How do you know what you think you know on a given subject? In the horse world, sometimes the “great truths” handed down from our fellow equestrians, other disciplines, and preceding generations can be real — or the farthest thing from actual truth.
There’s an old saying I have always loved — and have experienced time and time again in interviewing all kinds of “horse people” for both The Smart Woman’s Guide to Midlife Horsesand Riding Through Thick and Thin: “Anytime you get three horse people together you will most likely find that they will not be able to agree on anything. However, when one of the three leaves the conversation, the other two will finally agree on one thing: the one who left was definitely wrong.”
I think the most important lesson to draw from this “great truth” is that while it’s important to consult the experts, to educate yourself and to listen to those who have “been there, done that” (do we really want to make all the mistakes ourselves?), it is equally if not more important to use the noggin and inner guidance you were born with to learn how to figure some things out for yourself.
How do you know you’re on the right track? You get quiet on the inside and learn how to really see what you’re seeing, hear what you’re hearing and feel what you’re feeling. With practice, this authentic, on-board guidance system we all are born with (but sometimes needs to be primed and rebooted, if you’re pardon the mix of mechanical and technological metaphor) will indeed help you listen, filter the advice, information and sometimes plain nonsense you encounter — and just know what you need and quite often, what your horse needs from you. Horses are great helpers for finding our authenticity — and discovering our own answers— but our part of the bargain is that we have to learn how to get quiet, use our innate gifts of observation and intuition, and teach ourselves to trust what comes. Give it a try and let me know what happens. I’d wager that every horse person alive has a story about this — I’d love to hear them! Please share them with me on Twitter, Facebook, my website, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I don’t know about you, but now that I am definitely well into middle-age, I find myself thinking about that “bucket list” that seems more like something I used to hear my parents say they were checking off. Then I came across an article in Horse and Rider called “44 horsey things to do before you die.” Before I die? Whoa! I’m just getting the legal pad out to make my bucket list!
And then something shifted. As I read through this list, I realized that while they were all worthy entries, many of them didn’t fit me as a rider. With one hand reining in my escalating anxiety and the other gripping my pen, I began my own list―but instead of listing all the horsey things to do before I die, I decided to list the horsey things I’ve already been able to do. When I considered that just ten years ago I barely allowed myself to dream of owning a horse, the memories began to unfold of all that has happened and changed in my life since that 1000-lb lesson in abundance (as in be very careful what you wish for) arrived in my life. Because of this added horsepower, everything around me and within me opened up in ways “awe inspiring” doesn’t begin to touch.
So as I made my retroactive horsey bucket list, my bucket overflowed with gratitude for all the people, experiences and hard-earned wisdom these generous and wise teachers have brought into my life. So much has happened because of that single moment when I said “yes!” to a horse. And in reflecting on all that has happened, I can’t help but wonder what else may add itself to my list as I continue to follow where these horsey things lead. I like this a lot better than thinking about dying.
Seven of my horsey experience favorites — and their life takeaways include:
Open yourself to unexpected beauty. “Horse camping” on the 35,000 acre LBJ Grasslands — where a two-hour ride turned into an 8-our odyssey, but I didn’t care because of the surreal “pinch me I must be dreaming” beauty of this experience. Takeaway: If you open yourself to new experiences, you never know what unforeseen beauty may await
Be willing to do something badly. Ranch sorting — where my horse had a much better idea of what to do than I did, but we managed to live through the experience and even sort a few cows. There was also a reining clinic that was both an ugly and wonderful opportunity to push some edges I didn’t even know I had. Takeaway: You don’t have to be good at something for it to be fun; being willing to suck a little bit means you get to try something new. People can be surprisingly kind and helpful to someone who is trying to learn.
Get bucked off and then get back on. This is where the big girl panties come in handy — and where pain is relative to the experience, and working through it has its own surprises. Takeaway: The reward of the ride is greater than the pain of hitting the ground every once in a while.
Experience an exceptional pairing of physical and mental fatigue— where physical fatigue was only exceeded by mind blowing information overload. Takeaway: I’m stronger than I thought I was, more capable than I realized, and my innate curiosity and thirst for learning is a gift that keeps on giving.
Immerse yourself in learning. Working for and traveling with Clinton Anderson and the Downunder Horsemanship team, ask all the questions I wanted to, and then shape the answers into training tips, articles, newsletters and a book, Clinton Anderson’s Lessons Well Learned was the horsey learning experience of a lifetime. Ditto the time I spent with the Drs. McCormick at Hacienda Tres Aguilas and the Institute for Conscious Awareness. Takeaway: Opportunities come along — and may be fleeting — but if you can manage to grab them and give them all you’ve got, the doors they may open are unimaginable.
Share what you’ve learned. Pitching and writing “The Smart Women’s Guide to Midlife Horses” based on my observations, conversations and experiences, both while working with Downunder Horsemanship and with my own experiences, struggles and insights with my own two midlife horses. “Riding Through Thick and Thin” was an opportunity to draw from a lifetime of body insecurity and self-help study, delve deeper and meld with expert advice from the horse and rider arenas to create a new toolkit for riders and non-riders alike that could be a body image game changer, in and out of the saddle. Takeaway: Everything you experience holds a gift, both for you and for those you are able to share it with.
Find the right help. In retraining a horse that everyone else had long since given up on — where painstakingly slow, steady and deliberate progress yielded results beyond what anyone could have imagined. Takeaway: Listen to your heart, show up, slow down and move forward one step at a time to scale impossible mountains and discover unspeakable beauty where you least expected it.
How about you? Is a horse on your bucket list? Has a horse already supplied more joy than any bucket list can hold? I’d love to hear from you. Reach out to me here, on Twitter, Facebook or my website.
Long before rescuing OTBs was cool, this story of an unsuspecting Bold Ruler filly stole my heart and broke it and gave it back again as I stayed riveted to page after page of Barbara van Tuyl’s novel that became what is now referred to as “The Bonnie Books.” For reasons I still don’t understand I connected with this story on such a deep level that I still think about it and its characters from time to time. Julie Jefferson was all I ever wanted to be. She was brave, compassionate, wise behind her years — and willing to do whatever it took to protect and care for this endearing horse.
I loved this story because it so plays into our “diamond in the rough” fantasies about difficult horses. For me, it also inspired patience beyond words with a horse that everyone who watched our struggles chimed in with a collective exasperated, “Give up, already!”. But a gruff old trainer emerged just in the nick of time and together, over a year of slow and painstaking retraining, we redeemed this diamond of mine and proved a lot of naysayers wrong.
We didn’t win any races, but we won the sense of accomplishment that can only come from solving a serious horse problem and coming out of it with a shiny, shorty prize you knew was in there all along.
Do you have a diamond in the rough horse story? How did you know? What did to redeem your own chunk of coal? Let me hear from you! Share your story (and photos if you have them!) on Facebook, Twitter, or MelindaFolse.com
“I’ve never yet went wrong in sizing up a man by the kind of a horse he rode. A good horse always packs a good man, and I’ve always dodged the hombre what had no thought nor liking for his horse or other animals, for I figger that kind of gazabo is best to be left unacquainted with. No good would ever come of the meeting.”
— Will James, Smoky: The Cowhorse
My relationship with Will James began long before I was old enough to judge grammar or syntax — or realized that everything he says about men and their horses goes about double for women. All of this is excused here, because, as my dad explained, Will James is the real deal. He’s a cowboy that, for reasons no one really knows, spent a lot of time writing down the stories he lived, even though technically he could neither read nor write. (He also led a very short and tragic life, but at least he got the horse part right — and he followed his impulse to write about his experiences as a cowboy in a compelling way that no one else did.) For whatever reason, it was very important to Will to tell people about the horses and the cowboys he lived and worked with. Not only that, he wanted to share what he learned, understood and knew from curating these stories.
Will’s judgment of Smokey was spot on — and even though this little cowhorse with the great big heart endured a lot of peril, to have been so well-understood and deeply-loved by a simple cowboy was a gift and example that became the lasting and best part of Will James’ legacy. And now it is also mine. There is so much I want people to know and understand about horses and how much they can teach us. While most cowboys even today will tell you that there is no better teacher than a horse, it takes a little doing to learn to listen, observe, and understand.
Like Will, I have a deep need to share what I’ve learned and observed from the horses and riders and others who cross my path on regular basis (and even more regular when I put some effort into it!). And while, as the old saying goes, when you get three horse people together you’ll never get them all to agree on anything, you can usually get two of them to agree that the third one is wrong, I find these discussions fascinating. And, taking Wills quote above to heart, you can usually tell all you need to about each of the three by checking out what their their horses think of them!
That being said, and as one who has, As Will describes, “a soft spot in my heart” for all kinds of animals (and some would say a soft spot in my head to match!), stories about horses and their humans have always been my hands-down Number 1 heart-eyed-emoji fascination. And just like Will, I can’t not write them down.
What’s your horse story? What have you observed in the people and horses around you that seemed to reflect a far deeper understandings than was otherwise possible? Let me hear from you! Share your story (and photos if you have them!) on Facebook, Twitter, or MelindaFolse.com
In Part 1 I told you about the beginning of my lifelong love affair with “equine fiction” — and how My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara set the course for my fascination with the horse-human connection.
After probably much more thought than was completely necessary (but so much fun to pour some solid pondering into) I’ve identified four other solid horse life influencers (although each has sequels that kept these stories alive for as long as possible.) My list of finalists includes The Black Stallion by Walter Farley, Smoky the Cowhorse by Will James, and a little-known wild card, A Horse Called Bonnie by Barbara van Tuyl.
Each of these stories brought something different to the table. And oddly enough, you’ll find these themes running through my three nonfiction horse books — and planting some seeds for my own possible foray into equine fiction. We’ll see how that works out.
I told you how I realized the connection between My Friend Flicka and The Smart Woman’s Guide to Midlife Horses was not only the amazing connection found in the soul-level horse-human connection, but possibly more important, that Flicka was as much about growing up and gaining self-assurance through a relationship with a horse as it was about the horse itself.
Fast forward a few years in my writing life to my new book, Riding Through Thick and Thin. On the surface it’s about body image and riding horses. But dig a few inches under that and you’ll find the repeated allusions to the pure joy we’re meant to feel when we ride. The freedom and take-your-breath-away exhilaration that only comes when you are balanced, fit, and connected with your horse.
Can you guess where I got the mental imagery for this kind of ride? Of course it started with Alec Ramsey’s ecstatic first ride around the island (and later in that first practice ride on a real track) on The Black. I remember thinking of that ride when I rode my first horse, Babe, at breakneck speed (thank God, not literally) around allowed and improvised “track” we had in the flat back section of pasture at our boarding stable. And again on my father’s ranch just outside Hico, Texas, when Patches and I flew across the hayfield just ahead of a glorious Texas sunset (Glad neither of us knew to worry about gopher holes!). And finally, on Trace in the LBJ grasslands with a pack of insane trail riders galloping across a meadow in a stretch of Paradise (Paradise, Texas, that is). Call me weird, but any time I feel this free-spirited joy on the back of a horse, I can’t help but remember Farley’s Alec and The Black.
What real life horse experiences connect you to your favorite stories? Let me hear from you! Post your memories and faves to Facebook,Twitter or MelindaFolse.com
I came across a list of the TOP 100 HORSE MOVIES the other day (Equine Info Exchange™), and first I thought, Hmmm, who gets to write this list? And then I wondered (aside from, “Are there really 100? Where are they?), “What influences these choices? Is it the story? The humans? The horses? Or is it something silly and random — like the color of the horse? (Black Beauty + Black Stallion = any black horse makes a good story?)
I know I have my own favorite horse stories, and I’m sure you have yours, too. Mine started with a single book — the story that began my love affair with equine fiction.
I fell hard for My Friend Flicka in juniorhigh, and not much has come close since. This 1941 novel by Mary O’Hara about Ken McLaughlin, the son of a Wyoming rancher, and his horse, Flicka, awakened in me a fascination with the horse-human relationship. The idea that a horse could be a friend — with the closeness, communication and connection Ken formed with Flicka (against spectacular odds, I might add) — has inspired exploration even today into how this kind of relationship really does heal humans — and horses — from all kinds of ills. Drs. Tom, Deborah, and Adele Von Rust McCormick can tell you much more about the underpinnings of this kind of connection in their books, Horse Sense and the Human Heart and Horses and the Mystical Path.
While the horse-human connection portrayed in My Friend Flicka may have been passed off by many as a magical and farfetched idea when it was written, the truth beneath it is well documented by early Greek and Celtic horsemanship, as well as by the US Cavalry and more modern students such as Tom Dorrance, Ray Hunt, Monty Roberts, Linda Kohanov and many others. In my work with Clinton Anderson as a staff writer, and on his book, Lessons Well Learned, I got a front-row seat to horses and human learning from and connecting with one another. And then, as one of the many women-of-a-certain-age exploring this connection and all horses can add to the middles of our lives, I turned what I learned on this exploration into my own book, The Smart Woman’s Guide to Midlife Horses. My Friend Flicka, you see, was as much about growing up and gaining self-assurance through a relationship with a horse as it was about the horse itself.
My Friend Flicka was the first in a trilogy, followed by Thunderhead in 1943 and Green Grass of Wyoming in 1946. There was a popular 1943 film version featuring a young Roddy McDowall, followed by two other film adaptations, Thunderhead, Son of Flicka in 1945, and Green Grass of Wyoming in 1948, not to mention a TV series I didn’t catch until much later it its lengthy reruns. In 2006, Hollywood tried again with this great story — and even with Ken’s part played by a girl and Tim McGraw as the dad — nothing, I’m afraid, could compete with my own vivid imaginings.
As I read I could almost hear that horse nicker when she saw Ken coming down the path, see the softness of her flax main and he brushed it, and feel Ken’s angst in trying to please his father — and never quite measuring up. I knew the intimate details of the McLaughlin household, the breathtaking beauty of their ranch, and all the quirks of every family member as if they were my own. Even today, Mary O’Hara still (from the grave, no less!) still has me in the palm of her hand with this story — and my mental images formed by her words are as fresh and strong right now as they were the first time I read them. This story also brought about my first experience of the deep anxiety of never wanting a story to end, and no matter how many times I re-read that tattered paperback, turning the last page still brought a rush of sadness and yearning for more.
“I hope there are a hundred more books like this,” my 11-year-old self said, of course with the follow-up, “I want to have a horse just like Flicka someday.” And today, having made this soul-level connection with not one but two horses (yes, both somewhat like Flicka, each in a different way — but don’t tell them), it is the rare and wonderful experience I imagined it to be — and so much more.
What is your most compelling horse story? When did your connection with your dream horse begin? Where did it take you? I want to hear from you. Let’s share our stories and start our own list of favorite horse books and movies. Let me hear from you on Twitter, Facebook, or at MelindaFolse.com. I never realized until writing this post the power of these early attractions — and how they influenced my thoughts, perceptions, focus and interest.
And of course, there are a couple more where this one came from. Stay tuned.
One of the best books I’ve read lately is Cheryl Richardson’s The Art of Extreme Self Care. Taking care of ourselves can be a creative challenge as well as a practical and logical one when life gets busy and demands on our time and attention exceed our available hours.
And interestingly, Cheryl herself struggles with the issue of constant re-balancing, remarking that sometimes when she finds herself at the office at 9:00 pm she has to stop and say “is this really what I need to be doing to take care of myself right now?”
And let’s face it. Sometimes it is. When taking a little extra time to get some situation at the office under control will allow you to be more peaceful, focused and productive going forward, it can be worth it to burn a little midnight oil. We’ve all been there.
And some of us have gotten so elated with the progress we make when things get quiet and we can hear ourselves think that we’ve stepped over the edge of situational effectiveness into the realm of habit. When it’s always better to stay late and arrive early and fill every morsel of free time with work in the name of “getting things under control.
This would be time (combining Richardson’s advice with horse vernacular) to just say, “WHOA!”
And here’s what’s funny about that. Once we set that intent — and that bell to go off in our heads when we veer too far off the course we’ve set for ourselves — it becomes easier and easier to monitor our choices and habits to create the solutions we need to stay happy and balanced in all the areas of our lives.
One thing I’d like to emphasize, too, is that it’s a process. A a constant re-balancing, reassessing and retooling. I’m finding out this is not a situation you solve once and that’s it. It takes vigilance. Determination. Patience. And self-scrutiny that borders on the obsessive.
Got any thoughts on that? Any tricks or tips for balancing priorities when one particularly demanding one tends to hog your time an attention? How do you know when it’s time to “Just say WHOA?”
Who among us hasn’t enjoyed an enthusiastic nuzzle from a horse we just know is expressing great affection? Or is he? Among many of the trainers and horse folks I’ve crossed paths with, one of the things they snicker about most is people (especially women) who let a horse get all up in their grill thinking it’s affection when in fact it’s just a horse’s way of expressing dominance. This horse, the aptly named “Precious,” (one of the Wildcatter Ranch’s trail string) elevates this kind of boundary invasion to an art form. “What?” You may ask. “No way! My horse really really loves me!” Well, that he may. And sometimes it is a nuzzle of true affection. And sometimes, it is the horse showing you that he has absolutely no respect for your boundaries and/or personal space. This is not a good thing. Disrespect of any kind from a horse, even if it starts small, can grow into something dangerous. How do you know when it’s disrespect and not affection? As with most things with horses, it just takes getting quiet for a moment and asking the irritating question my friend Kathy Taylor of HerdWise always asks in her Equine Assisted Learning sessions, “What do you think?” If you find that a horse, especially a new or unfamiliar horse, consistently gets inside what Clinton Anderson calls “your personal hula hoop,” it’s most likely a sign of disrespect. In fact, one of the very first exercises Clinton teaches in his Fundamentals series is to draw a circle around you (about 4-feet in diameter) in the dirt with the tip of a stick or even the heel of your boot. (Clinton’s famous “Handy Stick” just happens to be exactly the right length for this. Coincidence? I don’t think so!) Now get in the middle of it with your horse outside the circle. That’s your personal “hula hoop” of space. Stand there for a while, and every time this horse tries to come into the circle without being invited, chase him back out. Then ignore him. After he stands quietly outside the circle for a few minutes, walk to him and pet him. The rule is, if you want to get into his space and rub and pet on him and enjoy a good nuzzle, by all means, do so. You can go into his space and you can invite him into your space. But if he barges into your space without being invited, no matter how irresistibly soft his kisses, you need to push him back out and make the kissing your idea.
If a riding instructor has ever told you to “look where you want the horse to go” I submit to you that it goes much deeper than that. When your mind is clear and certain of exactly what you want your horse to do, it makes an unbelievable difference in his willingness to do it. Why is that?
One of the many ways our horses push us to be better people is to demand (by ignoring our requests until we’re compelling enough to convince them we really do know exactly what we want) clear and decisive direction. I can always tell on the days I’m feeling a little bit mentally lazy or distracted that my horse, Rio, completely “forgets” how to do everything he knows how to do really well on his “good days.” (I guess what we realize by now whose “good days” we’re really talking about here) And, while it’s true that horses are entitled to their “better” and “not-so-great,” and “a little bit rusty” days, it is usually more a matter of our own clarity that determines how things will go. How do you find that clarity and authenticity? That’s one of the best things our horses force us to do. And like getting and staying in shape (the other thing they require of us that provides far-reaching benefits way beyond the saddle) building the clarity muscle is a matter of practice, determination and repetition. So leave your cell phone in the car, force the to-do -when-I-leave-here list from your mind, and when you’re with your horse, practice not only being in that moment just with him, but picture in your mind (with the greatest detail you can muster) exactly what it is you want him to do before you ask him. Don’t forget to come back and tell me what happened! Comment here or feel free to email me at email@example.com. If enough of you respond, I promise a future post that compiles these stories–because if you’ll really do this, I know there are going to be lots of stories we’re all going to want to hear! So let’s get out there, clear out the life cobwebs when you’re with your horse–and get sure!
One of the things we face as horse owners of any age, and especially those of us who have spent decades telling everyone around us to “be careful, now”–is the realization of what can happen if we come off a horse. We know we don’t bounce as well as we once did. And grown-up responsibilities and commitments constantly run through the backs of our minds. Under the circumstances, it’s easy to let fear and apprehension (our own and the cautionary words of others) talk us back out of the saddle. But if you love the feeling of riding, and know in your heart that what you get out of the experience is far better than sitting back and wishing, you must learn to minimize risk and maximize joy. Is it a matter of putting on your big girl panties to force yourself through fear? Do you just need that 30 seconds of insane courage to put apprehension in its place? Should you listen to those who advise you to do something every day that scares you to death?? Well, maybe. Sometimes, insane courage is part of the personal courage equation, but you also have to be smart about it. Fear exists for a reason. So do riding helmets. One of the best ways to feel safe in the saddle is by knowing you’ve done all you can to minimize risk. Yes, you definitely wear the aforementioned helmet. But even more important than wearing protective gear is incorporating safe habits into your routines until they become second nature. And you educate yourself (and your horse) on the basics of horsemanship. So, how do you put all this together? I’ve learned that you can’t bluff a horse, so pretending not to be afraid when you are doesn’t serve any purpose. But once you have the safety and education pieces in place, you can call up those 30 seconds of insane courage. It’s called putting on your big girl panties. With well-earned confidence in place, you know that whatever happens when you’re in the saddle, you can handle it, so you swing your leg over with a “Just Do It” attitude that would make St. Nike proud. Here’s a quick story to illustrate. When we were shooting some video to promote The Smart Woman’s Guide to Midlife Horses, I got on Trace for some footage of me riding him, since my issues with this challenging horse were a major thematic element of the book. I didn’t feel nervous or unsure when I got on him, but he immediately started what I call his “agitated quick-step” that is a precursor to the leap-forward-kick-up “angry dolphin.” (Isn’t it sad that I have names for all his antics? Why I keep this horse is a story for another day). Suddenly, I felt my confidence I had slipping away. And the cameras were rolling. (I’ll put this up on YouTube when it’s ready, so stay tuned if you want a giggle.) “Sit heavy, sit back and push him forward,” Denise called out to me from across the arena. I did. Sure enough, he began walking more normally. But the tension remained in both of us. I tried to breathe deep and relax my hips and legs. It felt better, but still not good. “Still looks like you’re walking on eggshells,” Joyce, the videographer and producer, observed. “It’s OK, though,” she added as she unplugged herself from the camera. “I think we have enough of you riding Rio.” I dismounted and she started packing up her equipment. Then something strange happened. “No, we’re not doing this today,” I said to no one in particular as I turned Trace around to face the middle of the arena. Without any of my usual preamble or the mounting block I use to get on him in a “kinder, gentler way,” I climbed back on Trace. His head went straight up. I felt the familiar hump rising in his back. I squeezed him forward. “You’re going to do this today and you’re going to do it right,” I told him. To my great relief–and more than a little surprise–he did. The smile you see in the video as I reach forward to pat him after a very nice canter is one of those moments with far-reaching implications. Finding my big girl panties at the end of a long, hard fight through fear and uncertainty was a feeling of victory like no other.