Thursday, May 14, 2009

Riding the Zip Line and Reconciliation

Maisie and I have had three excellent days in a row of work in the arena.  As some of you may remember, we have recently started our conditioning work.  Our first objective was to have her maintain a regular, cadenced, medium trot without rushing or bracing on the bit.  We're pretty much there now - I only had to do circles for rebalancing a few times yesterday even though it was cool and windy.  Now we're working on straightness.

As we were doing our nice medium trot, we did a lot of straight lines - across the diagonals, up the center and quarter lines, and across the arena leaving from various points on the long side.  We also did zigzags across the width of the arena.  We didn't use the long sides very much unless we stayed well off the rail - it's harder for horses to travel straight down the rail since they are wider in the hindquarters than the shoulders, and I didn't want to add that complication at this point.

I've been thinking a lot about how our training our horses is often more about retraining ourselves to interact with our horses in a more effective way, and how that often involves how we use our minds, attention and energy to communicate with the horse.  There have been a number of excellent posts by other bloggers recently that touch on these points.  Our horses are exquisitely sensitive and I think they often are frustrated with us and find us inattentive, clumsy and obtuse - every time I see a horse swishing its tail when someone asks for a canter departure or a lead change (I've seen this many times in all disciplines from dressage to hunter/jumper to reining) I imagine the horse saying "I can feel a fly land on my back - would you please tone down the aids?"

To aid Maisie with straightness, while maintaining a medium trot, I used a focussing exercise I call the "zip line".  On every straight line, I would pick a point to focus on - an object outside the arena, a fence post, a jump standard - and would imagine a zip line connecting Maisie and me (as one unit) to that point.  As we moved towards the focus point, I felt the line pulling us towards the focus point.  If our pace was too slow, I imagined the line pulling us along with more energy.  As long as I maintained my concentration on the focus point and the mental image of the zip line pulling us along, Maisie moved in a beautiful straight line, with virtually no leg or rein aids.  Then I added using the focus point as we turned into a line - I would shift my focus as we were approaching the turn so that we came into the line without over or undershooting.

I also worked on "allowing" her to trot and move forward with rhythm and relaxation.  To do this I worked on relaxing my leg and body "into" her - not becoming limp or loose, but just being part of her as she moved without stiffness or bracing.  I find that, paradoxically, pushing with legs or seat to get a horse to move forward often has the effect of slowing or stopping the motion - it somehow seems to constrict the horse's movement.  I think that may be because our pushing in this way creates a brace that interferes with the horse's movement, and our focus when we're doing it is often down towards the horse and the ground instead of out towards where we're going.  Try sometimes looking down at your horse's head (which is a common riding fault that many of us do) and see if it interferes with your horse's movement - I find it often does.

We also worked on "thinking" the transitions - to get a downwards transition from trot to walk or walk to halt or trot to halt, I would lower my energy (this is a feeling that probably comes through to the horse through body dynamics) and move from thinking the 1-2 trot rhythm to the 1-2-3-4 walk or halt rhythm.  The only difference between going from trot to walk and going from trot to halt was the degree to which I lowered my energy and in the case of a halt, the definitive final planting of the feet in the final 1-2-3-4 producing a square halt as each foot was placed.  The same thing works in reverse - bringing your energy up and changing the rhythm in your mind can achieve an almost aidless upward transition.  Maisie and I aren't doing much cantering yet as she isn't fit, but then I'll use the 1-2-3 canter rhythm.

I need to work more on using my energy and thinking the rhythm - although Maisie did very well with my efforts so far.  I also need to work more on using my breathing - particularly its rhythm and changes in its rhythm - to assist with cadence and transitions.

Today for a change, we'll take a nice walking trail ride.  We had about an inch of rain last night so the arena won't be useable for a few days.

An update on Dawn and Lily - I was very interested to see what would happen this morning at turnout after the quite spectacular mare wars of yesterday.  It was cooler and windy after the storms last night.  Lily was in her stall, and was doing some bellowing at the other horses.  I switched the mare and gelding pastures - the mares are now in a pasture that is a bit more rectangular and where bunching up is less likely.  It's also closer to the barn so I could watch what the mares were up to as I turned out the geldings.

At first, Lily and Dawn studiously ignored each other and stayed well apart in the pasture, although it was noticeable that Lily was keeping an eye on Dawn - the ears would flick towards Dawn from time to time.  And then Lily marched in a very deliberate way across the pasture towards Dawn, with her ears half back.  Then at the last moment, she veered away and made a detour around Dawn and started grazing again.  It's almost as if she were testing to see what would happen as she approached Dawn, or as if she were thinking of being aggressive but then reconsidered - it's hard to tell.

Grazing continued.  A while later, I saw Lily and Dawn grooming each other.  Lily and Dawn almost never groom each other, and Dawn almost never grooms at all, so I expect it had special significance.  I'm sorry I missed the start of the grooming to see who approached whom and how the grooming was initiated.  Lily would give little squeals when Dawn moved too far back on her body, but they didn't stop and Lily made no threat gestures at Dawn.  At one point Dawn started grazing and Lily moved over and they started grooming again.  When Lily is done grooming a subordinate horse, she will often pin her ears and nip the horse on the side so it moves away - this didn't happen.  They stopped grooming, Dawn took a step to the side and started grazing.

I expect I may be reading too much into this - but my conclusion is that order has been restored.  Lily is still the alpha but got - and acknowledged to Dawn that she got - Dawn's message that she was being too aggressive with Dawn, and that Dawn didn't like it.  I think they have reconciled.  We'll see what tomorrow brings!


  1. I'm glad Lily and Dawn are at peace again. Things like that stress me more than they should but I can't help reacting to it sometimes.

    I use they same type of approach as your zip line technique often when I ride, although I've never really had a formal name for it. I think my instructor that first worked with me on it just called it a focal line or something like that. She was great about teaching me to ride via thinking and feeling and not "asking" per se with 'loud' aids all the time.

  2. Lily and Dawn are an interesting pair, I'm glad they have made up and are getting along.
    Liked your post very much and practice some of the same ideas you do. Hope you have one great ride after the other.

  3. Very good post. I like to imagine an eye in my chest and where this eye looks, that is where we go. Very slight turns of my upper body is enough to cue the horse in most cases. I also like to think about the transition before asking. It's amazing how subtle our cues can be and how soft our horses can become when we think and act as though we are a part of them and their body. I really enjoyed your post. You have a great way of putting what you do into words that are easily visualized. Thanks!

  4. Great post! Agree with everything you say about our bodies blocking and use of energy/breathing and rythym! My teacher is the wrong shape, age and has a body totally wrecked by bad horse accidents. Yet whatever horse she gets on quickly transforms into balance and self carriage because she understands these things so well!

    Love the tale of Dawn and Lily!! Horses are so fascinating!

  5. Ooou neato...I clicked on "Rhythm" in the compiled word labels..and foudn this great post!
    Too bad you missed that start, but how very cool that the two made amends with friendly reciprocity!


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