Notes on Horsemanship

I've always liked horses, I just haven't interacted with them much. A handful of years ago I took some private lessons and worked up to jumping over little gates. It was fun. Then, I ended having health issues after almost dying in Africa, and then I had complications with my spine, and now it's been years since I've been on a horse. Over the last few weeks I've tried motorcycle riding for the first time in years, and I've been fine. Soon I'm going to give horseback riding a try. I have some hesitancy about it, because it could go very bad for my health. But, as a step on that path I went to a 2-day horsemanship seminar at Chance Stables put on by Phil Oakes.


Last year I noticed that there was a horsemanship seminar going on near me. I looked into it just a little and learned that Phil Oakes is known for his gentle methods used to create gentle horses. I like that, it goes well with my spine that needs gentle treatment. But, last year I was not anywhere near having the health and ability to get on a horse. This year it's at least in the realm of possibility, so I decided to go watch.

I'm giving presentations at the Harry Potter festival in Sparta this coming weekend so I took a notebook to work on those speeches. I didn't plan on taking many notes about horsemanship, but Phil started throwing out so much wisdom so quickly that I ended up with three full pages.

Here's the thing, I'm not that good at taking notes. Growing up I always had a strong memory and found that paying attention in the moment ended up being more valuable than taking notes. It worked out great when someone else would take notes. For instance, when I was doing EMT training I rarely took notes. A few students organized a study group and I was a part of it. Everyone else took more notes that me, and there was one guy, Matt, that took a ridiculous amount of notes. And, he was good at taking notes. His handwriting was good, and he liked organizing them. He had hundreds and hundreds of 3x5 cards. It was great. I would pay close attention in class, trying to absorb as much as possible. Then, I would study off of Matt's notes in the group. (I ended up being number 2 in the class, Matt was number 1.) (Now that I've had some brainstem damage and short and long term memory issues, I see notes in a different light.)

All of that to say that I'm not sure if my notes are going to be very valuable to anyone else. But the seminar itself was quite amazing. It was interesting to watch people confronting problems and creatively trying to work through them and solve them. The problems had a wide range. Some people were on new horses, or horses that were new to them, some horses had injuries that needed to be worked with, some riders had been thrown and were working through that fear, some were afraid of riding next to so many other horses and were working through that, all sorts of stuff.

This all took place at Chance Stables. I talked to quite a few people there and it seems like a wonderful and expanding place. They do multiple horse therapy groups and a number of other things. I was impressed.

The first day focused quite a lot on groundwork, where you aren't on the horse. Later in the day some of it was in the saddle. It was a nice sunny day and we were outside. I came close to burning, I burn easily, and I learned a lot.

- - - - - - -

Phil Oakes - ground work
if what your doing isn't working, cut it in half - patience
relax, wait, cause to think instead of react
don't bend the neck, do lateral jaw flexion instead, soften the jaw
jaw is connected to hind legs
want back of hips down
don't disengage rear by crossing
wait out the tension
teach backing up first
relaxation of the jaw and the mind has to be first before he can learn
if horse won't give space walk directly at him and let him move
relaxing exercise, half circle-lateral-half circle other way, figure 8
vibrate to help relieve intense tension
balance is key
I love circles, we don't want to stop forward motion
I have a bubble
I stop he stops, I go he goes
left had, hope hand doesn't need to move
let them know what you're going to do, big breathe indicates bubble
we don't want to correct curiosity too much
reward the horse while he's moving (unless he has trouble stopping) with petting
deep out breathe indicates stopping, deep in indicates going
the horse is always looking for a leader, she wants a leader but won't follow a bad leader
before you ask the horse to do something have intent
get the pelvis under them
don't collect the horse with the neck down
want the head up, but guide it, don't push or pull it or the back will hollow
final spine fusions at 9 years old, health horse should peak in the mid 20s, work in 30s
don't reward a reaction even if it's what you want, reward it when it's thought through
want a long lead
loose jaw, hips under, backing up head up, bubble and circle, 3 track crossover
reward small good behaviors and let them grow
don't turn too sharp
use fence on side and in front to work on crossover
hold arms out and you can feel it when you walk
we want them to stop and think, not natural
let the lesson soak in, don't rush
multiple short sessions a day
raise up front, sink rear, muscle memory
give the horse enough room to give a signal
walk away to create room, then turn and train
change the mind and the feet will follow
pain or intimidation may produce compliance, but never softness

- - - - - - -

(I had to leave about a half hour early that first day because I had to get to a graduation party, and then take off to a rehearsal for a speech.)

I could tell many stories from the two days. The person I met that had crazy adventure stories about hitchhiking. The odd and deep conversations that I tend to get into with people about all sorts of things ranging from health, to fear, to meaning, to archetypes. I could talk about the weird mini-horses that cause trouble with the fences by escaping, and chase the other horses, and can't be caught. I could talk about the observations that I noticed on why some horses spooked at certain times, that I don't think anyone else caught, or the time a horse became interested in a clock and knocked it down and broke it. But, I'm not going to. Instead, I'm going to talk about my heart.

At lunch I was talking to Phil about how he uses his stick. He touches the horse in certain spots to indicate to the horse how he wants them to move. If the horse doesn't move he just keeps poking them in a rhythm. I noticed that he didn't get more intense, or harder, or stronger, just steady. He said waiting it out is important. If you do it with a rhythm the horse will eventually move. The horse is trying to figure it out, it's trying to adjust its mind and body to do the work. (Several people said their horse was "lazy." Phil completely disagrees with every saying that. If the horse doesn't want to move, something is wrong.)

He said that if instead of using a steady rhythm you do it erratically then it won't work. I then mentioned that I noticed when working with my uncle John one time on some music that I really struggle with keeping a steady beat. Phil said that your ability to keep a steady beat is based on your heart. I realized that maybe the issues I have with my spinal deformities and the pressure on my brainstem, that do cause some heart issues, might ultimately be part of why I struggle with keeping a steady beat. Phil wondered if learning to keep a steady beat might work to help my heart. An idea I hadn't thought about before.

I had many interesting conversations over both days like that. The second day was rainy. We started in the inside arena, but did do some work outside later. The second day was all in the saddle.

- - - - - - -

Phil Oakes - saddle work
steer with just the reins first
watch the jaw, don't want to bend the neck
learn to weave
once the jaw/rein is working, then work on pushing the rear with the leg
slide hand down reing to signal
roll horses head to down from side, less tension
weave across straight line, alternate haunches in shoulders in then both haunches and shoulders in
reward one step by letting it go
horse should look and then go
trust is key
some horses display fear, others hold it in
start collection one rein side at a time
gentle, but don't let them fall on the forehand
the horse isn't lazy, he's out of balance
lift straight up on rein while standing until same side front foot lifts then let him go, prevents bucking
don't destroy forward, redirect instead
perfect circle, perfect drift, then jog, never heavy in hand
there has to be a leader, if you're not then he will be
stick, this is my space
if you're telling them what not to do, they're telling you what to do, do what you're doing, focus on your intention
if horse won't go come to side, horse will go when off balance
you want him to think through a crisis, not natural
stick and rope work, chaos, only place he can find peace is where you want him, then stop pet and let sink in
left circle, left leg back right leg forward
everything is gradual, one component at a time, let him figure it out
when they speed up they start to blank out

- - - - - - -

(I did more talking to people on the second day so I missed some significant portions, but it's still a lot of good info.)

Now, what shall I do. I was talking to Jeremy, that's been helping out at the farm for the last handful of years, and he was telling me about the teen program they run on Saturday mornings. You help for a couple of hours and then you get some time with a horse. Kim runs it and I asked her if it would be okay if I showed up just a bit late since I teach on Saturday mornings, and she said that would be fine.

I'm slightly ambivalent about it because I might not be able to ride horses at all, ever. So, maybe it would be best just to go somewhere, hop on a horse for an hour, and see if it's even possible. But, it would probably be cool to work with the kids too. So, maybe in a couple of weeks I'll go on Saturday and check it out. Maybe work on groundwork with a horse the first week. If everything goes well, maybe I'll get on a horse in a few weeks and see how it goes. I'm pretty sure I'll be able to walk on a horse. I'm worried about the trot though. I'll have to play with it. Maybe if I post I can take it, that's a little stand-up motion you do while riding. And, I think there's some possibility I'll be able to canter. No matter how it goes, I want to give it a try. Only by exploring do we expand our range of possibilities and abilities in life.

I thought the seminar would be interesting and informative, but I didn't expect it to be quite so much fun. It was a good first step in seeing if I can get back on a horse.

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You can find more of what I'm doing at http://www.JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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