Tuesday, February 17, 2015


I just had to post a quick note about “Bosch,” the new made-for-Amazon TV series starring Titus Welliver as the flawed-but-admirable L.A. homicide detective, Harry Bosch.  Sometime in the nineties, I did a looping session with Welliver at my Phoenix studio. I think he was playing a Mexican drug dealer in a movie and the location dialog had to be replaced, a very common practice. I had no idea who Titus was at the time but he was a really nice guy and his talent was stunning. It’s been fun watching him move into bigger and bigger roles. Check out the series and let me know what you think …

P.S. Bosch is one of two central characters from the mind of author, Michael Connelly. The other? Mickey Haller, "The Lincoln Lawyer." 


The Adaptability of Horses

Looks like it's been about two years since my last blog post. I didn't fall off the planet and was using my time wisely, I promise! More on that later. Here's something that's been on my mind.

In the early days of my radio show, I interviewed a well-known farrier who advocated natural living environs for our horses. Big pastures, varied terrain, lots of other horses around, emulating the aspects of life in the wild that he felt were important. Working with the nature of the horse instead of against it is fundamental to enlightened training and horse keeping, so I was eager to find out how this gentleman translated his ideal to the real world. I asked a simple question: “What about those of us who don’t have big pastures?” His answer has stuck with me for more than a decade: “You need to get one.” 

I’ve encountered this sort of dogma about horses elsewhere and it always irritates me because it casts horse ownership as some kind of exclusive club for people with a lot of money, and land, and time.  Trust me, you can have horses in your life with modest amounts of those commodities, and you can do it responsibly. But let’s start with what the farrier got right. It’s good for horses to be outside where they have room to move around, even run around if they want.  It’s good for horses to have forage-based diets and to spend at least part of their time grazing. It’s good for horses to be with others of their own kind and interact freely with them. All of that is absolutely true. But the most defining characteristic of the horse as a species is its adaptability. The fact is, horses do quite well with a scaled-down version of the ideal as long as certain principles are respected.

For 14 years, I’ve practiced what I consider to be natural horse keeping on an acre and a half in a big city. It’s a great setup for two horses but we can easily accommodate another three equines when friends are passing through. Why does this work? Because the essential principles of horse keeping are respected: freedom to move, natural diet, and socialization.

As if on cue, our two horses are at this very moment nibbling at each other’s withers, standing in the shade near the water trough in our sandy arena.  Their grass hay sits half-eaten on rubber mats, in their covered, open-air stalls probably fifty yards away. They’ll get back to the hay when they feel like it. Later in the day, I’ll open a gate and turn them out in a grassy paddock where they can nosh for the entire afternoon. Our quarter horse mare has a very thin hair coat and our Icelandic has a very thick one but they both do just fine in triple-digit and single-digit temperatures. We don’t blanket them and we rarely bathe them.  In fact, we make a point of leaving them alone as much as we can.  

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying this is how you should be keeping your horses. This is how I adapted the principles of good horse keeping to my particular situation. If you show your horse, or have horses that are genuinely incompatible (more than the little tiffs that are normal when horses are together) then you might need a different arrangement.  The important thing is that you make your choices with a solid understanding of the ideal. There’s an old saying: You have to know the rules before you break them. That’s how I feel about horse keeping. Fortunately, your horse is a willing accomplice when it comes to making intelligent compromises.  If you listen, he will tell you how to fine-tune his living arrangements. And I doubt that he’ll demand a big pasture.


Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Recently Greg emailed the following question about spurs: “Why would a Natural Horseman need such a cruel aid??”  Greg gets triple his money’s worth because I’m going to treat this as three questions instead of one.
First, are spurs cruel? Well, the simple answer is no. Spurs are tools and the effect they produce is entirely in the hands – or, in this case, feet – of the user. A more complex way of looking at this is to consider their potential for misuse. The rider who becomes angry or frustrated or embarrassed may use spurring as a convenient way of punishing the horse. This is where the effect becomes cruel because the horse feels under attack; an even-tempered rider might arrive incrementally at a similar amount of pressure and never produce the mental state that goes with cruelty. So, maybe a better answer to the question is … it depends.
Second, why use spurs? Clarity, pure and simple. Without spurs, you still have numerous aids available to you: seat, legs, hands. Even weight, voice, and the picture you’re holding in your mind could be considered aids in communicating your wishes to the horse. But with the spur, you have precision. It’s like you’re saying to the horse, “Move THIS part of your body away from the pressure you’re feeling.” It’s a very specific request. Incidentally, spurs are most useful for 1) lateral (sideways) movement of some body part, and 2) collection, which means elevating the back, getting the hindquarters more underneath the horse, and lightening the front end. Note that I’ve said nothing about spurring to get a horse to go faster. Horses can learn to go faster when spurred but it’s an unnatural way to ask for speed since moving away from the pressure causes the horse's back to elevate and stride to shorten.   
Third, how do spurs fit into natural horsemanship? The natural horseman is committed to working with the nature of the horse and communicating in ways the horse instinctively understands. If you do this, you’re a natural horseman whether you call yourself that or not. Horses understand and respect pressure exerted by a more dominant horse. It doesn’t scare them even when it makes them uncomfortable. Natural horsemen use this knowledge in all they do. A rider using the same level of pressure emotionally or without regard to the horse’s nature triggers a very different reaction, which is not only cruel but dangerous and counterproductive, as well.
I would sum it all up like this: Spurs are useful and humane tools when used by riders committed to the principles of natural horsemanship, whether they embrace the term or not. For everyone else, spurs are not appropriate. My hope is that the “everyone else” group is shrinking all the time. My hope is that one day we can drop the adjective “natural” and just talk about horsemanship. We’re not there yet, though. The distinction is still important.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Black Riders

Black riders. Even typing those two words makes me feel a bit uneasy. It's a shame. We could talk all day about senior riders, or female riders or beginning riders or trail riders or gay riders. (Look up gay rodeo if you doubt me on that!)  But introducing race as a qualifier makes white folks nervous, no matter the context.
This week on radio I had the opportunity to confront that demon headon. A delightful horsewoman by the name of Tassey Kennedy joined me to talk about riding in the black community. It's a big deal. Some organized rides draw tens of thousands of riders. My white guilt had me in a fog of stupid at first. I thought she wanted to expose a social problem that needed fixing. Turns out, we think exactly the same on such matters. People are drawn together by what they have in common. Sometimes it's interests or values or beliefs. Many times, a shared culture figures into this. Black riders enjoy riding with other black riders. Tassey feels the only problem that needs fixing is the lack of awareness that a black riding community even exists. The web site blacktrailriders.com should help in that regard.
Tassey says she's fine with the terms black and white. Everyone understands them, and we just need to lighten up when race enters the conversation. Tassey is actually biracial. Her mom is a white Canadian, and her dad is of African/Caribbean descent. So she’s really an African-Caribbean-Canadian-American. I think.
I confess that I slipped and called Tassey "dear" at the end of the interview. What can I say? I find her endearing. Somehow, I think she's fine with that, too.

Saturday, January 26, 2013


My home office looks out on our backyard. I have an unobstructed view of our two horses all day long. They can also see me. In fact, some days they get as close as they can and just stare at me for what seems like hours. If it’s feeding time, I get the message. But this also happens at other times. I say “they” but, to be honest, I’m really talking about my Quarter Horse mare, Candy. Fidla, our Icelandic mare, has such a massive forelock and phlegmatic personality that you can hardly tell if she’s awake or asleep, let alone what’s going on in her brain. Not that there’s anything wrong with that …
Candy, on the other hand, is somewhat transparent. You can really tell when the wheels are turning. She watches me with bright eyes, ears forward, and head slightly lowered, even if I’m just typing on my computer. So, what’s going on here? Slow day in Horseville? Actually, I think that, for whatever reason, her curiosity is piqued.
In one of our first radio interviews many years ago, Pat Parelli told me that curiosity and fear are mutually exclusive states in a horse. If Candy is curious, she can’t be afraid. As Clinton Anderson would say, she’s in the thinking side of her brain. It’s a good state for a horse. I want my horse spending as much time as possible being calm, confident, and comfortable, thinking rather than reacting. Then when I inject myself into the situation, I just try to maintain that. There may be some health benefits, too. About 60% of domestic horses (and nearly all race horses) have ulcers and experts tell me that stress is the biggest cause. When curious, a horse is not feeling the harmful effects of stress.
I used to feel that I needed to do something when Candy was staring at me. Feed her, pet her, entertain her. Something. I don’t think that way anymore. A difficult lesson for most of us to learn is that smart horsekeeping often demands that we do nothing at all. Simply leave the horse alone. For me, this is one of those times. I’ll keep doing what I do at my desk and hopefully, Candy will continue to find that curious.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Drinking from a Mud Puddle

It’s a rainy day and I’m watching my horses drink from a mud puddle in their turnout area. They actually walked away from the fresh, clean water I gave them in order to drink from a mud puddle. What’s going on here? Times like this are wonderful learning opportunities if you believe, as I do, that horses are perfect just as God made them, and that everything a horse does has meaning. So what is the meaning of their preference for dirty water over clean water? My first thought would be that they feel the need for more minerals. After all, horses sometimes eat dirt and chew on rocks and that is usually seen as their way of getting minerals, the nutrients that come directly from the earth’s crust. But my horses are fed according to the latest scientific research on how horses should be fed:  lots of forage plus a really fine vitamin and mineral supplement. I honestly don’t believe they have a mineral deficiency. Maybe this is just a hard-wired thing, something horses – even well-cared-for domestic horses – feel compelled to do. That compulsion would serve them well if they were turned out for months at a time to truly live off the land. Both of our horses have lived that way in the past and I hope they’ll have the opportunity someday to do it again.

Horses are different from us – I would have to be very thirsty to drink out of a dirty puddle – but they are also different from one another. Our Icelandic mare prefers to stand out in the rain for hours on end; our Quarter Horse mare prefers to have a roof over her head. The challenge we face as horsemen is recognizing both the innate characteristics of the species (its ethology) and the unique life experiences of the individual (its psychology). Both are contributing factors in shaping horse behavior.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Touching Your Horse

With horses, there are a handful of things you can do that always help. They help to relax the horse, advance the relationship, and reinforce your leadership position. They help regain control and focus when things get muddled. And they help you get more enjoyment out of your time with your horse. One of these handful is … well, getting a handful of your horse. Touching him. Increasing your body-to-body contact.

The picture here is of Jim Masterson performing his “integrated equine performance bodywork.” I could just as easily show a pic of Linda Tellington-Jones doing her TTouch or Mary Midkiff using aromatherapy or the late Ray Morris massaging a horse. Each of these protocols has its own particular value but what they all have in common is touching the animal in a comforting way.

You can do your own version of this. Just clear your mind and think about what your horse means to you. Now touch the horse. Don’t pat or slap. Touch. Get as much of your body in contact with your horse as possible. As the old song puts it, “Let the love flow.” Horses are sentient beings. They have feelings that, even if they aren’t exactly the same as ours – they are a dramatically different species, after all – still correlate to feelings we have. We enjoy a loving touch and so do horses. It calms them and it calms us.

Touching your horse is a way of giving something without asking anything in return. But of course, you do get something in return, and that’s exactly why horses are still relevant in this technology age. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!