Learning Curve

One of the reasons I decided I didn’t like taking horses in for training or rehabilitation is that it’s so difficult to stay in the moment and honor both what I need and what the horse needs on a day to day basis. Re-connecting with Rio has been so much fun. My enthusiasm is brimming over and I have a strong desire to spend time with him every day - don’t want to lose the momentum and all that…

This past week is the first week I’ve been back to a somewhat normal level of physical activity since before Mom had her surgery back in December before Christmas. Since that time I’ve been fairly sedentary and then, of course went down with the flu just before the New Year. I keep thinking I’m okay and then I go do something (like dancing with Steve at a concert last Sunday). By 9 pm I was absolutely exhausted. On Tuesday I worked with three horses, something I haven’t done in a very long time. Then we had another dancing, social activity on Wednesday evening. By yesterday I was wiped out. I wasn’t sleeping well, waking up with a headache at 4 am after having trouble falling asleep because of leg cramps. I just chalked it up to soreness from getting back into activities again.

What does all this have to do with training horses? Well, yesterday afternoon I was so tired I could hardly see straight. Three nights with barely adequate sleep and I was pretty cranky too. But, I thought, I’m going to go see Rio anyway. He had Wednesday off and I just have to keep up my momentum! “We’ll just walk around the pasture or something that gets me out in the sunshine moving, nothing complicated’.

Rio was waiting at the gate, could not wait to get the halter on and marched with enthusiasm toward the arena gate. Okay. We got into the arena and it was all he could do to wait for me to close the gate before he started trotting toward the north end of the property - back to the square pen where he found that alfalfa yesterday and got to really move his energy. He was absolutely full of himself and terribly insistent on eating that hay again.

I quickly realized that I in no way had the energy or enthusiasm to be more interesting than that little bit of hay and the little bits of green things sprouting up around the edges of the paddock. I had to admit defeat and after letting Rio eat for a while I was able, with some difficulty, to negotiate getting the halter back on and going back out to his pasture turnout for the evening.

My realization in all this is that I was already putting pressure on myself and this relationship with Rio because I’m sharing the journey with the class. I was putting us into training and trying to make it happen even when I had absolutely nothing to give. The first lesson in the online class is all about self-awareness, self-care, recognizing basic survival needs and so forth. I thought I was doing a good job of pacing myself, but I was not. I thought I was back to full health and could just power through and get back to fitness in a few days. I cannot. I saw my Naturopath today and he confirmed, my body is still fighting that flu bug. Armed with herbs and a sense of relief at knowing why I’m so sore and so tired, I am ready to really listen to my own body.

Rio, I’m sure, will be greatly relieved not to have me show up asleep on my feet to interact with him! Though maybe he wouldn’t mind if it means he gets to drag me around and eat all the goodies he can find!

I’ll monitor much more carefully my motivation for spending time with Rio. I want to be out there with him when my whole heart is in it, not just because I feel obligated to get something done. Lesson learned.

Day 3: Moving Energy and Bumping Edges of Comfort Zones


Rio Day 3

Morning check in:

Rio indicates he’s been waiting for me and that yesterday was intense. Agreed!

I ask him what he wants to share with me about that?

He shows me his diaphragm – I feel butterflies in my stomach – a lot of tension in fascia along the ventral edge of the diaphragm. Feel fear radiate through the viscera – heart, lungs, throat. As that moves through I try checking in with his kidneys since he wouldn’t let me touch them yesterday in the physical.

I feel his kidney area as a big blank, it feels walled off – I ask what’s organizing this pattern?

I hear/feel, protection – he says: ‘ I was not allowed to express my fears.’ He’s afraid he’ll get hurt (as in both his heart and his body through punishment). Huge wave of fear moves through his topline (under spine). Releases through the withers into top of neck. Big release through his lower back into sacrum. A feeling of letting down his guard. Lots of reassurance I’s jus him and me from now on – I won’t ask anyone else’s opinion.

Afternoon session:

He was happy to be haltered and followed me through the gate but then tried to drag me off to investigate before I had the gate closed. We had to negotiate about that and it took a moment for him to change his mind and come back to me. He really wanted to go explore in other directions today but I had limited time and really wanted him to get to move his energy more dramatically.

I explained that to him and he followed me after a moment’s hesitation. He then followed along well through the arena gate where we had to navigate through Merlin and Smokey who really wanted to visit. I moved them off enough to get through and then asked Rio to hurry up and come along so we didn’t end up with too much drama. Since I didn’t pay those two any mind they moved off and ignored us.

Rio, meanwhile trotted while I jogged for the square pen that serves as our container when I want to work at liberty and not run a mile!

I was video taping for a piece I’ve been asked to contribute to an online classroom. I was trying to catch video showing how our posture influences communication. So I played around with a few ideas with Rio and he was brilliant on the halter and lead following me flawlessly. Then I decided to let him nibble grass along the edges to show how to get a horse to pick their head up and follow me from body language alone. He was super forgiving, just very interested to be with me which was very cool so I decided to abandon the online classroom stuff and do our own thing, continuing on from where we left off in our morning session. With that I turned him loose in the pen.

By the time I had the camera situated he had wandered off and was fully intent on nibbling bits of green along the edges of the paddock. I video-taped the session so I won’t go into detail here but we had a lot of fun.

Things I noticed during the session that I want to remember:

  • He was clearly more comfortable traveling left that right

  • I see a lot of tension in his shoulders

  • He expressed a lot of energy and yet was always ready and willing to come back to me and be quiet. I love it when a horse can bring their energy up and come back down!

  • I did not feel the inner turmoil and nervousness I’ve felt in him in the past

  • He did not run away from the bridle today and with a little cheering him on was willing to give it a try.

  • What he did in hand was brilliant, beyond brilliant – I couldn’t be happier

The only place I felt slight trepidation was on the way back to the paddock when I asked him to line him up beside the log where I mount in the arena. He clearly wanted to be sure I knew he wasn’t ready for me to climb on in that moment. I assured him I had no intention of getting on. He did walk up and stand, and when I stood on the log above him I felt a moment of worry – like he expected me to get greedy. I felt his anxiety and just touched his neck and his back with reverence. And let that be enough for today. I just love this horse!


Day 2: Managing energy and emotions

I was really tired today. It was all I could do to drag myself out the door, but when the sun came out in the afternoon I convinced myself I’d feel better for the exercise and sunshine. Before heading out I did a brief long distance check in with Rio. It was harder to connect today, I think largely because I was so tired but I persisted.

My sense is that he was good with what we did yesterday and definitely game for more. I told him I was debating about whether or not to come out and see him because I was so tired and felt he was fine either way. Then I asked him if he was game to begin exploring the bit and bridle today, realizing I’m moving things along at a fairly good clip, considering he hasn’t done anything with me in almost two years. But I’m curious how efficiently we can move along when I utilize all of my tools - without tipping into an agenda and accepting what he’s ready/not ready for.

He tells me, clearly, I’m game to try but I have some trepidation again. Similarly to yesterday he shows me how he feels in his body when he thinks about the bit. It was a sensation I’m hard pressed to describe. There was a sense of hollowness deep within the thoracic inlet, it’s like the idea of the bit shuts his heart down (this makes sense in light of what I know of his history and how he was when he came to me, so much internal emotion he was completely unable/unwilling to express). Then the sensation shifted to focus around the sterno-hyoid muscle, the jaw, TMJ, mandible, throat all go on lock down. We sit with these sensations and I flat out ask him if he wants to continue to work with the bit to release all this old stuff and he indicates he would like to do that.

As an aside, I find that most horses would prefer to be free of these old traumas rather than simply live with them for the rest of their lives.

We both acknowledge the fear inherent in the hanging onto the bit for dear life - for both horse and human. I get the sense he does not prefer to have pressure on his nose so ultimately he’d likely be happier with a bit. Maybe we’ll end up exploring a neck ring, who knows!

Not long after the distance check in I head out with a handful of equipment so that I’m prepared for whatever he decides he’s up for. Optimistic - surcingle, long lines and bridle.

I decded to just approach with the bridle first, no halter, so he was free to express himself. Where yesterday he walked right up and put his head in the halter, today he walked off, radiating anxiety. I let him go, stood and breathed, holding the bridle and acknowledging his feelings of trepidation. We circled round each other for a while. Sometimes he’d approach and tentatively look at the bridle. He even touched it with his nose once but if I lifted it for him to take it in his mouth he would leave. All sorts of sensations moved through my body, most focused around the throat and jaw. At one point I felt a huge lump in my throat, so big it hurt. That sensation of choked back tears. I have no idea if I was feeling my own stuff, his, or a combination of both but it was intense and lasted for what felt like a very long time. I simply walked around and breathed until it dissipated. Rio seemed to let go of some tension but wandered off to find things to nibble on.

Meanwhile Rivaldo (Rio’s paddock mate) came over and seemed keen to assist. I got the feeling he wanted me to put the bridle on him so I did. He took it readily and followed me around at liberty with the reins over his neck. Rio watched and i explained this was all I expected of him initially. When I took the bridle off Rivaldo Rio followed me around while I carried the bridle. Good enough for today. I put the bridle aside and grabbed the halter.

Rio marched right to the gate, put his head in the halter and seemed keen to go out with me again. This time we stayed in his turnout area. He was following my feel nicely today (following my lead) and even followed my energy up into a trot. We jogged around for a bit then I’d slow down and he’d slow with me, stop and he’d stop. So light and effortless. This is so different from what I’ve had with him before. We both got winded quickly so took lots of rest breaks to catch our breath.

As we continued on in this vein of asking him to bring his energy up, he leapt across the ditch and launched into a buck and bolt. I went with him and let the rope run through my hands, caching a little here and there to see if he could come back to me and he did. After that he got worried. I suspect he’s been punished for that kind of behavior before and all his old worried energy flooded to the surface. The neighbor horses came running across the pasture and he did his high headed, high pitched whinny, standing at attention.

He came back to me easily but as we headed more or less in the direction of his paddock he was clearly losing his cool. He whinnied several times and tried to bolt once more. So glad I was in a good position or he would have kicked me on his way by. He was still with me but barely so I asked him to move into a bit of a shoulder fore to take his energy and use it in a good direction. He was very game to do that so we worked a pattern of shoulder fore, then I’d release the lead and let him walk in a circle til he rebalanced then we’d go straight again. If he rushed or got too amped we’d go into shoulder fore and then a circle and then a halt that was initiated from tone in my core - so light his halts were!

Before long he was walking beside me and able to listen and follow my lead all the way back to the paddock.

I turned him loose and did some body work - shoulders and pecs (big release on right shoulder) - reached around and snapped something in the left side of his neck or withers. Worked on releasing tension in his belly, his low back, then did his diaphragm. I could feel an unwinding that went all the way to the mediastinum (I think that’s what it’s called, have to look that up again) the tissue band that surrounds the heart and connects the heart to the diaphragm and lungs. So interesting to keep getting taken to that area today. He walked off when that was done.

Day 1

With my hypothesis in mind, I woke up early this morning ready to do some checking in with Rio.

I sat down to meditate, I’m not much of a meditator, and my favorite quote to help me get in the right frame of mind is from Hugh Milne: ‘first let your own dust settle, then there can be no mistakes.’

I love this image of letting my dust settle and after spending yesterday with Mom I’m feeling pretty amped up. It’s hard to get grounded. I can’t find my roots. So I sit and breathe and wait for my dust to settle. I finally remember an exercise where I imagine my heart resting against my spine, this place of deep ease knowing my heart is protected and has a place to rest. Then all the connections I’ve been seeking lock into place. I feel myself being filled up by Source, I feel my roots expand out through my feet and extend toward my elm trees. They are sitting at my back as I sit on the couch, just outside the window. I love my elm trees.

The elm trees send me this: “calm down, patience.” Then they give me this deep sense of peaceful strength, rooted and strong as a tree. My body as the trunk of the tree - that much solidity to my presence. It is difficult to put this feeling into words. So much grounded, peaceful, strength.

Now I felt present enough to reach my roots out to Rio. It felt like a rushing together of our hearts. He’s all in on this heart level! But he shows me some trepidation buzzing in shoulders, tingling and ungrounded feeling through his front legs. I experience this as a flush of sensations in my own body, beginning in my shoulders, then moving through my legs - now my throat - ense, worried. This all feels like stuff from his past.

As all of these sensations settle out we both feel grounded and rooted.

REALIZATION: This calm presence is key. There can be no connection without that, everything feels like too much…


*At lunch feeding Rio seemed calm and centered. Can’t wait to go work with him in person to check in more deeply.

My goals for the afternoon session:

  1. To connect or re-connect with Rio

  2. To mutually define our goal

Historically Rio has been iffy about being caught. He sees me approaching with the halter and walks away. Even if he is easy to catch he plants his front feet, refusing to move. I always by-passed this by carrying a whip or using the swinging end of the rope to encourage him to come along.

Today he met me at the gate, put his head in the halter and seemed keen to participate! This felt so validating of the concept of checking in in the morning and setting a mutual intention. i could not be happier! He only planted his feet momentarily outside the gate. I explained to him what I wanted to do (verbally) and he followed along eagerly.

I put all the horses in their pens so we could have the run of the place. We went into the arena area and he proceeded to take me on a walk about, sniffing every poop pile he could find, heading north along the fenceline to visit with the other horses and ultimately taking me out to the north pasture where he spent 40 minutes investigating from one end of the pasture and back again.

This is significant because Rio has not always been the most adventurous guy. He’s struggled mightily with seperation anxiety and would normally get a ways out and then panic when he discovered he was on his own. Not today. No sign of anxiety at all. Rivaldo, his paddock mate, even whinnied a few times - no response from Rio.

My goal for this first day was simply to follow him along. One of the things Rio mentioned in the morning meditation is that he wondered if I would be capable of allowing him to take the lead once in a while. I was honest with him, that’s hard for me. It makes me feel a bit out of control and that’s scary, but I would try. This walk about seemed the perfect opportunity to prove to him that I could follow his lead once in a while so I did my best to follow him along and not get in his face at all. We went where he wanted to go, stopped when he wanted to stop and walked when he wanted to walk.

Finally, after 40 minutes I realized I needed us to work our way back toward his paddock as it was close to feeding time. With only a small amount of negotiation (ala the invitation to dance) Rio agreed to follow me back to his pen. It was so much fun to spend this time with him! And so validating to have him be so keen, so different from how he has been in the past.

Plan for next session:

Check in from a distance again (aka morning meditation with Rio) and ask about exploring the bridle. Consider some bodywork and maybe take the bridle with if he seems amenable in the morning meditation.

Starting Over

Rio and I a few years ago.

Rio and I a few years ago.

As I finish up the last bits of course content for the 2018 Online Class I realize I desperately need some video of me demonstrating some of the ridden concepts. The problem is I haven’t been riding anyone and when I started thinking about who would be the best candidate for what I wanted to demonstrate, Rio came up. Historically he’s been reluctant about being in the spotlight, but for some reason when he came up this time, it felt like his idea. To make sure I wasn’t imagining things I touched base with Theresa. Yep, he wants to do it and he’s rather excited about it. Yay!

His request: we practice together a bit before turning the camera on. I can get behind that.

It’s funny, it’s like since I had the all clear from Rio and Theresa confirmed, I somehow thought I would just go out there and hop on him bareback as though no time had passed between us. I’ve been imagining sitting on him bareback and just hanging out as a way to help me find some peace amidst Mom’s cancer diagnosis and all that goes with walking that journey along side her. Of course my day was full yesterday but I was determined to sit on him, even if for only a few minutes. Marched down there at evening feeding time and started throwing hay. I thought he might be okay with me just hanging out for a minute (on his back) while he ate. Not so much. I wish I had the looks on his face on camera as I dragged an upended water tank around to where he was eating, he’d move off to another hay pile, so I dragged the mounting block in from the arena and just put it near him and sat on it listening to him munch his hay. I’ll just hang out and connect, I thought. He moved off again. Not having it.

I can be a little thick when I’m excited. Message received, ‘I love you, but not now, not like this.’

Last night I decided to break out the equestrian journal gifted me by Catherine Respess. I put Rio’s name on it and yesterday as the start date. I decided to lay out a plan and make a start fresh with Rio. How do I re-start using the principles I teach?

I developed a hypothesis:

What if I connect first? By that I mean spending time with him just being together, no halter, maybe grooming, but even more than that, sitting in my house in the wee hours of the morning meditating, sending out my roots, connecting with myself, connecting with him, resonating, and seeing what comes up? How might that change the quality of our interactions in person?