Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Quiet Mind

by Laura Crum

I haven’t been doing much riding lately. Make that ANY riding. Its been raining a lot and everything is wet. Mud in my corrals, a mucky spot at one end of my riding ring, the trails are too wet to ride. I’m not complaining. We have the occasional dry winter out here on the central coast of California and then I ride a lot, but most winters we go through a few multi-week periods of rain, and the horses and I take a break. It doesn’t do us any harm. I get my horses out to graze almost every day, and because I don’t want them tearing up the softer, damper places on the property, I handgraze them, keeping them on the dryer ground. This takes more time than turning them loose, but I like it because it keeps me interacting with the horses. Which is how I learned something new.

I have written a lot about how much I enjoy my two quiet, bombproof geldings, Henry and Sunny, when my son and I ride them on the trail. But here’s something else I found out—a quiet mind is good for other things. Its very relaxing to be around.

This seems self evident, but, in fact, I never thought about it before. A quiet minded horse is different from a gentle horse. My horse Plumber, who will be 22 this spring, is a gentle horse. I’ve owned him since he was three, I broke and trained him, and I rode with my son in front of me on Plumber when my little boy was 3-5 years old. I’ve ridden Plumber through the mountains and team roped on him. And Plumber has been living in his big corral on my property for nineteen years. That’s how well I know Plumber. I’ve never come off of Plumber and neither has anyone else. Plumber is a truly gentle horse… but he doesn’t have a quiet mind.

What do I mean by this? It’s a little hard for me to explain, so perhaps I’ll just tell you how I came to this conclusion. In the course of handgrazing Henry, Sunny, and Plumber these last couple of weeks, I made an odd discovery. Handgrazing Henry and Sunny is very relaxing. My two calm, bombproof horses come quietly out of their pens, even though it is a couple of weeks and more since they’ve been ridden, they march steadily alongside me to the spot where I’ve chosen to graze them, and, at my signal, they put their heads down and graze. I watch them crop grass happily and I daydream, or stroke their shoulders or watch the breeze in the leaves or the quail pecking in the brush. Very pleasant. I’m aware enough to cope easily if something came up that I had to deal with, but it almost never does. A branch falls, the dog comes rushing out of a bush, someone slams the door at the nearby house—these horses may look up and prick their ears in an alert, interested way—that’s it. We’re all relaxed.

Then I get Plumber out. Now I trust Plumber not to hurt me—step on me, kick me, whatever—much more than I trust Sunny, who likes to play dominance games. So this is not a matter of being gentle and trustworthy. But Plumber is not “quiet minded”. He never was. A playful, curious, interactive horse, Plumber tries hard to please, is always a little anxious, and is very sensitive and reactive. He was an easy horse to train, but even as an older horse, he spooks at little things and is just, well, not quiet.

So, I get Plumber out of his pen and he half prances alongside of me. He is totally under control, just full of energy. When I signal him to graze, he starts here, then moves over there, then wants to walk over here. If I touch his shoulder he starts. If the wind blows in the trees, he starts. If the dog comes charging through, he spooks. Not on top of me, mind you—he has better manners than that, but he spooks. And this goes on the whole time I graze him.

Plumber has always been like this. When I would handgraze him as a reward after a good workout as a four-year-old, he would act like this. For many years I was so used to it that it didn’t even register. But, suddenly, the other day, it struck me how much more relaxing it was for me to graze Henry and Sunny and how much I enjoy this trait of quiet-mindedness.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Plumber and I will take care of him until the day he dies. But I was able to acknowledge to myself that these days I prefer a quiet-minded horse. It is not that I’m afaid that Plumber will hurt me. It would take a pretty difficult horse to threaten me while I was leading/grazing him, and Plumber never threatened me in his whole life, during the many years I rode him. No, its more subtle than that. I can’t relax with Plumber in the same way I do Henry and Sunny. Its like sitting by someone who is restlessly tapping their fingers and toes and chewing their nails, constantly fidgeting, always looking around to see what’s going on. Its hard to relax in their prescence.

As I say, Plumber was always like this. He didn’t like to stand still while you were on him, and would fidget, chewing the bit. And yet he was an obedient, hard trying little horse, despite his spooking and fidgeting. During the years I rode him, I accepted his minor anxieties and just lived with them. We were good partners. So it almost suprises me that after three years of handling/riding mostly Henry and Sunny, how attuned I’ve become to these two horses calm, confident, relaxed way of being. Now Plumber’s reactive, anxious energy, however well intentioned, somewhat gets on my nerves, makes me feel jangled.

I’m not sure how Plumber got this way. It could be something in how I trained him. Yet I’ve known him since he was born, and he was always an inquisitive, active, sensitive colt. I’m inclined to think its his basic nature. On the other hand, I didn’t know Sunny and Henry as colts, nor did I watch their training, so I don’t know if it was something in their nature or in their training which disposed them to be such calm, self-confident horses. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.

Its been an interesting thing for me to learn. First to notice that Plumber’s energy is unsettling in comparison to Sunny and Henry, and second to notice how much I like these quiet-minded horses. Their confidence in themselves leaves me feeling free—I never noticed before how much of my own energy was always bound up in being attentive and reassuring to my horse—I guess this is a legacy from all those years when I trained young horses. To ride a solid minded horse (or handle him) is very freeing. You can trust him to take care of himself for the most part.

Sunny and Henry are not deadheads. They run and buck and play in their large corrals as much as Plumber does. But their underlying nature is different. They are essentially quiet, calm, little horses who know their way around and are not afraid of much. Both were performers at team roping, which demands a lot of a horse, so they know how to exert themselves when its asked of them. What they are is solid-minded, confident horses—and for me, these days, this is a trait to be prized. Not just because they keep me (and my son) safe, but because they give me, in turn, a quiet mind.

I don’t think this idea even existed on my radar when I was younger. I chose my horses because I thought they might do well at whatever event I was pursuing at the moment, and because I was drawn to them. I tried to choose willing individuals that I could work with. Sometimes I succeeded in picking a horse that really suited me, and sometimes I didn’t. But the concept of looking for a quiet-minded horse because such a horse was conducive to tranquility in one’s own mind—this concept didn’t exist for me. I would not, I think, have distinguished between a gentle horse and a truly quiet minded horse, nor between a quiet minded horse and one that was simply dull. I just never thought about it.

Today one of my greatest pleasures is hanging out with my horses, whether its hand grazing them, or sitting in my chair in the barnyard, watching them munch hay, or sitting on the porch as they ramble around my property, grazing in the sunshine. And this hanging out is most peaceful and rewarding to me when I’m in the company of a quiet minded horse. Not to mention that quiet mind is very helpful when we’re on a trail ride.

So today I’m curious if there are traits that you prize in horses now that you either didn’t care about or weren’t much aware of when you were newer to horses. For me, it’s a quiet mind; anything special that you value?

And Happy New Year to all—may 2011 bring you much joy.


Nikker said...

Great food for thought!
Your handgrazing made me feel all warm and fuzzy...its snowing here and handgrazing is months away...but when we get some grass, I'm going to break the girls out one by one and see if I can see in them what you saw in the boys! (o: I'm afraid mine are all fidgiters, I mean active minded but we'll see! (o:

Laura Crum said...

Nikker--Oh, and I totally don't mean to imply that more sensitive, reactive horses are in any way "bad". I think its all a matter of what appeals to a given horseman. I just noticed that the quiet minded horses appeal to me at this stage in my life with horses. When I was younger, if someone had raised this point to me, I'm very sure I would have chosen the more sensitive, reactive sort of horse and found my quiet minded buddies a bit boring.

Anonymous said...

I've very much come to appreciate the quiet or calm-minded horse recently. I've never had but one before - Promise - although Snow that I had as a teen was also quiet-minded. I've always had a penchant for hot, fiery horses, and most of mine have been that way - Lily was, Dawn certainly is (although I didn't pick her for me I've now ended up with her), and Noble, although always obedient, was very nervy. Maisie was high-strung in a prima-donna-ish way.

Pie is quiet-minded. I can lead him right by crazy, running, bucking horses and he just looks and keeps on walking. Someone on a ladder up above his head in the loft - he just takes a look and that's it. He's not dull at all, and can spook, but he calms right down and really is a sensible guy.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--I've read several of your posts about Pie and he sounds like such a nice young horse. I know you searched a long time to find him--looks like it all payed off. Don't you love that calm attitude in a horse? I sure do.

horsegenes said...

I have noticed the same thing with my little herd. I think that it has something to do with the place that they fill in herd life. I have a little bay mare that when she eats she takes a bite and her head pops up and she looks and walks around & around, ears forward - like she is looking out for something, she does the same thing when you hand graze her. And yes she is a fidgity, antsy mare. She is constantly thinking, moving, and looking around. Drives me nuts. The dominate mare will stand and munch away without as much as a care in the world. But if the bay sees something or nickers or spooks they all - without even looking will take off. The bay mare's filly is exactly the same way as she is. Her half brother is very quiet, easy to be around, and easy to hand graze or clip or whatever. Nothing like mother or daughter.
I want to believe that it is just how they are. How they were born and how they are going to be. Becasue if not that means it is me and then I will spend the rest of my life trying to figure out how to fix it!

Maybe Sonny thinks it is your job to tell him when something is going on and Plumber thinks it is his job to tell you when something is going on.

Laura Crum said...

kel--Funny thing is that both Sunny and Henry are very alert horses. They notice everything. They both walk down the trail with their ears pricked, looking around. When I first tried Henry for my son, I was somewhat worried about this. Henry seemed too alert to be a quiet, gentle kid's horse. But somehow this alertness does not translate into fear.

Yesterday, hand grazing Sunny, he spotted a tarp newly hung over the garden fence. The wind blew it. He gave it a long careful look. And then he put his head down and grazed. I didn't even bother to take Plumber over to that part of the yard. I knew exactly how he'd feel about the tarp rustling in the wind.

So Sunny and Henry both notice what is going on and tell me--they just don't overeact to it. Plumber, on the other hand, will spook at nothing. He's not telling me what's going on--he's just anxious.

And yes, I, too, worry that I made him like this. I'd rather believe its his basic nature, but I don't really know.

kippen64 said...

I feel kind of weird admitting to this, but I enjoy the fact that my beloved Kippen is a brainy thug who doesn't suffer fools. He is very quiet but definitely a thug. He's also better at people training than most people are at horse training. He is ruled by his stomach, loves new things and is as brave as a lion is reputed to be. He has a huge fan club and is very well known. You'd think that because he's a large pony that his fans would be children. Not so, all his fans are adults.

Joy said...

I have one of the "alert" ones. Willie is very smart. And very reactive. But compared to my OTTB mare, he's way more mellow.

I believe this is his nature, his personality. He WILL spook. Always. But he's smart about it. We have our moments when it's relaxing, even if he throws a spook in there.

I totally understand what you're saying about your Sonny & Henry. I've known horses like them. And I really like them.

I guess I'll have my red spazz boy for the rest of his life and maybe someday I'll get my relaxing reliable guy too. It could happen!

Nikker said...

Switch afraid to suspect. (O:
If it has mane,tail, and whinnies I'm attracted to it, but I seem to be 3-7 steps ahead of myself most days and startle easily... So I'm "afraid" they will reflect me and my state of mind! (o:

Francesca Prescott said...

Laura, I do love these pensive posts of yours!

Hmmm...I'd say Kwint has a quiet mind with a cheeky streek. Or maybe we just spoiled him rotten by giving him treats, so now he's obsessed with our pockets, which makes those quiet hand-grazing moments a little less serene.

But I'll take a quiet-minded horse with a cheeky streak over a fidget-face anyday!

Laura Crum said...

kippen64--Though I never thought of it this way, "a brainy thug who doesn't suffer fools" (love your choice of words) might also have applied to Sunny when I got him. Sunny is a very smart horse and definitely tried to bully me (he had been previously ridden by some beginners). I'm not so easily bullied, and Sunny has dropped these mannerisms since I've owned him. However, he remains a very smart horse who would be happy to dominate you if you'd let him. And I believe he has some pony blood--he looks like it. Do you suppose this is a pony trait? Our other pony, Toby, was like this. Smart, not fearful, you had to prove you could be the boss. I really like this kind of horse (pony).

Joy--Willie and you have always sounded like a great partnership.

Nikker--Maybe I like calm horses because they "calm" me. I am naturally a very vigilant person--and this creates anxiety. Certainly in me, perhaps in my horses, too.

Francesca--Loved your post today about Kwintus. I'll comment there.

Topaz said...

Fudge was most definitely quiet minded and I am sure it is part of why I loved her so much (my vet loved her for it too.) Penny is at her root a quiet horse, but she's also very sensitive, no doubt due to being abused as a baby. I wouldn't even define her as gentle, since she reacts all out of proportion if there's something being done to her she doesn't like. She's reared when I've tried to trim her bridle path, but the worst thing we dealt with at her first horse trial was getting the darn number on her bridle. Fortunately, she's sensitive on the ground, never under saddle, so she's completely trustworthy as a mount, even out on the trail by herself. Sure, we'll probably always look a little less than perfectly turned out at shows, but since all I have to do over fences is stay on and steer I'll forgive her that :D

Anyone interested in reading what we're up to on a semi-regular basis:

kippen64 said...

Hi Laura,

Kippen's behaviour is not typical for a Highland Pony. They are very quiet and gentle as a rule. Kippen is quiet but came to me with problems when he was an unbroken 3.5 year old colt (stallion). If you asked him to do something that he wanted to do, he was all sweetness and nice, if he didn't want to do it, he'd behave aggressively and if that didn't work, he'd take off. His method is very successful. He pivots on his hindlegs and uses his considerable weight to rip the lead rope from your hands. Normally I break my own horses in but faced with this really aggressive horse and no suitable facilities, I decided to send him to a trainer. While he was there, I received a frantic call. "Your horse got away from me and is stirring up all the stallions." Later I would receive another frantic call from where he was boarded. Both respected horse people and both routinely handled stallions. He was later castrated as a four year old but stayed aggressive enough for some people to suspect that he was proud cut until about ten years of age. Since then he has mellowed out a lot. I love him dearly. His strong opinions, love of life, intelligence and utter determination. Even at eighteen, he still needs to be dealt with by an experienced and capable adult horseperson. His biggest fan was a former international show jumper who has since passed on. This person was impressed by my horse skills, and said that I work with the horse that I have and not the horse that I want it to be. That a lot of people would have tried to bash Kippen's behaviour out of him but that I just worked with it. He's a horse who would jump off a cliff for me. As one of his fans said "There's only one Kippen". So true!!!!