The Good Deal.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Always offer the horse a good deal first. Then if they don’t take it do what it takes to get it done. If you’re consistent the will start to take you up on the good deal and you’ll need less effort each try.

**Every detail counts: I try to be more aware of all my interactions from walking over to the pasture to tacking up. I have a different way of approaching and putting on the rope halter now that asks them to participate and I ask new riders who come to try the same things because they are important to me. It treats the horses as partners from the first contact and considers them as beings from the start.

Each step to the barn is part of the dance and we do different speeds, back ups and even throw in a circle sometimes to partner with them and engage their minds with us before we ride.

I usually allow them to eat while grooming and give them some leeway there- but in tacking up I don’t want too much dancing or ear pinning while girthing etc and I insist we tighten slowly in between other movements (putting on a breast collar or adjusting stirrup length, checking feet or putting on boots, grabbing a water bottle etc…) so it’s not so harsh all at once.

When I bit I now insist they lower their head even a teeny bit and participate and I’m much more careful to not bop them in the face with my bridle and gently adjust their ears. Also I’ve lowered my bits so we have NO WRINKLES anymore. I never understood the common wisdom of the wrinkles and after hearing Buck say “That small amount of contact means something to my horse” I thought that makes so much more sense to me, I will try it. I think my horses are softer and happier with NO WRINKLES at their mouth. We certainly haven’t lost any control.

When we go to mount I prefer to use the stool- it’s easier on their backs and I want them to learn to come to me and stand so I can easily get on. We are never in such a hurry to get on the trail that we can’t take as long as we need to be sure the horse learns right where she needs to be for us and reward them with stillness and a rub first.

Once mounted STAND STILL until I say we can move. This is my current challenge with Khaleesi- she walks at least a step or two and then stops at which point she will stand still, but we’re forming a habit of a few steps first. I need to get off of her and start over when she does this but I’ve been lazy in it and just ask her to step back and stand- which she will do.

GOAL: work on getting on and NOT MOVING feet until I say it’s ok. Preferably on a day no one is waiting for me to hit the trail!

 

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**Leading Dance: Forward all speeds and directions is great. We’re still working on the back up with me next to her (leading). At first I had to ask her with the lead every time. Now she’ll at least take one step on her own. I want more, as many steps as I want, so now that she’s begun to get the idea I am trying to get a couple steps. I sometimes forget to release her as she’s backing and I hold the lead too long during the process which isn’t as clear and might be a reason why this process has been slower than cleaning up the forward motion.

GOAL: release AS SOON as she’s started backing with me and see if she’ll continue with me before adding pressure again.

**Walking circles: The fundamental issue with my walking circles is starting and turning. She does not know what it means to send her off with my lead rope. Once we’re moving in a circle she’s pretty good. I need to grab a longer line to get some distance, but she’s not collapsing in so much and she “gets it” now and moves around me and stays out of my bubble after we’ve gotten going.

GOAL: work on sending her each direction away from me with my lead rope. As Buck says the lead rope ought to mean something to the horse – it’s not just a leash to keep her from walking off.

 

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The dogs get really interested in what we’re doing. I liked this moment with Peggy Sue who had been following got ahead and turned to Khaleesi as if to wonder what we were trying to do.

**Forward Walk: We took a walking only trail ride with a local teenage horse girl and worked on JUST a little faster if she bogged down. Staying in front was helpful for this exercise because it wasn’t to keep up with the pack but just to move out. We sometimes had the big walk, and sometimes just a decent stride, but I never settled for the death plod and she only tried to trot out once- so she’s picking up a little speed for me and seems to understand. I have to remember to offer the “good deal” here as if she gets ploddy I start to assume she needs a kick to ask her to step it up. I assume a small squeeze won’t do the job- and if I don’t start with that it never will.

GOAL: continue to ask for better walk a few steps at a time. Always remember to squeeze with both legs just a touch before getting to a kick, and start insisting she keep up the pace longer each time.

 

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**Basics & Manners: On our ride today she kicked at Faygo (for the first time in months). The first time I was taken aback and not ready so I had to lose the opportunity to bad timing. I wasn’t even sure that’s what happened and I had to ask Susan… did Khaleesi just kick Faygo??  At that point it was way too late.

Fortunately a few minutes later Faygo approached us again and I was ready when strike two came!

I immediately and calmly one-rein turned her and started working in tight circles then small figure 8s disconnecting her hind quarters and moving around in a small space. She eventually softened to the work and I knew we had succesfully  communicated.

Susan asked me what I had done and why. I did a rough explanation at the time of making her work and move her feet, but in writing my blog (the main reason I do this) I thought it through more and realized that in choosing not to yell at her, or hit her in any way with my hand or my popper (all things I’ve heard of as ideas to correcting a kicker), I took control of her feet and I demanded she stop doing what she wanted (walk on toward home) and instead do what I wanted (go in small circles in one place on the trail). I continued this with her until it wasn’t a fight but until I felt her body soften and give to me and what this ended up doing was remind her that I was the one who makes these decisions when I’m riding her and she needs to “give” to me.

Kicking a horse on the trail is a manifestation of her taking control of a situation she wasn’t happy about (Faygo coming up to pass her). When she kicked she was asking a question:

Is it ok for me to kick Faygo for passing us when I want to be in front.

Unfortunately the first time it happened I said:

Yes, sure go ahead and kick Faygo.

I do not believe that 15 seconds after the fact me reacting would have had the same effect as when I did it immediately.

In some ways I loved the fact that me missing the first time did exactly what one should expect. The concept that you are always teaching your horse something in every interaction was never more vivid to me than that moment.

You have the choice- instill good habits, or instill not so good ones.

Every inch we give because we are not paying attention (like me today at kick 1) or because it’s just easier, will train the horse to invade space, not stand still when you mount, not pay attention when you need her to.

Conversely every tiny inch you ask for something to keep their attention or insist they stand quietly while you chat, fix your gloves or get off to adjust your saddle, or to back up while leading just for the heck of it, is an inch or more closer to your goal of having a horse who is a pleasure to spend time with, in tune to you, and most important: under control when you need it most.

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Next step:

Fine Tuning: I’d like to start with some serpentines around trees in open woods to get her from having trail blinders and staying connected with me. Also to help me continue to get her legs operating as if they were mine. Keeping an independent seat and working around trees with my legs and eyes can really “up” our game.

GOAL: take an “alone day” to go up into the woods and instead of a true trail ride, spend an hour serpentining around trees in the woods!

 

Takeaways:

I’ve been thinking more and more about the concept of giving the horse a “good deal” first. Every time. Allow them the chance to take the good deal and if they don’t- do what it takes to get it done.

The “good deal” is the most gentle way of asking for something. Every time assume your horse will take the good deal- even if she never has yet.

We can get used to assuming our horse won’t do whatever it is without a big loud bossy command and we skip the good deal altogether. The horse might have made a mistake the day before- but the horse moves forward the next day as a new day. It becomes reaction instead of thoughtful. We should avoid saying “my horse always does xxxx” because we’ve put that behavior on them now and assumed they can’t learn and change. We’ve now blocked the process of growth for them and us.

I thought about this in life too. We can have difficult relationships and we “know how that person is” and we “know what we need to do” to get something done or work around them. We react instead of thoughtfully proceed. This is more likely at work or with a family member because you wouldn’t normally keep a friend around that was difficult to be around.

Shouldn’t we always hope the best and give people a chance to each day to take the “good deal” first- before we get bossy or loud or go around them? It may not always work- but it’s a better process to at least start with a quiet and gentle yet direct request than passive aggressive maneuverings, bossy words or a tough attitude.

I know in my life it’s a good reminder.

As for my horse- the teenage phase hasn’t been so bad lately. Probably I’m doing a better job communicating with her and I love that after we work she has softness in her eyes and her body and a calm that tells me we did good today.

We all learn more when we can lower the stress level- horses and humans both.

Hunting the feel

Friday, December 18, 2015

The soft feel is the goal that it seems everything is in service to. Being able to do as much as possible with as little as possible. The instinct of when exactly to release when your horse begins to try- not to wait until the entire physical motion has played out. It’s something you can only pick up with time doing it.

Buck calls it hunting the feel– you get a taste of it and it’s something you want more of… you can spend your whole life chasing it.

There are worse things to chase.

Today we went into the arena to work on getting to the point where you reach for your horse and your horse reaches for you.

Though honestly I’m not completely sure what that means!

Technically… I get it… kind of… but we’re not there.

Right from the field… the way I put the rope halter on starts our day now. She lowers her head into the halter for me and she’s offering the back up before I have to reach up when leading now- each time it’s better.

It’s the hight of mud season right now- both horses are a muddy matted mess. We did minimal cleaning this afternoon as it was getting late and cold fast.

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First take away from our time today:

I need a more specific plan.

I had a vague plan, but I am a planner and I need to write down some goals before I go out. Right now I have a LOT of things I want to work on… so it’s not hard to find something to do- but it’s better to start a running list until I get more into a routine.

We began with walking around the arena on a loose rein (not a problem). Then I wanted to stop and see if I could ask her to give her head and release when she softened.  This is “the feel”.

Not bad- but if we weren’t moving she gets distracted and wonders when I’m going to do something.

Slight pressure on the reins.

K: Do you mean back up?

J: Uh, not really… I want you to drop your head.

K: I want to see what the boys are doing in the barn…

J: No, keep your head forward.

K: Faygo is yelling for me- she’s stressed out over there.

J: Focus. You’re with me.

K: And back up?

J: No, just soften your neck.

K: So we’re just standing here?

J: Yes. Kind of.

K: Oh.

K: I can back up.

<sigh>

We then worked on keeping an active walk around the arena. I want to get that nice forward walk on our trail rides. My A-HAH moment was that the “beginning” of the try is JUST A LITTLE faster. So I can’t get that fast walk I want every time right now, but I CAN ask for just a little more activity that she was giving on her own. Eventually that should build until I can ask her for her move out walk without getting a trot instead. Someday.

I was pleased with my “just a little faster” walk. It went great. We did a couple nice circles too.

I also took a moment to remember the exercises I did with Nancy earlier in the day with the Sally Swift Centered Riding book. We had a great morning doing some floor exercises that really impacted awareness of body- and how tension and balance affect everything.

I felt grounded and balanced and comfortable. At least at the walk.

Then we stopped again and I wanted to ask her with my legs to move her front end around her hind. I was able to get her to do this as well using the same techniques I watched. I touched her with my foot slightly forward and after she realized I didn’t want her to go forward she did step around. I could easily get her to take a few steps in each direction pivoting on her hind.

When I came home and re-watched the same segment I saw that Buck didn’t actually even touch the horse with his foot. He just pushed his leg forward and hovered it near the front end.

Hovering.

I hadn’t picked that up the first time. That’s pretty light right there. Not actually touching. Hovering.

The last thing we did was some trotting around the outside rail. No problem asking for a trot- but she still pushes me inside (same thing she used to do at Pam’s). Maybe it’s me? Either way I had to ask her loudly to get back to the outside. Leg and rein. She did it, but she was pushing me in. My decision was that once I got one complete time around with her willingly staying out on the rail we’d finish for the day.

About the 3rd or 4th time around we got a nice clean run and I stopped, got off and rubbed her:

Good job. That’s it! We’re done.

I put her out and brought Faygo in to do a quick pony ride up and down the mountain with one of the farm horses (who need a little exercise). We had a nice ride in the first snow flurry I’ve ridden in this season.

This time we took Bo- a handsome horse that wasn’t gelded until he was in his teens. He’s a good horse, but needs a leader. I didn’t know how well he’d pony, but if any horse can give it a go at keeping him in line it’s Faygo. For the most part he did a great job. Once we turned home he tried to run ahead of us, see if he could turn his butt toward Faygo, he was too close in our space (walking so close he was touching us with his body!) and then out of frustration nipping at Faygo’s neck (which is too close to my leg!).

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Enough- I stopped and asked him to step back. He did not.

He nosed his head toward my leg and braced.

I sat there on Faygo and bopped his rope halter to ask him to back up calmly and rhythmically.

For a long time (it felt like).

I watched for anything.

Finally a change in his body and his weight BARELY shifted.

I paused- then started again.

He stepped back!

Paused again and got one more step back.

Waited for a moment… the chance for it to sink in.

Then we walked off nicely. He stayed right at my elbow- a gentleman for the rest of the ride in.

I was getting cold as the sun was getting close to setting. I was reminded about one more Sally Swift thought.

My toes. (are cold!)

Are my toes loose?

Now they are.

Were they?

Not sure.

I spent some time thinking about wiggling my toes in my boots and feeling my ankle stay loose and flexible.

Was a good day of being aware, and we’ll be hunting the feel for a long time I think.

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Update… small steps

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Training a horse is insulting to the horse. Don’t be a horse trainer- be a horseman. A horseman educates the horse without the horse ever knowing its being trained…. Training a horse is absolutely finite. If you get the horse to operate as to be your legs you have exceeded the notion of training. — Buck Brannaman

I’ve been visiting my horses lately even if I only have a few minutes to do a few back ups or circles. Something I love to see is that for the past couple months whenever I drive up to the barn, any time of day, the girls come from wherever they are in the field to the corner of the fence to look for me.

Yesterday when I came to feed and squeeze 15 minutes of groundwork before a morning meeting I was surprised to see Khaleesi waiting for me half way down the fence. Faygo had come over and Khaleesi was just standing back. I started to pour the feed into the pans and still she refused to come over.

Little miss independent?

When I opened the gate and Faygo came for breakfast and she still didn’t move closer I wondered if something might be wrong.

True enough she started pedaling her front feet up and down in place and then it made sense: she was caught.

I took my halter and lead over with me to her to find she had a high tensile wire from the top of the fence that had gotten pulled slack and caught somehow so that her front legs were wrapped loosely. Pretty impressive actually!

How did you possibly do this to yourself?

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She had this top wire down around two of her legs

I have no idea how long she was caught there, but the ground had gone bare from some struggling. I was glad to see that she hadn’t panicked and  hadn’t hurt herself either.

She seemed to get frustrated me as I put the halter on:

MOM! can’t you see I’m STUCK!? I can’t go with you!

I know girl- but I think whatever we need to do to get you free will work better if I can help you stay in control with your halter… just hold up ok?

Thankfully the one wire was pretty loose and I was able to step it down and walk her one leg at a time over the wire. I was relieved it was so easy and she was excited to be free but did lead nicely with me over to find breakfast.

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Khaleesi eating breakfast after being freed from the fence.

I decided to forego the training- poor thing had been stuck in the fence, I doubted she would be in a mindset to work calmly. That would be setting us both up for failure. But I was so thankful I decided to run over there before my meeting that day!

Our dancing is improving albeit slowly. Our walking circles are getting more balanced and she isn’t falling to the inside as much as she did the first few times. I’m beginning to get her to start and turn around without quite so much crazy animation on my part.

I am really pleased with our leading. She is beginning to take at least one step back without me having to reach up and take her halter! Also she is moving out of my way if I walk into her space and following me in a circle the other direction. This small thing already feel so wonderful as she is paying a little more attention to me every time we do it. She stays just an eyelash behind my shoulder to be able to be ready for whatever move I might make.

Meanwhile (contrary to what my last post might have seemed to suggest) we are still riding.

Over the weekend Khaleesi started a new thing where she’d try to turn a half circle at random points along the trail to turn us toward home. No matter how strongly I did not give she still could turn her head- so in the end I changed approach and let her- only we kept going 360 so we were still going forward in the end. Tuesday she didn’t do this- nor did she try to pick up the pace to get home.

On Tuesday, not only were the girls waiting at the gate to come in and play, but they both led beautifully and we now use that leading from the field to get to their brains engaged to work with us.

Both girls are also getting better at sending on the trailer without us, and I was pleased to have them both walk on without any fuss without a human leading the way.

We did my all time favorite ride along the Jackson River Valley and I paid even more attention to what I was asking and how I released. Khaleesi likes to be a trail hog and not let another horse come up and ride next to us. We are getting better at me asking her to stay on her side of the trail even at a trot and she’ll step over pretty well. I paid close attention to how and when I asked with my leg, and as soon as she gave me some movement over I released the leg.

We are improving on minimal hands for communication as well. I am still working on an independent seat and using my body to communicate speed and direction as much as I can.  If we have to make a choice on the trail I am careful to look exactly where I want to be and she has done well choosing that direction (around a gate, log, rock…). I noticed that I had to use very little rein for steering and that pleased me.

She also kept a very steady slow trot pace for a good amount of the ride no matter who got ahead or behind- we did a good job at finding a rhythm and holding to it on loose rein and no leg action.

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Crossing Muddy Run at Hidden Valley with Nancy & Mireyah. This ride the two mares were really beginning to tolerate each other- almost in a friendly way. Such a big improvement over our rides in the Spring when at least one all out kicking match ensued (while we were riding them!)

One challenge I have is control over her walk.

She has a nice forward walk- I’ve felt it. However she also has a death plod that has very little use out on a trail ride. I do not have control over which walk she uses right now.

I can move her forward when she choses the death plod- but every time she chooses to trot up instead of animate her walk. My plan of action for this is I need to ask her with my legs for more energy, and when she choses the trot we stop or downward transition into the walk (which generally becomes the death plod again) and I ask again. This could take a lot of trying.

I noticed Buck via video footage encouraging people to realize what a first try looks like and to reward it. At one point a student in a group asked if she should release even if she just got one or two faster steps and he said “Of course- that is what it will look like at first.” So I will be trying to figure out how to reward a few good walk steps even if it’s not a sustained energetic walk. I do realize that is harder for her and she’ll have to work into it over some time.

A good thing to work in the arena or on a solo ride as if we fall too far behind in the process she is going to be set up to fail (no one likes to be left way behind) so then we have to trot to catch up once in a while.

Susan was on our ride and I have enjoyed introducing her to trail riding (and possibly endurance riding too!). She has a positive attitude, is an accomplished and fine rider, has a learning spirit and loves Faygo- who is teaching her tons each week.

Each ride Susan gleefully shares her “firsts” with us and I enjoy hearing them as we go…

My first time to ride in the woods… My first time on a gaited horse… My first time to cross a river… My first time to ride over 2 hours… My first time to open a gate on a horse… My first time to cross a bridge.. My first time (um, ok I promised not to share that one…)

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Susan coming out of one of our deeper water crossings

Today we got “My first time to go that fast… well, that fast still under control!

Then I got home to hear another Buck quote:

You do need to get a horse to where you can open him up and run. A horse is pretty incomplete if you can open him up and not have him loose his mind. You gotta practice dialing up and dialing back down again.

Nothing groundbreaking there, but something to think about- and we did it today.

There’s a beautiful hill that is a prefect spot to really run, and Faygo has an amazing “open up” gear. She is fast.

Developing Khaleesi’s canter has been fascinating to me. A year ago it felt funny, and she would twist out her back legs to get started and it was not very fast. Having never started a horse before I assumed that she just had a strange canter (too bad- I do like a nice canter sometimes). Over the year that canter has changed and improved and occasionally she would run up after Faygo as fast as she could and though she could never quite catch up, she was developing a nice canter.

Today I told Susan this was the one place she could feel safe giving Faygo as much room as she wanted- the footing was good and there’s a pipe gate at the top that would stop us even if somehow she felt out of control (though Faygo has not in my knowledge run away with anyone since Nancy worked on that with her years ago).

Susan and Faygo got going- but Khaleesi was ready for more and at the final stretch we passed Faygo and she might have hit what felt like her top speed. We only got to about 15MPH, and I can’t remember what her top speed was in the past, but she felt great and was balanced! (Susan had held Faygo back- this was the fastest she’d ever gone and she did a great job of staying in control and only as fast as she felt confident)

We walked around the pipe gate- heading home of course- and the girls both dialed back down the energy to a walk for a while.

Faygo can get so hot on her way home- one thing I may do more with her is trying to amp her up then dial her back to see if she can begin to control her own adrenaline level more. We saw some fun exercises that pushed the horse to sprint, then stop, back up 5 or 10 steps, then sprint, and sometimes just stand still in between. That will be a good Faygo routine this winter.

It’s boot season and in 13 miles we only had to stop twice to fix a boot for Faygo. One time we lost a boot in a deep mud suck coming out of the river- thankfully I watched it happen. The second time the boot twisted up onto her leg and we had to adjust. Not too bad all told. Khaleesi had all 4 stay on 100%!

This is a good week.

I haven’t seen any teenage tantrum flare ups (though I am sure they are not far beneath the surface) and we’ve had some nice small successes and good riding. Even our neighbor (who helped pull her back shoes on one of her worst days lately) saw us walking in yesterday and commented:

Boy, look at her… she’s such a different horse when you’re on her back!

And I said:

…not really, she just has her good moments and her not so good ones… like any young horse. She’s doing great today!

And then I thought… probably most of that difference is actually in me. She does her job really well: her job is to be a horse.

I have a long way to go to go from a “man” to a “horseman” and I hope I’ve made some more progress recently.

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Epilogue:

My saddle should be en route soon, but I asked for some pictures of the tree this time because I love watching the progress, and this tree is very slightly different than her standard one. So though I am dying to ride in it, it’s at least fun for the moment to get to see some pictures as it’s developing.