Sunday, November 25, 2012

Same Ride, Every Time

I did a post a while ago called What Do I Want From My Horses?  It's one of the posts in the series in the sidebar "Where We've Been, and Where We're Going" (the links for those posts are now fixed and working).  That post could have been titled "What Do My Horses Want From Me?" - because that's really what it's all about.

I don't know if anyone else is interested in, or reads, my musings, but it seems to be important to me, and helpful to me in my horse work, to think this stuff through and write it down, so I'll just keep on doing it.

One of my overall objectives is to have my horses offer me the same ride, every time.  But what does that mean?  And that overall objective also has some very specific parts.  This means that, every time, when we start to work, the horse offers me the same feel - the same relaxation, forward, softness and responsiveness - no matter the weather, distractions, time of day or location.

This all sounds like something I expect of the horse - and I do - but it's really about what I expect of me,  and what I offer the horse. It's all about the feel I offer the horse and the feel I expect the horse to offer back to me.  That's where relaxation, forward and soft responsiveness come from.  To get this, I have to offer the horse consistency of intention, focus and direction, and the same attention, relaxation and softness I expect from them.  This is partly a matter of trust and confidence - the horse has to know that I am there providing guidance and direction - no gaps - and that they can rely on my leadership.  My expectations for the horse also have to be consistent - the horse needs to have confidence in this as well.

I want all my horses to lead properly, every time, no matter the place or circumstances.  This has to come from me - my consistency and the clearness of my boundaries.  If something spooks them, I expect them not to run into me and to calm down and come right back to me.  All three horses now do this, even Red, for whom this was huge progress - for him it was a matter of trust and feeling safe.

I want to be able to just get on and ride, every time - no lungeing or groundwork needed first.  (Lungeing and groundwork are very important for certain specific purposes, particularly in early training, and may very well be needed from time to time as the horse is learning to "attach" to my attention and focus.  I realize my approach to groundwork is at variance with what many people do - I almost never do groundwork unless I'm doing it for a special reason.) Part of this comes from management practices - my horses are on all day turn out in herds and don't get much if any grain - but a lot of it is my expectations and the connection with the horse.  I can reliably do this now with all three horses, regardless of how many days off they've had, or how cold it is.

I want all my horses to lead properly, every time, no matter the place or circumstances.  This has to come from me - my consistency and the clearness of my boundaries.  If something spooks them, I expect them not to run into me and to calm down and come right back to me.  All three horses now do this, even Red, for whom this was huge progress - for him it was a matter of trust and feeling safe.

I want my horses to stand for mounting on a loose rein, whether I'm using a mounting block or mounting from the ground - every single time.  This comes from me - my having trained them to do it and being consistent.  All my horses do this, every time - I don't get on if the horse is moving - and with Red, I have to still ask for his attention and don't always get it instantly.

I want my horses to offer me relaxation, forward and soft responsiveness from the first step.  Dawn and Pie are very much there now.  For Dawn this was a huge step. Red is making very good progress, although we still have a ways to go due to his natural high distractability and the interruptions in our work schedule due to his soundness issues.  It sometimes takes a few minutes for him to "tune in" and get to work.

At all moments, I want the horse to be in a state of relaxed "right there", even when we're standing on a loose rein in the middle of the ring.  This doesn't mean the horse doesn't get distracted, but I want them to be able to come right back to me at the slightest touch.

I want my horses to be tuned into my breathing, focus and energy level and be able to respond to those as well as physical cues.

A couple of recent examples, with all three horses.

I rode Dawn Friday and Saturday morning in the indoor, after the temperature had dropped almost 30 degrees F from Thanksgiving Day on Thursday.  Dawn had had two days off, and on Friday morning the wind was howling, causing the roof to buzz very loudly and the doors to the outside to rattle and bang.  Dawn was very alert, but we just went about our routine, and mounted up and went to work.  Everything was the same - mounting on a loose rein, loose rein walk and trot warm up.  She was superb, offering me wonderful relaxation and forward.  If there were any moments where she started to rev up slightly, we just did a bit of circle/serpentine work, still on very light contact, until she settled - it only took a few steps.  Saturday's ride was even better, although it was even colder.  She did some exceptional canter work for me - it was probably our best ride ever.  Dawn and I are very much in tune now - what a great mare she is!

I rode Pie Saturday in the indoor after he'd had two days off.  It was really cold - the temperature was dropping as the sun went down.  He was forward and relaxed, and offered some very nice softness.  We worked particularly on our small circles at trot to the right, and applied that to the corners with good results.  Since we had the arena to ourselves, we did quite a bit of canter work.  He's now able to carry himself around corners much better on both leads, and the softness and quality of transitions are starting to be there more consistently - we didn't make any transitions to trot unless he was soft first - our last one was just about perfect.  And his biggest improvement was on canter circles, where he now can consistently follow my focus instead of bulging out or loosing the canter.  But the final bit was the best and is a perfect illustration of the "motor always running", even at halt.  We were standing on a loose rein in the middle of the arena for a rest.  I barely had to lift the reins - there was no contact - and he softly backed.  I barely moved my leg towards his side - he was on a completely loose rein - and he side passed perfectly in either direction.  This is a big improvement in his responsiveness and softness from even a month ago. The whole ride was one of my best with him in our two years together. That's my Pie!

Red had a number of days off due to his lameness coming back.  We've been doing massages for his hindquarters, which he seems to be really appreciating - lots of chewing and also leaning into me. He was enough better at trot on Friday when we lunged for a few minutes - not 100% but much improved - that we started walking under saddle again on Saturday, just for 15 minutes.  It was very cold.  I just mounted up and off we went.  He was somewhat distracted at the beginning, and the connection and relaxation would come and go - when it goes, he braces - but I kept offering him what I wanted, and within a few minutes he settled to work and was soft and responsive.  He did some very nice circle work and also gave me some nice stretching out at the walk.   Good Red!

Working in different locations, or on the trail, is still a work in process.  Pie is well down the road on this one, and Red and I have been doing some small expanding of our work area as his soundness permits.  Every good ride with connection and feel that we have builds our confidence in each other - it's better than money in the bank!

What it all comes down to is what I offer the horse in terms of focus, attention, energy, leadership, and relaxation and softness - if I can offer that, it all comes right back to me as my horses learn to rely on what I offer and respond in kind.  There's no better feeling in the world.


  1. first of all, someone does read your musings and I get a lot out of them, so thanks and I'm glad you'll keep doing it!

    I have a question--do you think you'd have an entirely different set of goals or challenges or even ride in a different way of your horses were not all so forward naturally? My horse is bred and built to be NOT forward. Softness isn't really the main issue--I can't decide if it's a motivation issue, or me getting in his way, or him "taking care of me" because I used to be so timid--or him just being him, so I should not expect an energetic canter when I ask for one. Right now I'm working on getting us in shape, so that I can be sure it isn't a matter of "I wanna canter for you but I don't have enough energy or stamina or strength..." I know he isn't lazy, but given his own choice, he always chooses to amble along. Getting him to canter and stay in canter is a major project. When I read about your riding, so much of it is getting the forward to be balanced, soft, relaxed. You probably can't answer this without knowing the horse and me, but imagine yourself on a draft cross who loves to walk. slowly. do you think you'd have a different way of riding and thinking?

  2. Anne - thanks so much for your comment - it's nice to know that people are actually reading my musings, and have responses/thoughts. When I started working with Pie, he had no forward - Dawn and Red just naturally have it and that in some ways makes things easier. I think without forward - I define it as the horse moving out in response to your energy level, rather than being "behind" it - you've got less to work with - without forward it's hard to direct and guide the horse's movement because you get stuck without forward.

    One of Pie's first challenges was to move forward, at all times, and immediately. My trainer Heather and I used secondary cues (a dressage whip to give a cue on top of a leg cue if it was ignored) to improve his responsiveness.

    I think it comes down to your intention, and what you expect from the horse - if you don't expect forward, you won't get it. If you do expect it, it's up to you to make sure you get it, every time. The horse can rise to your expectations. Forward gives you a lot to shape and direct. I guess what I'm saying is it comes from you, and what you expect - what do you want your horse to do and be?

    Pie is now reliably forward and tuned in to my energy levels - a huge improvement in him.

    And remember that one of Mark Rashid's challenges to me is to ride all my horses the same - so I now expect the same forward and responsiveness from Pie as I do from Dawn and Red - and he can do it, and does.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful comment - it's nice to know that someone is reading and thinking about this stuff.

  3. I too read your musings and find them very interesting and enlightening. You have a great mindset with your horses,a dn the fact that you take the time to think through each situation and take away new skills , then share them is wonderful . I don't always comment anymore as often what I want to say has been said or I start mulling over what you have written and forget to come back. I will say I love that you are "listening to the horses, and offering them each as individuals what they need to get to the same results

    1. Fern - thank you for your comment - it's nice to know that someone is reading - the comments are sometimes the fewest on the posts that I put the most into.


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