Monday, March 21, 2011

Some "Words About People" by Reno of Stonebrook

Reno of Stonebrook, Chief Trainer of the “Communicating with Horses” project, on his 20th birthday pled for peace with human beings. In celebration of the occasion, he gave his guests an impressive demonstration of his teaching, whose consistent nonviolent beginning is absolutely unheard of. The text of his talk, “Dominance: Achieving Appropriate Understanding between Man and Animal”, follows:

“The art that has led and assembled you here, my esteemed ladies and gentlemen, the art of communicating with horses, is, for me, to make the best possible use of the human being’s natural desire to be near us horses.

Peaceful coexistence, trust, and harmony with our two-legged friends unfortunately remains for us horses mostly a dream, because the human’s unpredictable nature all too often evades our control, an evasion, which we all know leads to constant altercation, and endangers us both in body and in spirit. Under such circumstances relaxed interaction with one another is hardly possible.

We are able to put this age old problematical relationship on a completely new foundation. The training system developed and taught in our Project marks a quantum leap in the relationship between man and animal. It is now up to us to bring the eternal battle to an end. With simple rules that can be understood by everyone, rules learned by observing the human’s desire for natural hierarchy, the relationship can proceed appropriately and free of conflict. In this, the physical and psychological health of our human partner remains in the forefront for me.

I will now show you a sample lesson with one of my human students. This formerly very self-willed woman, now works happily and responds to the most minimal aids of her trainer. Much self-discipline and patience are required to make humans into reliable partners. But they reward our effort to train and shape them with lifelong loyalty and devotion.

To begin with, a gentle but unmistakable dominance exercise -- moving backward:

Yielding backward through the corner increases the pressure -- if the human is cooperative, she may relax.

Notice the contented expression on the woman’s face and the way her hands follow the bend that has been presented to her.


Then the trot -- Good to see the relaxed balance of hands and whip....

..... which will be become even more differentiated in canter because the dynamic leaping movement demands a high degree of collection. The upper body is freely erect, the human is evenly bent, and carries herself. Concentrated work conducted in a playful spirit.

All of this has nothing to do with dressage as the term is commonly used, but depends entirely and solely on very precise body language.

Life in a human horde is characterized primarily by competition and strife. As pack hunters, humans require a clear hierarchy for their well-being. Only unconditional obedience assures survival in the group. That is why the human being requires a truly established dominance structure, a high-ranking being whom he can follow. I achieve this lead position solely through my physical bearing and the energy I radiate, which right from the start permits no confusion to arise about who has the say here.

Every single movement of my body becomes information for this woman. She has learned to read the language of my body and to dance precisely to my instructions. This fine, sensitive work renounces every mechanical influence, which would only disturb the harmonious balance. The human remains totally free in her movements. We play with one another. A soft lifting of my fore hoof to signal Levade is answered with the woman's prompt yielding of her hip. Two dancers in perfect harmony.

Lightening fast gestures raise her attentiveness to the most subtle body signals....

... so that we incidentally move up into High School

Even during simple loosening exercises I stay true to my ground rule: With greatest inner peace, act impulsively!

Here the woman has ignored my rank. Energetically and from dynamically flexed haunches I leap forward to defend my space.

The frontal confrontation immediately puts the upstart back in her place. Her diagonal posture signals that she will soon submit.

As soon as she does, I let her come. In such moments it is important not to let oneself act out in anger, because the human cannot understand these emotions and will become confused. We do not want to intimidate the human but rather help him to find himself, and unfold his very promising abilities accordingly.

There is hardly a more uplifting moment: Full of trust my human woman hugs the neck of her partner.

The natural rank order is back in evidence. The human gives his love and trust to the one who dominates, who projects strength even in critical situations. Precise, clear, unambiguous, and dominant behavior, the projection of one’s own presence (while abstaining from physical force) -- those are the qualities that instill respect in humans. Once the dominance question is settled, the human will feel safe and confident when he is with us, in accordance with the laws of the horde in nature. Instead of fighting, he will carry out his assignments quietly, relaxed, and happily.

We horses must learn! If we act according to clear training principles, it is very simple to live in peace with humans. Thank you."

About the author: Reno of Stonebrook has always been a horse on a "mission" and possessed of a certain awareness and talent for getting a message across. To Imke Spilker, he seems almost like a kind of Guru, as concerned about other horses as he is about human beings, when he sees the need for clarification. He demonstrates to other horses how they can conquer a problem, be it in the arena or in the wild. He also gladly instructs human beings. His ongoing assignment to Imke is "pass the message on", which Imke strives to do as well as she can through the book of the Empowered Horses and other writing, as well as photos, and seminars.

This article was provided to me by Imke Spilker. It first appeared in the German publication Freizeit im Sattel in April of 1998 at a time when "dominance" was a hot topic among horse people. The translation is mine. Photos by Gegenlicht.

As always, your comments and questions are most welcome.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ask the Expert

For those of you who are not subscribers or regular readers of Lynne Gerard's wonderful "Journal of Ravenseyrie", Lynne's March 8th, 2010 entry is a back-and-forth between Imke Spilker and me. Here's a link: "Ask the Expert"

I hope to have some words about horses for this blog soon. Thank you for being out there.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Beyond Words

More than two months have passed since I’ve written anything for this blog, or even for my own journal. In November and early December there were unanticipated family responsibilities that took up the time I usually saved for writing. But, even when I had done what I had to do and I found time to write again, I could not find the words I needed. Somewhere on my hard drive are 8 or 10 half-finished drafts of entries for this blog. So far I have not been able to complete any of them. It isn’t exactly writer’s block. There are lots of words on those pages. But as I re-read them, I find them..... irrelevant ... to what I really want to say.

What I would most like to be able to express is what it feels like for me to be with horses these days... what it feels like to connect with a horse, to hear him, to know her in this moment. But that experience, or rather, those fleeting, evanescent experiences that land like butterflies in the midst of our everyday interactions, defy my ability to capture them. The moment I try to put them into a pen of words, they escape, they disappear.... and leave me wondering if they ever really existed.

By its very nature, heart-to-heart connection is beyond words; the experience is richer, deeper, more multifaceted and multidimensional than words, mere symbols of “the thing itself”, can ever be.

Still, some writers, some poets, have found words to give others a sense of experience-beyond-words. Rumi was one of them. So, I’ll borrow his words -- which were not about horses -- to give a sense of what I’m struggling to say about what being with horses is like for me these days. (All quotations are from “The Illuminated Rumi”, translations and commentary by Coleman Barks.)

“Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field.

I’ll meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass

the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.”


“There was a dawn I remember when my soul heard something from your soul.

I drank water from your spring and felt the current take me.”


“Yesterday at dawn

my friend said, ‘how long will this unconsciousness go on?

You fill yourself with the sharp pain of love rather than its fulfillment.’

I said, ‘But I can’t get to you!

You are the whole dark night, and I am a single candle.

My life is upside down because of you.’

The Friend replied,

‘I am your deepest being.

Quit talking about wanting me.....’ ”

“Friend, there’s a window that opens from heart to heart, and there are ways of closing it completely,

not a needle’s eye of access. Open or shut, both ways are sometimes appropriate.

The deepest ignorance is not to know about this window...”


“You’ve heard it said there’s a window that opens from one mind to another.

But if there’s no wall, there’s no need for fitting the window, or the latch.”


...But for the way we have to go, words are no preparation.

There’s no getting ready other than grace...”


“From the hundreds of times I lost the connection, I learn this: your fragrance brings me back. Inside that I become a feast day with aloeswood burning, the pure empty sky around the moon. Then I make promises. I break them. And same as before, I try to find you by thinking and reading about finding. No help there!”

As Barks writes in his commentary on the above quotation: “..... Words and images can never give the experience. .... The dis-connection Rumi speaks of here, everyone understands. The re-connection.... can only be lived.”


“Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love.”


“I have no more words. Let the soul speak with the silent articulation of a face.”

Friday, October 22, 2010

Silly Love Songs

Do you sing to horses ?

I do...

At least, I sing to the horses in my family, the ones I know well. I don’t think I’ve ever inflicted my singing voice on a new acquaintance.

I sing when I’m cleaning stalls, when I’m picking manure in the paddocks, when I’m mixing feed.... and occasionally I’ll sing a song especially for the herd, or to a particular horse. “Happy Birthday” for example. Or, this happy, upbeat song (“My Girl”) from the Temptations that I sometimes sing to Desna to let her know how much I like her:

“I've got sunshine

on a cloudy day.

When it's cold outside I've even got the month of May.

I guess you'd say

What can make me feel this way?

My girl (my girl, my girl)

Talkin' 'bout my girl (my girl).”

And there’s “Your Song” by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, snatches of which I sometimes sing to the herd (with particular emphasis on the last line):

“ And you can tell everybody

this is your song...

It may be quite simple, but now that it’s done,

I hope you don’t mind, I hope you don’t mind

that I put down in words

how wonderful life is while you’re in the world...”

Sometimes I just hum the tune that happens to be buzzing around in my head. Sometimes I sing old folk songs (mostly English, but also sometimes German ones). Sometimes simple children’s songs like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” or “Glory to the Mountain” are on the program, and, in season, carols. Sometimes I find a song that perfectly expresses how I’m feeling at the moment. And sometimes, I pick a song -- or a fragment of a song -- just to say “I love you.”

As I was mucking the other day, I got to thinking about the songs human beings have created to convey “love”. And I wondered which ones would actually convey “love” to a horse.

Many so-called love songs are really more about the singer's need and desire than love. The lyrics are some variation of “I want you, I need you, I can’t live without you, don’t leave me ‘cause I’ll die.”

Mmm. That leaves me pretty cold. You “love” me because I satisfy a need of yours? What happens to your “love” if I stop meeting your needs? What happens to me?

But, those sentiments are not so different than the fickle feelings some human “horse lovers” have toward horses, are they? As long as the horse meets the human's needs... the horse is wonderful. When he no longer does, because he is too old,or too slow, or lame, or too small for the human who has become bigger and taller... he is sold, discarded, replaced by a younger, faster, stronger, abler new “love.” That kind of “love” is, as Bob Dylan wrote, “just a four-letter word”. It is certainly not an expression of devotion or affection.

Figuring that horses don’t like those superficial,whiney, supremely selfish “ I need you” “love” songs any more than I do, they are not on my playlist, nor in my performance repertoire.

The love songs I sing to the horses express feelings more like the ones in Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are”:

“Don't go changing, to try and please me,

you’ve never let me down before...

Don't imagine you're too familiar

And I don't see you anymore.

I wouldn't leave you in times of trouble.

We never could have come this far...

I took the good times, I'll take the bad times

I love you just the way you are ......


....I said I love you, that's forever.

And this I promise from the heart:

I could not love you any better

I love you just the way you are."

Unconditional acceptance, loyalty, and devotion are expressed in that song. Imagine having someone feel that for you. Doesn’t it feel good? Isn’t it soothing to your soul?

Of course, it is not the lyrics that are important... or even the act of singing that counts. It is the feeling that is trying to manifest, the emotion that wants to move into action.

It’s not so much what is done, but the spirit in which it is done. Any action can be tainted by anger, resentment, by apathy or inattention.

And, even the most ordinary actions and gestures -- grooming, trimming hooves, feeding -- can become extraordinary when they done out of love, with an open, listening heart.

On one of his audio tapes Deepak Chopra told a true story that has stayed with me for many years. After all this time, I’m vague on the exact details, but here’s the gist: There was a research lab in which some rabbits were being experimented upon. The rabbits were supposed to die from the treatment they were receiving, and most of them did. But there was one group of rabbits that was thriving despite the poison they were being fed. The experiment was checked and re-checked. Procedures were being followed to the letter... The only difference was a lab assistant. This woman loved the rabbits in her care. Before every meal -- meals which contained the poison that was supposed to kill them -- she would hold the rabbits for a while, cuddle them, express her love for them. Then she would feed them the poison.... and instead of dying, the rabbits thrived.

It’s not the action alone that counts. It is the spirit in which it is done.

It has become part of my practice when I go to the horses to follow the instructions of a book title I saw a few months ago before I do anything else. The book title was: “First, Let Love In”.

I do my best to let love in ... and to remember those thriving rabbits I heard about so long ago.

I can’t completely control poisons in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food my horses (and I) eat.... but I can open my heart. I can put my love for the horses into everything I do ... cleaning their living space, mixing their feed, trimming their hooves, touching them. And, as part of that, when the spirit moves me, I can sing to them... maybe Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs":

“...Some people think the world has had enough of silly love songs.

I look around me and I see it isn't so.

Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs

What’s wrong with that?

I’d like to know...

‘cause here I go again..

I love you...”


Saturday, October 9, 2010

Lessons from Thunder

During the time I was active on the NHE forum and in the online school, I became quite close with several people there, and got to know them and the horses in their lives through their postings,photos, and, particularly, the diaries we all kept. Through emails and phone calls we maintained and developed our friendships in the years since I left the school and forum, but we never met “in person.” That changed a bit this past week-end (October 1st - 3rd, 2010) when my long time, real-life friend, Karen, and I made the 6.5 hour drive to Saint Saveur, Quebec where the NHE seminar hosted by Michael Bevilacqua and Cloé Lacroix was held.

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog are already familiar with Thunder. (Those of you who are not can read here: Thunder stories). He and his person, Cloé, have long been an inspiration to me. Meeting them ‘in the flesh’ was my main reason for attending the seminar. An added attraction was the opportunity to meet Michael, (whom I knew only through his writing in Natural Horse Magazine and on the NHE forum), and to actually see him interact with horses.

Our two sessions with the horses, one on Saturday afternoon and one on Sunday afternoon (which I missed because we had to leave) took place at the facility where Thunder and his herd mates live. We were expecting to be joined by Thunder, Miss Cue, and Tiki -- the three horses whose person Cloé is -- as well as two other horses whose people had kindly given 15 strangers permission to spend time with them.

We came to the pasture, greeted the horses and made our way to the fenced arena where we would be working. Thunder, Miss Cue, and Tiki came with us to the arena. So, did Sybil, a lovely black mare. The fifth horse had a last-minute change of mind and chose to hang back. Instead, Taco, an unexpected arrival, made it clear he wanted to participate, so he came into the arena with us, too.

So, there we were -- 5 loose horses and 17 people (including Michael and Cloé) together in a large fenced paddock. Michael began working with one person and one horse at a time to teach the proper use of the "cordeo" and, more importantly, how to recognize and acknowledge when a horse is saying “no” or “not right now.” While he was doing that, the 4 other horses -- loose in the same arena with the 15 or so human attendees -- were teaching lessons of their own.

Tiki, shown below with Cate, was moving from person to person, testing each one’s skills at finding and scratching an itch. She reminded me of a wine connoisseur at a marathon wine-tasting. If a person found the right spot and had the right touch, Tiki would linger for a while in scratch heaven. If the scratching was not entirely to her liking or, if an otherwise good scratcher’s attention wandered, Tiki would walk off to the next person. In all fairness to Cate, Tiki had been with her for quite some time clearly enjoying Cate’s expertise at scratching itches. I didn’t get any photos of that -- just this last one as Tiki was about to walk away.

Thunder was teaching, too, and I managed to get photos of a few of his lessons.

In this first series, he is showing us a horse’s subtle “no.” Cloé asks him for a kiss ..... and you can see that he refuses. What is noteworthy is that the very obvious connection between horse and human is not broken off just because the horse says “no.”

Here is another example of “no.” Cloé asks Thunder to put his leg on the chair, something he learned to do long ago.... He refuses this request, too, but stays near Cloé and remains calm and attentive.

A bit later on, Cloé asks again for a kiss.

This time Thunder changes the subject.

He decides to practice his zipper-pulling skills. Notice how Cloé goes along with Thunder’s idea..

Thunder taught another very important lesson to anyone who happened to be paying attention at the time. Unfortunately, I did not get photos... but here's what happened:

Cloé was asking Thunder to "back to the hand" -- something he and she have done together for years. She was standing a few feet behind him with her hand raised, giving him the usual signal. Thunder did NOT BUDGE from the spot. He was attentive to Cloé (you could tell by his ears and his expression) and he knew what she was asking, but he did not move one millimeter rearward. What Cloe did not notice was that Taco was close behind her with his rear end pointing toward Thunder's rear end. If Thunder had gone along with Cloé's request just then and backed up, he would have been making a very aggressive move toward Taco, probably prompting a double barreled kick that would most likely have connected with Cloé !!!!

When Thunder didn't move after a couple of requests, Cloé went to his head to reassure him.

At the same time Taco walked away. After a few moments,Cloé went back to her position behind Thunder and tried again. This time he backed up beautifully. :-)

A bit later when Cloé came back to the sidelines, I asked her if she knew where Taco had been when she first asked Thunder to back up. No, she had no idea. When I told her, she realized that Thunder had likely saved her from serious injury. What a lesson in awareness those two horses gave us!

I do not know if anyone else at the seminar saw those few moments but I found that lesson very moving.... a wonderful illustration of the NHE maxim: “the horse is always right.”

Thunder says "yes" to a kiss.

To see some lovely photos of this event, photos taken by Catherine Scott (Cate), click here: Cate's photos