Redefining Work Under Saddle.

I had a blog request, in two parts. First: “[Does] training and working a horse inherently make a horse less “happy.” I know I am happier on vacation, but that doesn’t mean work is bad for me. Balance is key right? When is it too much? When is it too little? I had one trainer tell me “don’t let her (my mare) get away with that! You work 8 hours a day, she can give you 45 minutes.” 

First, is she sound? She can’t give you 45 minutes if her saddle doesn’t fit or if her feet aren’t trimmed properly. It’s too much time if her back is sore or if she has ulcers. Is she in her heat cycle? Here is the tricky part: What if you think it’s all good but she’s still cranky? Who’s right? Of course, she is. Keep looking.

Let’s assume all is well. Does working a horse make them inherently less “happy?” Well, horses are all individuals. That’s what’s fascinating about them. I’ve known many horses who were unhappy under saddle because of harsh training but also from just being misunderstood.

It’s depressing but I think some horses trade that hour under saddle for the rest of their life. Kind of like doing the dishes in exchange for a meal, they make a trade. I’m not critical; I like horses being owned and cared for. Some humans live lives of quiet desperation; I suppose horses could do the same.

It’s humans who make training hard work. We’re perfectionists and we like drama. We approach every new thing like a potential problem. A problem getting him in the trailer. A problem to get him over cross-rails. Early on, I had a client who moaned endlessly about her horse’s problem picking up the canter. (Is it obvious who it was that had the problem?) In the meantime, horses begin to hate arena work.

That doesn’t mean that horses want a life loitering in the pasture, eating treats, and waiting for the next farrier visit.

I think the majority of horses don’t want either extreme; not vacation and not work. They want a relationship with us. It’s a crazy notion. Humans aren’t a very emotionally stable species but perhaps they see some potential in us.

Second: “[My mare] was stopping at the gate every time we walked/trotted by clearly thinking the increase in physical exertion was unnecessary. She was not winded, or sweaty or tired in any way. Just didn’t enjoy my increase in focus and being pushed to work harder. I was new to riding and [my mare] was not new to riding.”

You’re partly right. It doesn’t sound like she’s tired but that doesn’t mean she “clearly” thinks the physical work is unnecessary. It’s easy to misread horses by superimposing human thoughts. Perhaps if you are new to riding, she was being patient. She knows more than you, after all. (Mares always do.) Of course, she doesn’t like being pushed to work harder. Why would she?

I’ve never met a horse or rider who’s benefited from domination. I’m not necessarily talking bloody whips and spurs. It could be the force of nagging passive aggressive legs and marginally repressed frustration or anger.

It’s about now that a rider could feel like giving up on lessons. You could decide that training and competing are cruel and you don’t want to fight. So, you think about just wandering the property or sticking to ground work or even retirement. But I still don’t think that’s what most horses want.

Stopping at the gate is a clear message from your mare. It isn’t a disobedience. You’re doing what your trainer suggests but your horse gets an opinion, too. A better question might be, “How can I have a better partnership with my mare?”

In case it isn’t obvious, beginning to ride is easy enough. Progressing past that entry-level is the hard part. That’s why there are so many long-time novice riders. The reason to hire a trainer and try to push past that point is because horses tolerate us when we ride badly. They routinely save our lives, literally or figuratively, giving us more grace than we deserve. Consider learning better riding skills, like following hands and an independent seat, as a thank-you gift to your horse.

If you are almost overwhelmed, then good. You’re starting to understand how challenging it is to ride kindly and well. It may take the lifetime of a horse to become a better rider for the next horse. You have no time to lose.

First, make sure you are laughing in your lessons, even if you throw your hands up at the same time. Horses like us when we laugh and it’s an antidote to trying too hard. Take riding seriously but do it with a light heart. Remind yourself that you love your horse. Then trust your horse to tell the truth.

Start here: Is your warm-up effective? If not, it’s the deal breaker from the horse’s side. Dressage rhymes with massage for a reason. If a horse wants out of the arena, we need to improve their experience there. Done properly, the “work” should make your horse feel strong, supple, and balanced.

If work has become a four-letter word to you and your horse, exchange it for another four-letter word –play. Horses taught me the more we blur the line between work and play, the better we all get along. It’s a change in perception.

Defining training as hard work that will only be learned through harsh struggle makes riding feel like a factory job.

Lift the conversation. Training is easier than that. Humans and horses both learn through positive reinforcement. In the end, good training is simply a collection of positive experiences. That’s the goal each ride. Warm-up well, ask for a few steps at a time, and reward your horse generously. Be zealous–even ambitious– but have laughter be your music.

Horses are beings of light. And so are we, remember?

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

Running in Circles

 I was asked to write about lunging and I assume this means with no swear words. I don’t know why I said that; lunging is one of my very favorite activities. Oh, I remember now. Lunging is misunderstood, misused, and it can drive horses lame or crazy or shut down so far that their eyes look dead.

Like every other training aid in the horse world, it’s either a gift of communication and connection or a weapon of anxiety and domination. The very worst part? It’s a missed opportunity.

And like usual, no riding discipline is immune. It seems to start in the same place; lunging is used to run a horse into exhaustion. No matter the stress on joints and tendons, no matter the behavioral issue, just run ’em out of it. As if exhaustion ever trained anything positive.

The varied English disciplines go crazy with all kinds of gear meant to gimmick movement or head position or bend. Draw reins, side reins, pessoa… the list goes on. Trainers use them so they must be okay, right? When you research the purpose of these contraptions there’s a sales pitch that might almost sound like a miracle cure. As if saying it made it true. As if a forced position could be anything but cruel.

I’ve also seen a lunge line used with great lightness and finesse to help a horse find his balance and strength. I’ve asked untrained colts and gnarled rescue horses to transition through the gaits from my breath alone, and been given responses so quick that I doubted them. Longer strides and shorter, stretching, bending; anything that can be done in the saddle, can be done on the line. A soft request, delivered with patience and grace, can give a horse a fluid sense of confidence that is nothing short of glorious for both of you.

A few years back, a certified natural horsemanship trainer came here to evaluate a rescue horse. He was in my holding pen which happens to be round. The trainer landed like a helicopter, slapping a flag all over, and scaring the bejebbers out of both me and the horse. He panicked and ran, beginning a process that seemed to require tearing him down as step one.

It’s a common technique; it might get results with some horses. But I’ve also worked with horses who get hysterical when even asked to circle.  Not just nervous; full-blown hysteria. Training methods that involve physical intimidation aren’t dependable. Horses do not learn when they’re afraid, and we’re not that smart then either.

Too many of us have been taught some version of “tie them to the trailer, jam them on the bit, run them hard, and let them figure it out.” The idea is to let the horse “fight himself.” Even if it was a good idea, it’s a lost opportunity. At a time when we could be building trust by helping the horse, we abandon them to their situation. Then we get frustrated when horses don’t trust us.

Lunging a horse is an opportunity to connect, to partner and communicate in a supportive way. It’s an opportunity to play and work and feel strong, without the distraction of carrying weight. Lunging is a training aid. An aid, just to be painfully literal, is supposed to make it easier.

If I’m working with a young horse, or it’s a crisp day, or it’s been a while since the last ride, I might start with some free lunging. That’s a fancy term for letting the horse run at liberty in the arena. I like to cheer every explosion of bucking and farting. It’s a way that horses adjust their backs, literally getting the kinks out. When they run fast, I wave my arms encouraging them. When they begin to slow, I pretend to chase them and they pretend to be afraid. That flag of the tail and dip of the nose as he bolts past me is just him giving me a bit of a hoot in return.

If a liberty run isn’t possible, I’ll use a lunge line but encourage him to play when we start. It’ll be a bit more polite but bucking and head tossing is fine if he isn’t fighting the circle.

After he’s had some time to play, begin to ask for transitions. Be calm, give clean cues, and reward his response. Then ask for something else. Let transitions steady him with confidence and balance him with partnership. Let that lunge line tie the two of you in communication and understanding.

Here is the important thing about lunging: As much as it might warm a horse’s muscles, it’s meant to engage the mind even more. Use it as a time to warm up mentally, even more than physically, so that when you do mount, you and your horse are already working together.

Running in circles like a headless chicken is not the same thing at all. 

It’s easy to name call those who are ignorant or impatient. Those who don’t know better and those who are lazy or in a hurry. And particularly those who truly believe horses are fodder.

Some think that positive training is fine for trail horses but when the work gets harder, the rider has to get harder, regardless of disciplines. Even as positive trainers compete and win in all disciplines, the unstated feeling is that you must dominate the horse for any evolved performance. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I don’t think the problem is with training aids at all. The problem is with us. We’re limited by our judgment and marginal awareness. In our weak hearts, we bully horses because we don’t believe horses have the capacity to choose to join us freely. We don’t believe we’re capable of inspiring the kind of work we want. We underestimate horse’s intellect and sense of humor. We think we have the only brains in existence.

Harsh training is a statement that denies the fundamental beauty, strength, and intelligence that horses embody from their first day. Worse than that, we become a flat mean caricature of our own potential, as if the only way to assimilate some of their magic is through domination. The first tenant of training horses should be that we aspire to their level.

Or maybe we have it backward. Maybe horses are the training aid meant to teach us something beyond aggression and belligerence. Something like self-respect and civility.


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

Teaching Your Horse to Relax

The rider said that her mare had an undeniable “rushiness” and was always tense. The mare is five years old and in their first months together, the mare has had good ground manners. She tied and picked up her feet but walking out of the barn, she was way ahead or the rider had to pull her. The mare didn’t know how to stand still and wanted to walk in circles. Sometimes she got pushy with her muzzle.

The rider got criticism from other people at the barn; the mare just needed to work more, she was bored, that all horses need a job, etc. But working in the traditional ways (lunging) made the mare even busier and soon frantic.  Finally, the rider settled on the goal of teaching her to do nothing. A great idea! And now supporters were talking about sitting in a chair in her pen.

Humans can be such extremists.

The rider has a good start; she’s listening. The mare is very young and moving a horse to a new barn is much more challenging for them than we understand. Settling in with a new owner and a new herd takes time. We can list her bad behaviors but focusing on correcting her mistakes and not dealing with the underlying problem will only have limited success. The mare sounds very anxious.

After such a huge life change, I’d expect this young mare might have a sour stomach, if not ulcers. First thing is always to make sure she is physically okay. Because change is hard and these calming signals may also be symptoms of pain.

Some folks would say that mares are just that way. They use names to describe mares that we women don’t like being called. Well, it’s true that mares are more like stallions than they are geldings… they have hormones. In my experience, mares don’t enjoy blind repetition of menial work like some geldings can. Mares are smart and want more engagement. I think it speaks well of them to require their riders to be more creative.

And kudos for stopping the frantic lunging. It sounds like this young mare knows all about it. People mistake the purpose of lunging and use it to wear a horse out. It wears out they bodies, too, and while exhaustion can pass for obedience, it doesn’t teach the horse a thing. Or most riders either, apparently, since it is still common advice.

Sitting with her is harmless enough. It’s fun in the pen with horses. Some people bring a book. The mare can tell she isn’t being asked to do anything so it’s probably peaceful. But be clear; this isn’t building relationship either. The stress comes with being handled and that’s where the healing will come, too.

Responding to horses doesn’t have to be fast and aggressive. Or dull and passive. We can do better than these extremes.

First, this mare gets quick from anxiety. Every time you see a hint of anxiety, slow down right away. Help her feel safe. Rather than punishing her behaviors, find ways to reward her. Affirming good behaviors builds confidence–the opposite of anxiety.

Less correction; more direction.

To get ahead of her behavior curve we must go from being reactive to her problems to proactive to help her past them.

If she is quick, I’d ask her for slow answers. Leading her, I’d ask for a few steps. Start at her speed and then slow your feet. If she gives a tiny hesitation, reward her generously and walk on. Ask for some long strides and then short strides. Eventually, when she is following your stride changes, ask for a halt. Ask with your exhale. Ask with your feet. Leave the lead rope hang. If she barely pauses, reward her and walk on. The next time she’ll give you more because it went well. Because she can listen to your feet better than your hands.

Be the change you want to see in your horse. If she is hot, you cool your body movements. If she is reluctant to walk, you lighten and lift your body movements. Correct yourself. Ignore what you don’t like. Reward her every try.

Do it all in slow motion. Affirm peace. Let your exhale be audible. Lead by example; keep your heart quiet, your breath deep, and your hands soft. Let there be hang time after your cues. If you don’t want her to escalate, then don’t you escalate. Be relentlessly focused and internally slow, even if you are walking quickly.

It won’t be perfect. In the beginning, it’ll be a hot mess and your only goal is to interrupt your mare’s free-fall to panic. If there is a hesitation in her anxiety, reward that.

Think of the words good girl as an affirmation of what will come, rather than a reward for a completed behavior. Eventually the two of you will fluidly shadow each other, but for now, lower your expectations. Nothing kills her try quicker than being told everything she does isn’t good enough. Humans understand that feeling, don’t we?

Reward anything that looks thoughtful. In the past, cues have escalated to punishment. She’s been trained to answer too quickly. Give her time to reason it out. Slow. Down.

Sometimes she’ll hesitate too long. She isn’t being disrespectful. I think they know when it’s been too long and sometimes do a deer-in-headlights response, frozen waiting for the inevitable punishment. On the surface, it looks like disobedience. Take a breath and change the subject. Save her from that dread; start over fresh.

Demonstrate the behavior you’d like your mare to emulate. The patience you show her today will be returned to you. At some future time, when other horses might quit or panic, she will hold strong. She’ll pay it back when it matters.

Next week I’ll write about lunging as a positive aid rather than a punishment. For now, I want to affirm the importance of positive early training.

I’m on the board of Colorado Horse Rescue Network and we had an open shelter day recently. The goal was to help people who needed to let go of their horses. Of the thirty-five horses that were relinquished, twenty-three were mares. Those numbers are common; mares outnumber geldings in rescue. It says more about humans than mares, I think.

Good training requires us to go beyond old methods and understand the value subtlety and finesse. Training is an art. Let it lift both of you.

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

This is Andante. He likes to have a conversation at the mounting block. He wasn’t always like this. In his younger days, he was afraid of most everything. It was fair; he didn’t have a great start in life but that isn’t the important part. Back then, the mounting block wasn’t his favorite thing. Now it is.

He likes to spend a few minutes tapping it with his hoof; it makes that hollow plastic sound. He side-passes over it when asked –because he’s tall and it works. It’s a kind of groundwork that he and his rider enjoy; just a connecting time. He initiates it now and we all congratulate him. After a few minutes, he’s asked to stand still and he does.

Lately, he’s added this twist; he’s taken to doing stretches himself, at first only with his left leg, and then on request, both legs. His rider started the tapping game years ago to make the mounting block less scary and it turned into a game. It takes extra minutes in the beginning of the ride.

Before I get accused of coddling horses or training like a girl, again, I should add that Andante does challenging work, training up the dressage levels, working on light contact, pushing like a freight train, and dancing like a ballerina. I have great respect for this horse and the training he and his rider have done.

You could say these antics mean that his lesson starts late. We think he’s started teaching early. This ex-nervous horse reminds us it’s supposed to be fun because hard work and playfulness are not mutually exclusive. Because riding is an art. He reminds us to stay in the present moment. The other words for that are horse time.

Our horses don’t much care about our dirty laundry or dinner plans or our riding ambitions. But we’re busy people. We want to ride. We want our hour, so we grab them out of their turnout, do a perfunctory grooming job, and pull to the arena. Then it’s hurry-time for training work crashing into horse time. Does this “Slam, bam, thank you, Ma’am” approach work well for anything of value?

(I’m going to assume that we all use mounting blocks because it’s good for horses. Look at a photo of a horse’s skeleton and it’s easy to understand why equine chiropractors say that the wither area is easy to mangle with ground mounting.)

Does your horse show any calming signals at the mounting block? Does he look away or stretch his head down. Is he fussy? Do you move the mounting block to him …more than once? Is it a place where he gets corrected three or four times before you’re even in the saddle? Is that really how you want to start? Gosh, and your ride didn’t go well?

Maybe it’s time to see your mounting block in a new light. I like to use them as a training aid. For people, mainly. 

If you’re looking for a partner, whether for dressage competition or for trail riding, it starts here. Would you like a total do-over at the mounting block?

Start here: With a halter and lead rope, walk to the mounting block. The lead must stay slack. Step to the top and stand there. Breathe. Clear your mind. Lay down your thoughts and lists and expectations. Stand still and breathe some more. Let go of your excuses and apologies. Be still mentally and watch your horse take a new interest in you. Then step back to the ground and give yourself a treat. Nice job of changing yourself. Yes, it’s just a start but this is how training works.

Go to the arena and this time, un-click the lead. Let your horse run and play. Cheer him on. Cue canters and trots by doing them yourself. Laugh. Remember why you love horses. Then take him back to the barn and curry him till he shines. Now you have his attention.

Go to the arena and stand on the mounting block and do some light lunging. You’ll notice you can’t move your feet much while standing there. Good, it will require smaller cues. Ask for different gaits and reverses. Ten minutes, maybe fifteen, and back to the barn. Confuse him with short work sessions.

Eventually, ask for walk/halt transitions. Take your time, let him think. Trust his answer and find an even better, smaller cue. Let time pass in quiet conversation. If he’s doing halts, in a small circle, both directions around the block, you’re almost there.

The lead is still loose and his head has forgotten how much it hated being pulled on. It’s a miracle. At some point of his choosing, he’ll step almost to the perfect spot to mount and halt. Almost but not quite. Here is a chance to be generous. Training amounts to successive approximation. Call it good, reward him, and go back to the barn. Yay for you. You didn’t nag on toward your idea of perfection while teaching him he’s never good enough. Instead, he remembers standing there in the right place with you being happy about it. Win.

The next time, he comes to the spot sooner and you spend a ridiculous amount of time standing on the block, scratching and rubbing his back and neck. Continue until he forgets he had anxiety at the mounting block. Until he wonders if you’ve taken a mail order course in faith healing. Until he thinks good things happen at the mounting block and he pulls toward the arena.

Reward your horse’s stillness with your own. Then congratulate your horse on teaching you patience.

In the perfect world, this work starts with yearlings, long before saddles and training. In the perfect world, the mounting block is an island of peace and safety in a chaotic world. Let it be a sacred place.

Cultivate the idea that the more you and your horse are together mentally on the ground, the better you will be in the saddle. That positive training starts with your mental state. Make your mind a place your horse wants to spend time. When he’s comfortable with that, he’ll invite you into his.

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

 

Calming Signals and the Aggressive Horse.

Just to be clear, calming signals are not something humans do to calm horses. It’s the language horses use to calm us. Because we are an unpredictable war-like species.

This week I’m answering a question: A rider, who was really enjoying her calming signals work, emailed a question about what to do about an aggressive horse. The rider said that a fancy show mare had come to her barn temporarily and boarders had been told that the mare was fine with horses but not humans; they were warned to not “get in her face.” 

Our rider was leading her horse in around suppertime and that mare was guarding the alley to the gate. The mare tried to get between them, the rider reached out for her horse, and after a couple of warnings from the mare, and the she grabbed the rider’s wrist in her teeth and pinned her ears. She could have done much worse.

Our rider, demonstrating un-common sense, dropped the rope, retreated, and took her horse out another gate. The right answer because she was in close quarters and it wasn’t her horse. She said that several other boarders offered to help bring her mare next time, and show her how to handle this type of situation. (She wasn’t comfortable with their advice… smart decision.)

She added that a few days later, while being led into the barn, the mare attacked a barn-worker who escaped by locking herself in a stall, until the mare eventually sauntered into her own stall. (Vindicated, the rider would still like to know how to handle this kind of horse, in this type of situation.)

Disclaimer: I would be foolish to give advice when I can’t literally see the horse; I never substitute someone else’s eyes for mine because I usually see the situation differently. And I think that’s what people want from me. That said, I’m thrilled that no one got hurt… and here goes…

Foremost, is the mare sound? Her health must be the first question. Being a show horse is a stressful life and she’s moved to a new barn. Does she have ulcers? Change is harder on them than we understand. If she is acting like a stallion, could she have reproductive issues? Are her hormones out of control? Ovarian cysts are common and under-diagnosed. It could be her teeth or a million other things. My first stop would be with the vet, and in the meantime, rather than warning the boarders, the barn owner shouldn’t turn the mare out with other horses, for everyone’s safety.

I’d bet my truck this mare’s in pain, but let’s pretend the vet clears her and said her issues aren’t physically based. Now what?

Of course, you’ll get advice from Railbirds and testosterone-junkies of both sexes, but do not take it. Too many times, a self-appointed horse expert thinks all the horse needs is to be shown who’s boss. And about the time two or three “experts” have had a shot at her and failed, she is worse than when she started. Sounds like this mare may have had a dose of that already.

Aggressive trainers and riders count on getting to a place where their dominating aids and loud emotions intimidate a horse into playing dead. The other term for that is shut-down. The horse looks like teacher’s pet but with flat black eyes.  Stoic horses pull inside themselves for a long as they can.

But not all horses are stoic. Some are more expressive, with a bold self-confidence and a fearless heart.  The kind of horse who will not be bowed. She proudly looks you in the eye, refuses to submit, and holds her ground. Partnering with a horse who requires a human to be their equal is an amazing opportunity, but most humans take the low road and start a brutal physical battle. Just one reason that horses could think that we’re an unpredictable war-like species.

I don’t know this mare; I do know that horses reflect our emotions sometimes, and I know that a horse trained with fear is not dependable. I also know that some horses were never meant to belong to amateur owners –through no one’s fault.

Our rider said the mare gave her a couple of hints but she didn’t take them. My guess is that it wasn’t the first time. But that’s all history. What about now?

This is where I remind you that positive training isn’t just a lily-livered game for geriatric geldings on sunny afternoons. It isn’t just for decrepit rescue horses or mild-mannered kind souls. Reactive horses who get in trouble need it more than all the “good” horses combined.

Now, hope the owner hires a competent trainer; someone who understands behavior, human and horse, and sees the big picture. Then, grab a beer. The mare didn’t get this way in a day. We know this isn’t normal behavior. And we know that she gave calming signals that were not understood. We know that even if she’s an alpha mare, she deserved better.

If she came here, I’d take her back to the beginning. Listening to her calming signals, I might ask quietly for just one step. If she looks away, a calming signal, I’ll take a breath. Then I’ll ask quieter. If I can tell she considers doing it, I’ll exhale and step back. In the process of successive approximation, I’ll gradually ask for more, but I’ll be slow because she’s lost trust. I’ll look past her anger and talk to her anxiety.

Don’t misunderstand. I don’t baby talk and coo. I will use strong body language, I will control my emotions. I won’t attack her space, just as I will be very clear about my own. I will not let my guard down for a moment, but I’ll have a cool exterior. It will require perception, impeccable timing, and precise response. I won’t be perfect; it’ll be a work in progress because she will require my very best work and I’ll thank her for that. I’ll train her “respect” by showing her consistency and focus.  I’ll let her know that I heard her loud and clear. Then I’ll encourage her to quietly continue the conversation.

I will always believe that it’s humans, (a war-like species,) who do not understand what respect means. When I see humans teach “respect” by demonstrating brutality, to animals or other humans, respect is the last word that comes to my mind. It might be the only thing that this mare and I agree on in the beginning.

What should the rider have done in this situation?  Get you and your horse out safely. Good. Don’t encourage people to try to dominate her; it hasn’t worked in the past and she doesn’t belong to you.  Good again, you did the right thing. Then hope that her owner doesn’t hire a bully with a grudge. Because this is a smart mare with a long memory, and she doesn’t suffer fools.

This is our mantra. Repeat after me: I’m only human. I’ll try to do better.

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

Touchy About Bits.

Confession #1: There was a time that I would have sold my soul for a spade bit with 12″ shanks. My hands were thick and tense and I didn’t breathe. Naturally, my horse was braced and tense and he didn’t breathe, either. Through gritted teeth, I knew my gelding would behave if I just had a stronger bit. Instead, my trainer took my bridle away. I think she just couldn’t stand to watch me torment my stoic horse one moment longer. It’s what good trainers do …and I’m still grateful.

Confession #2: Passover and Easter are about forgiveness and I’m holding a grudge. It happened last summer and I’m still cranky. A cowboy ‘splained to me (like I couldn’t see) how Spanish spade bits work. He had a certain tone as he ‘splained the horse has to learn how to carry it (like the horse can’t already tell that if he lifts his nose he’ll give himself a lobotomy.) In a situation like this I have world-class eye contact. His horse was in my arena in a halter because I don’t allow illegal bits. The good gelding still refused to walk forward.

Later, I went online and googled a few videos by folks who looked like they’d won an extreme cowboy dressing challenge. I listened to them pontificate, candy-coat, and try to normalize how these bits work. I understood how a novice rider might even believe them. But I come by my skepticism honestly. Like the western trainer who took my bridle away, dressage riders use simple snaffles. All breeds, all ages, all snaffles, as they try to figure out what “elastic” means where elbows are concerned.

I have no sense of humor about bits. I stopped going to the local donkey and mule show years ago because I couldn’t stand to see the gaping mouths and pained eyes. Somehow it was harder to watch on longears. Western rope reins and slobber straps are heavy, never releasing pressure on the horse’s jaw. Bitless riders can end up pulling twice as hard. Others ride on a really long rein so they won’t bump our horse’s mouth, but then panic and grab the reins hard and fast, ending up being twice as brutal as riding on contact would have been in the first place. And some just try way too hard and wind up with a mental/physical death grip, like I did.

It’s mainly the western world where people think that horses grow out of snaffles. Silly notion. It isn’t true. I think what happens is about the time a horse gets tired of having his face banged on, like my gelding was, and starts tossing his head, all the “experts” standing around recommend a stronger bit. Then the pain gets ratcheted up until the horse shuts down. Some horses blow up instead, reacting to the pain with anxiety, and they “graduate” to an even more severe bit. Metal on bone.

Using a stronger bit is like winning an argument, not because you’re right, but because you’re holding a gun.

Now I’m the trainer, and listening to me, you’d think bits were my biggest complaint but that’s ridiculous. I know a snaffle can be as much of a weapon as a leverage bit depending on the brutality of the rider.

In my fantasy world, we would all agree that bits are not the problem. We’d stop blaming our tack. We’d especially stop blaming our horses for their response to pain. Once and for all, we’d take responsibility for our hands. I believe hands are the biggest roadblock keeping long-time riders from becoming advanced riders. Poor contact is a double message, like having your foot on the gas pedal and the brake at the same time. Crazy-making.

In defense, most riders can barely feel it happening. We hold our reins, threaded through our grasp from the pinky side of our hands, up through our palm, to the top or thumb side. As we start, our hands are slightly above the horse’s withers and about shoulder’s distance apart. Dandy. If they stayed there your horse wouldn’t complain.

Maybe it’s gravity or insecurity or frustration, but it starts with just a few ounces of pressure as the bottom, or pinky side, of our hands drops to rest on the rein. The horse feels it immediately and tightens a little to protect his mouth. The rider feels that tightness and adds a bit more weight to her hand, trying to control his initial anxiety.  Now the horse has lost some of his forward movement and all he knows is that it’s more pressure on his mouth. The rider is getting more nervous, so the reins are actually being pulled, down and back. The horse receives the cue to brace from his rider and starts to feel claustrophobic. Doesn’t his rider know that if his feet are moving, he has to move his head, too? He tosses his head to remind her. Now that the horse is tossing his head, the rider, well, you know…

If you horse asks you, either politely or not, to reconsider your hands, take the cue. I have a few suggestions.

First, and I know this for a fact, you have a clenched jaw. Your horse does, too. Take a breath and release your jaw. Repeat. Then repeat again. Forever, until both of you forget there was ever tension between you.

Next, ride in a neck ring. I described it in my last blog about contact. If your experience with a neck ring leaves you frustrated, feeling out of control, and screaming in exasperation, it’s a sure sign your hands are too hard. Take a break for your heart rate to return to normal and remember you have seat and legs for a reason.

Or try reversing the direction the reins thread through your hands, like in this photo. It will feel incredibly awkward, but better you than your horse, so stick with it. The first thing you’ll notice is that you can’t push down on the rein, and as you feel vulnerable -like you’ve been disarmed- notice that your horse is quieter in his head.

It’s impossible to forget that riding is an art. ART. Our legs and spine work like shock absorbers, so the horse’s motion moves through us instead of bouncing us like cinder blocks in the saddle. That same elasticity must continue through our shoulders, down past our elbows and wrists, and through sensitive reins to his fragile mouth. We must surrender our bodies to the horse’s rhythm and learn the difference between control and cooperation. The thing that makes us feel vulnerable is the same thing that makes us feel free, even at the walk.

So, are back to back long-winded blogs about contact too much? The horses won’t mind and I’m whittling away at my grudge. It isn’t surprising, my horse was always the kinder and more forgiving half of our partnership.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm

Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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Touchy About Contact

Question from a reader with a mouth-sensitive green horse: ” …when I watch a video of me riding I worry that I am giving her too much room to interpret what I want, not enough direction. I know you hate a focus on the hands but could you write something about where that balance is? Too tight versus too giving? How do I know what’s right for her?”

Okay, Jill, but I warn you. The only thing harder than writing about contact is teaching it! Our brains immediately have a runaway. We call it a “frame” –that vision of a soft horse with its head on the vertical, but a “frame” is a hard-edged thing that hangs on the wall, and rule number one is that a horse’s poll must be relaxed. As riders, we want round, soft horses. As horses, they want rhythm. The rest is negotiation.

One way to think about contact is the old car comparison. Legs and seat asking the horse to go forward are like the gas pedal. Anything the impedes the horse from moving on, like reins and a bit, are the brakes. It’s a conflicting message to put your foot on the gas pedal and still ride the brake but that’s kind of what we are asking. It’s confusing for horses and riders, so bottom line: Whatever his head is doing, the answer is forward. The more we try to micro manage his head, the fussier his head gets. So, forward with quiet hands. Let the push from his behind straighten him out.

About now, people think a bitless bridle might be the answer. No metal; hooray. But it doesn’t correct your hand problem. A dead pull on the rein is still going to make a horse lose rhythm. I like bitless. You might be able to buy some tolerance from your horse not using a bit but again, if the hands get louder than your seat, it’s like riding the brakes.

Or in your case, since your hands are too light, it probably means that when things come apart, you grab the reins. I’m guessing, but it’s common sense for humans. In other words, your horse might go from no contact to harsh contact and in the end, the threat of being grabbed in the face isn’t much different from a rider with hard hands. I’m guessing that’s where her fussy head comes from. That’s half of it.

Most of us got started on horses by being warned that our hands could hurt our horses. Truth. We learned to lightly rest our hands on the horse’s withers, with the aim being that our hands would be quiet. It’s a good place to start. First, do no harm.

The downside, and what I am guessing your half of this is about, is that in fear of hurting our horses, we lose confidence and do something that translates to the horse as an incoherent mumble on the reins. We think too much and they get confused.

It’s hard to have confidence on a green horse, but it’s the thing they need from us the most. Let the horse walk out several steps before asking for any rein aid. Once that rhythm is established, your hands must follow the movement. (I know you aren’t breathing in this part. Breathe.)

It turns out that it’s nearly impossible for a human to focus on hands, and continue to follow a horse’s movement with our seats… and so the horse loses forward, or even slows to a stop, because we’ve cued it with our seat.

Avoidance of the bit happens just after a loss of rhythm or forward. Some horses twist their heads from side to side, some horses toss their head up, making their back hollow, and some horses evade by dropping their noses behind the vertical. It seems like something should be corrected in his face but the real issue is that he lost forward, so leave the bit alone and ask him to go on while letting the horse feel your hands on the reins.

This is the reason I hate to talk hands. Riding is multitasking –like patting your head while rubbing circles on your belly. It must always be hand/seat together. So as you read words about hands, you must always hear a simultaneous loud chant: Forward, forward, forward.

Now we are at the part of contact that is really crazy-making for riders. Horses are individuals. Temperament and confirmation matter. Some horses will tense to avoid inflexible contact. Some will do the opposite and actually kind of push out with their nose to complete the contact. They don’t want their faces pulled on, but they seek a balance or connection. It gives them confidence. Keep an open mind and close your fingers on the reins and ask honestly for what you want. If you’ve been giving “coyote” cues, stop being a sly predator, and just say it. Use contact but listen closely and adjust yourself. Be ready for a full release if you get the answer you want.

The thing I recommend the most when learning contact, is to use a neck ring. Here’s Jasper with a simple rope, but the Ttouch site has nice ones, too.

Hold the neck ring in your hands along with the reins, and let your horse feel the ring on his shoulders before the rein. The ring can have a firm contact and the ring cues his shoulder –which is actually the part of his body that turns. It’s genius.

Why would we try to control a thousand-pound horse by tormenting a few inches at the end of his nose?

Then, seat and legs, body to body, forward! With elastic elbows and soft wrists, turn your waist and let your horse feel that turn through your body. Remind yourself that we steer with bodies and not reins.

If you feel resistance, release and ask again. Here’s how I describe contact in another blog :

Contact is like holding hands with someone you are so comfortable with that there’s overlap where they begin and you end. It happens when minds and hearts are swept away an effortless beat of rhythm. Contact is the place between individuals where respect and love embrace.

Good contact is moving forward through space without gravity or dependence on anything more concrete than the flow of movement that is oneness.

If my answers about contact all sound too vague and abstract, that’s because one size does not fit all. A rider shouldn’t take control and dominate a horse with hard hands, metal on bone, but rather find a happy medium between that and mushy hands, by asking questions and listening to your individual and unique horse. Partnership means negotiation.

Then trust your horse to be the best judge of your contact.

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

What To Do When Your Horse Is Wrong

WMIntoSunsetIt started small. It started the way it usually starts; the rider pulled on her horse’s face. It’s a fundamental disagreement: the rider thinks it’s her right to control the horse and the horse doesn’t like having metal jammed on his jaw bone. They weren’t even on the same subject.

So, the gelding got fussy. The rider kicked and steered, trying to make him go. But the horse heard more whoa than go; all the steering happened by pulling the rein back, not that is was ever the rider’s intention to give the horse conflicting cues. There was head-tossing and mouth-gaping. It started small.

The next part is tough. Maybe it’s because we’re predators or maybe it’s our ego about having our way, or maybe we’ve been taught that we must show them who’s boss in some Neanderthal version of dominance, but it’s as if the rider has blinders on, unable to see (hear) her horse. The horse notices it immediately. It takes the rider longer, of course. It isn’t that the rider is mean or belligerent; she just believes she’s right.

It’s just about now that things can start to speed up. It’s like we have a snowball theory of disaster that says if the horse hesitates a second, or gives just one thought of resistance, then all is lost. That one small action will necessarily gain speed and size, like a snowball rolling down a hill, and so we panic and accelerate. Which, by the way, works like a cue for the horse, too. Now things are coming apart quickly.

“If you get bucked off or kicked or bitten, you obviously did something wrong, and that’s just too bad. The horse, on the other hand, is never, ever wrong.” -Ray Hunt

Yes, it’s a quote by a western trainer, Ray Hunt. Lots of classical dressage trainers say the exact same thing, but not with the same blunt honesty.

So right now, I’m hoping that the rider is frustrated. And if the rider pauses before throwing a temper tantrum, she might actually feel that frustration and anxiety, and take it as a cue to herself, to go slow. Hooray! It’s a huge win to recognize an internal feeling and stop the snowball race long enough to become self-aware.

And in that tiny pause that feels almost like surrender to the rider, the horse can take that cue, too, and things begin to decompress immediately. It seems like an accident at first, almost a kind of butt-fall into better leadership, but it counts. Your horse just confirmed it and rewarded you for better behavior. You have to wonder who’s training who? But if you’re smart, you accept the invitation to partnership and start the ride again.

First, let a moment or two pass. It’ll feel like forever, but you are teaching yourself patience. When you label it that way, it should feel slow. Learn to enjoy it.

Now the game begins. It’s that game that we all played as kids; we called it Hot and Cold. As we searched for something hidden, others let us know we were getting warmer and cooler.

It’s a good comparison because training should feel a bit like the two of you feeling your way in a dark room. You are directing your horse toward something he doesn’t have a word for. And if the only answer you accept is perfection, then it’s you that’s failed. Instead, you are negotiating a better answer each time, by rewarding him as he gets warmer. The dog training term for that is shaping a behavior, step by step. Or if you’re a behavioral scientist, you call it successive approximation, meaning an approximate answer on the way to the right answer.

Regardless of what you call it, it means that you have evolved away from being someone focused on failure who makes serial corrections; nagging the horse about what he’s done wrong, again and again, making each ride a punishment. Now training becomes more like a game of cooperative hide-and-seek, with habitual rewards for the efforts your horse puts into the work. The more he offers, the happier everyone is. Now it’s as if you nag him about being a smart horse.

Here’s where creativity matters the most. Knowing that your horse is never wrong, it’s the rider’s challenge to ask a better question, then accept and reward that answer, and continue patiently and cheerfully, until the best habit is consistent. Training is nothing more than the “serious work” of playing a game of collecting and rewarding good experience for your horse.

A moment for the cynics in every discipline that will say that positive training is fine for trail horses or amateur horses, but if they’re asking for really hard advanced work, then pushing the horse hard is justified, whether it’s reining or dressage or jumping. Shame on them for selling their horses short, and for thinking so little of their own skills.

So, there you are in the middle of your ride. Take a breath and remember the best ride you ever saw. It doesn’t matter what riding discipline, but the horse’s ears weren’t pinned and his tail wasn’t clamped. He lifted his feet and his body looked strong and soft at the same time. It was freedom and partnership and trust, and most of all, you could tell it was art because it lifted your heart.

Then, whether you are a beginning trail rider or an ambitious competitor, ask your horse if he wants to play a game. Start where your horse is at right now. Ask for just a stride of walk, and reward him generously. Let it be enough, as you set about helping your horse be totally right.

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

Energetic Tidiness in the Saddle.

WM BrisaEye

Some of us climb into the saddle and have all kinds of crazy dangerous things happen–right out of the blue. We didn’t do anything at all, and for no good reason, the horse came apart.

Some of us are almost okay in the saddle, carefully moving along until it happens; the horse jerks, we lose balance, and jerk back. It happens so quickly that we scare each other half to death.

Some of us think of our horses as therapists. When we’re cross or out of sorts, all we have to do is go to the barn, climb into the saddle, and in no time at all, we’re feeling better.

Finally, some of us, the very luckiest ones, have horses especially interested in teaching their riders some energetic tidiness.

Right about here, I’m going to stick up for horses. They don’t come apart “for no good reason”; they don’t have some sort of vendetta to hurt people. Short of a bee sting, or some other sharp pain, they give us a series of warnings that things aren’t right. About the time we notice them, we flinch and get defensive. It’s just common sense that losing confidence makes us insecure. So we ride with timidity or bravado and not all horses, especially those with confidence problems of their own, tolerate it well.

It’s an unpopular thought but just because some horses seem good at dissolving our negativity, is it fair to expect it of them? How does the therapist part of his job affect the other work he does?

In these examples, the rider’s mental awareness limits the horse’s behavior options. We all acknowledge that the most challenging horses are the ones who teach us the most, but can we articulate how they do it?

As a riding instructor, I think about it a lot: What does it take for a rider to improve? Sure, there’s always technique involved. Balance and communication in the saddle is crucial. On the mental side, it’s all about energetic balance. If a horse is nervous, do we get scared or become Zen masters. If the horse is dull, can we lift our energy a bit to aid them? The bottom line is we must admit the impact our mental state has on our horse at any time.

We all know that horses sense our fear but it’s more than that. They sense confusion, distraction, and all sorts of lesser emotions. They can even mistake anticipation for anxiety–just like us. That last situation happens while riding with other people and at shows.

If our thoughts and emotions are running like a rat-on-a-wheel we aren’t much of a leader. Again, just common sense. The difference between riders who continue to have the same tense ride year after year and those riders able to progress with their horses boils down to mind control.

No, there is no way you can exert mental control over your horse. No way to control the environment, either. The only thing that will ever be within our control are our own thoughts and emotions.

The first thing to know is that a good rider doesn’t just ignore her fears and concerns. Denial is how most of us got in the nervous hole with our horses in the first place.

It’s a positive action to choose your state of mind; to discipline your thoughts to stillness. Think of it like picking up your bedroom. Put your fear and drama away in your underwear drawer with your flimsy doubt. Close it. Check the floor for stray socks, expectations, over-wrought dreams, and thoughts about aging; those all belong in the hamper. You can do the laundry later. Might be time to get rid of that Megadeath poster…

Now straighten your shoulders as if they’re sheets on your bed. Smooth yourself out. Then open the closet and take out a clean outfit of calm-listening. Accessorize with sparkling intention. Settle your intelligence and awareness inside a helmet and breathe. This is energetic tidiness. You’re ready to ride.

It’s hard in the beginning. Giving our horses on our best parts takes focus. Use kindness to spur yourself to understanding. When a bit of doubt crops up, kick it under the bed, and take another breath. Let your horse see your peace. Even if it’s fragile right now, hold it to the light and let him reflect it back to you. It’s no different from learning to keep your heels down. Repetition builds habit.

Being committed to listening in your inner stillness is wildly attractive to a horse. Horses recognize it because it’s how they are, too. There is strength in vulnerability.

When I look back to my own furious efforts to improve, I’m sure I drove my horses nuts. I wonder at their tolerance. Trying too hard, even to improve, looks exactly like anxiety and pressure. Luckily, horses read the quality of our intentions as clearly as our fear. It’s here that positive change begins.

Soon enough the rider begins to find a tidy and still place inside her horse, too. It’s the place we always dreamed of, that we obliterated searching for, and now we find it, in plain sight. It was that rat-on-a-wheel self-criticism that made it harder than need be.

Eventually a day comes when your energy becomes an aid to your horse. You can share your energy if his is lagging. You can comfort his pain with breath instead of worrying him with baby-talk. You can lift him with compassionate strength in a way that you didn’t always know you could.

I’m not saying that horses or people will ever be perfect. Every relationship is a negotiation: some days they carry us and some days we carry them. If your overall tendency is fine with you, then be grateful. If you think there’s room for improvement, then commit to change your mind about horses.

Know that riding starts deep inside of you. It’s always you; the leader is the one who goes first and shows the way.

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

Ride Shorter, Progress Farther.

wm-hannahandanteIf I were to write a training book entitled Less is More, it would be hundreds of pages long. The irony is not lost on me. At the same time, it’s an idea that I defend constantly. Us humans can be like rats on a wheel sometimes.

We’ve all seen the rider. Maybe she starts by lunging her horse in tight side-reins. He can’t breathe and gets a bit panicky. Confirming her opinion that he needs lunging to take the edge off. Most misunderstandings start this way–a simple mistake.

Then it’s like dominoes. She wants to get it right. Her horse tries in the beginning. She’s focused, she pushes too hard, for too long. Then she doesn’t notice that she’s talking to herself, about her horse, but behind his back. Each try, she wants just one more effort a bit better, but by now her horse has lost heart. He’s just getting the same cue again and again and he has no idea what it means anymore. Are you teaching your horse to be stupid or smart?

Wake-up call: If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

And by the way, how did things go at work today? (Like your horse even needs to ask.)

Part of the challenge of riding well doesn’t have a thing to do with the barn. It’s just being who we are. That usually means a full-time job. Maybe a couple of kids. That’s enough for a twenty hour day right there. Being retired is just as busy, dealing with health issues, technology, and family. Is that a strange man in the house or do you recognize him as the guy in your wedding photos? Then book club and maybe a random thought about climate change and horse rescue. Balancing responsibilities and obligations with your passions and bank account ends up being a recipe for guilt. At the very least, it’s a lot of extra weight for a horse to carry.

Then some idiot trainer like me climbs on your horse, and with no fanfare or angst, your horse does that illusive movement for a few strides, as I smile and throw down the reins, like it’s no big deal. Ouch, apparently it’s easy for your horse.

And then my client says to me, “Know what your problem is? You don’t want it bad enough.” There’s an instant where the words hang in the air… and then we howl. A sense of humor will always be the very best training aid.

And she’s right. There’s an art to riding as if you don’t care. Sure, it’s an “untruth” and we’re obsessed about our riding technique. But I also hope we find a way to not torment our horses any more than we have to along the way. It’s pretty easy to get that Night of the Living Dead appearance in the saddle from just trying too hard. Your effort shows in your horse’s stilted gait and tense back.

So, your life is busy and you don’t have much time to ride? Good. Ride less. Ride lighter, and trust your horse. He doesn’t forget how to be ridden and he doesn’t need to be drilled. His memory is strong; he remembers his training as clearly as he remembers your frustration.

Since we humans think in hour-sized hunks of time, start when the big hand is on the twelve. Start by currying too long. Use one arm and then the other. Feel his skin warm as his blood flow increases. Then feel your shoulders relax and do the same. Forget the stupid clock; tune in to horse time.

Bridle him with slow hands and lots of deep breaths. Pause on the mounting block and let your guilt and stress drain out into a dark, sticky pool under your boots. Then lightly mount. Once in the saddle, take a moment to feel your sit-bones go soft and the weight of your heels sink low. Acknowledge you have a partner and not an adversary.

Take all the time you need to allow your horse a good warm-up on a long rein without correction. Just rhythm and stride. Never doubt this is the most important part of the ride. Feel his body with your seat and legs. Use time freely because quality matters.

Now is a good time to get off. Yes, so soon. Quit early, while you want more and your horse is happy. Finish by taking too much time brushing him down, give him a snack, and still have time to run an errand on the way home.

If you want to train just a little longer, be serious enough about your riding to remember the best work happens when it feels like play. Successive approximation is that happy path of bread crumbs. We reward that answer that isn’t right, but is closer to right, like calling out, “You’re getting warmer,” in a game of Hide and Seek. If you get one really good effort, quit right there. Jump down immediately. Then trust your horse’s intelligence. Even if you don’t quite trust your own. If your trainer releases you early, or your ride was only thirty minutes long, give yourself chocolate. You deserve a treat!

Current opinions about training have changed. Three days a week of actually schooling is plenty for most competition horses. Keep your horse fit with hacks or arena games or cross-training. Or anything else that doesn’t feel like boot camp. You know the two cardinal rules in training: Be consistent. Change things up.

If you still want to tell me that your horse is that hot kind of horse that needs to be ridden hard every day, well, ask yourself the hard question. “How can I help his anxiety?”

Fall equinox: Days are getting shorter and the world has a way of twisting things sideways. If we don’t pay attention, blessings start to feel like poverty. It isn’t true. What you have to offer is more than enough and your horse is just as magical as he ever was.

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