This horse

Today was our second proper foray into bareback and bridle-less. The first time was quite spontaneous, and went pretty well. We walked in a circle, then I tried trotting him up the long side and laughed at how very quickly steering fell apart. Then I fetched the reins and had a slightly more proper ride (in the halter and bareback pad).

This time was only slightly less spontaneous, but we’ve spent weeks working on our leg aids and not tuning out when I let go of the reins at walk or trot. We walked, did figures, walked poles, walked into the grass and out of it again, stopped, did turns, even backed! And then I quit because he was starting to feel proud of himself, and that’s a good place to quit. Quit while that “hey, this is the easiest work ever for oodles of pats and scratches!” glow is high!

Then we took a walk in hand and I watched him eat grass for a half hour as a reward. This was a good day for everyone!

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Training horse or rider

Here follows lengthy ponderings on horse training. Because it’s something I think about. A lot. 

In 2009 or 2010, I had a chance to take a few riding lessons while the horses were on schooling board at a different farm. The lessons mostly consisted of Midas tearing around the ring like a freight train (at trot) while I tried in vain to get him to listen to half halts. I know the trainer tried to teach me about using my seat and abs–and that helped a teensy bit, but not a lot, and in the end she determined that I couldn’t ride this horse in this bit. It wasn’t strong enough, I wasn’t strong enough. He wasn’t listening, so clearly I wasn’t enough (or wasn’t doing what she said).

As a trainer with limited time, I understand why she said that. She didn’t want me to get killed because I was over-horsed. But there were other solutions to the problem, which I don’t remember her even hinting at. Maybe she knew of them and assumed they would be brushed aside, maybe she didn’t. My takeaway from that lesson was “You aren’t a good enough rider to ride this horse.”

Which, in a sense was true. It’s also true that she didn’t use all those words exactly. But that’s what I heard.

I didn’t have any say in what bit he went in, so I muddled along. It wasn’t a priority to fix at first because I had two (sometimes three!) other horses to ride and Midas got on reasonably well with the 16/17/18 yr old brother in law who rode him most.

I’m certain that there are plenty of horse/rider pairings that just won’t end well if pursued. What do you do if you’re a trainer and watching a horse completely blow through the aids of its rider and you don’t know if you will ever see them again?

In clinics I’ve watched–you know, the ones with Olympians–if it gets really bad the Olympian gets on the horse and sorts through some issues right there. But when the other rider gets back on, it’s back to square one–possibly square 2, and they have to sort through it themselves, hopefully with a better idea of how things are supposed to work.

People said Midas was a man’s horse. He needed a strong man to ride him. That or an extremely competent and confident rider. (I was competent, but at the time I swung my leg over his back, my confidence was fresh off a beating from a variety of sources).

I had a few outings with Midas and the hunt that I felt were rather harrowing adventures. Galloping was fun for both of us, but waiting or walking around was the bane of my existence because he hated it (and I was so nervous about breaking social rules I’m sure I helped wind him up). We were the ones running down the hill bucking that no one thought would stick around the entire ride. Yeah. That was us. And we did stick it out. I learned to bridge my reins from a kind staffer and literally planted my fists in his withers so he pulled on his withers.

So, when the other two horses moved on from the barn, and it was just me, Midas, and the two younger siblings-in-law, I had a bit of a problem to solve. What to do with a big bully, who, when asked to trot, bolts for the gate? Who we can’t cool out on a long rein because he’s so uptight and untrustworthy?

I’m not sure why anymore, but I felt strongly that Midas needed to be tamed. He was so stand off-ish–he had reasonable ground manners but not fabulous ones.

So day one was bonding. We stood around and patted him. All three of us. At the same time. He was so, so confused. It took him a good long while to relax. I started messing around with liberty work, theorizing that the way to deal with a horse who uses his strength against you is to change it from a game of strength to a game of communication. I needed to change the rules of his world.

He was so glad.

So our epic journey began. After taking baby steps with liberty training, I started taking lessons with a different trainer whose main focus was horse training rather than people training. My first riding lesson with the horse trainer was spent sitting on Midas and requiring him to stand still. Seriously. We barely even walked in the early lessons.

I suppose some people would have stopped taking lessons from her, then. I mean, we just stood there (while she talked about the theory of horse training), we want to ride, right??But I do want to ride, so I soaked up everything she said. It took a solid 15-20 minutes for him to give up on trying to walk off. The next time we rode, it was the same again. After a few rides (sits?), though, he got the message.

They also serve who only stand and wait. 

I learned that the instant you sit on the horse, the horse needs to be listening to you and waiting for cues. If you can’t stand still, what’s to make you think walking will go any better? Much less dressage, or jumping, or fox hunting.

Why do we skip standing still?

This trainer saw what I was doing with liberty training on my own and introduced me to the Downunder Horsemanship book, as a means of making sure the training I did on my own was thorough, and didn’t miss any steps.

This whole thing has been life changing  for my big bully.

To the point that I usually prefer to start beginners riding him in a halter–a halter–because their hands aren’t yet gentle enough to use a bit. And because Midas responds well enough in a halter for them to do beginner things like steering and learning about balance and brakes.

Oh yeah, this horse has brakes now, fantastic brakes. And he’s letting a tiny 7 year old boss him around (granted, I’m there, but considering where we started!).

Which brings me back to pondering my previous experiences with trainers, and in particular with the one whose only offered solution was a stronger bit. Why is that? What is the mindset? What makes us look at a horse and rider combination and say “Rather than focusing on remediation for the obvious lack of respect the horse has for you, let’s get you a stronger bit.” Or was the stronger bit supposed to fix the respect thing? Wouldn’t do much for the trust thing, though.

Wait, don’t panic: I know equipment matters. In fact, Midas is in a different bit now. One that doesn’t poke him in the mouth (a Myler, in case you’re curious). Before Midas, I spent the better part of a year trying to find tack that worked for my little gaited pasture potato–nothing fit, or he didn’t respond well to it for any myriad of other reasons (but he also liked the Myler best). But putting a different bit on Midas didn’t fix the problem, he needed training.

Every time you interact with an animal, you are teaching it what the rules are for interaction with you. The animal can do nothing but interpret your actions through the lens of its instincts–what it knows as a herd or pack animal. You are demonstrating what their relationship is to you, and who is in charge. Every. Single. Time.

You don’t have to consider yourself a horse trainer to train a horse, you just have to try to catch one. The line in the sand starts on the ground. (Ha.Ha.)

 

I know, not every horse/rider pair can be fixed with training. Horses (and people) do have personalities, hormones, and any number of other factors. In fact we just had a horse leave the farm because he wasn’t a good fit (ironically, with anyone at the farm). He’s at a lesson barn now and they apparently love him. I thought for sure he’d be glue after a week there, but he must get enough work that he doesn’t have time to be trouble. Even the other horses here are happier now that he’s gone.

This whole experience has me curious about, well, every horse and rider I’ve ever encountered. What if someone could have offered this training for Melody ? Or even Dude?

One of the things I’ve incorporated into Midas’s training is a variety of riders. I’m trying to teach him, and I think it’s working, that he can be kind to riders. That he should be kind to riders. That kindness will, in fact, be a good experience for him. Better than brashness and bullying. Even if the rider is a rank beginner. It’s hard to say, since his 7 year old has boundless willpower, but I think he’s getting it.

Reflecting on this riding and training journey makes me think that if I ever taught horseback riding, I would have a very hard time separating mounted work from groundwork. You need both, to really forge a bond and understanding. (Groundwork, here, doesn’t refer to any particular exercise or method, but rather literally refers to working on the ground with whatever issues need addressing). Riding isn’t about equitation, it’s about teamwork. Equitation is what keeps you on the horse and lets you move your aids to communicate with your teammate.

I feel like, were I to run a lesson program, ever, it would be an unconventional one. (Those who know me are like, “Really, you’re just figuring this out?”) If you are starting a rider from scratch, it’s relatively easy: You make them focus on balance, on staying on, on moving with the horse. Then once they aren’t afraid of randomly pitching off the side, you can start messing with where they should hold their hands.

You teach in terms of “Hey, if you want the horse to turn left you just put your leg here and voila! To make that tight turn, use all the aids! With conviction!”

With people who have been riding? I don’t know. I guess it depends.

 

I have this deep desire to understand why a horse does things, or a horse and rider combination does things.

I also want to understand why trainers do and say the strange things they do.

Why the one-rein stop is great

Originally published in 2014 on my other blog. 

This spring and summer I rode my burly foxhunter,  Midas, through fields performing the one-rein stop every 10 steps or so in order to, 1) learn the thing, and 2) not be bolted with. Now we have pretty well mastered the maneuver as taught by Clinton Anderson in his Down Under Horsemanship book–and the effects have been astounding.

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Me on Midas, Donald on Charlie

The one-rein stop consists of reaching about halfway down one rein, and then in a smooth (not abrupt) motion, drawing your hand back to your hip.  This draws the horse’s head around to his shoulder. Your other rein hangs completely loose. The instant the horse yields–by bringing his nose closer to you than the rein requires, thereby removing the pressure of the rein–and stops his feet, you drop the rein as a reward.  Before you tackle this while moving, you master it while standing still; this way the horse already understands how to yield before you incorporate stopping.

 

Oddly, the one-rein stop is a very soothing exercise. It’s hard to say if it soothes the horse or rider first, but there is a calming rhythm and familiarity to it. The rider is suddenly aware that he or she can stop the horse easily and without conflict, and the horse likewise realizes that the rider won’t grab or be harsh, and it knows what to do to release the pressure. Everyone knows what to expect, and that’s very soothing.

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This is Midas’s post-hunt-so-tired-please-can-we-stay-with-the-hounds? face.

The net result is not only a horse who can be stopped (no small matter when you ride a horse who bolts) but a confident rider. Over the past several months, both of my young in-laws  have had the opportunity to stop bolts. The most recent take-off the 16 year old rode by himself out of voice-shot and handled perfectly. He then continued with the ride as if nothing had happened, both horse and rider in a good mental state.  I’m completely delighted at the prospect of bolts being non-events rather than ride-defining moments.

 

This has resulted in a sort of revolution for Midas and I.

 

Because you don’t need a short rein to stop the horse quickly, you can ride with a longer one.  This has, in turn,  enabled me to finally connect the  dots between contact with the horse’s mouth, rein length, and sitting up straight. I’ve been actively working to sit taller (fighting those years of hunt seat equitation), tuck my seat under, and when I do have to pull on the reins or half-halt, the action comes from the elbow and shoulder rather than just the hands. Although I’m riding on a longer rein, there is not, interestingly,  a loop in the rein. With all the puzzle pieces falling into place, Midas is not abusing the longer rein. Instead, he’s stepping into it and stretching his neck into it, like my High School Riding Instructor always said the horse would. We have stumbled on the secret to traveling in the fabled frame lauded by dressage instructors everywhere.

 

Finally  and unexpectedly, the longer rein has suddenly enabled us to canter. It’s embarrassing, but I couldn’t induce Midas to canter much in the ring; and it was hard work to hold him balanced when we did canter. As it turns out, I was holding his head too high with a too-short rein, and he was having to work his tail off to stay balanced at all. On the longer rein–with my elbows and shoulders back and my seat tucked under–he reached of his own accord into the contact of the rein, and I could use my legs and seat to keep his weight back and balanced.

 

The confidence of the one-rein stop unlocked a palace of riding treasures for my bolt-prone mount and I. It has lessened the frequency and severity of bolting incidents, led directly to mastering other horsemanship skills and concepts, and given us the ability to canter responsibly. The One-Rein Stop is great.

Operation Bridleless

I want to be able to ride Midas, formerly the bully freight train, bridleless and halterless. He already goes quietly in a halter–before I broke my foot I was cantering him in a halter. The time off from the foot was a serious set back for me, and set back our ridden work. So we have some making up to do.

But, we did a lot of groundwork that year. A lot. And we made huge strides.

So, why couldn’t he be one of those horses that goes in a neck rein or less?

I read a Buck Brannaman article on Eclectic Horseman that gave a deceptively simple exercise for laying the foundation–ride a serpentine using only your legs to steer. Makes sense, right? Simple, right?

Hahahahaha.

Ugliest serpentines I have ever ridden.

But….we’re making progress.

I’ve sort of combined that with Clinton Anderson’s Follow The Fence exercise, which we never really spent a lot of time on due to very little in the way of regular fencelines at this property. But I’m messing with the exercise now–using only my legs to direct Midas to stay on the path, as much as I can, anyway.

Anything that involves freedom excites him in a good way, but he hasn’t totally figured out what I want yet so he hasn’t fully embraced the responsiveness. He thinks that no rein means he can go where he likes as long as he keeps the pace I tell him. That is very similar to cruising–where he could go where he liked as long as he kept the pace. Now I just need to convince him to listen to my legs.

It HAS been working, he’s much more sensitive to leg pressure in general now, which is great. We still have pretty ugly serpentines, but I can actually float my hands over the reins without him immediately checking out.

Baby steps.

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Midas

Several years ago Midas became my project. I’d ridden his stablemate, a retired show pony, and then trained a boarder, a gaited pasture potato, and when the pony and the boarder were gone…it was Midas’ turn.

He was a big bully.  A really big bully. On the ground, and even worse in the saddle.

I was a good rider, but day 1 consisted of him bolting with me, and it just didn’t go great from there. He was reasonably well behaved for my teenage brother-in-law (who he chose from a distance as his favorite human), but it still wasn’t pretty and bolts were a part of life. Much to everyone’s frustration.

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I knew that I needed to work hard to bring this horse to a place where he was a trustworthy citizen. I also needed to use diplomacy. Besides the fact that harsh methods aren’t any good to start with, they would have never worked on Midas. He’s too big and strong, and he is fully aware he is big and strong.

So I made Midas an offer: If you will walk beside me quietly, I won’t apply any pressure at all to the lead rope. In fact, I’ll let go entirely with my right hand. Midas was a little surprised, but readily agreed.

Soon I offered to forgo the lead rope entirely, he agreed to that, too. Suddenly my big bully was walking at my elbow, anyone’s elbow, without a rope to keep him there.

That was the beginning. The idea born from a childhood of Marguerite Henry books, Monty Roberts, Xenophon and a good riding instructor.

From there, I watched a Tommy Turvey clinic on liberty work, then I was introduced by my trainer to Clinton Anderson’s green book (Downunder Horsemanship) and then Buck Brannaman. Midas now has impeccable ground manners. He is reasonably controlled at liberty–and under saddle we’re actually working on dressage concepts like straightness and impulsion and collection rather than just “don’t veer, don’t speed.” Plus, we can cool out on a long rein, which was a major milestone for us. Now it’s a way of life, and when I dismount I take his bridle off and he follows me to the barn for his rub down or bath.

I’ve also realized that I’ve always cared more about horse training than a particular discipline in the horse world. A lot of the show ring stuff is actually useless. Real riding, real horsemanship, is the same across all the disciplines. And I love it. 

We’ve come so far: I’ve learned a ton, and we’ve had a lot of fun.

There is so much more to learn.

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Midas, parked where I left him. Waiting patiently for me to come back for him.