Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Force for Good

Richard Meredith Lamb, Jr. died October 20, 2015 at the age of 89. He went peacefully in his sleep with family at his side and his wife of 67 years holding his hand. I’m convinced that Dad’s final experience on earth was a gift from above for a life well lived. He was a force for good and the world would be a better place if more people were like him. The most I can hope for is that somebody says the same about me some day.

Like so many of his generation, Dad served in two wars. It’s hard to imagine him as a warrior, but less than a year out of high school, he was trudging through Europe fighting the prevailing evil of that time. Two years after returning home, he was called again to serve in Korea. The rest of his life he did battle with evil in more subtle ways through his good works and the example he set in day-to-day life.

The photo shown is one of my favorites. Dad seems optimistic about the future even as he prepares to fight for it. Miss you, Dad. I’m proud to have your name.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Real Gene Autry

Gene Autry's grave

To wrap up the shooting of our TV episode on the famous singing cowboy, Gene Autry, Diana and I visited his grave at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles. I guess I was expecting something different. The marker is small and lies flat on the side of a grassy hill, not far from the road. On the day we visited, I had to brush away some leaves and dirt to read the words. When I had asked for directions at the visitors’ center, the lady who helped me had not recognized Gene’s name.

Gene Autry 1907-1998
Gene Autry is the only entertainer to have five stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, symbols of his achievements in radio, recording, motion pictures, television, and live theatre/performance. He was a 33rd degree Mason, pilot, songwriter, recording artist, broadcaster, baseball team owner, and entertainment industry visionary. He was a generous friend, a courageous patriot, and a role model for kids. At the height of his fame, he may have been the best-known American in the world. It’s hard to imagine a more perfect man.

But Gene Autry was not perfect. As I dug into his story, I learned that he had a drinking problem that led to embarrassing public incidents. His long affair with Gail Davis, star of the Annie Oakley TV series that Autry produced from 1954 to 1957, was well-known around Hollywood.  Like all of us, Gene Autry was a flawed human. That he managed those flaws successfully is suggested by his myriad contributions later in life.  

Our 2008 TV episode, "Gene Autry and the Seven Champions," tells Gene’s story lovingly and honestly using impeccable sources. I’ve prepared a special commercial-free version for your viewing pleasure. I’ve also brought back a two-part radio interview with Gene’s official biographer, Holly George Warren. Enjoy!

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Video Shorts

You may have noticed a new link on my home page: Video Shorts. These are two-minute educational videos that have appeared on my TV show. To date, I’ve produced about 200 of these. Eventually, they will all be in this section of the web site. Watch a few and I think you will find they are fast and painless ways to learn.

I developed this format in 2009 and it caught on immediately. Now I know why. These videos are optimized to the way humans learn from multimedia. The goal is to keep the learner “in the zone,” fully engaged and effectively relating new input to prior experience. Key to reaching the goal is the length and pace of the presentation, and how the important takeaways are identified.

If your eyes haven’t glazed over by now, you may enjoy reading up on the cognitive theory of multimedia learning here:

I can easily geek out on this subject; I recently completed a Ph.D. in educational technology (that’s what I’ve been up to in my absence from this blog) and concentrated my research on multimedia learning. Fortunately, I get to apply what I’ve learned every day in helping folks do better with their horses.

Hope you enjoy the videos!


Friday, April 24, 2015

Hard to Catch

Annelisa listens to The Horse Show on Rural Radio Channel 80 (Sirius/XM). She wrote to ask for more information on catching the hard-to-catch horse in a round pen. Normally, I would expound a bit on what the guest on that particular program said. Problem is, I can’t figure out which guest Annelisa heard.  So, Annelisa, these are my thoughts on the hard-to-catch horse.

First, a basic principle: If you want your horse to make a change, you have to give him a reason to do so. The hard-to-catch horse is happy being away from you. To change that, you need to convince him that it’s better to be with you.  The round pen is a great place to do this because, in order to stay away from you, the horse has to keep moving, and eventually he looks for an alternative to wasting all of that precious energy.

So here’s the basic technique. With the horse loose in the round pen, bring up your energy and focus it on the horse’s hindquarters. Mentally push on them, move toward them, throw a rope at them, whatever you need to do to be sure the horse feels that energy pushing on his hind end.  One of two things will happen. Either the horse will squirt away from you and exercise his flight response or he will disengage his hindquarters, which is a fancy way of saying he will swing his rear end away from you and face up. If the horse runs away, keep the pressure up until you see that he wants to slow down. Let him stop and begin the session again.

The facing up is what you want from the horse because that is an act of submission, an offering of sorts. What you do when he begins to face you is critical.  You instantly turn off the pressure and start backing away him. Remember, you began this session by pushing energy toward the horse’s hind end; now you’re pulling energy from his front end. Pushing energy has a driving effect and pulling energy has a drawing effect. You want the horse to continue this change he has made in turning toward you by actually taking a step toward you, then another, then another. It’s easy for him to do this as long as you are backing away. When you begin to see other signs of submission such as licking and chewing or lowering the head, you can stop moving backward and let the two of you rest in that position.

So where are we now? The horse has decided that, at least for the moment, it is better to be with you than away from you. The pressure to move his hindquarters is gone and he’s felt this urge to move toward you.  This is an important mental shift and the moment it occurs is called joining up or hooking on. It’s a fragile moment and getting greedy can undo what you’ve accomplished, so go slowly. If you are still getting these offerings of submission, such as lowering the head, licking and chewing, softening the eye, or blinking, it is a good time to give your horse a gentle scratch on the forehead.  Don’t dwell there; just get in, scratch, and get out. Turn and walk slowly away from the horse. Feel the invisible connection between you. The horse should follow. Turn and scratch him while he’s still mentally connected to you . When you’ve both gotten comfortable with this little dance, you are done for the day.

Whaaaa? That’s right. You are not going to do anything further with the horse on that day. This is called ending on a good note and it may be the hardest part of training a horse. Think of it as an investment in the future, a way of patching up the foundation of your relationship. To continue that metaphor, the mortar needs time to set. You are going to leave your horse on a good note in order for things to firm up in his mind. Remember, you’ve rocked his world a bit. You are not the same person he thought you were. He needs time to process that. The idea beginning to form in his mind is that being with you could be his first choice rather than his last resort.

Tomorrow, you can repeat he whole thing again, paying special attention to how you use your energy and how he responds to it. You’ll be better and he will probably respond more readily. But maybe not. Horses always test us and progress isn’t perfectly linear. Don’t let that upset you because that negative energy will also be felt by the horse and will interfere with the other signals he’s picking up from you.  The time will come, maybe on that second day or maybe later, when you can put his halter on him and walk him around a bit. As before, don’t get greedy about this. Surprise him by ending on a good note, when he’s relaxed and willing to do more. In the future, mix it up like that. Some days, you’ll catch him to go do something. Other days, you’ll catch him just to give him a good scratch or a carrot. You will keep your horse engaged and interested in you – and easier to catch – if you are just a little unpredictable in your daily activities with him.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

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 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.