Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In Search of Softness From the Inside

We've had an extraordinary run of weather recently - it was actually in the mid-50sF today and I spent a lot of time outdoors without any gloves - pretty amazing in this part of the world in mid-January.  Reality is returning tomorrow and tomorrow night - we're supposed to get 6 to 9 inches of snow with winds up to 30 mph and wind chills near zero - that's more normal.

I managed to get in some nice work sessions with Drifter and Pie.  Yesterday, after our debacle of the day before, Pie and I did some in-hand and ground work in the arena.  I'm in search of relaxation in the horse - that softness from the inside that gives horses the capacity to deal with unexpected events without losing their minds - Pie isn't there yet, and part of the program is my relaxation as well.  We some softening work with the halter - head down and backing as well as head lowering combined with slight lateral flexion - these postures help with relaxation.  We also did more lungeing work - he's pretty much got the hang of it at the walk.  Today we continued with the same work, and his lungeing is improved in both directions - I can even have him move ahead of me in straight lines now.  We're ready for trot work now.  I also bridled and saddled him, and after doing some in-hand softening work with the bridle, I rode for a bit at the walk, again focussed on getting vertical and lateral softness to help him with his relaxation.  Although he was distracted at points, he did very well - I have him a new bit - the Mylar single-jointed snaffle that Dawn usually wears - since the ported snaffle was giving him some problems.  With him, with his tendency to stiffen his top line and travel inverted, I'm wanting to improve his top line relaxation and the relaxed "hang" of his head.

Then Drifter and I had another lungeing session.  My objective was, in one direction, to have him be able to walk out nicely on request from the halt, take up a nice forward trot on request, and then come back to a nice walk off my body language, without resistance or fussing.  Easy and not requiring a lot of energy from the horse, right?  Of course it took some work to get there, although I think he's getting the idea of what I want.  He has a number of ways of displaying resistance - he's Mr. "I'll do it if I want to but otherwise not" - if you take on a seriously spoiled horse you can expect this sort of thing - ranging from the dramatic - "I'm out of here" scoot and bolt (usually in response to my asking him to continue to move out after an attempted cut/face in, to the "I'm stopping and rearing - notice how big I am" to the "I'm going to cut in and kick out if you let me" to the "I'm trotting but notice that I'm sucking back" to "I'm going to stop/change direction if you don't do anything about it" to the "see my 'chess head'" (he does this thing where he raises his neck and tucks his head way in, which has a defiant edge to it).  They were all on display today, but we just worked through it and 45 minutes later we had a lovely walk on followed by an excellent trot followed by a nice fluid walk, repeated several times (we'd had parts of this earlier but I wanted the whole package without any resistant behaviors).  I'm pretty sore in the arms, shoulders and upper back after his scooting/bolting shenanigans, and I expect he's tired too.  I was just persistant in asking for what I wanted, without being dramatic about it, and was delighted that we got to such a nice finish.  I'm hoping that as he understands how easy it is to do what I'm asking, that our sessions will become easier - he's no dummy and should be able to figure out the easy way out (that isn't his old easy way out involving intimidating people into letting him do whatever he wants).

In the case of both horses, this work involves filling in holes that I had blown by previously in my eagerness to just get on and ride.  I'm expecting the work to pay long-term dividends for both horses - there are moments that aren't pretty but there's on the way to something better.  With the weather taking a turn for the worse, it's good we got in these work sessions.


  1. It sounds like it needed a lot of patience that you had!

  2. Great post! So glad you got a chance to work with your guys before the "normal"weather set in. :)

    I love reading about your work with Drift. Val has been known to pull many of the behaviors you listed from Drifter's lunge session, his version being the half rear (with crazy eye), bolt + kicking out toward me as he rips the line from my hands.

    Sadly I let him take advantage of my inexperience the first few times - I didn't wear gloves and was afraid of my hands getting damaged.

    Though the last session lunging him went very well, (with my trainer) I'm apprehensive about trying again on my own.

    Any suggestions?!

  3. I'm searching for the same thing--a willing partnership. Last spring, I jumped on my horse, Cowboy, even though there were many warning signs. I'd get to the trailhead and everyone was ready to go, and I was damned if I wasn't going to slap a saddle on him and go, too. I've been slowed down despite myself. That's a life with horses, isn't it? But the relationship is priceless--and the relationship is completely unpredictable! Have fun, Kate!

  4. Sounds like good sessions with both horses. Glad you hung in there with Drift. When he thinks he can be intimidating and you work him past that behavior it gives him something to think about. And I guess with the weather changing he'll have some time to mull over how nice it was to behave instead of being resistant.

  5. I love this post!! its true when we get horses that are "broke" we want to get on and go and feel that builds our relationship all that time out on the trails.. im the same way but i recently purchased a fairly green 5 year old warmblood and i realised very quickly that if i want him to a good partner for me and for us to have a great future i need to focus on the things on the ground just as much as the things in saddle. Your determination is amazing and motivational! i look forward to hearing more!

  6. I'm glad that Pie is feeling more like himself again. Drifter sounds like a real handful on the lunge line. I know that feeling of having a horse flipping around like you've just hooked a gigantic shark on the end of a fishing line. It can be really scary. I think you're doing a great job with this.

  7. Good groundwork is SO important.

    I can remember my 2 yo TB, Toby when I first started him. I ground drove him for the first year. Then, I had a young rider/trainer who'd worked a lot of young horses do some riding for me at first. After the first time she rode, she came to me and said, "Your horse is already trained, he's not green at all."

    I am a firm believer in all kinds of groundwork to improve the riding horse.

  8. This latest episode with Pie reminds me of the parade with Smokey.

    He was starting to wig out and I got off him and worked with him on ground for an hour as we waited our turn.

    This wasn't planned, but there were several moment where I realized he needed to run off his stress. I remembered from the clinic with Mark that that was how horses dealt with stress.

    I felt a little like a loser, being on the ground with my horse, but I know him, and given his need to move in these situations and given the location (circles on horseback wouldn't be safe), I decided on this approach.

    Pie seems to be a lot like Smokey. Overall good natured, but still having big reactions and a need to learn coping skills. Maybe having a routine (Smokey and I do tricks and have a round pen routine we can do on a lunge line anywhere) helps him realize we are still together, no matter how many marching bands with their flag teams come walking by, he can count on me to not try to bottle him up,butto recognize the emotion and find a good way to release it.

    Miss ya. Things are crazy over here. Sorry for the long comment...

  9. Breathe - in fact, circling or lungeing are very good - they keep the feet moving - in this sort of circumstance - but Pie doesn't know how to lunge - it's one of his holes - and if I'd let him out on a looser line he would have bolted for sure. Just shows that having holes filled in is important.

  10. Calm, Forward - I think with a lot of horses who act out on the lunge, either they've been taught to lunge that way - running in circles - or they need us to keep our energy really low so they don't get too excited. I think keeping your energy as low as possible, and using the wall or corner to contain the horse, can help the horse understand that it really doesn't have to run around like a maniac. Also, it's important that the horse have enough turnout time to run and play so the lunge isn't used as a substitute for that. If you've got a horse that's inclined to run off on the lunge, use whatever you need - rope halter, for example, to be sure you've got a way to ask the horse to keep listening to you.


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