Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tuesday 10/27/2009

Went directly to the barn after work as I had booked arena time at 6:30 ~ G was a muddy mess when I got there, so between washing hooves and scraping away the mud I was lucky to get in there on time.

I decided since I was primarily going to work the walk that I’d let him eat his dinner. I've found if he knows he’s missing dinner he has a hard time focusing on work. He is without a doubt the most food oriented horse I’ve ever met. I sometimes wonder if it’s because they are on such a consistent schedule that when something is slightly amiss he gets agitated. I know my dogs start getting a bit more than antsy if 5:00 comes and goes without the food dishes being filled.

G picked me up at the mounting block – he’s doing very well with this. I asked for him to soften – repeated this about three times until I felt him release and mounted up. He stood still but then started getting antsy. His mind was in forward gear! So I dismounted and we repeated the exercise. This time he really softened (I think I’m starting to really see the difference between light and soft) and so when I mounted this time I didn’t need to hold the reins or request that he stand still, he just did. Good boy.

We start out by doing serpentines on and off the rail around the arena in both directions. He really is getting in tune to my seat cues now and it feels great not having to use any rein with exception to asking for a yield to the inside. I alternate taking up contact and then allowing him to reach forward and down, which helps stretch out those muscles. Once we were warmed up I tried to simply work on keeping his hind end engaged at a nice medium walk – pure four beats – in a soft frame. As I asked him to pick up his gait, his first inclination is to raise that head and hollow out, so I went back to the walk, we did some shoulder fore, haunches in, leg yields, worked our square pattern, and then I asked for a canter in both directions on a 20 meter circle. Once cantered, when I asked for him to pick it up into a flat walk I got it in a soft frame with impulsion. Around the arena once in both directions and we went back to walk transitions. I believe the canter is what truly stretches him out.

Back when we first started cantering on 20 meter circles G had a hard time balancing. He now feels wonderful – we’re getting lift on the up transition and he’s beginning to drop his hinny and soften on the down transition. The problem now however is I can’t keep him in the canter on the straight any more. Why is that? Anyway, we ended our session backing up and he did a darn good job of staying straight the length of the arena. I only had to use my legs twice to straighten him out. So we ended on a good note ~ he got his peppermint when I was done untacking him. All I got was a sticky hand :)

Friday, October 23, 2009

The True Horseman?

So what is it exactly that makes one a true horseman? Is it the opening of the heart mind and soul to the horse? Is it the resolve to take as much time as it takes to learn something? Is it working a horse without the use of force or pain? Is it having the patience to wait it out when your horse doesn’t “get it”?

I didn’t have the opportunity to own horses when I was younger; but spent my lifetime dreaming of the day that I would have a horse of my very own. I spent countless hours on hack line ponies and horses; spent more countless hours on the back of wonderful ranch horses in beautiful majestic mountains, Navajo tribal parks and the Arizona desert; I pretty much rode every horse I could get my hands on from an early age. Does this make me less of a horseman because I haven’t trained a horse from birth? Or because I didn’t own countless horses looking for that “perfect” mount?

I think a true horseman is someone who is willing to open their heart, mind and soul to the betterment of the horse and the rest of the questions I outlined above. Plus I think a true horseman understands that it is a never ending journey. Destinations don’t matter, the journey does – it’s a quest to be a student of the horse. It's about taking what you learn and paying it forward as Liz Graves loves to say. She is a true horsewoman; she has all the qualities and is so giving of her talents. I can only hope to have 1/2 her horse knowledge before I die.

I knew when I bought G six years ago that he would be a challenge ~ not a horse most people would recommend to a new horse owner, but I felt having good basic riding skills and what I considered good horse sense, we would in the end be a good fit for one another. He hasn’t proven me wrong yet. The patience I didn’t have, G brought to me. There was no other choice. Undoing the damage that was done before me was more of a task than I thought. I’m sure someone of Liz Graves or Mark Rashid’s talents could have turned him around faster, and this is where the experience of a true horseman comes in. Its not that I didn’t try as hard as they would have; or showed G any less patience then he needed. It just took me longer to find the answers to my questions. The fact that we’re into our sixth year and just finally “getting it” together I know is well beyond many people’s capacity for patience. But I now know that I have it! I knew the minute I met G six years ago that he was a special horse with a big heart and I was willing to take however much time was needed to find our communication and become a team. Let the journey continue....questions I got!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Rockin S Raised Snaffle Bit

I made a decision today to put dressage lessons on hold for a little bit and simply work on G's softness and my leadership with him under saddle. So tonight I brought the dressage tack home and took my western tack back to the barn - totally opposite of what I generally do come late fall. But since I'm going to be pushing G to the limits of frustration (I'm sure) I prefer to have the ATH saddle and bucking rolls....just in case :)

After dinner I went to the barn and tacked G up. He was a little hesitant to open his mouth for the bit (kinda back to his old ways) but a simple tickle to the corner of his mouth and he said "AHHHH". We started at the mounting block and G lined up perfectly the first time. And then I went to put the reins over his head and his butt stepped over. Okay, round two - DING! He lined up perfectly again but this time I didn't ask him to step up so far so I was able to put the reins over his head without him moving. I brought the inside rein up toward the saddle horn and held. He immediately braced against it, so just as Mark showed me I held fast and waited til he released. Really released. No "okay I give, oh wait no I don't, changed my mind - ha ha". We repeated this until he released and relaxed. Once he was there I mounted up and we stood there for a good full minute before I asked him to move out.

I love using the rope reins simply because you can easily hold them softly in the hand rather than the feeling that I need to "grip" the rein. Maybe this has to do with the fact that I have big hands, I don't know. G was relaxed from step one. Maybe every 10 steps or so I simply had to squeeze my pinkie and ring finger on the inside rein to remind him to relax at the poll. Toward the end the reminders came fewer and farther apart. We worked on backing. I find that when the arena is "choppy" like it was tonight he doesn't back up as freely as he does on solid ground, like outside or on the outdoor track. But backing came easier and freer with far less resistance on his part. I think we're both starting to "get it".

I was never a big believer in a bit being a cure all, and I'm almost afraid to say this outloud, but the Rockin S Raised Snaffle is G's bit. After all the different bits and bitless rigs we've tried the past 6 years, this bit is a real hallelujah event in our lives. I realize that we still have a long slow road ahead before we tackle his confidence issue on the trail; but it brought tears to my eyes tonight to feel and see how relaxed G was under saddle. Since I'm not supposed to look down, I instead kept looking at his profile shadow on the wall. Not only did he feel great, he looked great. His ears kept flicking back listening to me and at one point looked like they were getting a bit floppy. G with bunny ears! No way!

I was going to send Mark & Krissi an email thanking them again for all their insight and coming up with the concept of this bit (and of course marketing it) but I think I'm going to wait until I see them in person at Equine Affaire in a few weeks. Then I hope to have hubby take another video of G at the walk and then put a before and after video together. I think everyone will be surprised at the difference....heck I am and we're just getting started!

Tomorrow is another day.....a new beginning.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Saturday 10/17/09

Headed to the barn late this morning to ride G in his new Rockin S Raised Snaffle. I had reserved the arena for 12:45 but a lesson was running a little late so I decided to ride G outside for a few before heading indoors.

Well G did a great job at picking me up at the mounting block and he stood still for me. I picked up his reins and he wanted to walk off. So I asked him to stand. Easy right? Not. Here comes the red farm truck down the center drive with Sue standing in the back throwing lunch hay. Aha, it's lunch time and as usual if its feeding time and I'm asking G to work he wants to throw a tantrum. Oops, there I go again. G is acting out because..... no making excuses for his poor behavior so I asked him to back up. Not a happy camper. I could feel his frustration mounting, but I held fast and continued to back him up in a circle until I got some softening. Since the truck was rolling toward us and the barn I decided I'd take him around back and head into the arena.

Once inside I dismounted and went to the mounting block and asked him to pick me up. Not so good as outside. "The hay truck is here mom, I wanna eat". Such a spoiled child. I kept my resolve and on about the fourth attempt he relented. I then asked him to soften by closing my hand on the rein mid way up his neck. This took about 5 minutes before I got a release. Okay not so bad. So I mounted up, sat and got myself situated and asked him to walk off.

Up, up, up. G's ears were forward and he was very up and ready to go. So this tells me I didn't change his frame of mind at the mounting block and should've spent more time on softening. I only had 30 minutes so I took him to the centerline in the arena and started backing. We had to traverse the center line back and forth twice before he let go of the bit and softened. I then gave him a little more rein and asked him to walk along the wall. Much more relaxed at the poll; but every once in a while the head would pop up but I simply vibrated my ring finger on the inside rein and he softened. We did more work on backing; stopping in a soft frame; and walking walking walking.

So far I'm really pleased with this bit and how G is reacting to it. Far more responsive with far less cue. To have him back with me simply closing my hand on the reins and thinking back just amazes me. A horse that wouldn't back for "you know what" now backs in a more relaxed frame. When he gets going, it feels so cool to feel how his hind end is working. So now my two Herm Sprenger bits are in the hands of a fellow boarder who is going to try them both out this week. We just happened to start talking bits and she mentioned that she had tried an HS and her horse liked it so she was going to go buy a new one. Great timing! Hopefully one will be sold by the end of the week and the other I can hopefully sell to one of our prior trainers. This will make DH very happy! Buy a new bit, sell two!!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Mark Rashid Clinic

As expected the Mark Rashid clinic was worth every penny. My expectations were mainly to have Mark give us an assessment of G (his personality type) and what I can do to gain more of his trust on the trail. G is such a great horse on the ground, is soft 99.99% of time time, yet he changes to a different horse under saddle. Anyway, before I get into specifics, I'll post pics first New Hampshire was gorgeous. I'd forgotten how beautiful it is, especially in the fall.

Here's Captain Jack Sparrow (lol). I tried to find a treasure chest to go with The Black Pearl theme, but the skull was the best I could do for a pirate ship.
A view of Deer Creek Farm from one of their hay fields. This is a gorgeous place.

A view from the barn

G's outdoor home away from home

Our home away from home

Asking G to pick me up at the mounting block
Teaching G to let go of the bit

Mark working with a student on working with energy from your core. Fascinating stuff. BTW Joanna, this Haflinger is sporting an About the Horse ranch saddle. It's a #2 bar customized to fit. This gal tried just about everything including treeless. Mark said the difference in this horse from the last clinic they participated in was super. Nice saddle.

Mark is an extrodinary horseman and just amazing to watch work with both the rider and horse.

Mark's assessment of me & G ~ G is (as I've known) highly sensitive and fearful - especially noticeable under saddle. Mark starts off his session with you by asking you to tell your horses story. I gave the basic details. 6th owner in 5 years; first horse (probably not the best choice); issues on the trail when turning home; improvement over the years - going from a spinner bolter to simple shoulder drops, etc. Mark would ask questions as I talked to get clarification. I felt like I was with a therapist rather than a horse trainer, lol. He asked me to mount up so I took G over to the mounting block, asked him to move his haunches over (toward the block) as he generally doesn't want to line up straight to the block. I mounted got my right foot in the stirrup and walked off. As I was walking G around the arena and going by the auditors, G noticed Timo (the clinic organizer) laid out in a recliner chair wrapped up in a bright white and black blanket.

I felt G tense, then he started with the head tilt and giving it the hairy eyeball. He dropped his nose and I could tell he wanted to investigate, so I let him. So I continue on and Mark asks "do you always let your horse go where he wants?" and I'm like "what? - oh you mean the blanket?". Well, G is spooky by nature and I figured if he wanted to check it out now rather than when Timo decides to get up in the middle of the session, he'll know it's human and not something out to get him and spook half way across the arena". Mark chuckled. Now I should mention that Mark is sick with some kinda bug...coughing sniffling, you could tell he was not feeling good, but somehow he still had a sense of humor. "So do you always let him do that". I said no, it depends on the situation. He started asking me questions about G's behavior during ground work and I told him 99.99% of the time he's relaxed and compliant. He asked if I was pretty consistent in what we do and how I ask from the ground and I said yes, I believe so.....

So lesson #1. Sensitive fearful horses lack self confidence and they require strong leadership. Strong leadership comes from consistency in EVERYTHING and being in control of each and every situation. If a fearful horse is left to its own defenses it will worry, it'll spook, it'll stop listening to its rider. I talked a bit more about G's history and our beginnings - spinning bolting, me hitting the ground etc.

Lesson #2: He said, it's okay to understand a horse's past, and its okay to make mistakes along the way, the key is that you don't beat yourself or your horse up for past mistakes - you are where you are today, move forward from this place. Secondly, don't make excuses for a horse's bad behavior or non compliance. Don't use history to explain away training issues.
Mark said one of the best ways to begin teaching horses softness and compliance is through backing. A resistant or fearful horse doesn't want to back up easily as it is relinquishing control.

Lesson #3: In backing there is no pulling on the reins; no leg pressure. It is simply intent, combined with closed hands with contact to the bit, and release when the horse softens. In the beginning, Mark had to take the reins from the ground and ask as G didn't quite understand this "no leg aids" concept. Mark backed him in a circle and there were times you could see the fear in G's eyes and he would lock onto the bit and he would grunt (the same grunt he has when he gets frustrated), Mark worked past it until G unlocked, and then got soft. The movement in the saddle became smooth. It was amazing to feel what it is supposed to feel like. So first you connect your core; close your hands on the reins; and think back. It's as if you are linking up two nervous systems to where your thought becomes their thought. But if your body or your horse's bodies are "locked" then there is no connection. So you open up the line of communication through the reins. You don't "over think" connection, it is a feel. If you are stiff, your horse will be stiff. Also, when backing make sure your legs are off the horse. In order for a horse to back properly, they need to be able to move their barrel. Otherwise, they have trouble using their hind end properly. Oh, and he told me that he's found that many gaited horses back up in four beats rather than in diagonal pairs which is the norm in trotting horses. Both my equine massage therapist and instructors have thought G had a problem because he doesn't back in diagonal pairs. I'm so glad to hear its common.

Mark asked me to dismount and to grab G's halter and lead rope. Once he was fitted up, he said "here's where we start you're leadership role". A horse has to understand its job in order to perform it correctly. A horse can't guess, it can only learn. So teach your horse how to count. Huh? He gave a great analogy about a teacher asking a little boy in the classroom what 1+1 is. The little boy said 6, the teacher said no, what's 1+1, and the little boy says 9. On and on it goes until the little boy finally answers 1+1 = 2. The teacher didn't teach the little boy how to count, she taught him how to guess. The same applies to horses - you have to teach the horse what you want - what its job is, you don't leave it to them to guess.

So, lesson #4. If you want to mount up you ask your horse to pick you up at the block (see pictures above). Mark walked G straight to the front of the block and he walked around and up the steps. Standing at the top he now directed G to his right and then brought him over to the block. (Edited to revise the following) G first parked (I didn't know he could do that) and lined up straight to the block. Mark's comment was "he's a smart horse, he gets it". Then Mark reached down to the halter and asked G to give by turning his nose in toward Mark's left leg. You could see G brace, and Mark was like "whoa, this guy is locked up from the base of his neck down to his nose". So he maintained the pressure all the while G is starting to try and pull his head away. It took several minutes before he finally gave to Mark. Mark got down and repeated. I think he did this twice and asked for him to yield maybe 6 times. By the last time, Mark said "there, he finally softened". I said, what made that different, it looked like the last time to me. He said you can see it in their eyes.

Lesson #5: Lightness comes from the outside of the horse; softness comes from within; and this you can see in their eyes. A horse can be very light yet never be soft. For instance, if a horse is worried; a light horse will continue to act out; a soft horse will continue to listen to its rider. So although G can be very light to the aids; he is not soft inside. It was then my turn to ask G to pick me up, and we did this several times. It was so neat to have him line up for me. Prior to mounting, Mark had me put weight into the stirrups a few times to make sure G wouldn't move. He didn't. So he asked me to mount up and G stood perfectly still until I asked him to move out. Mark said these are the fundamentals that are the building blocks for leadership. If you allow your horse to move out at will, you've given up your role. In order for a horse to trust you, you have to be a strong leader 24/7. Consistency, and teaching softness. So Mark's recommendation to me is to simply work on getting G soft at the walk, everytime we walk. Work on him being soft when he's being led; when he's standing still at your side. If his poll rises above his neck line, ask him to lower the head. As G becomes softer, and I become more consistent in asking for softness, the leadership role will fall back to me. Mark thinks at this point I should simply continue to work on softness and not move up into the gaits until G will walk consistently in a soft frame of mind without me continually asking for him to soften.

After our hour I went and continued practicing backing up and asking for softness with his wife Crissi. When we were done, both G and I felt really good about our 2 hours of work. I'm going to stop here, and pick up either later or tomorrow on the following day and other "pearls" from Mark.

I used to think I was being pretty consistent, but after Mark's questions and his assessment after watching us, I guess I wasn't consistent enough for G's personality. The thing is G is now very compliant going out on the trail, and as long as we're moving away from the barn we're good. It's when we turn from home that he immediately tenses up and starts jigging. There have been days where I've been able to regain his composure, but most days he still stays "wired". Guess they named him correctly Gen n Wired, lol. Some days using half halts works; other days turning him back out away from the barn; or doing dressage movements. I start with the half halts and work through the bag of tricks. Mark's theory about leadership and trust makes sense to me, and its been something I've felt for awhile now.

One thing I forgot to mention above is that I borrowed the Rockin' S Raised Snaffle from Timo to try out with G during our session with Crissi on Wednesday. As they described G did mouth it a bit when we first put it in, but within 10-15 minutes he got softer and stayed relaxed at the poll for longer periods of time. Unfortunately it was being used by another rider at the same time as our session with Mark on Thursday but he finished up about 15 minutes early so he was nice enough to bring it back to the arena for us to use again.

On Thursday we basically worked on the same things we did on Wednesday, but now it was more focus on keeping G soft; working on straightening out G's backing up; working on "intent" rather than leg/seat aids; finding the right feel; and stepping up his gait a little more. Early on in the session after working with G backing and he (meaning G) locked onto the bit, one of Mark's comments was that although the bit I was using may be the best of what I'd tried so far, he didn't think we'd found what G needed. G would take hold of it in between softening. I mentioned that we had tried the Raised Snaffle yesterday with good results, so when Rick brought it in and we switched over to the Rockin' S Raised Snaffle the difference was immediate, Not only could I feel him softening, Mark was observing G using his hind end more and reaching under himself. He felt better than ever before. When I began to step him up in gait and got him to soften Mark's comment was "once you have him soft consistently, this guy is going to be super smooth. I said "but he is smooth!" and he said "you ain't seen nothing yet". So that gives me hope!! Oh, and I've ordered a new Rockin'S Raised snaffle so stay tuned for some gently used Herm Sprenger bits for sale :)

One of the other things that got me was when G locked onto the bit and Mark was trying to get him to soften, G was really fighting the release to the point where I would've stopped as I would've thought I was frying his brain. But on the other side of the fight, came softness. Mark said that much of "the good stuff" is found on the other side of confusion and fight. He said that its obvious that G has other issues other than lacking foundation training (i.e. heavy training/possible abuse) so he really wants me to go back to baby steps and focus on him being soft, always releasing when I get the result I want, which will make him feel good about himself. Even when a horse is fighting or acting out due to confusion, if you stop before you get the desired result, you put yourself back to square one. In order for G to begin using his abdominal muscles and raising his back, he needs to be soft.

We continued using the raised snaffle while working with Crissi and she said that it was great to see so much improvement in both of us in just the one day. She noted that G was being softer longer, and that she could see I was working more with feel and intent than cues. The other thing that Mark pointed out is that I tend to look down at G's head. I thought I had gotten over that, but apparently not. He said if a rider looks at the horse's head, then the horse has no where to go. And the same can be said about breathing. When you work with intent and feel if you don't breathe then the horse stays still, lol. The first couple of times I asked him to back his feet were just planted. Crissi asked me if I was breathing, I let out a big breath and G started backing. We talked some more about his history and I told her about the barn owner from hell; and you could tell its a story she's heard before. As I was leaving the arena she told me that I have a really nice horse. Yep, G is a nice horse and I'm so glad we've found one another.

Other "pearls" from watching others are:
  • If your horse is bracing, it's because something isn't working right, and that something is usually "pulling" the horse via the reins or the rider being stiff and locked.
  • When taking your first step with your horse, the horse should step off at the speed you request. Ask for the walk you want from the first moment.
  • If your horse tends to counterbend (meaning he's walking to the left but looking to the right) direct the horse to walk in the same direction that he's looking and then bend back in the direction you were traveling. Horses that do this are disconnected (head from the body) and in a sense "locked". By directing him to follow his head and then return to the correct bend helps unlock the horse and reconnect them.
  • Don't overthink connection. It is all about "feel". Once you are centered, you think your intent, the end goal is to lose the aids down the road.
  • As effortless a horse moves in the pasture on its own, is how effortless he should move with a rider on board.
  • Always shoot for 100% - it doesn't mean you'll always get 100% but it is important to always strive toward it.
  • Leg aids should only be used to operate/guide the hind end and the front guided by the hands.
  • If you are locked, your body cannot connect with your horse; it simply creates a locked horse.
The martial art of Akido has opened up Mark to understand how important working from your center is in horse training and those same principles are what bring a horse and rider together to work as one unit. Watching him work with a couple of people on the ground truly fascinated me. When a person locks up you can pretty much knock them over with a feather. Once the person becomes centered and focuses on their core, you cannot move their feet. I really wish I'd had a video camera to tape these two sessions I watched as it was really eye opening. Once the video is processed I may hear some more words of wisdom or it may jingle up my memory, lol.

In any event, if you have an opportunity to work with Mark DO IT! It was worth every penny. He's coming back for Equine Affaire in November and then he'll return to NH in June next year for week long clinics. I sooo wish I could afford a full week with him, but unless something radical happens at work (like a bonus) I'm afraid I'll have to wait and see if I can do a 2 or 3 day in the fall.