Allowing a Horse to Change Your Life

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I recently had a photographer friend come out and spend part of a day taking pictures of my horse, Chaco and his herd.  Since I keep Chaco in as natural of an environment as possible and let him have his own opinion, even when it differs from mine, I let my friend know what to expect so he could decide if it would work for him taking pictures.

Here were the parameters:

The horses live in a herd on acreage.  They come and go as they please.  Their resting heart rate is half the rate of ours, so we need to allow double the amount of time that we think we do.  If they sense any agenda from us, or a tight time frame, they will feel it and likely respond with less cooperation.

He was fine with that, so one fall foggy morning we met at the field where my horse lives with his herd.  We entered the field and walked away from the horses, ignoring them.  It’s a great way to give horses space, and let them decide of their own free will if they want to close that space between us and come over and say hello.  A human can walk up to a horse, enter its space and say hello, however, that is the human initiating the contact.  A fun experiment is to allow the horse to initiate or not initiate the contact.

So we walked the other way, far away.  Sure enough, Chaco, the herd leader picked up a very active, forward walk coming in our direction.  The kind of forward walk that is treasured in the dressage world.  He started following us, and Pearl, the second in command under Chaco, followed suit, right off of Chaco’s hip.

I had never had horses follow me with such determination.  He and Pearl weren’t mean or aggressive, but rather, very curious.

It was as if he was asking, “Who is this new person with a large camera and a backpack?  And he’s ignoring us.  Who does that other than Mary?”

After we walked a few hundred feet, we stopped and looked back from where we had come.  Chaco and Pearl were still hot on our trail with their very active walk.  But the walk was not a straight line toward us, but rather a meandering line.  We decided to keep moving.  Here we were on several acres trying to get away from these very curious horses.

Chaco did not give up his curiosity.

Finally, I said, “O.K., Let’s stop.  I think he wants to check us out.  Let’s let him say hello.”

We stopped and Chaco came straight up to me and my photographer friend.  This was a two-eye approach for Chaco.  When a horse gives you both their eyes, you know you have their complete attention.

Chaco was particularly curious about my friend.  He breathed on him (horses breathe into each others nostrils as a greeting, and they have an incredible sense of smell, well beyond our capabilities).  He also checked out the camera.  Chaco was right there in our space.  It was natural for my friend to pet him on the neck.  After several moments, Chaco decided everything checked out o.k., so he turned and left to graze about 20 feet away.

Just as quickly as Chaco decided he really needed to meet my friend, he just as quickly went to grazing as soon as the meeting occurred.

As we watched Chaco graze just a few horse-lengths away, my friend commented, “Wow.  After all that (being intently followed), it’s suddenly over and no big deal.”

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The next several hours my photographer friend and I walked the field and the trails, taking photos of Chaco and the other horses.  Chaco was agreeable to all of it.  Once we passed his initial inspection we had his approval for being in his home.

I think our biggest fear as humans is that if we allow a horse to have an opinion and act of their own free will, they will NOT want to be with us. That is a legitimate fear.  On the flip side of that fear is a connection with horses that is beyond our wildest dreams.  When they connect with you of their own free will, it is one of the most amazing experiences because it can’t be forced, nor scripted.  It’s really them wanting to communicate with you.

Over the years of experimenting with this idea, I have found that horses are curious animals that when allowed to express their opinions of both a “yes” and a “no”, there is a third option that starts to appear that’s not about yes and no, but rather about wanting to connect with you, wanting your help with something, or wanting to just be in your presence.  It is then that you see who they are, and how they want to interact with you.  And it’s the real you they’re interested in, not the you that has a million things to get done.

I think horses are just as curious about us as we are about them.  Allow them the space to be themselves and prepare to be blown away by what they have to say about being with you.  It will change your life.  I know it has changed mine.

Are Horses Territorial?

Eastern Washington’s stunning scenery.

Several years ago I took my horse, Chaco, and his pasture mate, Barley, on a summer vacation to the hills of eastern Washington.  A friend of mine had 75 acres, and the back 45 acres of sage brush hillside were Chaco’s and Barley’s home for two weeks.  The climate was dry and hot; the dirt was like powder.  The horses loved it.

To get to this back 45 acres, we had to pass through a several acre field where my friend kept her herd of 10 horses.  I knew many of her horses well, and especially the herd leader.  Other than Chaco, he was one of the fairest horse leaders I have ever known.

He could set a pace and lead you out of the mountains and get you back to the truck and trailer by dark.  He was a wonderful protector of his herd.  If someone unsavory ever came on the property, he didn’t take his eyes off them until they left.  While he had boundaries and wasn’t afraid express them, he didn’t waste energy on unnecessary things.  I never saw him be overly aggressive.  The best way to describe him was he was fair and of sound mind.

One evening after I fed Chaco his special food down by the house, I walked him and Barley up to their 45-acre home in the dark.  There was just enough light from the moon and stars for me to be able to see.  Horses have spectacular night vision, so walking in the dark was quite comfortable for Chaco and Barley.

To get to where we were going, we had to walk up this canyon-like corridor that opened to the field where the herd of 10 horses lived.  Then we would have to walk through that herd’s home to get to the 45-acre hillside where Chaco and Barley would go.

As we walked, I kept Chaco and Barley behind me so it was clear to them that I was leading this little herd of three:  me, Chaco and Barley.  Barley always deferred to Chaco, and Chaco would defer to me, so if and when we came upon the herd of 10 horses, I would be the one calling the shots.  The last thing I wanted was Chaco and Barley thinking they needed to negotiate or defend themselves when we reached the 10 horses.  That would be dangerous for me.

As we walked up the corridor, the sky was midnight black and speckled with so many stars I had difficulty recognizing any constellations.  It was breathtaking and peaceful.  We were about 2/3 of the way up the corridor when I heard a set of hooves come thundering toward us.  I stopped and made sure Chaco and Barley were behind me.   I stood tall with open, relaxed, square shoulders to communicate to this approaching horse to stop at a distance from us.

Sure enough, the herd leader came into focus, his white/gray coat easily seen in the dark.  Once he saw us, he slowed to a walk and stopped about 25 feet away, his head up, ears pricked forward and both eyes on us.

I was quite happy that he stopped where he did.  A horse’s personal space is about 10-15 feet out from its body in all directions.  12 feet out from me and my herd, and 12 feet out from him are 24 feet and right about where he stopped.  There was no need to do anything because we had both just acknowledged each other’s presence at a safe distance.  He was respecting my space, and I was respecting his space.

I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen next, but it didn’t matter.  We had mutual acknowledgement and respect, and neither of us had a need to make the other do anything.

In my mind I’m thinking, “Hey, it’s just us.  Sorry to alarm you.  We’re just walking up to the 45-acre hillside to drop off Chaco and Barley.”

We had reached the edge of his territory, and as protector of his herd, he wanted to know who we were.  Out of respect for him and his home and herd, I didn’t move, but I also did not give up any of my ground.  We were both square to each other, and we were both looking at each other with both eyes.  (Both eyes in horse language mean complete attention).

Neither of us moved, and yet we were both very much aware.  A move forward by either us at that point would be considered an aggressive move.  A retreat by either of us at that point would be a submissive move.   Both of us stood in the neutral place of being neither aggressive, nor submissive. It was the meeting of two leaders, both respectful of the other, and both aware of their responsibility to their respective herds, and both not wanting any trouble.

That moment lasted several moments.  I could have stayed there forever:  the diamond stars glittering in the night sky, this powerful gray horse meeting us at the gate to his field, fulfilling his duty as protector of his herd, and Chaco and Barley waiting respectfully behind me.

For me, it’s moments like these that I treasure most about interacting with horses.  I have found that if I am patient and willing to wait long enough, horses will make their own decisions.  It’s fascinating to me to find out what those decisions are.

So on this beautiful evening, in the presence of all these horses, I waited to see what would happen.  After thoroughly checking us out from a distance, the big gray decided we were not a threat.  He stepped aside to let us pass through his home.  I was honored.

In order to be as unobtrusive as possible, we found a path around the herd of 10 horses and headed for the far gate to the 45-acres hillside.  The resident herd was curious and began following us with a relaxed posture.  I did not want any problems, so I did not allow any of them to get too close to us.  We crossed their home without incident.

Two weeks later, on our last day there, I walked up to the 45-acre hillside to catch Chaco and Barley to lead them across the resident herd’s field for the last time.  I had grown to like that twice daily walk that took about 30 minutes round trip.  The crunch of dry grass and soft dirt under my feet had begun to feel like home.

Near the gate to the 45-acre hillside, the leader and his herd had congregated.  They had never been at that gate before, but on this day they were there.  I sensed that they knew we were leaving for the last time.

I spent a long moment just hanging out and being with them, breathing, relaxing and enjoying their company and the beautiful place in which they lived.  I thanked them, the herd leader in particular, for sharing their home with us for the past two weeks.  It all began with him allowing us to traverse his territory without incident that first night.

With a heart full of appreciation for him and his herd, I reluctantly said goodbye.  It was a bittersweet moment as I gathered up Chaco and Barley, and we walked through the resident herd’s home for the final time.

I savored every step down that hillside and the 360 degree panoramic view before me: sparkling blue sky, a few token billowing clouds, the river valley below us, and the mountains framing the land. This time, the horses watched us go.  As we neared our exit, I looked back one last time, took it all in, then dipped out of sight.

Chaco following the resident herd leader on the trail.

Preparing to leave on our last day.

What Does Listening Look Like?

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Listening in action.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having spent years around horses, and the past 10 years rehabbing senior horses, I hear people talk about listening to your horse.  Since horses rarely use their vocal chords for communication, and we humans use a lot of verbal communication, just how then do we listen to a horse?

I recently went to take my horse, Chaco, for a walk.  He was finishing eating his hay while I went and found his halter.  As I approached, he turned and walked off.

“Okay,”  I thought.

Rather than take offense that he left, or think that there was something about me he didn’t like, or think that I needed to correct disrespectful behavior, I just stood there without judgment and watched what was unfolding before me.

He walked down the fence line to the back of the paddock over by the manure pile.  There was a gate back there to the field.

“Did he want to go out?” I wondered.

As I watched him, I did nothing.  I just observed, curious to know what he was up to.  He knew I had a halter in hand, and he clearly left when I came for him to go on a walk.  I wondered what he was saying.

I could go after him, use my body language to stop him from walking off and put the halter on him.  If I insisted I knew he would acquiesce.  But I didn’t want acquiescence.  I wanted to know what he was thinking.

So I just stood there, not moving an inch and observed, knowing that if I waited long enough, his intentions would become clear to me.

He meandered around the back of the paddock, found the perfect angle to plant his body and then lifted his tail.  Within 10 feet of the manure pile, he passed his own pile of manure.

“Oh, that’s what you wanted to do,” I thought to myself.

But I knew his communication wasn’t over yet, so I stayed right where I was curious to see what he would do next.

“Would he come back to me to go on the walk?” I wondered.

There was no guarantee, but that was the beauty of it.  It was in Chaco’s hands, not mine, and this is where I would get to see what Chaco really thought.  Knowing what he thought was more important to me than the walk.

Sure enough, he meandered back my way with soft eyes and a low head.  He was the picture of relaxation.  He stopped about 10 feet away from me with both eyes looking at me.

This was significant to me because when a horse gives both their eyes to whatever they are looking at, they are giving it their full attention.  If their eyes and head are in a relaxed position when they do this, it is a big green light.

10-15 feet is also a horse’s sense of personal space, so him stopping about 10 feet from me was like a friend walking up to me and stopping at arm’s length, which is a human’s sense of personal space.

He also just so happened to stop next to the gate that opened out to the driveway and the route we typically take on our walks.

In human terms, all of these cues told me that he just wanted to run to the bathroom before we left for our walk.

At this point, I approached him at his shoulder.  He didn’t budge and his eyes and head remained relaxed.  I held out the halter for him, and he put his head into it.  That action sealed the deal for me.  Yes, he wanted to go.

How do I know for sure he really wanted to go?  There have been times when he has said “no” by not putting his head in the halter himself.  There have been times when he has said “no” by walking off and leaving completely and not returning.  In those cases, we don’t go for a walk.  By honoring his “no”, and him knowing I will honor his “no”, he is then free to say yes.

(Have you ever known a person who always said “yes” to you?  They’ve never said “no” to you.  Can you really trust their “yes” actually means “yes”? Without a healthy “no”, a true “yes” doesn’t exist).

Listening to a horse takes time, sometimes a lot more time than we humans might like or allow.  Their resting heart rate is half the speed of ours, and when they are relaxed, they really don’t move that fast.  But if you want a calm, trustworthy horse, slowing down and matching their pace will do wonders for being able to listen to them.

The slower I go, the more I am able to listen and pick up the fine nuances horses are communicating all the time.  In fact, I go so slow that I end up spending considerable time seemingly doing “nothing”.  The irony is that in that “nothing” there is a whole lot of listening going on, and ultimately, two-way communication.

The more I practice listening to Chaco, the more the mystery of who he is unfolds before me.  I can’t get enough of it.  I just love hearing what he has to say.

On this Thanksgiving, when you listen to your horse, what does he or she have to say to you?

Just “Be”

Just "being" themselves.

Just “being” themselves.

Rehabbing retired senior horses can easily become a full-time job. Being such large animals, the average horse weighs 1000 – 1200 lbs., and needs a lot of space. They eat 20 lbs. of hay per day and pass 10 manure piles per day. Everything about them is on a large scale.

When a horse reaches maturity, they are incredibly powerful animals. It’s no accident that they talk about “horse power” in a car. Over the centuries they have done many jobs for humans, from farming and transportation to war. Today they’re even being used to help humans in emotional and physical therapy.

They are so versatile, and can do so many things for us. Because of that, one important question is easy to overlook: Who are they?

I recall a story of a woman who had been involved with horses for 30 years, riding different disciplines. Not until she took in a “grumpy” retired service horse did she realize she did not know what to do to help him. He was always unhappy, pinning his ears. Desperate to find a solution to his unhappiness, she stepped outside her box of 30 years and found a body work practitioner who had a different skill set.

After this horse’s body work session she learned some techniques to do with him to help him feel better in his body. Over time, this horse’s demeanor completely changed. His happiness returned. He no longer pinned his ears.

The experience changed her life. She said that in all of her 30 years of experience with horses, she never knew them, until now. A door had been opened into the world from the horse’s point of view.

With everything horses do for us, whether riding or therapy work, it’s easy to forget that they are sentient beings who have their own horse life that is different than ours.

The next time you see your horse, take a moment and pause in the midst of everything you need to do and just be. Experiment with a few minutes of doing nothing and just being in the presence of your horse. I’d love to hear what you learn.

Holistic Horse Management

Here at God’s Window, our goal is facilitating optimal health in the senior horses we care for. Much of what we do is based on the nature of horses, rather than conventional management practices.

Wild horses live in a herd in a large amount of space. They are barefoot. They don’t have blankets, yet they know where they can seek shelter from the elements. They spend their day foraging for food.

While the reality is that the senior horses in our care are in domestication, the more we can create as natural of an environment for them as possible, the healthier they will be, and the less we will need to manage them.

We have had great success restoring the health of aging senior horses by creating the following environment for them:

They live in a herd on acreage. They are barefoot. They don’t need blankets, but they do have shelter that they can choose to use when they want. They have access to food at all times. They have a plant based diet, and do not need grain.

I encourage you to find ways to optimize you own horse’s environment. It will support their long-term health and well-being, and you will have more years to enjoy them.

If you haven’t seen wild horses in action, check out Ginger Kathrens multiple documentaries on the lives of wild horses. It is an eye-opening experience.

Soliciting Opinions from Your Horse

Humans rely heavily on the written and spoken word. Great communicators also rely on body language. When body language and the spoken word are congruent, effective communication is more likely to occur.

So what do horses do? They use very little verbal communication, and when it does happen, pay attention. They are really trying to communicate with you. However, most of their communication is non-verbal, and instead, is the silent language of the body.

Common cues many people are aware of is when a horse kicks or bites.  We know we have a problem. Pinned ears and a swish of the tail can also indicate displeasure. All these cues can be saying: “Back off”.

However, the horse’s communication with their body is so much more than the negative cues listed above.  If we humans went about our lives and the only communication anyone ever understood from us was “Back off”, how discouraging might that be? Could you imagine not having anyone listen to you until you were completely frustrated or angry?

Horses are no different. What does their language look like for more positive communication?

I first discovered the answer to this question quite by accident.  Over the past several years I have taken my horse, Chaco, on regular walks.  I’ve noticed that on occasion he would simply stop walking and stand there and look at me. In my early days of horse ownership, I coaxed him to keep going.

Today, I do the opposite. I stop too, look at him and ask him what he wants. What I’ve noticed is that sometimes he will indicate with his head where he wants to go. His feet planted, but a 90 degree turn of the head and a soft-eye stare at the neighbor’s pasture just a few strides away communicates his desire.

In this case, we can’t go to the neighbor’s pasture, but I look at it with him and agree, yes, that does look really good. Unfortunately, it’s not ours, and we can’t go there. Then he’ll look back at me and then back at the pasture, indicating again where he’d like to go. I acknowledge again how good it would be, but we can’t. I give him a hug, rub his favorite spots on his head and wait a moment, until he seems ready to leave the neighbor’s pasture behind.

When I sense that he might start walking with me again, I start to go, closely paying attention to his body language. If he’s ready to go with me, he will come with no pressure from me on the lead rope. If he’s not ready, he’ll be reluctant to move, in which case I might encourage him to come or wait a few more moments until he’s ready.

Listening like this to your horse when going for a walk can take a lot of time – usually double the typical amount of time to just walk the route with no stops. For me, though, I much prefer this slower approach because my horse is actively engaged in communicating with me. Sometimes we can do his ideas, sometimes we can’t, but I always want to encourage his expression.

One of the best gifts I’ve ever received is the ongoing discovery of who my horse is. Like any relationship, the more I spend time with him, the better I get to know him.

Creating a safe environment in which he can express his opinions, builds his trust in me to listen to him, and encourages him to continue to express himself.  It’s why I keep coming back.  I can’t wait to find out what he’ll say next.

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Chaco on one of our many walks.

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Chaco and Thunder having their own words with each other.

 

Who Are You?

I never tire of seeing worn out and oftentimes, shut-down, senior horses come back into full health on all levels:  physical, mental and emotional.  What I have found is that when their needs are met in these three areas, I begin to see for the first time what a truly alive horse looks like.

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What’s even more fascinating to me is what happens next.  Their individual personalities come out into full expression.  Being on the receiving end of a horse that wants to communicate with you of their own volition, is an incredible experience.  It is then that I see who they are, and who God created them to be.  Every time I experience that, it is so awe-inspiring, it is beyond words.

I think it’s the same in humans.  We want to be seen and to be heard.  When that happens the possibilities are endless, and the full expression of what it means to be alive comes forth.

Now, I’m curious.  What would happen if we approached the world like that?

Reading the Ears

If a horse pins its ears, that is, lays them back against its head, what is the first thought that comes to your mind? Is he angry? Grumpy? Annoyed? Feels crowded?

While we may make judgments about what we think the horse is saying, the fact is, we really don’t know for sure, and we don’t know why he’s saying whatever it is he’s saying. Solving this communication mystery, without judging the horse, will open doors to a whole new world.

I recently did a horse camp for my 8 year-old niece, and before she got on to ride, I asked Chaco, my horse, to circle me at the walk a few laps each direction. He was responsive, so then I asked for the trot. The moment he picked up the trot he laid his ears back, and they stayed back.

I stopped and walked over to my niece and asked, “What happened to his ears when I asked for the trot?”

“They went back?” she asked.

“Yes, they did. What does that mean?”

“He’s unhappy?”

“That could be. Something isn’t right, and he’s letting us know. The mystery is we don’t know what it is. The only way to find out is to try different things until his ears don’t go back anymore. He could just be stiff, and maybe after a few more circles of trot he’ll loosen up and his ears will go back to a forward position. Let’s see what happens.”

I sent him again a few laps each way, stopped and then walked over to my niece.

“What did you see?”

“His ears were still back.”

“What do you think he’s trying to tell us?”

With a quizzical look on her face and thinking really hard as to what it could be, she said hesitantly, “It’s too fast.”

“That’s a great idea. Let’s try having him walk out and see what happens.”

So I sent Chaco in a forward walk a few laps each way, and then stopped and went back to my niece.

“What did you see?”

“He liked it. His ears were forward.”

“Congratulations! You figured out what Chaco was trying to communicate to you. His trust in you to listen to him just went up.”

With Chaco being 33 years old it was completely reasonable that the trot on that small of a circle was uncomfortable for him.

The rest of the day went so well that when she went to leave, Chaco was so relaxed that he ignored his hay and kept both eyes on her. She probably spent at least 15 minutes saying good-bye and giving one more hug several times, and he welcomed them all. It was confirmation for me that she read him correctly when she stuck with the walk.

Because horses spend so little time talking with their vocal chords, it’s imperative to learn to read their primary mode of communication: body language. It’s a silent language, but so powerful. As you start to get the hang of it, a whole new world opens up.

 

Need to Gain Weight? Try Hay Pellets

I recently read an article from www.TheHorse.com, where it mentioned that the drawback to feeding your horse hay pellets was a higher feed utilization. While this may be a drawback for an easy keeper, it is a major plus for a senior horse who is a hard keeper.

With my senior horse coming out of winter slightly underweight on quality hay and pasture alone for the first time in 33 years, I knew he needed some help. As horses age it’s not uncommon for them to not be as efficient with chewing hay, which can also affect digestion and feed utilization.

While my horse was not quidding hay and could still chew hay, the mere fact that he was slightly underweight coming out of winter told me that he needed a little extra help. I also knew that to gain weight, he needed more than the maintenance amount of forage every day.

Since hay pellets have a high feed utilization, I decided to give them a try and added them to his diet. I added 3 lbs. of soaked hay pellets twice per day to his usual hay and pasture. (I soak hay pellets for senior horses because I have had two different seniors choke on non-soaked hay pellets probably due to aging teeth).

My horse enjoyed his soaked pellets. Within one month his ribs had more fat cover, and he was looking much better.

While there are many grain-based feeds on the market for senior horses, sometimes just soaked plain hay pellets are all that’s needed to give a horse the forage they need, in a format they can easily digest, to gain weight.

Please note: If your horse is severely underweight, consult your veterinarian for a specialized re-feeding program. Emaciated horses have special medical needs that a veterinarian can address.

Chronic Stress and Skeletal Maturation

Like people, horses are living, breathing, dynamic creatures. Occasional stress is a part of being alive. We will never be rid of it. Nor do we want to be. It keeps us functioning optimally. But when does stress cross over into being too much and becoming detrimental to our health or our horse‘s health? How do you know? When does it first begin to be a problem?

The following article is a fascinating look at skeletal maturation in horses and its relationship to riding and training methods:  Timing and Rate of Skeletal Maturation in Horses by Deb Bennett, Ph.D.

When I take in a senior horse to rehab, I usually have no idea what their initial training was like, and how young they were ridden. Many things can be improved or reversed in older horses, but what if the damage was never done in the first place? How much longer would our horses be able to do work if we waited to ride them until they were skeletally mature?