Heading beyond good and bad


I was thinking about horses today, which I guess goes without saying.  Yesterday my young horse Bridger was a turd during our ride and today he was charming.  That’s what I said to a friend, only it’s not true.  On both days he was himself, doing what he needed to do.  The rest is on me.

I called my trainer Kathleen to complain about his fractious behavior yesterday.  As always, she was consistent in using words like “lost” and “troubled,” while I was thinking “shit head” and “obnoxious.”  This, even though I love my horse to distraction and always fall into sentiment where he’s concerned.  Even still, Kathleen has to remind me over and over and over again to look at the world through his eyes instead of rushing to label him.  I know how to do this; I believe this is the right thing to do; I enjoy doing this; but I always forget to do it when things get tough.  I keep defaulting to blaming my horse.

Yesterday I took Bridger on what was supposed to be a short, easy, mindless ride on the road past our house.  It was late afternoon at the end of a long and tiring work week and I thought this little outing would be just the thing.  Instead, Bridger was tossing his head and surging forward, threatening to bolt out from under me.  When I picked up a rein to ask him to turn his head, he grabbed the bit with his mouth and pulled the other way.   At one point, he thought he might rear up on me, which he hasn’t tried for almost a year.  His body thrummed with energy.  We were on the edge of a blowup most of the time.  Using everything Kathleen taught me over the years, I kept a lid on things.  Instead of heading down the road, we spent 45 minutes circling and slaloming and backing and retracing our steps over 30 yards of road and shoulder.  When I finally got him to cooperate with me a bit, I jumped off and called it a frustrating day.

I managed to make the worst of it, as I often do.  Why was he such an ass?  I asked myself.  I’m really screwing this horse up, I told myself.  I’m allowing him to be a spoiled jerk, I complained, and we are both going to hell in a hand basket.  I called Kathleen.  Did I do the wrong things with him?  Should I have done this instead of that?  Maybe, she replied, but most importantly, she spoke for Bridger.

What I saw as an easy little outing was actually one of the tougher things I could have asked of him.  I took him away from his friends to ride alone, which is always challenging for an inexperienced horse.  But I didn’t take him far — he could hear and smell and see his buddies the whole time.  I set up a situation in which he was sure to be both worried about being alone and highly motivated to get back to the friends who were so tantalizingly near.  We reminisced that when we took Bridger away from home with no other horse in sight he usually did just fine.  He’s not awfully worried about simply being away from his friends, but I put him in a double bind and then expected him to focus and relax.  And let’s not forget that I was probably tired and strung out, which did nothing to ease his concerns.

Instead of seeing what he was going through, I called him a shit head.  Thank goodness I’m well-trained enough that I didn’t punish him or yell at him, but I labelled him bad and savaged myself for making him bad.

Isn’t this what we do?  You’d be amazed how many horses are stupid shit heads every day, running or bucking or otherwise trying to save themselves from things we don’t take the time to understand.  Things we create for them, as often as not, and then blame them for their reactions.

Today I took Bridger to the arena along with his buddy Jack.  I let him run and buck a little first and take a couple rolls in the hot sand.  Then we did some work while Jack stood nearby.  Bridger was an excellent student today, and a wonderful guy to be around.  If I were less educated, I might congratulate myself on having a perfect horse and being an especially skilled horsewoman.  That’s a more pleasant picture than yesterday’s, but it’s no more true.

On both days, my choices and the environment created circumstances.  I came to both situations with expectations and a background emotional state.  Bridger responded to the circumstances and to me as it all seemed to him.  Today his responses fit very nicely with my plans.  Yesterday, not so much.  End of story.




“Stay with him and wait”


Bridger was nervous in the arena.  He was worried about the trash cans outside the fence, where black cats once popped out right under his nose like Halloween Jack-in-the-boxes.  He was skeptical about the safety of the dais at one end where judges looked down on the proceedings.  And he was seriously concerned about the staffer hosing down the alleyway next to the arena.  The shadowy figure, the hiss of the water, the spray and fleeing dust were dreadful to the young horse.

I rode him through our lesson, round and round and across the arena, urging him closer and closer to the worrisome spots while trying not to push him to panic stage.

We were working on some small circling maneuvers near the hose man.  I was keeping Bridger’s attention focused on a minute task in the presence of something scary, trying to take his mind off the threat.  Someday, hopefully, Bridger will look to me in these cases and take my lead on whether there is danger, but we’re not there yet.  He complied with my directions, but stayed alert to the dangerous situation next to us.

Suddenly, Bridger tucked his enormous haunches under himself and launched forward and sideways.  He worked so hard at his instantaneous spook that he let out a huge fart as he went.

My brain lags at these moments — it took me a few milliseconds to realize what was happening.  By the time I processed it, we had jumped halfway across the arena and he was trotting out the end of his spook.  I was securely in the middle of the saddle, hardly a hair out of place.

Here’s what I loved about this.  I was not afraid.  I sat deeply in the saddle and held on to the gullet.  When he was back on four feet, I calmly gathered the reins to prepare to slow him down or simply go on to the next thing.

As he launched into the air with his gaseous assist, my brain spoke very clearly: “stay with him and wait.”  I wasn’t sure what he was doing but I had learned not to panic.  I knew I needed to keep my balance and stay on the horse and that the moment would pass. I learned this the hard way.

Last summer, when Bridger gave out a much less impressive quasi-buck, my brain told me something else: “holy shit! disaster! abandon ship!”  So I did.  I thought his minor upheaval was the beginning of mayhem without end, and I fled.  And got a broken bone and several lasting bruises for my choice.

After months and months of dedicated effort, including a volume of tears and sweat, my instinctive brain was finally able to say something reasonable and helpful.  And correct.  Stay with him and wait.  So I did and all was well.

And now I go forth, hoping to do the same in whatever life throws at me.  Which looks to be quite a bit in the near future.  I hope to ride the upheavals as they go and wait for the moment when I can right the ship.  And keep my bones intact.


The Om in Horsemanship


It’s pouring down rain, so there won’t be much horsing around today.  My goal of riding Bridger every day as a cure for our woes is on pause this day.  But there’s plenty of time for thinking about horses and life and stuff.

Horseman Peter Campbell says something like “the problem is not the problem, your attitude about the problem is the problem.”

My “problem” with Bridger is very simple — there are things he needs to understand better and ideas he has that I’d rather he didn’t.  This wouldn’t be a problem at all except that the process of teaching and redirecting him can be scary because I sit on his back and he is large and powerful.

But even so, it’s my attitude that creates the problem.  When Bridger gets fractious or lost, there are a couple options.  If I were Buck Brannaman, I’d ride him right through it without blinking because I would know I could.  Or, I could see the issue developing, mindfully dismount and address it from the ground.  Neither is a problem.

What do I do?  Fear grabs me, or maybe frustration, and right behind come self-doubt, self-criticism, dismay and a bunch of other complicated emotions.  My muscles tighten, my mind trips offline.  I’m lost in a feeling storm, useless for giving my horse the direction and confidence he needs.  If I’m not careful, I can start blaming Bridger for the whole mess.  And voila — a real problem.

FDR would have answered Peter Campbell nicely, adding, for example, that all we have to fear is fear itself.  Or anger or jealousy or despair.  My yoga teachers would nod sagely — notice where your mind goes when your body is challenged, they say, is it necessary?

How many times a day do we create problems with our emotions and reactions where, in fact, there is simply a circumstance?

Yoga and horsemanship point me in the same direction: stick with exactly what is for a while and let the rest go.  Next time I get on Bridger’s back, I’ll be really trying to do just that.

Going Steady with Fear

I rode Bridger today.  You’ll understand something about that if you read this earlier post.  It means a lot.

Last summer, Bridger and I hit a big glitch in our progress.  I asked him for a little more than he was ready for, so he gave out a little buck, which was enough to unseat me, which was enough to crack my ulna.  Neither the buck nor the crack were such a big deal.  The killer was the fear that immediately colonized me.

Fear has not been a big thing with me.  Not on a conscious level, anyway.  I’ve had plenty of dicey moments on mountain bikes, on snow-covered slopes in the backcountry, with lightning on the alpine tundra, in class 4 river rapids after I fell out of the boat.  I’ve unexpectedly come much too close to male moose and grizzly bear cubs.  Each event had its adrenaline-soaked excitement and some hindsight shivers, but each easily became a great story to revisit over a beer.  Not so with my fall off Bridger.

I am inherently, helplessly scared of heights. I grow dizzy and watery too close to a precipitous fall.  I feel compelled to go over — if someone forced me to spend too long on a tiny ledge, I might have to plunge over.  So I do have that fear, but I handle it by simply avoiding the situation.  I tried rock climbing, which would have been a good match for my other mountain hobbies, but there wasn’t enough in it to overcome the visceral fear, so I left it behind.  I admire views from a safe distance.  I can’t leave Bridger behind or stay at a distance.

After my fall off Bridger, pictures of people riding horses made me queasy.  Being around my horses at feeding time gave me all-over prickles.  After my arm healed a little, I got on my older horse, Jack, who is as reliable, slow and calm as they come.  I felt sick and loose-limbed.  I shed tears.

I mostly got over it.  With the superb help of friends, a couple sports psychology books and patient Jack, it eased up and left me.  Meanwhile, Kathleen was busy helping Bridger get over his own problem.  Six months after the fall, I was riding Bridger in the backcountry on an unfamiliar trail, having a good time.

This year, we hit another glitch, but on a smaller scale.  You can learn more about that here.

Again, I backed up and brought Kathleen in.  Again, it got better after only a few weeks of focused effort.

So today, I went out by myself and rode Bridger.  I fought back butterflies before I got out to the corral.  I talked out loud to myself when he wiggled his head and slewed his ribs the wrong way and acted like there was a mountain lion in the bush.  It worked out pretty well, but I think I have begun a long-term relationship with fear.  For (maybe) the first time, I have a thing, and a family member, that cannot be denied or left behind and that evoke a new kind of fear.  I’m very happy I got myself out there and had a nice little ride today, but there is much more to understand.







This Horse Ain’t Broke

They used to call it breaking a horse.  Many still do.  Breaking his spirit, breaking his independence.  Taking something correct and complete and destroying it.  It’s fitting terminology for what it used to look like (and still does in some circles).

                 I was going to insert a video clip of a horse getting “broke” here but I just can’t do it, so here’s something cute instead:

201110 baby

My colt Bridger at four months, correct and complete

I broke my arm once.  Just a little, hairline fracture.  It’s healed up now, but it will never be the same.  It can never be unbroken.

The horsemen I follow call it starting a horse.  Starting into a long education.

<Buck Brannaman explains how it’s supposed to be>

We ask the horse to consent to do what we ask.  We give him time and space to consider his options, and in the end, he usually agrees with our suggestions.  It’s a wondrous thing.

But what about when he doesn’t?  In his fifth year, Bridger suddenly started disagreeing.  Suddenly, that is, if one has failed to see the ripples and eddies forming on the surface of the pond.  Bridger has now decided to revolt against those things he doesn’t like.  The sweet, seemingly compliant kid has erupted into a surly teenager.

He’s a horse, surly is the wrong word.  He’s unconfident and worried and irritated and frustrated, by turns or all at once.  Maybe he wasn’t before, or maybe he just wasn’t showing it much.  Now he is.  His modus operandi is to rear up, which can be extremely dangerous.



This is not Bridger and me.  This horse is about to fall over backwards on that person, which could be the end for both of them.  I hope it wasn’t.

So now we have to convince Bridger to quit it.  We have to make him understand that his rearing idea — and his defiance ideas in general — won’t work out for him and he needs to find other ideas.

The plan, implemented by my teacher, Kathleen Sullivan, is to provoke the unwanted response and then show Bridger it’s not in his best interest.  If we pussyfoot around and avoid the tough spot, it will stay in there and solidify.

“If it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected.”  Carl Jung.

Here’s the thing: correcting a problem can look awfully like breaking something.  Kathleen gets pretty vigorous with Bridger when he thinks about rearing up.  In my work with him, it can be the same.  Dust flies, there is sweat.  First he is quick and powerful and troubled, then, soon, he is docile.

I have to find the difference because I know we are not breaking him and won’t break him and can’t break him.  Right?

Here’s the best I can do so far:

  • Breaking: you reach for my french fries and I punch you in the face.  I have my fries and you resent and fear me.  Someday you may punch me back, if I ever see you again.
  • Correcting: you reach for my french fries and I block your hand; you reach harder and I block harder; I block as fast and hard as I need to in protecting my fries; our hands fly like a Three Stooges routine; you give up trying.  I have my fries and you recognize you won’t get any by grabbing.  Maybe you ask politely and I give you some.  Maybe you order your own.  We’re friends.

Sometimes I use the shorthand term “broke” because horse people understand it.  I tell people Bridger’s “broke to tie” or “green broke.”  I hope beyond hope I haven’t broken anything much.  It’s not the plan.





What I Could Get Done Today


I woke up at 2:30 a.m. in a clammy sweat, wondering if I have what it takes.  I have a young horse, about half-broke, who needs many hours of careful, confident riding to get to a steady state.  Between here and there, he may need to test the limits, maybe bucking with me, or rearing, or bolting.  We’ve done everything to help prevent that, but I’m 52 years old and not much more than a novice rider.  His need to test could be my undoing.

But I can’t leave him as he is; he could be a danger to himself and others.  I need to see this through, but I don’t know if I can.

I’m not alone in this, I have an excellent teacher on board.  She’s sharing the riding job with me and coaching me throughout.  But there’s an interface between the horse and me where only the two of us can go.  That is where we have to forge this relationship, just us.

The stakes are high.  Every day, we are building the house we will live in together from here on out.  It needs to be right.  Every day, there is some risk that I could be hurt, and I have less leeway for that kind of thing than I used to.  If I push myself too hard, I could implode with reactive fear and aversion.  If I don’t push us both hard enough, we could solidify in a half-baked, uneasy mediocrity.

My teacher points out how much I will learn from working through this.  About horsemanship, about my own limits.  She suggests that, when we succeed (as she has no doubt we will), I will enjoy a relationship and a sense of confidence like no other.  Ten years ago, that would have been enough.  Today, in the early hours before dawn, I wonder if I can learn these things anymore.  If I want to.

The mountain is too high to take in the whole.  Today, after we all had breakfast, I took the horse out and worked with him from the ground.  As I walked and stood alongside him, we practiced paying attention even when he was nervous about rustling bushes.  We practiced responding lightly to subtle moves of the reins.  We practiced fancy footwork on challenging terrain.  I put a penny in the jar, saving toward a well-educated horse.  That’s about all I could do today, and about all I had to.


When Danny Colicked


20120512 Danny

Danny is a very difficult horse.  For reasons that could fill a book — and will, you can make advance reservations here for a book you can have read to you in 2056 in your hospice room — he long ago decided humans are either contemptible or dangerous, or both.  He’ll accept petting and cookies, but he’ll turn himself inside out to avoid school or work.

The other night, Danny colicked.  The word freezes the intestines of horse owners.  A simple gastric hitch — maybe a clump of food that didn’t process well, an excess of gas, a bit of inflammation — can kill an otherwise healthy horse.

I don’t know why horses are designed with such vulnerable digestive systems.  Horses can’t vomit.  They have a single, small stomach, unlike cows.  Their guts have to digest very tough, fibrous material, so they are extremely long and ropy, twisted into torturous coils in the back halves of their bodies.  With only one way for anything to travel, and a densely packed container, the slightest disruption can cause extreme pain.  Wikipedia lists 16 types of colic, including “other.”  Unresolved colics can kill, particularly when the gut ruptures from the stress.

The other night, I went to bring the horses in from the pasture.  Danny, for all his resistance to my leadership, is always first to come in from grazing.  Because I serve a smidgeon of grain at this time.  When I close the house door to head to the corral, he whinnies at me from wherever he is on the 25 acres.  He comes running to get his nose first into the grain.  The other two horses saunter in as and when they feel like it, sometimes requiring additional persuasion, but not Danny.

This night, Danny walked in slowly, second in line.  He took his place by his bucket.  I looked over all three to make sure all the body parts were where they belonged and headed back to the house.  As I was leaving the corral, I noticed that Danny was just standing over his bucket, not eating.  I paused.  He stood.  I turned to watch him.

His eyes were staring and locked.  To my horror, he turned and bit at his belly, a classic sign of colic.  Before I could move, he suddenly turned and charged aggressively at my older horse.  This was so uncharacteristic, I began to worry in earnest.  I grabbed a halter and collected Danny, taking him into my small training pen.  I began walking him around aimlessly as I’ve been taught.  He was vacant in the eye, stumbling a little as we walked.  We would stop and his knees would buckle a little — either he was thinking of rolling or just unsteady on his legs, both bad signs.  At one point, I let him loose in the pen to see what he would do and he started manically trotting around in small circles with no direction from me.

To make a long story tolerable, we spent an hour and a half together, waiting to see what would happen.  I gave him an anti-inflammatory drug.  I walked him.  I loaded him in and out of the trailer, I had him stand with just his hind feet in the trailer (downward facing pony pose) and then just his fronts.  I walked him some more.  His frightening behavior lessened.  When he seemed a little more with it, I moved him around in small circles, asking him to bend his body laterally.  He immediately started farting and didn’t stop for long minutes.  The relief floated up from him, along with the offending gas.  As we walked back to meet the other horses, he let out a distinct belch and looked satisfied with himself.

So all was well.  The real story happened the next day.  I went into the corral with a halter to catch my young horse for some schoolwork.  Usually, Danny avoids me.  With a turn of his head, a half-turn of the the body, a slow saunter, or a determined trot, he goes away when I come with a halter.  This day, he didn’t.  He stood looking at me.  I approached him as an experiment and, by god, he stepped towards me.  I pretended to catch him, just to make my point, and petted him vigorously all over, before going about my business with the other horse.  The next day, he did the same thing.  The third day, I stood with Danny while he got new shoes put on and he was as peaceful and affectionate as I’ve ever seen him.

We are warned not to anthropomorphize our horses, even while we spend all our time trying to understand their psyches.  Of course we can’t help but anthropomorphize them — we have only our anthropoid eyes to see them with and anthropoid brains to process the data.  Pretending to be objective about animals is like pretending we only have eyes to perceive a park and the sounds don’t matter.  However, we can do our best not to project ourselves onto them, trying our hardest to see them with all of our senses as they are and not as we want them to be.

Did Danny decide I could be trusted after all?  Was he grateful that I helped him?  Did he form a Pavlovian positive association between me and those blissful farts?  Did he sense that I wanted to help and was willing to stick with him until he was fit again and appreciate it?  I’ll never know what happened inside him, but I know how it looked — and felt — from the outside.

20120506 Danny Kate

On not being a natural

How you know when something comes naturally:

  • You feel relaxed and comfortable in it
  • You succeed without trying very hard
  • Your mind, or your body, accommodates itself instantly to the thing
  • The first time feels familiar
  • Something opens doors and propels you along
  • You move more easily and more quickly through it than other people
  • You can’t explain how or why you get it, you just get it

I have a few of those.  I presume everyone does.

Horsemanship is not one of them.  I thought I was reasonably coordinated, fairly strong, adequately brave, thoroughly sensitive and exhaustively honest with myself.  Working with horses puts the lie to all that.  The myriad aspects of this art do not come naturally and destroy my self-concept.  After 10 years of diligent study with an excellent teacher, I:

  • Fumble and flail with the gear
  • Use my hands in the wrong way
  • Place myself in the wrong position
  • Read the horse wrong
  • Make the wrong choices
  • Increasingly quail from the size of the job
  • Fear more
  • Misunderstand my own demeanor

I finally get it that I’m not a natural.  Maybe I’m reaching acceptance, having moved through denial (“I’m awesome, this is great!”), anger (“what the hell is with this stupid horse?!?!”), bargaining (“horse, please, please just understand what I’m trying to say” or “teacher, please do this for me”) and depression (“—-“).

It feels bad.  I vastly prefer succeeding without effort, sailing ahead just because.  I’m embarrassed and ashamed and resentful that I’m only creeping and crawling forward, much more slowly than others.  I’m repulsed by my awkward moves and failed attempts.

But I’m still working at it.  It’s a miracle that I haven’t fled, but here I am.  I keep learning things, I succeed a little now and then.  And yesterday I had quite a breakthrough — I was actually amused at my own incompetence.  Later that afternoon, I was more comfortable in my own skin than I had been in a very long time.

Maybe this is the point.  The satisfaction might be in the job well done, but it also might be in getting comfortable with exactly where you are.  Natural or not.



Learning to write and learning to ride

“Horsemanship and life, it’s all the same to me” ~ Buck Brannaman

The novice horseman and the novice writer will

  • learn skills, learn approaches, learn theory, and then forget about them and just do it
  • watch and emulate the best and then be shut in a room to develop her own way
  • bang her head on walls and then discover they are mirrors
  • look at the mountain, look at the teaspoon in her hand, and then begin
  • run as fast as she can and wind up back at the damn mirror
  • find it inside or not find it at all
  • wish the whole freaking thing would leave her alone
  • understand that this is now her life, other plans be damned
  • wonder why it took so long to get started


IMG_3625Writer's desk

Engage with the equines!

Horses and horsemanship pretty much dominate my life these days, even though I didn’t know one end of a horse from another when I began. I started with horses from scratch, at age 42. It’s been a process, to put it lightly.

Here is a very quick rundown of what happened to me, as introduction for stories of equestrian adventures you may soon be privy to.

2005: about the first thing I did when we arrived in our new country home was obtain a horse, the obliging yet deceiving Jack.

20061218 closeup

I didn’t want Jack to be lonely on our place, so I sauntered down to a local horse rescue and adopted the cutest thing they had, almost without question. Game-changer. Life-changer. Too bad he didn’t have his real eyes showing at the rescue, I could have been saved. It’s Danny.

20090303 Danny

After a few years of frolicking around with those two,

20111217 J and D

I decided I needed a new horse, one that didn’t have a lot of baggage and bad habits. I wound up with Bridger, a really, really new horse.

201110 baby

Without a broken bone yet, Bridger and I have progressed, as follows:

B n K cropped

There, 9 years of intense initiation, grindingly hard work, intermittent terror, cyclical discouragement and a hell of a lot of joy, all encapsulated in a comic strip.