Monthly Archives: January 2014

Horse Role Reversal

There has been plenty written about teaching a horse to lie down. Just a circus trick? A demonstration of yielding and trust? Perhaps a practical purpose such as a rider who has difficulty mounting.?

The scenario I’ve often pictured when I hear the latest teach-your-horse-to-lie-down-method is this: if your horse knows that lying down is a good thing, and knows that dropping himself to the prone position is a great way to get rid of pressure, you might be in store for some fun rides. You’ll certainly entertain your friends on the trail. What are you doing down there?

[singlepic id=17 w=300 h=225 float=right]Well I can’t really judge anyone after what happened to me the other day.  This was during our recent southern Alberta monsoon.  My youngest gelding Chip recently turned two, and has some sort of respiratory irritation.  It’s not a big thing but I thought I’d make a closer inspection. He’d snorted out a couple of big gobs previously, so I wandered out in the pasture to have a look, up his nose of course.

Standing in front of him, I lifted his head up to look in. He’s taller than I am now. He leaned into me. And that was all it took.  The downpour had turned our pasture into a sloppy skating rink of mud. I slipped and fell backwards, and with a splash I landed right on my back in the mud. It happened so fast I didn’t have a chance to catch my fall.

[singlepic id=18 w=300 h=199 float=left]The next thing that happened took me by surprise.  Chip had been standing in front of me.  As soon as I was on my back, he lay down lengthwise on top of me. His rear legs were on either side of my legs, and his knees were on the ground on either side of my shoulders. He did it with enough care that I wasn’t at all hurt, and he was elevating himself off the ground so that he was hardly touching me.

I had no problem having a look up his nose from that vantage point. None at all. I didn’t really have the option NOT to look up his nose, actually.

Although my Chip-blanket was a warm comfort in the wet weather, my backside was in freezing cold mud. And I was praying that those hooves landed in the right spot when he got up.  I didn’t let the situation drag on.  Get up, I said. And he did.  He never touched me once. Come to think of it, I’ve seen him try the same thing with the other horses when they are sleeping. He hasn’t succeeded yet because he hasn’t quite learned the stealth mode of approach, and his pasture mates are fully aware of what a brat he is.

[singlepic id=12 w=300 h=225 float=right]Chip and I have spent many an hour together, playing games intended to teach him yielding, engage his mind, and nurture his curiosity. He is shaping up to be a great horse. But he is so full of play, that sometimes I think he’s going to burst. He took off with an orange pylon last week. He ran over to my old gelding Ty, and started to whack him with it. Ty typically just ignores him.  I think Chip likes Ty because he has the most patience with him. Spud, my 7 year old paint, would have kicked his butt.

Several days ago I had five feed dishes lined up along the fence.  I thought I’d let the rain rinse them out overnight.  I left them on the non-horse side. I returned in the morning to find all of them missing. I reasoned correctly that I’d left them too close to the fence, and the horses had grabbed them. I hopped the fence to go pick them up, and wandered the entire pasture to no avail; I couldn’t find them anywhere! Confused, I returned to where I started, and in the process walked by the water trough.  And guess what? There were five feed dishes resting at the bottom.  I spun around at a tickle on my neck. Chip was standing right behind me.

Aha! I thought, you’re the culprit! Who else, really?

[singlepic id=14 w=225 h=300 float=left]Chip likes his toys. He has a tarp he drags around and a horse ball. He has a deflated exercise ball that he loves swinging around, but it no longer holds air due to a game of catch I was playing with him over a barbed wire fence. And he does enjoy himself at the expense of others, intentional or not.
HUGE Security Blanket!

I used to have one of those plastic poop scoop things for the trailer. (Note the past tense.) You know, like a pitchfork, but with about 20 plastic tines spaced close together.  I no longer have one. I have a nice handle though.  Not sure what to do with it.  Anyone need a handle ?Regardless, I left it too close to the fence. Leaning up against the fence, I believe.  A perfect invitation for a mischievous equine. My trailer cleaning chores had been interrupted and I neglected to put it away. I returned some time later, and went to put the scoop back in the trailer tack room. It was nowhere to be found. Staring across the pasture I spotted what I thought was a long handle.  I began to walk towards it and noticed something odd on the ground. I picked it up and realized it was one of the tines. Snapped right off.  And with each yard of my passage through the grass, I found another. I reached the poor handle and picked it up.  It had one lonely tine left. Like a plant with all its leaved picked off, save one.

I felt sorry for it.  It could no longer scoop poo.

Chip at his best.

[singlepic id=13 w=300 h=225 float=right]Last fall I built another horse shelter. I worked alone, for the most part, putting it together. I had the wall sections up and I was inside the shelter lifting lumber up onto the roof. I was pleasantly surprised to hear someone hammering. Apparently someone had shown up to help me; my first thought was that I would have to make a beer run!  I couldn’t see who it was, so I said, Hello!  No response. I thought that was a little odd, so I walked around to the back side of the shelter from where the hammering originated.  I needn’t have worried about beer.  Here stood Chip, hammer in mouth, whacking away at the wall.

If only I could teach him to hold a nail!

[singlepic id=16 w=300 h=199 float=left]I was hauling the hay sled back across the pasture after feeding. You would think that the horses would have their minds on food. But not Chip. I heard him run up behind me, but I didn’t bother to turn around. I should have. He jumped and landed in the hay sled just as I was giving it a tug.  My arm almost came out of its socket, as 1000lbs landing in the sled stopped it instantly.  I turned around, and here’s Chip, standing in the hay sled. If he could talk he would have said, Pull me! Pull me!  I actually did try, however I couldn’t budge it.  Maybe I should hook it up behind the quad or the truck and give him a ride. How’s that for role reversal?

I consider Chip’s curiosity and playfulness an asset. It’s important to me that my horses be allowed the opportunity to discover their environment. When curiosity outweighs fear, a trail ride is a real pleasure.  And barring any medical catastrophe for either of us, there is a chance that I will be riding Chip on a mountain trail 30 years from now.  I might find that his ability to lie down (preferably with me on top) beneficial, as I will undoubtedly need mounting assistance given my track record of ending up on my backside in mud.

(originally published May 2012)

Riding with Mountain Lions

After I had  guided ten of our guests for a day down the trail back to the staging area, I rested and watered my horse and turned back, wanting to make camp before nightfall.

I was riding my mare, Belle. She is a 16hh dark bay appendix.  Regal in appearance and attitude, she does however have a soft side. More than one person has referred to her as my soul mate. I can’t argue with that.  I don’t have to think about riding with her; the right things just happen. We are greater together than individually, and I really feel that when I’m on her.

So it goes without saying that we trust each other about as much as two living beings can.

We have learned many things from each other and about each other.

So when Belle has something to say, I listen.

Like I mentioned, it’s a long trek back to camp. After the first couple of miles, it’s rare to meet another rider. On that afternoon we walked, trotted and loped where we could.  At a walk, it’s a five hour ride; I was aiming for two. As we entered the last few miles of our journey the sun was setting.

The ride was uneventful; we have done it many times. Belle kept her pace up and we were enjoying the ride. We reached a fork in the trail, where we could choose our path. One direction took us to a shallow crossing of the river, the other led us into a pool of water where we would jump in and swim across.  I had seen Belle jump into that spot on her own before, so I thought we would opt for the more challenging route.  We only made it twenty feet down that trail.

Then Belle stopped. Her head was up; she was fixated on something ahead of us.  I followed the direction of her eyes and ears into the forest but could see nothing but darkness in the dense brush, with the sun dipping below the horizon. What my senses could pick up though, was her heart pounding, her body tensing, and every hair on my back standing up.

Belle doesn’t  spook at just anything.  I have  tried everything I can possibly think of to bother her, scare her, and annoy her, and I can tell shes just thinking, Stupid humans. So this was something different.  I had never seen her do this before, and so unsure, I gave her a little encouragement.

She didn’t budge but kept her focus on whatever was scaring her.

I trust this horse.  And so I listened.  We turned around.  I repetitively glanced behind me, and a shiver went down my back. I saw nothing, but through her I could feel something.  The word creepy is appropriate. We backtracked the short distance and took the other fork in the trail.  As we crossed the river, Belle relaxed somewhat, but her pace was still hurried and tense.

Crossing the shallower part of the river we came to what is known as The Rails.  It’s basically a few rails serving as a makeshift gate.  It’s kept more than one horse from heading home.  There were some folks camped out at The Rails.  I had had coffee and breakfast with these guys a few times, so I stopped to chat.

As I recounted Belles strange behaviour I was interrupted by one of the guys as he pointed to where we had just crossed, We just saw a cat over there!  And he didn’t mean a house cat.

We are talking mountain lion.

So I will  sum this up.  Scott and Belle go down the path.

Scott wants to go right.

Belle: Holy s&*t, there is a mountain lion right THERE!

Scott: Huh?

Belle: Seriously RIGHT THERE! Don’t you see it!?

Scott: I’m not sure what you are saying girl, but I trust you, and we will  go the way you think is best.

Belle:  Thanks, buddy, but let’s keep the pace up!

Who knows what might have happened had I forced her down that route?   Maybe nothing. Maybe we both would have beern cat food. What I do know is that I listened to my horse when she told me there was something life-threatening, and we are both healthy and happy today.

An event to ponder, for sure.

[singlepic id=20 w=300 h=225 float=right]Several days ago my mountain riding excursions took Belle and I out west again, but with a fellow rider.  I could feel the winter season getting closer with every ride, and didn’t want to pass up on an opportunity to hit the trails.  We enjoyed a short but quick paced ride in the area.  We cantered and trotted much of the trail, enjoying a speed and freedom that one can only experience on the back of a horse.

We took a loop trail which took us east of the nearby campground, alongside a river. And it happened again, for the second time in the years Belle and I have been together. She planted her feet.  Her heart raced. Her head was up and she was scared.  But she didn’t run; she looked to me for direction.  I turned to my friend and said, The last time this happened, there was a cat in front of us.  As she turned her horse around, she replied, I trust ya!  We backtracked a short distance, and then rode through the bush to find a trail that paralleled the one we were on previously.

But this time was different. Although we were further from the point she became so alert, Belle did not relax. Her attention was planted on the spot where she had scented or seen what scared her.  She stared into the dense trees as we rode on.  If I would have asked, I’m certain she would have happily gone into her thoroughbred gear and galloped home.  But I didn’t want to add to her anxiety.  So we walked.  And she was tense the entire time. After we had passed the spot she sensed something, her attention was beside us.  As we turned north and headed back to the truck, her attention was behind us.  I could pinpoint the center of her attention like watching the needle on a compass.

It was eerie.

We crossed a road and took the trail back to the trailer. As we neared the truck I fished out my keys and unlocked the doors with the remote just in case.  I hopped off and tied her to the ring on my trailer. Belle was literally on her tip toes. Her head was as high as she could raise it and her tail was up. Her eyes and ears were glued to the direction we had come from.

A shiver went down my back.

My friend saw this and said, let’s get out of here. We didn’t waste any time loading up.  Once the horses were in the trailer and those truck doors were closed we relaxed.  Driving down the road as the sun set, we glanced into the darkening bush.

And saw nothing.  But what was there?

Neither one of us saw a thing. But Belle saw, or sensed something that had her more on edge than I have ever seen.  I trust this horse and her instincts.  She had her attention focused to one spot the whole way back. If the simplest explanation is usually the right one, then I am led to only one conclusion:

Whatever it was, it followed us a few miles back to the truck.

On Belle, I have encountered bears, deer and elk. We have come across dead animals. She is fine with all of those. She is even chased moose out of the pasture. We’ve ridden with dogs, hikers and bikers.  We’ve worked cattle and buffalo, and ridden by sheep and llamas.

She doesn’t care.

Neither time did I see a cat, but I can put two and two together.  In the first instance the facts are: she told me something bad was up ahead, and the folks across the river saw a mountain lion in that exact spot. In the second instance although again I saw nothing, I recently spoke with some friends that were hunting just south of that area and caught cats on their trail cam during the day.

That’s enough for me.

Thanks Belle, I trust you.

(originally published Nov 6, 2011)

Laser Therapy for Horses

In November 2012, I attended the Alberta Equestrian Federation Annual Conference. To raise money for a children’s program, they held a silent auction. I felt obligated to put my name down on a few items, and not entirely because the Executive Director, Sonia Dantu, was standing there egging me on!

I bid on many items, and I was actually hoping to win the muck boots. I have a pair of insulated rubber boots, but they are no longer water tight which makes them pretty much useless, unless you like your socks drenched with whatever liquids are lurking in a mucky pasture. As the conference drew to a close, the auction items were announced. I didn’t win the boots. But I came away with something much better: a gift certificate for LLLT (Low Level Laser Therapy) at Chill EquiRehab.

Personally, I am no stranger to physiotherapy. I have seen the laser machines in use and have been treated with them as well. There is however, a lot of skepticism in the medical community as to exactly how laser therapy works, and what injuries it is beneficial for. In essence, a laser is a device that emits amplified electromagnetic radiation in one or more discrete frequencies. With respect to medical treatment there are several variables involved: laser frequency, energy, and duration of exposure. Some laser devices offer a combination of these that can be selected as a various programs.

[singlepic id=9 w=300 h=200 float=left]Many people picture a laser as a high energy Star Wars beam of red light slicing through something. Although lasers are used for those applications in industry, medical lasers are much lower powered. You might also be thinking, well light doesn’t travel through solid objects, so how is a laser going to penetrate a horses hair, then a thick skin layer, to reach the tissues underneath ?  Without going into too much detail, think of a laser simply as a concentrated beam of energy. Whether you can see that energy depends on the frequency. This energy is comprised of photons, which can penetrate several inches of tissue.

If you have one of those powerful penlights handy, try this experiment. Cover the lens with your finger and turn it on. You will see the light through your finger: photons passing though your tissue. Your flashlight emits light across a very broad spectrum of frequencies, which is why it appears white. A laser emits light of a single frequency, which is why it can appear as a single color.
So you have got photons traveling through tissue. How does that help anything?  Laser energy stimulates cells, promotes cell growth, enzyme production and vascular activity. Thus they are used to treat a wide variety of issues including nerve damage, scar tissue reduction, inflammation, and even wounds and bone fractures.

I have an 18 year old horse, Ty, who broke his neck (C4) three years ago. That is a story in itself, but suffice it to say we have been down a long, but successful, rehabilitation road. I thought Ty would be the perfect subject for LLLT as he exhibits many of the conditions it is used for treating: arthritis, scar tissue, nerve damage…..the list goes on.

Keeping an open mind, I contacted Wynter Jones of Chill EquiRehab. I told her all about Ty, and she seemed excited to work with him. She sent me a form to fill out requesting all the details of his injury and what observations I had made on his movement limitations. As we live a few hours apart, she suggested taking Ty for a week and treating him twice per day.

So on a chilly December day Ty and I made our way west of Didsbury, AB.  We were greeted by Wynter and I introduced her to Ty.
Wynter Jones is an Equine Therapist and operates Chill EquiRehab. After earning her Veterinary Assistant Diploma, she enrolled in the Equine Massage Course at the Olds College. Since then she has become certified in related disciplines, including Equine Massage and Vertebral Realignment and Low Level Laser Therapy. Wynter also uses magnets for therapy and is an independent consultant for Nikken Products. Wynter says she became an Equine Therapist because she wanted to heal in a non-invasive way instead of covering up the problem.
Wynter began with a head-to-tail evaluation of Ty. She spent some time examining his trouble regions: neck, shoulders and back. She marked him in areas that required adjustment. As I walked, backed and turned Ty, Wynter made observations and remarked that she was surprised Ty was in such good shape considering his injury. She noted, however, that he seemed to be less sure of his footing when he turned. This is something I was well aware of too.

[singlepic id=6 w=300 h=200 float=right]Over the next five days, Wynter used a combination of massage, realignment and LLLT. I spent the first night there so I could observe several treatments, ask questions, take some pictures and make some notes. And make sure Ty was happy!

And Ty was happy.  I have spent countless hours with this horse over the last three years. So I know what to expect when he likes something, and what to expect when he doesn’t.   When Wynter first applied the laser to Ty, he perked up a little bit, as if to say, What the heck is that?

Wynter commented that horses seem to be more physically sensitive to the laser than people are. Ty responded in the typical way a horse would when relaxing: low headset, eyes half open, licking/chewing. You get the picture. But what got my attention is that Ty stood like this, for over an hour, during the laser treatment. After the first 10 minutes I just dropped the lead rope. Ty had no intention of going anywhere. If the laser wasn’t making him feel better, he would just leave. But he didn’t take a step.

Leaving Ty well provided for in a large covered paddock, I headed for home alone. I returned at the end of the week, anxious to see me equine buddy and what, if any, progress Wynter had made.

I’d like to share her findings as she wrote them:
Ty’s Therapy:
When bringing a horse in for therapy it is extremely beneficial for the therapist to have a thorough history of your horse including any past accidents & vet diagnosis.  I had Scott fill out a questionnaire on Ty before arriving, which I have all my clients do as part of my assessment. By doing this I already had a picture of things to look for upon Ty’s arrival and we were able to move along to treatment in a timely manner. Each therapist has their own series of tests on a horse to determine where issues are.
Issues Found:
Due to the break of the C4, Ty has some nerve damage which was affecting his right leg movement
Some atrophy to the right shoulder requiring adjustment
As horses compensate on the diagonal, the left hip needed adjusting as well
Adjustment to the poll & a few thoracic vertebrae
Treatment After Adjustment:
Laser therapy for nerve damage, working all 4 sides of the break to achieve maximum coverage on both left and ride side of the neck
Both massage and laser were used to stimulate shoulder muscles
Laser therapy used to stimulate nerve repair and to increase circulation from the right side of the neck all the way down to the hoof
Also did a lot of stretching of neck and limbs to increase blood flow
After doing two therapy treatments per day, I took Ty into the arena to do a reassessment but first thought I would let him have a good roll. Well after a couple good rolls Ty jumped up bucking and snorting and took off at a lope around the arena, and proceeded to jump over some rails I had set up. WOW! He looked great and was feeling good too!!! He looked like a different horse playing around in the arena. I am extremely happy with the results I had with Ty. Ty will need some follow-up treatments with the laser to keep him on the healing trail, but all in all his therapy was very successful and he was a great horse to work with. Love your story big guy!
Wynter Jones

Chill EquiRehab & Boyd Equestrian Center


[singlepic id=8 w=300 h=200 float=left]Wynter left me with a comprehensive summary of Ty’s treatment, including my homework: massage, stretching and exercises (for Ty, not me!). So what do I think about the whole thing? They say that seeing is believing. I mentioned Ty’s demeanor during treatment. That in itself was encouraging, but do I notice any changes in Ty now that I have him home? Before I comment on that, keep the following in mind:

Ty suffered a broken neck causing spinal cord compression resulting in nerve damage, most apparent in his right front quarter. He was initially unable to step over any object, unable to walk up or down an incline, and unable to back. After a roll, he had great difficulty in getting up. He has compensated by using his body differently which has led to uneven muscle development, stiffness and soreness. After the injury he was very protective of his right side.
I started riding Ty again 2 years ago. He has made a lot of progress since. We???ve ridden in the mountains and rounded up cattle. But he still has a lot of issues. Even now, he finds it very difficult to maintain a canter on the right lead for more than a few strides. His injury was most apparent when asking him to back. He was very reluctant to lift his front feet off the ground and backing in a straight line required a great deal of concentration on his behalf.
That said, I will quote from an email that I sent to Wynter the day after I turned Ty loose in the pasture:
Today I was outside waiting for a hay delivery. Ty was standing there so I thought, why not? I grabbed a halter and hopped up on Ty, bareback. Ty likes to trot and away we went. He felt good. As a test, I stopped him and asked him to back up, with my seat only, since I only had a halter with the lead on one side. And he backed up almost flawlessly, and quick and straight. I didn’t sense him dragging his front feet. I was pretty impressed with him and he knew it. Yee haw!
After the treatments, I watched Ty. There is a spring in his step that wasn’t there a month earlier. He looked more fluid in his movements rather than choppy. He looked a lot less like Eeyore and a lot more like a horse! And Ty jumped over rails? I haven’t seen him do that in years.
If seeing is believing, then I am a believer.

Scott Phillips
December 2012

P.S. Ty has made more progress!

Stay tuned to Amazing Backcountry for more great Horse Health stories!

Round Pen Annie

Round and round and round they go.

A neighbor of mine own horses. Let’s call her Annie. Come to think of it everyone on the road owns horses. Some are pasture pets, some are ropers, some are reiners, some are trail horses. But everyone has at least two horses. It’s akin to having a lawn ornament in the suburbs.  If you don’t have one, you’re the odd one on the block.

Back to Annie. She’s decent folk, no argument there. But I firmly believe that she considers the round pen a shrine. A temple, the confines of which is the only place to ride a horse. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times I have seen her ride outside a round pen.

Her round pen is 35′ in diameter.

Many people tend to use a round pen with good intent, but for the wrong reasons. A round pen is not a place to burn off energy nor solve every problem. It’s an excellent tool when used properly, but it is not synonymous with ground work. It certainly is not a place to go for a ride!

Leaning on the tie rail at Annie’s farm, I was a witness to same old routine. Annie walked into the round pen and her energy level went from 0 to 10 – instantly. Her gelding broke into a trot. However she kept her energy at the same level, smacking the ground continuously with her lunge whip. I wasn’t sure if she was working a horse or de-thatching the grass. I turned to an onlooker and said, What is she doing?

She’s round-penning her horse!, the person replied, admonishing me with a tone that implied I had never seen a round pen before, let alone a horse.

What I didn’t see though, was a purpose. There was no communication. Even though the horse was trotting as asked, Annie never let her energy level drop. Oddly enough, the horse appeared quite relaxed to me, perhaps even bored. He had obviously been through this before and had learned that there was no motive, no intention and no reward. Nothing was being asked of his mind. Annie however, was dripping sweat.
[singlepic id=2 w=300 h=300 float=right]Being round and of limited size, the round pen removes several options for the horse. That can work for you, if it suits and serves your motive. Initial work with a colt is a good example. You can use that space to your advantage in developing your basic communication: teaching the horse to read your movements and energy. And learning to read and feel your horses movement and energy.

Josh Nichol is one of Canada’s top horsemen. My colt Chip and I recently enjoyed some time with him at the Eagles Wing Ranch, near Athabasca.  Shortly after birth, Chip started playing on obstacle courses in his first few weeks, and had his first taste of mountain trails at 3 months. He is very comfortable with people, yawning the first time I climbed on his back. In Chip’s case, the round pen was a perfect venue to evaluate the training I’d done, and to clean up a few things. That didn’t last long however, and Chip’s first outing on a real trail, with me on his back of course, took place that week.

Recently Josh and I chatted about his views on the round pen.
I find the round pen a great place to work on basic communication, and an opportunity for a horse and human to see where they stand with each other.

Communication with a horse is talking to the mind, not the body. Understand the horses needs with respect to communication: mind, space and pressure. Pressure should draw the mind, not chase the body.

[singlepic id=5 w=300 h=200 float=left]The round pen needs to be a safe place where the horse can hook on to a human by thinking through pressure rather than running from it. I like to use the round pen mostly to allow a horse the opportunity to freely express themselves. I can work with that, instead of just seeing it out on the trail as a surprise.

A key phrase here is freely express themselves. Too often we see people using the round pen as a venue to make the horse work harder if he makes, in your judgement, the wrong decision. Turn your emotions off and allow your horse to voice his opinion and not be punished for it. Realize that you are working with his mind, not his body. Do not fall into a repetitive pattern of negative reinforcement by making the horse work harder when he doesn’t do what he is asked.

Instead, use the round pen to set up situations where the horse can succeed. Positive groundwork accomplished in the round pen establishes your foundation for communication and leadership. Your horse will learn that when you are applying pressure, you’re asking him to think, not run in fear.

Now that you and the horse are comfortable communicating, it’s time to leave that confined area and give him more options. Particularly when riding, he needs to be allowed the opportunity to make the wrong decision and also the opportunity to assume responsibility.

The next time you head to a round pen with a horse, ask yourself these questions:
1. What is my goal? What are the specific things that we are trying to improve on? If you don’t have an answer you won’t know to gauge how well your horse, and you, are succeeding.
2. What am I looking for? What specific actions or signs am I looking for from my horse? Communication is a two way street; you have to be listening to your horse as well.
3. Do I even need a round pen? Should I be in the pasture, arena or on a trail instead? You’ll find that communication with your horse becomes more natural and even subconscious when you focus on the task at hand, such as negotiating a trail or working a cow.
[singlepic id=3 w=300 h=200 float=left]The round pen is a tool that can play a role in vital groundwork: developing the skills you need to communicate with your horse using energy, intention and body language, as opposed to your hands and feet. Those skills translate directly to what you do in the saddle. In concept it’s simple.  In reality it’s a lot of work because as humans, we are used to manipulating our environment with our hands. If you grasp this concept and put it into practice then you’re starting on the path of a true horseperson: working with the horses mind.

As for Annie, we are just hoping she doesn’t get dizzy from all those circles!

Flying a Horse

When working with people and their horses, it is  sometimes useful to draw on analogy to help explain concepts. In the thousands of hours I have logged flying everything from bush-planes to 737s, I have realized many parallels between riding a horse and flying an airplane. Have you ever flown or taken the controls of an airplane? Even if you haven’t you’ll appreciate the comparison.


Horse Checklist

Pre-flight Walkaround (photo by Lynn Scott)

Let’s Get this Bird in the Air
Before we fly a plane, we do a walk-around. Take a look out the terminal window before you get on that big jet and head off to your snow-free winter destination; you’ll see one of the pilots performing an inspection of the plane. In aviation, it is a legal requirement. When riding a horse, it is good common sense. We inspect our horses before we ride, pick their feet and brush them down.
When we are tacked up and ready to ride, we climb into the saddle (cockpit), and walk (taxi) to the arena or trail head (runway). And then we are airborne!

When you’re riding a horse, just like flying an airplane, you’re moving in three dimensions. While you ride, try to visualize how you and your horse are moving with respect to the environment around you, what we commonly refer to as the big picture. Three concepts that will help you are: Axis of Rotation, Feedback and Situational Awareness.

Axis of Rotation
An airplane moves about 3 axis: vertical, lateral and longitudinal. We also have terms for movement about each of those axis, respectively: yaw, pitch and roll. We all know horses can pitch you off and love to roll in the dirtiest spot they can find, but that’s not quite what we are talking about here.

The Three Axis

The Three Axis

When we are flying straight and level, all three axis are in balance. If we push the nose of the airplane down, we are rotating about the lateral axis. If we tip the wings, we are rotating about the longitudinal axis.

While we’re not actually flying a horse – although that would be fun – the same concepts apply. Picture yourself riding a perfect circle. If the axis are in balance, your horse will follow a nice arc. If he is dropping a shoulder and falling into the circle, his lateral axis is out of balance.

You can control the horses movement about each of those axis, independently or together. Instead of a stick and rudder, you have your seat, hands and legs.

Like flying a plane, his balance is entirely dependent on you. The next time you are riding, try to envision how your horse is moving about the axis, and also note how your balance affects his.

Feedback is the information we get back about an action we have taken.
When we are flying a plane, we move the controls: pushing, pulling, or turning the yoke, moving the rudder pedals. The instruments and our senses will then tell us how the plane changed its movement relative to the three axis, based on our actions.

Feedback Loop

Feedback Loop

Riding your horse, you take the feel of a rein. Your senses tell you what the horses response was, and you in turn make adjustments based on how the horse responded. The process repeats over and over. We call this a feedback loop.

Both humans and horses learn from feedback. Our minds make mental connections; we remember patterns and develop expectations based on responses. And the more we process and act on feedback, the more this loop becomes subconscious. You likely make minute corrections every second or two when you’re riding, without even knowing it.

And like horses, not every type of airplane is the same. Once we’re comfortable flying that Cessna 172, lets take a Boeing 737 for a flight. Should we expect that the experience will be the same?

The Boeing has the same basic controls as the Cessna, but responds in a much different manner. You’ll be a student all over again, as your mind is forming new patterns as you cycle through the feedback loop. The key point is that the greater variety of aircraft you fly, the easier this process becomes. This is because you are training your mind not simply how to fly a Cessna or Boeing, but how to fly a airplane.

Likewise, the more horses you ride, the more you will learn to ride a horse. Your actions will be quicker and more appropriate, because you have amassed a large library of sensory memories that you’ll subconsciously draw on as you feel your way around any new mount.

We call this experience.

Situational Awareness
The textbook definition of situational awareness is fairly long and complex. In a nutshell it means knowing whats going on around you, and how your actions and those of others can affect the big picture. In aviation this is crucial. Your awareness of the position and paths of other aircraft relative to yours, both at the moment and in the future, is a huge component of safety.

Consider riding in a busy arena. You can focus intently on what your hands are doing, and probably cause a rodeo. Or you can look up, take in the big picture, and guide your horse along a path that will avoid conflict with others.

Gincy Self Bucklin, in her book How Your Horse Wants You to Ride introduces this concept as soft eyes. Soft eyes requires using your mental awareness and peripheral vision to take in your entire environment. Feel how your horse is responding and moving within the environment, as opposed to focusing on a single element of it. Hard eyes – focusing on a single thing – will cause you to lose that connected feel to your horse and become unbalanced.

Back on the Ground
At the end of our flight we taxi to the terminal at idle to allow the engine to cool (walk to the tie rail). Our passengers disembark (we dismount) and thank the flight crew for a great trip. We tidy up and take our gear out of the plane (unsaddle and untack).

Of course, after that a crew comes to drain the holding tanks

Accepting that your horse can move in three dimensions, and being conscious of how you’re re moving within your whole environment will allow you to become more balanced. A relaxed seat and hands will allow you sense the feedback from your horse and in return, be soft and giving.