Lessons: Kindergarten Graduation

July 10, 2019

This blog is part of a series inspired by a private clinic with Emily Kemp. I highly recommend her and you can find more information here: Emily Kemp Website

Some of the most profound lessons for me from the clinic came from working with Wyoming.

Wyoming is a BLM Mustang from Wyoming that I adopted through the TIP training program a couple years back. She came started and just “needing experience” after being injured on the mustang makeover tour.

I loved that she grew up until about a two year old in the wild! However now, between realizing more acutely why people prefer yearling round ups who haven’t as keenly developed their wild animal survival instincts into a way of life… then there is her early experiences with humans being herded onto trailers for the makeover tour and then injured in the process in Indiana likely pushed too fast for her individual ability and personality… consequently sent off to a short training period in Tennessee (rather than giving up on her completely), then handed off to a 12 hour ride to the mountains of Virginia to live with my herd.

She was not the smart choice for a nice easy trail horse- though my heart was to help one of these wild creatures in need, and on that score I’m batting 1000.

After struggling to keep her comfortable with a rider about two years ago, and getting no certain clarity if the issues were truly physical, emotional or mental I made the decision to give her some time to reset in the field with the herd and take some time out.

I have come to enjoy her greatly. She is personable, fun and has begun to ask for more interaction and connection. A little socially awkward when it comes to knowing how big she is and invading your space at times when desperate for a scratch or just a little companionship- she truly doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. I see now she was often misunderstood. And being misunderstood often creates frustration in humans and equines.

I know this horse she is no accident and is in my life for a purpose. I’m not sure what quite yet, but the time is coming to begin to find out. I began to saddle her up and checked her out for a ride in the yard to see where things stood. Still not truly comfortable going forward.

The question is: why? How do I move forward?

So I asked Emily to help me get a feel for her.

What Emily saw was that Wyoming really wants to get out of kindergarten and I was concerned of going too fast and pushing her comfort zone which could risk losing her trust, her shutting down or possibly feeling the need to get aggressive to protect herself. This made me super careful in my approach and resulted in keeping her in kindergarten instead of allowing her to grow. I had supremely low expectations of her!

Once Emily started asking more of Wyoming, I watched her come alive. Her ears pricked, her movement got snappy, she did some dragon snorting at first and regardless of if she got the question right our not she was engaged and happy. She loves getting to work!

Of course growing means getting out of her comfort zone.

(Dragon snorting is some evidence of this, but the work I didn’t catch on video from the first session shows Wyoming trying to understand and getting occasionally flustered then so pleased with herself when she solved the puzzle)

Over dinner I’d mentioned that this year it’s felt like God has been submersing my head into a bucket of ice water… then lifting me to face the warm sun for a little breather… then it’s back into the ice water… don’t worry you just keep getting stronger each time!

Uh… right… stronger…

Emily remarked: that’s what Wyoming needs… to be pushed out of her comfort zone just enough and then some rest and encouragement… then back into new territory… then a break. Rinse and repeat!

So I guess I’m coming out of Kindergarten too? 

I suppose it’s about time.

I do want to grow, as uncomfortable as it is, I am engaged and happy, I want to learn and get stronger even though it’s hard. For a long time Wyoming has had the happy surface life of a horse. She has a great big field, lots of grass, friends, clean water and good food. I scratch her from time to time when she’s itchy, and she occasionally comes into the barn to get a pedicure. What’s not to love?

This is the easy life. It’s the thing most people seem to hope for. Protected, simple, surface, HAPPY. But I saw the mare get a taste of being asked for something MORE. To learn new skills, to have a purpose to be useful. She positively glowed.

We all need purpose, and not the kind of purpose that is only looking out for our own comfort. We all need something bigger than ourselves to engage in. As I look around my world I see a vibrant difference in people living for a purpose greater than their own comfort- and those who just want to be happy.

Happy has to do with your circumstances. The root HAP like in Happenstance is about a kind of luck that gives you a positive environment. Some people seem to find more happiness than others, but it’s different when you see real JOY.

Joy, from REJOICE or to make glad… the root of glad depicts something shining, there is also a root of appreciate in the word. People with JOY shine and live in appreciation regardless of their circumstances. In fact they seem to thrive when the storms come.

People who want to just be happy are usually chasing the circumstances that will make them feel good. Unfortunately there’s a whole other side to this when pressed that upon deeper inspection most often means at the expense of others in their life. Somehow the fact that people deserve to be happy appears to satisfy the question of who might get hurt in the process.

I have come over the past few years to almost be sick to my stomach to overhear people saying: well, as long as she’s happy! 

Sadly, this drive to find happiness is usually a pursuit that fails to satisfy long term because circumstances always turn again- for better and for worse – so this happiness will not be sustainable. Many people either resign themselves to this disappointment in a low grade bitterness or becoming shut down; others keep chasing and maiming those in their way their entire lives.

Real joy and a sense of peace beyond circumstances take cultivating, growth and work… it takes being willing to get out of Kindergarten and finding satisfaction in a greater purpose than your own happiness.  And sometimes it means sitting in discomfort long enough to learn something from it- that something will usually come in handy later in helping someone else. The things we go through are often for a greater good than our own.

I have had some hard circumstances this year, but I have already seen the fruit of it begin to put me in situations I’m more able to help others around me. Even while still in the middle of it, I’m more compassionate and can relate to others in their own painful trials.

I will say one of the most grating things for me have been people living in their surface happy lives passing on platitudes about how life always works out somehow in the end as long as everyone follows their heart and happiness while my own (not happy) heart is bleeding out from war zone shrapnel.

How often in my life have I been that very person?

Too many times I’m sure.

I don’t always have good “happenstance” in my world, in fact sometimes my circumstances are downright stormy. However if there is purpose in my life even in rough seas, I can have Joy. This also has brought a phenomenon where I’ve found I can have both Joy and Sorrow at the very same time.

Maybe that’s a little like sun through a storm and how we get a rainbow.

I watched Wyoming struggle occasionally to learn what Emily was asking her, but even through her questions and occasional frustration, she had a joy about her as she finally graduated from Ms. McArdle’s kindergarten class. And we aren’t quite trotting down the trails together yet, but I have hopped back on for some walking in the arena and so far already it’s been a much better experience than before!

Lessons: check in!

July 5, 2019

I recently hosted a 4-day private clinic with wonderful horsewoman Emily Kemp [Emily Kemp Horsemanship] for a handful of my riding friends. I can’t adequately describe in words the elegance and joy in Emily’s riding (and her genuine humility that accompanies it) but what I love even more is that we share many of the same philosophies about horses and life.

[Emily and Honey at a working equitation show May 2018]

I was fortunate to work both of my horses in this clinic. As I reflect on the weekend there were too many things to stuff into one blog- even for me! So I’m going to write them as they ‘download’ and hopefully that will also make them shorter.

The one that looms largest in my life today is the lesson of Check In!

The title comes from a recent dream where I went to my favorite B&B (The Inn at Tabbs Creek in Coastal VA) with a girlfriend for a couple days. The best part about this place is the river channels that the property sits on is perfectly situated for kayaking or a standing paddle board which I got to try for the first time last year on a visit there.

In my dream I was so excited about hitting the water that when my friend and I arrived, I took her right to the dock and began to show her the paddle boards. As dreams go we began to climb into the air on currents. I wasn’t even completely sure how. Thankfully the paddle board seemed to turn into more of a little boat with actual sides as we went high up toward the sky. I hadn’t really been expecting to fly-boat but I took it in stride. I wasn’t sure how I got us up that high I was also not sure how to bring us down.

I found a way to get us down onto the water safely. After we finished we went to the little water sport shack and found one of the owners there. She was glad we were enjoying our time and clarified with me that I had indeed filled out all the necessary paperwork and checked in at the main office.

Actually I had not done any of those important things…

I mumbled something about sure meaning more that sure I would be doing that right away… And toward the main office I headed.

As I considered my dream and wondered what there might be to learn I reflected- I need to be sure I slow down and put first things first and CHECK IN before I run forward headlong into even good activities.

This year my life has gotten a bit… complicated… in ways outside of my control. I have begun to see that if I pay attention to where He’s leading I have much better navigation than me guessing my way through on my own. It’s become pretty amazing just how much God will direct my path, but He asks me to check in before running forward.

What I loved about this dream was that I sensed God reminding me that He loves me and He knows my heart and even though I got excited, messed up the order of things and I didn’t check in before showing my friend to sky sail, he still gave me a cool experience of floating above the earth- and even gave me a safe landing when I didn’t know how to fly the thing.

But I still heard the warning: Don’t forget to Check In.

It’s the same thing I ask of my horses.

I’ve been starting to work with Wyoming again and though I’ve gotten back in the saddle with her recently she doesn’t seem entirely comfortable.

Emily worked with us and found she has some cracks in her training and her feet get “sticky” so we started some ground work to make sure her forward is working when I ask for it. She really took to the work and we began to click together and it was fun. She is super sensitive and smart, and willing to work.

She’s so enthusiastic that sometimes she would take off in the opposite direction I had asked her to go. It was as if she had made up her mind before I gave the signal!

At first it took a lot of communication to get her turned back around. I had to exaggerate with the flag and get her attention. Eventually she began to make the change back into “my will” with just an extra lift of the lead rope. What I want to see is that over time she won’t take off in her own direction before she waits to see what direction I am asking her for.

Especially when I’m in the saddle!!!

Thankfully God has patience with me but He will get loud if I begin to take off too fast in the wrong way. Ideally I want to remember to check in on my own so I don’t have to go through the correction.

It so happens I had a couple things I needed to re-evaluate and do a check in this week and in some of them I needed to change tracks.

I’m pleased to report that Wyoming is having a blast trotting around and now rarely misses my direction! She’s beginning to get a laser-like focus on what may hands are doing and wait until she sees the request before she blasts off.

https://www.youtube.com/embed/gMeKLGA7VVY

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I love her enthusiasm and don’t want to squelch it. I want that drive to be working for me as much as possible, so I have to be watchful as I correct her not to be harsh and quiet her zeal to work, yet make sure she is putting that zeal to work for me not against my purpose.

I hope I as a human can continue to remember to be checking in with my life too.

Healing and the Hope Cycle

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

I recently heard Holly Furtick talk about the Hope Cycle. She was inspired by an ancient letter written to people in Rome by a guy named Paul who suggested that we should be glad when we get to suffer… because suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope… and hope does not disappoint us.

Holly saw this as a circle beginning with suffering. Not only can we assume that life will bring these complications, but we are supposed to happy about them – he suggests we should BE GLAD in the onset of a struggle.

I also recently heard a Ted Talk about resilience especially in young adults today. Opposite of expecting and appreciating the role of struggle- many young adults today are the product of the concept that struggle, pain and discomfort is best avoided at all cost; a generation of parents that had the ability to do that for their children motivated by a great love for them… yet the unintended consequence has been a generation of young people who have not built resilience through having to overcome difficulty and are now facing the very serious problem of learned helplessness.

People who have been given as problem-free life as possible it turns out are not better off. In fact they struggle to cope with any small problem that arises.

As a third point to triangulate this topic- on a recent flight across the country I was reminded how important expectations play into all of this. 

I don’t love flying and I really don’t love turbulence, but while still on the ground, the pilot informed everyone in advance that there is weather through the middle of the country and we will have a bumpy flight.

He was right: at one point my half empty (or half full) coffee sloshed all over my tray table as we bounced up and down in midair. Because the pilot told me to expect turbulence, it now felt expected and normal instead of frightening and precarious. If I expect a pain free life, or even if I think that is the goal, then the suffering is much worse than if I have been assured that I should expect the life turbulence but more importantly even to appreciate it because it will create a life of endurance, strength and HOPE.

The Hope Cycle is constantly playing out in multiple layers in our lives. We know when our worlds are rocked by a big cycle… these feel like a cyclone.  The health diagnosis. The death. The job loss. The accident. The divorce. The loved one “lost” into drugs or other destructive life choices. Insert your worst nightmare here. These cycles put us into years of pain, turmoil and suffering.

Meanwhile we have all manner of other Hope Cycles going on simultaneously. Medium sized ones like passing a hard class; a difficult job assignment; a friendship drama; the terrible twos; setbacks that are tough but more temporary. Then there are the small but mighty ones: running my knee into the coffee table, stepping in cat puke on my way to get coffee first thing in the morning, the email you sent to the wrong person with the same first name (hopefully that doesn’t lead to the cyclone level of job loss!!), the particularly long day when nothing seems to go right, the burned Thanksgiving Turkey….

We get something out of all of these cycles, and the small ones build resilience and strength into the larger ones. In each, something valuable is produced into the character phase of the cycle. The value of a heartfelt apology in a relationship drama… learning to slow down moving through the house to not run into things… or though the pain smarts for a few minutes it will pass… humility and compassion when others make mistakes like sending an email to the wrong address and other mistakes…  stepping in cat puke does not HAVE to ruin my day (I can overcome!) and each of these cycles prove we CAN continue to put one foot in front of the other even through challenges and when we face the cyclone level issue those smaller challenges feed into our strength facing whatever comes at us.

Those are the concepts that I was pondering while riding with my friend and her “new” horse that I mentioned in my last blog.

I made the somewhat irrational decision 5 years ago to take a half feral unstarted young mare who was barely handled and see if I could turn her into my endurance partner. As I look back I’ve been through countless “Hope Cycles” in the process.

When I first brought her home I couldn’t even touch her. Then the day where I could actually put a saddle on her… sit on her?! For a while I couldn’t imagine riding her outside of a safe fenced in zone… Then wondering how she would do out in the big wide world of the trail… and of course the phase when she kept trying to turn around on the trail… each of those challenges took patience and problem solving to overcome.  Each week, each month something improved and I learned about her, about horses, and gained character and strength as a horse leader.

I learned that if you stick with it week to week and put in the time and the problem solving power (and that includes being open minded enough to learn what really works vs. what you’ve always done before or been told your whole life….) you can move forward and each phase will pass away into a new one.

There have been times in the past 6 months that my friend has felt discouraged. Each time a situation has been difficult or has felt like failure, I’ve reassured her that this is normal. The process takes the time it takes and you’re doing great! It will get better.

I have hope… I have gone through the Hope Cycle enough with my horse and watched a few cycles with her and her horse to know that it will improve. Also, she is doing all the right things to continue through and not get stuck!

As an endurance rider the applications of this are obvious to most of us. We often joke (not really joking) about how the biggest challenge is to get to the start of a ride. We are dealing with animals who have varying gifts of injuring themselves in mysterious ways when we aren’t present on top of the fact that we push their physical limits to a level that they can be more likely to cross a line into injury even when we try our best to take care of them.

Our experience and knowledge base as we go through these “Hope Cycles” grow and help us to do less harm to our honored partners in time.  There is room for common sense and asking more experienced riders in order to avoid major pitfulls, but for most of things, the way to learn how to manage an individual horse’s preparation for an endurance ride is to do it and see how it goes. Learn from what doesn’t work as well as what does.

The only way to become a good rider is to spend some time in the saddle being a bad one.

[one of my favorite pictures to see how far I’ve come… Khaleesi’s first official ride and first time spotting Becky Pearman with her camera in mid canter heading up the grassy hill. You could use this photo to show just about every what not to do as a rider!!]

Anyone in the endurance sport for more than 5 minutes has dealt with at least one and often all questions of lameness, ulcers, saddle fit, tight muscles, joint and tendon issues, dehydration, weight management & nutrition, barefoot vs. metal shoes, what kind of bit or no bit at all, overheating, and there are the behavior training issues of speed control, form, kicking, bucking, buddy sour, barn sour… and many more.

On the other hand anyone in the sport long enough has gone through various levels of the cycle to know that most things can be overcome with education, the right help, patience, and time. We won’t even get into the human and equipment elements like the flu on race day or flat tires half way to ride camp!

All of those cycles play into the miles you and your horse are riding alone because your pace doesn’t match anyone around you or your buddy got pulled at the last vet check. Maybe you’re walking one hoof at a time in the dark on a slow 100 knowing that in the past you’ve overcome saddle fit, hoof management, race brain, and a pulled (your own) leg muscle… so just keep going one step at a time and you HOPE this too will come out the to another cycle of Hope.

This kind of hope isn’t like: I hope it doesn’t rain on my wedding day next year… it’s a living breathing hope that is growing inside you each time you go through another Hope Cycle.

Because even if the night is dark, you know it won’t last forever. There is a finish line or another vet check where you’ll get something to eat and a little rest or a buckle!

Holly also discussed how not to stay longer in the struggle and suffering than necessary. While many things are out of our control, and take the time they take, we can make it harder on ourselves and get stuck in the struggle with some key factors:

Complaining. While it’s important to talk and share with the right people, complaining and focusing too much and too long on the problem will drag us down and make it hard to keep moving toward hope each day. Fix your eyes on where you’re headed, not where you are!

Blame. It helps sometimes – if possible- to figure out why something is happening if it will help not to repeat the same cycle going forward.  However, obsessing about blame either of yourself or others (victim mentality) will keep you stuck longer than necessary. Learn quickly what can be controlled and changed and begin to make the changes where applicable!

The wrong voices. Be intentional what input you seek going through your struggle. Spending time with people who aren’t constructive, supportive and honest with you or who have no experience in going through their own hope cycles well are not be the best companions. Find people who are compassionate about suffering yet don’t encourage you to wallow in complaining and blaming, get high on drama, or encourage too much mindless distraction.

Horses can be excellent companions to include in the process of the Hope Cycle but be careful about turning your horse into your therapist which isn’t helpful for either horse or human and can damage the relationship.

Horses are incredibly sensitive beings and each unique. Some horses are more inclined toward being involved in pain and suffering than others. While it is true that focusing more on the present and on your horse is a good rule of thumb, it’s important to be honest and not try to lie to your horse that you are more “together” than you are either. They sense lies a mile away. I’ve cried tears over my horse’s neck and she’s stood quietly and patiently while I’ve sorted out something hard in my life, but there seems to come a time when she demands we begin to “move our feet” so to speak and not get stuck wallowing.

One of my favorite verses when Jesus knows he is about to move into his trial, crucifixion and death is: Arise, let us go from here. Sometimes I think my horse helps me to realize it’s time to arise and get busy. Stay present and unless you are truly too broken to function that day (if that happens it is likely not a good riding day!), put one foot in front of the other and get to work at something you love with your best equine buddy.

Be aware if going through a big (or shorter but intense) trial for some red flags: has your horse become harder to catch when you go to the barn? Has your horse begun to develop behavioral quirks, especially in grooming or tacking up (more fidgety, tail swishing, nipping). Notice behaviors out of ordinary- Horses can take a lot of real emotion and even help release it, but they can become overwhelmed when the human refuses to move through the process. Notice if your horse seems to engage in your struggle or try to move away from you.

Sometimes an emotional struggle is so big it helps to call in a friend in the healing process. To end I’ll share a remarkable story.

I was struggling through some intense personal emotional questions and needed to process some thoughts with my girl friend at the barn. I arrived as she was doing some basic ground work with her horse and we began to talk.

We stood right in the barn aisle and her horse stood quietly next to her facing me as I began to share what I had gone through and in so doing releasing the power some of the wounds had on my spirit.

Her horse did not move away, fidget or rest with a foot cocked. She stood quietly but engaged in the process. At one point she began to move and we paused to watch as she stiffened every muscle in her body and her head gradually went high into the air. Her poll arched over like a beautiful statue — ears forward and alert and she began to shake her entire body starting at the head and neck and all the way through to her hind end as her muscles tightened and released in a wave from head to tail ending with her left hind leg pointing out toward the back wall as if to release every last emotional weight into the atmosphere.

This was the closest example I could find to how she raised her neck and bent at the poll but her mouth was closed. It was stunning.

… then she licked and chewed and yawned and took up her listening position again for us to continue. There was more, so I did continue. Releasing and sharing more of my story and the deep things I had been sorting through that week. After a while the mare did the exact same thing. It felt to both of us like she had taken the painful things I’d been processing and releasing from me and then distributing them out into the air as harmless energy….

I felt lighter from being able to talk to a friend and her horse! And all of us felt a special warmth and healing in the space.

I could not have set that up and had it be effective. It was planned by someone greater than myself that day and put into place for us to participate in. For those details beyond me I am always grateful.

I believe it was a good thing that my friend’s mare was there that day- and that my mare was not. Not every relationship is meant for every burden. As much as I love them… there are things I may choose not to talk about with my mother, or my husband, or my sister because they are not a burden that relationship should carry.

In this case my friend’s mare was able to help me in a way that I’m glad not to have put on my equine partner. And there may come times when my mare may help others in a way their own horse may not be the best choice for.

Horses do have a special place in healing- but not every horse is interested or gifted in the process, and not every relationship is the right one to carry the burden. This may help you to be sensitive in how horses are used to help us through our Hope Cycles- and how we may also help them!

And each time I do begin to see the promise of a struggle and almost begin to rejoice … though I’m not quite there yet.

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.

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.

The Seasons Change… Pacing and Barn Sour Horses

Monday, November 2, 2015

I love the change of seasons.

That doesn’t just mean I like to see the earth go through rebirth over the year-  I really love the changes of life’s pace.

Summer is not only lush and warm… humid and green… but it is full of life. The days are long and exhausting but we revel in the activity and drink up as much sunlight as we can squeeze out of each day. The woods are noisy with birds and animals. As a teacher my work slows down leaving me able to spend lots of hours outside – my heart is in the barn and the woods, but also the yard is in bloom and things grown in the garden. We stay outside into the night with friends drinking wine, or margaritas… or mojitos… and laugh easily and often. It’s also the height of ride season and next year I hope to do at least an event each month with Khaleesi through late spring to fall… summer!

Summer gets exhausting after a while. And the heat gets tiring… humidity draining… tack and boots seem to mold overnight. Our horses are always sweating and we worry about dehydration and overheating at rides and in trailers. You dream of a shower if you are camped out without one but on the other hand get sick of wondering if there will be a thunderstorm every single afternoon for the rest of your life.

Fall comes along and brings pretty colors and trails and tack begin to dry out. The woods are stunning and the cooler temps are a godsend to your exhausted horses- though they are fantastic shape right now. This is why fall riding is “the best” – in shape horses, beautiful views, dry trails and cooler temperatures.

As the days get shorter and the leaves disappear this perfect riding gives way to winter which means parties must be held indoor, thus are usually smaller and cozy. You begin to talk in depth with your friends again over scotch or bourbon and the wood stove. It gets dark earlier and you begin to ride 2 hours or less in the warmest part of the day or risk loosing a toe to frostbite. The trails are often soggy and slick and half frozen. You worry about the storm that’s predicted and promises to dump 36 inches of snow and freezing rain… do my horses have enough hay until I’ll be able to dig a path back to the pasture? Will the water freeze? To blanket or not to blanket?

Work gets busy for me, but as riding hours are fewer it’s a good time for tradeoff. Also it’s quiet, the nights are clear and the stars blaze in the darkness. The stillness is good for the soul and there are a few perfect clear days after a snow when you can ride in the powder sugar forest and see the coyote and turkey tracks as clear as your dogs can usually smell them — nothing else has come through except you.

Just as you think you will go stir crazy from being inside as much as possible and sick of slippery footing and short rides everything begins to melt and the cycle begins again with spring. Probably my least favorite time of year the trails go from frozen to slushy and refrozen ice rinks, your horse is not only covered in mud but also shedding out a thick winter coat and you look like either bigfoot or the abominable snowman every time you try to clean one up enough to ride. Raining ruins your riding plans the most in spring- and it’s usually a COLD rain. The only saving grace is those few days that are JUST RIGHT and the sun shines warming you enough through the window that 50 degrees feels like you might just pull out your tank top for this ride (then go outside to realize you actually have lost your mind through the winter).

At least in spring you know what is coming, and winter helped you rest up for the busy riding season ahead!

Now that daylight savings time has ended and November is here the writing is on the wall. As my husband reminds me often:

Winter is coming.

cutting some downs to get through on a new trail
cutting some downs to get through on a new trail

That’s ok. The woods that were ablaze last week in color are now looking sparse with a few leaves floating along on the breeze. I took Faygo out for a really nice ride and enjoyed the time with her scoping out some new trails with my GPS- this is something I don’t do often with Khaleesi as I usually have riding mileage/speed goals with her and have been enjoying that process. Faygo however continues to struggle with hard riding so this was a great way to enjoy the first November afternoon of riding together.

Also since I have been able to dial back my riding program without feeling guilty this year (a rest season is good for the horses too!), I’ve been able to spend some time helping friends with their equine life as well.  I’ve been given a lot in my horse journey and if I can pass anything along and give some of my time to other people it’s the least I can do. My girlfriend lost her horse recently and had already been looking for another for the family so she ended up taking on two rescue walking horses to see how they’ll do this fall.

the two rescues on their trail trail ride
the two rescues on their trail trail ride

They are nice horses but will be projects to refresh their training and get them on the trails again. They have good foundations and I think have good potential and are not beyond the capability of my friend and her family, but it will take some work, and nothing is guaranteed. I found this year there is a difference when you have to put some work into your horse than if you get one fully trained and ready to go by someone else- it’s a good process to undertake, and for her teenage son who wants to ride one of these geldings I believe having to invest some time into the horse is important to understanding it’s an animal and not a motorcycle. I hope to help them out in any way I can along the journey.

An issue they will be dealing with in one horse is “barn sour”. This is something I’ve had to work through with Faygo since I began riding her. It’s gone through many phases from minor and slightly annoying to, at it’s worst (brought on by the lymes and back pain) downright dangerous and scary. We took out both geldings to see if they were even worth considering, and traded horses on the way back so we could get the experience of riding both. We did the switch after barn sour gelding started his push for home. I was glad to see when my friend dismounted and I got on he stood quietly even though he wanted to go. I believe is somewhere mid range on the barn sour scale but certainly needing improvement for a rider to enjoy him. He was never dangerous or out of control but he was pushy and hard to hold back.

[Also good to remember this was their first ride in …. who knows how long. They haven’t even been handled much by people recently. They are rescue horses without a lot of known history. They both really did fantastic for the circumstances, and the other horse- the paint horse wasn’t phased by Mr. Barn Sour and he walked calmly even when left behind at times by Mr. Barn Sour.]

Nice exploring ride with trail dogs getting a quick drink in the woods
Nice exploring ride with trail dogs getting a quick drink in the woods

Today I found Faygo to be more pushy than usual (she goes in cycles and we hadn’t ridden alone in a while); since I knew I’d be helping my friend I was very thoughtful in our training as we headed home.

Through the years I went through lots of trial and error with her from a harsher bit to jerking her and trying to slow her down by force to finally realizing I was not going to ever force that horse to do anything. I had to get to her mind. When she was at her worst is when I was forced to be at my best and I got serious about the barn sour habit.

I don’t know if you can ever make a horse NOT barn sour at all (though I won’t argue this point, anything is possible). Most horses to some extent like to hurry home- but you CAN have a horse that respects you and doesn’t become dangerous, out of control, or pulls your shoulders out of joint. For Faygo I tried lots of approaches- once I followed advice to make the work harder… circle your horse and get her to see that it’s much harder to push home than to walk nicely. In our case (and I believe most horses) this only made the energy go UP UP UP and she got more fired up the more circles I did. I had to get off her to lunge her without feeling like we were in the rodeo then get back on… It was more dangerous because now she was barn sour, intent to run home, and adrenaline UP.

I thought this over and decided in her case we needed to bring the energy down. Instead I began to turn her around- one rein U turn (not facing home) and then ask her to side pass.. back up… forward two steps… anything I could ask that wasn’t walk home but that made her think about what I wanted her to do and get her focus off of running me home. If she was bad enough I’d get off and do groundwork right there. Calm deliberate groundwork, not fast animated circles.

This helped. She’s naturally a hot headed horse though over time I find her to be softening more and more. I am always interested in keeping her adrenaline down when we’re working through something.

Over time I came up with a new game: the tree maze. This is what I used today as we got closer to home and she was pushing me. In the tree maze- every time she went from her fast walk (which I allow) to a foxtrot gait (too fast) I would practice going off the path and winding through and around trees. I work on our communication – I look first where I want to go, then use my shoulders and eventually rein if she doesn’t “hear” me. For us this works great and connects our communication better as well. She is so good that eventually the softest ‘voice’ of just looking through random trees will snake us around the woods on a diverted path home.

I could feel her dial her pace back just a touch to avoid having to go off trail without a rein cue from me. To top it off, she is so smart that she would only start to push into a gait when the sides of the trail were either so dense or so steep she KNEW I wouldn’t make her do it. Then immediately pull back a few steps later when the trail opened back up again.

Love this horse, she always ups my game

Again I had to outsmart her- so I decided in those sections I would just turn her around and do side passes and back ups then turn back around and continue. Eventually she realized this and we walked home. Loose rein. Granted we walked fast- but my rule was as long as it’s a walk I’ll take it.

I always start by asking myself what I am doing to contribute to the problem. I believe all great riders start here and hopefully it’s the easiest thing to change first (our own behavior or energy)! I think many of us are just a step ahead of our horses. We anticipate what they have done in the past and I wondered if I might be telegraphing her speeding up in places she’s done it before to basically create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As we ride the familiar trail home I know I think to myself “here is where she always speeds up that little hill…” or “this is the spot she always tries to run past where the other trail meets” and in doing so am I creating some of this energy? Like another friend who has occasional trailer loading issues… does she sometimes worry to herself “I know he’s not going to load” and send out that energy to the horse who feels there must be a reason to be worried about this? How about another friend who has been working on getting her horse to not drag on the lead and move with her when she jogs out- she said her horse is starting to jog sideways with it’s hind end out to the side… we figured out she had gotten too used to popping the lead rope behind her to ask him to move out without even giving him the chance to move correctly (or incorrectly) first.

I tried to get control of my brain and really think the slower footfall rhythm and energy and using my Jedi training assume she would NOT try to speed up in those known areas, but instead keep my energy down and the rhythm and energy dialed back. I believe it made a difference. In riding this way more and more there are moments when I can feel her energy in a split second ask my energy a question “can we canter up this hill please?” or “I’m tired and hope to slow down.. can we?” and often my energy answers with a “yes lets go!” or “I was just thinking we should slow down for a bit”. And I’m working on stopping my horse without rein if at all possible- and not really with my seat either, but as Pam and I talked about I try putting my energy to “Zero”. I have literally stopped saying “Whoa” sometimes and actually say out loud (though it’s mostly to myself to try to help my energy as much as possible since I’m not a Jedi quite yet) “zero”. When we did make it home and were approaching the  barn I did this and bam. “zero.” She stopped.

At some point in riding Faygo, I decided that I will not pull on her face to get her to listen- I expect her to go the speed I ask and not faster (or slower) until I change the speed, and hopefully someday stop when my energy says “zero” every time. This isn’t easy- with Faygo going home the challenge was to keep her from trotting me in, and we did it today.

the go-go-Faygo
the go-go-Faygo

With Khaleesi it’s mainly keeping her moving – my energy needs work too. I have found that sometimes I’m asking her to move forward, but I haven’t changed my own energy into a trot. When I do it’s more effective. Also I’ve ridden in a group where the energy is forward and away we go- 6mph easy with a forward friend, but in a group with a lower energy level I might put her out front and try to set a slow trot and it’s pulling teeth- the other horses are lagging behind and she feels the group energy stronger than mine. She can speed up or slow down without me asking- and most of us as casual riders let the horse choose the speed often. I’d like us to be more fine tuned than that. The one thing that I don’t like about group riding (more than 3 people) is that I find the speed changes ALL THE TIME. A horse gets in front and goes out a few steps, then lags back to a walk- then fast walk- then slow walk-trot/gait a short distance…  the pace never seems to find a groove (except sometimes in the case of walking along for stretches).

I have ideas for barn sour Faygo, but I tried to think about how to encourage Khaleesi to keep moving. In the arena when she’d slow down in a corner I’d use a dressage whip (just a tap) to answer the question for her “Can I slow down now?” I may experiment riding her alone on the trail and work on my energy forward and bring the dressage whip as a tool to help us communicate without me having to kick and push her from my legs- I want her to be more responsive and not dull there.

I know she can move out, and she’s in plenty good enough shape. It’s kind of nice to know I have a horse in her that is capable of a mellow ride and a fast one depending on what we’re doing. Ironically with Faygo, who needs to mellow out due to breathing limitations, is always pushing on hot and fast. Dialing her back is always a struggle.

All of this seems to come back to energy and pace to me the more I think about them. Faygo needs to slow down sometimes, and Khaleesi needs to keep moving at a steady trot. Both of these we work on more effectively alone- then hope our work and energy translates into group riding.

That is one of my winter goals- to find some groove in our pace… and to help my friend’s new barn sour rescue learn to walk in under control.

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Post Season

Monday, October 19, 2015

Our first season is now behind us and it’s a mix between the letdown of anticipation and activity and a more relaxed feeling of enjoying the ride without training goals in the forefront. I sometimes just go to the barn to bring apples and love and the girls must know because they come to me at the gate faster than they used to (though none of them are hard to catch).

Madison and I were fortunate to get one last ride in and get the girls to stretch their legs a bit before they headed back to FL. It was a lovely ride and we were in no hurry. The leaves are finally starting to change and drop and when fall gets serious it happens quickly.

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I am ok with our temporary saddle solution, but this winter I will have a goal to sort out a more long term answer to my saddle puzzle. For the moment I plan to borrow and ride her in as many saddles that are a “decent” fit as possible and see if I can discern how she moves in them and how I move in them. Yes- I have to start with the horse because that is the most important part, but as Garnet reminded me: If the saddle doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work. You won’t be balanced and ride comfortably, and you can’t do endurance miles like that.

I started with a Freeform that a friend loaned me. I’m not generally a fan (for myself) of treeless saddles as I don’t think I’m either a light enough or good enough rider to make it work for my horse without a better system to distribute my weight without pressure points on her back. But still for some shorter rides, it’s not bad to try it and see how we feel. The one bonus of treeless is the movement in the back it affords the horse. [side note, this saddle is for sale if you’re looking for a freeform send me a message and I’ll connect you to her]

Khaleesi in the freeform
Khaleesi in the freeform

The feel as a rider in a treeless saddle is a little uncomfortable for me because of the wider feel in my legs around the horse. It made posting a little different- and not particularly better or worse. I felt she moved pretty well in the saddle and honestly I wasn’t able to tell a big difference in her. I hope as I use more different saddles through the fall as I’m able I might start to notice things more.

One thing I did was try a few from the barn on her on a day I didn’t ride recently. One didn’t fit particularly well and she pinned her ears and a few times tried to nip at me while we were feeling under it. I got the message.

NOT THAT ONE!

Then we tried another one and she was already more relaxed and though she was still turning her head asking what we were doing she was not as intense about the message.

Also this winter our goals are to continue to work on our communication and relationship. I would like to improve riding intentionally and move her with my energy more and less with physical cues. When I ride alone we are already better at this and we move into the trot often without my legs but from a joint energy push. Transitioning down is getting better as well and we are smoother going back to a walk than we used to be. I start with eyes and shoulders for turns and going around trees and often she follows without much rein aid at all now.

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When we ride with others we are both more distracted- she by what the other horses are doing (speed up slow down as a herd) and me as well- chatting and enjoying the company of other humans takes some of my energy focus away. I think it’s ok. It’s a different ride and I enjoy them all.

It has made my solo riding more meaningful than it used to be. I used to enjoy a ride alone, but after a while get tired of my own company and wish for some friends on the trail. Now I find that if I ride with others too often I wish for the focus and connection of a solo ride. This is good because winter means lots of solo riding as we start to stay closer to home and trailer around less.

Around the barn I also hope to deepen our relationship and communication. This is tough to do with a ride schedule. My last ride with Khaleesi I spent more time at my stool asking her to stand quietly than I would have been comfortable had someone been waiting on me. She wants to walk off when I get on her- at least a step or two. With no agenda or anyone waiting on me I took the time she needed to come where I wanted her at the stool (the stool is smaller than a mounting block and I find it harder for us to coordinate). When we got that to my satisfaction I got on and she took a step. I got off and we started again- the whole process. Second time it was better. Still a work in progress here.

The following day I brought her in ONLY to work on standing at the stool with me. I think she was feeling obstinate because it took over 30 minutes to get her in position and standing quietly with lots of starting over when she’d push her butt out and stand facing me as if to say “I’d rather do this“. I planned to work on mounting her bareback and getting the whole stand still down- but we quit at standing in the right place at the stool as I didn’t have another hour to hope to get the next step successfully (be flexible in training what you can that day, and always end on a good note).

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I find this to be a fun challenge- problem solving. How can I communicate better what I want her to do in a way she’ll understand, and how can I be a little smarter than her when she doesn’t understand or tries to evade what I’m asking. In the words of Monty Roberts I heard in an interview recently:

When you do your work correctly, repetition is your best friend. When you do your work incorrectly, repetition is your worst enemy.

If something isn’t working- my challenge is to figure out a better way to ask. Horses do not lie, and they are not “false”. They may resist something, but there is always a reason. Horses want peace and comfort – my job is to show them the way and if I do it right they will choose the right answer.

Monty made a point to say one of the biggest mistakes in working with horses is not controlling our own emotional state (internally). If a horse isn’t doing what we ask we often have an elevated heart rate (due to either fear or frustration). Not being in control of our own heart rate and internal energy is one of the main factors in his opinion that hinder our work- that kind of repetition is our greatest enemy. They are so sensitive that I may look patient and calm to a human, but the horse senses heart rate change and energy change in an instant. So all these boring things like standing still, coming to the mounting block and leading properly (maybe this winter sending on the trailer?) turn into personal growth for me- can I control not only my outer reaction, but my inner emotional one?

Can I not get upset when she swings her butt out away from me when I want her to stand next to me at the stool?

Can I keep my heart from racing when she does those little bucks at the start of a race?

Can I not have a reaction when my work colleague does something that would normally make my head want to explode?

Can I slow down my emotional reaction when my husband makes the comment that needles me in just the right spot?

Is it possible that student is not just slow or refusing to try- but that it’s my responsibility to find a better way to approach the problem that allows them to open up and learn?

That is the Jedi training I started this year and I can’t say enough what kind of positive affect it’s had on my life.

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late afternoon fall light
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Favorite trails this fall

I love being on the trails in the fall, but I’ve noticed that I don’t miss a riding day as much anymore if I only have an hour or so available to bring in a horse and do a little mind work instead. It’s become a sort of addiction actually- hopefully a positive one!

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Fall on the farm