Leslie’s Liberty Diary

Leslie’s Liberty Diary is just that… a running journal of sessions as Leslie continues to advance Liberty training with her herd. Leslie often stops in the middle of her sessions to jot down (in her iphone) insights, breakthrough moments and sometimes humorous antics. Leslie’s Liberty Diary shares some of moments with you. Enjoy!

November 22, 2019

…Just Don’t Touch Me.

I lost a fabulous horse over a year ago who taught me much. One of the many, many lessons he taught me is that not all horses want to be touched. His preference was very generalized – he didn’t want to be touched by horses or humans.

It seems obvious, even silly and presumptuous of us to think that our horses want to be petted, scratched, patted or otherwise touched by us or another creature. Why would we assume that? Perhaps it’s because petting is how we show animals that we like them, we want to bond with them and we want to help them feel pleasure. So, we pet our “pets” easily, often and usually without really stopping to observe if our gestures are being well-received.

My horse Hummer (the horse that passed) helped me to understand over many years (I’m ashamed to say that it took me that long to “get the hint,”) that he really wanted to be near me, just not touched by me. Hummer was very patient with me. When I got it, I began to realize that in my daily interactions with my horses that sometimes being touched is well-received and sometimes it isn’t.

The other night, I had yet another “aha” moment with my very complex mare, Aspen. I say complex, not that she truly is, but rather that she is still a bit of a mystery to me. I haven’t figured her out, totally, nor have I perfected my approach or my ideas with her, and hence the label “complex.” (She’s taught me more about Liberty and horsemanship than probably any other horse I’ve known.) She has softened considerably in her years with me, and I credit our Liberty play with that softening – but that’s for another post.

She can be stand-offish and is sometimes a bit on guard when she’s with me, but not always. She was terribly abused and so her concern is based upon experience and memory. I have earned her trust, almost completely, almost, and she is actually a wonderful Liberty playmate. She prefers to do Liberty at a distance of no closer than 5 feet from me, and that’s fine.

Aspen does not like to be touched, generally. But she loves to be groomed with brushes. However, when she’s loose with the herd, she does not want to be groomed. The other night (back to the “aha!” moment) I was standing with the herd under the moonlight, it was a beautiful evening and I wanted to spend time with the herd, quietly, before I went home. Aspen came over to me and stood right next to me – she almost put her head in my chest, she was that close. I stood there and just breathed, and did NOT touch her. After a bit, I walked away to stand near another horse and Aspen followed me to that horse. She and the new horse stood quietly next to me for a bit. Then she followed me to another horse and then another horse. This following me everywhere is something I see in my very sociable geldings, but not as often with my more distant mare, Aspen.

It was a reminder to me that if I just listen to her preferences of not touching her, let her know by listening that I hear her and I get it, that she will connect with me readily.

In summary, there’s a lot of buzz lately about listening to your horse, and this is a good thing. However, it’s often: “Listen to your horse… AFTER you’ve done something to create a response.” What if your horse doesn’t even want to be in the conversation? Are you listening to that as well? Really listening is giving your horse a voice, BEFORE you do anything overt to illicit a response.

One more thing, it’s important that we get our horse’s permission before we do things… when and where we can. It means a lot to our horses, and it’s a good mindset to adopt.

November 13, 2019

Nudge, Nudge. "You're Welcome"

My horses are fed hay several times a day. Even though they are fed often, there can still be some competition for a few minutes before everyone settles down into their meal. India is the youngest member of the herd and he is the one that often gets pushed off one of the numerous small piles of hay that are put down. When I am doing the feeding and I see this herd action, I take great pleasure in helping India out. I call him to come over to me and show him where I have put a few extra piles, just for him, away from the herd. He knows that I will help him and when he hears his name, he zooms over to me.

The other day, I called him, he came over and saw the small piles just for him and began to eat with great relish. I stood near him quietly, smiling to myself. He lifted his head and gently nudged my arm with his nose, very softly. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, I believe that it was a gesture of affection, or at minimum a kind acknowledgement of my presence. I took this gesture and the situation to mean that he acknowledged that I did something for him, and he was… well, thanking me in a way that is probably more horse than human.

“You’re welcome, buddy.” I said (a human) in response.

Over the years, I have found that nudging is usually a gesture from horses that means “I need something.” Or simply, “Hey… pay attention to me!” I think I can add “I acknowledge you,” or “I acknowledge what you did” to that list.

Horses are communicating all the time, and it’s to their credit that they continue to try to get their idea across to us in the best way they know now. Nudge, nudge.

October 16, 2019

Quickness is not Lightness

My horse Bonito, the gorgeous dun that you see in the blog banner photo above, is coming through a 2 year leaky gut crisis (I think longer than that) that created a persistent, but not too critical, case of chronic laminitis. I will be posting on his incredible recovery soon, and it features a miracle product that saved his life.

His hooves have been sensitive for some time, and while he is growing healthier new hoof wall and sole, he is not 100% yet. I can work on his hooves now, and it doesn’t bother him, so that’s a big improvement. However, the poor guy is suffering from PTSD when it comes to his hooves. He is very worried about them and anything that I may do with him and so he is very anxious and very reactive when it comes to hoof care. He is also a super friendly, super cooperative horse and so when you stand near his front hooves, he automatically lifts them, but with a quickness that belies his true comfort level.

And so the reason for this post. A few days ago, I asked the woman who works for me in the morning, to take off his boots when she put Bonito back into his side pen, near the herd. (He has food allergies and needs to be on a special diet, so he is separated, by fence only, during the day from the rest of the herd). She texted me later to tell me how amazed she was that he picked up his front hooves very fast when she was near his leg. I asked her to consider his state of relaxation, did he seem relaxed to her? No, she said, he actually seemed a bit nervous. I explained to her that in fact, this quickness or this responsiveness that seemed text-worthy, was actually an interesting blend of uber-cooperation and anxiety. I then gave her some ideas on how to help him relax while taking off the boots.

It reminded me of the many, many conversations I’ve had with horse owners over the years about the difference between responsiveness and nervousness, the difference between lightness and quickness. I’ve had the opportunity to get to know and work with many horses that have been put through rigorous training programs that emphasize strong and immediate responses to any request from the rider or handler – you can probably guess the programs I am referring to. When a horse “leaps” into a response in a split second, you can bet that it’s not a calm response, it’s an anxious response. After all, NOT responding quickly, has produced an aversive stimulation from the handler, and so the horse becomes “trained” to respond super fast.

A rule of thumb that I apply is this: When I ask or suggest something to my horses, I WANT them to take at least half a second or a full second (or more) to gather their mind and gather their bodies and then produce the response or action. (Or not, as I also encourage horses to offer what they are thinking and feeling freely, which can be nothing if they don’t understand the idea or feel that they can’t or won’t offer what I’m asking). Waiting a full second or more produces a calm, and confident response, and makes for a much happier partner. I want to emphasize that when they are learning new ideas, I will give my horses considerable time to think on it, many, many seconds actually. If their mind goes off the moment at hand, I know that either they don’t understand the idea or they are distracted by something else. It can be an eye-opening experience for the handler as they realize that their horse was more than happy to get with them, they just needed an instant or two or three to work through the idea and prepare their bodies for action. Slow down, everyone, seriously, your horse will be so grateful!

Of course, what I am describing is lightness, an ideal that is discussed in all chambers of masterful horsemanship. For me, lightness is the allowing of the horse’s mind to be put into the action. You see, a horse can coil itself and spring finer and as quickly as any mechanical action that we may inadvertently put ON the horse. I liken it to how a cat can go from sleeping to pouncing in a split second. There is speed, of course, but there is relaxed and fluid movement – because there is a mindfulness to it.

How to get there? Slow down, of course, but also WAIT. Give your horse room to think about things and prepare their bodies. A very, very interesting phenomenon (I’ve posted on this before) is that a confident horse will put thought into action VERY quickly – they are usually quite pleased to do so. This requires faith in your horse, faith in the process. More big subjects to discuss in future posts. Stay tuned.

October 15, 2019

"Horse, I Understand You."

We spend so much of our time and effort asking our horses to understand US – learn our communication, learn our signals, understand our ideas. It’s equally important, no, it’s MORE important that we show our horses that we understand THEM. Why? Because we are the ones IMPOSING our ideas onto them, they didn’t ask for a human experience in the way that we ask to have a horse experience. So, it’s a matter of consideration and appreciation.

But there’s more. When we put all of our focus on asking our horses to learn OUR signals, and little on HOW they learning or IF they are learning our ideas, it is reasonable to think, that they would begin to shut down. Think about it – if your boss talked to you all day long then turned around and walked away or turned “deaf” when you tried to speak, you would begin to disengage. Over time, all you would probably hear is: “Blah, blah, blah… do this thing… blah, blah, blah… have it done by this day… blah, blah, blah.”

It’s important to let our horses know “I hear you,” in big ways of course, as you are helping them to understand your ideas, but there are countless small ways throughout your horse experience to convey understanding. I’ve posted on this idea recently. It’s such a simple idea, and it’s something that we all do in our own way, anyway. But it’s worthwhile to be AWARE of what we are doing and the value it brings to our relationship with our horses. It is top of my mind anytime I am near my horses.

Here’s a quick recent example of what I am talking about. I let my mare Stella “clean up the scraps” left behind my mare Sweet Pea, after she’s had her extra meal of grain and alfalfa. Stella is loose in an area and she becomes a 4-legged vacuum cleaner, it’s a win-win, actually. Sometimes, she will pause and look around for a bit. I will get closer to her area and ask her if she’s done and would she like to come out (the herd has usually been fed their regular dinner at this time, so there’s good reason for her to want to leave the area when she’s done). She will immediately put her head down, and often turn away from me. (I’m about 20 feet away). I will say: “Okay, that’s fine, you can finish up.” And then I will leave the area. In time, Stella will usually start looking for me again, she will glance all around until she gets my attention, and then she will look at me very directly. This is her “I am done now and I need you to come here and let me out so I can return to the herd” look. I will let her know that I see it and then I go to her where she meets me over at the gate and I let her out.

I LOVE THESE MOMENTS, because it’s an opportunity to let her know that I hear her, I understand her. The gap of understanding between us has been bridged.

In the near future, when I am trying to create a bridge across to HER, I have a lot of confidence that she will be engaged and focusing intently on understanding my ideas. After all, I have proven to her, that I understand at least some of her ideas, but more importantly, that I am trying to understand them – her ideas are important to me.

October 3, 2019

"Horse, I Know What's Wrong"

We try to help our horses all the time, especially when something’s bothering them, or they are sick, or they are concerned. We love them and we feel a responsibility to them. This is a good thing.

I believe that when there is something that is less than optimal for our horses that is occurring, anytime that we can SHOW them with our actions that we see it, we understand it, we are helping them with it… it’s an opportunity to show our horses: “I get you, and I get it.” It’s a bridge that we create between two species that often seem to not be in sync or complete understanding of each other.

Case in point: Yesterday when I went out to the herd and fed them their afternoon snack, two of my horses were struggling to eat hay. They continually paced and moved about with a mild frantic energy. It was similar to what you see when a horse is being bothered by a singular insect that just won’t leave them alone. Agitation. I am watching this, trying to find something that would explain it, when one of the horses went over to a fence and began to rub his entire body on it. Aha, itching.

I went over to his body, and sure enough, he had some hives on his neck and chest. I checked my other horse’s body, and she had a few hives as well, not as many however. When I scratched them, she was blissfully relieved. I have oral medicine for this, which I gave them promptly. and then I brought out a tube of hydrocortizone cream and rubbed a generous amount on their itchy areas. They each stood perfectly still, head in the air, as I did this. I looked at their eyes and they each were looking back at me with some gratitude, of course, but I also believe there was a sense of: “You understand what’s going on with my body in this moment.” I smiled and told them that I did, indeed.

When you are helping your horse with something, stop and really look at their expression. There is often a feeling of relief, of course, but I also think there is sometimes an expression of gentle and welcome surprise. When I see this expression (admittedly, I may be reading into it…) I will say out loud to my horse: “I know what’s bothering you, see, I get it.” I believe that moments like these are important in the creation of a connection with our horse. A bridge is being laid between us, a bridge of understanding.

September 29, 2019

Permission First

The more I handle, care for, and play with horses, the more convinced that I am that a very common and basic reason for the concern that horses have with us, or guardedness, is that we go about EVERYTHING with them without much thought or care about how they feel about what we are doing, if they are prepared for what we are doing… and if we have their permission to do what we want to do with them.

I believe that the reason that we go about things this way is in apart due to habit, and also that we don’t value our horse’s permission. What he or she thinks about what we are doing is not as important as what WE think about what we are doing. If we valued asking for or earning our horse’s permission as much as our own self-interests, well, we’d put a lot of time and effort into getting our horse’s permission.

This creates an interesting paradox – without our horse’s full permission, everything we do with our horses is destined to be, at worst, very difficult and unpleasant, or at least not as glorious as things could be. In other words, without our horse’s permission, whatever it is that we ARE getting from our horse is bound to be less than what it could be.

I have a new person working for me and I had asked her to take off my horses’ waterproof blankets after a few torrential rains. I cautioned her with one of my mares, who is not a trusting mare, generally, and especially with someone new. I even suggested that she may want to leave her blanket on and that I will remove it later in the day. She texted me later to report she was able to take off all of the horses’ blankets ( loose in the herd, or at liberty).

I asked her the next day to tell me about her experience with my mare, Aspen. She said that she simply stood near her and talked to her and told her what she wanted to do. After a bit, she was able to unlatch the buckles and clips and Aspen stood very quietly for her. She said that she waited until Aspen gave her the sense that it was okay to proceed… you know, permission. I was thrilled, to say the least. This is exactly how I approach her. It can take 20 seconds to a moment or two- but it’s worth it, because it goes very, very well for both of us. Of course, I also seek permission from my other horses, but I usually get a “green light” in a matter of seconds. I do this by pausing next to them, for just an instant, and get a feel for their receptiveness to what I’m about to do.

Permission, it’s very, very, powerful stuff.

September 20, 2019

Focus and Attention.... Interesting Dynamic

If you’ve been around horses for awhile you begin to realize, usually through moments of unexpected and interesting horse behavior, that there’s more going on in their minds than we sometimes give them credit for. I had another “wake up” moment on this very thing the other day with my horse Bonito (the dun in the photo above).

I have noticed that when I muck and rake and clean up his area (he lives next to the herd during the day because he has food allergies), that he often follows me around (nothing unusual there) and has this uncanny knack for putting his front hooves and sometimes his back hooves EXACTLY where I am working or about to work. To further help you understand, it’s not that he’s standing near me, he goes TO the area that I am raking in, or moving towards and THAT’s where he puts his body. I often find myself turning around only to find him standing exactly where I was working or exactly where I’m about to work. He’s a touchy-feely kind of horse and a bit mischievous, and so I chalked up this behavior to a personality quirk and desire for attention.

About a week ago, we enlarged his area by quite a lot because he needs to spend more time in his area as we remove some sand from his gut, and he continued to follow me around as I mucked and continued to plant his hooves in the exact spot I am working in or about to work in. This behavior struck me differently this time because he now has plenty of room to entertain himself away from me and I realized that he wasn’t just trying to get attention – the WAY he was doing it was to put his body where my focus was, where my MIND was engaged. I don’t know if it’s a kind of syncing or play or attempt to get my attention – regardless, it was deliberate and very precise.

I know that horses will look at things that we look at. I know that if I lean into or move my body or parts of my body (leg, arm, hand) in a direction, that my horse will do the same, in some kind of way. But this is the first time I realized that my horse may put his entire body where I am focusing. The question becomes then can this be played with to great effect or a fun end? Like everything else, the answer is “probably,” but it will depend on the horse’s motivation and the handler’s responses to things.

Moving forward, what I am going to do now is let my horse know that “I see what you are doing,” and then see what happens if I acknowledge it in some way. If we can start a conversation based upon my focus and his action, then it becomes where can we go with this? Can I use it create a conversation in new places, new events, new objects. The wheels are turning, stay tuned for more.

September 17, 2019

Horsemanship Dinosaurs

“Dominance, it’s so LAST century.” I posted this meme on facebook and a lot of folks commented on it. One of the things that I mentioned in this post, that a few people commented on, was the idea of “horsemanship dinosaurs,” (said with humor). It’s very striking that in recent years that there’s a divide that is being created between horse people who hold onto and often defend traditional horsemanship philosophies and tactics, and folks who are moving towards newer, more progressive ideas. This is, of course, the natural course of everything in life, but it’s very striking in the area of horsemanship because people can’t believe that there’s a gap between what’s happening now and what’s gone before.

But a gap there is, and as it should be, because this is how things evolve.

In this same post, I asked others if they felt the way I did when I encountered someone supporting, even celebrating, ideas in horsemanship about dominance, submission, herd hierarchy, lead mares, being the boss, etc. To me, these people seemed like dinosaurs – dated, passe, out of touch… like the world is passing them by, and they don’t know it yet. I find it striking, because as recently as 20 years ago, I thought these same ideas were so progressive and radical. 10 years ago, I thought they had a place in the continuum and were laying the foundation for the newer thinking. And now, the ideas about dominance and submission, well, just sound old.

Lest you think that I am passing unkind judgement, please know that I fully expect for all of MY ideas and those of my peers to be labeled as soooooo (add eye-rolling) antiquated, obsolete, boring… I fully expect to be labeled a dinosaur as well.

When it happens, I want to the kind of dinosaur that flies around, please!

September 11, 2019

Take the Time... and Let Your Horse Think

Imagine what it must be like to be a horse living with humans… it’s rush, rush, rush. The humans are moving horses from one place to the other, all the time, and the humans just come in, grab the horse in some way, and then pull them along, or at least bring them along quickly. The horse is not given the chance to understand what’s going on and then be engaged by it all… they are just brought along- and now! It’s no wonder that horses just shut down their attempts to understand what’s going on and then not even consider stepping up… no time for that!

One of the easiest and simplest ways that we can encourage our horses to think, and more importantly, let them know that we’d like for them to think… is to make this simple change when we are asking our horses to move from one place to another. What I am going to describe is easier to do without equipment, but it can absolutely be done with equipment. Here’s what I mean…

When you want your horse to leave a pen and go to another another area, (this is without equipment), don’t go in there and grab your horse or get at their hip and move them… just stand by the gate and ask them to come over. Many will, if you give them a moment to understand and then feel free enough to walk over. If your horse is unsure or doesn’t want to come over, go over to them, and encourage them to come along with you, get close to them and ask them to follow you, take a few steps and wait to see if they will follow you. If they don’t, gently go to them, in some way, and touch them as needed, I cup their jaw or I may take my finger tips and tickle their rib cage… and again, take a few steps and see if they will follow you – but give them the chance to take a step or two, this is the key. If all else fails, put some equipment on them, or a line over their neck and do the same thing, ask them to come along with you and the WAIT for them to make the steps, and wait for as long as it takes!!!!

Please understand that if your horse isn’t coming over to the gate to leave the area, while chances are that they may not want to leave the area, it is more likely that they are not sure that it’s okay to come over, and frankly, they are not in the HABIT of acting upon their thoughts when they are with you! Why bother?

This simple act of encouraging your horse to think about what you are wanting from them, and then giving them time and space to offer up what you are suggesting is powerful stuff! You are undoing what may be years and years of your horse not thinking about what you are asking for, and certainly not offering it up either.

September 9, 2019

The Power of Intention and Visualization... another Reminder

I know how important it is to have a clear idea in your mind of how you’d like for something to go… I practice the techniques every day and witness the marvel of the mystical forces that seem to color and shape my experiences.

But, I was reminded of the importance of these very useful methods with my horses, in a contrasted sort of way, just the other day. First, the contrast part: I have a horse that is healing from a very mild but persistent form of laminitis due to a leaky gut. He is being healed by an incredible human product called Restore. It is healing his gut lining and his gut health in ways that medicine and gut supplements were unable to. Amazing. But that’s not the story here.

His hooves have been hurting for years. The internal damage is not crippling (literally), the rotation in his coffin bone is minimal, but the issues are persistent. (His hooves are healing, by the way, he has a full 1″ of new and very healthy hoof growth). Over the years, he has developed a very negative association with any kind of care and attention to his hooves. He does everything he can to work with me – he lifts up his own front legs and holds them in the air as I work on them, but he cringes throughout the experience and needs to put his hooves down on the ground. He often slams them down and fidgets greatly and then picks up the same hoof again and holds it in the air and tries as hard as he can to bear whatever I am doing.

If I rush with him, or brace myself for fussiness, or become frustrated with him, anything I do with his hooves is destined to evolve into a problem. And so, I’ve learned to take my time, setting out my equipment slowly and carefully, talking with him about what I’m going to do, and why, and then going about things in a super casual way, stopping often and ideally before he’s uncomfortable… and most importantly, visualizing (while telling him) how relaxed and easy it will be for all… AND it usually goes very well!

The other day, I brought out one of my mares to balance her hooves, laterally. They had gotten a bit out of balance, not uncommon with older horses who move in an unbalanced way to compensate for some kind of joint or muscle achiness. (Easy for me to identify and relate to because I find myself doing the same thing with my body!) I was very tired and wanted to finish my horse chores and get home. And oh, by the way, we have been experiencing a heat wave as well – humid, hot, miserable. All I wanted to do was go home and be in the air conditioning. And with this less than optimal state, I bring out my mare. She is very sensitive and she must be approached slowly and fluidly with all handling, but generally, our energies mesh very well. But not on that day.

I am rushing, I am filing briskly, I am cutting out dead sole abruptly. And she began to move around and move away from me. I tried to console her, but I got caught up in how it was not working well. I began to talk to her about her lack of help and cooperation. I began to focus on it… The more I thought about it, the more I talked to her about it, the more it came on. Finally, I realized what I was doing. I put some hay in front of her and took a break from her. I did some other chores and came back to her awhile later. I breathed deeply and petted her a bit and assured her that it would all go well now. I took my time, I imagined the ease and flow of it, and instantly, all was much improved. To create more feelings of goodness between us, and to “erase” any negative associations that may be creeping back in, when we finished, I kept her out with the hay and let her eat to her heart’s (and tummy’s) content.

I teach others to stop and visualize what you want and even talk with your horse about it. This changes your energy, your horse feels this change, the talking with your horse naturally slows you down, creating a momentary pause that allows the energy shift to occure. It’s an awesome practice, but even I need to remind myself to “practice what I preach” every so often.