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?

 

Impossible Lightness

knockout after riding

Knockout after Saturday’s amazing ride!

Saturday morning dawned clear and cool with a light breeze…a welcome respite from our usual hot, humid, sultry August weather in south Arkansas.

I woke early, had a cup of coffee, and headed out to saddle a horse. I had at least a couple of hours before the rest of the family awoke and intended to fully enjoy the morning.

I wanted to ride the woods trails this morning. I’ve avoided the woods the past couple of months, opting instead for arena or gravel roads.  The woods oppressively confine the suffocating heat and stifling humidity, creating an environment rich in biting insects.  This morning’s low temperatures and light breezes carried hope of an enjoyable woods trail ride.

I brought Knockout (our six year old AQHA gelding) up for grooming. I was pleased to see the scrape on his side has healed.  It was just a minor scrape such as horses acquire while running the pasture with other horses.  However, knowing the rub of a saddle pad can interfere with healing of wounds I had refrained from riding him the past week.

Saddling up, it crossed my mind to wonder if we’d have any issues on this ride. Young horse…cool morning…hasn’t been ridden in over a week…taking him to an area he hasn’t been in a few months…thru trails likely overgrown during the summer…a recipe for disaster?  Just as quickly, I put the concerns aside.  Knockout was calm and my confidence in him has grown as I’ve worked with him the last few months.

I mounted, petted him a couple of times, then barely lifted the reins. Knockout eased forward and I just moved with him as he slow-walked down one side of the arena.

As we passed the pasture gate he turned his head right and acted like he wanted to go out. I lightly twitched the left rein and gently rubbed my left calf against his flank.  His attention returned to me and we continued around the arena.  “Good,” I thought, “he wants to go out in the pasture, which is where I already planned to go.”

I pushed Knockout into a trot. As we circled the arena to approach the pasture gate again I slowed my movement and he dropped to a walk.  When we reached the gate, I leaned back and he stopped.  I untied the gate, grasped it in my right hand, lifted my left stirrup away and pressed my right calf near the girth.  He responded with a left counter-arc step…another ask and another step…then a third.  Now the gate was open enough to walk thru.  I cued a left hindquarter turn and Knockout responded by swinging his hindquarters around 180 degrees so we could pass thru the gate as my right hand slid along the top gate rail.  Once Knockout’s tail cleared the gate post, we side-passed left to close the gate.  Easy-peasy…  😉

As I turned and looked down pasture, Knockout moved with me, walking easy in the direction I faced. Knockout started drifting right a bit, headed toward a different route than I had in mind, “Hey, Joe, let’s go this way.”  I moved my left stirrup away, “I’d rather go left, Knockout,” and he came back to center.

Next step, Knockout eased right again. Again, I brought him to center with a lifted left stirrup.  As he started to step right again, I gently brushed his right shoulder with my right calf, “No, really, Knockout, I want to go left toward that tree I’m facing.”  Knockout proceeded on a straight line toward the tree while facing straight ahead, “Hey, Joe, I changed my mind.  I think this direction feels a little more comfortable.”

As we approached our usual creek crossing I noticed the sandy soil had eroded considerably in recent rains, leaving a fairly deep trench with steep sandy sides. Knockout walked to the creek, stopped, then turned his head to look back at me, “Are you sure this is safe?”

This time I agreed with his concern and looked right downstream, “You’re right, Knockout. That looks a little dangerous.  Why don’t you find a safer crossing for us?”  A few yards downstream we crossed at a wider place with no steep sides or deep trenches.

Coming out of the creek crossing, I looked toward a large oak tree at the back fence line and lightly squeezed my legs. Knockout responded with a long trot on a straight line.  Trotting thru the middle of the cattle herd, we both watched the cattle in our peripheral vision, without breaking stride or turning our heads.  We both stayed focused on each other and our ride.

Not far from the back fence line we turned thru an opening in the tree line to cross into the next pasture. What a surprise awaited there!  A huge flock of Canadian geese were scattered across the pasture.  As we trotted straight toward the middle of the flock, about a hundred geese took flight simultaneously.  It was quite a sight!  Yet we never broke stride or turned our heads.  We continued trotting straight toward the next tree I had picked as a direction marker.

Nearing the start of the woods trail, I slowed my movement and Knockout responded by dropping into a walk as we entered the woods. As expected, the trails had overgrown a bit, but we smoothly navigated between tall brush and overhanging branches with the lift of a stirrup here and a brush of a calf there.  Smooth…light…soft…easy…graceful.

It was truly an amazing ride!

On the one hand, no one thing was particularly spectacular. No one thing stood out as something we hadn’t practiced before.  Yet, it was amazing to experience it all coming together in a continuous flow through the entire ride.

I hardly ever moved my reins. I barely even moved my legs.  Yet we communicated beautifully.

Up until a few years ago, I had no idea it was even possible to steer a horse with anything other than the reins. I thought light horsemanship was neck reining instead of plow reining.  Even when I began to learn a little about the possibility of softer cues, I wasn’t very interested…it all sounded rather mystical.  I certainly never thought I could ride with such lightness!  And the idea of training a horse myself would never have even crossed my mind as a possibility.

Yet, here I am riding this amazing creature with incredible lightness! Yes, I realize the next ride will likely not be quite as smooth.  But I also realize there will be more rides that are as smooth.

So…why am I writing this post about a wonderful ride with my horse? Many of my friends and family who aren’t into horses won’t really understand why I would go on and on about how well my horse handles.  Many friends who are accomplished horsemen may think it’s pretty humorous I’m just now learning things they’ve known their whole life.  A few friends who are pursuing horsemanship may appreciate and relate to my experience.

But here’s the thing. The really crazy part of this whole adventure is that I shouldn’t be doing it to begin with…but I am…and I’m loving it!  🙂

February of 2016, I was at the low point in my cancer treatment. I had been diagnosed with cancer the previous December and undergone two surgeries.  Then spanning January to March, I went thru seven weeks of radiation treatment twice a day and chemo treatment once a week.  The surgery took a major nerve to my right shoulder, leaving me with limited movement of my right arm.

The end of January, during the middle of a chemo treatment, our horse trainer called to tell us the 4-yo colt we’d left with him for 60 days was not going to work out. He said the horse was “training resistant” and recommended selling him and buying a better prospect.

Sherri and I left from the chemo treatment and drove 3 hours to the trainer (without returning home in between) to pick up our colt. We got him home to discover he had been mishandled, was injured, and had become very frightened of men.

A couple of weeks later, I told Sherri, “I’m going to learn to rope. I want to rope with Dawson.  I’m going to learn to rope, and I’m going to rope on Knockout.”

Now, think about that for a second.

I was no horseman by any measure. I was a poor rider with little experience and no skill.  I knew nothing about training horses.  I had never roped.  I had very limited motion in my right arm due to a surgically removed major nerve.  I was undergoing chemo and radiation.  I was very weak.  Most days it was all I could do to keep enough calories and fluids down to make it thru the day.

And here I was saying that not only was I going to learn to rope and learn to train horses, but I was going to start with a horse who had been rejected by a professional trainer, who was afraid of men, and I was not only going to train him to ride, but I was also going to train him to be a roping horse.

That’s pretty audacious! Why on earth would I say such a thing, much less work to follow thru on it?

Has God ever asked you to do something that just didn’t make any sense?

Do you remember the story of Naaman who came to the prophet Elisha asking to be healed of leprosy?  Elisha told him to go wash in the Jordan River seven times and he would be cured of the leprosy.

It made no sense! Why should he wash in the Jordan River?  Wasn’t the water he washed with good enough?  He wasn’t even dirty.  Why should he wash?

Yet, despite the instructions making no sense, Naaman followed God’s direction and washed in the Jordan River seven times…and was healed.

That’s what this was like for me. I was supposed to learn to rope?  I was supposed to learn to train horses?  I was supposed to train a young green-broke, tense, energetic, spooky, flighty young horse to be a roping horse?  It made no sense!

I can’t even explain how I knew I was supposed to do this. No prophet told me to.  God did not speak to me in an audible voice.  Yet, somehow, the Holy Spirit made it clear to me this is what I was supposed to do.

Here I am a year and half later.

I have decent mobility in my arm…which my physical therapist attributes directly to my determination and perseverance in working with that young colt…and to practicing roping.

I’m still not great at roping…but I’m steadily improving.

I’m far from mastering horsemanship…but this young horse I’m working with has sure come along well.

We’re not roping calves or steers yet…but I regularly swing a rope from his back and push calves around the pen.

We’re still working on the fundamentals…but we’re getting pretty close to seeing all the pieces come together to try roping.

Eighteen months ago this looked like an impossible task…right now it’s looking pretty achievable.

God sometimes asks us to do things that sound crazy…because all things are possible with God.

Along the way, I’ve found a lot of healing. The horsemanship and roping have aided both physical and emotional healing…for both Knockout and myself.

And I have learned a lot! I have learned to do things that I didn’t even know were possible to do.  I’ve learned a lot about myself.  I’ve learned a lot about relationships and communication.  I’ve even gained a better understanding of God and of His position toward us.

The master horsemen, Ray Hunt, Bill and Tom Dorrance, Buck Brannaman, all wrote about horsemanship as a lifestyle that affected every aspect of their lives. They believed it not only improved their relationship with the horse, but also their relationships with people.

I can see why…and am learning from them…

I still don’t know the full reason God asked me to do this. But I’ve already seen a huge return on the investment…and believe there is even more to come.

God still asks His people to do crazy things…and He still does the impossible.

 

Your thoughts?

Softness

two year old colt

Archie – Our 2-year-old AQHA stud colt

Friday evening I spent a little time working with Archie, our 2-year-old stud colt.

I was asking Archie to yield to tail pressure. If I tugged his tail to the left, I wanted him to step his hindquarters left.  If I tugged his tail to the right, I wanted him to step right.  It sounds simple, but there’s actually a lot going on in this learning exercise.

We had to overcome a horse’s natural instinct to escape entrapment. Natural instinct tells a horse when his tail is tugged left he should move away by stepping right…the opposite of what I was asking.

We had to develop understanding. When I first started tugging on Archie’s tail, he had absolutely no idea what I wanted him to do.  The cue had no meaning to him, so he simply followed his instincts.

We also had to develop discernment. Archie had to learn to distinguish between a tug to the left versus a tug to the right, and the different response expected for each.

So we started working on the left side. I tugged left and Archie stepped right.  As he moved away from me, I increased the pressure.  He took another step right.  I moved with him holding the pressure as he took a couple more steps to the right.  Then he tried moving forward.  I stayed with him, holding pressure until he ran out of room to move forward.  Finally, he took just a little half step to the left and I instantly let go of his tail.

Then we repeated the process over and over as Archie learned to understand a tug to the left meant I wanted a step to the left.

Once we had the left side working halfway decent we started working on the right side. His resistance on the right side was initially much worse than on the left side.  He had just learned that a tail tug meant step left and he was determined to do what he had just learned.  He had no understanding that a tug to the right was a different cue from a tug to the left.  So we practiced the right side until he understood the expectation then went back to the left side…which was now confused by work on the right side.

With patience and consistency we got it sorted out. Archie learned to distinguish between a left tug and a right tug as well as the expected response to each.

At one point in our training session, I would lift his tail while standing on his right, and he would instantly shift his weight left, bracing against the tug he knew was coming. I would give a light tug and he would resist.  I would hold the pressure with a soft firmness and after a few seconds he would relax and step right.

We practiced that a few more times.

Then we finally reached a point where I lifted his tail while standing on his right, and he shifted his weight to the right, ready to respond to the tug he knew was coming. I softly tugged and he just gave to the cue by stepping over…smooth…soft…light…fluid.

There it is! There’s that softness Ray Hunt (and other great horsemen) wrote about!

When we started, it felt like trying to drag a rope tied to a 500 lb weight! Actually…that’s exactly what it was…dragging a 500 lb horse around by the tail.

By the time we finished, it was no more effort than dragging a newspaper across a smooth counter.

Archie was soft to my feel. He was light.  He anticipated my ask by preparing to respond rather than by preparing to resist.

That’s exactly what we’re working toward…a soft response to a soft ask…

But to get there required a lot of firmness…a lot of consistent persistence…a lot of understanding…a lot of trust…and a lot of respect.

Contemplating that softness this morning, I am reminded of the words of the psalmist:

I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart. (Psalm 40:8)

Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law And keep it with all my heart. (Psalm 119:34)

This is what it means to be soft-hearted…that when I feel the Holy Spirit’s prompt I relax into His will ready to respond as soon as I understand His ask.

The prophet Zechariah provides a contrast showing what it means to be hard-hearted…to respond to God’s prompt by bracing to resist His will:

They made their hearts like flint so that they could not hear the law and the words which the Lord of hosts had sent by His Spirit through the former prophets; therefore great wrath came from the Lord of hosts. (Zechariah 7:12)

And Jeremiah prophesied the coming of the New Covenant which was enacted by Jesus Christ. Rather than laws carved in stone rigidly followed out of fear, the Holy Spirit teaches us softness…a soft response to a soft ask:

“But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” (Jeremiah 31:33)

What a gentle master! He calls us to a relationship of willing response based on trust and respect as we learn to rely on His goodness and faithfulness.

Early in that training session, we had to work past Archie’s confusion over different prompts.  It took him a little while to discern the difference between a tug to the left and a tug to the right, as well as the proper response to each.  He knew the tug meant something, but his confusion and natural instincts interfered with clear communication.  He stepped wrong as often as right, and always with a good deal of resistance…of first bracing against the tug before eventually giving to it.

I think a lot of Christians reside mostly in that place…sort of stuck early in the training.  They haven’t figured out the soft cues and soft responses of the New Covenant.  They see rigid laws to be fearfully and woodenly obeyed.  Their confusion and natural instincts interfere with clear communication, so they miss the nuances of the Holy Spirit’s prompts.  Seeing a fellow believer being tugged left they scream, “Step right!  Step right!  A tail tug always means step right!”

Blind guides…misapplying rigid laws…while completely missing the Holy Spirit’s soft prompts…

Lord, please continue to be patient with us!  Teach us to respond to you, not out of fear in response to laws carved in stone, but out of trust and respect as we learn to respond softly and fluidly to your soft prompts.