One horse after another

This fall I’ve had the opportunity to ride with a friend who is a horse trainer professionally. She has a wide variety of horses in her barn, and it has been so much fun to ride different horses again.

When I was a kid, mucking stalls in exchange for lessons, I jumped at the chance to ride every single horse that came through the little barn. There were only 4 stalls, but 2 of them were borders and changed out every couple years. I rode every single horse that came through that heavy sliding door except for one, who came during my last year of college. I was 8 hours away.

There were some horses I bonded with more than others over the years, particularly the one I knew the longest and was paid to ride in the frigid winters–but riding different animals was so incredibly valuable for me as a rider.

I’ve been riding Midas for 10 years. 8 of those years, its been almost exclusively Midas. There is something different and special about working with one horse for a long time. But the value I’ve found in a variety of mounts is incredible.

Horses are different. Nothing forces you to learn how to communicate–I mean, RIDE–like facing someone else’s presuppositions head on. Because that’s what most horse behavior is, really, a presupposition. A worldview that has been taught to them by the other humans in their life.

One horse has been systematically taught by past riders that she doesn’t get an opinion, but she has to go fast. She doesn’t understand medium or slow, so you have to ask gently, patiently, consistently.

Another has been trained for the race track and doesn’t know how to stand still or put his head down.

Another has been trained with Rolkur and just…tucks his chin…but has no fight at all and not a mean bone in his body, doing everything asked, whether you meant to ask or not.

When you ride them, you have to unravel the way they frame the world, and reframe it for them. It takes time. It is SO much fun. Nothing teaches you what your body communicates to a horse at the most basic level like riding different horses teaches. You learn how you have to adjust the height of your hands based on the shape of the horse and the discipline and what you’re trying to accomplish at that moment. You learn how to use your legs–the roles of your upper thigh vs your calf–things you may have already known, but now they are vitally important every day, and can’t just be auto pilot because different horses need more or less of different aids. You learn to use your breath–a shockingly useful tool.

I guess that’s what it is. Riding a variety of horses makes you think, and be aware, and also makes it easier to think and be aware. I love it.

It makes me better.

It makes me a better rider.

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.