Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Exciting News (!) and Other January Steps

There's lots of news, relating to my goals for 2012, and some of it's pretty exciting!

First, one of my goals was to get training assistance with Pie and Drifter, both to work through some of their holes and issues, and to work with me and them together so we can deal with the issues I have due to my fall and how I interact with each horse.  Pie and Drifter will be moving to Black Star Farm in Wisconsin around March 1 for at least 30 days and perhaps longer.  Heather there is a long-term student of Mark Rashid's, is one of his very few approved trainers/instructors (I believe there are only 6 worldwide), and I know her and her family well and have watched her work with a number of horses over the years I've been attending Mark's clinics at her farm.  She's very good with the horses, can deal with whatever comes up in a quiet and effective way, her methods are consistent with Mark's, and she's also a good instructor.

She will initially spend about a week to 10 days working with and evaluating each horse.  After that, I'll be going up there (it's about an hour and a half drive each way) several times a week to work with her and the horses.  And we'll see what we see.  One thing I've asked her to do is give me an honest evaluation of whether either horse isn't suitable for me.  I've told her that I believe both of them can be good horses for me, once we get by this point and our immediate issues, but that I really want to know if I'm wrong about that with either horse.  One of my goals was also to get a Western saddle that fits both horses (if that's possible), preferably an About the Horse saddle.  Heather has a number of these saddles and we'll be able to try out different tree sizes so I'll know model and size to buy, either new or used.

I'm very excited about this and can't wait for March to get here!  We're waiting until then because at least there's a shot of doing some work outside in March.  As things go along, of course I'll be updating all of you about how Pie and Drifter and I do.  (Once things warm up and dry out a bit here, Dawn and I will go back to work here on what we're working on - it's amazing to say, and it took a lot of work to get here, but Dawn is now very familiar to me, and she and I know how to work together.)

Second, I had a goal to develop a mindfulness/meditation practice.  I've been working to do some daily meditation, and to bring mindfulness to everyday life.  I'm also taking a drawing course - I find drawing to be a very mindful practice.

Third, I had a goal to improve my fitness, core strength and balance.  I'm starting a t'ai chi chih course this week - it's great for balance and also has a strong mindfulness/body awareness element.  I'm going to be starting some strength training shortly - more about that as it comes along.  I've upped my walking time and speed as well - I'm up to about 3 miles a day.  I've also modified my diet to elimate pretty much all red meat - we're mostly vegetarian, in fact vegan since we mostly use olive or canola oil rather than butter - with only occasional chicken or fish, and some eggs.

Fourth, I had a goal to take some lessons on trained horses.  I have calls in to two dressage instructors, and hope to start taking some lessons with one or both of them soon.

I'm pretty pleased with how 2012 is going so far, one step at a time . . .

Friday, January 27, 2012

Post-Traumatic Stress After Serious Riding Accidents

Apparently, post-traumatic stress symptoms are common in people who've experienced traumatic accidents, such as traffic accidents, involving broken bones, or head injuries, or hospitalization.  It also makes sense that this happens after a serious riding accident.  One common symptom is refusal or reluctance to engage in the activity that led to the accident, and envisioning possible negative outcomes from engaging in the activity.  Some of you in your comments have noted my dread/lack of enjoyment from riding my horses, and that's certainly true.

This understanding comes as a relief to me - I'm a bit slow on the uptake, apparently.  I'm not old, or incompetent, and my horses, while they may be challenging at time, are just fine.  It's just that I'm still processing, mentally, emotionally and physically, the effects of the accident.  My reluctance/dread/lack of pleasure in riding and working with the horses are perfectly natural effects of the accident.  There are some things I can do to help work this through, including consciously directing thought patterns into more positive stories ("reframing") as my horses and I come through this together.

This validates for me my plan and goals for 2012.  While my horses are on "winter vacation" (you should see our arena - it would have qualified last week for ice hocky events), I'm planning to take some lessons on easier (more thoroughly trained) horses to get the habit of riding back and solidify my abilities to ride "in" rather than on, the horse.  I'll also be working with an experienced trainer who's a student of Mark Rashid, probably starting in March, as I bring my three horses back into work, so she can oversee and advise with our getting back into business.  I'll be working on my core strength and stamina, as well as my balance, to make sure I'm fit to do what I want to, which is work with and ride my three wonderful, full of personality horses - Dawn, Pie and Drifter deserve nothing less.

P.S. - read the comments - there's more interesting stuff in there . . .

(A very big thank you for all the supportive, insightful and challenging comments - I very much appreciated them all and they were a great help to me in thinking these things through.  And read this post of Mugwump's - that's where I want to get to with my work with my horses.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Am I (Too) Old (for This)?

A couple of things have happened lately that have given me pause.  Someone I know well, and who knows horses well, commented that my horses - all three of them - were "dangerous".  I sort of went "huh??"  She explained that what she meant wasn't that they were mean or harmful, just that they might be dangerous to me - Pie because he's young and green and has a big spin when he spooks, Drifter because he's smart and spoiled and therefore sometimes resistant, and Dawn because . . . well, just because she's Dawn . . . because I'm, as she put it, getting older - "you're almost 60" - and probably not in good enough physical shape due to age and inadequate conditioning.  After I got over being offended, I understood that she was just worried about me - she said she wasn't questioning my competence, just my age and physical ability, including strength, balance and agility.  Well, that certainly was a slap upside the head, so to speak.

And then the last time I was working with Drifter, he was pulling some big stunts on the lunge line until we got things sorted out, and several boarders were watching from outside the arena.  Later, someone who overheard them talking told me they said I was crazy to be working with a horse like him and that I was at risk of getting hurt.  Well, how about those potatoes . . .  I don't know if they thought I was incompetent or just an old lady who couldn't cut it anymore. Now some of his antics were pretty dramatic, but I'd put his rope halter on for extra control and we worked things through - strained my shoulders pretty good, though.  When I heard about what they'd been saying, my feelings were a mixture of annoyance and wounded pride and a tinge of shame - I care way too much what other people think and felt they were judging my abilities as lacking.  While I was working with Drifter, it took a lot of physical effort and concentration to deal with his shennigans, but I had a clear plan and was working through it with him until we got to where we needed to be, but to an observer - they were all a good bit younger than me - it might have looked like a old woman cluelessly lungeing an out-of-control horse.

Am I too old to be doing what I'm doing and riding and working with the horses I have? I certainly don't have any problem being the age I am now - I don't wear makeup, will never have plastic surgery or other "enhancements", have plenty of sun damage to my skin and lots of wrinkles, and getting and staying in shape are a lot more effort than they used to be.  I don't have any problem getting old . . . it's just that I've never felt like it was happening to me (denial or reality, who knows?) - I've never felt old, or even middle-aged, in my own head.  I'm in better shape physically than I've been in a while (although I could be in a lot better shape).  And, before my fall off Pie, I would have said I was a competent rider and able to work with horses like Dawn, Pie and Drifter. In fact I took pride in my abilities - it was part of my self-image - whether that pride was justified or not is hard to say (and I always think pride is a pretty questionable feeling, but there it is), and I always have a need to prove my competence, and even if truth be told, show off a little.  These are not traits I like in myself, but there they are. So, I think that's why the bystanders' comments really hurt - instead of thinking I was doing a good job handling Drifter's difficulties, they just thought I was an idiot, whether rightly (because I am one) or wrongly (because they didn't understand what I was doing) or somewhere in-between (I don't think I'm an idiot but I could have done a better job).

And I don't think my fall off Pie showed my incompetence - anyone, no matter how good a rider, could have fallen off during a spook/spin like that.  The severity of the concussion and the broken bones could be due to my age, I guess - the body isn't as resilient as we get older - but I was angry/upset/embarrassed that my previous lifetime record of no hospitalizations or broken bones due to horse-related incidents had been destroyed - for goodness sake, I hadn't fallen off but 3 times previously as an adult and none of those were serious.  Nothing like a bad fall to throw a spanner into the works of one's self-image and confidence.  I'm clearly getting older - just looking in the mirror tells me that - and certain things, like the heavy labor involved in caring myself for the horses at our self-care barn, are difficult and increasingly annoying. But it had never occurred to me that anyone would think I was over the hill . . .

But then I don't want to be the old lady whose family has to take away the car keys (so to speak) to keep her from injuring herself or others, because she's too proud or lacking in self-awareness to realize that she's not capable of doing what she wants to do and has always done for her whole life.  I don't think I'm there yet, but only time will tell, I guess . . .

Friday, January 20, 2012

Mind the Gap . . . Intent, Focus and the (Un)Cluttered MInd

This post has a number of aspects, but it's mainly about how we (at least I, but I'm going to use "we" on the assumption that I'm not the only one) mess up our communications with our horses through various types of mental clutter.  Working (there's that word again) with horses is primarily a mental/emotional thing - of course we have to have physical skills as well, but, once we're past a basic level of competency, the whole thing is driven by our minds - in the broad sense of intent, emotion and degree of "mental clutter" - and how they help or hurt the interaction with the horse.  It's the union of our minds with the horse's mind that drive the union of our bodies so we can do the work together.

Mugwump did a post a few days ago that touches on this topic - read the comments - some of the most interesting stuff is in there. For those of us who rode as kids, it's interesting to compare how it felt to ride as a kid and how it feels now - there's often a big difference and a lot of the difference may not be positive.  Yes, maybe we know how to do a precisely timed canter departure or jump a hunter course or do a dressage test or ride a reining pattern, but is all that "knowing" enough?  I'd argue that often there's a big something that can get lost - and it's an innate, direct connection with the horse where we wanted to do something and we (the horse and I) just did it together - what I'd call an instinctive way of riding.  There really wasn't a lot of thought involved, just a close connection with the horse.

I know this is true for me.  I started riding when I was very small, and had no formal training at all until I was in college.  I just got on the horse (almost always bareback), rode until I fell off, got on again, and just did that for years until it felt right.  I would ride most any horse, even those other people didn't like or were afraid of, and anything I wanted the horse to do the horse just did.  I raced, I jumped, I rode in parades, I took horses swimming, and mostly I just rode, at all gaits and on all types of horses.

Now, why did we have that connection with the horse as a kid and how does that very close instinctive connection (sometimes or forever) get lost as an adult?  This is the "gap" I refer to in the title - it comes from the announcement "mind the gap" that's made on the London Tube (subway) when you board the trains - it's that scary gap between the platform and the train.

For me the problems as an adult come from two things - muddying our communication of intent to the horse, and allowing doubt (or recently after my bad accident last summer even worry/fear) to creep in and contaminate the intention we communicate with our thoughts to the horse - and it's no wonder the horses have trouble doing what we want or even trusting us enough to listen.

First, on muddying of intent.  Mugwump's post makes a very important point - if you clearly intent to do something, and it's important to you, the horse can act on that intent.  It's partly a matter of expectation - if you expect the horse to do something, good or bad, that's likely to be what you get more often than not.  I think part of this is having a clear, specific intent that your horse can read (and not to get all mystical, but there's a lot more to it than physical cues - it's a matter of focus and mental energy as much as anything).  And then there's the expectation that the horse will do it, because you think it's important (if you don't care or you're uncertain about whether you want it, your horse will pick that up and you're unlikely to get it).  Now of course, horses have to have the space and time (and our patience)  to learn how to do what we're asking, but if we focus on what we want, clearly and calmly, no matter what the horse's response, and reward tries towards our goal, we'll get there.  This focus on what we want the horse to do with us, instead of on what we don't want the horse to do (this is why, in my opinion, training schools that focus on making the wrong thing hard rather than on making the right thing easy often have things backwards), is one of the most important things I've learned from Mark Rashid.  (Please take a minute to read his very important post on the question of degrees of separation that we introduce into our interactions with the horse due to our tendency to take our focus off our goal, often in reaction to something the horse does - I cited this in an earlier post but it's very germaine to this question of focus and intent.)

The other way I think we muddy our communication of intent is to overanalyze/intellectualize what we're doing.  I think this is a particular risk for "technical" riders - dressage and reining come to mind, but there are other types as well - and also for those of us who are working to improve and who are learning new "techniques" - ways to time cues, ways to be softer/more precise, ways to think about moving particular feet, etc.  There's a risk that, if we over-think (what we're doing or what the horse is or isn't doing) or over-complicate, we will lose the clarity of intent and focus that communicates most effectively to the horse.  It's not that simple, of course, but I think you get the idea - our minds, in an intellectual sense, can introduce a separation between our intent/focus and the horse.

And then there's the problem of the cluttered mind - what some of the meditative traditions refer to as "monkey mind" (no insult intended to monkeys, but then tend to be very busy little creatures) - full of thoughts, doubts, memories, plans, distractions of all types - if you've ever done any mediation work you know what I mean: there's a lot of clutter in there most of the time.  I think horses have some trouble interacting with people whose minds are not (relatively) clear and focussed - the intent that's communicated to the horse is clouded by mental noise and also often by emotions - doubt, fear, worry, etc.  Horses pick these emotions up very easily and they can color their responses.  It's well beyond the point of this post to talk about how to unclutter a cluttered mind - I think it's partly a matter of recognizing the issue and partly a matter of practice and habit.

A brief digression on Dawn, Drifter and Pie.  After my accident, my interactions and relationship with Dawn were pretty much unchanged - we worked together just as before - our riding relationship goes back several years now and nothing much changed.  Both Drifter and Pie had some physical issues due to their infection with the EPM organism that interfered with our work and their comfort level and ability to do what I asked.  Drifter was picking up my uncertainty and my emotional clutter - he's very sensitive and a bit emotional himself - and his answer was to test me - he wasn't sure I could be trusted or ought to be respected as a leader. Pie had a reaction to my fall that isn't unusual for a young horse (read this post I did on a young horse at a Mark Rashid clinic whose rider had fallen - the horse came unglued and lost most of its training - Pie's case is different but there are some similarities).  Pie had confidence in his rider - his old man and then me - and in his rider's guidance and leadership if something scared him - one of the best things about him was that if he spooked/startled, he would calm right down again.  But when I fell and was incapacitated, I was not available for him to calm and guide him after he was scared by whatever it was (a group of fast-moving bikes with large flags on the back, or so I believe) - it was as if I had abandonned him.  So now he's much more inclined to worry and be spooky, and to not calm down once he's scared - he's not sure he's safe any more with me and this is reinforced by the gap I'm allowing to come between my intent (to go down the trail) and him - "will a deer jump out?" "what's that noise?" "is that a child running down the trail?" - my guidance and leadership for him is not only muddied but contaminated by worry.

I think for me the solution lies somewhere along the lines of: Have a clear thought of the task (very specifically - say, ride at a walk from X to A in a straight line) I want to do together with the horse and keep my physical movements/cues/aids to the barest minimum so the horse can pick up what I am thinking, avoid inserting extraneous thoughts/emotions in between my intention and the horse, and keep my focus on the task no matter what - if extraneaous thought/emotions arise, just gently refocus on the task; if the horse does something other than what I intend, refocus the horse on the task.   Much easier said than done, of course, but I think we can get there and that Pie and Drifter and I can reconnect and keep going from there - the objective is softness from the inside where there's a real, live connection and they can respond to my thought and direction.  Here's hoping for spring . . .

Monday, January 16, 2012

Rebuilding Connections

Today I just gave each horse a thorough grooming - it was in the 40sF with wind and the footing was terrible - packed snow and ice.  I've been feeling that I've lost that close connection with the horses, and I though that some slow grooming would be one way to start to get that back.  With each horse, I took my gloves off while I was grooming so I could use my hands to touch and feel them - that horse/human/horse touch is very important to our connection and it's easy to lose that in the winter.

Dawn has been distracted and overly alert, so I tried to be calm and slow with her.  She's often crabby or restless for grooming, but she was pretty relaxed - I didn't get a head rest but she was paying attention to me.  Pie has been very crabby - lots of ear pinning - for grooming lately, so for a change I took him out of his stall and put him on cross ties.  He was very sweet and responsive - the crabbiness must be food-related - and seemed to enjoy his grooming, and his ears never went back once.  Drifter has been very lively lately - he even tried to play bitey face (with my face) with me today when he was in his paddock - not OK (I was very clear with him about that) but I understand his restlessless as he's on solo turnout and has no one else to play with.  He was very happy and relaxed on cross ties today and really seemed to enjoy his grooming.

At the end of each grooming session, I had each horse back a step or two for a click and treat - a nice way to end our sessions.  It felt good to groom and run my hands over each horse, taking my time and not being in a hurry, and they seemed to enjoy it as well.  Slow steps to regain connections . . .

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

In Search of Softness From the Inside

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 9, 2012

Pie Loses His Mind

Today my husband and I went on the trail again with Pie and I can't say that any of us had much fun.  Pie had a complete and total meltdown, and although we all made it back to the barn together and in one piece, it was a close thing.  We took a very familiar loop around the pastures - it was the first part of our successful outing yesterday.  Pie has been around that loop hundreds of times, both ridden and hand walking.  But today was different - it didn't help that it was very windy (gusts to 25mph) which when combined with a temperature around 40 made things downright nippy.  Pie was fine for saddleing and mounting, and we headed off down the trail without any problem with my husband walking with us.  Pie was more alert than normal, that was all.  When we got about 300 yards from the barn, Pie was starting to really tense up, so I jumped off and led him, which turned out to be a very good thing.

His tension, I think, was due to the wind as well as the noise of a playground of children just out of sight behind the houses and a couple of hundred yards away.  At this point we were halfway around the loop so just kept going as that was the shortest way back. Once he could see the playground in a gap between houses, he went on high alert - there was a lot of childish screaming going on.  At that point I was leading him with just the halter, and he was holding it together but just barely.  Then a barking dog that had gotten loose came running up behind us.  Pie tried to scoot and I switched to holding the reins just below his chin - he was in a snaffle bit.  My husband shooed the dog away.  Now we were much closer to the playground.  Pie went on ultra high alert - he was on his tiptoes and was completely tense.  Now a friend came up walking her two rambunctious, barking, leaping dogs - she had to take them through the tall grass to make a detour around us but that made a lot of noise and Pie wasn't happy about that either.

Now we were at a turning in the trail where we had to turn our backs on the playground of shrieking children to walk towards home.  At this point Pie, who had been anxious and nervous, completely lost his mind and would have bolted if he'd been able to.  There's a big difference between a horse who is nervous and worried, but still able to listen to you, and one who's mentally gone - Pie's eyes were blank and as big as saucers, his muscles were rigid and he was completely not with me.  I had my husband take the lead rope on one side of him while I held his bridle.  We managed to go a ways in that configuration but Pie was getting even more agitated - it was getting hard to hold him even with the bridle and he was determined to bolt.

So I turned him to face the playground and we backed - he backs really well which turned out to be a good thing.  I was able to keep him straight which kept him from turning and fleeing, although he was still focussed on doing that, and he had to soften his neck to keep backing which may have helped him mentally a bit.  We probably backed 200 yards by the time we were done.  The first part I had to use the bridle, and further on I was able to switch to asking him to back with the halter, although it still wasn't possible to turn him back towards the barn without him wanting to bolt.  Finally, when we were about 100 yards from the barn, he was able to stand still for a few minutes while we reassured him, and his eyes started to return to normal and his head came down a bit.  After that, I was able to turn him around and walk him back to the barn, first using the bridle and then switching to the halter and lead as he started to calm down a little more, and although he was still very nervous he was back with me again.

When we got back to the barn, I remounted and we walked around on the grassy area behind the barn for a few minutes - he was still pretty tense.  Then I put him away.

I'm still feeling sick to my stomach with stress.  I suppose I should feel good that I was able to get us back to the barn safely, but I don't really - there's nothing like dealing with a horse in full panic mode to get your adrenalin and other stress hormones going.  I had to get us back - there was no choice other than letting him bolt - and I did what I had to do but I'm still somewhat surprised that I managed to do it.  It's not an experience I'd like to repeat, and I expect Pie feels the same.  Not the best day for a ride with the wind and chill, and the dogs and screaming children didn't help.

My daughter and I were going to work on Drifter's lungeing this afternoon, but the wind's getting stronger and I'm just plain exhausted so we're rescheduling.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Regaining Confidence

Although my accident with Pie was almost 7 months ago, I'm still feeling the effects.  My confidence still isn't back to where it was, and I've been mulling over what that's all about.  Part of it, I think, is that, at age 57, I came face to face with mortality. When I had my kick-in-the jaw back in 2009 with Dawn, that made me realize that horses are big and that they can actually hurt you badly (I'm still having dental work done to deal with the effects) - don't ask me why but in all my many years of working with horses that had never really been something I was worried about.  It took me a while to get over that - it was months before I was comfortable handling Dawn's feet (although I did it every day) and a while before she and I could work well together.  Then when I came off Pie and was seriously injured and ended up in the hospital, that was a whole additional level of awareness of how badly you can be hurt working with horses.  My concussion was so serious that for the first couple of days I was in the hospital, no one knew if I would recover or have permanent brain damage - and this was despite the fact I was wearing a helmet - which ended up with a 4-inch crack in it.  (By the way, this isn't an argument against wearing a helmet - they can't protect you from everything - but if I hadn't been wearing a helmet, I would probably be dead or a vegetable - wear one every time - there are no excuses.)  Every time I ride now, I'm aware in a subconscious sense that at any time, no matter my level of skill, I could die or be permanently injured. This was never part of my awareness until now, and it's difficult to integrate with my self-image (deserved or not) as a competent rider and handler of horses.

* * * * * *
There are definate effects of this new "awareness", that I have to deal with and in some cases work around, in order to get back to working comfortably with horses.

One of my goals this year with my horses is to be persistant within each work session, making sure that I don't quit until the change I'm looking for starts to come through - that way the horse has something to take forward until next time (it's always fascinated me how much horses learn between work sessions - it's clear that they're consciously or unconsciously mulling things from one session to the next).  If the horse never reaches a point where he or she has "got it", at least in part, it's hard for links in the chain of learning to be built.  I also have to be sure not to avoid particular things just because they may be difficult for the horse, and have to be willing to let the horse try out wrong solutions until the horse himself comes up with the right solution - this is much more valuable than simply telling the horse what to do.  It's not the easiest thing to do, however, as I know from my ground work with Drifter - taking the horse outside his comfort zone (but not too far) and making sure holes in training are filled in sometimes results in some pretty ugly stuff until the horse figures things out and finds the place where comfort is available - that softness must always be continuously on offer.  There's a tendency (certainly true for me) to want to avoid struggles and stress, or just to get in there and "fix" things by demanding/telling the horse the answer - I think quite often we fuss too much rather than let the horse have the time and space to figure things out.  I think, however, that horses learn to find the solution and the security that there will be a place where things are OK partly through our giving them this space to do so, and this increases their confidence in us.

And then there's the struggle to regain my own confidence, particularly with Pie on the trail, and also with my ability to deal with Drifter's histrionics.  For me, this also involves taking myself outside my comfort zone, so that I can have the resolution of my anxiety level coming down again, and again - every time I get that relief it reinforces my confidence.  So I'm trying to set myself up with specific challenges that stretch the boundaries of my confidence, while building in some factors that will promote success - just like with my horses.  With Drifter, I'm getting some quality coaching from my daughter - who's got an exceptional eye for what's going on in the interaction between horse and rider/handler - so that Drifter and I can both progress together and find soft spots together.  With Pie, my anxiety is higher on the trail, so I'm got my husband going on walks with us - Pie appreciates his company at points where I get nervous and might make him nervous - barking dogs, fast-moving bicycles or children, minor spooks - so that I can calm down and give him confidence again.  Every time my anxiety spikes and I calm back down is a reward that reinforces my confidence - I want as many of those as I can get on each ride.  Today we were out for almost an hour, and both ended better than we started.

Slow progress, but we have to start somewhere and every step forward is important . . .

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Meaning of Work, Persistance and Letting the Horse Figure Things Out

Lisa had an interesting comment on my goals post - that I used the word "work" a lot in the post and that perhaps I'd lost the meaning of fun with my horses.  I'd say that's a pretty accurate assessment of where I was, although I've got more to say about the meaning of "work" later in this post.  For a long time, I've been going to ride my horses or do things with them with a feeling of being forced (by myself and my sense of duty to my horses), as well as a substantial element of dread - irrational fears of being hurt or even failing my horses by being unable to do what they need.  Pretty icky stuff . . .

So I've been deliberately not working (there's that word again) with my horses until I feel that it's going to be something I want to do - that I can approach without dread.  They're pretty happy eating hay and going to turnout and getting groomed, and there's nothing wrong with that.  But that's not why I'm working (that word again) with a highly reactive and very forward 14 year old Thoroughbred (Dawn), or a spoiled, athletic, mostly untrained 10 year old Quarter Horse (Drifter), or a good-minded but still very young and sometimes spooky 5 year old Quarter Horse (Pie).  I don't have these horses for them to stand around getting older - they're all nice horses and have a lot of potential, and if anything were to happen to me they all have to be well-trained enough to find good new homes.  Also, I have them to continue to improve my horsemanship skills - it's a daily challenge and one that stretches my limits and makes me a better horseperson.  None of these horses are easy, all for different reasons.

So I've been waiting and just letting my feelings be what they are.  Today was such a nice day - it got up to almost 55F, which is unheard of at this time of year - that there was nothing for it but to get out there and do some horse work (sure beats house work!), and I actually wanted to do it for the first time in a long time.  Now, as to the meaning of "work".  I know a lot of people may have negative feelings about that word, or feel that it applies only to paid employment.  I've always thought of work as anything I do intentionally, with focus and thought, with a specific objective.  That certainly applies to what I try to do with my horses - but that doesn't mean that it can't be a source of enjoyment, and yes, even fun.

So I was out there "working" today with Pie and Drifter (Dawn continues to be "resting", as they say in the theatre, since I'm out of shape and two horses was plenty for me today).  In the time we haven't been working, I've been thinking about what I need to do that hasn't been happening.  It's a pretty simple concept but one that's hard to execute in process - being persistent and not stopping until the change you are looking for starts to come through - otherwise the horse never understands what you're trying to accomplish.  I need to work - yes, work - long enough, and thoroughly enough, that we get somewhere and so the horse can feel a sense of deserved accomplishment and take the learning forward.  This is what I mean by getting the job done.  Lately, due to my residual issues from my fall, and my general reluctance to work with the horses, I've been leaving them hanging - not persisting until things start to improve but in fact avoiding things that are hard and only doing little, inconclusive bits of work.  I've been avoiding taking them outside their comfort zones - and doing this was one of my resolutions for the new year.

A long preamble to what was a very good day.  Pie was up first.  My intent was to do a couple of things with him - first, to work on advancing his training to lunge, second to do some walk/trot work where he got to the point of being responsive and attentive at the trot without fussing, any crow hops or other excitement, and third, to take some little excursions (100 yards or less) on the trail while dealing with any herd/barn boundness.  Lungeing is coming along - he'll now circle me in both directions at the walk without turning in, although I'm having to use pretty strong cues with the lunge whip to keep him going (he's clearly not very impressed by the lunge whip).  There's more to do on this, but I was happy with his progress today. The walk/trot work went well - we started in the arena but he wasn't happy with the sloppy footing, so we worked on the grass field behind the barn.  He started out pretty feisty, but we started with trotting in fairly small circles with lots of changes of directions (it's hard for a horse to buck or engage in other serious mischief under these circumstances) and just kept at it until he settled and concentrated - at that point our circles could get larger and we were able to add some straight lines.  Then we did some short forays down the trails away from the barn, using circles and serpentines to slow down his momentum and keep him following my lead.  We were both pretty happy when we were done.

Then Drifter was up.  He was pretty nervous on the cross ties, doing some calling and even pooping out of nervousness.  I did some running my hands gently down the lead line with him and that helped him bring his attention back to me, lower his head and calm him down a bit.  His hoof handling was perfect despite his earlier nervousness, and I am delighted to report that there was not one instance of nipping or mouthiness during our entire session. I tacked him up with a saddle, although I wasn't sure we'd get to riding today.  I had asked my older daughter - who is a very skilled horseperson - to help me out by watching what we were doing, particularly with our ground work, and giving us some coaching.   We started in the arena with my touching him all over with the dressage whip - he seemed unconcerned.

My daughter had me pay special notice to where his attention was, when leading, standing with me or on the lunge - if he got distracted, or wanted to sniff the ground (one of his studdy behaviors) to give a tug - not hard or sharp but intentional - on the lead to tell him "here I am, please pay attention" - this worked very well.

We moved on to lungeing, and various types of excitement ensued. My daughter said that, if I ask him to do something, say walk on the lunge line, and he decides to use a lot more energy that is necessary or than I asked for, by running in circles, bucking, attempting to take off (I managed to keep my feet under me and not get my arms ripped out of their sockets but it was a close thing a couple of times), just to leave him alone and let him figure it out, while rewarding him as soon as he did what I wanted.  Drifter is a very "histrionic" horse - all acting out - and just keeping quiet and being persistant, and waiting for him, gave him the space he needed to work it out.  This highlights an important point for me - although it's important to give the horse your undivided attention and direction, it's also important not to always "give" them the answer without allowing them the space to learn and even try out wrong things - a little like kids, I think.  The only correction he received was on the one occasion he changed direction without my request - I snapped him to a halt and got him going back in the original direction pretty quickly.  I was able to manage my body language pretty well and pointed my dressage whip at his shoulder if he showed signs (the head tilt is the early indicator) of resisting going forward and turning in.  On a couple of occasions, he got fairly annoyed when I caught him trying to turn in before he managed to do it - that provoked some of the exciting behavior.

She also pointed out that, when we were at a point where I was specifically asking him to trot, that he started out giving me a "resistant" trot - sucking back without forward impulsion, cramping his head up (which in him is a sign of balking/resistance), or tail swishing - which is just what he has been doing under saddle.  So part of his learning today was that only a couple of laps of good, forward, willing trot got the reward of my dropping my energy and asking for walk, with a couple of laps of that followed by a halt.  The footing in the arena was pretty deep and after about a half hour he figured out that just going along nicely got him the opportunity to come to a walk (which is what I initially wanted), followed by some quality trot and a halt (he still turns to face me, which is not what I want but hard to correct until we are ground driving) - much easier than careening around.  We did a couple of iterations of this, asking for walk, then trot, then walk again and a halt and then did the same in the other direction, but not as long as he was getting tired - we did get to a point where he had done everything well at least once in the other direction but my daughter said that if we'd kept going he would have started objecting since he was getting pretty tired and we didn't want to go there - we wanted to end at a point where he and we were all satisfied with what we'd done.  I didn't get on and I didn't do rope work with his legs today, but that was fine since he was tired and we'd gotten a lot accomplished.

My daughter says she's increasingly liking the idea of repeatedly presenting the horse with an exercise on successive work sessions to allow the horse to cumulatively learn over these successive sessions - this isn't at all the same as repeated drilling a horse in something it already knows, which I find to be fairly useless - it may reassure the rider/handler but doesn't do a lot for the horse.  So Drifter and I will be doing this lungeing work every session until he's got it down, and then I expect it'll fade out when it's no longer needed.  Due to his lack of training and that he's somewhat "spoiled" by prior handling, he's got a resistant/pissy streak.  A horse like this can't be forced to do things - it's a lot better if he can figure out for himself that doing them the way you're asking is actually easier for him - I guess that's the "make the right thing easy" part that often gets overlooked - if you do that you don't have to spend a lot of time making the wrong thing hard, since the horse takes care of that himself.

I'm delighted to report that both Pie and Drifter seem to have completely recovered from their bout with the EPM organism - both were sound and their gaits were normal and Pie is no longer sensitive to touch or grouchy (our vet/chiro thinks this may have been due to his peripheral nervous system rebuilding connections).  Tomorrow I'm busy all day, but perhaps some more (fun) horse work on Sunday . . .

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Pie Shows His Personality

Pie has really been showing his personality lately - he's a very curious, smart horse and it's fun to watch him now that he's feeling so much better.

He's been very interested in the goat lately - the goat lives in a pen near the stable.  Every time we go near the goat pen, he wants to stop and watch the goat. We were out on a hand walk, so I took Pie up to investigate further.  I wish I'd had my camera - Pie went right up to the goat, stuck his head over the fence (the goat had put his front feet up on the inside of the fence) and proceeded to thoroughly sniff and investigate the goat in a friendly way.  Then Pie actually wanted to groom with the goat - he was nibbling gently on the goat's shoulders - at this point the goat decided maybe Pie was a little bit big and walked away.

Yesterday and today, Pie and Drifter have been stuck in paddocks for the day - the paddocks are pretty big - about 100' by 50' - because the footing in the larger dry lot they takes turns in is too bad - it had gotten extremely muddy and then the mud froze solid with huge lumps and deep holes, making it almost impossible for them to walk.  Today, when I was visiting in his paddock, Pie made his desires know.  He's rarely a mouthy horse (unlike someone we could mention - Drifter, I'm thinking of you), but he reached over the gate and grabbed the lead rope of his halter which was hanging on the fence.  He shook the lead rope and dropped it, and then grabbed the halter and did the same with it.  The whole time he was doing this he was looking at me as if to say, "put this thing on my face and let's get out of here!"  It's supposed to be above freezing over the next several days, so we're all hoping to use the big dry lot again . . .