Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Update and 2013 in Review

2013 was a great year.  In 2011, Pie and I had our Very Bad Accident (three broken bones, a severe concussion, a multi-month recovery and serious loss of confidence in my case), and we also entered into a period of dealing with EPM (all three horses) and Lyme (Pie).  2012 was a year of big changes - new barn (with an indoor and where I didn't have to clean stalls or do daily turnout) and where I really rededicated myself to becoming the better horse person I needed to be for my horses.  Red and Pie went to stay with Heather, and they and I trained with her - for about 45 days in Pie's case and 90 days in Red's case.  Pie and Red and I rode in the Mark Rashid clinic that spring.  Substantial progress was made by all concerned, but particularly by me in terms of my body position and mechanics.  In 2013, I was able to ride consistently all year, with all three horses, and we made great progress in terms of connection and softness, and I continued my exploration of how to ride better so I could stay out of my horses' way.  Here are our rides for 2013: total rides: 673; Dawn: 200, Pie: 223, Red: 250.  Some of those rides were short, or only at the walk, but we showed up and we did it together. In June, I also had the wonderful opportunity to take a private lesson with Mark Rashid, and I've been working on his "less is more" assignment to me ever since.

My horses continue to be my best teachers, and every time I ride, they help me ride better - we've been working a lot on my body position lately and on freeing up their movement.

Updates: Red's corneal abrasion healed up without incident, in less than a week - whew!  And I've purchased a new saddle for him - an About the Horse #2 tree light trail saddle, 16" seat - very much like the one I've already got, but a #2 instead of a #1 tree, and black instead of brown.  I dealt with a very nice lady in Minnesota, and the saddle was shipped last Monday and should be here soon.  This is my second purchase of a used saddle over the internet - in both cases through the used saddle section of the About the Horse web site, which makes a big difference I think - and my experiences with the sellers have been excellent. I have 7 days to try it out once it gets here, so I'm keeping fingers crossed - Red will let me know if it fits, but Heather has a #2 tree saddle that fit both Red and Pie well, so I think it'll be fine.  If it's good, Red will need a new, black, bridle . . . I don't get to shop a lot for new horse stuff as I have so much already, but there are exceptions . . . Here are some pictures of the new saddle:

The saddle looks to be very well cared for and in very good condition.  I think Red will look very good in black, don't you?

My goals for 2014 are more of the same - more riding - every chance I get - and more improvement in my position and softness so my horses can offer me more freedom of movement, connection and softness.  I feel a very strong bond with all three, very individual, horses, and I'm looking forward to spending as much time as possible with them in the New Year.

I think there may be some posts coming on my answer to a boarder's question to me last week: "why are your horses so calm?" . . .

A very happy New Year to you and your equine companions!

Monday, December 16, 2013

Blog Pause

As we get closer to the holidays, this blog is going to go on a bit of a pause - less frequent posting and perhaps few if any posts until after the first of the year.  Happy holidays to all of you and your special people and equines!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

On Springs

All three horses were on springs today - don't know what about the weather got everyone going.  All three horses were very, very good, despite their excess energy.  Dawn was very forward and not particularly relaxed, Red was extra forward and very distractible and felt like a bundle of nerves, and Pie was unusually forward (for him) which made our ride very easy for me - I just had to direct his energy.  Both Dawn and Red held things together for me, but we didn't get a whole lot of softness going.  Maybe it was the snow that fell all day, or the much colder weather that we've got coming tomorrow, or that I was a bit tired - who knows?  I'm just glad they all were such excellent horses.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Riding Again, and Red Sees the Vet

When I was taking care of horses yesterday afternoon, I noticed that Red's right eye seemed a little irritated, it wasn't open quite as wide as the other eye, and the eyelid was a bit puffy.  But no squinting or tears, which was good.  I put in some eye antibiotic (without steroids - very important in the case of a corneal injury to avoid steroids) - he was very cooperative which meant he agreed medication was a good idea - he's very smart about this.

After I rode Dawn this morning, I walked out into the pasture to say hello to the boys and check on Red's eye.  It didn't really look any better, although not worse either.  In the bright light, I could see a fairly sizable abrasion on the surface of his cornea over the iris.  The margins looked clean and there was no cloudiness, which means it probably isn't infected.  He was very cooperative for me to put in medication.

I called the vet to get them to come today - I generally do for eye issues if I can see anything on the surface of the eye, or if the horse is squinting or tearing, or if a minor irritation isn't showing substantial improvement within 12 hours of starting treatment with antibiotic ointment.  Red's squint was minor, and there was no tearing, which meant he wasn't in much pain, but he met the other two criteria so I called the vet.  Eye injuries are nothing to mess with, and my supply of eye medication is also a bit low.  Red had a corneal injury to the other eye back in 2011 that took almost three months to resolve, with medication required several times a day, because he developed an abscess that really didn't want to heal - what's called, in veterinary terms, an "indolent ulcer".  I'm hoping to avoid that this time.

The vet came, stained his eye and confirmed that there was an abrasion.  The good news is that it's very shallow, so it should heal quickly - probably within a week - and without complications.  I have a new supply of triple antibiotic for his eye, and will be putting it in at least three times a day.  Red was a very cooperative patient - he's smart and knows when someone is helping him, and he also knows our vet, who has an excellent way with the horses.

And, finally, some riding again!  I rode all three horses - Dawn in the morning, Red while waiting for the vet to arrive, and Pie before and then again after the vet visit.  All three horses couldn't have been better, despite having had three days off (Dawn) and an entire week off (Red and Pie).  I just got on and rode and they rode just the way they always do - what a delight!

I'm hoping for three rides again tomorrow . . .

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Wild Horses

All the horses stayed in until about 10 this morning due to the extreme cold - wind chills of at least -20F.  By 10, wind chills were still below zero, although the sun was bright and glinting off the snow on the ground.  I was at the barn, so I turned my three horses out.  They were clearly excited to get out - they're used to being out from early in the morning on - and Dawn had been in since mid-morning the day before.

But all three were very well behaved despite their pent-up energy.  I took Pie and Red out together, which meant that Pie had to wait while I sent Red ahead through the narrow door into the arena - he rotated nicely once inside to face us.  We led through - Red was excited and wanted to forge ahead but listened well to me - and got to the pasture gate.  I led them through, rotated them around and closed the gate, and then let Pie, then Red, go.  They stopped briefly to take a big drink from the water tank - I suspect this is a regular part of their morning ritual - and then galloped off together - down the hill, then up the other side to where the hay bales are set out.

I turned Dawn out next - she was very much on her toes - other mares were out and running and cavorting in the pasture that she could see through the arena door.  I elected to undo her halter by unbuckling the crown piece, and she half-reared and sprang into a gallop as she went to the pasture.  She then cavorted and ran a bit with the other mares before they settled to the hay.

Both Dawn and Pie seemed satisfied with their turnout today.  Red was still very antsy - he nickered loudly to me when I got there in the afternoon, and was somewhat alert and nervous, although very well-behaved, on the cross ties.  I think he was worried about having to stay in tomorrow - they only got a little more than 3 hours of turnout today - the good news is that things are warming up (slightly) tomorrow, so all the horses should be turned out all day and perhaps we'll be able to get back to riding . . .

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

More of the Same, and a Note on Lyme

As I write, at about 5 p.m., it's 5F with a wind chill of -6F.  Tonight's the coldest night yet - here's the forecast:
Tonight - A slight chance of flurries after 3am. Increasing clouds, with a low around -6. Wind chill values as low as -23. West wind around 10 mph, with gusts as high as 15 mph. 
Thursday - Partly sunny, with a high near 19. Wind chill values as low as -14. West southwest wind 10 to 15 mph, with gusts as high as 20 mph.
It looks like Friday may be a bit better, and we might even get to ride - I can't wait as I'm in withdrawal after no riding since last Friday . . .

On the topic of Lyme, I was talking to one of the boarders about her horse.  She's had him for 7 years, and he's been on and off unsound ever since - he's been looked at by numerous vets, had joint injections, been on joint supplements, and nothing worked - he was never quite right and often had issues as well with his back.  Recently, she had him tested for Lyme, and guess what, he came up strongly positive for a long-term infection.  Due to the fact that he'd been infected for a long time - probably the whole time she'd had him - she opted to treat him with IV tetracycline - the vet came to the barn for a number of days to do the infusions.  He's now 100% sound and starting back to work - he moves great and looks like a much happier horse.  She's excited - she's finally got the horse he's supposed to be.  I expect there are a lot of horses out there being treated for all sorts of things who really have Lyme - now that the new Cornell test is available you'd hope more vets would recommend testing, if only to rule that out.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Not Much Riding Coming Up

It was about 6F with a wind chill of -18F when I went to the barn this morning - it did warm up a bit in the afternoon but not that much.

Doesn't look like there's going to be much riding over the next few days - here's our forecast:
Tonight - Snow after 1am. Temperature rising to around 16 by 4am. Wind chill values as low as -6. West wind 5 to 15 mph, with gusts as high as 25 mph. Chance of precipitation is 80%. Total nighttime snow accumulation of around an inch possible. 
Wednesday - Snow, mainly before 1pm. Temperature rising to near 17 by 9am, then falling to around 5 during the remainder of the day. Wind chill values as low as -14. Blustery, with a northwest wind 5 to 10 mph increasing to 15 to 20 mph in the afternoon. Chance of precipitation is 80%. New snow accumulation of around an inch possible. 
Wednesday Night - Partly cloudy, with a low around -5. Wind chill values as low as -20. West wind 10 to 15 mph, with gusts as high as 20 mph. 
Thursday - Mostly sunny, with a high near 16. Wind chill values as low as -20. West southwest wind 10 to 15 mph. 
Thursday Night - Mostly cloudy, with a low around 13. Southwest wind around 10 mph, with gusts as high as 15 mph.
The good news is that the horses should be able to go out for a few hours tomorrow morning, but Thursday doesn't look promising.  Dawn only managed a couple of hours today and was happy to be brought in - the boys stayed out all day and seemed fine.

But we're having some nice, relaxed grooming sessions, and since I love grooming and all my horses enjoy it too, life isn't too bad.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Nothing to Prove

Today was cold - low 20s with some sun.  Dawn and I managed to have a very fine ride in the morning - it's great that I can just get on her and ride after two days off, even though it was only about 25F in the indoor.  She was wonderful, very forward and engaged but also nicely soft.  We didn't work long, as that temperature is a bit cold for her without a blanket.

This afternoon the temperature started to drop and the wind picked up.  It was 18F when I left for the barn about 2:30 p.m., and by the time I was on my way home at around 4:30, it was only 11F, and the only (polite) word for what the wind was doing is "howling".  I change from my "people" coat, gloves and headband into my "horse" coat, gloves and headband while standing by my truck - I don't keep my outer horse clothes at home, they live in my truck.  It was mighty unpleasant switching gear this afternoon.

I was hoping to get in rides on Red and Pie since it's going to be even colder, with a lot of wind, over the next several days and it's unlikely we'll be able to do much riding.  Mondays are also one of my favorite days to ride as there is rarely anyone else there and we have the arena to ourselves. It's going to be cold enough tomorrow that I'm even having Dawn kept in her stall tomorrow morning - the wind chill is supposed to be below -10F and she would be cold for sure.  The boys will probably be fine, but I'll be there early to walk Dawn while her stall is being cleaned and can check on them.  Dawn should be able to go out for a couple of hours once the temperature rises a little.

Red and I attempted a ride, after a good grooming.  When it's windy, the outside arena doors rattle and bang and the roof buzzes - we're all used to that.  Today as Red and I started our ride, the wind was howling around the corners and the doors weren't just rattling, they were slamming.  It was darn cold in there, too - barely 20F. We rode for a bit, but then the wind picked up even more and the roof started groaning and there were gusts of wind where snow and dirt were being sandblasted against the sides of the barn.  Red was trying his heart out for me, but would flinch slightly every time there was a particularly loud noise.  Neither of us were enjoying the ride very much, and I decided we should just stop - I didn't need to put him through that even though he would have done it for me.   We've got nothing to prove to ourselves or anyone else.

I jumped off and we went back to the stalls, I told Red what a fine, brave horse he was and he went back to his hay and I enjoyed a nice long grooming session with Pie.  It was a very good day with horses in any event.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Bombs Away!

Today was a day off from riding for all of us.  I went to the barn in the morning to do a few chores, and - you guessed it - found another "present" from Dawn in one of her water buckets.  So her buckets got cleaned again . . .

Her aim seems too good - she makes a direct hit on the bucket every time - for it to be accidental.  She seems to like to stand with her tail in the bucket - I know this because it sometimes is matted with frozen water  (and even some manure - yuck!) when she comes back in.  So with her tail in the bucket, she knows that her aim will be good . . .

I'm not sure what she's trying to say - maybe she likes her buckets cleaned every day . . .

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Too Cold

The boys were getting a day off today, as I had a friend's 90th birthday party to attend this afternoon - and a more active, alert, intelligent woman - 90 or any other age - she is.

But I usually ride Dawn on Saturday mornings - my days, 5 days a week, start with a ride on Dawn - a great way to start the day.

But not today - it was 6F (that would be -14C) when I got to the barn, and the windchill was -10F (or -23C).  The horses were out, and the boys were fine in their blankets, chowing down on the hay.  Dawn, however, was cold, and huddled at the gate, despite her heavy weight Rambo blanket with a full neck.  The pastures have no shelter or windbreaks, but Dawn is always the first to get cold.

So I brought her into her stall to warm up - the barn is heated to about 45F.  It was only 20F inside the indoor, and considering that she was cold already, that was too cold for us to ride.  So I did some chores, including cleaning water buckets, and went home for a while, leaving Dawn to eat her hay - she didn't object to being in although she was the only horse in there.

I came back at 11:00, and by then the windchill was above zero, so I put her back out for the remaining turnout time, cleaned up her stall and washed (again) the water bucket she'd left me a present in.

Tomorrow is another non-riding day, and we're supposed to get a bit of snow, but at least the temperatures are supposed to be a bit warmer.

Friday, December 6, 2013

By Jove! I Believe She's Got It!

That's what my horses have to say, I'm happy to report.  About 10 days ago, my horses started working with me intensively on my position - particularly on my right bend and the posture of my head, neck, shoulder and hip.  We started at the walk, and recently have been working on the same thing at trot.

They say that I've made a lot of progress.  I'd agree - the turning/not tipping of my head, and the slight drawing back (instead of dropping) of my inside shoulder, as well as the opening of my hip on the inside - are much more automatic now, after all the practice we've done.  The right isn't entirely automatic yet, but my consistency is much higher.

My consistency is directly reflected by the consistency my horses are giving me - this is always how it is, I think.   Just in the past two days, this has really shone through.  I had one of the best rides I've ever had on Red yesterday (although some of his animation and engagement might have been due to the presence of two mares in the ring - he's quite the ladies' man and likes to show off for them), and my ride today (despite the fact it was in the mid-20s in the arena) on Pie was simply outstanding and the best ride we've ever had - we even tried some canter and it was just as excellent as the trot.

Corners are deep, circles are circles and not eggs, inside hind legs are engaged and stepping under, forward is automatic, hindquarters are engaged and front ends are lifting.  No aids, no pushing, no pulling, just correct posture and focus, and providing openings for them to move into.  Connection and flow, effortless (except for the effort of paying attention). Nothing could be finer.

It's great having three such dedicated and honest teachers - they tell it like it is.  Every improvement in my riding is almost entirely due to Dawn, Red and Pie, and the way to improvement is for me to continue to listen to them.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Alternatives to the Half Halt?

My recent posts about reducing/eliminating blocks and braces, and creating mental and physical openings for the horse to move into, has got me thinking . . . always dangerous . . .

I've been thinking about the half halt - many of you will know how we were trained to use this to ask the horse to "rebalance", as a signal that something else (another cue) was coming up shortly, or to ask for more collection or a slower cadence.  So in that sense, the half halt is used as a cue like any other.  Half halts can be done with either the hand or the seat.

But here's what the half halt really is - no matter how small or softly it's applied - it's a brace.  It's deliberately designed to interrupt, if only for a second, the forward movement of the horse. I think this is why I've had a problem with the whole concept of the half halt for a long time.  If you want your horse to be soft from nose to tail, and to move without braces or blocking, why would you want to reintroduce a brace, particularly one that is used so often?

Now like most cues, in the hands of a skilled rider, who is sensitive to the horse (and not yanking, cranking or engaging in practices like rollkur - and no "logical" justification, or popularity in certain circles, can make rollkur anything but barbaric and a form of torture for the horse, not to mention that it results in incorrect (but frequently rewarded in competition) movement), the half halt can be almost invisible and work very well once the horse understands what it means - it's not wrong at all.

But it's still a brace . . .  And braces, even small ones, do lots of things I don't want in my riding - they interrupt energy, flow and softness.  But are there alternatives to the half halt that serve the same purpose?

I think, for alternatives to the half halt, you have to be trying to ride in/as the horse, not on the horse.  Bear with me for a moment . . .

Let's look at the sorts of things the half halt is used for - you may have others you can come up with.

Rebalancing - this to me is the one use of the half halt that may need replacement, not by a substitute for the half halt itself, but by riding that addresses the underlying problem leading to the need for rebalancing.  Rebalancing implies that the horse is out of balance - on the forehand, leaning on the bit, rushing without rhythm, or leaning in or out.  Introducing a brace to this mix in the interests of balance seems unlikely to result in much more than . . . a brace.  The horse may respond because it's learned to - slow down, say - but the causes of the lack of softness, and resulting lack of balance, aren't really addressed.  One example - say the horse is rushing.  Rather than attempting to interrupt the energy and forward movement with a half halt, teach the horse to carry itself with relaxation and without rushing.  Small circles and figures are very helpful for this - no bracing required - with the horse traveling straight when the desired pace and rhythm are achieved.

Alert that something is coming - this is one where a pre-cue is desired.  An example of this would be if you were about to ask for a chance in gait.  Here's one where my horses and I have an alternative to offer.  Instead of a half-halt (brace), pre-cue with a thought - of rhythm (say the 1-2 of trot to the 1-2-3 of canter) - and then, instead of cuing for the change of gait with a leg or seat aid (often a brace itself) cue with an exhale - the opposite of a brace, instead something that frees motion and softness.

Collection and more engagement of the hindquarters - this is one my horses and I are still working on.  Dawn has been working with me on this one in particular - the only way I can describe what she and I do is to say that we lift and draw ourselves up together into a more collected posture with elevation of the forequarters and engagement of the hindquarters.  No half halts, no rein aids and no blocking the flow or energy.  Dawn and the boys and I haven't figured this one out completely yet, but we're getting there.

Now that's a lot of words about something that's really about feel and connection, which really aren't verbal things at all.  I'd describe it in words, as best I can, as breathing, focus, energy and opening so you direct the horse through the horse - through your connection and mutual feel.  So it comes from inside the horse, or you and the horse as a unit, not something you apply to the horse from outside. And I'm no master of any of this, I'm just on the road . . . together with my fine horses.  But we are on the road, and that's the important part. To close, here's a quote from Mark Rashid:
Regardless of the amount of knowledge or experience an instructor has, they can only impart a fraction of what it takes to be really good with horses. It is through our own devotion to practice and learning that the gifts of these great creatures can be received by us, and even more practice and learning before they become part of us.
Enough words . . . it's time to ride.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Music Day

Not much horse today - it's music day - fun and challenging in its own way.  More horse tomorrow . . .

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Counterintuitive? On the Wings of the Wind . . .

So many of the things my horses are teaching me seem counterintuitive.  But they're really only counterintuitive in terms of the ways to ride many of us were taught.

One example: many of us were taught that we needed to "support" the horse with our rein or leg.  Think about it for a minute - a horse weighs 1,000 pounds or more, and we weigh maybe 150.  Horses are much stronger than we are.  So, how, precisely are we to "support" the horse?  What my horses are teaching me is that the idea of "support" is pretty much an illusion - when there's more than the very slightest amount of pressure in your hand or against your leg, what you've got isn't support, it's a brace, which blocks or inhibits the horse's motion and flow of energy.

My horses are teaching me that hands, legs, seat, balance and breathing are to be used for connection and communication, and that this communication can occur with a whisper, or even with a thought.  Creating openings - mental and physical - for your horse to move into - is a powerful concept my horses are working with me on.

One example from my work with Dawn, Red and Pie on my corners.  Now say you have a horse that's tending to fall in around the corners, and maybe even bending to the outside while doing so.  The natural inclination - the way many of us were taught - would be to use the inside leg to "support" the horse and ask the horse to bend to the inside and step to the outside, often with a "supporting" outside rein.  This is the classic "inside leg to outside hand".

Now I'm not saying that doesn't work, after a fashion, or that it's necessarily wrong - I've done it myself.  But Dawn, Red and Pie say I should think about all the braces that are being created - leg against inside, hand against outside.  Any time there's a brace, there's a likelihood of loss of true forward and impulsion, and a locking up of free motion and energy.

My horses have been teaching me that there's another way to deal with the falling in issue - and in fact it's not really dealing with the horse's falling in issue, it's dealing with my falling in issue.  If I ride correctly, and allow (note: not cause, allow) the horse to move correctly, there isn't any falling in or any issue.

Pie in particular is a good teacher on this, and Dawn was also helping me out this morning.  Pie says: "you want a brace, here's a brace right back at you".  And Dawn says: "get out of my way".  So, here's the counterintuitive part.  No messing with the head or the reins - my contact was consistent in both reins - just the weight of the reins and a feather of contact.  And I don't change anything except to follow the bend of the head and neck with my hand to maintain the feather of contact - I don't bend the head and neck, I bend with the head and neck.

As we start to enter the turn, I open my inside hip just a bit - but no leg pressure.  This creates an opening for our hind legs to move up and under the horse's body and to the outside.  I also keep my focus and chin up - not tilting my head to the inside or looking down - and very slightly open my inside shoulder - but again, this is really bending with the horse and not creating it.

Pie approved last night, and Dawn as well this morning.  Dawn did the best corners to the right she's ever done - or Dawn would say I did the best corners I'd ever done, which allowed us to do the best corners we'd ever done together. It wasn't a matter of me doing something, and then the horse responding.  It was us doing it together at the same time - just direct, simultaneous connection and communication.  And there was wonderful, beautiful, delicious forward and impulsion.

Like riding on the wings of the wind . . .

Monday, December 2, 2013

Pie Approves

At this point, my horses are usually teaching me, not the other way round.  My ride with Pie today was a good case in point.  It's no longer me training Pie to bend deep into the corners and engage his inside hind leg, it's Pie training me to ride so that it's easy for him to bend deep into the corners and engage his hind leg.  Puts a different spin on things, doesn't it?

Today, the indoor arena footing, while still a little deep, was at least safe to do some trot work.  So, after our day off, Pie and I worked some more on what we'd already spent two days of walk work on. See this post if you want all the details of what we were doing, and how my posture and body mechanics were interfering with his ability to bend and step under with the inside hind.

We started with a review of our work at the walk, including lots of small circles and changes of direction.  I still find that, unlike turns to the left where my body mechanics are now automatic - no fussing with the horse's head at all, turn my head, keeping my eyes and chin up, slightly bring my inside shoulder back and slightly open my inside hip - turns to the right are still hard work and I have to concentrate to ride them correctly.  But I did it, and Pie's response at the walk was approval, and a lovely, cadenced, lifting, forward walk.

So we moved up to trot.  Voila! Perfect corners and turns, including on the transitions from long diagonals into the corners, which have been a particular issue for us.  Pie is strict - the moment my concentration lapsed and I wasn't riding forward and up and out, he would lose his straightness.  Any time I tilted my head instead of turning it, or even worse, did that while looking down, he fell in through his shoulder.  And any time I failed to open my inside hip, he didn't step under with the inside hind.

But when I did ride correctly, Pie gave me beautiful releases - lovely, forward, cadenced, lifting trot, with lovely bend in the corners and circles and an engaged inside hind.  It was wonderful.  His releases reward my behavior and motivate me to do more of the same.  I'd say he's a better trainer than I am - his attention and response to what I am doing is more consistent, and the timing of his releases is just about perfect.  This means I can really learn and progress.

I must say, he seems mighty pleased with himself, and his relationship to me is changing.  Pie has always been somewhat reserved, even standoffish, and would even pin his ears at me if I were interrupting an important Pie activity like eating or napping.

But lately - just this week since we've been working hard together on my position - this is the face I'm likely to see, alert, interested and friendly:

This is true even in his stall, where he's always tended to be a bit grumpy.  Now, he often notices my arrival in the barn, and comes to his door to greet me - which means leaving his hay, which for Pie is a big deal as he's very food-oriented.  I think he's coming to approve of me - I'm responding to his teaching, and he now thinks I may just be worth bothering with . . .

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Day of Rest, with Pie and Red Spam

Today, we all have a day off from riding.  I hiked out to the pasture after doing a few chores, and got a few pictures of the boys.  Pie was rubbing his face, but then had to show how curious and friendly he is - I love seeing that sweet Pie face:

Red was eating, but also left what he was doing to come visit me - love how he keeps an ear on things:

Horse spam - can't live without it!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Your Horse Goes the Way You Ride - More on Mirroring

Dawn, Red, Pie and I have been doing some beach riding the past two days. No, no warm oceans or even cold lakes - just a cold indoor arena with new footing.  All the old sand was removed and new sand put in.  The new footing is deep and somewhat slippery - just about like walking on a sandy beach in an area the tide doesn't usually reach.  It's a bit better today - more settled - than it was yesterday, and after our day off on Sunday it might be time to trot - right now I'm not happy with the deepness and don't want any injuries.

This isn't a problem, since there's always something interesting and useful to do at the walk.  It's a great place to work on getting fundamentals right, since if it isn't right at the walk, it won't be right at the trot, and so on.

And as usual (Dawn, Red and Pie would say "what else is new?") we worked on me.  We worked specifically on my head, shoulder and hip position, both when tracking straight and when doing turns.  There's a bit of background to this.  I have a long history of lower back trouble and poor posture, and still have to be careful about how I move and how I lift.  But my increased level of exercise and core strength from riding have helped a lot.  But I still didn't move or stand quite right due to my history of protecting my back.

Then, at the Mark Rashid clinic in June, 2012, Mark got me to let go in my lower back, and allow my hips to move - amazing difference.  I was actually moving through my seat with the horse, rather than blocking the motion - and even more amazing, it didn't hurt.  Mark also pointed out that a relaxed lower back makes your seat much more secure in the event the horse makes a sudden move - bracing tends to pop you up out of the saddle.

Heather had also been working with me on keeping my eyes and head up, as a proxy for improving my posture, and it did, although it was a partial improvement.  I like it that both Mark and Heather don't give you all the answers - they give you a start, and help you acquire the mindset to figure things out on your own.  So that's what I've been doing for the past year and a half when it comes to my body position.  When I took my lesson with Mark last June, he asked me if I'd had any lessons or coaching since the last clinic - my answer was no, but my horses had been my teachers - and he was delighted with this answer and said that the horses are always the best teachers.

One side effect of letting go in my lower back was that the tense area - and some pain - moved up to my mid-back.  So next I had to work on letting go there, and so on.  By last summer, the area of tension had moved up to between my shoulders.  The final piece was to fix my head and neck position, together with the top area of my back just below the neck.  I'm not 100% of the way there yet, but Dawn and Red and Pie and I have made some very good progress in the past two days towards getting things fixed up.  Our two days of walk rides have allowed me to practice and begin to make these correct behaviors more automatic - and the walk can be pretty unforgiving in terms of showing up flaws - that's one reason I'm a big fan of work at the walk.

I think I've mentioned the concept of mirroring before - it's a concept Mark introduced me to, and I've found it very powerful.  A related concept is "the horse goes the way you ride" - this essentially means that if a horse is having a particular issue or difficulty doing something (and the horse is sound, not in pain and understands what you want because you're clear and consistent), then the problem is almost always with you.  What this means in practice is that what you do with your hips, seat and legs has a direct impact on how the horse moves its hindquarters, and what you do with your upper body, neck, head and arms and hands has a disproportionate effect on the horse's shoulders, front legs, neck and head.  But Mark says, and I've found it to be true, that the effect is much more direct than just a general correspondence - there can be a remarkable degree of one-to-one correspondence between a particular issue you have in your body and something your horse does.  I've actually seen Mark at clinics ask a rider if they have a problem with, say, their right hip, or their left shoulder - an old injury, say - and when the rider is very surprised and asks how he knew, he says he could see it from how the horse was moving - the horse's right hip, or left shoulder, wasn't moving normally.

Perhaps describing what Dawn, Red, Pie and I have been working on in our walk rides will make this "mirroring" concept more clear.  Now, horses often manage somehow to compensate for our defects in posture, or for our bracing and blocking, but sometimes they don't.  Pie, right now, is my "tell" - he's the one of my three who, if I'm not doing things correctly, will mirror pretty exactly what I'm doing (wrong).  Dawn and Red attempt to "read in" what I'm asking them to do, even if I'm getting in the way of a clear signal because of something I'm doing with my body.  Pie, on the other hand, is a literalist - if I'm not doing something correctly, well, then, he says he can't do it correctly either - and he thinks he shouldn't be expected to - "so, there" I can hear him say.

So here's what's been happening.  Pie can fall on the forehand, and dive with his head and neck - and I will be looking down, dropping my chin or leaning forward with my upper body.  He can fall in with his inside shoulder around a turn - and I'll be dropping my inside shoulder and leaning my head to one side.  He can fail to step under with the inside hind in a turn - and I'll be failing to open my hip.  My issues are far more when tracking right than when tracking left - and lo and behold, all my horses, but especially Pie, have had more trouble moving correctly when tracking right.

And compensating with aids, or fussing with the horse's head and neck position, usually gets you precisely nowhere - all it does is focus your energy down instead of up and out (it's this focus of energy up and out that really creates forward, not leg and certainly not seat) and introduce blocks and braces.

So our work today was about my sitting fully upright, allowing my whole body to move with the horse, while keeping my chin and eyes high and head over my spine - no leaning forward or looking down.  On turns, my job was to turn my head - while continuing to look up and out - move my inside shoulder back slightly - without rounding or dropping it - and slightly open my inside hip angle.  That's it, that's all.  It was very hard tracking right - that head wants to tilt rather than turn - my head doesn't turn to the right as easily - and the right shoulder to drop, and oh boy, opening my right hip is hard.  Pie told me when I was doing it correctly - all three did but Pie was the strictest judge.  I was sore through my neck and across the top of my shoulders last night, but it felt much better today.

We did lots of circles and figures to give me a workout and lots of practice.  Every time I do it correctly - just turning my head, keeping focus up, slightly opening inside shoulder and hip - the horses all responded just beautifully.  I also worked on getting more or less bend/turn by varying how much I turned my head and opened my shoulder and hip. No other aids needed - no reins, no leg, no pushing with the seat.  Just beautiful, fluid walking - and I noticed that both Dawn and Pie, who can tend to fall on the forehand, felt as if their forehands were marvelously elevated (Red did too but he's more naturally uphill), which isn't that easy to get at the walk.  It was just fabulous.  Now that the last bit of locked-up-ness in my shoulders and neck is breaking loose, the horses say they're much happier - and I am too.

So remember, your horse will mirror you - if you're having trouble, say, with the horse's right shoulder - look to what you're doing with your right shoulder.  If your horse falls on the forehand, are you leaning forward or looking down? If your horse isn't stepping under with the left hind, look at what your left hip is doing.  And keep an open posture, head up and focus up and out, with relaxation in your whole body so you move with the horse. And no leaning forward, back or to the side.  Your horse goes the way you ride . . .

Friday, November 29, 2013

Dawn Does Chiro - With Photos

Dawn has needed some chiropractic work - she has had some cramps and soreness in her neck, which has affected her work on the left rein.  This morning she had a session, and I managed to get some photos.  These photos show only a small fraction of what occurred, but you may find them interesting and they should give you a feel for how it went.

Dawn's had chiro a number of times before, knows our chiropractor/vet Dr. Alice Marold very well, and was very happy to be worked on, even though she had to leave her turnout pasture.  Dawn was relaxed and attentive - she just stood in the aisle ground tied for the whole thing, except for when her ribcage was worked on - this can be briefly painful so I held her halter to keep her from biting - and when Dr. Alice was guiding her head and neck around in stretches.  At the very end, after almost an hour, when all the work was done and Dawn was happy with the results, she turned and started to walk off.

Here's Dawn's attitude:

Work started in the sacral area - tightness in this area often affects the neck and vice versa.

A release:

Behind the shoulder:

The large, lower neck vertebrae are inaccessible to direct chiropractic pressure - Dawn is helping by leaning into the pressure:

Base of neck:

Dawn supervises note-taking:

Base of tail:

This is Dawn spam - I was admiring how good her winter coat looks this year - lots of shine and even dapples:

Another release:

A stretch down - while Dr. Alice was working much farther back:

And a big release:

Tail pull:

Tail curl:

Work on the lumbar area - Dr. Alice is using her thumb on the other side along the spine:

Dawn was very focussed:

Fetlock and foot:

This picture is particularly interesting - Dawn is offering her right front leg before Dr. Alice even asks - Dawn is asking for her knee to be worked on:


Other front leg:

Hind leg:

Starting to work on the neck, asking Dawn to bend her head and neck to the side, while working on any crampy areas in her neck:


More neck work - this time working on cramps that were keeping her from bending towards Dr. Alice:

Huge neck release:

More neck work:

Dawn was very satisfied with her chiro session.  I'm always fascinated to watch how Dr. Alice and the horse interact to get the results the horse needs.  It just increases my already existing admiration for how intelligent and communicative horses are if we only listen to them.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving from All of Us!

All of us: Dawn, Red, Pie and I, as well as the retirees Lily, Maisie and Norman-the-pony, wish you a very happy and safe Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Thanksgiving Meditation

I am fortunate - I am retired and have been so for a number of years, which means that I am free to choose how I spend my time.  But we all, within the constraints of jobs and family or other responsibilities, have choices, and it is those choices - what we choose to do or not do - that shape who we become, day by day and choice by choice.  This isn't to invite an examination of our pasts - I'm sure we all have some choices we might regret, but that isn't very productive in the here and now except insofar as it helps us understand how we got to where we are now.

The point is to realize that we have choices now, and to make them, as best we can, with attention and intention, rather than letting life just happen to us.

As I approach 60, I'm very conscious of the shortness of time that is life.  If I'm blessed with long life, I might have 30 years or so to continue to become.  Making choices about where to spend my time, and where not to spend it, has become more important to me as I get older.

My accident with Pie in the summer of 2011 was a big turning point in my life - being seriously injured tends to do that to you.  It might just have been one of the best things that ever happened to me. I was drifting in a number of ways, including with horses. Sure I was a good rider, and a horse owner who tried to listen to what my horses were telling me, but I wasn't the rider I needed to be, for my horses.  I was just dinking around - I had my horses at a self-care barn with no indoor where all my energy went into taking care of their basic needs and where riding was occasional at best due to weather and my level of fatigue from daily care.  I was also wasting a lot of time in my life on activities and distractions that weren't really meaningful to me.

So I made the changes that I needed to make - I moved to a barn with daily feeding, turnout and stall cleaning, to free up my energy and time.  An indoor means I can ride regardless of weather. I took Pie and Red to my excellent trainer - a student instructor of Mark Rashid's - I'd know her for years - for boot camp for them and me.  And I chose to put more time into my riding - a lot more time.  I'm a big believer in investing time in things you care about, and spending less time on things that are less important to you, or dropping them altogether.  I now have a schedule for my riding, and it's one of my highest priorities - I try to ride each of the three horses 5 times a week.  This takes a huge amount of my time, but it's a choice I've made.

And, as I approach 60, I keep in mind Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule - that it takes about 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to achieve mastery of a topic or activity.  Becoming a master at something - almost anything - isn't just a matter of talent or innate ability - it's more about time invested in a deliberate manner.   It doesn't matter much to me if the rule is absolutely true in all areas, since it's still a good guideline and a motivator to action.

10,000 hours, if you invest roughly an hour a day, with some days off - or say 330 days a year - works out to 30 years.  If I live to be 90, that means I've got that 30 years left.  But even if I don't have 30 years, every hour I spend practicing the things I care about means I'm creeping along on the road.  I may not get to be a master, but since there are only a limited number of hours in the day, I try to put my efforts into areas that are important to me.  I try to apply this principle as well to things that aren't really skills, but represent choices of how I spend my time.

For example, I've eliminated some things and try to do more of other things.  I downsized my living space and possessions - less stuff means less time wasted on stuff. I live very close to my barn, so I can get there in 5 minutes or so.  I have a regular schedule for my riding times which shapes my day, although of course there are days I don't or can't ride.  Family and friends are a priority - I'm considering taking up real letter-writing again in this age of texting. I try to practice my music - recorder - on a regular schedule, and spend time deliberately listening to music, rather than having it on as background noise.  I'm active in my church - it's only a few minutes away - and dedicate regular time to spiritual practice, both practical and meditative. I don't have a television - haven't for years - and rarely watch movies although there are exceptions.  I try to limit my internet time (except for blogging, which is a choice for me - I enjoy it and believe it helps me with my riding) and my time with other media - news sites, magazines, newspapers, radio, etc.  I spend a lot of time reading books of all sorts - right now I'm working my way through the Booker prize long-list for this year.  I try to do most of my own cooking, using real ingredients (I can walk to a farmers'  market in season) and avoiding packaged foods - it takes time to do this but it's better for me and for the earth, and I enjoy it.

Keeping in mind the 10,000-hour rule, I've perhaps got the time left to try out some new things and edge my way towards mastery, but even if I have far less time left, new challenges are fun.  I'm considering a couple of areas right now, and will give them a try and see how they fit.

Now, these are my choices, and they aren't the same ones you might make.  Do you think about the choices you are making right now in your life, about where and how your time should be invested?  Does how you spend your time, and who you spend it with, reflect your values and who you want to be and become?

Give thanks! - we all have so much to be thankful for, now and in the days to come.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

One Thing at a Time

Today this is Pie's post - I also had very nice rides on both Dawn and Red - but today is Pie's.

Today, as usual, I worked on me - to help out Pie.  When things with a horse aren't working quite right, or if there's something new to introduce, it helps a lot to simplify things.  Trying to do too many things at once sometimes is confusing to the horse.  My ride today on Pie focussed on getting only two things - forward, and stepping under and over with the inside hind leg, at both walk and trot - no canter until things are a bit more stable at the trot (if something isn't working at a slower gait, it certainly isn't going to work at a faster gait).  My job was to stay off his face and in fact my reins were fairly loose most of the time during our ride.  I only used a little bit of opening rein, when necessary, to get an inside bend, or just lightly brushed his neck with the outside rein to avoid bulging when circling.  Other than that, no reins - look, ma! no hands!

By doing this, we lost a bit of rhythm and relaxation - he was very forward which is what I wanted but sometimes rushed a bit - and he wasn't always soft or using himself completely correctly.  That was fine with me - with Pie, I need to have forward and the basics of bending coming from the rear end without interference from my hands - using my hands at this point tends to mean he loses impulsion and bend and the front disconnects from the back, which means there's no true softness, he falls on the forehand and the elements of forward and bend are absent.

It was a great success.  His forward was excellent, and with the addition of more rhythm and relaxation, and a bit of softening through the head and neck (without diving), we'll be there.  I had to work much harder than Pie - I had to keep my hands out of the mix, and make sure I was clear and allowing his movement and keeping my focus where it needed to be.  I had to maintain a good, neutral body position with my head, torso, seat and legs - no leaning, pushing or pulling - to give him the opportunity to bend through the corners and on circles with only a little inside leg for support where needed.

When we took breaks, we also did a bit of backing work where I asked him not to dive/curl up while backing.

We'll keep working on this together, and as things work more consistently we'll add the other elements back in.  Pie seemed pretty happy with our work together.

Tomorrow the footing in the arena is being replaced, so there will be no riding . . .

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Tale of Three Horses

All three of my horses are wonderful to be around and to ride, but they are very different, and have different natural abilities.  Part of this is due to the way that they are built physically.  Whatever a horse's build and conformation, the horse's ability to move and carry herself effectively - from behind - can be developed and enhanced.  But certain things will be harder for certain horses, and some horses are more gifted athletically - things just come easier for them.  They also differ in their emotional dispositions.

My three are a spectrum of builds and natural abilities, and I've been working with each of them for different amounts of time.  Dawn and I started working together in the fall of 2009, so we've been together for four years now, although we didn't move to the new barn until February of 2011 and our riding was episodic at best before then, and she had a bout of EPM in the spring of 2012.  Pie and I got together in November of 2010 when he was four, but I hadn't been riding him for long - we were at a barn with no indoor - when we had our wreck in June of 2011, which resulted in 6 weeks of no riding and severe loss of confidence on my part.  He also had bouts of EPM and also Lyme, which set us back.  He spent the month of March 2012 with my trainer, and he and I worked intensively with her, which got us back on track.  Red and I started working together in the spring of 2011, but he had many issues, most of which were unresolved when Pie and I had our wreck, and he also had an episode of EPM to contend with.  I did some work with him in the fall of 2011, but things only really got started in the right direction when he spent 90 days with my trainer - we worked intensively with her - from March through May 2012.

Dawn is now 16, Red is 12 and Pie is 7.  (I'll be 60 in a couple of months, for what that's worth.) Dawn when I started working with her was very braced and had great difficulty relaxing or offering softness.  She's quite athletic, but is somewhat hindered by being slightly downhill in her build.  A lot of her issues when we started were mental ones - nervousness and a tendency to rush. She's extremely intelligent and super sensitive, and tends to be a bit of an over-achiever - you barely have to think something and she's on it.  She's quite sound as a rule, and moves well for her build - her softness and self carriage have improved enormously as the relaxation has come through, but her build and age limit her ability to do more demanding work, like true collection and extension, well.  She's now capable of true forward together with relaxation, and is generally very soft and not braced.  She's getting easier and easier for me to ride. She's a horse who bonds tightly with those she learns to trust, and is very sweet and looks very feminine, but she can be fierce, doesn't give her trust lightly and is a mare of strong opinions.

Red has conformation to die for - he's built uphill and his proportions and angles are just about perfect - the first time I laid eyes on him I could see his potential.  He's had some issues with soundness, partly from an injury he incurred in the summer of 2012 and partly from some arthritis in his hocks, but he's perfectly sound right now (knock on every available piece of wood) with our routine of almost daily work and aspirin, and is naturally extremely athletic - if he were a football player he'd be a running back - nimble and fast and very well balanced.  He came to me extremely braced, and very anxious and over reactive, and with no personal space boundaries whatsoever.  He was completely lacking in confidence in himself and his handlers.  He has enormous potential, and some of this is already showing through now that he's learning to trust again and to relax and concentrate.  Today's ride was a good example.  He was offering me total softness at the trot - he was in self-carriage consistently - the reins weren't even really necessary - and was offering something very close to true collection and extension at the trot, with the greatest of ease.  Like Dawn, he's very sensitive and responsive, and riding him is more and more frequently a pure delight.  He's also drop-dead gorgeous, which doesn't hurt.  He's also very affectionate and really wants to get out and do things - he nickers for me or for Pie rather than for food.

Pie is Pie, and is not as naturally "hot" in temperament as Dawn or Red.  He's a big horse, and long in the body and neck, although his legs are in proportion.  He looks like a very bulky appendix quarter horse, although he's a registered QH.  His neck and head carriage is naturally on the low side. He also has a very big head and a Roman nose - he wears a 5 1/2 inch bit and he's in a one-ear headstall because I've been unable to find a headstall with a throat latch that fits him - his jowl is very deep.  And he's a bit narrow through the body.  He's got good leg angles and is very sound (once he got over his various bouts of EPM and Lyme).  His biggest conformational challenge is that he's a bit downhill, although that's improved some as he's grown since I got him.  Engagement from behind doesn't come naturally to him and we've worked hard to develop the muscles he needs to carry himself better.  But he's not likely to ever be able to move as well as Red.  Even though he's an easy horse to ride in the sense that he's not reactive and his natural inclination is to go slower rather than faster - he's the only one of my three I'd ever remotely consider letting any one else sit on - he's also harder for me to ride than the other two.  This is because for him to travel correctly he needs to have true forward - not just speed or cadence, but relaxed, pushing from behind, forward.  He tends to fall on the forehand, either because he lacks impulsion, or because he's rushing and bracing against hand or leg.  If he's in my hands, that means he's usually on the forehand and starting to brace, and then I lose the body and hind end.  He's a solid guy in an all-around way, and just a pleasure to be around - he's got a sweet face and a good sense of humor.

So today Pie and I worked on maintaining forward, and getting bend and steering from the hind end.  I also asked him not to "dive" with his head and neck - he sometimes does a fake softness that is really more of a "curl up", which puts him on the forehand.  So to get bend, and get that inside hind to step up and under, I worked on activating the hind end and doing as little as I could with the head and neck, other than asking for some softness without diving.  The true test was circles.  Circles without softness, or where the hind end wasn't carrying the horse in a unified manner, turned into eggs.  Circles with good forward and the beginnings of engagement were circles.  It was hard work for both of us, but we did some good work by the end.  He's improved enormously since I started working with him - he can now carry himself at the canter much more softly and continuously and his trot continues to improve - but as usual, most of the work is about me and how I can be effective and soft with him at the same time.

Three wonderful horses - my teachers - who could ask for more?

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Skeptical Horses

They're right to be skeptical - I don't have the slightest idea what I'm doing when it comes to photography, but I'm determined to learn.  There's a very nice series of how-tos that Mare at Simply Horse Crazy has been posting - check her sidebar - and I've been trying to be brave and just jump right in.  I have a decent camera - a Nikon D70 - and it's time I learned to properly use it.

So, since today was a day off for all of us, and the chiropractor rescheduled to Friday due to the cold - makes the horse's muscles too tight for effective chiro work - I tried to take some photos.  There are no photos of Pie, although I took a bunch, because I needed the flash for our dark barn aisle, and Pie's not a fan of the flash.

So, without further ado, here's Dawn looking skeptical:

And here's Red, doing the same - are his ears really that big?

And here's one nice profile of Red, looking very alert as he looks out the door:

Small steps . . .

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Might as Well Have Been Summer . . . and I'm Ready for a Day Off

It was very cold this morning - wind chills in the low teens, but the boys were blanketed and Dawn was in her extra warm full-neck Rambo blanket.  This isn't Dawn, and her blanket isn't red, but this is what it looks like, triple belly straps and all:

Pricey, but very well made and Dawn appreciates it, particularly on a day like today.

Dawn, who gets colder much more easily than the boys, has an extensive wardrobe.  The boys have one rain sheet and one blanket each, but Dawn rates four - a rain sheet, an insulated rain sheet, a medium weight blanket and her heavy Rambo.

For all three of my rides today, it was barely 30 in the indoor and the wind was howling and the doors were banging.  I was lucky enough to have the arena to myself for all three rides, and all three horses rode beautifully - they were calm and relaxed and it might as well have been summer.  Red's shortening and lengthening work at the trot was exceptionally fine, and fun to ride bareback.

Tonight the temperature's supposed to get down to the single digits, with the wind continuing, and it's supposed to stay very cold during the day.  Dawn has a chiropractor appointment in the morning, to have some work done on the knots in her neck - lucky the barn itself is heated - but otherwise we're all taking the day off.  I know I'll appreciate it, and I expect the horses, with the possible exception of Red, will too.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Cold and Colder

It was a three-ride day, and I'm tired this evening, so this will be a short post.

We had a spot of snow this morning and the temperature has dropped this evening into the 20s.  Highs Saturday and Sunday are only supposed to reach the low to mid 20s, and there's also supposed to be quite a bit of wind - what the weather forecast describes as "blustery" - not a weather word I'm fond of.  Dawn will be in her heaviest blanket as wind chills are only supposed to reach the teens.  The indoor arena is unheated, so I expect it'll be cold riding tomorrow.

To summarize my day - Dawn was Delightful, Pie was a Peach and Red Rocked - what more can I say?  Red is really getting the hang of shortening and lengthening stride at the trot, and we had a lot of fun - nice to ride a warm horse bareback on these cold days. Everyone was forward, soft and just plain wonderful - you can't ask for better than that!

Thursday, November 21, 2013

More Redness

Very short post tonight.  Dawn had the day off, and both Red and Pie got rides.  Pie and I had a very nice ride in a crowded arena.  Red and I also had an excellent bareback ride, but there were also some special moments of Redness.

When we came into the ring, there was a horse being lunged for a lesson.  Red has a serious phobia about lunge whips - not the objects themselves - he'll pick them up in his teeth and doesn't mind being touched all over with one.  But if it's in use, all bets are off, and if it's swishing or cracking, he may even bolt to get away - it's not the noise, it's fear of what the lunge whip means to him.

Today he stood with me at the end of the ring - not so far from the horse being lunged as our arena is very small.  The person lungeing wasn't cracking the whip, she was just holding it out horizontally and letting the end trail on the ground to encourage the horse to keep moving.  Red's eyes were huge, but he stood his ground next to me on a loose rein.  Eventually he released some tension by giving several huge yawns. We were able to move a bit closer, and finally I got on.

We worked for a bit at the other end of the arena - not so far away - and then were able to trot following another horse around the perimeter of the arena, which took us right around the horse being lunged.  This is huge progress for him.  I need to be prepared with a pack of treats - probably carrot bits - so I can use clicker with him to reward him for approaching and tolerating a lunge whip in use.  Today I used praise, and his trust allowed him to stay with me.

And then, after our ride, he did a lovely "stand" while I picked up some poop, followed by a wonderful "come with", and then we did both all over again to pick up another pile at a different location.  He clearly understands exactly what I want in both cases, although I've never trained him to do either, and is very happy to comply.  More wonderful Redness . . .

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Let the Horse Figure Out the Answer

Our impulse when working with our horses is often to shortcut the process of learning and just give them the answer, and demand that answer.  Horses that resort to rote behaviors when you ask for something new, or who are nervous or reactive - Red was a very good example of this - are often those who have been forced into giving answers without any opportunity to learn, or horses who have been punished for trying and giving "wrong" answers.  Horses like this have great difficulty in generalizing - in applying an answer they know to a related but not identical situation.  This is a bit like a child who knows the answer to a specific math question, by having memorized it, but has no idea of the underlying principles, and who therefore can't solve a related problem - the child may know that 2 + 2 = 4, but can't figure out that 2 + 3 = 5, and so, when you ask them what 2 + 3 is, keep answering 2 + 2 = 4 - that's all they know how to do.

But allowing the horse the space and time to learn, and try, doesn't mean letting the horse flounder - it means giving them calm direction, without compelling them to a particular solution or making the "wrong" alternatives so difficult that there is no real choice.

But you have to know clearly what it is that you want - it can't be vague or non-specific - this isn't fair to the horse.  It's also not just a matter of knowing the end goal - it's a matter of breaking it down into small steps that, one by one, as the chain of learning is built, lead the horse to the answer you want.  You want your horse to discover the answer and be delighted with himself, and you too.

In order to be able to instantly reward the horse on each small step, patience is required.  You may have to repeat the ask numerous times, and catch that exact moment when the horse says "you mean something like this?" - which may not be what you asked for but which is a tiny step in the correct direction. This means you - not the horse - you - have to pay attention - all the time - to the horse's interactions with you in response to your ask.  If you do this, you will notice the very small tries - the steps on the road to the answer - that you want to reward.  And, if you pay close attention to your horse, and are available to your horse so you can have a back-and-forth conversation, before you know it, your horse will be paying close attention to you.  This is where connection and feel come from - it's not mechanics, it's communication and mutual attention.  If your horse isn't paying attention to you, it's quite likely that you aren't holding up your end of the conversation either.

And remember that learning occurs all the time, not just when you're trying to train the horse to do something specific. The horse will be constantly asking you questions as you interact, both on the ground and when you're in the saddle. Always answer the horse's ask - the horse is looking for a conversation.  If you fail to answer, the horse will either think that the whole thing doesn't really matter to you, or will fruitlessly fill the gap with behaviors in an attempt to get a response from you, or will do what the horse considers necessary to keep herself safe.  This is where horses with poor ground manners come from - their prior handlers ignored their asks, probably because they didn't notice them, or because the handler had no clear idea in her own mind of what the horse should be doing - a vague "I want my horse to lead well" is of no use.

Never punish a "wrong" answer, or the horse's failure to understand what you want - just keep calmly and patiently asking, and guide/shape the horse's tries towards the right answer.  Punishing a horse that offers a wrong answer in a try, or demanding that learning occur at a particular pace, is the quickest way to destroy trust and connection.  Make sure you're never in a hurry - if you rush, things will take longer in the end and the learning will be contaminated with stress and anxiety.

Always keep in mind that if the horse can't or won't give the answer you want, you're likely to be a large part - or even the whole - of the problem.

If you're fair, and consistent, and calm, and clear, the horse will understand what you want and will learn to offer the answer you want, although there may be some wrong answers on the way - in fact, if there are no wrong answers, the horse isn't really learning and may be showing that he is afraid to try.  And a horse that learns to give the answer you want with your guidance and assistance will develop trust in you and become more and more willing to try for you.

This is a virtuous circle - the more of this you do with your horse, the more secure and confident and willing to try the horse will be, and the more close your connection and understanding will become.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Wonderful Redness

All three horses were gems today, and we had three excellent rides.  But two little - very little but so telling - things with Red made me very happy, and I think him, too.  (The other two horses made me happy too, but this is Red's post.)

The first thing may not sound like much but it really touched me.  Early in our ride, Red left a pile of manure.  Our barn likes you to get off and remove it promptly so it doesn't get ground in - a good rule, I think.  So I hopped off - we were doing our usual bareback thing - and asked him to stand.  I then walked a fair ways to get the manure fork, back to the pile, picked it up and carried it back to the manure bucket.  The whole time, Red watched me attentively, but didn't move a muscle.  This was despite there being another horse in the arena who he might have wanted to wander off and meet.  But he did exactly as I had asked - and I had done almost nothing except say stand - we've done no training at all on this - and send the thought message of what I wanted him to do.  I praised him effusively.  Pie and I do this frequently - Pie, being a ranch horse, came with a good stand-by-himself - but Red and I haven't, as he has in the past been very distractible and inclined to do his own thing if left to his own devices - but not any more.

Then, later in our ride, he backed, and kept right on backing softly, just because I thought "back" - no rein pressure, no nothing.  Just plain wonderful Redness . . .

Monday, November 18, 2013

Good Rides All Around

I had a three-horse day - actually I have a three-horse day almost every day, in that I see my three horses, if only to say hi and pick feet.  But today was a three-ride day.

Dawn and I had a very nice ride in the early morning.  It was cold and the horses had been shut up in their stalls all the day before, but she came in willingly to be ridden.  There was no sign of the the slight "offness" there'd been in our previous ride, which was good news.  We did a lot of forward medium trot work, and not too many small circles or tight turns.  She was as good as gold, although by the end of our ride she started to get a bit stiff in her response to the left rein.

When I got off, I checked her out, and sure enough, her neck was very tight, but not quite in the same location as the last time she had soreness in her neck.  The first time, the sore area was just behind the poll on either side of her neck, and this time the sore area was just below the top of her neck but one or two vertebrae further down.  She now has an appointment for some chiro work - she really didn't much want me messing with the sore areas, although she let me do a little, and there were some releases.

Red and I had an excellent bareback ride in the afternoon.  He was very forward for him - I barely had to do anything to keep us going in trot - and a bit reactive due to the high winds and humming, banging arena.  He spooked twice - once at something outside the arena door that I didn't see, and once when someone walking down the dark barn aisle carrying some hay stepped into a pool of sunlight.  He only took a few bolt steps both times, and stopped as soon as I asked, and kept right on working afterwards, so I was proud of him.  His trot work was really nice, with lots of engagement and softness, and he was perfectly equal on both reins.

Pie and I also had a very nice ride.  His canter work is really coming along.  He's much more balanced at the canter than he was this time last year, which means he can navigate our small indoor more easily, and even do pretty nice circles, and can sustain the canter without falling on the forehand.  Due to the cold and wind, he was also very nicely forward at the trot.

You can't ask for a better day with horses.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Stormy Day

Here in Northern Illinois it was a very stormy day, but we were spared the worst of the weather - we only had strong thunderstorms and a lot of high winds.  Our barn owner made the wise decision to keep the horses in for the day - the horses didn't think much of that but it was for the best.  Red was so upset he was doing a lot of calling and also had loose manure. The worst of the weather didn't hit until late morning, so I went to the barn in the morning before it started raining and put the boys in paddocks with a bit of hay while I picked their stalls - in fact the paddocks are in a row with gates between and since they were the only ones out there I opened a bunch of gates so they could roam up and down the row of paddocks.  Dawn seemed content, so I just put her on cross ties to pick her stall.

Then I put the boys back in their stalls and went home to sit out the weather.  I used the time to make a pot of soup.  And fortunately, we didn't lose power.  Later in the afternoon, during a break in the weather action, I went back and did the same thing, and this time I put Dawn in a paddock for a while, which she seemed to appreciate.

The boys were very cute in the paddock, eating from the same pile of hay.  When I went to get them, they had their heads over the gate right together - it would have made a cute photo but of course I didn't have my camera.

Temperatures are already dropping, and it's going to be colder but still very windy tomorrow.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Not Quite Right

This morning when I rode Dawn, she wasn't quite right.  She led in normally from the pasture and we groomed and tacked up.  Our walk warm up was uneventful.  When we started to trot, she took a bad step with her right front and then was off on it every third or fourth step at the trot.  I jumped right off and looked at her feet, wondering if she'd picked up a stone.  I picked her feet again and carefully brushed off the bottom of her right front - everything looked completely normal and she had no scrapes or dings on the outside of her foot, and she had no digital pulses.  It might have been higher than the foot, but it's hard to tell.  She was only very slightly off and was perfectly happy to trot, but there's no point in pushing it, so I untacked her, gave her one gram of bute and turned her back out.  She marched off, looking just fine.

Starting tonight and running into tomorrow, we're supposed to be having storms, high winds and even possibly some severe weather.  I may just leave the horses in their stalls tomorrow morning to see how the weather's developing - they won't be happy about it but better safe than sorry.  One of the things I love about the specific barn they're in is that it's an old, converted dairy bank barn, built out of concrete.  The horses are in the "basement", and there's an equipment barn above, with a solid concrete floor in between.  It's about as safe as a barn can be in severe weather.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Red is Much Happier

Just a short note this evening - I rode all three horses today and they were all just lovely.  Red was particularly excellent - he was much, much happier - we rode bareback.  He did some lovely, soft work at the trot.  I gave him a break from cantering, since I need to work on my bareback riding until it's more solid. I've discovered his problem with the secondary cue - a touch with the dressage whip if forward wasn't there - wasn't about the secondary cue itself, but about the cue being applied when he wasn't moving forward because of discomfort from the saddle.  He was complaining about the unfairness of it - and I agree.  When I'm bareback, I rarely need the secondary cue, and he doesn't object.  It just pays to listen to my horse, I guess . . .

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Square Peg in Round Hole

That is, saddle fit - one of a horse person's greatest annoyances, in my experience . . .

For some reason, Red has changed shape - definitely fatter so that could be part of it - and neither of my saddles - my Kieffer dressage saddle or my About the Horse light trail saddle - any longer fits him.  They both catch him at the point of the shoulders, particularly the left shoulder.  Once upon a time, they both fit him just fine - go figure.

Today I tried Red's patience.  I was following the theory that if you've tried something and it's clear it doesn't work, why not try it again just so you can prove to yourself that you will get the same result . .   I should know better . . . After a very nice bareback walk/trot ride with a bit of cantering, I tried, once again, to see if either saddle could be made to fit.  No go.  The dressage saddle, when far enough back to clear his shoulder, had to be shimmed slightly in order not to nose down in front.  But it was clearly rocking, since the pad wanted to slide back, and neither he nor I was glad with how it felt.  And the shim just made the pinch in the shoulder worse.  Red expressed his displeasure, more at the canter than the trot - there were unhappy ears and some balking on canter departures.

The About the Horse Western saddle was just as bad.  I tried it with no pad for the best assessment, and it was just too tight through the shoulder.  Red was pretty unhappy about that one, too.

After our long and frustrating session - frustrating for me and annoying for him - I wanted to prove to him that I got the message, and wouldn't ride him any more in those uncomfortable saddles.  I took off the Western saddle, and although he was tired, took him back into the arena for a short bareback ride.  We only trotted for a bit, did one attempt at canter - with a balk since he was in a balky mood - but once he figured out it wasn't uncomfortable any more he took the left lead without much complaint.  I got right off and put him away, telling him what a patient and brave horse he was.  I'll just have to improve my bareback riding, particularly at the canter, and remember how to ride like a kid again.

I expect he'll be fine when I ride him bareback next.  It's a good thing horses are forgiving souls.