Saturday, June 30, 2012

Eyes on the Try

Now that I'm at a big barn - I think there are over 60 horses - I get to observe lots of people riding and working with their horses.  There are a few people of the school that think all horses are stupid and do the wrong things out of cussedness - those are the folks that yell, and smack and kick and jerk.  I'd act out of cussedness too if my people treated me that way, particularly if my rider was also making it really hard for me to do something by the way they were riding.  Sometimes they manage to intimidate the horse into doing what they want, but there's certainly no softness.  Then there's the people who think softness is about head set - they're the ones who saw from side to side on the horse's mouth to get them to drop their head and are then happy despite the fact the horse is braced from nose to tail.  Since none of the stuff at our barn rises to the level of abuse, although some of it's not very pleasant to watch, I don't interfere with these people or offer them advice - in fact I never offer advice unless specifically asked, which almost never happens.  I think people need to find their own way and are only willing to make changes in how they ride and interact with horses if they make up their own minds to do it.

Then there is a large group of folks who do want to do things differently and try to do that.  They would be of various schools of thought, mostly "natural horsemanship" based (whatever that term may mean).  They're well-intentioned, but it's interesting to observe where they struggle with their horses.  There are two things I see - they don't identify and reward the try in its small increments (although they may well reward a good final result), and they take their eyes off the objective - that's what I mean by eyes on the try.  And they tend not to break things down into small increments, but rather think of a task as only one big thing that has to be accomplished.  I think these things often keep them from getting where they want with their horses.

I have a lot of sympathy for all of these people, and certainly for their horses.  I come from a pretty traditional riding background, where it was assumed that horses wouldn't do anything unless you made them do it, and that's how I learned to ride.  I've personally done each and every thing I've seen these people do at some point in my horsemanship journey and I know how hard it is to realize that what you're doing isn't very effective and to make the changes in yourself that are necessary to make changes in your horse.

Take trailer loading, for example.  There are plenty of horses at our barn who don't load well, although they get plenty of practice (at not loading well).  You see the same pattern - handler struggles for half an hour or more to get the horse on the trailer, eventually the horse gets on and off they go.  Sometimes you see the same horses and handlers week after week - but that makes sense since if you do the same thing - if you don't change what you're doing you're going to get the same result.  What I see them doing is taking their eye off the ball by interrupting their trailer loading to "make the horse work" - usually by lungeing in a circle.  This comes from the "make the wrong thing hard" line of thought which is often misinterpreted and misused, in my opinion, by a lot of folks.  What in the world, from the horse's point of view, does lungeing in a circle have to do with getting on a trailer?  I can see the horse thinking "you wanted me to get on the trailer, and now you want me to lunge in a circle?  Fine, I can do that."  Mark Rashid did an excellent post that relates to the subject of taking your eye off the ball - it's called Six Degrees of Separation and I highly recommend that you read it - it talks about stuff we've all done with our horses.  This concept applies to everything - if the horse spooks, focussing your attention and the horse's attention on the object of the spook - but wait - what were you and the horse working on (say trot with good rhythm and forward and softness) when the spook occurred?  That's where your focus should stay - not getting distracted by the spook is the key thing.  Same thing applies to ignoring what the horse is doing that you don't want and keeping your focus on what you do want.  And interrupting the task to "make the horse work" sure falls in the same category of separation from what you do want.

Second, most people seem to have a hard time breaking a task down into small pieces and seeing and rewarding small tries to build a chain that leads to the end result.  I always feel like asking these people (but won't unless asked for advice) - how do you tell your horse that he's made a try in the right direction, and what would that try look like?  I think their answer would likely be something along the lines of "I'll reward the horse when he gets on the trailer" - but they don't even do that, they close him up and head out.  Identifying small tries and giving the horse a reward - I usually give the horse a walk-around break, both to reward the try and also to give the horse mental processing time - breaks in the work are so important for that.

So, trailer loading.  (Side note - if your horse doesn't give to pressure and doesn't lead and handle well on the ground, trailer loading is likely to be a problem.) Say one of the horse's favorite things to do is to pull back when asked to load.  In that case, the first try I might reward would be just standing in the vicinity of the trailer on a loose lead - however close - it might be 5 feet away or it might be 20 feet away, whereever the horse can do it.  Start with where the horse is and build from there. I would verbally praise the horse and take it on a short walk away from the trailer.  Then I might reward a lean in the direction of the trailer without pulling back - it might take a while to get this but I'd just keep on patiently asking.  Then one step in the direction of the trailer, followed by praise and a walk-around.  You get the idea.  (I think it's also important to keep building the chain and not just drill and drill and drill the things the horse already knows - I see a bunch of this at my barn too, particularly when it comes to groundwork - there are lots of people who do the same routine with their horses over and over again - the horses are bored and they and the horses never progress - but that may be where the people are comfortable at this stage in their horsemanship.) If you just keep the pressure on and ask for more and more and more, without rewarding the tries, how's the horse ever going to build a chain of small tries that leads to the end result?

So for me, keeping my eye on the ball - what I want the horse to do and nothing but that - and breaking down the task and rewarding the small tries - even small breaks are so important for this - are the key things.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Like Riding on Air and Three Fine Horses

I had really excellent rides on both Dawn and Pie this morning.

Dawn was up first.  Either her softness was really available, or my body was quiet and my hands allowing, or perhaps both - she was able to do some very nice soft walk and trot work, including lengthening and shortening work.  I started throwing in canter fairly early in our trot work to see how she responded to that - instead of doing a lot of trot work and then focusing on canter, I did some canter, then more trot, then canter for a while, then more trot, etc.  This helped her stay listening and responsive, rather than anticipating, and also energized her trot work - forward was really there which helped the softening.  I'd have to say that our canter work today was about the best we've ever done.  My seat was quiet, my hands were following and staying right at the point of resistance, and the result was that she was really carrying herself in a relaxed, lifting canter that also had plenty of forward.  We even got this to the right, which has been her more difficult lead.  No leaning or bracing to speak of, despite another horse being in the arena - she tends to be more tense when other horses are around but that didn't apply today, perhaps because I didn't care. The softening to the left was pretty good, and although we didn't get much softening to the right, the fact that she was able to carry herself in a relaxed canter was big progress - we have to have that before softening will be able to happen.  It felt really, really good - like riding on air.

Pie was up next - Red got his leg iced while I was getting Pie ready.  Pie and I also had a great session - we worked in the indoor mostly by ourselves, and had plenty of space to do lots of changes of direction  and big circles.  His forward and softening work at the walk and trot were just about perfect.  We worked a bit on walk/trot/walk transitions, working on maintaining the softness through the transition and also maintaining forward in the downwards transitions.  What makes the biggest difference is my posture - staying up with my head and focus and thinking forward - and being sure to cue for changes in gait by thinking the new rhythm and breathing through the transition.  Then on to canter.  Since we had the whole arena, we were able to do a lot of nice canter work - full laps and also large circles.  Pie's canter was really excellent today - he was able to maintain the canter well and there were many moments of true softness.  Most of the transitions were pretty good too.  He's developing a really lovely, round canter on both leads - there's a lot of elevation and power - for early stages of development of his canter under saddle it's quite nice already.  Again, I was able to just sit (while still riding but with minimal action other than breathing and allowing with my seat and hand) and he just carried me around with that lovely riding on air feeling.

Very nice stuff - there's nothing better than that feeling of a really nice canter when you're really with the horse - what I call riding "in" the horse and not just on the horse.

Red has decided that SMZs don't taste so good after all - I expected this to happen.  Each meal he's leaving some behind - more every time.  So I got some applesauce and now we're doctoring the taste of the ones he doesn't eat outright.  His leg is looking better every day.  He's got one more day of Banamine and the vet will be coming back on Tuesday to recheck him.  This afternoon his leg looked almost normal - if you didn't look very hard you wouldn't see any swelling. He's been very unhappy that he doesn't get to work like the other two horses do, and I think he's also jealous of the time I spend with them - and he lets me know by nickering constantly and  banging on his stall door.  So today, since his leg looked so good, I did a bit of lungeing at the walk to check that he was sound and got on him for a bit of walking around under saddle - he seemed to appreciate that a lot.   It was our first ride in 9 days and he behaved impecably - it helps that he's on full-day turnout. We walked for about 15 minutes and he was great.  His halt transitions were excellent and we also did some backing - the transitions and backing were both lovely and soft.  I had fun doing walk/halt/walk and then walk/halt/back/walk - the only difference was that I thought "back" with my body (the feel of a horse moving backwards and what your seat and hips do as that was happening) and it just happened - he seemed to easily make the distinction between when I was thinking of backing and when I wasn't - there were no other aids.  The same applied to halt/walk - I just thought of the rhythm of walk as it would feel to me if I were doing it.  We're disobeying doctor's orders by doing this, but I don't think it'll do any harm as his leg is looking so good.  I iced again just to be on the safe side.  Tomorrow, if he's still looking and feeling good, we'll do a little more walk work.

There's nothing better than having three fine horses!  Someone at the barn asked me yesterday which of my horses I like best, and I said that I really didn't have a favorite - they are each special to me in their own way.  Dawn is a mare of deep intelligence, brilliance and fire and takes every ounce of sensitivity and finesse I have to ride her well - she demands nothing less.  She's also become very affectionate with me, which I treasure.  Pie is sturdy and solid and willing to do anything I ask to the best of his ability - he's growing into a very fine horse and is already a great trail partner.  Red is a treasure - sensitive and fiery and deeply serious about what he is doing and about doing it well - he's becoming a true partner.  His athleticism is outstanding, and combined with his intelligence and try, we should be able to go far together.  I feel truly blessed.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Long But Good Day

It got hot today - 90F - but it wasn't too humid and it was breezy (although also very dusty due to our drought conditions).  My day started with an early-morning ride on Dawn.  We had an excellent work session in the outdoor arena, staying on the grass center rather than the sand track, which was just too dry, deep and dusty.  I concentrated on trying to offer a soft spot at the point of resistance, and we made some good progress at walk and trot, and did some nice transition work.  Then, for a change of pace, we left the arena and went out into the mare pasture - the rest of the mares were nibbling grass there - and did some trot and canter work there - I believe this may in fact have been the first time I've cantered Dawn outside an arena.  She did great and we did a number of good canter loops in the more level parts of the pasture.

Then it was Mr. Pie's turn.  I hiked out to the pasture to retrieve him and Red, and brought them into the main barn.  Our usual barn is the small barn, but it wasn't available during the day today as hard-wired fans were being installed by a two-man crew who worked all day to get the job done before the 100F temperatures we're expecting tomorrow.  Both boys coped well with being in an unfamiliar place.  Red was on cross ties so I could ice his leg and hock, and stood like a trooper.  His leg is looking better - there's no tenderness, the small nicks and cuts are no longer weeping serum, and the leg is not sensitive and isn't very warm.  There's still swelling, although only on the outside of the hock and lower leg, and it's now hard and not soft which means that it's probably no longer actively swelling.  Pie was tied to a ring down the aisle and also dealt well with the new environment.  Once Red was done with his icing and was turned back out, Pie and I had a good work session in the arena.  There was a lot going on - the arena isn't that big - one lady was doing groundwork with her horse, another lunge lesson was going on, the people installing the fans in the small barn were making terrible noises - clanging from the dragging of conduit and shrill noises from drilling into concrete, and one of the barn workers was dragging a grading attachment off a tractor in a turnout nearby, making loud scraping sounds.  Pie was nervous about all of this but I asked him to cope and he rose to the occasion - we had a very good walk/trot/canter session with lots of transitions and some very good canter work at the end.  I just kept my focus on what I wanted and that's what I got.

At 2 p.m. when the horses came in from turnout (they go out very early in the morning), I was there to be sure the 11 horses who are in the small barn went in the right pens to wait for the fan project to be completed - the barn manager couldn't be there and asked me to keep an eye on things.  Dawn was in a paddock opposite Red and Pie, who shared a paddock.  The two boys did very well together, eating from the same pile of hay, and standing very close together - this is wonderful, considering how hostile Red was to Pie last year.  Red got brought in at one point to have his leg washed and then had another icing session.  Dawn kept saying (politely) that there must be some mistake . . . My three got their dinners in the paddock, and Red ate almost all his SMZ tablets - I used some cocosoya oil to get him to eat the rest. The fans were finally done at 6:30 p.m., and Dawn and boys came into their stalls for the night.  Tomorrow it's supposed to hit 100F, so I'm glad the fan installation got done.

Tomorrow I'll bring my horses in early, and probably clean some wool felt saddle pads and brushes while the weather is hot and sunny. All is well . . .

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Poor Red

I brought Red in during the afternoon yesterday and put him on the lunge - sound at trot in both directions!  So I rode briefly, mostly at walk.  We did try a little trot, and he was happy about that, although when I lunged him again very briefly afterwards he was slightly short striding with the left hind when tracking right, but nowhere near as much as he had been several days before.

While I was groomed, I noticed that his left hind hock (same leg) seemed just a little bit swollen - it was hard to see but there.  He had a new small cut on the outside of the hock - it looked like he had received a glancing kick blow.  He already had a couple of other nicks and scrapes on that hind leg - looks like he's been mixing it up in the herd, probably to climb in status - he's been at the barn for about two weeks now so he's got the lay of the land and may be ready to make some moves.

This morning when I went to bring him in to ice his leg, his hock was very swollen - it looked like a melon, and the swelling had also moved down into his lower leg due to gravity.  It didn't seem too sensitive to the touch and he was walking well.  A sudden increase in swelling like this is always a cause for immediate concern.  Just by chance, our vet happened to be at the barn doing x-rays of another horse, so I was able to get her to look at him right away.  She said it looked like the joint was OK, but that he'd started an infection due to bacteria getting through the skin from one or more of the little cuts and nicks - effectively, he has cellulitis.

So we're on a banamine and SMZ antibiotic routine.  I'm to keep a very close eye on things, and if I don't see improvement within a day, we may need to switch antibiotics.  He's to have 14 SMZ tablets twice a day, and amazingly enough when I put them in his food dish he just ate them!  He doesn't get treats ordinarily, so perhaps he thought they were some sort of very odd tasting horse treat - he was making faces as he crunched them up.  I hope he keeps eating them - I put some in his feed for this evening - if not we can always resort to pasting, although that's no fun and a big mess.  I've also started him on some probiotics to fend off ill effects on his digestive system from the antibiotics.

Poor Red - he really likes to work and likes the attention that involves - he'll actually bang on his stall door to let me know that he wants to come out and do something together with me (even though I always ignore him when he does that and take him out later) - once we do something together, he's happy and just eats his hay.  I'll have to come up with some fun non-riding things for us to do together as he heals.   But considering the super hot weather we're about to get, that was probably going to be needed anyway.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Steady as a Pie(?)

A Pie ride, a Red and Pie story, and some more on finding softness with Dawn and Red adding in their part.

"Steady as a Pie" doesn't sound as usual as "steady as a rock" but that's what I mean.  Pie and I went on a two-hour trail ride with two other boarders and their mares - horses he hadn't been out with before and that he doesn't really know as they are in a different pasture.  He was great - better than great.  He led, he followed, he was unfazed by all the things we'd seen before on our prior trail ride - he didn't even look at the electric power substation, or the cars speeding by at the two road crossings, or at the bikes we met, and he didn't hesitate at all at the wooden bridge and just walked right over.  Even when one of the mares was apparently stung by something and leapt sideways towards him and started bucking - he didn't bat an eyelash.  But he was alert and responsive and seemed to be having a good time.  Good Pie!

A sweet story about Pie and Red - the guys who do bring-in in the afternoon tell me that they're often the last in and frequently don't want to come in - the guys have to walk out and hunt them down.  I happened to be at the barn one day last week at bring-in time, and as the guys were bringing in the last couple of horses from the gelding pasture, Red and Pie were nowhere to be seen - but look!  there they were, lurking under some trees about 50 yards away, and clearly not interested in coming in.  So I went to the gate and called "Red! Pie!" and they came running at a gallop - I was flattered . . . although maybe they were just hungry for dinner.

I often ride Dawn early in the morning as soon as the indoor arena is dragged - the footing is pristine and I can actually keep track of the figures I'm riding since they show up well if we're the only ones in the arena.  I like this routine with Dawn - she's my most challenging horse to ride and I need every bit of my attention and concentration to ride her well, and morning is my best time of day.  She likes being in the arena by herself - other horses can worry her since she is protective of her personal space.

I've been working with her, and the other two horses, on beginning to figure out how to ride all my horses the same, and developing my own style - the challenge Mark Rashid put to me.  I think it all comes down to how I present myself - to the horse and everywhere else - and what I want that presentation to be.  I think for me, one of the fundamental things is to internalize that you can't expect the horse to offer softness if you don't offer it yourself from the beginning - this has to do with how you approach the horse, how you halter it, how you groom and tack, and how you interact with the horse while you're riding, with your thoughts, your energy, your weight, your focus, your breathing and posture, your hands, seat and legs.  As Mark points out, being soft isn't about being tentative, or ineffective or indecisive - it's important to give the horse direction and leadership - a clear idea of what you're to be doing together.  Softness certainly isn't about overcuing or being too loud or just being an overly declarative rider - this means the live interaction between the horse and handler isn't there.  So, offering softness while directing and leading . . .  And one of the hardest things to master, I think, is continuing to offer softness when the horse is braced or not yet soft in return - what Mark calls "softening at the point of resistance".  I'll try to describe a couple of cases with Dawn and Red that may make clearer what I'm talking about - I'm fortunate with both of them that they are both super sensitive to everything - including energy and thought - and are perfect teachers for me in that they are demanding and precise (Pie is a bit more easy going about this sort of thing, but also appreciates softness, although he doesn't hold me to the same standard - although it's my job to hold to the same standard regardless.)

Another part of riding all my horses the same is not to fall into the trap that Mark decribes as riding your horse the same way the last person who had him rode him - since that's what the horse expects and most readily responds to.  The trick is to offer the horse a better deal - like Red, he may not be convinced at first that this is safe to accept - where the horse can continuously find a soft spot to be with you as you work.  Doing this is part intention and expectation and part execution . . .

Two examples . . .  Dawn and I worked on lots of things today - she can tend to get very revved up and braced, particularly once we do canter work.  My objective was to have her stay soft at all three gaits, and through transitions, and halting and backing.  With her, keeping cues minimal to the point of being just thought and breathing helps a lot, as does keeping relaxation in my body - the "minimalist" posting I worked on at the clinic is a big help - it keeps the tension out of my legs and seat.  And with Dawn, the "point of resistance" is often about rein contact.  When she braces on my hands, I have to stay soft - not brace back.  This doesn't mean there isn't pressure on the reins, but it does mean that my contact is alive, that I'm not pulling - I'm going with her - and that I'm offering a consistent place where she can find softening - I have to know what I want and offer it so she can find it.  I don't set my hands - that would be participating in the brace - I go with her although she can decide if the pressure goes up or down based on whether she goes farther away from softness or closer to it.  We made a lot of progress today - she seemed satisfied that her teaching was getting through to me.  The more consistently I can offer softness, the more consistently she can carry herself softly.  The hardest things for us right now are downwards transitions and canter - she's learned to brace in these, partly because of her downhill conformation, but that's not what I'm asking her to do - it's not how I'm presenting to her - and we're beginning to get there.  Every time she was able to soften through a downwards transition, or to maintain some softness for the canter, I praised her and we too a short break.  Left lead canter was actually pretty good today, and we got some moments in right lead, which is very hard for her.

Red has had a few days off - we think he tweaked his left hind ankle when we were riding a week ago in a very torn up arena (someone had been running horses loose in there before I rode) and he stepped in a hole and almost fell with me at the canter - he did catch himself but we think wrenched his ankle in the process.  We've been icing twice a day (using Ice Horse boots which I really like) and today I'll put him on the lunge to see how he looks - he looks sound at trot and canter in the pasture when travelling in a straight line but circles are the real test.  Today, I brought him in from the far pasture, by himself - he didn't even hesitate - and put his boot on in the arena.  His job was to stand there with me for 15 minutes and there were only two requirements - he was to stay an arms' length from me at all times (although I didn't care if he looked or moved around), and he was to respond softly to the lead if he put pressure on it.  This required me to pay attention all the time and offer him a soft place to be - he was praised and got face rubs for staying at the correct distance - I approached him, he didn't approach me, and this included no stretching out and putting his nose on me, and I instantly asked him softly to move out of my space if he got too close.  I also worked on offering him softness at the point of resistance if he braced on the lead - this meant, as with Dawn, that I didn't pull or brace against him, but followed with the pressure increasing the farther he got away from the soft spot and decreasing to zero as he found the soft spot.  He did really, really well - he stood well with me for 15 minutes with very little fidgeting or bracing, and then trotted and cantered off when I put him back in the pasture.

Hope that gives an idea of where we're going . . .

Saturday, June 23, 2012


I've been thinking about the challenges that Mark Rashid set me at the clinic that Red and Pie and I rode in about two weels ago.  He set me a couple of important challenges for the next stage of my horsemanship: ride all my horses the same - he also knows Dawn as she's been to prior clinics - and develop my own style - the two things are related.  Neither of these things are about technique - they're about feel, which means there are no longer any specific instructions about how to get there.  Here's the post I wrote about that during the clinic.  I've been pondering these directions from Mark and what they mean - I expect I'll be doing that for some time as I work to figure it out.

There are a couple of things I know are parts of this.  First, I need to always focus on the feel of what I want - the things the horse does that I don't want are irrelevant, and I need to always return my focus to the feel of what I do want so the horse can connect to that.  (This also does a nice job of removing emotion and reactivity to what the horse does from the picture.) Second, I need to always do the movement or action on the inside of me so the horse can connect to that and do the movement or action from the inside of the horse.  I need to stay at the "point of resistance" with each horse - I need to be there with a live contact and connection (even on a loose rein) so that I can give the horse direction and guidance - I need to be right there - this isn't about holding it's a further stage in allowing but without throwing away the connection.  And most importantly, it's about building softness into all of my life - breathing, posture, attention and how I interact with objects, animals and people - if it's not there in my life it certainly won't be there in my work with horses.

I hope this post doesn't sound like mumbo-jumbo - it certainly isn't that to me and there's real substance and content to what Mark had to say.  But it's beyond technique - that means I need to find my way, and that my understanding of these challenges will continue to develop and evolve - what I understand and "get" now may well be different from what I understand and get a year from now.

So what do these things mean to me now?  Riding all my horses the same - to me, this means I need to bring the same softness and feel to each horse and expect each horse to rise to my leadership and intention and make that connection that horses are so good at - I need to offer them a place to be with me and act with me where we operate as one.  Each horse will have things he or she knows or doesn't know and physical movements that are easier or harder, based on conformation or experience, but each horse should be able to find the same softness in me and the same leadership and direction, and each horse should be able to rise to the direction I offer.

Developing my own style - I think this means that I need to explore, and try and not be afraid, and feel free to find my own way of working with horses, building on the good training I've had from Mark and Heather but not slavishly following their examples.  I need to decide what things are important and not important, and what my priorities are with my horses.  It means I need to present myself to my horses in a consistent manner, and it needs to be me and come from me, and not from anyone else - the authenticity comes from that.  This is harder in that it is more nebulous and hard to define - the idea that one shouldn't just be a clone of one's masters is empowering but also scary too.

So, very good stuff to work on - it's all about working on me at this point . . . the horses will show me the way.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In Search of Softness: the Goldilocks Problem

While I was riding around on Red on day three of the Mark Rashid clinic, taking a break and talking with Mark, who was riding Baxter, Mark had some things to say about softness that really got to the heart of the matter.  Some of you who've been following along may remember that on day three, I had some difficulties with Red's walk to trot transition due to my overcueing him.  Same deal on the canter - I was doing too much holding and not letting him move.  As Mark said in the video in the previous post, some professional neglect was in order - I was giving Red way more help than he actually needed.  Mark and I were discussing the question of getting softness right - the right amount of cue (thought, energy or physical cue) - and also getting the timing and the feel right.  So often we cue, miss the horse's try (or a question - "is that what you mean?") and go right away to a bigger cue - no wonder the horse gets aggravated with us.  (That's why the "ask them, tell them, make them" schools of horse training bother me - they assume the human actually pays attention and notices the horse's question and tries, which isn't the case a lot of the time.) You get what you give - if you overdo things, you get a response that overshoots the mark, or you get resistance and bracing, or a horse that complies but isn't happy about it - there's no softness on the inside.

But there's an interesting problem - I call it the Goldilocks problem.  The trick is to get it right - not too much and not too little.  I think of it this way - either we're ineffective and tentative:  "Maybe we could go over there?", or we shout: "GO OVER THERE NOW!!!", or we get it just right: "Let's go over there together, taking this path and at this speed and with this softness."  Our horses' responses to case one might be: "You don't really care so neither do I" or  "Now what do you want me to do?"; to case two: "NO WAY!! STOP YELLING AT ME!" or "Here you go" with buck, bolt, pinned ears, bracing, etc.; to case three: "We'll go there together with softness."  If you offer softness, you get that in return.

Mark says that when many people start out trying to find softness with their horses, they fall on the side of doing nothing, or too little, and don't provide their horses with adequate leadership and direction (leadership and direction have very little to do with dominance, or being a horse's alpha).  Wishy-washy or hesitant or just waiting to see what happens isn't softness any more than overdoing things and getting too big (when it isn't needed) is softness.  But overdoing things - being too assertive/directive and overcueing as I was doing with Red, was just an error in the other direction. As Goldilocks found - too cold, too hot, just right . . . Here's the rub - how do you tell the difference?  Goldilocks could and so can we, I think. My conclusion is that it's a matter of focus, feel, timing and experience.  It can't be programmed, it can't be packaged or marketed, it has to be lived, one horse at a time and one ride at a time.  And you have to feel it - and know when you feel it that it's there.  Once you've felt it the feeling is unmistakeable.  And it's a lot bigger than just horses - although that's big enough - as Mark says, it's about how you act and carry yourself in the rest of your life - if your breathing and posture and focus and attention - your softness  - aren't there in your non-horse life, how can you just expect to turn it on when you're with your horses?  The trick is to build it in so it becomes automatic, everywhere.  I think for the human half of the horse/human partnership, it's a matter of hours - hours in the saddle and working with horses.  It's a matter of increasingly close approximations - a beginner can only do a rough cut, but it's better than where they started.  An experienced rider can learn to pay attention - to really pay attention and focus on what you're doing and the horse is doing (trust me this isn't easy) - and can have the physical skills - of seat, hand, leg and most importantly intent and energy and breathing and focus - to begin to lead the horse with softness so that the horse and human can do the work together with softness.

I'm on the road . . .

Monday, June 18, 2012

"Professional Neglect" - a Video

Finally, I managed to upload some video from day three of my ride on Red at the Mark Rashid clinic.  It's about a three-minute clip.  Mark is sitting outside the frame to the left - that's his horse Baxter whose hindquarters are on the left side of the screen (note that it's very unusual for Mark to sit down during a clinic - but it was the last ride on day three and he was recovering from pneumonia).  Red's bolt occurs when we switch directions to the right, but I was proud that we recovered and just kept on cantering.

The title of the post is "professional neglect" - it's a phrase Mark uses during the clip to indicate that I should be doing less - the line between giving the horse direction and leadership and overdoing things is a fine one, particularly with a super sensitive horse like Red . . .

Here's the video - enjoy!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Pie Leads the Way and Red Plays Soccer

Today was a three-horse day - and I spent almost 4 hours in the saddle, and lots of wonderful stuff happened, so things couldn't be much better.  I started out in the early morning riding Dawn.  We worked in the indoor on her being able to start off soft at the walk - some progress on that - our consistency is greater.  We also did some very nice trot and trot/canter/trot work in both directions - some of the transitions were pretty nice.  A nice rinse off and a bit of hand grazing to follow . . .

By the time I was done with Dawn, two other boarders were getting ready to go on the trail and asked if I'd like to come along.  I said yes and hiked out to collect Pie.  After a minimalist grooming - saddle and girth area, flyspray and foot picking, we were ready.  It was Pie's first long trail ride at the new barn - we were out almost two hours - and he did exceptionally well.  He was with two geldings he didn't know well - they're in a different herd - but he was happy to be with them. He led, he followed, he trotted in company in front and behind, and he dealt really well with everything we encountered.  He even led the way across the wooden bridge over the creek when the other horses didn't want to cross (he'd never seen it before but just did it because I asked) - he was a little nervous but marched right across.  We encountered several bicyclists - he was slightly nervous for the first one but was indifferent to the others.  When he got a bit tired on the way back, I got off and walked with him for a while.  He seemed pretty happy to be out and around.  Although it was pretty hot, he showed no signs of heat stress, and I also noticed that he wasn't sweating a lot on his neck - more on his hindquarters - this means he's using his body more correctly as the parts that are working the most tend to sweat the most.  Pie got a rinse and a hand graze before I turned him back out.

In the late afternoon, I rode Red.  Today was his first full day out with the other geldings, and when I went out to collect Pie I noticed that Red had a new friend - he's been sticking close to Pie but today he was staying with another gelding - a big bay who's pretty dominant in the herd.  When I had Red ready to ride, some other boarders had a large ball in the ring and were showing it to their horses.  There was also a platform for horses to cross, and one boarder was working with her horse to get it to cross.  Red did not seem worried about any of this.  I mounted up and we started our work.  The large ball was unattended for a bit, so I rode him up to it.  He clearly knew what to do with it - he lifted a foreleg and gently pushed it.  We rode all over the ring, herding the ball in front of us.  He seemed to really enjoy this - it made for a great walk warm up.  We then went on to have a very nice walk/trot/canter work session.  There were numerous very nice transitions, and his canter was balanced and relaxed.  After we were all done, and he'd had a rinse and a hand graze, we went back into the ring.  The platform was not in use, so I led Red up to and over it - no problem.  I also raised and lowered the big overhead door - his eyes got big but he stayed put on a loose lead and took it all in stride.

There's nothing better than a good day with three horses!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Pie Takes On the Trail

I had three - no, make that four - great rides today on my horses.  Dawn started out my day.  We worked on something that's been an issue for us for a while - when I take up contact as we're walking, she tends to brace upwards and it takes a while to get past that.  I worked at taking up contact with softness, and redirecting a brace, if there was one, by using one rein to tip her nose.  None of that awful sawing on the mouth that you see some many people doing who think that this means they're getting their horse "on the bit".  We made a lot of progress - I was sure to give her bigger releases and a relaxing walk around each time she got what I wanted.  These little things are so important, I think - how you take up contact and how the horse responds, that first time, color the rest of the ride.

Red and I had a nice ride - there were lots of horses in the ring, and he coped very well.  We even did some very nice canter work.  When I turned him out at noon, and went to check on him, he was grazing peacefully right next to Pie.

Pie and I had an excellent work session this morning - lots of work on "just working" - Pie is very fit and we need to really work, with my expecting him to to rise to my requests.  He did very, very well, and seems to be adjusting very well to the new bit.  When I went back to the barn - I live only about a five minute drive away - to pick feet and top up hay and water, one of the other boarders asked if Pie and I were ready for a trail ride - I took a deep breath and said yes.  So Pie got two work sessions today - he's very fit and it wasn't a problem and he'll get a day off tomorrow.

I saddled him up (my Western saddle and I also wore my body protector - call me a wimp but it gives me more confidence on the trail, which is good for Pie and for me) and off we went.  First we scouted one of the far pastures for the grazing muzzle her horse had lost, and we actually found it.  Other than trying to grab grass - which was very tall - Pie was great - I think he enjoyed having a job.  Then we went on the trail outside the pastures, which goes a far ways.  Pie was a star - we won't be turning down many trail riding invitations (except from those who go in for out of control galloping)!

Happy Birthday Dawn (a Few Days Late)!

Dawn turned 15 a few days ago - she says she is now a "mature" mare, and worthy of even increased respect.  This post is a tribute to a very special mare. Our family has had Dawn for over 10 years now - Lily came to us at about the same time - and only Norman-the-pony has been with us longer.  My older daughter rode Dawn briefly, then my younger daughter (who was 12 at the time) started riding her.  They had many happy years together - my younger daughter only rode bareback, and loved to gallop on the trail, so that's what she and Dawn did together.  They had their number of thrills and spills together, but this photo shows how close their relationship is:

My daughter has been away at college for three years now, and as a result, I "inherited" Dawn.  This wasn't something I would have chosen - she's an incredibly sensitive mare, and as Mark Rashid said at the clinic last year, "not an easy ride" - she's been to a number of clinics with my daughter and once last year with me. Our relationship didn't get off to a great start - she kicked me in the jaw in the fall of 2009 (pretty much entirely my fault) and I was pretty tentative around her for a while.  She's been known to bolt (and there's a fearsome buck that comes with the bolt - Mark says she used to be the "lightspeed mare"), and I'm getting close to 60.  I really wasn't sure I was up to riding her.

But it turns out that having to step up and work with Dawn was one of the most important things that's happened in my horsemanship in years.  She's taught me as much about softness and relaxation and using thoughts to direct and cue, as any horse could - she's my teacher, one of my best.  She says I still have a lot to learn, but that at least I'm trying!  She's quick to validate when I'm riding more correctly - she rewards the try.

So, in honor of a very special mare, here are a few of my favorite photos of her.

Napping and very sleepy:

The "look of eagles":

In her winter coat, with the lovely black velvet nose:

Happy birthday, Dawn!

Monday, June 11, 2012

Red Flags His Tail and Pie Does the Floppy Fish

It was another wonderful day with horses - hot, and and increasingly humid, but we all had a good day.  Dawn and I started out the day with a lovely early morning ride in the outdoor.  She got pretty sweaty and had a rinse off and a hand graze. Then it was Red's turn.  He had to cope with a number of serious distractions.  We tacked up in our barn aisle - he was by himself and called a few times but settled well.  The barn aisle we're in sits under the large shed where shavings and hay are kept - then he had to cope with the tractor banging and scraping above his head as it collected shavings for delivery to the stalls.  When we went into the arena, two men were working on the barn's electrical system - they was a tall ladder with a man going up and down, wires being pulled and laid on the ground and various noises.  Then the tractor started delivering shavings to the various barn aisles off the arena - much banging and crashing, followed by a leaf blower being used to clear shavings and dust out of the aisles.  And there were horses coming and going, and for most of our work session Red was alone in the arena.

We just did our work, and I did no ground work first - I just got on.  Whenever he became distracted or worried, I just softly asked for his attention back.  It took a while for him to settle, but we ended with some just lovely trot work, with a lot of softness and engagement, right in the middle of all that commotion - it was like we had our own quiet island.  Red also got a rinse and hand graze, and coped much better with the wash stall than he had the last time we used it. Then I rode Pie.  He did well with the new bit and was very forward.  At one point he spooked a little - the type of spook where they splay their feet - and then he did what I call the "floppy fish" - you know the movement a fish out of water makes.  Sometimes when he spooks he does this in reaction - it's not really bucking or crow hopping, but the feet and body sort of thrash around for a moment.  We just kept right on working and he did well.  It was very hot for him today - heat index in the upper 80sF when we were riding - so we kept our ride short, and he also got a rinse.  Pie and I should be able to do some longer and more consistent work sessions over the next week as the weather cools down.

In the afternoon, Red got to go out with the gelding herd for the first time - it's been almost a year since he's been in herd turnout.  I let Pie out first (I'd kept him in his stall after my ride for this purpose), since all the other horses were out of sight in the back pasture and I wanted Pie to show Red where to go.  After Pie took off at a canter up the hill leading to the back, I let Red go.  He started off in his big trot and then flagged his tail and galloped off after Pie.  Another boarder and I walked back to check how the herd was doing - everyone was grazing peacefully and Red was right next to Pie.  I wasn't at the barn at bring-in time, but I heard that Red led the herd in at a gallop with his tail flagged.  It must have been beautiful - the boarder who told me said she'd wished she'd had her camera.  Red seemed tired and happy this evening.  Tomorrow we'll add an hour to his grazing time, and keep adding time until he's out full day.

Some of you may remember that this is the anniversary of my accident last year - this year the day was much better!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Two Good Days

Yesterday, I worked with all three horses and it was very good.  Dawn and I had a lovely early-morning ride, involving much cantering.  I used some of the things I learned at the clinic - letting go with my lower back, and breathing regularly, and she liked it.  I also tried shimming her saddle with the front Mattes pad inserts, layering them and inserting them under the saddle, and this worked well, as it had with Pie.  Dawn's softening work was much more consistent, and her canter work was lovely - we even did some very nice loose rein canter - a first for us.  Dawn got a day off today, as it was even hotter than yesterday.

Pie and I had a groundwork/lungeing session yesterday - he was in the halter and line, but I had him wear and carry the new Rockin S ported snaffle that we had tried out on the third day of the clinic.  He was very sassy - we had some grunting and scooting, but he settled down and worked well.  By the end of our session, his mouth was much more quiet.  Today, due to the heat, we didn't ride, but we did some walking around on a halter and lead with him carrying the bit again - his mouth was even quieter.  Tomorrow I'll try riding him with the new bit and see how we do.

Red and I also had a groundwork session yesterday - we did some leading work in the indoor, so he could explore all the doors and corners, and the viewing room.  Then we did some lungeing work.  He did very well - there was only one small scoot/bolt and we kept on working.  We did a fair amount of work at the canter, to be sure he could breathe correctly (one breath per canter stride) and organize his leads correctly - it took a bit in the first direction, but when he'd gotten it and we switched directions, it hardly took any time at all to get a good canter with good breathing.  He dealt well with lots of distractions - all I had to do was ask him to come back to me and work and he did. In the afternoon yesterday, I took him up to the outdoor arena for a bit of grazing - it's grass in the middle and a sand track around the outside.  He did graze for a bit, and then took off running - he did laps on the sand track in both directions, at high speed, with some bucks and leaps thrown in - he seemed to really enjoy the opportunity to move.  Today I did a few minutes of ground work, which he clearly didn't need, and then just got on and rode in the indoor arena - our first ride at the new barn!  I followed Mark's advice and just rode Red the way I want to ride all my horses - I expected the best of him and that's what I got (if I'd gotten anything else we would have just worked through it). We had a very nice medium leng|h work session with good walk and trot work and transitions.  I focussed on my breathing, letting go in my lower back, using my improved method of posting (just letting the horse's hip lift me only slightly more than in sitting trot) and using only energy and breathing as a cue for upwards and downwards transitions - it made everything so much easier for him and me. He coped with being tacked by himself in the barn and having horses come and go in the arena - he was by himself with me for a good part of it.  I was delighted!

Very good days indeed!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

2012 Mark Rashid Clinic Videos

I have some video from day three of the clinic - there may be more video taken by another clinic participant, but I don't have that yet.  The day three video unfortunately included no useable Pie footage and also stopped before the bolt by Red, but there are some good bits that show the type of excellent work Mark does.  There is, of course, also some great Red spam which I've also included - watching him move is almost as much fun as riding him.

First, here are some great examples of how Mark works.  The first one relates to the trouble Red and I were having with our walk/trot transitions - Red was leaping into trot, or even canter.  Mark immediately identified the problem as my over-cuing - Red is the sort of horse who really doesn't need physical cues - thought and energy are all that are needed.  Here is Mark demonstrating how to cut down a cue, and then cut it again, and then again, and finally reduce it to a thought:  cutting the cue video.

Here's Mark giving me what I call the "no excuses" lecture - it's a pretty powerful message for all of use who work with horses:  no excuses video.

And here's an example of the sorts of things Mark notices - I apparently have an unconscious "tic" that interferes with my breathing and therefore my riding:  keep breathing video.

And now on to Red spam.  This first short video of trot also shows the "watching my shadow" behavior Mark was talking about in the previous video:  Red trot video.

The next video is of Red doing his lovely trot, including partly on a loose rein:  Red beautiful trot video - (at the end you'll hear Pie whinny and one of Mark's dogs barking - my dog is sure there's a real dog in the house somewhere!).

And finally, a clip of Red's canter - this was before I made some adjustments to improve his canter - keeping breathing, not leaning and watching my shadow, and thinking about making his footfalls lighter (no cuing involved, just thinking) which made it even better:  Red left lead video.

Hope you enjoyed these - I'm hoping there will be more!

Friday, June 8, 2012

2012 Mark Rashid Clinic Day Three: Pie and Red

On the third day of the clinic, I came out and told Mark that places that used to hurt when I rode (my lower back) felt just fine - this was wonderful, since my lower back has been hurting for years - since I'd let go of the bracing there that I'd been practicing for years my lower back was much happier.  But because of that, an area between the bottom of my ribs and the bottom of my shoulder blades was now sore - Mark said these muscles were having to adjust to my change of posture.  I now need to work on my shoulders, which still tend to carry tension - at the end of the clinic Mark demonstrated to all of us some shoulder stretches that can be very helpful - all they take is a resistance band or even just a lead rope tied to a solid structure that you hold as you do the stretches.

Mark and I also had a conversation about how important it is to build softness of intent and feel, and correct breathing, and good posture, into your life, every day and in every circumstance.  Horsemanship cannot be separated from your life - it's all the same thing - and you can't be and act and hold yourself differently in only your horsemanship and expect it to be effective.  If you build it into your whole life, it'll then be there and available in your horsemanship without your even having to think about it.

Pie and I did some walk/trot/halt/backing work and Mark said that it all looked very good in terms of how I was using my self and riding.  At that point I stopped and asked Mark about Pie's bit.  I said he was doing a lot of mouthing, and even some gaping and there was still the slightest indication of bracing at certain points.  I said the bit I was using was the best option I could find, but it might still be giving him issues.

Mark looked in Pie's mouth and said that when his mouth was closed, although the bit I was using was giving him good tongue relief - Pie has a huge tongue - it was also in contact with the roof of the mouth since Pie also has a pretty low palate, and it looked as though the bit was starting to wear the ridges on the roof of the mouth. (Regular snaffles can also do this in horses with low palates.)

Here's the bit Pie and I have been riding in - the version I was using was without the slots for the headstall and reins:

Here's a picture of the bit Pie and I tried out:

Interesting, no?  It looks sort of the same, but sits and operates in the horse's mouth completely differently.

A note about merchandise.  Mark really isn't into selling merchandise - no special halters, leads or other goods.  He does sell his books and videos, but they're rarely available at the clinics.  The only exception he's made on his website are a couple of bits - one that he uses a fair amount - the regular Rockin S snaffle bit - and the ported version shown above.  Here's a link to Mark's website with an explanation of how this bit came to be - Mark designed it in collaberation with the designer of the orignal Rockin S snaffle to solve a particular problem - horses with large tongues and low palates.  That would be Mr. Pie.

So we did the rest of our work session in that bit.  As is typical with horses trying out this bit for the first time, Pie did a lot of mouthing and tongueing of the bit - Mark said no other bit he'd ever been in would have felt the same.  For a while we just walked and trotted around without much contact to allow him to figure out how it felt - it was interesting that on a loose rein his posture was different - he was letting go in his top line and stretching down, which is new for him.  Once he was quieter in his mouth, I started taking up contact and asking him to work.  Immediate big change - there was no bracing and the contact was very alive and soft and Pie's movement got bigger and more engaged.  A note - this bit does not work for many horses - some don't care and some actively hate it.  We did some very nice work and the transitions were much improved.  At the end of our ride, his mouth was already quieter than it had been in the other bit, and a lot of the time his mouth was completely quiet - and Pie's facial expression was much happier too.

We went back to our canter work of the day before.  Pie immediately took both leads correctly, and was able to really carry himself well at the canter and there were intervals of real softness and balance - this was due mostly to my letting go of the bracing in my lower back, but I think the bit helped as well since he could carry the soft contact without intervals of bracing.  He's still finding his balance at the canter with a rider, but things were much better.  At the end, Pie got a bit tired and had trouble taking up the left lead even after a number of tries.  Mark said he was just too tired, and to take him right and let him canter on the right lead which is what he could do at that point, and that's where we ended.  Mark wasn't worried about the leads, and there's no point in forcing a tired horse to do something he's struggling with - there's no positive learning in that.

In the afternoon, Red and I had a good and interesting session.  For some reason, I came out a little bit too energized (too much caffeine?), and started out by overcuing Red for our upwards transitions.  I started to attribute this to Red anticipating canter after all our canter work the day before, but Mark corrected me and said not to make up stories or explanations about what the horse is doing - first figure out everything you yourself might not be doing correctly - the softness has to come from us and then the horse can connect to that. There were some pretty big hops and leaps into the next gait - Red was saying "jeez, tone it down, will you!" - he doesn't suffer fools gladly.  Mark came over and held my lower leg and had me practice reducing, and reducing and reducing my cue until it was only the energy of the thought.  Once I got things dialed back down, Red did fine.  Mark said again that everything was working very well - Red's movement was if anything more extravagent and engaged than the day before.  We had a couple little hickups at the canter and one pretty good bolt - he spooked at the same area of the ring as the day before and just took off (man, that horse is fast!) which I interrupted pretty quickly and we just kept right on cantering as if nothing had happened.  As usual, Mark didn't care about the bolt since it wasn't what I wanted and the canter was.  I was able to let go with both my body and not hold him back - even immediately after the bolt which I felt good about - and the canter was very good on both leads. (I asked Mark after the clinic about the bolting (not to focus on what I didn't want with Red but just out of curiosity), and Mark said it could have been the reflections off the windows of the trailers parked along the ring, or it could have been a shadow from the corneal ulcer Red has in his left eye that is still healing - it wasn't anything I was doing.)

We ended up on some lateral work - leg yield at the trot, alternating directions as smoothly as we could.  Red had an easier time moving right - with moving left, he could take a few steps but then would lose the back end - Mark said to support the front a bit more but also worked with me on my timing of discontinuing the movement the movement and riding forward.  Forward has to always be there, and if by supporting the front end forward motion was being inhibited, then trying to force the back end over with your leg just made everything bracey and ended the movement with what I didn't want.  Instead, he had me softly support with my hands but then ride forward before the back end got left behind - if it was only a couple of good steps that was fine - the important thing was to end with what you do want, not with what you don't want, and never get into pushing and pulling.  Over time, those few good steps will build into more good steps.

Mark said that I'm certainly capable of effectively riding Mr. Red, even though he's a little powerhouse and very, very sensitive.  I attributed most of the progress I've made over the last year to Heather and also to Miss Dawn mare - Mark knows Dawn well and calls her the mare whose only speed at canter was lightspeed - helping her to learn to relax and not brace or race has really challenged me in a good way.

A very, very good clinic, and Mark's set me some important challenges for the year to come.  (And there's video - after I trailer home this morning, I'm looking forward to fun viewing and editing . . .)

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

2012 Mark Rashid Clinic Day Two: Pie and Red

Today was an amazing day in many respects.  Much cantering, and lots of good learning.  Before we started our work session today, Mark had some things to say to me - he was sitting on his horse Baxter - a big paint gelding that had been a rodeo pickup horse and came to Mark with many issues - and me sitting on Pie.  Mark said two things to me - first, that it was time for me to start riding all of my horses the same, and second, that it was time for me to develop my own style of working with horses - more on each of these below.  None of this is about technique, and it's about me, not the horses - although the horses are affected by me and how I ride and work.  He said this is what I'm ready for based on how I am riding now - I was able to make big changes in how I rode and how the horses worked with very small adjustments to my riding - and this is the next stage in my horsemanship.  A comment - things are moving for me in my work with horses way beyond technique or specific training objectives - it's more about horsemanship from the inside (of me and the horse).  I'm not there yet, but I can see where I'm going.

So what does this mean?  The idea of riding my horses the same is connected to the idea of keeping your focus on what you want, not on what the horse is doing that you don't want - the idea is to have a consistent presentation of intent and feel to each horse at each moment.  I've been edging up on this with the bleed-over of my softening/allowing work and transition work with Dawn, Pie and Red, where things I was doing with one horse started to have immediate application to another horse.  Mark says I need to take it one step further - he pointed out that I've been watching him on numerous horses over the years and that all the horses end up with the same softness and "quality" of behavior and movement regardless of breed or origin, but always taking into account what they know or don't know or are more or less physically capable of doing - the idea is consistent presentation (by me) without losing the individuality of the horse.  Heather is the same as Mark in this respect. This has nothing to do with being programatic or training horses with cookie-cutter methods, or failing to ride the horse you have today, it's about presenting yourself to horses in a consistent manner so they can rise to the occasion.

Mark says that I need to ride every horse, every time, with a consistent presentation of intent, energy and feel (and softness) that I want, and that this is specific to each horseman or horsewoman - it's important to develop your own style and not just try to imitate your master teachers - it has to come from you and evolve with you - the goal of each good teacher is to have the student surpass them.  You (I) need to develop your own consistent style of presentation of intent, energy and the feel you want from the horse, every time, with every horse.  You may be doing different exercises with each horse depending on what they know or need to learn, but the presentation should be consistent and you should end up with horses that are each able, with their own personalities and abilities, of responding to that presentation of yourself in a consistent manner.

It's a big job - Mark said I should spend time thinking it over.  Mark said that it's often the case that people end up riding each horse the same way its prior owner did - since that's what the horse knows how to do and so we just fall into that rut.  We can present more to our horses than that, and in a consistent manner.

After that big conversation, we got down to work.  We confirmed that I could still carry out the letting go in my lower back and shoulders (and hence seat) that we talked about the day before, and that my transitions were working, both up and down, with breathing and flow, and that my horse would immediately give me the forward I wanted.  Then we worked with Pie at the canter - I've cantered him a bit but not much.  Mark said that I shouldn't worry at all about him taking the wrong lead - horses that have mostly done cantering in a round pen often do this since they're looking for the security of a wall/fence and often take the wrong lead in a big open arena like the one we were working in - just softly come back to trot and ask for canter again until you get the correct lead.  This will dissipate with time and experience on Pie's part - a great example of completely ignoring what's wrong and keeping the focus on what you want.  As long as I made sure to let go in my lower back/shoulders/seat so I could follow the motion, Pie's canter was great and we even got some very nice softness.  He also made a point that with a young horse like Pie who hasn't done a lot of canter work under saddle, that preparing for canter - visualizing the feel and softness of what you want, focussing outwards and upwards and then asking - will really help him out, and as he gains experience the time frame for this will get shorter and shorter until all you have to do is think the new rhythm and you'll be there - this is where Red is already.

And a tiny, very cool thing - I've been having trouble with how Pie's saddle fits/shifts during the work.  It's an About the Horse trail saddle, with good should flare and the appropriate tree size, and it fits in the front at the shoulders, but Pie has a dip behind his shoulders just below the withers, and as we worked the saddle tended to move back and then dip down in front - not good.  So today I took two thin front Mattes pad inserts and put them between the Diamond wool pad and the underside of Pie's saddle - but just behind the shoulder - where I could feel a gap when I slid my had between the pad and the saddle - and they worked wonders - the saddle stayed put and level and Pie was able to work with a free shoulder and without my weight on his forehand.

In the afternoon with Red, I had another very good session.  We confirmed all of our halt/walk/trot transition and softening work - everything was very good.  We worked some on refining my rising trot - you know how the sitting trot, if you're allowing your back and seat to move in a relaxed manner, has a side-to-side up/down movement?  Well, rising trot has that too - instead of working to rise, just allow the horse to lift you as the hip moves up - it makes it immediately possible to tell without looking what diagonal you're on (!), no matter how smooth the horse's movement, and if you just let the horse lift you rather than working at posting, you end up with a posting trot that is just a slightly exagerated version of the sitting trot and where your connection to the horse is much closer.  A small thing, perhaps, but a big revelation to me, and the change in the quality of my horses' trots in response was amazing - we were participating together in the trot.

Red and I had one big spook with a sideways/forward bolt across half the ring - something in the trees, I guess - I lost one stirrup, got him turned and took my stirrup back and just kept on working at the trot. Mark made no comment - he doesn't care about what the horse is doing wrong but only cares about what you want the horse to do.  I didn't intend for Red to bolt, so Mark and I just ignored it and kept right on working.  With Red's canter work, we concentrated on getting me to let him move out - he's got a powerful, very big canter and if I hold him too much he can't move correctly, so Mark just kept coaching me to let him go forwards with soft contact and no constraint - I need to ride him as the horse I expect him to be (in a positive sense).  We also got some very nice downwards transitions, including canter/halt.  I had been concerned about getting the timing of my upwards canter cues (thinking the rhythm and then exhaling) in time with the hind feet, but Mark says he doesn't worry much about that any more - instead he says the rider should just focus on the rhythm and feel in their mind and let the horse take up the connection and organize itself to execute the movement.  This makes it a true partnership - we offer up the feel and rhythm and the horse takes us up on the offer - it feels rather great and it removes the worry over getting the timing of cues correct.  (Of course there are movements - like flying lead changes - where getting the timing of our thoughts/breathing correct make a big difference.)

I am so fortunate . . . tomorrow we ride (some more)!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

2012 Mark Rashid Clinic Day One: Pie and Red

It was an amazing day - Pie and Red and I made great progress - mainly due to some changes in me that allowed them to better be able to do what I was asking, but before we get to that . . .

One thing I omitted from my post about the pre-clinic demo discussion was interesting and important.  Mark asked us a question - in the gradations of martial arts belts - from white (the lowest) to black (the highest), which belt is most likely to injure someone else?  He said it's the brown belts, the level just below black belts - they know all the techniques but haven't yet got the feel, which makes them dangerous, and not in a good way.  Makes you think about horses, and trainers, and training horses . . ..  The other thing he said about black belts is that some people think of that as an achievement/status symbol, but that all it means is that you are a serious student and responsible for those you are working with and preventing injury to them - it means you are humble about what you know and what you may need to learn next . . .  Like many experienced riders, I'm at risk of being that brown belt with all the technique and not enough feel . . .

Where to start about today?  Well, Pie and Red and I worked on transitions.  Our softening work at walk and trot is pretty established and consistent.  But the downwards transitions - trot to walk, trot to halt - weren't as fluid as I wanted and there was a tendency to lose forwards and to have the horses fall on the forehand.  Upwards transitions could be sticky with Red, particularly in the beginnings of our work sessions, and both Pie and Red tending to bring their heads up, and even brace, through upwards transitions.

As I suspected, all of this was due to me and my body mechanics.  Some fixes, some attention by me, and things were enormously better, not after hours and days but immediately - talk about positive feedback!  Through the downwards transitions, I was not breathing properly and locking up in my lower back, which affected my shoulders and arms, with the effect that I was "cutting the horse in half" and inhibiting their ability to engage the hindquarters and do a good transition.  Attention on regular breathing - from the belly, not the upper chest - letting my lower back continue to move and thinking the new rhythm and exhaling, and we didn't have good downwards transtions, we had glorious downwards transitions - engaged, flowing and forward (even into halt), without any increased pressure on the reins, change of posture/leaning or any physical aids at all.

And as Mark points out, having a mobile lower back means your seat is much more secure - he says he himself might well have come off in the sort of spook/spin that Pie did with me last June, but that having a relaxed lower back gives you a much better chance of being able to respond and go with the horse if a horse makes a big move.

Upwards transitions - halt/walk, walk/trot, and halt/trot - only needed two things - first I had to know exactly what feel I wanted through a transition and in the resulting gait, and I had to be clear about asking for it - no dilly dallying around.  Mark says we often "negotiate" with the horse about what we're asking for - "trot" and the horse says "um, not yet, maybe in a few steps" - that little bit of resistance is due to our lack of clarity.  We worked on "NOW" - this is not at all like the usual ask, tell, make that you read about, but much more leading the horse with our thought and being focussed on what we want - so if you ask for trot and you don't get it that instant, don't wait and futz around, go instantly to a secondary aid, before the horse's thought of not doing what we intend fully forms  - which could mean just slapping your boot with the end of the reins.  It isn't that the horse is being resistant, it's that we're not clear enough with our leadership.  Ride like you mean it from the first step of each ride and get ahead of the horse's thought and provide leadership.

There was a second refinement to my upwards transition from walk to trot that pretty much put an end to Red's tendency to hop or push his head upwards.  This is related to the following/allowing hand I've been talking about.  Mark says that a horse who is carrying himself softly will naturally draw the head backwards just slightly as the effort for upwards transition occurs - I was allowing a slight loss of contact when this occurred which created an opening for Red to go upwards with his head - all I had to do was to maintain my soft contact by bringing my elbows back a fraction of an inch as we transitioned and his head came slightly back - no loss of contact and no pushing upwards.  Mark describes this as the "point of resistance" - you are just at it, not past it, so if the pressure rises due to a brace you're in a position to immediately redirect.  It's active, breathing, living, softness - a live connection through the reins that's in balance - not a brace and not an abscence either, and it immediately responds to what the horse does and offers.

Combining these changes with just breathing and feeling the new rhythm in my head led to smooth, effortless transitions with both horses, and it felt oh so good.  One additional thing that relates to this - we often ask our horses to move their feet in a particular way but we're not moving on the inside ourselves - we need to feel the movement in our own bodies (what would it feel like if we went from trot to walk, or did a leg yield?) - and then communicate that feel to the horse and do the movement together with the horse.  This is how thinking the changes of rhythm in the upwards and downwards transitions works, and allows these transitions to be effortless - no leg aids, no seat aids, no rein aids and no stopping the motion - believe me, it's a special feeling of oneness with the horse since the horse feels what you are thinking and just does it too.

A big theme for me today was to focus, not on what you don't want - what the horse is doing "wrong", but on what you do want and what that feels like - just focus on getting that and a lot of the "wrong" stuff will fall away.  Mark says we often spend too much time finding things that are wrong and then trying to fix them as opposed to reinforcing/building on the things that are right.  Too much focus on what is wrong distracts from what we are trying to do - the thing that is right - it takes our eye/mind/body off the ball, and often just leads to reinforcement of the wrong thing since that's where all our attention is going.

Another thought - don't try to do everything at once - do one thing at a time.  With Red, we had two things we were working on - getting an immediate upwards transition without a gap between intention and act, and on getting a transition without his head going up.  Trying to work on both at once would be fruitless and confusing to him, so do one at a time - we got the immediate transition first, letting the head position go, and then refined what we had by working on my maintaining the feel in the reins through the transition.

We worked on my applying/removing aids with softness and smoothly, not abruptly - it's OK to be decisive but abruptness can create braces.  This applies to everything, including how you pick up the reins to how you apply and take off aids for such things as leg yield - Pie and I were doing this exercise where you leg yield a few steps in one direction and have that flow into leg yield in the other direction with no interruption - it's all one movement - the key is smooth and soft application/removal of leg aids and stepping laterally in your own mind.  The whole thing should just flow.

Another important thought - if you have a history with your horse, or know your horse's past history, and there were issues/problems there that are no longer active because you and the horse are past them, just let them go - don't let your horse's past define how you think about/ride the horse now.  Although good horsemanship requires that we be able to deal with whatever comes up - and sometimes old stuff does reappear - it's more important to be riding the horse we have today than the horse we had last year.

One final point from someone else's session - breathing deeply - from the abdomen, not just the top of the chest - is the key to releasing fear that is trapped in the body, for both horses and people.

Mark commented that my riding was greatly improved - I credited my work with Heather for this.  Mark said my intensive riding and work had prepared me to be able to make the really big changes in my riding fairly easily, with immediate improvements in both horses in response, in just one day - now I need to work to internalize this learning so it becomes part of my riding.  I told Mark that until now, many of the concepts he'd been discussing - the feel, the point of resistance (following/allowing hand), the breathing and thinking the things you want and doing them yourself instead of using physical cues - were things I heard but never really was ready to understand until now. Maybe coming off of Pie last year, and the work I've done since. was the best thing to happen to my riding in a long time . . .

Tomorrow we're cantering . . . stay tuned!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Pre-Clinic Conversation with Mark Rashid

Mark Rashid usually does a demo the evening before the clinic starts - no horses, just people - often involving exercises to explore the concepts of flow, energy, bracing and softness.  This clinic we had a conversation, with some moments of illustration, since most of us had worked with Mark before and the only people who hadn't ridden with him had participated in a demo he'd done at Equine Affair in Ohio this year.  He invited questions, and the discussion went from there.

It's interesting to have ridden with Mark for 10 years now - his thinking and presentation of concepts continue to evolve.  He's increasingly focussed on mental/inside the horse/rider issues and less on technique, although of course that comes up.

Some of the questions/topics:

  • Meeting a brace (either a push or a pull) with softness so that the motion can continue and be directed, instead of being blocked.
  • Mental softening rather than a physical release - keeping the connection while providing softness.
  • Just think what you want to do and go do it - like when you rode as a kid.  We humans tend to overcomplicate and lose our focus.
  • We often don't direct and lead the horse with our minds, we just react after the fact.  It's your intention and purpose that direct the horse much more than your aids.
  • Keep your mind focussed on what you want the horse to do, not on what the horse is doing (that you don't want the horse to do - this is just a distraction).
  • The physical cue is just an immediate secondary cue that reinforces the mental cue - the thought of what you want the horse to do.  Physical cues aren't really needed once you're clear what you want and the horse understands - I've certainly found this to be true.
All really, really good stuff that's just the thing I need right now.

Tomorrow we ride . . . !!!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Cantering Maniac, and New Mark Rashid Clinic Dates

The cancelled Mark Rashid clinic in Cedarburg, Wisconsin has now been moved to June 21-23, with a demo on the evening of June 20.  Due to the rescheduling - Mark had pneumonia - there are some rider slots available.  Contact Deb Goelz at or 262-375-3844 to find out more details or reserve a rider slot or preregister as an auditor.

Pie and I will be leaving for the June 5-7 clinic tomorrow mid-day.  There's a demo at 6:30 p.m. that I don't want to miss - it usually involves only the humans at the clinic and demonstrates some very interesting and important energy/flow/intention work that really benefits the clinic participants.

Dawn and Pie and I have been working on cantering.  I feel like a cantering maniac . . .  Dawn and I have been working on my allowing her to move forward at canter, and on my mental cuing.  Progress is being made - we'll ride again tomorrow morning before Pie and I load up.  Pie's also been doing canter work - his canter is big and sweeping and very nice, but he's still learning to carry himself and still tends to want to invert rather than soften.

Things to work on at the clinic - cementing Pie's softening work at walk and trot, transitions, and progressing with our canter work.  With Red, working on my dialing down cues to nothing but energy and thought and making sure I move through the transitions to eliminate the last trace of his bracing . . .  It's going to be great . . . I can't wait - will try to update from the clinic as I can.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Dawn and I Do the Mind Meld

I had a very good ride on Dawn today - good one on Pie too.  They both had a well-deserved day off yesterday.  Dawn and I did a lot of very nice walk and trot work and then focussed on trot/canter transitions.  We did a lot of nice canter work - she's still pretty braced to the right but to the left she was able to do some steps of softness.  I worked hard at just letting her move - allowing the canter, without holding her too much - she needs to find her own relaxation and I need not to hold and constrain her.

But the really amazing thing was that all of our trot/canter transitions were done through "mind meld" - you know, the Vulcan thing.  All, and I mean absolutely all, I had to do to get canter was to think 1-2, 1-2 for the trot and then 1-2-3 for the canter - the instant I changed the rhythm in my mind, she cantered - no physical aids at all.  Pure delight - I just had to be careful to not let the canter rhythm enter my mind until the exact instant I wanted canter or else that's what I got.

We also worked on regaining relaxation in trot after each canter set - we're getting there and she's starting to understand that she doesn't have to gallop when I ask for canter . . .