Ground Hitched

This picture of Knockout was taken several months ago, on the day we first worked on ground hitching. I love this picture because Knockout is so very obviously completely relaxed and at ease while obediently standing still for me.

I first started ground hitching on a whim. At a local cattle drive we participated in last October, I was impressed by a horse who stood ground hitched while a host of people, horses and cattle circulated nearby.  I thought that was a pretty cool trick that might come in handy, sometimes.

A few days later, I was working with Knockout on quick response to light cues to advance and back on a lead line. We were paying special attention to being particular about number of steps.  If I asked for one step forward I wanted one step and one step only.

The exercise requires both horse and rider to pay close attention to each other and work together on timing, like a carefully choreographed dance. The rider cues…the horse responds…the rider releases…the horse completes the move…the rider cues…the horse responds…the rider releases…the horse completes the move…

As we practiced this choreographed dance together, it occurred to me that between each move was a tiny rest. Between each step a tiny rest existed in which the horse awaited my next cue, ready to move either forward or back at my request…or to simply stand.  The rest is, in fact, the natural default position…rest is the no pressure moment in which I am neither asking for an advance nor a retreat, but in which the horse stands attentively relaxed ready to do either.

On a whim, I asked for a step back and as Knockout completed the step I dropped the rope and took a step back myself. Knockout shifted his weight forward in anticipation and I held my hand up in a pushing motion, “Whoa! Stay!”  And Knockout complied.  He simply stood at rest…the equestrian equivalent of a soldier standing at ease…relaxed and ready…restful and attentive.

Ground hitching has now become a natural part of our daily interaction. When I bring Knockout up from pasture, he stands ground hitched as I groom him.  I fly-spray, comb tail and mane, pick hooves, and brush his coat as Knockout stands quietly at ease, tethered in place by a lead line dropped on the ground.  Then I step into the tack room and come back out carrying a saddle and saddle pad.  Knockout continues to stand at ease as I throw the pad in place, settle the saddle into position, walk around him to make sure the various pieces are hanging properly, and cinch up the girths.

I step out again, shaking a loop from a coiled rope. I swing the loop a few times and fling it over Knockout’s back, flick it a few times until it drops to the ground, then drag it around his hooves as I neatly recoil and strap it securely to the saddle horn…all while Knockout calmly stands tethered to the ground.

Except he’s not really tethered is he?

The end of the rope is not attached to anything. Knockout could walk away or run off anytime he chose to.

It’s neither a trick nor a deception. I’m not fooling Knockout into thinking he’s securely tied when he’s not.  He and I both know he can walk off anytime he wants.

In fact, he occasionally will walk off. Just yesterday, I stepped out of the tack room with the saddle to glimpse Knockout stepping around the corner.  For a moment I thought he was avoiding saddling.  Then I realized my teenage son was tying his horse and Knockout stepped around the corner to greet his pasture mate.  I simply walked over, picked up the lead line, walked Knockout back to his original position by the tack room door, dropped the lead line, and said “Whoa!” as I resumed saddling up.  No big deal!  No fuss, no bother…just a quiet correction…followed by business as usual.

No, the ground hitch doesn’t fool anybody. Knockout knows the rope is not secured to anything.  He knows he can walk off anytime he wants.  So why doesn’t he?

Why doesn’t he simply ignore the ground hitch and wander at will, wherever he pleases? Why does he stand patiently at ease as I walk around him, grooming and saddling?  If the rope doesn’t hold him in place, what does?

Respect and trust.

Knockout stands still, not because he is unable to move, but because he understands I want him to stand. He trusts my guidance and respects my leadership.  So he stands…calmly relaxed…at ease…relaxed and ready…restfully attentive.

Knockout is tethered in place, not by the rope, but rather by his confidence in me.

A ground hitched horse is tethered in place, not by the rope, but rather by his confidence in the rider. Click To Tweet

I have come to really like ground hitching. To me, ground hitching has come to symbolize much of what I strive for in my pursuit of horsemanship.  Rather than making Knockout stand, I’m asking him to stand.  He complies with my request out of his confidence in me rather than being forced to.  I show Knockout respect by asking rather than forcing.  Knockout shows me respect by voluntarily complying with my request.

We are both more relaxed…both trusting each other. Knockout isn’t bothered by unnecessary restraints and I’m not worried about him breaking any restraints.

While ground hitched, Knockout and I are both abiding in the rest…that default position of being relaxed and attentive between cues. And that’s where I want us to be.  While riding, I want to carry that rest with us.  Between cues, I want Knockout to be relaxed and attentive…at ease and responsive.

While traveling straight at a trot, I want Knockout to hold that sense of rest as he continues trotting in a straight line…not trying to second guess the next move…not worried about what’s going on around us…not tensely anticipating what comes next…just calmly relaxed…confident he will feel my next cue and will know how to respond when asked.

I think this is the sort of rest Jesus was talking about when He said,

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

This the sort of abiding Jesus spoke of when He said,

“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4-5)

Ground hitching reminds me of the words of the third verse of that beloved old hymn, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing:

O to grace how great a debtor

Daily I’m constrained to be!

Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,

Bind my wandering heart to Thee:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,

Prone to leave the God I love;

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it;

Seal it for Thy courts above.

Yes, Lord! Bind my wandering heart to you.  Teach me to rest in you…to confidently relax trusting your goodness…at ease and responsive…relaxed and attentive…not worried about the future…just attentively abiding as I await your next prompt.

Confidence

two year old colt

Archie – Our 2-year-old AQHA stud colt

Last week I spent some time helping our 2-year-old stud colt, Archie, learn to back off a trailer. I taught Archie to trailer load when he was about six months old, so we could trailer him to vet and farrier appointments.  He loads with no issue and seems perfectly relaxed riding in the trailer.

However, he absolutely refused to back off the trailer. That big backwards step off a sheer drop scared him to death and no amount of coaxing would convince him to try it!

Archie is currently small enough, and our 3-horse slant trailer is larger enough, that it has not been a big deal to simply let him turn around and unload forwards. However, at some point he needed to learn to back off.

The issue was lack of confidence.

Stepping off backwards into an unseen abyss is scary business. I feel the same way reaching blindly for a ladder rung to climb off a roof.  Archie lacked confidence in his own ability to back off the trailer…and he lacked confidence in me instructing him to back off the trailer.

So, last week we spent some time doing confidence building exercises.

I started by backing Archie down the pond levy. Once he was able to back down the steep embankment without too much hesitation or dodging sideways, we moved over to a concrete slab where we first backed off a 2 inch drop on one end, then backed off a 5 inch drop on the other end.  Once he was acting fairly confident backing off the slab edge, we moved inside the trailer.

I was so proud of how well he backed off the trailer! He did great!  All he needed was some smaller steps to build his confidence to help prepare him for the big scary trailer edge.

I totally get it! I often struggle with confidence issues, too.

Over this past year I’ve been working a lot with our 5-year-old gelding, Knockout.  When I first started working with Knockout, he was a very frightened young horse who spooked at everything and was ready to bolt at the drop of a hat (literally).  Over time, his confidence improved to where we were doing trail rides together and hauling to different arenas to expose him to more environments.

Then I decided to take Knockout on our Spring Break family vacation for a week of trail riding in the Texas Hill Country. This was a big test!  It would be Knockout’s first exposure to a lot of new things, including group trail rides over steep rocky trails through mountainous terrain.

To prepare Knockout, I had him shod and began riding him on the gravel roads near our house. At every opportunity, I threw a saddle bag with a couple of water bottles behind his saddle and we set off to explore the country roads and trails together.  While riding those trails, we practiced transitions, stops, and departures at walk, trot, and lope.  We practiced side-passing, turns, and laterals.

Through that trail riding training, Knockout and I began to really work as a team. I became more confident in our ability and he became more confident in me as a leader.  As the scheduled vacation approached, I told my wife that although I wasn’t positive we would have no issues, I felt confident we would not encounter any issues we could not overcome together.

Spring Break arrived and Knockout did great! He took to the mountain trails like an old pro, calmly leading through dense forest cover on narrow trails and calmly following over steep rocky grade.  When leading, he stepped out on a long swinging walk on a loose rein, without much trouble.  When following we kept a decent space between himself and the next horse, slowing to match the leading horse on a loose rein.

I was so proud of him!  🙂

But there was this one incident…this one scary incident. It wasn’t Knockout’s fault…it was all on me.  It involved loping my young horse with other horses while he was carrying heavy full saddle bags…and the heavy saddle bags flopped up and down in rhythm with his loping…miscuing him to a faster pace.  It had to do with my totally forgetting the saddlebags were even there.  It had to do with my totally misreading the situation…and subsequently mishandling it.  It had to do with my own fear of out-of-control speed.  Misunderstanding Knockout’s miscue…thinking he was a totally panicked runaway for no reason…responding in fear, myself…I bailed off.   I was wearing a helmet and I wasn’t injured…just a few minor scrapes from the coarse prairie grasses.

But my confidence was shot!  🙁

Logically, I explained to myself how none of this was Knockout’s fault…which I knew to be true. Logically, I reasoned that the same could have happened with any horse.  Logically, I consoled myself that it was a simple error on my part that was perfectly understandable…especially for a novice horseman.

But emotions don’t concern themselves with logic.

Over the next few weeks, I continued to ride. However, all my rides stayed within the constraints of our arena…and stayed at a gait of walking or trotting.  I didn’t ride outside the arena and I didn’t lope.  Each ride I would tell myself this time I was going to lope…and each ride ended for one reason or another without a lope actually occurring.

Eventually, I had to admit to myself that, yes, I was avoiding speed.

And the worst of it was, I know my horse tends to respond to my emotions. When I’m unsure he’s more likely to be unsure…more likely to spook…more likely to bolt…which is exactly what I was scared of to begin with…  Yikes!  Talk about a downward spiral of negativity!

Then I began training Archie, the 2-year-old…and I thought about Archie’s confidence issues and how we overcame them. I continued to work with Archie on things that were new to me.  I continued to work with Knockout on familiar transitions, stops, departures, and laterals at a walk and trot.

Finally, this past Saturday, I was working with Knockout in the arena at a fast trot, when he spontaneously rolled up into a lope…and I resisted my instinct to tug back on the reins…forced myself to keep the reins loose. We loped two or three big circles…and I relaxed a bit.  Then I asked for a stop by sitting deep in the saddle (still with loose reins) and Knockout responded with a big sliding stop and two steps back.  Then I asked for a canter departure…and followed that up with about 20 minutes of practicing transitions at walk, trot and lope.

I was elated! I realized Knockout was still the same horse he was before the saddlebags incident.  I had lost confidence in us…Knockout had not.

What a faithful friend!  🙂

The next day, Knockout and I rode the gravel roads near our house again.

Confidence is a funny thing. It takes time and effort to gain confidence, yet confidence can be lost in an instant.  Lack of confidence can be paralyzing.

So how do we regain confidence? By intentionally testing the relationship in small things.

For Archie, that meant learning to back down slopes and small steps before trying the scary trailer edge again.

For me with Knockout, that meant working with Knockout on smaller things while I rebuilt confidence in my leadership and in his response, before tackling my fear of speed head-on. As Knockout continued to prove himself faithful in small things, my confidence grew.

I’ve faced much worse things in life than an unplanned dismount from a horse. A failed marriage and subsequent divorce…custody battles…a cancer diagnosis…death of close loved ones…the list goes on…

Some of those life events hit me hard, shaking my confidence. Some temporarily shook my confidence in God and His love for me.  Others shook my confidence in my ability to hear God’s voice…or my ability to correctly interpret scripture…or my ability to wisely discern a situation or relationship.

So how do we overcome a loss of confidence in these larger life issues?

The same way. We test the relationship in small things. We spend time with God.  We follow His direction in small things and witness His faithfulness…as we learn to trust Him in the big things.

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)

Know therefore that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God, who keeps His covenant and His lovingkindness to a thousandth generation with those who love Him and keep His commandments (Deuteronomy 7:9).

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful (Hebrews 10:23).

What a faithful friend!  🙂

 

Have you ever lost confidence?  How did you regain it?

 

Thou Art Mine!

knockout round

Our 5-year-old AQHA gelding

This is a picture of Knockout, my 6-yo AQHA gelding.

Knockout is my horse.

He is my horse because I bought and paid for him.  Just as importantly, he is my horse because he has chosen to trust me and I have committed to train him.

What does it mean to be my horse? It means he is different from other horses.  He behaves very differently from a wild untamed horse, especially when I’m near.

When I approach Knockout in the pasture, he steps toward me rather than fleeing. He lets me halter and lead him wherever I want him to go.  Knockout stands still while I groom and saddle him.  He loves treats, belly rubs, and soothing talk!  He lets me ride on his back and agrees to carry me wherever I ask.  We have worked out a nonverbal system of communication that allows me to tell Knockout what direction I want him to go at what speed…and he responds to my ask.  He has good manners, respects my personal space, backs or advances on a light touch, trailers well, and stands for the farrier.

Knockout and I have developed a relationship based on mutual respect and mutual trust. He is my horse and I am his master.  And I’m pretty proud of him!  🙂

Our relationship wasn’t always as trusting as it is now. He had some previous bad experiences with humans and wasn’t very trusting.  We’ve both had insecurities to overcome.  The first time I rode Knockout, he tried to bolt then bucked me off when I checked him.  We’ve gone through phases where he acted like he didn’t want anything to do with me.  And we’ve gone through phases where I wasn’t sure I could ever learn to trust him or earn his trust.

But even then, he was my horse…because I bought and paid for him…and because he chose to be willing to learn to trust me.

The more time we spend together, the more he acts like my horse. Over time, his behavior has changed to make it obvious he is my partner, not just some wild horse running around our pasture.

Now, those changes have required work…and they are still ongoing. He’s still far from finished out.  But we’ve come a long ways from where we started.  He acts more like he belongs to me today than he did a year ago…and a year from now he’ll act even more like he belongs to me.

This training and learning is hard work for both of us. Knockout consistently shows up ready to work and ready to give me his best effort.  If he wasn’t willing to work so hard, we could not have progressed as well as we have.

However, Knockout is completely incapable of learning to become a saddle horse through his own effort.

Suppose I had told him on the first day, “Knockout I want you to learn to be a saddle horse, and I need you to study and work real hard at it.  Some of those other horses in your pasture are trained saddle horses, and I want you to watch them and do what they do.  Work hard and learn how you must behave to truly be my horse.”

How do you think that would have worked out?  Not too well, right?  No amount of his watching the other horses or running around the pasture trying to learn reining skills would have taken him even one step closer to the goal.  He would never have managed to gain even the foggiest notion of what he was supposed to be doing.

See, Knockout is really only responsible for being willing to learn to trust me. The rest is up to me.

Knockout has absolutely no idea what he needs to learn. It is up to me to teach him in a way he can learn to understand.

I challenge him a lot!  I take him places he has never been.  I ask him to go places he’s uncomfortable going.  I ask him to learn to do new things, then I ask him to do those things better and faster.

I ask a lot of Knockout and he gives me a lot.  But the end result is up to me.  He’s not responsible for learning to become a finished out saddle horse.  That’s my responsibility.  His only responsibility is to be willing to trust me…to learn to pay attention to me…to learn to respond to my cues.  The rest is up to me.

Knockout is a really smart horse, and sometimes he tries to anticipate what he thinks I want him to do before I ask. That generally does not work out well.  I don’t want him to work for me.  I want him to work with me…in response to my cues.  I don’t need him to work hard at becoming the horse I want him to be.  He just needs to be willing to trust me and pay attention to me…the rest is up to me.

As a Christian, it is easy to start thinking my job is to go out and work for Christ…or to wage war against sin…or to study hard to become more Christ-like…to make my calling and election sure by becoming more righteous. And certainly a healthy Christian life does include plenty of hard work, study, effort, and self-discipline.

But the thing is, I am no more capable of making myself a child of God than Knockout is of making himself a finished out saddle horse. No amount of effort on my part can move me one inch closer to godliness…unless that effort is directed by the Holy Spirit.

No amount of effort on my part can move me one inch closer to godliness. Click To Tweet

Jesus already bought and paid for me. I have already chosen to place my trust in HimI am His and He is mine.  Sometimes I don’t act much like I belong to Him…but I act more like His now than I did previously…and I will learn to act more like His than I do now…as I spend time with Him…as I abide in Him…as I rest in Him.

We tend to fall into the trap of dual-phase thinking…of thinking we must choose one of two paths…of choosing between apathy and hard work and believing hard work is the godly choice. Viewed from this perspective, we are concerned about folks we see who claim to be Christians yet show no fruit in their lives…and we wonder do they really belong to Christ?  So, in an effort to ensure we don’t make the same mistake, we resolve to work hard to become more godly.

But the dual-phase paradigm completely misses the reality of being conformed to the image of Christ by simply resting in Him…and this is the only way to become godly.

Resting in Christ is not a passive apathetic rest.  It is an attentive intentional rest.  It is staying focused on Him ready to respond to His cue, while trusting Him completely with the results.

Knockout cannot become a finished out saddle horse by just running around the pasture as though I did not exist. Neither could he make any progress on his own through hard work and determination.  Rather, he must simply trust me…and leave the rest up to me.

Likewise, my job is to simply trust God and spend time with him…to seek His will and learn to know His voice…to learn to respond to His cues. The rest is up to Him.  He has promised to complete the good work He has begun in me.  He has promised to conform me to His image.  He has already redeemed me from sin and He promises to also deliver me from sin.  He has promised to bring about in my life the destiny which He predestined for me before the foundations of the world.

He is faithful! And I can trust Him.

I am His…and He is mine!

 

Your thoughts?

 

Overcoming Fear

In working with my current ‘project’ horse, one of my primary goals is helping him overcome fear.

Horses are prey animals. They’re designed to be alert for danger and run away.  That’s how they survive.

So, when a horse spooks at a puddle, bolts from a plastic bag, or balks at a creek crossing, he’s not just being cantankerous and troublesome. From the horse’s perspective it is a life and death situation in which he is doing what he must to survive.

Picture yourself riding horseback along a forest path. Everything is going fine.  You’re riding with loose swinging reins and the horse is stepping out with a long walking stride.  The sun is shining.  There’s a light breeze whispering the leaves.  You’re smiling, relaxed, enjoying nature’s serenity.

Then a deer jumps out! Your horse starts to bolt and you grab the reins.  He bucks you off and runs 30 yards down the trail before stopping.

From your perspective everything was going fine until your horse decided to act like an idiot over a harmless deer. From the horse’s perspective, he was running to save his life…you tried to stop him…so he did what he had to do to flee the mortal danger.

This is what we face when we decide to mount and ride. The horse’s perspective is very different from ours.  So, how do we get the horse to a point where he’s not running off every time the wind blows?

We help him overcome his fears.

We do it for our own sake, because this partnership can’t work if he’s always looking for a reason to run off. But we also do it for the horse’s sake…to help him become a better horse…to help him become a braver horse who isn’t afraid of his own shadow…to help him become a horse a rider can trust.

We want to help the horse become the best horse he can be.

So, how do we do that?

I actually began helping Knockout overcome his fears the first time I interacted with him. By simply greeting him in a friendly manner, I helped him overcome his fear of me.  Then I began teaching him to respect me and pay attention.  I began developing a means of communicating with him and started getting very particular about how he responds to my cues.

As Knockout learns to respect and trust me…as he learns to pay attention to me…as he learns to respond quickly to a soft cue…his confidence grows and he becomes less afraid.

The key to helping a horse overcome his fear is to gain his trust and hold his attention. If my horse trusts me, pays attention to me, and knows how to respond to my cues, he will be less afraid.

However, it can be very difficult to keep his attention when he faces new surroundings or encounters something he hasn’t seen before.

So I expose him to more stimuli. I take him places he hasn’t been before.  I introduce him to objects he hasn’t seen before.  I ask him to do new things he hasn’t done before.

I keep pushing him outside his comfort zone.

I don’t push him to make him bothered or afraid. Quite the opposite!  I do it to help him overcome his fear…to help him learn to be brave.  It’s a big world out there and he needs to learn to deal with it…to be confident and responsive in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

I’m not setting him up for failure. I’m setting him up for success.  I’m not creating new environments just to bother him.  I’m gradually exposing him to existing environments he hasn’t seen before…environments beyond the little pasture he lives in.

And slowly, over time, with consistency and patience, Knockout is learning to have faith in me. We are progressing toward a point where it won’t matter that he is in a new and unfamiliar situation so long as I am present….he doesn’t know the unfamiliar surroundings, but he knows me…and that is enough…because he trusts me.

I want Knockout to learn, in unfamiliar situations, rather than being nervous and unsure what to do, to simply look to me for direction…to pay attention to me…to focus on what I’m telling him…and to trust me to guide him safely.

Does it sometimes seem like God is continually pushing you outside your comfort zone? Does it feel like you’re facing one catastrophe after another?  Do you ever wonder why?  Why, God, what did I do to deserve this?

I know I’ve sometimes felt this way…sometimes asked these questions…

I’m learning God doesn’t allow catastrophe and discomfort into my life to punish me or make me afraid.

He does it to help me learn to be brave. He does it to help me become a better person.  He wants me to be the best person I can be…to fulfill the destiny He preordained for me before the foundation of the world…to be conformed to the image of Christ.  He wants me to become who He created me to be…the image of God.

God is not setting me up for failure. He’s setting me up for success.  God is not creating toxic environments just to bother me.  He’s gradually exposing me to existing environments I haven’t experienced before.

Do you realize how many times the Bible tells us to fear not…to not be afraid…to be strong and courageous…to not be discouraged or dismayed? Over and over and over.  These are some of the most repeated phrases throughout scripture.

God is very interested in helping us overcome our fear. Why?  Because it’s a big world out there and we need to be able to handle it…to hear His voice and respond no matter what the circumstances.

How do we do that? Pretty similar to how a horse does it.

We spend time with the Master. We learn to communicate with Him.  We learn to listen and respond to His cues.  We learn to trust Him.  We learn to pay attention to Him…to keep our focus on Him even when we’re scared.

And slowly, over time, with consistency and patience, we learn that His presence is enough. No matter what the circumstances, we don’t have to be afraid, so long as He is with us…because we’ve learned to trust Him.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are Mine!
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they will not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched,
Nor will the flame burn you.
For I am the Lord your God…” (Isaiah 43:1-3)

God wants me to learn, in unfamiliar situations, rather than being nervous and unsure what to do, to simply look to Him for direction…to pay attention to Him…to focus on what He’s telling me…and to trust Him to guide me safely.

And He wants the same for you!

 

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Redeemed Life, Tell His Story ]

 

Fundamentals

texas sunset

Sunset over Texas Hill Country

The horsemanship clinic began with the clinician asking us to lead our horse around the arena while requiring the horse to remain at the end of the lead line.  If the horse started creeping up on us, we were to prompt him back to the end of the lead line again.

Once that was going well, he asked us to work on stopping and expecting the horse to instantly freeze in his tracks when we stopped.

After that, we spent some time backing the horse to the end of the lead line…then reeling him in…then backing him up…then reeling him in…all while working toward a smoother response on a lighter touch. Then we got even more particular, asking for exactly two steps forward followed by exactly two steps back…then one step forward followed by one step back.

Altogether, we spent over an hour just working on having the horse go forward or back on the lead line, in one form or another. After that, we started working on shoulder turns and hindquarter turns…being very particular about making sure the horse really reached out with his hoof…and very particular about separating front laterals from hind laterals.

We didn’t actually mount and ride until late morning.

If I had known in advance we were going to spend the first few hours of the clinic just doing groundwork, I probably wouldn’t have been very impressed. Frankly, I thought my horse already did fine on the lead line and wasn’t much in need of training in that area.

I was wrong in that assumption.  Like so many areas in life, we don’t know what we don’t know until we learn better.

joe on knockout

By the end of the clinic, Knockout was relaxed while I swung a rope from the saddle

Later that afternoon, I realized my horse was more relaxed and more responsive than he had ever been under saddle.

In the weeks since the clinic, I have been amazed at how much difference those simple lead-line exercises have improved my relationship with each of our horses.

The exercises require both the horse and rider to really pay attention to each other…to really listen to each other’s body language and relative position…and to develop precise timing of response. It requires the horse to walk in sync with the rider, moving as the rider moves.  And it builds confidence.  The horse gains confidence in the rider’s leadership, as well as in his own ability to properly respond to the rider’s cues.  The rider also becomes more confident as a leader and in the horse’s response.

Going forward and back on a lead line sounds a little dull. The idea of making it part of a regular routine sounds a bit stifled and unspontaneous.  Most people acquire horses for the adventure of riding, not to move the horse back and forth on a lead line.  Frankly, it could be dull and not very helpful if approached with a poor attitude.  If the rider treated it as some mindless routine to drudge through, or some requirement to rush past, it would probably yield little benefit.

Done well, though, it is an incredible communication tool! Lead line training provides an opportunity for the rider and horse to work together on really listening to each other, to work on improving timing and balance, and to sync their movements.  The movements are simple enough to allow both horse and rider to remain relaxed…to make it a lighthearted low-pressure game.  It provides a relaxed environment of open communication for building mutual respect and trust…for building muscle memory of cues, responses and timing.  Like a choreographed dance, the rider cues…the horse responds…the rider releases…the horse completes the move…the rider cues…the horse responds…the rider releases…the horse completes the move…

I think similar tools can be applied to other relationships.

I love engaging my family in humorous banter.  I notice a potential word play on something said in conversation and feign misunderstanding.  Sherri starts to correct then glances up to see my smile and catch the humor.  She, in turn, plays off of my joke to escalate the nonsensical tangent…and we both crack up laughing.

It’s just playful silliness that may appear pointless.  But it requires paying close attention to each other…to really listen to what the other is saying…to watch body language to realize it’s a jest…to catch the double-meaning of the word play…and to respond in kind.  It is lighthearted playfulness that sets the mood for improved communication and building mutual trust and understanding.

I also value my daily quiet time with God for how it helps build relationship.

Similar to the lead line work, a daily quiet time can sound stifled and unspontaneous.  There have been times in my life when the discipline of a daily quiet time became something of a dry, legalistic chore.  I understand why some may struggle with such a commitment.

Like the lead line training, though, it is all a matter of attitude.  I now view Our quiet time as a time of intentional communication, where I practice listening and responding to the Holy Spirit’s cues…a time of getting in sync with His movement…and a time of building my confidence in Him and in my ability to hear His voice.

Good communication requires intentional focused listening…and important relationships are worth investing the time and effort to improve communication.

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers. (Psalm 1:1-3)

Your thoughts?

 

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Wild Flowers, Redeemed Life, Tell His Story ]

 

Over-Trying

The trainer called him training-resistant…said he forgot everything he’d been taught from one day to the next…said he advised selling him and buying a better prospect.

I decided not to sell him.

There was just something about him.

Partly, it was his excellent pedigree.  Largely, it was his sweet nature…his soft eye…the way he acted like he genuinely enjoyed human interaction.  Mostly, it was recalling how when we first brought him home it was obvious he had never been lead-line lunged, yet it took only a few minutes to have him walking and trotting smooth circles around me.

In short, I didn’t believe what the trainer told us, despite his credentials.  The trainer’s professional testimony didn’t match my own personal experience with this particular horse.

So I decided to take on his training, myself.

Now, after six months working with him, I feel I have the right to my own opinions of this horse’s sweet nature.

He’s definitely not resistant to training. In fact, he’s super smart and very eager to please.

In theory, that should make him really easy to train. However, he still manages to challenge my very amateur training skills.  I have no doubt he’s a great horse…I often question whether I can become a good leader.

We occasionally have days where everything seems to click and I find myself riding this wonderfully responsive majestic creature. Those days I truly feel I’m holding his feet in my hands as we smoothly transition from side-passes to counter-arcs and back again with a 2″ slide of my calf forward and back.  Those days, we transition up from a walk to and trot or from a trot to a lope on nothing more than an inhale of breath…then transition back down on an exhale and relaxing into the saddle…all on a loose rein.  Those days, it feels like the sky is the limit…like I’m only one ride away from teaching this horse to do anything I want him to do.  Those days are amazing!

And those days are usually followed by a day that seems a bit disappointing in comparison…where nothing seems to click quite right…where communication is a struggle…where transitions are jerky…where I have to over-cue to get the desired response…where it seems we’ve forgotten everything we learned from the last ride. On those days, the trainer’s words come back to haunt me as seeds of doubt sprig up.

Then I listen to my horse…really pay attention to his responses…and I realize. The issue is neither stubbornness nor stupidity.  The issue is a really smart horse working really hard to please…whose expectations don’t quite match my own.  He wants so much to please that he tries to anticipate what I want before I ever ask.

Yesterday we backed thru turns after stops…so today he follows every stop by immediately starting to pivot inward. When I block the turn, he starts to pivot the other direction.  When I block the outward turn, he tries to back up.  When I block the back, he side-passes to the fence to stop and relax…because yesterday we finished out the ride learning to relax standing parallel to the gate.

He’s not being resistant. On the contrary, his every move is an attempt to do what he thinks I want…before I have a chance to ask for it.

He definitely remembers yesterday’s lesson!

This is not a poor memory issue.  This is an issue of miscommunication and mismatched expectations.  He remembers enjoying the smoothness of yesterday’s ride as well as I do.  And after thinking about it overnight, he has resolved to do even better today, by doing what I want before I even ask for it.  But what I really want is for him to respond promptly and smoothly when I asknot before I ask.

At this point, I have a choice. I can get frustrated at his seemingly erratic behavior, tense up, and try to straighten him out by over-cuing everything.  He, in turn, will likely respond with confusion and frustration of his own.  He will become tense, making learning more difficult, and we’ll wind up finishing the ride on a bad note, both baffled by the other’s behavior.

Or, I can laugh! I can lighten up, recognize his attempts to anticipate for what they are, laugh at the miscommunication, and appreciate this wonderful animal for his good-natured willingness to try to please.  I can set the mood for lightheartedness and joy…and he’ll respond with softness and grace.  The ride may not be perfect, but the relationship deepens with increased trust and improved communication.

And that’s a lesson I can carry into other relationships.

When frustration mounts, I can choose, instead, to laugh! I can lighten up, recognize the miscommunications for what they are, and appreciate the other person for who they are.  The moment may not be perfect, but the relationship deepens with increased trust and improved communication.

And I suspect my Heavenly Father often laughs at my miscues just as I laugh at my horse’s misguided anticipated moves. How often do I persist in doing what I think will please Him when all He really wants is for us to enjoy time together as I learn to listen and respond to His ask?  How often does He choose to lighten up and laugh at my miscues, while appreciating my willingness to try and my desire to please?

How blessed are the people who know the joyful sound!
O Lord, they walk in the light of Your countenance.
In Your name they rejoice all the day,
And by Your righteousness they are exalted.
For You are the glory of their strength,
And by Your favor our horn is exalted. (Psalm 89:15-17)

Your thoughts?

 

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Wild Flowers, Redeemed Life, Tell His Story ]

 

Dark Scary Places

Sonny and KnockoutI absolutely love spending time with our horses learning horsemanship!

I’m still not much of a horseman, but am constantly learning. I’m at a stage now where I get a big kick out of small changes.  Sometimes it’s a small improvement in an area we’ve worked on…other times it’s a problem that crops up and is handled using newly learned tools.

Last night, I trailered three of our horses to the farrier for hoof trims and shoeing. All three horses are accustomed to trailers and load very easily…until last night.

For some reason, when loading to leave the farrier, each horse hesitated at the trailer door refusing to go in. I’m not sure why…maybe the unusually bright moonlight made the trailer interior look darker and therefore scarier.  Whatever the reason, each horse balked at the trailer door, and no amount of coaxing could persuade them to step inside.

If this had happened two years ago, I would not have known what to do. Facing the same event two years ago, I would probably have tugged and pulled trying to force the horse into the trailer while asking someone else to apply pressure from the back end.  And who knows…I might fall into that same pattern next week…this horsemanship gig is a tortuous journey full of surprising twists and turns for both me and the horses.  It’s a lot like parenting.

Last night, though, was different. Last night, when the first horse refused to load I realized this was neither about lack of understanding nor lack of willingness.  It wasn’t even about loading or not loading.  In fact, it wasn’t really even about the trailer.

The issue to be addressed was lack of confidence.

For whatever reason, that particular horse on that particular evening was not confident about loading in that dark scary-looking trailer. His confidence had been replaced with fear…and it was up to me to regain his confidence.

Now, here is where it gets interesting.

His fear was rooted in the trailer and his lack of confidence was rooted in self. It had nothing to do with me, really.  He was not afraid of me, nor was he challenging me.  He lacked confidence in himself out of fear of the scary-looking trailer.

The solution, however, had nothing to do with the trailer and everything to do with me. I needed to get his focus off the trailer and onto me.  I needed to boost his confidence in me.  His lack of self-confidence needed to be replaced with confidence in me.

We took a few steps away from the trailer and spent about two minutes doing a few basic exercises: step back, step forward, right shoulder turn, right hind-quarter turn, left shoulder turn, left hind-quarter turn, back two steps, forward two steps, back one step, forward one step.

Then I led him into the trailer. No fuss, no bother, no fear…just confidently following me into the trailer to stand quietly while I closed the stall separator.

Then I did the exact same thing with the other two horses, with the same results.

It was wonderful!  🙂

I love when things work out so well.  More importantly, I love when I am able to read a situation well enough to know the solution.  And I love knowing my horses have enough confidence in me to follow my lead.

This morning I realized there are a few life lessons in last night’s events.

Lesson 1: When I am scared, the issue is whatever I fear combined with lack of confidence.  The solution is to move my focus off what I fear and onto Jesus.  With my focus on Jesus, lack of self-confidence is replaced by confidence in Him.

Lesson 2: Placing my focus and confidence in Jesus is best accomplished by simply obeying Him in small things…by following His lead in little things that have nothing to do with the big scary thing.

How does that play out in real life? Lots of ways, but let’s take one current event.

I think most of us are a little (or a lot) concerned about what’s going on politically in the United States, right now. Whomever any of us may have voted for and whatever outcome we hoped for, right now we have a lot of uncertainty as to how exactly things will pan out post-election.  There are a lot of unknowns, and it is natural to fear the unknown (just as it is natural for a horse to fear a dark trailer interior).

The solution is to move my focus off the uncertainties and onto Jesus. I do that by spending time alone with Him and by following His command to “Love one another.”  I do that in daily little things…by treating others with love, respect, and understanding.

As I follow Christ’s lead in these little daily things, my confidence in Him builds and my fear of uncertainty is replaced by confidence in Him.

Your thoughts?

 

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Wild Flowers, Redeemed Life, Tell His Story ]

 

The Summons

The Summons
A poem by Joseph J. Pote
July 2016

It’s a normal evening at home;
Bright lights, air conditioning,
Television blaring, family busy
With chores and bedtime preparation.

I step outside for a moment.
Closing the front door, I breathe
The peace and calm of a mild summer
Evening in south Arkansas.

Looking around the moonlit lawn,
I feel the first tug.
The moonlight beckons;
The shadow world calls.

From ‘neath the front porch
Shelter, I venture forth.
Through the shade of slender pines,
Breathing their aromatic scent.

Onward to the open moonlight
Gazing full on her shining face,
Drinking in the mystery
Of a shrouded world filled with light.

Yet the summons bids me onward
Toward the pasture gate.
Hesitantly, I lift the latch,
Wondering how long I’ll tarry.

Stepping through the gate,
I gaze in wondrous awe,
Not on our familiar pasture,
But an enchanted magic land.

Though scent of damp earth
And dewy grass combines
With distant cicada song
To anchor heart to ordinary world,

All else tis transformed
To moonlit fairyland
Glistening and shimmering
‘Neath light of lustrous moon.

Where our stagnant pond should lay,
A mirrored lake reflects moonlight;
O’er which a giant sentinel watches
Where our sweet-gum should stand.

Boots swish through damp grass
As my quest leads ever onward
Down hill and up levy to feet of
Giant sentinel who calls.

Yes, calls…though silently.
Not a word he speaks.
No wisdom imparted here,
Just beauty and outstretched arm

Pointing onward into the depths
Of lunar wonderland,
Where shrouded gnomes silently watch
My passage ‘cross wandering stream.

Emerging on the distant bank,
Four mythical creatures of legend
Stride solemnly toward me
On hooves of silent sureness;

Regal their bearing, yet warm,
The creatures draw near to
Counsel with me there, ‘neath
Wondrous moon in enchanted land.

We speak of many things both
Great and small; not in clumsy
Tongues of men, but in fluid equestrian
Language of touch, motion and breath.

I was honored by their counsel
And they by my visit to their world.
We talked ‘til time to take my leave,
Then stood a moment, silent.

What magic moonlight’s wrought to
Transform mundane pasture into wonderland
And ordinary horses into mythical creatures
Of legendary wisdom and majesty!

Back in my everyday world again,
A part of me remains behind…
And part of that magic moonlit night
Remains in me.

A Way Out

knockout round

Our 5-year-old AQHA gelding

I’m still not much of a horseman.

However, in working with our two young horses (a 1-year-old and a 5-year-old) I’ve been doing a lot of reading and watching videos on the topic of horse training.

Although I’ve barely scratched the surface, I am really having a lot of fun learning!

I’ve noticed a common training theme that is frequently repeated in every chapter and/or video. Some call it the principle of pressure-release.  Others call it making the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.  I just finished reading Ray Hunt’s book, Think Harmony with Horses, in which he calls it putting the horse in a bind while always leaving an out.

It is a very simple training principle with a myriad of practical applications. Carson James has a whole library of videos applying this basic principle to different training situations.

In a nutshell, the idea is to set the horse up in a situation where it is easy for him to do what you’re trying to teach (this is the out), but difficult for him to do anything else (this is the bind). Then apply just enough pressure to encourage the horse to find the out (do what you are trying to teach).

The instant the horse makes a try (takes a step, shifts weight, turns head, etc.) in the right direction, release the pressure.  Take a moment to encourage and reward the horse (pet him and talk to him) then do it again.  Repeat until the horse responds smoothly with the desired response.

One benefit to this technique is that rather than trying to force the horse to do what the trainer wants, the trainer is letting the horse figure it out for himself. Rather than trying to over-ride the horse’s free will, the horse is learning to voluntarily adjust his will to submit to the trainer’s will.

Another benefit, as explained in Think Harmony with Horses, is the bond created between man and horse.  Using this technique, the horse learns to consider the trainer as a trusted friend, because the trainer always leaves the horse an out.  Over time, the horse gains confidence in the trainer and in his ability to follow the trainer’s prompts.

The concept is amazingly simple. The application, however, is an art requiring lots of practice.

The first trick is knowing the horse’s personality and training level well enough to know where to start and how much pressure to apply. Difficult tasks often require breaking learning down into smaller steps, so the horse can gain confidence and understand expectations before learning the difficult task.

Also, the trainer must apply just enough pressure to encourage the horse to search for the out, but not so much pressure as to panic the horse.  As training progresses, the trainer should use less and less pressure, so the horse can learn a quick response to a light touch.

The second trick is timing. Pressure must be applied to encourage desired behavior and instantly released at even a tiny try toward desired behavior.  The release is what lets the horse know where the out is, and the out needs to be as easy to find as possible.  However, as the horse progresses in learning the out, the trainer should hold pressure to insist on a more specific try (such as a full step rather than just a head turn or a weight shift) before releasing pressure.

As I contemplated this concept of putting the horse in a bind while always leaving an out, I was reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:13:

No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.

God, who intimately knows my personality and training level, sets me up in stressful situations while always leaving me an out. He knows just how much stress to apply to help me find the out without being unduly panicked.  He is my faithful friend throughout…helping me find the right way and helping me learn to follow His prompts.  He never forces me, but helps me learn to voluntarily submit my will to His.

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

What a faithful friend and personal trainer!

 

Your thoughts?

 

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Wild Flowers, Redeemed Life, Tell His Story ]

 

Balk Bolt Buck

knockout round

A very relaxed horse at the end of the ride

The last few weeks, I’ve been working with our five-year-old gelding to relax, slow down, and smooth gait transitions. Knockout is a sweet-natured young horse with good confirmation and an excellent pedigree. However, he tends to be tense during rides which can lead to issues.

Last weekend, following a stormy Friday night, our arena was too muddy for riding. So I decided to take Knockout on a trail ride through our back pasture and woods.

In general, Knockout tends to be skittish with woodland trails and water crossings. I assume his west Texas raising didn’t provide much opportunity for either.

Saturday morning we started out. The 8-inch rainstorm left creeks swollen and trees dripping. Needless to say, Knockout had ample opportunity to feel stressed…and I had ample opportunity to ask him to relax.

Knockout tends to respond the same to each stressful obstacle, whether a fast-flowing creek, a low-hanging branch, or a tall vine. First, he balks. He looks for an out…an alternate path. He may try to turn aside, or he may try to turn around. At this stage, his goal is to simply avoid the stressful situation.

As I continue to hold him to the course and nudge him forward, Knockout’s next strategy is to bolt. Basically, he concludes that if the obstacle cannot be avoided, then the next best thing is to get past it as quickly as possible.

Initially, I allow some level of controlled bolting. While I won’t allow him to totally flee the scene, I don’t mind him picking up to a trot past a ‘spook’ then dropping back to a walk. Over time, however, I expect him to take these things in stride without the need to change speed.

Since he was particularly nervous this morning, I decided it was a good time to work past some of his fears.

I picked out one short stretch of trail that he was especially stressed about and looped back over it, working on relaxing and walking calmly. After several cycles, he was calmer, but still had specific trail sections he tried to rush past. So, I began stopping and backing him up each time he broke into a trot. I backed him up to the location he spooked, and dropped the reins. When he tried to step away, I interfered then dropped the reins.

The first time I brought him to a full stop beside a ‘spook’ Knockout responded with an attempted buck. It wasn’t anything malicious, just a natural response to the situation. He was nervous and frustrated, seeking release for pent-up energy, and it came out in a buck. Fortunately, I was ready and caught it quickly. I interrupted the buck then dropped the reins.

Once Knockout relaxed in the full-stop and ceased trying to buck or step away, I prompted him to continue down the path. Before long, he learned what I wanted and relaxed quicker.

By the time we’d circled through the same path about twenty times, Knockout was able to calmly walk the full path. I could literally feel him relax and cease resisting. We continued a very relaxed ride back home and ended on a good note.

As I thought about Knockout’s lesson that day, I realized he saw three possible responses to a tense situation. As he saw it, he could either balk, bolt, or buck…and if the first didn’t work he’d try the next.

My task is to teach him another option…to believe…to simply relax and trust me. That’s not an easy thing. When his fight-or-flight instincts tell him to balk, bolt, or buck, it’s not easy to trust me enough to simply relax.

Now I’m wondering.

How often do I respond to stressful situations with balk, bolt or buck, while God is asking me to believe…to trust? Click To Tweet

How often does the Holy Spirit whisper, “Fear not. Peace, be still. Have faith. Trust in Me,“ as I frantically look for an out or throw a fit?

And how many times do we circle back around to repeat a lesson I haven’t yet internalized?

Lord, please continue to be patient with me. Help me learn to face stressful situations, not with fear, but with confidence in you.

 

[Linked to Messy Marriage, Wild Flowers, Redeemed Life, Tell His Story ]