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!


  1. I read this section with great interest!Bracing, lying on the bit.
    I have a another horse, that is coming along very nicely. He tends to "Brace", as we do long distance too, he, we shall say, likes to rot, his pace is a really good trot, almost like a "Tolte". But not quite as high stepping.
    When asked to trot, I justlean forward slightly, he picks up and tends to stretch his head out, not lift it, no, more of a stretch. Although I dont find it at all a hindrance, he is somewhat reluctant to give. When he does he is fine, theres no argument, he seems to prefer it that way. he is happier at a canter, where he adopts a more sedate approach. I suppose some horses have prefered gaits? What do you think, Barney is a lovely horse, and he is fun to ride, honest and steady, but good fun!

  2. Great blog with gorgeous pictures and I also find your articles on colour genetics particularly interesting. I've joined your following :)

  3. Dawn is a smart horse and it didn't take her long to figure out what you wanted. Hopefully, tomorrow she will come back to the softness quickly and not brace as she's been used to doing. It's hard for them but I think eventually with your consistent work that there will be more soft steps than bracing steps. It all takes time but it's all worth it in the end. Good post.

  4. I love reading about the work you are doing with your horses, makes me a little guilty about not doing more here , but I will get more time soon

  5. I too have found with Val that if we are stiff and bracey at the walk, moving on to trotting seems to help loosen things up.

    Question: Any reason for the odd (as opposed to even) number of strides?

    Another very helpful post. :)

  6. Once again some great work. Your patience with Dawn is wonderful and she is definitely responding.

    I totally agree about the slight setbacks, especially with someone else riding her who doesn't work on the same things.

    I know your daughter is a great rider. Perhaps the two of you could brainstorm some riding strategies on the trail that she might use without spoiling her fun to help Dawn along with the work you're doing??

  7. Your posts are so educational for me. Thanks. :-)

  8. Panama has been doing that snuggly thing lately too, and I thought of Dawn when he first did it. He also only does it when I'm grooming the left shoulder and neck. He hasn't yet progressed to resting the full weight of his head, but he will put his chin on my shoulder and nuzzle my neck just a bit. It's a new thing for him, but I have noticed that as he gets older, he is getting more affectionate in many ways. Another favorite is when I go to the corral to halter him, he'll walk over and snuggle up to me with his nose under my arm, and just stand like that for a few moments. It's like he's expressing how glad he is to see me!

  9. Barb - thank you for your kind comments!

    Valentino - the odd number of steps is a suggestion from Mark Rashid - he says we humans usually think in 2s, so using odd numbers disrupts this usual way of thinking and helps us concentrate better on what we're doing - it works for me!

    Jean - my daughter's about to leave for college again in a few days and won't be riding Dawn much if at all until next summer, if then. We'll see where we are by then.

  10. Don't you just love when they show you attention? Bonnie is not a "touchy feely" horse but she does show me attention in her own way. Rosie on the other hand LOVES to hug me, or try to groom me. Not biting her teeth never open. All Lips.. but that mare has some HUGE lips !

  11. Both my horses Rogo and Dan are very affectionate and do the exact thing you describe. It's so nice!

  12. Great post, Kate.

    I think I even have a new thing or two to try with Bar in the arena. :)

    He is funny with the bit, and both bracey and mouthy. I've been using the bitless bridle on him and it seems I get better head position and less argument.

    Of course his favorite is just the halter and lead rope.

    But I like your description of how to work towards the softness, thanks!

  13. I'm wondering why none of our horses brace. I know we pretty much have to give them free use of their heads, just too many miles and hours to maintain contact like that but even when we do have to pick up the reins there's never any head raising or stiffness or bracing (maybe I don't even know what bracing is). Maybe it's because, even then, there really isn't contact with their mouths just a little less float in the reins. Of necessity, working cattle and roping and treating sicks on treacherous terrain, we have to allow horses to do some quick thinking on their own to keep us safe. We are so focused on the cattle. I really enjoy your blog, it gives an old cowgirl lots to ponder on : )

  14. CCC - maybe your horses don't brace because they were raised and trained right? Horses, unless they have a physical problem, don't brace by themselves - it's something they have to learn how to do from humans. There was an interesting horse at the Mark Rashid clinic I recently attended - this mare was a cutting horse and was ridden on a completely loose rein, but it turns out she was really pretty braced due to the way she had been trained and ridden - so bracing can happen even when there's no contact. You're completely right about contact with the reins being a common origin of bracing - I come from the hunter/jumper world and have done some dressage, and both of those disciplines are chock full of horses who have learned to be extremely bracey.

  15. Sounds like a very successful ride and practice/training session.

    That's so sweet that Maisie gives you the nose rests and is so affectionate with you and your daughter. :)


  16. OOops....I was looking at the photo of Maisie on your sidebar when I typed the last comment. She looks to be doing the nose rest, too.

    It's great that you have two affectionate horses in Dawn and Maisie :)



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