Giving Thanks

Today I give thanks for my parents, my family and friends, and all the people in my life who honor and love horses, especially James and Kate. I give thanks for my son, Gabe, who has weathered hard passages and emerged as an extraordinary young man with a tender spirit. I give thanks for Mystic, who has totally and completely captured my heart.

As you may have noticed, I love poems: In honor of Thanksgiving, here’s a treasured one by e. e. cummings, followed by some favorite photos—many taken by my sister Abigail, a photographer by trade and passion.


My parents Thaddeus & Polly as newlyweds, 1949

Seymour family Thanksgiving, 1962 (I'm in the front row, far right)

Sisters, Thanksgiving 1996

Cousins, Thanksgiving 2000 (my son Gabe is third from left)

Gabe & me, Christmas 2009

My sister Liz, advocate of people experiencing homelessness, 2009

My brother T. with niece Lila Mae, 2010

My brother Sam with his wife Karen, 2011

My sister Abigail with children Lila Mae & Joaquin, 2010

My parents, 2003

My barn family at Fiore Farms, October 2011

Thank you for this most amazing day.

SEFHA Colt Starter Challenge: Part II

In my previous post, I described the first three rounds of the SEFHA Colt Starter Challenge, in which trainers James Cooler, Randy Abernathy, and Pam Tanner worked with three green colts. The final challenge required the trainers to take their colts through an obstacle course. A panel of four judges scored the trainers on their working knowledge of natural horsemanship. According to host Tom Seay, whether the trainers rode their horses was secondary. He told the crowd, “If you all came here to see who gets on their horse first, don’t bother. It’s all about communication.”

Host Tom Seay introduces the trainers, ferried into the arena in a shiny red truck

Pam Tanner was the first trainer to take on the obstacle course; her horse, Valentino, unsettled at being in the arena without other horses, took a while to calm down. Pam opted not to ride him; instead she did some fundamentals on the ground and started walking him through the obstacle course.  He balked at the first jump, and then time ran out. Much of the twenty minutes allotted for the obstacle course had gone toward calming her horse.

Next came Randy Abernathy, whose horse Tom was equally jumpy. Randy worked patiently with Tom in the round pen, getting him settled enough to ride. Randy rode forward, backward, executed a required turn, and made it through the first obstacle, a zigzag configuration of poles. Like the previous horse, Tom stopped at the jump and refused to step over.  Again, time ran out.

James Cooler was the final contestant. He’d already stated that he wouldn’t ride because he didn’t want to push his horse into fear and away from the confidence he’d gained in the first three rounds. Like the other horses, William was edgy at being alone in the round pen. He surrendered his anxiety quickly, however, seeming to remember James’ leadership. James took him out of the round pen, picked up each of his hooves, and executed all the required basic moves except mounting and dismounting. He then “sent” William through the obstacle course, walking beside him rather than leading him. Little William—“Prince William” as James affectionately called him—hesitated briefly at the outset, then took each obstacle with aplomb.

William walks over the jump

His confidence visibly increased with each new challenge; he stepped through a pile of plastic noodles and crossed a wooden platform with a lilt in his step. “I’m doing it!” he seemed to be thinking. “Yay for me!”

Sniffing and navigating the noodles

James and William completed the obstacle course with a second to spare. When they finished, the arena erupted with cheers and clapping. William and his newfound confidence were clear crowd favorites.

Those of us on Team Cooler (as I stated in my previous post, this is a biased account) held hands and gripped thighs while waiting to hear who won. It had to be James: he’d taken a panicky little colt and taught him to begin working through his fears. William had learned to trust, to team up with a human, and to tap into his inner strength. The other trainers had done a fine job, but their agenda seemed to be preparing their horses for riding. There had been no equine cognitive-behavioral restructuring going on in those two pens.

Randy (left), James, and Pam wait for the judges to announce the winner; the first-prize saddle is behind them

And then the winner was announced: Randy Abernathy. The arena was quieter than you might expect for a victory announcement. Given my bias, I can’t be sure—but it seemed many in the audience were shocked.

At the beginning of the challenge, host Tom Seay talked about a 2,000-mile ride he and a group of horsemen took from Mexico to Canada. “The question in everybody’s mind was: Who is going to cross the finish line first?” Seay related. “Then a Native American who took part in the ride said, ‘Line the horses up and we’ll all cross together.'”

Seay told the story to emphasize that all the trainers were winners—and he was right. More important, the colts came out winners. They learned from three gifted trainers and got a solid, if somewhat rushed, foundation.

But still. Only one person took home the handmade saddle and the 500-pound bag of grain.

James was philosophical about the outcome but slightly subdued afterward. As for all the Cooler Horsemanship students who came out to support him at the challenge, a bunch of us spontaneously showed up at Fiore Farms the next day and took our horses out of the pastures. There we were: Rebecca and Jeannie, Dream and Joanie, Sonder and Elizabeth, Ben and Jane, Oberon and Margaret, Mystic and me. We played with our horses, using the knowledge James and Kate taught us. The arena was alive with horses and students, with joy and partnership.

I don’t know if James saw us from the window of his house, but I hope he did. I hope he saw and understood the reach of his gifts.

Cooler Horsemanship students Jane, Jeannie, and Joanie with their horses the day after the colt-starting challenge

SEFHA Colt Starter Challenge: Part I

Yesterday natural horsemanship trainers James Cooler, Randy Abernathy, and Pam Tanner competed in the first annual SEFHA Colt Starter Challenge. It took place in the indoor riding arena at Chatham Hall, a girls’ boarding school in Virginia. Several hundred people showed up to watch the all-day event, in which the trainers spent three one-hour sessions putting green colts through high-speed basic training, culminating in an obstacle course. Tom Seay, host of America on Horseback, served as announcer, and Ken McNabb of the RFD-TV show Discovering the Horseman Within was lead judge.

Host Tom Seay (left) and lead judge Ken McNabb

And that, dear readers, marks the end of my objective rendition of the challenge. From here on out, it’s all bias and opinion. Just sayin’.

Each trainer picked a number out of a bag to find out which colt she or he would work with. The colts, all sired by the same thoroughbred, looked scrubby and undernourished—except for Valentino, the black Arabian-thoroughbred cross in round pen two.

James got last pick and ended up in round pen one with William, a bay Anglo-Arab who started out lovey-dovey then turned into a firecracker once James strapped on the bareback pad. “Maybe our honeymoon period is a little bit over,” James commented wryly.

James and William during their honeymoon period

Yup, the honeymoon was definitely over, and the newlyweds had some major issues to work out. William turned out to have a mile-wide skittish streak and a god-given talent for leaping, twisting bucks.

Host Tom Seay, who never met a silence he couldn’t fill, joked about the ruckus in round pen one: “James is in a cloud of dust. His round pen may sell for cheaper after the show because it’s been kicked.”

William encounters his first bareback pad: not love at first cinch

The other two trainers had pussycats by comparison; neither horse had an inclination for bucking. Valentino, the looker of the three colts, was a sensitive, compliant fellow.

Pam Tanner bonds with Valentino

Randy’s colt, whose name I never learned—I’ll call him Tom because his diminutive frame put me in mind of Tom Thumb—was anxious and high-strung at first but settled down as Randy steadily put him through his paces.

The one-hour sessions flew past, progressing from building trust to directing the colts’ movements through body language to tacking up. In the third session, Pam and Randy climbed into the saddle. The crowd held its collective breath when Randy, a substantial man, swung aboard skinny-ribbed Tom. Randy had the wisdom and humor to point out the obvious: “Let’s face it—I’m a fat man and this is a little horse. We’re going to take it slow and easy.”

Big man, little colt

Meanwhile James, who’d put his full weight on William’s back in the first round, chose to focus on ground work during the third session. He explained to the crowd that he was concerned about safety—his own and the colt’s—given William’s extreme fear-based reactions. He didn’t want to tax the colt’s already strained mental and emotional resources, so he made the decision not to ride him in the competition. Instead he focused on helping William push past his fears and grow his confidence.

“He has a panic button. I’m trying to get him to see that he doesn’t have to go there,” James told the audience. He pointed out a dark sweat patch on William: “Sweat patches on a horse means there’s something that isn’t clicking. He’s holding a lot of stress inside.”

He kept the colt moving briskly around the pen to help occupy his adrenaline-charged mind and release his energy. Then James dragged a blue plastic tarp into the round pen. William freaked out at first, going straight into right-brain panic mode. Then slowly, hesitatingly, he gained the courage to sniff and paw this slippery blue apparition. Suddenly he looked like a curious horse, not just a reactive one: his internal shift had begun. The audience—which included a substantial block of unabashed Cooler Horsemanship supporters wearing “Team Cooler” buttons—broke out into applause. Everyone seemed to be rooting for the plucky little horse who was facing down his fears with James’ help.

William takes his first sniff of the blue tarp

Check back soon for Part II to find out how the colts fared in the obstacle course and which trainer won the challenge. Many thanks to photographer extraordinaire Margaret Bednar, who supplied images for this blog post.

It Takes Time

I started working with Mystic 191 days ago. We were paired together at a Cooler Horsemanship clinic on April 29, 2011, and life has never been the same since. If I sound like a teenage girl counting the days I’ve been dating a boy, or a new mother recounting her infant son’s age, that’s no coincidence. Developing a deep relationship with a horse stirs up all kinds of feelings: maternal, loving, bemused, proud, joyous.

Early days with Mystic

As a beginning counselor, I’ve found that a similar process unfolds with my clients. It takes time, commitment, and understanding to develop a trusting relationship. As we log more sessions together, I get to see clients in various mood states; I see them defended and vulnerable, angry and peaceful, hurt and healing. I come to know their patterns of thinking, where their most entrenched beliefs come from, and what wounds lie deepest. Did I say that takes time? Well, let me say it again: Building a therapeutic relationship takes time.

Practicing natural horsemanship takes time too. That’s probably why a lot of people walk away from it, or never try it in the first place. Hurrying the process doesn’t work, with horses or humans. I can vouch for that with a fall I took yesterday after foolishly jumping on Mystic’s back without a saddle, bridle, or reins. I figured our relationship had advanced far enough that I could just skip the riding aids. He immediately sped up while I grabbed his mane and gripped with my legs; the harder I gripped, the faster he went. When he took a rapid turn, I flew off and swallowed a well-deserved mouthful of grit. Mystic paused and looked at me splayed on the ground; my hunch is his thoughts went something like this: Are you crazy? We don’t know each other that well—and you clearly don’t know what you’re doing. Why don’t you slow down and take things in the proper order? Oh, and by the way, James and Kate have a lot to teach you.

With Mystic in October 2011, wisely using a saddle, halter, and reins

Rushing a time-honored process makes me think of my internship site, Family Service of the Piedmont, which has to follow the usual rules of managed care when it comes to mental health services. Typically, health insurance providers such as Blue Cross Blue Shield and Medicaid approve 90 days of once-weekly therapy for clients, who struggle with issues like crippling anxiety, PTSD from sexual abuse, and overwhelming depression. The insurers require documented, empirically validated results by the end of that period; if enough progress is indicated, another 90 days may be approved.

Once a week for 90 days equals 12 fifty-minute sessions. I’ve spent 191 days with Mystic, and we’re just getting started. I’m seeing clients for their sixth, seventh, eighth sessions, and we’re just getting started.

It takes time.

Carl Rogers, who believed in the power of the therapeutic relationship

Carl Rogers, the granddaddy of person-centered therapy, said, “”In my early professional years I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change this person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?”

Treating and curing versus personal growth: the first two are quick fixes; the other is a process.

I wonder what Carl Rogers would think of natural horsemanship.