Friday, July 31, 2009

Purples and Yellows of Summer

High summer is here - even though it isn't really hot as it usually is this time of year. Many of the late summer prairie plants are beginning to flower - I always think of this time of year as the purple and yellow time.

Here's some Monarda (Bee Balm):

Some Yellow (or Grey-Headed) Coneflowers in the foreground with more Monarda behind:

Common Milkweed is in full flower - although I haven't seen many butterflies, maybe due to our very wet spring and early summer:

The Ox-Eye (or False) Sunflowers are at their height of bloom:

The Cup Plants are getting their full height - this one is easily 8 feet tall - and the first blooms are unfurling:

And here's an odd thing - nothing to do with prairies or horses - as my husband and I were sitting on the front porch one evening recently, we saw this:

Not really sure what it is - it makes me think of alien invasions - perhaps it's some sort of filamentary fungus?

And I couldn't resist this shot of several of the mares through the fence - that's Dawn on the left - on alert as a proper alpha mare should be - with Misty in the center and Sugar on the right. If you look carefully (I magnified as far as the picture would take it) you will see a number of Cowbirds doing their horse-riding act on Dawn's rump and withers and Misty's and Sugar's rumps - I guess if you can't find any cows to stir up insects to eat, horses will have to do!

The first cicadas are just now starting up - the cool weather has slowed them down a bit too, I expect.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Norman Video

As some of you may know, our pony Norman retired at the end of June to live in Tennessee at a wonderful retirement farm. Melissa of Paradigm Farms sent me a link to a wonderful video she took of Norman (wandering the barn aisles as he feels like - he has the run of the farm) grooming over the stall door with a HUGE, but very sweet Selle Francais named Faune - I love how gently Faune is nibbling on Norman's back - I think Faune's head is bigger than Norman's head and neck combined - and look how far Norman has to stretch!

Thanks, Melissa!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Dentist Visits

Yesterday we had a visit from our wonderful dentist - Mike Fragale from Salem, Wisconsin. Mike is a Certified Equine Dentist - he is not a vet - but has had extensive education in equine dentistry and is highly regarded by many in the horse industry - he travels around the country doing equine dentistry. Our wonderful chiropractor (who is a vet) travels with him to administer sedatives when he's in our part of the world.

He does things a little bit differently that some vets and other dentists. He never uses power tools or floats - he says there is too much risk of damaging the live parts of the horse's teeth. He works on the horses in a way that is comfortable for them, and does not use a stand or harness to hold up the horse's head - he gets down on one knee (he wears knee pads) so the sedated horse can hold its head in a relaxed position. Most horses seem very comfortable with him, and require less sedation than normal. Our very old horse Blackjack needed a loose front tooth removed last year and Mike did it without sedation while Blackjack stood on a loose lead rope - and Blackjack can often be very nervous around men - he wasn't with Mike.

He checks all but two of our barn's horses every year - but if they don't need work at that time he doesn't charge. Last year I believe he only worked on a couple of horses - a number of our horses had been seriously over-floated by our prior dentist and needed to grow more tooth before he could work effectively. Also, he's very cautious about working on our very senior horses - those over 25 - as they're no longer growing new tooth and anything you take away cannot grow back - it's a mistake to get their teeth too smooth as it impairs their ability to chew effectively. One of the main reasons we switched to using him as a dentist was a bad experience I had with my old horse Noble and our prior dentist - Noble was very nervous, even with extra sedation, and because he was chomping a lot and the dentist was in a hurry, the dentist opened the dental speculum too far - older horses have less flexible TMJs due to wear - and Noble's TMJs were injured to the extent that he was unable to chew for a week. Very bad stuff. Therefore we have a new dentist, who came highly recommended.

Mike believes a lot of the way many vets and dentists float horses' teeth, like many other things in the horse world, are purely and simply based on conventional thinking, and have little relationship to what's actually going on in the functioning of the horse's mouth. He's in the process of writing a book on this which will be interesting to read once its done. Mike, for example, doesn't do what some vets and dentists call "bit seats" - he says they make no logical sense in terms of how the bit is carried and adversely affect the dynamic relationship between the horse's TMJs and the front molars. He cares a lot about the function of the horse's mouth and how that relates to the horse's ability to move and carry itself. The TMJs are very important to the horse's overall body function, and obviously to how the horse can carry its head and work under saddle.

Here's Maisie being worked on - he's working on her front teeth which are particularly important to how the whole jaw functions:

And here Maisie is, resting with the speculum closed - he gives the horse breaks while he's working on their back teeth:

Here's Dawn having her turn - she had a number of fractured and chipped teeth in the back - perhaps she's been chewing metal in her spare time! None of these teeth were bothering her, so they were left in place. She looks pretty alert for a horse that's sedated - although she was very good:

The sedated horses were put in their stalls with water but no hay to recover, and then were turned back out for the rest of the day. They didn't have any pellets at dinnertime, but had their hay. No riding either - so everyone got a day off!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

More Fun With Awards

Horseypants and Laura at Little Keebler have both graciously bestowed the Honest Scrap award on my blog - my thanks to both of you!

Due to the Mark Rashid clinic that I attended and have been blogging about (and blogging about, and blogging about . . .) I have been remiss in responding to this award. Sorry folks! After all that heavy-duty posting, here's some stuff that's more easy and fun.

Here are a couple of more things about me you may not know, some about horses and some not:

1. I've been to only one Triple Crown race - but it was the Belmont where Affirmed barely beat Alydar to clinch the Triple Crown in 1978. I was in the grandstand, and vividly remember the stretch drive, with everyone standing up and screaming.

2. When I was pregnant with my older daughter - who is now 20 - my husband and I were on a vacation and stopped in at Claiborne Farms in Kentucky with the express purpose of visiting Secretariat - in fact I believe we made a 100-mile detour to do it. Even though they weren't really doing tours, we were allowed to make our way down to his paddock, and the groom brought him out of the paddock and over to us. I actually got to stand right next to him and pet him on the shoulder - he was as pleasant and gentle as everyone said - that's right, folks, I got to actually touch Secretariat! I figure that's why my daughter is the dedicated horse person she is today!

3. My daughters were home-schooled for the most part - my older one until college (she went at 16) and the younger one until 8th grade. This has its good and bad points, which I could go on and on about.

4. I've always like German Shepherds - I had them as a child. We have a female German Shepherd named Brega - after Brego, Aragorn's horse in the Lord of the Rings movies - Brego means king or ruler in Old English, and Brega is the female form.

5. I hope some day to take a horse-trekking trip across Iceland on Icelandic horses - seeing the Icelandic mare at the Mark Rashid clinic reminded me of this - perhaps my daughters and some friends will come with me!

6. I love doing puzzles of all kinds, including jigsaws (darn those cats that are always carrying off pieces!), sudokus, nurikabes and Set puzzles - also crosswords and acrostics.

7. I like all foods from all cultures - Italian, Indian, Indonesian, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, spicy, not spicy, you name it, I'll eat it. The only thing I won't eat is raw seafood, and I'm not fond of oysters, cooked or not. My younger daughter is a vegetarian, and has been for years, and my husband has had some issues with heart disease, so we usually eat a lot of vegetables. I love all vegetables - so far I've liked every one I've ever met - but I do sometimes eat meat as well. I like to cook, as long as I can work with good, fresh ingredients that inspire me.

8. When I was in college, I once rode a horse at the front of a parade. Immediately behind us was a kazoo band. The horse was not pleased, and neither was I. We managed not to kill any spectators and I managed to keep the horse between me and the ground, but the ride left something to be desired.

That's all for now - if you feel like it, put some things about yourself that would be fun for us to know in the comments, or in your own blog post!

Monday, July 27, 2009

After the Clinic and a Visit With the Chiropractor

One of my commentators on my posts on the Mark Rashid clinic asked what I was going to apply in my own horse world from my learning at the clinic. For me the biggest take-aways were first, the concept of finding the point of resistance and mentally softening into it, to avoid being part of a brace and to offer the horse a soft place to move into - see my post on horse #1 for more about this. And second, the idea of leading your horse with your intent and thought (which is also there in the book about Harry Whitney I wrote about in an earlier post), with the objective of reducing aids to almost nothing or even eliminating them altogether so that you blend with the horse, thought and body, so that the horse's body becomes your body and the horse's feet your feet. I already had the second idea in mind in a less well formed way as a result of our earlier work with Mark, but it really snapped into focus for me.

So I came to the barn on the Monday after the clinic ready to work on some things with Maisie. But Maisie didn't want to come out of her stall - she stood facing the window and I had to really urge her to turn and face the door. Then she had some difficulty doing turn on the haunches and although she did good softening work at the halt and walk, and backing and transitions, once we got to trot she struggled. She started rushing, which for her is a sign of anxiety. Then she balled herself up and bucked - not a huge one but big enough to get my attention. It was clear that there would be more bucks coming. With any horse, I would think first about a physical issue if the horse bucks, and with Maisie's history I was almost sure it was a physical problem - I wasn't listening to what she was telling me - the not wanting to be ridden, and difficulty with lateral work should have told me - she had to yell at me to get my attention - "Hello! I hurt and can't do what you're asking!" In order to finish on a good note, we went back to our walk and halt work briefly, and then we were done.

So we scheduled a visit with our wonderful chiropractor, Dr. Alice Marold (who is a member of the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association), who came on Thursday. Since my younger daughter had just had herself tuned up by the chiropractor, and she and Dawn tend to get crooked and out of whack together, we had Dawn done too.

One piece of very good news is that Maisie has no digital pulses to speak of, so the laminitis episode is behind us. She actually needed the chiropractic pretty badly - a number of things were messed up - the laminitis had caused her to carry herself in a contorted fashion, and then she had her episode of the swollen hind leg that resulted in her resting it at night and thereby twisting her back and hindquarters. No wonder she was sore!

As she was working, Dr. Marold reminded me of something I had known, but had mostly forgotten - the horse's spine, like ours, actually has 5 joints between each vertebra and the next one, due to the spinal processes that stick out to the sides, and it is often these smaller joints that can give us and horses the most problems.

Both horses greatly enjoyed their session with Dr. Marold - I didn't get any pictures because I was the horse-holder. She's really good at listening to what the horses say - she asks them before she does each set of adjustments - she also does muscle massage and myofascial work - and does what the horse thinks is the most important thing first. The horses really like that she pays attention to what they are saying, and once she's done what they think is important, they tolerate her doing everything else. They do get bored when she's writing things up, however - she says they think that isn't necessary because if she were a horse, she'd remember things without all that paper and writing!

I described some of Dawn's recent excessively mareish behaviors, and Dr. Marold said there are some hormone changes that horses experience as they get older that may produce some of these behaviors. Dawn did have some digital pulses, and her neck is getting a bit thick, so Dr. Marold drew some blood to check her thyroid and insulin levels as a first step. Depending on what that shows, we may also do an a.m. and p.m. cortisol blood draw as well. She says even horses in their early teens may begin to develop some hormone issues that affect their behavior, and that may evolve as they age into full-blown metabolic syndromes.

Dr. Marold said she would teach me how to do blood draws. She says it's not hard - horses have big veins - and the risk is low, particularly compared to intravenous injections, which I have no desire to do because of the risk to the horse if you do it wrong - I do know how to do intramuscular injections, which aren't hard. One new thing I learned was how to tell when the serum has separated sufficiently from the red blood cells to be decanted and sent to lab - she showed me what the blood draw tubes looked like at different stages of the red cells settling out.

Maisie had the rest of the day Thursday, and Friday, off from riding. I rode her Saturday and have to say she wasn't really with me. She seemed distracted and much more interested in the other horses than she was in staying connected to me. We did, after some effort, get our backing in place, as well as walk/halt transitions, and managed to do some lateral work without her rushing - turn on the haunches one step at a time, correctly. But she was very spooky and reactive, and felt like she might blow up at any moment - it was also extremely windy which wasn't helping, so we called it a day. I was feeling fairly frustrated until I remembered that, even though it is almost the end of July, she was only just getting back into regular work when she had her laminitis episode, and isn't used to regular work nor is she fit at all. One problem we also had was that our arena isn't useable after it rains for several days and even then not until it is dragged - the (long-suffering) husband is out of town so that will have to wait.

Yesterday we had a much better ride, partly because I thought more carefully about what the program should be. I also switched her back into the Rockin' S single-joint snaffle from the KK double-jointed snaffle, which I think helped settle things down on this occasion - she was very soft in my hands and did very little bracing or pulling. We did a little of the walk/halt/back work, with softening and moved on to trotting. This time, considering her lack of fitness, we didn't do any serious softening work or turns, but just worked with light contact on doing stretches of trotting followed by walking, with some halts and backing thrown in for good measure. I wanted a nice, not rushed trot with a good cadence, and without any excitement, and that's what I got. A good session, and we ended on a good note, trotting for several hundred yards on a trail leading away from the barn. We walked back and she was done.

Tuesday we have the dentist coming to do most of the horses in the barn, and that should mean she and Dawn will be completely tuned up!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Mark Rashid Clinic - Links to Posts

I have been asked to do a post which lists all the posts I did on the Mark Rashid clinic. Here are the nine posts:

Is There a Horse From Your Past That You Wish You Could Have Back?

I had a special horse when I was a teenager. I often think about her, and sometimes wish I could have her back - particularly now as I'm getting older and am finding the hot horses I tend to own more of a challenge. A really nice horse that you can do anything with? Now that would be fun.

I got Snow (I named her and called her Snow's Ghost when we showed in little horse shows) when I was in my early teens, and had her until my family moved when I was a junior in high school and I could no longer keep her. Although I'd been riding for a while, I'd never had a lesson - I just rode whatever horses I could and read everything I could get my hands on about all sorts of riding - Western, English, I didn't care, I read it all. Snow wasn't my first horse, but she's the one I'd most like to have back today if I could.

She was a Quarter Horse, a little on the stocky side with a long back. I believe she was a true cremello - blue eyes, and white every square inch - when I gave her a bath she was a glowing pink all over. I rode her in every way I could think of - mostly bareback, but also Western and English and we even jumped. You could ride her in a halter and she would go perfectly with any bit or with any tack. She clearly had had some Western training - when we went in little horse shows she would clean up in the pleasure classes - she had a fabulous slow jog but could also do a proper trot. We did barrels and pole-bending. I think she may even have had some reining training - I discovered that she could do sliding stops and rollbacks and we had some fun with that. I don't think she'd ever jumped before I got her (neither had I), but she took to it easily.

She had no behavior issues of any kind, although she did have one funny trait - if you took her through a stream (did I mention I could ride her anywhere?) or into a pond, she would start to paw the water and if you didn't keep her moving she would drop and roll!

As far as I'm concerned, she was the perfect horse, and I wish I could have her back. Do you have a horse from your past, particularly one from when you were young, that you wish you could have back?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mark Rashid Clinic - Horse #8 -The Horse That Couldn't Breathe

If you're just checking in to this series of posts, you'll probably want to read my earlier post "Mark Rashid Clinic - Common Themes" and also check out the excellent slide show of pictures taken by jmk at Buckskin and Bay. I've given each horse at the clinic its own post - this is horse #8, who was a very cute young perlino gelding - he also had a little bit of color - some small spots here and there that don't show up in the pictures. He was being trained by the same experienced horsewoman who rode horse #7. He had been started under saddle last summer, and she had put over 20 rides on him - they were walking and trotting and also doing a lot of work on the trail. He was doing very well - he was one of the easiest horses to start she had every worked with. Then his owner, who is inexperienced, rode him on the trail. He did a small spook, and she fell off, landing on the ground next to his legs.

Since then, he's been very upset - things aren't right - he's nervous and tense, not connecting with her (the woman training) and now acts very studdy - he drops whenever he sees another horse even at a distance. She's ridden him once since the incident, briefly at the walk, with someone at his head but he hasn't been right to get on. She's been doing ground work with him, including ground driving, but he's still not right. She hasn't been working him off the snaffle, although he's been carrying it - he's had some trouble with that - lots of fussing and chewing. She's not really sure how to get him past whatever the problem is.

Here he is when he came into the round pen - note his expression and body posture - his head's high, his body's tense and he's on full alert, and although he's compliant his attention isn't inside the round pen:

(Once interesting technique I learned from watching her stand with the horse while she was talking to Mark was this - to softly bring the horse's attention back to you, rather than pulling - or even worse yanking - on the lead, instead, with both palms facing upwards, gently move your hands in a hand over hand motion to redirect the horse's attention - it was effective and very, very soft.)

Mark asked her to do her normal work with him, so she started working him loose in the round pen. Although he would move as she asked, do turns and come into the center as required, he was still very spooky and nervous and acting studdy. Mark had her work him at the trot and pointed out that his breathing wasn't regular - there was no rhythm to it - he would take a breathe, not breathe for a number of strides, take another ragged breath and then there would be another long interval of no breathing. Mark said this wasn't normal - the horse was not breathing properly and was essentially holding his breath for long periods. He asked for the horse to be moved up to the canter, and said that at the canter a horse that is OK on the inside will breathe every stride in a rhythmical way - most horses that have a problem with their breathing - indicating they are not OK inside and therefore carrying a lot of tension in their bodies - will start breathing normally after a few laps since it's harder for them to hold their breaths for long at the canter because of the effort involved.

This horse took over 20 minutes to start breathing normally at the canter in one direction, and when reversed took another 10 minutes or so to establish a rhythm in the other direction. Mark said the point of the round pen work was not to run the horse until he was tired or chase just to chase, but to get done what you wanted and then stop - but don't stop until you get it - not just the behavior you want but the whole picture - because otherwise you're just carrying forward all that tension into all the other work you'll do, and probably reinforcing his idea that he has to be tense, and a horse in this mental condition can be pretty dangerous and unpredictable, even if he appears compliant. It was also important not to drive the horse - there really wasn't any pressure put on the horse - he needed to work through the trauma he had experienced with his rider falling off, using his body to "reset" himself mentally. The whole point was to get him to relax on the inside.

Mark at this point said something that was very interesting to me - he said that we often stop working with the horse just before the change happens that needs to happen - we stop when it's still worse rather than getting through it, which can just reinforce the problem. Sometimes the horse needs to have a fit to make the change - it's OK if your horse has a fit - it means the horse is having to struggle with something. Now this is a difficult matter - to push the horse just so much, but not so far, that it can get through the difficulty and make the change requires a pretty experienced hand. There's a big difference between this and simply over-facing a horse where it can't learn.

Mark said the very long time it took for this horse to breathe normally at the canter was a sign of how incredibly balled up with tension he was on the inside. The horse had trusted us and what we did, had turned over decision making to us and then something that badly frightened the horse happened - he didn't know a rider could fall off - it ruined his trust in us. Once the horse was breathing normally, they stopped doing the loose round pen work - Mark said to do it again later that day or the next day until the horse breathed normally, and then go on to something else. Once the horse breathes normally when you start, there is no need to repeat the exercise any more. Mark said don't repeat stuff that's already learned or done - the horse will think it's doing something wrong and start trying other stuff - no drilling.

They moved on to ground-driving off the halter - the horse's body posture was much better and more relaxed, the studdy behavior went away and he seemed able to listen. Here are some photos of the work they were doing:

At one point, the horse was concerned about something at one end of the round pen, and didn't want to go down to that end - Mark had her continue to keep his feet moving and on each pass to move him a little closer to the scary end, in a gradual way that got the job done without stressing him out. He said it was important to keep the feet moving, because the horse when working with us can't do its normal stop, stare, bolt away and then reapproach behavior to deal with a scary object. He said it's a bit like working cattle - if the cattle keep moving it's OK, if they stop and start to make a plan you're in trouble - action will follow the thought. He said it was important to keep giving him direction - not just correcting him when he went the wrong way - don't leave him to start choosing where to go, because when he did the worry started to come back up. Here's the horse, looking a little more tense, but continuing to follow her direction as he moves away from the scary end of the pen:

On the second day, they started with the loose canter work in the round pen. The horse started off with irregular breathing again, but the exhales were softer blowing and he quickly progressed to breathing every two strides at canter, and soon every stride. His canter was much more fluid, and there was less cross-cantering and counter cantering - Mark said that this was a sign the tension was easing, and the horse was able to feel somewhat better on the inside. Mark commented that on the first day, the horse's head, neck and even his ears were very tight. On the second day the eye and face were softer and the ears were moving normally at the canter - much more normal behavior and even though the horse was still a bit worried he was beginning to open up.

Then they started their work with the snaffle bit. They worked on walking, halt and backing. He struggled a bit, particularly with the backing. The objective in backing was to have him float backwards, but without bracing on the bit, and softly without rushing. The backing was to be 2-beat, not 4-beat, if done correctly. It was important for her to maintain a consistent feel in her hands and move backwards smoothly herself - you want the inside of both horse and handler to move backwards, inside. The horse needs time to struggle through it - make sure you wait for the horse to figure it out. Make sure you complete the task so the horse understands it. You want the horse to be able to figure stuff out - rather than just giving him the answer. It takes time for horses, particularly young horses, to figure things out.

When she was taking a break and standing with the horse in the center of the round pen, he gave a small spook. Mark says that if the horse spooks, he doesn't care if a horse moves its feet or looks, but he does care how well the horse responds and comes back to you. When the horse spooked, he gave an exhale afterwards and the feet didn't move - this was good - a spook followed by he horse holding its breath is not good. This all was a sign the horse was starting to feel better inside.

On the third day, the work was going well enough that she was able to get on and ride for a few minutes. As she mounted, the horse held his head fairly high in the air - but it didn't pop up hard and quick - Mark said if it had, that would have been a red flag not to get on. As the horse moved off, he acted like a horse that had never been ridden before - he wobbled and lurched - Mark said this was abnormal for a horse that had had more than 20 rides and worked at the walk/trot and been on trails. It's like he's had to start completely over in understanding the work. She only rode him for a few minutes and then got off. Mark asked if the horse had been imprinted. The answer was that the horse was imprinted and handled a lot - but not "over-imprinted". Mark said that the incident had been particularly traumatic for a horse all of whose experiences had been positive up to then - he didn't know what to do when he experienced adversity.

Mark said that imprinted horses are often some of the easiest to start - this one was - although sometimes it's harder to get them to move/go. The risk can be that with an imprinted horse, depending on the horse itself and the way it was handled, sometimes the training you're doing doesn't reach the inside even though the horse seems to be doing well - it was just on the surface. This would explain why when the incident happened, the wheels fell all the way off, the horse fell apart mentally, and the horse essentially lost (or never really had) his earlier training. Mark said that he himself stays away from imprinting, and keeps incidental handling of foals to a minimum - you really don't know how much is going inside. He wants his horses to be a little alert and to have a little edge to them.

As with everything Mark says at the clinic, he always adds that his way of doing things isn't the only right way to work with horses, and that he could be wrong about certain things. I've seen him change his mind about how to do things from year to year.

He said that this horse, while far better, was still not out of the woods. He told the handler to not tiptoe around him - this just reinforces that there is a problem - but to make sure she kept herself safe as she worked to bring him back to where he was in the starting process before the incident happened. He asked if the owner was there - she was (I think only for the third day). He asked her about her experience and objectives for the horse. She was basically a beginner, and had hoped that she could take lessons on the horse and learn how to ride. He told her, kindly but with firmness, that she should probably rethink her plan. He said that if he were to work with the horse and get 90 days on him, even then the horse wouldn't be safe for her to ride. She needs to work on her own skills, taking lessons on a safer horse, and should also think about whether a different, more experienced and safer horse would be better for her. It may be a year or even two years before she can consider riding him even if her skills improve with hard work.

* * * *

This was one of the most interesting of Mark's clinics that I have attended where I wasn't riding, perhaps because of the variety of horses and riders, and also perhaps because I was trying to pay extra close attention to it all in order to be able to write it up. Thanks for putting up with my almost endless series of very long posts - that's how I think things through - by writing them down.

And that's all - there isn't any more in this series of posts!

Mark Rashid Clinic - Horse #7 - Step Up Your Game

If you're just checking in to this series of posts, you'll probably want to read my earlier post"Mark Rashid Clinic - Common Themes" and also check out the excellent slide show of pictures taken by jmk at Buckskin and Bay. I'm going to give each horse at the clinic its own post - this is horse #7, who was a lovely, big, Hanoverian/Appaloosa cross gelding that was progressing well in his training. His rider is a woman in her 20s who works training horses - she's been riding with Mark for over 10 years and is very experienced, and she is the older sister of the rider of horse #1 - their parents own the farm which hosted the clinic.

Most of the work this pair did was on increasing her softness in the ask, keeping the flow going, and timing cues more effectively - refinements on what was already a pretty nice picture.

She had been working with the horse for about two years at this point. She commented that he could be slow to warm up since he was so big, and that at times he would get heavy in her hands. Mark pointed out that if the horse is heavy and you pull on him, he'll just get heavier - you're participating in the brace. In addition to having her use the "find the point of resistance and soften into it" technique I described in the post on horse #1, with the goal of having the horse search for you (the release) rather than having you search for him (pulling, which just creates a bigger brace), he had her work to weight her two hands slightly differently to disrupt the brace.

He also had her work on making her release more soft to eliminate any recoil of her hands. Even if you have to use more pressure, make sure it has softness/blending in it. Mark commented that if a horse is "stuck" in some part of its body, it's often due to a corresponding "stuckness" in our own bodies. Mark asked her not to overthink things - just create a place of neutrality where everything is available to the rider and the horse together.

In backing, if the horse starts to get heavy, he told her that she could move her hands to where they'd be if backwards motion had already started (which would carry your body and hands backwards). When the horse starts moving, move your hands back to normal as you move through brace and it dissolves - this conveys the thought that "we're moving", not "he's moving" - you are participating in the movement as you dissolve the brace.

They also worked on refining their lateral movements, including turn on the forehand and haunches, and also leg yields at the trot and canter. Mark made the point that all lateral work has to incorporate the feel of forward, otherwise it loses the flow and becomes stilted. In turn on the haunches they focussed on having the outside front leg cross in front of other front leg - he had her work on not locking her outside arm. In all lateral work, keep your legs as a presence not a push - start with the pressure you want to end up with. If you bring thought and intent to the party, the horse can feel the energy of the aid without the aid itself having to be used.

Their work on leg yields put particular emphasis on timing the cues to allow the horse to move most easily. To leg yield to inside (off the rail) you want to give the aid when the outside hind leg is about to leave the ground - ask as you come out of your rise (if you are posting). This is a specific case of a general principle - time all cues to move a particular hind foot - give the cue just as that hind foot is leaving the ground (or in flying changes when the new outside hind is just getting airborne) - this will make it much easier for the horse to do the movement and the whole thing will flow. In leg yield at the canter to the inside (off the rail), cue when the outside hind leaves ground in canter, which happens as the horse exhales on the effort (which Mark said we should do when we exert effort as well but we often don't); to move to the outside in leg yield your cue should fall between the horse's breaths.

Flow is very important - think of the movement of the horse as a continuous flow even in halt. The engine is still running - feel the flow. If you get it right, the movements will be continuous and lovely, not just one step after another.

There is an exercise Mark likes to use with a horse that is at the stage this horse is at - when going in a one direction, say from north to south in your arena, move from walking forward, into side pass with the head to the left, into backing, into sidepass facing the other way, and back into forward as one continous flowing motion. You don't want the feet to stop or to have any hitches in the motion - if you use too much aid this can stop the flowing feeling and lock up the motion. It is not possible to successfully do this exercise unless you maintain a good open flow - this exercise also helps you get a feel for what you need to do with a particular horse.

One interesting side comment - Mark talked about how to deal with people who do not understand or criticize what you are doing with your horse. He drew a line in the arena sand and asked if we knew how to make a line shorter - e.g. how to counteract what someone is saying about you and your horse. Most of the answers involved erasing part of the line. Mark said there was an even better way - he drew another line next to the first line - the second line was longer than the first line, so the first line had become shorter. Keep making your own line longer - don't worry about making anyone else's line shorter - focus on your own task and don't worry about what other people say.

He said that since she was an experienced rider, with this trained and capable horse, that she shouldn't wait too long for braces to dissolve. Although waiting can be very beneficial with younger horses who don't have a clue - like horse #8 in the next post, that was no longer true with the horse. She needed to be more businesslike but softer as she did it - he said this sounds like a contradiction but it isn't. Be specific - get through it without a lot of waiting or fussing around. Don't allow a disconnection - deal with things immediately - don't overthink it. Ride big horses like regular horses - expect this experienced horse to work from the get-go - we tend to get what we expect from the horse.

In summary, Mark's message to this pair was to step up their game - the rider should expect more of herself in terms of subtlety and refinement of her interaction with the horse, and she should expect more of her horse, since he was at a point in his training to rise to the challenge.

Horse #8 is next - our last horse of the clinic - the horse that couldn't breathe - I think this is the most interesting horse of all!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Mark Rashid Clinic - Horse #6 - A Good Horse Tells Us That He Hurts

If you're just checking in to this series of posts, you'll probably want to read my earlier post "Mark Rashid Clinic - Common Themes" and also check out the excellent slide show of pictures taken by jmk at Buckskin and Bay. I'm going to give each horse at the clinic its own post - this is horse #6, who was a lovely, soft chestnut breeding stock paint gelding. His rider was very quiet and experienced. They were a delight to watch. Mark said that this pair were among the softest coming into one of his clinics that he had seen. The rider said the horse was very easy to work with, except for once or twice a year when he would buck, which concerned her a little bit - last time he did this he bucked her off.

Since this pair were pretty advanced, and doing very well, they worked on refining a few things. Most of the work involved making sure the rider wasn't deliberately or unintentionally doing things that might interfere with the ability of the horse to move and respond. For example, in downwards transitions, not only is it important not to look down, staring at the horse's head "as if it might fall off", but it's important not to direct your mental intent downwards - this has the same effect as looking down - it interrupts the flow of the horse's energy and movement.

One other point on downwards transitions - many people tend to lean back when they do them. Mark asked us to think about how we would move our own bodies from a jog to a walk, or halt, and then demonstrated on the ground. He asked if we would lean our bodies backwards to slow down - the answer was clearly no. If we wouldn't do it with our own bodies, why do it on top of the horse? It unbalances the horse, who then has to compensate for our position. The result is to interrupt the flow of the downwards transition. A balanced position is better for almost all work we do on the horse.

The objective is to become one with the horse, where your thought and the horse's thought are one. I asked a follow-on question: "does this mean that the horse becomes your body and the horse's feet are your feet?" Mark answered "yes". To me this is one of the most profound things I got from all three days of the clinic. Just think of it - the horse becomes your body, expressing your thoughts just as your own body would, but with even more power and grace!

The pair worked on the second day on lateral work. Although the horse was compliant, he struggled a bit with the work, particularly the turn on the haunches. Here is a picture of them working on a turn on the forehand - you can see he was a little bit braced to start with in this exercise as well:

In lateral work, he had her think about the idea that the more pressure you put on the horse's barrel, the less the barrel can move - your pressure impedes the motion and the horse can in some cases brace the whole side where you're applying pressure. With this work, it was more important to get it right than move too fast, and end on the feel you want - if you push, prod and hurry, you just build in braces. As they worked, she was able to greatly reduce her cues and get even better results from the horse.

As you work with a horse, you have to get to know the horse, how the horse moves and what that horse needs to get the job done. That takes time. Mark spent some time talking about the buckskin quarter horse gelding he rode in the clinic. It was only 4 years old, but had already been a team roping horse before he bought it. When he got it, it took time to get it healthy again, and he was still working to get to know it. It had an old injury to its right hind - large, long scar on its backside - and because of the way it was trained and had been used in roping, it could not yet take up a right lead canter and in fact would lose its mind and have a complete meltdown if asked to do so. Mark was only now getting it to take single steps at the walk, or from the halt, to the right - it still had some anxiety about even this small action. He wasn't in any hurry, and the horse was slowly making progress.

After the pair was done working with Mark on the second day, they went down to the other end of the arena to continue their work with Crissi, Mark's wife, who was riding her tiny bay Arabian mare. All of a sudden, the chestnut gelding launched itself into a bucking fit, complete with squeals and grunts. The rider kept riding through this, and after a moment, the horse settled down and they went right back to work as though nothing had happened. Mark said nothing at the time, but the horse's bucking episode was the topic that started off their third day.

Mark said that bucking is a huge expenditure of energy for a horse, and horses generally want to minimize their expenditure of energy - if a horse is going along OK and then explodes it's almost always a physical pain issue - unless the horse is bred to buck (some Quarter Horse lines apparently are). Mark had already noticed some issues with this horse's hind end, but he seemed to be compensating very well for it and was able to do most of what was asked, although he had had some difficultly with lateral work which was a sign of the problem.

Mark had the rider dismount and had someone else lead the horse away at the walk. He demonstrated several ways to assess a horse's hind end soundness. First, watch the hips move up and down from behind - they should move up and down an equal amount. If one hip moves up or down less than the other, there's an issue. Second, watch the line from the highest point of the butt (sacrum) to the tailhead - this is easier where the horse has a dorsal stripe - the back should move equally to each side. Third, he demonstrated how to bounce the horse's hips - each one should move like a spring and the feel should be the same on both sides. Fourth, he felt the muscles along the back and under the saddle - this horse had at least one cramped, sore spot, which might have precipitated the bucking fit. Fifth, he showed the rider how to walk next to the horse's hind feet and exactly match the footfalls - you will feel any unsoundness in your own body. The fifth assessment can also be used to match the horse's front feet - this horse also had some issues in the front. Two other things that may be symptoms of front end issues - if you hold each front foot loosely cupped in you hand as if to pick it - do you feel the same weight in your hand on both sides? This horse also had different size front feet, which can be a sign that one foot is consistently being weighted more than the another.

No horse or person is perfectly even. Muscular/joint pain can create muscle spasms - that's where the buck came from - the horse had been working hard at the clinic. Just doing joint injections won't solve the problem - this horse had recently had stifle injections - joint injections may fix stiffness but not soreness. Stiff horses generally do better than sore ones. The way the horse bucked was sudden and looked like he was trying to get away from something - like a horse that got stung - another indication that it was a soreness issue. It's important to get both the muscles and joints moving so arthritis can't set in - Mark recommended that the horse be seen by a good chiropractor. You should see change in movement right away if the person is good - AVCA (American Veterinary Chiropractic Association) is a good place to start although there are other chiropractors who are good too.

If Mark sees a horse that can't work because of pain issues he sends it home to be fixed first - there's no point in addressing training issues until the pain issues are fixed. I had personal experience of this the first time we took Maisie to one of Mark's clinics - she was constantly bucking and we didn't know what to do with her - he took one look at her the first day, did the assessments, and sent us home immediately to have her fixed, and refunded all of our money. We've had excellent results with chiropractic - she had some dental issues, too - it may not work for all horses, but it sure worked for us.

And now on to horse #7 - the rider who needed to step up her game.

Mark Rashid Clinic - Horse #5 - Less, and More

If you're just checking in to this series of posts, you'll probably want to read my earlier post"Mark Rashid Clinic - Common Themes" and also check out the excellent slide show of pictures taken by jmk at Buckskin and Bay. I'm going to give each horse at the clinic its own post - this is horse #5, Scout from our barn, owned and ridden by jmk at Buckskin and Bay, who is also doing her own posts about her rides.

Here is Scout - he is a very cute (and big!) buckskin gelding:

She has ridden Scout in a previous clinic with Mark, when he was 4. When Mark asked what she wanted to do with Scout, jmk said that his canter departures were inconsistent - sometimes they were perfect and other times they were ragged. Mark watched her ride at the walk, halt and trot for a while and said that the reason her transitions were inconsistent and sometimes rough was that she was failing to give the horse sufficient direction - she was leaving openings for him to make decisions about speed, direction and destination, and also about when he should make the transition. So the result was that sometimes she got the transition she wanted and sometimes she didn't - but it wasn't because she'd asked the horse and he'd done what she wanted, it was because the horse happened to do by chance the thing she was looking for.

Part of it was a matter of expectations - she's been riding him since he was very green, and she still sort of thinks of him as a green horse. He's 6 now, and Mark says if you ride him as if he were green he will act as though he is green, and will stay green. You get the horse you expect to get, pretty much, funny how that works. It's time to expect more of him and not treat him like a baby. Ride the horse as if he were the horse you want him to be.

Mark said that a lot of the trouble people have with transitions happens because people (not horses) worry about them - if your horse is worried about it it's because of you. Horses make smooth, flowing transitions in the pasture all the time - it's the rider that gets in the way. If you think about the different gaits as not faster/slower, but as having different rhythms, this tends to make it easier to get the transitions. That's how you avoid things like getting a faster trot instead of a nice balanced trot to canter transition.

Most people ask the horse to do something, but aren't specific about it - we need to lead the horse with our thought but we can't do that unless we have a clear idea of what we want. We often ask the horse to do something with the aids instead of leading with our thought, and wait to see what happens, and then just tell horse what we don't want - we need to present and show what we want first, every time. The way to think about any action we want the horse to take, including softening or transitions, is to imagine how you want it to feel and look and then feel that in your own body - present that feeling to the horse. You want to give the horse an opening to respond to your thought, but follow up with the aid if needed - the time interval between the thought and the aid can be very short. Fairly soon, the horse may be giving you what you want just off the thought alone - be prepared for this and don't ask with your thought until you're ready. Get the horse's attention, present the thought and add the aid if needed - collapse the interval and be very precise about what and where you want the change to occur.

It was fun to watch Scout and his rider work - he went from slow, laborious, drawn-out transitions, to flowing, precise ones as his rider was able to give him more complete and precise directions. Pretty soon he was getting lovely canter departures on both leads.

They also did a lot of work on downwards transitions, trying to make them more effortless and flowing. Mark pointed out that, if you wait to give a release when asking for a downwards transition until the horse started to make the transition to the lower gait, you are too late - the release should be given at the first offer to shift the energy down to the lower gait - otherwise you stop the momentum and get a jerky slow/restart feeling that isn't flowing. Again, thinking of a downwards gait change as just changing the rhythm really makes it easier - if you don't think of it as slowing down that keeps the forward motion that you want - the slowing down will come right along if the horse is balanced.

They also worked on reducing the cues - if you turn the volume down the horse can hear you better. Don't use more cue/aid than you want to end up with. Present what you want to end up with every time, and put your energy into what you do want, not into what you don't want. If you want to only use energy/inside to get upwards/downwards transitions, start there - only use aids as a back up if you have to. They were very successful with this - Scout started doing the transitions pretty much exactly at the point she wanted and almost entirely off her thoughts alone. (Side note - my younger daughter worked at one of the week-long clinics in Colorado on this with her mare Dawn - Dawn makes upwards transitions easily with thought alone and no aids, and my daughter is now working on downwards transitions with no movement and no rein aids, just the thought - they're making good progress).

Jmk asked Mark a question about how to deal with people she trail rides with who are always telling her that she needs to fix her horse's headset. He talked about how we improve our horsemanship and our horse's learning. Look at anything - horsemanship is just an example. If you start with a cube of wood, how do you shape it? First you knock off the eight corners, then there are a lot more corners and you work on those, and so one - the early stages are big changes, and each stage requires finer adjustments to what you are doing. Each person and their horse are in a different place making those cuts. You are where you are and it doesn't matter where anyone else is. As you consider making cuts, only you know if you and your horse are ready for the next step.

Mark's message on unsolicited advice: "If I haven't asked for your advice I don't want it that badly." Don't worry about what other people are doing, and use your own judgment about what to do with your horse.

To summarize Scout and jmk's clinic experience - a soft cue doesn't have to be slow or imprecise - "do it, here, now" - but softly.

Next up is horse #6 - the good horse who told us he was sore.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Mark Rashid Clinic - Horse #4 - Five Plus Five Equals Eleven

If you're just checking in to this series of posts, you'll probably want to read my earlier post"Mark Rashid Clinic - Common Themes" and also check out the excellent slide show of pictures taken by jmk at Buckskin and Bay - I forgot to mention that the woman on the little bay Arabian is Mark's wife Crissi, who worked with the riders as well, if they wanted to, when they were done working with Mark. I'm going to give each horse at the clinic its own post - this is horse #4.

This was a very cute Icelandic mare - imported from Iceland about 10 months ago - with an experienced rider:

As you can see from this picture, the mare was very stiff and braced, and all she wanted to do was go very fast. Her owner said she wanted to work on having the mare be soft/responsive, not light/reactive. Mark worked a lot with this pair on the first day on their softening work. The mare, although very responsive and well-behaved, seemed worried - anything you asked her to do, she would rush to do it, as if something bad was about to happen if she didn't. He worked with the rider on asking the horse to soften without pulling, just by using her hands to softly define the box. The hands create a boundary, but it's a somewhat flexible boundary, not a brick wall. Mark said that he used to describe the hands as remaining stationary, but he thinks some people misunderstood what he was saying - there does have to be some give and take, otherwise it can't be soft. The objective is to put the hands in the position that, if the horse softens, the pressure will be zero. The farther the horse moves outside the box - the greater the pressure - but without pulling.

If you pull, it makes it difficult for the horse to get a release since your hands tend to recoil. The mare keep pushing with her nose every time the rider took up contact - this can come from an abrupt ask for softening - we need to do a soft ask - it's in how we take up the contact. Horses put more pressure on to get the releases they have been taught, and many horses have been taught to lean on their rider's hands for balance. Headset is not as important as softness - a horse can be soft on a loose rein and braced when the face is vertical. The feel in your hands is much more important as you progress than getting a particular headset - softness has to come before headset or else all we're doing is building in a brace. We should try at all times to carry no more than a 1 in our hands - this is the feel we should carry all the time in life - walking, opening and shutting a door, or putting a plate on the table.

Mark talked about the four stages of learning -

1. unconscious incompetence - we don't know we don't know
2. conscious incompentence - we know we don't know and aren't sure what to do
3. conscious competence - we can do it but have to think about it
4. unconscious competence - we can do it without thinking about it - it's part of us

Both horses and people have to go through these 4 stages to really learn something, and every horse and rider will be different in their progress. For example, the bracey chestnut I talked about in my last post went pretty quickly from stage 2 to stage 3 - he was happy to give up his old way of doing things and try out something new. This mare was different.

Mark said that this mare was like someone who had gone through a number of years in school where she was taught, over and over again, that 5 plus 5 equals 11. She was convinced that this was the correct answer, and it was very hard to persuade her otherwise. She knew the answer she was supposed to give (11 - braced, reactive and fast), but didn't know how to figure out the correct answer on her own (10 - soft, with a relaxed topline and using the core muscles to carry her body) - she'd never been allowed to. She was anxious about abandoning her old answer for 5 plus 5 equals 10. So with her, it was important to give her the time she needed to process things and start to figure the answer out on her own, and to keep presenting what we wanted her to do, calmly and without rushing.

It was really fascinating to watch her start to think about things and figure them out. By the second day, she'd really got it in the halt, back and walk, and then had to process some more to get the trot and transitions. Once the mare could consistently soften at the trot - this went pretty fast once she got the idea - they worked on having the mare keep her softness through the transition and not brace by throwing her head up.

On the third day, they worked on doing turns on forehand and haunches. Once again, the mare became somewhat worried and wanted to rush through the maneuvers. With her, it was very important to teach her that rushing wasn't necessary, by taking just one step at a time. She was always asked to start soft and end soft in the halt, stand for a moment and then walk forward for some thinking time and as a reward. It was important to not allow her to fall back into mindless rushing - helping her learn to remain calm was as important as getting the task itself done.

She was a delightful little horse, very intelligent and willing. It was also fun to talk with her owner at the lunch breaks about the work the owner was doing with Icelandics in mounted patrol work and obstacle course competitions - do you think your horse could tackle an obstacle involving an enclosure made up of three flapping plastic garbage bags (with a fan to ensure movement), an umbrella, a smoke machine and a cage with a turkey inside? And this is just one example!

Horse #5 is next - the horse who needed less, and more, from his rider.

Mark Rashid Clinic - Horse #3 - The Professional Brace

If you're just checking in to this series of posts, you'll probably want to read my earlier post"Mark Rashid Clinic - Common Themes" and also check out the excellent slide show of pictures taken by jmk at Buckskin and Bay. I'm going to give each horse at the clinic its own post - this is horse #3.

This horse was an older chestnut Quarter Horse gelding. He and his rider were doing basic dressage. Here they are all ready to go:

This rider was really trying - she really was there for her horse and to learn, and it showed. She said that riding the horse made her nervous, even though he looked like a nice horse and she was a decent rider.

The first day she worked on lunging her horse in the round pen - this is apparently what she does with the horse before she rides. He was having trouble holding the canter - he would make half a lap and then break to the trot. She said her trainer said he was "unmotivated". Mark said it was more that the energy she was putting out was too low to sustain the canter, and that when the horse offered to break to the trot (well before he actually did), she wasn't doing anything about it, so he broke. He was just following her body language.

Mark says that, although many people are taught to lunge, or work with horses in the round pen, by standing still and making the horse move around them, he doesn't do this. He feels that we have to participate with our horse so that there is a connection, and that our energy level should match the energy level we expect the horse to display - otherwise there's a disconnect that can be detrimental once we move to under saddle work. By bringing our energy level up, both mentally and physically, we can help the horse understand our intent and build a connection with the horse - Mark lunges, works horses in the round pen and ground drives by moving with the horse in a smaller circle, slower when he wants slower, faster when he wants faster and stops when he wants stop. We need to be aware of what we are doing with our thought and body - the horse will mirror us. Once she started participating and put some energy into things, the horse was able to canter without difficulty.

In her under saddle work, the first day she and the horse spent a lot of time backing. Mark asked her to show him how the horse backed - it basically didn't. He then did something he sometimes does to assess how the horse is feeling, and what sort of brace there is, which is to stand next to the horse's shoulder facing the tail, and take the off side rein in his hand placed on the neck and the near side rein in his other hand, and work on backing.

He said it was no wonder she was nervous riding the horse, as it had one of the worst whole-body braces going on that he had ever seen - it was bracing from nose to tail. She was right to be nervous, as riding a horse that braced could be dangerous, since you would have almost no control over what the horse did. He said that this was a "professional brace" instilled by a professional trainer dedicated to putting that bracey, hanging-on-the-bit feel into the horse as part of its training. So they worked, and worked, and worked on backing, for most of one session. There were some dramatic moments as the brace began to break loose - at one point Mark did some Aikido stuff that I'm not even going to begin to try to describe - I've seen it done and can almost do it myself but it's very hard to convey without seeing it - it involves using your core and breathing to reflect the energy back in a spiral motion which dramatically disrupted the brace with virtually no physical effort on Mark's part.

One of the most interesting things was how quickly the horse relaxed and softened once it understood it didn't have to brace - it almost seemed relieved to not have to maintain so much muscular effort. Once it understood, and she understood how to ask for softening without pulling, they made very rapid progress, and then they were able to work on softening at different gaits and through transitions.

They did some good work on presenting what you want mentally to the horse before asking for it - instead of just putting the aid on, waiting to see what happens and then telling the horse what it did wrong, which we often tend to do. Using aids alone without having a clear idea and intent to get a certain result, and without mentally presenting what you want to the horse, results in aids that operate only on the outside of the horse and don't reach the inside. To reach the inside of the horse requires that we be a participant and mentally engaged with the horse.

She worked a lot on having in mind a particular speed, direction and destination. The horse wants to have a leader but it's not a matter of dominance. If you don't fill that role, the horse will make decisions because somebody has to. We want our horse to do what we ask but then we don't provide direction and blame the horse if it doesn't guess right. Often all we tell horse is where not to go or what not to do. As she worked on this, it was amazing to see how her horse's gaits improved - they had been short and stilted - they opened up and his motion began to flow. She looked delighted at the end of her third day, and she was entitled to!

Now on to horse #4 - the mare who knew that 5 plus 5 equals 11!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Mark Rashid Clinic - Horse #2 - Nervous Rider, Nervous Horse

If you're just checking in to this series of posts, you'll probably want to read my earlier post"Mark Rashid Clinic - Common Themes" and also check out the excellent slide show of pictures taken by jmk at Buckskin and Bay. I'm going to give each horse at the clinic its own post - this is horse #2.

This horse was a very cute Fjord. Both the rider and the horse seemed nervous - the horse was very fidgety. Mark asked what they wanted to work on - she said that he felt wobbly, didn't travel in a straight line, and the head and body felt disconnected. When she walked him out, that's what he was doing.

It was a very windy day, and the speaker for Mark's microphone started crackling - it gave a particularly loud crackle, and the little horse spooked. The rider stayed on for the spook, but then did the "fetal crouch" - head and shoulders down and legs drawn up - the result was that her heels dug in and the horse gave some small bucks. She fell off and he ran away. Some others caught the horse and were bringing him back, and after checking that she was OK, Mark asked her to walk like she was going somewhere to meet the horse coming back. He says that the chemicals our bodies produce when we are scared or experience a traumatic event need to be processed by our bodies, and that one way to help this is to move - he says horses will do this but that we often don't.

When the pair got back to the arena, Mark held the horse for a bit and talked to her. It was interesting to watch him holding the horse - while he was talking he was subtly bringing the horse's attention back to him - it kept shifting its attention away and he would gently use his hands on the reins to bring it back. Finally, the horse's feet stayed put and the horse relaxed a little while he continued to talk to her.

He pointed out that from a physiological point of view, humans mostly exist in a constant low level of panic in the way we do things day to day. We experience a lot of stress in our lives, and that causes us to be constantly on alert and somewhat agitated. Horses are very sensitive and pick this up from us.

In order to help this, breathing correctly is very important - it allows us to relax and engage our core to use our bodies better. We often spend a lot of time essentially holding our breath. After she got back on, she worked on her breathing - the goal being to use the full lung capacity and diaphragm and not just breath from the top of the chest. Mark had her count steps at the walk on the inhale and then on the exhale - the goal is to establish a rhythm. Getting a full exhale is important - it takes more muscles than the inhale and may take more strides. As Mark says (at least for us who are old enough!) most of us still have air in there from 1968 that we've never exhaled!

On the second and third days, he had her work on patterns, using cones, in the round pen to give her some security. As she focussed on the patterns - working on making the turns correctly and riding straight lines to the next turning point - her horse began stepping out, was much more straight and looked much better. She looked a little more confident too. Then she worked on incorporating trotting at points in the pattern. The more focus she had and the more direction she gave her horse, the better he looked.

At the end of her third ride, he said that she had some decisions to make. He said that the horse wasn't a bad horse, and she wasn't a bad rider, but that the horse needed a more confident rider and she might need a more confident horse. She really hadn't been spending much time with her horse, only a couple of times a month, and he said that in order to progress she needed to put more time into it with this horse. It might be that this is not the right horse for her. He suggested that she set a deadline to make a decision - say the end of September, and work on her own riding to improve her confidence between now and then, perhaps by taking more lessons. At the end of September, she should realistically assess her situation and decide what to do. She seemed somewhat relieved that someone said that to her - I hope whatever she decides works out for her.

And now on to horse #3!

Mark Rashid Clinic - Horse #1 - A Horse Needs To Know Its Job and How To Do It

If you're just checking in to this series of posts, you'll probably want to read my earlier post "Mark Rashid Clinic - Common Themes" and also check out the excellent slide show of pictures taken by jmk at Buckskin and Bay. I'm going to give each horse at the clinic its own post.

The first horse was a very cute Hafflinger/Welch cross mare, ridden by a solid intermediate 11 year-old rider, who had an excellent position, hands and seat.
When Mark asked her what the issues were for her and her horse, she said that the horse was heavy on her hands, and hard to stop and turn. The horse is fairly green. Mark watched them go for a while at the walk - the mare was nervous - calling and chomping on the bit, and wanting (but not in an uncontrollable way) to go outside the arena. He said that the mare really didn't know what her job was or how to do it, and was therefore nervous. She had learned to use the bit as a "fifth leg" to help her balance. Mark said one reason the mare was looking out of the arena was because she felt bad about what was happening and wanted to go away.

Most of the work with this horse and rider pair over the three days was on basic softening work, and speed regulation without pulling, using circling to redirect the energy rather than pulling on the horse. They started with backing and progressed to trotting and even some cantering on the third day. Their progress was good - the mare was happy to find a more comfortable way of going that didn't require her to fuss or fight with her rider.

Since she was so fussy with the bit, he looked in her mouth and said that since she had a low palate the bit had smoothed out some of the ridges in the roof of her mouth - these ridges are normally quite prominent. Just to see if it would make a difference, he changed bits for a while to the Rockin' S raised snaffle bit, which sits differently in the horse's mouth - it lies back, not forward, does not make contact with the roof of the mouth and doesn't pinch the tongue. He said if it were going to help, it would be clear in 5 or 10 minutes. The mare was clearly unhappy with it, since she chewed with her mouth wide and chomped. They switched back to her regular snaffle, as as she worked and began to understand what she was supposed to do, her mouth settled and she stopped looking out of the arena.

The main work with this pair involved learning how to ask the horse to soften - the thought, ask and release. The release needed to be given not when the feet or head did the mechanical act called for, but when the feel and quality were there. The objective is not to just change what the horse does, but the whole look and feel of it. In order to do this, you have to have in your mind a clear idea of what the look and feel should be, and present this to the horse mentally before you use any aids - this is a short time interval but gives the horse the chance to offer what you are looking for, each and every time you ask. The rider had to learn how not to give the horse an inadvertent release when the horse would push with its nose - otherwise that's what you're training the horse to do. Same thing with a horse that pushes on the bit when you pick up the reins - you need to work to eliminate that brace - every time you pick up the reins (which you have to do with softness - if you're abrupt you'll produce a brace) you want the feel of softness through the whole body.

To get softening, put your hands where the pressure would be a zero if the horse were soft. Don't pull against the horse - just wait for the horse to come back to you. If you pull against the horse, you're part of the brace and there'll be a recoil when the horse softens, eliminating the release for the horse. Your hands are a "box" with somewhat flexible boundaries - they aren't a brick wall. There can be a bit of soft give, but your hands should return to the box.

It's important to not just give the horse the answer, the horse has to go through a process of figuring things out. But it's also important to be proactive and step in and help the horse if things aren't progressing - you may need to change what you're doing. If nothing's happening, it's OK to pick up the pressure - if the horse feels the need to push that's OK.

Now here's something that's a little hard to explain - as the horse is pushing on you and you are maintaining the pressure, without pulling, create in your mind a softening, an opening for the horse to move into - this isn't a physical thing although it turns into one as the horse responds. This doesn't involve making the horse stop the brace, rather in the conversation you're having with the horse, talk him out of it - the objective is to get the horse's mental attention and get the horse to change its thought. Mark says to find the point of resistance and soften into it (project the feel of softening in your mind). I asked him (auditors are welcome to be involved) whether any of this was physical, and he said no and had me come out so I could feel it. A side note - Mark is a black belt in Aikido, and uses a lot of the energy/redirection/blending concepts from that discipline in his work with horses and their people - very effectively, I might add. He held onto my forearm with his hand, and I held onto his forearm with my hand. First he had me pull on him (I was the horse). Then he did the "soften into the point of resistance" mental thing and the next thing I know I was moving towards him - but he wasn't pulling on me. Weird, huh? I went home and tried it on my husband - he was the horse and I did the "soften at the point of resistance" - it worked - he practically fell on top of me. This concept was a theme for the whole clinic - I didn't put it in the common themes post as it's hard for me to explain.

The horse and rider pair also did some transition work, from walk to halt and back to walk, and walk to trot and back again. In all transitions, up or down, Mark has the rider focus on when each hind foot is leaving the ground. For example, in the walk to halt transition, if you're going 1-2, 1-2 with the hind feet at the walk, breathe out on one and use your halt aid on 2 to get a better halt. There was a lot of very useful stuff about breathing at the clinic - this is one example.

And on to horse #2!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Mark Rashid Clinic - Common Themes

The format of the clinic was 8 horse/rider pairs. Each pair got to work with Mark for at least an hour, and more if needed, every day. There's a break for lunch, but it's pretty intense and completely fascinating. As usual at these clinics, the riders and horses were very diverse as to breeds, disciplines and the experience level of the riders. Although every pair was working on different issues - or at least with different emphases - there were some common themes. I thought in this post I would outline some of the common themes and then in later posts talk about the specific experiences of some of the pairs. A lot happens over the three days, and every pair made significant, and sometimes truly amazing, progress.

One thing that always makes the clinics interesting is that Mark's horsemanship progresses, each time I see him. He has new insights that are brought to bear, and new and better ways of communicating with us about them. His thinking also isn't static - sometimes he changes his mind about how to do something most effectively. There isn't a "program" that each horse and rider are expected to follow - this can, I think, make it harder for less experienced horse people to apply his teaching - I know I found this hard at first.

So here are some common themes:

1. If you don't have in mind a particular speed, direction and destination, your horse will have to fill in the gaps himself. You have to give the horse direction, not just put on the aid and wait to see what happens next. Same thing applies to speed - if you don't intend a particular speed and quality of gait, you can't expect your horse to guess right. When you feel the horse starting to form a different thought, get in there and offer direction. We spend too much time giving cues and then telling the horse what we don't want them to do after we've waited for them to do the wrong thing instead of directing them to do what we do want them to do.

2. Make sure that you give a release only when you've gotten the feel you want - head set is much less important than the feel in your hands and in the horse's whole body - once you've got the right feel you can make all the adjustments you want. But headset doesn't come before softness. Also make sure the feel is soft from the inside of the horse - the horse's mind and thought are soft - not just compliance from the outside - this is a difficult concept to put into words but you can see and feel it. Giving releases (sometimes when we don't even realize we've done it) is how horses learn to push into the bit and brace - they've been taught to do it and think it's correct. This can happen even in small things - if your horse comes to a halt softly, but then you give a release when the horse gives a little push on the bit - that's what you're teaching the horse to do.

3. Almost everything a horse offers up to us under saddle has been taught to them by a human, often unintentionally, or is the result of the human providing insufficient direction. Our own body attitude, feelings and physical tightness have enormous influence on the horse due to their sensitivity. Most humans are not soft in their bodies or minds, and are not connected to themselves, and then wonder why they can't get softness from their horse or a connection with the horse. You can't separate horsemanship from the rest of your life - it's all one thing and what is going on in one place will carry over to the other. Most humans live their lives in a constant state of low level panic (from a physical/mental point of view) and the horse can feel this. You may need to work on yourself as much or more than you work on your horse.

4. The way the rider breaths greatly affects the horse - your breathing needs to be rhythmical and in time with the horse's feet. Horses can have breathing issues too - more about that in a subsequent post. You need to breath, not shallowly but fully from the diaphragm, all the time, from the moment you wake up until you go to sleep - this is the basis for relaxation and softness in your own body. If you aren't soft yourself, it will be difficult or impossible for your horse to be soft.

5. Think and feel in your mind what you want to happen and only then ask for it with an aid - the aid is merely a secondary cue for the action - the time interval between thought and aid can and should be very short. You're directing the horse's thought with your thought, and offering the horse the feel you want.

6. Ask for the feel you want from the beginning. If you expect all of your cues and interactions with the horse to be a 1 on a scale of one to ten with 0 being no pressure and 10 being the most pressure you can use, then make sure the feel you think and intend is a 1, all the time. That doesn't mean you don't have to get bigger sometimes to get things done, but the 1 has to be on offer every time from the beginning. This is the same as Harry Whitney's "start where you want to end up" - see my earlier post on this. If you want to only use a 1 with your horse, use a 1 everywhere else in your life - in how you walk, how you open and close a door and how you put a plate on the table - that way you carry the feel of a 1 in your body and mind and can bring it to the horse. If everything in your non-horse life is a 5 or a 6, how can you expect to be able to consistently bring a 1 to your horse in the thought and feel you want for you and the horse to have together?

7. Participate in the activity with your horse. It's "we go there" or "we do this" not "he goes there" or "he does this". This is how you build a connection with the horse. Match your energy to the energy you want the horse to display - bring your energy up or down by thinking and intending the feel you want so your horse will understand. This applies in ground work as well as in the saddle. Mark feels that the way some people do groundwork - standing still in the middle and having the horse move - builds in a disconnect that then makes it harder to get a true connection in the saddle.

8. Emotion has no place in working with horses. Every thing should be matter of fact. Even if you need to get big, it should be done without emotion - anger in particular has a damaging effect on your relationship with the horse. Just deal with what the horse offers up - don't attribute human emotions or intentions to the horse - horses aren't "disrespectful" (behaviors that we think are disrespectful are almost always learned behaviors), "disobedient" (sometimes they struggle with what we want and can be very determined to do things the way they have been previously taught is correct), "sneaky" (this is usually us not paying attention or providing direction) or any of the other things we attribute to them. A horse with serious behavior problems - bucking, bolting or rearing for example - is often very troubled mentally and emotionally or may have serious physical pain issues - the horse expresses how it feels with its body.

9. Softness isn't slowness in cuing, or tentativeness, or even smallness. It's a feeling - you can be precise and definite and in fact have to be. But being precise and definite doesn't have to be big - in fact almost all of us tend to overcue, often by a large amount. Precision and being definite are a matter of timing and intent, not the size of the cue. In fact, if you and your horse are really connected, cues don't have to be physical at all - you just mentally offer up the thought and feel of what you want and it is instantly there. Softness can also be there if we have to get big.

10. To get a gait transition, think of it in terms of rhythm, not speed - thinking "go faster" or "go slower" doesn't tell the horse enough. Prepare - think the exact rhythm, feel and speed you want - if you don't know this in your own mind, how can you expect the horse to know what you want? A question Mark often asks is "Is this the trot you want?" to which the answer the rider gives is often no. The reason the trot wasn't what you wanted is because you left it up to the horse to decide instead of determining precisely what you wanted before asking for it.

11. Although you should never give a release until you get the feel you want - not just the feet moving but from the inside of the horse - once the horse has given you what you want a number of times - not a large number, 2, 3 or 4 times - don't keep repeating it to check if the horse has still got it. If you do that, the horse is likely to think that he isn't doing something right and that you want something else - and will start offering up other behaviors in the search to find what you want. And then everything falls apart. Either step up to the next stage in what you are asking for - if the horse is giving you three soft steps in the walk now ask for 5 - or move on to another activity and come back to the first activity later in the day or the next day - the horse will benefit from the time to process. Always participate with the horse in an active way through your intent - have in mind what you are looking for - no mindless riding, groundwork or lunging/driving around the round pen - if you're mindless there won't be any connection with the horse and although the horse may be compliant that's from the outside only.

More later - but here's a preview of the horse/rider pairs:

A cute Hafflinger/Welsh cross and her 11 year old rider:

An Icelandic mare:

There was a very cute Fjord gelding, with a relatively inexperienced rider, that I somehow failed to get a picture of - too busy taking notes, I guess!

Then there was the breeding stock (no color) Paint gelding - a lovely horse:

There was the chestnut quarter horse gelding doing basic dressage:

Here is jmk from Buckskin and Bay and her big buckskin gelding Scout - she's done some interesting posts about her clinic experience:

Then there was the very experienced horsewoman with two horses - although she's only in her early 20s, she's been riding with Mark for over 10 years and now works to train and also start horses. Her first horse was a Hanoverian/Appaloosa - a big guy:

And her second horse - a perlino gelding who was being restarted - this was the most interesting horse of the clinic for me:

More later!