heady ponderings on a recent lesson

I had a riding lesson a couple weeks ago. Lessons are really expensive where I live, so I don’t have many. The last two have been with a different trainer than the one I worked with for most of Midas’s retraining.

Her approach is really different, and I’ve been trying to put my finger on exactly what’s different.

My other trainer, Susu, considers herself a horse trainer, not a person trainer.

This trainer, I think, sees herself as both.

Growing up, the lesson horses I rode could be relied upon to trot in the direction you pointed them until you told them to stop. They might speed up, slow down, cut a corner or two, but that’s about it. You could focus on learning how to ride.

Midas isn’t like that. If he smells weakness or fresh meat, he leaves. Just, charges away.

He’s a horse, I can’t brute force him in a pulling match.

When I started training him so that my in laws and I could ride him, my goal was to change his mindset. I didn’t know why his policy was shoot first and ask questions later, but I had to convince him not to shoot first. And, shooting first myself wasn’t going to do that.

Lessons with Susu and our work with the Clinton Anderson exercises can best be described as a sort of sneaky mindset shift. Instead of going straight to the explosive issue, you start somewhere else entirely, that doesn’t look related, and say “hey, I’d like you to move your rear end and cross one foot in front of the other. I’m not going to hurt you, but I’m also not going to go away, and I can be pretty annoying. Why not do this tiny little thing for me?”

The tiny little things become bigger, more complicated, until you’re back in the saddle and daring to do exercises like cruising: Cruising is when you put the reins on the buckle and issue the walk command—And Don’t Steer. At all. The horse may walk wherever he chooses, the only time you intervene and give any command at all is when he stops walking. Or if he’s about to take your knee off because you don’t really have a totally safe place to do this.

The goal there is to instill a lesson: If You Go the Pace I Ask, Until I Ask For Something Else, I Won’t Nag You. The horse gets it into his head that doing what you ask isn’t so bad.

You are supposed to practice cruising at walk, trot, and canter. We didn’t have a safe place to try I at canter, but we had some fun at trot.

The next exercise was also fun, but hard in our setting, it was called Follow The Fence. Like cruising, you ask for a speed, starting at walk, and point them along the fence (or rail) and don’t bother them unless they leave the rail. You let them sort out their own balance and turn, just steering enough to keep them on the rail, asking for nothing else.

What results is a horse who knows that you ask for things in good faith, you try not to be a pest, and your boundary lines lie in pleasant places. Also. There are boundaries, and it’s worth it to abide by them. They also learn to self-regulate, taking it upon themselves to be in charge of staying the pace you gave and the direction you  gave.

For Midas, there were also occasional kicks in the shoulder to stop him when he thought about leaving. But when he didn’t leave, there was no other fanfare.

It was a training focused primarily on the horse, on retraining his mind. When I controlled all of his training and every rider who sat on his back (there were several), we were making progress toward Being Nice To Everyone.

I was trying to teach him to do the right thing without having to be asked.

To have Good be his default setting.

Turns out, that doesn’t really stick when he’s offered fresh meat on a platter. Or, someone who doesn’t have really any confidence and not much experience, and me not there to catch his eye.

The interesting thing is that with that training method, even though I didn’t focus on dressage concepts, I only needed the barest twitch of the reins to ask for things, and we had some pretty great turn on the haunches and turn on the forehand, and a horse who went pretty straight, just because he’d learned how to do it. I relied on seat and leg as much as I could and was trying to teach myself an independent seat.

A lot of that was lost last summer, most notably the straightness and the keeping of the pace.

So, enter lessons with a new trainer who doesn’t know my history with Midas, and only saw me ride him once before everything changed. She’s a dressage instructor, and very good.

And I find her mindset fascinating.

I have alarming moments, like when she suggests getting off somewhere other than the gate to help with his gate issues—having no knowledge of the fact that I have literally never gotten off at the gate with Midas. That was something I learned not to do when I was 11 years old. It’s hard not to be insulted—not that she had ever seen me work with this horse beyond one ride the spring prior, which I’m sure she forgot because I wasn’t there for a lesson. I was just around.

Her focus is on correct riding. Through correct riding, you can teach the horse to do the correct thing. Eventually, some horses figure out that the correct thing actually feels better, and will even carry themselves collected in the field. (This was particularly important for one of the horses at the barn whose front feet aren’t good enough for him to not be collected, if he doesn’t collect himself, he pounds his feet into oblivion and is lame. So they rode him collected for short periods of time, gradually lengthening as he built up strength. He is so much better off now because he knows how to carry himself).

Now, I’m a good rider.

But, I almost always ride alone, or with people who wouldn’t know if I was riding right or not.

I’m very good at self-regulation, and work hard to remember how things felt in those few riding lessons I’ve had with this horse.

I’m used to sorting issues out on my own, changing gait when I need to, throwing in turns and halts…ridings lessons have become exercises in having my hands tied because I must wait for the instructor to give instruction. It’s not all bad, I’m learning the instructor’s way of doing things, which is sort of the point? But it makes me feel….hamstrung and underestimated.

And what I’ve learned in these lessons, though, are little gems about the independent seat. So, despite my overall frustrations with the lessons and philosophy, I know I’m still getting valuable instruction.

The lesson last August included some tips on posting height and speed, and practicing controlling them, even to the point of bouncing on purpose to encourage the horse to regulate himself to come back into sync. (two bounces, three bounces, between rises, weee!)

The lesson a couple weeks ago involved becoming aware of when he pops his shoulder/ribs, and slides me to the outside to allow him to go anywhere he wants (out). Learning to feel it, and control my own hips, thus foiling his motion and encouraging him to come back in compliance with me.

I had been able to feel his stunt, but my correction wasn’t quite correct—and not in line what she’s been teaching the teenager to do. (This has been my other struggle since the teen started taking lessons on him, every interaction with a horse trains the horse, the horse goes to the next person expecting the world to operate one way, and quickly learns that isn’t the case).

I probably should have done Cruising and then Follow the Fence again, rather than try to dressage my way through—but, regardless, I heard the surprise in her voice that I could feel what he was doing. I knew it was off and wrong, but was inefficient with my rein and leg because what MOST needed to happen was in my hips. This triggers a memory from four years ago, a lesson with Wendy Murdoch and a follow up with Susu about weight shifting, and the horse moving under you.

What this new trainer might not see is that I’ve already done all this other work that makes him not try harder. That makes him not try to dart out even if he now auto-shifts his shoulders when he hasn’t done that in years. That most of my rides are spent feeling him out, looking for the things that came undone and putting them back. I don’t tend to work on fancy dressage concepts in their dressage context anymore. It was a short lived period.

Maybe it’s time for cruising and follow the fence again, even with this hip trick.

I did get to ask her my question about how to stop a horse with my seat only, which is something I’ve been on the hunt for. I’ve experimented, and was surprised at what worked and what didn’t. She was able to quickly and easily tell me why, and how to practice the ideal way (which, gosh golly, works fantastic!).

I did some experimentation bareback in the weeks after my lesson that confirmed that if I can keep my hips precisely where I want them, and not let them get shifted out, he maintains his pace. Even at trot. Even bareback. Even around the circle and crossing the line where he usually guns it.

I’m learning.

I’m improving.

Even if it’s a stretch in humility. And I never know how much to try to explain about our history and just how disrupted his progress has been, it never feels worth trying to explain in the moment.

Though, I did get to explain that the reason he’s an absolute doll about trotting in to that crossrail in the corner is because of years of hard work with me and my in-laws teaching him not to charge fences. We worked that systematically, carefully…and he learned it. Even with the teenager. We can do bounces, in and outs, and were working on a funky 3 fence exercise which was a ton of fun when the owner got rid of most of the jumps and shortly after my in-laws got jobs and college and stuff. (So, lost  ground crew for dropped poles).

OK, so I only got through the first part of that and wished I’d had time and brain to cover the rest. I do like this trainer, and find her insightful, and wonder what would be different if I had started riding with her before the teenager. I think her approach is really interesting…and just have a lot of emotions that need sorting 😛 Such a drag.

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Sail Boats

I’ve been sailing exactly twice.

I feel like this is infinitely better than never having been sailing at all, but also sort of sad, because only twice.

Friends of ours had a boat, and invited us out a couple times to some little lake. I remember basically nothing about the surroundings, I was enthralled with the feel of floating on the lake, pushed by the breeze, and how you watched the water. They let me bask on the prow, and I learned important things like how to duck the boom.

I was probably twelve. It was pretty awesome.

That does, however sum up pretty much everything I know about sailing. Except for the things learned from movies, and we all know how reliable those are.

Purple Sail on a Teal sea-available on Redbubble and Etsy

I love the idea of sailing, though, even though I know that sailing in a big open space like the ocean would probably scare the snot out of me. I know about the horse latitudes and I’ve seen one too many Big Storm movies, being swept out to sea means you die! And if you don’t know what you’re doing, you get swept out to sea.

I’ve been practicing smaller sail boats this year—just a few, and they look radically different when I don’t have a picture of a sailboat in front of me.

When I was a teen, I went straight to more complex ships (though, still nothing like a brigandine, think Dawn Treader), and I guess they looked alright? I mean. I was mostly interested in the decorative prow (which was shaped like a horse, obviously). The novel I was working on in high school involved the Prince of the Horse-lords becoming a seafarer. He was a side character, and I think the plot significance of his ship was that he was well traveled—and I think he used it to make alliances with countries to the south. I’m realizing now that was a bit of a wasted opportunity if he didn’t use it that way, and I can’t remember for sure if that’s what he did or not. Wow. Never thought I’d forget anything about that novel.

Red Sails

I love it when tall ships are living museums and you area allowed to board and explore these shockingly small wood vessels that crazy people used to cross the Atlantic.

Black Sails–I need more creative names for these ships.

One of my friends passionately loves tall ships, and he can free sketch gorgeous ones when he’s bored in meetings. I know where to go when I need a ship for my Zare Caspian stories.

What about you? How do you feel about ships? Have you been sailing? Did you like it?

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Chicka de de de

Remember that love affair with birds? Still going strong. One of my favorite visitors to the bird feeder (though, lets be honest: almost everything is my favorite so long as it isn’t the squirrel) is the chickadee. I remember watching them at bird feeders in touristy locations—they were the only birds brazen enough to brave the proximity of the crowds. Sparrows are pretty brazen, too, but they spend their time under picnic tables rather than feeders.

My feeder is dominated by house finches and cardinals, but I do have goldfinches, titmice, and chickadees…and in the wintertime I see juncos regularly.

This spring blue jays and starlings started hanging around more, and I’ve noticed more robins in the front yard.

A sketch, and Inktense scribbles in blue and purple.

It had been a while since I’d noticed a chickadee, and one came and sat on a branch quite close to the deck doors—I was surprised that I had forgotten just how tiny chickadees are. I mean, I could probably fit 2 of them on the palm of my hand if they were so inclined.

Such a loud voice and big personality in such an incredibly tiny body—specially compared to the other song birds I’d gotten used to seeing.

Blending with a wet paper towel.

I painted this charmer for my mother as a mother’s day gift. I’m so very pleased with out it came out. #firsttry

Brushing in the branch.

I’d been experimenting for a while with inktense blended backgrounds, and had a really solid idea in my head of how to use the brush pens. I guess it shows. Inktense is such a versatile and sometimes befuddling medium. You’ll be seeing more of it in the coming weeks.

Brush pen, already a little blended. Drying before adding the black.

Have I mentioned that I love the brush pens? Love them. I love putting the color where I want it deepest and then coaxing it out further.

All blacked! And some sharpie paint pen highlights for the branches and white patches.

I still adore my Daniel Smith watercolors—I’ve developed an affinity for their particular granulation and vividness. I’ve been using them so much I’d forgotten just how special they were. My past weeks challenging myself with artist’s loft supplies have been…eye opening…and challenging. So, successful? You’ll be seeing some of that practice, soon.

Prints of the chickadee are in my Etsy shop, if anyone is interested. Just have 5×7 up there now, but 8×10 could be arranged!

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Big Cats

One would think that with Disney’s The Jungle Book being a big part of my childhood, I might like tigers less. Shere Khan was only one of the most scary villains—though, simultaneously one of the most…noble? Not that hunting a child is noble, but his motivation was less self-serving than say, Scar’s. Actually, come to think of it…big cats are these terrifying, massively dangerous wild beasts…but it’s just hard not to like them.

Especially when big cats apparently have the same inability to resist cardboard boxes that their domestic cousins have and they are also openly fond of basking in the sun.

When I was a kid, I had this little plastic tiger cub who was classically named—Stripe. My brother had the same tiger, except white, and named Ghost Tiger—but we called him GT for short. Very creative names!

https://www.redbubble.com/people/ravenslanding/works/36640902-tiger-eye?

Tigers are very hard to paint, incidentally. I’ve really struggled to capture their bone structure. For some reason the leopard comes easier—perhaps because the leopard is more sleek?

I don’t have any childhood leopard memories, I think I might have had a plastic leopard at one point, but it was not as important a toy as Stripe.

I want to paint a series of big cats, glamourous big cats like these—and also more comedic big cats. Big Cats in Little Boxes, sounds fun and challenging!

Glamour Leopard is Glamorous

I have a hard time cartooning from scratch—but I’m trying to learn. I spent so much of my life wishing I could draw photo-realistic things that it’s been a huge mindset shift to accept that my strength lies elsewhere. It’s not that I can’t be photo-realistic, but the pieces that really shine with emotion and are fun to look at aren’t those. I’m better at whimsy, and better at evocative. And I’m finding that I like artwork that looks like art. Especially with so many amazing photographers out there, I don’t feel the need to duplicate their work, I’ll make it something new.

Both of these cats are done in colored pencil, over a watercolor background and inked blacks. They are both up in Redbubble, I haven’t put them in my Etsy shop yet, though. Do you think I should?

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Mounting

The Midas Report May 2019

We had a few good weeks of steady progress in May. I had, this spring, but some focus on mounting block etiquette, expanding previous training to include “mounting from anything that might work” out and about. Last winter was rough on the trees, so there are a number of little wood piles here and there about the property, and I’ve been using those as training opportunities. The first time I asked Midas to walk up to one he gave it, and me, VERY dubious looks and was extremely reluctant to partake in this venture. It took several tries to get him to come to the right spot so I could scratch his back and praise him from where I stood on the wood pile (and that was after circumventing it on foot to make sure it was a wood pile and not a wolf pack or something.)

Exploring on a long rein ❤

As an aside, here: There was a day after our first or second exploration of the woodpiles that Midas was just really distracted. He kept staring at something in that portion of the woods, no matter where we were in the ring, and was skittish going down the driveway—which at this point in the spring we’d been down several times in the recent past (including extensive sessions standing still in the middle of the driveway waiting patiently.) FINALLY I figured out that there was a new woodpile. So, I rode him directly to it, he came peacefully but on HIGH ALERT ready to evacuate just in case it was an evil woodpile. We got within 10 feet and stopped to observe.

He finally noticed the big stand of grass next to the pile. I pointed to the grass (from his back, mind you, so just in his peripheral) and said, “you can eat that, if you want” and he decided it was not an evil woodpile if it had grass next to it.

The grass was destroyed. We searched the rest of the pile and it was deemed safe. He was perfectly calm and mannerly the rest of the ride.

Sleepy face of a relaxed and happy horse.

Anyway.

I’ve been trying to teach him to come to the mounting block. Monty Roberts teaches horses this, and I love it. It’s so useful. Endo the Blind, this eye-less Appaloosa, does it and he can’t even see. Midas should be able to learn. The idea is that the rider goes and stands on the mounting block, then calls the horse, who comes and positions himself so the rider can mount easily.

You might not remember this, but we used to go rounds with Midas to get him to stand at the mounting block long enough for someone to get on. (Way back at the beginning). This is such a common problem with horses in general that there are comics about it. Horses seem to wait for you to position, them, then when you climb onto the mounting block or fence, they sidle out of reach.

I’ve been working on Midas off and on for years about mounting block manners, and he is actually quite good about the mounting block. (For me, anyway. When one of the littles leads him up, all bets are off these days). This spring I decided that there was no excuse, he should come up and present himself even if I don’t lead him up to it before I climb up. I’ve also found that teaching him something new really helps with mounted work.

Midas already knows how to be sent and called in from a circle, so that’s where I’d started in the past. I’d stand on the mounting block and work him on the line, sending, circling, coming back. Mostly without tack, sometimes ending with a little bareback riding.

I refreshed him on that, and then practiced parking him a bit away, telling him to stay, then walking to the mounting block and summoning him. I did this with tack and without, but always with the 14’ rope.

He’d come, and I was frankly surprised at how readily he marched to the right spot with a proud look on his face. I’d shower him with praise and scratch his neck, withers, and back.

He even did it without the rope to reinforce if he pretended to not know what I was asking.

This spring I also started going out in the big field again—it’d been a while since we’d been out there working in hand (used to with the inlaws). We marched around the field and did some basic groundwork in hand, and he was good. Then I’d go do something else entirely with him.

Then, last week I tacked him up and we marched into the field in hand. I didn’t have a full plan, just wanted to do something different. I had the rope and stick with me, but started with just asking him to follow me this way and that without the rope or me touching the reins. He was only so-so on that, so I attached the rope to the bitless bridle. Ended up at the farthest edge, climbing up onto the little coop and asking him to present himself so I could mount.

And he did.

Came right up, cuddled close so I could easily swing aboard. I was so surprised. It took a bit of doing to unclip the long rope from his bitless bridle, and then I rode for a while in the field one-handed because the other was occupied with my stick and my 14’ rope. But you know what? It went great. He was relaxed and easy, and I was relaxed and easy.

All the work I’ve been putting into riding with seat and legs, for both our sakes, paid off. We calmly looped around the field, this way and that, at walk and trot. It was amazing.

The next time I rode, I asked him to come to the big wooden mounting block the kids use. He sidled right up. I rode him up and down the driveway before the littles arrived and we gave them pony rides in the woods, then I asked him up to a woodpile so I could get back on. He came.

I am so pleased that he seems to have really learned and understood and embraced this little thing.

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