Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Since When is Natural Horsemanship Natural?

I don't know when or why good old fashioned horsemanship was labeled "Natural Horsemanship," but this article touches on some problems I have with the "one size fits all" "step by step" approach to teaching and working with horses.

The link that got me thinking was this:

First off, the horse community labels many things as natural techniques. But when push comes to shove, there is nothing natural about a natural farrier; wild horses don't get their feet trimmed. There is nothing natural about a bareback pad; wild horses don't wear any equipment, let alone something to support and assist a rider. There is nothing natural about a bitless bridle; wild horses steer themselves. There is nothing "natural" about horses letting us work with them and there is definitely nothing natural about them letting us ride them.

Secondly, while there are elements of every training program that are functional and dysfunctional, each horse is different and asks for different sequencing of techniques and sometimes even a whole different approach. Following a step by step protocol simply doesn't always work because some steps are simply not sequential. We cannot train our horses on conveyor belts.

Instead a dynamic understanding of WHY is how we should work with horses. The question we should be asking when we work with horses is "why do we do this" instead of "how do we do this." With a deeper understanding of the way horses work in terms of personality, behavior, and biomechanics the goals become clearer and the path to them becomes full of options and many opportunities for success.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Year of the Wood Horse

The Chinese New Year is a spring festival starting on the second new moon after the Winter Solstice (this time, it was the evening of January 30th). This year, we watched the year of the Fire Snake slither away as the year of the Wood Horse stampeded in to greet us.

Obviously, this a big deal in the horse community at large as we celebrate the year represented by the animal that is so dear to us. As a result, we at Painted Bar Stables would like to celebrate this Year of the Horse with a year full of education, knowledge, and insight into everything equine.

How the Chinese Zodiac works:
Chinese astrology does not have any religious basis, but is instead based on the culmination of more than 5,000 years of human observation.
In Chinese astrology (and medicine, for that matter), there are five elements in a cycle defining a universal balance: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. All things arise from and return to one another and are interdependent. Each element, with equal strength and weakness, is controlled by another element while at the same time bringing about influence on a further element. As a result there are multiple cycles within these elements:

  • The Generating Cycle 
    • Metal holds Water
    • Water grows Wood
    • Wood is burnt to create Fire
    • Fire burns every other element down to the Earth
    • Metal is extracted from Earth. 
  • The Controlling Cycle 
    • Metal cuts down Wood
    • Wood through its roots holds the Earth
    • Earth absorbs Water
    • Water douses Fire 
    • Fire melts Metal

These five elements interact with the 12 animal signs represented within the Chinese Zodiac. However, while all of the animals interact with the elements, each animal also has an affinity for particular elements:
  • Metal: Monkey and Rooster
  • Earth: Ox, Sheep and Dog
  • Fire: Snake and Horse
  • Wood: Tiger, Rabbit and Dragon
  • Water: Rat and Pig

Each of these 12 animals is further grouped into four trines. Trines are groupings of animals that affect one another’s spiritual development in harmonious ways:
  1. Rat, Dragon, and Monkey: intense, powerful, unpredictable, and irrepressible
  2. Ox, Snake, and Rooster: conquer life through endurance, savvy, planning, and application
  3. Tiger, Horse, and Dog: idealistic, decisive, impulsive, communicative, and social
  4. Rabbit, Goat, and Pig: aesthetic, content, intellectual, well-mannered, and placid

Horses in China:
In China, horses are considered fortunate and bring luck and good things. Throughout China’s long and storied past, no animal has affected its history as much as the horse. As the empire grew, horses became essential for maintaining contact and control of the empire, as well as transporting goods and supplies throughout the vast and diverse country. The horse is considered a hero in China because of important battles that were won due to the power and strength of the horse.

It’s significance was so great that in the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 BC), horses and the vehicles that they powered were entombed with their owners so as to be with them in their next life. In the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100-771 BC), the military might was distinctly measured by the number of horses available to a particular kingdom.

With such an influence, it is not surprising that Chinese genius produced two of the most significant inventions in equestrian history:
  1. Breast-Strap Harnessing System: their harnessing system was the first to effectively utilize the horse’s power without hampering its ability to breathe, allowing the development of shafted horse-drawn vehicles far more advanced and efficient than their counterparts in the West. In fact, it would be more than a millennium before the breast-strap harnessing system would arrive in Europe. More on this at:
  2. This Chinese Burial figure of a horse is
    dated to the mid 7th century, note the stirrup.
    Tang Dynasty.
    The Foot Stirrup: The invention of the stirrup was equally important; for the first time
    mounted cavalrymen had a secure platform from which to fight. The earliest stirrup was in India and consisted of just a simple loop through which the rider placed his big toe (OUCH!). The first full foot stirrups were found on a pottery horse near Nanjing depicting triangular stirrups. More on this at:

While horses may have diminished in practical importance in modern China, the spirit of Equus still runs deeply throughout Chinese art and culture.

Horses and the Zodiac:
The importance of horses in life was reflected by the important role played by the horse in Chinese mythology. They were seen as closely related to the dragon, with both thought capable of flight and carrying their riders to the home of the immortals. Even the Chinese goddess Kwan Yin holds sacred a white celestial cloud horse that flies through the heavens bringing peace and blessings.
The strong connection that the horse has to Chinese history results in an unsurprising and thoughtful analysis of equine behavior that are applied to the lessons and characteristics that are assigned to the astrological sign. This analysis directly reflects my own personal lessons in dealing with the many personalities that we have in our barn.

People born in the year of the horse are, according to the zodiac, quite similar to horses: bright, cheerful, social, and fun loving. They find groups exciting and enjoy the complexities involved in relationships within the herd.  The large amounts of physical attention required by horses supports their highly developed understanding of social strata.

Horses have an inner fire that burns with intensity and endurance and approach life with childish innocence. This carefree nature needs ample space to roam and travel. However, despite the impatience and disdain for restraint, horses are hard-working, amplified by their talent and intelligence.

They are highly intuitive and frank, disliking hidden agendas. While known for following their instincts, horses are also very clearly cognitive in their thoughts. While very loyal, horses can be very guarded and hold grudges when lied to or tricked.

Horses are creatures that reward decisive action. Procrastination in decision making rarely goes unpunished. However, sureness in that action is equally rewarded. It is import to the horse that every decision is clear and certain because events move quickly with horses; be sure of your choice so that that you gallop off in the wrong direction.

Debriefing the Meaning of a Wood Horse Year:
Within the zodiac, the horse is an animal that contains fire; the wood helps the fire to burn hotter, brighter and longer. Furthermore, because fire is the child of the element wood, wood continually teaches and gives unconditionally of itself to the fire until there is no more wood.

So, to translate: the year of the Wood Horse is seen as a year when there will be many opportunities, but then they will disappear. As a result, people should learn as much as possible to prepare for the times of “disappearance” when there are no helpers.  It is a year of fast victories, unexpected adventure, and surprising romance and friendship. It’s an excellent year for travel, and the further away and off the beaten path, the better. Moreover, since education is a wood industry associated with growth, it’s a good time to learn something new and focus on personal growth. Taking up horseback riding seems fitting!

Meet our Horses: Brumby

Name: Brumby
Birth Year: 2003 (10 years old)
Color: Dapple Buckskin
Breed: Appendix Quarter Horse
Height: 14 hands, 2 inches
Brumby is the little buckskin mare that graces our trail rides and lessons with her sweet demeanor. Always honest and pleasantly sassy, Brumby is one of those horses that is simple and sweet, but at the same time, interesting and fun.

Brumby was bred by and born to a local horse family. Her sire is a registered Quarter Horse stallion, and her dam is a Thoroughbred mare. In theory, Brumby can be registered with the American Quarter Horse Association as an Appendix Quarter Horse; however she has been separated from any of the paperwork needed to be registered.
She had been passed around a bit, always returning for various reasons to her original owner who just didn't have the space or need for her. When she came to us in 2012, she had been to a number of homes in the past couple of years and really didn't have a good concept of a "home base.”

We renamed her to Brumby when she arrived after the wild horses in the Outback (basically, the Australian version of the mustang). This name was fitting for a horse with no home that was wary of new people and horses. The concept of a “home base” is incredibly important for horses, both in their interactions with horses as well as humans. Brumby hadn’t lived in a single herd at a single home consistently enough and for long enough to really understand herd dynamics and relationship negotiations. As a result, at first she was incredibly defensive and unsociable with the other horses, who immediately dropped her to the bottom of the social strata of our large herd. Similar to a new kid in a high school, her unease with the other horses and distrust of all the horses that now outranked her made it a rough transition. 

As the year progressed, she slowly found her niche, particularly with our large baby percheron gelding, Gringo. Gringo is one of our upper-middle ranked  horses in the herd. He’s a young goof with little experience, but his big size sometimes turns him into a bully unknowingly. He’s a nice guy, but let’s be honest: he’s pretty intimidating! The match between Brumby and him was surprising, but we couldn’t have asked for a better and more socially persuasive bodyguard for the little mare. He was big and tough enough not to be offended by her when she is lashing out from lack of confidence, and also able to keep the other horses at bay.

Gringo and Brumby have a very close friendship, however they definitely aren’t “dating.” There’s no clingy obsessiveness between the two of them. However, their friendship is stronger than a romance would be anyhow. While they come and go within different groups in the herd, they always find peace with one another and are often found sharing the same bale of hay, or entering the barn together when they come inside.

Unfortunately, because Brumby went from competing for her hay to having her hay supervised by Gringo, she became incredibly plump last fall. Her hay belly was so chubby, that even the vets thought that perhaps she might be pregnant. We were all but prepared for a new baby. After an ultrasound, it was concluded that she was in fact not pregnant and that a lot of the behaviors we saw as being “hormonal” were actually just our projections and not reality.

At this point, Brumby is a key asset in our barn. This little tank of a horse is the right mix of obedience, intelligence, and “go with the flow,” but with just enough opinions and spunk to keep riders of all levels interested. She likes to bring up the rear of the trail rides with Gringo, taking her time and watching all of the silliness ahead of her but keeping a distance. She’s becoming a favorite in lessons as well for both adult and youth students. Every day she seems to learn more about herself, her riders, and moreover her potential.