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.

Horsemanship – An Event or a Journey?

I had a good conversation the other day with a colleague who was voicing her frustration with clients who don’t seem to want to put in the time and effort to really learn about their horses, to do more than sit on top and steer and do the fun stuff like jump high and go to shows.

We talked about all the hours we have spent in our lives just watching how horses move and studying how good riders ride. About what fun it is to see how horses interact with each other and what their bodies can do and how they react in all kinds of situations. And about how we watched and pondered and figured out stuff and then went and tried it out with actual horses over and over and over until we started to learn how to accomplish goals and master skills and solve problems.

She referenced an article she’d read in which hunter/jumper guru George Morris wondered where the next generation of good horsemen and horsewomen were going to come from. A little hunting on the web brought up this Morris quote on the subject in a number of places: “We have a problem today and that’s called horse show, horse show, horse show, horse show, horse show, horse show. That’s competition. That’s competitive education. That isn’t basic education. That isn’t necessarily horsemanship or horsemaster education.”

It’s hard when people are so busy, trying to cram so many responsibilities and activities into each day. Horse time for many riders – adults and children alike – is confined to the lesson period and the tacking/untacking routine surrounding it. They don’t spend hours at the barn just hanging out and soaking up information. They don’t read and study and think about better riding and good horse care when they’re not at the barn. I’m not sure how these people, even if they want to, can become horsemen and horsewomen in the traditional sense. I do believe, though, that at least some of them would like to, would value that depth of knowledge and understanding. And I’m lucky that some of them are my students and friends and fellow explorers.

I have to say that I don’t think all the blame rests with the students, either. Several times recently people have lamented to me the things their trainer “wouldn’t let me do” or “never taught me.” And these were skills I consider pretty basic – grooming and tacking a horse, longing on a line or at liberty, giving a bath. Any true horsewoman or horseman should certainly be able to do these things with competence and confidence. But every riding student might not.

I get it. I really do. It takes a lot longer to teach a new student of any age how to groom and tack up than it would for me to do the same task. But, if I spend the time up front, later on the client can do that work on his or her own, leaving me free to do something else. And, much more important, the student gains all that lovely time to get to know the horse – how sensitive he is, where the good scritchy spots are, what mood he’s in that day, what kinds of things do and don’t bother him. All that insight helps a rider be more effective and compassionate. If the professionals don’t allow, and encourage, their students to make the most of the time they do spend with horses, how can we expect people to learn the subtleties of horse communication and the requirements of good horse care? Taking the time to teach riders the broadest possible range of basic horse management skills is akin to taking the time for horses to learn and master their basics. (And both of these seem to be getting more and more rare in the horse world.)

Even though I get frustrated with my fellow professionals, I do understand the reasons behind the choices they make. It’s not easy to keep clients happy in this instant-gratification world. Yes, there are still people who really love horses and want to learn all they can about them. But then there are the rest, and it seems to me they are becoming the majority. These are our local “weekend warrior” riders whose idea of fun is to go tearing down the sand washes for hours on unfit horses and are surprised when they turn up lame. And the teenage girls who get pissed when their instructor won’t let them take the weekly jump lesson unless they’ve shown up to do their flatwork the rest of the week. It’s the “can’t you just bute him because I already paid my entry fees and I want to go to the show” crowd. And the “school horses are always stiff/cranky/bored/marginally sound” people. And the “I just need a different bit/bigger spurs/more aggressive trainer” folks.

For many people, riding, riding, riding is the be-all, end-all activity. They don’t understand the satisfaction – or the important insights – they can gain by working with horses on the ground, by exploring all the nuances of movement and balance and communication from every perspective they can. They just want to ride, or so they think. So the instructor can go along with that (and keep the client happy, but ultimately dumb) or she can insist or cajole or entice the student into taking a broader view of the whole horse experience (and risk possibly losing a paying customer.) It’s a philosophical and moral choice and it’s a practical and financial choice. One takes more time and maybe is more fiscally risky; the other serves the present but doesn’t do much for the future of the industry, the person or the horses.

I got out of the horse business once and only got back in because I felt I could help make the world better for horses by educating people, even if I had to do it one at a time. I have stayed because I have found people who do take the broad view, who want to be good horsemen and horsewomen and who will put in the time and effort that takes. They inspire me to put in the time and effort, too. To do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to help them learn and explore and grow. It’s not an event, it’s a journey – a lifelong one for me.

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.

Old Humans, New Tricks?

Horse people can be so impatient. They want their skills and their horses’ training to progress on a predetermined schedule, often based on a competition calendar or a chronological list of some kind.

This is a mindset I used to endorse, but which now just makes me smile. (Sometimes grimace, sometimes chuckle.) Why? Because I know that developing a physical, mental and emotional partnership with a horse is a process, not an event. You can’t just complete a set number of lessons or schooling sessions or shows and then declare that you are “there,” that you are now an accomplished horseman or horsewoman.

You can try, of course, but I’m betting your horse will have something to say about your personal milestone. And it might just not be what you want to hear.

When I ran a traditional lesson and training barn years ago, prospective clients almost invariably asked during our first conversation, “How long will it take before I can jump?” That usually came after they had told me at length how many lessons they had taken with which trainer or how many times they’d been on a dude-string trail ride or some such. At first I made the mistake of trying to give them an estimate based on what they had told me about their past experience. (This was before I learned that almost everyone inflates his or her experience at first!)

After I wised up, my standard answer was, “Anything from six lessons to six years.” That tended to be followed by a moment of mutual silence, which I generally followed with a laugh and the statement that although I was joking, I was also serious. This led to an explanation that every rider and every horse progresses at a different rate, and that my focus was on teaching good basic skills to keep both members of the partnership safe, sound and happy. The people who just wanted to run fast and jump high never called back. A good number of the sensible folk who actually wanted to learn to ride as well as they could showed up and generally did stay safe, sound and happy. Seemed like a fine business model to me, and it still does.

This approach does, however, present more of a challenge than you might think. Over the years a number of older riders, those lovely folks who take up riding in their 40s or 50s or even 60s, have lectured me about my firm insistence that they practice and master all the basic skills. One particularly prickly older gentleman got quite heated during a session in which I was focusing on improving his abysmal sitting trot despite his wish to lope circles at varying speeds. He informed me in no uncertain terms that at his age he didn’t have time to trot around and around until he was no longer bouncing on his poor horse’s back like a sack of potatoes. (Okay, my words, not his!) He was only interested in practicing the skills he needed to go work cattle. I was being unfair to him, wasting his precious riding time on things he didn’t like to do.

My response was that while I understood his sense of urgency, it wasn’t really relevant. The one who was putting up with his rotten seat was his horse, and she didn’t care how old he was. In order to work with her, instead of hindering and annoying her, there were certain things he needed to learn. And he couldn’t learn the advanced skills without mastering the basics any more than he would have been able to read classic literature without first learning the alphabet.  “See Spot Run” before “War and Peace.”

Your horse doesn’t care that a month from now there’s a show, a cattle drive, a group trail ride or your 50th birthday. All he knows is that today, in this moment, you and he need to come together – body, mind and energy – to build on what you learned yesterday and the day before and the day before. Learning is a progression – one thing leads to another leads to another. That’s true for horses and for humans.

And it’s not a straight line, either, no matter what some calendar or checklist might indicate. During the good times, it’s one step forward at a time. In challenging times, it’s one step forward, three steps back. It takes as long as it takes. And if you skip a step along the way? You might get away with it for a while, but I guarantee holes left in the basic skillset will come back to haunt both rider and horse one day.

The Riders’ Paradox

rockbackcompositeOne of the exercises I focused on when riding Ichobod recently involved sending him straight forward into pretty strong left-rein contact to get him connected enough on that side to release and stretch into my hand. Compress, compress, compress, loading the spring by lifting his back and asking him to push from behind into a firm hand. Then the magic connection happens and that loaded spring expands into an exquisitely balanced, elongated, elastic spine. It was the same exercise I coached a student through recently on her lovely Azteca mare, who is finally supple enough to actually start to telescope her heretofore stubby neck. And the student has developed enough feel and a stable enough seat to load the spring and soften just right when that release happens. Contact and connection in that fascinating and frustrating balancing act.

When I was done with my ride and cooling out, I got to thinking what a paradox correct riding presents. I know from my own journey of learning and from working with students in many disciplines how many of the basic skills are completely counterintuitive. How nuts must it seem to novice riders that they have to compress in order to lengthen? Maybe if they are students of muscle physiology, it’s completely understandable. But for the rest of is, it was hard to make that connection – mentally and physically.

Let’s see, what other paradoxes can we present? How about the way bending and lateral work are so imperative in creating straightness. Or how you need to shift the horse’s weight back in order to send him forward in balance? Geez, no wonder it takes so long to learn to ride. I’ve been at it for (don’t tell anyone!) 42 years, and I feel like I’m just starting to have a meaningful and useful understanding of the physical process in the horse and the human.

Along the way I’ve had a whole string of “ah, ha!” moments, some of which I remember vividly even decades later. One of those was the day a very hard-working dressage clinician (who had bravely agreed to teach a bunch of western riders!) instilled in me the importance and correct application of the outside rein. What? I have to keep my outside rein solid, solid, solid to pursuade my chunky quarter horse mare to soften and stretch into my inside rein? Mind-blowing stuff to someone who had pretty much only ridden made horses that neck-reined with micro-pressure.

So, what was your biggest counter-intuitive challenge – the riding or groundwork concept that made (or still makes!) your brain feel like it’s twisting inside out when you apply it?

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.

A Call for Help

Minding my own business one Sunday evening when the phone rang. A pleasant-sounding young woman from Phoenix had found my name on the web and was calling for a reality check. She was concerned about a choice one of her friends was making to take her horse, a greenish Friesian, to work with a clinician whose claim to fame is laying horses down to “extinguish” their fear. The history was that about a year ago the Friesian had done something to unload her friend, and ever since she’s been searching for the right approach to fix the horse’s problem. My caller confided that she didn’t think the horse had a real problem – she herself was able to get on him bareback and ride without issues. But her friend was still experiencing fear of the horse.

This young woman on the phone had a very strong negative response to listening to what her friend had to say about the clinician, the latest in a line of training gurus about whom she had become excited. My caller was looking for confirmation that someone else shared her misgivings and for ideas about how to dissuade her friend from subjecting her lovely horse to this laying down treatment. She was also concerned about her own horse’s welfare in this situation. “Her horse is my horse’s best friend, and I don’t know how he’ll react if his friend comes back different,” she told me.

Well, I have to say the words “laying a horse down” elicit a pretty strong visceral response in me. I flash to the scene in the movie “The Horse Whisperer” when Robert Redford’s character lays down that poor horse who has been through the horrific accident that killed his barnmate. I could barely stay in my seat, and you couldn’t pay me to watch it again.

I also see in my mind’s eye a horse who was boarded with my horses in Colorado. The facility owner asked me one day to help her doctor a wound on this gelding, whom I had previously only seen at a distance in a far pasture. He had cut a leg on some wire and she was having to clean out the wound and medicate it, probably a painful process. This horse stood stock still, trembling, with the most vacant look in his eye I had ever seen. Was this just a pain and stress response from the horse, I asked. Oh no, that’s his normal expression, she said with sadness and regret. Nobody really knew his background and his mostly absentee owner was a novice who didn’t seem to see anything amiss. But there truly was nobody home. I’ll never, ever forget that glazed eye in that sweet face.

Well, back to my caller. She described photos she had seen on the clinician’s website of hobbled horses with ropes wrapped around them to unbalance them, and spoke of the violence and force those suggested to her. She asked whether I thought she was over-reacting, and I assured her that neither I nor anyone I could think of among my horsey friends or clients would ever consider treating a horse that way. Would ever risk threatening a horse at that primal level and creating a complete emotional/energetic shutdown in such a sensitive being. No way. No how.

I noted that it sounded to me as if the rider would benefit from working with someone who could help her overcome her fears. That could mean finding an instructor who would help her find emotional balance through educating her about physical stability on the horse. Or it could mean finding a therapist who specialized in working with post-traumatic stress issues. Lots of options to address what felt like the most obvious barrier in this horse/human partnership.

As we talked, I had to admit to her that I didn’t hold out much hope that she could convince her friend not set off for the clinic the next day. The best advice I could offer was to calmly remind her friend that just because she was at a clinic, she was not bound to do everything the clinician suggested. To plant in her friend’s head the notion that if she became uncomfortable with something the clinician wanted to do or wanted her to do with the horse, she had every right to say “no.” And that her primary responsibility was to guard the safety and welfare of her horse, not to please a clinician or an audience.

I hope that was enough. I asked my caller to email and tell me what happened, but I haven’t heard from her. I hope for the sake of that horse and his owner that no news is good news. sk