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!

March 26, 2019

Don't Correct or Punish or Ignore what you don't Prefer... Replace it with Something Else

Horses are just being horses, and a part of being horses is they develop behavior habits or behavior rituals very, very quickly, especially if it’s rewarding in some way. This is why horses can be taught something new so quickly.

It’s also why behaviors that you don’t prefer seem to blossom overnight. An old friend of mine who is a horse gal from way, way back used to have a saying about horses: “Three times… and it’s a habit.” And she is right about this.

When your horse is expressing a new habit, know first of all, that she is just being a horse. Rituals are very, very important to these creatures. Also, if the habit is not one that you prefer, know that you probably also had a hand in creating it, or at minimum, you were looking the other way when it was developing. But there’s good news – when you finally see this new behavior one day, the very process that created it can be used to replace it with a new behavior. However, it is important to realize that there is some kind of wiring that is going on in her mind and in her nervous system and replacing something that is occurring, especially if it’s satisfying in some way, with something new and different, will require diligence and some time (and the old behavior may flare up from time to time as well, but should be easily dampened). Anyone whoever said that teaching horses is simple and straightforward, well, isn’t paying attention.

A recent case in point for this discussion: A few of my horses get extra meals each day in pens adjacent to the area where my horses live. These horses learned this routine very, very quickly, as you can well imagine. There are two pens next to each other that are joined by a gate. My mare Aspen walks through the first pen to get to the far pen for her extra meal. My young horse India walks into the first pen for his meal. When they are through eating, we do this in reverse. I open the gate for India to return to the herd, I leave this gate open and open the gate between the pens to create a way through for Aspen to return to the herd. She has taken to sprinting through both of the gates in these pens and running out into the herd. The running among the herd is lovely, but the sprint, which just recently “blossomed” is creating anxiety in her, needlessly. So I decided that we needed to interrupt this new behavior loop and replace it with a new one. A smart and straight forward way may have been to put a halter and line on her and lead her quietly through the two gates, ask her to stop and relax before I take the halter off. This system would work very well and in short time, I would be able to bypass the halter and line and ask her to follow me quietly through the gates.

However, I decided to challenge myself to see if I could begin to replace this behavior without equipment, giving myself only 1 try at it, because every day that goes by that she’s anxious about the whole thing, the wiring in her mind is getting stronger. Yesterday, I endeavored to help her, and this is what happened: I opened the outside gate and let India walk out. I left the gate open and went to the second gate where Aspen was waiting to sprint through it, and I opened it and stood in the middle of the area. This is not always advised with some horses, especially if they are nervous, blocking them can just put fuel on the fire. But Aspen is very responsive to my Liberty communication, so I stood there, paused and breathed for a few seconds and then asked her to follow along behind me, which she did at the walk, as best she could. Then I stepped back when I neared the outer gate and she broke into a trot as she went through it, and trotted out into the herd, but quickly “piddled” down into a walk – clearly there was little energy that needed to be expended. This is not perfect, but it’s considerably calmer. I’m going to try again, today, adding a pause before the outside gate to encourage her to relax a bit. If she walks through both gates and returns to the herd calmly, then I will know that this is going to work. If I find that there’s still some excitement being generated, I will put a halter on her the next time and encourage her to relax as we go through the gates, taking off the equipment in a week or so.

The most important part of replacing an old behavior with a new one is time and diligence. I anticipate that it will take up to 10 times going through these gates calmly before a new habit is starting to be formed, and probably 10 more times before it is set and possibly even longer. If there are interesting developments with this process, I will be sure to post on it!

A bit of an update… I had a brainstorm the very next day and it is working well. When I let India out of the first pen, I closed the gate, I opened the gate and Aspen walked into the outer pen, where India had just been. I went over to the outer gate and she met me there and waited. I opened the gate and she walked out, rather quietly… and then trotted out to the herd. Again, this is moving in a better direction. Stay tuned for more.

March 8, 2019

Horse Play and Human Play... Horses Know the Difference

It’s not always possible to play with our horses the way they play with each other. We can’t run as fast or as far as they can, and frankly, who wants to be lunged at, bit and slammed the way some horses play with each other?

But we don’t have to throw the “horse play” out with the bathwater, so to speak. We can develop a play style and routine that is do-able and safe for the human, and more importantly, our horses can learn the difference.

I was reminded of this just the other day. My horse Bonito (seen in the photo above) has been very sick for some time. He has leaky gut syndrome and it has effected his hooves. It is a long, long story and I believe that he has finally turned a corner and will improve to the point that he may get all of his previous health and previous hoof health back. But, it’s still a bit too early to post on it. Stay tuned for future posts on this remarkable and sometimes very disheartening journey.

Bonito is feeling better and I’ve observed it in his careful instigations of play in the herd. He is gently provoking some play with his regular playmates with the “gotchya… gotchya back” game that horses do with their heads and sometimes teeth, something I have not seen in considerable time. It is very encouraging to see this. He is clearly not ready for full-blown running, leaping, galloping and cavorting, although I’ve seen hints of it.

The other night I was in his pen next to the herd (he is on a different diet than the herd and he eats separately during the day and is put out with the herd at night). I was cleaning up or moving something around and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bonito lifting his front legs, one at the other, very, very high, in the style of a Spanish walk. He used to do this in the past as a way of getting my attention because he knew that I would laugh and pet him. He has not been able to do these movements because his hooves have been hurting. When I saw this, I laughed out loud and petted him. Then he began to back up everywhere I was to cause me to scratch his rump, which of course, I did. Then he came over and put his head on my shoulder and nuzzled my hair. And finally, he instigated a game that we have played many times and that is the picking up of a bucket or a stick or whatever, shaking it and then dropping it on the ground, where I would mimic what he just did and we would go back and forth.

This playful exchange went on for about 20 minutes, and I was struck by a few things: Obviously, Bonito is feeling better. He was also letting me know that he wanted to engage with me now in our regular play. And finally, I remembered that I had been seeing similar efforts on his part with the herd, and I was struck by how different our styles of play were and how Bonito understood the differences.

March 6, 2019

Going with and not often Against our Nature.

Why must we always go against things, confront things, go AT things, push into things? Why must we always be right, in control, directing things, correcting things? Of course the answers to these questions are deep within the human psyche and have been honed for eons… so let’s bring things into the present with a short retelling of a moment I had yesterday with one of my mares. This moment offers a tiny example of an approach and an energy that is of a harmonious and getting with and going with expression.

My mare Sweet Pea needs extra grain each day to keep weight on. When she was through eating from a large tub in a small pen adjacent to the herd, she began to eat weeds that have sprouted up in recent rains. I am not familiar with these weeds, and so I generally don’t prefer that my horses eat weeds of an uncommon type (I had a horse end up in the hospital with plant poisoning because he ate something unusual that was within reach). I opened the gate to let her out with the herd, it was near where she was eating the weeds. She did not leave the weeds to return to the herd – no surprise. She was not wearing a halter, so I reached down and put my hand underneath her jaw and she lifted her head up. I kept my hand on her jaw and took a step towards the gate, she did not follow me. I asked again, and she began to back up a few steps. I turned towards her, and put my hand on her chest and in my usual way, asked her to back a few steps, stepping along with her, petting and praising her the entire time. When she stopped, I scratched her and told her that was a beautiful back up. Then, putting my hand back underneath her jaw, I asked her if she would come along with me, and she stepped forward with me, walked past the weeds to the opened gate and walked through it readily and easily… and harmoniously.

I’m not going to put on my instructor’s hat, explaining all the implications of this way of thinking and contrast it with the more typical ways that folks deal with horses that are expressing a preference to do something other than what the human has in mind. I don’t need to go there because what I described says it all, and you all are very smart, indeed.

March 2, 2019

Fluid Movements Flow from the Mind

Snowy morning thru camera

Every day, in many different ways, for many different reasons, I ask at least a few of my horses to back up a few steps, to back away from something or back away from me. We’ve had a lot of rain and even snow (!) recently and as such, it’s been a muddy mess in the area where my horses are living. (I’ve included a photo for some fun – this is the desert southwest, USA, wow). As a result, feeding them and maneuvering around them has been a challenge and I’ve been asking my horses to move their bodies around me more so than usual. In particular, I’ve been asking my horses to back up or back away a lot this past week.

Yesterday I was reminded of something I have been feeling for a long, long time: The most fluid responses from our horses come when the idea springs from our horse’s minds. Let me describe this in greater detail.

If I want my horse to back up a few steps, I may put my hand in front of his or her chest, or I may even lightly touch their chest, and then say (as I always do): “Would you back for me, please?” And after a very brief pause, my horse gently and fluidly backs up a few steps, and if my hand is still in front of their chest, they will continue to do so. I am struck by how easy and smooth these movements are. I am reminded that when the idea comes from the horse’s mind, in response to my request, that their bodies flow like water going downstream. There’s an ease to it, no “corners” in their movements, no jagged edges. The pause, of course, is key, because the horse is gathering his thoughts and preparing his body for movement. It’s amazing that many of us have been taught to “blow through” this pause, asking for an immediate response. Quickness in horsemanship has been equated with respect, erroneously, in my opinion. But there’s seldom beauty in a quick response.

Flow, ease and fluidity is an ideal that I hold in my mind and reach for in all of my requests and suggestions for movement. And in fact, if my horse responds in an abrupt, jerky, erratic fashion, I know that the response is bodily or from their nervous system, and is not the ideal that I am seeking.

February 28, 2019

Energy Attraction... Is It Real? How can You Feel It?

Banjo lateral dance fb

Energy attraction. It’s a key to Liberty and many folks talk about it, but what does it feel like? How do you know when it’s happening? Well, the best way to understand energy attraction and feeling it is to feel the opposite – feel when attraction is most definitely NOT happening.

Let’s consider for a moment that there is probably energy flowing between everything in the universe. So, there is already energy flowing between you and all the creatures you come into contact with. What I am describing is a palpable brand of energy that seems to fill the space between you and your horse that you both feel and respond to, physically and emotionally. It is a brand of energy that seems to have a social purpose and an emotional purpose. It is a brand of energy that has INTENTION. It binds two creatures together, causes them to feel of each other (a subtle communication) and feel connected to each other emotionally. How do you know if this is occurring? Here’s a few ideas:

When you get the chance, visit with, ideally hang out with and be very near, a horse that you’ve never met before. It’s important that this horse is loose and is able to leave. Stand about 1-2 feet (1 meter or less) away from this horse for awhile and very casually walk around them. Mostly likely (not always), the horse will just stand there and not react to you, other than to sniff you, perhaps. Often with a new horse, it will feel like there’s a wall between you. When you do something, this horse typically doesn’t respond to what you are doing, and other then sniffing you, they also seldom move closer to you or shift their weight towards you. A new horse feels like a large, living, breathing flesh-statue. Then do the same thing with your horse. Chances are they will show that they are aware of every little thing you are doing, they may lean into you, go towards you, and respond as you move around them. Most importantly, it will feel to you that there’s a sea of energy between you. It may even feel that you and your horse are in a small energy bubble that is enveloping both of you. Is your horse more comfortable with you and the new horse is more cautious? Absolutely. But I believe that in order for there to be a flow of energy that can be felt, your horse must “open the door” if you will and give permission for the energy to flow through. Energy attraction is an emotional attraction as well as a visceral experience.

Here’s another way to feel energy attraction with your horse. When your horse is loose, walk along with them at their shoulder. You are shadowing them, not leading them. As you are walking along, step to your side a bit as you are walking forward. Feel what your horse does. Does he also step to the side in the same way? Walk along and try again and see what he does. As you are walking along, slow down for a few steps and then resume your speed. What does your horse do? Does he just naturally seem to slow down, even if just a bit? Now do the same thing by stopping, very easily, not suddenly. Does your horse stop or slow down as well?

If you are following along with your horse and his body does not naturally respond to yours, zig when you zig, zag when you zag, chances are that energy is not flowing between you. Again, if you get the chance, try this exercise with a brand new horse- the LACK of flow will feel very striking to you. Feeling when energy is NOT occurring is the first step towards creating a sensitivity to when it is happening.

Now, what I am describing is a kind of syncing, but I have found that syncing comes naturally when there’s an energy attraction. As a matter of fact, without an energy attraction, the handler has to teach their horse to sync. With the energy attraction, it just happens. That’s why I spend a lot of time developing the energy attraction before I begin to play with syncing – so much easier! On a separate note, I use the incredible power of syncing and mimicking to teach in a very natural way, whenever possible. I distinguish between the two modeling type behaviors. Mimicking requires more thinking and is more deliberate, I feel. Syncing occurs often automatically, and especially when there’s an energy attraction.

Go and feel the energy for yourself – it is sublime!

February 8, 2019

Easy Transfer of Ideas, Movement, Learning

I was reminded of something yesterday that I’ve been doing for years and it’s an amazing way to create easy movement and easy learning in our horses. Let me describe an opposite scenario of what I’m relating first. Let’s look at asking our horses to back up when we are next to them or in front of them.

A common way of doing this is to begin with the horse standing still and having no particular reason to go backwards, other than you are making a fuss in front of them, pushing them backwards, creating energy in front of them that they would want to get away from (creating a reason to go backwards, I suppose). When your horse backs up, you stop and reward and after a period of time, your horse learns a signal to back up. This is pretty typical.

I’ve always felt that this was a mindless way of teaching horses to back up, and I say mind-less, because there’s no reason or purpose (mind) attached to the learning. Just… do it. One of my personal mantras for years has been: “There must be a better way to do everything with horses.” Of course, the quest to discover better ways is endless.

Back to my post… I show my horses my communication for backing up a variety of ways, syncing is one of my favorite ways, but I also teach horses by capitalizing on situations, and then using this to build an understanding. Which brings me to the story from yesterday.

My mare Aspen has never liked backing up. All I have ever had to do is take a step towards her, and she would back up. But not because she was complying with my suggestion, but rather she doesn’t like me near her head – never has. This backing up is not a relaxed move, however, and so in recent months, I’ve been applying a tried and true way of helping her back up, calmly, and then transferring it into new situations.

Here’s what I have been doing. During winter months, Aspen needs an extra meal of grain and alfalfa because she loses weight very easily. I bring her into a small area near the other horses to eat. To let her out of this area, I need to swing the gate towards where she’s standing (because she’s ready to return to the horses), and I simply put my hand in front of her chest and begin to open the gate, I am standing in front of it – and she naturally backs up. I add the following: “Would you back for me, please?” And, “thank you,” when she is done. Over a period of weeks, I added a step or two, and she would back up, calmly, even further.

Now, the transfer. When I ask my horses to back up or back away when I am out with the herd, most of them will take a few to several steps backwards, smoothly and easily. Not Aspen, she will always pivot one way or the other on her hind end and then leave the area. I’ve never insisted that she back differently, it wasn’t important to me.

Yesterday, I needed her to back away from a fence so that I could walk by, and I put my hand in front of her chest and said: “Would you back for me, please?” And she backed up, readily and calmly – no pivoting. Of course, I followed up with: “Thank you.”

Ahhhhhh, very nice, indeed. Thank you Aspen for the reminder on how well this system of transferring ideas from one situation into another can work so effortlessly.

February 3, 2019

Horse Behavior... It's Seldom Random.

I was reminded about something really important recently about horse behavior (human behavior as well)… behavior is hardly ever random or without some purpose or reason. We humans go about our lives and just act and respond in ways that often feel devoid of thought, but I think that’s probably not true. We’re just not aware of the emotions or thinking behind many of our actions because we are consumed with other thoughts and emotions. Which is why when we observe our horses, it may be tempting to surmise that what they are doing sometimes has no real purpose or meaning…. not so, and I was reminded of it recently.

My mare Aspen has been overly aggressive recently. The herd has been on a very gentle diet over the last 8 months and their weight has plateaued very nicely. It has felt to me that Aspen is hungry these days, as evidenced by her zeal when the herd is fed their many small meals throughout the day. (In case you are wondering, the herd was on slow feeders for some time but gained too much weight because they were not getting enough exercise – too busy eating all day! And so they are fed numerous, smaller meals throughout the day and night).

In the last few weeks, I have observed through a camera that I have on the herd, that Aspen was getting more and more aggressive with the other horses, especially around meals. Which is why I assumed that her aggression was tied into hunger. A week ago, I was watching her eat up close and she was wadding her hay and spitting some of it out and cocking her head to the side… all signs of dental pain. Aha! I called my vet and we’ve set an appointment to check her teeth and take care of whatever is bothering her. In the meantime, I gave her a gram of bute, per vet orders, and then started her on a program of 1/2 gram of bute twice a day until her teeth were taken care of. Lo and behold, her aggression disappeared overnight. She’s back to her usual self, and immediately. The change in her behavior was clearly an expression of pain.

Years ago, I had a professional specialty of helping challenging horses and often aggressive horses. I learned then that most aggressive behavior is pain or fear-based, and usually a combination of both, for obvious reasons. Whenever a horse was sent to me, I went searching for physical causes first, emotional and mental causes second (as I said, they were usually tied together). It’s interesting that when the changes creep in slowly with your own horse, it’s easy to overlook this very obvious correlation: Pain – aggression. Thank you Aspen for the reminder.

Post Script: Aspen just had her teeth floated since I wrote this and sharp points were pressing into her left cheek. She is happy horse now and is eating well.

Post, Post Script: It has been a few weeks since I wrote this post, and Aspen has mellowed, considerably.

January 28, 2019

Liberty Secret – Be the Friend that's "Different."

Bonparte pedestal 2 edited

Unless you live with your horse all day long (in my dreams!), you are a visitor in their lives. This goes triple if they live in a herd, as my horses do. So when you show up to do something with them, and their social needs have been met all day long, it can be challenging to pique their interest. I have said often that it’s not too challenging to create a social relationship with a horse that is kept in relative isolation, in a barn all day, for example. It is a whole other matter to become important to a horse who already has socially bonded herd mates.

Fortunately, horses can have more than one socially bonded herd mate, and so there is opportunity to become their “other friend.” I have found that trying to emulate the relationships they have with other horses, in terms of things that you may do together, can get your foot in the door and is often a good starting place. But, if you really want your horse to look forward to seeing you and leaving the herd to play with you – you need to be the other herd mate that is very different and in ways that are very interesting.

All of my horses leave the herd readily to be with me and do things with me. A few are positively jazzed about leaving the herd, and these same horses show me very clearly that they do not want to return to the herd, as well. I often have to drag a few of them back to the herd, they stop often and have to be encouraged to move forward as we are walking back to their area. It’s important to realize that everyone of them as at least one BFF in the herd!

Why is this happening? Well, as it turns out, that while herd-living offers security and relaxation… it can also get a little dull. I believe that the reason that my horses leave the herd, and do not ever call out to the herd and seldom seem to even be aware of them, has less to do with confidence and security that I offer them, but more that I am INTERESTING to them and I am ENJOYABLE to them! Being with me, I believe (and I hope) is like a fun day at the park, a field trip from school, a short vacation from regular life.

When you ask your horse to leave his friends and the safety of other horses, strive to be very, very interesting. Do things that he would never do in the herd. Give him a brand of attention that he is not getting from other horses. He will be standing at the gate every time you drive up, you can be assured!

January 24, 2019

Have You Considered that Horses don't Think in Words, Labels or Language?

Amira, jaw to side at Liberty

I read an interesting article in The New York Times on the brains of octopus. (I’m getting to horses, really I am). There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that suggests that octopus are thinking creatures with great memories, and it’s even reported that they seem to entertain themselves. The article went on to say that early studies suggest that their brain is entirely different than ours and most other animals. The authors suggest that how cognition occurs in brains and nervous systems needs to be rethought. (Admittedly, the scientists are having a bit of time studying these creature’s brains because every time they attach an electrode to them, the octopus promptly removes it!).

It got me thinking about horses and how their minds may work, what they are understanding with us, and what we may be inferring into their actions. It’s interesting to consider, for example, that horses don’t ascribe language to ideas and objects and events. When we humans ponder things in our minds or when looking at something, we tend to label our observations and thoughts with words from our language. So right there, humans and horses are different.

(On a separate note, a friend of mine who is a psychologist and a philosopher was writing a book that basically states that human intelligence and consciousness is tied into the existence of language. We had several lively discussions on this subject as I inserted animal intelligence and their lack of language, into the debates… but I digress.)

When we are pondering ideas, we also have a monologue running through our minds throughout the day: “I need to pick up the dry cleaning this afternoon,” to “I’m feeling a bit down today, I wonder why?” When we are with our horses, we ponder them, plan our movements, usually in our minds, and with some kind of language attached to it. This language, I think, also helps us with memory retention.

Sometimes things can happen around us or to us suddenly, and we react first before we have any thoughts about it. In the seconds following, as we are trying to understand what had just happened, the words and language begin to flow. If what happened is so foreign, it’s possible for several seconds that we have little or no words going through our minds yet. Interesting, because maybe this is what it feels like to be a horse.

What’s remarkable is to consider that horses don’t have an internal monologue the way we do. They sense and experience events moment to moment, and have thoughts about them, feelings about them, responses to them and memories about them if it’s happened before. Consider the photo with this post: This mare is not thinking that she is putting her muzzle on the back of my hand. She is attracted to my hand, she is enjoying what she is doing, she is feeling something, thinking something… but who knows what? All I know is that if we repeat this often and she enjoys it, it will become a regular part of our time together. What do horses do with this input of information? How does it effect their decisions in the moment and in the future? We may never know. An object or event or experience may become seared into long term memory and what happened and how it made them feel creates a memory that can be retrieved in the future. But there are no labels in the way of language attached, just sensory impressions. What we can be certain of, however, is that HOW they process information and HOW they use their minds is DIFFERENT than us.

January 13, 2019

Using Your Breathe to Attract Your Horse

Last month, I did a fundraising clinic in Tucson Arizona for Karuna Horse Rescue. I presented Liberty principles and techniques with 6 rescue horses – all very different. It was a free-flowing, go-with-the-moment kind of day. We covered a lot of ground and the horses were all amazing.

In this clip, I am with a very traumatized and fearful mare named Dharma. She had been there a few months and was coming around, but would only let a few people handler her, and even then, they needed go slow and very carefully. Haltering her and moving her was quite the challenge. I spent an hour with her showing many Liberty ideas on how to connect with horses. The ideas that I presented are worthwhile for all human-horse relationships, but are especially powerful when you are trying to help a traumatized horse.

It is important to offer your horse self-determination and self-mastery. I talked about this all day long. It is a foundation to all Liberty, and in my opinion, all of our work and play with horses. This was a the core of everything that I showed in all of my presentations. In this short video, I am using breathing to cause this mare to feel that being near me is better than being away from me. I had visited with her the evening before the clinic and she would not come near me, as I expected based upon her story. All attempts to go to her and pet her were thwarted by her.

Just standing with her and breathing for about 3-4 minutes (this clip is edited down) was enough to create contrast: What it feels like to be near me, and what it feels like to be away from me. As you see in this clip, she began to show that she may in fact prefer to be near me. From here, I was able to help her become proactive in her decisions about being with me and doing things with me. I will post more videos on this session and others from the clinic soon. Be sure to look for them.