Weekly Photo Challenge: On Top

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The thing about being both a rescue dog and a herding dog, is that you’ve already lost your herd once at least, and you sure need to stay on top of things with every ounce of your ability, because it would be the worst possible thing to fail at this job you were born to do. It’s a big responsibility.

So, the extra-diligent rescue/herding dog does not sleep a wink, unless he’s on top of ‘it’. (Not the best photo, but forgive me, it was the best I could do under the circumstances.)

Arf.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Calming Signals: Are You Listening?

WMcalmingcueIf you are standing next to your horse and he looks away, do you think he’s distracted or even disrespectful? When your horse yawns, is he sleepy or bored? If he moves slowly, is he lazy? These are important cues from your horse, are you hearing him correctly?

When it comes to communicating with horses, some humans are a bit like a self-obsessed rock star who throws a temper tantrum and trashes the room, but then assumes everyone wants his autograph. By equine standards, we ignore those around us and begin by screaming bloody-murder and escalate from there. Part of respecting a horse is remembering that their senses are much keener than ours. We can whisper.

It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions.  ~Mark Twain. 

Horses give us calming signals, just like dogs. Norwegian dog trainer and behaviorist Turid Rugaas wrote about it in 2005. She coined the phrase calming signals to describe the social skills, or body language, that dogs use to avoid conflict, invite play, and communicate a wide range of information to other dogs.

Calming signals in horses are somewhat similar and include looking away, having lateral ears, yawning, stretching down, licking lips or eating to calm themselves. Can you recognize them? Calming cues communicate stress, and at the same time, release stress. It is modeling behavior for us; they want us to drop our stress level, or aggressiveness as well.

When a horse looks away, either with his eyes or whole head and neck, it is a calming cue. He uses a signal like this when he feels pressured and wants the rider to know he senses the person’s agitation or aggression, but that person can calm down because he is no threat to the human. In the horse’s mind, he is communicating clearly and with respect.

Do you pull his head back and force his position? It’s human nature to turn up our volume if we think we aren’t being heard and maybe the hardest thing about listening to calming signals is that they kind of poke our dominant parts. So when the horse signals us to be less aggressive, but we mistakenly hear it as boredom or distraction or even disobedience, and then follow that up with a larger cue, we’re starting a fight. We’re letting the horse know we choose aggression over peace. Is that what you meant to say? Or is the appropriate positive response from a good leader to de-escalate the situation?

It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions.  ~Mark Twain.  (It deserves repeating.)

If riders want to understand the language of horses, we need stop seeing our horses in our own worst image (lazy or distracted) and begin a conversation where we listen more openly, more honestly. It’s much too simplistic to lump everything a horse does into either dominant or submissive behavior. Herd life has much more nuance than that. As social animals, they work to get along, encouraging others to cooperate. Even dominant boss mares give calming cues.

We can build trust with the horse if we learn to respect calming signals, and even reward them. In my training, the best calming signal I have is my breath. I can slow it down, emphasize the exhale, and just be still at the end. Using our breath is a huge aid that horses pay attention to, so much more than humans realize.

Each time I start work with a horse, I ask for his eye, using my eye. I want him to volunteer. If my horse looks away, I take a deep breath, acknowledge the moment, and go slow. Usually on my second or third breath, he’ll look back and tell me he’s ready. It’s a short wait, compared to putting fear or resistance in that eye.

Reading horse body language takes some quiet time to learn, and they aren’t all exactly alike. Some horses are so shut down, so overwhelmed by us pounding on them in the past, that they have no calming cues at all, but you can remind him. Calming is a good thing, no matter who cues it.

If you are thinking of tuning up your communication skills with your horse, I really recommend ground work. It’s my favorite thing about the Horse Agility we do here at Infinity Farm in the summer. Obstacles are great conversation starters with a horse, and if the human can get past needing to dominate the obstacle, communication can be eloquent, with understanding and a healthy give-and-take reasoning. And it all translates to the saddle later.

Now that I think about it, when I meet someone who is loud or aggressive, I tend to look away, too. Sometimes I turn my shoulders sideways and don’t make eye contact. I notice I don’t like aggressive people crowding me and talking loud either. This is about the time I become aware that I do groundwork with humans as often as I do horses. Maybe the real reason we shouldn’t humanize horses is because they had it right in the first place.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Monument

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Humans build monuments to those we honor and respect. Simple love usually isn’t enough for monument status; it has to be a deed above and beyond the call. Monuments are erected to heroes, those who saved us from the unthinkable.

We have no monuments at Infinity Farm, but if we did, I suspect it would look like this.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.
WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo- I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. My photos are taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.

Training Confidence and Trust.

WMNameyeThere’s a way that a mare can pin her ears back so hard that they make almond-shaped divots on her neck hairs. You don’t have to know much about horses to pick up on that cue. It’s big and dark and she looks like a serpent. By the time this is happening, there is even an argument she will have a hard time hearing you, literally, what with her ear drums smashed into her poll and all.

The other laundry list of signs that your horse is upset include flared nostrils, wide tense eyes with too much white showing and short, shallow breaths. It’s almost common sense if you pay attention.

We are all so clear about the signs a horse is coming apart, but do you recognize the signs that your horse is confident, relaxed, or just comprehending things? Are his ears relaxed and moving forward and back? Is his neck long and his poll soft; are his eyes big and fluid? Is his tail clamped down or swinging with his spine when he moves?

Beginning to learn horse language is dangerous if we over-simplify and humanize the horse, meaning dumb him down and miss his message. Is all of this head shoving and mugging on the ground affection or is he insecure? It’s flattering to think it’s affection, but a confident horse who stands flat and relaxed is the best reflection of the horse/rider relationship. How do we train that kind of confidence?

Is he blowing to tell you his back feels good and he is ready to work? If not, you have more warm up work to do. Is he blinking his eyes, thinking about what he has just learned? If he is, give him a minute- and that means stand still and respect his process of learning. A conversation, by definition, means listening, too.

If the horse gets confused, are you certain that you aren’t giving him a mixed signal? Is your body awareness so perfect that you are incapable of contradicting yourself in horse language? Are you listening to yourself as closely as your horse is? Now the conversation is getting more personal.

Are you so sure that he is pulling on the reins because he wants to run off with you, or is he just feeling so much pressure on the bit, metal on bone, that he is tossing his head trying to breathe and stretch his neck? Or are your reins a little loose and is he tossing his head, trying to make contact? What quality of hand shake with the reins does your individual horse want? Firm and fluid is the answer, but what does that translate to in terms of feel and finesse. Now the conversation is getting really intimate.

In order to progress with your horse, it isn’t so much training a specific technical movement as it is training confidence and trust to do the movement correctly. The difference between a frantic explosive canter depart and a smooth soft uphill canter depart reveals more about the quality of  the horse/rider relationship than anything else.

This is where the art comes in. Can you speak in his language and influence him in a positive way. A good place to start is acknowledging (rewarding) positive communication. If he is moving forward, follow his movement softly, but stop with the leg cue. When he blows, say good boy. Reward him for trying, and ask for a tiny bit more. Say thank you and repeat. Score extra points for patience, a key ingredient in confidence building.

Remember: The things we focus on and reward are the things that grow- good or bad. The foundation of Dressage is Rhythm and maybe the emotional definition of rhythm is confidence and trust in movement. Horses love rhythm: it’s included in all good things like breathing, chewing, walking in the sun, and excluded in all bad or scary things like bucking, spooking, bolting. Rhythm is a rider’s very best friend and training aid.

So if you are having a conversation with a horse that includes praise of going forward and praise of being relaxed, you are in a much better negotiating position, whether you are training a new movement in an arena or out on the trail. Not only is a relaxed and forward horse easier to stay on, but they get over emotional disturbances quicker because they want to return to the safe place their leader has for them. External challenges are less interesting because the horse is so comfortable and safe in rhythm with his rider.  Spooking is disturbing that conversation, and not worth the effort.

The difference between micro-managing a horse’s every move and having a conversation with a horse might seem like semantics, but not to a horse. It’s the difference between leadership that says “Do what I say immediately and correctly or suffer the consequences of my anger,” or “Let’s work together, I will listen to your concerns and we will work this out safely and sanely.” It’s the difference between soul-killing obedience and a happy relaxed and forward ride.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Threshold

WMthresholdOn this side, us.

On that side, ducks with no clear direction, cats with bi-polar issues, large black dogs who think they have a right to the humans here. Life is complicated. Sometimes it’s better to ponder the possibilities from a safe place.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo- I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. My photos are taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.

Dressage on a Rescue: Doing More with Less

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Andante, ex-PMU, casts a giant shadow.

I have a confession. I shop-lifted when I was in high school. No, I don’t seem like the type. It was the only time I ever stole anything and what they say is right: Willfully breaking the law impacts your character.

I was in a pet store and there was a tiny kitten much too young to be weaned. Black and white, skin and bones, crusty eyes and congested; I couldn’t stand it. I took her out of the cage and headed for the front door.

I didn’t consider hiding her, instead I cuddled her up close to my face. Her tiny lungs were wheezing. A clerk tried to stop me, “You have to pay for that!” He called the kitten that. In a teen voice filled with righteous indignation, I hissed, “This kitten is dying,” and didn’t break stride until I hit the car. Yes, I was silly enough to think I would hear sirens and get arrested in the parking lot. I brought her home and marched past my Mother, it wasn’t hard to gauge her level of enthusiasm, and into my room. I made a bed in a shoe box with a hot water bottle and a towel, and fed her some warm milk with an eye dropper. She gulped it down and let loose with a rattling, phlegm-laden purr. And I was right, she died that night. I flatter myself that I made a tiny difference, but not the life of that doomed kitten. The difference was in me.

In some ways, Dressage is a very elite sport. It is a wonderful thing to see an FEI horse competing in his prime- the best training on an impeccably bred Warmblood, guided by a talented rider, and brought along with all the advantages.

But I love the practicality of dressage, as well as the art. For me, the real question is how much dressage training can help off-the-track Thoroughbreds, smart Arabians, or whatever horse you ride now. The magic of dressage is the balance, relaxation, and strength it provides for any horse, at any age, and in any discipline. I love an animated piaffe and positively swoon for a great canter half-pass. But in my heart, the true beauty of dressage is the practical usefulness it gives a horse with less advantage. It’s just more interesting.

“I have, …, always been criticized for not buying good and sound animals for myself, as other masters do. But to educate such an animal teaches the rider nothing. It is too easy. The master does not prove his own ability nor the practical usefulness of his art by training horses already made nearly perfect by nature. The test of his science and his utility lies in his ability to correct the natural defects of an ordinary animal and make it useful.” Henri L. De Bussigny, 1922.

So my dressage world is very inclusive: I have clients who are endurance riders and eventers. Some are gaited horses and I have the extreme advantage of working with mules and donkeys. I work with clients who have challenging horses who flunked out or were dismissed by other trainers. Western tack has been used in my lessons long before there was a name for it, and best of all, lots of my clients have rescue horses: Off the track Thoroughbreds, PMU babies, and horses that fell between the cracks. Whether they came from a rescue organization, like Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue, or were one step away but for the luck of being saved. The common thread in this eclectic herd is that the riders want to build a better horse, rather than buy one.

Sadly, I don’t see as many dressage riders pick rescue horses as I would like. And bluntly put, if you want the highest scores in this sport, buy a Warmblood. But if you don’t have plans for the Olympics… If the truth is that you’ll never be a world-class rider on a world-class horse, then why not do life-changing work? Ride a rescue.

Because in the end, all the money in the world can’t buy the ride. Or the relationship. These are things that must be earned and every step is not beautiful, but in the end it is the stuff of horse legend. Remember Seabiscuit: “You don’t throw a whole life away just ‘cuz he’s banged up a little.”

Which finally brings me to my point: A client, who rides a rescue horse and wants to do Western Dressage, sent me a link to the International Rescue Horse Registry, LLC. You can find them on Facebook and on the USDF website. It means that your rescue horse can qualify for end of the year awards. The organization have been around for over a year, but I hadn’t heard and maybe you haven’t either. It’s time to take some pride in doing the right thing, for the horse and eventually the sport in general.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Update: If you follow my blog you might remember Breezy. After a year here, learning that not all humans are evil, Breezy went to his forever home this week. His new owner is besotted with him, she sees his try much larger than his shortcomings, a sure-fire recipe for a happy ending.  Hooray for the Good Guys!

Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Life

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Street Life on the farm is not much different. Individual personality makes for rich diversity. It takes all kinds, just the way we like it.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo- I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. My photos are taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.