How to Listen to Your Horse.

WMNubeEarsblueI had a friend who visited my farm during my first years here. She arrived for the weekend with books and wine. We’d cook and stay up late. In the mornings we took our coffee out into the pasture, still in our flannel pajamas, and looked at wild flowers.

I’m sure I talked about my horses too much, but she talked about everything else in the universe, so it was probably fair. She loved words and her voice had a musical quality. She never stopped talking but I didn’t mind.

To say she wasn’t a horse person was an understatement but one visit she asked to ride.

Spirit was the best choice. Back in the day, before his promotion to Grandfather Horse, he was a tolerant guy who loved people who didn’t know how to ride. Have you known horses like that? He found non-riders just a little less trouble. So I tacked him up and my friend mounted and they went for a walk-about. I worked at barn chores but I could hear her chatting with him; the notes of her voice carried in the breeze as they wandered through the pasture and around to the front of the property.

There were a few  of moments of silence, and then my friend squawked. I looked over and she was moving Spirit as fast as she could toward me, rocking in the saddle, kicking, and calling my name with one hand waving over her head as she urged him on. Eventually they got close, moving along at what you could only call a medium walk at best. Spirit will tell you there is a real up-side to non-riders.

“He talked to me. Spirit talked to me, I heard him.” She was thrilled.

Usually I keep quiet about horse talk but after a couple of glasses of wine, I could’ve related a comment from my horse while telling a story, or maybe my friend was just surprised to hear another voice in her head.

“What did Spirit say?” She seemed excited but it wasn’t like she was really riding him. I was sure she imagined it.

“Well, he told me to be quiet, that I talked too much, but still, I heard him,” she said.

Dang, that was him all right. He didn’t hold with chirpy drivel and one person’s musical notes might be another horse’s finger nails on the chalk board.

“Yep. Sounds about right.” Time for her to get down. She may have heard him, but now it was time to listen.

Disclaimer: I’m no animal communicator. I’m talking about just the everyday “can you scratch my backside” sort of chat.

Here is how to start: Clear out the mental litter, like work rants and to-do lists. Leave real life at the barn door and let you brain settle and breathe.

If the first message you get is something like “You need those thousand dollar breeches with the baby seal skin full-seat,” or “You really should fly to Spain and look for a pasture friend for me”, I’m guessing that it isn’t actually his voice you’re hearing. Start over. Clear you mind of work drama again, lay down the baby seal club again, and keep your horse fantasies to yourself. Listen to the quiet, just be.

If you are grooming his rump and he nibbles at his flank, take your curry right there and go at it. Tell him good boy. It isn’t a coincidence, he’s pointing where it’s itchy so take him at his word. If he shows you another spot, go right there and reward him for asking again. Teach him to talk by listening.

All this gets more important once you hit the saddle and you hear his small voice say My right shoulder is the stiff one. What you actually notice is that he is counter-bent and now is when you normally pull that inside rein. Instead of your usual counter-attack, bring your calf quiet and sweet to that soft spot just at the girth and let him feel it quietly rest there, following each stride he takes. You don’t have to kick him, just remind him that’s where bend starts. No louder than that curry conversation while grooming, just consciously follow him.

He’ll resist, reminding you that he isn’t kidding, it’s really stiff. You remember what a tight neck feels like, so your heel urges softness, like a warm touch. As your sit bones ask for a forward, rhythmic walk, let your inside rein ask for a poll release for just an instant. Don’t even hold it long enough for him to answer, it’s just a suggestion that it might feel good to him to loosen his poll. Let him think before answering.

“As long as he stiffens his poll, he also stiffens all of his other limbs. We may therefore not try to address them until he has yielded in his poll.” (E.F.Seidler, 1846)

Your horse can’t say it any clearer, his shoulder is tight and you have a choice. Teach resistance by jerking the bit against the bone of his jaw, or you could release that inside rein just an inch and release his poll just enough to remind him what a release feels like. Just like he showed you the curry spot, show him a softness in your asking hand. Then a tiny ask again, opening your inside hand another inch, wider not back,  and still in rhythm with his stride, while your inside leg supports his tight shoulder with warmth and softness. Think heating pad.

Give him a moment to read your intention to soften, and not fight. Keep walking and let him feel your patience with his shoulder. He will give it to you when he trusts your cue to release is not going to hurt and his muscles are warm. Releasing on cue, being supple, is how your horse tells you he trusts you to not bully him, but instead help him where it hurts. Just like the curry, this is a language you can build on. Trust = Relaxation.

It isn’t any different than if someone grabbed your face. It’s a decision you make to trust that person and surrender to a kiss, or flinch and escape. Asking for bend is just that intimate, just that vulnerable. Violence is always a poor excuse for understanding–it’s just common sense to distrust a bully.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Afloat.

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Afloat: Llamas are animals from another planet; everything about them is sideways of the usual. They look like badly put-together horses but behave more like cats. They love family and protect their home. They have a springing float in their gait–hang time–and a total disregard for gravity, that lingers after the play is done.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Walter on Positive Pet/Vet Training.

WMWalterColorThanks for not mentioning my big nasty scab. I woke up last week with a corgi toenail inside my ear. It was attached to a corgi…running in mid-air… trying to find traction…in a fight with a sleeping Briard…next to me on the bed…at about 2 am. The Briard was totally disoriented by the attack. She’s 12 now and she doesn’t wake up limber or alert. Neither do I. There was a lot of flailing and moaning. The aforementioned corgi, Walter, continued barking frantically while still airborne, and then Preacher Man, who always absolutely loves the sound of his own voice, joined in. Night terrors.

Things have been a little rough in here at the Less-Peaceable-Kingdom the last few months. It’s Walter and if you’ve been following along, he got a diagnosis (read here) that he couldn’t care less about. Hold on, I’m getting to the positive training part.

Walter is great. He never wants anyone’s sympathy–not while the ducks are pooping just on the other side of the fence. Lately I can tell things are sliding for him. He is a little frantic all the time. The whites of his eyes show too much, like someone pretending enthusiastiasm about math. Even his tongue has anxiety. And he naps too much. He doesn’t want us to think he is getting weaker, so he picks fights with all the dogs. Not the cats, he isn’t stupid, but he fights with his friends. We all know it isn’t who he is, but it’s the way he can let us know he’s lost confidence.

Not his fault. Part of positive training is making sure the dog (or usually in my case, horse) is physically well. Walter isn’t. Period. So we mitigate when we can, keeping him separate but not alone. He always gets the best spot on the sofa, between me and the Dude Rancher, on pizza night.

It’s been 20 months since his diagnosis–meaning 20 trips back to the vet. In the beginning it was the worst thing. He clung to me, pleading with a nervous twitch, to save him from the utter cruelty of the vet. See, every visit includes a blood draw. A needle for him and for me–his toenails impaling my arm. As my good vet took him back, he gave me that look. You know the one–warning me that I’d be really sorry if he died right now. He got treats all through the needle process. Then he returned to my lap, pathetically clinging and desperately frightened. Sometimes he would close his eyes and pretend paralysis while we talked about the test results.

I hear Corgis have a bit of a reputation with vets sometimes… Selling the notion of positive training is much more challenging when needles are involved. But each month we were back to check his meds. Walter says the good thing about taking all those pills is that it takes a good sized wad of patè–and by patè I mean canned hepatic dog food–to hold them all together. Yum.

Walter has outlived his prognosis by almost a year. He thinks only suckers believe that stuff in the first place. Walter doesn’t actually like car travel, especially the rumble strips, but he loves to go for a ride. He’s a complicated guy that way. When we pull up to the vet’s, he peers over the dash with a sly smile. This last trip in, the women at the front desk pulled out the treat jar as soon as he came through the door. He is barely tall enough to see over the edge, but he stands up and they oblige him handfuls of treats just for coming in. It took much less than ten minutes to train them. As long as he stood there, the treats kept coming. By the time he got on the scale, he was up a few ounces. We fight to keep weight on him, but I knew this weight gain was all extremely recent. I offered to pay a treat surcharge since they use the smelly moist liver kind.

001This photo is Walter waiting for the vet at our last visit. Sometimes it takes her forever (5 or even 7 minutes) to come in. Blood tests confirm what his recent behavior shows–but he loves her anyway.

My vet is a genius–I know Dr. McKenney (at High Plains Veterinary Hospital) has given us this precious time. It’s a fair-sized practice, with several perfect employees who all seem to know Walter. It probably happens when the patient comes first.

Walter would tell you that he’s just that wicked good at using positive reinforcement training on humans. But that’s how the magic works. It doesn’t matter who starts it in the beginning–it becomes a habit and pretty soon we’re all smacking our lips and singing Give Peace a Chance. It’s not just a training method, it’s a lifestyle.

There is so much that is out of our control in this world. You never know what tomorrow will bring. It could take you a while to find your forever home, only to find out… well, just thinking about it all could get you down. But life’s too short to spend pouting in detention. Better to have a party and get to be smart all the time. Dance the good boy dance and teach them to reward you every moment.

Now, enough of this bliss ninny chatter, I think I hear the vet coming.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

(P.S. Welcome Dog Bloggers–Lara’s un-corgi Ginger Sisters invited us. We usually talk about positive training methods for horses here, but sometimes the dogs bribe me with spit treats.)

 

 

Weekly Photo Challenge: Blur.

WMmudLookalikesA wild thunderstorm rolled through during the afternoon of a sweltering blur of a day. Sweat and rain mixed, leaving a perfect mud for running, then rolling, then running again. These two are siblings–more like Yin/Yang twins. At times they blur together, two unique versions of their heritage: sensitivity, intelligence, and power.

Gallopsibs (640x478)Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

“Blur.”

Horses and Tulips.

WMClaraTulipAt some distant moment in the past, probably after seeing The Miracle of the White Stallions when I was a kid, I found out that Spanish horses were started at 4 years old. Back then, I thought it was a terrible waste. Then a few years ago, I was at a nutritional seminar where the conversation turned to options to prepare long yearlings to start under saddle. And I thought the same thing–what a terrible waste. Then this week I read an article that said the optimal time to start a horse was 7 years old, the age a horse has fully grown. So it goes, the horse world is not short on opinion.

I don’t want to start a debate about who’s right, what I notice is that horse lovers disagree from the start. We disagree on everything from age to training style to the right tack to use. Then we probably get defensive about it.

We compare the worst Dressage rider to the best Reiner, or the best Eventer with the worst Endurance rider and judge each discipline by worst example. Let’s not even start with breed preferences. Horse owners can’t even agree on what constitutes abuse or neglect.

We run the full range of emotions starting with joy. Beyond that fear, despair and sadness are probably inevitable along the way, and anxiety. Lots of anxiety. Then finally grief. We are long on passion for all kinds of horses. The crazy part is, we are debating with people who are on our side to begin with.

In the end, all of us are united: the most grizzled old rancher and the pinkest horse-crazy girl both get wet eyes and a runny nose remembering that certain horse.

The real problem isn’t with each other. The real problem is that horses don’t live long enough.

A horse’s working life is an arc. There is the incline at the beginning; We are always in a hurry to get to the best start, whatever that is. Everything is training and aspiring. It’s all looking ahead.

On the other end of the arc are the later years when arthritis is normal and the level of work starts to slide. He isn’t as fast or strong, he gets reluctant to do what used to be easy, until the day that he can’t hold us any longer. If you’ve done everything just right, he isn’t any happier that day than you are.

There is a sweet spot between those extremes, when a horse is physically at his peak; he is mentally solid and capable, and his muscles are fully developed. He’s working at his utmost and he’s sound! It’s an affirmation of all that he is… but that prime is finite, sandwiched between the years getting there, and the years reminiscing back.

We have to pick our battles: It’s always a mistake with horses, you might win some fights with humans, but we never win against time. Even if the horse is thirty years old we always want one more season.

The real reason we get cranky is that horses are fragile. Horses seem bold and strong but we know their secret. That their feet are small and their digestive system is a bit unstable. Even if we are lucky and everything goes well, they just don’t live long enough. Horses are heart-breakers. We know that in our hearts and we love them anyway.

This is the time of the year that my friends in the northwest post photos of fields of tulips–so outlandishly beautiful with large petals in bold primary colors. And such frail flowers. I don’t usually buy them cut because their petals bruise easily and their stalks go slack. Cut flowers are all about temporary beauty, part of what we love about flowers is their transitory nature. They just mark a small place in time, an occasion, with beauty. Cut or uncut, eventually flowers wilt. And we shouldn’t let their brevity ruin their loveliness or our appreciation.

Horses have so much more in common with tulips than oak trees, and that has to be part of what we love about them also. Even if it’s the part we hate about loving them.

In our barn, we have two horses that have been retired as long or longer than they were ridden. We have two young horses working their plan for world domination, and a couple in undefined places and not happy about it. And we have one big shiny horse who is absolutely in his prime–confident and proud. It’s just a snapshot. The best reason to have gratitude in this moment is that it can all change in a heartbeat.

It’s tulip season again and that means most of our horses are another year older. Happy Birthday to the whole herd! It’s easy to forget that every moment they are with us is a victory over so many obstacles. This year, lets celebrate the place we are in the journey right now–not the future and not the past–without blame towards ourselves or each other. Let’s celebrate the illusive perfection and beauty of horses, and let’s make peace with the rest.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Ephemeral.

WMsnowtrotClara

Like a northern breeze across the prairie: just an instant of a moment in an hour of her life.

Forever in my mind.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

“Ephemeral.”

When to Dismount and Say Thank You.

WM mounting block

The post-ride congratulatory noodle.

“Asking your horse to hold your weight at the halt, like gossiping cowboys with their legs hooked over their saddle-horns, is much harder for a horse than moving with weight on his back. When you’re not riding, kindly get off his back.”

This quote is from last week’s blog and Cathy asked me to elaborate. I promised I’d hold it to a moderate rant.

Let’s start by having a good ride. That means a warm-up that is patient and pleasant. The horse has longer reins and is striding up with a nice rhythm. His poll is soft and the rider is breathing deeply. You turn your waist and ask him to reverse and in that movement, you feel his ribs stretch to the outside while his inside ribs soften around your leg. Dressage rhymes with massage for a reason. Repeat a few times, asking for longer steps with your seat, and then shorter. Sweet. Good boy.

Relaxed and forward, just like the training pyramid says. Now some walk-trot transitions, still a long rein and you can feel him lift and carry you. The strides are slow enough to be big and from the tip of his nose to his tail, there’s a swinging rhythm that flows under you like a river. He’s using himself well, and his back is starting to lift.

What happens next depends on riding discipline and the level of horse/rider proficiency, but whatever happens next is aided by the 15-20 minutes you just spent helping your horse slowly warm his muscles. He feels good in his body and he is ready to work. Reining, dressage, jumping; he’s warm and willing. So let’s say you do a light bit of training and when he tries, he gets a scratch.

“Ask often, be content with little, and reward greatly.” It’s always smart to channel Nuno Oliveira.

The horse is happy, the rider is happy, and after 15 or 20 minutes of training, there is a long cool down that feels just as good at the end of the ride as the beginning. Moving forward, swinging big lets him step under with his hind leg and he gets stronger with every stride. So the rider asks for a halt and gives her horse a pat. Then maybe there is another lesson to watch, or a friend to chat with. Now might be a good time to check messages on your smartphone. Is there anything better than sitting on a horse?

Except that you just had a generous, fluid ride, asking him go light and forward, and now you’re parked in the saddle being dead weight pushing down on his spine, which he has just politely lifted for you. Kind of squishing all that happy, round work. It’s not great for a young horse, but for a mid-life or older horse who has the beginnings of arthritis, the benefits of the ride get minimized, just when they’re needed even more.

A brief physics lesson: Carrying a stack of books while walking forward is an example of dynamic force. Similarly, a forward horse spends less effort carrying weight because of that dynamic movement. Standing still and holding a stack of books is a static load, the force is downward. Can you feel it, maybe in your back? So we shift weight from one foot to the other because it’s harder to hold static weight and maintain balance. Make any sense?

That’s when you hear her, “Drives me nuts!” It’s Kim Walnes–she’s in your arena! “Your horse is not a sofa!” Okay, she isn’t in your arena, but it would be nice. She did write this on the blog last week, just after Cathy asked for clarification. (Took you at your word, Kim. Err…actually, I took your words. Thanks.)

Physics is reason enough, but there is an even more important reason to get off, and like usual, it’s about your horse’s state of mind. Riders underestimate the importance of the last thing they do before dismounting.

Horses learn in hindsight. They always remember the thing-before-the-thing. They are smart that way, survival often depends on it. So if bad things happen every time he gets caught, or if riding in the trailer bothers his stomach, or if what happens after the mounting block feels like punishment, they are bright enough to do the math and the thing before, whatever that is, becomes a cue to resist.

But with beauty and grace, the reverse is also true. If we give a horse a happy release just as he has done good work, he remembers that just as well. Release is the best reward, it’s honest, loud and true. Giving him a long rein and a scratch makes him remember the previous thing. Parking on his back like a cinder block after good work deflates the value of the training moment, but vaulting off, loosening the girth, and letting him be done will tattoo that moment in his mind like a big red heart with your name across it on a blue ribbon. Think of dismounting as an effective training aid.

Sometimes in competitions, you’ll see a wonderful rider finish, jump down, and walk their horse out. I always think that’s what makes them a great rider; the ability to say thank you in another language.

Quitting on a high note leaves your partner positive and wanting more. Let that be enough. Don’t linger–get off and say thank you. Then maybe he’ll volunteer to noodle with you at the mounting block.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

More warm-up info (here.)