After showing me Baja's tack and explaining the work he had been doing recently, the barn owner left. I had the whole barn, my brain full of an untested philosophy, and one big, adorable off-track-Thoroughbred, Gone to Baja, to myself. EEK!!!

I looked at Baja through the stall door and silently promised to do my best to make this journey physically comfortable and mentally fun for him too. This seemed to me to be a novel idea. I have observed many horses over the years who mechanically do everything they are asked, yet there isn't one speck of enthusiasm, interest, or life in their eyes. They are brain dead because they were forced or cajoled into becoming a riding horse. I've also seen horses who athletically, grandly compete and are enthusiastic and happy because they were trained using a kind system. Sadly, though, the work they are asked to do by humans is so demanding physically that they struggle with recurring physical ailments, possibly crippling them later in life. 

The internet provides different perspectives of this conundrum. Once, I read a horse owner confess that she feels she works hard all day at her job for her boss and her paycheck. In turn, she expected her horse to work hard for her and the food and shelter she provides. She explained that her horse's enjoyment was of little concern to her. Around the same time I stumbled on another website that illustrated in detail how riding horses in any manner was cruel to the horse and the only kind thing we can do is to keep them happy and comfortable in a pasture. 

Both views seemed extreme to me. My philosophy was somewhere in the middle, but probably a little closer to the latter idea. I hoped to ride and spend time with horses in such a gentle, non-intrusive way that they would hardly mind or even notice the imposition if that was possible. I know you can't ask a horse if they want to be ridden today or if they want to be ridden at all. I felt determined to watch and listen and only proceed with requests that appeared to be acceptable to the horse by his response. I was beginning a new chapter. 

Riding off-track-Thoroughbred Sovereign, October 2011.

Baja wasn't a foal and he wasn't untrained, but I decided that my interactions with he and any other horse would only be in a style that did not feel like I was using them for my own selfish goals. I've spent years wrestling with my personal philosophy and how it is at odds with accepted practices of riding, racing, using, and showing horses in all disciplines. I never like to argue with anyone so those years at barns and equestrian events were spent biting my tongue. But in reality, my true beliefs make me question the relationship of horse and rider, and often I feel that it is not an equitable one. That makes me uncomfortable. At 40 years of age, I was done being uncomfortable around horses. I was done being quiet. I wasn't going to get in an argument with anyone about it, but I was ready to only do what felt correct to me. 

From earlier childhood I was rarely, if ever, impressed with any low or lofty equestrian pursuit because of the frequency of physical problems and the inability of the horse to honestly communicate their desire to participate and endure these injuries. But I knew that I did want to ride. Could I find a way that kept them sound and healthy and didn't feel at odds with my beliefs? 

Like a tiny fly on their back, I wanted them to keep their own natural spirit, desires, and personality in spite of the fact that I was riding them. I had this picture in my mind of me riding a horse everyday without a saddle or bit and just wandering together. The horse in my imagination would be with me as I walked, like we were hiking together, only I would be riding. Could riding not be an annoyance and not be physically uncomfortable to him? I dreamed of sharing such a good experience that he would want me to ride so he could get to see new things off the barn property. And if I could succeed with this process, couldn't others? 

Maybe someday a network of bridle paths would stretch out over the land in all directions for hikers and runners and riders of all ages on happy, safe, healthy horses. This was my dream! Can humans ride horses without causing permanent injuries to their joints, hocks, feet, brains? Can we ride safely and still make it comfortable and interesting to the horse? I was about to find out.

Over the years I have witnessed too many horses unwillingly enter the ring and then try to duck out the open gate at every opportunity, dreading the entire ride.  I wondered, would Baja ever look forward to my arrival at the barn or would my new method just be another in a long line of kooky, annoying, human "natural training systems" that actually were intrusions into his true, natural, horsey world? Would he:
  • eagerly walk away from the barn in an interested, engaged manner on every ride?
  • slowly, grudgingly walk back to the barn in no hurry to end the ride? (To be honest here, I imagined fantasy rides where my horse would actually balk and not want to go back to the barn, angry that the ride was over. And...Spoiler Alert: Like magic...ta da...that actually happened!!!!!!)

Baja's nylon halter was hanging on a hook outside his stall. The halter had an opened throat/cheek snap and a leather break-away strap on the crown piece at the top, but the buckle was fastened so it was obvious that the throat snap was the usual way Baja was put in and out of his halter. The halter was snug; putting it on this way without using the buckle would mean that I would have to smoosh his ears down. Therefore, my introductory "conversation" by my actions would say, "Hi, Baja, I am Julie, the new person that will be working with you each morning. Here, let me pin your ears back to get this snug halter on your head." I didn't want to do that so time and clocks were instantly forgotten. 

Baja, and every horse I ever met, are worthy of all the time it takes to ensure them the same physical and mental comfort I allow myself. I hooked the snap and unbuckled the buckle. I slowly, softly slid Baja's nose into the halter and reached up and flipped the strap over his head. This "flip" which I do daily can be abrupt if you allow the strap to hit the horse's head on the near side cheek. I make sure that the strap hits my hand or I don't flip it at all, but rather slowly allow the strap to land in my left hand and buckle it.

Here, sweet little Foggy, ex-racehorse Found in the Fog, waits while I flip the halter strap over his head. I catch it so it doesn't smack him on the cheek or neck. 
There's never a reason to hurry - except - "Don't fall asleep, calm Foggy-boy!"

People like to ride horses, but people expect horses to treat them gently on a ride. Gentle rides start in the stall with soft, gentle, quiet handling of every single horse, every single time. The art of riding is the art of enjoying the slow, methodical, soft handling of a horse before, during, and after a ride. This art must be learned if safe, gentle rides are to be had. Some people want to be gentle, but they just don't know how. Two things must happen and they must begin in the stall at the haltering stage and carry on through any interaction with a horse. First, the watch or clock has to be completely forgotten. It is impossible to be gentle if you are rushing. And, second, humans must learn how to pull, hold, and balance kinetic energy rather than push it. 

We all move items around our world. We shut doors, we set the dinner table with dishes, we put a halter on a horse. The trick is to learn to "pull" the items rather than push. You can slam a door or bang a glass down on the table. That is "pushing" energy. It is fast and easy and loud and powerful. The opposite is to balance the energy and s-l-o-w-l-y pull it toward you as you are shutting the door or putting the glass on the table. You are pulling up or away from its gravitational pull down or momentum forward. You can practice by silently, slowly, quietly, closing every door. Silently, gently placing dishes on a table. If you practice, you can do everything in your life like this, including walking silently and running. 

When you lift weights, you can slowly, return the weight to a resting state rather than drop it down. You know you are resisting the weight because it is heavy and takes a lot of concentration and strength to lower it slowly. But, everyday tasks get sloppy. Doors are slammed, feet thump stairs loudly, and halters are jammed on. A ballet dancer balances and "floats" over the floor making little noise and shifting her body weight with seeming effortlessness. But, in actuality, the effort required to do this is great. It is a strong person, mentally and physically, who can move their body and balance in air, fighting the gravitational pull to crash down to earth.

Pushing versus pulling is a tough habit to break. It might help to question why we do this. Why are we all flying around crashing through our world like an elementary school boy, banging, bumping, slamming audibly making our presence felt at every turn? Are we rushing? Are we lazy? Do we need attention and feel that our loud actions tell others we are there? What about feeling powerful and forceful by doing things in a rough manner? Maybe we believe loud, "busy" sounds signify a hard worker. 

Before I met my husband, I was the absolute worst door slammer and heel thumper there ever was! Growing up my parents would joke, "Here comes the Thumper" because I would stomp around our house all the time. I don't know why I did that, other than I was so engrossed in my thoughts that I didn't pay much attention to how I was pounding my heels when I walked. I studied ballet for years and could flit around with the best of them, but I would turn that balance and lightness on and off at will. As soon as I left the studio, loud Thumper was back. During our first years of marriage, I was puzzled to see Brian wincing when I unknowingly slammed a door or stomped through the room. As I became more aware of my childish, bull-in-a-china-shop-ways and started to pull and balance rather than push my way through life, I observed and heard other people pounding and bashing like I had done before.

Fiddling in my pocket while my off-track-Thoroughbred, Pie, waits patiently on a cold February day, 2013.

Whatever the reason for our rushing and slamming and shoving we need to change our ways to work around and with horses gently. They don't know what a clock is so it is no good to rush them. If we are feeling lazy and the effort to put a halter or saddle on softly is too much for us, then we have no business being around a horse. That would be the time to go home and curl up with a book. There is no need to make gruff, slamming noises to tell a horse you are there. He can smell you coming a mile away. What about being rough in an effort to show a horse how powerful you are? They are ten times our size. They will always be more powerful than us no matter how roughly we handle them. And, our "we are really busy" noises fall on deaf ears. Horses are not impressed with how "busy" we are trying to appear by our dashing and crashing.

Every time I work with horses, I strive to balance and "pull" my actions up and move gently. From haltering to leading, mounting, riding and everything in between. Slow, deliberate movements are balanced by me so as not to push or force the horse in any way. At first, this takes time to learn and become a habit. Soon, the horse you are working with responds with their own balance and it becomes a flowing dance that happens quickly and efficiently. 

Haltering is where it all starts. I learned to enjoy the quiet, adorable, nearly imperceptible personal habits of each horse as they slip into their halters. You can linger over the indescribably, yummy horse breath so close, as you stand on the near side of a horse's head in their stall while you help them into their halter. When I enter the stall I try to remember the first time I ever was this close to a horse and how unbelievable it was! And, now, look at this - every day I get to stand here so close and this big horse allows me to put this halter on! 

Try to find a way to laugh when your frozen wet glove drops into the sticky sawdust on a zero degree day and the giant horse beside you accidentally avoids the halter (for the tenth time) because he is trying to see your glove on the ground in front of him with his funny, far-sighted eyes. Yes, you may have two or 40(!) more horses to move that day, but isn't it important to find a way to marvel at their kind willingness to wear this man-made contraption? Let that halter be put on softly, slowly, kindly. Then, only then, does the experience of haltering become as important and magical to the human as riding and elicits a nicker or whinny when you approach the stall or pasture. If you have to hurry or rush to put on the halters in a barn full of horses, then you are in the wrong profession, the wrong recreation. 

Lingering in the cross-walk, with my lovely charge, OTTB, Max, on a December 2011 Florida getaway.

These are Regal animals deserving of your undivided attention and unhurried time and they will pay you back in mountains of gold if you do it correctly. I found out years before I met Baja, in a show barn full of huge, high strung, hot horses, that putting a halter on in a slow, deliberately gentle manner, every single day with every single horse, no matter what "issues" other workers claimed they had, entitled me to easily be able to do anything with the horses. I was in on a huge equine secret. I treated each horse as if it were my only charge, a regal, expensive horse owned by a king or queen. In reality, they were the Kings and Queens. Consequently, I was able to easily move and care for all of them and the real magic came because the clock stood still. Horses will do anything you want quickly when you throw out the clock and linger as you enjoy their habits, their smell...their Royalty. Even the ugly with poor conformation, the old and the swaybacked, the young and gorgeous and huge and hyper, even the easy minis...their Royalty

Without exception, I notice that the adult riders who have the most success and safe rides are the ones who are slow at haltering, leading, grooming, and tacking up. Often these are adults who did not ride as children. They are the riders who still are awe-struck that they are working with a horse! They do not take anything about riding for granted - including the time in the stall. They are meticulous and gentle and grateful. They linger.

Lingering, like the balancing of kinetic energy, is a difficult habit to form. It requires the ability to pull rather than push not only actions but thoughts as well. There is a way to linger so that every act you do with a horse and every thought you think while you are doing it, is completed without rushing, but also without hesitating. The act or thought is seamlessly levitating between movement and rest, between now and the next moment. You must be grateful and meticulous and gentle and focused. But in this space, you will find quality. Work and pleasure is done unbelievably quickly and efficiently, but miraculously, it is done well. There is quality in the product because your mind was completely involved. It had to be - there is no other way to balance that energy without the mind. When you are present and thinking, wrestling thought and focus, intellect and strength, then haltering a horse, leading, grooming, grazing, tacking up and riding - all is done well. 

I found this magical place of quality when my daughter, Maizie, was born. Prior to that time I must have had moments of lingering because I saw quality outcomes at times. I had successfully graduated from college, and graduate school. Many books had been read, papers written, calculus projects completed. I raised a sweet, relaxed black Labrador and had success as a young rider, but quality was sporadic; I still noticed scattered, inefficient thoughts and actions. There is no way I could have safely achieved then the success I have with horses now. It was ultimately Maizie who taught me how to truly focus and find that space of quality daily. No distractions could keep me from lingering with my infant, who quickly became a toddler, a pre-schooler, an elementary school student. Quality mothering beget a kind, calm, intelligent child. 

Lingering with horses in the same way is the road to quality outcomes. Riders and horses remain safe, sane, and healthy. Happy rides are had in all weather (translation - daily!) and very little equipment is necessary. 

Flat, loose halters
The worn mark on the strap of Baja's halter told me that the tight setting was where his halter was always kept. I loosened this up by a few holes. The halter was on, but was loose with lots of wiggle room. I do not wear a collar like a dog, or halter like a horse, but if I did I would want to have some freedom. I think a loose halter makes horses feel contained, but not claustrophobic. Loose halters are avoided historically for fear the horse will get caught on something with all that space. I am with my horses and paying attention when they are in their halters. A halter is a tool that I use only when I am interacting with my horse and I do not leave a horse in a halter in the pasture or in their stall. 

When I was young, a friend lost her most beloved pony, Jubilee, when the halter got hung up on a fence post in the pasture. Tragically, the pony strangled and died. That sad memory reminds me to always remove the halter. Some owners keep a halter on their horse in the pasture because the horse is difficult to catch, however, halters do not make catching a truculent horse any easier. Years of large animal veterinarian work taught me that our medicinal-smelling truck's arrival invariably signified, to even the most docile horses, it was time to flee. My perennial assignment of rounding up the fleeing horse makes me acutely aware that catching a horse who does not want to be caught has absolutely nothing to do with a halter. Believe me when I say, halters honestly do not make that task easier!

Adorable Baja, OTTB Gone to Baja, in his halter with a little wiggle room.
His halter could stand to be made even bigger.

When I loosen a too tight halter, I often see immediate, dramatic relaxation in the horse that I am working with on the ground. I've walked up to high strung horses with halters so tight they look like they are painted on. I reach up and loosen the buckle and the horse's whole demeanor changes. They lower their head, sigh and relax. I take this as a "thank you"! On my first day back working with horses I knew that even something as mundane and simple as the way I put on Baja's halter would communicate to him the heart of my new philosophy - I will be connected to you loosely, lightly, ephemerally and we both will be safe.

Baja's nylon halter was flat and did not pinch him or press on him in any location on his face. I do not use a rope halter or any halter with knots that hit a horse's pressure points. Rope halters are tools and like all good tools there is a time to use them and a time to choose another tool. When I worked as a vet tech for my large animal veterinarian, very occasionally we would use a rope twitch. I think twitches are archaic. However, there were unbelievable situations of life and death with horses when a rope twitch was the only tool (at that time in veterinary medicine) that granted us immediate control over the horse. Proper use of this tool allowed us to quickly perform emergency surgeries while releasing much needed endorphins to a panicked, injured horse. A twitch is never for everyday use. 

A rope halter is a tool with similar properties when used sparingly as needed. Constant, daily pressure on sensitive spots on a horse's face is not necessary and heavy-handed in my opinion. I would never ask my horse to wear a rope halter for lengthy ground work and/or under bridles while I ride. I use my brain to imagine what it would feel like to have a rope with tied knots continually pushing on tender points on the body. A horse's face is sensitive. Constant pressure explains to a horse in very clear terms that every time you arrive you will be putting an uncomfortable, slightly painful halter with knots on his face for the duration of your visit. In time, the respectful response you were trying to achieve will be dulled as the horse learns to ignore the unnecessary pressure on his face. A rope halter is a tool that is too "big" for everyday use. By contrast, a flat leather or flat nylon halter with a leather break-away crown piece, made large and roomy, adequately allows me to safely handle any horse most days.

Fancy pants leather halters with brass nameplates I ordered for the boys. La-te-da! 
And no cheek snaps means happy, pointy ears