It Takes a Village … and a Herd

Pondering interconnectedness today.

This morning my wise old gelding Ichobod demonstrated the horse version of yin yoga with a bit of yang for Jenny Kendall‘s advanced Yoga With Horses students.

Jenny’s very experienced teacher gelding Gary has been my assistant lately helping my two young winter-visitor girls learn to ride. But today, the girls got to meet Judith Tarr‘s Lipizzan herd and ride her teaching mistress Capria.

Judy’s diverse group is the featured attraction and force behind Jenny’s White Horse Yoga class, a monthly yoga/horses field trip for her students.

And one of my riding students regularly treks to draw insights from the white horses, experiences she brings back to apply to her lessons with me.

Around and around. And the connections continue to ripple.

Rehab Horse Has Fun, Baby Horse Learns

It’s so much fun to have a day when all the horses and people seem to be making good progress!

Started the morning in sauna-like humidity (for Arizona) with the hardworking pair Diane and her beloved Roy. He is just under 11 months out from colic surgery and coming back splendidly thanks to her diligence at keeping him moving and happy right from the start. She says he feels stronger and more supple than ever! And she’s riding better than ever, too, thanks in part to the horses she worked with during Roy’s convalescence. Today we did a challenging bending exercise using a simple labyrinth, plus used cavaletti and a small crossrail to help stabilize her jump position. Much sweat, big smiles and much licking and chewing!

Later, I was assistant at yet another successful young-horse backing, this time the first ride for my old friend Amy’s three-year-old Friesian-cross gelding. And, like the last time, the structure of the session was built around the simple groundwork exercises I have been teaching to this gangly-but-sweet youngster for about six weeks now. Amy had been slowly introducing saddle and bridle over the past few weeks and he was pretty much unconcerned about all of that. (He had been trained to drive by his previous owner, so no real surprise that a saddle and bridle weren’t all that strange to him.)

She had also been leading him up to a mounting block and standing on it without incident; though, today he did have a little issue with her standing up there while I led him in serpentines near it and then asked him sometimes to stop with the freakishly tall human on one side of him and me on the other side. Mild baby horse sensory overload. We solved that by making the space within easy reach of the mounting block “the scritch zone.” When he stood there, he got scratched on all his itchy spots, which were plentiful as his late summer shed is in full molt. Of course, sometimes you have to lean on the saddle to reach the scratchy spot way down on the opposite hip. At one point, while his eyes were all soft and snoozy, I just put a hand on his shoulder in case I needed to steady him and Amy climbed on.

Minor weight shifting and worried eye-crinkling, but I think his passenger’s adrenaline spiked more than the horse’s did. After he’d had a good chance to feel his rider – and gotten quite a few more scratches to his itchy withers – we went for a little groundwork walk, turning in big soft S-turns and even introducing the concept of stopping from the seat. Much petting, a little sweat and even a few nice, deep breaths with the rider astride!

Your Horse Hates What?!

“My horse hates to longe … detests dressage … loathes lateral work … can’t stand circles … grinds his teeth over groundwork.”

I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have heard someone tell me how much his or her horse hates some basic exercise. And I always think to myself, “Your horse hates it, or you hate it?”

Of course free longing isn’t fun for a horse who is allowed to be heavy on the forehand, slamming into the ground at every gait.

Why in the world would a horse dislike any exercise he was carefully and respectfully taught to do? If the human thoughtfully plans and competently executes a progression of training exercises designed so each skill builds from what has been mastered before, most horses are pretty happy to play along.

Of course some skills will come more easily for each horse, depending on breed, conformation, temperament and experience. The build that makes rollbacks and spins a breeze might render extensions more of a challenge. The horse who loves to gallop cross country might find quiet, collected work more mentally difficult. But there’s no reason for any horse to take special exception to being asked to trot a correct 20-meter circle, to walk quietly when being led from the off side or to canter in civilized fashion over a pole.

In my own experience, my horses have only balked at doing what I ask in a few situations:

•    Instances when I got in a hurry and didn’t teach the mechanics of the movement well enough in an orderly sequence. I hit the ground a few times from horses who had natural talent but who hadn’t mastered the mechanics of jumping well enough to help them problem solve in less-than-perfect conditions.

•    Times when I didn’t adequately prepare my horse physically to accomplish the task without discomfort. It took several years before I could school lateral work with my long-backed race-bred Quarter Horse without his loin are getting really sore, but eventually I figured out the combination of conditioning and bodywork that let him learn lateral work happily.

•    Situations when imbalance, imprecision or incomplete understanding of my own biomechanics meant my body was moving (or not moving) in a way that either confused the horse or actually prevented him from doing what I thought I was asking him to do. Not long ago I had to apologize profusely to a very frustrated horse after a session in which I was trying to work out the “geometry” of the seat aids to transition from leg yield to half pass.

Teach the horse to balance and move with ease and comfort, and the same exercise becomes fun and beneficial for horse and handler.

I’m working with a couple of horses now whose posture choices and balance habits mean one “hates the round pen” and the other “kicks out a lot, so be careful of him on the longe line.” Both of them exhibit some combination of classic bad carriage on a circle – head high, hollow back, hindquarters disengaged and nose tipped out, shoulder dropped in, hindquarters disengaged. And both display the discomfort of their lack of balance on a circle quite similarly – they careen around at top speed, slam on the brakes unsolicited and try to cut across the circle or turn without being asked. Hyperness, histrionics and generally much ado about nothing. Walk/trot/canter/halt/turn on a circle is not difficult, advanced work. But those skills do form the basis for advanced work, so it’s important for both horse and human to find a way to practice and perfect them happily, completely and with confidence in their abilities.

I’m betting that after I invest some patience and time, a little bodywork and a lot of miles of groundwork, both of these horses will be converts and will enjoy learning new, fun exercises in the roundpen and on the longe line. I like it! And I’m betting so will they.

Rain, Rain Go Away …

… or Longeing Without Getting Dragged Through the Mud

I know now why I spent so many hours helping my horses learn to balance and move correctly and happily on a longe line. After enduring what the National Weather Service recorded as the fourth driest year (since 1895!) in 2009, we have now had the eighth wettest January and eleventh wettest February on record. That has meant mud, mud and more mud and a lot of days with marginal footing. The main roundpen at the barn where my guys live turns into a bit of a lake and has been unusable for days on end.

Meanwhile, both of my horses – both the old and potentially stiff and the youngish and mischievous – still needed to get out and engage brains and bodies.

Once a horse has learned to carry himself well on a line, I generally prefer to free longe. That’s because, no matter how light and connected and careful I am, having me on the end of the line changes things for the horse. The balance and movement are slightly different, less likely to be straight and correct. My presence can cause a horse to lean a bit on the forehand or go ever so slightly crooked. At liberty, he has to make all his own choices about posture and carriage without having me hanging on the other end of a line for an excuse.

Both of them have done an admirable job of holding the circle at all the gaits that were safe on the day, done their transitions up and down in balance and pretty much on request and both have remembered how to relax and stretch on the line just like they do at liberty. And they have been very easily controlled, except for one anomalous spook by the old man.

Wherever you are, I hope your winter has been friendlier (or you have a nice, snug indoor arena to work in). But if you’re having to do the longe-line thing and your horse hasn’t quite mastered the art of going around quietly in balance and self-carriage, it might be time to do some remedial work to correct his postural choices. Here’s why I think it’s important to longe horses with intention and how I go about helping them work better in all kinds of situations.

Groundwork for Your Health

Or …  News From the Department of Silly Walks

I know the type of ground exercises I do with horses is good for their bodies, activating and toning the muscles used in self-carriage. And I know that it helps humans tune in to the subtleties of posture and balance in both themselves and their horses. But recently I found out that doing this kind of work with your horse is good for you in other ways, too.

Turns out all that movement is good for building bone density. Yes, that’s right ladies – do your groundwork and you’ll stave off osteoporosis. Who knew?

mirror2bI got this news from a client who had just come from an annual check-up. This forty-something woman had been asked about the types of exercise she was doing, and as she described the horse groundwork, her doctor got interested. It seems that when we move our bodies in defiance of gravity, we are indeed doing a form of weight-bearing exercise. And all this time we thought that only happened when we were heaving bales of hay, bags of feed or piles of manure.

Also, apparently, the interesting contortions sometimes required to keep up with the horse’s changing posture really works our muscles, strengthening those parts of our bones where the muscles attach. (And for many  bones, that’s nearly the entire surface.)

It’s true. Look it up! Two of the activities mentioned on lists of good exercises to ward off osteoporosis are walking and dancing. That’s pretty much what you’re doing with your horse in this case – walking lots and lots of steps and doing it in differing configurations, hopefully with a little rhythm in there. And for most of us, groundwork with our horses is waayyy more fun than lifting weights at the gym.

According to my client’s doctor, the bone density issue should be on the radar for women starting at age 30. So, all of you ladies of a certain age, get out there and dance with your horse. It’s good for you!

On the Joys of Contortions and Not Conforming

“You know, to do this kind of groundwork, you have to be pretty self-confident,” one of my clients said to me as she was leading her lovely white mare in smooth serpentines around the ring, making minute adjustments to release the horse’s jaw, free up her shoulder and induce her to lift her ample barrel to engage her equally ample hindquarters.

“Huh?” I responded.

“Just look at me,” she said with a laugh. Her mare was stretching her topline long and dropping her head, and her handler was adapting by bending her knees and doing a kind of crab walk that kept her body aligned and balanced while she supported her horse’s postural experimentation.

Yes, you too can walk funny while encouraging your horse to stretch her topline and step through!Really? Not everyone would feel comfortable out in public at a traditional equine venue doing very non-traditional work? One of those “Duh!” moments, for sure.

My client was right, of course. I’ve been doing unusual exercises with my horses and my clients for so long now, that I forget sometimes how strong is the urge to conform, to do what the other people are doing in the way they are doing it (and often wearing the same clothes and using the same gear.)

I’ve been “the crazy woman” for so long, it’s now my “normal!”

And I’m okay with that, mostly because the biomechanics-based groundwork I do and teach has created such amazing results for horses and their humans. Most people who see and experience these ground exercises do admit their efficacy. Many are amazed at what they can feel and experience with a horse just by taking a different approach to contact and connection. And a few find themselves hopelessly fascinated and realize their interactions with horses will never again be the same.

I’d love to switch that around so that most were fascinated just like I was after my very first clinic experience with Connected Groundwork, which is the backbone of much of my groundwork. Honestly, I’ve never really understood why more people don’t make that leap of faith and start experimenting with different ways to help horses feel better in their bodies.

Not that there aren’t a number of perfectly good training methods that aim to get to the same place, and I don’t really expect everyone to be interested in what I am. But there’s still way too much “same old, same old” going on. Like the guy who recently bragged to me that he’d used a tractor to pull his young horse into a trailer. He honestly seemed proud of the way he’d solved the problem of the horse he hadn’t taken the time to trailer train. Brute force is old news, guys. Been there, done that.

Continuing her very non-conforming crab-like walk, my wise client also noted, “That confidence issue is probably why most of your client aren’t teens and twenty-somethings. Most of them are still focused on fitting in with the crowd.”

I think she’s on to something. Most of the people who have become real converts to the type of ground and mounted work I do and teach have been mature men and women who either have actually been there and done that with other methods and are seeking alternatives, or who are just starting or returning to horse interactions with a focus on relationship and mutual enjoyment.

One notable exception was a lovely 16-year-old girl who took to the ground exercises like she had invented them herself. But she was a rare one, for sure. I’ve taught basic leading and ground exercises to a lot of young people over the years, but most of them only did them in lesson settings. And a few protested they were “boring.”  I don’t get it. Really. I’m endlessly fascinated by “asking” horses’ bodies balance questions and guiding them to the answers that make them feel the best.

So thanks to all of you who have the trust, the adventurous spirit and the confidence to come along with me on the miles and miles of S-turns and spirals, intentionally doing whatever contortions are helpful to your horse’s long-term balance and comfort. And to everyone else, an open invitation to come and play with us. Don’t worry. You’ll know us when you see us!

Not sure what in the world I’m talking about? Find more information here.