In spite of everything that’s been going on I’ve been riding a lot. I’m actually kind of proud of that. Not that I don’t normally strive to ride every day that I can, but lately there’s been more than a few days where my get up and go got up and went. Sadness will do that to you. But yesterday was another two-horse day and both rides were quite good.
I’m working with a new (to me) trainer. I’m very please and excited about having access to her services, although I have to admit I’m suffering from some serious brain overload! But overload in a good way! Lots to think about before, during and after every ride. And Dharla is handing things well and responding nicely. I see a lot of “try” in her. I know I’m not always giving her the best support, yet she does her best. Yesterday we had some major background noise and distraction when our neighbor closest to our arena started clearing brush with industrial-sized equipment. They were nearby, but not visible, which normally would result in Dharla coming unglued. Fortunately, in our last lesson we also had a noisy, scary distraction that was out of sight, so I got an opportunity to work with Stephanie on how I could better manage Dharla’s energy in that kind of situation. I immediately went to work on circles, serpentines and some walk-trot transitions which put Dharla’s focus on me. In a matter of a few minutes we were back to working in a relaxed manner and all the crashing and shredding noise was forgotten.
Today we were distraction-free so I got to work on getting some nice relaxed bends in my circles. Dharla can get stiff and point her nose to the outside and I tend to collapse my inside shoulder, drop my gaze and tilt my head in the direction we’re circling. This morning I was able to focus on keeping my shoulders square, not collapsing to the inside and not tilting my head. (And looking UP) It’s a little like rubbing your tummy and patting your head, but I could immediately see how much better Dharla moved when I got the heck out of her way. Yay! I could feel when she gave her head nicely and was able to quickly reward her each time with a gentle release. I also did about ten or fifteen minutes of ground work before we started, which I think got her attention and focus more connected to me before I even got on her. I plan to continue with a bit of ground work prior to doing our ring work.
If the weather holds I’d like to try to do a trail ride tomorrow. All work and no play is no fun.
Happiness is sunshine, low humidity and 350 bales of hay in your barn by 10:30 AM!
Whenever I finish a good book it takes a few days to slip back into the real world. My body goes through the motions of my daily routine, but my head isn’t in the game. I’m still back there …. wherever that might be. The book Stable Relation was “that” kind of book; a book where somewhere around the halfway point I started glancing at the dwindling pages left to read and dreaded the fact that the book would soon end. I slowed myself down to a crawl, putting the book aside every couple of pages and giving myself time to digest the words. Still, the story had to end and when it did, I found myself wanting more. More wisdom. More patience. More love.
Anna writes a lot about love and patience and her intuitive wisdom leaps from nearly every page. That’s not to say Anna thinks she’s wise. She doesn’t. But I guess when you spend the first two decades of your life steeped in angst and irritability you eventually have to make a choice: you can either become what you’ve been shown or you can run like hell in the opposite direction. Having been trapped in midst of a very dysfunctional upbringing, it seems like it would be the wise choice to try to change your destiny. That said, I’m fairly certain this is MUCH harder to do than most think.
I grew up in an era where animal training and farm life were not particularly pleasant. We did not operate from the core philosophy of first, do no harm. It was more or less assumed that all animals were “dumb” and humans needed to bend them to our will. The vast majority of farmers didn’t consider the animals in their charge pets, friends or companions, but saw their animals as a source of income, be it in the beef or dairy market or as breeding stock. And they didn’t speak of these roles in politically correct terms so as not to offend anyone. What’s the saying now? It was what it was.
When I left home with the first dog of my independent, adult life, I didn’t know squat about training an animal. I grew up with an assortment of animals, but training wasn’t a big focus in my life. I had a horse that was already broke to ride when I got her and although I suppose I can claim I taught her how to race barrels, I suspect (because she was so enthusiastically good at it) that she already knew how. My first dog was a Humane Society adoptee who, a little initial fear aggression aside, was so biddable and willing to please that merely thinking what I wanted her to do got immediate results. Naturally, with these two highly successes starts behind me I thought I had a gift.
I do not.
As life went on I got out of horses (briefly) and into dogs. By the time my future husband entered the picture we had four dogs between us, and that number didn’t drop for several years. The dog’s ages were staggered and almost as soon as we lost one, we got another. We were into the big breeds then; German Shepherds and Dobermans, soon followed by the slightly smaller (but formidable) Australian Cattle dogs. I was usually the one who spent the most time putting some basic training on our pets. I had moderate expectations and none of our dogs were particularly difficult to train. I soon found I had good results training the dogs I considered “mine,” but somewhat less success working with the Doberman gang that belonged to my husband. By the time we morphed into Cattle dogs my husband was removed from the training process all together. It was me who spent the lion’s share of the day with our dogs so the responsibility fell on my shoulders.
I never took a formal training class until I got Cattle dogs. Having been forewarned that ACDs can be more of a challenge, I enrolled my second ACD puppy in something new: Puppy Kindergarten. It was 1998 and it sounded like a great idea. After all, who can argue with teaching a young puppy how to sit, come, and play nicely with other dogs? I eagerly arrived for the first class only to discover that I had the smallest, youngest and most easily intimidated pup in the group. Unfortunately, the trainer knew very little about how to help pups with issues like mine and I was even less enlightened. With hindsight, I should have gathered up my puppy and walked away, but I thought I had to stick it out and we were encouraged to try. By the third or forth class my pup’s fearfulness had turned into aggression. She was so tiny that several of the other puppy owners thought her behavior was “cute,” but I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and I think I stopped going shortly thereafter. Fortunately, my puppy didn’t end up aggressive, but she was always aloof and very much a loner. I’ll never know how much of her adult personality was nurture or nature.
Because I’m a slow learner and have a burning need to DO THINGS RIGHT, several years later I enrolled my next ACD puppy in puppy kindergarten. By then the Internet was well into swing and I belonged to an ACD news list. For the first time I could rub virtual shoulders with experienced trainers and dog folks and learn the proper way to go about raising a responsible pet. Most of the people on these lists had high expectations of new puppy owners. Lots of folks showed their dogs and bragged about their prowess in everything from conformation to obedience and agility. The Canine Good Citizen test had just been created and many experienced handlers encouraged novice folks to aim for that.
My second puppy kindergarten class was far worse than my first. My puppy Hazer was a social menace and our attempts to change his behavior with positive reinforcement and gentle exposure was a disaster. In his defense, he nailed everything connected to performance. Sit, come, stay, down, place … he did it all and he did it flawlessly on the second or third try. Problem was, his mind worked at warp speed and he was easily bored once he knew something. He didn’t “get” repetition. It irked him. And when he was bored he was trouble with a capital T. I distinctly remember the instructor asking me to remove my puppy from the classroom while other dogs were socializing off-leash. Hazer was a land shark and nobody wanted him anywhere near them or their puppy. I stood in the hall with my treat bag, drilling Hazer on anything I knew he could do so I could reward him. “Watch me!” “Good boy!” “Sit!” Over and over we worked on skills he’d already mastered while his classmates flailed around and failed abysmally in their attempts to grasp the most basic stuff.
In retrospect, I should have left that class too, but I didn’t. Some deep desire to Get It Right held me captive to the bitter end. That decision was hugely detrimental to my dog. I didn’t know that then. I erroneously thought sticking with it was important, but I know that was a mistake now. Fortunately, I’ve since learned to put what’s best for my dog ahead of my own needs, wants, goals and yearning desire to “fit in.” But back then Hazer was going to be my golden boy, my first wonderfully bred, purposely chosen dog who was created and selected with certain long-range goals in mind. I had high hopes and standards. That sounds pretty lofty for someone who’d never really learned how to train a dog before. But all my previous success (via minimal effort) with my former dogs led me to believe that I knew a boatload more than I did. I had an ego in my way. Not a loud, pompous ego, but a quiet, profound belief that I was much smarter than I was.
I firmly believe Hazer came into my life to teach me that I didn’t begin to know how much I didn’t know. And much to my chagrin, he wasn’t the only pet to do this. A few years later my new horse Dharla did the same thing. She rode into my life on the heels of a well-honed 23-year relationship with the perfection that was known by me as Tia. Young, green and full of vinegar, it would have been easy to blame Dharla for our early blunders, except at some point I stumbled onto Anna’s blog and I stopped thinking I had the wrong horse. Ironically, I also stopped reading everything I could find about “natural horsemanship” and began looking at my own heart stuff. Because Dharla and my roadblocks weren’t about leadership or round pens, they were about me. I am my own worst enemy. I know that now. No, Anna never came out and told me so, but her words left little doubt in my mind. And I’m actually OK with that, with me being the problem. It makes me appreciate Dharla’s patience with me so much more.
To show you just how far I’ve come, there was a time when I thought I knew what leadership meant. I did lots of basic training and ground work and tried to build trust slowly. Still, Dharla and I continued to encounter friction under saddle. The more we worked on basics, the more frustrated I got. So I started to search for a different approach and naturally, turned to the Internet for answers. Eventually I found Anna’s blog, signed up and started the gradual shift in my thinking. For awhile I still grappled with the concept of leadership. Oh, I understood what the word meant, but the internal debate about leadership and how one ought to go about creating it was so mixed and emotionally charged that it was only through much experimentation and personal exploration I came to see that leadership is the wrong word for me. I now prefer to have a partnership with my animals because a “partnership” suggests the mutual desire to share an activity or goal. A partnership also implies respect. Respect for the leader as well as for the led. So when I’m working with my animals I like to keep in mind the concept of asking as opposed to demanding. A leader says, “Follow me because I said so.” A partner says, “Let’s do it this way, together. Will you trust me?” Bottom line, am I asking my horse or dog to follow my lead or am I stubbornly insisting? Since force tends to lead to resistance, I try to keep my leadership soft and pliable. I’m open to options. I’m willing to work with what my animals can give me today, even if it’s not the whole enchilada. Don’t like passing the gate? OK, let’s cut the ring in half and skip going past the gate for now … and my, what a wonderful, calm trot you have today! It’s hard to make an issue out of something if you remove the problem from the equation and focus on what is going well! Go back and revisit gate-passing another time, when you and your horse are working and thinking better as a team. I try to remember there’s no “Have-to” in training. You get to progress at a rate that’s right for you and your partner. Sure, in an emergency situation you might have to insist your animal follows your lead without hesitation, but that aside, most training is about building trust and partnership slowly, one small step at a time time. It’s about finding that sweet spot that’s not built on the theory of “Because I said so!” but, “Because I asked.” And yes, I’ll always be grateful to Anna, the friend who helped me hone my mantra.
So what is getting it right? I guess for me it’s learning a better way, a way where I can lead and follow with my heart. Because like Melvin Udall says in As Good As It Gets, that makes me want to be a better woman.
When friends ask me why I like to read memoirs I usually say it’s because I’m the curious sort. Perhaps that’s just another way of saying I’m nosy, but there you have it. I like to read about how other people have navigated the challenges they’ve met in life. Because we all have them, you know. Some memoirs do a great job of telling you about everything that went right or wrong, but fail to really explore the nuts and bolts of the journey. That’s not a criticism; everyone tells their story their own way and for different reasons. But I happen to be most fond of the memoirs that tackle the grittier stuff. The stuff that makes you have to put the book down and really chew on the words for a bit.
Stable Relation is that kind of memoir. A perfect blend of tongue-in-cheek humor, confessional and a heaping dash of salt-of-the-earth common sense. This book not only challenges how you think and feel, but encourages you to become more present and aware of your path in life. Yes, there were several Kleenex moments for me. Actually, I lost count, but I’m a woman of a certain age and I’ve earned the right to lean more toward the sentimental side now. And no, I’m not ashamed. You won’t be either. It’s OK.
This memoir is about Cattle Dogs, Dobies, mutts, ducks, horses, llamas and goats. There are blizzards, bad memories, blistering sun and batty first dates, as well as the occasional flashback about dysfunctional family, distant relatives and old friends. Anna makes it pretty clear from the start that her birthright was an early life chock full of crap and crisis. By the time she hit midlife she was at a crossroad. She wanted to exorcise the crazy and decided to use a career dilemma as her turning point. With little more than burning passion, determination and an abundance of elbow grease, Anna begins to carve out a place of her own on the prairie.
As the story unfolds, Anna talks about becoming temporarily attached to the various assortment of birds and critters that share the daily routine at her farm. I can relate. The first Spring on my farm we were visited nightly by a methodical, comedic female raccoon who not only stopped by to see what we might have to offer, but for several years thereafter brought her entire family along for the ride! (We called her Sport) And I still search the trees by the pond where I once photographed a one-eyed hawk. I have no reason to believe she might still be around, except that I’d like to think she is. Anna writes about her awe for the creatures and the unique environment she shares with them, in spite of life’s ups, downs and (often times) harsh lessons. Anyone who grew up on a farm knows that as beautiful as farm life can be, an unforgiving and harsh reality is always lurking in the shadows. Survival depends on balancing what is perfect and good with the fear of what that can morph into in the blink of an eye. Mention the word colic around any horse person and you’ll see what I mean.
Anna shares several experiences that helped her find the strength to push past a miserable start in life and mature into a woman who, above all, values and models grace, kindness and generosity of heart and spirit. What makes this book so special is the hilarious cast of characters who mentor Anna on this journey and help her build a new trust in the healing balm of love. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be humbled by the author’s unfiltered adoration and devotion for her charges and impressed by her intuitive, gentle approach. These gifts seem especially unique given how little love or compassion she was shown as a child. How does one learn to use these tools if they’ve never been taught? Anna shows you how. And if she can do it, so can you.
I started out reading this memoir slowly. I wanted to savor every chapter. But as the story continued I no longer had to force myself to slow down rather, I NEEDED to read islowly.
This book is not just good.
It’s not just a winner.
And if Stable Relation is any indication of what we might be hearing from Anna in the future, I can’t wait for more!
(Click on photo)
This photo was taken two weeks ago. Nothing has changed except the snow on the the barn roof slid off, creating a 5 foot wall of snow the entire length of the run-in. This happened an hour after we spent three hours plowing and shoveling the paddock, the drive and various paths. *Sigh* For weeks I played the blanket game: blankets on, blankets off, double blankets at night for the mare, no blanket for the buckskin during the day. It about drove me to drink. And if that didn’t make me woozy enough we had endless days with sub-zero temps. One morning it took three attempts to get everyone fed, blankets sorted out and the paddock picked to my liking. I had to keep running inside (and I do mean running) because my fingers and toes were on fire from the cold. I’ve learned that while it might not look pretty, it’s possible to run wearing ice cleats! I may have invented a new Olympic sport.
My house is now leaking, my back yard is a skating rink and I hold my breath every time I let the dogs out. Speaking of which, they’ve coped pretty well with being cooped-up for so long. That can only mean one thing: they’re getting old.
In the world of dog rescue there’s an often-practiced way of celebrating the “birthday” of an animal whose date of birth is unknown. We commemorate their adoption date, or in certain cases a better term would be their “Gotcha” day. Some of these adoptions are formal endeavors, with long, dragged-out protocols that include the filling out of page-long detailed forms, telephone interviews with every member of the family, calls to your vet and a handful of character references and a final home inspection visit that includes a meet-and-greet for household members and all current pets, after which (if you make the grade) you sign multiple documents whereby you must agree to relinquish the rescued animal should the rescue organization ever deem you unfit, and the exchange of a rapidly increasing amount of money. (Yeah. Feel free to take a big deep breath and exhale s-l-o-w-l-y.) But other “adoptions” are precarious events where the animal in question barely gets out of a bad situation by the skin of their teeth and the adopter flys by the seat of their pants. They don’t get the luxury of knowing if the animal will be a great “fit” or not and if things fall apart no one has their back because oftentimes, all the parties involved are working in the red and flying blind. Which is how I’d like to think the term “Gotcha Day” was coined. It makes things sound a little more like Raiders of the Lost Ark than Lassie Come Home.
Rascal’s “adoption” (December 14, 2013) was somewhere in the middle: Not quite a full blown Rader’s situation, but not a Lassie story either. His owner was down-to-her-last-bale-of-hay desperate, but Rascal was in good health and condition. So I got there in the nick of time, but not a minute too soon. I don’t like to think of myself as an angel or even a Good Samaritan, but the truth of the matter is, this woman had reached out to our local horse community (on Facebook) more than once and nobody stepped forward to help. Nobody. Oh, there were several suggestions that covered everything from where she might be able to buy more hay (no funds) to warning that she should avoid offering him on a free lease (because the lessee would surely turn around and sell him to a kill buyer), but nobody said they’d take him. Not even temporarily. Nobody.
The picture she posted haunted me for days. Not because the horse looked abused or thin or sick. No, it wasn’t that. (Those make it easy to determine right v/s wrong!) The picture haunted me because this horse looked just like my husbands first horse, Beanie, whom we’d lost only a year prior. But I truly thought somebody (else) would step up to the plate and take this horse, and I was so sure of it that I didn’t call to inquire about his story until weeks passed and she posted again. I think it was at that moment that I realized I couldn’t sit and wait for somebody else to do the right thing. It was quite possible that I was “it,” the only person who would call. And so I did and the rest is history.
I’m not a hero. For the first few months I worried a lot that I’d made a horrible mistake. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop; for the horse to get sick or lame or mean and crazy or …. something. Instead, what I discovered restored my faith in people. Rascal’s former owner never painted a false picture just to place him. Maybe I was just very lucky, but Rascal is every bit the exact horse his owner told me he would be; Kind, sweet, silly, wary, rascally. Yes, he is VERY rascally at times!
I won’t lie, there are days when I don’t relish having that “extra” horse to take care of and another mouth to feed, but 99% of the time I have no regrets. And yes, I still hold to my word that Rascal belongs to his prior owner and if that day ever comes that she can have him back, he’s hers. But I say that with less conviction now. I’d let him go, but now I know how she felt on that cold December day when she stood, tears streaming down her cheeks as she waved goodbye to Rascal. My heart would ache for a long, long time.
I’m a few days late, but Happy “Gotcha” Day little buddy!
Bullet & Rascal
A recent post from a fellow blogger brought up some thoughts and feelings that I’ve visited regularly throughout my life. I guess I could say I’ve always thought horses, dogs and other animals have feelings and form attachments (or aversion) not only to us, but to one another. In fact, my belief in this can be traced to my childhood and is probably a direct result of having read Black Beauty and Beautiful Joe at a young and impressionable age. I suppose it’s normal for children to believe concepts put forth in books and movies, but I’m not sure why some children never set those beliefs aside when they grow up. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I didn’t.
I can recount numerous times when I thought I sensed something akin to human friendship taking place between certain critters. I’ve watched horses bond closely and stress over even just the temporary separation they experience when a buddy leaves the herd to go for a ride. For example, I’ve noticed in my current herd both geldings are far more stressed when the mare leaves than when one of the boys goes and she stays behind with the other. Why that is I don’t know because she seems (to me) like the least congenial companion in the group. But apparently she has a calming affect on the boys because they become restless and vocal until she returns … where upon she immediately pins her ears and threatens to kick if they crowd around to greet her!
For the first time ever, when I “adopted” Rascal I witnessed (what I believe was) grief for a human companion. His former owner got Rascal when she was just a young girl and he was a young horse. Since then, he hadn’t been very far away from her or known any other owner until now. When Rascal first arrived he was skiddish and wary. I was very relieved to see that true to his nature, Bullet was curious, but welcoming. With Dharla away for the winter, the boys had plenty of time to get to know one another without having to jockey for hierarchy. Bullet was so happy to have company that he willingly shared his hay and shelter with his new companion. Still, Rascal stayed wary, especially of humans. He didn’t run from me or behave badly, he just seemed tense and aloof.
I gave Rascal lots of space and love. I can’t explain why, but I sensed he was grieving. Something about the look in his eye, his posture, spoke of sadness. Yes, all his needs were being met, but there was an emptiness I couldn’t put my finger on except to say that I felt it. We’d go out on a quiet trail ride together and I’d talk to him, praise him for his effort to do what I asked. He was a good boy and instead of testing me it felt like he was trying very hard to please me. He did great, and I found many opportunities to tell him so. Still, his demeanor didn’t really change very much. Back home Rascal would always move just slightly out of reach where he would stand, gazing off in the distance with a faraway look in his eye. It was during those melancholy moments that I wondered most what Rascal was feeling. Did he miss his old pasture mates? Did he miss his old owner? Did he wonder why she’d left him, forcing him to adapt to a whole new way of life? Do horses blame themselves? Like any human might, did he think his new circumstance was his fault?
Slowly, over many months something started to change. I’d go out to the pasture and instead of having to pursue Rascal’s eye, he started to look for mine! Then one day I was shaking out Rascal’s morning hay when he turned his head and nuzzled my hand. It was subtle, but it was the first time Rascal had reached out to me instead of the other way around. And just a few days ago Rascal actually walked up to me for no other reason than to say hello! I smiled as I scratched his jaw, enjoying the knowledge that Rascal has finally decided I’m family.
Welcome home little brother. I’ve been waiting for you to choose to join us.
A late Sunday afternoon visit, the old-fashioned way!
Neena was the first to hear it and let slip a warning growl; a low rumble that started softly and built quickly into a “back off” bark that meant business. In the still seconds before the other dogs sounded their alarm I heard it too: the distant shrill yip of dancing coyotes. Immediately Hazer followed Neena’s lead, leaping to his feet, moving toward my bed and barking ferociously while Gus howled an alarm from his crate in the living room. It’s an eerie sound to hear at 4 o’clock on a crisp fall morning. The pack must have been pretty close for humans to hear them through our closed windows. I lay there thinking about the horses. Coyotes aren’t a real threat to a small herd of healthy equines. But still. And while the sound of yipping coyotes can seem a bit creepy, I can’t help picturing them dancing and playing in the moonlight or running and cavorting through dewy fields and mossy woods. That’s not a frightening vision at all.
The coyotes and dogs carried on for the better part of twenty minutes. There was no stopping them. Neena didn’t seem to carry on very much, but the boys were thoroughly caught up in the vocal chorus. Gus was especially reluctant to quiet down and continued to bark and growl for some time after the interlopers had moved on. Our first fall serenade.
Every spring I think I need to split and move a bunch of perennials that have outgrown their beds. Since this is a huge undertaking I go check my resources before I begin, only to discover that they say split & move them in the fall. Well, not all of them, but most. OK, that’s easy enough! But then in the fall when I’m getting ready to do a major relocation project I recheck my resources again and I swear to God they say split and move them in the spring! If this keeps up I’m gonna need napalm!
Well over a decade ago I started a flower garden in front of the wooden fence that runs along one edge of our pasture. At the time I wasn’t overly creative because to be truthful, the soil was marginal and the land sloping. So I threw in a dozen or so common daylilies and called it a day. Much to my surprise, the next year they sprouted and blossomed! And multiplied. Again and again. I was pretty stoked. I mean, eventually I got a huge payback for very little effort.
Fast forward some fifteen years or more. The daylily bed is badly overcrowded and sadly, I’ve grown tired of it’s monochrome design. I’m a better gardener than I was back when I started this flower bed and I have higher expectations. I still love daylilies, but I’m no longer content to play host to the the common, orange lily one sees along the back roads of my state. No, I want different colors, mixed sizes and the occasional exotic! So it’s time to bite the bullet, take shovel in hand and dig up the old daylilies. Normally I get a little depressed when I have to discard any perennial, but I’m letting my mind focus on what I’ll do to replace them. I have lots of plants to pick from since most of my bigger, established perennials are ready to be split. But I have some headaches to get rid of first.
Ferns. They are the bane of this property. I know most people would love to have ferns growing in their gardens, but here they are an intrusive menace. Especially the Sensitive Fern, whose roots are nearly impossible to eradicate. They send underground runners into the surrounding area and they have started to invade my flower beds in several places. I should have done something to stop them when I first saw them, but I had no idea they were as invasive as they are. Now I’m paying for that mistake and it’s created a lot of extra work.
I spent two days removing a ton of old daylilies and those nasty ferns wherever I encountered them. It was dirty, tedious, back-breaking work, but now I’m getting to the fun part: planting! I’ve almost finished replanting one smallish lily bed in the front yard and I’m getting ready to tackle a second flower bed. Some of the new transplants might not do much next spring, but I’ve found daylilies incredibly forgiving and rewarding. I’ve got a bunch of really pretty and different size varieties to plant and I suspect next summer I’m going to feel like a kid in a candy shop when they start coming up. I’m already excited!