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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!

January 19, 2020

Where the Harmony Is

I am creating an entire presentation on Where the Harmony Is for my new teaching channel – look for announcements on the channel in 2020. Horses are harmonious creatures, generally, and they especially want it with humans. After all, we are probably the greatest source of stress in their lives.

I believe, and my experiences with horses bears this out, if you can focus on creating harmony, and showing your horse “where” it is – in other words, the behaviors between us that just seem to create ease, then I believe that horses will go TOWARDS those behaviors over and over again.

Over time, harmony becomes the “way it is” between you and your horse when you find yourselves in new or stressful situations. You and your horse both will automatically go to WHERE the harmony is. It’s a preference and a choice that becomes a habit, that finally becomes conditioning – for both of you.

Case in point: Bonaparte, my mini, does not like to be tied up, for anything, grooming, scratching and petting – nothing. I believe that he has a very strong and very negative association. If I tie him up to trim his hooves, he is very antsy to the point of almost panicking. So I trim him at Liberty when he’s out with the herd. Is it the best trim? Probably not, but he’s very relaxed and doesn’t move at all. When I do bring him into the grooming area and tie him up to do something, even put a finishing touch on his trims, I have found that he is much calmer, overall, and tries really hard to get with me. I don’t press it though, because it’s not an obstacle between us in his regular care and management. You see, choosing the things that are really important to you that you need to help your horse with, and then letting many other things go and finding ways to work around them – well that’s where YOU create some harmony with your horse.

December 20, 2019

30 Days to Reconnect

I have been on a videotaping sabbatical due to family medical situations (not me) that demanded a lot of my time and attention. Things are back to normal and we are creating and writing and preparing to begin a slew of new video projects- I’m talking a few year’s worth of new videotaping! My horses have been on holiday for well over a year, and truth be told, almost 2 years. Of course, I tried to play with them here and there and have posted on it. They live as a herd and their herd bonds have continue to strengthen. I mention this last bit because when horses’ social needs are met by a herd, creating a connection and strengthening it can take a bit of time and a lot of creativity. When you, their human, is not as present, they may not “miss you” as much – and that’s a good thing, for them.

Before we begin videotaping, I need to spend some time reconnecting with my herd and with each individual horse. I took them out for some one-one-one play to see where they were at with our connection and communication. A few of the horses were obviously thrilled to be playing with me again, but seemed a bit rusty on some communication. Most of the horses reconnected with me… after about 30 minutes of “Who are you again?” But it definitely felt like the very strong connection between us had weakened just a bit over the almost 2 years a very spotty sessions together.

So, I decided to play a game, and that game was spend an hour with my herd every day doing nothing but petting and scratching them, and just standing near them, quietly. I decided to do this for 30 days to see how long it would for each horse to connect with me in a big way. So I began, it was really nice… and in 3 or 4 days, it felt like: “You’re back!!!” Every horse was coming over to me, hanging with me, following me around. It felt like a light switch went on… after a few weeks spending this kind of easy time with the herd, I began to play with each horse individually – several of them connected with me at Liberty as if no time had passed at all, and the rest of the horses connected with me after a bit of play. Very, very interesting and very satisfying.

What is the lesson in here? I don’t know about you, but many times, I’ve observed people bringing horses in from the field or from rehab or from a lengthy time off, only to have the horse thrown back into training in a hard and stressful way. It does not respect the horse’s mental and emotional contribution to the relationship. Take some time reconnecting with your equine partner and when they let you know that they are acknowledging your value and they show you that they are interested in being with you and getting with you- THEN begin sessions where you ask your horse to be mentally and physically engaged. Of course, all of my ideas about teaching and training, which would follow, are significantly different than the norm… but that’s for another post altogether.

December 9, 2019

Helping our Horses can be as Simple as Breathing

Every day, every week, every month, every year that goes by, I am continually amazed to learn and relearn how powerful our breathing and breathing energy can be when we are with our horses.

I am getting horses ready for a long season of videotaping – we have all new material, lessons, exercises to bring to the public, and we are in the pre-production phases now. I am getting horses cleaned, detangled, bathed and more, in preparation. I brought out my rather fidgety, active horse Banjo to detangle his very long, very thick and very tangled mane. I tied him in my grooming area and he started moving around, not terribly so, not real concern, just a little antsy – just enough that it was getting hard to work on his mane with my finger tips. I stopped and stood next to him and began to breathe in and out, slowly and audibly. After a few breathes, he stopped moving. I continued to breathe in and out, relaxing my body, looking around as though I didn’t have a care in the world, and he continued to relax his body. In about a minute, he was resting a back leg. I resumed my work on his mane and continued to breathe audibly, and then was able to breathe normally, adding a long and slow breathe to the breathing “mix” every 30 seconds or so. He remained calm for the entire session, about an hour.

I have done this kind of thing so many times, with many of my horses, in many different kinds of situation, that I should not be surprised by now at how effective it is. But as I sat there working on his mane (which can be very enjoyable and relaxing- if Banjo is quiet enough to focus on it), I was struck, once again, at how powerful our breathing is when we are near our horses.

… on a fun, side note. Breathing can also be used to excite and stimulate our horses too! I’ve been playing with this in my Liberty play and it’s proving to be equally effective and fascinating.

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.