Friday, August 30, 2013

Making the Right Thing Easier

It's been very hot and humid, and we haven't been riding - we don't have to and I don't see any reason why my horses and I should be any hotter and sweatier than we are already - there will be other days to ride.

Now for a bit of a detour - that's really not a detour at all.  I try - and often fail - to make sure what I say to, and about, others is "right speech" - is it true? is it kind? is it necessary?  This isn't easy for me - like all of us I have my opinions of how things should be, particularly with horses.  And there are others at our barn who ride and work their horses using different philosophies than I do, some of which I believe to be pretty ineffective and lacking in respect for the horse.  Sometimes it's hard to keep my mouth shut, especially when I see someone struggling or an unhappy horse.  (I will speak up if a serious, immediate safety issue exists - say, tack not fastened properly, or a serious wreck is brewing - or in the case of obvious abuse.)

The two things I've been working on are: first, to not talk about others behind their backs - it's easy to backbite and criticize and barns can be very cliquish, and second, to not offer advice to others on working with their horses unless I'm asked.  I'm a bit better generally about the second - I'm no expert and it's not the case that what I know or think I know is correct, even if it may be working for me; people are on their own horsemanship journeys and I used to do many of the same things I see these people doing now; and people who aren't asking for advice generally aren't ready to listen to it anyway - even if it would help them or their horses (at least in the opinion of the person offering the advice).  The first - not criticizing or backbiting behind people's backs - is harder for me but I'm working on it and at least I'm a lot more conscious of it now when I do it.  Small steps . . .  There's some stuff in this post that could be characterized as criticism but I don't know how to talk about it here - in this forum - without talking about it.

Anyhow, even though I didn't ride yesterday, I got to help someone out.   Mostly I just ride and handle my horses the way I do and hope some of it will rub off on others through example.  There's a lady - an experienced horsewoman whose approach is generally pretty thoughtful and effective - who rides an Arabian several days a week as a shareboarder - her own horse is laid up at the moment.  This little guy is often a bundle of nerves - particularly with his owner, who's a high-energy and loud person, and with the "trainer" at our barn (she's of the whack-them-until-they-do-it and saw-on-their-mouth school of "training" - oops! there I go with the criticizing thing, but it's hard to describe without describing . . .).

The Arabian is reluctant to go on the trail and often gets to a certain point in crossing the pasture to the trail gate where he starts to get nervous, his head comes up, he balks and then spins.  At the trail clinic a couple of weeks ago the trainer who had come in to do the clinic gave her some advice that I thought was wrong at the time, and in fact advice you commonly hear from many who purport to do "natural horsemanship" - this trainer says that's what she is.  Her advice was to "make the wrong thing hard" - you hear this a lot.  (Aside - I think the term "natural horsemanship" is pretty darn useless as a descriptive, and sometimes results in folks being pretty mindless and rigid about how they approach their horses.)  Her advice was, whenever the horse started to act up on the way to the trail, to bring him back to the arena and work him hard so that he'd think getting out of the arena to the trail was a good idea since it was therefore "easier".  This is the same advice people get when their horses act up - to lunge or round pen them hard, so that is "hard" and the thing you're trying to do is "easier".

To be very blunt, although I like the trainer running the clinic and think her approach to horses is generally pretty good, I think this advice is bogus.  I think it's ineffective for a whole variety of reasons.  First, it interrupts the work you're doing and takes your and the horse's eyes off the ball.  Second, I very much doubt that most horses make any association at all between the hard work/lungeing/round penning and the other thing you were asking them to do and then interrupted to "make things hard" - I myself have a lot of trouble making the logical connection and I've got much bigger frontal lobes than a horse does.  (The only part that's effective perhaps is that at some point the horse just gets so tired that they just give up - is that how you want to train your horse?).  Third, if the horse is already amped and worried, why would you want to add extra energy to the equation - maybe, just maybe, this could work with a laid-back, lazy type of horse who just prefers to stand still, but with a horse that's already somewhat high-energy it just adds fuel to the fire.  Fourth, I think a lot of this "make the wrong thing" hard stuff just turns into a type of punishment for the horse - and why would I want the horse to think of the work we do together as something bad or punitive, particularly since they likely don't understand what it means anyway? - sort of like poisoning the well.

Anyhow, the rider and horse were out in the pasture yesterday, struggling.  The horse's head was high, and he was balking, she was pushing, he was spinning and they were getting nowhere.  She came back in the arena and did the "work him hard" thing, and went back out.  Rinse and repeat.  I was wandering back and forth through the arena doing various chores and bringing my horses in out of the heat while this was going on.  Finally, as I was leading Pie through the arena, she came back in, sat on her horse and said "This isn't working and I don't know what else to do."  There were a couple of other boarders on their horses standing around listening to her.  She was looking for some advice, so I felt that it was OK to say something.

First I asked if she was interested in what I would do - not necessarily the only thing that was right, but just what I would do - I'm not a trainer and don't purport to be one or to be in a position to give others advice. I started by saying that, although I liked and generally respected the trainer who given her the advice she was following - and I do, I thought the approach she recommended isn't a very effective one, for the reasons I listed above.  Then I told her what I do with Red, as an example - who is also a nervous, easily worried horse - in fact it's exactly what I do with him as we work our way out on longer rides in the pasture.  I'd characterize this as making the right thing - the thing you want - easier for the horse. (To paraphrase Mark Rashid - if a horse is struggling with something the wrong thing is already hard enough, and why would you want to make it harder?)

I work him - doing things that engage his mind and feet, that he knows how to do successfully with me and that lead to softness, like circles and serpentines - within his comfort zone in terms of distance from the barn.  Then, while continuing to do the work, ask him to move up to the boundary of comfort.  Keep working, with frequent retreats into the "safe and comfortable" territory.  Work back to the boundary again, rinse and repeat.  Never put yourself into a position where you're pushing - that just creates a brace that will cause the horse to brace against you and balk.  If there's resistance, retreat slightly and just keep working.  Lots of praise and strokes for every tiny bit of progress.  Bring the horse back to the "safe zone" for some relaxation. Keep extending the boundary of comfort while working - you'll find that the boundary will continue to expand as you work without having to do anything else. Don't expect to get there quickly - it sometimes takes a lot of time - but the progress you make tends to stick.

She said that made a lot more sense to her and they went right back out and tried it.  I kept doing chores and kept an eye on them.  Occasionally she'd fall back into the push/balk mode, but she's a good rider with good feel and mostly she kept to the plan.  It worked really, really well - before long they were several hundred yards from the barn, including going through areas where he'd been very balky before. His ears were relaxed and his head and neck were low.  She was praising him a lot and he looked pretty darn pleased with himself.  She came back to the arena and said that the plan was working very well and that she'd keep working on it with him next time she rode.

It felt like a good thing to me - it was a good day with horses even if I didn't ride.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Not Proper Dressage, But Dawn Offers Something Special

I have very little training in formal dressage - just what I needed to get through Training Level eventing competitions in college.  But I've read, and tried to learn - there's a lot of good in modern (classical dressage) that I try to make use of with my horses.  I think if you have forward, and rhythm, and relaxation, the rest matters less, and so long as your horse is happy and not forced or over bent, things are good.

Recently, Dawn has been offering me something different, and special.  We've been working on softness for a long time - since I started riding her about 4 years ago.  She's much less braced and much softer laterally and vertically than when I started working with her.

But just in the past week or 10 days, she's been offering me something new - something pretty amazing.  One of the things we sometimes do in our morning ride, after our warm up at trot - pretty long and relaxed - is to do short/long trot, with long trot on the diagonals and short trot on the ends of the ring - I don't ask her for true collection or extension as she's in her late teens and she's not got the conformation to be able to easily do these things at her age.

Recently, when I ask for short trot - by "thinking" myself more vertical and reducing velocity while maintaining energy - without any leg - she's offering this - she arches her neck so that her poll is higher than I've ever seen it, tucks her face - I don't want her going behind the vertical - while staying very soft in the bridle - there's hardly any pressure at all on the reins - and slows her trot way down so the cadence is half that of a regular trot.  I can't see it so I don't really know, but it feels like something halfway between a collected trot and passage - it's pretty magical.  Since she's offering it and interested in doing it, we're playing with it, although not too much as I suspect it's pretty strenuous for her, although she seems very proud and satisfied with it.

Wish I could video it to see what we have . . .

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Small Stories From Hot Days

We're having a bit of a heat wave - the heat index is over 100 today so the horses came in from turnout very early, and it was very hot yesterday as well.  So no riding and much stall picking - the horses seem to appreciate being in their stalls under the fans.

One of the things I love about spending so much time with my horses is getting to see the quirks of their personalities and the "small stories" that tell who they are.  They give me a lot of delight, and often make me laugh.

Yesterday, when I brought Pie and Red in, I put them for a while in a shady paddock next to the barn while we were waiting for shavings to be put in the stalls in their barn aisle.  I gave them some hay, and the two of them were standing side by side, eating the hay with their noses just inches apart.

I took Pie into the barn first to put him in his stall, and ground tied him in the aisle to pick his feet.  Pie ground ties very reliably.  As I was picking his feet, I put one down and was just reaching for the next when he suddenly darted into the nearest stall door, which happened to be Red's.  Very odd behavior . . .  A second later, he stretched out and peed, and peed, and peed - it seemed like gallons.  Poor fellow - I guess he just couldn't hold it any more and didn't want to pee on the concrete barn aisle - he's a bit of neatnik about things like that.

Every afternoon, if the horses have been in, I walk Pie back out to the pasture water tank so he can have some big drinks - with episodes of tongue sucking in between - he'll drink out of his stall buckets, but he much prefers the pasture troughs, even when they're hot and not as clean.

This morning, I brought Dawn in first - all the other mares were coming in.  There was a huge septic tank pumping truck in the indoor arena (there's actually a septic tank under the arena floor) - we have to lead through the arena to get to our barn - and it was roaring and making loud sucking noises and there were huge green hoses lying everywhere.  The barn owner, who was bringing in the other mares, asked if I should take Dawn around the outside of the barn to the back gate to get her in, and I said no, I thought she'd be just fine.  So we marched into the arena, right past the roaring, sucking truck and hoses - Dawn could have cared less and barely gave it a glance - what a good mare!

This morning, after I brought Dawn in and the septic truck had left the arena, I went out to the pasture to bring the boys in.  I only took Pie's halter, and Red came right along, "helping" out by nipping Pie on the flanks as we went - he likes to herd Pie and the other horses - it was really more of a pinch than a bite but if I'd been Pie I would have let him have it - Pie didn't really mind and I told Red to cut it out.  Once we got started down the hill to the barn, Pie was really wanting to get there - I think he was thirsty and the tanks are right by the gate - so I unsnapped him and he and Red rocketed off to the tanks to have big drinks.  They were standing there as I came down the hill - but before I got there they rocketed back off up the hill again.  I had to laugh - they looked quite sly about it and Pie was really laying it out - Red, who is faster, had to hustle to keep up.  I left them to it and went to make up feed packs - when I checked they were back at the gate and ready to come in.

Some small stories for hot days - hope your weather is better and you're getting in some good horse time!

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Confident Horse

Mona at Panic and the Pony asked some good questions on a recent post - I'm reordering and numbering them for reference:
  1. Nature or nurture? 
  2. Have any of you had to build up a horses confidence?
  3. How long does it take to build confidence?  
  4. If you send a horse out for training with a confident trainer, will it be able to come back and handle less confident riders? 
  5. Are there specific exercises you can do to build a horses confidence?   
First, briefly:

1. Nature or nuture?  Yes, and yes.

2.  Have any of you had to build up a horse's confidence?  Yes - Dawn was very high-strung and nervous and reactive, and braced when I started to work with her.  Pie had to recover from the upset of our bad accident in the summer of 2011.  Red started out very nervous, reactive and fearful.

3.  How long does it take to build confidence? It depends - on the horse's basic temperament and how the horse is handled.  Every ride and every interaction you, or a trainer, has with a horse, either builds or destroys confidence.

4.  If you send a horse out for training with a confident trainer, will it be able to come back and handle less confident riders?  Yes, and no - it depends on the horse, the trainer and the rider and what you invest in the process.

5.  Are there specific exercises you can do to build a horse's confidence?  Yes, for any horse, from the least confident on up.

Here's what I believe makes for a confident horse:
Basic temperament. 
Handling, training and experience. 
The rider - consistency, reliability and connection. 
Internal softness - the inside of the horse expressed in relaxation, willingness and confidence.  This is where training of the rider, and exercises to do with the horse, all with an objective of softness, come in.
Temperament is just one variable, but it's not the only one nor is it determinative.  And it isn't breed-specific - I've seen calm and confident TBs and Arabians, and worried and scared QHs.  Horses come - are born - with varying degrees of natural confidence, just like people.  But the least naturally confident horse - the most reactive and nervous - can learn through positive experiences to become much more confident, and the most confident horse can have its confidence damaged or even destroyed.  There's a balance here - it's easier to damage the confidence of a less naturally confident horse and it's harder to do so with a much more naturally confident horse.

How the horse is handled and trained makes a huge difference to a horse's confidence - and it's even more important for a horse that is naturally less confident.  A horse that is naturally more confident has more margin for error.  The more experiences a horse is exposed to, the better, so long as it is done in a positive way, where the horse is rewarded for trying, without coercion or punishment.  Punishing a horse that is already worried or scared or confused is a recipe for disaster - there's no faster way to destroy confidence, particularly with a sensitive horse.  There are cases of horses that have been coerced and overwhelmed (coercive "desensitization") who become shut down and potentially explosively dangerous.  Consistency and reliability are key - and they must be delivered without emotions, other than the positive emotions of encouragement.

Red is a good example of a horse that lacked self-confidence.  He's a very intelligent, very emotionally sensitive fellow, and we expect he experienced some mishandling in his past. He was always worried - that something bad/scary would happen, or that, if he tried to do something new/different when asked, he would be punished for getting the wrong answer - he was defensive, and shut down and even afraid at times.  He also didn't trust people to provide him leadership that would keep him secure.  Sometimes this manifested as "misbehavior" or even "defiance" or "aggression" - all these terms would impute an intent that he just didn't have - he was just confused/worried.  His lack of self-confidence was so great that he struggled initially even with a confident rider - my trainer Heather.

To build self-confidence in the horse/human interaction, a horse that is lacking in self-confidence has to start by borrowing confidence from the rider.  A confident rider isn't a rider who's aggressive, or dominant, or demanding or controlling - a confident rider calmly and consistent provides guidance and direction to the horse, and is considerate of the horse and its feelings, careful to listen to the horse and its tries and asks, and fundamentally reliable - the horse can count on the rider's support and guidance.  A good trainer can help a horse a long way down the road on this, whereas a bad one can wreak a horse's confidence, sometimes for good.

If you're not a confident rider (this has nothing to do with equitation skills or being able to coerce a horse into doing things), you're best off on a supremely confident horse and one with a low-key, basically relaxed personality.  If you're having confidence problems, take a good hard look at where you are with your horse - trainers make good money on overhorsing their clients - if your horse has to be lunged half to death before you can ride it or the trainer's constantly getting on it to "ride it for you", something's wrong. And trust your gut . . . if you think you are getting bad advice from your trainer or don't like the way you or your horse are being treated, do something about it.  Don't turn your brain or your conscience over to your trainer along with your wallet.

If you've got a horse that's more naturally high-strung and reactive, and are up to this - your riding skills are good enough and you've got the right mindset - don't just have the horse trained by someone else, since it won't necessarily transfer over to you - have the horse get some training and then work together with the trainer to get the two of you on the same page.  A more high-strung and reactive horse can be confident, but just getting some training done and then having the horse go back to a rider who's not equipped to provide the horse the leadership it needs will result in things pretty quickly reverting to where they were.

A young, green horse with a basically calm temperament who's never been messed up (Pie) will come along on the confidence scale much more quickly than one who's more high-strung and reactive (Dawn and Red) or one who's been mishandled (Red) - either over-pressured or mistreated or from a situation where the owner didn't set appropriate boundaries and expectations (Red had both circumstances, which made him particularly challenging).  For example, when I sent Pie and Red out for training in the spring of 2012 - I also was up there to ride both of them while being coached by my trainer twice a week in addition to the 4 days a week she worked with them - Pie was back home in a month (not finished but well on the road), whereas Red was there for 90 days and occasionally he still has moments where his confidence evaporates, although they're much rarer now - he's come a very long way.

There are definitely exercises that build self-confidence in the horse:

Leading - having a horse that is confident of what your spatial boundaries are, and knows how to lead, builds self-confidence in general.  There are lots of different leading exercises to do - see the sidebar Working Towards Softness.

Patience and self-calming - exercises like just standing around and ground tying help the horse learn to relax into stillness.  A key to this is that you need to provide the horse with a quiet, calm place to be - with you.  Again, look at the sidebar under Working Towards Softness.

Grooming - this is why full service is a very bad idea (in my opinion) - building connection through daily grooming and hoof handling is very powerful.

Scary object training - this needs to be about working together with the horse to help them learn to trust you - it isn't really about desensitization, it's about building confidence.  I've found clicker training to be quite helpful in this area with a worried horse, to encourage them to try.  The best desensitizing is exposing horses to lots of things in a way that builds their confidence in human leadership (in general - some of this will generalize from one person to another) and your leadership (in particular).

Any and all of the softness exercises on the sidebar.  Softness is really an internal thing - it's a physical and mental relaxation that expresses itself in the work.  It's all about providing the horse a mental and physical "soft space" to exist in together with you - it's a huge confidence builder and also provides a place for you to ask the horse to go together with you when things become stressful.

Gradually exposing the horse to new experiences - without overwhelming them or forcing them - particularly in the company of calmer, more experienced horses.

Horses gain confidence in riders who set consistent expectations for desired behavior - inconsistency only confuses the horse and eventually leads the horse to discount you as a reliable leader (leadership has nothing to do with being your horse's "alpha" or dominating the horse).  One of the most fundamental aspects of this is setting personal space boundaries into which the horse may not move.  When people say their horse doesn't "respect them", they either mean that their horse doesn't do what they want (which 99% of the time means that the horse doesn't understand what is wanted, can't physically do what is wanted or has no confidence in the particular situation or with the particular rider - none of this has anything to do with "respect"), or that the horse is "pushy" (think about the attribution of intent in that language - words matter) or walks all over them.  A horse that walks all over someone isn't a horse that lacks "respect", it's a horse that doesn't know where the person's boundaries are because the person has failed to set them, consistently - and this means every single time.  Consistency leads to relaxation - the horse doesn't have to worry about what the rules are or that they are going to vary from moment to moment.  Consistency in personal space, handling - leading, grooming, hoof picking, etc. - consistency in standing when ground tied or mounting, all these things build in relaxation and confidence.

There's another type of consistency that's very important - in your offering softness to the horse at all times - the horse needs to know that you will offer a soft spot that the horse can always find and relax into.  This has nothing to do with "being nice" or going goo goo over your horse or feeding them treats or kissing them on the nose - it's about providing the horse calm leadership and mental and physical softness that the horse can find and relax into.  If you need to upgrade your riding skills to be able to do this, then do it - I did this in the spring 2012 when my bad accident with Pie exposed some deficiencies in my riding skills and attitudes.

To build confidence, the horse need you to help them through - provide active, soft leadership in - situations that might otherwise be scary or worrisome.  If your horse is concerned or alarmed, do something, don't just sit there, and do something right away - don't even wait a second - give the horse a task you can do together that the horse can successfully do and be rewarded for by finding the soft spot.  Don't force the horse to do the thing that is the problem or "face the object" - that typically results in reinforcing the horse's concern - ignore the problem and work right along back towards it as the horse is able and pretty soon you'll likely find the problem has just evaporated.  And don't punish a horse for spooking - "he's just doing it to get me" - no, he isn't - he's either learned that there's something scary there - usually from his rider's expectations and reactions - "my horse always spooks in the corner" - or there is something scary there - at least scary for the horse.  Just keep on riding and ignore it.  One of the saddest things I see pretty frequently is someone punishing the horse for spooking after the spook is over and the horse has taken a calm step or two - they've just punished the horse for calming down.  Unless your timing is just about perfect - this is so rare as to be almost non-existent - using punishment is pretty darn ineffective, except perhaps for making a more worried horse.

Find ways to help your horse be successful, and make sure they know that you share their delight when they are - this builds confidence and connection.

That's it - that's what I've learned - what do you think?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Post Coming on the Confident Horse

I'm working on a post on the confident horse.  First draft was a mess . . . still working on it . . .

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Scary Stuff + Active Riding + Softness = Good Rides + Proud Horses

The boys and I had a chance to practice some good skills this afternoon.  It was a beautiful sunny day, about 80 degrees - just perfect to ride outside.  And there was a pool party going on . . . so a perfect training opportunity.  Pool party?  Let me explain.

The family that owns our barn has several houses on the property.  The house immediately next to the big front pasture isn't occupied, but is used for parties as it has a pool area.  One of the daughters is leaving for college next week, so there were swarms of older and younger teens.  The pool is behind a slatted fence - you can see people moving around.  There are umbrellas showing over the top of the fence and several large flags (that were new today).  There was lots of shrieking and screaming.  There were groups of teens running across the grass to and from the tennis courts, and playing tennis and waving racquets around as they ran (I was riding Red during this).  There were teens riding golf carts to and fro, including one cart that had a horn like the one in the Marx brothers movies.  There was a bunch of teen girls running around with a small puppy (Pie got to see this one).

The large pasture is about 5 acres, with the outdoor arena at the top of a hill about 100 yards from the barn.  There's a large flattish area at the top of hill outside the outdoor (in the big pasture itself) that's particularly good for working.  Red and Pie and I rode out there today during all the commotion, and both boys did exceptionally well.  We weren't right up close to the people, objects and noise, but we had a good view from the hill.  Both horses were nervous at first - they weren't particularly worried about the noises but were somewhat concerned about the people running around - both boys are more prone to spook at people/animals moving fast, rather than objects or noises.  For both rides, we were alone out there with no other horses nearby.

But we had no spooks, and both boys worked well.  When Pie's or Red's head would shoot up and they would lock eyes on something that was happening I didn't sit there like a lump and let them stare and get more worried - I've done the lump thing before and believe me it's not an effective strategy with these boys when they're worried - that's how I came off Pie back in the summer of 2011.  Instead I actively rode.  Now, what do I mean by that?

The moment the horse's head went up and the eyes started to lock on something - the exact moment, not moments later - delay can result in trouble - I started asking the horse to do something - actively giving them direction and a task to do with me - circles, serpentines, figures - using a soft opening hand and not a lot of leg.  And I asked for softness.  Any time they were distracted, I instantly asked for them to come back to me with softness - I don't care if they get distracted - it's my response to their distraction that determines how well they do and how quickly they come back to me.  Both boys know exactly what I want when I ask, and were immediately able to deliver.  I don't think this strategy would be as effective, although it might still help, if the horse didn't already have the ability to deliver softness without even having to think about it - all that softening work we do, every day, has made it easy and automatic for them.  And since we were doing together something they knew how to do, it gave them something to focus their attention on, and more confidence since we were doing something together at my request.  It's my job to set things up so the horse can be successful - this is what builds trust.

Since we were doing circles and figures, they got plenty of opportunity to look - without stopping what we were doing and without putting their heads up or bracing.  As they offered softness, this helped them relax through their whole bodies. The size of the circle depended on how amped the horse was - with Red at first the circles were fairly small so he couldn't build up too much momentum.  We started at the walk, and as the horses worked and began to relax a bit, the size of the circles could get bigger and we could progress to trot.  Eventually, once they'd relaxed a bit and didn't feel a need to rush, both horses were doing a lot of straight line work as well.  Any time a horse would get a little too amped, we'd go back to figure work - worked like a charm to settle and relax them.

Both boys did exceptionally well - I was delighted with them and told them so.  Both were able to walk back to the barn on a loose rein - the commotion was still going on - and we did a bit more work in another pasture after we walked back to the barn.  I expect they're pretty proud of themselves - that's how I want my horses to feel any time we work together.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

New Trailer Photos

Here are some photos of the new horse trailer, which Pie and Red and I were using in the last two posts.

Front view - the windows open from the bottom, letting air into the tack room and then through the windows between the tack room and trailer, into the trailer.  The trim is actually dark blue, although it looks black in most of the photos.

Side view - the tack room door is in front, the escape door (same on the other side) is next (with a drop down window), and a window for the horse area - all windows have screens and the drop down windows on the escape door have bars as well.

Tack room - already a mess!  You can just see the window between the horse area and the tack room - this window can be open or shut.

A view of the escape door area looking across the trailer - chest bars to the left and a head screen in the middle.

Rear of the trailer, with the ramp covering the bottom of the back doors.

View of interior with the escape doors closed and divider pushed to one side - it's a dark day but the interior is pretty inviting.  When the trailer is hitched up, there are interior load lights that can be turned on.

Opening one escape door makes things brighter inside - this is how we had the trailer set up for our loading practice:

This shows how shallow the ramp angle is, and the small lip between the ramp and the trailer floor:

A very satisfactory trailer, I think.

More Trailer Loading . . .

Yesterday was a bit busy . . .

My day started with a very nice ride on Dawn in the cool morning.  Her lateral work is really coming along - she tells me when I'm getting things right.

Then I had a mid-day music lesson, which requires an hour of driving each way.

Back home, a bit of lunch, then back to the barn.  Both boys got rides.  Pie got a short, relaxed outdoors ride, and Red got a longer ride, both indoors and outdoors.  My vet was there looking at a couple of other horses, and watched Red moving and said he was looking very good.  I occasionally feel a bit of stiffness in the left hind as we warm up, but he's pretty much fully sound now.

Then Red and I had another trailer loading session.  We'll be doing this a couple of days a week until he's a lot more comfortable with the trailer.  He loaded pretty well (to yesterday's standards) from the start, which is about what I expected he would do.  He gets on without a whole lot of pressure, but isn't relaxed at all in the trailer and isn't comfortable staying in for long.  We're already well ahead of where we were last year with his trailer loading, and if I needed him to load in an emergency, we could do it, but it's still nowhere near what I want long term.

Then I started working on what I wanted to accomplish.  One step forwards, one step back, two steps forward, one step back, one step forward, two steps back . . .  We'd practiced ahead of time as we were leading through the indoor, out through the parking lot and up the hill.  We did that a bit on the grass in front of the trailer, and then we went to work.

Since I was asking him to do something new/different/outside his comfort zone, the bracing/evasions came right back. First we had to deal with his evasion of curling his head, neck and body to the right, which results in him throwing his left shoulder towards the trailer and ending up sideways with his head braced away from me.  I just kept the pressure on the lead while getting close to him and then turned his head towards me to the left and did some very small circles to the left before asking again, never taking the pressure off the lead.  When it was a bit better, I simply led him towards the trailer on a fairly loose lead and when he started to veer to his right and throw his body to the left, I just tossed the end of the lead - I love my 10' cotton leads - at his left side behind my back and just kept right on going.  Later in our work, when he'd try to go around the end of the ramp I just asked him to load from there - the ramp angle is so shallow that it's easy for him to step up from the side.

There were also some hissy fits.  He did some running backwards - I just kept the pressure on until he moved forward again.  He went through a stage of flinging himself into the trailer - "all right, you want me in there, I'm going in there pronto" - not what I wanted.  He worked through the hissy fits faster this time, and there was no panicked calling for other horses.

I'm not worried about the pulling backwards and bracing to the side behaviors.  I just keep on asking consistently and calmly for what I want him to do and we get through it.  He does this because he feels under pressure and also because I expect in the past it got him releases and perhaps even stopping the work - it's not that he's scheming, it's just how he was trained in the past to get a release.  Having a 1,200 pound horse pulling, rearing and pushing his shoulder out (in our early days he would even run his body right into you - that doesn't happen anymore because I set boundaries) can be mighty intimidating if you don't know how to handle it.

We got some good one step forward, one step back work on the ramp, with two feet inside the trailer, and also inside the trailer once he was fully in.  The intermediate area - where he's just stepped into the trailer with his hind feet, or taken more than a step backwards from the front - is still a place where he's not comfortable stopping and taking a step back and forward - there's a lip at the back of the trailer where the ramp attaches, so it could be that's a worry for him.

At the very end, after about 45 minutes of work, we got some good one step work at the back and front of the trailer, with a couple of nice, slow back offs, and called it a day.  He's still not at all calm when inside the trailer, but is calmer in its vicinity and on the ramp and with two feet in.  He'll be calmer when he's more confident and when he has more hours practicing. I told him what a fine horse he is, many, many times at each stage of our progress.  We'll do a day or two of trailer loading practice every week until we're done - it'll take a while but we'll get there in the end, and Red working through his fits and making progress with me is a great confidence builder for him.  Over time, as we work and he learns that he can undertake new tasks (without bad things happening if he gets the wrong answer - he's worried about this, still) and make progress together with me, the bad behaviors will decrease and eventually just fall away, as many of his other problem behaviors have.

After I was all done, I unhitched - more of a production with the bumper pull than it was with the gooseneck - I was a bit surprised by this.  The negative of the gooseneck (in addition to its very large size) is having to crawl around in the truck bed to hitch.  The negative of the bumper pull is having to get down on the ground, and also having to deal with the load stabilizer bars - very heavy to handle (about at my load limit due to my history of back trouble) and they also take some strength - the gooseneck required no physical effort at all.  Removing and reinserting the hitch from the back of the truck (so as not to get a ticket while driving around trailerless) also involves weight lifting that's beyond my capabilities - I have to get help with that.  I also find I was spoiled by the handling of my F350 with trailer - very smooth and easy.  The F150 plus bumper pull is a bit more rough - you can feel the trailer and its movements.  Pluses and minuses . . .  I do very much like the interior of the trailer - it's spacious and light and comfortable for the horses.  Pictures coming . . .

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Trailer Loading

I picked up the new horse trailer Monday.  It's a Hawk two-horse straight load bumper pull, the Elite model.  It's a very nice trailer, and I already like it a lot.  I ordered it with full back doors plus a ramp, rather than the standard configuration of the ramp being the bottom half of the back door with dutch doors above.  I prefer the configuration I chose, since when you're bending down to handle the ramp, the doors are between your head and the horse's hind feet.  (I forgot to take my camera today, but will try to get some photos tomorrow.)

Today Pie and I, then Red and I, worked on trailer loading.  This trailer is different from my last one - it's a straight load, instead of a slant, and has a ramp instead of a step-up.  One nice feature of the Hawks is that they have a low load bed, so the slope on the ramp is pretty flat, and it has a nice textured rubber surface.  To practice our loading, I put a hay bag up front, opened the escape door on the side I was using - there is a walk through with escape doors at the front of the horse area - and swung the divider over and tied it in place.  Since working on trailer loading can be mighty dangerous - unless and until you teach your horses to send in, you're in a confined space with a might big and perhaps mighty nervous animal.  So I always wear a helmet when working on loading, and if circumstances are particularly dicey I might wear a body protector as well.

Pie, after a moment's hesitation, loaded beautifully twice and even grabbed some hay from the bag on his second load.  He did everything so nicely that I immediately put him away.  The ramp didn't bother him in the slightest, although I don't think he's ever been on a trailer with a ramp before.  In our next loading session, we'll work on duration - having him stand longer before I ask him to back out - and some one foot forward/one step back/one step forward work to be sure he's listening to me and not on autopilot when backing out.  The next step with Pie will be sending him in - I don't think that's going to be a problem at all for him.

Red struggled a bit, as I thought he might.  It's been over 14 months since he's been in a trailer, and the last times he's loaded, Pie has already been on board.  He went through some of the behaviors he used last spring when we were working on loading, but today we're already farther along than where we left off last year.  But there was some stuff to work through before we got to that better place . . .

With a horse like Red who has some trailer loading issues, I don't try sending him in at first - even though he sends well in general - having me with him in the trailer helps give him confidence.  Leading rather than sending helped as well since his behaviors/evasions tend to be attempts to get away from the door of the trailer - he will pull backwards, or try to turn his head and body away from the trailer, throwing his shoulder towards you.  So my first job was to keep him facing the trailer door, and if he pulled backwards, to stay with him, keeping an even pressure on the rope.  All the work we've done on leading helped a lot - I'm able now to pretty easily keep him from popping his shoulder into me or from running past me, although I did have to pay attention.  I also put him in a rope halter so that it was easier to maintain pressure when it was needed.

I focussed on keeping him facing the door, asking him to step forwards, releasing pressure and praising each step and giving him a bigger release - a walk around with a bit of grazing and lots of praise - for significant progress.  He was also still leaving the trailer pretty rapidly at this point.  What I wanted for today was for him to lead nicely into the trailer with minimal pressure and no stops, stand there for a few seconds and then back out slowly at my request.  I thought we could get to that point today.

After a bit, he was loading into the trailer, but it was still pretty sticky - there were lots of stops and starts and it took some pressure to have him take steps forward.  So we just kept on working - I never attempt a loading work session like this unless I can take as much time as it takes.

Then we had our "darkest before the dawn" moment - where things get much worse all of a sudden - I was waiting for it and glad when it appeared - it meant we were close to breaking through to the better place I was looking for.  Red started really acting up - lots of screaming for another horse, any horse, to save him - and there were some dramatic runs backwards with some rearing thrown in for good measure, lots of attempts to move sideways, and the loading progress fell apart.  This meant that I was asking for more that he thought he was going to be asked to do - the "good" loading we'd achieved so far, with some pressure and fits and starts and rapid exits, was about where he'd gotten to with loading last year.  When he got outside his previous comfort zone, he got worried - he got braced and resistant - the prior bad behaviors reappearing.  I knew if we could work through this things would likely suddenly get much better.

The solution was for me to continue asking, patiently, and with as much softness as possible, and to know what I wanted and be willing to keep working until I got it.  So we kept working, and all of a sudden he loaded, staying straight, without any significant pressure and with no balks.  He came all the way to the front of the trailer and extended his head and neck to look out the escape door.  I praised him profusely and hugged him around the neck and shoulders - I was right there, up against the side wall of the trailer.  Then I asked him to back out after less than 10 seconds right before he decided to back out on his own.  And this time he backed out nice and slowly, although he isn't yet waiting for my direction for each step.

Once we got out, we walked all the way around the truck and trailer, sniffing and examining everything.  Then we grazed for a bit.  Then I led him around the back of the trailer and we loaded again, very nicely, and stood for some seconds and then backed out nicely.  Tomorrow we may do some one step forward/one step back work, starting with doing this in the arena so he's got the idea firmly in hand.  I was very proud of him and praised him lavishly.

The things I find most important in this sort of thing are: first, to keep myself focussed on what I do want and ignore/redirect what I don't want - I never punish or "make the horse work" - that's just a distraction from what I'm trying to do and takes our eyes off the ball.  Second, I don't put any negative emotional content into any of this, no matter what the horse does - no anger, frustration, irritation, etc. - the horse is just being a horse - I just praise and give releases for what I want.  That doesn't mean that I don't direct/redirect, sometimes forcefully (but never as a punishment) - getting Red to stay straight took some rope swinging at this shoulder and side and putting quite a bit of pressure on his head to get him to bend towards me instead of away.  And a horse running into or over me is never, ever acceptable - Red knows this from our prior work.  Third, I'm very careful to always give a release, or set it up so the horse gives himself a release, for every try, no matter how small.  For big progress, or changes in attitude, big releases - very big ones - celebrations - are in order.  And don't quit until you're done - persistence and patience are essential - if I'd quit when Red was having his difficult time towards the end of our work - the "darkest before dawn" - that would have confirmed for him that that's how he was to act and that he couldn't do more than he'd done before.  Quitting too soon due to giving up or time pressure are frequent errors people make in this sort of work.  Knowing when to stop and what is a realistic goal for that day, depending on what horse shows up, is also important and is a matter of judgment.

Anyhow, I was delighted with Pie and also delighted with Red and his progress.  Neither boy got a ride today (Dawn did), but that didn't matter - it was a good day's work for all of us.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Auditing a Trail Obstacle Clinic and a Calmer Day

Today I rode all three horses outside, and things were a bit less exciting than yesterday - everyone, including Red, was relaxed but forward and responsive.  It helped that there were no wildly galloping horses or Dementor ponies around . . .  Dawn got an early morning ride, and Red and Pie had rides in the late afternoon.  It was another beautiful day - have to love that.

In the morning, after my ride on Dawn, I audited a clinic at our barn.  There were eight horse/person pairs, and the clinician was someone I've known for a while (Denise Lesnik of Inside Out Horse Training) but have never ridden with.  I have a pretty strict policy of not riding with a clinician unless I've seen them work before, so I audited.  I was the only auditor and was able to stand in the arena and observe different horse/handler pairs work - Denise knows me well enough to know that I could probably manage to stay out of trouble and out of the way.  I also was able to help out by picking up manure for the participants.

There were lots of obstacles - platforms, a car wash (a curtain of plastic strips), a tarp tunnel - one side high enough to walk through without the tarp touching the horse and the other side lower, and various pole/cone combinations, and some barrels and blocks that several people used for side-passing.  All the horse/handler combinations did great - especially one Arabian and his share-boarder - he has a reputation for being a spooky, difficult horse, and he tried his heart out even when he was a bit worried.  The exercises were about helping the handlers be more effective in directing their horses and rewarding the smallest tries, and building confidence between horse and handler.

After the obstacle ground work, Denise worked with one combo on trailer loading - this horse tends to get very nervous and have trouble loading calmly.  It was very instructive to watch and listen to her comments and instructions to the handler - she said that a lot of her business concerns helping people with trailer loading problems.  The timing of releases and the timing/frequency of taking breaks as a bigger reward were of particular interest to me, and she had some good suggestions about dealing with Dawn's tendency to kick while trailering - she suggested she might do better in a box stall/loose set up, which my new trailer will permit.  She said the kicking is likely from anxiety about maintaining her balance.

Then the group mounted up and did more work with the obstacles.  I think everyone had a very good experience.  Although Denise is more classically "natural horsemanship" than I am - she does a lot of groundwork, including lungeing at liberty, seems to pretty much always uses rope halters, and does a fair amount of lateral flexion, none of which I do, I otherwise am in pretty good agreement with everything she does and her attitude towards horses - she looks at things from the horse's point of view and helps their people become more effective while staying soft.  She's particularly good at helping people with their timing - most people are late with their releases and/or miss the horse's small tries, which tends to confuse the horse. If you're looking for a competent and caring trainer west of Chicago, you might want to check her out.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Red Bolts, and Recovers Well

We've been having a lot of beautiful weather - 70s and low 80s - so most of our riding lately has been outside, either in the outdoor arena or in the big pastures.  We all enjoy being out there, so long as the flies aren't too bad, and we appreciate not being confined to our (relatively) small indoor arena.  Pie becomes much more forward out there - it's a blast to trot and canter him around, since he really puts some motor into it.  Red and Dawn also seem happy outside, staying responsive and soft no matter what we do.

There was some excitement at the barn today.  A new boarder (actually an old boarder who came back after several years' absence - I never knew him) decided he was going to make all our lives more interesting.  A whole group of horses and riders were in the outdoor arena, which is several hundred yards away from the barn across a large pasture that is used for the mares' turnout during the day.  The new boarder's mare has been kept in a pen since her arrival, and hasn't been turned out.  As I was bringing Red into the indoor to mount up and then go outside to ride, the other boarder decided it would be a fine time to turn his mare out in the pasture between the barn and the outdoor arena.

Of course, the mare took off like a shot and proceeded to gallop at high speed all over the pasture, including galloping right along the shared fenceline with the outdoor arena.  A number of the horses in the outdoor went crazy - one mare started rearing repeatedly and her rider had to get off.  It's fortunate no one was injured.  Red and I were standing together in the indoor while this was going on, and had a good view of the action - I hadn't mounted up yet. Red's head was high and his eyes were on stalks, but he kept his cool. After the mare ran around for a while, the man caught her and led her out of the pasture.

I mounted Red - he was fine and stood still as usual for mounting - and we headed outdoors to ride.  As we were starting down the hill from the barn, here come two girls leading a pony and a mini back to the barn - they'd been in the outdoor.  For some reason, Red decided that there was something seriously wrong about this picture, even though both the pony and the mini are in his usual turnout herd.  Perhaps it was the girls leading the pony and mini, perhaps it was that the pony and mini didn't belong (in Red's mind - he's big on things being correct) where they were, or perhaps he was still worked up from the mare running around.

In any event, he did a high-speed rollback and bolted at high speed - and when he moves, he really moves - back into the indoor arena.  He only went about 20 feet into the indoor, and only bolted about 75 feet in total, and wasn't hard to stop.  I'd been leaning back a bit while we were going down the hill, so when he spun and bolted I had no trouble staying with him.  There was one horse being lunged in there, and I called out a warning to them as we galloped in.

Horses usually bolt for one of two reasons, or a combination of them.  Either they're getting to a safe distance so they can evaluate a scary situation or object, including a suddenly appearing object that they need time to assess, or they're just emotionally overwhelmed (as when a horse is very herd bound). In Red's case, he was already a bit stressed from the mare's antics, and the pony and mini appearing where he didn't expect them to be caused his circuits to pop.  But I was very pleased that, unlike his earlier bolts with me last spring, he didn't just panic, but stayed at least partly with me - he was no where near as braced and stopped for me fairly easily - his bolts last spring were a lot more challenging and he travelled a lot farther before I was able to get a connection back.  And this time he calmed down right away, and we went right back out on our ride, which was very satisfactory - lots of trotting and cantering around in the pastures.  That was a darn good recovery on his part in my book, and I was pretty pleased with him.  Staying on is also, always, a very good thing . . . I never take this for granted any more . . .

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Red Waits, and Dawn and Pie Help Me Bend Right

Pie went in the pen this morning briefly again so I could medicate his eye before he was turned out.  After yesterday, Red had figured out that Pie was going to be in a pen, and instead of going out to the pasture with the other horses, had lingered near the barn to make sure Pie was OK.  When I got there, Red was halfway up the hill, about 50 yards from the barn, where he could watch Pie and call to him from time to time.  When I turned Pie out, they galloped off to the pasture together.

Pie's eye is looking so much better already - this evening it looked almost completely normal, wide open and clear with no sign of any abrasion on the eyeball - that I suspect he didn't scratch his eye but instead bumped his whole eye area hard on something, perhaps his water bucket.  This is supported by the signs of a scrape on his upper eyelid.  I'll keep medicating the eye just in case through the weekend, but it seems things are heading in the right direction.

Yesterday and this morning, Dawn and Pie helped me some more with my lateral work.  All my three horses have tended to move better when tracking left.  When tracking right, stepping under into the corners, and circles and bending, have always been more of a challenge.  We get there, but it's not as easy as tracking/bending left.  Now this isn't because my horses are coincidentally the same, moving more easily when tracking left.  It's because they have the same rider - me.

Riding Pie at the walk yesterday and Dawn at the walk this morning while we did shoulder in and leg yields helped me more clearly see what I need to fix.  When tracking right, or bending right (moving to the left in leg yield), I tend to slightly shorten my right leg and slightly collapse my right hip.  This puts my seat slightly off center, and results in my leaning slightly to the right.  It's no wonder my horses struggle to carry me around right turns or travel with a right bend - they're just trying to support my off-centeredness.  Then I resort to using my hands too much to compensate for my ineffective body position, further blocking their motion.

So I worked on keeping my eyes up, posture open, legs stretching down equally on both sides.  I tried, when shifting from leg yield right to leg yield left and back again - sometimes with a stride or two straight in between, sometime directly from right bend to left bend and back again - to keep my body still and posture straight with no leans or twists, and just change my focal point to our new destination while offering the horse my feel of the hind legs stepping over and under.  Much, much better with both horses.

Less is more . . .

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Pie Eye Update and Dawn Works with Me on Lateral

Last night when I went back to the barn, Pie's eye was already looking a bit better - it wasn't fully closed and was a bit less weepy.  More eye meds.  This morning very early I went to the barn and found Pie in his pen - I'd had him put there instead of in turnout so I wouldn't have to walk one half mile out and another half mile back to find him in the pasture.  He greeted me ears up at the gate, clearly wanting to get out and go join his friends.  His eye looked even better - more than half open and nice and clear.  More eye meds and a 500-lb. dose of Banamine later, he was galloping off to join his friends.  We'll keep doing the multiple times a day eye meds through the weekend, and a bit more Banamine tonight and tomorrow, and if he continues to improve I think we'll be OK.

The more I ride, the more I find that my horses are working with me, in the sense of they're training and teaching me, rather than I'm working them.  This makes sense - the more I listen to them, the more they have to tell me.  And the message they give me, almost every time, is the same "less is more" that was the assignment Mark Rashid gave me in June for the year to come.

Dawn worked with me on more walking lateral work this morning.  We did some leg yield and shoulder in.  We ended with leg yield back to and away from the center line, three strides in each direction with an immediate shift to the other direction on the next stride. She taught me that it's no different than our work on circles and corners - all I have to do is change my focus to where we're going now, keep my upper body up and open and offer her the "mental feel" of the hind legs stepping over, carrying our body where we want to go, and making sure to keep offering her the space to move into by "opening the door" with my body.   The net result is forward is maintained and the movement is free and relaxed - no pushing, pulling, twisting or leaning on my part.  Dawn says it's a lot easier to connect with my thought when there isn't all that other stuff going on, and she says it's also a lot easier to move if you're not being held, pushed, blocked or braced against.  (She gets the last word, particularly since she's right!)

New trailer being picked up on Monday . . . :)))

Monday, August 5, 2013

Guiding/Communicating Without Blocking or Bracing, and Poor Pie

All three horses are working very well and meeting every expectation I have for them.  Red will still sometimes brace for a few minutes if he's excited, but we work through that pretty quickly.  Today we had an excellent ride, with some good work in the indoor and then some fine motoring around the pasture, part of the time with another boarder and her horse.  We trotted around a lot together, and Red was just lovely, relaxed and willing to lead or follow.  It's good pre-trail practice for him - my goal for him through the fall is to extend our pasture jaunts - the pastures extend a good half mile from the barn - and ride in company and also work on our trailer loading until he's relaxed and proficient at it.  We'll also start riding out on the lane that leads to our trail head, and take things as far as he's comfortable.  Pie's ready to start trailering out - and the truck and trailer have arrived!  Early next week I pick up the trailer and get the trailer balanced and learn how to hitch a bumper pull with stabilizer bars. (It's an odd thing of my history that I've only ever driven and hitched a gooseneck trailer, never a bumper pull.)

Dawn is also working very well.  This morning we started adding some lateral work back in - just some shoulder-in at the walk this morning.  We've done some of this before, and both boys are ready to do some as well - all three horses already do very nice side pass and turn on the forehand and turn on the haunches.  I find lateral work challenging.  I've learned in my regular, forward, straight work and circles not to move my body hardly at all, but use my focus, energy and intention to guide and direct the horse.  With lateral work, I tend to do too much - too much twisting and/or leaning of my body, too much leg, blocking with my seat, etc., etc.  All this gets in the way of the horse's freely moving where and how I want.  I need to do enough to have the horse understand what I want, but that shouldn't be very much at all, and I need to create openings for the horse to move into and not brace with my aids.  Dawn and I did pretty well this morning - or at least she thought I did pretty well and it's her opinion that matters.  She's a good one to practice this with, as she doesn't put up with any of that nonsense from me and needs only a suggestion, a whisper, of direction to get what I want.  Pie doesn't always yet get what I want right away, and I have to not up the ante but just be calmly, softly clear, and Red tends to overdo things - his tendency to overbend in the head and neck can come back.  So all three horses have a lot to teach me, and I may also go up and take a few lessons with Heather to get her eyes on what I'm doing.

Poor Pie - within a few minutes of my arriving at the barn - he was fine when I got there - he managed to poke himself in the right eye, apparently with a piece of hay from his hay bag.  (This is not necessarily a problem with the hay bag but rather with the way the barn workers put the hay in - they just tend to stuff it in there with bits protruding from the top and sides every which way - if you do it correctly the flakes of hay lie flat inside the bag - I need to keep an eye out for this.) His eye was tightly shut and and tearing profusely, and the eyelids were swelling.  I got some triple eye antibiotic ointment in there, after prying it open to see if there was any obvious injury - there wasn't but he likely has a corneal scratch - and gave him a 1,000 lb. dose of Banamine, some of which he spit out (after holding it in his mouth for quite a while).  I took his hay out of the bag and put it on the stall floor - with one eye not so good I didn't want to risk more injuries. When I left a couple of hours later, the eye looked slightly better - it was partly open and not tearing anymore.   I'll go back later this evening and put in some more eye antibiotic, and do the same tomorrow morning and also give him a 500 lb. dose of Banamine.  If it starts improving, likely no need to call the vet since they'd have me do pretty much what I'm doing now.  If it doesn't improve or gets worse, I'll call the vet.  Poor Pie!