A the end of October I took Khaleesi to a Joe Wolter clinic in Colfax, NC. My original intent upon registering for this clinic was to take Wyoming my mustang and learn how to work this horse that I take two steps forward and six steps back. So many steps back that at this point she isn’t trailering and I decided even if I could slam her on and get her there, it seemed like that might mean twelve or eighteen steps back and I’d rather gradually keep digging myself out of the hole instead of ending up at the core of the earth burned up in fire of her spirit.
I know that all things work together for my good, so even if things don’t look like I had thought they would, I have peace about moving forward, or sideways depending. Also, I love riding Khaleesi and working with her so it would be less stressful and more fun for me and that seemed a gift even if not what I had hoped for at first.
On day one of the 3-day clinic Joe asked about my goals and my horse. I explained I do endurance riding with this mare, but I have a mustang at home I can’t seem to get progress with — I want to have more tools to help her and I get along. He asked me to ride around a little and he would see what I’ve got going for me. It didn’t feel like much as I asked her to walk and trot around the various horses in the indoor without a clear plan in my own head we probably looked like a pinball trying to figure out which way to turn and where to go and at what speed. Also what diagonal since I wasn’t exactly going in a direction intentionally. Not our finest moment… but that’s ok. I want to learn not to look impressive.
Joe asked us to come back over and “let’s visit” a minute.
Joe likes to visit with people. I like that. It’s a conversation, same way he works with the horses. He’s not instructing as much as he is searching for understanding.
He zeroed in on our halt to walk, the very first fundamental thing of any ride: you are standing still (hopefully!) and you need to move. Totally basic. **However not as basic as if you can’t be on your horse standing still- definitely start there if that’s not working yet!** I have been already considering these concepts from working with Emily Kemp this year but I still have a ways to go. Each time I picked up the reins and got ready to move, Khaleesi and I had the same pattern. I was aware, but hadn’t found a way to change it as of yet. First I pick up the reins, next K does one or both of these responses: drops her head and neck toward the ground, turns her head to the right to look at me. Then I would respond to her response with a request to bring her head either up or straight (left rein asking to come into straightness) and when she got lined up we would walk.
I was aware of making preparation to move and seek balance, but the process was sloppy.
Joe watched us a moment and suggested instead of asking her to correct her neck/head being crooked to the right by signaling with the left rein, instead just hold both reins with equal pressure and allow her to figure it out. Ok, got ready to go, picked up both reins smoothly, and then waited on her to find straight. After she experimented and searched she did come to alignment and then he told me to walk off.
“Come on back around a minute” Joe responded.
“I noticed you have to ask her to walk off. Can you try letting it be her idea? Can you release her when you’re straight so she walks off on her own? You might add just a tiny bit of forward in your own body so she knows you’re looking to move.”
That sounded like a great plan, so I tried again, picked up both reins smoothly and held until she was lined up I leaned the slightest bit forward then imagined that I was just releasing her to go. And she floated on forward straight as an arrow. It was nice!
I had been playing around with these ideas since the Spring, but it was at this clinic when finally something clicked in my body where I could feel what Emily had been trying to help me find- and I began to know when I released Khalessi what would happen. Not only her head and neck, but her weight distribution through her body became more clear and I began not only to wait for her to line up visually, but I would then wait just a little longer until her whole body felt right that when I released her she would float forward in balance and straightness. I noticed when I released her at some points she was mostly straight but not balanced and she would go forward but snaking forward instead of like an arrow as the energy and weight moved through her body more like an “S” than an arrow line.
It was powerful.
I also visited with Joe the next day about a nice back up and he gave me an idea to play with that entailed leaning a little forward in my body and reaching down the reins pretty far, then I would lean back to vertical (it’s a TINY amount of weight shift here) which would take the reins up with my body shift. The horse would naturally back up so smooth to get back under me and I’d adjust the slightest amount forward again which gave her release. The communication to her was so clear she was operating like she was an extension of my body. It was so fun I think I giggled.
I took these fundamental simple ideas and played around with them for the next two days while taking a break here and there to watch Joe visit with someone else. Often what they were talking through didn’t immediately have direct connection to what I was doing- but inevitably some part of the conversation would spark a tether directly to something I’d wondered about as I worked or something I knew I needed to check out with Wyoming. Even if it wasn’t a physical horse communication line, he had so many valuable overarching ideas that listening to his stories or explanations always provided some nugget to tuck away.
Most of the truths were simple, but I could see how often I could nod and say of course yes yes… and then not actually put it into practice.
As I worked on my straightness and balance I got the standstill to walk starting to work better, then I would try to walk in a straight line. That often went off the rails and I played around with asking her to come back to the line. We were working with hands only this clinic (I don’t think it was planned that way, it just developed). I use my legs for hind end communication and also for lateral direction. In this clinic Joe was directing a lot of information to how we can connect the reins to all the feet, the whole horse. I knew this as a concept but I have not been successful previously at connecting my reins to the back feet. It was fun to play around with this and have to get things done with legs ONLY to mean go. Joe clarified he does use his legs, and sometimes when he’s spent time with a horse on being able to get anything done hands only, he’ll switch it up and see if he can get everything done with legs only. At the end of the day the most important point is: can you get it done.
I can put my legs in a lot of places physically to communicate to the shoulder, the hind, the barrel, I can make my legs mean go and I can make my legs mean back up (though it’s not how I normally back up) and my seat and energy can usually stop my horse. I learned that I am more comfortable riding and communicating with my legs than my hands. Learning to use my reins to ask my horse to adjust her hind end was new for me but turned out to be not so hard as Joe walked us through some ideas, and it was fun too! I found it harder to keep her on a line at a walk though by using reins, now that I reflect on that I think it’s because I could get the reins to talk to shoulder/front, and hindquarters/rear, but I don’t think I figured out how to talk to the middle, and if she was walking on a line that began to veer off, I could have used some leg to push the “whole horse” from her barrel back onto my line easier than pointing the front end– or sometimes I accidentally talked to the hind end and became bent and then started moving in a circle.
I share these processing thoughts because the best part of this clinic with the group aspect, was that I had time to take a concept and go play with it and explore on my own. Joe had a fair amount of people to visit with, and instead of wishing I had more of his time to help me, I was grateful to go off and experiment. I’m also glad I didn’t have more opportunity to ask him questions because it forced me to find some solutions my own, and that process was valuable. I know he kept his eye on us all, and if he saw someone getting into trouble he would offer to help. He rode a fair amount of horses over the weekend as well to show what he was getting at, especially if a horse didn’t seem to respond the way he would have guessed.
I think many people with horses are goal oriented and driven. I know I am. I think we like answers and to know how something works. This type of horsemanship can be frustrating if you want to get something done without having to develop a language and relationship. I think some riders would prefer for someone to install a button then tell you how to find it. Good starting, good training, it certainly instills things in a horse that you can count on, however it’s not a motorcycle or ATV, it’s a being, a creature who has a mind, and an emotional system. The hope of finding a well trained horse you can sit on and get an exact response if you can find the exact button as the only layer you access is heartbreakingly limited- for the horse. There is a relationship available of exploration that has the potential to never find its limit. It’s the infinite game.
As I explored the idea of straightness and why does K veer off: is it more one direction or another? Can I set it up so she realizes I want her to beeline for whatever I’m focused on? Can I make it somehow her idea? I also found the question of purpose came into play. Emily and Joe both talked about putting a purpose in the work.
There was a mailbox set up at the edge of the arena and when I’d choose the mailbox to head toward I’d begin to imagine we have to get the mail, hurry on up over there so we can check the mailbox… I found she got straighter. We weren’t obsessed with the straightness, I was going somewhere. This could be why some people I know say they and their horse hate arenas. It takes a little more creativity to find purpose there.
Once I could find balance and straightness in preparation and a walk, I began (more on day 3) to explore trot transitions. It became clear to me how important it is to have a horse that is balanced and straight before asking for a transition. I took the idea of preparation of halt to walk to influence the transitions and waited to find a sweet spot when she was moving really nice, and then I’d ask to pick up a trot nice and smooth from there.
It wasn’t long before I wondered why I had ever asked for a trot when we weren’t in that beautiful balance. How long have I been riding this horse anyway! What on earth have we been doing? Now it seems so fundamentally obvious.
I am convinced that investing time into strength and balance in riding will be the most dramatic influence in our success in endurance. I have been blown away by the changes when I work with Emily during the clinics, continue the search of balance and straightness on our own, then add some miles to ensure she is fit. The changes in her as a whole for competition and being a pleasure to ride are fundamental. I know she feels better when she is stronger and better balanced. Her joints and ligaments are going to take less abuse, her body is going to stand up to the hard work and she is going to be more engaged mentally. This year I learned that horses “rush” because they are not balanced (usually physically, but mentally and emotionally as well) and there is a difference between a strong horse and a fast horse who is rushing and not balanced. The more balance and stability I find the more strength I feel, and that’s what I want to have as a foundation to my endurance program. I don’t want to move into longer rides until this strength begins to translate into all the loops of a 50.
At Big South Fork it was close. I had a horse that was moving in balance and strong for about two and a half loops… maybe 40 miles. For us that’s pretty good!! Fort Valley had some other challenges mentally as we had to adjust our riding strategy to accommodate a junior (what an honor!), but I was pleased that K was able to adjust and still thrive. We are a team who is always able to “ride our own ride” so riding someone else’s ride was a great challenge she took on well.
In the past I have made mileage and terrain my goals to work up an endurance horse for the season. I’ve observed as a new rider much of the mentoring and instruction covered how to get a horse to a ride through adding miles, adding speed vs. distance, getting the terrain. Aside from some surface ideas about having a horse that is basically under control and doesn’t kick other horses or people on trail or in a vet check, I don’t remember seeing much mentoring that prioritized learning biomechanics and self-carriage as a goal before working up the mileage ranks. Many long term successful riders would probably say that is a given, yet talking about it as more of a real priority I believe would help riders who end up with physical issues in their horses after a couple “successful” seasons.
I haven’t met anyone who rides with quality who doesn’t say they crave to go deeper, or to get to new levels of self-carriage and balance. There is not an arrival for this! It would be like someone saying they’ve been to the gym already and they’re good now, they don’t need to go anymore. There is always room to grow.
Also, I think some balance and carriage shaping can be done on the trail and on longer rides, but the truth is that is much more complicated, and if it isn’t happening in a field or arena where the environment is controlled and you both can focus, it probably isn’t improving on the trail. I may change my mind on this point in time, but at least for now I think the work needs to be done in a controlled space with a plan, and then heading out to the trail can USE the skills and balance you’ve picked up in the focused arena work. And my guess is you’ll see the level of carriage and balance in the arena suffers on the trail as you have to get things done and navigate the terrain. This is expected! But if the trail work is all you have, there won’t be the same growth.
At the end of the day… it’s the feel of the horse that will be the game changer. Some people have a better feel than others. I am certain my feel has taken longer than usual to develop. I think I’m dull to these things as a human who is good at pushing through regardless. Sometimes those of us build like this are less sensitive and it can be a strength- but if sensitivity is sought and found, the levels available are so lovely! There are some gifted riders who have more an innate sense of how a horse is moving and how to help them get sorted out even while working a cow or riding the wilderness. I’d sure have a lot less to ponder and write about if I was built like that!
Whatever you do… however you do it, whatever “game” you’re playing with your horse… whatever the discipline… make sure it’s the infinite game.