Today I ponied O for a total of about four minutes; I asked her to step over a bridge and a log on her own. The timing of her turns and gaits were much lighter and she was completely attentive from the start, so I didn’t have to work a lot to get her brain focused.
Today as I continued increasing (slightly) the intensity and timing of what I asked her to do, she hit a few “walls.” Meaning in response to what I was asking she either wanted to get draggy (thinking about what was behind her rather than in front,) or physically lock up her shoulder, neck or hock if she wasn’t sure or was feeling resistant towards what I was asking. These behaviors are common in all horses, but with young horses when these sorts of behaviors first appear, because they don’t “seem like a big deal” they tend to be ignored. To me, when they first appear, it is a great opportunity to help the horse narrow down her options of what behaviors are acceptable and those that are not.
People need to remember that when a horse is trying something, they are not trying to “psyche” out their ride, but rather there are searching for boundaries. Living within a herd, the leader of the herd will always clearly define what is acceptable behavior and that which is not; the same theory should apply for us humans towards the horses when we work with them. Too many times a horse will ask the rider, “Will this work? Or how about this?” and instead of directly addressing the horse, we get distracted by attempting to categorize their behavior as “good” or “bad” instead of recognizing that the horse is trying to understand what we want.
So in the case of asking for a transition, and O gently leaking to the outside as she offered the transition, I used the rein opposite from the direction she wanted to go, in a direct manner, to ask her to not leak out. Her response was to get heavier on the leaking shoulder. So I needed to remove the option of her continuing to “move forward”. I then needed to reinforce that my leg on her leaking-out side was a “boundary” rather than something to lean on. Once those two points were made, she realized her only option left was to “follow the feel” of my direct rein.
Think of sometimes working with a horse similar to the game of “hot and cold” you may have played as a child where someone has to guess an object. Let us imagine I have something in mind that I’d like a horse to do. As she tries an option and is getting “colder” or is not making progress towards what I’d like, I then make those efforts uncomfortable. But as she tries an option and is getting “warmer,” my aids get softer and I get very “quiet” in the saddle. This encourages her to want to keep searching for that “warmer” spot. This type of thinking allows the horse to “make her own” decision about participating, rather than me never letting her make any choices for herself. When she does offer a “colder” effort, I don’t critique her; I just show her that isn’t what I’d like.
The all too common “leaking out” is a great example of where a rider for multiple reasons and misunderstandings, could either try to “smooth over” the unwanted drifting, or become overly critical towards the horse with an over active aid in response to the unwanted behavior. Too many times a rider will critique their horse, but they will never actually present a way to help the horse understand HOW to achieve or offer the desired response. I try to remind people that instead of saying, “bad horse,” or “don’t do that,” communicate with your aids a positive response such as “try this instead.”
Again put it into people terms, if you were trying to learn something and your instructor just kept telling you “no,” but never offered HOW to do or understand something, the chances of you figuring it out or learning would be very little and your attitude towards learning would start to become resentful. The same goes for the horses.
This is how people take the curiosity out of their young horse. Many times youngsters are very happy to learn and participate, but it tends to be a combination of the lack of clear communication, recognition and respect from a human that creates the shut-down, mentally unavailable horse.
So as the ride progressed O become more respectful to the “walls” I created with my aids, and more open minded to each aid I offered when I communicated “the plan” of where I wanted her to move. Due to this clarity she was able to become more relaxed throughout the ride, because my aids were clear, consistent and fair when applied. She could believe that when I said “we are riding to Point A,” we were REALLY riding ALL the way to Point A. By her not having to question everything I offered, she could “quiet” emotionally and therefor physically relax because mentally she could understand what her “job” was.
She let down more and more by blowing, chewing, licking her lips, etc. This is a good time to mention that even if your horse doesn’t look or feel physically stressed, they still can be carrying a bit of worry inside of them. Make sure you don’t accidentally misinterpret a “calm” appearance as “feeling good.” Rather than just focusing on the overall horse, assess things like the consistency in which they breathe, the size and balance of their steps, how they carry their tail, worry peaks above their eyes, fussiness with the bit, wrinkles in their bottom lip, etc. which can all appear in seemingly “quiet” horses and are actually indications that on the inside the horse may not be feeling as “warm and fuzzy” as they look on the outside.
O’s owner had watched the session and as she and I discussed what she had seen, ideas for her other horse, etc. it was a great opportunity for O to just stand, which she did fine for the first three minutes. With many young horses people get so excited to finally get to ride them that they tend to focus on the “go” but don’t spend a lot of time practicing the “whoa.” When I drop my reins I want my horse to drop its head and relax, whether for a one minute or twenty. I don’t want to have to feel like I need to “hold” my horse still.
So after O felt like we had stood long enough, she started trying her options. “What if I took a few steps to left?” “How about a few steps to the right?” “Could I back up a step or two?” “How about if I just turn on the forehand?” You get the idea. I addressed each thing she presented the same as I approached the previous unwanted behavior of leaking out, and eventually she narrowed down her options to conclude that “just standing” while the reins lay drooped across her neck was what she’d like to do. It was about two minutes after she’d started standing again, that she blew her nose, and then blew again and again. This was a great example of the sometimes “delayed” emotional relaxation and let down a horse can have, but humans might miss if they try to rush their horse into “feeling good.”
Looking forward to tomorrow,
Day 2 Tune Up:
Today O left her feed and come over to greet me with her head over the stall gate and I was able to halter her from outside the stall… I tacked and ponied her, this time working with more energy in both the trot and canter while ponied.
This is also a good place to mention manners in the horse that is being ridden while ponying another. In the case of Pico, if you think “little man syndrome” you might be on the right track for his sometimes ignorant behavior towards other horses. So when he gets to be the “big man” on the totem pole when working another horse, his ego can get the better of him, as many horses do when they are working cattle. Many times a really insecure horse can become overly aggressive towards a cow, as if taking the offense is the best defense towards another animal.
So as I was working O on her lightness and balance while ponying, I was also working with Pico to remind him his brain should stay with ME no matter where, or what, O was doing. Whether she spooked and jumped ahead of us, whether she got too close to him as we made a tight turn, whether we were trotting over a log, he needed to stay mentally available and participate with what I was asking of him.
O seemed happy and ready to work so I after I put up Pico I climbed aboard her. Figure eights, serpentines, halts, backing, tear drop reverses, etc. were some of the patterns I presented. I teach people to imagine having a sliding scale of ten different energy levels within each gait, and so I focused mostly on the trot increasing and decreasing my energy between a two and a seven as we were riding our “shapes.” This is where things such as the “drunken sailor” arise, many young horses think that they cannot multi-task (i.e. keeping a consistent rhythm through an entire movement), so they tend to offer either “slow” and straight or “wiggly” as they increase their speed.
Working at the posting trot is a great way to help delegate the rhythm and energy you’d like from your horse, by the amount you use within your seat and the frequency at which you rise and sit. Too many times people “follow” the horse’s movement rather than feeling like they can influence how fast or slow the horse goes without it requiring “much” of a change from them. I find many older horses offer “one speed” within a gait, and if you ask for more or less you tend to hit an imaginary “wall” of resistance. So from the start with youngsters, I need them to understand that all gaits must have a balanced sliding scale.
With a horse like O and her reactive personality, when she is bothered by something, she will “increase” her forward moving energy but lose the quality of her movement and balance because she can physically shorten her neck into an accordion like manner, causing her to take very fast, short and choppy “sewing machine steps.” These steps put more effort in the up and down motion of her leg, rather than a balanced powerful movement initialed from her hind quarters propelling her forward in elongated steps. As I’m riding her, if she does become a bit concerned, rather than letting her just build up her worry with more momentum, I need to still stay “focused on the job,” but address her increase of speed by lowering my energy in the saddle and helping her find a slower and more reasonable way to move. Think of the phrase, “Face your fears.” A horse that “deals” with life by fleeing (which is the most natural thing for them to do,) will become more and more reactive over time as their fears increase… But the funny thing with horses is if you tend to slow them down and help them mentally address what is bothering them, they then can usually “let go” of the initial worry and continue the ride without carrying their original stress. This is especially so with O.
As the ride continued I worked on varying riding her literally on the buckle (holding the very end of my reins), and then taking up a feel of the reins. DO NOT THINK “CONTACT.” Too many times there are many terms in the horse world that are misinterpreted and have caused a lot of issues for both humans and horses. I won’t get off on that tangent in this blog.
So when I say I “took up” on the rein, it means that I had a light feel of O’s mouth. I ride with what I call “piano fingers.” That means that as I increase or decrease pressure through my index finger, then middle, then ring finger and finally pinky, I can communicate a whole array of energies from my hand to O’s brain. I can use my reins to have a steady feel; I can use a direct or indirect rein, etc., which all tell O something different. Too many times for the sake of riding “pretty” people do not communicate clearly with their reins and so the horse has to decipher what the rider wants because the rider asks for several different movements but basically using the almost identical aid. In a young horse, if the horse is having to constantly question the rider, this can be the beginning of the horse increasing his resistance and fear and decreasing his confidence the more rides he has on him.
Today I also started to define imaginary “walls” on each side of the horse between my leg and hand. How many of you have ever tried to turn in one direction and had a horse gentle leak out the opposite way? In some styles of teaching people are encouraged to “hold” their horse’s shoulder, hip, etc. in order to prevent it from leaking. But for me, at 5’2”, even if I’m riding a pony, that animal is always going to be stronger than I am. And if I watch an animal such as O, in the pasture doing amazing rollbacks, why on earth would I need to “hold” her body in order to keep her balanced when I ride? But I also can’t expect her to just “know” that I want her to carry herself without leaning on me (literally). So I must create boundaries of what behavior she offers that works, and that which does not, the same as what I’d done in her ground work. So as we worked on our more specific and balanced turns, even if she was light in her physically movement, if I at all felt her leaning or dragging through the turn in her should, ribcage or hindquarters, I’d slow down and emphasize shifting her weight to her hind quarters to become balanced rather than “falling” or leaking through the turn.
This is also where I’d like to mention a lot of horses increase their speed because of a lack of balance. If any of you have ever watched a jump course where the ride starts off at one speed and with each jump the speed increases, it is usually because the horse is not moving and/or jumping in a balanced manner.
Another thing I’d like to mention is stay present in what I call “real time riding.” This means that although I may have a goal, I need to address EVERY single thing O is trying, if I don’t she will keep trying something getting physically bigger and stronger in doing so. The following are some of the things that I focused on:
1) When I made a correction, if O responded defensively then I needed to stop and help her learn that a correction is not an attack and that she does not need to get defensive, tight, hurried, etc. If she doesn’t initially understand what I want, and then gets defensive about the correction, it can create a whole array of issues and we’ll never continue a trusting relationship as her education continues.
2) The standard I present initially must stay consistent; I can’t sometimes “really mean it” and other times let certain things slide. If I do, she’ll start to question if I “really mean it” and then I’ll have to constantly be having to convince her. Not fun.
3.) Even if O doesn’t quite get “it” right, if she is trying, I need to acknowledge her effort, I personally do this with some sort of “quiet” moment so that her brain can process that her effort was a good thing. Too many people continue to hammer away at a horse, and never allow the horse to process what is happening, which of course causes resentful, burnt out, shut down horses.
As the ride progressed, O continued to relax more and more, her effort increased and movement became rhythmic. This to me was a good place to “call it a day.”
After the ride, I left her standing tacked up while I cleaned two stalls. Again, changing the “routine” of what she might expect even after a ride helps her to stay mentally present and participative the ENTIRE time I’m around her.
The young mare I will be working with, let’s call her “O”, is definitely a light-switch sort of horse. When she feels good about life, it is super clear with her puppy dog relaxed demeanor, and when she is concerned about something, she wears her emotions on the surface, so you cannot ignore her stress, fear, worry, etc. She is an incredibly athletic horse who is still literally growing into her body, with super long gangly legs, and yet her flying changes, sliding stops and roll backs in the pasture are graceful…
When I started her last winter I treated her as if she knew nothing because although she had experiences with humans, had traveled across the country, etc. she had no real trust or respect towards people…
When I initially worked wither her, she thought the goal was to try and tolerate or “get by” with what I presented and then focus on everything except what we were doing, which physically looks like a horse that has to constantly, move, flee, spook, “act big”, and so forth. As you would watch her move, her body looked like it was trying to go in four different directions at once.
Instead of trying to micromanage her body, I instead focused on her brain with the goal being to slow down and mentally address what I was presenting, AND THEN physically respond to it… I spent a long time on the ground with her as I didn’t want to “sneak by” with anything I offered or asked of her… By the time she left she’d ground tie, drag logs, ponied, line up (at liberty) at the mounting block so I could get on, walk on tarps, be bathed, trailer load, etc., all things that had originally been mind-blowing concepts when I’d started working with her.
I found I had to be really careful with what I presented as she is very smart and could quickly learn a routine or pattern, even just the time of day of working her, where I saddled her, etc. So I’d constantly change things up so that she had to stay mentally present and participate every moment of every session, rather than go through the motions because she knew what to expect.
So this time in working with her, you could see that the six months had helped her brain slightly settle… Overall she acted a bit more confident, and did a lot more thinking rather than reacting when on her in the pasture. I saddled up Pico excited to give him a “job” and saddled up O and then I ponied her.
I’d like to take a moment to explain that ponying a horse is NOT brainlessly dragging a second horse around as you are riding a different one, (though that may have been most examples of ponying that you have seen.) I always say whatever I’d ask of a horse from their back I should be able to first achieve from the ground, the same goes for ponying. When I pony a horse it is a mental exercise; can they literally look at a designated spot without having to move their entire body, can they shift their weight lightly and softly forward, backwards, sideways, etc. When the ridden horse increases or decreases his energy, so too should the ponied horse. I should be able to pony the horse off of either side of the ridden horse. I should be able to “send away” or “draw back” the ponied horse. I should be able to line up the horses parallel, but nose to tail, and touch the ponied horse from above and all over her body. As I ride my horse towards or away from the ponied horse she should be able to maintain a spatially respectful distance without ever rushing ahead of or dragging behind the ridden horse. So I worked on all of these things with O, assessing how light I could get her response to my subtle aids through use of the horse I was riding and the lead rope I held. (NEVER tie a ponied horse off to your saddle.)
I had made huge puddles in the ridding area and after I reviewed her mental and physical participation ponying, I asked O to follow (but stay spatially respectful) Pico and I through the puddles, and then eventually I sent her back and forth through them on her own.
Then I tied her (still tacked up) and let her stand for about 20 minutes while I finished working Pico. As another opportunity and “job” for Pico, I tied O while I was still mounted on Pico’s back, so each horse had to accept getting into each other’s space, and then line up basically touching shoulder to shoulder to be close enough so that I could reach the hitching post and tie a knot.
Again, as I left O standing, I kept an eye on her… If she’d started pacing, pawing, etc. I’d come back and “interrupt” her. To me, standing quietly tied should not be a “brainless” exercise, but a relaxed moment. Too many times I find insecure horses can completely psych themselves out when left alone tied and can work themselves into a fit rather than learn to be okay when tied.
After I put up Pico, I took O to the round pen to review quality transitions within and between each gait. She was happy, light, quick in her response and respectful of my space, so our session lasted about 2 ½ minutes. Yeah, really. I find all too often people can round pen their horses until the horse gets driven nuts by going round and round. The pen should be a tool, not a crutch.
The next few things I presented were an assessment and foresight into what O’s current response to physical pressure. If a horse is “heavy” or leaning on the bit, trying to push through it, or otherwise resistant when worked from the ground, they will only get heavier and more resistant when asked the same thing from a rider in the saddle.
I asked O using one rein to either follow my “feel” or yield to pressure and to move a specific number of steps forwards, backwards, to shift her weight, step right or left with either her front or hind end. I flapped my stirrup leathers against the saddle to make a “popping” sound, etc. Then I climbed up the mounting block and O lined herself up. I fussed and fidgeted being “busy” (without holding her still) to make sure she was committed to standing quietly and relaxed. Then I grabbed the saddle with one hand at the front and one on the rear and slowly pushed away from me and then “dragged” the saddle back towards me. This often will help a horse shift their weight so that they are standing balanced before you mount, which helps prevent them from having to “walk off” to maintain balance as you get on.
So by the time I mounted O was on the verge of being unimpressed! We sat for a minute, and then again I asked her to look left and right (don’t think “flexing”) and then I asked her to look and move. Rarely do I ride a young horse “straight” as it allows time for their brain to get ahead of their body, so we did lots of turns, circles, increase and decreasing of the energy, standing, etc. Then I dismounted. Again, a lot of the frequent dismounting and re-mounting is to keep her brain flexible. Too many horses “head home” or think that once the rider dismounts the ride is over…They need to stay flexible and reasonable no matter what we present.
I walked out to the open infield and again climbed on the mounting block but stopped to pick weeds (another great opportunities to do chores and allow the horse to “be with me” without having to direct her, then I asked her to line up and I climbed on. We did a little of what we’d done in the round pen, this time using the distraction of the nearby stalled horses as a positive opportunity to keep O’s brain with me. It was also a great way to keep her energy with mine; of course as you’re leaving the stalled horses the ridden horse usually wants to slow and as you ride towards the barn your horse will want to speed up. It was also when you feel that “drunken sailor” with a horse wiggling because of a mental indecisiveness as to “where” they are being ridden to.
My goal was that O’s brain stayed with me, she was reasonable when corrected if she didn’t respond exactly as I’d asked, and that she was able to stay relaxed as the ride progressed. Too many times a horse can start out “okay” but lose confidence as a ride continues. Even though we weren’t “going” anywhere, I had to ride with intention. If I didn’t present a clear, ever changing plan to the horse, her brain would have checked out in 30 seconds or less.
To finish the ride I presented the water puddles, with a clear visual in my mind of exactly where I wanted O to place her feet. By being definitive ahead of time, the timing of my response in addressing what she offered was fast (such as gently trying to leak out one direction or the other) and therefor she could quickly narrow down here options of what “path” would work, until she too soon “saw” the path I wanted her to take. We splashed around a bit, every time she’d offer a quiet try and walk nicely through the puddles, I’d let her take a “break” on dry ground. Again, this was not about the act of crossing water, but rather O’s mental availability to address what I presented and to participate in a reasonable manner.
Throughout the session O relaxed more and more, licking, chewing, blowing her nose, with her neck stretched out nicely (but not dragging her nose in the dirt as if she were avoiding “life.”) When I was finished I ground tied her as I untacked and then ran a hose over her. She is still defensive about “kicking” at the water splashing on her hind legs, so I would keep the water spraying on them until she’d quit kicking; as soon as she stood quietly I’d removed the “pressure” of the water to acknowledge her effort of stand still.
It is these sorts of experiences that “make it all worth it” when working with youngsters… I look forward to tomorrow…
I was emailed a notice that another “Road to the Horse” has finished although I didn’t have a chance to watch any of it yet, then I read an article in Western Horseman about the final phase in a colt starting series, and within the last few weeks have noticed the general discussions on the social media sites I visit has everyone excited to get “going” with their young horse as spring gentle peaks out from behind the gray and cold weather in most parts of the northern hemisphere!
So on that note, I thought it might be fun for you as the reader to learn about a mare I started last winter, she is an Arab/Warmblood cross and will be four this year and is in for a week “tune up.” I thought it would be interesting if I kept a bit of a daily journal as an example of things I present, address, etc. when working with a young horse… Before I get into that (Day 1 will begin in tomorrow’s blog) I want to give you a bit of a preface to keep in mind so that as you read my daily entries perhaps it is with a slightly better understanding of my approach when working with a young horse.
Many times I start young horses and help their owners participate in understanding how to work with the horse, but as I watch the trailer lights disappear I rarely get to see that horse again… So it is always nice when I do get to hear about a young horse I’ve worked with and how they are coming along.
In this mare’s particular case the good news for me was that there has been no other professional “influencing” the horse since I last saw her. Weather here in the desert plays a huge factor with the scorching summer heat limiting time people spend outdoors, and although the owner was able to work with the mare mostly building confidence in their own relationship and focusing on ground work for the first few months after I left, for the most part the horse was left alone. (Again, with youngsters, many times I prefer this scenario as it allows the horse time to mentally and physically start to mature.)
In my opinion I know you “can” start a horse in two days and do “amazing” things with it, but that is an in-the-moment goal, without much foresight into the horse’s future. I truly believe every scenario with a horse needs to stay “appropriate” for that particular horse. The problem is that “horse time” and “human time” are motivated by really different factors.
The horse is focused on survival prioritizing eating to do so. He spends hours and hours (if given the choice) slowly meandering about foraging. Humans on the other hand mostly operate in a “time is money” sort of fashion and all too often hurry their way through life, including the time spent with their horse. This can be especially so when someone has bred, raised and “waited” for several years to start their youngster, they are really ready to “get going” with their horse by the time is two or three years old.
As a side not, about 50% of all Ask the Trainer questions submitted to me are in regards to issues with young horses between two and five years old. I feel this happens because people forget to maintain an appropriate perspective in their goals for their particular horse. Again, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Not all horses are created equal; starting from birth there are some horses that are naturally more confident, physically capable and mentally interested in life, and others that are not. I don’t want to be breed specific, but there are some horses of certain breeds whose young minds can be overwhelmed by “too much information” too quickly causing stress, insecurity, fear and defensiveness. Then there are other horses that all too often are considered “dull” or “slow” and can “go through the motions of training” but are too mentally immature to process or understand what has been presented to them, and so they learn to just “tolerate” the training as oppose to participating in it. And then of course there are others that you show something to once, they get it, and it seems as if they ask, “What’s next?” Of course we all dream our youngster is going to be one of those!
If you take a moment to think about how you personally learn, or maybe how your kids learn, you’ll know that everyone has a different learning “style” and that everyone responds to different teachers and how they communicate. If we grouped our kids together and said, “You will understand this,” and present a learning situation in only one manner, and if we had no willingness to consider working with each child in a manner that they could understand, many of the kids would probably “miss” the lesson. But if we were able to help them learn in a way that allowed them to mentally process and then physically do what we asked of them, rather than challenging them “get it right” the child would not only learn but would gain confidence rather than confusion as he did so.
Take for example the subject of math. How many kids nowadays are weak at basic addition, subtraction, arithmetic, and division? If a teacher ignores the fact that the child lack a basic understanding of math, how can we expect that child to be successful in future more advanced math topics such as algebra, geometry, etc. And looking farther down the road, how would we expect that same child to later in life as an adult work competently at job if it required the usage of those initial math skills, let's say such as a job in construction?
Imagine a futuristic scenario with the child who never learned or mastered basic math; let’s pretend that he was writing to an “Ask the Construction Consultant” Q&A in regards to framing a house. The person may write in saying that no matter what they do, they just can seem to get the frame of the house “square.” But if instead of the consultant answering by suggesting or focusing on tools as ways to layout the lumber itself to get a square frame (with horses think equipment solution or exercises to practice), what if he suggested reviewing the construction worker’s basic math skills. If those skills were reviewed and it was found that the problem with framer's lack of understanding of basic math then affected his ability to cut the proper length of wood in order to design a square frame because his layout and design calculation would always be inaccurate due to faulty math. (Think in horse terms problems someone who complains about difficulty with getting clean flying lead changes without addressing the ability to have quality, balanced and light transitions between and within each gait first.)
So you get my point. Too many times horses much to my own disbelief can figure out how to “manage” with their riders, for years without even really understanding, AND are somewhat successful in their chosen discipline. As an instructor, when you take someone who has ridden for twenty years and ask them to ride a round circle, or to vocalize how they physically communicate a specific aid to their horse, or if they have ever wondered why over the years it takes more “activity” to get less response from their horse, and they are unable or have not considered any of the above, this is an indication that there are holes in their own awareness, understanding and communication with their horse.
The point of the above examples is to remind you that “colt starting” has become almost a buzz phrase that everyone gets excited about. Honestly after you watch a hundred horses started, you start to realize many times it is a bigger “deal” to the person than the horse. I have no idea why horses accept us strapping a foreign object onto them and then allowing us to climb on, but they do! But what most people forget about is the quality of their horsemanship AFTER they are able to physically get on their horse. Too many times, the first few rides are “great” (i.e. uneventful) and then “all of a sudden” the horse starts doing things the rider doesn’t want, (again translate the horse’s unwanted behavior as a lack of his understanding rather than him trying to be “naughty”.)
So instead of focusing on the “excitement of the first few rides” if we focused more on offering quality and clear communication after those initial sessions, both humans and horses would probably benefit a lot more in the long run.
So with that said look for the next blog this will be about “Day 1” after not riding the young mare for six months.Stay tuned,