Hi, I'm Ev. I'm training to become a horsewoman. These are my adventures and misadventures. I'm green as hell, but so far, so good. I'm now learning from Bo (and sometimes his wife DeDe) at D&D Ranch in Pope Valley. I am extremely lucky to have this opportunity, I feel quite blessed, and I feel that they, and horses, have really turned my life around.
Solomon is my baby- a big old flea bitten grey Appendix gelding who is very kind and way too smart! I love him so very much. He is a rescue and was meant to be co-owned rehabbed, and maybe rehomed to a good home. He turned out to be over 25 years old with injuries that ultimately do not make him riding sound, so he is retired.

Monday, April 12, 2010


The other day, sensei and I went up to the ranch.

Okay, okay, OKAY. You English people and your helmets. I pulled my helmet out of my trunk, and prepped it for use.

Meet SafetyGnome.

"Wear your helmets, kids, and keep a light handy!"

As you can see, sensei is very impressed with this helmet.

And I am ready to go!

Next, it was time for me to catch Lil and put her back in her pen. Sensei is still getting used to the camera, but I wanted to show a couple shots anyway.

When I took a couple of lessons a year and a half ago, the woman who taught me had me gripping the lead rope right under the horse's chin very firmly. It's a tight, controlling grip. I was confused overall, because it did not actually help me get my horse to do what I asked more willingly. Instead, he was more prone to resist, tense up, and panic. Of course, he also wasn't being allowed to be a horse as much, and I was tenser, and resisting more.

Mark Rashid and Bo both take the approach that if you want to GET softness from a horse, you have to GIVE softness. There are horses that feel more comfortable with more or less clear, firm cues, of course, and there are situations that require a little more control. But overall, I've found, under Bo's guidance, that horses are very sensitive, and they tend to appreciate it when things are a little more relaxed. Give a little, get a lot. Lil is a sensitive mare with a lot of opinions about life. I try to give her time, patience, understanding, and softness. She seems to really appreciate this.

When I first got here, Bo showed me how he could walk his horses around with the lead rope just tucked in his pocket. Actually it seems like a lot of the time he doesn't even really need the rope... they'll usually just follow him around.

I think that groundwork is really underappreciated. Taking the time to get to know a horse's personality can be so valuable. That bit of comfort and understanding can go a long way when you are on the horse's back too. You might think it is silly of me to write numerous paragraphs about walking a horse 50 feet, but my goal is to not just become a rider. My goal is to become a horsewoman. My goal is to have a purpose behind every movement I make, and thought behind that purpose.

A while ago, Bo told me to try doing some stuff like brush my teeth with my left hand instead of my right, and put my shoes on in the opposite order that I normally put them on. The purpose of this was to get me thinking about what were automatic actions. I found myself feeling a little challenged by brushing my teeth with my off hand, though I have been learning bit by bit to be a little more ambidextrous. But I also found myself breaking down every action. I found myself thinking "okay, this is how I've always done this... but can I do it better? Are there other ways to do this? What, exactly, am I doing every step of the process?"

So I can lead a horse, or I can consciously lead a horse. I can consciously choose to be softer. This doesn't mean not losing my "feel," which is something that comes to you with time and experience and personality, like an instinct.

But I find myself thinking, "well... I could grip the lead rope in my fist... or I could just balance it on my fingertips. Will she still understand me when I do this? Will she feel calmer, or less sure of herself?"

With Lil, as with many horses, I found that she was calmer. She was very easily able to understand what I was asking just by a slight change in the weight of the rope. Lifting a pinky sent her a message, and she was listening to it.

But the thing is, it isn't really just about groundwork. Because someday, if I keep practicing, I hope to learn to ride a horse with the same softness. Wiggling a pinky can be all the signal a horse needs to turn. I even saw Bo guide Solomon this way.

But like so many things with horses, it goes both ways. It doesn't just teach me softness when riding, it also teaches a horse softness undersaddle. If I can guide a horse with a loose lead rope, I think I probably have a better chance of getting that horse to steer and respond well to a loose rein.

I was looking at a coffee table book of photos of Mark Rashid doing clinics the other day, and I noticed a theme in all of the riders he was teaching- soft hands, guiding and steering lightly with the fingers, almost sideways. Now, it does depend on what exactly you are DOING with the horse, but this hand position interested me. A little mental note for myself, really... I am still so new to riding. I am working on keeping my hands low and soft and in the same position. But in time, I will want to become much more refined in my cues. I like the idea of guiding with just the lightest wiggle of a finger.

On the way to Sol's pasture, we noticed that the pond has tadpoles!

Eeee, they look like they're going to get little leggies soon.

Big scary sensei took pictures of flowers.

I "caught" Solomon, which consisted of him pacing at the gate and nickering until I found a halter for him and told him to back so I could get in his pasture and hook him up.

Now, that day Sol required a firmer hand than Lil. He gets really excited about going up that hill... mostly, I think, because he wants to go charging back DOWN the hill. And there's all this nummy green grass, see? So he needs a bit more of a reminder that he should be listening to, and focusing on, mom. When we walk around the ranch doing our normal thing, I often just toss the lead rope on my shoulder and let it balance there while I walk. The ridge, however, is like a giant rollercoaster ride to Solly.

Here we are, the most dignified, serious pair ever.

I just love Sol's pretty head.

Yep, serious beings!

The problem with going past the really well fertilized spot at the back of the ranch was that Solomon was rather disinclined to leave. I think that might be oat grass there, not sure.

Yeppers, he was Not Pleased with leaving the Best Grazing Spot Ever.

I held my hand high because Solomon kept wanting to graze instead of walk. I think in stressful situations, like going someplace he doesn't normally go to, he has a tendency to comfort eat. I think he grazes to assure himself that things are okay. Or maybe he's trying to retain some control over the situation. Or maybe he's just really food greedy. I think it's probably mostly a combination of the first and the last idea.

He isn't very easy to handle going up the ridge, and while I often forget these days that I have exercise asthma, I sure remember it when we're taking this walk!

Time to run in a circle around mom! Yeah, we have some work to do.

Note though, that while he's jiggy, Solomon has an ear on me. He almost always does.

Finally we got to the top! I felt like my lungs were full of fluid and was wheezing at this point. Sensei chided me gently for not having brought my inhaler. I almost never need it at the ranch these days, so I didn't think about it.

Solomon loves to graze and snuggle me with his head at the same time. This is a mutual comfort thing, and it's him checking in.

Then a horse down at the ranch below called. Solomon braced and screamed back. He still has an ear on me though! Sometimes I really think he must have some Arab in there.

Shortly after this picture, I let Solomon go back down the hill. He knew when I was about to let him go, and got really jiggy and head-tossy. He really wanted to go back to his familiar grazing area where the other horses were! I made him stand still before I would let him go. He trotted off for a few steps and then took off.

Little bit of vanity here... I actually like this picture of me! I just felt so happy and peaceful up there at the top of the ridge. My life really has gotten a lot better since we moved there.

The walk down was a lot calmer, and I was able to take the camera for a bit.

Spring in Pope Valley makes the other three seasons worth it!

A close-up of the lupines, which I'm pretty proud of. I think they're related to Texas bluebonnets somewhat.

Sensei, smirking slightly. I think he had just snapped the lead rope at me. I will get him back, someday! Uh, somehow.

Heading down the little ridge trail.

See those dark spots on the right side of the trail? Solomon was here. Very very briefly.

A field, and more hoofprints if you look carefully.

I think he had to have some pretty good acceleration at this point! He's not fast like he used to be, but that horse can still run.

Sensei and I both thought the grain and color of this log at the milling part of the ranch was really cool. Wigglywood!

Oh hey, there he is, by his favorite tree!

"Hi mom!" How could I ever resist this face?

It looks like earlier in the day, or late the day before, Shin the big huge grey ThoroughBred, was turned out. Be impressed by the extensive detective work I did to come to this conclusion!

Bo took time out of his busy day to have a nice chat with me, talking about horsemanship, and how much it means to really live the life. We were talking about how short life is, and how important it is to find your joy and focus on it. You never know how long you have. I didn't know sensei was taking these pictures, but he told me our friendship and the mutual respect we have for each other makes him smile, and he wanted to try to snap a few shots that showed that.

In a way, I really have two senseis.

Bo had a project he was working on today, and there wasn't really a good time for me to ride, so sensei decided we'd have a lesson. We focused mostly on falling. Learning to fall well is something that both Bo and sensei have told me is a good skill to have, especially if I am going to be balancing myself on the back of a large, fast-moving prey animal.

I learned a number of things that lesson.

I learned that Bo had been teaching me a few things that come directly from martial arts, in horsemanship. Redirecting energy, how to be the center of a circle, how to move others around your center, how to turn an aggressive move into a neutral one... all of these things are used in aikido. They are also used in kyokushin, though kyokushin is a much more direct martial combat kind of discipline. Sensei's core discipline is kyokushin, but he has learned some of a number of other disciplines, including aikido. I discovered that, if he wanted to, sensei could just send me out and away from him no matter how many times I rushed him, or how intimidating I tried to make myself be. I really suspect that I might have a lot more in common with Remmy than I want to admit, hah! And I think that learning more about this redirection is a good way to learn how to deal with a horse like him.

If you mirror aggressiveness with aggressiveness, you might win... but you might not. With a horse who is very playful or likes to use intimidation, reacting violently might be exactly what he's looking for. And if you do that, he's controlling the situation. If you can, instead of mirroring him, get him to mirror you by moving the energy of his onslaught aside, then you might just have a much better chance of deescalating the situation. You have a chance of turning a conflict into mutual understanding.

For me, with sensei, the mutual understanding eventually ended up with me facedown on the ground in an arm lock, but I earned that! Hah.

I learned that horses really can remain pretty calm when they know the focus of an aggressive move is not directed at them. It's interesting... run in a field, and you might set them all off, getting them running with you... and the horses in the next field over might start running around too. But here we were, spinning around each other, with me hurling myself (or being hurled) at the ground, and occasionally yelling, but what was the herd doing? They were all standing at the fence by us, one back leg cocked, dozing off in the sun. All except for Cali, that is, who was completely sprawled out on the ground, passed out asleep.

Somehow they knew that what we were doing wasn't anything upsetting. It wasn't anything for them to be concerned about at all. It was mild entertainment.

There was one point where sensei used a pressure point on my jaw that hurt like the dickens. I spun around and charged at him, and at that point Solomon, who had been grazing nearby, came over and snuffled us both, as if to say "hey... things aren't getting out of hand here, are they?" Of course, neither one of us could resist Solly's sweet face, and the lesson was paused so we could give him head-skritchies and wither-rubs.

I learned that focus is a hard thing to maintain. At one point sensei was having me punch his palms, and Bo came out of the house. I immediately started tracking Bo, watching what he was doing. Sensei watched me do this, and let me see, wiht a look in his eyes, that I should think about that. Then I realized that I wasn't giving proper attention to my lesson, or showing my sensei proper respect. I realized that I needed to keep my focus on him. And I thought, we humans aren't often able to keep 100% focus on only one thing, when other things are going on around us. Perhaps we should have a little more empathy for horses when they lose focus. Sensei could have smacked me upside the head to get me to focus on him again, but instead he let me figure out that I should be listening to him. A horse might need a little more guidance than that, but him using a softer approach to redirect my energy back TO him was food for thought. Do I need to really pull hard on a leadrope or "bump" a horse with the reins to get him to focus back on me? Or is there a better way?

A softer way? Will the horse then appreciate me being understanding more, and be more willing to do as I ask, just as I am with sensei? He gave me a little ground, gave me a chance to learn for myself, and to choose to listen to him. And in return, I gave him a lot of focus. If he had smacked me upside the head, I would have been giving him focus too... but I might have felt resentful. I might have had the urge to resist his lesson more. I might have felt defensive. I might have ended up thinking about how I could get away. I might in a way lose focus on the lesson, instead focusing on whether or not he might smack me again.

Instead, he made the conflict never happen, and brought us to an understanding.

There is a game we play. Kids play it. He holds his palms up, and I put my palms on them. He then tries to slap the tops of my hands. He purposefully twitches or makes an eye movement to give me a cue and trick me into thinking he's going to slap my hands. But if I just try to focus on that, I lose every time. If I try to look beyond that, to his focus, to his intent, then I can ALMOST get my hands away in time. He's pretty fast, but a funny thing happened the other day... when I closed my eyes and made myself go still and quiet, I actually did a lot better at the game. I weeded out all the extra cues, and just tried to FEEL his intent. In a way, it is teaching me to be more sensitive. A little more like a horse. They are so keyed up to subtle cues that they can read intent from us that we do not even know we are projecting.

I do have to say, though, that sensei can't quite move his hands away from me when I'm doing the slapping, either. I think I have my horsemanship training to thank for THAT, too!

I learned that appearances can be deceiving.

The ground we chose to do our lesson on was covered in lush, soft, green spring grass. A great place to learn falls, right?

Oh but the ground underneath was full of gravel. Ow ow ow ow ow!

And lastly, once again, I learned that what Bo told me when I first came to the ranch was true. Humans are very good at limiting themselves. I can't grow stronger. I can't ride that horse up that hill. I can't get him to listen to me. I can't find a way out of this. I can't I can't I can't. We can easily fall into the trap of defining ourselves by what we believe we can't do. Or we can go ahead and give it a try anyway. If it's relatively sane.

A year ago, I couldn't safely do a dive roll. No way, no how. I kind of got that idea stuck in my head, despite my health changing for the better. I told Bo a month or two ago "I can't do a dive-roll like I could when I was a gymnast. I'd just break an arm!" Bo just smiled, shook his head, and said "well Ev, you're young and you'd be amazed at the things you can do, or will be able to do again someday."

So there I was, kneeling and listening to sensei describe a forward fall. "you roll on your forearm, and transfer the energy of the fall from your forearm to your shoulder and keep rolling on your back, then you can just get right back on your feet from there," he said. "Now stand up and we'll try it."

I stood up, and I found that there was a block there. I was scared. I was sure I was going to break that arm. Sensei said "no, it's okay, really, look," and he did it himself. He then stood next to me and waited patiently.

"I don't know," I replied, still unable to move, "I really don't know if I can do that."

"You can."

He was calm and he was confident. He didn't get frustrated with my fear, and he didn't give in to it. He just gave me enough room to figure it out, but also enough guidance and confidence to feel like maybe it was okay after all. I remembered what Bo had told me, and I decided you know what? I'm going to try.

So I did. I dove at that hard rocky ground, my forearm out, and I rolled over my shoulder and my back, then popped right back up on my feet.

I got so happy and excited, and I turned around and said "I did it! I really did it! I dind't think I could, but I did!"

And sensei smiled and told me I did well. He told me he was proud of me. I remembered then that Bo does the same thing with horses. He calmly guides them through, and if they are afraid, he lets them know that he believes it will be okay, until they believe him enough to at least give it a try. Then, when they try and look to him, he lets them know that they were good and they did well. Success, success, success.

Walking back across the big field, I saw Bo come out of the house. I called out, "Hey Bo, look what I can do!" and then I dove and rolled, popping back up on my feet...


jeniferb said...

hi Ev, I love the beautiful pictures of my beautiful horse. I am so glad she is happy but i MISS her!!! she will not be as happy in New Mexico as she would be there.

jeniferb said...

Also you look great!!!

Evergrey said...

Hi hon! I am so sorry I didn't say hi when I saw you last, I think I really had to run into the loo and didn't actually realize it was you, gah! But thank you so much, and I'm glad you are enjoying seeing Lil. She really is a great mare! And thanks for the compliment! :)

Susan said...

This is a lovely post. You are such a wonderful writer. Love the pics too. Thanks for sharing your journey with us.