Thursday, August 20, 2009

Just Standing Around

Maisie and I had some fun yesterday. Now, our arena isn't much - it drains poorly and turns into a swamp when it rains, followed by hard and crusty when it dries - the people who built it a number of years ago apparently didn't really know what they were doing and our barn never has enough funds to redo it. But when it's not too dry or too wet and has been freshly dragged, it can be pretty nice. There's almost nothing more satisfying than riding into a freshly dragged arena where no horse has put a foot before and doing a series of exercises - circles, turns up the center and quarter lines, diagonals, serpentines - and you can actually see your track and how straight your horse is and how precise and round your circles are. You can even travel exactly over your own path if you choose. Maisie and I did lots of figures at the walk and trot. She was carrying herself much better - I had switched back to the Rockin S' snaffle, and she was delightfully soft for the most part. We did a lot of transitions, working off of thought and my breathing for the most part. We threw in lots of "momentary" transitions and some backing as well. She was energetic and responsive.

We also did some more "floating" lateral work. This time, instead of trying to do the whole "floating" exercise from the day before, we only did sidepass in her good direction - to the left, and then went straight again. I'd like to do this in pieces to make it easier for her - we'll get the forward/sidepass to left/forward working before we add back the other elements, and the sidepass to the right is going to take some extra work. It was particularly fun to see the patterns the lateral work made in the arena dirt!

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Then we did a different exercise on the trail to work some more on her herd-boundness. I'm a big believer in helping horses to learn to self-calm. They do this all the time on their own - they'll startle in the field at something, even run a ways, and next thing you know the herd is grazing again. A horse that never calmed down after a startle would starve to death! Another thing I believe is that it is impossible to make a horse relax - only the horse can do this - but that there are ways to help the horse learn to relax and calm down.

When I work on leading, I start with some very basic things - giving to pressure from the halter and my hand - so that if I touch the lead or touch the horse, even very softly, there's an immediate response. One way I try to help the horse calm itself down in hand is to ask for them to lower their head to pressure from the lead, and eventually to almost no pressure. I've learned that a horse lowering its head releases endorphins that result in a relaxation response - hmm, maybe that's connected to the position a horse puts its head in when grazing - who knows? So, if a horse gets excited on the lead, or starts to lose track of me, I will usually first ask for head lowering. Sometimes (not always) that's all it takes for the horse to calm down.

I think when a horse softens to the bit under saddle, relaxing its entire topline from nose to tail and engaging its core, the same calming reaction occurs. A horse that is braced, anywhere in its body, is not relaxed, and there are plenty of horses that travel in a "frame" who are completely braced and very tense. If my horse starts to tense up, I usually first ask for softening, and often that's all it takes to get the horse to relax.

Another thing I try to help the horse learn how to do is stand still. I do this by offering the horse a choice to move or stand. I do this exercise both in hand and under saddle. I've found that a horse that can choose to stand can also often choose to relax - the two things go together - but only if the horse makes the choice, not if the horse is forced to stand still when it needs to move its feet.

In hand, I ask the horse to stand by gently placing it. If the horse moves at all, including pawing - I ask the horse to move in a circle until the horse offers to stop (on its own - I want the horse to choose). I don't care if the horse needs to circle for a long time until it offers - in fact most horses seem to figure this out pretty quickly and start to offer to stop almost immediately when I move them off. I watch the horse very closely for the slightest hesitation, which indicates the offer to stop, and drop the lead again. I don't care at all as I teach this if the horse ends up anywhere near where we started - that's a refinement that's easily added later. Now my Maisie tends to be of a somewhat fretful disposition, and when I got her she was very fussy, prone to pawing and constantly walking all over. She learned to stand pretty quickly and she now stands like a rock wherever I put her, completely calmly, even if I go out of sight or a far distance away. (This, by the way, is exactly the method that, with slight variations, I use to train the horse to come up to the mounting block into the correct position and stand still on a loose rein until I ask it to move, without my positioning the horse or making it stand still - again the horse needs to be the one who has the thought.)

I also ask my horses to stand still under saddle, and have trained Maisie to do this as well. It occurred to me that this might be a good technique to use to work on herd boundness on the trail. This is the same deal as on the ground - I ask the horse to halt, loosen the reins, and if the horse chooses to move, I direct the motion in a circle until the horse offers to stop, then repeat as needed. Again, it's important not to "make" the horse stand still or constrain it in any way - the horse has to be the one who has the idea. Maisie now stands really well under saddle. I can stop and stand her almost indefinitely. When I'm doing this, it's also important to me that I "keep riding" - I'm not just sitting there zoned out, I'm still riding the horse. That keeps the connection, and I find I can move off immediately, or pick the reins up and back or turn, instantly - even if the horse appeared to be dozing.

Since Maisie stands so well, I thought we'd use this to help her relax on the trail. I wanted Maisie to change the thought from "herd-bound - want to go back to the barn" - to "I'm stopped and calm". I wouldn't think of having a horse that didn't stand well do this in a nervous situation - that's not the best place to do the basic training, and I wasn't putting Maisie under a lot of pressure - no seriously scary objects or situations, and we didn't go all that far from the barn. So we walked out on the trail, stopping from time to time and standing, both going away from and towards the barn. This was good work on our downwards transition to halt as well. If I didn't get a nice, soft halt, we backed a few steps until the softness came through. What I was looking for each time we stopped was not only a good stop and stand, but also for Maisie to relax herself. As we went back towards the barn, whenever she tended to want to speed up at the walk, we stopped and stood. We didn't move on until Maisie gave me a relaxation response - a lowered, relaxed head, or half-closed eyes, or a sigh and chewing. She got so she would tilt me an ear and even slightly turn her head so she could see better see me out of one eye - but we waited for the relaxation. As soon as I saw a relaxation response, we moved on. I did nothing to get her to relax - she did it herself - this is exactly what I wanted - for her to self-calm.

We stood in lots of places, including by the goat rubbing himself on the fence (she's not really too worried about him), the flags/chairs/water buckets on posts in the community garden and people dumping yard waste bags into the compost wagons. The self-calming worked well everywhere. Next time we'll extend our area, and maybe throw some trot work in for good measure.

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Two days before, when we worked a little on sidepassing along a pole, I had noticed that Maisie was worried about having her front feet on one side of a pole and back feet on the other. So we worked on standing still straddling the black corrugated "snake" that takes the sump pump discharge away from the barn. She wanted to move forward, or to back away. She doesn't back very well mechanically - she tends to want to drag rather than lift her feet, and I think this is part of her worry, since if you drag your front feet over a pole it's scary. She is able to back correctly, lifting her feet in diagonal pairs, but with the pole in the way she reverted to dragging. Picking up your feet would be better - we need to do more work on this over poles, in hand at first. She backed and went forward a bit, until she was more comfortable and stood still a few times in each direction. We did partially crush the "snake" in one place when she dragged a front foot over it!


  1. What a nice session and very "John Lyons," at least from my experiences with Kenny Harlow. I have a feeling all the good "horse whisperers" work much on the same principles. Give the horse the option to do the right thing.

    A lot of the "mystique" of the training principles mainly deal with how each trainer explains them. For example: teaching the horse to stand by making him move each time he doesn't can also appeal to the horse's general aversion to work. So, "If you don't stand still, you will have to move." The horse figures out that standing is a far less difficult solution and stands.

    Either way, once you establish the behavior pattern, it works well.

    Head down does calm the horse and is one of the first exercises Kenny teaches in his riding clinics. (At least when I rode in one a while ago.) When the horse starts to spook....head down, the calming move.

  2. Thanks for the response, and I look forward to the blog. I'm sorry for my lack of comments lately--I can only leave them now because I'm on a friend's computer. I don't know what the tech guy did at work, but most sites I used don't work anymore.

  3. I've been doing a lot of transitions with my two, with lots of walk to halt transitions. Like you I wait for a sign of some softnesss/relaxation before moving again. I've also gotten the ear tilt and head turn while doing this. They both picked up on the program pretty quickly though.

  4. Thanks for the post, very timely for me. Jasper did extremely well on his camping trip the last 4 days- trail riding a couple of times a day for hours. Walk on the buckle, trot & canter in the lead, behind another horse... everything was great until we needed to stop. Then we backed into trees, sidestepped off ravines, had baby tantrums. I usually did the circling thing you talked about 2 or 3 times then yelled, "HEY" and gave a hard jerk on the reins and a whomp on the sides. As soon as we had 3 seconds of stop we moved on. If I hadn't had 3 beginning riders with me I think I would have spent more time on "whoa"... and now I realize what I need to work on before I go out trail riding with a group again.
    Anyway reading your post made me realize that what I was doing in the beginning really is what I want to continue to do... thanks!

  5. I love your thoughtful approach to your horsemanship! The relaxed head down posture is one of the first things I taught my young horse and something we practise often. An important safety factor!

  6. Thanks for the good explanation of your groundwork. Good insight on the sidepassing/backing over a pole...if the horse doesn't pick up its feet properly, it makes sense that he/she would be nervous...

    I think taking the time to do that sort of thing is so valuable. I'm a bit spoiled right now because my current horse is pretty calm and doesn't need as much work in that respect.

    I have to say that the giving to pressure in the lead line to get the head down really worked on my old gelding. He was really uptight and I spent the whole winter working on that ('cause it was too cold and snowy to ride) and when it came time for the vet in the spring, he really responded to the head down thing and was much more calm than the year before...

  7. I love your ideas on the self-calm, very neat. I will try out your circle/or stand thing on Tuff next time I have him out! He is usually good about standing where I put him, but not always. I think he will pick up on this very quickly (total lazy butt!) Thanks for a great read!

  8. That's interesting that you were working on the same thing with Maisie that I did with Panama on Wednesday -- standing to work on relaxing on the trail, that is. I go about it somewhat differently -- I've been correcting him, rather than walking in circles to make standing a choice -- but it still worked pretty well to encourage him to relax. By his behavior today I think the standing exercise worked -- I'm on my way to go blog about that now, so stay tuned!

  9. I have always used circling as my safety net. If Jackson doesn't want to go somewhere or do something, get stubborn, crazy, whatever, we do small circles until I can get him past it. I will try your idea of putting him into the circles and then letting him decide when we've done enough tho! I have always been the one with the prescription pad, hmmm, yes, we need 3 circles for this issue...etc. Never thought about letting him work that out for himself! Thanks!


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