Besides Sterling, my Andalusian stallion who is now 4 years old, I have a 19 year old thoroughbred gelding who is his pasture mate. The boys live inside of the track system that the girls live on and they can travel the property together separated by the fence. You can see the dirt track behind Sterling in the photo below. If I have a complaint about Sterling it’s that his right front foot is so difficult to trim because he cannot, or I believe will not just stand there and hold it up for me to trim it. He pulls it forward and paws. This is not something he does when he stands tied, waiting, only when I want to trim it. If you have followed my blog, you’ll know I have spoke of this before. Currently I am steeped in Linda Kohanov’s book “The Power of the Herd.” I likely have been reading it’s parts for a year now because I believe its information is applicable every day in every situation. In fact In the Company of Horses has a workshop based in these understandings. Yesterday when I went to get Sterling to trim , Harley came right along with us. I tied Sterling to the hitching rail, gathered my stuff and began trimming. If he was attentive and thoughtful with his feet and my trimming, every few minutes he would get praise and a cookie, if he was not, a no and no cookie. Well, Harley caught on to this pretty quick and came over to get a cookie, but the price was to get a foot trimmed first. Now Harley has no problems getting his feet trimmed but Sterling watched as I talked and worked with Harley at liberty to get his feet trimmed, just one at a time and I made a big fuss telling him he was a good boy, lots of rubs and a cookie. Then I would go to one of Sterling’s easier feet and do the same. If he pulled any of them away at any time, I just let it go, said no and went back to Harley to trim another foot, lavish him with praise and cookies and then back to Sterling again. Happily Harley has 4 feet to trim because it took that much back and forth for Sterling to catch on and stand, holding his foot up and waiting with attention and thoughtful behavior, being careful of me, while getting his feet trimmed, getting tons of “good boys” and of course cookies! Wearing shorts and sneakers is another good incentive for a girl to not fight with a big horse to get his feet trimmed!
It’s February now and Sterling is coming 4 years old. He acted in a more stallion like way than I have seen before and I can see by his behavior how he would be attractive to mares.
So, there were goose hunters collecting white snow goose decoys at dusk and all the horses were on high alert because they were jumping in and out of the ditch and looking sneaky even though they were 1000 yards away from us. I came out to feed in the middle of this attention. I got all the food ready and called the girls to come in and all but Summer gave up on the hunters and came to dinner. She and Sterling were looking with high intent at the hunters. Summer turned to run into the barn but couldn’t stay in her stall to settle and eat, she just turned around and ran out at full attention to watch the predators.
I waited on her and invited her in and stayed with her until she settled and could eat. Then I went out to feed the boys. They live together inside of the track the girls live on. Harley is the bay gelding.
As always I brought out the boys buckets and proceeded to the round pen where Harley eats. He followed me right over while Sterling watched the hunters. I poured Harley’s food in his bowl and he began to eat and I went to feed Sterling. As soon as I exited the round pen, Sterling let out a loud blow of air with a big woosh; that got Harley’s attention and now he too was on high alert.
I continued to walk to Sterling ‘s bowl and he tracked with me all the way to the back though 150 yards away. He was very animated in his movement looking every bit like a stallion, blowing hard and loud on high alert and letting everyone know it. While he was breath taking, I was staying very grounded appreciating his concern and attention yet not feeding it, afterall, I knew there was no real danger to us. I put his food in the bowl and got focused on the hunters making sure he knew I also knew and used our Social Intelligence (or collective knowing) to help him relax. I was not close to him, just standing calmly, breathing slowly and intentionally, he trotted himself right over to me and we stood together watching but only for a moment when I turned to walk toward his dinner.
We stopped about 10 feet from the bowl where Sterling was now calm and present to dinner, we shared a soft slow connected touch of “all is right in the world” and went to his dinner together.
I turned to leave but he instantly came with me, so I walked over to a jump in the field about 20 feet from him and sat facing the hunters. He was able to eat in peace. Each time I glanced back at him, he was eating while watching me.
I was eventually able to walk away while he finished eating. The hunters began to look less concerning when they began to walk to their truck. I looked back to Sterling and when he was done, he galloped right over to me. I did not have a concern in the world, he sidled up right next to me and we watched the hunters together. I stayed with him for a long time while they got in their truck and left.
Then a couple of interesting things happened, when the danger was over. I went in to let the girls out from dinner and Summer came out first, she ran right over to Sterling and for the first time put her nose over the fence to visit with him. Anyone who knows the relationship that my horses have know Summer is the only one of the mares who has had no interest in Sterling whatsoever. I believe it is because as a thoroughbred broodmare, she did not have, well, any say in the matter of stallions. Summer has never, since Sterling came as a 6 month old had any interest in him. But this protective Stallion that showed up seemed to interest her! I mean, how much experience does a domesticated mare actually have with stallions outside of the domesticated way we breed them? Usually stallions are kept far away from mares and the mares seem to be frustrated by the geldings they get to interact with! Ladies, what is attractive to us?
This is Summer.
It only took me a short while to realize I barely knew what I was doing. My first horse was a sorrel Quarter Horse gelding 8 years old. Perfect first horse except he pulled on the lunge line and ran away, pulled back when tied, steered like a mack truck and wouldn’t stop for me and I couldn’t get him to stop grazing. A popular local trainer told me a double twisted wire snaffle bit would help to control him on the lunge and while riding. This all got me thinking and feeling like something was wrong.
Two years later, my second horse a Paint weanling filly got me into action. I knew I needed help but I didn’t want to hurt this little girl and I didn’t want to recreate what I already had in my gelding. I wore my helmet just to walk across the yard because she was always jumping on me. I noticed right away that while she was always on top of me, she never even bumped into my gelding even by accident; he stood at the fence and she respectfully stood quietly behind him. I needed some of what he had! So I watched and I became obsessed with watching what he did.
Over the next 4 years, visiting with everyone, devouring books, articles in magazines and going to clinics brought me to Louisville KY, Equitana USA. It was 1996, upon my arrival home, in the plethora of trade show literature I found a magazine called Natural Horsemanship. It talked of horses as prey animals and that made tons of sense, no wonder my little horse was afraid, that chain over her nose was hurting her, no wonder she acted like I was going to kill her I was acting like a predator! And just like that bit didn’t help my gelding, that chain never helped keep my, now four year old, off of me. The magazine talked of games horses play and games sounded like fun, the reason I wanted horses in the first place fun, friendship, you know, the dream of Black Beauty, galloping on the beach free as the wind!
This is my girl! Now in her 20’s
As it turned out there was a clinic and all the stars aligned and we were in. The clinician said this was a foundation program and we should complete it or any foundation program, then we would have a complete picture from which to think. It was sound advice. Before the end of the first session, my girl was standing behind me like she did with my gelding at the fence, in three months I was riding on trails, just the two of us with nothing but our relationship. We now had real communication where both of us had something to say and we each listened or not but we were both at least in the same conversation! Now I was not a kid, I had a business to run, a farm to keep and three sons to raise. This was a major transformation and the impetus for our bitless adventure.
At the clinic we learned to ride with one rein, actually a soft rope halter and 12 ft. lead rope. After we had done it on the ground, if we could sit on our horses, toss the rope over her nose and bend her on each side, softly, we could walk and do the same exercise and if all went well we could move on to the trot and the canter. Well, everyone in the clinic was cantering around with one rein except me. I was just sitting there in the middle of the arena trying to get my horse to go. I didn’t even know how much I used my reins to go! I really needed to get connected to my body.
I started this gray mare after I completed my foundation training. She was 7 at the time. When I learned to ride with a seat independant from my hands and to use my reins separately, I learned that safety came in being able to stop and go, directing the forward motion. My first horse liked to stop; not every horse does. The soft one rein stop using the soft rope halter and lead rope works. Timing and feel need to be practiced by the rider and the horse will benefit from this practice too. Some people call it an emergency stop, best to make sure the brakes work before engaging the engine. When there are no strings attached you learn to really rely on your body language and believe in social intelligence or the collective knowing. In my foundation program I was told not to talk, so I didn’t, this gave me a deep connection to my unspoken (thoughts, feelings, intention) and body language. I added talking after my foundation was in place. I find talking helps many people and horses, I have experienced it getting in the way for others.
I regularly ride off the track thoroughbreds, standardbreds, warmbloods, quarter horses young and old in a soft rope halter and a lead rope, I prefer this setup because if we have not gotten to the bottom of an issue and I have to be firmer with a horse, I’m not causing them pain. I am a big fan of ‘working it out on the ground’ so issues in the saddle are few and far between.
The photo at the top of this page is me riding my lovely lead mare and ponying two others, of course bitless and barefoot, our friend Karen whose horse’s head is in the photo took that picture. Giving a horse purpose is important to their overall mental health and physical well being. Moving together at a trot for awhile is natural for a herd. It’s good for what ails us all!
It’s the environment that we create….. That creates the horses we have.
No matter where we find ourselves, we are creating our environment and the environment our horses are living into. Just look around and see how it’s going. Is your herd happy? Do they get along with one another? Are they biting, kicking chasing each other off of the hay?
Or are they willing to share? Share space, share food, share you? Do they have real leadership?
It all changed here at In the Company of Horses Inc. when a true lead mare entered our herd. In the olden days I would mistake dominance for leadership, that is because true leadership was not present. I found out that true leaders are clear; willing to engage and willing to walk away; friendly; consistent, they observe situations and claim the space they want by clarity and intention not by force. It’s like in Star Wars, they use The force, not force.
I was recently in the company of other people with my horses and our event was over and while we packed up I threw a hay bag like the one pictured above into the arena where it was cooler than in the trailer. One gal commented that her horses would break out into a fight over that hay and not share food so nicely. I had forgotten about that since I started to play with food to see if it would be safe to use in the Equine Assisted Learning Arena.
Part of what works around here is the horses live outside together in a herd 24 hours a day 7 days a week unless I’m doing something with them. They travel together on in our track system, separated by a fence only because we have an intact boy. The boys travel next to the girls though and visit with one another through their shared windows in the run in shed. The horses are EXPECTED to manage themselves together and act appropriately and that’s what they do. I am not saying no one ever kicks anyone else or moves them forcefully; I’m saying it’s the very rare occasion when anyone forcefully moves anyone else through touch, it’s usually through other means of communication, and NO ONE is allowed to move anyone else while I’m around. ESPECIALLY if that someone is engaged with me. I learned how to be clear, friendly and share my intention by doing way less sooner rather than waiting until it’s too late. Thank you to lead mare’s everywhere!