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Word from the Herd


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The Tricky Balance of EFL

Posted on April 7, 2018 at 12:47 PM Comments comments ()
There is a balance I try to observe every time I am with a horse. I hope this balance that I practice spills out into my lessons. But it’s hard.

When we work with a horse, our human brains want to come up with a lesson to teach ourselves something or to teach our horse something. And we do it. Maybe successfully or maybe not so successfully. In the realm of Equine Facilitated Learning (and honestly, every time you are with a horse), what we SHOULD be doing is allowing our horse to have a say. If we do not see them as partners, then there is nothing they can teach us and all the work we do at Breaking Free could be done with a stuffed animal and come to the same result. My PATH workshop instructor said that if you can do the lesson pulling a little red wagon behind you instead of a horse and the result is the same, then the horse was not a partner but rather a tool. So when planning a lesson I take into consideration the possible reactions the horse might have and allow plenty of time for the student to explore that reaction. If you want your horse to cross a puddle and he won’t, you could certainly smack him or pull him hard enough to cross it. But neither of you will learn anything. You should ask yourself, “Am I worried about crossing the puddle?” or “Am I unclear about what I’m asking him to do?” or “Is there a baby step we can start with to build up his trust, then cross the puddle later?” etc. These questions will teach you both and the next time you come to a puddle, there will be no issue. And I will say here, that this does not mean let them do whatever they want. Being a clear and confident leader is just as important to your relationship as not being a dominating leader that doesn’t let the horse have a say. So on one side of the pendulum, we have what a horse IS: A horse is a sentient being capable of complex relationships, problem solving skills, communication and trust. A horse can give us biofeedback that no human could. Horses can teach us things about ourselves in real time that only years of hindsight could provide if we did it on our own.

When we start treating our horse like a partner and listening to what he has to say, the temptation is to listen with human rationalizing. A horse “doesn’t like me”, “is mad at me for____”, is jealous of _____” , etc. And the truth is, horses do not have these secondary emotions. They do not feel things like jealousy, shame or even anger. Everything they feel is based on their safety as prey animals and/or conditioned responses from training and handling. If your horse won’t walk into the arena, it is because he doesn’t trust you enough to keep him safe in there. It is not because he is embarrassed by the pink glitter bridle you are making him wear. Once when I was with a herd of horses, I stepped back when one approached me because I was apprehensive of this particular horse. Someone critiqued my interaction saying, “I know if I stepped backward from a child when they approached me, that would hurt their feelings. I think the horse felt the same way.” I couldn’t disagree more. The horse did not have “hurt feelings”. I think the horse understood that I was not ready, did not feel safe and so he retreated. There you have the other side of the pendulum, what a horse is NOT: A horse is not a human. They do not care about what you are wearing. They will not judge you today based on your attitude from last week. They will not get jealous if you work with a different horse. Everything they tell you is a here and now reaction based on their safety which includes conditioned responses, communication, trust, physical needs and energy conservation.

In our own lives, we can take a cue from the horse and look for the primary emotion first. This will save us a lot of trouble managing our secondary emotions. These secondary emotions swoop in to help us process what we are feeling, but it’s not the true source. This beautiful thing happens when you can listen to your horse and share your desires with them in this real time, primal language that they understand. When you find that balance and mutual respect between yourself and your equine partner, that’s when lives start to change.

Do you have what it takes?

Posted on December 31, 2017 at 2:59 PM Comments comments ()
     I recently read some of Angela Duckworth’s articles about “Grit”. She believes that in all the research done on why successful people become successful, there is no correlation between them in regards to economic status, IQ, social skills, physical health, talent, etc. The only thing that all successful people have, whether in school, business, society or any goal one might set is: GRIT. When successful people hit a road bump or experience failure they don’t give up, they don’t downsize the dream, they don’t make excuses. Successful people dig in their heels and keep trying. Even more important is that gritty people use failure as a way to learn and improve going forward.  

This word “grit”  is appropriate at Breaking Free this month. Heading into our 10th season is only possible because of the sheer grit of people like Bryan and Linda Lake, our instructors and all the many volunteers and sponsors. Especially those who have been here from the start and continue to come every year, refusing to let their passion and dedication fizzle out.

The easiest time to see this grit is in the Winter months. These are not the glamorous months. This is when the grit happens in the office: cold calling new agencies, looking for new clients, new partnerships, new sponsors. We are reading up on the Equine Assisted Activities research, looking for the best lesson plans to suit our students. And Grit happens in the barn: temperatures are in the single digits and yet the grittiest are out throwing hay, cleaning stalls and breaking ice out of buckets.

It occurred to me at our beginner horse clinic this past week that as gritty as I felt in all my insulated clothes walking horses around in single digits, that the grittiest of all were the kids! They showed up despite the freezing temperatures in their sparkle kitten mittens and their mesh Nikes for no reason other than they are so excited to learn about horses. Those kids are going to be the ones that won’t let anything get in the way of their goals. They will be changing the World in the next generation! They inspire me.

This might be a good time for all of us to think about how much grit we have. As we set our New Years goals, How big are we going to dream? How far will we push ourselves to accomplish these dreams? What are we going to do when we don’t succeed at them? Quit? Chalk it up as another year gone, try again next year? Or will we get gritty and learn from the failure.  

“True grit is making a decision and standing by it, doing what must be done. No moral man can have peace of mind if he leaves undone what he knows he should have done.”  ~ John Wayne

I am thankful for..... YOU!

Posted on November 18, 2017 at 3:58 PM Comments comments ()
     November is always that month where people start saying out loud the things that they are thankful for. We have probably been thankful every month, but it’s good to designate a time to ponder these things and say them out loud. I’m sure November is deemed the “thankful” month because of Thanksgiving but at Breaking Free, November is also a good month to be thankful because our sessions have come to an end and we begin the process of reflection. We start thinking over the last year and deciding what things we will continue and what things we will change next year.

     My thankful heart goes first to how thankful I am for these horses. If you look out over our herd, you might not think they look like much! We have a very eclectic group and not much in the way of pedigree. But I see horses that will stand still-as-a-statue while a very noisy lift carries a child out of a wheelchair and lowers the child down onto their back. What an amazing level of trust and responsibility that horse must feel to allow us to do that without taking a single step forward! I see a group of horses that know when to listen to their rider’s cues and when to ignore it and listen to their handler. That is an incredible skill for a horse to have. I see horses that deal with the emotions and personalities of different handlers and students everyday. Most horses have one owner that they can come to expect. But our horses learn to come into every situation with an open mind, using their intuition to find the right way to respond to each person. Our horses form relationships with a variety of people every day. They are the best of the best. I was thinking about our Gabe at the horse show this year. He pulled a shoe in the mud that morning. I’m sure his foot was tender and we would have understood if he refused to do the show. But he didn’t. He was in every single class and never took a single unsteady step. We retired Gabe that night and he left to his well deserved retirement pasture with one of our students. It is horses like Gabe that I am so grateful to know. And I am grateful that they can take a break for a couple months to rest their bodies and minds and get ready for another busy season in the spring!

     I am also thankful for our volunteers. There is a million things that these folks could do with their time. And yet, every week, they are here. Our volunteers don’t always get to hear how these lessons have impacted the lives of the students. That’s something we hope to improve upon next year. But even so, they believe so much in the program and the horses, that they faithfully continue to come. They give their time, their money and  their hearts to these kids.  It is not easy work; It’s physically and emotionally demanding. There is no shortage of reasons people volunteer but one common theme among them is: they all know that they are blessed. And when you feel that way, you know you have to pass that blessing on to others. We have a supporter that is blessed financially and wants to pass on that blessing in a monetary donation. We have a volunteer who has overcome a physical ailment and wants to use her now healthy body to help someone else. We have one volunteer whose life has been changed by her relationship with a horse and wants to pass that on to someone else. We have many college students who come not just to give, but also to learn. This web of volunteers, interns and supporters is what keeps Breaking Free running and I am so eternally grateful to each one of them. If you have helped Breaking Free this year in any capacity, I hope you tell your friends and family about it. I hope you are proud of the work that you have accomplished. Your dedication has given people hope and put smiles on kids faces.
     When I think about the classes that took place over the last year, I’m encouraged by the strength that the kids developed, the flexibility, the speech. I think about the self esteem the kids have gained and the pride they have in learning something new. I am so thankful for the families that come out every week, allowing this group of instructors, volunteers and horses into their lives and the chance to help make it better. Just like our volunteers, there are many reasons that bring people out to Breaking Free but sometimes what they get out of it, isn’t what they had expected! One student that came this year just so happened to come on a day when we received a new horse, Ransom. As the student walked down the barn aisle, every horse stuck their head out for a pet. Ransom however, had his head in the corner. I explained to the student that Ransom was new and still shy. The student told me that he went to Safety town for the first time that day and he was also new and shy. I asked him to tell Ransom how he felt at Safety town. The student talked about how he felt when he didn’t know anyone there and he was nervous about what was going to happen. As he talked, Ransom started to turn around until finally his head was out for a pet! He said: "Ransom will like it here and I'll remember him at Safety town tomorrow!" Who knew a horse could help a child when he goes somewhere new! But that is exactly what happens when these kids and families allow a special bond to form between them and their horse friends. I am thankful for parents who trust us with their children and allow us a glimpse into their lives. If you are a participant at Breaking Free, I hope that you spend the winter snuggled up! Then return in the Spring with a new list of goals and an eagerness to see what a horse can teach you!

For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you,  remembering you in my prayers ~ Ephesians 1:15

The Family Herd

Posted on November 1, 2017 at 11:33 AM Comments comments ()
     When Bo first came to Breaking Free, he was really skittish. He didn’t trust tight spaces; you would have to open stall doors and gates really wide and then he would run through. He didn’t trust people; you would need to approach very slowly, then let him come to you the rest of the way. Because of this uncertainty Bo had, the others in the herd didn’t trust him. He would have been a danger to them in the wild.
     In feral herds, horses have extremely organized social groups. There is one head stallion who decides where to go. He finds a path that works in the best interest of the entire herd. He is responsible for food, water and safety of the entire group. He does not force them to move nor is he aggressive towards them. The head stallion has earned the respect of his herd. Then there is a head mare. She is in charge of the emotional needs of the group. She puts horses in their places based on their temperament and skills. She also handles discipline; sometimes she lets two herd-mates work out their own differences and sometimes she will intervene. In the wild, most horses are born into their herd position and it is rarely contested. They know where they belong and they find comfort in knowing. If you want to know who is in charge, watch to see who can move who. If you see one horse that can move another, then the first horse is at a higher spot in the pecking order than the second.
     If you are like me, you might be drawing parallels between the characteristics of the feral herd and your own family. Perhaps you had a dad (or are a dad) who’s job is to put food on the table and keep his family safe. Maybe you have a mom (or are a mom) who tends to the emotional needs of the family. She is a good listener and knows when to let her kids learn on their own and when to intervene.
      Kelly Wendorf states in her article “Horse Herd Dynamics and the Art of Organizational Success”, that there are also emotional needs in a herd to draw parallels from. To assess where you are in each of these categories could improve your family life, your business life or any other group that you are a part of:

Congruence: Each family member should feel free to express their true feelings and learn to self-reflect in order to be truthful with themselves. Horses are very sensitive to incongruence; they don’t trust it. And honestly, even when we think we are putting on a happy face, those in our family that know us best, can tell if we aren’t being truthful. Humans don’t trust it either.

Sense of Personal Space (right to be here):  Family members should feel secure in their personal space. People often feel insecure about themselves resulting in clinging too close or pushing others away. Horses are not insecure; They never act more important than they are, nor do they diminish themselves or let themselves get walked all over. If only humans could find that balance and be secure in who they are at this moment!

Leadership: A horse that tries to disrespect those above him, doesn’t respect the boundaries of others, tries to intimidate and uses aggression to control is considered a bully. This horse is often a loaner. He does not earn the respect of others and he will never be the leader, try as he might. This is the same in our families. The leaders should lead by being present, giving clear expectations, setting a good example, being fair and just and taking the entire family's needs into account.The leader should not be a bully.

Relationship: In both the horse and human world relationships are EVERYTHING. We need each other. We need to know and be known. We need support and affirmation. We need connection and belonging. It’s EVERYTHING. Isolation for a horse means putting yourself at risk for predators. It is the same for us.

     Horses in a domesticated herd can struggle more than a feral one because they weren’t born into the herd. Position among the others has to be figured out and sometimes frequently as horses come and go. This reminds me of the families we have served who have adopted or fostered children. And also, of families like my own that are “blended”. But just as our domesticated horses eventually find their role in the herd, so do we find our own place in the family.

     And that brings me back to Bo. These days, several years later, Bo has learned to trust. He trusts his surroundings and humans much more than he did 4 years ago and this has resulted in more trust from the herd. In fact, Bo is now much higher in the pecking order. I like watching Bo because he is the perfect example of a quality leader in the field. I never see him acting aggressively when I throw hay in the field and yet, the others let him eat first. I never see him rush the gate when it is time to come into the barn, yet the others let him through if he wants to. I picture him as a leader that has earned respect by working through his own emotional issues to becoming the good herd-mate he is today.
    What qualities does your family or organization have that would make you a successful herd? Let me know in the comments!

Left-Brain, Right-Brain

Posted on October 16, 2017 at 1:54 PM Comments comments ()
     The brain is an incredibly fascinating organ. It is made up of two hemispheres connected by a group of fibers called the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum is how the hemispheres communicate and work together. The left side of the brain controls linear thinking, logic, reasoning, number skills and analyzing information. The right side controls spacial relationships, imagination, emotion and intuition. Because of these distinctions, it is often said that people that are good at math, timely and logical are “left brained” people. If you are a “free-spirit”, artsy, and intuitive you are a “right brained” person.

     There is also another way to group personalities; Introvert and Extrovert. Introverted people process before speaking, are energized by solitude, and are good listeners. Extroverts will process thoughts out loud, are energized by others and are outgoing and friendly.

     Because of the fast pace of that corpus callosum, everyone has some degree of all of those traits. However, you are likely a little more to one side or the other. There are so many good reasons to learn what your dominant personality type is. Being self aware can help you understand how you make others around you feel and what your strengths and weaknesses are. Another reason is: it can help you train your horse! That’s right, how you come across to others is most likely what your horse sees as well. If you're timid and shy for instance, you might find that your  horse needs you to be more bold and clear with commands. If you are a free spirited emotional type, your horse may need more consistency.

     And don’t stop there! Linda Parelli, Pat Parelli’s wife and partner at Parelli Natural Horsemanship, developed a system for decoding your horse's’ personality: “Horsenality”, if you will. You can figure out whether your horse is “right-brained” (unconfident), “left-brained” (dominant), introverted (more Whoa) or extroverted (more Go). Understanding what motivates your horse can drastically help with your communication and ultimately their (and your) training.

     I recently had a gelding pony that we sold after a 3 year struggle with him. It desperately took a toll on my confidence with horses. I thought I had good horsemanship skills and I had trained an un-broke 2 year old before. And yet, my new pony and I could just not get anything accomplished. Riding turned stressful and scary. It wasn’t until I got some really good advice about personality clashes that I realized what motivated him was not what motivated my old horse. Just like in human relationships, people are not all alike; we are all motivated differently.

     So, for an example, I took a few tests on myself and came to the conclusion that I am a left-brained Introvert. This should come as no surprise to those who know me. I am a deep-thinker, I NEED alone time, and I can’t stand being late to things. I also took the “horsenality” test on Patches, one of my favorite BF horses. Patches, is a right-brained, introvert. He is submissive and calm but also nervous and uncertain. He and I could have a troublesome relationship if I was not aware of our personality clash. On the surface, you would think we are similar, so we should get along just fine! However Patches needs someone who is very confident in themselves in order to gain his own confidence. If I, as his partner, am shy and nervous, that will only add to his uncertainty. If my approach is confident, clear and concise, he will love working with me. My confidence will boost his; he will know there is nothing to fear.

     Whether working on a human relationship or a horse relationship, knowing your personality is a huge advantage. Often we see a personality clash and that causes us to feel inadequate or like someone needs to change, much like my pony and I. That is absolutely not true. The beauty of this world is that all these different personality types can work in harmony with each other. The result being that the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts. The Gottman Institute has said “Compatibility is overrated. What’s required is unity. Unity doesn’t mean that you’re the same, it means you're together.” I couldn’t agree more.

     What is your personality? What is your horses' horsenality? Let me know in the comments! 

Back from the Pasture

Posted on October 16, 2017 at 1:52 PM Comments comments ()
     When we began planning a new grounds program for families this past Summer, all of our trusted therapeutic horses were at the barn in Zanesville. As I looked over the remaining herd at Breaking Free, I decided to start with Smokey. He is our 21 year old Black Tennessee Walker. The grey on his face, a tell-tale sign that he has “been there-done that”. Other than the time spent with Veterans once a week, Smokey spent most of his time in the pasture. As I dragged him up the hill to the outdoor arena that first day, you could tell he had grown content with being left out there. I’m sure in his mind, his days with the kids were over.

     My family often teases me about what I’m going to do when all four of our children are in school. They will laugh at the thought of me watching soap operas in my pajamas while finishing off a carton of ice cream. To be honest, the only thought I had seriously had about the next phase in life was finally getting sheets washed on a regular basis. When the opportunity came to become a PATH Certified Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning, I was beyond excited. This would be a field that combines my love of horses, families and emotional wellness with an organization that truly cares for people and our Equine Partners.

     I love reading every book I can find on the subject. I love attending workshops, spending time in the community, working on lesson plans and seeking the advice of other Instructors. I have learned so much in the past year. I wish I could see myself in 5+ years when I have a solid foundation for this work. It’s thrilling to see a glimpse of life past toddlers. Of course, being a stay at home mom is wonderful, rewarding and fulfilling. But in such a time-consuming phase, I had forgotten that it won’t last forever.

     Smokey has also found enjoyment in his new role. Now, as we head up the hill to the outdoor arena, there is no more dragging. He knows right where he is going and he is pleased to do whatever we ask of him. His well-aged body doesn’t move quickly but it's a testament to me and the families he partners with to savor moments and be present.

     All of our horses will be brushing up on their training, thanks to our newly formed exercise team. I think everyone (horse and human) should continue learning new things. No matter what phase you are in, how old you are or what your role is now, try something new. Keep your mind and your body challenged. Stay passionate.

The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it costs all you have, gain understanding. Proverbs 4:7