on words

The words won’t be forgotten, thought Granny. There’s a power to them. They’re damn good woods, as words go.

– Granny Weatherwax
in Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett

I still have a few things to write up about what I learned from this year’s Mary Wanless workshop, but I’ve realized through my explorations of the internet that Mary’s methods aren’t the most popular out there. Different people have different objections, but one of the ones I’ve seen is that people don’t seem to understand what she’s saying. That Mary’s words don’t always make sense. And I had some thoughts on that.

Some people might object to Mary because the words she says to higher-level-Mary riders can be pretty inaccessible. During the workshop Mary talked to Tanya about making a board from her 2-pack to the horse’s neck, passing over some cervical vertebrae and then into the neck and through to the poll, pushing the board longer to encourage the horse’s neck to move down and out. Weird, right? I’m happy to admit it. But Tanya is a super high level rider who clearly has abilities well beyond my own. But even to the mid-level demo riders, Mary said some things that might come across as strange if you haven’t been working in her world for a while. “Imagine strings connecting your hip flexors to your horse’s hocks, and draw his legs further under him with every rise as you post.”

What you aren’t seeing, when you just read or hear those words, is all of the reinforcement and awareness that Mary has developed with that rider. One of the parts of Mary’s program that she has emphasized at her workshops is developing greater bodily awareness within each rider. Sometimes it comes in the form of questions: can you feel your frontline all the way up your thighs? How about all the way up to your collarbone? Can you take a deep breath with your left lung? How about your right?

By connecting exercises about body awareness to words about body parts, Mary is creating riders who have a strong understanding of how what specific, discrete parts of their body are doing. Tanya’s awareness of her body is so high that when she thinks of that board from her 2-pack board she turns on a whole suite of muscles, a suite of muscles that are doing things that change the way the horse goes. She’s not just imagining this board. She is doing through imagery.

So yes. Those words are Martian.

When Murray had his amazing session with the cowboy, the cowboy said “I’m going to move his left hind foot by looking at it.” And I looked at the cowboy like he was stupid. But he looked at Murray, and Murray moved his damn left hind foot. And then he moved his right hind when the cowboy looked at that one too.

How. What the fuck?

Pressure, said the cowboy. Energy.

Those words were meaningless to me. About as meaningless as “imagine a board that goes from your 2-pack line into his cervical vertebrae”.

I also watched Kate’s cowboy work with one of her horses. It’s remarkable how all those highly effective cowboys are almost the same. He waved a flag at a horse and the horse did nothing, then he waved it a little differently and the horse yielded to the flag. “So,” said Kate, “you’re practicing changing intention.” “Exactly,” said the cowboy.


refractory to intention

“How do you change your intention?” I asked Kate.

“Well,” she stared at me, “I guess I change what I intend.”

The cowboy gave me the gift of elaborating a bit. It’s about the energy, he said. The energy with which the flag approached the horse, and the energy the flag had when he “released” it from the horse. So we were back to energy.

But what is energy? And how do I change it? When a cowboy hands me a rope, the only other tool I have is flapping my body around and metaphorically, or literally, yelling what I want at the horse. But working with my cowboy, and Kate’s cowboy, you can hone your skills until they are closer to those cowboy tools. Closer to “energy”.

People — including me, it should be noted — also think that natural horsemanship cowboys are speaking nonsense at first.

Think about what you hear some upper level dressage clinicians say.

Ride almost in a shoulder-fore.

Rounder. Flex him.

More. Less.

Half halt.

These words are all just as much Martian as “imagine you have a board from your 2-pack line” or “change your energy”. But they have a meaning in Dressage, a meaning that the people listening to that clinician might even have 1/3 of an understanding or comprehension of. I have maybe 4% the understanding of what “rounder” means to Charlotte Dujardin. I know that a half halt is a thing, even if I can’t execute one to save my life. More? Less? Those words have total mastery over me.

But that’s the thing. Lots of people watching that clinician won’t really know what those words mean, know their full meaning. If they are just a passing rider or auditor, they certainly won’t understand what those words mean to that clinician. But they think they know. They think they understand how to apply “rounder” and “more” to their own riding, and suddenly that clinician’s words become so much more “accessible” to the rider. And the clinician is therefore deemed worthwhile or a good teacher because the listener’s language comprehension skills approximated 1/12th of what they were saying.

Make no mistake. These high-level instructors are all speaking Martian. Some people think they understand Martian. The best of us are just working hard to understand their words.

Image result for wyrd sistersthis book is 100% worth reading btw

leasing: the struggle is… medium

The last year of leasing has been an interesting one. And, to be totally honest, when I first started thinking about this post two weeks ago, my outlook was much less positive. So far, things have pretty much worked out for me — but things could absolutely not have swung my way, and I’d almost certainly be a bit more mopey right now.

When I first started leasing, I was just looking for something to sit on. Hence, #reboundpony. I’m not the sort to just kinda plod along, plus I was getting a lot of encouragement about the weißwurst from the sidelines, so of course I immediately started working on transforming the pony into something a little more sport-pony-y. But I also thought I would probably only be leasing in the short-term, and so I wasn’t looking for anything in my lease. If that makes sense. I wasn’t trying to find a horse I could progress with, necessarily, just one to help keep me in shape. Samwell was perfect.


I am very cute, now give me cookies

Then Timer literally fell into my lap. Big, fancy, a ton of fun to ride, and opinionated as shit. After working one another out through many lessons and lots of long, romantic walks where I thought deeply about what I was doing, we really started making progress. For sure, I had to do thing on Timer’s terms, but since he was pretty knowledgeable, it wasn’t always a bad thing. I started to think about showing T  at Novice in 2020, and tentatively leveraging his athletic ability and confidence to move up to Training when we were ready. Then in October, T’s owner told me that she would be taking him back at the end of the year. He’d been going so well that she wanted to think about moving him up to Prelim in 2020, and wanted to have more personal control over his jumping schedule.

I was both devastated and completely understood her decision process and needs. If he were my horse, I wouldn’t be sharing him! After taking a minute to wallow and think about impulsively buying something for myself, I put my head to thinking about a solution to my problem. I truly became a schooled-horse convert while riding T. It was the classically simple opportunity to work on myself. And I realized that I’d do a lot more for myself and my riding and my goals to keep riding horses with a higher baseline than I have so I can more easily and effectively level up my skills.

And this is not to minimize or reduce all the lessons that my green horse, and many green horses, have taught me. But I’m not going to get better at coursing 3′-3’3″ by teaching another OTTB how to jump cross rails and trot around the ring with a bit of connection.


this is totally fun, and I want to keep doing it. but I need to develop my own skills, too!

The problem with this plan? I don’t have the money to buy something going, and I don’t have the money to pay for a lease. I was pretty much looking for a care lease of some kind. Even more specifically, a super-flexible-and-or-half-time one — because my schedule is crazy and dumb at times.

Luckily for me, there was another horse at my barn who was almost exactly what I was looking for. Harry: a former Training level horse who didn’t really like jumping Big. So I checked in with the owner and TrJ and we all thought it might work. Harry’s current leaser was backing down to a half lease, so it was a great opportunity for me to slot right in there and pick up the other days in his work week. I took a lesson on him and he was fun! Not super easy on the flat and a bit of a tricker in an oh-I’m-really-quite-poky kind of way, but enthusiastic and happy about jumping. A weird additional perk was that I would be the more knowledgeable of his two leasers, so I felt like I’d be able to really make some progress with his dressage without feeling like I was messing up what his owner had carefully tuned to herself.

speaking of carefully tuned
(now I’m just going back through all my favourite pictures)

When I got back to the barn in January though, things with Harry had changed. His other leaser wanted to up her days on him again, and a teenager moving up from a pony had been taking lessons on him on his other days. And so Harry’s work week was accounted for, and suddenly I found myself up in the air about what I would ride again.

How could I complain? I’m not going to demand that people bend their leases or lessons around my riding desires, especially when I’m not in a position to pay for what I really right now. I’m in the position of begging and being unable to choose, and I’m not the type of person to complain about how unfair that is. I mean, not endlessly anyway. I reserve the right to complain about it once or twice when feeling sorry for myself.

A tiny part of me felt butthurt that TrJ hadn’t prioritized my riding development as much as the teen’s or Harry’s leaser. But I knew logically that TrJ was absolutely not trying to leave me out with her decision. And that’s the rub with leasing, isn’t it? So much of it isn’t your decision as the leaser. You aren’t just negotiating with the horse, you’re negotiating with the owner and any other riders hopping in on the horse. Which, I’ve learned, can totally suck — like if the horse is used to being ridden *just so* by his very talented owner, it’s going to be hard for you to get the same results from him as she does because you aren’t her. Or if the kid wants to take the pony to a show on your lease day and it happens to be the only day that week you can ride and you can’t change your schedule to change that…. what you gonna do? Be a dick and smash the kid’s opportunity to take the pony out? I guess maybe. I’m just not that big of a dick though. *shrug*

remember when I could kinda ride? (wow this fence looks small. how? I’m not jumping bigger than this right now.)

Oh, and the time period before you’ve figured out how to balance and ride the new horse after coming off something you could ride pretty well and you feel like the most incompetent rider in the world? Duuuude I’ve felt it hard this year. On a pony who I totally thought was going to be a breeze to ride. On a horse whose owner makes him look so straightforward. On a horse who has packed his leaser around from her first show to being the 4th placing adult rider in her division for 2019. I couldn’t ride any of those horses satisfactorily when I first got on them.

In short, leasing kinda sucks.

But it’s also amazing! Because as much as I couldn’t ride those horses in the beginning of my lease (or the middle, at times), I gained a ton of skills from them. Both specific skills for that horse, and more generalizable skills that I could bring to other horses. I stopped being so entrained in just one way of going or balancing or weight in the reins, and learned even more about problem solving.

And luckily for me, TrJ pulled through with a fantastic new lease plan for me. So I don’t need to wallow in the frustrating things about leasing and maybe not getting my riding needs-desires met this year. It doesn’t change the fact that leasing can still absolutely be a struggle, it just skews my outlook to the positive.

Enter: Fergus. I already totally adore him.

View this post on Instagram

Made a sweet new friend this week 😍

A post shared by Nicole (@nicolegizelle) on

cooling off

When Murray first decided I first realized that Murray needed to be retired, I was interested in getting a new horse right away. Interested doesn’t even cover it, really. I was desperate. It was like I didn’t know what I would do without a horsey project to call my own. When I went to see that horse back in December (who ultimately didn’t work out) I had spent plenty of time stalking him online and was already imagining what my life would be like with his fabulous show name. I found all of his old sale videos, watched his current sale videos relentlessly, and when he didn’t work out, I was back to scouring the internet, looking for a good deal.


a certain extremely cute pony’s begging behavior is so firmly ingrained that he even begs for treats in the field

It’s a good thing that horse didn’t work out, because the reality is that I didn’t have the money for another horse just then — not the cash up front, and not the cash flow to pay for all the horsey expenses. And I’m still not in the financial or work position where I’d feel comfortable taking on a full-time horse — owned or otherwise.

In January when I posted about my thoughts on future horsey-dom, I had come to terms with the fact that I didn’t really have the money for a new horse yet, but I was still medium-key bummed about it. Sure, pony lessons were fun, but I couldn’t help but think about how much progress I could be making with my new horse in that time. And also heavily window shopping for said horse in the mean time. If a great deal had fallen into my lap in March, I don’t think I would have turned it down.


Murray was never into selfies pre-retirement

More than six months down the line, I’ve no longer got my-own-horse FOMO and I’m very glad I didn’t rush into anything with a new horse. Completely ignoring the money issue — I think we can all take that limitation to its logical conclusion — there are so many things about my current life that make horse ownership impractical. Especially green horse ownership! The glaring issue is the time. All that time I spent driving back and forth to California would not be doing my new (inevitably green) horse any favors. Even when I’m home, the farm isn’t exactly a low-key and undemanding job. I’ve spent more than a few days sitting in the truck or on the tractor for eight hours at a time, doing water runs, prepping fields, checking trees. And those are absolutely not things that I can just ditch to go riding (unlike constantly skipping out on writing up my thesis, lollll).

Also, if I’d bought a horse right after retiring Murray, you bet I would have rushed into it somewhat. Like, sure. I had a list and all that, but I’m also a sucker for a cute face and even more of a sucker for a good price. Emotionally/mentally compromised Nicole is not necessarily logical Nicole — and who knows how much TrJ would have been able to hold me back. That would very possibly have led to me being in a Murray-like position again because I think horses with a lot of “personality” are super funny and adorable. But it could also have led to a not-so-great fit between me and the horse, and then I’d be in the position of trying to sell a young, green horse. Which I know would suck. It absolutely would have led to me being back in the position of riding a green horse and trying to teach a green horse the basics of connection and dressage and jumping and not in the position to grow my skills where Murray and I left off. If I had my own horse, I wouldn’t have the lease on Timer right now.


me with every cute horse I see on the internet: I love you so much and you will be mine

Ultimately, this cooling off period was really good for me. I would never have asked for it at first, but I am so glad it happened. Time really was what I needed to chill out, but having great horses to ride in the interim certainly helped. At this point, I’m completely willing to wait on horse buying — for 6 more months, for a year, for two years — I’m no longer in a rush at all. My new dream situation is to pick up my second horse while maintaining my lease on Timer, so I can keep building my skills on T while new horse settles into the routine and gets with the program.

A few months ago, I was worried that not having my own horse would expedite losing my identity as a rider and someone who loves to learn about and improve my riding. But I’m not worried about that any more. Clearly I’m able to fit riding into my weird and wacky schedule given enough horsey enough flexibility. And even if riding isn’t my seven-day-a-week-all-day-at-the-barn-whenever-I-can-make-it-work hobby obsession of 2014/2015, that doesn’t make me any less able to work hard and grow in the time I do get to spend there. I’d love to get back to riding every day or even multiple horses a day in the future, but it’s just not in the cards right now. And that’s way more okay than I realised back in December.


more idyllic trail rides in my future, please!

what comes next?

One of the reasons I pushed things along this fall when we were diagnosing Murray was my impending vacation. I spent three weeks in Australia in November/December. Once it became clear to me that there was something more serious going on with the horse, I knew I wanted it sorted before I left. I did not need to spend my vacation trying to negotiate appointments and diagnostics with vets, or making big decisions about the future. I wanted things done and dusted — as much as possible — before I left.

For better or worse, that turned out to be a pretty simple request.

As of right now Murray is safely ensconced in his new pasture, making friends with all the geldings around him. He’s definitely gotten the memo that he’s retired, and has tested us several times with his semi-feral antics. Fortunately, my MIL is no fool. She knows the value of a good mannering halter and a carroty bribe.

So. What comes next?

disorganized aubrey plaza GIF

I can’t deny that retiring Murray has made my life simpler financially. Moving took a bigger hit on my finances than I expected, especially with the added expense of vet bills and hauling to get Murray to and fro. From that perspective, I’m very okay with hitting pause on horse ownership for a minute.

I’m not interested in hitting pause forever (I guess that’s called “stop”), or indefinitely. My ideal situation would be a six-ish month break — long enough to allow me to recoup my finances, ride a bunch of different horses, unlearn some bad habits, and think deeply about what I want in a pony partner. Then I’d start shopping in early summer (lesbehonest — I’ll be window shopping the whole time), but without a firm timeline so I could really wait until the right horse comes along. (My budget isn’t going to be huge even if I do manage to save save save for the first half of the year).

But real life rarely fits into our plans, so I’m going to go look at a horse today.

The Good Place GIF

I KNOW, I know. That isn’t the plan at all, Nicole! But I got a hot tip from someone I really trust that this guy is pretty cool and needs a home like yesterday, which his price reflects. I talked to the trainer and didn’t get any red flags. He’s close. His history is pretty good. TrJ knows the trainer who is selling him, and she thinks he’s promising.

If he’s perfect and he vets, I’ll think about making an offer. (Quite legitimately not sure I’m ready to pony up for all the accessories that a new horse needs RIGHT AWAY — two blankets, saddle fitting, potential new saddle, shoes, chiro, supplements, massage, etc. etc. so and and so forth in perpetuity.)

So we only move forward there if he’s PERFECT.

Otherwise, I told TrJ that I’d like to get into lessons and possibly lease, if she has someone available. She hemmed a bit on that, since all of her horses are leased out. She mentioned that I might do alright with one of her lesson ponies, and when I was like “I love ponies” she said, “Well, he’s actually a very cool pony.”


cutest little mofo around

For the forseeable future, there will be pony rides. And I am SO excited.

get with the program, human

It seems like every time I scheduled my first lesson with Trainer J, Murray found some way to sabotage it. First, by being sore as hell after standing in a stall for 3 weeks. Next, by being insanely rude to the vet and requiring cowboy lessons first. Most recently, by freaking out when the new farrier tried to burn his feet during hot shoeing, and becoming pretty sore up front.


So clvr. So smrt.

The farrier and I made a plan to get Murray more on board with the idea of hot shoeing (slow, measured exposure) and TrJ and figured we’d just move forward with the lesson as best we could. It was short, but very informative.

I expected my first lesson with TrJ to start like a clinic. Tell me about your riding, tell me about your horse, tell me about your goals.  It did not start like this.

TrJ came in with a plan for me. I was trotting Murray around on a long rein to loosen him up a bit, and TrJ had me come back to a walk. She wanted to give Murray a bit more of a chance to stretch out, and make some position modifications to me that would help us. She said she has noticed that I tend to let my heels get out behind me — absolutely true, and something I haven’t actively thought about fixing in a while. She also pointed out my atrocious habit of shoving Murray in the walk with my seat. These were the first two things TrJ wanted me to fix.

So I dropped my stirrups, and thought specifically about NOT shoving. Unfortunately, this kinda ends up making me stiffen my seat, it doesn’t give me a following seat. TrJ also told me to sit back on my pockets more, and had me lift my knees up over the flaps and sit on one of my hands to feel my seat bones. She told me to bring my legs back down and really relax them around the saddle, letting gravity pull my heels down and not ramming my toes up. This struck me as a little bit counter to the “sucking yourself into the saddle” idea of biomechanics, which made me a titch uncomfortable, but I went with it.


because biomechanics are my lord and savior, clearly

We worked at the walk for a long time. When my seat got too shove-y, TrJ had me drop my chin to my chest, which had the side effect of stilling my shoving muscles and really letting my seat follow. Whenever I started shoving again, I could drop my chin down and rediscover the feeling of following, and then lift my head up to, you know, look where I was going again.

I was definitely a little skeptical about this approach to my riding. Like, I know that shoving with my seat is a really bad habit and I shouldn’t do it. But I was not sure that starting there was really the best approach to creating a dressage horse who is more confident in the connection.

But lo, when I stopped shoving with my seat, Murray started taking bigger (albeit slower) steps and stretching down over his topline. At one point, he even jostled the bit lightly in my hands with his tongue — not in a grabby, rooting kind of way. But with his head on the vertical, just playing with the bit in my hands. That was a cool new feeling.


I love magical connection feelings

As part of not shoving with my seat, TrJ told me to relax my lower back, and feel like someone was pulling my torso back by the belt and the bra strap. I should have clarified during the lesson, but it didn’t seem like she wanted me leaning back. She wanted me resisting that feeling, I think. Regardless, when I stacked my torso up vertically (I have a habit of letting my cereal box fall forward from my hip) and became shorter and wider, TrJ was happy with the attempt.

Doing all of these things — relaxing my legs, following instead of shoving with my seat, “relaxing” aka squashing down my lower back, and keeping my torso vertical really made my seat bones connect with the saddle more. It felt like each seat bone had more surface area on the saddle, maybe double or more than what they had at the start of the lesson.

And all of this was accomplished just at the WALK.


fave gait. we soooooo good at it.

I had some strange-not-amazing feelings about this lesson afterward. It was quite different from what I have worked on with a biomechanics-focused instructor (Alexis) and from the path I’d been taking to improve Murray’s connection and throughness this last summer. And, I will admit it, I’ve spent lots of time on the ground at this barn watching TrJ’s riders, and they aren’t necessarily bear-down riders. I’m very comfortable with the biomechanics stuff, and I liked the progress Murray and I made this year. All of these things, plus the fact that TrJ didn’t ask me about what I wanted felt weird.

After more thought, I realized that it just feels weird because it’s different. TrJ has a program, and lots of successful riders in that program. She watches people — she really watches them — even when they aren’t in lessons. TrJ also has a very specific way she wants people to ride, and she has a method of building those riders to get to that way.

Murray’s feet seem to feel better, and he’s back to his usual level of out-of-shape-not-using-himself-not-terribly-cute-mover-ness. I’m looking forward to making more lessons happen, and refusing to accept Murray’s attempts at sabotage.

get with the program

One huge, different thing about my new barn is that now Murray and I are in a program. It’s not oppressive, but it’s there.

It’s not what I thought of when I (naiively) imagined a “program”. It’s not hallways of monogrammed trunks all in the same color and uniform saddle pads and a military requirement to buy that barn’s preferred brand of high end saddle. It’s not horses being fed up (or down) at the trainer’s discretion, without the option for preferred supplements or feed, or a requirement to be in training n-days per week or lessons m-days per month.

first day in blankies, with a new friend!

But there is a system. There are a few types of feed the barn gives to all horses there at least twice a day (a ration balancer), and they work with you to add in more calories or energy as necessary. They decide what pasture your horse is going to go in (with your input, if you have it) and make adjustments to smaller or bigger pastures as needed. The other day it was cold, drizzly, and foggy for the first time and when I got to the barn Murray was blankied up and happily out in pasture with his new friends. They didn’t ask, they just put on the turnout I’d provided and sent him out to do his thing. If someone needs the vet, they call the vet out and are there for the appointment. They’re there for you, but don’t necessarily force you into their mold.

One thing is absolutely true though: every horse at this barn is impeccably behaved.

with a couple of, uh, notable exceptions…

So after had the vet out to look at Murray’s strange lameness and he was about as tolerant of flexions as you’d expect (read: not very), Trainer J and I took a minute to chat about the plan moving forward. Murray flexed slightly positive on the right hind, and the vet thought that his hocks and joints were probably feeling crummy after standing in a stall for 3 weeks. Vet wanted me to get him back into work for a few weeks, then recheck and think about hock injections. Since I don’t have a billion dollars to throw at this problem, and my fall schedule is so spotty and strange, I wanted to develop a plan with Trainer J and get her thoughts.

What she said first surprised me. Trainer J wanted Murray to get into horsemanship lessons before we threw joint juice at him, and before we got into regular lessons.  She said that he’s spoiled, and that his current behavioral programming bordered on dangerous. The conversation went other places, and we covered all the bases I wanted to. Trainer J wasn’t mean or cruel about it, but she was pretty matter of fact: if I want to be in the program, Murray would have to get in it too. She said I needed to get her horsemanship guy, Cowboy Dave, out as soon as possible. Like the next morning, if he’d do it.

Murray is getting way better at walking past the Scary Hoop Houses, and loves being out in the field!

So we’re in trainer-mandated Cowboy therapy. I’m not going to pretend it didn’t hurt a bit to hear that Murray’s ground manners aren’t up to snuff. Even though it comes as absolutely no surprise to me. Or anyone who has read this blog for any period of time. It’s just one of those things that always triggers a ton of emotion in me.

I’m very open to change and learning new ways, so this isn’t a bad thing to me. But being in such a clear program is certainly different. At my old barn, all the horses were held to a much lower standard of behavior (basically: can you go in and out of pasture safely), and beyond that it was the owner’s problem to handle manners. For good or ill. I get the feeling that a lot of places are like that.

What do you prefer? More management hands on or more management hands off? Feeding and turnout only, or have them handle everything? If you’d asked me two months ago, I would have said hands off!


don’t talk to me just gimme dem carrots

But… I like the way the horses are here. They’re happy. The cowboy teaches them super well and is a great human teacher also. It’s probably a really, really good thing that they have a dedicated person to go to, to help horses and people communicate. But I also feel like this could definitely go the wrong way…. if all the horses are required to work with a horsemanship person who isn’t so fair, talented, or gentle.

This program seems awesome. I’m super glad I found it, and I think it will help us both become better versions of ourselves.

calming supplements & the placebo effect

I had a really tough ride on Suzy this week, which led me into a discussion with my barn manager about possibly giving her another dose of depo.  Barn manager suggested that since I spend a lot of time with Suzy, I’d be able to help Suzy’s owner decide if her behavior warranted another dose.  Now, there’s not a lot (almost none, but perhaps there is something I haven’t dug up yet) of evidence that depo actually does anything in horses, despite many, many, many anecdotes to the contrary.  Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, but I’m not really one to go adding hormones to someone’s lifestyle without a pretty good reason.

seemed appropriate here

This led me to think about the hundreds of calming supplements and treatments available for horses that have little to no evidence of a significant (or even potentially biologically relevant) effect upon behavior.  Hell, I use one of them!  Yet so many of us cling to these supplements and swear up and down that they are doing something.

But the placebo effect is a strong and very legitimate thing. Whether or not the placebo effect is causing actual physiological changes or is being exploited by companies to sell sham products, it is a very easy trap to fall into. Most of us are going to add calming supplements to a horse’s diet after they’ve been particularly wild and crazy for some amount of time — maybe a week’s worth of rides.  But if those particularly wild and crazy days are outliers, or even just somewhere on the edge of “normal” for that horse, then his behavior is going to trend back toward normal whether you add the calming supplement or not.  Those days were abnormal, and unless there’s something else significant going on to change the horse’s behavior (totally plausible — but not necessarily the case), the added calming supplement most likely did nothing.  The horse’s behavior was going to go back toward “normal” anyway.

big spikes of bad behavior like this == abnormal

Let’s say that we rate Murray’s badness on a very scientific scale of 1-10 each day: 1 is totally normal, no bad behaviors performed, 10 is rearing and striking.  (For the record, I’ve never experienced either a 1 or a 10 day.)  If Murray tends to hover around a 3.5 because he likes to get down with his bad self, but suddenly spikes up to an 8 one day, I’m likely to dump a bunch of extra magnesium in his bucket for a few days.  And then, because being a level-8 bad boy is a really unlikely occurrence, we just slide back toward the average. Which is both statistically and realistically much more likely to occur on any given day.

Especially because the way we think of behavior (or anything with a gradient, basically) tends to fall on a bell curve.  If we assume that each behavioral category is roughly on standard deviation away from the next, it means that behaviors in the “average” category occur 68% of the time. Behaviors one more standard deviation away from average occur with 95% frequency.  If being slightly nutty or slightly better than average is occurring with 95% frequency, any time you have a bad day, you have something approaching a 95% chance that your next ride will be better (assuming the two days are independent, which they aren’t).

So when we’re adding calming supplements, or more invasive approaches to calming behavior, how are we to know if we are really doing anything?  There are ways to test it — you could blindly rank your horse’s behavior every single day that you spend with him while another person either gives him that supplement or a sham supplement. Then you’d compare the distributions of behaviors demonstrated.  I just turn to the science.  Of course, there’s really not a whole lot of peer reviewed research in this area, which is frustrating.

All of this is not to say that I don’t believe in calming supplements or that diet can change behavior.  Obviously I do, and there are some behaviors that I have seen decrease rapidly with the right change in diet.  I am completely certain that if we mapped Murray’s behavior when he’s on alfalfa and compared it to his behavior off alfalfa, we’d see a significant difference.

even walking is hard when Murray eats alfalfa

But it does mean that I approach adding supplements like this with a fair bit of caution, and I pretty much don’t believe what I read from testimonials on the internet.  People are notoriously bad at understanding probability and statistics without training in those areas, and we love just-so stories.  We also really, really want to help our horses, and they can’t talk to us and say “I’m feeling a little extra girthy today, how about you take it extra slow while we tack up?” (I mean, sure, he does say that to me. It’s just usually while I’m tacking up and it’s a leeetle bit too late.)  It also means that I don’t pay too much attention to any one ride, or even any one week, when making decisions about this stuff.  One day is an outlier.  A whole week… could easily be a rough week.  Especially when there’s other stuff going on in the world that might influence behavior more than supplements do — changes in turnout, routine, weather… I’m seriously convinced that when the barometer drops, Murray’s brain swells and hurts his little head, because he’s usually much worse before a storm than during!

I may also use this logic to aggressively convince myself out of using supplements that might help. When barn manager originally told me to take Murray off alfalfa I was like “NAW THAT’S NOT A THING”.  Same with adding magnesium.  And both of those things had a huge positive effect on Murray’s general outlook on life.

So, how do you approach adding and subtracting supplements like this?  Just go with the prevailing wisdom? Trust your gut? Appeal to nature?