The little things

Monday, September 21, 2015

Khaleesi has had a well deserved break, and Faygo and I have taken a few rides- a little alone time together, and some trail clearing and riding fun with Nancy and Mireyah. It’s been forever since we’ve ridden with them and that was a great ride. We got off and clipped out a new trail connector, then rode a really beautiful 11 mile ride on some of my favorite “backyard” roads.

I’ve also done some more work on my riding with Khaleesi. Riding bareback has been a fantastic way to better understand her feet and how my body connects with hers. I love riding her in a halter bareback – and this week the connection finally clicked of what it feels like when her back feet pick up. We got our first really good cross over and it was amazing to do that together. It doesn’t look exciting, but the timing for that little movement to be correct has taken me months! (Sometimes I feel like such a slow learner!)

We also worked on it under saddle and I was able to feel the movement then as well!

My trotting has been going through lots of phases, and saddle changes over the past couple months, but I believe it’s come down now to settling into my feet and keeping them more still. This will work better if I am more relaxed and not letting my legs “grip” her sides. We went through lots of off-kilter moments…

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I’m still pretty far from a graceful easy rider, but each time we get better. I know that improving my riding will improve our endurance prospects. If I am better in the seat- if I can relax more and get out of her way, she can move most effectively and faster, longer strides when we need them and we can do the miles without pain (for both of us!). Here is how we ended it this week- a little more centered, less grip from my legs, and my feet a bit more still:

Besides my riding, we’ve been working on some great ground exercises with Pam. These have become as fun to me as riding because I love to see her “get it” and step up to such great manners/behavior. I have always thought the time on the ground matters- and spent a lot of time there before riding Khaleesi last year and really built our relationship – literally- from the ground up. I have come upon a new love of working from the ground again.

Between our scheduled rides, I’ve been focusing on what I call the “Little things” that foundationally shape the “Big things” (our trail rides and events).

Some of our little things have included:

Standing Still: Don’t eat right now. Don’t move a foot unless I as ask you to. If you do move- I can ask with energy and a lead rope cue for you to put that foot back in place. Stay in place for me to adjust your saddle, hose you off, spray you with fly spray (that was a huge breakthrough this week!), and in extension- while the pulse taker gets your heart rate, while the vet checks you over, and while the farrier is working.

Back Up: she has a decent back up but I have to ask loudly for it. (of course that’s my fault not hers- she is perfectly capable of hearing me ask more quietly). We are working on gently wiggling the lead rope and focusing on which foot I’m asking her to move- also being able to ask her from a foot or more away and not having to enter her space to get her to move back.

Come to me: clucking for us means to come closer. So after getting her to back away from me a few feet and stand there, clucking to her to ask her to come closer is a great tool to have (it is also useful in the mounting block, or mounting rock, log on the trail.. etc)

Leading perfectly: her head at my shoulder. Don’t lag/drag when I move, stop when I stop, back up with my feet, trot out when I jog, slow down or speed up at will and don’t eat when we’re working.

Mounting: Coming to me at the mounting block, then standing quietly as long as I want- and not moving one foot once I get on until I ask her to.

Load up: she is great about walking right on the trailer if I lead the way. Eventually I’d like her to load up and step on while I stand behind her. She’s done it a couple times, but we’re not quite there regularly yet.

Some of these things are basics that we just do, like leading. Every time I get her out of the field and bring her into the barn we practice this. It doesn’t take much time and occasionally I’ll challenge her with some speed changes and stops or back ups together just to be sure she’s “tuned up”.

Unfortunately I get into the habit that her basic manners are fine and we don’t need to do much groundwork now- we did that already right?

Could there be more layers of learning available there that we are leaving on the table? Could it be this is more than “work” or making sure a horse is safe with good manners? I think what is really developed from the ground is communication and connection. It’s not work actually- it’s learning to have a conversation, and it’s spending time listening to your horse on their level. Literally.

I am reminded again that ground communication is a much deeper relationship builder than riding work. I was ‘forced’ into substantial ground communication with Khaleesi when I first brought her home because that was all we had and it is the base of the great relationship we have today. I am convinced it couldn’t have happened otherwise, I love Faygo and she and I have a really good relationship, but our relationship is built more from riding than ground communication over the years and it is definitely a different relationship. I’d like to work on that as well with her.

…….. In fact Faygo seems to hate being in an arena/ring. She doesn’t like repetitive tasks. She is impatient. I’d like to find out this winter if that is indeed true, or if she just hasn’t felt like anyone is truly having a conversation with her and she’s sick of having someone talk “at” her instead of work with her? She is incredibly smart. She seems to have learned how to function in the human world, but maybe she would open up to a conversation on her level. At her age it might take a little time for her to believe me, but this winter that’s a project for me to try….

Some of these things can be incredibly time consuming and don’t fit into a riding agenda day. Who wants to wait 5 or more minutes while we hang around the mounting block before hitting the trail? Who wants to watch us work on standing still for fly spray application… as of last week that could have taken 20 minutes of patiently just putting her feet back in place, getting one spray in, then putting her feet back in place….

No one – nor should they!

This is the foundation we work on when no one is waiting for us to hit the trail! In the busy pace of life, and riding goals appear larger than the time available, it’s easy for me to forgo this time and figure we’ll get our ‘training on the trail’.

Note: Of course we are training on the trail. We are training every time we interact with our horse- we are training good habits and positive relationships, or bad habits and negative relationships. Training on the trail isn’t bad, just maybe not sufficient for the relationship I hope for with my horse.

It has been a new challenge for me to combine “stand still” with “fly spray” because of how terrible Khaleesi used to be with the spray. She used to dance around me in circles as if being lunged on too short a rope occasionally rearing up and trying to bite the bottle.

I wasn’t sure the best way to deal with this except that maybe she’d eventually “desensitize”, realize she wasn’t hurt by the fly spray, and get tired of working herself up with it. Armed with the stand still work we set out to fly spray calmly. At first she would move around- much much better than the crazy fly spray dance, but not standing still as I’d asked.

With absolutely no time-line, I would spray her, put her feet back in place (sometimes having to put the spray down and two handed work the lead rope as she said “NO WAY am I standing around for you to do that to me!” I’d get her back in place as calmly and matter of factly as possible then pick up the bottle and spray again. Each time she’d move, but eventually just a step instead of completely trying to run me over to get out of the ‘zone’. Finally, about 2 weeks later, I took this video of her standing still while I sprayed her. She isn’t perfect yet, but she is doing great and each time we do it, the moving, stepping, and dancing is less.

Then there’s the mounting block.

Yesterday, bareback with only a halter it must have taken me 15 minutes to move her around the block again when she’d move a foot as I tried to get on her. Once she was SO CLOSE, she positioned herself perfectly, I rubbed her while she stood quietly, then leaned over and almost was on her when she walked off!

I was on, but that was not good enough. I dropped down, walked her calmly back to the block and we tried again. And again, and again, and again as each time she’d get in place perfectly… but at some point would move a foot or step off as I started to get on her. Thankfully Pam is gracious and we didn’t have a time-limit. She encouraged me to do it as many times as it took for her to hear me ask for what I wanted, and then learn to respond correctly.

Eventually there was a time she stood there with her ears back- I think she knew what we were trying to do and just was getting annoyed with the process. We stood there, her in place for what seemed like a LOOOOOOONG time. We waited. And at some point she softened and shook her head and licked her lips and there was a change in her. She was more willing to have the conversation.  After that it clicked and she did not walk off as I leaned over and climbed on her bareback.

That moment came from me doing NOTHING. Just waiting and reading her energy. (And Pam helping me realize that it was an opportunity. I am not naturally good at waiting and doing nothing in order to get results)

What I love the most about these things is that we are learning to talk to each other- or I am learning to communicate better with her while she realizes I truly am willing to speak her language. This process is pretty time consuming, but the rewards have been overwhelming. Also, once we gain understanding it is always improved going forward. The ground we gain has solid footing (as long as I don’t ‘untrain’ it in the future!) We have a conversation going that is much more balanced and our relationship which was good before is deepening as is our connection.

Also, this is different than true “non-agenda” time. I used to think that was bonding time- when we’d just go in the barn, and I’d groom my horse and give her attention and love and not ask for anything. While this is nice to do, I have begun to realize that though (depending on your horse who may not really like all the hands on attention) this might be a nice treat for them, it does not work on our relationship. My horse doesn’t need me to fawn over her and treat her like a princess to realize I love her. My horse needs me to learn her language. We don’t grow together into a deeper relationship because I adore her and brush her. We grow together when we interact.

Too often I believe we don’t know how to speak to our horses so they understand us- that creates a wall between us. I’ve seen a night and day difference in Khaleesi in a poor communication from me vs. a clear one.

One of the first times I was aware of this was trying to adjust her saddle at Pam’s in July and she kept eating grass which made the process harder on me. I would jerk her head up with the lead rope and ask her “stop and stand still” and her head would pull up as I jerked, then she would go right back. Pam watched a moment and said:

She doesn’t understand ‘pulling’ on her head. That’s not how horses communicate. They don’t ‘pull’. Would you like to teach her to stand quietly while you do that?

I thought OF COURSE I would like her to do that……… is that possible?

Pam took the lead rope and every time she went to get a bite of grass she popped the rope so it popped her in the head/neck (didn’t hurt her, just surprised her). She jerked her head up on her own and looked at Pam with a clear recognition.

That human just spoke to me” is what her face said- completely different from the inaudible chatter that my pulling her head up was to her.

She looked at Pam, and put her head down to eat again.

Pop with the lead rope- head comes up.

Looked at Pam. Obvious thought and processing going on.

Put her head partway down, did not reach for grass… testing the water.

No pop.

Ok. I am allowed to move my head.

Head slowly to the ground, sniffs, (no rope correction)…… takes a bite.


Head up. Looking at Pam, thinking it over.

Within 2 minutes she stood quietly and did not eat or mover her feet.

She heard someone speak to her clearly in her language and I saw it in her face. Some might say she “knew” what I wanted when I pulled her head up with the lead rope. She was just being willful. I take this example to be proof that is not true. It did not take weeks to change this behavior, it took minutes. There had been a wall between us in that instance, this shattered the wall. Choosing the correct method of communication was the only difference. I wanted to be part of that conversation.

I don’t want to just be a good rider. I want to be a horseman, a great one someday. One that listens to my horses and wins their respect and their friendship because I hear them and can communicate more clearly. We can’t grow together with bad or no communication.

I thought I was on a journey to a 100 mile ride. Turns out it’s bigger than that. It’s a labor of love.


Published by JaimeHope

Violin teacher and endurance rider living in a rural mountain county - one of the least population dense and without a single stoplight.

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