Adventures in Beginner Dressage

Last week, I mentioned that I would describe my recent participation in a handful of dressage lessons. After competing in an online western-dressage show last year, the judges’ comments made me realize I needed help in clarifying some basic dressage concepts.

As it so happens, my aunt is a dressage instructor, Lynne Sprinsky Echols. Before she was a dressage rider, she introduced me to the world of horses. Then after studying riding at the Reitinstitut von Neindorff in Germany, she later became a Graduate Balimo Instructor. As part of her student outreach, she now hosts an interesting and informative page for riders at https://www.facebook.com/RiderSeatMD/. I encourage all my readers to check it out!

Unfortunately, I live too far away from her to take advantage of her expertise in person. I needed to find someone who at least lived in the same State.

After doing an online search, I found Ken Levy at Legacy Farm Dressage. He is a United States Equestrian Federation “r” judge who is waiting to take the final exam for his “R” license. Ken is also a United States Dressage Federation Certified Instructor/Trainer.

A USEF “r” judge can judge through second level and has completed a rigorous licensing process. While a beginner dressage rider like me can’t fully take advantage of everything such an instructor has to offer, I figured that lessons from a licensed judge would help me better understand the test comments that I received. I was not disappointed.

My equine partner for these lessons was a tall, handsome Hanoverian gelding named Gin, trained through second level. That’s us in the above photo. Those of you who are regular readers have read about my admiration for lesson horses.

In a post titled “Are You Your Horse’s Limiting Factor?” at https://thebackyardhorseblog.com/2021/01/04/are-you-your-horses-limiting-factor/, I detailed my observations gleaned from watching other students ride the same lesson horses at a different barn. Just like the others, Gin is capable of a higher level of performance than I was able to bring out in him.

I never did see Gin ridden by another rider, but I saw how he went on the lunge-line as a warm up before my lessons. He looked like a very nice mover who could easily go forward, even and round, at all three gaits.

In one of my final lessons, the instructor gave me the opportunity to film my ride. To be honest, my heart dropped when I saw the video. My riding clearly prompted Gin to go in a flat, strung out, pokey kind of way while I was flailing around in the saddle trying to follow the instructions given. At times it is admittedly disheartening to ponder that after years and years of riding, I still have so much to learn.

But learn I did, at least in the sense of having my eyes opened to certain issues. I realize that to some people, claiming to learn is equal to claiming mastery. For riders like me who are unlikely to reach an advanced level of riding, I think learning means something a little different.

Improvement may come in smaller increments and at a slower pace than it does for others. It is more akin to an increase in awareness of issues verses a measurable increase in skills. I may or may not be able to move up the levels, but I figure any effort to make myself a better load to carry for the horse is worth while.

My first few lessons, I did some work on the lunge-line where I rode the horse but the instructor controlled Gin in a large circle at the end of the line. Riding is an exercise in coordination if nothing else. For those of us who have trouble doing several things at once, lunge lessons can be a real treat. They allow the rider to concentrate on her position and feel without having to add in the major complication of directing the horse.

Off the line, I received instruction on various basic skills depending upon the day. The difference between flexion and bend. The different ways to apply my legs and seat for a varying range of gaits. Leg yielding. Aids for the canter. Practicing turns and using the corners (and the need to stay out of the corners if you are trying to ride a circle).

Each lesson included instruction on the geometry of riding dressage figures, including circles, serpentines, traveling down center/quarter lines and change of rein across the diagonal.

In both of the judges’ comments from my online test, I received more than one note on my lack of correct geometry. I realized from these lessons that I frequently am traveling straight during figures when I actually should be bending. I am also often failing to start and stop the figures at the correct points in the arena.

I apparently have quite a bit of trouble visualizing the movements and then linking how I am riding the movements to how they should actually look. This is something I can’t solve within a handful of lessons, but I can take that awareness home with me.

I can try to be more alert while practicing with my own horse. Hopefully I can reduce the number of “watch your geometry” comments regarding any future tests.

Now that Winter has come to an end and my dressage lesson-budget has dried up, I turn my attention to riding my own horse at home as regularly as the weather allows.

Many thanks to the patience of my instructor and his lesson horse. I certainly have a renewed appreciation for the precision of dressage. My top hat is off to you dressage riders out there who allow your horses to move and perform so beautifully while making it look easy. They don’t call it “the art of dressage” for nothing.

*On a related noted, for those of you interested in following an actual dressage blogger who trains and competes, please check out the Horse Addict blog at https://horseaddict.net. There you will meet the writer, Anne Leueen, and her horse, Biasini. Anne trains with Belinda Trussell, a Canadian Olympic rider who competed in two Summer Olympics. Through Horseaddict, Anne allows her readers to get a glimpse behind the dressage scenes, including lots of informative video clips of her riding. I enjoy following Horse Addict and am happy to have Anne as a reader of The Backyard Horse Blog.

Horses Off The Grid

Have you read the book by Foster Huntington, Off Grid Life: Your Ideal Home in the Middle of Nowhere? Published in 2020, the book describes in words and pictures a number of “small structure” options for living. If you have ever been curious about living in something like a cabin, yurt or tiny house, you will find this book of interest.

I am charmed when I read a “non-equestrian” book and manage to locate even a passing reference to horses. Imagine my delight when I realized Off Grid Life‘s final chapter includes a section about living out of a truck and horse trailer!

For that final book chapter, the author interviews Aniela Gottwald who is a documentary film maker, founder of the nonprofit Riding Wild and a long-distance rider. Long distance as in traveling from Mexico to Canada on horseback.

Nobody lives that adventure without help along the way. For Aniela, it is her mother who lives in the truck and horse trailer while Aniela is out riding. Her mother meets up with Aniela at designated points along the way.

Even if an off-grid lifestyle with horses doesn’t seem realistic to you, I suspect many of you have fantasized about it just as I have. I know the adventures of the Lady Long-Rider, Bernice Ende, have long been of interest to me. You can read my post about her at https://thebackyardhorseblog.com/2020/05/06/new-documentary-film-lady-long-rider/.

I also remember reading about horse trainer and clinician, Stacy Westfall, who went on the road with her family and horses. They crossed the country over a year or so before settling back to live once again in the Midwest. I picture it much like RV living with the addition of horses-in-tow.

While I personally don’t foresee living this way beyond more than a weekend camping trip, I think the idea of living nomadically with horses will always spark my imagination. And who knows. Stranger things have happened. After all, as long as I had my horses with me where ever I went, I could still subscribe to a favorite adage. “Home is Where My Horses Are.”

A Horse Poem

Equine Inspired Poetry is a periodic feature on The Backyard Horse Blog. Sometimes poetry is the perfect medium to express our feelings about horses. In this edition, read the poem “A Horse.”

“A HORSE”

A horse’s good graces outpaces my folly.

A horse’s patience protects me from a fall.

A horse’s nicker reminds me not to be bitter.

A horse’s speed frees me from need.

A horse’s magnificence makes all the difference.

A horse’s extension of friendship is the most meaningful gesture of all.

Ride The Horse Underneath You

Ride the horse underneath you. Have you ever heard this phrase before? It seems kind of obvious and silly upon first glance.

When you think about it though, haven’t you ever had an expectation of how you think your ride is going to go? But then had a strong emotional reaction when actual events start to unfold differently?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for holding positive expectations and visualizations. We riders know that horses respond to both our physical aids as well as our mental intentions. Confident mental pictures of what we want our horses to do(as opposed to disaster scenarios encompassing all our fears)can contribute to a successful ride.

But sometimes, no matter how positive the original mental picture, the ride starts going differently than what we imagined. It is in those moments that we may need to start riding the horse that is presenting to us. Not the version of the horse we thought we’d be riding that day.

As an example, I’ll use the first few Spring rides with my horse, Shiloh. After ending last year on a really nice note, I felt excited to start riding him this year.

We made good progress in his strength and way of going in 2020. He had mostly quite pacing at both the walk and his gait. He seemed to be getting the hang of stretching forward and down to carry himself in a healthier manner. He was accepting of rein contact. His foxtrot gait was more consistent. We played around with canter transitions. I felt super pleased.

I was SO excited this year to leave our Winter bareback rides behind, put the saddle on and get back to working on more formal riding. But then reality hit.

Seems reasonable that after three months off, Shiloh would be out of shape and rusty, right? But for some reason, I was initially surprised and disappointed at what I discovered. Our first couple of rides, Shiloh walked through my aids, fussed with rein contact and went around with his head up in the air. It felt terrible to me (and I imagine to him too). He was clearly struggling. I was feeling frustrated.

After some thought, I decided the problem was my trying to ride Shiloh like he was the same horse I was riding at the end of last year. This was causing some kind of disconnect between us.

It occurred to me I needed to start over again to some degree. I went back through my written notes to see what were the things we initially worked on last year BEFORE he stopped pacing, head tossing, etc . . .

My notes told me we mostly just concentrated on establishing as even of a 1-2-3-4 walk rhythm as we could in our little round pen while asking him to gently bend correctly in our direction of travel, mixing in some crossing ground poles. We did this all on a very loose rein without really worrying about anything else.

Not being a professional, I can’t say if this is the “right way” to work with horses in general, but it seemed to work for Shiloh and me last year.

I’ve done a handful of short rides now, just working on these absolute basics with Shiloh. And you know what? I am slowly feeling him move with more looseness and consistency. More willingness to stretch forward into some contact. And that is pretty exciting.

I still hold in my mind’s eye what I want Shiloh to feel like and what I’d like him to look like. But I am also trying to ride the horse that presents to me that day.

I try to stay right there in the moment. I ask myself what I need to do from stride to stride in order to help whatever version of himself my horse presents.

I am seeing this type of effort produces more good fruit than spending my rides mourning the fact that we have clearly lost ground during the Winter months.

Seems to me that the phrase “ride the horse underneath you” is not so silly after all.

I’d Like To Thank The Academy

This weekend I completed my final Winter lesson-horse-only show of the season. I had expected to participate in this particular annual show last year, but it was cancelled just as the first COVID-19 shut downs began.

I mentioned that canceled experience in a previous post last March at https://thebackyardhorseblog.com/2020/03/18/mental-fitness-in-riding/.

While these lesson-horse-only shows are largely designed for children, they are a good opportunity for riders of any age to practice show-ring skills in a supportive environment. They take place under the auspices of what is known within the Saddleseat world as Academy Shows.

At Academy shows (or open shows with Academy classes), multiple lesson-barns convene at one show location so participants get the flavor of open showing but without the stiffer class requirements, expense or pressure of bigger shows. Any horse ridden at an Academy show must be a regular part of a lesson program.

For this Winter’s show series, I rode in the walk-trot Huntseat classes, not the Saddleseat ones, but the horse I rode was a Saddlebred (most Academy horses are of the Saddlebred/ Morgan/Arabian variety). The Academy hunt seat classes were open, not divided by age or experience level. Most Academy Saddleseat classes, though, are in fact divided by age and experience level so you are hopefully competing against your same-age peers with similar skills.

I am surprised that more discliplines don’t do a version of Academy. What fun it would be for several reining barns or dressage barns or barrel racing barns or any discipline-specific barns to get together for a series of lesson-horse-only shows.

Interesting that this show idea hasn’t caught on in the wider horse world. Sure, there are barns that host their own shows and allow other folks to bring their horses to show, too, but not with lesson-horses-only. Anybody ever heard of something like this outside of the Saddleseat world?

It really is a great way to be introduced to showing. Also a great way for someone like me who has shown off and on before but unfortunately still struggles to improve both their basic general riding as well as show-ring specific skills.

And if you happen to win a class at the final show of this series, you get to take a victory lap with your ribbon in front of the show photographer. I don’t ever remember getting to do that before. I picked a good show to win a blue!

In addition participating in this recent Winter show series, I also took a handful of dressage lessons this Winter from a USDF “r” judge (United States Dressage Federation). After participating in my online western-dressage show last year with my horse, Shiloh, I wanted some help in clarifying some basic dressage concepts. I should be finishing off those lessons this week and will talk more about that experience in a future post.

I would love to be able to ride my own horses at home year-around. That said, I certainly appreciate each Winter where I get to ride a horse, even if not my own AND have the benefit of instruction AND chances to show. Win or lose or learn. I am grateful for each and every ride. Thank you to the Academy, the horses and to all the folks whose hard work make these classes possible.

Sending a shout out to Necco from Roselane Farm. Necco was my trusty riding partner for the Winter 20-21 Academy Shows.

Twas The Night Before The Horse Show

The Backyard Horse Blog

Twas the night before the horse show
And all through my mind

Lurked excitement and worriment
All intertwined

Would I come out victorious, whatever that means?
Or experience embarrassment due to what the day brings?

Win-loose-learn or somewhere in between
It is always an opportunity to do what makes my heart sing

Sitting on the horse’s back, floating through time and space
There is no other more appealing place

The show will be over in the blink of an eye
Then for better or worse I will breath out a sigh

Later I will dream of the next chance to say
Remember, fellow riders, to breath, look up and ENJOY your show day

This poem written with a spirit of gratitude towards every horse who has ever stepped into the show ring, be it a local fun show or on up to the Olympics. Win, loose or learn. Thank you.

The Wonder of Horses

I love the double meaning of the word “wonder” in the above quote from How Two Minds Meet: The Mental Dynamics of Dressage by Beth Baumert. Beth is also the author of When Two Spines Align: Dressage Dynamics.

Even if not a dressage enthusiast, any rider can glean tidbits of useful information from her books. Much of what she writes is applicable to all riding styles.

Beth Baumert describes wonder as a sense of curiosity about your horse and riding. It is part of her way of cultivating a healthy mindset in the rider. It is designed to move the rider away from a state of apprehension or fear about riding into a more productive mental framework.

“Curiosity is a questioning state of mind- the ability to reach out and say, I wonder. Riding horses is all about wonder. I wonder. I wonder how you feel today? I wonder if you can step under my seat? I wonder if you can go promptly? Can you stop without me using my hands?”

From How Two Minds Meet: The Mental Dynamics of Dressage

I know riding my now retired horse, Bear, was definitely all about wonder. Including wondering whether or not I would survive some of our more hair-raising rides.

There were many times I struggled with fear of riding such a forward and sensitive horse as Bear. While I got better at meeting his needs the longer we were together, we definitely had our share of struggles. I think I could have readily applied many of Beth Baumert’s suggestions to my interactions with Bear and come out the better for it.

This week marks 16 years that Bear and I have been together. The photo above was taken while we were riding in Colorado in 2015, the day before our ten year anniversary.

There was and is so much wonder for me in sharing my life with Bear. There was definitely wonder while riding his smooth and speedy saddle gait. There was magic in his sensitivity under saddle. There is STILL wonder when he nickers at me in anticipation of a special treat like a banana. Or when, even as a senior horse with health challenges, he takes off galloping in the field and kicks up his heels. How I love to watch him run.

There was also a lot to wonder about with Bear. I wondered if I would survive his occasional panic attacks when we were on the trail. I wondered if I would fall off when he spooked and spun during the obstacle clinic when we rode through firecrackers and smoke bombs. I wondered if he would ever stop rearing when asked to load in my little trailer (he eventually did).

I still wonder how in twelve years of riding, I only fell off of Bear once. He collapsed into an unmarked crater as we strolled along after cows while traveling through tall grass one day. Neither of us saw the hole. I bailed so I wouldn’t be wedged in the crater with him. He fortunately caught the edge of solid ground with one front hoof and was able to pull himself up without my weight on his back. We were both a bit shaken but were able to finish the ride with no more drama. It is a wonder that neither of us were hurt.

I spent so many years wondering about Bear undersaddle. Now that he is retired from riding and we are both growing old(er)? Frankly, with a lump in my throat, I wonder how much time we have left together.

As Beth Baumert states, “Riding horses is all about wonder.” But really, so is sharing your life in any capacity with such a magnificent creatures as the horse. Life with them is definitely wonder-full.

*** If you would like to purchase either of Beth Baumert’s books, How Two Minds Meet: The Mental Dynamics of Dressage or When Two Spines Align: Dressage Dynamics they are available through Trafalgar Square Publishing’s horseandriderbooks.com website. If you click on their affiliate “Horse Books and Videos” photo-link shown on The Backyard Horse Blog, the blog will receive a much appreciated portion of your purchases.***

The Spring 2021 Equine Affaire Goes Virtual

I have not yet attended an Equine Affaire, but I plan to this year. Virtually, that is.

For those of you unfamiliar, the Equine Affaire is essentially a horse festival. Large, expo-center venues are filled with multi-discipline presentations, competitions, vendors and, of course, horses. It takes place twice a year in the USA, during early Spring in Ohio and during late Fall in Massachusetts, over the span of a long weekend.

Image taken from the Equine Affaire Website at http://www.equineaffiar.com.

The 2021 Spring Equine Affaire is now scheduled as a virtual event. Normally, the costs to attend Equine Affaire are considerable when you add up the price of tickets, travel, food and lodging. This 2021 Spring event is FREE. Anyone with internet access can participate from anywhere in the world.

“COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect each and every one of us, our surroundings, and our businesses . . . Equine Affaire in Ohio on April 8-11, 2021, will not take place as an “in-person” event. The Ohio Expo Center is currently being utilized by Columbus Health and will continue to serve as a COVID-19 testing site . . . It is also slated to be a location for the administration of COVID-19 vaccines . . .”

“The virtual Equine Affaire will occur online on April 8-11, 2020, complete with education, shopping, competition and more! Stay tuned to our web site, equineaffaire.com, and social media platforms as we connect attendees with exhibitors and other virtual content, plus exciting updates about upcoming events and special features.”

From the Equine Affair website

In viewing the Equine Affaire website, I noticed that it still displays a “purchase tickets” button. I found this confusing as normally “free” means there is no need to purchase. When I clicked on “purchase tickets,” I was taken to a web page that confirms the 2021 Spring Equine Affaire will be free with no ticket purchasing required. Instructions prompted me to click on a “virtual event website” link. I then saw the following information.

“THE VIRTUAL EVENT LINK AND CONTENT WILL BECOME ACTIVE ON APRIL 8, 2021, AT 9:00AM. YOU WILL CLICK ON THE “VIRTUAL EVENT” LINK, ENTER YOUR REGISTRATION DETAILS AND RECEIVE ACCESS TO ALL PROGRAMMING, GUIDES AND VIRTUAL EVENT CONTENT ON-DEMAND. The virtual Equine Affaire will be FREE for all viewers and will be presented as a digital event program –your traditional event guide for everything at Equine Affaire, including all that you’re accustomed to finding in the print format plus much, much more! From shopping guides and enhanced advertising to on-demand educational presentations, interviews with clinicians and performers, fun competition and other interactive event highlights you won’t want to miss the virtual Equine Affaire this spring!”

From the Equine Affair website

Go to http://www.equineaffaire.com to learn more.

How about you? Do you plan to “attend” the 2021 Spring Equine Affaire?

The Backyard Horse Blog Podcast, Season 1, Episode 1

I tried something new this past weekend! The Backyard Horse Blog recorded its first podcast episode by turning a previous blog post, Tale of a Horse Care Fail, into an audio format.

The under-four-minutes episode also includes a 30 second ad that I recorded for the podcast hosting program, Anchor. The Backyard Horse Blog can earn money for every listen each episode receives.

If you enjoy this sort of medium, check it out at

https://anchor.fm/thebackyardhorseblog/episodes/Tale-of-A-Horse-Care-Fail-erp8a8

Trying To Raise The Bar By Straddling The Pole

Did anybody else practice dressage trainer and author, Jec A Ballou’s, pole straddle exercise with their horse this winter?

I previously included a video link to the exercise in a blog post at https://thebackyardhorseblog.com/2020/12/16/what-to-do-on-a-warm-winter-day/.

Shiloh can straddle a ground pole with his front two hooves pretty well. But he is not as keen on placing the back two hooves on either side of the pole. He, ninety-nine percent of the time, prefers to keep both hind hooves on the same side of the pole.

I’ve gotten Shiloh to straddle the pole with all four hooves a grand total of exactly once, with his legs splayed out awkwardly to each side. He looked like he was trying to make an A with each pair of legs.

As we negotiate the exercise, it is fascinating to watch Shiloh think about where he might be able to put his four legs. Shiloh knows the ground pole is there, but he can’t keep it in his view very well. His movements are exaggerated with lots of picking up his legs rather high off the ground. He then slowly places them down as he feels for the ground around the pole. I can see the wheels turning in his horse brain as he tries to figure out the puzzle.

Even if we don’t perform quite like the example video referenced above, just the act of thinking through the exercise is really good practice for Shiloh. Asking him for brief bits of intense concentration while he moves very precisely seems good for a horse who mostly just prefers to stroll along.

It is also good practice for me to attempt to convey my intent of the exercise as helpfully as possible to Shiloh while also maintaining an air of relaxation and playfulness so he doesn’t get worried. There’s an interesting aspect of both physical balance and mental balance that seems inherent in negotiating the pole at this angle.

I definitely have respect for the exercise itself and for any horse-handler combo that can make it look easy.

Disclosures

Here is the link to The Backyard Horse Blog’s disclosures page. The link to the page is now placed on The Backyard Horse Blog website in the header section along with other basic blog information. I don’t think there are any earth-shattering revelations contained as the information shared is pretty standard. But as the blog grows, it is important to state its parameters for all readers and subscribers in the interest of, you guessed it, full disclosure. If you have any questions about the disclosures page, feel free to email thebackyardhorseblog@gmail.com. Thank you for reading The Backyard Horse Blog!

https://thebackyardhorseblog.com/disclosuresforthebackyardhorseblog/

Here is Your Spring Horse Care To-Do List

Are you a fan of to-do lists? I sure am. I love the control (or the illusion of control) provided by staying organized.

For those of you who are also moving from Winter to Spring this month, I want to share a link to a guest-blog post. I wrote it last Spring for the Savvy Horsewoman website. The post can help you get set up for a successful Spring season with your horse(s). Read “The Backyard Horse Keeper’s Spring To Do List” at

If you’d like to check out similar posts, go to The Backyard Horse Blog Pinterest board under “Spring Horse Care” to click on links to glean more ideas for the season:

https://www.pinterest.com/thebackyardhorseblog/spring-horse-care/

How do YOU prepare your horses and your barn for Spring?

*** On a related note, I am doing some Spring cleaning for the blog’s website. In keeping with the blog’s continued growth, I am adding a disclosures page to the site. The disclosures page lists items like disclaimer, privacy, cookie, affiliate ad and other information as it relates to the blog. If you are a blog follower via email, you should receive this disclosure as a separate email today. If you do not receive this disclosure or if you have questions, please email me at thebackyardhorseblog@gmail.com.

A Reminder to Rest

PREFACE:

As Winter slowly gives way to Spring in my neck of the woods, I get busy. I increase my activity as I spend more time outdoors. I try to catch up on all the things I was not able to do over Winter. I also get tired trying to chase it all down. If you are anything like me, maybe you do too?

Luckily for us equestrians, horses have a way of inspiring balance in our lives. Sleep and relaxation included. I previously published my essay “A Reminder to Rest” on another site. The essay contains some insight gleaned from spending time with my equine friends.

A Reminder To Rest

I keep horses in my backyard on a few acres of rural property. Eighteen years filled with feeding, mucking out, and other types of equine caretaking. That’s 6,570 days of observing and interacting with my horses.

Experiencing the intimacy of their daily care is very fulfilling. As my horses’ only caretaker, I am responsible for all aspects of their health and welfare. Through this daily oversight, I witness the full rhythm of their lives. This includes their sleep patterns which are very different from human ones.

Horses and most grazing animals sleep an average of two and a half hours every 24 hours, if conditions are ideal and the environment is secure. Most of this sleep is amassed by “nickel and diming,” meaning horses can snooze for short periods—about 15 minutes at a time.

From Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc in “Equine Sleep Patterns from A to Zzzzzzzzz”:

Another interesting fact is that horses mostly sleep standing up. In fact, horses, zebras, mules, and donkeys are some of the few animals known to sleep upright. They are able to do this due to mechanisms in their legs that essentially lock them in place while they rest. As prey animals, equids value their ability to leave the scene quickly in case of a suspected threat. Sleeping standing up buys them valuable time in fleeing predators.

In order to enter REM sleep, though, a horse must lie down. Typically, a horse will spend a total of one hour in REM sleep every 24 hours. If horses do not experience sufficient REM sleep, they can experience sleep deprivation.

Because horses spend most of their time moving, it almost seems unthinkable that they must rest. For this reason, horses laying down in a deep state of rest have long intrigued me.

There is something about the juxtaposition between a standing horse and a recumbent horse that I find fascinating. Equines are dynamic and strong. Their power is in their size and their movement. Yet when they are lying on the ground, they look so comparatively small. So vulnerable. So quiet. It is an odd thought to perceive such a large creature in that light.

Through my experience in backyard horse-keeping, I see that many horses when at rest are not comfortable with people being near them. Often horses will get up when approached. I have thought it a privilege when a horse feels safe enough to lie down in my presence or to stay down if I encounter him or her during a nap.

Out of respect, I usually steer clear of a resting horse and instead watch from afar. But if I get the sense that the horse is accepting of my presence while he or she snoozes, I might crouch down to give a brief wither scratch.

I occasionally find a safe spot sitting out of their reach in order to simply enjoy their quiet company. I listen to the rhythm of their breath. In and out. Their breathing sounds more slow, more deep than when they are standing. Frequently I hear them snore. I observe their nostrils flaring and trembling a bit with each inhale and exhale.

Sometimes a horse stays lying down with his legs tucked up to his chest and belly. His nose gently resting on the ground but with face upright and eyes open. Sometimes a horse lies flat out on her sides with her legs bent or straight. Occasionally, I witness legs and ears twitching as though the horses were traveling somewhere while engulfed in a dream state. It is all glorious to watch.

The atmosphere in these moments is tranquil and meditative. In the horses’ presence, I bask in the sunlight. I feel the ground beneath me and see the sky above me. I pray. I give thanks for this moment of peace in a turbulent world. Perhaps the horses are also doing some of those same things in their own way.

There is a special allure of communing with horses while they are resting. In most daily activities, I want my horses to match my chosen agenda. I ask them to do something for me like cooperate in going for a ride.

My choosing to rest when the horses are sleeping is one way I can turn the tables. I let them set the tone for a change. I choose to align myself with them and their preferences in that moment. The horses remind me to value and appreciate rest.

Bonding with a Slow Blink: Not just for cats anymore

Many of us have heard about bonding activities for humans and their pets. Have you ever wondered if your horse might respond to them too?

A few years ago, I read the book “Total Cat Mojo: The Ultimate Guide to Life with Your Cat.” The author is Jackson Galaxy of Animal Planet’s My Cat From Hell TV fame. One of the methods he suggests for bonding with a cat is the slow blinking technique. Basically you wait for the cat to make eye contact with you and then you make a series of very slow blinks. Often the cat will reciprocate.

I’ve had the opportunity to try the technique with my own cats, barn cats and multiple foster cats. It’s a quiet, relaxing way to share space with a cat. No talking or touching needed. It feels very rewarding when the cat blink back at you.

More recently, there appeared a feature titled “Bond with a Slow Blink” in the March/April 2021 issue of Catster magazine that linked research to this technique.

“Researchers at the University of Sussex in Brighton in the United Kingdom demonstrated that humans can positively engage with cats by participating in slow blink sequences (a series of half-blinks followed by prolonged eye narrowing or eye closure). . . According to the researchers, the act of narrowing the eyes seems to be a form of positive emotional communications.”

In my daily interactions with my horses, I often notice them noticing me. Yes, their watching me is often food related. I can almost hear them say “When IS she bringing us that next load of hay??” But there are other times when they are already eating that I see their gaze follow me as I do barn chores.

I also notice that their eyes sometimes follow me when I’m grooming them. This especially occurs when I offer them a brush or a scratch while they are just milling around their paddock, unconstrained by halter or lead.

I wondered if I could catch a horse’s gaze and do an equine version of the slow blinking technique? I was pretty sure I could stand there and blink at a horse, but would the horse blink back?

One warm day before the start of Winter, Shiloh came up to me while I was doing chores. He acted as though he were interested in a little mini-massage session. So I put aside the pick and muck bucket to give him a series of rubs and scratches in his favorite spots.

Shiloh became quite relaxed but was still following me with his eyes and ears as I moved around him. At one point, I stopped touching him and stood back from him at a bit of an angle to his shoulder. I’ve read about how equine vision is quite different from ours. I wanted to stand where I thought I would be within his clear field of vision.

I began making soft eye contact with him and doing a series of long, slow blinks. To my delight, he began gently blinking back! We went back and forth like that for maybe a minute or so.

Now it could have been that he was just relaxing into the quiet moment we were sharing together. Maybe he would have been blinking anyways, even if he didn’t see me blink? But due to the rhythm of the exchange, I did have the distinct sense that Shiloh was mimicking my blinks. He eventually stopped responding when his eyes got semi-hooded. His gaze sort of went inward like he was getting drowsy. Whatever was or wasn’t actually going on, it was a definitely a positive moment between us.

I enjoy reading about non-invasive research studies involving horses. There is some really interesting experiments conducted in the last ten years or so involving horses being able to recognize human emotions just from photographs. Another study showed horses learning a method to communicate their blanketing preferences to humans. You can bet I am keeping my eye out for some equine slow blink research.

Almost all studies with horses have small sample sizes so I often wonder about the veracity of the results. And yet the study outcomes clearly hint at a level of horse intelligence that is not widely recognized by the horse industry. It definitely leaves me intrigued and wanting to learn more. Here’s a sampling of write ups about said research:

How do Horses Communicate with Humans?

https://www.sciencealert.com/horses-recognise-and-remember-emotional-human-facial-expressions

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27098164/

https://thehorse.com/149916/study-horses-can-communicate-blanketing-preferences/

While I wait to read the next scientific study that comes across my desk, I’ll be doing some more of my own backyard research from time to time. If you ever meet up with me in person and see me gently winking at my horses, now you’ll know what that is all about!