Thursday, February 6, 2020

Body Language 101: the Value of Quiet Work

by Mary Gallagher

Nina and Mary working quietly.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the deeper aspects of communicating with our horses. We all know, more or less, that we humans tend to express ourselves with words, and that horses are more about body language. Most of us are accustomed to our horses watching and responding to us in our daily interactions. For an obvious example, your  horse notices when your hand enters your pocket, right? and responds by asking for a treat? Or when picking out your horses feet—does he offer his hoof to you before you ask? or even better, does he shift his weight as you prepare to ask? If your horse can do this, how much more might he perceive?

Things go along pretty well as we use all the horsemanship tools we’ve been given to direct the actions of our horses. We even call it ‘schooling’, with us as the teacher and the horse as the student. Horses pretty much buy into being schooled, as they are hard-wired to accept leadership. But if we really pay attention as we school our horses, we may discover that they are teachers in their own right. How many times have we thought we have things going pretty well, only to have our horse show us something we missed? Or maybe it’s just that we aren’t getting the result we were looking for, and despite our best efforts, we seem to be at an impasse…?

Monday, January 6, 2020

Looking Back on 2019

by Mary Gallagher

Advanced Hoof Beats riders heading for class.
Looking back on 2019. It sure was a rich year of learning, and I am thankful to our horses and to allof you for giving so much of yourselves as we grow in horsemanship together here at Freedom Farm. Writing this year-end note is always an exercise in acknowledgement and gratitude to the wonderful people who make Freedom Farm a great place to be. This year I found myself thinking about the different people and experiences that enriched us all:

We met new teachers and engaged in new ideas—especially through our first Advanced Prep for Performance 5-day class. It was a great week that generated new ideas and relationships while covering a number of horsemanship topics, from safety to teamwork, hoof care to body work, and much more. Several visiting instructors are continuing to be resources, including...

Thursday, November 7, 2019

No Stirrups—or Reins—November!

Elise and Blackie, no stirrups, one rein, connecting through feel.
By Mary Gallagher

In light of last month’s article on achieving balance and freedom of movement, minus restricting tack, this month I want to talk about taking away the reins and stirrups.

Yes, you read me right. Riders rely too much on reins and stirrups for balance, dulling their horses’ natural abilities to connect and communicate through feel.

Our Hoof Beats youth riding program (and many of our adult students) has long since adopted the ‘No Stirrup November’ practice popular with many trainers and riding schools. What initially seemed challenging has become a fun—the kids are naturals at finding the connection with their horses based on balance and feel, whether using bareback pad, saddle sans stirrups, or neither. By December, their return to stirrups reveals much-improved equitation and a deeper bond between horse and rider.

This year I decided to take it up a notch, to No Stirrups and No Reins November. Our goal: to ride with no bridle by the end of the month.

So far, so good. One week in, everyone is getting comfortable riding with one rein—actually a lead rope attached to a rope halter —and one stick, but as the month progresses we aim to ride with no reins, two sticks or one. Some of our advanced riders, see Elise, above, are getting quite comfortable at all gaits, even jumping with one rein.

Beyond the thrill of realizing how well we and our horses can communicate without traditional tack, the point of this process is to bring us into better synchronization with the horse, training our bodies through strong focus and better understanding of body language.

Here’s how it works:

The idea is to essentially mirror what we want our horses to be doing.

Basically, any time we get on our horse, we have a plan, our horse has a plan, and it is up to us to get our horse to buy into our plan. But without stirrups or reins, it is crucial that we understand his plan in the process.

When the reins disappear, we develop a heightened awareness for what our horse is thinking and preparing to act on, and it can be a little scary. Whether it is a slight drift to the gate, or a mental distraction that may lead to a spook, we feel it instantly, but without reins, we quickly realize the need to get his mind and body back on track before it develops into the latter.

This is a good thing—riding without reins or stirrups give us a very clear picture of what is not working and needs to be cleaned up, because in the normal course of riding with the usual tack, we are far more likely to allow more distraction in our horse. Without reins and stirrups, we very quickly learn just how effective our balance, seat, and leg aids are in holding our horse’s interest and attention!
Wendy and Zeus, communicating at the trot.

So, this month is all about becoming more aware of where the horse needs our weight and balance to be, in order to stay in balance himself.

We are learning to use our focus, seat, and leg aids to connect to the horses' feet. First at the halt, with isolations, turns on the forehand, turns on the hind quarters, stepping forward, backing up, and sideways movements. Also, learning to flip the rein from one side to the other, without changing our balance. Lots of practice, lots of practice, lots of practice.

As we master all of these movements at the halt, we then apply these same communications as we progress into a walk, then a trot, and finally, the canter. Any difficulties at each stage sends us back to the basics; success at each gait depends success at the previous stage—there’s no faking it as we move forward!
Asking for a step back... it! Ellie and Harriot relax.

I should note that success at rein-less/stirrup-less riding is definitely not about gripping with the knees or keeping a tight grip on the rope, both of which interfere with the type and level of communication we are seeking. Crucially, success here is about balance and effective communication, which require neither reins nor stirrups.

I am very excited to see how our young and adult riders fare over No Stirrups or Reins November! I expect everybody to realize quite an upgrade in their ability to connect, communicate, and cooperate with their horses.

Stay tuned for my report in December!

Monday, October 7, 2019

Using the Minimum to get the Most: Tack and its Restrictions

by Mary Gallagher

I came home from the show I describe below inspired to tell the world about our 'less is more' approach to tack, though feeling like a voice in the wilderness. I fired up my computer and opened my email to find an excellent blog post on that very subject by someone I respect--Karen Rohlf [link at end of article]. It seems I'm in good company! Hopefully, we are part of a growing movement. Thank you for reading. - MG

At a recent horse show, I was struck by the common use of restricting tack—tight nosebands and martingales used with best intentions, in the name of safety and balance. I guess I’ve changed—twenty years ago I would not have given it a second thought. Of course we used nosebands and martingales as training aids to support our horses’ shape and carriage; now however, all I could see was the horses’ unnatural movement and bracing. The horses were using their martingales as part of their shape and balance—which is the idea, right? But their mouths were clamped shut, restricting their ability to relax in motion through working their jaw and tongue, releasing crucial endorphins. Many horses’ eyes told a clear story of physical and emotional stress.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

More on Laminitis—The Benefits of Vigilance

By Connie Paschall, RN

We really enjoy having Connie and Dexter with us at the Farm, and appreciate her expertise as a registered nurse—she will be co-leading a first aid class in our upcoming "All About the Prep: Safety and Readiness for Rider and Horse" camp. This is a very timely and interesting article which adds another useful tool to our equine health toolkit! -MG

Author’s note: 
The Wise Horseman at Freedom Farm monthly blog posts well-researched, timely tips and tricks for the care and training of our horses. How many read and practice the wisdom sent to us for free...? Well, I do. Allow me to add my story to the thread of articles here on grass laminitis prevention [select ‘laminitis’ from among the tags at right to call up the articles - ed.] -
  1. The action or state of keeping careful watch for possible danger or difficulties.
I have a dream. My dream is to have my horse Dexter out in a pasture, frolicking with friends and living a horse’s full life. However...

Connie and Dexter
Dexter is fat. Everyone knows Dexter is fat. Well aware of the risks associated with such an easy keeper, I regularly monitor for cresty fat along his neck, puffy deposits at the base of his tail, and changes in his coat. He has been clear of these signs for long enough that I recently decided to let him transition into pasture with a nice group of geldings, and all seemed well. Dexter liked his new situation and showed none of the signs of imminent grass laminitis. Then one day I checked his pulses and felt a strong, bounding pulse in his right foreleg—not a good sign.

So what’s this about checking pulses? Let me digress:

Laminitis - Annual Spring Grass PSA

Look for 'cresty' fat deposits along the top of the neck.
When Audrey posted this to our Wise Horseman Facebook page in May of 2018, we thought of it as a routine heads-up for local horse owners. A year later (at this posting), it has been viewed by close to 45,000 people, and shared almost 450 times! We are glad to help get the word out so friends can help friends avoid grass-induced laminitis in their horses! - MG

Hi Everyone, Audrey here. 

Fat deposit visible above the base of the tail.
This is a quick PSA* to remind everyone to be SUPER careful with the spring grass. Keep an eye on your horse and make sure he’s not exhibiting any of the signs of trouble ahead. The pictures here are of a 20+ year old gelding that is on the verge of laminitis. While he’s not sore yet, his body is giving us some pretty significant signs that he’s in trouble. His neck is cresty and he has large fat deposits above the base of his tail. At this point, this horse should be off the grass completely. 

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Connecting to the Feet, Part 3: Intention, Attention, and Calibrating the Feel

by Mary Gallagher

Why: To expand on the previous concepts and exercises in Part 1 and Part 2, helping you and your horse develop a language of feel and connection. Continuing a series of articles on Connecting to the Feet, in advance of Mary Gallagher's clinic of the same name (at Freedom Farm this August, 2019).

Horses have an uncanny ability to feel inside of you—they can tell if you have a plan or you are winging it. As you stand with the lead rope, or sit with the rein in your hands… have you thought about a task for their feet? or are you caught up in emotion, pushing an agenda, driving for an end result?

The answer matters more than we think.

When we bring our intention into the present moment by directing the feet to a specific place, we get our horse’s attention. This is different than correcting mistakes. There can be no mistake when you synchronize your mind and then your aids with the horse’s feet, you can feel the horse’s feet, and the horse can feel that you feel his feet.