"It's the thought that counts!"

"It's the thought that counts!"
Samantha Harvey & Taylor to Perfect
Alternative Horsemanship with Samantha Harvey & The Equestrian Center, LLC Copyright 2017. Articles and/or photographs posted on this site may NOT be reproduced or copied without written permission.


Remembering why we ride...

Whether you are a backyard rider, competitive or somewhere in between, I think sometimes as humans we tend to lose focus on our initial reasons of riding and spending time with horses…   Of course all of us have different definitions of “fun,” I for instance found sheer joy in jumping out of a perfectly good plane at 13,000 feet, someone else you probably couldn’t pay to do the same thing!  So too it goes with the horse world.  Some riders just want to have a confident partnership with their horse, while other people spend hundreds of hours fine tuning their skills in preparation for competition.
Wherever your enthusiasm falls on the scale, the truth is, we ALL share the underlining factor that too many times horse professionals, whether through lack of understanding, ability to communicate, or what I more often think is the case in the USA, don’t really prioritize teaching their students to address ALL aspects involved in riding.  In my opinion this includes, horsemanship, physiology of the horse, using anatomically effective aids, and encouraging an awareness in the human, but also a respect for both their own and their horse’s mental and emotional state.

Too many times, I think an instructor feels “pressured” to get their student or the horse to accomplish or achieve a specific task by a certain time; all too often the expectation and sole focus of accomplishing a scenario winds up inadvertently creating a lot of “new” issues.  So at what “cost” should it be that we can achieve our goals with our horse?  In my mind, there should be no cost.  There should be no trauma, drama, anticipation or ongoing stress in either human or horse. 

As I’ve mentioned in other blogs, if you expect the “perfect” ride every time you sit in the saddle, you are probably in the wrong sport… To me the excitement in working with the horses is the journey of ongoing learning; there never is an ending point, and I get motivated by the quest of continually learning, thinking and expanding my knowledge, understanding and perception.

We are our own worst “enemies” in terms of the ability humans have to play mental games, even if unwittingly doing so.  The negative scenarios are almost always remembered and “hung on to” far longer than the positive ones.  What we can’t yet accomplish tends to be focused on, rather than what we can currently achieve with our horse.  We allow ourselves to be influenced by others or psyche ourselves out with a long list of why, what and how we are going to have a problem with our horse.  If we believe something is going to be an issue, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy , and of course it will become an issue.

And yet, with all the fear, anticipation and negative feelings, we continue to ride.  I won’t even diverge into the professionals who use their authority to degrade their students or their horses, but that too can open up a whole other can of worms.

For most people riding began as an emotional “outlet” – whether they started as a child clinging bareback gleefully galloping through the fields without a care in the world, or they became involved with horses later in life after their children have left home, careers have been established, and now have the time and money to fulfill a lifelong dream of having a horse.  Yet all too often because of idealism and/or lack of experience, a novice horse person often winds up in a scenario whether caused from being over faced with an inappropriate horse they have acquired or from an inadequate information “source”, and fear begins to slowly become an issue in their relationship with horses. 

I am always amazed how many people continue to be involved with horses after serious fear based accidents or issues with their horse.  More often than not, the person’s insatiable desired emotional fulfillment associated with achieving an accomplishment or task with their horse tends to often override the “common sense factor.”  This tends to create dangerous behaviors and can be a recipe for long term fear issues. 

I believe your horse is usually a pretty honest reflection of your emotional and mental state; most people don’t always like what they see in the “mirror” their horse presents.  The ability to have a mental clarity in order to offer positive, effective and confidence building leadership starts with you. 

So whether you are a complete novice or an experienced horseperson with years in the saddle, take a moment to assess the CURRENT “fulfillment” factor in your horse experience.  If you find that there is a lot of “gray” areas, take the time and effort to figure out how to eliminate those, whether it be finding new or different instruction, ideas, theories, etc.  There is nothing wrong in saying, “I’m not sure what to do.”  I tell people when they ride with me, the longer you operate in the gray areas, the less confidence you give your horse, the more your riding will evolve into “survival mode” rather than pleasure mode.  So if you’re at a plateau, or have clear “issues” with your horse- do SOMETHING about it. 

For your horse’s sake, for your own physical safety and for your future emotional satisfaction to put the fun back into riding.  Doing nothing, accomplishes nothing.  The more you take a proactive approach in all aspects of working with your horse, the more empowered you will feel, the more your horse will enjoy being with you, the more your emotions will be satisfied and you will start to find that “fun” factor again. 

Western society presents all too often that things should be “quick and easy.”  If that is your approach to horses, you’re probably in the wrong sport.  It is going to take effort, energy, research, open mindedness and time for you to become educated, understand and learn.  BUT by doing so, you’ll be achieving far more in your ongoing journey rather than resorting to the latest “quick fix” gadget or trick. 

One of the most rewarding experiences I can have as an instructor is at the start of a lesson when discussing with a student what they worked on in their rides between our sessions, and listening to a student as they relay having had experienced a “light bulb moment.”   Usually the sudden clarity occurs at a time when they are nowhere near their horse.  A person will be sitting in traffic, doing chores, etc. and they will be reviewing in their mind an idea, concept or theory when there is suddenly the connection made between the idea and the actuality of a physical aid which in turn affects the horse’s brain and then physical accomplishment of a task presented.  The student’s newfound clarity evolves into being a viable tool they can use in “real” time, thus improving not only their overall communication with their horse, but building a trusting partnership because the rider has become believable, clear with an aid, and honest in what they are asking of their horse.

These scenarios excite me because when a rider can start committing to raising their awareness towards the horse at times other than when they are sitting in the saddle, the “doors” in the person’s mind open allowing and ease and fun feeling as they make progression towards their goals.   Suddenly there is a flurry of positive energy the rider feels once they BELIEVE that THEY CAN influence and achieve a change in their horse!  The ability for a rider to realize they can make a change within themselves in order to influence a change in their horse is what brings the “fun” back to riding.

So whether nothing “bad” has ever happened with your horse or not, whether the ride is always sort of “okay,” or whether you’re just not sure “what to do next,” perhaps the best thing you can do is devote some time, effort and energy into varying your current exposure and ideas; not so much to “fix” what you currently believe is a “problem,” but perhaps for a different perspective on things that you may not realize might contributing to undermining the fun in your riding.

As I remind my riders constantly, keep SMILING- inside and out!

Sam

Finding the “child within” when we work with our horse!

Spring is in the air, most riding enthusiasts are getting giddy with thoughts of relaxed (and warm) days spent with their equine partner.  Many riders who are “gung ho” to learn and improve their education, understanding and abilities can unknowingly have an “intense” energy as they are focusing with their horse.  And although we want to be mentally participative riders, we need to remind ourselves that the underlining issue should be that we are riding to have FUN.  I jokingly tell adult students to take the time to “act like a kid again” once in a while when they ride.   I am referring to the sometimes overly analytical, overly sensitive, overly intensive behavior many of us take on as adults when we focus.  This behavior tends to lack a positive and supportive leadership energy that conveys to our horse that we are really having “fun” even if we are “working”.  So the more tight and tense we get as we attempt to focus, the more the horse starts to wonder why and starts to associate a “stress” every time we put him to “work.”
On that note, perhaps the next time you’re sitting in traffic or have some time on your hands, you can assign you and your horse some games or tasks for your next ride that might be similar to what a child might suggest to do for “fun.”  Take Pico and me for example.  The other day I had intention to ride out into the orange groves, but of course “life happened” and by the time I got to him, I had very little time, it was already close to 90 degrees out and I couldn’t leave the property, sooo… 

As I looked around the riding area, I glanced at the plywood bridge we’d built; it occurred to me that although I could ask Pico to step with one, two, three or all four feet on the bridge, pause him stepping up, standing on or stepping down off of it, I’d never asked him to step up onto an object as he was BACKING.  (I gather most sensible adults wouldn’t either, but can imagine a few kids sitting around saying to one another, “I wonder if we just tried to see if I could get my horse to do ___________________ .”  And then proceeded, unhindered by all the unknown and what-ifs , so that in the end they were actually able to accomplish ______________ with their horse.

From a “mature” perspective, why on earth would I ask my horse to step up onto something while backing? How about if there was an emergency situation (out on the trail, etc.), or helping desensitize him to movement behind his vision and to being physically “touched” in his personal space, using it as an opportunity to continue to build trust, it also creates a “task” to accomplish while I refine my use of clear communication, etc.

As a side note, although I want to be “carefree” in offering this new task, I did not want to present the scenario as a challenge to Pico to “see” if he could get “it” right.  So before presenting a task such as stepping up backwards, I needed to have pre-established tools and clear communicative that I could effectively use as aids to tell Pico exactly what I wanted, even if we had never done the task before.

So I started from standing on the ground with Pico in a halter and using a lead rope to create first boundaries of where I wanted him to stand.  Then I asked him to be able to lightly shift his weight backwards, and of course that is when he felt the bridge against his rear legs.  I had to allow him to use braille like behavior with his hind legs to get used to edge and height of the bridge. 

Pico wanted to explore his options- swinging out sideways, pushing into my personal space rather than hovering near the bridge, etc.  Most horses will try everything EXCEPT what you’d like them to do.  As mentioned in other blogs, the game of “hot and cold” was presented.  Each time he got “closer, softer or lighter in his response to my aid, I let him stand and rest for a moment so mentally he could start to associate where I wanted him.  After he kept finding the ideal spot I want him in, then he started picking a rear foot up in the air.  This was an awesome effort on his part, even if he wasn’t standing on the bridge yet.  He would lift a rear leg, gently draw it forward, backwards, out to the side, but couldn’t fathom actually “reaching” backwards with it.  Finally I was able to shift his weight while his hind foot was in the air, and then as I relaxed the pressure of my hand on the lead rope, he relaxed his foot and placed it gently down on the bridge.  Breathe, sigh, lick, chew.  Blew his nose.  Blew again.  Dropped his head down towards the ground and took another big breath.

Quietly, we walked away from the bridge and I spent a few minutes picking weeds (literally) so that he had some time to sort out what had just happened.  The second time I lined him up and after just a few tries of other options, offered his hind foot slowly to step up.  Again, we went and picked weeds.  He continued to blow his nose.

Even though in all his searching he never once “blew up”, got aggressive, or acted stressed, but it was a LOT to ask his brain and emotions to address.  REMEMBER to give your horse an acknowledgement and or break when they get “it” right.

Then I hopped on him bareback, in the halter, lined him up, and asked him to step backwards and up.  Light, soft, smooth.  Awesome.

The one thing I will mention when playing games with your horse is not to do so in a manner that will create anticipation in him, causing him to “go through the motions” rather than really addressing what you are offering.  Otherwise, you’ll think that your horse is being “good”, and your horse is really just trying to “hurry up and get it done.”  Too many trick horses can do “all the tricks”, but if you change up the order or try and interfere, they horse can’t handle the change in routine.    When I teach a horse to stand on something, bow, lie down, line up to an object, pick me up off the fence, back into pressure, none of it should seem like a “trained” response.

Have fun,

Sam

Tune Up Day 5: Enjoy the Ride

I know in many of my past blogs, current teachings and futuristic “advice” I often talk about goals and having “intention” when we work with our horses…   As with everything there is a time and place for that sort of focus, but there is also a time, and I’m sure you’ve experienced the feeling, where you “just want to go for an enjoyable ride.”  Today was that sort of day with O. 
I didn’t wake up this morning and say, “O will be good today, therefor I can just enjoy the ride.”  No, rather, as with every horse in every session, I took her at “face value” and assessed mentally and emotionally how she was feeling as I caught her (again she greeted me, this time leaving her buddy and grazing in the pasture to come say “hi,” and to be caught), groomed and tacked her up.  Happy, quiet, calm. 

I worked her once again on the long lead and within a few circles O had taken the initiative to NOT instinctually flee, but rather to literally look at something that bothered her and then to relax.  So I called her in and we moved on.

Some of these “feelings” I get when working with a horse comes from spending hours upon endless hours being around them.  I always joke with clients that if they spent as much time with their horse as they paid me to spend with their horse, then they too would have an entirely different relationship with the animal.

The weather was perfect, the horse was happy, so why not enjoy the ride?  There are some days, where it is okay to enjoy “where you are at,” rather than having to introduce something new every time you work with your horse.  This was one of those days.  The horses are completely honest as to their assessment towards a human’s energy, stress and emotions.  So when it feels like a “great day,” let your brain and body enjoy, because your horse will sense that positive energy from you and will mimic it. 

That was the case for how O was moving, trying and mentally participating like a pro.  Someone was stringing white tape to rebuild an electric fence, and the old ball (think size of an exercise ball) of wire was sitting in the field like a lurking predator and the newly strung tape was gently flapping in the wind.   O initially tried the “quietly sneaking past the scary spot” tactic. I offered instead that she stop and physically look at it in order to mentally address the concerning object, which after she did so briefly was immediately able “let it go” and refocus on what we were doing.  And that is exactly the point of maintaining specific intention and clear communication in our past rides. 

You can never expect to have a “bomb proof” horse, (trust me they don’t exist, EVERY horse on the planet has “something” than can send them emotionally into a meltdown moment,) but you can teach and expose your horse to various scenarios in order to build their confidence.  Will you ever be able to expose them to “everything?” No.  So instead of trying to overly desensitize a horse, why not teach them how to “handle” a natural response (such as fleeing, defensiveness, etc.) in a more reasonable manner so that when (and it will) something unexpected arises, you have pre-defined tools and options to help your horse through the scenario so that neither of you wind up feeling like you’re just trying to “survive” the ride.

When I first met O there wasn’t a moment in her day when she could be “okay” about life, so to reach a day like today is incredibly rewarding…  (A few days after our last ride, O continued to try and greet me every time I was near her, as if to say, “What’s next?”)

If you had been sitting on the sidelines watching the ride, hopefully you would have been totally unimpressed and almost on the verge of “bored.”  I say that because really, most of our rides should be “boring” and uneventful.  If every time we return home after a ride and have a “story” to tell, there is probably something missing in our communication and relationship with our horse.  I tell my competitive students, “If I saw you in a warm up arena with 40 other horses, I wouldn’t want to notice you.”  Because think about, most of the rides you remember experiencing or witnessing typically are a lot more “exciting” than most people would like to have with their horse.  The truly quality rides are the ones that look quiet, fluid and almost like horse and rider are one being in their movement.

I hope these past five Tune Up blogs have added some new perspectives, thoughts and ideas for when you head out to your horse.  As always, it is a bit difficult to write to “everyone” because each person and horse is at a different “spot” in their learning.  I’d love to hear any feedback in either an email or comment!

Thanks,

Sam

Tune Up Day 4: Experiencing the maturity of horse

Today O left breakfast and came over with her head over the gate to be haltered.  There was a confident calm to her so I saddled her and then found an extra-long rope and worked here out in the open field in certain areas where she had previously had some concern as to the pile of logs, the rabbits randomly jumping out, the birds fighting in the citrus trees, etc.  Even though she showed some concern, by allowing her to stop, look, think and then feel okay about the situation, by about the second complete circle she was moving in a relaxed, focused manner.  I asked for a few transitions and then changed direction.  She appeared happy and seemed to be asking, “What’s next?” So I mounted her and off we went.
From the very first step in the saddle, there was a maturity and confidence in her movement that she initially offered without me having to “support her” to achieve it.  We quickly reviewed transitions, accuracy of specific directions, riding imaginary shapes, and doing specific “tasks.”  It kind of felt like everything I asked of her she quickly said, “Check, check, check…” So on to the next “stage” of learning.

People often ask “How long do should I focus on a task such as ____________,” and I try to explain that the horse will clearly tell you when they “got it” and when they don’t.  Some of you may have experienced those moments where you feel like you just have to “think” something and your horse immediately does what you thought.  Those are good examples of “aha” moments where your horse is telling you they are ready to move on in their learning. 

More often than not it is human nature to want to achieve “more stuff” and therefor in adherently accept less quality from their horse because they are so focused on achieving the “end goal” that they wind up rushing the horse through the motions rather than seeking quality within each movement. 

On the other hand, sometimes people can get overly analytical and can accidently dwell on a task or exercise to the point of driving their horse nuts.  If you ask lightly, your horse responds confidently, immediately and quietly, it is a sign that you should move on. 

I try to remind people rarely do we get 100% accuracy, so yes, there needs to be some flexibility in what we accept.  I usually assess the level of mental try the horse has offered.  For me, if the horse has offered mental try between 95-100%, I’m happy.  BUT, that amount of effort from two different horses may look like VERY different in the physical outcome or performance.  It may seem with a confident horse that we have achieved a lot of “movement,” whereas with a lesser confident horse we may have only achieved one specific task.  I don’t care either way; my only goal is that the time a horse spends with me has a positive, supportive and respectful feel to it.  Without that, there is no way the horse is going to want to offer participating in our next session together.

So back to O.  Now that she clearly understood tracking straight, backwards, left and right, I then presented the concept of the ability to move one part of her body independently of another.  When I  first work with a horse many times it will feel like the horse moves a bit like a 2x4 board, meaning if you push one end of the board one way, the opposite end immediately follows.  But for teaching a horse quality engagement of its hindquarters (yes, this is where we start to use those “big words,”) I have to be able to “break” the horse’s body into five independent sections: the head, the neck, the shoulder, the ribcage and the hindquarter.  My goal is that I can direct and influence each of those regions in a horse.  Correct self-carriage, lateral movements, roll backs, flying changes, shortening and lengthening of the stride,  lateral movement, etc. all comes from being able to help the horse learn how to correctly engage and use his hindquarters.  BUT horses due to various and multiple factors such as conformation tend to be heavy on the forehand, or drag their front end. 

Many people who focus on “pretty riding” (i.e. things such as the horse’s headset) rather than the correct and accurate usage of its body, never learn how to ask their horse to correctly use his body, which may not be an issue until the “tasks” start requiring more accuracy within the horse.  

Take for example the flying lead change, if you cannot have a quality and balanced canter or lope, shorten and lengthen the stride while maintaining a light and balanced horse and cannot counter canter (canter on the lead opposite from the direction you are riding,) the quality of your lead change will decrease.   Can you still physically get horse to do the lead change? Yes.  Will it improve with brainless repetition of an exercise? No.  The lack of initial quality and balanced movement is why you see horses that “always” only change in the front end and then take a few strides to change behind, or they “race” through the change, or they lose all forward implusion through the change, or their body gets physically stiff and tight through the change, etc.

So especially with a “gumby doll” horse like O, whose body naturally can go in five different directions at once, I need her to learn to understand how to a.) Yield to the pressure of my leg, and b.) Learn that she can move one region of her body at a time.  As I teach new more technical movements to a horse, I allow them to physically slow down which allows them to mentally “be present.”  If you put it into people terms, and were “rushed” into learning, how clear would you be in your complete understanding of a new subject?  The same goes for the horses.  Plus, by literally slowing down to initial teach the horse something, I have more “time” to address each of her incorrect efforts, so that she can narrow down her options to reach the conclusion of what I want.

Nothing I offer the horse is random, and hopefully you can think back the past few days’ journal entries and how the training theories and focus help gently “build” a platform and foundation for introducing today’s new concept.  This allows the physical aids I use to communicate with O to be my “tools,” rather than something else to “confuse” her with.  Too many times people can get annoyed when thinking about “having to do” the basics with their horse, but without them, you have nothing.  AND if someone feels like they “keep” having to review the basics, then something is not clear in the communication with their horse, because once the basics are clearly defined they should help your riding, not hinder it.

I typically ask a horse to move its shoulders first as this is the “easiest” body part to move.  With O, she figured out what I wanted within a few tries.  If you are presenting something and it feels like you constantly have to “re-introduce” a concept, something isn’t clear in your communication and you need to slow down and assess what specific aids you are using, how and when you ask your horse to do the task.  YOU also need to assess your horse’s response to each of your aids.  By doing both of these assessments, you’ll mostly likely be able to figure out where the “real” problem is, which if you address, then you’ll most likely be able to achieve the initial goal.

As with most people, horses too tend to be typically “more coordinated” on one side than the other.  I’d say 50% of a horse’s crookedness is due to the horse and the other 50% is due to the rider.  People are naturally crooked, discombobulated, slow to respond, unaware, etc. and yet when we sit on a horse we somehow think that all crookedness comes from the horse.  WRONG.  How can we take a crooked person, a crooked horse, put them together and expect them to move out “straight?”

As an exercise for yourself, take one day and assess your own body when not riding.  As you make a turn while driving do you “lean into” the turn?  Do you know what, where and how to sit equally on your seat bones?  As you stand do you stand squarely on both feet, shift your weight, or “cock a foot”?  When you lay down do you always sleep on your side?  You get the idea.  If the only time you think about your body is when you’re sitting in the saddle, then that is not enough time to become aware of what you are doing, unless you’re spending ten hours a day riding out.

It is not fair to ask your horse to track “straight” if you are offering a crooked feel from the start.  If in general you are sitting crooked, your body will have to “compensate” in order to remain feeling balanced, causing an inaccurate usage of aids.  So you may be able to “sneak by” in the basics if you’re crooked, but once you start asking for things like lateral movements in your horse, you might “suddenly” feel huge gaping holes in your communication/understanding with your horse.

Most frustration between horse and rider generally arise from a lack of awareness and clarity.  Mentally, it takes a LOT to participate EVERY step of every ride for both the horse and rider.  Previous posts such as “Raising the Bar,” Clear Communication, etc. all address these concepts.

So back to O, she quietly yielded her shoulders away from the aids on my right side.  But when I applied my left leg, to ask her to yield to her right, I could feel her “bulge” and physically push against my leg by locking up her shoulder in resistance towards the pressure my leg was creating.  This is where yesterday’s game of “hot and cold” comes becomes a tool, as O was pretty sure she couldn’t “relax” or soften into my aid, but instead that she had to push through it.

During our “trial and error” of my supporting her while she searched for the right “answer,” neither she nor I got defensive, emotional or flustered.  I cannot emphasize the above statement enough.  KEEP YOUR EMOTIONS OUT OF YOUR RIDING.  It is the best gift you can offer your horse.  1.) Human emotions can change like a light switch, 2.) Our emotions can be distracting from offering clear quality, 3.) HUMANS lie, even if we don’t intentionally “mean to.”  I’m not saying don’t have fun with your horse, but the less “gray” and emotional, and the more “black and white” and clear you can be towards your horse, the faster they can understand what you want.  Even when happy with a result, I joke and tell students don’t celebrate the achievement until the end of the task at hand.  Too many times people will literally quit a movement or task in the middle of it because they felt a good change in their horse, and although the human is happy, the horse is left “hanging in the middle” not fully understanding what it was there were supposed to do.

So O quickly realized she COULD yield her shoulder towards her right away from my left leg.  So I then asked for a little more forward (this is where your sliding scale of energy within a gait applies) and to keep a rhythm while she yielded.  Immediately she offered a soft response on both sides, and that was my cue to call it a day.  I’d like to mention I don’t EVER work a horse by the clock.  One day a ride may be 15 minutes and the next just over an hour.  My assessment of the horse’s mental and emotional state will tell me “how much” the horse can handle.  Again, people being greedy by nature sometimes can “blow” a great session by asking for the famous, “Just one more time,” scenario.  Many accidents seem to happen in those scenarios too.  So go with your gut instinct, if your horse feels good, and you feel good, call it a day!

Sam

Tune Up Day 3: Hot and Cold

Day 3:

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,

Sam

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.

Sam

Tune Up Day 1: Revisiting the basics…

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…

Sam

Preface: A week's "tune-up" with young horse in training

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,
Sam

Horse trailer heading north AZ-ID Spring 2012

Reminder that I will have several spots available in our private eight horse trailer.  If you have a horse you need shipped part or all of the journey please contact us ASAP. 

Departing: Yuma, AZ
Estimated departure: late April or early May 2012

Please email or call 866-904-0111 for details and quotes

Trail Ride Encounters- Thoughts from a recent ride

This past week we had several days that really made one question living 20 miles east of North America’s largest sand dunes… Somehow it never occurred to me that what creates the sand dunes will also affect the surrounding areas; i.e. WIND!  We had one day with 20mph consistent blowing and up to 45mph gusts.  Yeah, really. 

Most of us who have spent any time around the “old school” barns will tell you wind is NOT your horse’s friend.  Just think of all the opportunities for “stuff” to go wrong; out of control blowing plastic bags, tumbleweeds the size of a medium dog carelessly barreling towards you and your horse (no matter where you move, the tumbleweed is guaranteed to hound you,) the local wildlife “aflutter” only adding to your horse’s current state of near panic, the barn door “flapping” on its frame causing an echo like “demon” to antagonize your horse, and so on.  You get the idea. 

Needless to say, for those of us that have been in a situation where you had a job to do, you could not use weather as an excuse to delay.  So as a side note I’d like to mention a huge “bravo” to those horsemen who brave the winds, whether in sub-zero temperatures searching for new born calves on the Kansas snow covered prairies, to those in northern Colorado where wind can take 1,000lb hay bales and toss them like bowling balls.  And those here in the Arizona desert, although severe temperatures aren’t usually the issue, the “sandblasting effect” in trying to function can be beyond frustrating and its aftermath of finding sand in every conceivable (and sometimes not so conceivable) place is exhausting! 

Anyways, needless to say the wind settled down to a slight breeze and although we had a 20+ temperature drop in the last day, the spring warmth once again found its way to our desert.  So I grabbed Pico (who was not too impressed with being taken away from his grazing time) and a few dogs and headed out for the normal “loop” around the block. 

For those who don’t know, where I winter is the lettuce capital of the USA in the winter months.  Although have some of the most barren stretches of desert in Arizona with summer temperatures hitting 120 degrees on a “regular” basis in July and August, we DO have agriculture due to the implementation of flood irrigating crops with water provided by the Colorado River.  One never is quite prepared to see thousands of acres of green as they come across acres of lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, onions, hay, citrus and many other crops.  The shock is especially so when you remember that all of the growth occurs in the same desert that the military designates as their “final” training ground for officers about to be deployed to fight in our current war because of similarities in terrain, weather, etc.

It occurred to me that humans and horses have a habit of “getting comfortable” with their current surroundings.  I started noting the number of “obstacles” that appeared as we made our 1 ½ mile ride through the orange groves.  What seemed normal to us could have easily blown another horse’s mind.  Here is some of what we came across: discarded car and tractor tires (at five different places,) wood pallets stacked in random spots, four white tarps billowing in the breeze (used to help prevent leakage through the water gates when irrigating,) an array of trash and broken bottles, four foot wide circles of ashes and other left over burned debris from burn piles, piles of broken limbs the size of cars stacked to be burned in the future, a tractor dragging dead branches to a burn pile, another tractor with arms that swivel above it with sharp blades on the end used to “top” the citrus trees (think “Edward scissor hands” tractor,) the main irrigation canal (15 feet wide by 15 feet deep cemented canal, was only about half full today, but enough water to entice the dogs to endlessly jump in, splash around and then “pop” out – great desensitizing tool for young horses,) jackrabbits being chased out of the groves and inevitably aiming straight for your horse as they flee the dogs,  overgrown dead brush that has stickers so when you walk through it the stalks tend to “grab” your horse- usually the tail- and get drug along as you walk, our railroad tie bridge and chain-link gate we have to pass through to leave the property – it is over the small irrigation canal about four feet deep by five feet wide, etc. 

So you get the idea… up north encountering wild animals (deer, bear, moose, elk, coyotes, fowl, etc.,) water (creeks, rivers, bogs, mud,) woods (from new to old growth,) serious climbs in altitude, extreme footing from shale to dirt and extreme weather can also be the “norm” on a ride out.

I have found over the years the “flat lander” horses are shocked by the mountains, just as much the mountain bred horses are fearful of seeing for vast distances.

Years ago I spent a lot of time traveling to “non-Westernized” locations around the planet.  When you travel in those sorts of locations, you learn to expect the unexpected, and your “standard” of what you would consider normal becomes relatively less defined the further away from modernized culture you travel.  With that in mind take a moment to think about what things your horse considers as “normal” and perhaps certain circumstances that might cause a bit of concern for him.  Too many times we learn how to operate within the “safe” boundaries of our horse’s comfort zone, and then unexpectedly the day comes where we “change it up” and our “fun horse” “suddenly” becomes a fire breathing dragon.

I was recently watching old clips from the Extreme Cowboy competition and had also read an article on exposing a young horse to many situations to help him gain confidence from quality experiences.  I think now a days people have become more open minded to having a bit more versatility in their horse, rather than focusing on just “one” discipline.  Mentally, physically and emotionally I think this does wonders for our horses, but it is also great for us riders to “mix it up” a bit too!

Happy Trails,

Sam & Pico