Friday, March 12, 2010

Maisie Makes Circles and the Conversation

I didn't ride yesterday, as it rained hard on and off. But the snow's almost all gone, as is the ice, and so I was determined to ride today. When I went to get Maisie, she galloped to the gate through the mud, splashing her chest, legs and belly with wet mud. Ugh! But the rest of her was clean (unlike many of the other horses who were caked with mud), so I groomed and saddled up. She was clearly feeling very lively - spring fever, I guess. There wasn't anywhere where the footing was good enough to lunge - she could have used it - so I just got on. We went a ways down the trail - her walk was a little more forward than forward, if you get what I mean - it had quite a bit of bounce to it. At one point I asked for trot and got head-shaking and a small buck - trotting wasn't going to be part of the program today. When we turned towards home, I asked her to walk on a loose rein. She couldn't hold it together, and started to jig; I asked her to slow and she was getting ready to ball herself up and explode - she has a decent buck on her when she's excited. So I got off and sat on a handy retaining wall holding the reins. We stayed there for quite a while. At points she pawed. I ignored that.

When she was more calm, I got back on using the wall as a mounting block. (Maisie's 16.2 and I can't easily mount from the ground even if I'd wanted to.) I asked her to walk on a loose rein back towards the barn (I had my reins bridged just in case); she jigged a step; I asked her to come back to walk; she didn't want to; I used an opening rein to circle her back around so we were facing away from the barn; and we stood on on loose rein. We repeated this an uncountable number of times, sometimes with a spin thrown in for good measure. Progress towards the barn only happened with steps of walk on a loose rein. We made a number of amazing divots in the trail. At points while we were standing facing away from the barn, she would paw (I ignored this) and throw me disgusted looks out of the corner of her eye.

She started being able to string more steps of walk together, which was a definite improvement. When we got to the barn we kept on going past it down the trail in the other direction for a ways, and then repeated the exercise coming back - it wasn't as hard this time as she was getting the point of what I wanted and what she was going to have to do if she didn't comply. She chose to string more walk steps together, and we had to circle less often. At one point some kids came running loudly down the street and she did a true sit-and-spin, but she came back from that pretty quickly. We walked back and forth on the trail in front of the barn several times, and then circled around the barn and went up to the field behind, where we crossed a large puddle and did a number of serpentines at the walk.

She was still exceedingly alert when we got back inside, and I had her stand on the cross ties for a bit before I put her away. She's often like this in the spring - full of vim and vigor and somewhat barn-bound.

It wasn't the ride I started out to have, but we got some work done. She clearly needs to burn off some energy, and it's hard for her to focus when her energy level is so high. I'm hoping things will dry out soon so we've got a place where I can safely lunge her when she's like that before I ride - things might be a little less exciting.

I've been thinking about how my work with my horses is a conversation. I ask, the horse gives me an answer, I reply. Sometimes the horse asks, and I answer, and so on. As in a conversation, I don't want it to turn into an argument involving "yelling" on my part - bigger aids, yelling at the horse, hitting or kicking. If the horse "yells" at me, I try to treat it much as I would a tantrum by a toddler - if I can keep my cool and stay calm, things tend to go better. Sometimes the horse may answer my ask by saying "I don't understand", or "I'm afraid" or "I can't do that because it hurts" or "do you want this?", and I have to be careful to allow that and in fact listen for it, because the horse's answers tell me where I need to be more clear or specific, or perhaps where I need to try to explain, or approach, things in a different way. If the horse doesn't do what I'm looking for when I ask, I may say "good try, that's not what I want, try something else" - but I don't punish the horse for giving the wrong answer - I don't ever want to shut down the horse's attempts to figure out what I want - I want the horse to be engaged and willing to try different things. As in any good conversation, I need to pay close attention to what the horse is telling me so that I can appropriately reply - either by telling the horse "yes, that's it", or "good try, now let's do it this way". When things are going well, there's a real live connection there, and that's what I love to feel.


  1. This is such an insightful post. I am seriously enjoying reading about your work with the horses on self control & patience. I recently realized that is a big hole in my horse's training & you give me a lot of ideas for how to work on it. Love your idea of having a conversation with your horse. I wasted so much time in the past "communicating" the way I was taught, which was mostly punishing wrong answers and losing my cool! It sounds like you had a productive ride with Maisie.

  2. I really like your response to Maisie's high energy. I can just see you sitting on the wall while she pawed the ground. It is a conversation, and it sounds like you're telling her something very valuable that she'll remember. How old is she? I know when Siete was six, we went through a really tough time where she was constantly testing me, pushing to see how far she could go. It seemed to end this year when she turned seven. But this time of year, everyone is frisky, including me.

  3. Great post, and I like your analogy! Sounds like you have Maisie well in hand. As for the conversation ,all I would add is when you ask,ask it like the answer is going to be yes(as in prepere for what you asked for) that encourages you to be firm and ask with your body ,also you wont send any mixed signals(though you don't seem to do that you seem very clear with your horses)

  4. I can understand her being a little energetic and excited this time of year. I can't wait to get out and go for a good ride either. I do like your conversations with your horses and I like the way you took her past and around the barn. Good lessons that I'm sure she'll remember in the future.

  5. Sounds like a very productive ride. You worked with the horse you had and you both worked together. She may have been pumped full of energy and a little barn sour but sounds like you guys never lost communication.

  6. My horses have had a case of the noodle brains lately. They are used to getting worked 6 days a week and it has rained ALOT lately not even allowing for turnout time. Simple tasks such as hand walking have become challenging. You have lots of great insights on dealing with the crazies.

  7. Definitely insightful. One of the reasons I like riding up at the farm is that my friends, having more experience than I, are sometimes better able to discern what my horse is trying to tell me.

  8. Very good post - I too am from the "If you ask and you don't get it MAKE them do it" school and with my two current horses it does not work.

    Having to unlearn everything I had been taught from a very early age and be soft soft soft and listen has to be the hardest thing I've tried.

    With a young horse - Rosie - I want to do it right, she's a joy to ride both in the schooling (hopefully show) ring and on the trails. I've really analyzed why I got the unwanted behavior like randomly stopping during a lesson/training session. What I saw was I slightly off balance every time she stopped. Which in my horses I want because my kids ride them.

    Have an absolutely wonderful day!

  9. Sounds exactly like me and Dixie a couple months ago. You'll outstubborn her soon enough and she'll start listening to you. :)

  10. You have such a great mind for working with horses. I love the understanding and way you deal with problems. Maisie is a lucky girl to have you.

  11. I enjoyed your description of Maisie with spring fever. She sounds happy and joyful with the season and I envision her with quite a spring in her step! I've had your experience of getting off and just sitting somewhere before, it seemed my options were to get off and wait and hope to regain cooler heads (from both me and the horse) or we were heading towards a fight. I chose get off and wait. You've been able to get in several rides this week!

  12. I like the idea of it being a conversation. I'll think more about that next time I'm riding. ;)

  13. As always, a very thoughtful approach to a tricky situation. SO much better to avoid the battle whenever you can and win over the horse's cooperation with patience.

    Tucker is the kind of horse that I simply cannot fight. He is teaching me all kinds of alternate methods. Some work, some don't, but the journey takes a long time.

  14. Sounds very similar to how I communicate with my kids.
    I always choose my battles and prefer to avoid starting battles in the first place.
    I don't need to prove I'm always right or my way is the only way. I think my kids appreciate that I am very flexible, understanding, and willing to listen.
    And I hope this carries over in my horse communication, too.

    I enjoyed reading how you handle Maisie's high energy and impatience.

    Good post.


  15. Sometimes the very best rides are the ones we do not expect to have. I loved reading this post and considering the "conversation" you have with horses. That is so great, so smart and helpful to me. When I first got Lilly, my moentor said that horses are a lot like toddlers!
    I too hope the snow is outta here sooner rather than later!

  16. Whoa, quite a ride!
    I remember the sense of relief I felt when I suddenly realised I was starting to see things a bit differently, like you describe how you see things there. Like you say, a bit of work on the line before you go might help settle her down a bit.

  17. Kate..what a great way to think about a ride!!! Kudos to you for sticking with what the day's lesson brought instead of fighting for what you wanted initially. That is something I struggle with sometimes. I learn so much from you! :)


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