Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Meaning of Words, and My Horses are My Teachers

I think words, or "names", that we use, really affect our attitude, and can therefore affect our horses.  I always cringe when I hear people say that there horse is "stupid" or a "butthead" or an "idiot".  Not only do I find it disrespectful, I think it colors all interactions with the horse in a negative way.   If we think our horse is an idiot, what will we be looking for and see?

* * *
So I do think changing Drifter's name to Red has meaning.  I texted my trainer, Heather, last night and told her I was thinking about changing his name and wanted to see if she could guess what the new name was - she got Red on the first try - she said something "strong, bold and simple".  Drifter sounds indecisive and weak to me - Red sounds fiery and strong and bold and brave - all of which suit him very well, either in terms of who he is now or who we see he may be.  He seemed happy with his new name today . . .

* * *
I had quite the workout today with Red.  It was raining when I got there, so I took him to the indoor to tie him and groom (to the extent it is possible to groom a wet horse) and tack.  He was fidgety and nervous.  Heather and I decided to do some groundwork, and she suggested it would be a good idea to check out his breathing at the canter - this is a recurring thing with him - when he gets worried he tends to hold his breath, which produces a lot of tension in his mind and body, and cantering is the remedy.  We worked a bit at the walk and trot - he was holding his neck and body tensely and Heather pointed out that his nostrils were pinched - he wasn't breathing in properly - so we moved up to canter.  I got a bit of attitude at first but just kept him working - my job was to ask for canter and his job was to sort out how his feet moved and keep working until the breathing and relaxation came through.  We had some cross-cantering and some counter canter (he's very athletic), but then he sorted it out and cantered on the correct lead.  It took almost ten minutes of continuous cantering before the breathing came right - first he was breathing only every third or fourth stride, then every second and finally every stride - we did this for only a half lap or so and then let him stop and rest.  Then we repeated in the same direction and things quickly were good.  Then we reversed and it took only a few laps before the breathing was right.  The differenct between his posture and gait when he was breathing incorrectly - holding his breath for some strides - and when he was breathing properly - every stride - was dramatic.  When he was holding his breath, he was inverted and his stride was short and choppy.  When he was breathing, his neck got long and relaxed and his stride was full and engaged.

By then it had stopped raining and we took him outside.  I mounted up and we went to work.  Walk was very good, as was halt and backing.  But as soon as the thought of trot crossed my mind, he braced and put his head upwards - he has pretty much stopped doing this with Heather but it was a consistent issue today when I was riding.  There was even some tail-swishing and half-hearted balks at one pint that I put an end to.  We did eventually get some nice walk/trot transitions without the bracing, but it took a while. Here's part of an e-mail I sent to Heather when I got home:

Been thinking about the upwards bracing he was doing today at walk/trot transitions, and even when I was thinking about the transition. 
Since he's not doing it with you very much, it's clearly a mental/physical blockage/brace I'm creating that he's reacting to - he's great for me that way as he highlights what I'm doing. 
I suspect a couple of things - too much use of my legs and also breathing (lack of) and also restricting with my hands - all of this is introducing tension that he is reacting to. 
What happens when we ask for trot from a loose/relaxed rein?  (I think I'm not allowing/soft enough with my hands - this is something I've been working on with Dawn but I expect Red is particularly sensitive to things that affect the bit - I need to have a more "allowing" hand and ask him for trot from a longer, more stretched neck, so long as I don't also throw him away.)  I think some of the "pissiness" we saw at the end of our session had to do with my blocking his forward movement - he was right to be annoyed about that. I'll be interested to see how we do Friday . . .
One thing Heather had me work on today was offering softness even when he was bracing and pulling - that's easier said than done although I made progress on it.

I think Red is my next chance to learn - Dawn has been doing that for me for the last several years and she's done a lot to educate me how to be softer and more allowing - and Red is my next teacher.  He's going to teach me how not to block/brace, again, and I obviously need instruction.  Teachers come along when you need them . . .

And here's Heather's response to my e-mail:
It is great to have horses like Red, because they do teach us so much, causing us to better ourselves as riders. I have done walk trot transitions on a loose rein and he's done great! Its for sure something we can play with on Friday! I agree that you need to be able to be clear, but have a more "allowing" feel on your reins...softness has to come from the inside of us as well as the inside of the horse. If we can't be soft and let go, they won't either. True softness is not a physical thing, its a mental and emotional thing, for both equine and human :-) I think that you and Red are on a similar journey of self discovery and internal softness and awareness, and you will be a great duo once you both get there!
Can I say again how fortunate I am to have a wonderful trainer like Heather!


  1. I'm glad Red likes his name. Here's hoping he lives up to the spirit of it. What a guy!

    He does sound like a great horse to learn on and from. And I certainly do agree that Heather is a great trainer to get you both there. Lucky you all found each other.

  2. Your posts about Red often remind me of my Will; they are similar in many ways. I can very much relate to the struggle to develop hands with the delicate balance to allow while not throwing it away, all at exactly the right times. On top of that, my horse is somewhat "up" a lot of the time, so it can be challenging to work on softness when he's listening to the far-off train/tractor/car/etc.

    I've been wanting to ask you if any of your horses challenge you in that way and how you pursue softness with a horse like that. For all of Brumby's issues, I miss his lack of reactivity to external stimuli!

    1. All three of mine are distractable to different degrees - Dawn used to be enormously distracted all the time. Pie is young and green and will look, and Red is easily distracted by other horses. With all of them, what works for me is to always be actively riding - asking for a specific speed, direction and destination and also a specific feel - as well as just redirecting them back to the work when they become distracted.

  3. I sure do agree with you about using bad words- I never do that to my horses and it makes me cringe when I hear others do it.
    It took me about a year to get Beamer's name down pat, I was calling him by his initials, IBM which morphed into Beamer- and he loves it.

  4. I like the name choice, and I think you were in on a discussion on my blog a while back about horse names and, being "careful what you ask for " Red is a good name and it seems to suit him

  5. I'm not a fan of calling horses stupid or idiot, I wouldn't do it to my children and I don't feel the need to belittle my horses either. I think they can sense an underlying feeling even if they may not understand the exact word.

    Glad Red likes his new name. Softness and breathing are a big part of riding. I find myself readjusting my breathing and softness when I ride too.

  6. Wow, I just LOVE hearing about positive training and a positive trainer, like Heather. SO RARE in the horse world. I so agree about the words like idiot, or need especially when our horses all try to learn new languages and physical cues and we lack in comparison to them ;)


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