The horse arena is not unlike my teaching arena

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Driving home from Kankakee yesterday, my husband Rob and I got into a more serious conversation worth writing about.  I asked him to tell me what he thought about the day’s training session: 1) the process of tacking up in the aisle while Gugi was upset that she wasn’t being turned out with her friends, 2) hand-walking her around the arena several times and slowly getting her used to the tightening of the girth, 3) allowing her to buck, rear, crow-hop, and shake her head around freely  on the lunge line (a.k.a. allowing her to get her “Ya-Yas” out before getting on!), 4) hand-walking her around the arena again to relax after her free exercise on the lungeline, 5) practicing to stand still at the mounting block (even after getting on), and finally, 6) riding Gugi at the walk around a set of zig-zag cones and encouraging her to find a steady rhythm at the trot –all of which I have finally been able to do all by myself!

He said that he was impressed with her progress.  Mostly, that she wasn’t bucking and rearing her riders off anymore.  But then he started to compare how the horse arena is not unlike my arena as a teacher.  His comparison really struck me and I thought to myself that I should try to capture it in writing.

I teach 8th grade English and have spent years developing my methods for engaging students in learning and finding a purpose for reading and writing.   My style has never been impersonal–rushing through material superficially and perpetuating the cycle of grade-hungry students.  Rather, I begin the year building a foundation of mutual respect for one another (i.e. teaching basic expectations for how human beings should treat each other), and I have students do quite a bit of self-exploration in relationship to the literature we read and issues we discuss.  This really helps to set a tone of collaboration in the classroom and teach students that English class doesn’t have to be all about pointless reading and writing that exists in a vacuum.

How is this comparable to the teaching that goes on in the horse arena?  Well, I can first break this down by saying that the training that Gugi is now receiving doesn’t make assumptions of what she should know.  If I use the analogy of construction once again, I would say that her current training does not attempt to erect a staircase upon a weak or crumbling foundation.  The foundation is everything.  If I take away all the lessons and introductory units on self identity and group dynamics, my classroom environment would not function half as efficiently and effectively as it does throughout the year.  If we rushed our training with Gugi right now and push her to canter or even trot around the entire arena, we might great detrimental gaps in her learning.

So, I understand that the best teaching cannot be controlled by a calendar.  Sure, it must be regimented and have consistent  expectations, but it must also be fluid and flexible.  My role in Gugi’s training and my students’ education is to always remember their individual needs and adjust accordingly.

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Dirty Udders

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Gugi had two foals, so her udders hang low.  Dirt collects in between them, and I have neglected cleaning them with baby wipes.  Doc noticed.  In this picture, Doc cleans Gugi’s dirty udders and oh does she like the way that feels.  Even after she was done, Gugi kept her neck stretched out like this with a her lips pinched.  Note to self: indulge her in more frequent udder cleaning. 

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Dentist Visit

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Children can teach adults a thing or two

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This past Friday, I brought my friend Angie and her two children out to the farm to see Gugi.  Angie had volunteered taking pictures to add to this blog, so the following slideshow is a preview of some of her shots.  I want to take a moment to write about the day because there are a few things I learned… this time from a six-year-old, not Gugi.

Sophia had never really been around horses.  She did talk about a little pony ride she took in a corral at some street fest, but that doesn’t quite count.  Visiting Skyview Farm in Kankakee was her real first experience–she could hang out with a donkey, brush a few horses, take a pony ride, and feed the horses carrots.  Our day began with getting Gugi out of her paddock and bringing her into the barn to get groomed and tacked up for training.  Right away, Sophia wanted to help.  I was amazed by her level of confidence around horses.  She knew that Gugi was still learning the basics–standing still in the aisle, etc.–but, she was intent on helping.   So I gave her a brush and taught her how to make long, gentle strokes in the direction of Gugi’s hair.  In the slideshow, notice the soft look in Gugi’s eyes as Sophia seems to sway to a tune in her head while brushing.  

I wasn’t quite sure how Gugi would respond to a child working with her, but she seemed to like it.  She didn’t feel any nerves or fear from Sophia, which, in effect, caused her to take a deep sigh and relax.   

After my training session with Gugi, I tacked up a horse named Misty for Sophia to ride.  She had been so patient while her mom focused on taking pictures for me that I wanted to be sure to give her pony ride.   The farm has Western children’s saddles that are great for small beginners because they can just grab onto the horn.  Sophia had no need for the horn.  She wanted to actually use the reins and learn how to steer.  So I walked her around and encouraged her to guide her horse in various directions.  Again, I was impressed with her confidence.  It made me really think about how often I worry around Gugi.  I really need to let go of the horn, so to speak, and embrace a child’s confidence. 

When I visit Gugi on Wednesday again for training, I’ll keep her carefree spirit in mind.  Maybe I’ll hum a tune in my head.

Children can teach adults a thing or two.

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A friendship, not a business

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I have had Ngugi for ten months, and I am still working on connecting with her.  The main reason for this is because of her history.  For the first seven years of her life, no one had probably seen a reason to connect with her.  Why would they?  Connection is important in a friendship, not a business.   

It wasn’t until a few months ago that my trainer, Kim, made me really think about this.  If Ngugi hadn’t ever been invited to trust and connect to humans, what makes me think that she’d be okay with me trying to get on her and introduce her to a whole new system of riding?  What we needed to do was take a few steps back and build the trust and connection from the ground up–literally.  So we put the saddle away.  From March until almost May, I don’t think we even thought about riding.  Instead, Kim worked through a lot of ground exercises with Gugi and I spent a lot of time analyzing her movements and calm demeanor.  She would take her into the arena with a rope halter and lead and just practice getting Gugi to focus and respond to pressure.  They practiced yielding the hindquarters, turning on the haunches, and side-passing.  Then, from there, we slowly introduced the saddle again, and Kim practiced various lunging and ground-driving techniques.  This helped Kim connect and communicate with Gugi since she would be doing the majority of the training until at least the end of the summer. 

What I needed to learn was how to stop being nervous and scared around Gugi, and start calming my energy to help her relax more.  I practiced this mostly in the cross-ties.  Horses, especially thoroughbreds, don’t like being tied up or made to feel as though they are closed in.  A horse with little experience standing on cross-ties in an aisle to get groomed and tacked up will most likely feel uncomfortable.  Gugi rarely stood still in the aisle, so this is where I started practicing connecting my energy to hers.  With a lead rope draped over her neck just in case she were to get startled and break free, I practiced slow and deliberate movements around her. 

Slowing down my grooming was tough at first.  I had always focused so much of my energy on the brush I was holding and the dirt I was trying to curry off that I missed opportunities for connection.  Now that I’ve become more sensitive to the act of grooming, I know how to get Gugi to really enjoy it.  I know now that she won’t pin her ears back and toss her head up when I brush her underbelly if I just use a soft brush.  I also have figured out that she likes to sniff each brush before I touch her on the body with it.  It’s as though she inspects her brushes for softness as she pushes down on the bristles with her nose.  Oh, and I cannot forget to scratch her left flank area.  She stretches out her neck, scrunches up her lips, and then bends her whole body in a U towards the right.  It really is funny.   

I’ve learned that Gugi won’t be calm in the aisle if it’s about the business of brushing her or tacking her up.  It has to be a time where we connect and find a friendship.

Horse Tongue

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con·nec·tion 

 • n. 1. a relationship in which a person, thing, or idea is linked or associated with something else.

Encyclopedia.com defines connection as a relationship, a link, an association.  A lot of people who own and love an animal would probably say that connection happens quickly.  Maybe even instantaneously.  It’s in that moment when you reach for the puppy you will soon call your own, and as you bring it toward your face, it wildly, and with no inhibitions, begins licking your face and sucking on your chin.  You drive home with the pup curled up on your lap.  You bring the pup into your house and it playfully chases you around, biting at your ankles.  You try to put the pup in its crate for the night, but it whines and yelps for your attention. 

This is the beginning of a dog connecting to its owner. 

Horses don’t connect this way.  This is a good thing.  The thought of a horse chasing me and biting at my ankles freaks me out.  And I seriously would have to reconsider my love for horses if they licked uncontrollably to say hello.  Their tongues are long, thick, and slimmy.  Spending hours at the barn makes me feel gross enough.    

I just had to add this video.  How often do we think about our horses’ tongues?  Not often at all–unless, of course, we have a quirky horse like this.

But back to my discussion about connection…

Horses connect with humans more subtly.  It begins with them first establishing a trust in their human–a trust that in no way can be forced or superficial.  Because of this need for time and a solid foundation on trust, the connection we can build with horses strikes me as much more deep and authentic than that of any other animal.  Sure, Ngugi loves carrots and peppermints, but it’s not through the giving of treats that I build my relationship with her.  I can scratch her along her jaw-line all day, which seems to create such a sensation that she must yawn and roll her eyes back in their sockets, but this isn’t what she looks for to be connected to me.  Our developing connection grows from trust, respect, and communication.

In a book I recommend to fellow horsefolk called The Soul of a Horse: Life Lessons from the Herd, Joe Camp describes a scene where he had just come back from a bareback ride on his horse, Cash.  He was shocked when, upon removing Cash’s halter in the field, Cash didn’t leave.  Camp writes:

He nuzzled my nose, sniffed, checked out our water bottles, nibbled on my hat… and just hung out.  For maybe fifteen or twenty minutes!  It made my night, and the next day, and here I am still talking about it.  How good it feels to know that this horse whom I love so dearly really likes being with me.  With us, a part of the family.  Part of the herd.

Relationship.

Choice.

Connection.

 In this thread of posts, I will put into words those moments of connection that I feel with Ngugi.  Sometimes, I may write about connections that I feel in the saddle; other times, it might just be times that I feel Ngugi choosing to just be with me.  Either way, it’s the workings of our friendship.

A fall walk around Tudor Oaks Farm, Barrington

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