Tune Up Day 2: Clear Communication

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.


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