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

The little things

Monday, September 21, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of our little things have included:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one – nor should they!

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

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

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

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

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

Then there’s the mounting block.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pop with the lead rope- head comes up.

Looked at Pam. Obvious thought and processing going on.

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

No pop.

Ok. I am allowed to move my head.

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

POP.

Head up. Looking at Pam, thinking it over.

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

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

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

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

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Needs improvement.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Our official grade at the end of the Iron Mountain ride was an “A-“. I am so pleased that Khaleesi and I completed the ride, finished in time, healthy, and in good spirits even if we were close to the back of the pack. I took a few days to just bask in the accomplishment of a solid first run with my young equine partner. The fact that we are learning together and she’s the first horse I’ve trained from zero makes it all the more special.

Cue happy music… butterflies… slow motion shots of Khaleesi and I cantering through the open rangelands…

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Ok enough of that. Now we move on.

The “A-” was generous.

If I were getting a grade on more than taking care of my horse’s hydration and soundness it would have been lower. I don’t want to guess at letter; for simplicity we’ll use the old elementary school mark of “N” or Needs Improvement.

I love the starting point of the LD rides to be able to make mistakes without doing too much damage. I want to use these rides as a learning opportunity. When we move to 50 milers (and longer) small mistakes can cost a lot more.

Today is for reflecting back at what I learned, what I didn’t do so well, and what we can do better. We can do better.

Away vet-check/hold basics: I have a fantastic huge waterproof crew bag. I did ok at packing necessities I’d need in it especially for my horse, next time I will also include a camp chair for me. I will appreciate being able to sit down a moment even more when our ride is double the length and I have two holds to wait out.

On the trail: Stop looking down. Just don’t do it anymore. From now on and forever.

I noticed myself way too often watching the footing right in front of us. I don’t do this when I work in the arena (sand footing). Some part of me is certain I need to guide my horse through crevices and rocky areas. Who am I kidding? She is responsible for her feet and completely capable. My energy focusing down is only creating a front-hand heavy horse and stopping her forward energy.

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When I reflect on my favorite part of the ride… following a group of quick 50 mile riders, I was watching them up ahead of me, not the ground.

Snacks?: I’m not thrilled with her low gut sounds at the final vet-check. For a 30 mile ride with no other metabolic issues it was not a serious issue. Moving forward she needs to keep something going into her system more often. Besides stopping for a bite of grass once in a while, I am considering carrying some alfalfa cubes or small apples… something to encourage her to eat while we move through the ride. Betsy, who I rode with, slowed up and gave her mare a snack on occasion. Worth a try.

Ride faster: Seems simple and obvious, but we are going to need to pick up the pace. I believe she will do so willingly, and I need to let her. This is connected to…

Ride better: Also obvious, but not nearly as simple. If I continue to improve my riding skills she will have an easier time moving faster. This is one of the improvements I can use outside help. So today we paid another visit to Pam.

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I have been learning- contrary to what I would have thought- that once conditioned, a horse in endurance needs more rest than we think to stay healthy. One of my biggest concerns is that she love endurance riding and I don’t burn her out with too heavy a workload, yet she needs to be in enough shape to complete.

My plan with her this fall is to aim for a long ride (10-15miles) and a fast ride (less than 10 miles) per week, with a “lesson” session in addition, or even instead of one of those if we can fit one in. This should also help me work on a little more conditioning with Faygo.

Khaleesi has been on a break since we returned home Saturday night. I visited only to check on her, feed and give apples and give her a little positive attention and turn her back out to be a horse again. She had four full days of rest and today we loaded up to play a bit (learn together). This would be more mental work than physical.

I had a feeling now was when it was going to get harder for me. The good news is that I have significantly improved my balance and posture at a walk and we are getting on the same page with our energy and transitions. We have also improved our trot a lot, but still have a long way to go.

Today was to get serious about improving our trot. As usual, we struggled to stay on the rail at a trot and once we started moving Khaleesi was wandering all around the arena. If I wanted to stay balanced I had no control over her, if I used my legs or hands to move her back to the rail I was flying all over the place. Thankfully our rides are on trails and not wandering around arenas!

We went back to leg signals and asked her to move OVER with my leg. I am getting more clear with this, but she was still not sure what I was asking of her. She was totally guessing… faster?… turn?… go the opposite way?

We went back to a walk and asked her as loud and clear as possible MOVE OVER NOW… NOW… NOW… NOW… and after a few tries

YES! We did it!

Then we did it again… and celebrated!

Once we got it, it was there. It was exciting… like “that button works now”.

Then we did the other side. Took a few times, but again WE GOT IT!

More celebrating, licking & chewing (for her) and deep thinking, a little break for her to mull it over.

Now at the trot.

Improvement. Let’s just get a steady trot, stay along the rails, and be in control. Simple, right?

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After a few times around, after stopping once or twice to be more clear MOVE OVER TO THE RAIL! We got it.

Steady trot, decent balance from me, basically on the rails (because I asked her to move over and SHE DID).

It felt amazing- we were getting this. HUGE.

We ended the arena work on that great note. Just celebrating her (and us) standing next to the rail we used to push away from. It was hot so we walked up to rinse off. This leads me to another improvement we worked on both before and after riding today.

Impulsion: We got a “B” on impulsion on the final vet check. I am certain she was not tired (not enough to create her to drag) and she did not have a bad attitude, but she sometimes DOES have low impulsion if I go to lead her quickly (trot out). This is something we can improve.

We talked about pushing instead of pulling her, and expecting her to stand when I ask her to, and move when and how I ask her to. She was dragging for Pam early on and we worked on being more clear with my energy and direction- and added a pop with the end of the lead to drive her from behind if she wasn’t moving with enough impulsion with me.

It took her a few times to understand why that lady was swinging the rope behind her, but again- once she got it, she got better. Fast. We went from her lagging behind me to jogging exactly beside me, at exactly my speed and stopping on a dime with me.

How FUN is that!?

Then we worked on standing. I needed to tighten her girth and she would fidget, take a step, try to eat. We put her right back clearly where I’d asked her to stand and in just a few minutes I could walk around her on either side and adjust and tighten and she wouldn’t move a foot.

** a little life lesson reminder for me here. I tend to want to stay in front of her actions and keep her from making the mistake, but you have to let a horse do the wrong thing and immediately correct the choice. You can’t correct something before it happens, and it would do me some good to remember that in life too. Horses don’t live in the past, and they don’t live in the future. They live in the NOW.

I am ok with not living in the past, but I do sometimes find myself living in the future- anticipating things instead of watching them actually play out. Anticipating can be helpful, but sometimes it is a bit like assuming. It is a good reminder to stay more in the present and not always be thinking too far ahead of what is actually going on. With my horse, and in life.

I thought “Wow, I could have such a well trained and mannered horse.”

And then I realized “Wow, I DO have a well trained and mannered horse, it’s that I don’t ask it of her.” It only takes her 3 times to learn anything we teach her, just a few minutes to “get it”.

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When we walked her up to rinse her off she began to fidget. She’s not afraid of the water. She’s just fidgeting.

Pam took over and in less than one minute Khaleesi stood still in place (and relaxed, ears forward, not stressed at all) while Pam rinsed her off from every angle. Then she slowly did her upper neck and head to see if she would be ok with washing her face. She was pretty fine with that too.

Next time, together, we are going to tackle the fly spray!

We had gotten to the point I could “ground tie” her and drop the line to go pick up my bridle/saddle and she would wait patiently until I asked her to walk with me.

My mind was turning around (human licking and chewing…) and I thought back to how much ground work we had done early on. She was better then, but she was pretty good right now. I had been ok with pretty good. It wouldn’t be very difficult to go from pretty good to amazing with this horse. I had lowered my expectations for expediency.

She had been ‘pretty good’ for the farrier for her first shoeing, but he told me often it’s the second time that is worse because it’s not a new experience anymore. At our vet checks she stood ‘pretty good’ to get looked at, but she fidgeted a bit…

It would be so much better if she knew I expected her to stand still and in place without moving a leg until I asked her to for all of those professionals that look at her. Yet I can’t expect this on one day and not do it a little bit every other day.

You are either training or untraining a pattern in every interaction with your horse…..

Khaleesi stands in place with the lead rope on the ground.
Khaleesi stands in place with the lead rope on the ground.

Then we loaded her on the trailer by sending her on instead of me leading her in. It took a minute for her to understand what we were asking- I’ve always “pulled” her slightly onto the trailer. She is a great loader, but until recently I’ve always walked her in. This time we “drove” her instead (gently and easily) and when the light bulb clicked she walked right on in front of us like she’d done it all her life.

What I appreciate most about our visits with Pam is that she is generous with her time to allow Khaleesi to learn at her pace. We take a lot of time when she gets something right to allow her to lick and chew and think and we just rub her and chat and wait.

I would be inclined to say “Ok we got that! What’s next?

Pam says “Hold on, she’s thinking about what you just did- never interrupt that.

I feel good about where we’ve been and where we’re going. So we are planning to enter the Big South Fork ride next weekend in TN. It will be another 30 mile ride and we’re going alone to focus on our game. Small steps- small improvements… incremental learning…. another shot.

Flying

Week of July 20, 2015

I am heading out of town next week to teach at a wonderful music camp in Charleston, SC so I’ve tried to pack two weeks of riding into one. I’ve made a valiant effort and we had a great week.

Monday I wrote about our anniversary ride, then Tuesday I took Khaleesi in the trailer to Hidden Valley for an easy, fun, fast ride. Hidden Valley is about 20 minutes drive away and is a beautiful underutilized park along the Jackson River – this means no mountains to climb and no jungles to fight, and the footing is great.

Pretty spot along the River trail
Pretty woods along the River trail

We hit the trail alone and she was ready to go. We walked a very short warm up and she begged to trot out- I agreed. [that was a question… which ties in to the end of the blog!] The weather was cool for July and we had a mix of clouds and sun. We had a time limit so I decided on a simple out and back going by time instead of distance. We had about 90 minutes.

About 4 miles in we turned around and the rain finally came through (I knew it was possible). With the cool rain on us and heading back to the trailer she picked up a nice quick trot and we sustained it almost the entire way back. It wasn’t super-fast but we started to get in sync and the extended trotting session helped me to relax into the rhythm and work with her movement.

Wet from the rain on the way home along the Jackson River
Wet from the rain on the way home along the Jackson River

The rain didn’t matter at all! Trotting through the light drizzle, it felt like we were flying along together, not because we were going so fast, but because we were moving together along the trail like one being. The title of this blog takes us once again to the music theme as I hummed the “Flying” theme from E.T. as we sailed along together. (I’m humming it right now too).

Unfortunately before this ride I’d noticed some girth sores, I used a different girth for the ride, and it was actually worse. We came in from the ride with worse sores than we went out with.

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I did a little asking, a little research, a little treatment and I think we’re on our way out of it as quickly as we went in, but time will tell. I have moved her saddle back slightly (I had it too far forward), lubricated the girth area, pulled her front legs out after tightening the girth, and for now have cut up two extra soft fleece socks and made a quick girth cover to help not irritate the spot.

I gave her Wednesday off and rode Faygo with Kate for a ride & tie practice (I’ll blog more about that too!).

Thursday we were at it again and I took her to Carrington’s barn for a 18 mile beautiful loop.

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The day was perfect, the horses were fantastic. Even Khaleesi and Nancy’s mare Mireyah seemed to get along better. The first section of the ride to Nancy’s barn was a bit overgrown, then through a paved ‘urban’ area briefly, then picking through some hunt camp roads up and down the mountain. We weren’t in a big hurry and enjoyed each other’s company and the scenery. The second part of the loop was through Hidden Valley along the Jackson River, through Meadow Lane and Facifern Farm’s (both gorgeous properties along the Jackson River).

Khaleesi and Mireyah make friends finally!
Khaleesi and Mireyah make friends finally!
Khaleesi and Tex riding side by side happily!
Khaleesi and Tex riding side by side happily!

We picked up speed and trotted much of that stretch for an ending average speed of about 5mph for the entire 19 miles. Her girth sores were no worse for the long ride and that is great news.

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BOOT UPDATE: the boots are still doing well overall, but aren’t perfect. On Thursday’s ride I lost a boot twice, but on the positive side I knew it both times. It was cantering, up a decently steep hill, with ‘fancy footwork’ involved- mostly a change of direction as we got started. I’m still on the fence if we’ll consider going to shoes next year, but I won’t change at this point for this season. She has never been shoed and I don’t want to do something so drastically new with our first event a month away and heading into fall when I tend to pull shoes anyway. Upon further reflection I have thought about the fact that we don’t usually canter in endurance rides, and for what I’m trying to do, she still is probably better off with the boots. Iron Mountain will be the true test!

Warm Springs Run Water break
Warm Springs Run Water break

Friday I picked her up early for our third trip to visit Pam and get some riding lessons. Pam offered for us to try her dressage saddle and really helped me work on my own seat today. She is so positive in her comments to us and always makes us feel (ok… makes ME feel) like I am improving.

We were better at walking together and doing circles. Our communication is stronger each time we ride! Stepping over was still a challenge but when I got a small incremental part of her back leg crossing over I felt it huge and it was groundbreaking!

Was that it?? Did she do it? (It felt big to me)

Um, kind of… she started to…

Well… it’s something!

We were even able to trot and go in a circle!

Pam took a turn riding her a bit to see if she could get her to do a few things with more clear instruction- and so I could see what it would look like from the ground. Before getting on, she went to the mounting block and stood on it and patiently helped Khaleesi realize that she was supposed to move herself over so the saddle was lined up with Pam. She clucked a bit and gently pressed or pulled here or there with big rubs when she’d just move a tiny bit in the right direction until Khaleesi had quietly lined up for Pam to get on. Then she stood still while she mounted. She hadn’t even gotten on her and I was blown away by such a simple thing that she got so quickly in one try.

Khaleesi did understand a bit better what Pam was asking and after a couple tries was practically dancing around the arena side stepping with Pam. I was taken aback how beautiful and easy they were. Pam was impressed with how light and sensitive Khaleesi was to her. I have often thought of ring work, dressage, hunter/jumper and other “English” style riding disciplines as almost torture to a horse. Having to do the same boring movement to perfection, double bridles, whips, broken bits… but my horse was obviously loving this work. And so was I.

We finally did some cantering in the ring- great fun!

We also used a dressage whip today. Never to actually “whip” her, but to help answer her question.

That by the way is the lesson of the week for me.

The whip just touches behind the leg if after two tries of communicating she doesn’t respond then it’s a louder tool to make sure she gets the answer. So if she always slows down or tries to stop in one corner she is saying “Can I stop here?” the answer is “No.” I tell her that with pressure from my leg as she starts to slow down in the corner. If she doesn’t listen to my answer “No- keep going, same speed” she gets a tap from the whip by my leg to say a little more clearly “Answer is No. Keep going.”

I used it a couple times, but always to clarify her questions.

“Do you mean…?”

“This is what I mean.”

She is so smart, and so willing to do the right thing. My lesson is that when she does what I don’t want her to do, what she is really doing is asking a question. There are lots of ways to answer- the whip is just one of a million.

Do you want me to pick up my speed in the trot?

No.

Are you asking me to pull in my nose more?

Yes.

Can I look over at what the boys are doing in that field when I’m on this fence?

No.

Do you want me to canter now?

Yes!

This ride is too long, can we turn around here and go home?

Nope.

Can I get a drink at this pool?

Definitely Yes. Take as long as you want.

Can I kick other horses on the trail if I don’t like how closer they are to me?

No WAY.

Are you sure you want me to cross the river here?

Yes.

I don’t like Faygo near me when I come back in the field, can I kick her while you are still holding my lead rope?

DEFINITELY NOT!

All these things she does are a question to me. If I let her do something, I’ve just told her “Yes. That is appropriate.” What I love most about this way of thinking is that it makes issues very easy to solve. Give a clear answer, but one without heightened adrenaline or emotion. No matter what she’s doing, or how stressful it may seem at the time- it is merely a question she is posing to me.

I’ve tried my best to answer her thus far very clearly and always as calmly as possible and I’ve seen her behavior reflect her new understanding.

She doesn’t kick at Faygo now when I have one of them on lead.

She hasn’t kicked at another horse on the trail in many many many miles.

She rarely stops and refuses to move forward on the trail, even on long rides.

Many things she’s asked me over time, and once I’ve answered clearly and she understands that I meant it- she doesn’t ask again.

How can I use this in my everyday life? Would it help my own story if I assumed other people’s behavior toward me sometimes were questions? I could get better at keeping my reactions calmer, and at least try to answer clearly with the belief that others have as good of intentions as my horse does?

There is no doubt few people are as pure of heart as most horses are. Horses don’t have the motivational baggage and self-interest the way humans do.

But trying to at least give people a chance to have that respectful communication can’t hurt. Then there’s the other side of the coin- can I attempt to live with a heart more pure as well? Can I ask respectfully and try to listen to the answers clearly?

I don’t think this week’s lesson is as easy to put into practice in all human to human relationships, but there are nuggets in there that are incredibly valuable to take away.

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Meanwhile, I will relish that we flew this week. Together.

Riding Lesson

Friday, June 26, 2015

I haven’t spent much time on trotting horses and decided this spring I could use a lesson to improve my riding skills. If we’re going to ride 100 miles over 20-plus hours, I think it would help us both if I were more balanced and efficient up in the saddle.

The barn I’d been to once last year  for a mini-lesson with Karin is a long haul and I wasn’t sure if it was worth dragging Khaleesi down 90 minutes of winding mountain roads for an hour lesson- then 90 minutes back. We’d talked about just driving down (people only) and riding a school horse as well to get some experience… In the end I’d just put it off.

We have a friend who comes to Bath for the summers who is a really nice rider and practices dressage in Florida- she’s much closer to home and said she would be glad to have us come to her arena and give us some tips. We took her up on that offer without delay and went yesterday morning.

Khaleesi and I learned a ton from that first lesson. Many things I had heard, read, or knew in my head, but the arena environment gave us a chance to try some concepts out without dodging limbs or navigating rocks. Just like slow can equal fast in learning new things, simple can be tricky.

With all the things we can do together- one would think trotting around the ring near the rail would not be a challenge!

Think again…

IMG_0117We started talking about the gait patterns (nothing groundbreaking there) and counting “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4” with our walk (which is a four beat gait- each hoof hitting the ground at a different time) and increasing or decreasing speed with intent and energy first and not using seat or reins if possible. Could I change my intent and communicate that to her in the softest way possible and she would understand?

I call this the Yoda training… we are working on our Jedi skills!

So “1 — 2 — 3 — 4 — 1 — 2 — 3 — 4” can become “12341234” or “1…..2……3…….4……..1………2………..3………..4”

Then to trot, can I NOT cluck to her or give leg pressure, but can I just change my intent from “1-2-3-4” to “1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2” (as the trot is a 2 beat gait)? Will she feel that energy shift and pick up her speed?

Actually- kind of… yes… my Jedi energy skills are very green but I’m working on using the force!

Also circles- we don’t do a lot of circles. I have heard they are really helpful to keeping a horse flexible which is good for everything. So after starting at a nice walk pace (1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4) Pam asks us to do a circle in the next corner.

BUT- I can only move my upper body, turn my head to look where we’re going and move my shoulders- and not my seat?

Keep my hips in line with her at all times. If she doesn’t get it, a little rein is ok.

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I kept naturally moving my hips with my upper body- and a little rein turned into me crossing my hands over her whithers. Though somehow that seems like just an exaggeration of the request- when I got myself more under control and only moved my shoulders and head she immediately “got it” and did a nice circle.

At one point we stopped in the center and talked about how our shoulders are connected. My shoulders can help move her shoulders. As I sat there and experimented with how that felt in my own shoulder, she stepped over with her corresponding shoulder- for a brief moment I DID feel like a Jedi!

I also learned to “sit-sit” during the trot to change which diagonal I was on – which I’d read would be beneficial to our future long miles of trotting as we do endurance. How I understand it now is that she is tossing me up when she is on one side, and if we trot for an extended period I need to switch which side she’s on when I go up in the air. It would make her more tired than necessary to always have me up or down on her same side. Sheesh- I’m not even good at explaining this yet!

The good news is that I have a fresh young horse who is willing to work with me, willing to learn, and very patient in the process. She is a blank slate and she seemed to really enjoy the work we did together.

What I found (and it didn’t surprise me- it’s why I went there) is that I’m giving her all kind of off-balance confusing signals with my hands and seat – and I’m not talking about clipping branches and navigating over and under logs- even just how my hands hold the reins as we walk around the arena was confusing to her. Simple things that are not hard to adjust if you know you’re doing them.

Also- my gaited horse saddle doesn’t really put me in a good position for balance while trotting- which is one reason I think I’m not getting great rhythm and balance when we trot on the trail. I get a few strides that are good- then we get ‘off’ a bit. I have to work against the saddle and usually end up on my butt, which puts my weight back and legs forward, which confuses her again. Considering she isn’t gaiting right now, I might dig through the tack room and see if any of the old english trail saddles fit her and experiment with one of them to see if it helps me.

IMG_0120I am so glad we did this, and so thankful to Pam for sharing her knowledge with us. Khaleesi was a good sport, and as we stopped to talk about these concepts she stood calmly licking and chewing and yawning to say this was not stressful and as we worked together she seemed to appreciate how I was trying and she was trying too. What a nice way to work on our relationship!

I hope to be able to put some of this into practice on the trail, and also to continue to visit Pam and get more input and take a few minutes in a simple arena where we can focus on what we’re doing together with less distraction.

Here is a minute video of some of our work. It ends with Pam asking us to circle, with me getting completely discombobulated – and Khaleesi heading to the center of the arena instead of circling and the last thing I say laughing is “Look at me… I’m out of control”.