Backing up to move forward

Last fall, before making the move to Colorado, Jolene and I took several mammoth leaps backwards in our training progress. Read more about the debacle.

Since then, we’ve gone back to the very basics: ground work, round pen work, roadside walks, jogs, and hikes on a lead line. They are all exercises in building back the confidence and partnership that we lost in one unfortunate afternoon. I did get back in the saddle a few times last autumn, but I could feel nervousness in both of us. It seemed right to spend time with more rudimentary work.not too old to learn challenge

In the process, we filled in holes I didn’t realize existed. Specifically, the exercises covered the very basic stuff that I thought we had a handle on:

— lateral flexion– yielding hind quarters

— yielding front quarters

— backing

— forward impulsion.

We could do those elements. But could we do them with lightness and softness? Could we do them under duress?

In the past, my human need for meeting goals and “making progress,” did not jibe with my equine partner, nor did it tell the real

The nostrils say it all! Excited but choosing to stick around

The nostrils say it all! Excited but choosing to stick around

story of where we were as a unit. An example: With the mule in a rope halter and a long line, I could ask her to move to the left of right and she’d comply. But if I asked her with too much energy or with distractions around us, she would either plant herself or bolt.

So, for days, we worked on moving away from pressure, with Jolene going left, then going right, away from me and backwards as I pushed her with my advances. If I moved quickly and demonstratively (with the help of the contained space of the round pen), she learned to stay with me instead of bolting.

When we had this down solidly, I took her out of the round pen and gave her more space. She could bolt across the pasture if she wanted to. Jolene assessed her new surroundings and chose to stay with me.

Next, I took her out on the road, and as I’d done in the round pen, raised the energy level higher than was her comfort. Again, she learned more and more that it was a pretty good deal if she chose to stay with me.

Moving Jolene from L to R.

Moving Jolene from L to R.

At the same time, I reminded myself to work as lightly as possible, to get my cues as soft as can be. The efforts have paid off. For example:

— While leading her, I can go from a walk to a jog without any additional pressure on the line.

— While standing just ahead of her (both of us facing forward), she will step back as soon as I indicate that I’m going to move backwards.

Suffice to say, the understanding, confidence and relationship pieces are more solidly in place than this time last year, when I thought we had a good thing going on (but definitely did not).


For Lent, can you give up being human for a while?

Our piece on the Death of Natural Horsemanship was one of the most circulated pages ever for BestHorsePractices. It invigorated many lengthy online conversations on the state of today’s horsemanship, which brand of horsemanship is best, and what it all means.

IMG_7228Absent in the conversation, of course, was the other animal in the equation, the horse.

  • What would the horse think of all the scuttlebutt?
  • What would he think of those professing allegiance to one training method or another?

Horses likely don’t see any difference between a Parelli Carrot stick, a Clinton Anderson Handy stick, or a tree branch with a plastic bag tied on the end of it.

They don’t wince over your word selection or accent.

They care less what boots you’re wearing.

They do pay attention to how you use that stick.

They do hear what kind of emotion is put into your words.

They do care how you move in those boots.

In other words, the horses operate more like this: Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth. 1 John 3:18

rrrYou might consider returning the favor. Put down the books and DVDs, walk away from screen time, be quiet, and watch them.

— Watch them move in the field with herd mates.

— Watch how they behave in confined spaces or around you.

— Watch for their curiosity.

— Watch the micro-movements of their ears, eyes, and how they position their bodies vis a vis you.

Put yourself in their proverbial shoes and stop being human for a while. Or: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. James 1:19

As Dr. Temple Grandin wrote in Humane Livestock Handling:

Troubleshooting animal behavior is easier when you understand how animals think…Some adult humans think almost entirely in words. Their thoughts include very little visual imagery. Animals, however, think only in pictures, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes.

Verbal or word-based thinkers tend to overlook the sensory details that form an animal’s world. This becomes a problem when people handle animals based on their own needs and perceptions rather than on the needs and perceptions of the animals they handle.

rrDr. Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, says we need to distinguish horses as who, not what.

“Who” animals know who they are; they know who their family and friends are. They know their enemies. They make strategic alliances and cope with chronic rivalries…A vivid familiar life is not the domain of humans alone.

The lives of our equine partners is deeper and more complicated than we often appreciate. When we slice and dice their reality into neatly packaged portions, then marinate it in fancy jargon, the result is as removed from realness as a fast food burger from cattle on the range.

Seek knowledge, of course. But don’t forget that your best teacher may be waiting for you out in the paddock or field.

Read more about how research can enlighten your horse work.

Read more about Learning to Connect.

Read more about compassion and intelligence.


Learning to Connect!

Remember the teacher in Peanuts cartoons? She of the trombone voice? Wahwahwahwah. Her lectures left some Screen Shot 2016-02-01 at 12.41.27 PMsleepy and others bewildered.

Consider the complexity of the teacher-student connection: the thought in the teacher’s brain, turned into words, then heard and interpreted by students. Is it any wonder Peppermint Patty was snoozing and Charlie Brown was bamboozled?

Add a horse to this equation. The horse receives cues from the rider (and sometimes the instructor) and may or may not understand the rider’s intentions. It’s a massive spaghetti plate of interpretation, full of possibilities and pitfalls. No wonder we struggle to improve and connect as a horse-rider pair!

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At BestHorsePractices and NickerNews, we’re assembling a group of articles and features dedicated to sorting through learning to connectthe missed and made connections. Our Learning to Connect features will help you with features from guest columnists from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds.

Check out:

Amy Skinner on education getting in the way

Shelley Appleton on Emotion and Intellect

Shelley Appleton on Successful Learners’ Traits

Rob and Debbie, Not too Old to Learn

Learning to Learn: explaining Long-Term Potentiation

Progress gets bloody & backwards

If progress is measured by two steps forward and one step back, then this summer would follow perfectly along that zigzagging course.not too old to learn challenge

Recently, Jolene and I have successfully partnered up several times a week to tackle our weak points:

She’s more comfortable with having a horse behind her on the trail.

She can pony another horse without panicking.

She can carry a packsaddle.

She can stand and bend and stop with light or no touch on the reins.

IMG953234So, it was with joyful anticipation that I saddled her and Pep for a long trek into the Oquirrhs with friend, Raechel Nelson. It’d be a celebratory summer ride, since we both felt these glorious days were winding down and darned if we didn’t make the most of them. It’d be a 16-mile ride with about 2,000 feet elevation climb over rugged, ledge-y terrain with temperatures approaching 90 degrees.

We were quite a crew since we each decided to pony one horse and ride another. We took our dogs. Plus, I took Wallace, the burro. [Wallace has made great progress since we acquired him from the BLM last fall. He seems to LOVE coming on trail rides at liberty, not unlike Donquita in Unbranded.]

IMG_8933Jolene wore the packsaddle, full of water and goodies for humans and animals, and she followed contentedly behind Pep.

After three hours, we finished our climb in the shadow of the Butterfield Peaks (at about 8,000 feet), stopping in a meadow to enjoy snacks, rest, and rehydration. The horses grazed and the dogs hung out in the shade. I switched the saddles to ride Jolene and placed the packsaddle on Pep.

Although by now Jolene has ponied another horse on a dozen outings, something made her nervous this time. Maybe it was the packsaddle. Maybe it was her new role as riding horse after hours as a follower. Maybe it was the flies. Or the dogs.

Whatever. By now, I should know that Jolene’s past familiarity with an action or a plan has no bearing to how cool she’ll be with it on any future day. “I know you and I trust you, but that doesn’t mean I know you and I trust you,” she seems to say to me.

So, figuring I had herd numbers working in my favor and seeking to alleviate the mule’s angst, I dropped Pep’s line and we headed homeward, down the mountain. Pep would surely follow.

Pep, however, did not tag along behind; she was perfectly happy to continue grazing. We – two riders, four equines, four dogs – rode

Myself, Wallace, and Jolene just before things went sideways.

Myself, Wallace, and Jolene just before things went sideways.

out of sight, a half mile yonder. Pep still didn’t follow.

Jolene and I hustled back to retrieve her, with Wallace trotting along side. Raechel waited up ahead, just above a steep descent for which we would have to dismount and scrabble on foot over ledge and loose rock.

At this point, I’m growing impatient. Raechel and I had hoped to get home by early afternoon. Time’s a’ wastin’.

I grabbed Pep’s lead line and recommenced ponying her, this time at a trot. Jolene continued to get flustered. A few times, I awkwardly one-rein stopped her. You can imagine how silly this must have looked, trying to bend and stop a mule, while holding onto a frisky pony, and having a little burro in the mix.

— I should have taken the time to calm my mule.

— I should have dropped Pep’s line and let her follow at her leisure.

— I should have relaxed about the time, since rushing a horsemanship moment always, always ends badly.

Instead, I continued downhill at a trot. With Wallace and Pep right on her haunches, Jolene commenced to panic. With my hands full, the trail cramped, and my mind frazzled, things got ugly fast.

It was a hard landing and my mecate rein, looped through my leggings, somehow got tangled. Jolene dragged me for a stretch on the rocky, unforgiving path. (Years ago in Maine, I came off Shea whilst riding bareback and ponying the girls to a neighbor’s field. Then, I landed on a swampy, moss-coated path, like landing on a pillow-top mattress. I do miss Maine.)

On the ground, I thought first of loose horses and then of whether I’d be able to get home. I seemed to have scrapes everywhere, my ribs hurt, and my right elbow was bubbling up oddly beneath the dirt and blood.

Raechel gathered the horses and had them ground tied or tied to trees within a minute. She rushed to my side and was the best First Responder a friend could have:

— No, you will not be standing up quite yet.

— Let’s have you sit in the shade.

— Let’s get those cuts washed off.

— Where else does it hurt?

— Drink some water and let’s assess the situation.

I was bloodied but not concussed. I thanked the heavens for my helmet.

With Raechel’s help, I put the pack saddle back on Jolene and alternated between riding Pep and walking the eight miles home.

It’ll take another week to heal from the scrapes and bruises. That’s considerably more time than it’s taken to learn (again) from my mistakes.

My partner, Steve Peters, winced and laughed after hearing about the event: “You know, Jolene is making some good progress. Despite your efforts,” he said.

Read a poem of the psychology of an exciting moment.

A “Big” Scare

Since Sackett’s death, I’ve been more wary of our horses’ wellness, especially when it comes to anything related to possible sand ingestion. Read about sand colic and other forms of colic.

IMG_0420Over the last month or so, Jolene seemed to be getting bloated. She was eating and drinking well. Her poops were fine. She seemed to be in good spirits. Her heart rate and digestion noises were fine, but at one point I thought I could hear the swooshing of sand when I listened to her gut with a stethoscope.


Sackett had had “shovelfuls of sand,” said my vet when she performed a necropsy. Could Jolene be quietly suffering, too?

Dr. Kate Schoenhals of South Mountain Equine agreed to try to get to the bottom of things while still keeping an eye on our budget.

The Vet Visit


Dr. Kate Schoenhals

The mule has been challenging to train. So, it wasn’t surprising that Jolene was challenging to medically treat, too. In order to examine her (draw blood, take abdominal x rays, perhaps do a rectal exam) and knowing how difficult she can be, I gave her a full tube of Dormosedan gel 30 minutes before Schoenhals arrived.

It had almost no sedative impact.

When Jolene saw the vet, she became anxious. Kate had given her spring shots, after all. In this mule’s mind, that made her Public Enemy No. 1. (Mules tend to be less forgetful and less forgiving than horses.)

We thought perhaps a less familiar visitor would be more effective. Schoenhals’ vet tech, Shylee, stepped forward to administer IV sedative.

Or not.

Just getting this big, molly mule sedated became a lengthy, three-person challenge that included snubbing, gentle ear-twitching, and crafty vet work. Not coincidentally, she stayed reactive even with an inordinate amount of sedative on board.

Schoenhals took x rays of several aspects of the abdomen and saw no sand to speak of. She drew blood and we later found everything, including liver and kidney function, to be normal. I did not opt for further diagnostic work to rule out enteroliths or cancer, figuring it would be a costly pursuit of discovering something that IMG_7942we could do almost nothing to remedy.

What x rays did show was something I had missed in my worried, colic-focused state: a thick layer of fat.

In hindsight, I noted that her added weight coincided with a new load of good quality hay. This hay replaced a six-month supply of poorer stuff. Mules – as noted by many, including the Baja vaqueros here – can sustain themselves quite well, even on crappy forage. It shouldn’t have surprised me that Jolene would bulk up on good hay. And, since mules tend to carry their chubbiness a bit differently than horses, I had missed what was staring right in front of me.

Marching orders were clear: more exercise!

(Orders also could have included less hay, but that’s a management hurdle when Jolene is fed with herd mates. Separating them would mean more work for me, more stress for her.)

I had been riding Jolene about twice a week. Now, we ride about four times a week. She also might hike with me and the dogs, or come along as a ponied mule. Slowly, she’s trimming down.




Ask the Expert Debuts

Ask the Expert“Listening is the most powerful thing you can do.”

It’s a valuable mantra, especially in horsemanship. Listening to horses. Listening to those with more experience. Listening to peer-reviewed research. And, for me, especially: Listening to readers.

Our new column, Ask the Expert was prompted by an email question from my friend, Nina Fuller. She asked a horsemanship question, and I thought, ‘Hmm. I know some folks who can answer this best!”

Ask the Expert is all about listening to horse-related questions readers and helping them expand their learning with advice from our partners, professionals who share a like-mindedness with BestHorsePractices and its principles. Got a question? Contact us!

l and mFor our first question below, we ask horsemen Elijah Moore and Libby Lyman. Stay tuned for their recommendations next week.

Our initial Ask the Expert query comes from Nina Fuller at Lily Brook Farm in Hollis, Maine. She writes:

My question:  I have a horse that was given to me two years ago. She’s great except for a few things.  She won’t stop moving sideways and backwards when I go to get on.  If I was younger ,I would just hop on. That’s what someone has been doing all her life. She is 18. 

But now that I am not young, I want her to stand still so I can get on her when I am alone and no one is holding her.  I have tried to put her against a rail or a fence, but she just wiggles away and avoids me as best she can. 

Any suggestions?

Nina Fuller

Nina Fuller

Expanding the Circle of Comfort

not too old to learn challengeThis month, Jolene has weathered many new experiences, but never without worry. That’s Jolene. Anything new (new helmet, new gear, new trail, new visitor) is cause for inspection and concern. I’ve become more patient with her than I typically am our other equines. I understand that review and consideration cannot be fleeting, unless I want bolting and distress.

Read more about the Not too Old to Learn Challenge.

Even saddling, once an hour-long event, now honed to 10 minutes, can still be subject to review. Read about saddling challenges here.

Jolene is extra wary when riding in a gully with steep sides.

Jolene is extra wary when riding in a gully with steep sides.

As we ramp up the trail riding, we’ve worked on these elements:

  • Riding in a gully. It’s scary because the path seems to have walls on both sides, rising up and making her a bit claustrophobic and vulnerable to predators (my interpretation here).

See photo at right.

  • Going fast. Last year, she bucked me off a few times. And I think we were both a little uncomfortable loping and galloping together. Finding good running room is challenging with all our rocky terrain, but we found some and have opened things up a bit. Read what Buck Brannaman has to say about “dialing it up.”
  • Being light and soft. Jolene’s lateral flexion can be easy sometimes, clunky the next. So, when we’re trailriding, we practice one-rein stops and general listening back and forth. We’ve worked on softer, finer cues with hands, legs and seat.
  • Creek crossing

    Creek crossing

    Other new experiences: a creek crossing and going over weird, man-made earth cylinders, meant to deter erosion and set up like small interval jumps.

  • Saddling up in a confined space (between a building and a truck).
  • Introduction to packing. In photo at left, Jolene is wearing a saddle with over-the-saddle panniers from Outfitters Supply of Columbia Falls, Montana. She did marvelously with her first hundred-pound IMG_7977load.

Other learning opportunities:

In an effort to expand the circle of comfort and get everyone in shape (or “legged up,” as they say around here), I’m riding all our equines.

I’ve learned:

Jodi is like a Golden Retriever. She benefits from lots of encouragement and praise. She’s a plug compared to Pep or Comet, lovable but perhaps lacking confidence. But I’m working on improving our connection and her go-getter-ness.



Brooke is the most challenging, our temper tantrum girl. She benefits from a strong, firm rider who can have a conversation without riling her.

Whenever we return home, she’d prefer to do so at breakneck speed. My strategies: making the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard. If she starts racing, she gets put to work in circles or in the opposite direction. If she whinnies for her herd, she gets to back up several paces. Soon enough, she finds relief with good behavior and we’re returning home on a loose rein, having stopped to graze and enjoy the scenery.


Introducing the ‘Not Too Old to Learn Challenge’!

not too old to learn challengeWe’ve been celebrating the NickerNews and BestHorsePractices community with guest columns and photo albums dedicated to our readers and their equines.

Inspiring stuff.

And as often happens in the dark, quiet months of winter, I got to thinking:
Let’s do something with these inspirations. Let’s use them to boost our own horsemanship goals.

Credit goes to Debbie Hight, Rob Rowbottom, Randy Rieman and Joe Wolter. With actions and comments, they’ve motivated me to set goals and hold myself accountable.
Debbie and Rob are working with Postcard Jack, Maine’s most winning harness racer. Read more here.
Clinicians Randy and Joe urge riders to constantly challenge themselves and step outside comfort zones. Read more about Rieman here and Wolter here.

Welcome to the Not Too Old to Learn Challenge!


From top: Wolter, Hight and Rowbottom, Rieman

I have two goals: to horse pack in the backcountry and to compete in the Impact of the Horse, a versatility-type event to benefit mustangs, held annually in Heber City, Utah. I’d like to bring Jolene, who would be the first mule ever to compete. Read about the event.
It’ll be quite a challenge. She’s a tough nut to crack and I’m just your average rider, with next-to-no formal education. Read more about Jolene here.

In other to accomplish the Challenge, I’m breaking down necessary steps.

1.    Agree to the challenge and sharing your initiative with a few friends. Call it an ‘initial commitment.’
2.    Set small, incremental goals. Neither of us feel comfortable in arena settings, for instance, so we’ll visit arenas regularly.
3.    Assess strengths and weaknesses (like the aforementioned nervousness in public settings).
4.    Find support when needed. I expect to ask Steve Peters regularly for insight on training hurdles. My friend, Raechel Nelson, has agreed to the Challenge, too.
5.     When things go sideways, just say it’s OK. To be challenged is to win. I’m fine with things not going as anticipated, as long as I try my best.

Consider hitching your wagon to the Not Too Old to Learn Challenge. Throughout the year, we’ll be staying in touch and profiling readers as they work through their Challenges.
Giddy Up!


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