“Fake News” affects Horse Owners, too

As a journalist of many years, I think I struggle more than the average person when accusations of “fake news” and “alternative facts” splash across our daily readings.

For me, the attack is not just on “liberal news outlets” but on media and the propagation of information in general. It’s an attack on journalism’s very basic mission to fairly inform readers, listeners, and viewers.

Brett Ingraham

It’s also hits home because I’ve heard it before:

Years ago, NickerNews was on the forefront of reporting one of the largest animal cruelty cases that Maine had ever seen. The website posted many stories about Brett and Alexis Ingraham, a couple in Clinton running “Fair Play Farm.” (An incongruous name if ever there was one.)

NickerNews assisted the District Attorney’s office when it asked for help with collecting information and witness testimony. After 15 horses as well as other animals were removed from the Ingrahams’ possession, NickerNews updated readers on the status of the case. Eventually, the couple was convicted.

The Ingrahams did not appreciate the coverage and called it untrue and “fake news.”

Then and now, readers must engage and ask ourselves important questions about the source of the information, the evidence to support stated assertions, and the track record of the news outlet. This reader responsibility is not unlike the prudence necessary for evaluating science reports as explained here in this article on the evidence-based model.

Horses seized from Ingraham Farm, 2010

Some additional questions to ask ourselves:

— If we only listen to the news that makes us feel good, how do we grow?

— If journalists only write about approved topics with supportive bias, how is the reader (and therefore the greater society) helped?

— If we, as journalists and as readers are not encouraged to ask questions, think critically, and occasionally argue, what’s the point of having a thinking brain and living in a community?

Whether we’re looking for good horse information or good news information, we should be encouraged to dig deep, look for the sources’ angles, and weigh alternative points of view. We should be aware of conflicts of interests and ulterior motives. Abusers, people with something to hide, vested parties all routinely blame the messengers.

The mission here at NickerNews and BestHorsePractices is to help owners and riders improve horses’ lives. We value transparency and objectivity. We appreciate discourse and love hearing from readers.

Thanks for your support!

Horses flourish when humans get the science

If you’ve ever sought a second medical opinion or gotten more than one estimate for a home repair, you know that each vested party has a different take on things.

Dr. Steve Peters

Working with horses, every trainer has a distinguished manner of looking at the horse, of training the horse, and of conveying his knowledge to the audience.

The horse, however, has the facts. Its movements and behaviors are results of the horse acting and reacting to its world as only the horse understands. Thankfully, science is helping us humans have a better appreciation for just how and what our horses are taking in and processing. Science can confirm or refute that what we’re doing is appropriate. Research supports, for instance:

— letting horses live in a group and live where they can move about

— solely offering hay and grass without grain or other condensed food

— when riding, letting a horse have free movement of its head for better balance and vision.

These topics and others have been discussed by Dr. Steve Peters in Evidence-Based Horsemanship, the book he co-authored with Martin Black. Increasingly, clinicians are gravitating to the understandings Peters and Black pioneered. The more the merrier, say the pair. As they write in the book:

EBH is an approach that continually evolves as our knowledge base grows. Finding that one has done something the wrong way may be just as valuable as getting it right if it refines the knowledge base so others do not have to struggle with a similar wrong turn.

This approach is not concerned with arguing over a school of thought or following one trainer over another. Egos, persuasive salespeople, and charismatic personalities would have little relevance to EBH.

With that philosophy in mind, the EBH world is indeed growing to incorporate other clinicians who also have an appreciation for the science. Years ago, trainers at the Horsemen’s Re-Union (including Thomas Saunders V, Bryan Neubert, Chris Cox, and Craig Cameron) absorbed EBH presentations. Said Saunders at the time, “it’s something we were seeing, but we lacked the vernacular for it.”

Jim Thomas

More recently, West Taylor, who works almost exclusively with wild horses, hosted Dr. Peters for a weekend event in St. George, Utah. This week, Jim Thomas will host Peters at the Healthy Horse weekend in North Carolina.

As the book states:

There is room for everyone under this umbrella to educate themselves by asking:
“What does our current scientific knowledge of the horse, when applied and empirically observed, show me about getting the best outcomes possible for me and the horse?
Does it work?
What’s the proof?
What is it based on?”

Stretch Yourself at the BHP Summit

Winter near Durango

Even whilst braving more snow than the region has seen in a few years, we’re getting super-excited for the Best Horse Practices Summit, the innovative horse conference coming to Durango, Colorado, in October. Our welcome mat is down and we’re enjoying the success of Early Bird Registration.

The Summit is all about stretching:

Stretch Yourself. Maybe you’re used to attending XYZ horse expo and going to see your favorite XYZ clinicians. But let this be the year and the conference for which you think outside your usual events. With an exciting array of presenters, we know you won’t be disappointed.

Stretch Your Brain. The Best Horse Practices Summit is all about expanding your current level of horsemanship and equine science knowledge. At this conference, you’ll learn that reaching beyond the status quo will have significant and immediate benefits for you and your horses.

Stretch Your Body. You are going to LOVE Durango and the rest of southwestern Colorado. It’s a great place to attend a conference and a great place to stay, get out, and do things. There are nearby dude ranches, National Parks, the San Juan National Forest. Truly, there are too many outdoor opportunities to count. Come for the conference. Stay for the brilliant autumn weather (warm, dry, sunny days with temperatures in the 60-70’s. Cool nights) and the stunning mountains (elevations of 7,000 feet and above). You won’t regret it!

Consider coming early: The Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering runs just prior to the Summit, so you can enjoy this outstanding entertainment opportunity before digging your heels into our conference. The DCPG annual parade (see photo below) is the largest non-mechanized parade in the state, a fabulous presentation of horse-drawn carriages, floats, and much more.

Having fun at the Durango Cowboy Poetry Gathering

Mule Notes: Backwards is Forwards

Faithful readers might have wondered about Jolene. The beloved mule, who I’ve come off several times, has gone back to basics with me.

Jolene, the challenging mule

Since an incident that traumatized both of us, I’ve only ridden her a few times. Instead, we’ve done a lot of ground work, ponying, and chilling. Plus, I’ve gotten some help.

Muleman Tyler Willbanks loves Jolene. He loves her so much, he offered to buy her at first sight. Sorry, Tyler, she’s not for sale!

Willbanks has decades of experience with all variety of equines and runs a horse-powered farming operation here in Mancos, Colorado.

Once he started working with us, he agreed that she needed to rebuild her trust and ride-ability. He feels strongly that she has experienced some trauma (probably in Missouri, where she came from originally).

His suggestions are valuable for any skittish

Tyler Willbanks teaches a course on horse packing

equine:

  • Use the round pen for building trust, not respect.
  • Go through a lot of gates (since she can balk at them). Make sure to wait her out and be patient.
  • Give her a rub on her shoulder, but then push her away or move away. Use space as a reward. She appreciates space more than petting.
  • Use a tarp or other objects to put her in discomfort, but don’t let it be you that is the discomfort or the scary object. Have it be something else.
  • She’s stand-off-ish. But be the more stand-off-ish one. She’ll say, ‘oh, wait. I thought I was the stand-off-ish one’ and will be more interested.
  • Back up and have her come to you. Have her back up and give you space.
  • Saddle her every day. If you pony her, pony her with a saddle on.
  • Once you’re riding, Jolene will benefit from moving other horses as well as cows. It will be good for her self-confidence.

Thanks, Tyler!

Jolene as a ponied mule

What is a Good Seat? Katrin Silva explains

Katrin Silva grew up riding dressage in Germany before moving to the United States at age 19 to learn to ride Western. She’s been riding both disciplines for the last twenty years. Read her article on Contact here.

Silva has competed successfully through fourth level dressage on quarter horses, Morgans, Arabians, Hanoverians, and many other breeds. Based in New Mexico, she enjoys improving horse-rider partnerships and firmly believes that good riding is always good riding, no matter which type of tack a horse is wearing. Check out her blog here.

By Katrin Silva

Good riding is always good riding. No matter what riding discipline, we have much more in common than it appears at first sight. All good riders develop a good seat.

But what is a good seat?

  1. A Good Seat is an independent seat.

We can’t expect our horses to carry themselves until we, their riders, carry ourselves. A good rider is in self-carriage, whether she is a hunter-jumper rider in two-point position or a Western rider sliding to a stop.

Julie

If we look at pictures of horses and riders in any discipline, there’s an easy way to figure out whether the rider is in self-carriage: Imagine the horse disappears suddenly, like in a Star Trek episode. Now, look at the rider: What happens when she hits the ground? Does she land on her backside?

During this transition, Julie would fall over backward . . .

Does she fall forward, face-first? Or does she remain standing, with both feet firmly planted on the dirt?

A few strides later, harmony is reestablished. (see second image)

Riders who land standing are in self-carriage. They are less likely to cause pain or discomfort to their horses. They are less likely to struggle for balance, or to hang on to the reins in a desperate attempt to feel secure.

 

We expect our horses to carry themselves, but we have to fulfill our part of the bargain before asking our partners to do the same.

A rider in self-carriage will have a better chance of staying on when young horses get a little scared or excited.

  1. A good seat is an effective seat

I don’t really like to use the adjective “correct” to describe a good seat. It sounds too much like there is only one ideal way to sit on a horse. But it depends on everything from body type to rider goals. A much more fitting adjective is “effective.”

There are many riders whose position in the saddle mimics what they’ve learned from their well-meaning instructors, yet their seat is anything but effective. Some riders have been told to sit up straight so often that they look like they have swallowed a broomstick. They are often so focused on maintaining their “correct” body position that they forget to breathe.

An effective seat allows for good two-way communication

Others have heard that they need to relax completely and to avoid all tension at all cost. That’s good advice, but without a certain degree of elastic core engagement, these riders resemble spineless creatures carried around like so much dead weight. Either extreme is wrong and ineffective. Only an effective seat allows a rider to communicate with the horse.

Communication is a two-way process. An effective seat allows riders to feel what the horse is doing. It’s soft and following. The rider’s core is engaged but not tense; her core muscles tighten and release in rhythm with the horse’s back, picking up the signals it sends without static interference, and without causing discomfort to the horse. A good seat enables riders to link into a constant feedback loop between horse and rider.

An effective seat allows the rider to influence the horse in a controlled way via leg and rein aids. Ideally, this can happen on a more subtle level via the core muscles. The rider feels what the horse is doing, and requests changes of direction or gait primarily through the seat. Accomplished riders on responsive horses can look like they’re not doing anything. What a beautiful sight, like a couple dancing together.

A good seat keeps you in the saddle when the horse spooks.

There are varieties of a good seat when riders sacrifice this level of subtlety for added stability, comfort (their own or the horse’s), or a specific goal like getting out of the horse’s way when jumping an obstacle.

So, the search for the ideal seat must remain in vain. Trying to conform to someone else’s idea of the perfect position can be counterproductive because it keeps us from focusing on feel and communication. But a more independent, more effective seat is something every good rider spends a lifetime developing.

The Brain’s “Low Road” and “High Road”

Mechanics know that one big problem – smoke under the hood – is often caused by tiny, less visible issues. To solve the big problem, you need to understand finer points and foundational concepts. The more you know, the more effective you can be in solving the big problem.

The same can be said with horsemanship and the details of horse brain function. The more you know, the more effective you can be in solving behavior or training problems.

Two books on human brain function are helping me sort through what I see and do with horses. They are reaffirming some of my techniques while dismissing others. This winter, I’ve read The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle and The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk.

Read about Coyle and Deep Practice here.

While it’s a mistake to interpret animal behavior through a lens of human dynamics, better know as “anthropomorphizing,” it is appropriate to relate basic actions and reactions of horses with humans. Why? We humans share with horses the same primitive layers of the brain: the reptilian system, the limbic system, and the brain stem.

We also share basic neurological chemistry and building blocks. The way our brains grow and function is largely the same.

My partner, Dr. Steve Peters, and I have several rescued horses.

  • Brooke, for instance, was kept in a stall with three other horses for years. At every feeding, she had to fight for her food. Read about her here.
  • Jolene, the mule, was born in Missouri, sold at an Iowa auction, and has a history of bolting at the slightest cue. Read more about her here.

Courtesy of NY Times

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk has helped me better understand the neurology behind their “bad” behaviors.

He explains:

The thalamus, inside the limbic system, receives sensory information from the eyes, nose, ears, and skin. It is the “cook” within the brain. The thalamus stirs all the input from our perceptions into a fully blended autobiographical soup, an integrated, coherent experience of “this is what is happening to me.”

It passes information in two directions, down to the amygdala (the primal “low road”) and to the cortex (the conscious “high road”).

The route to the amygdala is several milliseconds faster than the route to the cortex. In other words, the emotional brain has first dibs on interpreting incoming information.

Don’t be confused by the word “emotional.” It is from the Latin word, emovere, and refers to the limbic system and the Flight or Fight response.

Van Der Kolk continues:

The amygdala is the brain’s smoke detector. It identifies whether or not incoming input is relevant to our survival. It does so quickly and automatically, with help of feedback from the hippocampus, a nearby structure that relates the new input to past experiences.

If the amygdala sense threat, it sends an immediate message to hypothalamus and the autonomic nervous system to orchestrate a whole body response. It decides whether incoming information is a threat before we are consciously aware of the danger. By the time we realize what is happening, our body may already be on the move.

Danger is a normal part of life…[but] after trauma the world is experienced with a different nervous system… Every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.

I can’t help what happened in the past, but I can encourage new habits by the way I routinely, patiently encourage them to not hit the low road, ie, by reacting with fear or aggression.

It’s hard work and, in my experience, it takes years to carve out new, healthier, safer neural pathways. Eventually, I’ve observed that Van Der Kolk is correct:

Generally the rational brain can override the emotional brain, as long as our fears don’t hijack us…But the moment we feel trapped…we are vulnerable to activating old maps and following their directions.

Understanding “Deep Practice”

In The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle discusses the merits of soccer hotbeds in Brazil and training methods of famous pianists. So, what does all that have to do with horsemanship?

Everything.

As Coyle explains, it all comes down to one microscopic detail, shared by horses and humans alike: the development of myelin.

He writes:

  1. Every movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons – a circuit of nerve fibers.
  2. Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy.
  3. The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.

Coyle traveled the world to research what’s called Deep Practice.

Deep Practice is built on a paradox:

Struggling in certain targeted ways – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes – makes you smarter.

Experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them…end up making you swift and graceful.

Randy Rieman’s clinic last year confirms this approach. He extolled the virtues of slowing down and getting the fundamentals sound. These basics become habits and movements to build and rely on. Time and again, he had students return to simpler forms in order to work on smoothness.

“When the horses are in a hurry, their minds are uncomfortable because their bodies are uncomfortable. When we break things down and move more slowly through an exercise, we work on removing the anxiety and extending their range of motion. They aren’t livening up and getting tight. They are livening up and getting loose,” said Rieman, who studied at length with Tom and Bill Dorrance. “Tom Dorrance used to say, ‘Do less more often.’”

Writes Coyle in The Talent Code:

“…[T]he best way to build a good circuit is to fire it, attend to mistakes, then fire it again, over and over. Struggle is not an option: it’s a biological requirement.”

Why does slowing down work so well?

“ …Going slow allows you to attend more closely to errors, creating a higher degree of precision with each firing – and when it comes to growing myelin, precision is everything. As football

Dr. Steve Peters with Martin Black

coach Tom Martinez likes to say, “It’s not how fast you can do it. It’s how slow you can do it correctly.” Second, going slow helps the practice to develop something even more important: a working perception of the skill’s internal blueprints – the shape and rhythm of the interlocking skill circuits.”

At a recent Evidence-Based Horsemanship Seminar, Dr. Steve Peters used a passage from the book to remind students that giving horses the option to seek and search, yields better results. He shared this table:

 

A                                                             B

ocean/breeze                                       bread/b_tter

leaf/tree                                                music/l_rics

high school/college                             pencil/p_per

chair/couch                                          l_nch/dinner

When people were asked to recall the words in each column, researchers discovered they had far better recall from Column B than Column A.

Why?

The process of seeking and problem solving is far more powerful than rote memorization.

“We think of effortless performance as desirable, but it’s really a terrible way to learn,” said Robert Bjork, a researcher highlighted in the book. “Things that appear to be obstacles turn out to be desirable in the long haul…one real encounter, even for a few seconds, is far more useful than several hundred observations.”

Turns out my cartoon hero, Ms. Frizzle of Magic School Bus fame was right all along:

“Take chances! Make Mistakes! Get Messy!”

Read this week’s related content on Brain and Trauma.

Check out this article on the Cons of Comfort.

A Dressage Vote for Pilates

We hear this week from Katrin Kuenstler, a German rider living and teaching in Australia. She weighs in on Rider Fitness and Core Strength. Read more about it here.

Kuenstler writes:

I am a dressage rider, riding instructor and Pilates instructor and can only say from my own experience that taking up Pilates as a core strengthening exercise has made a huge difference in the way my body can cope with the physical stress of riding. I used to get really sore, especially in my lower back and hips, but don’t anymore.

Research has shown that the only activity to get riders in shape for riding is riding. However, I wouldn’t want to miss Pilates as a supporting core building activity.

One of our big goals while schooling our horses is to allow the horse to move in balance and straight, so it can become supple. This requires the rider being secure in his own balance, which will help the horse’s balance and not be negatively influenced by it.

Think of a really great rider who you admire and like to watch. They would never shift when the horse tries to get its own way. They are so strong in their position that they can stay balanced even if the horse tries to pull them out of balance.

Ultimately, the horse will become more balanced itself because the rider maintains her balance. It requires immense body control and core strength for a rider to keep her position stay secure and centered. After all, riding means sitting – and balancing – on an unsteady surface.

I am referring to ‘the core’ as the corsage around our spine and pelvis. It is formed by the very little abdominal and spinal muscles that sit very close to our skeleton and stabilize our bones and joints.

The reason children seem to ride so beautifully and effortlessly is because they are much more active than adults and include core-building exercises – like jumping on a trampoline – in their every day play.

I teach a lot of young riders who are also engaged in other sports, such swimming or gymnastics, which will naturally increase their overall fitness and muscle tone.

Men also often seem to sit more stably and more centered on a horse and I’ve found that men naturally have a much stronger core muscles than women.

Core strengthening exercises do not necessarily have to be static. Riding is dynamic and therefore the strengthening of the core needs to be, too.

A key element is the breathing. In Pilates, every exercise is connected with a breathing pattern and I find the lateral Pilates breathing (in which you breath into the sides of your rip cage) most useful in my riding.

The rider’s pelvis is what connects us to our horse. It absorbs the horse’s movements and passes them onto the spine in way that gives the appearance that the rider is sitting still. In order to relax our gluteus muscles, so our hip joints can open, close, and absorb the movements of the horse and able to protect our spine when it is flexing, extending, and rotating with the horse’s movement, a strong core is the key.

For me, planking is one of the most beneficial exercises to strengthen one’s core – IF it is done correctly and NOT statically, but connected to the breathing and mixed up by movements such as lifting one hand or foot off the floor.

It is my strong believe that by strengthening our core through targeted exercise, we make it easier for ourselves to sit in balance and keep our stability. At the end of the day, that will do our horses a great favor!

 

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