Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Dawn Complains

Dawn has started complaining about saddling. Partly this may have been due to her going into heat - her heats are less noticeable since we started using Mare Magic - and partly I think it's a saddle fit issue. I'm using my Rodrigo saddle that fits Maisie like a glove. To use it on Dawn, I've been using a front riser pad, which our chiropractor said made the saddle fit Dawn "OK". Dawn's a hard horse to fit - she's wide in the barrel, fairly low and somewhat chunky in the withers, has broad shoulders and is slightly downhill. The past several days, she's been making very ugly faces and even showing her teeth to me - she doesn't bite because that's not allowed but opinions are - as I'm putting on the pad and saddle, not so much when I'm tightening the girth. This makes me think it's the saddle itself that's the issue.

Also, I think Dawn's shape's changed a little bit since we've been working hard - she's lost some weight and also built some muscle. The result of that is the saddle no longer fits right in the shoulder and wither area, I think. The riser pad is putting pressure on the area behind her shoulders and isn't allowing for good contact in the area behind and below her withers. So today we rode without the riser pad to feel how that was. I've tried this before, and the result was that the saddle tended to tip forwards too much because of being too loose in the shoulders and to rock too much - a little rocking is OK. Without the riser pad today, the shoulder clearance felt pretty good, but I noticed that when she was trotting, the front edge of the saddle was pretty tight on her shoulders. We worked pretty hard - lots of trot shortening and lengthening of stride, some lateral work (leg yields at walk and trot and the beginnings of walk pirouette) and did some softening work at the canter. No tipping down this time and less rocking, and I thought her movement was a bit freer. It was clear when I took it off, however, that it still wasn't making good contact just behind the shoulders and still was a little pinchy at the front edge. So I've taken a knife to the riser pad to see if I can customize it a bit to eliminate the shoulder pinching and improve contact behind the shoulders - the pad is really old and wasn't working anyway so if I mess it up it doesn't matter. We'll see what Dawn has to say about that the next time we ride (pictures of the butchered pad will be provided if it works)! If that doesn't work, there's always the folded washcloths stuffed between the flaps and padding method of adjusting saddle fit - if I resort to that I'll take pictures too. Whatever we do, I think our chiropractor will be visiting soon and we'll see what she thinks, but I expect Dawn will tell me what works and what doesn't.

In other news, Joe has managed to hurt his left hind, and it's apparently the superior digital flexor tendon (the big one running down the back of the leg from the hock to the pastern) - not a bow but he's pretty uncomfortable and on stall rest. The vet is coming tomorrow to ultrasound it to see how bad it is, and I'll have her look at Maisie's left hind (what is it with left hinds these days?) suspensory and possibly ultrasound it as well. That may give me a better idea of what her prognosis is and how her rehab should go.

Monday, August 30, 2010

You Decide

You decide, which horse and rider pair look soft, relaxed and in true collection? For me the real "tell" is the hindquarters - in my opinion the horse in photo 1 (ridden by Anky von Grunsven) isn't really engaging behind, whereas the horse in photo 2 (ridden by Alois Podhadjsky) is sinking onto the hindquarters and really using his body to carry himself. And look at the riders - which rider is braced and pulling, and which rider has just a whisper of soft contact? And look at the position of the curb bit and the amount of pressure being applied to it - which horse would you prefer to be?

For me, there's no contest - competitive dressage today at the highest levels has veered way off the track and lost its way, in my opinion - many of the principles that made classical dressage valuable for all horses and riders have been abandoned.

To all of those in the dressage world who stick to classical training methods and principles and avoid the pressure for flash over substance, a big thank you from this rider (and her horses)!

Trying Too Hard

I think it's very easy to try too hard when working with horses, and if we're trying too hard - to get too much done in too short a time, to take things further than the horse is ready for - the horse probably feels that as tension in us. So lately I've been working on really breaking things down and making sure that the goals I set for each work session are incremental, and sometimes very small steps. I've learned the hard way that if I push too hard, sometimes I don't even get progress but rather reversals of progress, and that the "pushing" can cause the horse to cooperate less and perhaps carry that less cooperative attitude forward into the next work sessions. Knowing how far to go, and when to stop, with a work session or a task is a matter of feel, and varies from horse to horse, and although I think I've made some progress on this over the past several years, for me it's a work in process.

Dawn had a well-deserved day off yesterday, but today we went back to work, in the morning this time as it's supposed to get pretty hot today. I had a couple of goals today - to take a brief trail walk (we don't go more than 50 yards from the barn at this point) and reinforce "no balking", to work on our shortening and lengthening of stride at the trot without losing consistent softness, and to begin our softening work at the canter. First we took our brief trail excursion - there were two points where she briefly considered balking, but those were easily dealt with - once all I has to do to get her to move forward was to chirp and the second time I had her take just one step to the side and she moved right out again.

Then we did a lot of trot work, shortening and lengthening stride at the trot. I wanted her to keep the same rhythm regardless of the length of stride, and to stay soft. Due to her confirmation, Dawn finds shortening work easier. Lengthening is still a work in progress - it's getting better but there's a way to go. I need to get her to relax more and stretch out while staying soft - this is hard for her. Occasionally when we're lengthening, she'll start to push on the bit a little and want to start bracing, then I just do some circles and figures and pretty soon the softness is back. I'm also including some loose rein trotting in these sets, where I want the same rhythm maintained, and this is going well.

I'm actually not entirely sure how to describe how I ask her to shorten and lengthen at the trot - I don't use much if any leg and the leg I use tends to be a bit more when we're shortening to support her impulsion. I don't ask her to slow with the reins when we shorten - I actually don't want slow anyway, I want short - but I think I adjust my hand position somewhat upwards for shortening to maintain the soft contact since her head and neck shorten somewhat and her head position is a bit higher when we're shortening - but I'm not putting her head anywhere, this is a natural outcome of soft carriage with a shorter stride. I'm pretty sure I change my posting a bit, from a feel of "forward" where the post has a more horizontal element, to a feel of "up" where the post has less forward movement to it, although I don't really post higher either. When I'm sitting the trot, I just change the feel of my seat bones moving to more "up" for shortening and more "forward" for lengthening and ask her with my thought to match that feeling - it's almost more thought than body, I think. Is that confusing? Dawn is so sensitive, and what I'm doing is so small and I just do it without thinking about it, that it's hard to describe. Perhaps I'll get some pictures and see if any of this is visible.

We did several long sets of this and Dawn did very well. So we did some walking around on a loose rein and then did a little bit of halt/walk work. I want her to maintain the softness she's got at the halt into the first walk step. I've figured out that I need to keep my reins short (very soft contact, however) and not push my hands forward when I ask for walk. I'm also not using my legs - right now that can cause her to pop her head up. Today I tried signaling the walk through my seat by starting to move my seat bones as if we were walking and thinking the rhythm. That seemed to work - I need to refine this so there's less motion and more thought and see how that works.

Then we moved on to our canter work. Dawn's a horse who can sometimes try too hard. She both wants to be right and worries that she's going to be wrong - part of this is her personality and part of it is due to prior bad experiences with "trainers". Getting and keeping relaxation with her is really important, and the faster the gait the harder this is to do. Perhaps she's also remembering her racehorse days from long ago as well as her gallops on the trail with my daughter, who knows? When she canters, her natural tendency is to want to speed up and also lean and brace on my hands. Today our objective was to get 3, and only 3, soft steps at the canter in one direction, and with only a couple of repetitions. We did the left lead. Her departures were flawless as usual. She struggled with the softening, but we finally got 3 soft steps without bracing - this required using a smaller circle than we've been using for our trot work - if the horse's neck is bent a bit it's a lot harder to brace. I would let her canter without much contact for 5 or 10 steps and then ask again. If she started to lean on my hands, I would turn her and be sure to sit up very straight and quietly. We did this a couple of times, took a walk break, and then we cantered again. As soon as I got the 3 steps we moved back to trot and worked on getting back our relaxation - she was pretty jazzed up and it took a while - I wanted her to be able to do the shortening/lengthening work in another set, with loose rein trot mixed in, without being tense or rushy. As soon as she relaxed in the trot work, we were done.

She'll get the idea soon I think that she doesn't have to try too hard at the canter, just let it be more relaxed and soft. She got there at the trot and that should carry over at least somewhat. I was delighted with her work and told her so. More tomorrow!

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Question

As I'm plugging away at this series of posts on "Working Towards Softness", I feel I should ask a question. I'm obviously no expert on any of this, and can only try to describe what works for me with my horses, or things I'm trying out. Every day I learn more, mostly from my horses, so for me it's all a work in progress. I think I want to try to write these various exercises down because it helps me cement and develop my own understanding and it's fun as well to try to figure out ways to communicate what I'm thinking to others. I've got ideas for more posts - here's the ones I expect to be working on so far, all under the "Working Towards Softness" title:

A Photo Essay (1)(done)
A Photo Essay (2)(done)
Why I Don't Use Gadgets (done)
Simple Things (done)
Simple Exercises Without a Horse (done)
In-Hand Exercises
Leading Exercises
Basic Under-Saddle Softening Exercises
Focus Exercises
Patience and Self-Calming Exercises

Another benefit to me is that the comments people leave advance the conversation - I always learn something and when there's a dialog it's a lot more interesting.

I guess what I'm asking is whether this is interesting to you the reader. I love doing posts about my rides and what my horses are up to, but I also enjoy trying to write about these broader topics. I'm enjoying it and hope you are too - and you can help me advance in my horsemanship by commenting, asking questions and adding different perspectives. That's what's fun about this horse blogging community - there a lot of people out there with a lot to offer. Let me know what you think.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Canter Work and Groomfests

Dawn and I had another productive work session today. She was a little bit annoyed at saddling and girthing, and it turns out she's going into heat - when I put her out into the small grass paddock to dry after a rinse off when we were done working, she was squealing and doing the front foot strike at the geldings in the next paddock. Notwithstanding that, she was willing to work hard today.

To mix things up, we started by taking a short loop on the trail before we did our arena work. She didn't balk even a step and walked out willingly without any urging from me - I thought this might happen after our work yesterday. The balking may reappear again, but if it does I expect we can deal with it.

In our arena work, after warm-up at the walk and trot, we worked some more on our canter, adding canter to the left to the canter to the right we did yesterday. We did several canter sets in each direction, working on her sustaining the canter without having my hands to lean on - it's clear that she finds this difficult and tiring. But she tried hard and did very well, and the relaxation between sets came back pretty quickly. Her canter departures were really good - all I have to do is feel the new 1-2-3 rhythm, breathe out and she's immediately cantering on the correct lead. Her downwards transitions are nicely timed, but she tends to fall into the trot a bit. We'll keep working on the cantering - I want her to carry herself a bit better before we work on softening at the canter, but we're pretty close.

She's also doing better maintaining her softness on the halt/back and halt/walk transitions - we're about 90% of the way there. On several occasions, I was able to have her at the halt on a loose rein, and pick up my reins (breathing out) and have her soften as I took up the reins without any bracing. It's good and getting better.

And now, for something fun, groomfests!

Our Lily, who is retired at Paradigm Farms in Tennessee, continues to exhibit her winning social side. She apparently loves grooming across the fence with the "big boys" in the next pasture. Here are some nice shots - thanks to Melissa:

Happy Lily!

And here are some shots of Maisie and Dawn grooming from a few days ago - I love how tall and long Maisie looks in comparison to Dawn:

I really enjoy watching horses groom - they will do it even when they have grass to graze - socializing is very important to them, and their personalities shine through.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Relaxed Cantering and Fixing Balking

Dawn and I had a very productive work session today. I went into this session with two objectives - to work on cantering in a relaxed and sustained manner and to work on her balking issues where she doesn't want to head out on the trail at the end of our work sessions.

We started out with some walk and trot work, and the softening was pretty much there in both directions. Then we moved up into canter - all I wanted was several laps of relaxed canter - we were doing big circles - I didn't worried about her head position, or anything else, other than that she sustain the canter in a reasonably relaxed manner. So I thought the new rhythm, breathed out and away we went! She did very well; I just sat there and kept a very light contact to direct her and urged her forward if she wanted to break out of the canter. We only worked to the right today; next session we'll work to the left, and then once we've got a nice relaxed canter we'll work on our softening. We also worked on her being able to relax again after cantering - she got the idea after a bit and wasn't wanting to leap forward into canter at the slightest leg contact. We did a number of canter sets, interspersed with walk and trot work with some halts and backing thrown in. I was really pleased - she didn't race, was able to sustain the canter with a little help, and was able to relax between canter sets. I was delighted with her and told her so.

Then we worked on the balking issue. As I've pointed her towards the trail, she's been wanting to balk and avoid going that way - I think she's tired and ready to be done but the reason doesn't really matter - she clearly isn't frightened - I'd deal a bit differently with a frightened horse. Now when a horse balks, trying to force them forward is often counterproductive - it tends to lock up the forward motion, particularly if you start pushing and forcing and working to get the horse to move forwards. And there's a particular issue with Dawn - she used to be a terrible rearer - which is very definitely not a good thing and dangerous to boot - and one of the easiest ways to get a horse that's prone to rear to rear is to push when the horse is balking and refusing to go forwards. Yesterday when she balked I got off and led her - sometimes that is enough to do the trick. And with some horses (like Maisie) just keeping the horse's head pointed where you want to go, without pushing, is enough to get them moving. It was pretty clear that wasn't going to work with Dawn.

So here's what I did. As we walked towards the trail, she would balk, refuse to go forwards and want to turn back towards the barn, say to the left. Instead of keeping her head towards the trail, I actively redirected her in a small circle to the left, and kept circling, making sure I had no pressure on the outside rein. If she stopped moving, I used a bit of outside leg to keep her moving. This had the advantage of keeping her bent enough that rearing was unlikely, particularly without pressuring her to go forwards, and just directed her energy in the way she had chosen to go already. As we came around the circle and were facing the trail again, I asked her to move forwards. When she balked again, we just circled again in one direction or the other - if she chose a direction, that's the way we went. I didn't put much energy into this - I didn't jerk, or kick or get after her, we just turned in a small circle. The circles were pretty small - it's important to pick a place to do this exercise where there's adequate room to turn in both directions. When we were facing the trail, I would ask her to move forwards with a chirp. If she balked, we circled again. Pretty soon, she walked down the trail, although we had a couple more spots where circling was required. Once "unstuck" she moved out pretty well.

Then the test was to come back towards the barn on our small loop and try again. This time there was a little balking, but less, and pretty soon when she was facing the trail again after a circle, if I chirped, she would think for a second and then step out down the trail - I could feel her considering her options, and deciding that going down the trail was a good choice. It was much better this round - there were a few circles, but that's all and she mostly moved out willingly. I praised her extravagantly and jumped off when we were part way down the trail and led her back to untack. It'll be interesting to see how she does the next time we ride - I expect the balking problem will go away pretty quickly - it may already be gone.

Working Towards Softness 2 - Simple Exercises Without a Horse

Here are a few simple exercises that I have found very helpful in figuring out how to offer the horse an opportunity to find and offer softness. And, as usual with these things, it's more about us than about the horse. Since this was getting a bit long, I'm going to divide it into several posts. And please do let me know if this makes sense to you, if you have other suggestions, or if you have questions about what I'm saying - we're all on this road together. And to give credit where credit is due, I didn't invent any of this - I learned almost all of it by riding in and auditing Mark Rashid clinics (although if I get any of this wrong, it isn't Mark's fault).

This post is about exercises you can do to learn to feel and offer softness, and they don't involve a horse!

Body Work. The purposes of these exercises is to help you learn to carry more relaxation and softness in your own body, so you can offer it to the horse. The first one is very simple - when I wake up in the morning, before I get out of bed, I remove all the pillows and lie on my back with my knees somewhat bent. Then I pay attention to any areas of tension or soreness or muscular tension in my body, and consciously relax them - I'm getting on towards 60, so there's always something if only a little stiffness. While I'm doing this, I'm also working on breathing deeply and slowly, and paying particular attention to fully exhaling. The concepts of this exercise - paying attention to your body and consciously letting go of tension, and practicing breathing well - can be done anywhere, anytime. When I'm riding or working with a horse, I try to do these exercises as well - they're a big help in staying calm and relaxed and preventing braces. Someday I hope that these practices will be automatic for me, but I'm not there yet.

The Don't Pull Exercise. This exercise doesn't involve a horse - you can use a grandma, husband/wife/partner, friend, child, you name it, and they don't have to know anything about horses! The really important thing about this exercise is that you get to be the horse, and then the rider, so you can feel things from both ends. And you can practice as much as you want and there's no worry that you're doing something wrong. And grandma/etc. can tell you what she's feeling. To me, this exercise is fundamental - getting the feel is the important thing and you can get it with this - at least it made a big difference to me. Then once you have the feel, you can carry it forward to the rest of the exercises with the horse, and you're on your way.

The objectives here are to learn to ask for softness with softness - and without pulling - and to make sure that you are giving a release when there's even the slightest softening. Pretty simple, no?

All you need is grandma/whoever, yourself and two reins/ropes/dog leashes/leadropes, etc. Something that has the weight and feel of your reins is ideal, but you can get the idea no matter what you use. Hold one end of each "rein" in your hands just like you would the reins. Have grandma stand facing you and hold the other end of each rein in her hands. Start with you being the rider and grandma being the horse. Take up the slack, but don't put on any pressure yet. Now you ask grandma to give to you - to soften - by applying pressure to the reins. Make sure your reins are short enough that you don't have to move your hands towards your body - just increase the pressure - you may find this part difficult to figure out at first. Ask grandma to resist by pulling on your hands, not hard but firmly - this is the horse bracing. Now tell grandma to give to the pressure, just a little bit, when she's ready - but not to tell you ahead of time that she's going to do it. When she gives and softens by moving her hands towards you, what happens? If your hands move towards your body when she softens, you were participating in the brace - most people, including me, find that this is what they were doing. If your hands recoil, even a little bit, you were pulling, and the recoil will often eliminate the release the horse should be receiving. That's how we teach horses to brace, by pulling and not allowing the horse to find the soft spot where there's a release.

So what do you do about that, and how do you avoid bracing against the horse's brace? The answer involves using your hands to softly set a boundary - the objective is for the amount of pressure you are applying on the reins to be zero to a minimal amount - say 1/2 on a scale of 1 to 10 with 0 being no pressure and 10 being the most pressure you can imagine - when the horse's head (or grandma's hands) is in the position you are looking for. This is a basic give-to-pressure exercise, but the real point is for you to educate yourself, physically and mentally, so your hands don't recoil when the horse softens and so that you can increase the pressure without moving your hands towards your body. If you hands are the boundary, then the pressure in your hands will increase if the horse moves outside the boundary, and will decrease if the horse moves towards the boundary, until it reaches zero when the horse softens to the pressure - but without your hands moving backwards towards your body. Until you've got it down, you may find this takes some concentration on your part - many, if not most, of us are pretty programmed to brace against a brace.

Now try being the horse, and see if grandma can show you what it feels like when the rider's hands recoil when the horse softens, and when grandma's hands stay put, offering the horse (you) a soft place to be. There's a big difference, and that's the feel you want to offer the horse in all your work. Even grandma should be able to pull this off, but if she's having trouble with not letting her hands recoil, try tying the "reins" to a fixed object, and then you play the horse - brace and then soften - this isn't the same "living" feel as working with a person, but will give you an idea.

Now there's a further refinement of this that can be pretty helpful. It'll sound a little bit like ESP, but I don't think it is - it relies on the extreme sensitivity of the horse. When you're the rider, and the "horse" is bracing, and you are setting a boundary but not pulling, try mentally softening - feel the softness in your whole body and mind and offer it to the "horse". Even though you are setting a boundary, the feel needs to be soft - no teeth-gritting! This exercise is called "soften at the point of resistance" and it really works - the "horse" will usually soften right towards you. If you can also play the "horse" in this exercise, you can feel the power of it. But don't worry too much if this mental softening doesn't work for you right away - the basic exercise should still make a difference - at least it did for me - but then the first time I did the mental exercise Mark Rashid was playing the rider and I was playing the horse (but I've successfully duplicated it since with non-horsey partners)!

The next post in this series will have some simple in-hand exercises that I have found helpful. I'm also adding a new sidebar with these posts listed as they come along.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Dawn Canters

Dawn and I changed things up today and worked in the afternoon - it wasn't too hot and I was busy in the morning as my younger daughter was leaving to go back to college. We worked on her softness at the trot, and also at relaxation and stretching down. That went well.

Then we did some canter work. We haven't done much work at the canter, just a few trot/canter transitions. So this was really an evaluation session. Dawn's tendency at the canter is to get rushy and bracey and lean on my hands, using them as a fifth leg. The result of this is that she tends to get on the forehand and have some trouble sustaining the canter. So we did a minimal amount of work in both directions, and did manage to get 3 somewhat softer steps in one direction. She also tends to get pretty excited after cantering, wanted to rush at the trot and also to go back up to canter, so we worked on our relaxation at the trot between canter sets. I was very pleased that, after a moment to refocus, she was able to relax at the trot, soften well and do some nice stretch-down work.

I think that the canter may require working on her relaxation and self-balancing. I'm thinking some cantering where she has to carry herself with minimal rein contact, at a relaxed pace, might help. We can do smaller circles if need be to allow her to rebalance. Then we can go back to our softening work. I'll have to try out that program tomorrow and see how it goes - if it works we'll keep going down that track, and if not, then we'll try something else.

She also wanted to balk when I pointed her down the trail during our cool-down, so I jumped off and led her. She thought she was done, and it may be that she's preferring the arena work. We'll keep working on that as well. I want Dawn to willingly go wherever I point her, but getting in a fight with her isn't a very good idea - it needs to be her idea. We may use some backing and lateral work as a way to get her past her objections by giving her a job to concentrate on.

Now I need to get back to work on post number 3 in the series!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Working Towards Softness 1 - Simple Things

Breathe and Wolfie had the following question in their comments on yesterday's post with the pictures of Dawn: "Are there relatively simple things I can do [to assist in achieving softness]?" I wish there were an easy answer to this question, but there isn't - but wait, don't give up hope yet - there are some things to help on the road, although I think they're both simple, and not simple, at the same time. Part of the difficulty I have in answering this question is that I tend to be a "complicator" - I can see lots of angles and ways of thinking about things - and sometimes what's needed is to look at things more clearly and simply, and maybe Breathe and Wolfie can help me with this by asking their challenging (to me) question. Part of the answer I can give to this question is in the following posts.

First of all, I don't necessarily think I'm qualified to attempt to answer this question. I've been riding for a number of years, but that, as we all know, doesn't mean I know much, or that what I think I know is right. I'm pretty sure that I know more now than I used to before I started on the journey I'm now on (see the sidebar "Steps on the Journey" for more on this) - to work with horses in a more thoughtful, respectful and effective way - but I've got more to learn and probably always will - and the horses are my best teachers - Dawn is my current teacher and she has lots more to teach me yet.

The first answer to the question isn't about technique - what aids to use or what to do. There are lots of technical things - training steps and exercises - which will help develop softness - but there are some more basic things that have to be there first. Fundamentally, the answer to the question is: work on yourself and a lot of the rest will fall into place. Almost any horse is capable of carrying itself softly without a rider in the pasture - things get messed up when the rider enters the picture, and sometimes we're dealing with issues that have been trained into the horse by prior riders. If we can fix ourselves, the horse will meet us more than halfway. For example, in the last photo from my picture post about Dawn, I am doing exactly nothing other than offer her a feel and some mental direction. That's right, nothing that's technique-based. I'm not putting on any aids, or pushing, or pulling, or doing anything except be "in" her as she softly carries herself around a turn. I'm just with her, and we're doing the work together.

Now, what does all this mumbo-jumbo mean? I'm firmly convinced that any horseperson, no matter their level of experience or training, can make progress down the road. Here's a couple of things that have helped me over the years - the following posts have some more specific "technique" ideas to try:

1. Be soft yourself. This is a lifetime project - work on being soft yourself, in mind and body; being in balance, physically and mentally. This isn't about horses, it's about life and how you live it - but then horsemanship is life and vice versa. When you walk, walk softly. When you pick up a plate and put it down, do it softly. When you close a door, do it softly. It's a lifetime project for me. And take your time - part of softness is letting things take the time they need. If you're in a hurry, things will come more slowly than you want - and remember, horses don't wear watches.

2. Listen to what the horse is telling you, or for that matter, what anyone is telling you, even if you don't like what you're hearing. When you ask the horse for something, really listen to the response - if the horse is saying that you're unclear, or inconsistent, or abrupt, or unbalanced, then fix it - that's your job.

3. If your intent is good, don't be afraid of making mistakes. If you bring good intent to your horse, and try something and it doesn't work or the horse gets worried, your horse will forgive you. If you want your horse to forgive you for a mistake, forgive yourself first. Give yourself and the horse room to try things, whether they work or not - that's how you figure things out together. Don't miss the good by chasing the perfect - things have to be worked out incrementally, and sometimes things go backwards before they go forwards. Sometimes the horse struggles with something, and as long as you're there to help them get through it, that's OK - don't leave the horse struggling.

4. You have to know exactly what you want the horse to do, ask, then find the try, and give a release. When your horse answers your question with a try, notice the slightest move in the right direction and reward it. It's these tiny steps that build confidence and develop a conversation that leads to the result you want. It won't come all at once and it takes time - but it's the releases that build the confidence and shape the learning.

5. Find good teachers - people and horses. With trainers and teachers, follow your gut and trust your instincts - if it feels right, it likely is, and if it feels wrong, run for the hills. Every time I've ignored my gut instinct, I've regretted it. If your teacher doesn't follow principles that make you comfortable, you've got the wrong teacher, although sometimes even a bad teacher has something to teach you. Just make sure your horse isn't harmed when you're with the wrong teacher or trainer. A teacher/trainer who isn't open to new ideas, thinks there is only one way to do things or feels threatened by other ideas, isn't a good trainer. A teacher/trainer who won't answer your questions about why they're doing something, or asking you to do something, isn't a good trainer. Make sure the trainer/teacher you work with teaches you how to work with your horse yourself and doesn't just train the horse for you. Figure out what every horse you ride has to teach you and learn from them - the horses are the best teachers. If you get a chance to audit or ride with someone really good like Harry Whitney or Mark Rashid, or the good people who exist in every discipline, do it, and do it again, until the lessons and examples begin to sink in. Watch people work with horses, in person, and on videos and TV, and learn to make your own judgments about what's right and what isn't. Read books, and more books. Learn and learn and learn some more.

6. Find the good and build on it. Ignore the stuff that doesn't go right - and lots will go wrong. Notice what goes right, even when a lot is going wrong, and build on and reinforce what is going right - every step on this path takes you towards your goal. Focus your energy on what you want, not on what you don't want.

7. Practice, and practice and practice some more - and do what you can with your horse. No one said you have to be an expert to make progress down the road. Learn to feel what is happening, in your own body and that of the horse - most of the important stuff is about feel, not technique. Take responsibility for and ownership of what you do with your horse.

I expect this doesn't help too much from a practical point of view. The techniques I use to help my horses be soft derive from all the stuff above. It really helps when you're getting started to have a knowledgeable set of eyes on the ground so you can learn what things feel like, so you don't miss the tries and learn to give immediate releases - it's this combination of feel and timing that can be the tricky part at the beginning. The most common mistake is to release too late - err on the side of releasing too early, just as the try starts - but don't release on a brace. And read both "Common Themes" posts from the 2009 and 2010 Mark Rashid clinics, on the sidebar - there's a lot of good ideas in there that have helped me.

The following posts will have a few simple exercises you can do to begin to get the feel of softness. Some of them don't even require a horse - a friend will do the trick!

Working Towards Softness: Why I Don't Use Gadgets

In response to the comments on yesterday's post, I'm going to do a series of posts concerning working towards softness. The first post, this one, is about why I don't use gadgets when I work with my horses. The second post will be about some basic things I've learned about working towards softness, and the remaining posts will contain some simple exercises that can convey the concept and feel of softness, and perhaps be useful. Now before I get started with these posts, please remember that I'm just someone working with my own horses. I make no pretense of being a trainer or in a position to advise anyone else about what to do with their horses. This blog is just my descriptions of what I do with my horses and how I find that it works or doesn't work, and my opinions about all that. I'm the first one to admit that some or all of my methods or opinions may be wrong. I'm on the road here, just like anyone else who rides or works with horses, and I believe I've got a lot more to learn from horses and people.

Now, with those caveats out of the way, the question of whether or not to use gadgets, and how to use them if you do, came up in the comments yesterday, and I have enough to say about that topic that I decided to do a post rather than respond there. I used to use gadgets - lots of them - any new bit or device that came out and I was on it - I've used them all. I don't use any now, ever, although someday there'll probably be a case where I do for a specific reason to prove me wrong. The only equipment I use is a bridle without a noseband and some sort of snaffle bit with a smooth mouthpiece, a web halter (occasionally a rope halter, but rarely) with a cotton lead rope, a saddle (that fits) and occasionally long lines (almost always without a surcingle). That's it - no spurs, martingales, draw reins, strong bits, flash nosebands, crops or whips (although occasionally a crop used as a secondary aid on my leg - not the horse - can be helpful), no bitting rigs or anything else. (Parenthetically, it's possible to classify all tack, and particularly bits, but also bitless bridles, as gadgets, but let's classify basic tack as "not gadgets" for purposes of this discussion.)

I'm not just a refusenik - there's actually some thought behind this. My objective is for the horse to be able to move, by free choice, in a way that is soft and relaxed and capable - just as it would in the pasture without a rider. This means that what the horse does has to be by choice and not constraint. I also want to know what the horse is thinking and feeling - the horse must be able to express itself and the conversation has to be two-way. So this is the first reason I don't use gadgets - I think they tell the horse what to do rather than ask the horse so the horse can figure it out. The analogy is, when you're teaching someone to add, one way to do it is to give them the answer and drill them in the answer, so they learn that 2+2=4. The other way is to teach the person how to add, which will not only allow them to figure out that 2+2=4, but also to figure out lots of related things - and I'll bet they remember this better than a drilled answer. (I can't take credit for this analogy - it comes from Mark Rashid.) Using gadgets usually just gives the horse the answer. I believe it's a lot more powerful to help the horse figure out how to respond to your ask, on its own - the learning is more powerful and generalizes better to other situations.

The second reason I don't use gadgets any more is I think using them is often a slippery slope, for riders and trainers. It's very easy to become dependent on them, use them too much and develop a way of riding that requires them. There was an interesting example at a barn where I used to board. There was a trainer there who had some nice horses. But every horse she had, hers or a boarder's, was lunged all the time in a bitting rig. Every horse was ridden in draw reins or side reins or a neck stretcher in a tight position. Even when they were jumped, they were in side or draw reins - and that's an ugly thing to see - the horses would try to jump and hit themselves in the mouth, refuse and be punished for it. Those horses never got a release or a break, and they were crazy. One day the trainer rode one of her nice warmbloods without the devices, and he went nuts, flipped out and threw her - she broke her ankle. The horses had no idea how to carry a rider without leaning on the devices - without them the trainer and the horses were both lost. Now I'm not saying that all people who use devices go to this extreme. But many riders and trainers use gadgets too much and for the wrong reasons, in my opinion. Gadgets and devices are often used as shortcuts instead of real training, and they're used as crutches. They're also used because that's the fashion in a particular discipline. They're often used to more quickly produce a "headset" or a "frame" that's pure illusion, without any real softness at all.

The third reason I don't use gadgets, particularly those like drawreins that apply a leverage effect to the bit, is I don't think I'm a good enough rider, and I don't think I'll ever be. The mouth is one of the most delicate parts of the horse's body, and a misused bit can cause severe pain and even permanent physical and mental damage. Using leverage on the bit amplifies this risk, and the gadget just becomes a means of coercion, and if misused enough, a way to produce fear and tension. Now I've been riding for many years, and I won't use these gadgets for fear that I might, even unintentionally, do physical or mental harm to the horse. I believe many people who use these gadgets aren't better with their hands than I am, and I would include many people who purport to be trainers in this group. Your hands better be darn good before you consider using a leverage device on the bit, in my opinion.

Now those are just my opinions. If you do use a gadget or device, Laura M. and in2paints had some good thoughts yesterday about this and you should read their comments - the use should be only for a short time and only until the horse understands what you're after - it should be used as a communication and not a control device, to make a point more clear and help the horse figure out what you want. If you do this, do it with extreme care as devices and gadgets can easily cause harm to the horse and its confidence in you. Once you're done with showing the horse what you mean, the device should come off and there should be no further, or very limited, need for it. Otherwise, it's becoming a control device or a crutch, or both. Softness only comes when the horse willingly does what you ask, not when the horse has no other option but to comply. I think often people ride with gadgets or devices because they don't know how to do what they want any other way, but there are other ways, in my opinion, and I think they produce better long-term results, but sometimes those results take more time, effort and patience from us.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Working Towards Softness: a Photo Essay

If you've been reading our recent posts, Dawn and I have been working over the past several weeks to shape her softness, with a view to getting more relaxation through the neck and shoulders. In order to do this, I've been working with her to lower her head just enough that the highest point is about 8-10" behind the poll, and working to get her to "let go" in the lower part of her neck. When she's able to do this, the softness is really there and it's easier for her to carry herself with her topline relaxed and core working. We've been making really good progress on this. But this sort of thing is hard to describe with just words, so today we've got some photos to help, courtesy of my husband.

I want to emphasize again that softness isn't about head position, or "headset", although head position may be one of the indications of softness. Just "riding the head", or using gadgets like drawreins, martingales, tight nosebands and flashes and bitting rigs, isn't going to produce softness, although you may get a headset. Softness is about relaxation through the jaw, poll and entire top line, while using the core to lift, while carrying a rider, and requires that the horse be able to find a release. If the horse never gets a release, there's no softness, and if the horse's action doesn't look natural and relaxed, there's no softness. When you're looking for softness, some of the best indicators are the look of the face - particularly the eyes and ears - and the tail. If there's tension - which means there's bracing - you'll see it there and also in the neck muscles. If you can see the core working (more on that later), that's a good sign. A tense facial expression or swishing tail mean the horse isn't soft. If there's tension in the rider - pulling on the reins, driving with the legs, pushing with the seat, bracing with some body part - there can't be softness in the horse. The rider has to be soft, and ride "in", not "on" the horse, just being there with the horse. I don't care if the horse is ridden on a loose rein or with contact, how perfectly vertical the horse's face is, or what fancy moves the horse may be doing - if there's tension in the horse or rider there isn't softness. It's possible for horses to do many things for us while braced, and they do, but they can do them much better if they're soft.

So here's some of the work Dawn and I have been doing - my earlier post "Relaxation and Softness - a Photo Essay", from August 8, is an earlier stage of our work. Today's post is pictures from August 23 - there's about two weeks of work in the interim, although we didn't work every day.

Here's where we started - not a very pretty picture: this is the "curl up" in a picture from last fall - although her neck's curved, there's no softness, no relaxation behind the 3rd vertebra and no connection through the reins, although her expression is pretty relaxed because she thought this was correct:

And here's the bracing behavior as we were working two weeks ago on getting softness at the trot - notice her peeved expression:

Here's a picture from two weeks ago that shows the softness we were able to get at the trot:

Now there's a lot that's very nice about this picture - her expression is relaxed, she's carrying herself well, and there's communication through soft contact on the reins but no bracing. In order to get her to this point, we had to work through her tendency to drop her head low and curl up behind the vertical - that's one reason we worked towards initial softness with her head fairly high - to break that pattern of diving down and curling up.

To allow her to better use her whole body, I want her to adjust her head and neck position so that her head is a bit lower, with the highest point about 8-10" behind the poll. This will help eliminate any residual tension in her neck - she also has had a tendency to brace at the base of her neck and through her shoulders and wither area. But keep in mind that it's the whole feel and picture we're looking for, not just the head position - when you're riding the feel comes through when things are truly soft. This is what we've been working on over the last two weeks.

We haven't worked as much at the walk recently, because of some issues that we needed to address primarily at the trot - she was trying out an old habit of leading down on the bit at speed and I wanted to interrupt that. But here are a few walk pictures from August 23 to show where the walk work is now. The first picture is about where we were two weeks ago at the walk - her overall position and carriage are pretty good, but there's still some tension and she really hasn't relaxed through her neck and poll:

Here I'm asking and she's wrestling with what I want - notice that the flexion in her neck only goes as far back as the 3rd vertebra or so and that her face is behind the vertical and that there's a good bit of tension:

Here things are beginning to come through - her neck is more relaxed although she hasn't really let go through the bottom part of the neck, her expression is still a bit tense and there's tension in her neck muscles - but this isn't far off what I want:

This is somewhat better - her expression, body and tail are more relaxed, and she's close to letting go in her neck - the curve's a little more continuous:

Our walk needs more work - at this point we've made more progress in the trot. All of the rest of the pictures in this post were taken at the trot.

These first photos at the trot show her try to figuring out what I want as I ask her to offer me something new - it is her job to try different things and it's my job to tell her when she's got it right. Dawn is really helping me learn how important it is to consistently ask for what you want but at the same time allow the horse to try different things and figure out what you want - sometimes this takes some time - without urging, pushing or doing anything about the behaviors you don't want - just ignore them and once the horse is rewarded for the behavior you do want, the other unwanted behaviors will fall away on their own. This puts the energy into the positive - the things you do want - and doesn't put energy into the negative - the things you don't want. With a horse like Dawn, this is teaching her that she doesn't have to worry about being wrong - I think a lot of horses worry about this and it interferes with learning.

The other thing Dawn is reinforcing for me is how important it is to not look for the complete behavior from the beginning, particularly if it's a challenge for the horse mentally or physically - it's important to take things one step at a time and reward progress towards the goal - once the fundamental idea is in the horse's mind and the horse is trying to do what you ask, the behavior can be shaped over time into exactly what you want.

In this first photo, she's trying really hard - you can see her thinking. This is close - she's carrying her head somewhat lower and she's not behind the vertical, but there's still tension in the face, lower neck and shoulders and she hasn't fully relaxed her neck:

I call this picture Dawn's "equestrian statue pose" - she reminds me of some of those baroque horses in the heroic statues! She's trying hard here, and using her core, but the neck is still "broken" at the 3rd vertebra and theres some tension:

Now the curve in the whole neck is starting to be there, but she's leaning forward a bit and not carrying herself as well - there's a lot for her to put together in this work and sometimes one part will fall apart a bit as another part starts to work:

Slightly behind the vertical, but the neck is slightly more relaxed and so are the ears - I'm not worried too much about the face position right now as that can be refined later - right now it's the overall relaxation of the neck and shoulders and carriage from the core that I'm looking for:

In this next picture, there's a little more curve in the neck, but still some muscular tension and the face is behind the vertical, but note the greater relaxation in the face and ears. There's also one really good thing about this photo - see that muscular line running from just behind my left heel back towards her hindquarters - that's the core muscles working! That's really exciting to see and shows her working to lift herself using her core while trying to relax the top line - she's not on the forehand here but is able to use her hindquarters well:

Here are two photos of our "stretch-down" work, to help her relax her neck and shoulders - I think this part of the work made a real difference in my communicating to her that I wanted relaxation of the top line of the neck. Notice in the second photo that she's carrying herself and stepping under - despite the low head position she's not on the forehand:

One step closer - she's thinking about letting go in the top line:

This is very close - the core is working, and she's beginning to relax her neck, and the facial expression is more relaxed:

And here's what you get when the softness really comes through - note that her neck is completely relaxed, with a smooth even curve along the top line, and soft contact through the reins. And one of the things I look for to indicate relaxation and softness is that "Zen look" of the face - the ears are completely relaxed and she's with me "inside" - look at the eye - and she's completely engaged, and happy, in the work - its a lovely thing to see:

And here's the quality of movement you can get as the softness comes through - this isn't lateral work although you might think so - we're just rounding a corner. I'm doing nothing here except being with her and maintaining a soft connection through the reins - she's doing the rest:

We've got more refining to do, but the big adjustments have been made. The finer adjustments should come pretty easily now, and we'll continue to work on our consistency. The progress she's made already is amazing, and I have no doubt that many more good things are to come!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Chutes and Ladders

Do you remember that childhood game Chutes and Ladders? (I think it may be called Snakes and Ladders in the U.K.) The game where you could be close to the finish line, and suddenly you are sent back to a point near the beginning? That's a little like rehabbing a horse with a suspensory injury, major or minor. Yesterday, Maisie and I had a nice little trot, just for a couple of minutes. This morning we had a nice 10-minute walk on the trail, and I took her up on the field behind the barn to do a few minutes of trotting. Although she was willing to go, after a few steps at the trot I could feel that she was off behind - the left hind that's the problem. Jill of Buckskin and Bay was turning out horses and I called to her to check what I was seeing - yup, Maisie was off - 1 or 2 on a scale of 1 to 5. We only trotted for a few steps, and I walked and immediately got off and iced her hind legs. She's still completely sound at the walk, and the leg looked pretty good this evening when I iced again.

When Maisie had a much more serious suspensory injury in 2002 - the right hind that time and it was probably a tear - it took almost 9 months to get her back to work, with a lot of false starts. It's been a couple of months since she tweaked her left hind suspensory, and she just came off about a month of no riding, not even at the walk. I'm going to give her another 3 weeks or so with no riding, until the middle of September, and then we'll see how the leg looks - I want most of the swelling to not only be hard and cold, but gone - if not I'll take her to the vet clinic to have her hinds ultrasounded to see what we've got going on. I'm hoping for some trail riding in September and October, but we'll have to see how she does. I'm in no hurry - we've no deadlines to be concerned about.

In other news, she's coping well with the grazing muzzle - she's figured out how to graze with it, and gently sweeps her muzzle over the grass until a strand or two makes it into the hole. She's not looking bloated when she comes in, her feet are cool, and she's very hungry for her hay. Here she is this morning doing her best Darth Vader impersonation - when she snorts in the muzzle she sounds like Darth Vader breathing (and you can see the neck crest that we're working on eliminating):

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Maisie Trots and Shaping Softness

Maisie and I enjoyed a 25-minute walk on the trail this morning - the weather was just about perfect: sunny, cool and with a good breeze that kept most of the bugs at bay. We did a loop we hadn't done in a while, and I think she enjoyed it. As we walked, we worked on our softening and also on shortening and lengthening the stride at the walk, and also did some halts with momentary standing around. When we got back to the barn, it was time to try a brief bit of trotting - this was the first trotting under saddle since she's been back in work. We only trotted for about 2 minutes tops, and she could barely contain herself with excitement - she was thinking about some cavorting so we did big circles on the grass behind the barn. She managed to hold it together, and felt fabulous in both directions. Then we walked out for a few minutes, and she was done. Hind legs were iced as usual.

One of the other boarders asked me what my plans were to try and avoid future suspensory problems. My answer was to keep her in regular work, be sure to do proper warm-ups and cool-downs, avoid sharp turns and cavorting if at all possible and use her support boots for every ride. And one more thing - keep her weight down. Since we've returned from the other barn, and since she's been laid up, she's regained some of the weight she'd lost. She doesn't have any tailhead fat (yet), but you can't see her ribs at all when she moves, they're hard to feel with your hand, and her neck crest is starting to come back. She's had two episodes of laminitis, thankfully without rotation, both in the spring and both probably grass-related. It's time to bite the bullet and . . . (cue ominous music) . . . use a grazing muzzle. I've used one before with Norman the pony, although that didn't last long as he quickly perfected the art of removing the muzzle within a few minutes of being turned out - he's go to any lengths to get it off. He ended up stuck in dry lot, so I don't know that it worked out to be a good trade.

The muzzle Maisie is wearing is the Best Friend grazing muzzle. She certainly isn't thrilled by the idea, and is still figuring out how to get any grass through the small hole in the bottom. She is able to drink with it already - I saw her do that successfully. And it inhibits grooming with another horse. But she'll get some grazing and grooming time in the early morning when she's in the small paddock with Dawn while I'm doing chores and while I'm riding Dawn, and she'll be able to be out with the herd and moving around all day. I may also try a muzzle with Dawn in the spring to avoid laminitis risk - she's somewhat insulin resistant. Dawn's a bit overweight right now, although she's losing weight with all our work. But she doesn't have a crest any more or any tail head fat, and tends to get thin in the winter, so I'll leave the muzzle off for now.

Dawn and I had another fine work session this morning. She was soft as can be - there was barely a braced step. Now that she's got the idea of softness firmly in mind, today I wanted to work on shaping the softness we already have. When we first started our softening work, one of the things we were trying to avoid was the "curl up", where she would remain braced but put her chin towards her chest. The result of this was that the head position we ended up with was somewhat high, with her poll almost the highest point. My objective with her today was to work on getting her to stretch down a bit and take a somewhat lower position with her head, even if that meant that her head ended up a bit ahead of the vertical - I wanted to encourage complete top-line relaxation and the highest point about 8-10" behind the poll. This would allow her to stretch her neck and remove some residual tension she tends to carry through the lower part of her neck through the top of the shoulders and withers. This would also encourage relaxation and lifting from the core. Once we had this, refining head position won't be much trouble and may in fact just happen on its own as she carries herself softly.

We did a lot of work at the trot, continuously trotting in a large circle while I asked her to softly carry herself in this new position - it wasn't very far from the old position but was slightly different. I just put my hands where they would serve as the "barrier" and let her figure it out - it didn't take long at all. First, I asked for only 3 steps, and then let the reins slowly lengthen (as she got wither scritches from my fingers) so she could stretch down as far as possible while I maintained a very soft contact - she did a lot of trotting with her nose almost on the ground. Then I would softly take up the reins again, asking her to bring her head back into the desired position. We worked up to 5, 7, 9 and 11 steps - it took longer to the right, since that is direction we started in. I could really feel when she completely relaxed the top line - the back really came up and the quality of the trot improved. I was also very pleased that there was no variation in stride length or speed of the trot, no matter if she was working on the new position or stretching down. We walked around on a loose rein to rest and worked on our neck reining and some figures. The other direction went much faster as I expected it would.

Then we worked for a bit on another issue - her tendency to take one braced step when moving from halt into back or walk. The step into back resolved pretty quickly - I just had to maintain my hand position absolutely steadily so the barrier was intact, and be careful not to pull, and there it was. The step into walk took more doing, and as is almost always the case with such things, it was me that needed fixing. What I wanted was what a horse in the field does when moving from halt to walk - and have you ever seen a horse in the field be halted, and then stick its head up and brace as it takes the first walk step? Neither have I, so it was clearly something I either doing or failing to do that was causing her to brace in that first step. I suspected it might be my focus, and that was part of it - I needed to look at a focus point a ways ahead and "draw" us towards it as we stepped into walk, which also kept me from looking down at her head. Looking down and not focussing forwards was driving the energy downwards and requiring her to unstick herself to get that first walk step - hence the roughness and bracing.

But there was something else - I was losing the "forward" that should always be there, even in halt. This was partly mental and partly a matter of where I was focussing. This made it harder for her to move forward from the halt to the walk. To work on this, we did a series of "momentary transitions" at the walk, where we started by momentarily shortening our stride length at the walk, progressing to where we would almost halt, but start walking forward again just before the halt happened - this made sure the forward stayed there. With Dawn, this exercise requires no leg or rein aids at all, just breathing out, "sinking" and changing the rhythm in my mind. She was right on it, and very soon we were able to do the "almost halt" softly and with no bracing or pushing. Since this was easy for her and me, it was also easy for us to do a true halt and then move back into walk with softness and no bracing. We can refine this later by lengthening the time halted, so long as I can continue to carry the focus and forward for her to follow.

To finish, we went back to the trot work we'd been doing previously to confirm that it was all there - and it was - she trotted several lovely circles in the new soft position and also on a loose rein, and it was a beautiful, relaxed, lifting trot.

I'd call that a good day with horses!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dawn Switches Over

After our experience a couple of days ago, where Dawn reverted to her bracing behavior and then we worked our way back to having softness at the trot, I was interested to see what she'd do today when I rode her. She'd had yesterday off - it was very hot, we'd had several pretty strenuous work sessions and I also wanted to see if some time to think about things would help her.

Today, from the moment I got on, she was almost 100% consistently soft at the walk and trot - I think she's made the mental switch over from bracing to softness. I think she's convinced that being soft is more comfortable and the way to go, and the session where she reverted to bracing may have been the turning point. She got to reevaluate her old way of going and see for sure that it wasn't as comfortable as softness. There are still moments of braciness, and there will continue to be, especially as we try out new or more strenuous things - horses will sometimes revert to older, known behaviors in these circumstances. One area in particular we need to work on is the first step of backing and the first step of walk after halt - when she's halting, she tends to lose focus and braces until I regain her attention - I think this means that I'm losing my concentration when she's halted and therefore I'm not continuing to give her direction, and then we have to recover that continuing focus and connection from the halt into the first step of backing or walking.

Now that the basic softness is there, we can begin to refine things. We did a lot of transitions and figures, with the trot as our main gait. We did some shortening of stride at the trot. We're starting to work on lengthening of stride at the trot - this is somewhat of a challenge for her as it can result in faster steps not longer or some braced steps. So we did a lot of transitions between shorter and longer strides at the trot, and if she thought about rushing or bracing, I directed her into figures to allow her to rebalance and refocus. Now that she's no longer doing the "curl-up" instead of softening, I'm encouraging her to adopt a somewhat lower head position, where the poll is not the highest point, and to step up into this from behind. This will help a lot with the lengthening of stride, and with maintaining softness throughout her neck and shoulders.

We did a number of sets, and then for our final test of the day, we did a figure eight with some modest stride lengthening on the diagonals and shortening on the turns, went straight and halted while maintaining the softness - she absolutely nailed it! And we were done for the day, and she got a well-deserved rinse off. I just love this horse - she's amazing to work with!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Product Review: Ice Horse® Boots

I've been icing Maisie's hind legs after every ride, and until today I'd been borrowing ice boots from Charisma's owner. Her boots are pretty old, and have ice pack inserts with those little squares - not very comfortable I would think. Maisie didn't seem to like those boots very much, and they didn't stay on all that well.

I just bought some Ice Horse® boots, and used them for the first time this morning. So far, I'm really pleased with them. I forgot to take my camera to the barn, so this picture is without horse, but gives you the general idea:

These are the model called Tendon Wraps (follow the link for a picture of these on a horse), and cover the area from below the knee to the pastern joint. There are other models, including a hock boot, a hoof boot and one that covers from the knee down to the hoof. Although I haven't used the boots long enough to know if they will be durable, they seem to be well-constructed and sturdy, and the straps are also sturdy. Maisie didn't seem to mind these at all when they were on, even though they are a bit bulky and heavy.

The ice packs are made with a non-toxic propylene glycol mix, which I would describe as having a somewhat gel-like consistency with beads when warm and more like crushed ice when frozen.

The packs easily fit in pockets inside the boots, and are malleable enough even when frozen to conform well to the horse's leg. These ice packs can also be heated in the microwave or boiled if hot therapy is needed. They also seem to do a good job of staying cold for a long time and Maisie's legs felt nice and cold when I took them off.

So far Maisie and I give this product a double thumbs-up!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Lost . . . and Found

This morning when I got Dawn ready to ride, she was doing her "snuggly" thing - she does this a lot with my daughter and has recently started to do it with me. As you're grooming her, as you work on the left side of her neck, she'll turn her face to you and stick her nose onto your stomach or chest and press it into you and rest it there. She'll stay there as long as you let her, and her eyes start to close and her muzzle wrinkles up as she rests the weight of her head on you. You can put a hand under her chin and she'll rest on that too and let you stroke her head, ears and neck. It's one of her bonding things - sort of like grooming I expect - and she likes these little rituals. It's a lovely experience, although I also have a sneaking suspicion that she also wants to delay being ridden! But Dawn's one of those horses that is either absent or with you, and I'll take with you any day - gaining her trust is very important and she doesn't give her trust easily. We did several rounds of "nose rest" while I was grooming this morning.

When I got on, she was no longer sore and was moving normally. But something else was going on that's been sneaking up on us for several days. She was very bracey, doing a lot of pushing on the bit, leaning very hard and not wanting to soften. I think this happens a lot as a horse learns new things that require changing old habits, particularly if the changes are in body posture and carriage which require remodeling of muscles as well as learning. We started with some backing, and it took a while to get things unlocked. She was also bracey at the walk, although after we got 5 good steps I moved right up to trot, since I suspected that it was the higher gaits that were the origin of the problem. In Dawn's case, I think the reversion to the old way of going after having pretty consistent softening at the trot was due to my daughter's rides on her.

Now my younger daughter is an exceptionally fine and skilled rider. But she rides Dawn on the trail, and they go long distances with lots of trotting, cantering and galloping. Dawn's natural tendency is to brace and lean on the bit, particularly at speed, and there are very few opportunities to circle or do other things to interrupt the bracing. So what Dawn was saying to me is "I know how to do this bracing thing and I'm used to it and my body is used to carrying a rider while I do it - I think I'll go back and do that again." There's nothing defiant about this sort of behavior - it's perfectly natural for a horse to do this. She's just at the point of being convinced that carrying herself softly is more comfortable - she does it just fine in the field with no rider - but was trying out going back to the more familiar braced behavior.

This alternation between an old and new way of going is very common as horses learn new things - they have to decide that the new way of going is more comfortable and the rider has to consistently and softly ask for the new way of going and reward the new behavior consistently. I wasn't concerned about this at all and thought it could be pretty easily fixed. The reason I went immediately to trot without repeating a lot of softening work at the walk is that I didn't think work at the walk was going to solve anything. So we trotted and trotted and trotted some more - it took a while to begin to get the softness back.

Instead of asking for consistent softness, we went back to the 3, then 5, then 7, then 11 soft steps at the trot exercise, starting to the right. And instead of letting her find her own release as I would do if we were looking for consistency, I did a big "throw-away" release as she achieved each set of steps - but making sure I wasn't releasing on a brace or letting her pull the reins out of my hands. I wanted her to very clearly get the message of what I wanted. It took a long time to get the first 3 steps to the right - big release - trot around on a loose rein - 3 steps and repeat. Once we had 3 steps repeatedly for several laps, I moved to 5 steps, and so on. She worked hard, but we got there after a good long time. In each case, I made sure we could get a number of repetitions of the soft steps before moving on. Once we hit 11 soft steps to the right, we walked around for a while on a loose rein, doing a little bit of neck-reining practice.

Then we moved on to trotting to the left. Once again, we did a bit of backing, then I got 5 soft steps at the walk and we moved immediately up to trotting. Things went a lot quicker in that direction - she was clear on what I wanted and was trying to do it. Pretty soon we had 11 soft steps, and we took another walking break.

Now for the test - my objective was to immediately get at least 11 soft steps at the trot to the right, reverse direction while still trotting and immediately get at least 11 soft steps to the left, and preferably with consistent softness through the change of direction. Immediately we had it to the right - she would have gone a lot farther than 11 steps as the consistency was clearly back - reversed while maintaining softness and did 11 steps to the left. Big release, halt and I immediately jumped off, praised her lavishly, ran the stirrups up and loosened the girth, and took her in to untack and get turned out. She seemed very happy too with her progress.

It'll be interesting to see how she starts out on our next ride!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


For those who'd like a summary description of what Maisie and Dawn and I do every day, without all the elaboration (and blathering!) in my full posts, there's now a new page called "Work Log" that's a tab under the header photo. Even when I don't post, if I work with either horse there'll be something there.

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Maisie and I walked for 20 minutes under saddle this morning. She's continuing to feel good and move well, and the left hind looks normal (for it). I've been using SMBs all around for suspensory support, and icing the hinds after our ride. We even did a little trail excursion - she was happy to go and cheerfully walked out on the limestone surface - no foot-soreness there.

When I got Dawn and brought her into the barn to groom and tack, I noticed that her footfalls didn't sound quite as forceful as usual. She has a very determined walk, and slaps her front feet down with a definite "clop, clop". The sound wasn't quite as firm as usual. She had a hard work day yesterday - I rode her in the morning and my daughter took her on a long trail ride, with lots of trotting and cantering, in the afternoon - she may have been ridden for as much as 3 hours yesterday. I often use the sound of a horse's feet, and the weight and rhythm of the sound, to judge soundness, and if the sound and feel are slightly not right, as an indicator of subtle unsoundness or soreness. Sometimes it's possible to hear, and also feel, subtle unsoundness or soreness that's very hard or impossible to see with your eyes (although there are some tests I use at the walk that can pick up some pretty subtle stuff - see this post for those.)

Whatever was up with Dawn was so slight that I felt she was good to ride - I checked her feet and legs over to be sure and found nothing. We worked on our softening work at the walk and trot, with lots of figures and transitions, including halts and backing, thrown in. She did pretty well, although her trot didn't have the normal big lift it usually has. But there was only an almost imperceptible unevenness between the two diagonals at the trot, not even rising to the level of being off. (Note here: if she'd been off, much less lame, I wouldn't have ridden at all - what I was feeling and hearing was just the merest whisper of unevenness. If there's any doubt, don't ride.) We started working on leg-yield, starting at the walk. I had set pairs of cones on each quarter line to use as markers.

One of the things I've been working on in my riding is more accurately timing my cues so the horse's body is in the correct position to respond. This requires being able to tell which foot (or feet) is (are) in the air and which foot (or feet) is (are) on the ground at any point in time. For example, when the horse walks, its barrel swings from side to side. The side that's "indented" is the side where the horse is stepping forward with that hind leg - the barrel is getting out of the way. The side that's "out" is the side where the hind foot is on the ground. So, if I want a more energetic walk, I don't just squeeze with both legs - that can just create a brace and inhibit forward motion - I gently apply my legs alternately as the barrel swings away from my leg - that hind leg will be in the air and will be able to respond to my request by stepping forward more energetically. Works like a charm.

Similarly, when people complain that their horse is slow to respond to a canter/lope cue, it's often because they don't time the cue to make it easy for the horse. The cue needs to be applied just as the right hind (for left lead canter) or left hind (for right lead canter) is leaving the ground - that's the leg that takes the first canter step.

So, as Dawn and I were working on leg yield to the left at the walk, I would gently apply my leg as the right hind (if we were leg-yielding left) was leaving the ground - this is the same aid I use to energize the walk (right leg applied as barrel swings in), but keeping my other leg inactive. The right hind is the one that needs to step under, and all lateral movements of this kind need to come from behind. We did it the other way with the same ease. And then we did the same work at the trot - here's a quote from my post on horse #7 at last year's Mark Rashid clinic - the principle is the same as at the walk - you cue when the hind leg that needs to step under is about to leave the ground:

Their work on leg yields put particular emphasis on timing the cues to allow the horse to move most easily. To leg yield to inside (off the rail) you want to give the aid when the outside hind leg is about to leave the ground - ask as you come out of your rise (if you are posting). This is a specific case of a general principle - time all cues to move a particular hind foot - give the cue just as that hind foot is leaving the ground (or in flying changes when the new outside hind is just getting airborne) - this will make it much easier for the horse to do the movement and the whole thing will flow. In leg yield at the canter to the inside (off the rail), cue when the outside hind leaves ground in canter, which happens as the horse exhales on the effort (which Mark said we should do when we exert effort as well but we often don't); to move to the outside in leg yield your cue should fall between the horse's breaths.
To the left at the trot (right hind stepping under), Dawn said no problem - she just flowed over and I barely had to think the leg cue for her to respond. To the right, she really struggled. It might have been my timing, but I think it was actually that her left hind - perhaps hock or stifle - was a bit sore and she was having trouble stepping under. We went back to trotting around, and she wanted to lean on my hands and brace, partly because she was a little bit worried because she couldn't do quite what I had asked - I didn't insist since it seemed to be a physical issue - and partly because she was tiring and wanting not to use her hind end fully - this is one reason horses will brace, particularly when they already know how to soften. So, in order to end on something she could do successfully and feel good about, we continued to work at the trot, doing some figures and transitions until she was able to soften again, and then did just a bit of leg yield to the left, which she did easily. I told her what a star she was, and we cooled out by doing a bit of walking around on the trail. That was all - I certainly didn't want to push her, particularly if she felt a little sore. We'll see how she is tomorrow - I'm expecting she may feel better, and if she doesn't, I'll give her a day off.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Different, and Yet the Same - or, What Car is Your Horse?

I've only just started riding Maisie again after almost a month's layoff to let her (fairly minor) rear suspensory strain heal. We did 15 minutes of good walk work this morning, and her softening is just lovely. As usual, I iced her hind legs after our work session. The swollen area from the strain is still there, but it's hard, cold and not sensitive. It may dissolve over time, or it may stay there. Once we're up to 30 minutes of walk work, we'll start our trot work and also start doing some more physically challenging work at the walk. It feels very odd to ride Maisie after working so consistently with Dawn (Dawn and I are back to doing some lateral work at the trot now that our softening and transitions are so much better - we're having fun!).

Maisie is much bigger than Dawn, at least 4 and maybe 5 inches taller, and much longer in the neck and body - her neck seems to go out in front almost endlessly in contrast to Dawn. But Maisie is much more delicately built than Dawn, and somewhat narrower. Dawn's head and girth size are only slightly smaller than Maisie's. Maisie has smooth, gliding gaits and a lovely round smooth rocking horse canter, in part due to to those long sloping pasterns that are the cause of many of her soundness issues. Dawn is very short-coupled and athletic, with somewhat springy gaits with more motion in all planes than Maisie's. Maisie is elegant, Dawn is powerful.

Maisie and Dawn also have very different personalities. Dawn is naturally a very dominant horse, and never hesitates to express her opinions - she really wants to get things right. Maisie is submissive and pretty willing to please. Maisie finds it easier to trust and will give you the benefit of the doubt, while Dawn has to be persuaded that you're worth trusting. When she doesn't understand, Maisie gets fussy and Dawn gets worried. Maisie is responsive, but almost never as hair-trigger sensitive as Dawn - there's more margin for error with Maisie. Dawn is also very, very smart, and can try to anticipate and can be a perfectionist, which requires sensitive handling to avoid her worrying. The risk with Dawn is that she'll learn the wrong thing, or not be convinced that what you want to do is right. Maisie sometimes has trouble learning and gets easily frustrated - with her the risk is that she hasn't understood so the challenge is to give her a chance to figure things out so she doesn't feel too pressured - but once she learns something, she's got it forever.

Now, despite the differences between my horses, I try to approach them with the same care and consideration for their feelings about the work, and try to get a solid conversation back and forth established. I also really try, every day, to bring softness and consistency, as much as I am able, to my interactions with both of them. Since they are different individuals - all horses are individuals and any groupings of types ultimately give way to the specifics of the individual horse - my work with them plays out in different ways and follows somewhat different paths - there is no one size fits all program, although many of the principles are the same. I think that's what makes the work so interesting - it isn't abstract, it's how it relates to the individual horse. When I was changing how I worked with horses, I found this question of how to apply common ways of working and mindset to individual horses very challenging and difficult - it was hard that there was no set program that could be applied to all horses. (See the sidebar section "Steps on the Journey" for more about this - the whole thing still amazes me.) But the more I've worked in this way, the more I'm beginning to understand the underlying commonalities and how it plays out for each horse - I'm still very much on the road with this, still learning, and expect I always will be.

As I was thinking about how different each of my horses has been to ride, somehow the comparison to different types of cars came into my mind. Now this is not to say that horses should ever be analogized to mechanical things - too many people treat their horses like pieces of disposable sports equipment without feelings in my opinion. So just for fun, here are my horses as the cars they remind me of.

Promise was like a really fine mid-range BMW - say 500 series. Fairly big, firm ride and handling and plenty of acceleration when needed, and somewhat luxurious. Noble was like a good-quality sedan - say a Toyota Camry - easy to drive, very low maintenance, and plenty nimble and pleasant to drive, but more than anything else, reliable. Lily was like a Hummer - very large and square, could go over or through anything, do-or-die competitive but a somewhat rough ride. (Norman is, well, just Norman - I've never ridden him (but I have driven him) and he's not a car, he's an opera diva!) Maisie is like a very comfortable and well-appointed luxury car with sensitive handling, but one that's high maintenance and sometimes prone to mechanical problems, but really, really beautiful - say a Jaguar. Dawn is a fine sports car - small, very handy, very zippy, very sensitive steering and handling, all function and not just form - maybe a Porsche. (I was telling my husband about this, and he says Maisie is a Buick and Dawn is a Jeep Wrangler!)

What cars are your horses like?