. But things like this calf are not what makes our program so special

This is a better example of  what makes our program so special. Tam noticed a ramshackle half-barrel on the tack shed porch. She offered to fix it. I assumed that she meant that she would carry it home, get together the right tools and shape up a stave to replace the missing one.

That is not what she meant. Her plan was to take whatever was at hand, shape up a stave and re-assemble the half barrel. She used an old fence board, a hand saw, a hammer, and a machete to split the fence board into half of its thickness before her skilled hands shaped it to fit in perfectly.

Or Audrey, at age 15, swimming in the February James River (42 degrees) with me after spending  four days in professional training about teaching the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Or Mandy trimming hooves, or Chris training horses, or Ella helping the new riders with tack and catching horses, or Olivia, watching the older kids and learning to be like them, or Kate doing a great training demo and handling questions from the audience flawlessly. 

And it has been like this for years. Fifteen years ago visitors were amazed at the quality of work and maturity that the kids demonstrated. Veterinarians have always been impressed at the way the young people in our program handle the horses. 

A few months ago I was escorting some guests through the pastures when Chris, Audrey,  and Ella moved on out in front of us, caught and held a ewe as Ella caught the lamb. In the blink of an eye Audrey had banded the lamb's tail and set him down to reunite with his mother. 

One of  our guests said, "Your kids are just so....competent."

That they are. And it is contagious. On  a recent ride I listened as I heard Rory expertly explaining to a newer rider how to manage the horses as we slipped through a deeply mudded forest. By the time that some of these kids get too old to order off of the children's menu they will be showing the same kind of maturity, reliability and sense of responsibility 

Sunday, April 10, 2022

The Race Goes Not To the Swiftest...

And that is why endurance events and the work and preparation leading up to them are the only form of equine competition in which the horse is the winner.

Yesterday we had our first in house endurance event since the virus hit. It was a fifteen mile "scrimmage game". The beauty of endurance events is that the event does not end when the finish line is crossed. One's final time is recorded after the finish line is crossed and after the horse's heart rate has dropped below a certain number of beats per minute. 

Being pushed to be the swiftest--being pushed to cross the finish line and then collapse does not produce a winner. The race goes to the horse who is swift and conditioned to a level that allows the horse to be at maximum good health. That good health does not come in a drug or a supplement. It does not come in an expensive piece of equipment or an expensive accessory. It does not come from hiring an expensive trainer.

That good health is not purchased. It is earned.

I could not have been more pleased with our riders, especially two of the youngest who rode long and hard and pushed themselves beyond anything that they had done in the saddle before.

A blm mare, Choctaws, Bankers, two half Chincoteagues, a half Banker, a Caspian, a high percentage Grand Canyon, an SMR, and even a Tennessee Walking Horse were among the thirteen horses that set out for the event.

Rosa is Samantha's blm mare. Since hunting season went out Samantha has been trotting her for five mile rides morning after morning during the week and has ridden her on longer rides during the weekends. Over the past two weeks I noticed a change in the horse. Her normally lean body was even leaner and harder. She has taken on the look of a horse from a 19th century Russell painting. There is no waste in her look. Every thing that you see in her seems predisposed to motion.  She has picked up a longer, cleaner trot. It is a much faster trot than what she was doing four months ago. In short, Samantha has turned a very solid horse into a rock hard horse. In doing so she has developed an even closer relationship with the mouse colored, dun mare. 

And the work mattered. Even though her group made a slight miscalculation and rode an extra mile, Rosa crossed the finish line and her heart rate dropped quickly enough to come out on top of every other horse. 

A horse is what one makes of it. 

A person can be made by that same horse.

Saturday, April 9, 2022

So What Is A Week Like At Mill Swamp Indian Horses?

Mill Swamp Indian Horses, located in Smithfield, Virginia, is a non-profit breed conservation program where nearly extinct strains of Colonial Spanish horses and other breeds of heritage livestock, including Narragansett turkeys, Spanish Goats, Hog Island sheep, Scottish Highland cattle and Ossabaw hogs are preserved and promoted. We teach riding, natural horsemanship, natural horse care, hoof care and trimming, roots and Americana music, wildlife habitat creation, soil and water conservation, and host a wide range of trauma informed programs using natural horsemanship as a springboard to understanding trauma, anxiety, and depression.

And all of this is accomplished with no paid staff. All of the work is done by volunteers and program participants.

I can't say that this week has been a typical week. Every week brings its own special flavor to the year. Here is a quick rundown of what happened this week.

Those whose schedules allow get in a quick ride through the woods Tuesday-Thursday at 7:00 am before heading into work. We are building additional paddocks for our Choctaw colts and our smaller livestock so some of us worked on building fences in the morning instead of riding.

 This was a big week for Tim. Although he only began riding a year ago, the completed his 1000th mile in the saddle for that first year this week. 

Tuesday's are our normal nights for our music program to get together to play guitars, fiddles, banjos, dulcimers, dobros autoharps, wash boards, mandolins, a bouzouki, and recently even  a didgeridoo, but we held off of music for a week so that we could put that time into building fence before the poison ivy grew in.

Wednesday night at 6:00 we held our free sessions on natural horsemanship in which trainers and students had a chance to observe, and put into practice, safe, humane horse training techniques. 

Our homeschool program, which focuses on learning to work together, along with a wide range of educational opportunities, began the morning by repairing heavy rain damage to our path, followed up by planting the spring garden, and ended the day with a short field trip to observe a local farm that practices cultivation of native grasses for wildlife habitat and does controlled burning to create even better habitat for small game. We followed up with  a visit to a beaver dam that just went into construction and we ended the day with a trip out to see an enormous eagle's nest.

Rain lead to the cancellation of one of the most important programs that we have. Our Friday night sessions at the round pen for young people teach the application of the lessons of natural horsemanship  to human life. These trauma informed sessions deal with issues of communication, stress management, anxiety, depression, and exercise and nutrition.

And we will end this week with our first in house endurance ride of the year. This ride will be an introduction to endurance riding and participants will learn more about vet checks, being part of pit crews, riding in the events, and the necessary conditioning, both for horse and rider, to make these events a great experience for both.

And that is what this week will have encompassed. And all of these programs are currently provided for only $160.00 per family per month. See our web site at If you would like to learn more simply send an email to after April 15. I am about to head out of town for training and I won't be looking at emails until then. 

And no, I don't carry a smart phone. 

That is one of the reasons that I have time to keep all of these programs cranking.

Friday, April 8, 2022

One Thousand Miles in His First Year In The Saddle

It would be a great accomplishment for anyone--a thousand miles in the saddle in just a year, but when one considers that it was Tim's  first year in the saddle it is even more impressive. During the  year he rode 21 different horses and three donkeys, but most of his miles were accomplished on Choctaws or horses that were high percentage Choctaw.  Tim and his wife, Samantha, even have a Choctaw long yearling of their own, Achukma, shown below with our Choctaw, Joey.

 He  has ridden and worked with several horses that were not regularly ridden. He took the "problem" out of several "problem" horses.

He lost forty pounds over the year of hard riding and has been able to spend the vast majority of these miles accompanied by his wife, Samantha, on her BLM mare.

And a year ago he was a novice. 

And that is the most important part of this story for those who are working to prevent the extinction the  Colonial Spanish  horse. The established horse world offers no hope for these horses. Their hope is found in families that learn to ride, learn natural horsemanship, and learn natural horse care. 

The best way to save America's first horse is to teach people to ride them. 


Thursday, April 7, 2022

What Success Looks Like

Staying in one's comfort zone leads to being imprisoned in one's comfort zone. Gram is a bourbon red turkey of significant age. He has no affection for Audrey. Over the years Audrey has avoided him with the greatest of vigor. Audrey has worked hard to find her limits and to push beyond those limits.

 Last month she swam in the James River with me although the water temperature was forty-two degrees. How can holding a turkey or swimming in frigid water make one a better rider? A horse's sense of security depends on several factors and one of the most important factors is the confidence of the rider. Everything that increases one's sense of confidence without promoting fool hardiness makes one a better rider.

And Audrey has become a very good rider.

Friday, April 1, 2022

How Much Is That Horse Worth?

He is worth a lot more to me and Lydia than he is to the established horse world. His father is a formerly wild Banker horse from Shackleford Island and his mother is a formerly wild Banker horse from Corolla. His ancestors came to this part of the planet around 1520, eighty-seven years before John Smith came to Jamestown. 

Had one come to our horse lot in 1635 when my family first came here, one would have found no other horses but these elegantly moving Spanish horses. In the 1920's over five thousand of these horses roamed the Outer Banks of North Carolina. 

Now there are a couple of hundred of these horses left on the Outer Banks.

Only a few dozen Banker horses are trained to ride. It is likely that everyone alive today who has ridden a Banker horse even a thousand miles would fit in my living room. It is likely that everyone alive today who has ridden Banker horses five-thousand miles would fit on my sofa. 

Lydia and I are among the handful of people alive today who have had the privilege of taming, training, and riding these extraordinary horses for hours on end. 

We understand how important it is to preserve these horses for future generations.

 That kid deserves the best that horses have to offer.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

The First Step: The Connection

Or maybe not. Perhaps the first step is to understand the mind and motivations of the horse. Perhaps the first step is to truly understand that the horse is not a person and that treating it as if it were human does the horse a tremendous disservice.

Tam understands. Tam builds real connections with horses.

You can too.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

Quite Simply The Most Important Program That I Have Ever Developed

Beginning Friday March 18, from 6-7 pm, at the round pen at Mill Swamp Indian Horses, located at 9299 Moonlight Road, Smithfield Va 23430 we will begin another set of our sessions, targeting young people, on how to apply the lessons learned from the horses to life in this world. Psychiatric hospitalizations for young people have skyrocketed in recent years. Anxiety and depression are at higher rates for young people than have ever been measured. Metabolic disorder, diabetes, and a range of other lifestyle related health problems are at all time highs for young people in our nation. 

Young people deserve better. We can do better for them. 

For over twenty years I have prosecuted crimes against children, child molestation and sexual assault crimes. For nearly the same length of time I have been teaching young people to ride, tame and train wild horses and young domestic horses. I have studied the effects of trauma, adverse child hood experiences, and the crippling effect of avoidance behaviors in formal setting and on my own for two decades. For seven years (before the virus) I worked on a weekly basis, (weather permitting) with those who were in the in patient PTSD program at the Hampton VA. 

To put it in its simplest terms, we will learn to become better people. The weekly sessions will focus on increasing confidence, building communication skills, dealing with anxiety, becoming more generous and caring, learning to build a sense of community, and perhaps most importantly, learning to understand ourselves. Eventually we will learn to apply lessons of healthy nutrition and exercise to ourselves as we seek to do with the horses.

 Of course, there is no charge to participate in this program. I hope to see it grow into quite a large group. As we have stressed for years, we practice natural horsemanship not only to make better horses, but to make better people. Everyone in the program from age eight on into young adult is invited to join us.

And those outside of our program are urges to join us. Again, there is no charge to participate. To register please send an email to

Come Out And Learn Natural Horsemanship From Our Training Team

Beginning this Wednesday, March 16, 2022 at 6:00 pm Chris Cavin, Animal Welfare Coordinator for Mill Swamp Indian Horses, will begin our first session of the spring program "Our Training Team: Applying Natural Horsemanship to Make Better Horses and Better People." Sessions will continue at this time on Wednesdays, weather permitting though the spring.

The sessions are free and open to the public. Chris and some helpers will be working with different horses in  different stages of their training with an eye toward training using safe, humane methods of communication. Whether one is new to natural horsemanship or has years of experience under one's belt, these sessions will provide a chance to network with other practitioners of natural horsemanship and will even have opportunities for hands on participation in training at times.

Chris has been riding with us and training since he was a young child . His patience and calm, confident demeanor are at the core of his training style. Chris embodies the Mill Swamp Indian Horse philosophy of respect for the horse as a horse.

This is a spectacular opportunity for those who want to learn to understand the mind of the horse.  

...and its free.

Mill Swamp Indian Horses is located at 9299 Moonlight Road, Smithfield, Va 23430. In order to register please send an email to

Thursday, March 3, 2022

A Deep And Meaningful History

 We have many enthusiastic participants in our program, but there are only a handful that have been around this program as long as Chris has.  Chris is taking a bigger roll in our program every day. Chris sent me what is set out for the blog. It is a great look at what the social isolation of the virus has cost us and a great prescription on how to get back in high gear.

It is currently the final day of February as I sit here and type this up.  We've had a few brief glances of a happy spring weather followed by days of below freezing temperatures in the past weeks. The light shines longer in the day. Some horses have begun to shed their heavy winter coat, and there are a few spring grasses and shrubs beginning to force their way through the  soil.  

I'm not exactly sure what gave me the inspiration to decide to try and write something for the blog. I made a lot of changes to myself and my lifestyle in the past 6 to 9 months so why not try it. It is something I have been asked to do before but have always made excuses or shrugged it off as not important.  I decided yesterday or the day before to give it a shot regardless of whether it's post worthy or not.  

 The other day I was looking back at the blog as a reference as to when something happened out at the horse lot. I noticed that the blog had a search bar on it. I had probably seen it before but never thought much of it because I thought you could only look up titles with it and sometimes Steve's titles are pretty wacky and have nothing to do with the subject matter.  I found out that it really pulls up any article that really even has the word or words in it. I got curious and just started searching things.  Eventually I started searching people who I know have or had a big impact on the program throughout its history--- Abigail,  Audrey,  Mandy, Tam,  Lydia, Jen, Emily, Curie, and I'm sure many others who I forget to name here. 

What I came to find I found extremely refreshing. There is so much history of the program in the blog.  The history that I found the most refreshing was the history of the hospitality,  happiness,  and sense of community that this program has shown to me and many others throughout its history.   

    In a time when a virus has affected everyone In some way or another, many without them even knowing . People constantly looking over their shoulder or in constant protection mode like a horse in a new environment . Always ready to snap at any moment , whether it be verbally or taking it out in some other ways such as cutting themselves off from others or never helping others.  It was so refreshing to just see posts about every participating family coming together to work together as one big family for lack of a better word. Regardless of different views or opinions.  Everyone came together for one cause. 

It wasn't a one time occurrence there's many different posts about different events or major program days.  

    I wasn't able to sit down and write this all at once but I believe that to maybe be a good thing because I really had time to work my brain and collect my thoughts on this matter.  I strongly encourage every rider and program participant and their families to take time and truly dive through the educational archive that is this blog.  You'll be surprised at just how much you find that can be applied to your involvement in the program or your life itself 
    It is now another one of those happy warm spring days and that will soon come to be a normal occurrence again as it has every year before.  

Monday, February 21, 2022

Riding With Focus--Dr Andrew Huberman

Some of the most important knowledge that a rider can ever gain comes from sources that have nothing to do with riding, per se. In recent months I have stumbled into the study of the workings of the brain and its wide-ranging effects on behavior and belief. 

 I have always understood that when I focused my vision and my attention on the place that I wanted my horse to go the horse always responded much better than if I was looking somewhere else or if, although looking in the right spot, I was not focused with concentration on that spot. It is hard to teach adults to ride using intense visual focus and it is much more difficult to teach the practice to kids.

One of my problems is that it is hard to teach a concept that one does not understand. 

I think that I might be beginning to understand what is going on with this practice. I am not going to risk muddying the water by giving my thoughts on the matter. Instead, I urge everyone to do what I have done--study the work of Dr. Andrew Huberman of Stanford concerning the brain, eyesight, and a range of other issues that impact human health and behavior. 

He works hard at a goal that I find to be tremendously important. As he says at the beginning of each pod cast, his goal is to provide peer reviewed science in a way that is both free and understandable to the general public.

He achieves that goal with every video and podcast.

An Insideous Darkness

The highest and best use of a horse in this century is to be part of a program that pulls people out of darkness. Depression and anxiety disorder are at peak levels for young people today. Fortunately, breakthroughs are being made in understanding the workings of the brain. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any breakthroughs that are causing people to apply that understanding en mass. 

Suppose that a symptom of having a broken leg was to be completely opposed to x-rays and casts. Suppose that a symptom of a cut was the belief that a band aide will not help the healing and that the best response to a wound is to simply allow it to bleed without any intervention.

Take a moment to recognize the pain caused by the fact that a symptom of anxiety and depression is often the belief that no intervention can help--that no counsellor, that no medication, that no lifestyle changes, and that no amount of social interaction can be of any use. 

Take a moment to recognize that a symptom of these paralyzing conditions is often the deep conviction that, due to the labels that we might apply to ourselves, we cannot have happy lives because we are "introverts" who are kept in a box by "my anxiety."

Take a moment to recognize that these conditions create self-proving explanations of helplessness by simply saying that "I tried that, and it did not work", when the "trying" amounted to visiting a counsellor for three or four sessions without ever opening up and discussing anything of significance with the counsellor. "Trying" medication for a week without miraculous results is not "trying" to get better. It is trying to find further evidence that one cannot get better. 

Finding "solutions" only in avoidance behavior and isolation is not "trying" to get better. Doing so spreads fertilizer on the weeds, brambles, and briers that choke out life. 

It takes less energy to succumb to suffering than to fight it, but not much less energy. "Treating" the pain with avoidance behavior is exhausting, and never invigorating. Mounting a full-fledged lifestyle assault on depression and anxiety can be even more exhausting, but, given enough time, it can be invigorating. It can be exhilarating. 

The horse can be a vital first step into mounting an effective fight against depression and anxiety. 

Go brush a horse until your hands stop shaking. Go take a horse on a long walk on a lead line until you feel like you are going somewhere.

And go ride a horse until you are exhausted. The do it again every single time that you possibly have that opportunity. Gradually you will see a candle in the insidious darkness. 

Eventually that candle will produce enough light so that you can take on other lifestyle changes that can lead to the quenching of the darkness. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

You Have More in Common With Otis, From The old Andy Griffith Show Than You Might Think

Otis was the alcoholic character who, when he was jailed for public drunkenness, had the keys within reach of his cell. In the morning he would reach over, pick up the keys, let himself out and get along with his business. 

 I am beginning to learn how close we each keep the keys to the jail cell that we build for ourselves. What we now ridiculously call our "comfort zone" is the cell that we live in. We built it ourselves. We know how to get out. It is just that it might be ...uncomfortable to do so.

It would be bad enough if the cell stayed the same size as we age, but it does not. It shrinks. And as it gets smaller the bars become thicker. 

But it does not have to be that way. Every time you consciously do something that you find uncomfortable, you weaken the bars. You make your cell larger. You bring the keys into even closer reach. 

Begin with baby steps. Are you anxious when riding? Then everyday eat some food that you do not like. Eat some food that you despise. Learn that it does not kill you and after a few days it does not even hurt you. Expose yourself to uncomfortable weather--again a little bit at a time. Gradually do things that you do not want to do and do them every day.

We teach horses to want to be caught by driving them away from us. We can teach ourselves to be comfortable by doing things that we have deemed uncomfortable. 

I am delighted to see some of our young people applying these principles to their lives. I love watching anxiety retreat as courage advances. 

It is even more fun watching young people grow into strong, healthy adults than it is to watch colts grow into strong, healthy horses. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

The Incredible Importance of Blankets for Horses In The Winter In The South

Sweaty thin blankets, heavy thick pads, especially pads with inserts--they all must be used regularly all winter long. One does not need good weather to ride. One simply needs a good horse to ride. 

Other sports have "seasons." There is not a "season" to ride. There are merely "chances" to ride. And every chance one gets to ride must be taken. 

Marsh Tacky Month At Mill Swamp

February will be our first month of Special events here at Mill Swamp Indian Horses. On February 12 several Marsh Tacky owners will be bringing their horses out and will join in for a lengthy afternoon ride. We will have historical presentations and might even cook up some Gullah recipes.

 At Mill Swamp Indian Horses we have four Marsh Tackys and there is one just up the road. We will also do some round pen demonstrations.

Weather permitting it will be fun. If the weather is actually good, it will be even better.

I believe that three Marsh Tacky owners have contacted me about bringing their horses up to ride with us. We have room for a few more.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Am I TooTall? Too Heavy? Too Old? Too Young? ...For A Colonial Spanish Horse?

If the answer that you are hoping for is "yes", then you will easily find a slew of devotees of the established horse world spewing forth a collection of formulas, percentages, and rules "that every serious horse person knows" who will certainly give you that "yes."

The pool gets smaller when we eliminate from the calculation all the experts who feel comfortable making a ruling on these questions but have never seen a Colonial Spanish horse. The number of these experts who have actually ridden a Colonial Spanish horse gets even smaller. Spokesman for the established horse world who have ridden Colonial Spanish horses for decades and have chalked several thousand miles on these horses are even harder to find.

The way to test any proposition is to experiment. Those experiments were done on a daily basis when the Colonial Spanish horse was the only horse in America. The horses have stood the test of time. 

The only opinion that is based in reality concerning what these horses can do is the opinion of those who speak from years of experience doing those "experiments" without having ever thought of themselves as scientists. I am happy to discuss the carrying capacity, endurance, temperament, and over all fitness of these horses with any of their critics, provided that such discussion occurs at the conclusion of a fifty-mile ride through the woods on them. 

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Riding in Cold Weather

I live in Tidewater Virginia. The weather is "variable." If one is to ride 2,000 miles in a year one must ride in all kinds of weather. I find extreme summer heat to be a true threat. It can be dangerous for both horse and rider. Teenage boys whose lives revolve around video games, eating sugar, and laying around in air conditioning are particularly at risk.

Cold and wet weather is different. It does not get cold enough around here to be a significant health risk. It is primarily a matter of comfort. One can bundle up enough to make winter rides merely uncomfortable, or one can simply refrain from riding. At least that was what I thought, until I learned that there is a third option. One can become cold adapted and simply choose not to be uncomfortable in cold weather.

As it is with anything involving one's health, one should always consult a doctor before taking on significant lifestyle changes.

I am not going to go through the science of becoming cold adapted. I learned what I practice by studying Wim Hoff. I began with a brief cold shower, one leg at a time, then cold water baths, then filling the bathtub with ice packs and cold water, and finally on to a 110 gallon container that we keep outside. After working out I spend half an hour in our sauna and then anywhere from 3-10 minutes in the cold-water tank.

This practice has radically expanded the range of temperatures in which I can feel comfortable. As an experiment, I worked out in 22-degree weather with a mild wind for forty-five minutes without a shirt on and only wearing gym shorts and tennis shoes. I experienced no discomfort and never shivered. 

I did not seek to become heat and cold adapted so that riding would be easier. That is just a wonderful side benefit.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Is the Pandemic Affecting Your Horsemanship?

It is certainly affecting mine. I have to work very hard to fight it off both consciously and subconsciously.  There is the general, pervasive feeling of frustration that comes about each time I am ready to really roll out a new, expanded program only to see a new variant of the virus come around.

It has made teaching more complicated. I have always been alert to safety issues, but now it seems that the need to protect my riders is stifling the need to teach them. I also have found myself doing something that I have never done before, being fearful about the health of others. 

I have painful, new responsibilities at the horse lot. In the past I have had to decide which songs to teach the kids in the music program. That was my most difficult musical decision. Now I have to consider whether bringing everyone in to learn a new song could lead to someone's death.

Perhaps as insulation against future pain, I find that I have lost my emotional connection to individual horses. This is a risky time to become emotionally invested in anything. Every time I hear a damn phone ring I know that it could be another call about another death. I despised phones before the pandemic, but now I am at loss to see how anyone can surrender their piece of mind to those devices. 

This shows up more when working an untrained horse in the round pen than anywhere else. For well over a decade, within a few moments of entering the round pen I reach a level, both of calm and focus, that draws the horse to me in a way that appears magical to those who do not know any better. That is gone now. Instead of focus, all I feel is emotional static in the round pen.

Just as I see myself pulling away from emotional connection, I see others being pulled into more "worry" about their horses. Some are deeply concerned with any change in the weather, or even if a horse walks a bit slow one day. I don't blame them. I understand. When one spends each waking moment is with low grade fear for the health and safety of loved ones, before long it is going to spill.  over.

And the horses are acting different than they have ever acted. They are high strung, nervous, and exponentially more vocal than our herds have ever been. I have been writing this off to being ridden less during hunting season and to exceptionally high energy hay that resulted from our warm, wet summer. But I have my doubts. 

All horses are sensitive to the emotions of the humans around them. Horses that were born wild or are only a generation or two from the wild are super sensitive to those emotions. Stressed people stress horses. Are our horses being affected by constant exposure to humans who are awash in cortisol? I am afraid so. 

But this will end. Throughout history that has been the case. And when it does, I intend for my relationship with my horses and my riders to go back to what it once was. But it will not happen by itself. I will have to be very deliberate in my efforts to become one with horses the way that I used to. I will have to be careful to examine every thought, every assumption, every changed behavior, in order to determine if it is a true and sound belief or if it is one of the side effects of living in this very strange time.

I suspect that many of you will have to do the same thing. 

Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Privilege That Is In the Struggle

One must pay attention to the snap shots--the quick, completely unanticipated ways that understanding can come to us. I have had many such experiences in my life--things that could be simple off hand comments that impacted me in ways that I could have never imagined. When I read that Black Elk said that Crazy Horse never kept a great horse for himself, that when one came into his possession, he quickly gave it away to a poor family or a widow, I realized how immoral it would be for me to use my ownership of our horses to in any way restrict the pleasure that they could bring others.

 When Fred Thompson told me the morning after my first election as a young political figure that now my sole duty was to "Do that which is right." I learned how easy it is to make the right decision if doing what is right is the only option that one considers. 

I was seventeen years old when Grandaddy Horace said, after I told him that he was carrying the buckets of hog feed surprisingly well (although he was terminally ill with cancer) that, "If I did not know any better, I would think that I was getting better. But you know pretending a thing is going to happen don't make it happen." I immediately came to despise appearances, facades, pretenses and all things that mask truth and reality. 

The list of such turning points in my life could fill many posts but one came up in the last year that I am only beginning to fully understand now. A rider pointed out that when I discussed any major physical challenge like a very long-distance ride or other tests of myself or of our horses, I seemed to savor the inherent difficulty of the test. She pointed out that I never seemed to consider any reward or mention any reason to do the test. 

A few months later I was seeing a doctor that I had never met before. He was asking preliminary questions and asked me about exercise. As I was explaining the various things that I do I mentioned walking with 50-pound weights in each hand. To my surprise (actually to my shock) he blurted out, "Why do you do that?" All I could do was to immediately, and without thinking, blurt right back at him, "Because other men my age can't."

I was not pleased with that response and have put a great deal of thought into a deeper answer to that question. 

Over the last several months I have spent countless hours going beyond my years of study of the impact of trauma on human behavior and health and have been looking at other factors that affect the why's and how's of our feelings and emotions. As I have done so, I find myself constantly amazed at how often Stoic thought, some of which is over 2000 years old, is echoed by the advances in the study of the human brain. Dr. Andrew Huberman, of Stanford University, explains what we now know about dopamine, cortisol, adrenalin, and other hormones and enzymes in a way that I can understand it. 

His observations on what has (unfortunately) been called the "pain/pleasure" nexus gives vital insight on how working with a horse (although he never uses any equine related experiences that I have yet come across) can radically improve one's emotional health. (here is brief excerpt of a video of his thoughts on the role of dopamine as a motivator instead of merely as a reward mechanism If You Are Feeling Lazy and Unmotivated, LISTEN TO THIS CLOSELY! | Andrew Huberman - Bing video) After viewing this and looking into it further I can understand why such tests make me feel so much better and why I do not often remember details of various accomplishments years later.

As hard as it is to understand, most of the satisfaction comes from the struggle and very little of it comes from the reward. I have never purchased a lottery ticket, not because I fear losing money, but because I fear winning it. I have always instinctively known that having a large sum of cash that I did not earn would certainly make me miserable. It is the earning, the struggle, the work, that brings most true pleasure and receiving constant hits of dopamine as a result of pleasure that one did not work to earn merely serves to reduce motivation to act in any theater of one's life that requires effort. 

Why is training a horse using natural horsemanship so deeply rewarding? Because it is hard. Because it takes patience. Because it takes effort. Because it takes commitment. 

Why is owning a horse that is well trained by someone else so less rewarding? Because it merely takes the writing of a check. Why does the established horse world, which depends entirely on the never-ending writing of checks, have so much resentment against our program? Because we show that children and novices, with proper direction and motivation, can learn to train their own horses. 

And to compete the circle further, there was something a bit familiar about what Dr. Huberman was saying about dopamine and unearned rewards. It was another example of ancient Stoic teaching being fleshed out by modern scientific knowledge. When Marcus Aurelius wrote that "the obstacle is the way"
he meant that going over the obstructions in life was not a detour from life's path, but that it was the direction, it was the way, that we must seek to go. 

We are privileged to be able to take part in what can be a long, slow struggle to fully understand our horses.