Thursday, May 30, 2013

Lesson with Mark Rashid (with Pictures)

Yesterday I had the wonderful opportunity to have a private lesson with Mark Rashid.  I've been riding with Mark now for more than 10 years, but don't get to ride with him more than once a year, and sometimes not that often, although I try to audit at least one clinic every year.  He's been more of an influence for the better on my riding and horsemanship than anyone other than my horses themselves.  I've come a very long way from where I started, but one of the wonderful things about horsemanship is that you're never done - every day and every ride is an opportunity to learn, and practice what you've learned, and listen to what the horse is saying.

Last year at about this time I rode both Red and Pie in a 3-day one-on-one clinic with Mark.  I couldn't ride in Mark's clinics this year due to the conflict with my daughter's college graduation, but the chance to have a private lesson came up and I jumped at it.  Last year, Mark gave me two assignments - to work on developing my own style, not just imitating my teachers, and to ride all my horses the same - to present them with the same true me, from the inside, and to have in mind a consistent way of going and being for all my horses - the same feel, softness and connection - it isn't about the horses being clones or having exactly the same physical attributes or abilities, it's more about how we relate and work together and the feel and appearance this creates.

So that's what I've been doing this year, with Dawn, Red and Pie - riding, riding, riding and riding some more - 100s of rides - in search of my own style and way of riding all my horses.  This spring, I began to feel things coming together - I've made some additional changes in my position and way of riding, and made some decisions on how I wanted to present myself to my horses and what I expect of them - I think this is what Mark meant by riding all my horses the same.  It's all about consistency of expectations and feel.  When I told Mark that my only lessons this year have been given to me by my horses, he said that they are my best teachers at this point, and that my riding had gotten better since he'd seen me this time last year.

I specifically asked for my lesson with Mark to be on a horse I've never ridden before - this would be a very good test of what my style is and how consistent I am in presenting myself to the horse - would I be able to ride another horse the same as I now ride Dawn, Red and Pie, and have the horse respond to that?

So off I went to Wisconsin . . .  We lucked out on the weather - it's been rainy and storming on and off for days, but it was warm and sunny.  Fortunately, their arena dries very well after rain and was in good shape.

Here's my horse - her name is Whisper - she was a rescue about a year ago and has been receiving training since then.  She has learned the basics, but isn't a finished horse and is still fairly green - for example, she's done very little canter work so far and was described to me as having a "baby canter".  She was very sweet and snugglable - isn't she pretty?

I just went about my riding, as if she were any of my horses, and Mark chimed in with advice from time to time.  As we were walking, I immediately established the forward I wanted from her, and then made sure we had that from the first step in each halt/walk transition.  (Mark: make sure you do what you want (say a walk/halt transition) inside yourself first then ask the horse to do it.)  Whisper was a little bit heavy in my hands, so we did some backing to get a proper feel of each other going.

She started out very braced while backing, and although I was getting some good steps, getting it continuously was hard.  Notice two things about this photo - her feet are stuck, and my elbows are sticking out.

Mark commented that I was asking her to back, giving her a release after each step and then having to start all over, and that I was carrying muscular tension in my arms.  He told me to shorten my reins, which brought my arms and hands into a better position, and to give her a consistent soft spot to find by not moving my hands.  Pretty soon, the backing was working pretty well, and as I tested it from time to time as we rode, it just got better and better.  By the time we were done, she was backing just like Red, Pie and Dawn do - all I had to do was barely pick up the reins and feel "back" and she softly stepped back.

Walk work, once we had backing sorted, came together very quickly.  I just kept asking her for the feel of what I wanted.  We did lots and lots of turns and figures - just like I'd do with my own horses - until the softness was well established.

Turns are a good test of connection.

Trot work was next.  She started by offering a shuffly trot but I wanted a better, forward, more engaged trot, and she was able to deliver, and the shuffly trot was gone for the rest of our ride. She's a little behind the vertical here but moving very well, and the head position stabilized itself pretty quickly as she moved better from behind.

She looks very nice here.

This is I think my favorite photo - my hands are soft, she's turning very nicely, stepping under herself behind as we turn, and I'm looking where we're going.

We struggled with our canter work for a bit, and it was all due to me. I started by asking her for too much self-carriage and softness in canter - she wasn't ready for that and I just needed to let her move and ask her to keep moving.  I was doing too much to "help". And I had to keep breathing (Mark: if you're out of breath at all, you're not breathing properly and this blocks the horse's motion - breathe in for 4 seconds and out for 5 seconds no matter what you're doing.).

Things got better - they said this was the most canter work she'd done since they got her.

Here I'm just letting her move out.

This is a bit better - we're more relaxed.

We ended with some final, lovely, fluid sitting trot and beginning leg yield work - she hadn't done any lateral work to speak of before.  In this trot picture, my pressure on the reins is just about zero - just a live connection.

In leg yield, all I was looking for was a step or two on each pass - just the slightest movement under and to the side.  Mark had me do less and less - no pushing with my legs or leaning with my body - just present the thought of what you want - and although Whisper still wasn't entirely sure since she hadn't done this before, she did her best to respond and we got some nice steps before we were done.

Whisper is a good example of how horses go the way they are ridden - if I'm braced, or tight, or blocking, or not breathing, the horse will be braced, tight and not moving well.  If I'm breathing, soft in my body, focused and presenting the horse what I want with my thought, and giving the horse a consistent soft place to find, the horse responds.

Mark asked how this all felt.  I said that, once I got some things sorted out with his help, she rode just like my other horses - I had achieved my goal of riding all my horses the same - and he said "funny how that works."

I asked him what my assignment was for the year.  He said, "less is more", in all aspects of my riding.  He said that when your horse is struggling with something, it's almost always because you're doing too much.  He also says that he thinks of using the core as just using your own core - not trying to "do" the bringing of your core to the horse's core or of getting the horse to connect.  Just present the thought and feel of what you want and let the horse do the job of making the connection with you - horses are very good at this and this job belongs to the horse - if you offer the horse a consistent, soft place to be and let the horse find it this involves a lot less doing and lets the horse be part of the equation - it becomes a partnership rather than you doing something to or with the horse.

I am very grateful to Whisper - I told her frequently what a fine mare she is - and the folks at Black Star Farm and Mark for giving me this opportunity.  I got just what I wanted out of my lesson - a lot can be accomplished in an hour, and now I have my assignment for the year.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dawn is Neurological (Again) and Pie Does Well in the Morning

Yesterday I noticed that Dawn was showing some signs of neurological impairment.  She's typically a very square horse - she normally stands with all four legs at the corners.  Yesterday she was standing on the cross ties with her front legs slightly splayed and with the hinds every which way.  I also noticed when I was bringing her in from the pasture that she was forging on almost every step - catching her hind toes on her front heels - this also isn't normal for her.  Then, when I picked her feet, when picking up one hind she rotated on the other hind to stay balanced.  This is all similar to the symptoms she had last year with EPM.  We did ride, but only at walk and trot, and she was somewhat shuffly in front and almost tripping.  We didn't ride too long.  When I got off, I did some quick neuro tests and she didn't care at all where I put her front feet - also abnormal for her.  She's being blood tested on Thursday for EPM (again) - I suspect a new infection as she only had one phenotype last year and there's another she might have caught.  Another horse at our barn recently tested positive, and Pie's titers are slightly elevated (8-8-8, when his normal has been 2-2-2), although he's not showing symptoms the way Dawn is - we think he's reacting to reexposure to the organisms but doesn't have an active infection (he previously had infections with both phenotypes).  Just for good measure, Red's being blood tested too - he has been dragging his left hind toe to the extent that he's getting abnormal wear on the toe, and he's reluctant to stay in canter - this could well be due to his hocks - but otherwise feels normal.  I rode Dawn today, but only briefly and only did a little trot - she's very shuffly - even more than yesterday and riding her didn't feel that safe.  When I turned her out, she was tightrope-walking - swinging her front legs to the center line with each step - this is abnormal for her as well.

The good news is that, if it is EPM again, which I suspect in Dawn's case, it's now pretty easy to treat.  Keeping fingers crossed . . .

Pie and I had a morning ride today - I'm short of time this afternoon and want to get in as many rides as possible to practice before my ride tomorrow with Mark.  I don't think I've ever ridden him in the morning in the indoor arena - he went on the trail in the mornings a couple of times last year. Pie came in willingly from the pasture - no stopping and starting - I think all the core-to-core work we're doing is building a real connection between us and everything seems to be easier.  He was grazing near Red, and I held my hand up to Red and told him to "stay", and not follow us up to the barn - and, for the first time ever, he stayed put and didn't shadow us.  He did call to Pie a couple of times, but Pie didn't reply.

It was busy at the barn - the guys were cleaning water buckets and also taking the big tractor up and down the aisles to dump shavings on tarps to be dragged into the stalls - all of this was visible to us as the arena doors to the aisles were open.  Pie was looking at everything, and a little bit nervous about it all, but settled to work very well.  His trot work was outstanding - his forward, engagement, softness, straightness and bending couldn't have been better.  The core-to-core riding I'm doing now has made a dramatic difference in his way of going, and being, and the way we are together.  Just plain delightful!

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Happy (Belated) Birthday to Red!

Red turned 12 on Thursday, so I'm only a couple of days late.  I've had him for just over two years, and the changes in him have been dramatic.  I thought when I got him that he had the potential to be a fine horse, and he's turned out to be a great one - it took a fair amount of work to get here but it's certainly been worth it. He's still very alert at all times and interested in his surroundings, but he worries a lot less and settles down to work readily despite almost any level of distractions.  He's got a lot of try, which is something I highly value in a horse.  Our past two rides illustrate how great he is.  Yesterday, we were riding by ourselves in the indoor - the doors were open - while horses were screaming and galloping in the adjacent pasture in full view - a new horse was being introduced to the pasture, but her buddy was inside in a stall.  Red was on his toes and well aware of what was going on, but he settled right into his work.  Today we did a lot of core-to-core, ending with some turns at the trot - circles, serpentines, loops, you name it, using direction from my focus and core alone - no use of reins or my legs.  It was splendid.

So, in honor of Red, a few favorite pictures.

Here he is playing the "stick game" - he tries to get the other horses to play without much success, and will sometimes carry sticks all the way from the back of the pasture to the gate.

He's certainly turned into quite the hunk - that's Pie in the background:

He's always friendly and curious - I think his star looks a bit like South America:

This picture is probably the best match to his true color - his mane is lighter and his tail is darker:

That's my Red!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Like Warp Drive . . . and Some Exciting News!

I have been starting to apply what Dawn taught me Saturday (see the prior post).   I've now had at least three rides on each horse trying to use the core-to-core feel.  I can tell in my body that I'm doing something different - on Saturday I hurt under my ribcage and I couldn't figure out what that was all about - but then . . . I realized I was exercising my core in a way I hadn't been before.  Right between my shoulder blades hurts too - my posture is having to get more open and, and although I've been working on my posture all year, 50+ years of very bad posture takes its toll and getting rid of some of the last bits of that hurts as things stretch and rearrange themselves.  The soreness is starting to get a bit better - and one nice side benefit is my stomach is already starting to look a bit flatter!

But all I can say after my experience so far with core-to-core is . . . wow . . . and a big thank you to my wonderful horses who teach me so much.  The feeling of this is incredible, and the results are amazing.

I'm trying to think of other/better ways to describe core-to-core and how I "do" it - although it's more like "be" it - and the feel of it.  To do it, I have to "settle in", both mentally and physically.  I do this, as we're doing our walk warm up, by concentrating on the feel of the horse as the horse moves, and try to duplicate that same feel in my own body, making sure I follow and "go with".  This concentration on the movement and feel of the horse has a meditative quality. If my focus strays, or I lose the feel, I just gently bring it back - the same thing if the horse's attention or feel of me strays.  Once I have that "going with" feel, I try to extend that feel to the horse's hind legs - my goal (I'm not fully there with this although the moments are more frequent as I practice) is to feel the horse's core and hind legs as if I were the horse - to become the horse's core and hind legs.  I think at some point I'll be able to expand my awareness to more of the horse, but the core and hind legs are key and I'm starting with that.  Sometimes I can feel the core but lose the hind legs - but I can't feel the legs without feeling the core.

As we finish our walk warm up, I add in some small circles, serpentines and/or simple leg yield, still at the walk, to test our core-to-core feel.  Once that's working well - it's usually immediate if the rest of the warm up has had the connection - we move on to trot work.  The good thing about working from a feel - trying to replicate that during a ride and from ride to ride - is that once you've got it, you know (in a feel rather than intellectual sense) what you're looking for and finding it becomes easier.  Much easier than following a list of "dos" - aids, cues, etc.  Feel doesn't come from that, it comes from . . . feel.  This of course means it's darn difficult to describe in a way that makes sense to others.

Anyhow . . .

For those of you who are Star Trek fans, having my core connected to the horse's core and hind legs is like having warp drive (as opposed to impulse power) available - it's a completely different state from not having it and enormous power is available.  As I'll describe in a moment, this takes less is more to a whole new level.

One of the nice things about joining my core to the horse's core and hind legs is that I can't do it if my position or posture is wrong, or if I'm bracing or blocking - the core to core connection evaporates and I'm left with my aids and cues operating on the outside of the horse.  (There's nothing wrong with that and a lot of good riding can be done there, but, to extend the Star Trek metaphor, that's impulse power only.) To get the connection back if it's lost, I have to lift and open my posture, focus up and out where we're going, maintain softness in my body so I'm with and "in" rather than on the horse, and softly engage my core.  This also has the benefit of straightening me out, which directly affects the horse's ability to move and balance.  I've discovered that I've probably been previously dropping my right seat bone, making my right leg longer than my left, with my heel down farther on that side to compensate, since my stirrups were level.  Since I was used to that, sitting straight means I started to have trouble keeping my right stirrup - but that's pretty much gone away after a few days. The core-to-core engagement also reduces both the horse's and my distractibility and using it can bring us back together after a moment of distraction.

It's pretty darn magical - the horse just softens and rounds up, coming up and through me.  And I'm not holding with my hands or pushing with my legs or seat - I'm just there with the horse and can ask the horse to do anything in terms of energy or movement that I want.  The horses are telling me how good it feels by responding so dramatically - I expect they appreciate not being pushed or pulled or blocked.  This is just one good example of how willing our horses are to meet us halfway if we offer them the best we can - they've got it all available for us if we can just tap into it.  Of course it still comes and goes, and sometimes we fall out of core-to-core and end up using our aids and cues as backup, but since it starts with me and I'm working on presenting that feel to the horse more consistently, the percentage of time in core-to-core is increasing.  Since the objective is to feel the horse's core and hind legs as if I were the horse, the horse is ready and willing to mirror that feel back to me if I can connect with it.  In core-to core, there is really no need for cues or aids - seat, leg or hand - if you think about, horses don't need to cue themselves to do the things they do on their own, and all we're doing with core-to-core is connecting into the engine of the horse and directing the energy and feet by using our joined core to lift and direct the whole horse through the hind legs.

The interesting thing has been that, while riding in core-to-core, the issues my horses and I have struggled with pretty much evaporate. Back to front connection is built-in, since we're directing our back legs from our core, so straightness, lateral work and bend just fall into place by stepping the hind legs where they need to be.  Dawn used to have trouble travelling straight when tracking right - no more.  Pie used to fall in around corners and have trouble maintaining a consistent bend on circles - no more - his circles when we're in core-to-core are geometrically perfect with no effort on my part.  Pie can also carry himself beautifully in soft, round canter much more consistently - he's still developing the muscles in his core that are needed. Red used to fuss on canter transitions - now he lifts effortlessly into canter from the walk when I use our core to step the hind legs into the first canter stride.    In fact, all transitions are much more balanced and easy. We can bring our energy level up and down by just thinking that jointly from our core.  And in fact the whole horse can lift from the core and back an exact number of steps, just from our core.

Now, I'm a long way from being in that place consistently, but what I've felt so far is pretty wonderful, and my horses are cheering me on, which is a big help.

* * * * * *
My (very) exciting news is that I'll be taking a private lesson with Mark Rashid on Wednesday, May 29, up in Cedarburg, Wisconsin.  Mark is doing two back to back three-day one-on-one clinics in southern Wisconsin before that - starting today - that I can't even audit, much less ride in - I have a (very important) conflict - my younger daughter is graduating from college this Friday out of town.

The private lesson with Mark will be a great occasion for me to test how far I've come on the tasks he set me at last year's clinic - to develop my own style and to ride all my horses the same.  I'm going to be riding a horse I've never ridden before, and trying to apply what I've learned in the past year from my three horses - particularly core-to-core.  Riding an unfamiliar horse will be the perfect way to test all this all out, and I'm very excited and also grateful to Mark and the clinic hosts (my trainer Heather and her family) for making this opportunity available to me.  Stay tuned . . .

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Core to Core

Dawn and I had an outstanding ride this morning.  Even though Dawn is no longer as physically capable as my two boys, and even though she's got her limits - she hates riding around other horses and I don't choose to ride her on the trail (although at this point in our journey she might well be OK) - she's still one of my most important masters in the art and practice of horsemanship.  By this I mean that she's my teacher, and often shows me the way to a new understanding of how to more effectively work together with a horse, any horse.

Today she and I worked on using our core.  My position, the horse's position, our ability to move together and to communicate through thought and energy comes from our core.  I'm using "our core" in the singular because that's what we were working on today - connecting my core to her core so that they were one thing, together.  This is much more a matter of thought than it is of physical action, although to achieve it I have to be moving with the horse without any blocks or braces.

I'll describe what we did and see if it makes any sense to you.  As we were riding, I would mentally "lock in" to her core - it's a bit like me sinking into her and her rising up into me - so that we became one unit.  Then to achieve what I wanted us to do together, we used our core to feel what the hind legs were doing and change that if necessary.  Our objective for today was to activate the hind legs to get more engagement and lift at the trot, with our core engaged so the the trot would as a result be soft and round.  As we were working, we took breaks, still trotting, where the trot wasn't quite as engaged or elevated - this work was strenuous for her.  We also took a number of loose-rein walk breaks.

With our cores connected, all it took to change the engagement and elevation of the trot was to change the feel of our energy flowing to the hind legs.  Transitions to and from trot came from our energy. We also did some shortening and lengthening of trot just by changing the feel of our hind legs.

Dawn responded beautifully to my attempts - she's an exceptionally fine teacher, although I believe all horses can be if we're prepared to listen.  She and I did some of the most beautiful, engaged, round, soft trot work we've ever done together.  We only worked for about 20 minutes of trotting, which was enough considering how strenuously we were working.  The proof was in the freshly dragged arena dirt - there were entire series of hoofprints where we'd been using our core to activate the hind legs, with no toe dragging by the hind feet at all.

A big thanks to a wonderful mare for doing so much, so often, to improve my horsemanship!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sometimes Stressful to be Red . . . and Staying Ahead of the Curve

Lisa from Laughing Orca Ranch made a perceptive comment on the last post - she said that it must sometimes be stressful to be Red.  I've been thinking about that, and about different horse personalities and the suitability of those personalities for different people.

Red is a very interesting little horse - I call him my little red horse (his nickname is Red Man), since he's the shortest of my horses at about 15 hands, although he probably outweighs Dawn (who's about 15.1 hands) by several hundred pounds and is very muscular and well-built - he's certainly littler than Pie has turned out to be - Pie's matured into quite the tank and now is about 16 hands (and I certainly hope he's stopped growing).

Red is actually a bit of a marshmallow - very sweet and interested in people, and loves to socialize and find out what's going on.  He's extremely curious about everything and everyone, and is particularly curious about other horses and what they're up to.  He's extremely intelligent - in fact all three of my current riding horses are. He's quite affectionate and is very protective (and possessive) of Pie and seems to be quite attached to me.

But he's also got a strong personality - he's very dominant in the gelding herd, although not nastily aggressive, and he can have strong opinions and also makes his views known - he's not reticent about expressing himself and he can decide he wants to do something without any input from me - to go see someone or something, for example.  He's capable of saying no - to going somewhere he doesn't want to - wash stall and trailer come to mind - but since I'm patient and also persistent, we get through those situations a lot faster than we used to and I expect they'll be non-issues in due course.

He's also by far the most vocal of my horses, in lots of different situations - Pie only nickers for food and rarely calls for other horses, and Dawn can affectionally nicker to me but she doesn't do it that often.  Red talks constantly - to other horses and to me.  And he really doesn't like being ignored - he likes attention.  He's the only horse I've ever had who will leave his food and demand to come out of his stall to do something with me - and he never gets any treats.  He stands at his door and nickers at me continuously or sometimes even paws.  When I take him out of his stall, if we haven't done enough (in his judgment) he resists going back in his stall.  Some days, "enough" is just a thorough grooming, other days it's a walk around the stable aisles, but most days "enough" requires that we go on a ride together, even just a short one.

I think Red feels very responsible for things - he feels like he has to be sure everything (and every horse) is all right.  He's learned that he can safely accept my direction - this was a huge step for him and took a long time - he's able to let go of some of the need to be responsible if I give him direction and guidance.  We're slowly expanding his envelope of situations where he feels comfortable with me, rather than him, in control. We're expanding where we ride, what we do together and the level of distractions.  Some circumstances are still too much - being in the arena when a lunge whip is snapping is one - and we're taking our time with those. When I got him, he didn't trust humans to be in charge at all and felt a very strong need to be in charge and make the decisions himself - probably because his humans proved themselves untrustworthy by forcing him into situations he couldn't deal with, or in the opposite way by failing to give him any direction at all - we believe he may have experienced both situations.  When he feels this way, the big brace, together with spookiness/reactivity, comes back - those are outward signs of his inward anxiety about whether he needs to take over to be sure he's OK.

Both Red and Pie had long groomings yesterday - they'd both had baths the day before - the first and likely only shampoo baths of the season (I rarely bath to preserve coat oils, although I rinse off sweat with plain water) - so their tails got brushed out for the first time since late last fall.  I only brush tails when I can use ShowSheen, to avoid breaking hairs, and in the spring only after their tails have been washed.  So each horse's tail took about 30 minutes to carefully brush out - I did break a bunch of tail hairs but a lot fewer than I would have over a whole winter.  Both boys have beautiful long tails - Pie's is very thick and Red's is so long it trails on the ground.

Red is always extremely alert to everything that's occurring around him.  Keeping him focussed and on task has been a challenge for both of us.  He's also very forward and energetic, and getting calmness and relaxation at the same time is also a challenge.  Dawn has been a good teacher for me on this - she has somewhat the same personality, although she's a bit more standoffish and doesn't usually have as much of an agenda of her own.  Yesterday with Red was a good example.  We went out for a ride in the big pasture with three other riders, and there was also a lesson going in in the adjacent outdoor arena.  All of us were moving around, doing different things.  Although it was quite warm, he was very up and pretty revved, although he looked calm and was very well behaved with no bracing - there was a lot to look at and a lot going on, and he was constantly having to shift his attention to something new that was happening as our point of view changed and the other horses were moving around - visual distractions were everywhere.  We worked in the pasture and also did some work in the outdoor - with horses trotting and cantering and passing each other going different directions.  The other riders said he looked cool as a cucumber, and he certainly didn't put a foot wrong, but I could feel his energy level - one sign was that he really didn't want to stop and stand still for more than a moment - he usually stands still easily for an indefinate time - he needed to keep his feet moving so that's what we did.

Red's a horse where staying ahead of the curve is essential.  Yesterday, with the level of distraction and excitement around him, if I hadn't been giving him active direction - guiding him to do certain tasks with focus and precision - his anxiety would likely have increased and we would have been back in the land of bracing and spookiness/reactivity, because he would have felt a need to take control.  Yesterday, since we kept working and focussing together, he got more and more engaged in the work and less anxious, and by the end of our session, we did some very nice trot work and our first canter work ever in the outdoor arena, and he was happy to stand on a loose rein and relax and take things in. There was quite a spring in his step as we went back to the barn, but he didn't try to break into trot and even wanted to explore a bit in the pasture after the rest of the horses went inside.

I think a lot of people might find a horse like Red too much work - I have to always remain focussed and provide him leadership, or otherwise things might well get out of hand - and he's very fast and very agile.  He hasn't got a mean bone in his body, but he's a powerful, intelligent and sensitive horse.  I love building a relationship with a horse like him - they make me a better rider - and I believe if you bond with a horse like this, they would be willing, if you asked, to take you to the moon and back.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

In Heat, Chiropractor and Borrowed Herd Order

Dawn's been in heat for the past two days - not just a regular heat but a full, raging, spring heat.  She used to be difficult to handle when in heat but since she's been on raspberry leaves (I use MareBerry and Mare Magic is another brand) she's been much better.  But the first real spring heat is a whopper.  I knew things weren't promising when she was peeing in the barn aisle when there wasn't even another horse around.  She's also particularly taken with the big gelding who's in a pen next to the mare's pasture, but he seems confused by the whole thing and doesn't seem to have a clue what she wants - I expect Red's reaction would be quite different.  Anyhow, I haven't been riding her - she can be very distractable and also very touchy when she's in heat like this, so discretion is the better part of valor, at least this time.  She's just been coming in at my usual early morning riding time for a nice grooming, then I turn her back out.

Pie had a visit from the vet/chiropractor yesterday.  I'd been noticing that his back seemed a bit tight when I was grooming - he wasn't ouchy and hasn't been doing anything noticeably different under saddle - in fact he's been moving exceptionally well.  I was concerned about saddle fit since he's grown so much and really has filled out and muscled up recently.  But fortunately for my pocketbook, when the chiropractor looked at it, my About the Horse saddle still fits him well - we did it both with and without the pad.  Since he'd had a little neurological flare up a while ago from his vaccination for eastern and western encephalitis plus tetanus, she did neuro tests on him and the right hind was just very slightly different.  We drew blood to recheck his EPM titers, and will also run a C reactive protein test.

When she did the chiro work, he told her that the inside of this right thigh was crampy - probably due to the earlier issue with the right hind - and that this had caused a corresponding tightness in his sacral area - this was the tightness I'd been feeling.  The way he "tells" her what needs most attention is by offering her those areas of his body to work on - he's got it figured out and knows she can help him out. His neck had a few crampy areas - this is pretty common for him. He also had very slight digital pulses in his front feet, although he's moving well on hard surfaces and even the rocky parking lot. The only time he's had any foot issues was two years ago when we think he had active Lyme disease.  We can't test him yet for that, since he isn't yet 6 months out from completing his treatment for Lyme.  There are a lot of ticks around right now, although I haven't found one yet on my horses, so we will be rechecking everyone for Lyme in July when Pie is due to be checked.  The slight back tightness may also be due to the harder work he's been doing in canter lately and also the slight changes in my position I've made recently.  The gelding pasture does have some grass sprouting, but not a whole lot - the big pastures with more grass are still closed off.  I'll be slowly introducing Pie to some grazing and keeping a very close eye (and hand) on his feet.  We're also upping his chromium/magnesium/selenium/vitamin E supplement to see if that makes a difference.

Pie very much enjoyed his chiro - there were many yawns and much stretching and chewing - I was too busy to get any pictures.

As usual, when I went to get Pie out of the pasture for his appointment, Red came trotting and cantering along to catch up with us - he always comes in when I get Pie.  I left Red behind in the pasture, and there was a lot of calling and pawing on his part for a while.  Finally Red wandered back out to the pasture.  A little while later, I was out in front of the barn waiting for the chiropractor when I saw a red streak galloping up from the far back of the pasture, screaming at the top of his lungs - it was Red, apparently responding to a call from Pie, who was out of sight in his stall.  Red was clearly on a mission to save him.  During the whole chiropractic appointment - we were in the front parking lot in view of the geldings' pasture - Red either was at the gate or just a bit up the hill, keeping an eye on us and calling to Pie from time to time.

Today when I walked out to the pasture to greet the boys (and several other horses who insisted on greeting me), I got to observe some herd dynamics relating to Pie and Red.  Red is very high in the herd order - I don't know if he's the alpha, but he's very high-ranking, despite his relatively small size.  Pie is more mid-pack, but he sometimes gets to "borrow" Red's status.  Pie and Red were at the bale, and Red wandered off a ways to nibble some grass.  A feisty little gelding came up to the bale, pinned his ears at Pie and Pie moved around to the other side.  Red came over, herded the little gelding away, nipping him on the butt to keep him moving.  I've often seen Red do this - he will either herd other geldings away from Pie or interpose his body between the other horse and Pie - I've even seen Red squeeze himself right up between Pie and another horse.  Red's clearly protecting/guarding Pie, and Pie benefits from his "borrowed" status in terms of access to things like hay and water troughs.  I expect Pie appreciates having a loyal friend like Red!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Thinking" the Feet, Fun Outside, and Getting Sore

Dawn is getting older - she'll be 16 in a few months.  She's having her usual winter/spring difficulties maintaining her weight, despite getting adequate calories.  She just had a blood draw for an ACTH and insulin test, so we can determine if she's got anything metabolic going on.  She's shedding out a bit better than she did last year, and her eyes are bright.  But her gaits have gradually lost their "spring", even in the pasture, although she moves well and is sound - yesterday I saw her do a beautiful canter all the way across the pasture.  I expect her joints are getting a bit stiff, and I've got her on some aspirin (when I can persuade her to eat it) to help with that.

She's in very regular work - 5 days a week - and all day turnout, both of which I believe are good for horses with arthritis.  I no longer do strenuous work with her, like flying lead changes.  But we motor around, usually in forward trot, for at least 30 minutes each time we ride.  She seems to enjoy it.  I've noticed recently in the freshly dragged arena that she tends to drag her hind toes slightly at the trot, the right hind more than the left.  The fronts of her hind feet also show some wear from the toe dragging.  She doesn't trip or stumble, just doesn't push with the hinds like she used to - it's probably hock arthritis.

So to help her out I've started doing some "thinking" the feet when we trot.  This was something Mark had me do at the clinic last year with Pie.  As we were trotting along, he told me to "think" the feet lighter - to have the impact of each hoof not be as heavy.  He said he wouldn't tell me how to do it, that it was up to me to feel it and transmit that feel to the horse - it isn't really a mechanical/aids thing, it's more a matter of energy and "being" the feet.  It was a pretty interesting experience and very effective.

So I've been trying that with Dawn, to help her lift those hind legs and drag her toes less.  I was thinking "lift" for the hind feet to push and lift more - I was trying to "be" the hind feet. I was pleased yesterday that after the arena was dragged and we were trotting, I could see a visible improvement in the toe dragging in the sand - there was a difference between our trot work before I was "thinking" - I let her warm up without asking for anything extra in trot - and after - the drag marks were absent or much shorter.  I could feel the difference when riding, too - her trot was more animated.  Getting those hocks moving is probably the best thing for her, so long as she doesn't get sore.

Pie and Red both have had lovely rides in our beautiful weather.  Someone was going to the outdoor arena for a lesson, so Red and I, after a good bit of nice work in the indoor - the brace is now completely gone - took advantage and went with them.  Red's only been in the outdoor - which is several hundred yards from the barn or from any other horses - a couple of times last year.  He was outstanding - we did some lovely trot work and he remained relaxed and happy - I think he really enjoys being outside.

Then Pie and I also had a wonderful session in the outdoor - by ourselves all alone up on the hill.  The outdoor isn't level - the short sides have some slope - and Pie now easily goes up and down in balance at both trot and canter.  We did some really nice trot and canter work - his gaits have improved enormously as he's learned to balance and use himself from behind.  He was forward, and round, and the drive and lift were impressive - this was really nice considering the short-strided, hollow, shuffly gaits he came to me with.

I almost never get sore from riding, but all of a sudden my knees and the tops of my shoulders are hurting like the dickens, and I wondered why.  And then I remembered - I changed my position slightly when I'm riding Red and Pie in my About the Horse Western saddle - Dawn goes in my Kieffer dressage saddle.  The About the Horse saddle, unlike many Western saddles, is designed to put you in a balanced seat position.  The change I made was to move my seat slightly forward, away from the cantle - this makes a subtle change in my leg position and allows me to drape my legs with less bracing in the stirrups, and it also makes my upper body posture more open and "up".  It's a better position, and puts me more "in" the horse where I interfere less with the horse's movement.  But my muscles and joints aren't used to the new position yet . . . and I'm getting older, just like Dawn!  I'm expecting that pain to lessen a bit as my body adjusts . . .  It's a good reminder that, whenever we ask our horses to use themselves differently, they may experience soreness as their bodies adapt and build different muscles  - such changes have to be made slowly.  Pie in fact is having a chiropractor visit this week for precisely this reason.

More riding today . . .

Monday, May 6, 2013

Walk/Trot, Walk/Trot . . . Helping Red Through the Anxiety Brace

Red came to me two years ago as a very anxious, worried horse, and he had some pretty dramatic ways of expressing how he was feeling, although it was clear that he really wanted to be a good boy and do what we were asking.  One of the reasons he spent 90 days at Heather's last spring was that his pattern was to get anxious and worried each time a new task or situation was introduced - we'd work through that and the behavior would disappear, then as soon as we moved on to the next thing the behavior would pop up again.  Heather described it as having to work down through the many layers of the onion - and she said he had more layers than almost any other horse she'd seen, which spoke to how engrained the worry/behavior was.

One of the behaviors, which apparently was really baked in by his prior handling/"training", was a big brace - he would brace his head and neck up and to the right, putting pressure on the left rein, and his left shoulder would tend to pop out, the back to front connection would disappear and his steering (either with leg or hand) and forward would become non-existent - he would become very wiggly, to the point of running himself (and your leg) into the wall or objects.  One of the characteristic situations where the brace showed up was on upward transitions, or if a new task was introduced - basically any time he felt under pressure.  It was partly a mental resistance thing - "I'm anxious, no I can't do that" and partly, we think, a specific "trained"-in behavior - we believe he was trained initially when he was very young as a barrel-racing horse, put under a lot of pressure mentally and ridden in a very tight tie down (he has a scar on his nose) and big bit.  The bracing upwards is a typical behavior for a horse that has learned to look for and lean on a tie-down or tight martingale, and the bracing on the hand is often a sign of being overbitted or ridden with heavy hands.

Last Thursday, Red and I started doing more canter work than we've done in the past.  We've been doing most of our work in trot as he builds his fitness back, with an occasional bit of cantering thrown in on each lead.  Although he's pretty consistently sound at the trot now after we warm up, the hock arthritis is still lurking and canter work, particularly in our small arena with tight turns, is physically challenging for him.  That day we did a number of trot/canter/trot/canter transitions, and he was a bit fussy and doing some bracing through the upwards transitions and was getting revved up.  Trot work continued to be good, with consistent softness, but he was pretty up, started anticipating and felt like he was on springs.  After getting some good trot/canter transitions, we called it a day.  What he was doing was either due to his hocks being a bit sore, or because he was anxious about doing the work at a faster speed.

On Friday, the brace was back big time - he couldn't even do a walk/trot transition without the brace showing up in full force.  He was anticipating more canter work - even tried to canter several times while bracing - he was anxious about it, I believe more about the speed than about his hocks hurting, and that caused the brace to come back again.  So I did what I usually do in this sort of case.  There's a principle I believe in - if something isn't working at a slower gait, it sure isn't going to work at a higher gait.  We needed to work through the bracing issue again at walk and trot before we even attempted any more canter work.

So we did lots and lots and lots of walk/trot transitions - but only if they were right.  This meant that I had to help him find a way to stay soft and not brace through the transition.  At the beginning of our work session, if I even thought about trot, he braced.  We didn't do very many transitions for a while, we did a lot of my thinking about the transition, him bracing, and my redirecting him - initially with a small circle or series of serpentines - until he was soft at the walk again, etc. etc., then we worked on getting a nice forward, connected soft walk until the next thought of a transition threw the brace back in.  I didn't let him transition to trot if he was braced.  Finally we got one good transition - much praise and I let him trot out for a moment, encouraging him to stretch down.  Each time it took a little less time to get at least one good transition.  Then I started asking him for transitions at different points in the ring, long sides, short sides, quarter lines, on circles - circling right was the hardest since he was already bent in the way he braces.  It took almost 45 minutes before we were reliably maintaining softness around the ring in walk or trot and through transitions without any more bracing, regardless of where we were in the arena or what distractions were occurring - and there were plenty.  For him the reward was praise and trotting out while stretching down.  He was relaxed and happy again by the end of our session.

I got about what I thought I would on our next work session two days later on Sunday - he'd had a day off in between.  The brace was still there, but in less extreme form, and it took less than 10 minutes to get to reliable, soft, forward, "through" walk/trot transitions, with some nice soft trotting out afterwards.  There were even more distractions during that session and he coped well with them.  Interestingly enough, in the first minutes of our work, he did one very big sideways spook near one of the doors - there was nothing there, we just kept on working and he didn't spook again.  This reactive spookiness is another form of his worry, and I was pleased that he let go of it and relaxed pretty much immediately.  One reason I think we progressed so nicely was that I started adding a few steps of shoulder in to the left before asking for trot - this bend counter to his brace direction interrupted the tendency to brace before it got to showing up, and made things easier for him. After a bit, I didn't even need to do that to get a nice transition. I expect the next work session it'll take even less time to get there, and after that the issue is likely to disappear again.  There might be a next time, and there might not, it's hard to tell.  We'll approach canter work a bit more slowly, making sure to keep his anxiety level down.

Then, after our very successful work session, we took a ride into the front pasture in the lovely weather - he really enjoys this and stepped out happily and with good relaxation.  We even tried some trot work up on the hill - this is the first time he's trotted out there - and his transitions were excellent and he maintained his softness and relaxation.  I was delighted with him and told him so, many times.

In situations where the horse is telling me that he is anxious or worried by his behavior or how he is using his body, whether the anxiety occurs because of the circumstance we're in, or because of a past trained-in reaction, I see it as my job to provide the horse with a calm, non-anxious presence, telling the horse that they are not alone - this requires that I be calm, and that I communicate to the horse that I am calm by continuing to give them direction, as softly as I am able.  My job is not to block, or restrain, or stop the behavior the horse is using to express its anxiety - that sort of repression of the behavior might work with some horses to get the behavior you want in the short term, but you'll just be building in trouble for later.  My job is to help the horse through and past the anxiety or worry to a place where they feel better about things, which will improve the behavior since the behavior is arising from how the horse feels.

I'll be interested to see how Red does on our next ride . . .

Update: We rode again today - Monday - and I got what I thought I would get - virtually no bracing at all.  We did our first few walk/trot transitions out of left shoulder in, just to be sure there wouldn't be any bracing.  After that we did some shoulder in, then straightened for a stride, then trotted - that worked fine so we just went about our business and did lots of normal walk/trot transitions with very good softness.  I told Red how proud I was of him, and then we went on a nice walk around in the front pasture, with a bit of lovely soft trot thrown in.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Building Connection: Direction, Softness and "Going With"

If you haven't read it already, you might want to read my earlier post on building connection before you read this one.  I'm going to try in this post to describe some of the things I'm trying to do with my horses to build our connection, so connection can become a part of everything we do.  I've "known" about some of these things for a while, but I'm only just now starting to "get" them, and I expect there will be more about them to learn and experience than I realize even now.

To start us out, here is a recent quote from Mark Rashid's Facebook page - the italics are mine:
Offering a horse productive guidance before or during times when a horse becomes distracted (or worried) can be a fairly easy way to not only get a troubled situation under control, but also build trust and confidence in both horse and rider. It is a matter of the rider staying focused on what they would like to achieve and helping the horse get there, instead of focusing on the horse's worried or distracted behavior and trying to stop it.
More about that in a moment . . .

For me, connection is both physical and not physical.  It's an attitude, an approach, that then comes through in the physical way I try to interact with the horse, and the way I want the horse to interact with me.

It starts with my presenting the horse with intentional softness in every interaction we have - grooming, picking feet, asking the horse to move over in the stall, leading, mounting, riding, you name it - the feel I offer to the horse should always be the same.  (This, by the way, does not preclude being "big" in the very rare cases where it's called for - it's possible to be big while still offering the horse a soft place to find and be.) Calm, quiet and effective - if I can offer this to the horse, the horse pretty reliably will offer it right back to me.  I've found that it's pretty important to practice this "feel" in every aspect of my life - even such mundane things as how you open and close a door, or move - otherwise that feel and way of being won't be automatic when I need it to be. I've found it takes a lot of practice, but that pays off when your horse needs your help and you can offer that.

Mark's quote above is a powerful description of focussing on what you do want and ignoring everything else.  If we can think of ourselves as helping the horse out in a way that makes it possible for them to do what we want, it puts us on their side, not in opposition, and short-circuits the frustration and even anger than can occur in us when the horse doesn't do what we want and (think we) have clearly communicated.  I'm learning to ignore anything that isn't what I want and just keep trying to help the horse do what I do want, and I've found that things I don't want just fall away over time.  It's not about making the horse do what you want - that can work in a way, since it's sometimes possible to force/intimidate some horses into doing things - it's not about wearing the horse down so they just give up - it's about assuring the horse that you really do care about the thing you want them to do and nothing else really matters.  It's about building mutual trust and connection, which then has spill-over effects in lots of other areas.

A couple of examples . . .

When I first got Red, he had a number of bad habits, including nipping, taking away his feet during hoof picking and even striking or trying to kick, pushing his body into you, bracing in lots of ways, including when leading, etc.  Not so great.  The nipping, pushing and leading issues started to resolve as he began to learn that I had personal space that wasn't to be intruded into.  He would still occasionally try to nip when nervous as I would be leading him into the ring or getting ready to mount - when my hand was near his face.  An "accidental" sharp finger getting in the way of his muzzle - he did it to himself, all I did was provide a boundary - and just asking him to keep his mouth elsewhere while keeping on doing whatever it was I was doing - and the occasions of nipping got rarer and rarer.  The behavior is now completely gone.

Similarly with hoof picking.  I actually used clicker at the beginning so he clearly understood what behavior I wanted, and did it very slowly and step by step - first, simply picking a foot off the ground briefly, then holding it up longer, then longer, then moving the foot and leg around, then tapping the foot, then partially picking it, etc., etc.   It took daily work for an extended period to get him to change over completely to the new desired behavior, but he's now absolutely perfect for hoof-picking and for the farrier, and very relaxed about the whole thing.  I think patience - no deadlines or time limits - and calm persistence make all the difference for these sorts of things.

Spooking is something many (probably all) horse people experience - horses are prey animals and naturally get concerned about anything that changes in their environment (even if we think it's silly or stupid, it isn't silly or stupid at all if you're a horse).  Not wanting to approach a certain area of the ring or moving suddenly sideways away from something startling, or even a leap and jump or a bolt or partial bolt at a noise or sudden scary thing appearing - I just keep on riding.

Now what does that mean - "just keep on riding"?  It means a bunch of things to me.  First, and I think this powerfully communicates to the horse, I tell the horse that I don't care about whatever it is - I'm not worried about it so they don't need to be.  This means I don't tense up, or clutch, or grab or pull - or at least I try not to - this is a work in process for me, particularly in the case of a big leap or a true bolt.  I don't look at or focus on the object, and I don't stop the horse and force them to face it or move closer.  We just keep on moving - I'm trying to communicate "yeah, that was scary for a second but we don't have to be concerned any more".  Tensing, grabbing, clutching and pulling, or focussing on the object, all tell the horse that they were darned right to be scared of whatever it was, since you clearly are too - these are forms of bracing, and when you're bracing, the horse will generally brace against you and all connection is gone.  So I try to "go with" the horse, keeping the feel soft while asking the horse to keep right on doing whatever it was we were doing together.  If there's extra energy in the horse, I try to allow the horse to move and just redirect the horse as softly as I'm capable - those of you who've seen the video of Red bolting at the clinic will remember that Mark just instructed me to direct him in a circle, which I did once I stopped pulling - my first automatic response was to pull but in a full bolt that generally isn't effective since the horse can pull harder than we can.  As soon as I softened and redirected the energy, we went right on cantering just fine.  A powerful lesson that I'm still trying to make automatic.

If, while I'm working, the horse is shying away from a particular place in the ring or a specific object, I just keep asking the horse to work, first within their comfort zone - which might start a long way from the object - then gradually expanding it closer and closer to the scary spot, but without forcing - just asking and staying soft.  I've found that this works like a charm - pretty soon the scary place is just ignored by both of us - I've brought the horse with me into a calmer place.  In a case where a horse is really terrified of something, I try to make use of the horse's natural curiosity and see if they'll approach, together with me, either leading or ridden - again, no forcing.  (Be aware that horses tend to approach and retreat repeatedly to get familiar with something - I allow the horse to select the distance and to move its feet if the horse needs to.) With Dawn, I used clicker to help build her confidence about certain classes of objects, like plastic garbage bags or tarps flapping in the wind.  The goal was not desensitization, it was trust and confidence building.

Mark's quote above is also very relevant to horses who get distracted, or who are anxious or nervous.  Calmness and softness have to start with us and if we can offer them to the horse, this can help enormously.  Also the phrase "productive guidance before or during" should be highlighted.  If the horse is already anxious or nervous, or you're about to encounter a situation where this might be the case, get in there and give the horse some direction before things get dicey - this isn't a matter of mechanically "moving the feet", it's a matter of having a live connection with the horse that is actively asking the horse to follow your thought and accomplish some task together with you.  (This is where I went wrong back in June 2011 with Pie, when I had my bad fall - I had him standing still on a loose rein waiting for him to notice a very scary thing - a bike with a tag-along cart and a big flag.  I wasn't actively riding, or asking him to do anything, I was just sitting there like a bump on a log, and I was focussed on the scary thing, to boot.  Good combination of circumstances for a big spook, which is what we got.  That's not to say he wouldn't have spooked if I'd been actively riding, but I would have been in a better position to help him not be so alarmed and I also would have been in a better physical position to stay on.)

When I started to work with them, I would have said that both Dawn and Red were nervous, easily distracted horses.  They are both on the higher strung end of things, so they notice things.  Red also feels responsible for everything, so he's always paying attention to everything in his environment, particularly other horses and what they're doing.  All horses get distracted - but here's the real truth - if someone tells you "my horse is easily distracted", the person saying this is easily distracted. Distraction by the horse occurs either because the rider is distracted and not really paying attention or connected to the horse, so the horse is left to make its own decisions and choices, or because a second of distraction by the horse isn't instantly redirected back into whatever task they're doing together.  If I can stay connected and soft, I've found that distraction is usually very momentary - don't allow yourself to be distracted by distraction - keep the focus on the task you're doing and softly redirect the horse.

Something I've been working on a lot lately has been not using an aid, or redirecting a horse that has spooked or become distracted by something, in a way that introduces a brace.  A push, or a pull, with leg, hand or seat, introduces a brace and interrupts connection.  Redirecting energy and regaining the horse's attention and the connection without bracing - staying soft and offering the horse a soft place to be - maintains and builds connection.  The ideal would be to maintain that softness and connection through a spook or distraction - it that case I expect the spook or distraction might become vanishingly short or disappear altogether.  I'm not there yet, and still have to use aids sometimes as a backstop to connection, although I'm finding that the spooks and distractions are less common and also much shorter now.  This is actually very much the same as developing a consistent, soft, allowing feel in hand and body as you're riding in general, so the horse can choose to put itself into the place of softness that you are consistently offering.  When a horse is going into and out of softness, the challenge is to stay soft yourself so the horse can find "home" with you - this builds trust and confidence.  (This is one of the main reasons I don't use gadgets - a horse can't build trust and confidence with a gadget and their operation is purely mechanical even when they're used correctly and not misused as they often are.)

A note on giving the horse choices.  Instead of making or constraining the horse to make the choice you want, if you can guide the horse into making the choice itself - not because there is no other option but because you are connected and it is what you're asking for - is incredibly powerful.  Allowing the horse to move its body and not holding/constraining/boxing in are very important.  I do a lot of leading and "just standing around" work (both on the ground and mounted) with my horses, at least initially.  When I'm standing around with the horse, I let the horse move around - while staying outside my personal space at all times - until the horse chooses to stand still since that's the easiest and softest option.  They figure it out pretty quickly and it then becomes something we enjoy doing together.  Same thing for standing still while mounted - I redirect the energy of wanting to move until the horse decides that standing still is pretty darn pleasant.  Allowing the horse to move, and not blocking or constraining, just guiding and shaping, is also important to me in my ridden work - those who've seen my video from Mark's clinic about "professional neglect" will remember how important letting the horse move is.

You could probably think of lots of other cases of offering a soft spot to the horse that they will want to find and stay it.  One of the most powerful things about this work is that it isn't about doing a particular task - although particular tasks can be very useful to developing it - it's about maintaining mutual softness, connection and feel - all the same thing really.  And work done this way on one thing or task bleeds over into everything else and other things become easier, since the foundation is the same.

I'm still just scratching the surface on this stuff, but it's pretty darn exciting.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Very Proud of Both Boys

We had some very nice weather yesteday, and I managed to ride all three horses.

There's a big (as in big jumps) lesson in the mid to late afternoon on Wednesdays, and I usually don't even try to ride at that time - our indoor is very small and all I end up being able to do is stand around in a place in the ring where the jumpers don't have to go.  Not very useful - except as a just standing around exercise - neither of my boys really need that now as they both stand well, regardless of what else is going on.  (And I don't take Dawn into a crowded ring - she's a middle-aged lady (like me!) and there's no need to try to change her behavior now, I just work around it.)

But since it was so nice yesterday, I was able to take Pie outside instead.  But as we were heading out of the indoor through the gate to the pasture - the outdoor arena is a couple of hundred yards away across one of the large turnouts (empty after bring-in time) - all of a sudden he got very nervous and spooky.  There was nothing obvious to spook at, and he usually marches right outside without a care in the world, so this was very odd.  It took a few minutes for me to figure out what he was worried about.  He wanted to head back inside, but we just kept doing circles and going in and out of gates and one of the small paddocks next to the gate - he was particularly nervous in there - he willingly did everything I asked although he was still worried.  It became clear that he was most nervous towards the gate to the geldings' turnout.  We stopped for a second, and then I got it - I heard a very quiet clicking - there was a short in the electric wire that runs along the top board - just past the gate to the geldings' pasture and along the board that runs between that pasture and the small paddock - where Pie was most worried.  The barn owner was nearby, and I had her check it out - sure enough that's what it was.  Pie's good at picking up these things, and it's a good reminder that when horses spook or are worried, they have a good reason (in horse terms) to do so.

After Pie was reassured a bit, we went through the gate - he was still worried but did it willingly since I asked - and we headed to the outdoor arena.  We'd only been out there once this year, and it was very windy with no horses anywhere nearby, but Pie couldn't have been better - we had a marvelous session with lots of trotting and cantering - he was wonderfully forward and soft.

While we were out there, the barn owner brought a truck into the pasture with a large plastic water tank - this was next to the barn and a couple hundred yards from us - and used it to cover a hole that the barn workers needed to deal with the next morning.  Pie kept an eye on it as we worked but wasn't concerned.  When we came back into the barn, we passed right by it - it was now topped with a huge orange cone - and Pie didn't bat an eyelash at it.  He also was less concerned as we passed through the gate back into the indoor.  Good Pie!

I came back in the early evening to ride Red.  I rarely ride him at this time of day, and he was in the arena with a horse he didn't know well - which with Red leads to lots of eyeballing and sniffing on his part - but we had a very nice session with lots of good trotting and a little canter.  He loves to go outside, so when we were done with our work, we headed out toward the pasture.  Unlike Pie, he didn't care about the ticking of the electric fence.  But then he saw the overturned water tank and the cone . . .

He was clearly alarmed and did a fade/skedaddle back the other way - I went with him and just softly asked him to turn back towards the alarming object.  He was able to do that, and was able to stand there for a moment on a loosish rein - I was prepared to go with him if he bolted - I loosely put a hand on the saddle horn - while I reassured him.  Head straight up, eyes huge, much snorting and blowing.  I dismounted to be able to lead him - to give him extra confidence by going first - and we led out towards the scary objects.  His curiousity overcame his fear, and he came willing - we did it step by step, with much praise and petting at each step, and only moving forward again as he indicated he was willing.  After the inital startle, he never once said that he wanted to turn away, and in fact as we got closer he really wanted to check it out. Within a minute or too, he was nudging and sniffing the objects with interest and no alarm.  The real test is always when you turn away and have the scary thing at your back - I turned him to walk him back inside and he was completely relaxed.

This is huge progress for Red.  In the old days, his skedaddle would have likely turned into a full, terrified bolt.  He never once got hard or braced, and he was able to cope and respond to everything I asked him to do.  He also calmed down immediately, rather than carrying tension forward.  Every time something like this happens, and he overcomes his fears and is successful, I think he is quite proud of himself (I certainly tell him he should be, and that he's a brave, good horse) and it builds his confidence.  Good Red!