Something New

Not quite two years ago, when I went looking for a horse to buy, I didn’t think that I’d do much more than easy trail rides. I have various physical issues, and was happy to be able to sit on a horse at all. I wanted a horse with a kind eye and a sane mind. I found Tonka.  But, if you know me at all, you know that at the heart of my relationships with my animals is communication, and the way that I do that is through training. In my world, training isn’t about dominance, nor teaching a repetoir of tricks. Rather, training opens up a clear dialog so that I can listen to my animals and they can listen to me. That’s especially true with a horse.

It turned out that my body could handle more than I thought, and that Tonka is much more than a trail horse. I’ve been a dressage rider for most of my life. Dressage is all about the gradual, systematic athletic training of the horse so that mount and rider become in sync and can perform intricate movements in concert. That’s the way it should be done. Too often the rider is tense and harsh. and the horse is stressed and miserable – I’ve vowed to avoid that trap. I’m in no rush with Tonka, and don’t want to get up to the upper levels of the sport. I’m focusing on giving him aids that he understands and wants to respond to. We’re both getting fitter so that we can do the movements in a fluid way. So far, so good. At our first recognized show we placed second in our class.



Done right, and there’s a sense of accomplishment by the rider and the horse. Here, my instructor, Kim Litwinczak, is telling Tonka what a brilliant boy he is. He knows.

with Kim


One of the the challenges with dressage is that you have to do many repetitions of the exercises both in order to get it right and to build muscles, which is good for the body but not so good for the mind. So, when I heard about something called Versatility Challenge, I decided to try it. It would be different. I hoped it would be fun.

A Versatility Challenge is like a trail class on steroids. The organizers come up with things to walk over, though, and interact with. I knew we were going to be doing obstacles that Tonka had never seen, let alone trained on. But, Tonka is level-headed and trusting, and I’ve trained both verbal and physical cues that he listens to. I strapped on my treat bag and off we went.

The first challenge we entered had a bar that we had to lift, walk under and replace. That baby pool in the back? It had tennis balls in it. Tonka walked through it. Tonka did everything! He questioned my sanity a couple of times, but I asked him to go forward and when he did, I reached down and fed him a peppermint. What fun!

gate obstacle


The second challenge that we entered allowed participants to do a walk-through first, which was a good thing, because Tonka had to push a ball. More peppermints!



Then we did it mounted. We haven’t quite figured out how to push the ball straight ahead. Points off. Oh well!

ball mounted


There was also a turnstile

riding turnstile


and cavelettis spaced too tight for Tonka’s trot stride. Tonka had to pick up his hocks.



Doing the course was a good mental challenge for both of us, although I think that what Tonka enjoyed the most was getting out and watching something new.



Have you tried anything new lately?


  1. Great story! Facing new challenges can be both exciting and rewarding. I stepped out of my comfort zone earlier this past Spring when I ventured to Europe with a girlfriend. We were gone 6 wks and did a lot of traveling on all different modes of transportation so there was a huge learning curve as to how to navigate in a foreign language and un-chartered country for both of us. A lot of the skills you teach regarding animals such as being observant and taking time to access what is going on were exactly what we did only using people watching instead. We managed to get to all of our desired destinations in a timely safe way and really enjoyed seeing so much more then the usual expected sights!

    • I think that navigating transportation in foreign lands is such a challenge and a stress. I’m so impressed with what you did!

  2. This is so interesting! Thanks for sharing!! Yeah Tonka!!

  3. Brilliant blog. You really are a lovely matched pair and Tonka loves his peppermints !!
    Have tried a few new things over the years, not so much lately will have to get adventurous again.

    Also thanks to your Chocolate and Meringue Pie and some Cookies I now have to working outside cams, I couldn’t wait 3 weeks for my son to get back. Its amazing the power of Pie….:)

  4. I loving reading about your adventures.

    But one of my thoughts was I wonder what Tonka was “thinking” when you wanted him to push a big ole ball. Probably, there better be two peppermints at the end of this. ;-)

    • A challenge like that requires what trainers call a “high rate of reinforcement.” Translate that to “lots of peppermints given in quick succession.”

  5. How fun for you both. Good boy, Tonka!

    Recently I put on our state music teachers association annual conference — a whole new experience and quite stressful, but also fun and in the end, very successful and rewarding, for myself as the chair and for the attendees. I found my best idea was to pretend I was putting on a big party for all my friends, and that got me excited. A week after the conference, we moved out of our house of 37 years. Ay yay yay! But despite the stress and tiredness (and still finding things and places to put them after 3 weeks), I have to admit I feel enlivened and refreshed (along with the exhaustion) — the most adventurous and difficult things I have done in years. I don’t feel quite ready for another big challenge, but am looking forward to having another month of summer to plant a few things in my new (bare dirt) garden before heading back to teaching and winter.

    • What a great attitude to construct the conference as if it’s a party for friends. I bet that everyone who attended felt that positive vibe. Even the best of moves is stressful, but it sounds like you are as sane as my horse (that’s a compliment!!!)

  6. You’re right about his ears. Interested and not afraid. I’m glad you are feeling stronger and able to do more in the saddle. Looks like great fun! We got bees this weekend and I almost immediately was stung on the head. It was my fault because I freaked out when one flew into my hair. If I had stayed calm, she would have flown off. I’m cultivating my zen.

  7. Jess says that’s brilliant would love to be with you. Rock on Tonka…:)

  8. Each year we try something new. This year a new pasture coop and figuring out how to move it in the old pen enclosure. Planting broccoli for a fall crop. Dehydrating herbs and forbs for the layers in the winter when there’s no outside plants, and planting a Kousa dogwood to see if it can survive here. So far, no results to post, as they are all works in progress.

  9. I love your blog because I love how you voice your animals’ thoughts. I keep thinking you should write books with them as characters. Tonko and the Erstwhile Rooster …. You have a good voice when writing.

  10. I know this is different but I think many of us have faced this new challenge. My daughter and granddaughter lived with me from the time Charlotte was six months until May, she is five. It was a tough new start and I faced many challenges as a grandmother. Due to certain family circumstances, my husband and I had been my granddaughter’s main caregivers. Charlotte just started kindergarten but granddaughter and grandmother are still facing challenges of not living together and now school is in the mix. I also started a new job which also takes up our time. Life offers many new challenges and journeys and I find it is more fun to try to embrace them than have sorrow life has changed. My husband and I have moved out to the country and my dogs have really been so happy – there is a pond across the road where they can swim. I have always used the analogy that life is like a river with twists and bends and one never knows what is coming around that next bend. Good luck to you and Tonka. You have been quite an inspiration to me. Thank you.

    • It sounds like you are an inspiration to many! Your granddaughter is fortunate to have you. And, lucky dogs to now have a pond :)

  11. Can’t believe your temp’s and looks like no let up, keep cool. Any update on Lily.?…:)

  12. Agility for horses! What fun!
    Not really doing anything new but am flying cross country in a couple of weeks. Haven’t traveled by plane for more than 15 years. Will visit my daughter near Port Townsend, WA. We’ll be going on a whale watch trip and will scatter her father’s ashes. So there’s a family reunion of sorts. There may also be a day trip to the Museum of Glass in Tacoma.