Saturday, July 31, 2010

Noble's Spirit Blows Through Me

Although I miss Noble terribly - seeing his empty stall and not seeing him grazing with the gelding herd are particularly hard - I feel in some way as though his spirit is blowing through me, and that if I may, the wonderful things about him are available to me if I only grasp hold of them. May I be able to take on board his generosity of spirit, his kindness, his integrity and steadfastness, his patience and intelligence, his ability to forgive and his sense of humor, and remember him, and honor him, in this way for the rest of my life.

Friday, July 30, 2010

2010 Mark Rashid Clinic - Horse #4 - Close the Gap

If you haven't already, please read the "Common Themes" post, which also references the post covering common themes from last year - these posts will give you a good idea of the framework and thinking with which Mark Rashid conducts his clinics, and will help you understand what I'm talking about here.

Horse #4 was a pretty chestnut Saddlebred mare. She had been a champion at age 3, and when she was purchsed 5 years later and brought to the rider for training, she was crazed, worried and easily frightened. She'd been in work for about 6 months, and they'd already come a long way. I always love watching this rider - she's an exceptionally skilled trainer who's been riding with Mark since she was a young teen. She is the sister of the rider of horse #1 and the daughter of the owner of the place where the clinic was held. At last year's clinic, she was the person working with both horse #7 and horse #8. She's a rider of exceptional softness and finesse, and her work with Mark now involves making very small adjustments to what she does with the horses.

One of the things that is fascinating about the clinics is how Mark works with riders who are at different stages in the development of their horsemanship, and riding horses at different stages of their training. The contrast between horse #3 and this horse #4 was particularly interesting - the rider of horse #3 needed to get softer, slow down and give his horse more time, and the rider of horse #4 needed to give direction more quickly and cleanly.

Mark said that, in an effort not to pressure this very sensitive and worried horse, the rider may have been hesitating to get in there and provide the horse with immediate direction when she needed it. The rider came out on day one with two things she wanted to work on - abrupt downwards transitions and the horse bracing in transitions. Mark said the mare just needed a bit of preparation - think the transition, breathe out and only then use a rein cue if needed. Also be sure to keep the momentum going through the transition - ride a downwards transition just as if it were an upwards one - ride forward in your thought just as the horse starts to make the downwards transition so you get that nice flow. Present the transition to the horse in your mind just as though you were doing it with your own body on the ground. Neither we nor horses in the pasture make abrupt transitions - if it's abrupt it's almost always coming from us - smooth it out in you to smooth it out in her - get to the point where your transition becomes her transition. The mare has probably learned to make abrupt transitions in her prior life - you have to show her a softer way to do it in yourself first.

On upwards walk/trot transitions, there tended to be a momentary hesitation between the thought, breath and ask and the mare trotting - Mark said the mare may have been used to waiting for a spur cue. Mark said that this rider's job was to compress the interval between the ask - not "trot", but "trot now". Get in there immediately and give the mare direction - clear up the confusion in her mind - the mare was saying "I think you want trot, do you want trot?" - everything wasn't completely clear in her mind and she needed clearer direction. In an effort to be soft, the sense of precise timing and intent was getting muddied. The mare was just on the verge of being able to do these transitions much better - she would feel the thought, and start to brace herself and worry - these issues were probably due to prior training. The rider's job was to make it easier for her by being clear, and to be careful not to teach her to just think about the action without carrying it through. Mark told her to move immediately to a secondary cue rather than getting stronger with the primary cue (say by tapping the rider's leg - not the horse - with a crop) to reinforce the "now". There might be a momentary loss of softness, but that would be recovered quickly once the horse understood - and clear understanding would allow her to feel better and stop worrying so much. A horse that's in a rut with residual behavior from past training needs us to be really, really clear about what we want.

Mark said that the horse was going exactly the way she was being ridden. Many people complain that when they start working with their horse, that they have to do x, then y, then z, before the horse starts to focus and respond. "The way we ride the horse becomes the way we ride the horse" - these sometimes frustrating sequences with horses come from us and the expectations we bring to the horse. From the moment you get on, it's your intent and timing that lead the horse's response - "we're working now". "The integrity you bring to the horse is the integrity you get back." Be very clear - horses don't like gray areas. Show the horse how to be better prepared, and step in and provide direction rather than leaving the horse guessing.

On day two, the horse came out somewhat less worried, but there was still some worry left (this horse is ridden in a curb for now because this more familiar style of bit gives her some comfort):

Mark said we should have an attitude of expecting to get the response we want - the rider was just giving her too much leeway and time to doubt and worry. If a horse doesn't do what we ask, it's hardly ever "attitude" - it's because they don't understand what we want, physically can't do it or are doing exactly what (we may not realize) we are asking them to do. The walk/trot transitions were much cleaner now that the rider was providing clearer direction.

Then they worked on trot/canter transitions. Mark said that the delay had been built into the mare by somebody - the mare was waiting for a spur and worrying about it. She was very clear in expressing what her problem was. In the process of changing something the horse believes to be true, you can cause the horse momentarily to worry more, but when you clear up this confusion quickly, the overall worry will be much less. As they worked on trot/canter, Mark said that the rider needed to be quicker and cleaner with her thought, breath and aid to close the gap, but not stronger with the pressure. Mark said the mare wants to do what she thinks you want, but you need to help her through it so she can think "I get it and now I don't have to worry". Here is one of their transitions to canter:

They also did some lateral work, primarily turn on the haunches. The mare was very fussy with her mouth and looked worried. Mark said in all lateral work, think about the horse moving up and over - this does not involve lifting up with the reins, but is more a matter of creating an opening for the horse to move over and upwards into - this is how the horse would move in the pasture. Lateral work isn't about moving across in one plane - it's more 3-D than that. Use no or less leg to cue to be sure that the opening isn't being blocked by bracing in your body, and if you need the horse to make a change offer the horse something different, even as subtle as slightly different rein placement on the neck. The mare got a lot quieter with her mouth when given an opening to move into. Mark said that she was still a little confused about foot placement, but would figure that out.

The next pictures are from day 3.

As they continued their work, Mark noted that the mare wasn't breathing as well in left-lead canter - the horse should breathe one breath per canter stride. He also noted that the mare wanted to carry her head slightly to the left when moving, and when halting would try to shift her head to the left. Mark said it was likely that the mare couldn't move her jaw freely to the right, so that was creating a brace she was reacting to. He looked in the mare's mouth - the last pair of incisors on the right had a hook on the top that would prevent the mare's jaw from being able to slide to the right and was probably contributing to the mouth fussiness. All of us were able to look at the mare's incisors as well. He said that when a repetitive pattern of this sort occurs in the same circumstances every time, it's either coming from the rider or from a physical issue. In the case of this rider, she is very skilled and rides all her horses in a consistent way, and none of the others do this, which made Mark think it was very likely a physical problem. In the case of this mare, until she got her incisors fixed, he wanted the rider to keep asking her to stay straight, but to ask very softly as it may be difficult for her to do - a light brushing of the rein on the right side of the neck would help her straighten.

I particularly like this picture from the end of day 3 - the mare's expression and body are much more soft:

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Dawn Says No Problem

Yesterday I didn't ride - I was pretty lacking in focus and energy. Today was a little bit better, so Dawn and I went back to work. We worked on the scary pole, softening at the trot, transitions and some lateral work. Before I mounted up, I led her over the scary pole in both directions - no problem. Then, after I mounted, we just rode over the scary pole in both directions, almost as if it wasn't there. I kept my focus on a destination past the pole, didn't push or urge her at all and she just walked right across with no increase in tension or energy - apparently the pole is no longer scary. I was pretty sure we'd be able to do this together today, and I'm pleased that it worked out.

We did a lot of softening work at the trot. She's continuing to improve her ability to carry the softness for longer periods - we're pretty reliably up to 11 soft steps in each direction, without diving or curling up. I'm still keeping my hands a bit higher than I usually carry them to help her out. Soon she's be able to carry herself correctly on a continuous basis at the trot. Between sets of trot work, we would walk around on a loose rein, including over the (now invisible) pole, and around the cones that were set out. We also did some backing and some work on turn on the haunches to the left, taking one slow step at a time. She knows how to do this lateral work, but needs a refresher. And after another trot set we worked on our transitions, using the sequence of feeling the movement and the new rhythm in my body, breathing out and cuing (if needed) - she was right on it for all the upwards and downwards transitions between walk and trot and walk and halt. I rarely needed any cue at all - as soon as the thought and breath happened she did it, and not using any rein cues gave her an easier opportunity to stay soft and balanced through the transitions.

Then, since everything was working so well for us, we started our canter work. I made sure to get at least 5 soft steps at the trot before asking for canter. Her canter departure to the left was really nice, and we did one big circle before coming back to trot. To the right she was somewhat strung out - this was probably incorrect timing of the cue on my part - but once she got the canter it was lovely and round. She didn't get excited or rushy at all. After we were done, we walked around the outside of the arena past the community garden - she got a little bit rushy and looky, so we did frequent turns to keep her engaged and focussed.

I'm absolutely delighted with Dawn's progress and her willingness and work ethic. I think all the primary building blocks are in place, and we can now begin to refine lots of things.

After I gave her a rinse off and she was grazing while she dried, my younger daughter arrived, back from her road trip. Dawn is now hers again for the time she's here and I'm sure they'll enjoy their time on the trail together. Maisie's suspensory swelling is looking better every day, but she's not ready to ride yet.

2010 Mark Rashid Clinic - Horse #3 - Dial It Down, Slow It Down

If you haven't already, please read the "Common Themes" post, which also references the post covering common themes from last year - these posts will give you a good idea of the framework and thinking with which Mark Rashid conducts his clinics, and will help you understand what I'm talking about here.

Although every horse/rider pair made significant progress during the clinic, this 6 year old chestnut QH mare and her rider were one of the pairs that came the farthest, and it was largely due to the rider's willingness to learn and make changes in the way he interacted with his horse. I also particularly liked this mare, as she reminded me a lot of Dawn, not in appearance but in her intelligence and worries. This rider and the rider of horse #5 were husband and wife, and they raise and show cutting horses. He hadn't ridden this mare a lot, and she'd only been ridden 100 times or so since being started. He'd been working on rollbacks and spins, and both he and the horse were getting pretty frustrated. The horse was very nervous and fretful, and the rider was tense when they first started working on day one. As the rider tried to ask her to do a rollback, the mare was pinning her ears and looking pretty agitated and unhappy. After she took a few steps, she would often leap sideways for part of the turn.

Mark said it looked like she'd gotten stuck at one point in the turn - not quite sure what to do with her feet - and then rushed through the rest of it. She had stopped thinking and was just trying to get ahead of the pressure. She needs to learn that she doesn't have to rush. When she was standing still, she was able to stand quietly, so the problem with the rushing related to the work. Mark said she was tense and troubled and frankly somewhat scared. At one point she was calling for her buddy - Mark said she wanted to go back to be with her buddy because she felt her buddy knew more about her than the rider or Mark did - she just wanted out of there. Every time the rider started to work with her on the maneuver, her fear would come back up and she would try to rush - it turned out later that the couple had fired a trainer who had been rough with their horses, and some of the mare's behavior may have arisen due to this.

Mark told the rider that he needed to dial down his movements and aids, and to slow everything way down, and just make everything he did much softer - the mare was very sensitive and responsive and was being pushed and rushed and ended up over-amped - there was no way she'd be able to do a movement fast if she didn't understand how to do it slowly. He should work on each movement one step at a time, giving her the space and time to figure out what to do with her feet. He said often people give their aids off a brace, or intensify an aid when they don't get an immediate response, and that bracing and pushing can block the horse's movement and lock it up - the horse can get the job done but it makes the horse's job much harder. He said many cutting and reining riders are taught to cue off a brace, and although many good horses manage to do their jobs anyway, they'd be much more able to do it, and do it better, if the riders were softer. The message was break the task down and turn down the volume - the rider took it well.

The horse needed to feel better about the work, and to do that she needed time to think about where to put her feet. This was another case in point where horses are taught to do a performance task - taught the answer to 2+2 is 4 but never taught to add - never given the space and time to think about a task and understand how it should be done. The rider's job is to listen to the horse and not pressure or rush the horse through the task. Once she feels in her body how to do it correctly, she'll be much calmer about the work, and then they'll be able to work on speed.

Mark did a lot of work with this rider on the feel he was carrying in his reins - Mark does this by taking one end of each rein in his hands and having the rider hold the other ends. He had the rider play both the horse and the rider to get how things should feel from both ends. Mark wanted this rider to be softer in his use of the reins - the length of the rein doesn't matter, the feel does - the objective is to stay connected while using much less pressure. When the rider was able to do this, the mare's mouth quieted down. The feel when contact is taken up should be that of blending - staying connected and providing resistance/pressure as needed but not pulling even if the horse does - this is a hard concept to convey unless you feel it in your hands. If you are pulling against the horse's pull and the horse softens, your hands will recoil and the horse doesn't get a release. If you're blending, and the horse softens, your hands stay put and the horse gets a release. Your hand should set a soft boundary, not a rigid wall.

Here they are on day two - the horse is still somewhat worried, but you can see that she's thinking about things. The rider is also working hard on maintaining that soft feel they'd been working on during day one:

Day two was largely spent doing lots of transitions, particularly downwards transitions. The rider said he'd never done any downwards transitions other than lope to stop and trot to stop - their trainer doesn't like them doing anything else for fear it'll mess up the horse's stops. Mark said he thought there was a way they could still work on downwards transitions from lope to trot and trot to walk, since the cues for those would be different than the cues the trainer was having them use for stop. And this transition work would help both horse and rider learn to be softer, and that would also benefit the stop. This is a good example of how Mark works with riders from different disciplines - he helps them build on what they already know to work more effectively in their chosen discipline.

As they were working on their transitions, the horse wasn't entirely sure what the rider wanted, so she struggled a bit. Mark said as she was learning, rather than telling her what to do, do it together with the rider leading the horse. Being a good horseman or woman involves making adjustments depending on the horse, the day and the situation - this horse needed him to dial things down, and then dial them down even further, and to not be in a rush with the horse, giving her time to do the transitions and figure things out. Mark didn't want the rider to try to shape or refine the behaviors he was asking for until he was sure that the horse understood what he was asking for and could do it. (This was an interesting contrast with horse #4, where the challenge was not to leave the horse guessing but provide more immediate direction to sharpen things up.) Mark had him throw in some stops so the horse could distinguish clearly between the two different behaviors - and the stops were much softer, but still very clean.

One thing the rider did while they were working on the turn on the haunches was to slightly change his rein position on her neck - he raised it slightly and that seemed to make a big difference to the mare. By doing this, he broke the pattern of the way he was interacting with the mare. As Mark pointed out, any pattern that is established between horse and rider will be either a good thing (if it's a pattern of interaction and resulting behavior that we want) or a bad thing - the trick if it's a bad thing is to figure out what we've been doing and change the pattern and try something different until you find something that works better.

On day three, the pair came out looking much better - the rider was much softer and the horse was much happier and not worried. The less the rider pushed on or interfered with the horse, the better she was able to do what he asked. The downwards transitions were much cleaner - the rider said "I only have to have a twinge of thought and she does it." The mare could execute a turn on the haunches correctly without rushing, and they could work on more speed once they got home.

Mark talked some about the most effective way to work - it's important to give the horse a break once you've got a couple successful repetitions - if you keep repeating at that point without taking a break the horse may think it's not giving you what you want and start offering up other things that you don't want and then you've lost the thread and have to start all over. In each work session, Mark recommends working intensively in a number of short repetitions on one thing, and then doing something completely different, and then coming back to the first set of work, and then perhaps doing yet another thing, with each piece of work done in short intense sets. Don't work continuously on one thing for a long time - the horse needs mental breaks to think about it and will often come back doing it better than before. Mark also said that he had changed the format of his clinics from four days to three because the fourth day often turned into a review session and he didn't think the riders were getting their money's worth on the fourth day. He said that three days of intense work by horse and rider was about the right time frame for things to come together. Mark likes, for horses and riders, and riders working separately on their own physical fitness, a 3 days on, one day off or 5 days on, two days off schedule. Sometimes those breaks allow things to really improve.

One thing Mark always asks each rider as they get to the end of the clinic is whether there is anything they didn't get to do that they wanted to do. This rider said he had wanted to work on lead changes, but said (admirably in my opinion) that they weren't quite ready for that yet. Mark also had noticed that the mare had a tendency when she stopped to tip her head slightly to the left and to want to bring her hindquarters to the right - this could indicate a problem in the right hindquarters, possibly her right hip area, particularly as she had a harder time with the left lead canter and with turning to the right - she might need some chiropractic work. He also recommended that her teeth be looked at - if the horse's jaw cannot move properly to both sides, that will often interfere with downwards transitions or cause crookedness. He also said - and my personal experience strongly agrees - that most vets and many horse dentists work on horses' teeth improperly, not paying sufficient attention to side to side motion, the way the TMJs work, and the effect the incisors have on the whole mouth - the incisors often need dental work they don't get. Problems in the mouth affect the entire horse and way of going, not just the mouth and head.

By the end of day three, things were looking really nice - the horse's expression is much happier and the rider looks more relaxed and soft, and happier, too, and notice that he's no longer got a death grip on the reins and his position is more balanced:

I really thought this pair had come a long way, and both of them deserved a lot of credit. Mark said this mare had a lot of integrity - she wasn't going to stand for being pushed around or overcued - this certainly reminded me of Dawn!

Thank You

I wanted to thank each and every one of you who sent kind and sypathetic words on our loss of my good Noble - your company, words and thoughts mean a great deal to me. I will be resuming the series of posts on the Mark Rashid clinic shortly - I find comfort in the work of thinking and writing about what I've learned. I also apologize for not commenting on the many posts of yours I've been reading - I haven't really felt up to commenting but will get back in the swing of things soon.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

In Celebration of Noble 1980-2010

As some of you know, Noble has been ill. Based on the blood work we had done yesterday, his kidneys were failing and he was developing muscle breakdown. The vet suspects that the failure to eat and drink properly, and these imbalances, was due to something that made him not want to eat or drink and that was causing his muscle wasting - probably an abdominal mass or cancer of some type. Infection and mouth problems were pretty much ruled out. We decided not to trailer him to the vet clinic to have him treated with continuous fluids, since although that might have stabilized his kidney function temporarily, the strong likelihood was that the underlying problem would not be treatable in a horse his age, and the trailering and being in a strange place with strange people - he's not been away from our barn in almost 10 years - would put him through a lot of stress for probably little long-term benefit.

He was still interested in grazing yesterday and got to spend some hours out with the herd, but still wasn't drinking or eating hay or grain. This morning, despite 15 quarts of IV fluid yesterday evening, he was worse - not eating or drinking, unwilling to even eat grass and showing signs of depression and pain. He could still eat carrots, so he got to eat several bags before he was euthanized this morning. He had a good life and the best death we could give him, and he will be fondly remembered and sorely missed. I will especially miss his warm nicker and his sweet face and little curved ears.

I could see that this was coming, and have been saying my goodbyes to him since Monday evening. The other horses knew too - Fritz, who is usually pretty pushy in the herd, stayed right by Noble's side yesterday in pasture, shadowing him and protecting him, and Monday evening Maisie, who had her head over her stall guard, was grooming with him when she'd usually pin her ears and bite him.

I am so grateful to have known this honest, wise and brave horse, and want to celebrate his life - he was just about the perfect horse in many respects - a joy to ride and handle, always willing and always kind. I have saved some of his tail hair, and hope someone will have a good recommendation for having it made into jewelry.

Please visit his 29th birthday post and 30th birthday post for more Noble stories. And, in closing, here is my favorite picture of him and how I will always remember him, from the winter before last:

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

2010 Mark Rashid Clinic - Horse #2 - Change the Thought to Change the Feel to Change the Action

If you haven't already, please read the "Common Themes" post, which also references the post covering common themes from last year - these posts will give you a good idea of the framework and thinking with which Mark Rashid conducts his clinics, and will help you understand what I'm talking about here.

Horse #2 was a fairly tall, but delicately built, bay 17 year-old TB gelding with his 12 year-old rider, who is leasing him. She had been riding for about four years, and did a very nice job with him over the three days of the clinic. A number of years ago, this horse had been in training with the rider of horse #4. His owner at the time decided he was too much horse for her, and sold him. The people who bought him returned him several years later to his original owner for free, broken in body and spirit - he was in such poor physical and mental condition that they had no hope of selling him. He has scars inside his mouth and on his tongue, and on his nose, from the "training" he had received, and his stifles and hocks were damaged. It took many months to physically rehab him and to bring him back from being completely mentally and emotionally shut down. The good news is that his basic sweetness and willingness really shone through by the end of the clinic.

On day one, however, he was a very nervous and worried horse - he was worried about everything: being in the indoor, another horse leaving the indoor, you name it. He was constantly bracing and pushing on the bit while he rushed around at the walk, trying to break into a trot. His rider told Mark that she had a lot of trouble with his stop and with him not wanting to stand still. Mark told her that, with all the energy he had, working on the stop right then wouldn't be a good idea. With all that energy churning around, he couldn't listen or focus, and trying to hold him in or work on stopping would just bottle up the energy and make things worse. What he needed right then was to keep moving and have his rider direct his energy.

Mark said the best way to help him was to pick something simple - he had her doing a small figure eight at the walk and work on directing him and asking him to soften at the same time. Receiving direction and softening would both make him feel better inside. Mark says that the simplest things we do with the horses sometimes make the biggest difference. The objective of the work with him was to change the way he was thinking about things by providing him direction and success, so he could change the way he was feeling - the nervousness - so that he could change the way he was acting. Mark then had them doing lots of turns - no straight lines unless he was quiet. He had her using no leg and making sure her outside rein wasn't tight on the turns - he said they needed to de-escalate the level of tension and pushing on him or constraining him wouldn't help. Before she could get more specific about what she wanted to teach him, he had to feel better. Energy isn't a problem with a horse that understands how to control it and work with it. Excess energy can come from feed, pain or how the horse was trained to act in the past.

As she was starting to work with him at softening at the walk, as they did their turns, he would stick his nose up and brace each time before he softened - Mark says this is pretty typical for a horse figuring out what you want. To help him, Mark suggested that, as she took up the contact, just before the reins began to apply pressure, she should breathe out - there was an immediate change in the horse's demeanor - he started being able to soften more consistently and his eye softened. As they continued their work, he was able to maintain his softness at the walk. Breathing in causes the body to brace, while breathing out softens the body, allowing the horse to be soft - breathing out on exertion or change, say a transition up or down, can really make it easier for the horse to do what you're asking.

They also did some work on standing still - the horse could do it for 7 seconds by the end of the day.

Mark said that you need to put the feel of the movement in your own body first - so on a walk to halt, you would feel in your own body what that movement would feel like if you did it yourself - and only then ask the horse to do it. Too often we just put on an aid and wait to see what happens - having the feel in your own body first allows you to get ahead of things and lead the horse with your thought.

On day 2, the rider said that the horse didn't bend well in turns and also got agitated in lateral work. Mark said that they first needed to get the horse soft so it could use its body properly before tackling other things. Whenever the horse pushed on the bit, it was her job to be sure he softened before he got a release. In answer to a question from the audience - "should she make him do x?", Mark said that if you make a horse do something, it's a little bit like teaching someone that the answer to 2 + 2 is 4 - the person only knows the answer but not how to add. Our task is to help the horse understand what the job is and help him to do it - this has a completely different feel. And it's important to be patient - whatever the horse throws out, you have to be there for him.

By the end of day 2, the was putting less energy into his movements, and was beginning to think and try to figure out what the rider wanted. Often a horse figuring things out will go back to the old behavior (bracing against the bit for this horse) to compare it to the new behavior you are teaching (softening), and then suddenly switch over completely to the new behavior because it makes the horse feel better. Don't worry too much about what the horse does as he tries different things - just leave it alone and let the horse quit the undesired behavior - don't apply any energy to behaviors you don't want, only focus energy on what you think is most important to accomplish - refine it later.

On day 3, the horse started out much more relaxed and soft. By the end of the session, the horse was able to stay soft at the walk and trot, and she was able to do 3/4 of a lap of the arena in canter with the horse maintaining his softness - here they are at the walk:

And here are two pictures of them cantering - the smile on this rider's face isn't the last one we'll see:

Mark did comment that he looked like a horse that would benefit from having his teeth done - notice the tip to the nose in the first canter picture above. Mark said that the headset isn't what's important - what's important is the feeling of softness. As they were doing transitions, including halting, the horse could maintain a halt for 25 seconds - the overall picture was a happy horse and happy rider.

Dawn Gets It and Noble Is Ailing

Yesterday, Dawn and I had another excellent work session. I saddled and bridled up - no lungeing or groundwork - and we went right to work. First we did some minutes of warm-up softening work at the walk - lots of circles, figures and making sure the pace and relaxation were there throughout. Then we went right back to our trot work. It was immediately apparent that she absolutely got it from the work the day before - with very little delay she softened immediately, maintained a soft consistent contact and didn't curl up. Just to prove the point that hyperflexion (or rollkur to use its fancy name) isn't soft and doesn't allow the horse to engage its core and move properly from back to front, every time she hyperflexed, she got on the forehand and would stumble. I kept my hands somewhat high to help her, which seems to make a difference. We quickly moved up through 5, 7, 9 and 11 soft steps at the trot in both directions. She was right on it. I was also able to get her to maintain her pace without speeding up when I gave her a release - a few circles the first time to help her self-regulate her pace and she got that too. I was able to work in rising trot the whole session without her wanting to go fast, which was also an improvement - I want energy and impulsion but not fast.

There were a couple of occasions when the people working in the vegetable garden provided distractions - there was a lady who was popping up and down and also making snapping noises harvesting corn. Dawn did one small spook and occasionally wanted to look but immediately came back to the work since I maintained my focus.

In our breaks, we walked over the "safe" pole and also edged up on the "scary" pole - she didn't want to walk over it but without pushing or urging her forward - I didn't want to push since this tends to block forward motion and I also didn't want to focus her on the thing that was scary - I was able to circle her around in various directions and make figures that brought us pretty close on both sides - she was able to touch the side barrel with her nose and even smell the pole from both sides without alarm. We also did a little bit of walk/halt transitions and also some backing - both were much softer - I think the work at walk and trot on softening is coming through elsewhere.

Then when she was rested - she's pretty out of shape - we did another set of trot softening. We didn't work long as she told me that her muscles were tired. The softening was hard for her and she wanted to revert to the curling up as that was her old, more familiar way of going. We got 5 nice soft steps in each direction and stopped with that. It takes a while to establish new patterns and ways of going - I think Dawn will be pretty quick on that - but she's also using her body and muscles differently now and will need time to adjust to that and build stamina for the work, as well as building muscle memory.

We did a bit more circling to approach the scary pole, and when she was right in front of it I dismounted and led her back and forth across it several times - she was much more relaxed about this than the last time. I think pretty soon she'll walk right over it under saddle without a problem, but I'm not in a hurry.

* * * * * *
My old Noble isn't doing well. He's 30, and has had his ups and downs, but has been doing pretty well up until about a couple of months ago. He started dropping weight, even though he was eating his grass and senior feed well. He's gotten pretty thin - I can see his ribs - although his coat still looks good. His nutrition is good, his teeth have been seen to - he's got all but one of his teeth and our excellent dentist says he's got great teeth for his age, and he's up to date on his worming and shots. About a week ago, his manure changed - it's much darker, pretty unformed although not wet, and not as abundant. On close examination (I collected some this morning to show the vet), there is a lot of undigested grass and hay in there, and some small hard round bits - could be grass seeds, could be parasites. He shows no signs of pain - no pawing, rolling or looking at the sides (and he's a demonstrative horse who would tell me), although he's somewhat listless and tired looking. The odd thing is that he seems to be interested in food - he nickers for it but then only eats a little - and is very interested in eating grass - he pulls me to the pasture, although I've also just seen him standing there very still, not eating, on a number of occasions. The most worrisome thing is that he's no longer drinking well - he has access to fresh clean water in his stall and outside and is a big user of his salt block - he seems to think about drinking but then doesn't do it - very similar to the eating behavior. He's getting more and more dehydrated, but still doesn't want to drink.

I also watched him graze last night - he eagerly took bites of grass, but as he was chewing, lots was just falling out of the side of his mouth. We suspect he may have had a minor stroke a couple of years ago - he went through a period of not being able to eat well and his tongue would just hang out of his mouth, but he recovered from that. It may be that he's having trouble swallowing, perhaps due to another small stroke - there are no signs of choke - and that's keeping him from eating and drinking well. When I gave him carrots this morning, he eagerly ate them although a lot fell out of his mouth. He has no fever - I took his temperature this morning and if anything it was a bit low.

So I put him where he wanted to be - out with the other horses - and called the vet, who will come this afternoon. I asked the woman doing the scheduling, whom I've talked to many times, to send a vet with a good and gentle bedside manner - she knew just what I mean since there's a spectrum of vets at their practice, and some are more patient and soft with the horses and some get impatient - Noble is a very sensitive guy, doesn't like vets and also is still somewhat headshy after all these years - we've been together since 1997 - when I got him you couldn't lift a hand towards his face without him running backwards and he still doesn't like his ears touched although he lets me if I need to. He deserves gentle treatment and respect. I won't be doing anything heroic with him - if it's his time, then it is. He's been the very best horse ever, and I'll certainly miss him when he goes. I spent a lot of time last night at the barn holding his head and stroking his neck and shoulders and telling him these things - he knows how I feel.

Monday, July 26, 2010

2010 Mark Rashid Clinic - Horse #1 - Baby Stuff?

If you haven't already, please read the "Common Themes" post, which also references the post covering common themes from last year - these posts will give you a good idea of the framework and thinking with which Mark Rashid conducts his clinics, and will help you better understand what I'm talking about here.

Horse #1 was a very cute 4 year old Percheron/paint cross gelding. This horse was only recently started under saddle, after foundational groundwork, and had about 15 rides on him, most of which after the first ride were done by the 12 year old riding him in the clinic - she's a pretty experienced rider (she was the rider on Horse #1 at last year's clinic - see the sidebar) and was riding him under the supervision of her mother and older sister (the rider of Horse #4, and the person who is retraining horse #2), who are both very experienced and capable trainers. The title of the post has a question mark - some of his issues were normal young horse stuff, but some weren't, and there was an interesting development on the third day.

This horse is the only horse I got a photo of on day one - it had already started raining and as soon as her ride was over the rain poured down, all day long. Here he is - cute guy! - while his rider answered the question "what do you want to work on today?"

The answer she gave was that he was sluggish, and that he also didn't steer very well, and that he was very fussy with his mouth, doing lots of mouthing and lip-flopping - although this was the best he'd ever been - he used to grab the reins, side of a bit or anything else he could reach. He's been on the trails and has done well there - in fact he was a pretty calm horse all in all, although part of that was due to him being at his home place.

Mark watched them go around and commented that the horse didn't really know very much, which wasn't surprising. He said his caps would still be coming off, which would explain some of the mouthiness. When he turned, particularly to the left, he would tend to bring his head to the inside and pop his shoulder out. He also had a tendency to want to slow down or even stop, particularly in the turns. Since he had already learned to stop very well, any time the rider touched the reins, the first thing he would think about was stopping. Mark suggested that the rider put on a little leg just before asking for the turn and that helped a lot with the slowing down and attempting to stop. Mark said this was pretty common behavior in babies who have learned how to stop well.

Mark said with young horses it's very important to be very specific about speed, direction and destination - often we give them too much leeway and not enough direction - after the first 5 or so rides getting very specific is critical so the horse doesn't learn the wrong things. For the moment, Mark suggested she stay away from stopping and backing - things he does well - and focus on the areas where he's weaker. This will also stop him from offering stop and back even when they're not asked for. Mark made it clear that it was the rider's responsibility to communicate to the horse exactly the pace wanted and not just leave it up to the horse to decide and then correcting the horse when the pace is incorrect. He would often ask: "is that the trot you want?" To sharpen up the trot, he had her do lots of transitions - walk/trot/walk, calling out random numbers of steps to take in each gait - 7, then 3, then 5, etc.

In response to a question about the attention span of young horses, Mark says that it's pretty much a myth that horses, and young horses in particular, have short attention spans. People say "my horse can't pay attention" when the horse is paying attention just fine - but to his buddy in the pasture he's calling to instead of to you. Horses after the age of 6 months to a year old, depending on the horse, can begin to pay attention to the direction of people. Often it's the people who have short attention spans and fail to provide the direction and leadership the horse needs and wants - when our attention to the horse and the work we're doing with the horse is interrupted, that's when the horse appears distracted - he's filling the void left by us. Many of this horse's issues were related to this - as she provided him with more direction, he was much less distracted and was able to focus on the work.

On the second day they were inside and worked on his wiggliness and turns, and also on transitions. With a horse like him, who tends to not follow his nose around the turns, and pop his shoulder out, when he starts to do this on a turn - pick a target where his head is pointed and work to get his body to follow his nose by riding straight for the target, rather than continuing the turn with his nose in and shoulder out. It's very important for any horse, but especially a young horse, to learn to travel straight and also to follow his nose with his body. It's also important for him to learn to balance himself, so don't use your body and legs to help him turn as the quieter you are the easier it'll be for him to balance - let him figure it out but don't let him go along with his head and body crooked - ride him forward and straight towards the target you pick. This exercise helped - his rider was better focussed and gave him better direction - but he still tended to wiggle a bit.

In transitions or while maintaining gait, move instantly to a secondary aid rather than increasing the primary aid if the horse doesn't give you the pace you ask for - Mark suggests using a crop but not hitting the horse with it but smacking your leg or boot to make a sound. If you just use more leg, all you're teaching the horse is to respond only to a stronger leg cue - that's how horses become insensitive. The secondary cue says "no, this is what I want" and reinforces the primary cue, and then you can revert to the softer primary cue once the horse understands what you want. The goal is to teach him to lift himself immediately into the requested gait the instant the soft primary cue is applied.

Mark set up a cloverleaf pattern for them using cones (actually small feed pans that happened to be lying around), with frequent changes of direction and pace, so the rider could work on giving him clear directions for pace, turns and transitions. Then they worked on preparations for cantering him a bit the next day. He had only been cantered under saddle a few times, and only once outside the round pen. So, for safety's sake, although he didn't expect the horse to have any problems, Mark had her do some pace regulation work in the trot - increasing, then decreasing, then increasing their pace to be sure he was listening to her requests and could comply. That way, when they cantered the next day, if things started to go sideways, an under-control trot would provide a safe, comfortable place to go for both of them.

On the third day, they were back outside and went right to work - as Mark said "he showed up ready to work today." They did some more work on speed regulation at the trot in preparation for a bit of canter, to see what they'd got - you can see his tendency to pop his shoulder out on turns in the first photo, although this was better than the first day:

Mark had her start with only 1/4 lap of the arena for the canter, and said if that went well, then they could increase it a bit. They gradually worked up to about 3/4 of a lap in each direction, with no problems.

I got this nice picture of his head when they were stopped for a moment:

Mark thought part of the problem with the turns might be that she wasn't really able to maintain a connection with him through the reins since he wouldn't really accept much contact. His mouth fussiness had also continued despite the good work they were doing - they've tried lots of different bits on him and this is the one he's been most comfortable with (it's very similar to the ported Mylar snaffle I ride Maisie in). Whenever she took up contact, he would hyperflex to avoid the bit. Mark wanted to try out something different to see if it would make any difference - here's they're trying out the Rockin S raised snaffle - you can see he's accepting some contact but looks a little worried and braced:

Then, since he was better but still pretty fussy with his mouth, and often hyperflexing - which is not something any horse, but especially not a young horse, should be learning - Mark brought out a sidepull for them to try - it was a new type for me - a direct action sidepull with the rings attached directly to a wide soft leather noseband - from Buckaroo Leather: here's a link with a fairly small picture - for some reason I didn't get any photos while he was wearing it.

The horse's demeanor changed instantly - his mouth was quiet since there was no bit and he would accept contact from the reins without hyperflexing, although he wasn't very soft and in fact was somewhat bracey. The rider said she felt much more connected to him. Mark recommended that they keep him in some sort of sidepull for a while, perhaps a year or more. Once his mouth settles down and he has his first dental work, he may be fine with the bit. He said that all that apparent softness implied by the horse's head carriage was illusory - the horse was simply carrying his head that way to avoid the bit and the connection with the rider was being lost. But he said there would be new challenges with the sidepull - he was doing some head-tossing and clearly would have to learn to soften for real instead of bracing. So sort of a two (illusory) steps forward and one step back, but much better than having a horse that you can't connect with and that hyperflexes. In response to a question, Mark said that in his opinion a bosal should be reserved for a much more educated horse.

So in the case of this young horse, many of the issues that seemed to be due to his age and stage in training were really issues caused by his rider needing to provide him with more direction - and this can happen with any horse at any stage of training. And then his apparent softness was in fact an illusion due to his avoidance of contact with the bit because of his mouth issues. So his work wasn't as far advanced as it seemed, but his rider can now connect with him and give him more direction, so his work should advance rapidly.

Dawn and Maisie Update

The weather here is beautiful - low 80s with sun - so Dawn and I went back to work yesterday. My clinic posts are likely to be interspersed with posts about my work with Dawn, mainly so I can have a good record of what we've done and how it's going. When I come back from the clinic, it's exciting to apply the things I learned or had reinforced. And in many respects, to do this, it's about me and not about the horse. So I approached our session with two main thoughts in mind - getting to work right away, and riding Dawn like the horse I want her to be. If some of this is unclear, there'll be more about this in the clinic posts - these are things I already know but I benefited from the reminders.

So Dawn and I went to work in a businesslike manner from the start - I saddled, bridled and mounted up - if she had been showing signs of being high we would have done some ground work but that wasn't needed so we didn't need it. We reviewed our walk softening work for a few minutes - she was right on it without curling up. My objective was to lead her with my thought so her attention wouldn't stray - if I kept paying attention she could too. And despite many distractions - people going by, toddlers wandering around and pushing their strollers, people pounding stakes in the vegetable garden and popping up and down as they worked - she was right on it and completely with me even when we relaxed between work sessions on a loose rein.

Then we did a lot of trot work, in intense short sets. I want her to accept a soft contact, and soften at the trot, without curling up - I need a connection in order to have a conversation. Her curling up behavior isn't physical - she's had good dental and chiropractic care and had both done recently, and it isn't a bitting issue - she likes this bit much better than any other we've tried (it's a simple Mylar single-jointed full-cheek snaffle). So it's a learned behavior - she's been taught to do this and thinks it's correct. So in order to change the pattern of her behavior, I had to change/adjust what I was doing - a principle that pervaded the work at the clinic. I tried a few things, and had the benefit of Jill from Buckskin and Bay stopping by - I drafted her to be eyes on the ground for a few laps at the end to confirm what I was feeling. In order to get Dawn to understand what I want her to do, I had to raise my hands several inches - bingo! Soft trot without head behind the vertical, with a nice steady contact. Jill said that her eye showed that she was focussed and thinking hard about what we were doing, but wasn't worried. We got up to 5 soft steps in each direction after a bunch of work for her to figure it out. Once she completely understands what I want, my hand position probably won't matter as much. And when I got off, her eye was soft, and she looked like a happy horse. I hope today we can reinforce what we accomplished!

Maisie's leg is looking better - the swelling is smaller and more sharply defined, and she's moving better in the pasture. I'm hoping we're on the road to recovery!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

2010 Mark Rashid Clinic - Common Themes

Before you read this post or any of the other posts about the 2010 clinic, please read the post "Common Themes" from last year's clinic - everything in there still applies and it'll save me repeating myself here.

One of the things I enjoy about watching Mark Rashid work is that his horsemanship is always developing - he's always trying to find better ways to communicate and demonstrate what he's trying to teach, and he's always finding ways to improve and refine how he works with horses and riders. And, although there are common themes and a way of looking at the horse and the horse/rider interaction, there's no program or system - each horse and rider pair are treated as individuals and what happens in the sessions is based on what that horse and rider pair bring to the clinic in terms of their prior experiences and training and what their specific needs are. That isn't to say that the problems riders present for solution often aren't really something else in disguise - since Mark tries to teach people to not only work on the outside of the horses - technique, cues and getting a task accomplished - but on the inside of the horse - how the horse feels about the work and expresses that - problems of technique or inability to get a task done often are solved by getting underneath to some more basic issue relating to horse or rider or both, and when that issue is improved the horse is more able to do what is being asked.

This year's clinic had many of the same themes as last year's, but there were some refinements. Mark spend a lot of time talking about space, time and energy - how the horse and/or rider use these things and how they relate to the communication back and forth between horse and rider. As I talk about this stuff, some of it may be unclear - as the posts on individual horses come along, it may become clearer in the light of specific examples. Also, although they're set out here separately, these concepts are not really separate in practice - they work together.

Space. There's a lot included in this core physical concept: How the horse's body moves in space - body mechanics. How the rider's body moves in space, and in relationship to the horse's body. Where the horse/rider pair is moving, and who's doing the directing of the motion from moment to moment. How the horse's footfalls relate to its motion in the various gaits and the transitions between them. Balance - the horse's balance, the rider's balance and blending the two. Creating or closing openings, unintentionally or on purpose, for the horse to move into. The space between the horse and handler on the ground and what happens in that space. The space between the rider's hands and the horse's mouth and what happens in that space - Mark spends a good bit of time with many riders having them hold the reins, with him holding the other ends, where he has them be the horse and him the rider, or vice versa, to work on that space and the feel that should exist within it. Paying attention to these spaces, and offering softness so we don't brace either in ourselves or against the horse's own braces.

Time. For the horse - the need in certain cases to process, think and learn. When, in certain cases, it's time for the rider to get something done, now. Getting ahead of the game - leading the horse with your thought before breathing and aids are used to cue. Timing of breathing and cues to help the horse with the work. Timing of giving direction - as Mark says, sometimes we tend to put on a cue and then wait to see what happens and then correct if the horse gives the wrong response - the horse needs us to lead with our thought, breathing and cues but also to catch the horse's thoughts as they are developing and provide direction before the thought turns into an action we don't want - there are innumerable examples to use for this: a horse that tends to not make a smooth upwards or downwards transition, a horse that is distracted and nervous, a horse that is thinking about bolting, and on and on.

Energy. Redirecting the energy of a nervous horse rather than bottling it up. Using your own mental and bodily energy - bringing it up or bringing it down - to influence the horse's energy level. How the energy of movement travels through the horse's body, the rider's body and the two together, and things we do that either permit or block energy flow. The difference between energy and tension or rushing - energy is quiet and soft. Even big moves on our part with a lot of energy can be soft, and offer the horse softness to move into.

There were a couple of other concepts that should be mentioned - adaptability and changing the pattern:

Adaptability. Mark says that the mark of true horsemanship is adaptability - the ability to adapt what you are doing to that horse on that day. This approach was exemplified in the clinic - even when two sets of horse/rider pairs were working on the same exercises, Mark would have them approach the work slightly differently due to what each horse/rider pair needed to focus on, the capabilities of each horse/rider pair - experience level, the degree of training the horse had and the horse's specific reactions to the work. Being willing to learn and think about ways to improve how you interact with and communicate with the horse is a part of this too.

Changing the pattern. Often, when a horse/rider pair had a problem or issue that made it hard for them to do something, there was a pattern - the rider would do this, the horse would respond in this way, the rider would then do this, etc. Sometimes these things related to behaviors the horse and/or rider had learned, and sometimes the rider wasn't even aware of the pattern as it played out, and sometimes the pattern related to a physical issue the horse may have had. In each case, to change the behavior in a positive way it was necessary for the rider to be aware of the pattern and then change it. Sometimes these changes were very small - tiny adjustments of feel and timing - and sometimes they were dramatic - horse #7 will be a good example of this.

And finally, and probably most importantly, Mark's philosophy is that the point of everything you do with the horse is to help the horse feel better about the work you are doing together - that's the route to a horse that is willingly compliant from the inside. There are a lot of smiling people and much happier, softer looking horses by the third day - some of that you'll even be able to see in some of the photos I took. Every horse/rider pair made significant progress and some of the changes were truly dramatic.

I'll be following the same practice in these posts as I did last year - one post per horse, per day, covering all three days of the clinic. Some pretty interesting stuff happened - stay tuned for Horse #1 - Baby Stuff.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Guest Post - How To Tell If Your Hoof Care Provider Is Doing a Good Job?

While I'm away at the Mark Rashid clinic, I thought you might enjoy a guest post. I asked Mrs Mom over at Oh Horsefeathers & Related Twisted "Tails" if she would do a guest post to answer a question I think many of us have - how do you tell if your hoof care provider - whether your horses are barefoot or shod - is doing a good job? Here's her post, in her own words:

Not that long ago, Kate was kind enough to invite me to do a guest post for her covering how we as horse owners can tell if our hoof care providers are doing the best job for our horses.

Which at first glance, seems like a straight forward subject. Except when you delve deeper into hoof care, you begin to realize that while it is not rocket science, it can be quite difficult for owners to wade through.

I don't have a simple answer for you, but I'll help you begin to know where to look, and what to look for.

First, let's take a look at hoof care in general. The tradition for several hundred years has been to shoe. However, the past twenty years or so, an extensive amount of research has gone into hoof form, function and health, and how hoof care providers can better serve the horses in their practice by using different trim methods, and leaving the shoes hanging on a wall somewhere. (They do make incredible art work pieces.) Take a look at your situation: is your horse bare and loving it, bare and neither of you are loving it, or shod and trimmed in a traditional manner? There are different things to look at in each respect.

First, if you have a barefoot horse and a hoof care provider who specializes in barefoot hoof care, you are going to see a tremendously different hoof than those who are in either of the other categories. If your barefoot hoof care provider is doing their job correctly, you will notice the following:

  • Better quality of movement
  • Reduction/elimination of soundness issues
  • Healthier looking hooves, with stronger wall, wider heels and healthy functioning frogs, and tight white lines
  • Overall physical changes in the body - if the horse can move better, their body will change for the better as well.
Immediately post trim in this situation, your horse should not be sore or lame for any amount of time, UNLESS you are in a rehabilitative stage and your horse is in recovery from injury/illness. Even then, the lameness should be addressed then and there by your hoof care provider, with suggestions for a course of action planned and implemented with the owner/primary handler. (These might be the addition of boots, various sole treatments, thrush treatments or abscess treatments to name a few.)

If your barefoot trimmer is pushing the limits and your horse seems to have an issue or is developing an issue, you might see this:

  • Persistent lameness issues (such as chronic abscessing)
  • Refusal to move on the part of the horse for 36 plus hours post trim
  • Heat in the hooves/possible laminitic incident
  • Tight muscles and pain indicators, such as a disposition change
  • Behavior changes - if your horse goes from a hoof care provider's dream to a hoof care provider's nightmare, there IS a problem.
Overly aggressive trimming, though thought by some trimmers to be necessary to reach the end goal, can and does routinely cause permanent issues, lameness, and there have been deaths. Be very aware of how your horse is reacting during work. Watch his body language closely for negative behavior. Do NOT be afraid to STOP work, if your horse is telling you that something is wrong. Do NOT let the hoof care provider buffalo you into allowing the work to continue, and make you feel as if you are not qualified to distinguish between your horse misbehaving "just because", and your horse showing you he is in pain. If you feel there is a problem, STOP.

If your horse is barefoot, but trimmed in the traditional manner, chances are neither one of you will be overly happy about how he travels, or the quality of movement over varying terrain.

Wait - what is the difference between a traditional trim, and a proper barefoot trim? Very quickly speaking -

  • A traditional trim, often known as a "pasture trim", will leave the entire wall of the hoof weight bearing. None or very little of the sole will be addressed, nor will the heels be leveled and balanced.
  • In a barefoot trim, the walls and sole are trimmed in a manner in accordance with the internal structures of the hoof, allowing all portions of the hoof and leg to work together to dissipate the energy created upon movement. Once conditioned, these hooves are incredibly tough and resilient, and more than capable of covering an incredible amount of rough ground.

Now, if your horse is shod:

  • There MUST be a good trim in place before the shoe is shaped to fit the hoof
  • The shoe needs to be checked, rechecked, and care taken to make sure IT is created to fit each foot - not the other way around
  • Nails MUST stay out of living tissue (not to the inside of the white line)
  • Nails must be clean and clinched well, but clinches do not need to be driven into the hoof wall

A few general tips to look for in the hoof care provider:

  • Who did they study with? In this age of continuing education, college for horse shoeing is not all it should be. Your best bet for hoof care is someone who took the time to serve an apprenticeship, either with a barefoot specialist or a Guild of Professional Farriers Master rated farrier for shoes, instead of someone who took a six-week course and jumped into practice on their own. If I had to find someone to trim my horse, the primary name I'd listen for [in the hoof care provider's history] is Pete Ramey.
  • How long was their apprenticeship? How long have they been out on their own?
  • Does the hoof care provider return phone calls/e-mails?
  • Does the hoof care provider call if they are running late?
  • How does s/he interact with your horse - with kindness and empathy, or brusque aggressiveness?
  • Are they willing to answer questions and explain things as they go? Or are they willing to set up extra time to explain things? (You'll probably pay a bit extra for that, but it is worth it when you have a highly educated provider.)
  • Where do they stand on continuing education? Do they attend conferences and lectures/seminars?
The big question is how do you know if your hoof care provider is actually doing the best job for your horse, and your particular situation?

Once again, this is not a simple answer, as it requires you as the owner to take a hard look at the entire situation for the horse. The best way to find out if your horse is getting the best care is to spend time yourself doing a bit of basic research. The amount of information available on the internet is mind-boggling, but it is a good place to begin. Read as much as you can. Examine as many photos as you can. Examine your horse closely. Look at other horses, and try to understand what you see.

The best thing you can do is to listen to your horse, and your instincts. Give yourself credit for the time you spend reading and doing research. Do not let someone spoon feed you information - get out there and actively seek it out for yourself. Most of all, listen to and watch the horses around you, as they are the best teachers.

If your horse has persistent lameness issues, then it is time to find another provider. If your horse continues to improve and move better, and stay sounder, you are on the right track. Remember - if you do not have a healthy foundation, your house (or horse in this case) will crumble.

Many thanks to Mrs Mom for all the hard work and thought she put into this guest post! She is a thoughtful and informed proponent for good barefoot trimming, and I have to date kept several of my horses in front shoes, but I think her comments and thoughts are useful to all of us, whether are horses are barefoot or shod. I learn a lot every time I read her thoughtful posts about hoof care, and I'm looking to learn more from her in the future.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Day One of the Clinic

So far the Mark Rashid clinic has been a great learning experience - reinforcing for me some things I already know and teaching me some new things. And then every horse is an individual - there are 8 horse/rider pairs. No pictures to speak of today - we were driven inside to the indoor after the first rider by torrential rain that continued all day and I didn't think using a flash would be a good idea. There will be pictures from tomorrow and Saturday, as better weather is expected. At the end of the day, the tornado sirens went off and another huge storm rolled through - no actual tornado which was very good.

So far, here are my nicknames for the horse/rider pairs:

Horse #1 - a 4 year old Percheron/paint gelding and his 12 year old rider - "Baby stuff" (the horse, not the rider).

Horse #2 - a 17 year old bay TB gelding and his teenage rider - "Change the thought to change the feel to change the action".

Horse #3 - a 6 year old chestnut QH mare and the only male rider of the clinic - "Dial it down".

Horse #4 - a chestnut Saddlebred mare and her very experienced rider - "Prepare, breathe and ride through".

Horse #5 - a 14 year old chestnut QH mare - "Don't stop the flow".

Horse #6 - a 6 year old Trakehner gelding - "Keep breathing and don't pull".

Horse #7 - a bay tobiano mare - there's no other title for this one except "I'm leaning . . . I'm leaning . . . oops! I fell over" - this one was fascinating, and yes the horse is fine (rider wasn't on board).

Horse #8 - a chestnut QH mare - "Boundaries and don't run me over".

That's all for tonight - just a taste of what's to come - we'll see if these horses and riders keep their nicknames or get new ones by the end of the clinic.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Sneaking Up on Worry

This morning, before it got hot, Dawn and I had an interesting and productive work session. Today, we did some more "sneaking up on worry". As some of you may remember from my post "The Horse Is Thinking About Leaving . . . ", Dawn is a real worrier, and worry with Dawn can sometimes lead directly to bad stuff happening, sometimes pretty quickly. As described in that post, the things Dawn and I have been working on together are really all designed to work on that fundamental issue - whether we're doing in-hand work, leading work, clicker work, lungeing work, or under saddle work. We're doing some other things too, like softening work and work on transitions, but even that work is affected by the worry and can help us learn how to deal with the worry. I'm really not engaged in desensitization, although some of the work may look superficially like that. What I'm really trying to do is to teach Dawn both to self-calm when she is worried, and to keep her attention on me and follow my direction when she is worried. This requires Dawn to develop her own self-confidence and self-calming routines - so the first response isn't just "SAVE THE HORSE!" but a spook-in-place - and also to develop her attention to me and confidence and trust in me so that we can work through worries together. That's really what it's all about for her, and it manifests itself in lots of ways, giving us lots of things to work on. Dawn is also a horse requiring finesse to work these things through - if she's worried and you up the pressure you're on the quick road to a meltdown, which only reinforces the worry. So she's a real challenge to me and is a big help to me in growing my horsemanship.

We started our work last fall and have picked it up again this summer working on attention to me, both on the ground and now also under saddle. She's made huge progress on this - it's much easier to get her attention back when she gets distracted, she maintains her attention more consistently, and she's able to have a pretty consistent, subtle two-way conversation with me. My strategy regarding working on her worry is, in each of the exercises we do, to take her right up to the point she starts to worry, but to only worry her just a little bit and then give her both the chance to self-calm and to accept my direction in dealing with the worry. We've made a lot of progress on a number of fronts - ground poles and scary objects being two. We've done some effective softening work at the walk, where her reduction in worrying is shown by her willingness to take consistent soft contact without ducking behind the bit.

Today we pushed the limits a little bit in a couple of ways. I set up a tiny (no more than 6") x using two poles - with a horse like Dawn I never use PVC poles as they're likely to roll if stepped on; I use heavy wooden bevelled poles that will stay put if stepped or knocked. First we lunged over a single pole elsewhere in the arena - she was completely calm about this, which represents huge progress in itself. She was alarmed by the x - I'm not surprised by this at all, as her fear and worry over poles is derived from a bigger fear and worry related to jumps (due to historical bad things that were done to her), and immediately told me that she had no interest in lungeing over it. So we led over it - huge trot strides, whacking hind legs, followed by leaping over the x as if it were 2 feet tall. Worried. (Next work session, I'll put SMBs on her hind legs so she isn't worried about whacking them - no need for that complication.) I put one of the poles down so it was flat - still worried - this area was a Bad Place. (Next time we work on this I'll move the exercise so no part of the arena acquires that Bad Place feel.) We led over the pole several times, and I encouraged her to walk over slowly - she finally got there after a few tries, although she certainly was still a bit concerned. We stopped working on that for the moment.

Over to the mounting block, and I bridled and mounted up. We very briefly reviewed our softening work at the walk - she was great although it took a few more moments to the right, which is her stiffer direction. Then we did some more trot work. She was quite forward - more than yesterday because of the x work getting her worried. I decided to do very little at continuous rising trot and to instead work on transitions off my seat from walk to trot and back again. With Dawn, I really want to stay off my reins for now in transitions so the reins can be used to maintain a nice soft steady contact. When she worries, she leans on the bit (former racehorse, so this isn't surprising) and if you up the rein pressure she falls behind the contact. We'll work on speed regulation at the trot later, using redirection of the energy, but today wasn't the day to do that. So we did lots and lots of transitions, often trotting for only 3 steps before going back to walk. She was really tuned in and did really well with this - I sat the trot to make it easier for her. Sitting her trot, since it's really springy, requires me to fully relax my back, seat, hips and legs, which also helps her relax and allows me to more subtly transmit my asks for transitions up and down - I did this mostly by changing the feel of the rhythm for walk (1-2-3-4) to trot (1-2) and by lowering my energy and "sinking" into the horse for trot to walk.

In between sets of transition work, we walked around on a loose rein, and eased up on the Bad Place. She was happy as before to walk over the single pole elsewhere in the arena. Every time we approached the Bad Place, she would try to turn aside. Each time, I asked her for just the slightest bit more than she wanted to do, just easing her over the boundary using turns - absolutely no leg or seat pressure so I wasn't upping the pressure in any way, and then turned her away. I won't walk her under saddle over the pole in the Bad Place until she's calm about it when led and on the lunge. Finally we were pretty close, so I dismounted and asked her to lead through the Bad Place and over the pole on the ground - she reluctantly agreed. It took a couple of repetitions before she walked more calmly over instead of trotting or hiking her legs way up. We stopped there, and she got lots of praise - I had planned to ride her outside the arena for a bit but decided to wait for another day as I wanted to be done at that point to emphasize to her how great she'd done in dealing with her worries.

Tomorrow I'm off to the clinic and doubt I'll have time to work with Dawn due to the driving back and forth. So Maisie doesn't feel neglected while her suspensory heals, when I get back I'll be doing some easy in-hand work at the walk and fun clicker work - I think she'll enjoy that. And for those of you interested in horses with patterned coats like pintos and appaloosas, Pinzgauer over at Drafts With Dots is continuing her series of equine color genetics posts with this post on the basics of white patterns - I'll keep adding these to my sidebar as they come.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Some Firsts With Dawn, Maisie Diagnosis and Mark Rashid Clinic

Before our vet/chiropractor got here this morning, I had a chance to work with Dawn. Since Dawn isn't very interested in lungeing now that she understands that she isn't required to race around in a circle, I've decided to lunge only to briefly test her energy level and mood and to work on a specific task. So this morning, her task was to walk and then trot over a ground pole without excitement or rushing. The trot work over the pole was our first try at this - until only recently Dawn had pole-phobia, evidenced by rushing at the pole, even in a walk, or leaping over it (there's a historical reason for her worries that doesn't matter now). She's gotten pretty relaxed about walking over poles, so we started on the lunge with that. Then we moved up to trot, and after a couple of laps to establish rhythm, I directed her over the pole. She had absolutely no problem in either direction! I think pole-phobia may be waning. Next time I may try lungeing her over a small x to see how she handles that.

That was all the lungeing we did - just a few minutes - since our task was accomplished. I bridled and then mounted up. We continued with our softening work at the walk - last time we'd gotten 5 soft steps at the walk consistently in both directions. My objective today was to see how much further we'd get. Dawn's a very quick learner - once she gets what you want things proceed pretty nicely. So today, within about 15 minutes, we'd progressed to 7, 9 and then 11 soft steps at the walk. She was able to do this without ducking behind the bit, and I worked with her on maintaining a nice walk pace by "allowing" with my seat and legs - one of the challenges with many horses first doing this softening work is that they interpret the ask as a request to slow down. We changed directions after each set on one rein, repeating it on the other, with nice loose rein walking around in between. While we were walking on a loose rein, we did some figures around cones using my eyes and head to direct her to turn, and also worked on shortening and lengthening her stride by my "allowing" or "resisting" with my seat. I like to do some of this work on a loose rein because then I can't use my hands!

Since things were going so well, I decided to move up to trot - Dawn likes to know that if she's done something right that there will be new things to do instead of the same old stuff. We'll reinforce the walk work and refine it, but for now I'm going to assume when I ride her that she knows what to do in that part of the work. We'll also be doing a lot more transition work - walk/halt/walk and also backing, and combining the shortening and lengthening of stride work with the softening work. So for today, at the trot we just trotted a couple of big circles in both directions on light contact. Next session we'll work some on walk/trot transitions and softening at the trot. I think this is the first time I've ridden Dawn at the trot since probably 2002 - she's been my younger daughter's horse exclusively since then. I'd forgotten how much power Dawn's trot has - and how much vertical motion there is - it isn't rough, just very springy/bouncy! She tolerated my posting well, although I don't think anyone's posted on her in many years - my daughter only rides bareback - I made sure to keep my legs completely quiet.

Then to top off our successful session, I walked her on a loose rein out of the arena and up around on the grassy hill behind the barn, and back to the outside mounting block to line up for me to dismount. So three firsts - first trotting over poles on the lunge without worry, first trot work (for me with Dawn since 2002) and first ride outside the arena. She was a superstar! Now these achievements may seem minor, but until very recently I worried a lot about working with Dawn due to her past tendencies to be hot-headed and easily distracted, worried and reactive, sometimes to the point of explosiveness. I think in many ways I've made more progress than she has!

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Dawn had some minor things that needed adjusted by the chiropractor - she was pretty pleased with that (all of our horses love our chiropractor). Then our vet/chiropractor evaluated Maisie. As I suspected, the issue was with the left hind - she doesn't want to allow the pastern to fully sink when trotting. It wasn't her hock - she had no signs of hock soreness - but that swelling low on the outside of her left hind was the sign. On palpation, the suspensory ligament seemed a bit thickened - a sign of inflammation - and she was somewhat sensitive to the touch, and there was a little heat. So the diagnosis was a suspensory strain - not too severe as the swelling isn't that bad and she's 95% sound at the walk - I think this may have happened a while ago when she was at the old barn, and it's never fully healed. So she gets a month off from work - even though she doesn't mind walking under saddle, the extra weight isn't good for it. She can continue to go to turnout every day as the horses aren't doing a lot of running in the heat. Also, I will ice the leg at least once a day. We may decide to take her to the vet clinic to have the area ultrasounded in a month to determine what her long-term prognosis is and what level of work I can expect of her. And, since both hind feet showed some signs of heat and digital pulses, we've increased her chromium supplement (our vet/chiropractor is also an endocrine expert - it's nice to get all of that in one package) and she'll be getting a grazing muzzle to control her weight - she's not going to think much of that! Contrary to what many people think, our vet/chiropractor says that subtle signs of foot soreness due to metabolic conditions (pre-laminitis) often show up first in the hind feet, and can cause other soundness issues like hock strain without people realizing that it's the feet that are the problem.

My thanks to everyone who replied about boots. Since the Sports Medicine Boots are good for suspensory support - our vet/chiropractor likes them - I may continue to use those once Maisie's back in work but using a trick our vet/chiropractor told me about to lessen heat build up. She says to take a cotton kneesock, cut off the foot, leaving the heel, and slide the footless sock up the horse's leg, with the heal of the sock over the pastern joint. Then put on the Sports Medicine Boots and fold the top of the sock down over the top of the boot. She says it really helps prevent heat build up - I'm going to try it out.

Noble had some blood drawn to test thyroid levels. She thinks his rapid loss of muscle along the top line of his barrel and hindquarters is a pretty sure sign at his age that he's finally (at age 30) showing signs of Cushing's. He may need a pituitary supplement shortly - she's likely to have us use chaste tree berry.

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I will be auditing the three-day Mark Rashid clinic at Black Star Farms, 1971 Granville Road, Cedarburg, Wisconsin, this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, July 22-24. The clinic usually runs from 8:00 a.m. to about 5:00 p.m. - shorter or longer depending on what each horse needs each day. This is a one-on-one format where Mark works with individual horse/rider pairs - usually 8 per clinic - on whatever it is that they need to work on, for an hour or more each day per pair. I'm not riding this year, although I expect Dawn and I will want to visit with Mark in a year or so to refine what we're doing - my daughters and I have ridden in a number of Mark's clinics, including two week-longs in Colorado, but I'll be riding in more. I always learn some new things at each clinic, whether auditing or riding, as Mark's always adjusting and changing what he does in order to improve the work with the horse, and every horse/rider pair have their own unique situation and issues. If you're in the area, perhaps I'll see you there - be sure to find me if you come - daily auditing fees are usually in the range of $30 per day, and you can attend any or all of the days. I'll bet there'll be more posts to come about what I learn at the clinic!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Horse Boots That Provide Support?

Does anyone out there know a brand of horse leg boots that actually provide some support to tendons and ligaments, and not just protection from overreach and interference injuries (my Eskadron gel boots are good for that)? I know that a horse can incur tendon and ligament injuries regardless of protective/supportive boots, but Maisie would benefit, I think, from some suspensory support to allow her to do normal work. I have some old Sports Medicine II boots that probably help as they do have a lower strap that is supposed to provide some suspensory support, but they're very bulky and also don't have good ventilation. I can't imagine that having overheated legs on these hot days is doing her ligaments any good.

Any and all thoughts are appreciated.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Morning Work and Lameness Test

Conditions here have been so hot (well, not as hot as other parts of the country, but hot for us) that I decided to work with my horses this morning right after feeding time. Dawn was up first. We groomed and tacked and headed to the arena. First we did a small amount of leading work, including over the poles, and then we did some lungeing. This is our standard routine. The transitions on the lunge went well, including the whoa, except for the transition up to the canter. At first, in one direction she didn't want to canter at all, and then I made a mistake - I got a perfect, flowing upwards transition in the other direction but instead of stopping there, I asked for another one. As far as Dawn was concerned, she'd done what I wanted - she didn't really want to canter - it was getting hot and she wasn't all that thrilled about the lungeing - and when she gave me a perfect canter transition, what did I do but ask her to do it again! Humpf! So after that I never did get a nice transition - all I got each time was a grunt and small crow hop or butt hitch as she started to canter - the grunt meant she was doing it under protest. Tomorrow I think we'll focus on some minutes of trotting to build her fitness, and come back to the canter at another time.

She was happy to work under saddle. We started doing some softening work at the walk - I was focussed on having her soften without ducking behind the bit, while keeping a nice relaxed forward walk - I concentrated on being very relaxed and quiet to "allow" the walk. We worked our way up to 3, then 5 steps of softening in each direction, with some loose rein breaks in between. It took a while for her to be able to do 5 steps consistently without moving her head around or pushing on the bit. I like how she really stretches down on a loose rein - while we were walking on a loose rein I worked on signaling her to shorten or lengthen her stride by "allowing" with my seat and legs, or "resisting" with my seat and legs just for a second. She's doing very well with this. Then to finish we walked over the poles - she's really listening to me and accepting my direction and most of her pole issues seem to have greatly diminished.

Maisie and I did a set of lameness tests, with the assistance of Sugar's owner. These tests pick up subtle lameness at the walk, and I've found them very useful in seeing where a problem is:

Test one is to have the horse led away from you at the walk in a straight line - now watch the points of the hip move up and down on either side - are they moving up and down equally on both sides, or is one side moving less? How much both hips move up and down, even if they move equally, also is a good indication of how well the horse will be able to move - if things are tight and sore elsewhere in the horse the hips often won't move freely.

Test two - horse is led off as before, but this time look at the movement of the back and how the barrel moves - is the back flexing equally to either side (easiest to see on a horse with a dorsal stripe)? - also watch the way the tail swings. Is the barrel swinging out equally to either side? If the barrel isn't swinging out as far on one side, that often indicates that the hind leg on that side may have an issue.

Third test - have the horse led at the walk in a straight line and walk next to the shoulder. Match your right footfall to the horse's right front footfall, and your left footfall to the horse's left front footfall. If one foot is short-striding or being unequally weighted, you will feel it in your own body, even when it's difficult to see. Then do the same thing with the hinds, walking next to the horse's hip.

(I didn't create these tests - they were taught to me by Mark Rashid at the first clinic we took Maisie to - he showed me where her unsoundness was (at that time she would buck whenever ridden) and sent her home with a full refund of our clinic fees. It took a while to get her back and sacral issues fixed, but I finally did and was able to ride at future clinics.)

Although Maisie's apparently visually sound at the walk, in the tests her left hip seemed to be moving slightly less, her barrel was moving more to the right than to the left, and she wasn't equally weighting the left hind and she was slightly short-striding. At the trot she was visibly off in the right front/left hind pair, and I don't think it's the right front - she seems unwilling/unable to push with the left hind. Although she's been having some filling above the pastern joint in the left hind, there's no heat or sensitivity here and I think the problem may be higher - I'm suspecting hock, although I may be wrong. We'll see what the vet/chiropractor says on Tuesday. For now, we'll just be taking pleasure walks on the trail, as we did today for a bit - the flies were awful so we didn't go far. She seems perfectly comfortable walking along as long as I don't ask her to use herself. If it's time for her to become only a trail-walking horse, that's fine by me, although I hope we've got a few more years ahead of us where we can do more strenuous work together.

I was pleased with both mares for being willing (mostly) to work with me at a different time of day while the other horses had gone to turnout.

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A couple of comments and responses I wanted to copy from yesterday to clarify that, despite what that long list of questions might look like, it isn't really about analyzing a laundry list of body/mind awareness points - well, it is, but it isn't, if you know what I mean:

Danni said: "I must admit, I think all the same things you do when I'm riding and it's not going how I thought, and then I get bogged down in all those questions rattling around in my head *lol*."

My reply: "Danni - Other than doing some pre-planning and knowing what the ask should be and what the try will look like that can be built on, I try not to be overly analytical about this stuff while I'm working - for me it's more about having comprehensive body awareness as a goal and using that as a base to be able to make subtle adjustments. Now see - I could have just said that and avoided writing all those words!"

Albigears said: "So at what point do you leave your "head" behind and trust your instincts? If you're thinking of all these things while riding is it harder to tune into your horse's energy and connect with him/her?"

My reply: "Albigears - once I'm working with the horse, I try to mostly leave the thinking behind and just be there with the horse, feeling what I'm doing and how I'm moving - it becomes much more holistic. What I'm trying to do is work towards the day when all of this will be second nature, and I'll be able to carry that body awareness and precision to the work with the horse, while still carrying in my awareness a complete focus on the horse - I'm a long way from done with that but I'm encouraged by the progress I've made over the past year in being aware of and tuned in to the horse, as I said in the last post. I need to carry both those things simultaneously now in my body and mind - awareness of the horse and awareness of myself."