Safe!

knockout after riding

Knockout after Saturday’s amazing ride!

It is time to clear our woods trails, again.

Brush is starting to encroach from the sides, narrowing the trails.  Overhanging limbs are extending lower, becoming riding obstacles.  As spring advances, it will only get worse until a trail ride becomes an obstacle course.

Those overhanging branches are a bit of concern in general, but especially when riding Knockout, our 7-year-old quarter horse (Can he really be seven? Wow!  2 ½ years doesn’t seem long from my perspective, but the difference in age between a 4-year-old colt and a 7-year-old horse is huge.  He can’t be called a colt anymore…he’s a young adult horse).

Knockout doesn’t like low-hanging branches…never has. He also doesn’t like branches brushing against my helmet as we ride.  He’s not nearly as reactive to them as he was two years ago.  Some days he ignores them completely.  Other times he’ll startle-in-place at the first few occurrences before settling down to ignore them.  Overall, the low-hanging branches are not too big a deal anymore.  But I still ride with an awareness of potential spooks and guide him thru a route that avoids unnecessary brushing against branches.

So, cleaning up the trails would make my rides a little more relaxed. Plus, it would open the trails back up to being able to ride two-abreast rather than single file.

I’ve learned trail clearing is best done from horseback. The horse becomes a mobile scaffold from whom high branches can be reached.  He also acts as a visual guide as to how high the branches need to be trimmed.

For clearing trails, a really calm, mature horse is needed…a horse who is perfectly comfortable standing under low hanging branches while I stand in the stirrups, reach around at odd angles with clippers, and drop small branches on his head.

Sonny, our 18-year-old paint, is the horse for trail clearing. Sonny can sometimes be a bit persistent in his wilfulness, but he is not spooky.  Sonny can be relied on to stay calm even in very distracting circumstances.

Last weekend, I had a (silent) conversation with myself that went something like this:

Me:        One evening this week, I need to saddle Sonny and go clean out those woods trails.

Self:       Sounds like a good idea!  Why Sonny?

Me:        Sonny stands calmly while I trim branches above his head.  I’ve used Sonny for this task before.  He’s the only horse I really trust for that sort of work.

Self:       Why don’t you take Knockout?

Me:        Are you nuts?  Knockout isn’t mature enough for that.  He sometimes startles at low-hanging branches.  Knockout’s concern with brush is a primary reason I want the trail cleared.

Self:       It sounds like you’re making excuses for Knockout.  How can he ever develop into the horse you want him to be if you keep making excuses for him?

Me:        I’m not making excuses.  I just don’t want to overwhelm Knockout and lose ground on all the progress we’ve made.  He trusts me and I don’t want to lose his trust.

Self:       So, start slow and build up.  Trim one small branch to the side, see how Knockout responds and go from there.  You’ll never know what he can handle if you don’t let him try.  You need to trust your horse.  This is a perfect opportunity to build Knockout’s confidence with low hanging limbs.

So that’s what we did.

Monday evening, I took Knockout on a trail ride and we trimmed trees for one full trail loop…including the super-scary trail thru the creek bottom at which Knockout used to always spook.

Knockout did great!  🙂

Knockout stood still while I reached out with the clippers and trimmed branches. He did not startle when the branches brushed my helmet or dropped on top of his head.  At times, I let go of the reins and stood in the stirrups to grasp a branch in my left hand while using the clippers in my right hand.  I often switched hands for better reach.  I often asked for a side-pass, shoulder turn, or hind-quarter turn to reach the next branch.  And Knockout bravely tolerated all of it.

To be clear…Knockout did not like it. He was not at all thrilled to duck under low-hanging branches.  He was hesitant about sticking his head in thick underbrush so I could reach the intended branch.

Sometimes, when I asked for a right side-step toward the brush, he responded with a left side-step away from the tree…clearly indicating he was uncomfortable with where I was asking him to go.  Yet, as I persisted asking for a right side-step, firming up as necessary, Knockout complied with my request.

Once positioned where I needed him, I dropped all pressure and he relaxed, standing quietly as I went about the task of trimming.  He stood quietly relaxed as branches dropped on his head, as leaves rustled overhead, as I drug branches out of clinging vines to cast aside.  And when I asked him to move he responded…sometimes hesitantly…but he responded.  And when I dropped pressure, he relaxed again.

I was quite impressed with Knockout’s courage!

It’s no big deal performing a task one is comfortable with.  It requires true courage to perform a task one is very uncomfortable with, then stand quietly relaxed in a stressful situation.

How did he do it? How does a prey animal wired for flight perform a task he is clearly uncomfortable with?  How can he stand quietly at ease in the midst of a stressful environment?

Trust!

Knockout trusts me. It’s that simple.

Because he trusts me, Knockout is willing to go places he is uncomfortable going. Because he trusts me, Knockout can stand quietly relaxed in a stressful situation, simply because he knows he is where I want him to be, and I am with him.

Knockout knows, when I am with him and he is where I want him to be, he is safe.

What was it Jesus said?

…lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)

Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid. (Matthew 14:27)

Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades. (Revelation 1:17-18)

Sometimes, God asks me to go places I am uncomfortable going. Sometimes, I find myself in very stressful situations.  My mother’s illness and departure from this world…my daughter’s surgery…my grandchildren in an automobile accident…addressing issues with my teenage stepson’s journey toward adulthood…health concerns of family and friends…political unrest…economic concerns…wars and terrorism across the globe…

This world is a scary place and I often find myself in stressful situations.

And yet…because He is with me I don’t have to be afraid. So long as I trust Him, I am safe.

 

Your thoughts?

 

The Lord is My Horseman

[A paraphrase of Psalm 23, by Joseph J. Pote]

The Lord is my Horseman;
I have everything I need.
He provides me with safe, lush, green pastures.
He directs my steps to places with plenty of fresh water.
He restores my sense of peace, safety and comfort.
He leads and directs my steps in the paths of His choice
To accomplish His purpose in my life.

Yes, even if I walk through a dark, narrow, gloomy valley full of dreaded spooks,
I will not be afraid, because You are with me.
Your seat in the saddle and Your grip on the reins comfort me and give me confidence.
You feed me fresh grain and nutritious hay in the middle of scary environments.
You groom me, caring for my coat, mane, tail, and hooves.
My water trough stays full to overflowing.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I will live in the pastures of The Lord, forever.

counsel of horses

 

On Book Learning

I love reading. Few days go by that I don’t pick up one book or another for at least a few minutes of reading pleasure.

A few months ago, I wrote a post titled The Bibliophile specifically about my family’s love for books.  I have learned many things through reading books, and books are a big part of who I am.

So, when I decided to start pursuing horsemanship, I turned to books. I discovered and read several books by several different authors.  All were good and I learned from all of them.  I also discovered a treasure trove of YouTube videos on the topic of horsemanship, which were also very helpful.

But you know what? Books and videos can only carry a would-be horseman so far.  At some point, one must go out and spend time working with horses.

Many of the best horsemen refer to themselves as a student of the horse.  In using this phrase they don’t just mean they study horses.  Rather, they mean the horse is their instructor.  If one would learn of horses, one needs to be instructed by a horse.

Ray Hunt is one of my favorite horsemanship authors. I’ve read his book, Think Harmony with Horses, five or six times across a two-year span, and with each reading I gain new insights.

In this book, Ray stated,

To digest [horsemanship] goals in the capsule form a person need only know ‘feel, timing, and balance.’

Clearly, in Ray’s estimation, this was an extremely important concept. However, he went on to say:

But the truth of the matter is that just those three small terms take a lifetime of chewing before they begin to digest. Though I will use them often, I will not attempt to provide the reader with a concrete description of any of them, for to me they are as abstract and elusive as the candle in the tunnel. What “feel” can be to a 4-H child today, with more chewing, each day it will be different. The same is true of a more advanced rider. As the rider grows in awareness and insight, so will the definition of these terms. Each person, in the final analysis, will write his or her own definition day by day. Although I cannot give you “feel,” I hope to fix it up to help the reader, or rider, find his own definition.

Basically, within his book written for the purpose of teaching horsemanship, Ray Hunt confessed the most fundamental part cannot be learned from a book. It must be learned experientially from a horse.

Accordingly, after reading Ray’s book, I spent time working with my horse. Then I came back and read the book again…and learned it made more sense than in the first reading.  The same has been true of each subsequent reading.

Although I can learn a lot about horses by reading books, I can only come to know a horse by spending time with a horse.  I have to learn to listen to my horse.

I can learn a lot about horses by reading books. I can only come to know a horse by spending time with a horse. Click To Tweet

The same is true of most things in life. We can learn a lot from other people’s experiences shared in books, videos, or verbal communication.  Such book learning can start us on the right path and continue to guide us as we work thru real-life issues.  Ultimately, though, we only truly learn by doing.

Book learning can only take one so far. To really learn, one must do.

Book learning can only take one so far. To really learn, one must do. Click To Tweet

This is not a difficult concept, and I think most people would readily agree.

So, why do so many people seem to expect something different of the Bible?

Like most Christians, I have a deep reverence for the Bible as God’s word…God’s revelation of Himself, written by men through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

I am sometimes surprised, however, at how many Christians seem to believe the Bible is the end of God’s revealing of Himself and His will to us. These Christians seem to live with no expectation of God ever communicating with us as individuals.  They seem to expect prayer to be strictly a monologue and are suspicious of anyone saying God spoke to them about anything.

More concerning, these Christians seem to have no confidence whatsoever in the power of the Holy Spirit to give discernment and wisdom to God’s individual children in regard to specific situations in their personal lives. They seem to live their lives as though Christ’s admonition, “My sheep hear my voice” was not relevant to us, today.

As a result, they tend to turn to the Bible in search of definitive direction for every life circumstance. They tend to build legalistic doctrines filled with intricate rules and exception clauses (falsely) believed appropriate for application to all of life’s circumstances.

These folks tend to be very dogmatic in stating their beliefs…very closed to other people’s perceptions…very insistent that their view is the only legitimate view and anyone with a differing view is in error. They have a tendency to pluck support for their doctrines out of context…expecting to find answers to questions that are not addressed in their referenced passages.

These folks treat the Bible as though it were an owner’s manual for how to live life, rather than a revelation intended to lead us into intimate relationship with our Creator. They attempt to use the Bible as though it were a series of flow-charts with clear predefined decision-making logic intended to cover every circumstance in the human experience, rather than a book of revelation leading us to wrestle with heart-rending decisions in sometimes horrific circumstances while clinging tenaciously to faith in the goodness and faithfulness of an invisible God.

Why? Why do the beliefs and expectations of these fellow believers differ so drastically from my own?

They put their faith in book learning. I put my faith in the One who inspired the book.

I don’t expect the Bible to be a guide in all of life’s circumstances. I expect the Bible to guide me into intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit who leads me in all of life’s circumstances.

Just as in horsemanship, the most fundamental part cannot be learned from a book. It must be learned experientially from the Holy Spirit.

I can learn a lot about God by reading the Bible.  I can only come to know God by spending time with Him…by talking with Him and listening to Him…by learning to trust Him and follow Him.

I can learn a lot about God by reading the Bible. I can only come to know God by spending time with Him Click To Tweet

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. (John 5:39-40)

Scripture is only life-giving to the extent that it leads us to the Giver of Life.

Scripture is only life-giving to the extent that it leads us to the Giver of Life. Click To Tweet

Your thoughts?

 

Listen

I have learned “Listen to your horse” is a common phrase among many horsemen…almost a mantra of sorts…the catch-all solution to horse-human relationship issues.

Got bucked off?  Learn to listen to your horse.

Your horse won’t trailer load today?  Listen to your horse.

Can’t catch your horse?  Listen to your horse.

I’m being a little facetious.  There’s a lot more to problem solving than just throwing out a catch phrase.  Horsemen are not generally prone to over-simplifying issues.  We’re all looking for concrete solutions to real world problems.

However, “Listen to your horse” does come up a lot.  It’s a big part of solving issues and improving relationships.  It is through listening that minor issues can be appropriately addressed through small changes, before they become major problems.

But what does “Listen to your horse” even mean?  With the possible exception of Mr. Ed, horses are not talkative creatures.  Not only do they lack human speech, but aside from an occasional whinny they rarely verbalize anything.

Yet, horses do communicate.  They are very social animals and interact with other horses almost constantly.

Horses communicate through movement and body language.  The tilt of a head…the arch of a neck…the position of ears…the fluidity or choppiness of a gait…the attitude displayed in an approach…muscle tension…and so much more.

So, listening to a horse doesn’t have much to do with audible speech or use of one’s ears.  It has to do with paying attention with intentionality.  It has to do with an awareness of the horse’s movement and body language.  It has to do with being able to feel a change in muscle tension or fluidity of gait.  It has to do with being in the moment with intentional awareness.

Ray Hunt wrote about “take a feel of your horse” then “feel for your horse.”

Ray refused to even define what he meant by feel, timing and balance.  He said these were terms each horseman had to learn for himself…and that the definitions change over time.

Frankly, I was a bit uncomfortable with that.  It all sounds a bit mystical…a bit too horse-whisperer…too abstract…

I wasn’t looking for a spiritual connection with four-legged animals.  I just wanted to learn a little about training horses.

But listening is one of the most practical things a horseman can learn.  Yes, it is a bit abstract.  Yes, it is more art than science.  No, I’m not very good at it…but I’m a lot better than I used to be.

It is through listening that my interaction with a horse becomes a conversation rather than a demand.  It is through listening that my timing improves.  It is through listening that my horse and I learn to communicate with better responsiveness to lighter cues.  And it is through listening that I am able to address minor concerns before they become major problems.

It is through listening to my horse that my horse learns to listen to me.

It is through listening to my horse that my horse learns to listen to me. Click To Tweet

I’m also learning that this intentional awareness listening extends beyond horses.

It’s just as important with people.  With fellow humans, we tend to get a little lazy.  We’re so accustomed to communicating complex concepts through words that we forget to pay attention to subtler communication of body language and emotions.  We’re so distracted by making our point, or by external distractions such as smart phones, that we neglect to be in the moment with intentional awareness of the other person’s nonverbal communication.

And this intentional awareness listening also applies to prayer.

God has never yet directly spoken to me in an audible voice.  But He does speak to me.

If it makes you more comfortable, call it a prompting of the spirit…or a nudging…or a calling to mind of a scripture.  Preachers often talk about God’s call to ministry.  Whatever words are used we’re talking about God communicating directly with us, as individual believers, through the Holy Spirit.

Yes, He does that.  Jesus said He would.  The apostles said He would.  And He does.

The Holy Spirit speaks to me in ways similar to how my horse speaks to me…except different.  Much like my horse, God has thus far refrained from directly speaking to me in an audible voice.  However, God speaks to me in other ways.

He speaks to me through our animals.  Just read back through some of my blog posts and you’ll see it’s true.

He speaks to me through recalling scripture to mind.

He speaks to me through other people.

He speaks to me in difficult circumstances.

He speaks to me in my fear.

He speaks to me through things as simple as an empty gas tank.

He speaks directly to my spirit whispering words of comfort, love, and wisdom.

He sometimes gives me direction…a course of action I am to take.

He has, at least one time, spoken to me through angels…which I still feel a little weird about saying…but am convinced it is true.

Listening to God is similar to listening to my horse.  It requires intentional awareness and being in the moment.

God speaks to me all the time.  Sometimes, I’m paying enough attention to hear Him.

God speaks to me all the time. Sometimes, I'm paying enough attention to hear Him. Click To Tweet

I’m not big on New Years resolutions.  I’ve never done the Word of the Year blogging thing.

But one thing I for sure want to do better in the coming year is to listen.

 

Rules that Matter

counsel of horsesThe young horses tend to gather at the northeast corner of the pasture each afternoon. There, they tease each other, chase each other, and just generally enjoy each other’s fellowship.

One afternoon, the conversation drifted to discussing The Master’s expectations. Archie, the 2-year-old stud colt, pricked his ears at this topic.  Although Archie had spent time with The Master, his real training was just beginning.

Cinch, the young roan, believed himself an expert on all things related to The Master. After all, he had been trailered to rodeos and trail rides more than any of the other young horses.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” said Cinch, “when Master leads you through the pasture gate, he expects you to promptly spin your hindquarters to the left.”

“That’s for sure!” enjoined Sonny, the handsome paint horse. “That took me a while to figure out.  I used to sometimes get hung up halfway through the gate and just stand there wondering what to do.  It took me a while to figure out I was supposed to walk past Master, through the gate, swinging my hindquarters to the left.  I finally got it figured out, though.”

“Same here!” laughed Cinch. “Boy did I feel stupid standing there looking at The Master, wondering what to do.  You don’t want to make that mistake, Archie!  Take my word for it.  Every time Master leads you through the pasture gate, always promptly spin your hindquarters left.  Then, as Master closes the gate take one step back.  As Master leaves the gate, take another step back followed by a right shoulder turn as you fall in step behind him.  The smoother you learn to do all that, the better Master likes it.”

“Wow! That’s a lot to remember,” sighed Archie, as he contemplated the shame of getting hung up not knowing what to do.

“What if Master leads out the other pasture gate?” queried Buck, the little buckskin the Master’s grandchildren loved to ride.

“What are you talking about?” Cinch’s eyes narrowed and his ears swiveled back as though he’d just been challenged.

“I’m talking about that gate at the shed,” answered Buck, ignoring Cinch’s agitation. “That gate swings the other direction, and Master expects a right hindquarter swing as you come through.”

“That’s true!” agreed Knockout, the young sorrel who’d spent so much time riding the gravel roads with Master, in recent months. “On right-hinged gates, Master generally asks for a left hindquarter turn and on left-hinged gates he generally asks for a right hindquarter turn.  It all depends on the situation.”

“Oh my!” muttered Archie in wide-eyed wonder as he recited the growing list of rules, “Right-hinged left spin. Left-hinged right spin.  Then two steps back and follow through with an opposite-direction shoulder turn.”

“Exactly!” Buck confirmed.

“Guys! Guys!  You’re going to confuse the poor kid,” admonished Cinch.  “Can’t you see he’s feeling overwhelmed?  He can’t learn all the rules in one afternoon.  Master doesn’t use the shed gate often, anyway.  Let the poor kid focus on learning the rules for the main gate he’ll be using most of the time, anyway.”

“But,” responded Buck, “If he only learns half a rule, he’ll be even more confused when he encounters an exception. He needs to learn all the rules and all the exception clauses, or he’ll be lost.”

“Look,” countered Cinch, “I’m just saying it’s best to focus first on the normal expectations then let him figure out the exceptions later. We haven’t even got him out the pasture gate yet, and you’re already confusing him.  There’s a ton of other things he needs to learn.  Like, when Master takes you off property always turn right at the end of the driveway.”

“That’s for sure!” Sonny affirmed. “You may as well get that down right now, and save yourself a lot of trouble later.  End of the driveway always means a right turn.”

“One time, Master and I spent two hours circling the end of the driveway while I figured that one out,” chuckled Knockout.

“Except, one time Master took me left at the end of the driveway,” countered Buck.

Cinch swiveled to face Buck, ears pinned and nostrils dilated, “No way! That rule never changes.  It’s always right at the end of the driveway.  No exceptions!”

“I’m telling you,” Buck responded, “one time Master took me left, all the way to the blacktop highway, before he turned around and brought me back.”

Cinch glared indignantly at Buck, “No way! Master would never do that!  It sounds to me like you’ve been listening to the wrong master, Buck.”

“I know The Master, and I know where he led me. He went with me every step of the way,” Buck persisted.

“It’s true Cinch,” Knockout came to Buck’s defense. “Every once in a while, Master will take me left at the driveway, too.  I think he does it on purpose just to make sure I’m paying attention and listening to him.  He seems to like changing things up from time to time.  In fact, I’m not even sure we’re going about this discussion from the right perspective.  It seems to me Master is more concerned with my knowing how to respond to his cues.”

Facing Archie, Knockout continued, “Kid, the important rules to remember are Master’s cues. When Master squeezes your sides, move forward.  When Master presses your left side move right.  When Master presses your right side move left.  When Master pulls on the bit, stop and back up.  Those are the important rules.”

Wide-eyed, Archie recited the rules back, “Left side, right. Right side, left.  Both sides, forward.  Pull, stop.  Wow!  How will I ever remember all these rules and exceptions?”

A deep chuckle interrupted the discussion as the young horses turned to see LaDoux had approached unnoticed. LaDoux, the sorrel gelding with white spots either side of his withers, was the oldest and wisest horse in the pasture.  “You youngsters have a lot to learn!  Cinch, Knockout is much nearer the truth than you.  It’s not about learning a bunch of rules and exceptions.  It’s about listening to The Master and responding to his cues.”

As Knockout lifted his head and preened his ears forward in pride, LaDoux continued, “But that’s not the most important thing either, because cues sometimes change. Master likes to teach softer cues as we become ready to learn them, and sometimes new cues are required as we mature into new jobs.”

“Archie,” LaDoux continued gently, “There are only two rules that really matter. The first rule is to trust Master.  Really, really trust him, knowing you can do whatever he asks without worrying about anything.  The second rule is to watch out for other horses and treat each other with respect.  That’s all you really need to remember.  Master will teach you everything else you need to know.  In fact, when you forget these two main rules, Master will remind you of those as well.  Trust Master to teach you all you need to know and quit worrying about memorizing rules and exception clauses.”

On hearing this sage advice, Archie breathed a sigh of relief, felt his tense muscles relax, and sensed his worried emotions calm in renewed trust that Master will always care for him.

One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:35-40)

But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

Your thoughts?

 

Relative Comfort

I’m not an expert horse trainer. I am, at best, a novice horseman…maybe more of a wannabe horseman…which is okay, too.  My only horse experience has been working with our own horses.  So, take my observations with a grain of salt…I have a fairly narrow experience spectrum in regard to horse behavior.

However, the more I work with horses the more I find myself thinking of them as natural comfort magnets. Horses naturally move toward what feels comfortable and they naturally move away from what feels uncomfortable.  Their level of comfort or discomfort can be either physical or emotional…it often seems largely intuitive…which makes sense for prey animals.  It’s important to avoid anything intuitively perceived as uncomfortable…potentially dangerous.  It is equally important to gravitate toward comfort…food, water, shelter, safety.

I have begun to think of horsemanship as largely a matter of managing a horse’s comfort levels and comfort zones. Horsemen talk a lot about pressure and release.  Pressure is basically mild discomfort applied to solicit a response.  The release is basically comfort applied as positive reinforcement of desired behavior.  So, pressure and release are basically just using comfort and discomfort as training aids.

Horsemen also talk a lot about desensitizing…training a horse to be comfortable with something that has previously made him anxious. Basically this is a matter of incrementally expanding the horse’s comfort zone.  To desensitize my horse to an object, I expose him to it in small doses, letting him become comfortable with it first at a distance, then close up, then very close, then touching, then rubbing all over his body.  I incrementally step him from terrified to comfortable by gradually expanding his comfort zone to include the object of concern.

The tricky part comes in knowing when to apply comfort, when to apply discomfort, and to what degree.

For example, let’s say a horse has been taught to load in a trailer and normally has no issue loading. But one day I go to load that horse and he balks.  He backs away from the trailer door and doesn’t want anything to do with it.  Now, a lot of horse owners at this point will say, “I hate when a horse knows what to do and refuses.  He’s just being stubborn and defiant.”  Acting on that basis, they will then firm up and apply increasing pressure (discomfort) outside the trailer with the intent of getting the horse to load in the trailer.

Sometimes that works. Sometimes that is exactly what the horse needs in order to find the confidence to go ahead and load in the trailer.

But sometimes that doesn’t work. Sometimes the horse will respond by more actively avoiding the trailer door.  And here is where it gets tricky…

If I respond to my horse’s reluctance to load by firming up and assuming he is being defiant, my natural response to increased resistance will likely be to become even firmer and more aggressive. That can quickly escalate into a contest of wills which I cannot win…the horse is too much bigger and stronger than I.  More significantly, by battling out a contest of wills right at the trailer door, I am turning the trailer door into a high pressure zone…a place of discomfort and suspicion…which is the opposite of what I want.  A horse who loads easily is a horse who feels comfortable and confident both around the trailer door and inside the trailer.

Now, here’s where the comfort management comes in.

For whatever reason, the horse was initially uncomfortable with the trailer door on this particular day. My escalation of pressure didn’t work and resulted, instead in making him even more suspicious of the trailer door.  I’m increasing pressure outside the trailer with the intent of getting him to move through the trailer door to escape the discomfort I’m creating.  However, the situation is rapidly devolving to trap the horse between two escalating sources of discomfort.  Most likely, the horse will attempt to escape both sources of discomfort by moving completely out of the area.  He will probably try to flee the area, even if he has to buck or rear to do it.

At that point it’s probably best to walk away and try a different approach…maybe one that focuses more on comfort and less on discomfort. Successful trailer loading begins with the horse feeling very comfortable in and around the trailer.

Where the comfort management gets really fun is in realizing the horse is also sensitive to different levels of comfort and will tend to gravitate toward the more comfortable. If I’m going down the road and want my horse to move toward the left side, one way to cue that is to press with my right leg so my horse will move left, away from the pressure.  I haven’t really caused any discomfort.  I’ve just set up a situation of relative discomfort.  I’ve made the right side feel a little less comfortable than the left side so the horse will move left, away from the less comfortable.

Once I started experimenting with relative comfort I wanted to see how light a cue my horse would respond to. Before long, I could get him to step left with just a light brush of my right leg.  Then I decided to take it one step further.  What if, instead of creating relative discomfort I created relative comfort?  Rather than pressing with my right leg, I lifted my left stirrup away and my horse stepped left.  The lifted stirrup created a lower pressure zone of increased relative comfort which the horse gravitated toward.

Rather than using mild leg pressure to push the horse the desired direction, the lifted stirrup sets up a mild comfort differential to invite the horse to step the desired direction. It’s the difference between leading versus pushing…the difference between inviting versus compelling.  The really cool thing about this approach is I never did anything to cause discomfort under saddle.  Instead, I invited him from a place of comfort to a place of greater comfort.

Comfort under saddle is important because my long-term goal for my horse is for me to be his greatest source of comfort.  I want the place beneath my saddle and between my legs to be his greatest comfort zone.  When we’re riding and encounter something he views as scary, I want him looking to me for direction, confidence and comfort rather than running scared.

Disclaimer: Lest I give the impression I’m a better horseman than I am, let me clarify that not every ride is as smooth and light as I have described here.  Some rides are a bit rougher.  Even most good rides require a couple of times using enough pressure to “give the horse a reason to respond to the light cue” as Carson James likes to say.  However, some rides really are that light and smooth…and with practice those light rides are becoming more frequent.

Reflecting on the response of these horses to varying levels of comfort, I realize I’m not so different from a horse. I too am drawn toward comfort and repelled by discomfort.  I also tend to gravitate toward the more comfortable.  In tense or fearful situations, I too look for a source of comfort.

No wonder Jesus referred to the Holy Spirit as the Comforter!

But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you. (John 14:26)

Like my horse, in stressful situations I tend to flee to a place of comfort. There may be any number of comfort sources I may turn to…and there may be nothing wrong with many of them.  However, sin can be addicting for the very reason that it provides temporary comfort…and any comfort source (other than Christ) raised to a high level of priority can become sinful.

Much like my goals for my horse, God’s goal for me is for the Holy Spirit to be my greatest source of comfort. My greatest comfort zone should be abiding in Him.

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. (John 15:5)

When I’m scared or stressed, I need to learn to run to Father for comfort and direction.

Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

What a wonderful Savior, who leads us from comfort to comfort with light gentle cues!

Your thoughts?

 

A Light Ask

Sonny and KnockoutHalter in hand, I walk through the pasture gate and approach my horse. He looks up from grazing, facing me, expectantly.  As I approach, I walk toward his shoulder rather than his face…horses sometimes seem intimidated by a direct face-to-face approach…and I want my approach to be welcomed.  They’re prey animals…programmed by the Creator to be sensitive to such things.

I extend my hand in greeting for him to sniff and catch his eye. It’s always polite to say hello before asking favors from others.  Once welcomed into his sphere, I gently pet his shoulder and neck.  Then I step back to pet his face and show him the halter, “May I put a halter on you?”

After slipping the halter on and fastening it, I take up the lead line and start to lead off, “Would you please follow me?”

I lead slightly to the side. Horses tend to be naturally less resistant to a side-tug than to a head-on tug.  It has to do with directional strength and balance.

He may follow right away. Often, though, he’ll hesitate.  He’s not being stubborn.  He just feels the pull of the pasture’s comfort, knowing I may ask him to work.

As I feel the lead line straighten and resistance start to build, I pause without looking back. I’m not yet pulling.  There’s just enough tension in the rope for him to feel it, but not anything to brace against.  I am asking him to follow.  I am not demanding that he follow.

I feel a little slack as he shifts his weight forward, “Okay, I’m coming,” and respond by giving more slack back, “Thank you.” Then more slack is added as he steps toward me.

I take a step, feel the rope lift, then feel it go slack again as he steps with me…and I give slack back, “Thank you!”

Now, we’re moving together in synchronized step. He times his steps to match mine…as we both feel our connection through the lead line.

This is it! 🙂

This is the start of a good ride.

It starts right here, with a light ask…a soft response…a well-timed release…leading to synchronized movement.

Isn’t that how God leads us?

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul;
He guides me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake. (Psalm 23: 1-3)

My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; (John 10:27)

As the cattle which go down into the valley, The Spirit of the Lord gave them rest. So You led Your people, To make for Yourself a glorious name. (Isaiah 63:14)

For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. (Romans 8:14)

Shouldn’t this be how we interact with other people?

What would happen if, rather than demanding our rights or trying to force others to see things our way, we, instead, gave a light ask, then responded to the slightest change by dropping all pressure? Might that work better?  Might that more closely resemble how God approaches us?

What do you think?

Faith thru Fear

horseback riding on gravel roads

Riding Gravel Roads

It finally happened!

That nagging worry at the back of my mind found fulfillment. My worst fear became reality.

…and it was okay…

I’ve been riding Knockout over a year, now. Sometimes I’m able to ride as often as three or four times in one week.  Other times I go as long as three weeks between rides.  I figure I’ve averaged about one ride per week…which means I have about 60 rides on him

We have made amazing progress in 60 rides!

Knockout has matured from a green-broke, frightened, spooky, flighty colt to a pretty reliable young horse.

My progress has been no less remarkable in my own way. I began riding Knockout as I was recovering from cancer treatment and my physical strength has returned as we worked together.  I have learned a lot about horsemanship and relationships.  I have learned a lot about myself.  I have faced a few fears and overcome a few insecurities.

The first time I rode Knockout I was scared. Cancer treatment was quite an ordeal, and to be honest I was feeling pretty fragile.  I didn’t trust my own lack of strength or my ability to recuperate.  But I was determined to ride him.  So, I thoroughly disked the arena to a nice smooth carpet of thick soft dirt, and climbed in the saddle.

That first ride started out pleasant enough. We walked around the arena both directions a few times with no mishaps.  I asked for a trot and Knockout sprang into a gallop.  Startled, I pulled back…and Knockout promptly bucked me off.

I stood up, dusted myself off, realized I wasn’t hurt…smiled…and remounted.

That buck-off was the best thing for my confidence. It showed me I wasn’t as fragile as I’d come to believe.  I could still take a fall from 14 hands into soft arena dirt without doing any damage.

Knockout and I have done around 60 rides since then. We’ve come a long way in learning to relax under saddle.  We’ve done a lot of work on transitions from walking to trotting to loping to stopping to backing…and every combination thereof.  And we’ve developed a relationship based on clear communication, mutual respect, and mutual trust.

There’s a limit to that trust, though. Knockout is still a prey animal and prey animals are prone to flight.  That first ride was not his last time to bolt or buck…nor was it my last time to panic and mishandle a situation.  We’ve had several opportunities to practice the one-rein stop.  We’ve also had plenty of opportunities for me to practice relaxing and going with him when he startles.

The startles are now much less frequent. They’re much more controlled when they do happen.  And I respond much more calmly than I did previously.

Overall, at this stage, I consider Knockout to be a pretty solid young horse…and us to be a pretty solid team.

Yet, I’ve still retained this nagging concern at the back of my consciousness. What if Knockout bolts in thick woods?  How would we deal with an all-out runaway situation through thick trees and low-hanging branches?

It’s not a pretty picture…and no matter how much I tried to plan for it I had trouble envisioning a happy ending to that particular scenario. Out in the open, I have time to respond and room to maneuver.  I have options like turning a big circle or performing a one-reined stop.  On a narrow trail through thick forest, there is neither room nor time for any of that.

So I dealt with it the best I could…by trying to minimize the risk of it happening. Riding the gravel roads, we practiced transitions over and over, going from a walk to a canter…from a canter to a full stop with backing…from backing straight back to a canter.  We practiced over and over, building muscle memory…building confidence…so we were both more comfortable with speed and with sudden application of the bit at speed.

Yet the nagging doubt at the fringe of my consciousness still nagged…because I knew practice while we’re both relaxed and focused is not the same thing as a real life bolt on a terrified horse who believes he is fleeing for his life.

Yesterday morning we had a really nice ride down the gravel roads. Knockout wanted to turn up a trail running through a pine thicket and I decided to go with him.  We rode about a quarter mile or so down the trail and all was good until we came to a place where the trail runs between two large oak trees with low hanging branches covered in dense foliage.

I reached my right hand out to move a branch aside and Knockout startled at the sudden movement of the leaf-laden branch. Normally, this would not be a big deal…normally I would lightly check him and that would be the end of it.  This time, though, Knockout’s startle carried us deeper into the thick foliage, moving and rustling the entire branch.  To Knockout, it must have seemed as if the whole forest had suddenly lunged toward him in an attack.  My light check was ignored and Knockout plunged forward…crashing us both thru the pair of low-hanging heavily-leaved oak branches…with lots of added movement and added rustling.

As Knockout leaped into a run, I thought, “This is it! This is that runaway ride on a terrified horse through dense forest!”

My next thought was, “Keep your seat! Keep your seat, stay calm, and ride it!”  Which was followed by, “We really need to stop!  Now!”

Firmly grasping the reins in both hands, I took a deep seat in the saddle and pulled back to ask for an immediate stop, “Whoa!”

For a split second, Knockout sat back on his hindquarters. For just a split second, he responded to my cue to stop.  But in that split second I felt his energy gathering for another leap forward.  Experience told me that next leap would either be a terrified bolt through the bit or a bucking fit to escape the pressure of the bit from the front combined with that terrifying ‘predator’ chasing from behind.  In that split second, I realized Knockout was trapped between a rock and a hard place with adrenaline-fueled energy that was going to release somewhere.

In that split second, I dropped all pressure from the bit and gave Knockout plenty of slack in the reins.

Knockout leaped forward again…as he landed and brought his hind hooves under himself, I took another deep seat in the saddle, leaned back, and drew the reins in, “Whoa!”

Again, Knockout sat back on his hind quarters. Again I released pressure, putting plenty of slack in the reins.

And we walked off.

That was it. Three leaps…two whoas…and it was over.  The catastrophe was averted and we were once again calmly walking down the path through the pine thicket.

I smiled, leaned forward, petted Knockout’s neck and told him what a brave horse he is for trusting me enough to follow my direction even when he is terrified.

As we continued the ride home, my smile grew as I realized my worst fear had become reality…and together we had handled it just fine.

Yesterday, my confidence grew just a bit. I believe Knockout’s confidence also grew.  We were both scared, yet we both chose to listen to each other and to trust each other…and we learned that together we can handle tense situations just fine.

Sometimes, we have to experience our worst fear becoming reality in order to take the next step in building confidence.

Sometimes, we have to experience our worst fear becoming reality to take the next step in building confidence. Click To Tweet

I’ve had plenty of life experiences that seemed catastrophic at the time. Loss of loved ones…a failed marriage and subsequent divorce…child custody battles…a 20 year employer closing their doors…cancer diagnosis…

And you know what? Through every one of those situations, God has proven Himself faithful.  He has been my constant friend and companion thru every difficulty.  Through those difficulties, my faith in Him has grown and our relationship has deepened.

When our worst fears become reality is when the relationship is given a chance to be tested and proven.

 

How about you? In what areas has your confidence grown through seeing your fears become reality?

 

Closed Womb

I usually restrict my blog topics to areas in which I have some level of personal experience. In this post, I am venturing way outside my comfort zone to a topic on which I have no personal experience…and very limited medical knowledge.

In my last post I talked about closed paths.  I shared a story of my horse, Knockout, searching for alternate paths home because he didn’t realize the opener and closer of paths was right there with him.  Knockout didn’t need to find an alternate path home.  He simply needed to wait on my timing and follow my direction.

I used that story as an analogy to show how we sometimes do the same thing with God. Sometimes, I try to help God out by searching alternate paths to my goals, when what I really need to do is remember the opener and closer of paths is right there with me.  I don’t need to search out alternate paths.  I simply need to follow His direction and wait on His timing.

In that post, I did not give any specific examples (either personal or biblical). The biblical example that came to mind was the story of Abraham and Sarah wanting a child…an heir.  They had gone out from the land of their people on a promise that God would give them numerous descendants and a vast land for their heritage.

Years passed without those promises coming to fruition. They remained childless nomads, wandering homeless in a land populated by foreigners.

So, they decided to help God out by finding an alternate path to their goal. First, Abraham made plans to leave everything to his servant, Eliezer, as his heir.  But God told him Eliezer would not be his heir and promised Abraham a son.

As more years passed with no child, Sarah gave Abraham her maid servant, Hagar, as a concubine…a slave wife…a surrogate mother of sorts. Hagar conceived and bore a son named Ishmael…which led to strife between Sarah and Hagar.

Eventually, the promised child was born to Sarah…long after menopause…long after she had given up hope of ever bearing a child.

And that vast land promised to Abraham and his heirs? Never in their lifetime did they ever own any land other than a plot purchased for use as a family cemetery.  Yet, God’s promises were fulfilled many years later when the descendants of Abraham’s grandson, Israel, were led out of Egypt to conquer the promised land of Canaan.

You and I come into this story as well.

The fullness of God’s promises to Abraham and his seed was realized in Abraham’s descendant, Jesus Christ.  Through covenant relationship with Jesus Christ, you and I are invited to become heirs of the covenant God cut with Abraham.

God’s promises to Abraham and Sarah were much broader and deeper than they could have imagined. His plans for their lives were much fuller than their own limited vision.  While they were stressed over a child not being born soon enough, God was already working out the redemption of the human race through the faith of Abraham and Sarah.  Although their faith sometimes looks pretty fragile and limited from our perspective, God used it for His glory and to work His purposes through their lives.

This morning, I am reading a book titled, “The Gospel of Ruth: Loving God Enough to Break the Rules,” by Carolyn Custis James.  Thus far, it is a very well written book in which Carolyn James does an excellent job of lifting the veneer of theology through which we tend to view this familiar Bible story, to help us see the depth of human tragedy…the grievous loss and sorrow through which God works out His story in the lives of ordinary people.

This morning, I read these words, “Medical charts of barren women in the Bible bore this cryptic notation, ‘The LORD had closed her womb.’”

As the import of those words registered, my mind flashed to my previous post about God being the opener and closer of our paths, and the need to follow His direction and await His timing. Simultaneously, I was reminded of the story of Abraham and Sarah…and the fact that their story of infertility was the beginning of a much broader and deeper purpose than they could have imagined.

I have never personally experienced infertility. I have wept with and prayed for friends who were experiencing this sorrow.  I have seen God perform mighty miracles.  I have watched as children born to couples on the verge of giving up have grown to adulthood as godly men and women.  I have witnessed bureaucratic red tape miraculously resolving for adoptions to go through.  And I have witnessed couples finding contentment in a life with no children of their own.

Every story is deeply personal…and every story is unique.

If you are facing infertility, my message for you, today, is simply that God knows. God knows your pain.  God knows your sorrow and frustration.  God knows your hopes.  God knows the deep desires of your heart…and God knows His plans for bringing the fulfillment of those desires to fruition in your life.

For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. (Jeremiah 29:11)

God knows…

Closed Paths

Knockout greets our grandsons

In my previous blog post, I wrote about working with Knockout’s issue of continually trying to turn around and go home. To address this issue, I let him turn around but put him to working trotting circles at the end of the driveway.

I’m pleased to report this approach seems to have been effective and we have since enjoyed several relaxed rides together on a loose rein with light prompts.

In this post, though, I want to share the story of our first ride after my previous post. Sometimes these animals are truly hilarious, and this was one of those times.

We started out of the driveway, turning right down the gravel road. As we passed the mailbox, Knockout dodged left and I let him turn back toward the driveway, where I pushed him into a trot circling the same pattern as before.

As before, each time we hit the short stretch heading south down the road, I dropped the reins and looked down the road, offering Knockout the good deal of a relaxed ride. And each time he chose, instead, to turn right up the drive, initiating another loop around the small circle.

Unlike the previous ride, Knockout was pretty quick to realize the futility of turning up the driveway. After about five minutes of circling he took me up on the good deal of going straight down the gravel road.

He surprised me, though, by holding a fast trot and crowding the right side of the road. He was literally trotting down the ditch, over small mounds of gravel and pine straw, brushing tree limbs along the way.  I thought he would tire of that pretty quick, but I wound up asking him to move to the left a little.  He complied with a left side-pass, but continued to focus intently on the right side of the road.

When he suddenly turned right I went with him, expecting yet another turn back to the driveway. Instead, he crossed the ditch to stand quietly at a gap gate, looking out into our back pasture.  We sat there for a few minutes while I asked if he liked the view.  Then I backed him across the ditch and we continued our ride.

When our road intersected another gravel road, Knockout pulled right and I decided to let him go. He promptly tried to turn another right into our neighbor’s pasture.  When I blocked his turn, he continued trotting up the road.  At the other end of our neighbor’s pasture, he tried again to turn into another open gate, which I blocked.  Further on, he tried to turn right up a path through a pine thicket leading to the back corner of our pasture…again I blocked him.

After about two miles I turned him around to head home…and he acted reluctant. After a few steps he tried to turn around again, which made me laugh.  “Really?  After all these weeks of you trying to turn around and head home, now you’re acting reluctant to go home?”

As we continued home, the closer we got the slower Knockout walked. Usually, he’s super light heading home.  This ride he got slower and slower.  The last stretch before our driveway, I had to push him just to keep moving.

When we finally got to our driveway, Knockout walked on the far side of the road, looking straight ahead. When I prompted him to turn, he very gingerly turned and walked very precisely up the center of the driveway like he was nervous about making a wrong move.

I literally laughed out loud as I finally realized what he had been thinking that whole ride.

From the time we started up the road, Knockout’s focus had been on finding an alternate route home. Realizing the driveway was somehow blocked to prevent passage, he was diligently seeking another way home.  He had adopted the position of, “Don’t worry, Joe.  I’ll get us home.  I know there’s another way to get there.  Just stick with me and I’ll find another route.”

When he stopped at the first pasture gate, it was in hope I would open the gate for him to pass. Then all those other attempted right turns were an effort to find another way home.  When I turned to go back, he was reluctant to give up his search, because he had already confirmed the driveway was closed.

I give Knockout full credit for logical conclusions based on his understanding. After persistently trying to go up the driveway and failing, he decided the appropriate action was to find another route…and set out to do exactly that.

He failed to understand the driveway was only closed because I intentionally blocked it…and the driveway would be open as soon as I chose to allow it. Getting home was not an issue of needing to find the right path.  Rather it was an issue of needing to wait on my timing.

Knockout made his plans failing to recognize that the opener and closer of paths was right there with him the whole time.

How often have I been right there in Knockout’s shoes?

How many times have I persistently tried to do what I thought was the best thing, just to fail over and over? How many times have I concluded that door was closed and set out to find another path to achieve my goal?  And how many of those times was God simply waiting on me to stop trying so He could direct my path in His timing?

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Lord, thank you for your patient good humor as I try to show you where we should go.   Thank you for continuing to teach me to wait on you and follow your direction.

Your thoughts?