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We Are Flying Solo

Showing posts with label young horses. Show all posts
Showing posts with label young horses. Show all posts

December 29, 2019

So You Think You Want A Young Horse? Part 2

You can read Part 1 here.  Moving on to Part 2...

Be Honest About What You Are Capable Of

I think this is the most critical element to consider.  Bringing along a young horse can seem like it would be similar to riding an older horse, just "doing less."  That it would consist of just riding straight lines & big circles & going over smaller jumps.  After some period of time, you then increase the complexity of your requests & the horse will figure it out.  At least that's the vague idea I had in my head a long time ago.

It's not until you are in the trenches that you realize it's up to you to figure out how to explain to this giant creature that doesn't speak English, yet is still very capable of sharing its opinion of you (sometimes using distinctly obscene language), exactly how to arrange its body in response to your wiggling around on its back.  And because you are supposed to be captain of this voyage, if you can't explain things clearly enough, your equine crewmember will, at best, make his own navigation decisions, or at worst, stage a mutiny.
Solo believes in clear warnings of impending mutiny (2008)
This has been the biggest challenge for me:  knowing when to push & when to step back.  When to let it go & try again another day versus when to insist on a little more effort.  And this isn't a decision made just once in a ride.  Rather it's 10 or 50 moments throughout each ride where you have a split second to choose a fork in the road.  And I'll just go ahead & tell you:  you're going to make a forkin' mess sometimes. 

Which is why it's also important to try & stack the deck in your favour ahead of time.  When you buy the horse, look hardest at his brain & his nature & find the type most compatible with you.  Horses are forgiving creatures in general, but some are more patient about it then others.  I knew I was going to be working with this horse mostly on my own & I needed something kind & safe, that wasn't going to throw me on the ground if I offended him.

You also need to be brutally honest about your skillset.  I was 99% (hey, I'm a scientist, I'm not capable of stating anything at 100%) confident that I now had the tools, thanks to wonderful instructors, clinicians, countless hours of watching other trainers, reading, talking to so many of you out there, & my own experimentation, to safely bring along a good-natured young horse.  I was certain that I could train said horse to be a consistent & responsive riding partner not just for me, but others as well.  That is to say, I've already made a lot of dumb mistakes & learned the hard hard hard hard way. 
A very hard lesson in decision-making (2011)
This includes knowing multiple "roads to Rome," meaning that I have learned alternate ways to communicate the same concept, because different horses learn differently, just like humans.  It also includes having access to help:  I know there are still plenty of things I DON'T know & I consider one of my greater strengths to be recognizing when I'm out of my depth.  No one knows it all & it's only fair to you & the horse that you explore different perspectives when you hit a snag.  Because there will be plenty of snags.

You absolutely do not have to do it all yourself either!  I chose this partly because I wanted it & partly because, well, I can't afford the alternative (but it's important that the latter is NOT the primary decision driver).  A different road is to work closely with a trainer who is good with young horses (do make this qualifier a critical criteria in choosing said trainer).  If you are an adult amateur, I would say to you -- if you can't look yourself in the eye & know that you have a well-stocked training toolbox, PAY THAT TRAINER.  It doesn't make you a lesser person or say anything about you at all other than you are a rational adult who makes smart choices so you can be safe & happy!

You also get to decide how involved you want to be in that training.  Maybe you just want to hop on a finished horse on the other side, which is fine.  Maybe you want to take the opportunity to develop your own toolbox & have the trainer train you to train, which is also fine.  Maybe you want to be anywhere in the wide, wide middle area between those two options, which, guess what, is also totally fine! 
I learned SO MUCH about developing horses from lessons with David O.
The over-arching message, of course, is being honest with yourself.  The incentive to do so lies in the high stakes:  it's your time, your money (well, for those of us spending our own paychecks), your happiness, & most importantly, your safety & the safety & well-being of your horse.  You don't have to publish it online or tell anyone else your verdict, except the voices in your head.

Because one of the tenets of this blog has always been honesty, I will say this:  I don't regret my young horse, who was still a long 3-year-old when I bought him & is now 5.  I went in knowing I still had plenty to learn.  I was not wrong.  There have been many, many times of frustration, even a few tears.  There have been times where I said, "What was I thinking?"  There have even been some times where I was tired & I wanted to give up.  I have little doubt there will be more of all those times. 
Like when he slit his own throat & needed stitches in 2018
Two things have held me to my course.  One is fairly petty, but effective -- I told myself I would be so mad if I sold this horse, knowing the potential he has, & then saw someone being wildly successful with him just because they were a little more patient or persistent then me.  Hey, self-guilt sometimes works.

The second is what I really care about.  I know this horse is teaching me, & will continue to teach me, even more skills to add to my toolbox.  Because he is so different than Solo & Encore, I have to adapt to his needs.  For example, I've never dealt with a horse who is prone to curl up behind the bit, but I'll never learn how to unless I do it.

Bringing it back to the point that many of you probably already knew, but bears repeating nonetheless:  young horses are not for everyone.  Just like hot horses & draft horses & mini horses & foals & mares & geldings & every equine on the planet.  AND THAT'S OK.  Choosing the equine partner who is right for you involves its own brand of informed consent.  I hope this helps you go in with eyes open a little wider.     

December 23, 2019

So You Think You Want A Young Horse? Part 1

There are many tempting factors about bringing along a young horse:  training the way you want, the theory of having more years to play with it (at which horses laugh, but I digress already), building a partnership while horse brain is in a more malleable stage.

But, like everything else in the world, the reality is more complicated.  In the past two years, I have definitely learned that young horses are NOT for everyone.  I've talked a little before about my initial impressions of the young horse process.  And since life is short & horse ownership is already full of expensive & heartbreak, even with the best equine partners, it's important to be honest with yourself about what you want & what you are capable of.  This isn't easy for humans to do, but making the effort to be as objective as possible about these parameters - & sticking to them - will help you & your horse(s) find more success in your relationship.
They know what they want
Be Honest About What You Want

Do you want to have a predictable ride every time?  Does it bother you if you plan on doing X/Y/Z in your ride & that doesn't happen?  For the next month? 

If yes, then you are not going to enjoy a young horse.  Sure, he learned how to move laterally off both legs last time, but today he forgot that both legs mean forward.  Oh, & he also is obsessed with that one tree today because a rabbit flushed from its base last Tuesday so is it still hiding there?  During some transitions to get him refocused, he decides that he also has never heard of a half halt either.  So no, you aren't going to be fine-tuning laterals today.
I used my MSPaint skillz to illustrate one of our average rides
Are you threatened by "exuberant" horse behaviour?  Are you comfortable dealing with rebellion?

If these things sound like a nightmare to you, well, they are part of the young horse package most of the time.  News flash from Queen of the Obvious:  horses have opinions & moody days & teenage denial just like us.

Echo is friendly & kind & generally wants to be good.  He is also 5, which means that occasionally a couple mini-bucks simply can't be contained just because it's a beautiful day & he's been cooped up in his paddock for a few days (which is about 3/4 of an acre, apparently very small to him, LOL) & yay, cantering is super fun!  He doesn't have a malicious bone in his body, but he does sometimes test the boundary lines  (do we REALLY have to stand completely still while mounting? how about just putting hooves down when I feel like it? I will totally whoa...eventually...).
Opinions be happening
For him to become a 10 yr old horse with excellent manners, which helps secure a safe future for him no matter what happens to me, I have to be able to firmly but fairly redraw those lines often.  And at the same time, I need to give him positive outlets for that energy -- he has a big personality that I have no interest in smashing & joy is not a crime.  I don't want part of my training message to be "hey, quit being happy!"         

Are you open to flexible timelines?  Or preferably, no timelines at all? 

If not, well, you probably shouldn't have horses at all, haha, but you are not likely to enjoy a young one.  Individual horses mature at different rates, mentally & physically.  That's why some 5 yr olds can jump a course & some 5 yr olds are still working on ground poles.  Some find their balance sooner than others, some have growth spurts when they're 4 or 5 or 6 & have to figure out their body all over again.   And none of this is usually apparent in the first five minutes you meet a horse.

I'm sure some people thought I was crazy for not really doing canter work with Echo for a year, but I'm so glad I waited.  He just wasn't ready then.  Now he is strong enough & we've sorted out his body issues so that it's easy for him to hold a balanced rhythm.  I prefer to have 20 strides of a relaxed, balanced, cadenced canter than 100 strides of a flat, leaning, rushing canter & I think he learns more from that.
Nov 2019: Happy & easy
Some learn a task after a single success, some do better with many repetitions.  Sometimes they click right along in training, while other times they just need to take a break or to keep things low-key for a month or six & let their body catch up.  The most important thing is to recognize what that individual is ready for, because forcing the issue will always come back to bite you (or dump you) later.

Do you have the patience of a saint monk (combining them = double patience)?  Can you be aware of & separate your emotions from your riding?

I'm still working on this one, as we probably all are, but evaluate where you are on the spectrum.  Working with a young horse can be delicate process & while I don't want to risk instilling too much paranoia, we do need to stay cognizant that it is possible to do harm, not just physically, but mentally.  While this is true for all horses, there's a bigger risk (in my opinion) when you are trying to teach, when an emotionally intuitive creature is trying to learn.

This is not to say that a good trainer never gets mad, they just know when to walk away.  Sometimes you really are better to cut your losses & just quit (or not even start).  Come back another day - I haven't achieved anything if I just keep sticking to bad decisions & it's not a good experience for my horse.  I am continually trying to reduce the number of times that happens & if I can't stop it all together, at least recognize when I have done it & cut myself off immediately.

Impossible to stay mad at this anyways
It does require you to operate at a higher level of mental & emotional awareness & engagement in your interactions with your horse.  Not everyone wants that all the time.  I don't want that all the time.  That's when I take Solo out on the trail or have grooming days.

Stay tuned for Part 2 - being honest about your capabilities (including the option of very capable trainers)...because this got way way too long...

November 16, 2019

Sometimes Refusals Are OK

Green horses are going to refuse jumps.  It's part of the learning process, as they develop skills like how to read questions & how to organize their feet.  Eventually they learn to do both of these things at the same time, but they don't start out that way.

Case in point:  about a month ago, I took Echo next door for his second official jump lesson (the first one was back in April) with Trainer Neighbour (TN).  He was growing much more confident with my single "jumps" in schooling, with far less drunken approaches & less hesitation at the base. 
We'd mastered a whopping 18"
I had just started introducing canter poles to our rides the week before.  I wanted him to see some different colors & shapes, as well as work through some more simple gymnastics, which are more challenging for me to do alone since my ground person is, uh, me.

Echo, being all legs & distraction, is still very green in terms of figuring out where & in what order the limbs should go to create a jumping effort.  I try my best to get him very balanced on approaches, stay in the middle of him, & let him sort out the rest on his own.  He is an unfailingly earnest trier & really wants to please, making my job of directing him to the right answer much easier. 

Easier, but also often hilarious.  For example, as we began working the lesson gymnastic, he had definitely retained the lesson about "poles are for trotting over."  A little too well.
Exceptional pole trotting
We paused that & worked over a few canter poles to get him thinking about bringing his hinds together underneath him & pushing over an obstacle in a true jumping motion.  As I mentioned, he'd only done canter poles a couple times, the week prior, so it took a few tries over these larger ones, but he finally figured it out:

Figuring out takeoff - uh, ignore my leaning, sigh
We went back to the gymnastic to try & translate that motion to the jumps.  TN suggested we try some extra trot poles in front of the first jump to see if we could encourage him to step closer to the base.  She also added an empty flower box to make it look a little more like an actual obstacle.  I suspected this might be a bigger complexity jump than he could process all at once, but we'd give it a shot. 

My suspicion was correct.  Echo's little brain (much of which he had apparently left at home that day anyway) went, "Oooo, look at all the new things, waiiiiit, I must inspect!!!"  He was sucking back hard by the time we go to the first trot pole & despite my squeezing, he came to halt in front of the fence.

In years past, I might have gotten upset.  I might have grabbed a crop or, at the least, considered it a failure.  But I have learned a lot about nuances in training since then.

If a green horse has what I call an honest stop, that is, they don't understand the question or they truly don't feel comfortable in their ability to complete the task, I'm ok with that.  They're not trying to get out of work or communicate pain or simply be contrary, they're just trying to figure it out.

What's more, I would rather be on a horse that stops when he's unsure than one who hurls himself thoughtlessly into anything.  I think both of us are safer in the first scenario - a little self-preservation is an important thing.  The nuance lies in what the horse tells me & how he responds to what comes next.

I also want Echo to enjoy jumping as a positive experience.  I don't want him to jump something just because he's afraid I might hurt him if he doesn't.  I want 100% of his focus on doing his job safely & well, instead of having 50% distracted by fear or anxiety.  I'm sure I'll need that extra focus at some point when I need to rely on his footwork & balance to get us out of trouble.
Soft, relaxed, focused
This doesn't mean I'll never give him a solid kick or a pop with a stick.  It just means I'll only apply those things if I am certain that I have asked a question well within his confidence & experience levels.  In this particular lesson, this particular stop clearly said to me that he wasn't completely sure of what he needed to do, but he was thinking hard about the question.  He was trying to learn & I absolutely don't want to punish him for that. 

After a brief examination (& some giggling at his adorable baby-ness) of things, I just calmly circled him around to try again.  He was still hesitant, but with encouragement, gave it a shot.  The third time, the light bulb was beginning to glow.  Here's the series of attempts.  Giggling commentary included.


He was also beginning to figure out how to make a jump jumpy.  The canter pole translation was happening & it was getting significantly easier for me to follow his motion as it became more predictable.
Less trotty, moar jumpy


And through it all, Echo was trying & learning, all while his ears stayed pricked & his attitude positive.  This is what I want for his foundation, along with a clear understanding in him on exactly how it all works.  I want him to learn how to jump over things, not how to demolish them with this legs in an uncomfortable scramble (although I'm sure we'll inadvertently practice this too). 

Gears turning
He does have to learn to keep his feet moving WHILE he thinks, this was an important tenet of jumping training I learned from past lessons -- but that's not the same as keeping the feet moving WITHOUT thinking.  And that's a journey of more than one step.

In the meantime, I sure am enjoying getting to spend more time on what I have discovered is a lovely canter.
Want infinite amount of this

May 18, 2019

Progress And Setbacks

Because you can't have one without the other, at least when it comes to horses.

As I mentioned in my last post, Echo recently got a pretty big chiro adjustment.  Twice in a week, actually, because it didn't hold the first time.  I did notice some initial improvement, but there are some lingering issues that I sure wish would just quit.

He's still a little bit puffy around that side of his SI & when I was riding him last week, I could definitely feel that he wasn't quite comfortable back there.  The feeling would come & go at the trot, but was most noticeable when he swapped behind twice on his right lead canter, which he's never done before.  Nothing like a new thing to make it harder to wait & easier to worry.

See, not a waste
I talked to Dr. Bob & gave Baby Monster the rest of the week off, in combination with some bute for the inflammation & Dr. Bob's Magical Steroid Creme that he concocts.  We're supposed to give it one more week & if it doesn't improve, we'll reconvene. 

Yeah, yeah, mantra.  I still hate waiting.

I don't think it's anything huge, the adjustments were pretty dramatic.  It does bother me a bit that he still feels uncomfortable with certain things.  But I also know that the unevenness was going on for a while, so those are big muscles that have to be retrained & retoned to do their job in a different way.  I'm pretty squarely on the worry seesaw, so am trying to be patient & not imagine too many nightmarish scenarios.

Trying.

In positive news, y'all, this horse looks really good.  Finally!  He's 99% shed out & his summer coat shines like a new penny.  I can no longer count his ribs from any angle & am at long last able to reduce his rice bran helpings.  And...there are muscles!  And a neck!!!  The vienna reins are such a wonderful tool for this, if you aren't familiar with them, you can read our primer on them here.
Getting even sexier
Under saddle, he's now working easily for 40 minute stretches, sometimes a little longer, without brain dissolution.  Yay for aging (I don't get to say that very often)!  Our skillset now includes:
  • Working on a steady contact & able to bend (mostly) through our body both ways at walk & trot,
  • Up & down transitions W/T/halt are prompt & balanced, no bracing in bridle, back stays up,
  • Confirmed lateral aids for basic leg yield at the walk, they exist at trot, I think they'd be better if rider was a little more organized about them,
  • Turn on forehand (one step at a time) with minimal fussing (this was very irritating for him for whatever reason),
  • Picking up both canter leads correctly without a ground pole (I think, haven't had too many tests yet),
  • W/T/C in a steady rhythm with reasonable balance, while remaining light in the bridle,
  • Jumping small x-rails & logs with no rushing,
  • And we are dang ground pole champions -- with sproing!
Showing that ground pole who's boss
This may not seem like a lot for 15 months, but I'm pretty happy with it because (a) we had a lot of other body challenges to deal with & (b) this has been what HE was ready for.  I want to do a separate post on that topic, but it really is different for different horses.  I also work my horses in my top field -- there are slopes, uneven footing, clumps of grass -- but I welcome these challenges because it helps me a build a stronger, more balanced partner in the long run.  If he can maintain himself on a bumpy, downhill slope, he will find a flat, boring arena so easy, he won't even have to think about it.

I've also spent a LOT of time on basic details, having learned from Solo & Encore that any training holes will always catch up later.  Things like maintaining balance in the down transition to walk without me holding him together, like freeing up & gaining control of each individual leg so I can move it where I want, like making sure a half halt gets a clear & instant response in every gait.
Plus lots of this for strength & well-roundedness
Spending time on these not-very-exciting details now means that I don't have to backtrack later.  It means that if I need to leg yield out in canter to get a better line to a jump or rebalance a gallop on course or teach walk-canter-walk transitions, the building blocks are already there to make my life safer & easier.

Now I just need his bum (well, the top of it) to chill & be happy so we can get back to it!

May 11, 2019

Just Wait

I am trying to adopt these two simple words as my Equine Mantra. 

Sigh, the gaping chasm between "simple" & "easy."

As you spend time trying to get horses to do things or, you know, keep them alive & healthy, you soon realize that patience is indispensable at every step of the process.  It's a near-guarantee that if you attempt to rush something, be it healing or trailer loading or a jump, the horse deities shall be vexed & it will now take you twice five times as long.  Doubly so with young horses.  
I excel at vexation
I am not always great at patience.

To summon it, I need reminders that are easy to remember.  Bonus if they are something I can chant softly (or loudly, as the case demands) to myself, which forces me to inhale AND exhale.

Echo, still a 3-yr-old when he came to me, is both the youngest horse I've owned & the first I've gotten less than 30 days off the track.  As a result, we are both learning a lot.  And in the process of all these "firsts", which of course come with their share of stress, I am seeing over & over & over that if I can just take a breath & wait, if I allow time its own pace, progress will, well, progress.  

Example 1:

Echo has been painstakingly slow to shed.  Dull, ugly, fuzzy winter hairs clung stubbornly to his withers, back, & sides.  Solo has already completed his transition to his slick, shiny(er) summer coat.  I glared at Echo's offending fur as I scraped & scraped with the shedding blade & the grooming block & the Tiger Tongue & the curry comb.

Maybe his thyroid is all messed up!  My brain effortlessly channels my old friend Anxiety Girl at the least opportunity.  Maybe he has freakishly early Cushings!  Maybe he has some weird glandular tumour!  Maybe I need to get him tested for All The Terrible Things?!!  

Just. Wait.

A few weeks later, with the help of my trusty Slick N' Easy, he is finally blowing out the last of those dull hairs.  The sleek, bay shine underneath is a brand new first for us, thanks to 15 months of Triple Crown & rice bran.
Freshly rained on, with a few, uh, nibbles from Solo
Example 2:

Two weeks ago, Echo got his second chiropractic adjustment.  His sacrum was all kinds of cattywompus, the reason he'd been tracking short on his left hind for several months.  Dr. Bob did lots of stretches of his haunches, hips, & back, but it was still a big adjustment, with lots of mashing.  Some soreness afterwards was to be expected; not a big deal, I had to be out of town for work anyway.

After a week, he was still really tight in that whole quadrant & moving stiffly in the hip.  I had been massaging & stretching, but... There were some improvements, but some things seemed almost worse.  I should probably just wait, but just in case, I'll call Dr. Bob & ask.  Guess what he said?

Just. Wait.

Today, another week later, he is more fluid in that hip & stepping under himself better with that left leg.  He's more willing to bend left through his body & stretch the tight right side.  Both trot diagonals now feel pretty similar.  I bet he'll feel even better a month from now & that's just exciting.
More of this, please! Except without my leaning.
I could list at least 87 more examples.  Hooves could probably be a treatise in themselves.  But you get the idea.  Sometimes, many times, things just take time.  Not the time that we WANT; in my experience, part of my brain nearly always expects things in an unreasonably short time.  Often, digging out just a little more patience can carry us through to the other side.

I'm not going to say, "Don't worry!"  That would be laughable -- if you have a horse in your life, worry is practically a job in & of itself!  It would be nice if they didn't feed our neuroses by fulfilling them quite so often. I can dream. And of course, waiting is not always applicable, use of judgement is required.
Truth for all vet things
But I can honestly say it is helping me to worry a little tiny bit miniscule amount (hey, baby steps) less in many equine situations by giving myself this simple, even if not easy, assignment:  before unleashing apocalyptic reactions...

Just. Wait. 

You just might be pleasantly surprised.
It's all good (for now, heh).  Just slightly blurry.

April 29, 2019

A Muzzle Saved My Relationship

Hmmm, that title could be true for so many scenarios, however, in this case, I am referring to a certain Baby Monster.  Who is basically a mouth with legs.

Echo has learned that human parts do not go in his mouth.  He even abides by the rule, with occasional exceptions when life is just too exciting to process without MOUTH ON ALL THE THINGS.  However, one loooong exception has become nearly insufferable:  trail rides.

I am currently ponying Echo out on trails while riding Solo.  Echo, at just-turned-5, still funnels all his curiosity & energy through his mouth.  Which translates to nipping Solo's neck, nipping Solo's rein, nipping Solo's bridle, nipping Solo's shoulder...every 2 minutes.  It's maddening for all of us. 

I have tried all manner of scolding, cursing, rope-halter-snapping, with the end result of discovering that Echo can react faster than I can possibly hope to move while attempting to smack his naughty nose.  I can see that he knows he's not supposed to do it, he jerks back so quickly he's scolding himself, but 90 seconds later, he does it again.
But mom, he's RIGHT BY MY NOSE!
It's an energy outlet for him.  He is walking next to a horse who is slower than him & while he politely matches the pace, he has all this life & inquisitiveness fair to bursting out & it finds a channel at the end of his adorable but infuriating face.  He alternates with sucking on & playing with his tongue, but apparently that is not sufficient.

A couple weeks ago, I got fed up with spending the ride scolding my horse & tired of rope-bruised hands beneath my gloves.  And I bought a muzzle:  Tough 1 Easy Breathe attachment.

I wasn't sure how it would go over.  I recently tried a fly mask with an extended nose on Echo - he decided it was trying to suffocate him & frantically rubbed his face on the ground until I removed it.  But I picked one with special big nostril holes & strapped it on just before we headed out.

Meet Horse-ibal Lecter: he's not enthused.
There was an initial period where he attempted to rub his face on things to get it off, but without the panicked edge of the fly mask.  And then...

We had a lovely, calm ride.  He walked & trotted nice as you please beside Solo with his face completely relaxed.  He could still take a big drink at his favourite water crossing.  He kept snorting occasionally, as if to reassure himself I wasn't trying to smother him again, but his conclusion seemed favourable.

His whole body was more relaxed & I think removing that nip-avoid-punishment cycle allowed him to find that place on his own in a way that we couldn't before.  Instead of having to resist the temptation to bait Solo into Nip-Tag, the option was never even on the table in the first place.  It's much easier for me to direct his choice towards "chillax" when there's fewer choices to begin with.
But...this face must be EVERYwhere...
The muzzle itself feels nice & sturdy & has a pretty big hole in the bottom, I quite like the design.  I added the extra velcro straps thanks to reviewer tips & they helped keep it in place.  I really really like the big nostril holes!

I'm dealing with some big problems right now (not horse-related), but this was one I was able to solve.  Not only was I happier, Echo was happier, & Solo was definitely happier.  Win win win.  I know Echo will grow out of the mouthy phase someday (omg, please let it be so), but until then, the muzzle is painless, easy to use, & at $20, doesn't break the bank.

How about you? How have you dealt with your mouthy babies mouthing the world?

April 14, 2019

Baby's First Lesson & Other Stories

Echo the Baby Monster has been busy -- sometimes even with things I actually want him to do.  More often, eating, more eating, finding ways to annoy both Solo & I, then eating some more. 

In mid-March, though, he survived his very first lesson!  It was a casual affair -- since I was pole-limited, I asked Trainer Neighbour to set up a variety of gymnastic exercises for us so I could continue building that hind end strength.  She created series of grids for him, including a couple of crossrails.  I'd been introducing him to some baby obstacles, so this was a nice next step for him to see some more colorful things.

Not sure we got enough engagement behind...
 He was surprisingly...slow.  I'm not sure if it was just the new scenarios or he was just very chill that day, but I've never before had to ride him with Solo-levels of leg.  He was very willing & attentive, though, & stayed soft the entire time.

I'm still counting this as uphill movement, LOL
My favourite part was watching him think & try all these new-but-not-quite-new questions.  This horse is so...earnest about this process, it makes me smile.  I apparently did TOO good a job teaching him that trot poles are for trotting, because his solution to the crossrail was this:

I couldn't stop giggling.  Neither could Trainer Neighbour.  Echo's little ears were flicking around going, What? I trotted your trotty poles, that's what they are for, right??!  If you want to see the whole "course," as demonstrated by sloowww baby horse, while humans cruelly laugh at him:

I really was very proud of him.  He was definitely exhausted by the time we got home, after that 30 minutes of intense training, hee hee.  But he continues to get stronger.

And we have sproing now!  After this lesson, I broke down & expanded my pole collection.  I hadn't found anything good in a ditch in a while, so I went to the hardware store & picked up 8 landscape timbers for just under $40.  A little white paint to maybe slow down the termites for four seconds & voila:
8' long, I like shorter poles to keep my steering honest
I'm calling it Echo's birthday present, he turned five on March 29th.  I continue to be glad I have taken it so slow with him, it really seems to be working for him.  Now that he actually has some muscle in the caboose, I can do things like trot down a slope without fearing for my life or teach him to do downward transitions without dumping on his nose.

We're still keeping sessions fairly short, too, as is key for baby brains.  I think we've had 2-3 rides in the past month which got to 40 minutes & I could tell we were at the absolute limit.  Which for Echo means the mental focus really deteriorates, he gets sloppy with his feet, & he just gets a little cranky.  Nothing dramatic, I get some angry ear twitches, head tosses, bit chomping, & dirty side-eye (rear-eye?).
Guilty party avoids eye contact
I appreciate his communication & I try very hard to respect those limits, balancing that with the incremental requests for progress I discussed in the last posts.  There is plenty of room to ask for more while staying within 30-40 minutes:  we're increasing the amount of trot work, asking for better quality transitions, engaging the topline, introducing lateral aids.

And of course, because variety is essential to prevent the souring of bright young things, I'm trying to take him out at least once a week on our trails, along with a couple days off weekly to rest muscles & prevent overwork of joints which are still developing.  Solo is loving the opportunity to get out on trails again, I feel him brighten as soon we step out.  I do too.

Ridiculous child loves the splashy
Solo sees your taunting...& he forgets nothing...

March 10, 2019

Don't Lose "Better" In The Quest For "Perfect": Part II

I broke this topic into two parts because my original post was so long that even I got bored halfway through.  But the following is the practical example of "eventer79 forcing herself to manage her expectations so her horse doesn't dread work," as applied to the Training Of Trot Poles.  My number one goal:  to recognize & reward the incremental steps of progress. 

Ribbon earned
Session 1

On the first attempt at trotting four poles, 5' apart, Echo trots the first two, then neatly canters through the second two, without touching any of them.  I say Good boy, great job going over them, but how about a little slower?

On the third or fourth attempt, he trots all four.  It's a little rushy, it's flat, & he clipped the last two.  I say GOOD BOY! You honestly looked for the right answer every time & you successfully trotted the trot poles!  You're a winner!!

Long rein, we walk, we quit.

Session 2

Today, he starts out taking the poles hell-for-leather, grabbing the bit for a run because it's a pretty day & he feels good.  I say I DIDN'T ASK FOR THAT, WHOA!  Thank you.  Now, about these poles, I just want you to trot softly.

We alternated with this similar exercise, apparently far more exciting
We scale back, approaching at a relaxed walk, halting immediately before & immediately after the poles.  The third or fourth attempt, he trots through on a very soft contact, then picks up an exquisitely balanced, very slow canter after the last pole.  I let him have four soft strides, then sit up & ask for a down transition with my body.  He obliges like a pro.  I say Great job staying soft in the bridle & not rushing.  Even though I didn't ask for canter, thanks for being polite, willing, & obedient.

The next attempt, he trots through on a soft contact & after the poles, when I sit up, he immediately hesitates for a breath to see if I want him to stop.  He is still flat-ish through the poles & the rhythm speeds up a bit to allow him to keep his balance.  I say GOOD BOY!  Great job staying soft & listening, while trotting all the poles!  You're a winner!

Long rein, we walk, we quit.

Session 3

He trots through the poles on the first try, but rushes quite a bit, clunking the last two pretty hard & bracing through his topline.  However, he does stay in trot after the poles.  I say Good job trotting!  How about thinking relaxing thoughts.

The next approach, I do a half-halt through his body a few steps out, then think the most yoga-breathing, stretchy, lifting, slow thoughts I can think of.  Ears focused on the puzzle like mini-homing beacons, Echo trots through a little slower, feeling a little less like he's rushing out from under me, with only a light toe-tap behind.  I say Great job!  Enjoy this mini-stretch break on loose rein for an excellent effort. 
He quickly learned to love the stretchies
After the stretch break, one more attempt.  This time I let him approach from a trot from father out (I had been just asking for trot ~4 strides out until now).  I focus on staying super soft on the reins & quiet with my body.  He trots through, stays soft in the bridle, & while he is still somewhat flat, his rhythm has almost no appreciable change, even though I feel him want to go.  He cocks an ear back at me & wags his head after the poles, his way of letting out youthful energy when he knows he is not supposed to speed up.  I say GOOD BOY OMG GREAT JOB! Excellent work trotting & waiting!  You're an amazing winner!!!!
Of course I winner

Long rein, we walk, we quit.

That's where we are now.  We don't have sproing, BUT we have:
  • a rhythm that's about the same as our approach,
  • trot with a soft contact,
  • ability to transition down to walk or balanced halt afterwards, &
  • we don't brace our back & sewing-machine our legs through puzzle as fast as possible.
Even more importantly, I'm not pulling on his face, I'm not shutting him down, I'm not fighting with him.  He's not hearing, "No, that's garbage!"  Obviously, he can't understand my sentences, but I'm rewarding each time some aspect, any aspect, improves.  From his perspective, he is being:
  • encouraged to try different solutions,
  • rewarded with happy voice & rests, &
  • given an end to demands...
...when he finds a solution that was better than previous efforts.  This motivates him to hunt for Better with every request, because he knows it is the gateway to pleasant things.

Better.  That is the brick upon which we must build our staircases to success.   

Not Perfect.  Perfect is a mirage, tempting us into quixotic quests, in the course of which we trample the blossomings of Better into oblivion.  And like all mirages, we discover that the dogged & inflexible insistence upon what we THINK should happen only leads us in fruitless circles or worse, dead-ends, chasing something that doesn't even exist (wait, this metaphor is sounding suspiciously similar to dressage tests...but I digress).
Resist the temptation
What did your student do Better today?  Have you remembered to give him a sticker for his efforts?  Even if he didn't get the right answer to the original question, award him with partial credit for getting it wrong differently than he did last time.
      
I figure at the very least, this will dissuade him from plotting my demise next time he sees me.

Everybody wins.
Ok, human, I let u live another day

March 6, 2019

Don't Lose "Better" In The Quest For "Perfect": Part I

Echo continues to make clear to me the importance of recognizing progress as a true journey, not a single leap.

An equine student is just like a human student:  you may have an over-arching goal, but in order for your student to keep working towards that goal without souring, you have to hand out plenty of stickers & extra credit along the way.  Echo reminds me that is doubly important when dealing with young things.  Trust, confidence, enthusiasm, try - these are fragile items.  Handle with care.

It's about making sure our conversations are dominated by "Yes!" Not a new topic for this blog, but a reminder that is always relevant. 

Think of it this way:  when you decided to learn how to ride, you likely had a vision of yourself soaring over a course of jumps or cantering a victory lap with a blue ribbon or trotting up to the summit of a mountain trail...all with glorious views.

You won...something...
But this is not a feasible skillset to learn in a week.  First you had to learn how to get on a large creature with questionable judgement.  Then you were expected to guide said fur-covered bag of opinions with squeezes of your legs & fingers, whilst balancing yourself over its bouncing spine.

I don't know about you, but I didn't execute those tasks with instant grace & poise.  Fortunately, my teachers were kind enough to exclaim, "Good job!" when I successfully posted the trot on request...even though I was on the "wrong" diagonal, my reins were flapping in the breeze, & the horse meandered drunkenly between the quarterline & the rail.
Details...

Taking heart from that initial success, I could then turn my attention to improving other items on the list, each in their turn. If, during that first trot, the instructor had instead bellowed, "That was garbage! You didn't steer the horse, your reins were a mess, the diagonal was wrong - that's not what I asked for!!  Do it again, & this time you better do it right!!"

If the 2nd scenario had been repeated each time, without stopping, when I didn't ride the posting trot exactly right...I never would have made it to "doing it right."  I would have gotten frustrated, discouraged, & would have soon given up this obviously impossible quest.  I probably would have developed some very unpleasant feelings towards the bellowing tyrant who expected me to both master new techniques & develop new strength all at once.

Our horses are no different.  Case in point:

I'm using trot poles as one tool to develop Echo's hind end strength, particularly to tighten & build his stifles.  Given the eleventy billion inches of rain, my steeper hills will not be usable for some time.

My "poles" are really an assortment of heavy duty PVC pipes found or scavenged, of varied diameters up to about 6-8".  I like the extra challenge they provide the horse in asking him to flex all his joints without my having to build extra pole lifters.  Bonus:  they fit exactly within my training budget of $0.

They even come in different colours
We began at a walk with the poles ~9' apart.  Echo being the clever creature that he is, quickly progressed to 5' spacing (this is my standard for a true trot pole).  My expectations were for him to walk through four poles (this is how many poles I possess), with an even rhythm, without tripping on them or kicking them out of whack.

This was achieved in about three to four sessions, primarily because I am not going to climb on & off the horse a bunch of times if I don't have to.  So I just introduce changes in each new session & I only spend a portion of the ride on them -- in a 30-minute ride (as calibrated to 4-yr-old horse brain), this is 5-10 minutes at most.  Keepin' it fresh.

As Echo locked in on the task quickly each time, as we built up from two, to three, then four poles, this is where it became CRITICAL to manage my expectations & reward incremental progress.
Random stills from one video of us are all I have so far - but he be tryin'
If you have ridden a fit horse over four sequential trot poles, you have felt that delightful sproing-sproing-sproing-sproing-yippee (yes, that is exactly the noise it makes, including human punctuation cheer) as the horse coils his leg joints & butt muscles collectively & gains an extra moment of suspension.

There was a part of me that set this feeling as my expectation, but I had to check myself, because guess what (this shouldn't really have been hard to guess) - Echo is not strong enough to sproing yet.  It takes a loooong time for a horse to develop the strength to have that kind of cadence & balance, which is generated through the powerful coil/release of muscular energy.  It would have been easy for our sessions to devolve into me simply telling him, "No, that wasn't perfect, do it again slower & just right," on repeat.

Had I done so, as his muscles got tired & as the demand got repeated again & again & again, he would have gotten frustrated, discouraged, & he would have developed some very unpleasant feelings towards the bellowing tyrant who expected him to both master new techniques & develop new strength all at once.

Bc this is his face with almost no contact (ignore my out of shape issues)
I think this is a concept that is easier to recognize in retrospect, though, & a line that can be very, very thin depending on both the challenge & the horse.  I have to watch myself very carefully & make sure I don't get greedy, make sure I don't fall into the trap of "one more time, surely he'll get it just right if we go one more time."

What does this look like in practice?  Well, that's part II...