Photo Challenge: Easy Being Green

A Controlled Burn

I'll take this gray rain
to soften my jaw; rounded 
shoulders hang low and honor 
the loss of a old heart 
that held mine.

I'll take this gray rain
to smooth my brow, while
rising to meet the ash 
easing to green, almost
but not quite.
….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
(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. I take these photos with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

It IS Easy Being Green!

What Are Your Legs Doing? (Half-halt Help)

 

How are the half-halts coming? Does a breath and a light thigh pulse work? Or are your legs exhausted by the end of the ride? Is your horse dull to your leg aids? And by that I mean, have you nagged him into a stupor? (There I go blaming the rider again.)

This first question is deceptive: Are your legs and seat soft in the saddle? Can you tell? It isn’t as easy as it sounds because it’s instinct, once our feet have let go of the earth, to grab on with our legs, thighs tight, and calves tense. It’s a reflex and if we’re a bit timid, then even more so.

Be clear: Instinct and intuition tell us to hold on with our legs. It’s the wrong thing to do, but we come by it honestly. Not that it matters to your horse.

The problem with tense legs is that it means that your sit-bones aren’t deep in the saddle, but rather suspending you slightly above the saddle, making a disconnect between you and your horse. To maintain that position, your shoulders want to come forward and your knees want to hold. As your balance changes, your horse might slow up, thinking you aren’t stable. He’s right, but you might not be aware of much of this. You’re busy using your horse as a ThighMaster –and rock hard thighs is not the message of lightness and relaxation you mean to send your horse.

Surprise! Your horse doesn’t want to go forward. We’ve been taught to kick. Or we’re frustrated, so we kick. There’s no response, because it all feels bad to your horse. So you kick harder; your leg never rests. If that doesn’t work, you try spurs (not the real purpose of spurs, by the way) and a whip (not the real purpose for a whip, either.) So, you complain that your horse is lazy and won’t go forward.

At least you have kind hands. Well, you don’t. If the rest of your body is tense and fighting, your hands are doing the same, which means you’re hurting his mouth. No wonder he isn’t moving forward. And you aren’t breathing in any more air than a chicken. But some jerk has told you that you can’t lose this fight because if your horse doesn’t respect you, all is lost. So you double down.

What do I see from the ground? Your horse is mirroring you. His back is tense and his neck is stiff. As you kick, your thighs tense, pushing you farther out of the saddle. With that extra weight on his withers, he resists more. None of this is good, but worst of all, as your aids get stronger and bigger, I begin to see his ribs tense, and the muscle that runs from his armpit to his flank seizes up. He’s defending himself by tensing his ribs. Defending himself from your leg and your seat. He has no idea what you are asking now; he’s isn’t breathing either.

This was never your intention. You know your horse is sensitive enough to be bothered by flies. He probably feels your legs more than you do. There was an instant where things started to snowball to adversarial; so quick you don’t remember making that choice. A rider is always cuing either relaxation or tension.

Finally, do your horse a favor and show some real leadership. Just stop. Release the reins. Say Good Boy because you attacked him like a mountain lion and he had more patience for you, than you did for him.

Consider doing yin yoga. Become familiar with the Butterfly Pose. Sitting or laying down, soles of feet together, and let your knees open; breathe and let gravity do the work. It will feel tight but you’ll just sit with that. Let an eternity pass. Like two whole minutes.

Your horse doesn’t care about yoga, but if you were inadvertently giving him a halt cue with your thighs (you were), then you need to be introduced to the muscles he feels all the time.

Next ride, if your horse is safe, and naturally, you have your helmet on, begin your ride at the walk without stirrups. Feel your legs long and let your sit-bones move with your horse’s back. Let your hip flexor, or more specifically, your psoas muscle, become fluid and soft. The front of your body opens and your heels hang directly below your shoulder, perfect. Feel your feet heavy and your ankles soft.

As your horse walks, your legs flow with the movement of his flank. It’s a slight sway that travels from your sit-bones through your waist, up to your shoulders, and down to your toenails. You could carry an egg under your knee without breaking it. You don’t move more than your horse does, but most of all, you don’t brace your legs against his movement.

When you finally do put your foot into your stirrup, you’ll notice that it feels constrictive. Yes, a stirrup does make a foot brace a bit, but your job is to continue as if you weren’t using a stirrup. Let your weight be on the outside edge of your foot, almost bow-legged. Your leg should feel as light and loose as a bird wing on his flanks.

Now the process of asking your horse to respond to your leg can begin. He’s gone dead on his sides because the pressure never stopped. Now use tiny cues. Inhale and ask him to walk on. If he moves one step and stops, reward him. Refuse to demean him, and yourself, by nagging.

Ask for a bit more. Jiggle your ankle but don’t use muscles. Let the movement feel like a buzzing bug to him. Think energy, not force. Then reward him again, for giving you a chance to do better.

This is about successive approximation. He’s still waiting for you to kick hard and that trust needs healing. So you reward anything that is an approximately the direction you want to go, while refusing to fight. Once he starts walking, follow his body naturally, but stop cuing. Trust him to do his job without nagging. Let him stride on; let your legs rest. In a few strides, just using your sit-bones, ask for longer strides and when he does that, stop cuing and let him carry it on. Now the two of you are conversing politely.

In order for a horse to be responsive to your leg, your leg has to do less. It’s counter intuitive –just like everything else about riding.

….

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

 

 

 

Photo Challenge: Atop

 
It’s an inherited seat;
elders and babies ride loose in time,
strong and vulnerable
and not quite domesticated.
Sky-tall and exquisitely tiny;
a saddle blends contradictions
into a familiar sacred stride.
 
….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Atop

The Mysterious Half-Halt

Thanks to a request, I’m writing about the half-halt. Ever notice how every definition you read starts with the disclaimer that it’s the most misunderstood concept in riding? Not very encouraging. It goes on to say that it’s a cue that combines both whoa and go. How hard could that be? There’s squeezing and driving and pulling, but not too much. Eyebrow squint. WikiHow has an article about how to do the half-halt in twelve easy steps. Are you kidding me? 

Disclaimer: I love the discipline of dressage, but sometimes they make it sound a little harder than it is. (It’s okay, I’m sure they think I’m a little “simple” from time to time, too.) Dressage uses complex concepts, described with intellectual precision. I learned half-halts this way, but it’s enough to make a rider seize-up in the saddle with over-think-itis, a common dressage malady. Especially if you’re passionate about riding and try too hard, like I did.

The USDF definition: “The halfhalt is the hardly visible, almost simultaneous, coordinated action of the seat, the legs and the hand of the rider, with the object of increasing the attention and balance of the horse before the execution of several movements or transitions between gaits or paces.”

It’s an okay set of words. I just wish they hadn’t included hands. Riders tend to over-do with their hands, so why encourage it?

Not surprisingly, horses have a definition that’s a bit more intuitive. I’m bilingual; let me translate for you.

A half-halt is a re-balancing. Can we all agree that balance is way more crucial for horses than we give credit? We want the horse to balance a bit of his weight back, but I hate to say “back” aloud because, again, we tend to use our hands too much to start with. Hands are over-rated; trust your body instead.

The mental part of the half-halt isn’t always talked about but that’s the mysterious part; the part beyond the physical cues. A half-halt is a mental re-balance as well. It’s an instant that affirms the connection between horse and rider in that moment, but also in the near future. It’s a blink of acknowledgment that the two of you are together, as well as a hint that something’s coming …wait for it. The challenge is timing. By the time we remember to half-halt, it’s too late, and the horse can’t respond in time.

To further confuse the horse and rider, there is a long list of actions used to ask for a half-halt, some big and bold, some invisible. Riders tend to like a dramatic cue using several body parts, physical strength, and a few math skills, while horses like the soft, silent kind. They taught me to do it their way.

The first rule about half-halts is that you must do it in time… think of it as a discipline of preparation. You might half-halt to begin to prepare for a transition. One more half-halt to actually prepare, and then the transition. A half-halt asks for his attention but it should feel light and happy to him, like it will be fun. “Oh goody, a trot’s coming…”

The physical part for the rider can be as simple as a breath because a breath resets the body. The inhale realigns your spine, your shoulders slide back as if you have a hanger in your shirt, which in turn realigns your arms and wrists. Let your hands rest. If anything, your hands slow an instant to feel the contact an extra second. Your seat straightens in the saddle. You can think of each of these things separately, because it’s harder, or you can take a big inhale for an upward transition and your body will follow naturally.

An exhale softens your body, stills your seat, slightly deflates your horse’s movement, and like a plane, you glide in for a soft landing. Use an exhale for relaxation or a downward transition, and melt any stray resistance.

If there is no response at all, ask again and perhaps add a slight tightening (upward) of your seat muscles or a loosening (downward). Does your horse respond? Praise him for his attention. Then breathe and cue small again, always trying for less. Think invisible.

I find a light pulse with my thighs backs up my breath even better than seat muscles for most horses… so an inhale, and if needed, a thigh pulse for more energy, or an exhale and thigh pulse for steadiness or relaxation.

At first your horse may have no idea what you are asking for. His response to you might feel like a dubious, “Huh?” Cheer his effort! This is about subtlety; a tiny half-cue that creates an energetic half-pause, lays the foundation for a relaxed transition. Give him time to figure that out.

Does your horse ever resist a cue from you because it seems abrupt to him? Perhaps he’s trotting in a relaxed rhythm, when suddenly, out of nowhere, there’s a canter cue –gasp, toss head, counter-bend, throw out a lead leg, and hope for the best. A well-timed half-halt is the antidote.

Then a few strides into the canter, he begins to speed up. Pull on his face if you want, but he’s probably tense in the poll already. Besides, you’re trying to have better hands. Think about a better rhythm in his canter. Breathe. Focus your body. Reset his speed and steady him as your body realigns. Yay, you did a half-halt.

If this seems entirely too easy and you need to make it harder, may I suggest taking up chess? It’s meant to be a war of the mind and there’s an opponent.

Regardless of the gait, and especially at the walk, if you half-halt kindly, with a generous reward when your horse responds, you might feel his back lift just a few millimeters. Reward him with a huge exhale and soft hands, because when he lifts his back a bit, your half-halt is on the way to becoming the cue to bring his head to the vertical without pulling. It’s this instant that makes you really… no, really… believe that a half-halt has mystical properties.

Half-halts aren’t trained in a day. Every horse is a slightly different individual. Every rider has a unique language. Rather than reading even more books about half-halts that eventually put both of you in a complete tense-halt about the topic, breathe and half-halt your own critical mind. Crank up the music, and while you and your horse are dancing, offer a half-halt. Ask your horse what he prefers, and then let yourself be trainable.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Photo Challenge: Wish

We felt them close
before we had skin;
from an infinite place
a deep, slow nicker
rumbled, more felt
than heard. The wish
was born first so
we could find our way.
….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
(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. I take these photos with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

Wish

Do You Communicate Like a Coyote?

Some of us baby-talk and cuddle our horses like they’re twelve-hundred-pound teddy bears. Some of us enter the pen with enough flags and whips that we look like a lion-tamer at a circus. It’s possible we’re on a behavior continuum not so different from horses.

My last two blogs have been about working with stoic horses and reactive horses, as opposite ends of a continuum, with the goal of inspiring honest, calm communication somewhere in the middle.

Human behavior runs similarly from one extreme–very shut down–to the other extreme–overly reactionary. In other words, some of us are passive aggressive and some of us just plain aggressive. Too harsh? That’s what the horses thought about the words stoic and reactive, too.

Then one last assumption: If you were the sort of screeching, hard-handed, bone-crushing, slimy-reptile Neanderthal who was brutal with horses, my bliss-ninny positive training blog would have bored you to death years ago.

That just leaves us passive aggressives left. And it didn’t start out being our fault. Most of us are women; we were raised to be polite and quiet. We were rewarded for being good girls.

I, myself, am a recovering good girl, so if I want some wine, for instance, I take a breath and say, “Please bring some red wine home. Thanks, Sweetie.”

A passive aggressive good girl might say,”Excuse me, Sweetie, if you have time and it’s no trouble, perhaps you could detour on your way home, only if you want to, for some wine, if it isn’t out of your way, but if it doesn’t work out, it’s no trouble for me to go later, Honey, even though my foot is swollen and I’m a bit congested, I can limp out later after dinner, I was just thinking you might be able to get a nice Merlot, but it’s fine, just fine, either way.”

Just. Say. It. Already.

And to be clear, it’s okay to be passive aggressive out in the world. I’m just saying horses hate it.

Horses are prey animals, and coyotes (or people acting like coyotes) are their sworn enemies. Coyotes stalk them, passively aggressive, skulking around in the shadows, lurking and feinting. Circling their prey, just out of reach but relentless. They might tip-toe with a halter partly hidden behind their back, or nag-nag-nag with their feet in the saddle, or be twitchy with their hand, or maybe just lurk on the stiff-side rein. They might give a cue, contradict that first cue, then give a different cue, and still not pause for an answer, busily talking to themselves, up there behind their horse’s back.

Or worse yet, we might have so much compassion for our horses that we listen and listen, and never really say anything to them at all. We crane and squint and worry, wondering how they are responding, and is this what that blog meant? In the meantime, a horse picks up on the doubt and confusion and they can do nothing but lose confidence. We chatter down to them, over them, beyond them, until nothing we say has meaning. In other words, if we often stop and start, walk on eggshells to keep them calm, or over think everything in the saddle, we’re stalking them.

Do you find this prattle confusing? Imagine you’re a horse.

Bottom line: We lose our natural rhythm when we try too hard. We’d hate to consider ourselves abusive so we whisper, and even if we know horses are confused, we tend to commiserate with them about it and not clarify. They see a dog answer a sit command and get a cookie, and wonder why they have it so hard. It’s enough to make a stoic horse to shut down further or a reactive horse start to scream.

Truth: A horse will never confuse you for a horse. You will always be either a coyote or a human. Sorry for the bad news, but now let’s set about being a better human; honest communication is appreciated because it’s understandable. Think short sentences, with a thank you at the end.

Horses are looking a quietly confident leader who respects their intelligence. Let your body be still. Listen without expectation of good, bad, or otherwise. Breathe. Plan ahead. Ask for a transition with awareness in your body. Then breathe again. Wait for his answer. Reward him.

If he’s wrong, reward him for trying. Then “re-phrase” the question more simply. Go slow so that he can reason the answer. Slow yourself down so that you are clear. Be patient because there is nothing more important than a foundation of understanding. Speed is easy but real trust takes time.

Let him accept you for who you truly are, and if that’s a bit of a mess, don’t give him a whiny apology. Instead, smile, relax, and try to do better. Trust that he can tell your intention is good. Horses absolutely know honesty when they see it.

Horses not looking for groupies and they don’t want to be put up on a spiritual pedestal. They don’t need adoring humans to give them purpose. They want a whole lot more from us than treats.

Scientists tell us that horses have feelings similar to humans, but that is not the same thing as feeling what we do in the same situation and we’d be arrogant to think so.

Try to find the middle of our human continuum. Horses are drawn to calm leadership. They like a herd that feels safe; they appreciate emotional clarity. Leave your puny insecurities and your frail feelings in the house. No baby talk, no coyote stalking, no apologies. Square your shoulders and speak your truth clearly. They expect us to be nothing less than their equal.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Photo Challenge: The Road Taken.

wm-road-taken
Dreams are only transparent.
Let my lungs fill,
here, now,
in simple praise
for ordinary moments
of wanting what I already have.
….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
(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. I take these photos with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high-tech.)

The Road Taken