Horse Eating Hay Trolls

The neighbor’s hayed their field, and now there is a long line of round bales in the field where Midas and I ride–and there has never been round bales in that field for as long as we’ve been going there.

It’s been upwards of 10 years.

So obviously the new bales, which appeared out of no where, overnight, must be sentient horse eating trolls.

And Midas noticed them immediately.

By this point in our ride, we were cooling out. It was hot out. I was tired.

He went stiff, head up, snorting, I could feel the spin and run inside him even if he hadn’t succumbed. I knew that there was a solid chance we’d just be spinning our way through a field of gopher holes should I stay mounted and coax him over to face the trolls. (We normally ride around the edge, where there are no holes, but to do that we’d have to walk RIGHT NEXT TO THE TROLLS).

So, I retreated behind a treeline (cover from trolls) and dismounted. He’d been feeling good and peppy all day–finally sound after a spring battling thrush–so spooking might be half for the joy of feeling good. The other half being his guard-horse mentality–and the thought of gopher holes just really meant this was a monster best faced in hand. Mounted, there would be an additional layer of adrenaline. In hand, I could use my tiredness and lack of adrenaline to my favor, radiating calm at the prey animal bent on survival.

He pranced. He snorted. He stopped. He never tried to get away from me.

I strolled, stopped when he stopped, asked nicely to move again after a moment of assurance, or let him move in a nervous circle. Assured him verbally that these weren’t trolls. Finally got close enough that I could touch the bales, bang on their plastic, make noise.

He was skeptical still, but finally relaxed. We walked all the way around the line both ways–saw a few gopher holes.

With our scientific investigation satisfied, we walked allll the way back to a woodpile by the driveway so I could remount (another object we’d investigated thoroughly when it was first introduced) and I rode back to face the trolls.

Except they weren’t trolls anymore. Just hay bales.

We doodled peaceably around the field and went back to the barn for a nice cool shower.

*

I brought out the little white pony, Blue, for a walk in hand to see what he’d do with the trolls. It amused me that it took him several seconds longer to notice them than it had Midas, and he danced back and forth behind me like a tube behind a speedboat. I don’t think he stopped moving once of his own accord, just when I paused to assure him. Once we got to the bales, though, he accepted them much more quickly, and even walked across the half-blown tarp when I did. I hadn’t expected him to follow me (Midas hadn’t), just wanted to show that it wasn’t scary.

Horses are so different. Blue isn’t a dominant creature (unlike Midas, who is dominant and the horse who stands guard while the others nap), he’s somewhat nervous but quite trusting. He, too, never actually hit the end of the lead rope, though he was pretty worked up.

Granted, I didn’t try to keep him from dancing around. I let him have the rope he needed, which turned out to be not that much. I didn’t care if he danced around as long as he didn’t bolt. That was my approach with Midas, too.

It helps to focus on one thing at a time with horses. For investigating the trolls, they just needed to stay with me so I could show them everything was alright. They didn’t need to bury their emotions or instincts entirely, just use their brains enough to come with me.

Trolls vanquished.

*

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strength training

I should look for a job conditioning someone’s expensive sporthorse, because I enjoy it. I enjoy walking up and down hills, trotting over hill and dale, all with a careful eye on building the strength and stamina of my mount.

This winter has been pretty wimpy, but one side benefit of that has meant more trot! The ground never got hard, and we’re probably going to have a drought this summer because there hasn’t really been any mud either.

We’ve been going up and down hills at walk and trot, mostly. I’ve taken delight in the 10 minute warm up and 10 min cool down (always observed this, but with renewed vigor as I follow Denny Emmerson’s writings), carefully warming up Midas’s muscles and then working them on the hills, then cooling them down again. Important at any age, but he’s in his 20’s.

We are outside the ring as much as we can manage.

We’ve also done some canter up hills, not a lot, but some.

I’ve worked twice in the ring this spring–I mean actually worked hard in the ring. There have been one or two other times when I didn’t have time for a proper ride so we did some bareback work while I dwelled on seat and legs.

And wouldn’t you know, that ring work was MUCH better. We’re straighter (it’s also been just me riding all winter, so that helps with his straightness, too), softer, and stronger in the right way. I’ve been deliberate about asking for softness, and then for shorter periods of time asking for self-carriage and roundness. (Rather than asking all the time and hoping desperately to get it now and then). Understanding that it takes physical strength to carry oneself makes a big difference.

All I have to do is think about me doing pilates and my approach to asking for such things changes dramatically. Midas not going around like a dressage pony has less to do with obstinance than fitness and know-how.

He gets fast when we introduce canter, like it simultaneously excites and frightens him, and if you let him, he’ll counter-bend and speed into the canter when he thinks you might want him to canter. So I focus on bending him the correct direction and not letting him zip, and then if we’re organized I’ll sigh, and say “Alright, go ahead” and he’ll usually pick up canter.

Sometimes I have say canter. Sometimes I don’t 😛

Sometimes I have to cue with my leg. Sometimes I don’t. 😛

But once we’re cantering, leg becomes essential.

He falls on his face a bit when he canters, so I have to sit back, lift my hands and apply lots of leg–not a kick or anything, but a steady pressure alllllll down the inside leg to remind his body which way to bend and to block his shoulder. If I’m too weak, he caves in and we lose our balance on the turns.

After all the hills, though, it’s easier to help him stay balanced.

We moved quickly through a bunch of different exercises last time I rode. A 10 minute walk on a long rein, then finishing with some bending, and leg yields, then trot–first at his pace with a long rein, then more organized and then finally collected for a little with bending. Then, canter.

You’ll laugh, but we cantered a time and a half around the arena left lead without falling apart, and that might be the first time that’s happened since I broke my foot.

When we changed direction, I let him canter without making him do figures at trot until he was bending properly, and it was a very unpretty and resistant canter where he DID NOT WANT TO BEND, so even though we made it around the ring it was disorganized and probably would have scared 13 year old me.

I changed tack, focused our breath on trot, doing figures, relying as much as I could on leg rather than hands, so I could encourage softness from him. Once we were organized, I let him canter again and it was MUCH improved, and I didn’t make him go more than once around.

I gave him a long rein immediately upon coming back to it–before he could pull, even–but kept leg on so he knew he wasn’t to walk–his trot was loose and not zippy, he was clearly quite pleased.

Once we got down toward the “canter corner” he sped up, despite my gentle whoas, and picked up canter. I decided I didn’t care. He picked up the correct lead, and I didn’t feel like spending the next however long fighting with him about that corner. I kept up the gentle whoas, but offered him no other help with his canter. He cantered up the side and returned to a dignified trot of his own accord, shockingly organized, actually, and I insisted he keep trotting because that’s what I had asked. In the “canter corner” he again ignored my gentle whoa and picked up canter, but only went a couple strides before coming back. As if he was tired, and also might have just realized he wasn’t listening to me. The next time he didn’t even speed up at all. The whole thing was on a long rein, I did almost nothing, and he figured out all on his own that maybe he should pay attention to my gentle cues like he does when we’re walking.

Also, we cantered on a long rein, and he actually did an OK job. We’ve both made good progress.

*

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Nice Things

There is a new boarder at Midas’s barn, a pretty gray Percheron type mare named Evie.

Midas has literally paid no attention to her in the month she’s been living on the property–she was in a paddock by herself, and all the geldings were turned out in a field that didn’t share a fence–but they could see each other clearly.

They’ve met over the fence in hand.

This week, she was turned out with one of the geldings, Wellie, and the others were all put in other paddocks in pairs.

This time, about halfway through our ride, Midas suddenly seemed to realize that he’d left Wellie and Evie unchaperoned. And he was distressed. He wanted to go back. He wanted to stare at them.

It took a good bit of gentle insistence to prevail upon him to pay attention, so of course I teased him mercilessly for his jealous behavior.

The real question is: Would he react this way if Evie had been turned out with anyone else? Is he jealous because Wellie was turned out with her, or because anyone was? He doesn’t care about Wellie being with him or alone, or with one of the other geldings. So is he getting studly in his old age, or does he just really not like Wellie to have nice things???

I want to know.

For science.

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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.

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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