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?

 

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 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?

 

 

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?

 

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 ]

 

 

Lineage Matters

Knockout Round

Knockout Round

A couple of weeks ago, we visited the Four-Sixes Ranch in west Texas, for the Return to the Remuda Sale.  What an amazing weekend!

We visited with family and friends, met some famous horsemen, toured a well-managed ranch, watched some beautiful horses, and even acted as photographers for an expectant cousin’s baby gender reveal.

A boy!

A boy!

Then, to top it all off, we purchased a really nice horse…and won a really nice saddle!

In making plans for the sale, Sherri and I discussed spending budgets, reviewed the sales descriptions of each horse, and discussed what we were looking for.  However, I did not really expect to buy a horse.  I had been to the same sale a couple of years ago and already knew the bidding was way outside our range.  With few exceptions, the bidding was way outside our range this year too.

Ken Raye Custom Saddle

Ken Raye Custom Saddle

We were looking for a well-bred gelding with ranch work and roping experience.

So was everyone else!

The experienced geldings 7 to 15 years of age were bringing top dollar.  The participating ranches are known for well-bred horses.  The 6666 Ranch, in particular, has a world-renowned horse breeding program.  And a well-bred horse experienced in west Texas ranch work is going to be ready for almost anything a rider would want to do in the way of ranch or rodeo riding.

The bidding was also high for the young stud colts.  Although the colts lack experience, they have the ability to sire more well-bred colts.  Someone involved in American Quarter Horse breeding would have a hard time finding a stud colt with better pedigree credentials than these.

The horse we bought is a four-year-old gelding named Knockout Round.  Knockout is too young to really be called experienced, and can’t breed because he’s been gelded.  So the bidding was more in our dollar range.  Although he needs a bit more finish work, we are very pleased with our good-natured high-pedigree Four-Sixes-bred ranch horse.

horse sale adWhich got me thinking about the importance of lineage.

For every horse in that sale, pedigree was an important selling point.  Lineage is so important that a pedigree chart was provided for every single horse in the sale.  Most of these horses have a few champions in their ancestry.  Although no guarantee, performance of ancestors provides some indication of potential performance of the horse.  High performing horses with good confirmation, plenty of strength, speed and agility, who learn quickly, respond well to training, and instinctively understand cattle, tend to sire horses with similar traits.

Lineage matters.

Lineage matters not only for horses, but also for people.

According to the Bible, as descendants of Adam, we all inherit Adam’s slavery to sin and death (1 Corinthians 15:22).  We inherit Adam’s natural inclination toward sin and selfishness.  Sin is not just something we do.  Sin is part of who we are…an inherited trait.  Our pedigree naturally prevents our being godly and limits us to being sinful and selfish.  In fact, because of Adam’s sin, we all have a natural pedigree as children of Satan with a natural inclination to lie and murder as Satan does (Genesis 3:15, John 8:44).

But that’s not the end of the story.

John 1:12, speaking of Jesus, says:

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.

Think about that.

We understand the importance of pedigree, and we know pedigree cannot be changed.  We can improve a horse’s nutrition.  We can provide training.  We can address medical concerns.  There are a lot of things we can do to help a horse achieve its full potential.  However, there is nothing we can do to improve the limitations imposed by poor lineage.

Yet, here God tells us since the limitations of our pedigree cannot be overcome, He will give us a whole new pedigree!  By receiving Christ and believing in His name, we are redeemed from that relationship with the kingdom of darkness and given a whole new lineage as children of God.  We become born of God!

For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13-14)

That’s amazing!

Lineage matters…and we are given a choice. Click To Tweet

What lineage do you choose?  Child of satan, or child of God?

 

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

 

Reins of Legalism

our family riding horses

Riding with family

When I first started riding horseback, I viewed the reins as the controls used for steering and stopping the horse.  To steer the horse one moved the reins to right or left, much like the steering wheel of a car.  To stop the horse one pulled back on the reins much like the brake of a car.

Funny thing though…the more I used the reins to steer…to control the horse’s direction…the more he tended to wander off from the direction I wanted him to go.  So, I had to correct.

It was sort of like driving a car in need of a front end alignment.  Get the horse pointed the desired direction and lower the reins.  The horse wanders to the right.  Use the reins to tug him back to the desired direction and lower the reins.  The horse wanders right, again.  Tug the reins to the left of the desired direction.  He drifts right, again.

I decided the problem was too much slack in the reins.  I would have to take tighter control to keep him from wandering off.  When the steering mechanism has too much slack, make adjustments to remove the slack, right?

So, I shortened my grip on the reins and rode with both hands rigidly holding the horse’s head position.  The horse stayed on track.  Problem solved!

Except for one little problem…

I could only be confident of holding our direction by rigidly holding the reins in position.  Micro-managing the horse’s every move does not make for a relaxing ride.  Both horse and rider have more tension and stress than necessary.  Watching more experienced riders I could see they were much more relaxed and usually rode with a loose rein.

“Maybe it’s just a matter of time,” I thought.  “I have to keep tight control for a while to let the horse know I’m boss, then I’ll be able to loosen the rein a little.”  But every time I loosened the rein, the horse started wandering off track again.

Then I started riding a horse trained to foot prompts that had not yet learned neck reining.  That was even worse!  I fumbled to remember the foot prompts…the horse over-responded…I over-compensated…and we zig-zagged along wherever I tried to go.  “Keep at it,” my trainer suggested, “You’ll get it figured out.”

It was horribly frustrating!  My horse and I could not walk a straight line.  I knew it was my fault but felt helpless to correct it.  The horse promptly over-responded to my every foot nudge just to have me immediately over-correct him back the other direction.

Finally, one day I made an amazing discovery.  Every time I turned my body at the waist my horse responded by going the direction I was turned.  “Hey, this is just like snow-skiing!” I thought, “Turn and look to change direction.”

That moment of epiphany, though just the beginning, became a major turning point in my understanding of horseback riding.

Today, I view my reins and boots not so much as a means to control the horse’s direction as a means of telegraphing my body language to the horse.  I see the horse not as a riding machine to be controlled, but as a partner to be communicated with.  I am still a very inexperienced rider, but the paradigm shift has definitely helped me progress.

Lately, I have thought about these riding-lesson truths while pondering Paul’s words about the roles of law and faith.

But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:23-26)

Scripture is to us as reins are to a horse. Click To Tweet

In early training, the reins are used to teach the horse to yield direction to the rider.  Later, the reins are still in place to serve a similar function.  However, as both horse and rider gain experience and trust, the reins are used less and less as a means of directing and more and more as a means of communicating.  For a very skilled rider on a superbly trained horse, the reins become superfluous and are no longer needed.

In the same way, as immature Christians we start out studying God’s word to learn how we are to behave, and we sometimes use scripture to micromanage one another’s lives.  One person finds a scripture indicating Jesus drank wine while another finds a scripture indicating alcohol consumption is to be avoided and they beat each other up with their disparate understandings of scripture.  But they are both showing their immaturity by missing the whole point.  Both are still viewing the reins (scripture) as being for the purpose of controlling behavior.  The real purpose is to facilitate communication…to lead us to Christ…to teach us of God’s heart…and to train us in understanding and following the Holy Spirit.

Following the law (as legalists), we hear of a fellow Christian going thru divorce and immediately feel the need to learn every detail of their very personal marital relationship so we can discern (judge) whether or not their divorce is biblically permissible (as legalistic a term as ever was) so we can provide sound biblical counsel (verbally beat them up) to aid them in their Christian walk (control their behavior).

Under grace, we simply ask how we can pray for them and what we can do to help, trusting that as mature Christians they are able to hear and follow the Holy Spirit’s leading in their personal lives.

See the difference?

In what areas have you learned to loosen your grip on the reins and trust God’s grace?

 

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

 

Rodeo Dad

IMG_1871Labels are funny.  Some we embrace and some we avoid.  I find myself resistant to accepting new labels.  I’m cautious about the changes in expectations…expectations of others…and of myself.

As I’ve posted before, I am not a horseman…and definitely not a cowboy.  It’s not that I object to the idea.  It’s that I lack both the skills and the experience.  I like horses.  I enjoy caring for them.  I enjoy riding horseback.  But I shrink back from giving the impression I know about horses, because I know just enough to be very aware of how much I don’t know.

And yet…we own eight horses…and my stepson is a rodeo athlete…

For the last two years I’ve hauled my stepson and his horse to every available roping practice.  I’ve attended numerous rodeo events where I’ve helped ready his horse and cheered him on.

For the last two years I’ve spent as much time in the saddle as I could, trying to learn a little more about this whole horsemanship thing.  And for the past several weeks, I’ve hauled both our horses to weekly roping practices, so I could start to learn a little about this sport my kid is so into.IMG_1870

Yet, I still do not think of myself as a cowboy or even a horseman.  Rodeo is such a cultural thing…usually a multigenerational cultural thing.  And it is not the culture I grew up in.  I love the people.  I’m learning to like the sport.  Yet, I still feel like such an outsider…not that folks aren’t friendly and helpful…they are.  But because I am so aware of how little I know and what a novice I am.

This year we signed our young rodeo athlete up with another rodeo association.  That commits us to attend rodeos almost every weekend for the next nine months…and half of those are doubles…two rodeos in one weekend…an all-day rodeo on Saturday followed by an all-day rodeo on Sunday.

So, now we’ve purchased a living-quarters horse trailer to facilitate all these weekend-long rodeo events.  Basically, that’s a full-sized RV for the family plus horses and equipment.

IMG_1896[1]This weekend it hit me.

I have officially become one of those crazy rodeo people who spends all their free time (and money) camping out to attend rodeos.

Yeah…that’s me.  I am officially a Rodeo Dad.  It’s become a part of who I am.

Still not a cowboy…still not a horseman…but very much a Rodeo Dad.

And…I like that!  🙂

 

Have you ever picked up a new label that felt uncomfortable at first?

 

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

 

Trust Me

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“Come on Mac,” I urge, leading the gelding out of the paddock. “Hold up, Halo,” I direct the mare attempting to squeeze out the gate by following close on Mac’s heels. I lead Mac in front of the barn to strip … Continue reading