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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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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A King in Spring

Exploring on a long rein ❤

It’s been quite a while since I’ve given an update on Midas—we’re still riding! We had some interesting setbacks last fall, ironically due almost entirely to the success I’ve had remaking Midas into a good citizen. He’s got a teenager now who rides him a couple times a week, and my rides now include a good bit of retraining. Anyone who grew up at a lesson barn on lesson horses should understand how lesson horses, with the rare exception, are the way they are because they have so many riders at so many skill levels that they either get away with murder or they plod along keeping their heads down.

Midas would be the one getting away with murder. It’s not really because he likes murder, per se, it’s just his default solution to things. A regular murder-hobo, that one.

We have definitely spent a lot of time rehashing issues I’d buried years ago. It’s really interesting to see which parts of the training unravel, and which parts you have to focus on in order to restore the whole.

I get the impression that most people find manners either dull, cute, or otherwise optional until the manners are so bad that they are obviously dangerous. But manners are everything, and the only way to get them is to teach them and insist on them.

One of the most important things in re-establishing behavior and boundaries is the grooming time. I require that the horse stand still while being groomed, and not wander off to eat unless given express permission. For example, Midas knows that if I point to grass and say “OK, eat” he’s clear to stuff his face until I have something else for him to do. It doesn’t count as permission if he dives for the grass and I say, “ok, fine, whatever, I’m tired of fighting with you.”

In return for respect, I try to provide an incredibly pleasant grooming experience full of kind conversation and itch scratching.

It’s important the horse not move unless asked or released, because I’m the one in charge. The last thing I asked was for the horse to stop and stand still, so he should until told otherwise. He’s not loose and alone, he’s with me.

It’s important to note here that I don’t tie the horse, haven’t in years, and haven’t used crossties in so long that it startles me to see a horse cross-tied. Now, you don’t START with a horse who stands quietly without being tied, but you can’t get one unless you teach him.

There are some days we spend the whole grooming time with Midas trying to walk off or eat, and I quietly put his feet back where I left them and refuse to let him tune me out. On a very bad day, I hold the lead rope the whole time I groom. Days like that pretty uniformly mean that our mounted work will be rudimentary and fraught.

Sometimes, though, I can recapture his mind with groundwork—since he already knows yielding in hand, I try to change things up. New locations, mixing commands with just following me at trot or walk or through figures. We had to give up total liberty for a while, but we’re getting back to following work without the rope as a training measure.

As spring really kicked into gear, we started to have mounted work that felt like the work from last spring. He stopped charging into trot again, and I invested a few rides in making him stand and wait outside the ring and the payoff was the ability to have a nice long hack on the buckle around all the neighbor fields.

I mix up my rides as much as possible, one day we use a saddle and work on softness at trot and transitions. Other days we use the bareback pad (or nothing at all) and focus entirely on seat and legs and mounting block manners in the ring and abroad using woodpiles.

A couple weeks ago I got on him with just a lead rope from the woodpile down the driveway and rode him utterly gearless back to the barn.

Last week we wove cones at walk with just a neck rope.

I’m starting to hope that we can, again, start working at trotting bridleless.

Each ride varies, and I’ve no doubt that the mindset I walk in on is directly tied to what happened when the teenager rode him.

But what doesn’t vary is that he won’t calm down if I am not calm. He won’t obey if I am not the leader all the time—isn’t there a line from something, “Am I not Queen?”—either I’m Queen all the time or I’m not Queen.

I’m a good Queen. I work very hard to pay attention to his needs, to make sure gear fits and is smoothly in place, to scratch itches, reward good tries, and not punish things that weren’t intended as slights or rebellion. I try to listen when he has something to tell me, so he knows that he’s not a slave. But….he is a subject.

Midas isn’t a fool. He appreciates considerate behavior. But, he has this baggage, and sometimes can’t bring himself to just BE considerate himself. Last year I’d mostly re-structured his responses so we were working on canter and brideless and liberty.

But, the introduction of a beginner intermediate rider brought his baggage roaring back. Not as bad as it was—not by a long shot. He was still ridable, for one thing. I don’t think he’s bolted outright with her, for example. But he does charge around like an idiot, and he doesn’t exactly steer or bend amazingly.

It’s good to see, though, that he doesn’t lose everything. That I was able to give him a new lease on life, another level of usefulness, another way of relating to humans that doesn’t shoot first and ask questions later. At least…he sticks to kneecaps…baby steps, right?

Of Mice and Midas

 

Little Mouse is 4 years old. She cracks me up sometimes. I try to make sure I compliment her on what she does well, especially since she is small and Midas is big so there are a lot of limits on what they can do safely. Frequently, Midas will follow me around the ring while I put things away, Little Mouse along for the ride for every halt and unexpected direction change.

Me: I love the way you sit on a horse. It doesn’t seem like much but being able to sit on a horse is–the best.

Little Mouse: But milkshakes are great, too.

 


 

Leading Midas around under some pine trees for the sake of shade.

Me: You might need to duck.

Little Mouse: Isn’t that a bird?

Me:….Yes….yes it is.

Liberty

Reference to finished work of my new favorite Midas portrait. I snapped this picture while riding around bareback and bridleless. This horse is so much fun.