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We Are Flying Solo

Showing posts with label groundwork. Show all posts
Showing posts with label groundwork. Show all posts

December 22, 2014

The Air Of Heaven…A Horse’s Ears…You Know How It Goes

Uh, no, THIS is my sacred duty, mom...
Yesterday, I rode.  Three simple words, yet in the context of the past year, an extraordinary thing.

The time has been there, & I learned (& even mostly followed!) the #1 rule of farm ownership:  ALWAYS RIDE FIRST.  But there have been so many other energy-sapping things… 

With my favourite weather site promising “abundant sunshine,” yesterday I gathered two red geldings & called Amazing Neighbour Vanessa.  I may have magically draining soil, but Encore is still healing from his ass tear (yes, if you missed the brief mention, my talented horse actually strained his gluteus muscle) & even with studs, I worried about him slipping in our saturated fields. 

In addition, because he cannot have me getting complacent, he has knocked the inside of a front leg AGAIN; we’re keeping an eye (& the magic creme) on that one.  I am grateful a thousand times over for Vanessa’s continued generosity with things like all-weather footing.

Solo's first stud tapping...
Those Familiar Motions

Yesterday, I swept brushes over chestnut backs that were definitely missing some tone, picked mud out of under-used hooves, dripped iodine into soggy frogs (just in case).

Yesterday, I smoothed the velcro on ankle boots, cinched girths on saddles & surcingles, wrestled half-chap zippers over fluffy fleece breeches.

Yesterday, all three of us smiled as we made the brief hack down the fenceline in a bright, swinging walk (although only one of us knew that there was only sandbox torture in store).

Two Horses At The Same Time?  
(honk if you get it...)

Vanessa is all about versatility, keeping horses’ minds & bodies fresh & well-rounded, a philosophy that meshes perfectly with my own.  Hence the handy highline at one end of the arena, where I could tether one beast while I worked the other.  A two-for-one deal:  exercise AND great practice at standing tied while your buddy does things at the other end of the arena, which is possibly more fun than the spot under the line.

Duh, mom, TRAIL BIT!
So it was that yesterday, Solo watched as I suppled Encore under saddle with David’s words in my head: “Let the circles be the gymnastic exercise.” 

Encore responded with tongue-lolling annoyance, because “Mommmm, this is the trail bit, NOT the dressage bit.  How am I supposed to work under these conditions??!”  Like many abusers, I was asking him to work in the harshness of a Myler Comfort Snaffle instead of a HS Duo

*insert eyeroll here* 

Nonetheless, yesterday, my chunky Thoroughbred softened with each change in bend as we worked 10-m figure-eights.  As directed, the focus was “slow is ok, be round across his topline as he heals, we’ll bring forward back later.

Yesterday, his left lead canter was back to feeling like a canter, instead of a washing machine, & he stayed soft & quiet as he hopped over a 12” cavaletti in a steady rhythm.

But he can teach you all about vienna reins!
And Mr. Shiny??

Yesterday, after trading places, Solo managed to swallow his anxiety about the long lines (this is the horse who took four years to trust longeing enough to do it normally) & not  only accept the contact of the outside line, but CANTER on the lines.  It may seem tiny, but this is a huge achievement for him, as I trained him primarily in a round pen for that type of work.  The lines are new to him & he remains suspicious of long ropes around his legs.

Yesterday, I led home two horses after they stretched out tight backs, worked out bored energy, & rediscovered the spring in their step.

And you know what?  I was sore this morning, but I think there was a little something extra in my walk today too.
Can we head back towards this?

December 21, 2012

Up Down!!!!

OMG OMG OMG!  I CAN POST THE TROT!

Whoever thought such news would be cause for excitement?  But I could barely contain my glee Wednesday evening as I cautiously put my feet in the (very long) stirrups and asked Encore to trot.

The ortho squad has given their approval for me to proceed, just letting pain be my guide.  Brian, my completely awesome PT, is a bit more conservative but is still very pleased with progress.

And it didn't hurt.  Second gear is now mine again.  Which means I get third gear back too.  Thrilled does not even begin to describe it.

Encore himself remains a bit of a puzzle.  He seems to be healed up (hoorah!) and is moving well.  The new saddle just needs breaking in but he still seems happy with it.  But mentally, the big youngster remains a little enigmatic to me. 

When I drive up and holler my greeting out the truck window, both horses prick their ears and turn happily in my direction.  No doubt in that never-ending equine hope that every truck dispenses carrots and other palatable goodies.

Yeah, I'm watchin' you, lady.
But when I enter the pasture to fetch said equine, Solo immediately turns towards me and waits with bright eyes, with an expression full of happy and hopeful that the halter is aimed for his stripey nose.  Encore, though, moves behind him, watching for a treat, but keeping his distance from the halter.

I am puzzled -- BO says both come right to the gate and Encore offers no issues being captured for hotwalker duty (which he is not all that fond of) and I know all the staff spoils both boys rotten with treats and pets, so it's just me.  I wonder if he STILL begrudges that one time I caught him by surprise with a shot months ago. 

If I move quietly and softly put the rope around his VERY watchful neck, he is then easily haltered and transforms back into Mr. Amiable Businessman.  So why the stand-offishness?  He enjoys getting out and doing things.  We have lots of variety.  He used to walk right up to me and offer his nose.  Is he secretly a woman in his TB brain, never letting go of my one surprise stab?  I know they remember the strangest details, but he has had shots since in the same place with no issues (once I learned surprises were bad, oops, sorry, Solo prefers no warning).

Has anyone invented that horse telepathy hat yet?   

July 7, 2012

On Again, Off Again

Summers are frustrating for me.  It's field season at work, which means I am doing this...



...while losing my body weight in sweat every day.  It is fun and I love the wildlife, but trust me, it's not as easy as it looks!  It also means I have no consistent schedule.  I am often on travel status as my territory covers 1/3 of the state.  Horse training and article writing does not seem to be a priority of my agency for some reason.

So I am left to piecemeal it as best I can.  I make plans and change them and then change those.  Sometimes I have to wait until the heat breaks or until it's raining so field work is canceled or we have meetings so I get to stay home.

Yeah, your clinic scheduled on a Wednesday?  Please stop complaining that it won't fill, we can't all be kept women...

However, since I spend many MANY hours behind the wheel of the work truck, I contemplate.  What do I want from Encore's round pen work?  With Solo, I needed to earn his trust, so my approach was to calm him and reassure him as much as possible.  But with Encore, I think I want to leave a little raw edge.  He is appropriately obedient, but has a little fire, a little pushback, and I don't think I want to take that away.  I WANT a little badass-ery in my eventer and to know that he is self-confident enough to attack new challenges and move boldly forward even if I falter.  Solo became bold and confident because I showed him he could be, but Encore already has his own core to build on. 

This is my working theory.  In the meantime, what riding time we get is spent on building his hind end and back on trails and in transitions in hopes that our fall season will see everything bumped up a notch!

July 1, 2012

When Baby Says No: Encore Vs. Round Pen Pt II

The helmet cam is so much more than XC courses!  I put it on a week or so ago to tape Encore in the round pen, where I was briefly going to work him before riding him.  However, someone had had the audacity (according to Encore) to place a bright blue bottomless pit harboring zombie cows right next to the round pen.  End result:  no riding, but a repeat of our last round pen escapades with a twist of anxiety which melted in the heat into stubbornness.

I first led him around the pen and let him stare at the Blue Pit for a few moments, giving him a fair look at it and leading him back and forth by it a few times.  Then I turned him loose and said, "Ok, buddy, you're own your own to work this out.  Go."  He then goes to what is becoming his textbook response of (a) rush through thing I don't want to do and pinning my ears, (b) pulling out all evasion tricks to avoid said thing, (c) finally, unable to think of any other ways out, giving in.  For today.

Ridiculous commentary in my horrible video voice provided free of charge, as I walk you through my approach, although you will have to turn your volume all the way up.  I'm still working on finding the perfect mic settings for the camera.



When he is still in the "no" phase, but he is getting hot and tired, watch him hunt for the stop near the gate opposite the Blue Pit.  It it critical that I do NOT let him stop here in a place HE has decided is safe.  He may only stop or relax when he enters the space which I insist is safe, despite any zombie, real or imagined.  You can see, it's like a switch flipping, when he decides it is too much work saying no, so he might as well just play along.

This second video is the last two minutes of our work in the other direction before my battery died.  He was much more difficult to the right and threw out every evasion he could come up with multiple times, which are caught here, including turning his butt to me, shoving his head over the fence, looking away, trying to switch directions, backing up and so forth.  LITERALLY ten seconds after the battery died, he dropped to a walk, dropped his head licked his lips, sighed, and said, fine, you win.  Of course.  You can see that moment begin right as the video stops.



*SAFETY FIRST.  At all times, I am conscious of his body language, just how belligerent he is feeling, where his body and feet can go, and where my feet and body are.  I stay focused and on my toes and am ready in a moment to drop or back off should feet start to fly.  I would like to say he is too kind to go for that option, but a horse is a horse, so if you engage in asserting your leadership, BE CAREFUL and be sure of your plan before you walk in the pen.  And plans B, C, and D.

You are now free to discuss at will... 


June 14, 2012

Equine Psychology And The Meaning Of It All

This will be a long one.  Hopefully it will not fall into the TL;DR category, but my brain has been busy in last 48 hours and we've made some exciting progress.

So now, I'm going to tell you what the meaning of it all is.  The meaning of life?  Ha, no, I am sorry, as a biologist, I must inform you that life itself has no meaning other than a fervent race of genes to survive amidst a sea of incomprehensibly random events.  I know, the truth hurts.

Rather, consider, what the meaning is behind all these tricks we do, all these little steps and coercions and coaxings that we present to our horses in the name of "training."

A friend of mine, a horse trainer for decades, encapsulated it in two words:  horse training is directing choices.  You have to think, to plan, to set a horse up to succeed and to find the right answer to your question.

Every step is a fork in the road.  If you choose the wrong fork, I will pelt you mercilessly with water balloons.  It won't hurt you, but it will sure as heck be annoying and soon you will miserably concede that you went the wrong way.

If you chose the right fork, I will instead walk quietly with you hand in hand, the sun warming our backs in a companionable silence.

When presented with these options, unless you are heinously stubborn and just want to prove a point (i.e. if you are pony, a mare, or simply a pain in the ass.  Or me.), you will quickly (or if you are Solo, eventually) choose the quiet sunshine over endless irritation.

Equine psychology itself fascinates me -- what on the surface seems to be a basic herd animal is actually, upon further exploration, a personality with complex, unique behavioural patterns with whom, if you take the time and effort, you can build an amazing relationship that will change your life forever.

What brings me to all this esoteric pondering today is a 15-20 minute session I spent in the round pen last night with Encore.  Like Solo, I have no idea how he was started or how many owners he has had.  Because he was a racehorse, I can make some educated guesses and based on what I have been told by CANTER and what Encore himself tells me, his trainer was a good egg and he has not been beaten or mistreated at any point during his life.

Not my round pen.  I wish.
This was only his second visit to the round pen.  Let me tell you how much I love round pens:  perhaps my favourite training tool, I haven't had access to one for three years.  But it was invaluable during my early years with Solo and building our relationship.

With Solo, though, in the pen I was dealing with fears and anxiety.  A three-year stint of "I promise I will not beat you with a whip EVER."  Defeating blue tarp terror.  Showing him a leader could be a benevolent friend and partner.  As a result, he gave me his whole heart and trust and we have never looked back.

Encore is different.  In our first session, it was clear that he had no concept of round pen work, it was just a small circular paddock to him, around which he trotted randomly while watching the other horses over the fence.  I felt him out, introduced him to the very basics of changing direction and stopping at liberty, noted his marked resentment toward the longe whip, and left it at that.

Last night, I focused on one goal:  you will not move into the pressure of my aids and you will stay out on the rail ALL THE WAY AROUND the pen.  He likes to trot the rail on one half, then cut across the other half on a dividing line between me and the rail.  If I push him out with my body, he just gets mad, pushes back and rushes by.

Now, I know how to round pen a horse.  I know how to train a horse to give to pressure (about which Encore is excellent in hand) and I know how to read a horse's body language.  I know how to wait the horse out and achieve the important "join up" moment in which the horse has recognized and accepted that you are, in fact, in charge and he is willing to concede the point and trust your leadership.

Yeah, pretty much like that.
But his belligerence about staying out of the center had me a bit puzzled.  He clearly did NOT respect the pressure of my aids and pushed right back.  And when I say pushed back, I mean he pinned his ears, wrinkled his nose, dropped his head and let fly with bolting bucks of rage like a rank two-year-old, both back feet pointedly flying in my direction at about my head height.  This is the equine equivalent of saying, "Lady, go f*ck yourself."  Not exactly what I expected from the doe-eyed pleaser and an obvious red flag that our partnership was not quite there yet.

One of the ladies riding in the ring next to us commented, "Oh my, doesn't he feel good tonight!"  I laughed quietly and said, "Well, he is certainly throwing an impressive temper tantrum!"  I am quite sure that to everyone in the arena, it looked like I was simply standing there while my horse frolicked around the pen, instead of the complex psychological dance that was actually occurring.

My response was to do nothing.  I simply stood still and maintained my body language of "I don't care how you do it, just keep moving forward in the direction I tell you."  I didn't have the longe whip this time; after a conversation with lifeshighway about a stallion she used to own and a lot of thinking, I decided to just use my longe line as a throw rope.

Horse is not thrilled with request.
After each bucking fit, he would return to the rail and trot quickly, head pointedly turned to the outside in case I didn't catch the fact that he was giving me the finger before.  Then, halfway around, he would swerve and cut off the end again.  I would take one quiet step towards his ribcage and swing the end of the line towards him about a foot; even these small aids were very clear to him.  This would set off another fit of bucking fury back to the rail -- he quite pointedly resented my assertion that I wanted to be the clear leader of the partnership; I wanted more than just him mostly going along with me simply because he is a kind, workmanlike type of horse.

This continued for about five minutes.  I admired his cat-like athleticism, but stayed completely nonreactive to his antics and just kept him moving in either direction I wanted with a simple step or a tiny swing of the rope.  Sometimes he would try to change direction on his own, another attempt to push back at me, which requires a quick response of cutting him off and keeping him traveling the way I chose.

Then, somewhere in his clever little brain, the switch flipped.  In the course of four strides, he sighed, his trot slowed and relaxed, his nose dropped and he conceded the point by continuing quietly on the rail all the way around the pen.  I quickly praised him profusely while keeping him trotting.  He dropped to a walk, chewing and flicking an ear towards me and I let him, accepting his relaxation by releasing a little bit of pressure, showing him that yes, he made the correct decision.

Photo by horsecentric.  I hope she doesn't mind me using it, it's an excellent example of submission from her great work with her horse.  I will remove it if requested.
I changed his direction and lifted him back to trot.  He pinned his ears for the first few steps, then his eye softened, his head dropped again and he agreed to trot quietly around the rail, even splashing through a puddle.

I waited; I wanted three things:  I wanted chewing, I wanted the inside ear locked on me, and I wanted his nose on the ground.  I wanted him begging to be allowed back in my herd.

Always a smart one, it didn't take more than a few minutes before I had them all and I quietly said whoa and removed all pressure by turning my back to him and staring at the ground.  He turned, walked up, then stood beside me with pricked ears, expectant, but unsure what would happen next.  I walked around his body, running hands and line over him.  Then I asked him to follow me at liberty in a few small circles, which he readily did.  But when we stopped, he dropped his head to snatch some clover, breaking his attention and showing me he wasn't quite done.

Not me.  White clothes around horses is crazy.
I drove him softly away again, getting another ear pinning and a wrinkled nose, but they were half-hearted now and his trot remained slow.  It didn't take more than a few laps before he showed me he was ready and I let him come back in.  This time, I could walk around him and control not only his head, but his hips and his feet with my eyes and body without touching him.  I could pivot him on the forehand or back him up or lead him forward in a circle and he stayed focused on me without my touching him or using a rope.

This was mission accomplished and it both thrilled and fascinated me.  While my sessions with Solo had been about luring an anxious horse into trust, this had been convincing a confident, sassy horse to accept and give over his body control to me.  Two different horses, two different personalities, and two different dances, but both partnership negotiations successful thanks to one small pen.

This won't be Encore's last session.  We will repeat it a few more times and each one should get shorter.  You may ask, why bother?  Just ride and train him.  To me, the psychology IS part of the training.  The partnership I want with my event horse includes his mind, his heart, and his trust.  This is the best way I know to acheive that, so I consider it an indispensible step in what I hope will be a long and fruitful journey with this continually surprising, ever-intelligent, unfailingly curious, and always wonderful horse.

September 16, 2011

Back To Good (For Half Of Us)

Wednesday, two shiny red boys went to visit Dr. Bob's trusty sidekick, Dr. Brian, who does lots of bodywork.

Encore was first; he needed his fall shots and a bloodwork panel (all normal, hooray!). In addition, his lumpy back and pelvis, all jammed up from exploding out of starting gates, needed some serious chiropractic attention. So Dr. Brian adjusted his withers. And lower back. And hips. And elbows. And neck. And pelvis. Did I mention he was jammed up? Afterwards, it was amazing, even his topline changed and softened. He gave a sigh of thanks and stood very still for his ministrations. I am very excited that we've reset everything to baseline so I can rebuild his muscle and condition from there.

Solo was next, the problem child. Dr. Brian went over every joint in his body, adjusted a few things, and then said, "Hm." The same sore spots in his loins and behind his hips tweaked as reliably as ever. I'd given him two weeks off to see if complete rest made any difference whatsoever. It didn't. Per Dr. Brian's recommendations, which agreed with Dr. Bob's, we'll keep up the light work schedule for another month, then re-evaluate. We don't want to let him down completely -- he's difficult to condition and just letting bad muscles sit merely gives you tighter muscles and less body support. That miraculous cure I was waiting for? Poor Dr. Brian didn't have it and got to watch my crestfallen face again.

So we'll keep on keepin' on. Encore has been threatened within an inch of his life to stay sound so I can stay busy with Project Horse 2011. Yesterday, he conquered the Blue Tarp of Doom without even a flinch over the course of about 30 seconds. I am baffled by a horse who learns faster than I do so new lesson plans are in order for the weekend!

August 23, 2011

Little Red Rearing Hood, Pt II

Disclaimer Again: I am not, nor have I ever claimed to a professional anything (except maybe Professional Dispenser Of Sarcasm). Horse training is not for the inexperienced, faint of heart, quick of temper, or slow of reflex. Be safe, ask for help, and BE SAFE!

He leapt and spun and dug in to a scrambling gallop. I called him a not very nice name that started with a b-a-s and ended with a t-a-r-d, but otherwise, remained impassive, holding the end of the lead and letting him tear around his melodramatic circle. When he began to slow, I lifted the end of the whip slightly and asked him to continue, which propelled him into a new frenzy of drama.

When I was ready, I asked him to stop, an opportunity, he gladly seized, licking his lips and begging forgiveness. I patted his head and we turned to the trailer again. He assumed his position on the ramp again. I prepared to ask him for another step again. I was presented with a view of his front ankles again.

So he found himself on the circle after he was done twisting and bucking away.

"You're doing this to yourself, you know," I informed him as he scrambled madly around me. I was not chasing him with whip or rope. I kept my body quiet and still, simply following his circle. He knew what I wanted. He simply didn't want to do it and was using all the tricks he knew to end the dance.

We repeated this a few times. It was hot and he quickly worked up a heavy sweat. I stayed quiet and kept the directions clear: you can walk nicely into the trailer and hang out in the shade or you can stay out here and work in circles and be hot and unhappy.

I'm not usually a proponent of the circling thing. I'd rather use a tap as a forward cue and a simple pressure and release approach. But to tap, you must be able to touch the horse with the whip. Which you cannot do if he is standing all hi-ho-Silver at skull level. You could touch him, tap him, with the whip all day long anywhere else, but on the trailer ramp, abandon hope all ye who enter.

So we circled. And we approached the trailer again. And he stood up again. As I looked up at him, I saw pinned ears, flat against his head, and I saw his anger as he turned his head and glared down at me. I had called his bluff and he was pissed.

We circled some more and stopped again. He was hot. I was hot. A fit young TB, he could probably keep it up all day, but I did not want to push him into a black rage OR heat stress.  I never hit him, I never hurt him, I never chased him, but his penchant for drama might write checks that neither of our bodies could cash.

"Take him for a walk for a few minutes, let him have a mental break." I handed his lead to his owner and sat down to nurse a drink and ponder.

I knew he knew what I wanted. And I knew he knew I knew he knew. I also knew he had not yet conceded that apes should get full respect; that was a much longer, deeper project. He was an intriguing mental puzzle, one I longed to unravel. He was not dangerous in that he would intentionally hurt you -- had he wanted that, I would have been finished 30 minutes ago. He would just rather not toe the line unless you made him. But it was not a physical battle (we'll always lose those in the end), it was a mental one, which is what made it so interesting.

He and his owner came wandering back. "Ok," I said, "put him on the trailer."

She walked him to the ramp. He stepped on, hesitated for about five seconds, then sighed and walked in. In the shade, they stopped and he licked his lips and lowered his head. Lots of pats and finally, a rest. After that, he proceeded to unload and load a few times, then we were done.

Over the past week, he has continued to march on readily. When the rope halter goes on, his body language changes and he becomes alert and obedient. I would love to keep working with him, but he is not my horse, so I must respect those boundaries. But I think he got the message, at least for the time being. Will it stick? I hope so, but I feel certain he will need reminders, although they will undoubtedly be far easier than the first drawing-of-lines-in-the-sand.

Sweet though he is, he is smart, fit, energetic, young, red, and easily distracted. A challenge for anyone. His owner is an excellent rider and an experienced horse owner, strong and intelligent, just a little out of practice on the groundwork. Her horse, as all of ours attempt to do (and often succeed!) has found a few small openings in her armour and made the most of them. Fortunately, he will soon be hopefully back on course and continue on his way to becoming a well-trained, mannerly eventer.

He is lucky enough to have an owner who understands the bad manners lead to other problems, that eventual caving in to bribery does not equal trained horse, that you must have the body AND the mind to succeed.  Because of this, he will get to lead the happy, well-adjusted life of a horse who is obedient and safe.  And his owner will get to enjoy her horse with a little less frustration every day.

August 21, 2011

Little Red Rearing Hood, Pt. I

Disclaimer: I am not, nor have I ever claimed to a professional anything (except maybe Professional Dispenser Of Sarcasm). Horse training is not for the inexperienced, faint of heart, quick of temper, or slow of reflex. Be safe, ask for help, and BE SAFE!

I watched as she tried to load her horse on the trailer.  He stepped willingly enough onto the ramp until his back toes met the edge.  There he stopped, craning his neck inside, but refusing to move his hind feet to any point of committment.  She coaxed and tugged and bribed and begged, he looked around, pointedly ignoring her requests in a show of subtle defiance.

After 45 minutes of this, he gave in and wandered into the rig with a sigh. His handler fumed with the frustrated fury any of us have felt when thwarted at that critical loading moment.

"I need help," she told me.

"I hope I have some to give," I answered.

And so it began.

"You don't have a trailer problem," I said. "You have a leading problem and you have a respect problem. He is not afraid, he just doesn't feel like cooperating on any terms other than his own, if he can help it. He IS a redhead."

We talked about leading, about controlling the horse's feet, about never letting those feet stop. The key to trailer loading is a reliable forward cue and a commitment to seeing it through, as well as NEVER EVER EVER losing your temper.

"Ok," I started, "Give it a go and make sure, whatever happens, he is not allowed to stand still. If he backs up, let him go back without pressure, but as soon as he stops, move him forward again."

I was interested to see how he would respond -- not only was he a bit cocky, he was also on the sensitive and dramatic side. Much like Solo, he could NOT be forced into things unless you fancied yourself trampled into a human pulp.

He wore a rope halter and a head bumper, just in case. They practiced some leading away from the trailer -- she was confident and strong as always, he was obedient, but distracted.

Approaching the trailer, he quickly got wind of the plan and in an effortless shift, pushed her in a veering line off the left side of the ramp with his chest and shoulder. She turned him and came again and the second time, he was even faster in his re-direction.

After watching four or five times, it was clear he had little regard for the pink apes at the other end of his lead rope. He has never been a mean thing, in fact, he is very sweet-natured and gregarious. But like any kid whose boundaries have not always been clear, he knew how to take an opening when he saw one.

"Do you mind if I take him for a second?" I wondered how he would respond to a different-smelling ape.

"Oh dear god, please do!" She practically threw the lead rope at me.

Here we go, I thought.

I began by asking him to yield his hindquarters to my touch in both directions. Ok, good. Now lower your poll. Ok, not great, but passable. Ok, now move in a circle around me. Oh dear.

"Kindly move in a circle, please" was apparently translated by this equine brain as "race around at a speed trot bouncing off the end of the line." His head was cocked pointedly to the outside of the circle, most certainly not giving me the time of day.

We continued to circle until he began watching me and flicking an ear in my direction. My heart wept for our property's lack of a round pen. But you make do. We stopped and started and reversed and repeated until he was willing to walk the circle with considerably less frenetic energy.

Ok, let's walk to trailer. We get to the ramp and he assumes the position -- front feet firmly at threshold of door, back stretched out and hind toes against the base of the ramp. I have his lead softly in my left hand and dressage whip in my right. I begin to lift my right wrist to gently touch his haunch with my whip.

Did I blink? Because suddenly, he is standing on his hind legs, his front hooves dangling at my eye level. For the first time in my life, I find myself wishing I had put on a helmet. For groundwork. 

To be continued...

January 30, 2011

Back To Basics

I was hard at work last night, whining about how I couldn't ride my horse and throwing myself about the house in true adult fashion.  Lifeshighway had the audacity (the nerve!) to break into said whining fit and suggest just doing something fun with Solo on the ground so at least I wouldn't just be staring at him with sad puppy eyes.

She is a very smart friend.

Add to that it was 60 degrees and sunny; it was simply not possible to stay in the house and pout, so I rolled over to the farm and decided to blow the dust off our groundwork, something I'd not done for probably two years.

Ground exercises are so very simple, yet they can be vital underpinnings to not only our relationship with our horses, but our ability to handle them safely. But in their very simplicity lies the ease with which we neglect them. I believe it is vital that every horse we own should have these basic cues thoughtfully installed for two reasons: (1) It allows us to control their body movements from the ground. (2) It helps to establish our role as a leader in our horses' mind. (3 - ok, I thought of another one) It lets our horses engage their minds through communication in a language they understand: pressure/release and body language.

Here is what I consider the basics:

-Yield the hindquarters to pressure behind the girth area on both sides. This includes a proper cross-over step with the hind legs.

-Step back from pressure either on the bridge of the nose or the chest.

-Lower the head from pressure on the poll.

-Walk in a circle around me in both directions, maintaining the motion unprompted until I say whoa.

-Lead quietly next to me. Stop when I stop. Back up when I back up. Wait patiently when we are standing still.


It's not rocket science. I use a rope halter from our good friends at Sunset Halters (Solo is even on their photo page in his halter/bridle they made for him!), a 10' lead rope, and a dressage whip. Solo models his custom halter, below. And as a side note, these halters are fantastic; it still looks as great as it did five years ago and you can wash it in your washing machine! They never fade, stretch, or break.

This picture is so old, Solo has a mane!

I use the butt of the dressage whip to give pressure cues on the chest and rib cage. I use my fingers for pressure on the poll or nose. I use body language to control the whoa and backing up at a distance. And I ALWAYS maintain a relaxed, calm, patient demeanor so that Solo is at ease too.

It usually works like this:

I hold the lead rope in one hand and standing next to Solo's left shoulder, I ask him to yield his hindquarters to right using the butt of my whip against his ribs. I use the lightest pressure possible, only increasing if he does not respond and releasing as soon as he does. I repeat three times. I have no idea why three. It feels good. I repeat standing on his right side.

I place the fingers of one hand on the bridge of his nose and ask him to back four or five steps. I then put three fingers on his poll and ask him to lower his head.

Next, I ask him to walk three circles around me in each direction. I just like three, ok. After three circles, I lean slightly to one side, fix my eyes on his hip and ask him to swing around and face me squarely at the halt. Eyes are powerful, so he does.

I walk up, pat him, then tie the lead rope around his neck, so he is now at liberty. I walk off, he follows with his nose at my elbow. We circle and loop at the walk, turning both directions, some big loops, some smaller. Then I stop. He stops. I take four deliberate steps backwards. So does he. I have not touched him since tying up the lead. I start forwards again and now I trot. He trots. I stop and back up quickly and he does the same.

Now, I turn and face him straight on and raise my arms above my head, square my chest and ask him to back up two steps. He does and I lower my arms and relax. I count to ten, then move into him and rub his forehead, he licks and chews and we are done. Maybe fifteen minutes has elapsed.

He is now re-tuned into my body and my energy, he is attentive to me and when I untie the lead from his neck, he follows me quietly back to the barn. Even though it's been a while, he remembers his exercises well and I am satisfied.

So, fellow horse-folks, how are your basics? Rusty? Polished to a spit-shine? Not yet installed?  Can you complete each task on the list?  Do you have other favourites that you insist your horses know?  Do share!

September 3, 2009

Lights, Camera, SHOWTIME! Pt I

Well, I had no manageable canter but that did not deter me: our farm had a schooling hunter show coming up and danged if I wasn't going to enter! Surely I could canter in a circle, even if Solo WAS falling all over himself I could at least control him by staying in tighter circles at all times.

So another dream was about to come true, to show my very own glowing steed and gallop a victory lap, blue ribbons streaming from our bridle as the crowd roared.....or at least a couple show moms clapped halfheartedly?

About three days before the show, you could feel the atmosphere as the farm change. The ring was dragged, jumps were moved and decorated, lessons intensified as we all prepped. Tack was cleaned and horses bathed. Solo felt it too. By Friday night, his barely controlled canter had disintegrated into a half-bucking bolt of a transition that became a haul at Mach 7. Brakes? What brakes? My quiet, mostly obedient horse had been overtaken by his TB half and become a hot, snorting, running ball of fire. Basically, he was unrideable.

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I scoff in the general direction of your show-related aspirations!
My heart crumpled Friday night as I was forced to admit to myself that there was NO WAY I could navigate him safely around a hunter course the next day. Here I was, with a perfectly good, immaculately clean horse that I couldn't even freaking ride. I sat in front of his stall with my chin in my hands in utter dejection with doubt and depression battling it out in my head.

You should just sell him, you can't even ride him properly, you've completely messed him up, just give up." (Doubt can be cruel and quite persuasive.)

Now wait just a minute! I said.This is Solo's farm -- all he knows is that tension is in the air, trailers are coming in, I can't really blame him for being nervous. After all, he's never been to show before as far as I know.

And then it hit me. He'd never been to a show as far as I knew. Well, duh, of COURSE he was spooky and nervous and crazy, he had no idea what was going on. I had a new plan.

Saturday morning, instead of putting on my breeches and saddling up, I took my (immaculately clean!) horse out of his stall, put on his halter, and proceeded to spend the day leading him around the warm up area and arena, just taking in the sights.

Yes, he was spooky. Yes, he was jumpy. But I just let him stand and stare and blow and examine it all. I had learned by that point that he was the kind of horse who needed to look at things and think about them. Once allowed to do that, he would be fine. And by the end of the day, he was relaxed, grazing near the arena, nostrils returned to normal size and whites of eyes put away for another, more worthy occasion.

That day, I learned the value of mileage. I learned that we cannot expect our horses to fearlessly forge right into everything like a seasoned pro. A seasoned pro gets that way by seasoning and not just with paprika (oh, I crack myself up!). What at first seemed like a lost day, on examination afterwards turned out to be a priceless training opportunity. Solo had just learned that all the hustle and bustle and noise and dust and speakers and trailers and pennants were harmless. Now we could take that positive experience and use it as a stepping stone to the next one. And that, my friends is mileage!

Next goal: to actually RIDE my horse in the show!

August 27, 2009

Work, work, work, OOO CLINIC!

We kept practicing. Slowly longeing became less about torture and Solo became less convinced that I would beat him to death. We could walk and trot in both directions, with and without side reins!! He was still reduced to a quivering, blowing mess by the sight of a longe whip and canter was out of the question but...baby steps.

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Oh yeah, I'm still watching you closely, lady...
I also stumbled upon, of all things, a Parelli Natural Horsemanship clinic not too far from me. Yes, yes, I hear your groans, but just wait a moment. All these programs have, at their heart, some very useful tools. I also thoroughly investigated the instructor, Carol Coppinger -- the only female four star Parelli instructor in the country -- and she came with GLOWING reviews, even from the skeptics.

It was my first winter with Solo -- we were getting to know each other but I still felt like something was missing. So I sent in my check, loaded up (with some difficulty to be discussed later) the trailer and drove out.

IT WAS FREAKING FREEZING-ASS COLD. On the way home afterward, my truck blew a radiator and broke down late on a Sunday night in the middle of nowhere. Did I mention it was FREEZING-ASS COLD??? But it was also an invaluable experience. Carol first had us team up to play horse and get a feel for how the horses view our cues and some feedback from other participants on how clear our cues actually were.

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Look, honey, I'm a prancing pony!
The next day and a half were spent putting it into practice both on the ground and in the saddle with our horses. What impressed me most about Carol is that she truly understood what the POINT of it all was, which is clear communication and a good baseline partnership with your horse, on which you can build other training. She emphasized multiple times that "I don't give a damn if your horse can do a perfect Sideways or Circle, what I care about is that he understands what you are asking of him, i.e. moving his feet as directed. Once he gets it, MOVE ON."

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We both listen intently.
It was REALLY neat and rewarding to see Solo watching me, thinking, trying. You could almost hear him going, "OH! You finally figured out how to talk to me!" I, on the other hand, really struggled at first with being clear with my body language. My signals were muddled and as a result, my horse was muddled. Carol wasted no time taking me in hand and showing me how to be clear, fair and consistent to my horse!

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Not that way, THIS way!
And what a difference it made. Those two days did more to cement the relationship that Solo and I were building than anything I had ever encountered before. I saw little value in the higher levels of the program, they just had no application to what my goals were. BUT that initial level of effective groundwork really changed the way I looked at horse training, at communication with our partners, and would stick with me forever. I still use the exercises today as a refresher of "hey, yield your hindquarters" or "please keep moving until I tell you to stop."

So thank you, Carol, for your insight and patience! And for all you Parelli-haters out there, just remember, hate the playa, not the game. Because at the core of the game, there is much truth. And that truth is a good many useful tools I keep in my horsey toolbox that came to me in an easily accessible format!