kim and bridgerLiving Horsemanship


Considering the Horse - Diaries 01/2003



8:00AM Quiet, soft and still we leave Estes Park, 23 degrees, for Texas. First fuel stop – Burlington, Colorado.

Last night was a big night for all of us. We’re testing for our belts in Aikido. Mark is a blue belt going for his purple. Tyler (Mark’s son) is orange going for blue. I’m white going for yellow. The ranking for belts goes: white, yellow, orange, blue, purple, green, three brown belts, and ten black.

Here we go feel, timing, blending. Aikido lends itself so to our horse work, going with directing the energy, timing, waiting for an opening to make your move, feeling “it”. The kata is all the basic movements for Aikido. Fifteen or so different moves

Mark, Tyler and I have been practicing. They, of course, are farther along than me. This testing will last three hours and our Shihan will weave in and out of our moves watching us. I kept focusing on breath to keep my center. I wanted to have the proper execution of the moves and I was a little nervous. I’d hear him say when he came by “yes, that’s it”. I was so hopeful that I would get a belt.

Mark told me what I was to do if I did get a belt. I was to go to the front of the class where the black belts were standing with the new belts for all of us, bow, receive my belt, then kneel and change belts before my Shihan and the black belts. Then, once all the people in my rank had received their belts, we would get up together and bow to the higher ranks, then bow to my class, and finally go back to my spot on the floor while the rest of the ranks all received their new belts.

Guess what? I was the first name called. I was so excited that I almost forgot what I was to do. I did my bows, changed my belt, and looked to Mark and Tyler who were smiling at me.  Then Tyler got his belt and Mark his. We had all advanced one belt level. We were the new “rainbow coalition” – yellow, blue, purple – harmony.

Burlington, Colorado, 12:45PM. We leave Colorful Colorado. And now we’re in Kansas – flat and still with patches of snow and big round hay bales, scattered here and there with long irrigation sprinklers, so long maybe ¼ long.  I’ve never seen so many, I think, because it’s so flat here they’re more visible. It’s the high plains. It’s flat, flat, flat, to the horizon.  56 degrees. One side of the highway – Black Angus cows, the other, sheep.

Look – a sign ahead says “5 legged steer and the largest prairie dog in the world”. This must be Kansas. I suppose there’s no time to stop and see that five legged steer? “No we can’t” only the sound of the John Prine CD and the yellow wheat colored grass sticking out of the snow along the highway.

We just changed times zones and lost and hour – 2:15PM. Time had already seemed like it was draggin’ but we’ll “Fish and Whistle, or Whistle and Fish”. Hey this is it! Prairie Dog town, this exit. 8,000 pound prairie dog! We should be able to see it from the road. Heck, it seems like you could see it from California. Only, wouldn’t you know, they have a giant ½ around pen fence obscuring the view. Oh well. Now we’re on to a great Steve Goodman CD. He’ll see us through.

Rockpost county of Kansas. Still pretty flat and there are no trees, so fence posts are made from rock. Good thing this is cow country, cause the fences aren’t that tall.  5:20PM Kansas has the best rest stops. They are very efficient. We rested the horses and watered. Everyone is looking good – two and four legged holding up well.

This part of Kansas is beginning to get a little hilly. It’s part of Custer Country. Custer patrolled this area looking for the Cheyenne before he went north to meet his demise.

A little known fact is that right around here, Custer shot his wife’s horse out from underneath him while hunting buffalo. He was riding his wife’s horse at the time! Good shot, huh? I bet that went over big with her! And guess what, we just saw a heard of buffalo.

Smokey River – we just went over. Mark’s horse is named Smokey. Beautiful sunset across the plains – violet skies with orange and yellow sweeping through.  6:45 PM Kansas Abilene where the cowboys drove the cattle in from Texas. Wyatt Earp was sheriff here.

7:20 PM Headed for Oklahoma City. We should be there in about 2-1/2 hours. Classic rock & roll on the radio. It feels quit normal, me being here.  8:00 Oklahoma and we feel OK.  9:40 pass Oklahoma City southwest to Texas. Things always seem to take a little longer.

 11:45 Texas at last.

 2:30 AM We stop at a friends ranch. They have a five acre pasture just for our horses. Boy, are they happy. Me too. Sleep at last, and we get to sleep in until 9:00 AM! Yeah!

We visit with Jodi, our host. What a nice time. We had breakfast and some laughs. Shared horse stories and then gathered up our horses and off to Bastrop. 12:00 noon – five hours away. 6:00ish Bastrop – meet Amy and Dickie, our hosts. We got our horses settled on their ranch, feed and watered. They had some rye grass planted. Boy did Bridger love that! Then we had dinner and well deserved sleep for ourselves.

5:00 AM Up and ready for our first day.

I get breakfast for us and Mark is never late. Our hosts are usually getting their things ready. It’s a big responsibility for them.  So I take care of breakfast. We need to start the day off right and as you know “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”.

Mark and I really need to be at the arena about an hour early to get things ready. Our ponies saddled, PA set up, Mark’s gear, my gear. I try to make sure everything is right where we can get at it and make sure Mark has fresh water in his bottle. It’s really important we drink a lot of water. And we need a little something for lunch. We don’t eat too much because there’s a lot of work to do after lunch and if you’re too full you‘re not as alert to the subtleness of the horse and rider.

As I’ve said before, it’s so difficult to recap everything every moment, even small parts seem to mean so much and do. To see and be a part of it, is so “big”, and again I feel so blessed to be here, to be alive. With all the craziness in the world right now. My little world is starting to come together making sense or parts of it anyway.

So here I go with my observations.

A great group of people looking and wanting changes, getting them, supporting one another and their horses.  A gal with her six year old stallion, a Tennessee Walker. Beautiful, sorrel with flaxen mane and tail so in the sunlight he sparked golden. She wants to show him. Now I don’t know much about Tennessee Walkers or gaited horses or stallions for that matter.  What I do know is that they’re still a horse and should be treated as such.

I love the way this gal presented her horse to us. She said she wanted to be an example to the Tennessee Walker “industry”.  The problem was, (although it wasn’t a problem for the horse) the gait that he seemed to live in was the pace. Not good for the show ring.

She was also very careful not to upset her horse, so she was very light with her contact – problem - lightness versus softness, direction. With this light contact, the horse seemed somewhat insecure. He had been ridden in a “bigger” bit, so at one time there was too much pressure (before he came to her). She was now riding with a snaffle bit.  Now already there would be folks that would say this couldn’t be done or shouldn’t be done “of course you can’t ride a gaited stallion in a snaffle bit”, but she was. Things were going pretty well for her and her horse.

However, she wanted to get the “running walk”.  She wanted to change things up, offer more to her horse and her, more tools to work with.  Step by step, day by day, things started to come together. It was so interesting to watch this puzzle start to come together.

Mark started by working with her and her horse on the ground, getting the horses focus, maybe just an ear on him. That’s enough.  People seem to think you need the “nose” and “eye”, the whole face looking at you to show you that the horse is paying attention…That he’s “hooked on”. I am starting to see and feel that this is not the case. An ear is good, good enough. We can build on that. And he is paying attention! 

This was such a nice stallion, so giving and willing to please. He was originally trained as a racking horse. A racking horse is trained to pace.  What she wanted to add to his education was, like I said, the running walk. To accomplish this, we had to get him out of the pace, change things. The problem - the pace was so ingrained in him that even when loose in the pasture, he’d pace.

So we started with circles one way, then the other, serpentines. During this process, I kept watching Mark watch this horse. So attentively (of course he does so with all the horses) but because this horse was a stallion, and it seems to me they’re always given such a “bad wrap”, I couldn’t help but feel we were all rooting for this horse and rider.

During all of this, the rider and I were working every day on breath, opening up her shoulders, posture, her shared center with her horse, which is hard because of where you sit on a gaited horse, it’s really behind center just a little. She and I talked about this. Still the barrel of the horse moves left to right, right to left. Sit neutral, present yourself to your horse, present yourself to yourself “horsemanship – a way of life”. It was so much fun. And good hard work.

On the third day, Mark got some cavaletties (ground poles) and put them in such a way as to break up the spacing.  in other words, two poles at maybe four or five feet apart, two at two feet, back to five and so on. Then at one point, a big space in the middle. Sure enough, after going through the poles a few times, that horse was getting his running walk through natural transitions. Everyone cheered for her and her horse.

On the fourth day, they looked like they were riding into a show arena. It was beautiful. Posture and seat were all happening. Her horse was right with her and she was right there for her horse with softness and support and direction. Again, everyone clapped after her session.

Again what sticks out with this gal, she was in no hurry.  The journey to their running walk will take time, I feel, they’ll make. And she will be able to show everyone that she did it with love, kindness, through timing, blending, feel and harmony for her beloved partner.

Another horse that stood out to me was the “run-away” Palomino gelding. He was fifteen years old and very cute with a lot of forward on him.  He was used as a school horse, so the fact that he ran away with students was not a “good” deal. His trainer was at her wits end. This was the last chance for this horse. She really liked him but felt he couldn’t be trusted and was a liability at her barn.

There was no doubt this horse could go. At the slightest hit of a cue, he would bolt like nobody’s business. She would bring him back down after she got control again and say “see, see I told you”. Now of course, we never doubted her. You could see it all so clearly.

First off, Mark took a look at the gear she was riding in. A curb bit and saddle that was way too small. We put a saddle on him that we had with us that fit the horse much better.  Mark felt that the saddle might be pinching him and the horse might be trying to escape the pain by running away from it.  (I am learning so much) this was not a bad horse. I really appreciate how Mark takes time to look at the big picture, breaks it down like the puzzle I keep talking about.

I’ve always done that in my Pilates work with the human (break things down) because our bodies are like a puzzle seeing how we work on the whole…Where our holes are. What needs to be addressed, strengthened, where we need more awareness, support and then bringing that to the rider.

Now watching Mark do this with the horse, of course, it makes so much sense. It’s a body in motion. The how’s and whys…So getting back to our little runaway.

After changing the saddle, the horse did seem to relax a bit. There was still more. Redirecting the energy - the “go” in this case.  Like I said, this was a nice horse, but he just didn’t understand what he was supposed to do, what his new job was, so old muscle memory took over.  Somewhere down the line, what saved him or kept him out of trouble was to go….

Day by day, each time the horse went to take off, Mark would have her put him in a circle, direct the energy. He would have to slow down to get the circle accomplished, once he slowed, then she’d ride straight again. She had not yet trusted the horse to ride in a lope. So the first two days we worked in the trot. Even though the horse was brought in on the first day with a curb bit in his mouth, Mark didn’t ask her to change it.  Later, he would explain that sometimes it’s too much for the rider to change everything that they are used to doing all in one day.  So he worked with her using the bit she was comfortable using, but helping her find softness with that particular bit.  Things worked out so well that by the third day the rider asked if she could change her bit to a snaffle, and if all went well, transition to the lope. She was already a good rider (everyone in this clinic was).

We worked on relaxing her upper body, sitting more neutral in the saddle because again when the horse feels a brace, he’ll brace or in this case maybe even try to run from it. She was sitting better, the horse was feeling better, and sure enough a nice soft lope started to come about, if he started to rush (timing) she would do a circle and direct the energy.

On the fourth day, he was doing flying lead changes, stopping on a dime, all with softness, willingness and an understanding of what was expected of him.

His rider kept saying to me “I wish you’d seen this horse before, you wouldn’t have believed it. Why didn’t I think of this? It makes so much sense.” I said “it does make sense and it really doesn’t matter why we didn’t think of it before or sooner. What matters is that we always try, try to search for ways to make things better.”

She’ll always have these “new” ways, “new” tools, more tools to work with. That’s why we do these clinics, to learn. She’ll be able to bring this awareness to other horses and students. And if we’re all paying attention and learning with her, and from her horse, then we too have them – the tools and awareness, the desire to search, “finding the try”, understanding feel, timing, blending, balance and breath…..

I thank that little runaway for making me better, making me think, making me try a little harder….

Day two we had an equine dentist give a demo. Wow! What a rig she had. In Texas you must be a vet in addition to being a dentist. Good idea!  She drove a dully diesel vet truck and pulled a trailer with a portable stock and dentist tools hanging from the side, just like when we go to the dentist, though we have a chair obviously.

Anyway I’ve been a little concerned about Bridger. Although Bridger is a sturdy Prior Mountain Mustang, I’ve been noticing him yawning a lot and tipping his head to one side. So Bridger was the horse she did her exam on. She came highly recommended and I read about her the night before. I had had some dentistry done on a horse about five years or so ago and boy does it seem things have advanced.

First she showed us a horse’s skull and jaw and how the teeth should line up, what happens to domestic horses verses horses in the wild that naturally forge. That’s why we feed on the ground. It works their lower jaw the way nature designed it. And the teeth ware more evenly.

Bridger lived in the wild the first three years of his life, so he’s had a pretty good start.

To examine Bridger she has to give him a tranquilizer. It makes it easier for the horse and the dentist. Although Bridger is very calm I felt this was best as well. I must tell you, I was a little nervous. Breathe, Breathe, Breathe…

I lead Bridger into the stock rig. We put on a different halter to hold his head better in this stock rig. It holds it up, then she put in a big mouth piece and we opened Bridger’s mouth to have a look. He has a very good mouth and teeth. It’s funny how we are. I felt proud.

During her exam, we found one wolf tooth on his right side. She felt it should come out. There used to be seven wolf teeth molars, with evolution, they’re not always to be found. Like the chestnuts, Bridger has no chestnuts on his hind legs. I’d never seen a horse without chestnuts before. My guess is that because Bridger was born in the wild, the natural evolution that takes place, he is a part of.

Back to his wolf tooth. We all think it should come out. I must tell you, I am still a little nervous.  I looked to Mark.  OK, here we go. She numbs the gum and puts a little clamp around the tooth, and out it comes clean as a whistle.

She has all these tools to wash and float his teeth. I keep waiting for the hose with the mint apple wash. But it’s only water. Well why not! And Yes, I saved Bridger’s tooth. I also asked about these teeth that looked odd to me. They’re canine teeth. Stallions use them to fight with. I didn’t know that and again a lot of domestic horses are not born with them or won’t get them. But Bridger has his. Needless to say, Bridger had the rest of the day off. And lots of TLC.

This brings me to another horse and rider. A gentleman rider, and I mean a gentle man. With his loving companion a beautiful paint Tennessee Walker gelding. He truly loved his horse and wanted to do right by him. It really struck me, his concern and care for his four-legged friend. I don’t know why maybe because we mostly see women in our clinics. I wish we’d see more guys.

A question is asked about getting “feel”. Mark says that in general, the guys that he has seen at clinics get the “feel” faster than women. I never really gave it much thought. He thinks it’s because of sports. There’s a “feel” to throwing a basketball, a “feel” to an opening in football. And men just do it, go for it, “feel” it. After giving this a lot of thought, I think he might be on to something here. (By the way, he also said that women who have been involved in some kind of sport also seem to pick up the “feel” faster). 

In general, women seem to question the “feel”. Do I have it? Did I “feel” it? I better do it again, make sure I “felt” it. By the time we’re done thinking about the “feel” it’s passed and we missed it. Feel, timing, blending…

Again, this is very general. And I say good thing I’ve always been good in sports with a laugh. Believe me, I will continue to give this a lot of thought. Anyway here we go… back to our gentle man and his paint.

For the most part, I stay pretty quiet watching Mark and our riders when they begin. I need to be still so I can see the subtleties…Sometimes not so subtle. I need to see the way we sit, breathe, where we’re tight. Where and when we’re not breathing, how our legs are hanging, does our pelvis move or are we locked up. Shoulders - are they tight, hanging from our earlobes? Abdominals - are they supporting us or just hanging there? Where can I help bring awareness and support to the rider, in turn support his horse? Are there braces in his arms, hands, elbows, fingers, ankles and toes? Tighten one finger and see what happens…

This guy was pretty soft in his hands. I’d say good hands. Not much grabbing or tightness in his fingers. He did seem tight in his pelvis and hip flexors and postural awareness as not quite there. We talked a bit before we started to work. He said he had lower back pain, made sense to me from what I was observing and not much breath.  So we started stretching hip flexors, worked on breath, abdominal awareness.

The rider told me he had never loped his horse. I asked him why? He stopped and there was a silence for a moment or two. He said “to be honest, I didn’t feel confident enough”. Well there is was. How touching is that, to hear this guy confront himself to me this way. I’ll never forget that moment. I keep saying these things are so “big” I’ll never forget these times. It gives me pause…

The first two days we worked in the walk and trot, having a clear picture of what he wanted from his horse and himself. Mark is so aware of everything, he asked me if I saw anything off in the hindquarters of the horse. I did and it’s hard to see in gaited horses. It was the right side, it seemed to have a hitch in it, and the left dropped though it did come up to a neutral position.

This rider was so honest. What a lucky horse to have such an honest owner. He said he couldn’t feel it. So Mark asked him to get off his horse and watch. It was still difficult for him to see. I thought this was great. Mark led the horse and had the rider match his gait with the gait of the horse’s hind legs. In other works the rider walked parallel with the horse at his hindquarters and mirrored what he saw. Suddenly the rider started to hesitate in his gait just like the horse and then not only did he see it, he felt it too. How cool is that. Mark saw it because of how the horse took off for his left lead and he had to push off with his right hind and it caused difficulty for the horse.

Mark is so good this way. So what do we do? We start to work the horse in ways that made it easier for him. Such as: Not working on the left lead, only on the right. Riding in mostly straight lines and large circles, no small circles. In addition, the rider and I kept working on the physical side of his riding and talking about “horsemanship - a way of life”.  I helped him work on his breath, abdominal awareness. Balance comes from there. “I know you can lope if you have the desire”. He just thanked me and we worked a little more.

He gave everything a lot of thought. Later it was his time to ride. From the moment he threw a leg over his horse, things changed. Suddenly he was sitting on his horse with such awareness, support and breath. Mark commented on his seat, how his horse was coming through for him and he for his horse. He told Mark how I’d helped him, how he thought our work together made a difference. Here this big successful guy was giving me the credit when he truly did all the work.

We decided the day before to give the horse some bute to help his soreness, which it did.  However, even though it was clear that the horse was feeling better, we still didn’t push him.  Using bute in such a way can mask the pain, which can lead the owner into a false sense of security about the horse’s physical condition.  Just because the horse appears to be better doesn’t mean he is.  Mark suggested having the horse looked at by a chiropractor before working too much more.  However, not before he had taken his horse effortlessly up into that elusive lope. On the fourth day they were cantering around the arena like they’d been doing it forever. He said it was the first time he truly felt like he was riding.

What a glorious feeling. A feeling he will never forget and be able to build on. That’s what it’s all about…

I feel such gratitude. Feel, timing, balance, blending, caring – Sounds like a pretty good definition of love to me too…

I write most of this in the truck on the way home. We want to thank our hosts, Amy and Dickie, for making us and our ponies feel so at home…For allowing us to play our guitars at night…For the great venison sausage…For the big laughs…My fantastic room and shower…Having fun trying to set alarm clocks. Their very big dogs who, when the alarm clocks failed, a very big lick in the face did the trick.

Amy said something to Mark and I at breakfast the other day and I was so touched. She said we treat each other like we treat our horses, good partners….. I started thinking maybe if we all treated each other with as much care and thought as we give our beloved animals (horses) this world would be a lot kinder. It’s not a new thought for me. But I didn’t realize that we were doing it.  How cool is that, that someone else did.

The moon is still up this morning, big and round. It should be nice driving home. We’ll start tonight after the clinic.

5:25PM. Well here we leave Texas, North Austin. Nancy Griffith in the CD player - Woolworth Stores.

I’ve been writing my journal on the way home. I need time to reflect on all the changes I see and what they mean to me. I might change this as time goes on, maybe try to do it each night. Although we usually play the guitars after we take care of our ponies and have dinner - gives us some time to unwind.

I saw some beautiful changes –feel, timing, blending, harmony, action with purpose – the difference between lightness and softness – energy direction.

We drive through the night, stopping in Oklahoma to rest for an hour at 11:55pm. Stopped in Kansas to let the horses out and clean the trailer 8:49am. Get to the barn at 1:05pm, unload the horses and are they happy!  Us too… We do chores, and head for the house. We have Aikido tonight so we’ll need to rest. It was a big week. Good day to our ponies and we finally walk in the door at 3:50pm.

Time to get ready for next month…