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We Are Flying Solo

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

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.

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 steps.

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.

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."

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!

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!