Round pen day 1…

D’Atz  My Spot

 

Today is day one for this pretty boy.  He is coming 3 and it is time to start a little bit of work.  It will help him in so many ways.   He is as smart as he is pretty and gets into trouble when he gets bored.  So rather than watch him constantly antagonize the rest of the herd, I decided to spend some time putting his energy and curiosity to work.

Starting young horses in a round pen is my favorite approach.  Back in my younger years, I spent quite a bit of time watching and learning from some of the original “whisperers”.   As with everything, I took what worked for me and not what didn’t. I have never been one to join the religious cults that follow the clinicians around preaching their methods like the gospel.  I believe in being open minded and always looking for a better way.  The concepts that really worked for me are still just as valid today and I like to go through some of them with many of the horses I work with, no matter what age or experience level.  There are benefits that go far beyond what most can see.  These benefits can become more apparent once you get in there and experience it.   Although, being a trainer for many years makes the subtle nuances much more obvious.  And I know that it does not work for everyone. But like any skill, when you practice it often the level of refinement increases exponentially.   And the dance becomes much more intimate.

I prefer to start with no halter or leads, just me and the horse.  I do carry a rope of a length that I can reach out and touch my horse if I need to.   In a free unrestrained state, I can ask my horse to move around the pen.  Both directions, all gaits, sometimes slow and easy, sometimes more enthusiastically.  This gives me an opportunity to learn his personality and what responses to aids will potentially be like.   Does he challenge, or is he willing, is he nervous or distracted, and which direction is he more or less supple.  These are only a few of the impressions I am making note of.   It also gives me a good image of his natural movement.   Once under saddle the goal would be to only make his gaits better.   If they start to get worse than his natural way of moving, then I need to address something in his physical conditioning or my approach.

My goals are not to run them to exhaustion, strap a saddle on, and be riding, all in one day.  My goal is to introduce concepts, slow and meticulously, one step at a time, until one day we are riding around like we have always been a team.    The lessons that need to be worked on materialize as he shows me what he can and can not handle.   I lead the way, but always while listening to him.   Sometimes the dance gets more intense, and I will have to make a point that it is best he work with me.  Job security for him means a more certain future.   I am passionate that he becomes the best he can be, so he will not end up in any unhappy circumstances.

For today I am happy to see that he is as lovely a mover as I surmised.   That maybe he is a bit sensitive, and easily distracted.  I can see that maybe his confidence is a cover for the worries of the world.  He prefers left and has a great canter with lots of sit.   He is able to use his thinking brain and figure out what I want.  He has not a mean bone in his body.  My goal will be to work with him on confidence in himself and in me.  We are in no hurry to be saddled and riding, best to have a sensitive trusting horse, than a sensitive fearful one.   I know he will get there, because I am there with him, making sure he takes all of the right steps on the path.

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Being Right…

Blame, accusing, judging, condemning, the need to be right. We often impose our human need to be right, on our horses, as much as we do on each other. I am an advocate for the horse. Working to decode our ungraceful attempts to speak their language, one of feel. One could label me a horse trainer, but the truth is, I am a translator of human for horse, and horse for human. I try every day, to help people find new ways to view the world, by reflecting back how riders view the horses they love. The common statements: My horse won’t do “x” or is trying to “x” how do I make him jump higher, or win more? Why won’t he do what I want? It is a very rewarding but challenging life.
So… Why am I sitting up at 1:46 am, unable to sleep in my quiet house? After tossing and turning for a long while I decided to sit down and write it down, in hopes of letting it drift off to the world and out of my consciousness for at least a few hours before I get up and tackle another day of interpreting a world that makes so little sense to our equine friends. I am sitting here because I care as much for the people, as the horses, in this small but wonderful community that is my home, my life.
Watching and listening to the people making stands for who is “right” I am taken back to earlier today when I sat on a horse that planted his feet and made his stand for being right. We call it “resistance” when a horse does not immediately give to our wishes. We are “right” and they are wrong, or stubborn or obstinate. My ride is voicing his opinion by resisting going forward. “I hear you” I say in unspoken words. “remember what bend means?” I add. “yes, that I know” replies the horse, with a relaxed breath, muscles unlocking, legs in motion once again. “can we try the other way?” I ask, with an instant response of agreement. A few minutes of bending left, bending right, circling left, circling right, and the moment of impasse is behind us. I introduce both reins in a request for “give”, he pauses then drops his chin, relaxes his neck and answers my question with “is that all? that was easy.”
Horses are so much easier than humans. I think because their stance for being “right” is not about me being “wrong” but simply ” I don’t understand, or am afraid”. I wonder how many times humans have the same reason for resisting the idea that being “right” and making me “wrong” is more about fear of the unknown. If two people stand on opposite ends of the arena watching the same event, they would each describe this event very differently. Both would be correct, but both would feel that their perspective is more correct than the other persons. There is no such thing as being right or making wrong. There is simply the observation, or situation and how you perceived it. And so many things can have bearing on your perspective in the moment of the event in question. Am I hungry, tired, did my dog get sick this morning, does my family member have a terminal disease…. What affects me every moment, is what has affected me all of my 51 years. So many things have influence on how I perceive this one event, that it is hard for me to consider that there is truth in anything I believe to be the truth. And I try to always consider that other human

involved in or witnessing this same moment in time, will be standing here with a package of preconceived thoughts and opinions that are also based on things that I have absolutely no knowledge of.
Can we as humans get past this? and move on? Not just move on, but how about improve as human beings
? Find happiness? Can we understand or forgive, and let go of judgement? Can we be role models to the young in our community and show them how to communicate from a place without pre-conceived notions or judgement? I am looking to my four legged mentors for answers. To them when I get stuck, I will ask questions, and listen without judgement. My personal belief is that practicing this skill when I am working with horses, will improve my ability to carry this skill into the rest of my life.
I wish everyone could have the conversations I have with the horses, they have taught me more than any book or school. Patience, compassion, how to set aside assumptions, how to really feel, and mostly, every day…Respect. I require respect from my horses, and the people around me, because I respect myself. And I respect the horses and people that I surround myself with in this beautiful world. THAT was a big lesson.

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Canter…

I can remember clearly the exact words that she used. “We would like you to teach her to canter.” It seemed like a simple enough request, and I assured her it would not be a problem. The big kind mare they brought was half Percheron, and looked every bit of it. She was a kind stout mare, younger and green. They had asked for a month of training as they only had one request. It is a good place to start.

Day one of training is always about introductions. I set about building a rapport with each horse by starting with ground manners, and simple things like grooming, saddling, will the horse walk with me, stop when I stop, or do I need to drag or be dragged around by her. I am able to get a sense of what type of person has been the partner to this sweet mare. It is a good indication of what I can expect once I am astride. Will they be with me, listening intently, or looking out the window at the scenery.

I am sure you can relate, you are having a conversation with someone, and loose interest in their words, maybe have heard the story before, and your mind drifts elsewhere. You are aware that the other is talking, can hear the voice, but your mind does not absorb the content of their words. It seems a common thing in most horse/rider interactions. Somehow sitting aboard a 1200+ lb. horse that is daydreaming does not feel especially safe to me, let alone fun. Then there are those conversations that are interesting, exciting, and connected. Like a dance, weaving in and out and around, and changing directions, and bouncing between those engaged. Those are my favorite! Whether it is horse or human, to have that engagement, interest, and depth is so inspiring, it leaves those who are involved feeling energized after. It feeds my passion and is my source of happiness and peace.

This big sweet mare was not the engaged attentive type. She gazed out the windows and put in only as much effort as she absolutely had to. Coasting along without much energy or thought, not unhappy, or pushy, just not there with me. My first thought was that maybe we needed to reassess the goals. There was little or no response to my requests to direct or steer her. The shape of the arena was the direction of travel, and changing the path was much like asking a large barge to turn. I couldn’t squelch the giggle that it evoked. Oh my, why would one want to go faster, without any steering?

I contacted the owner, and told her I would like to work on a few other things before canter, but that I promise before the month was up, canter would not be a problem. They insisted that they did not need anything else, because they were able to ride her without any problems. It took a bit of convincing, but they agreed to give me a couple of weeks before coming out to see how her canter was doing.

I jumped right into asking for her attention on the ground, making a game out of it. Follow the leader, walking slow, fast, turning quickly, backing, and other body control exercises that kept her interested in what we were doing. The key is to keep it changing, not repetitive, but specific. Horses love this game. And it establishes the leader/follower hierarchy that is an important piece of horse psychology. This translates to the saddle in a wonderful way, if you can keep the leadership role sharp. Learning to move away from pressure will make turning much easier. That pressure can be as light as pushing the air between you, if you explain to them this is what you expect.

It was not long before we were soft and supple, bending and turning, and light off my leg. She loved the interaction, and connection, and was no longer watching the clock so she could be done. We even had enough responsiveness to the leg that she would canter after a couple of walk trot transitions. Her owners came out to check on her progress, and instead of showing them, I asked them to bring boots, so they could ride her. I coached them through a few simple exercises that used the newly acquired steering skills, then a few up down transitions, and after teaching them how to set her up for a successful transition, we asked for a canter. It is a very rewarding place to stand, center of the ring, watching someone smile uncontrollably. I gave them the tools to find their horses mind, not just her body. In that moment, they understood. She finishes her ride, and jumps off, gives me a big hug, and says, “I can’t believe how easy it can be to steer her!”

Yes, much more important than going fast

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Patience…

 

Life has been challenging these last few months. To pick up and move across the country, and attempt to start over, is a big task. I try to approach it with an eye on the positives: new opportunity, new friends, new everything. And extra time to funnel into personal growth, and education. I have always been goal driven, and without a path I can get a bit testy. I probably owe a few people an apology, the testy me has been hanging around, as I have been working more on clerical things and business development than actual riding. My type “A” self is needing to run a marathon at this point, I have so much pent up energy.

My lesson in life of late seems to be patience. I am having to pace myself and not rush into anything. The old life of 40 stalls, training horses, and lessons, not to mention three children, kept me full speed ahead 24/7. That is just how it was, and what my “normal” was. The kids are all off on their own, the 40 stalls are gone, I am down to my mare, and for the moment, that is all. While I know, I have more on the horizon, a month from now seems like a year.

For the last couple of months while I was healing from surgery, my mare was working on transitioning to life in a completely new environment. She had lost some weight on the trip over, and has been adjusting to a different type of grass/ hay. This created a space where neither one of us could do more than simply enjoy each other’s company. Grooming, feet care, extra food and love. The constant gnawing pressure to be moving forward, riding, training, working on tuning my skills, had to wait.

The approach to bringing my mare back to full fitness and strength, along with my own post-op rehab, has really got me thinking about how the training process and teaching needs to always stay mindful of fitness. Because my mare is not working at upper level, I have been forced to find ways to bring her education and fitness building together. The goal is to bring her up to a higher level, while not over working her mentally or physically. I am constantly mindful that she stays happy too. Working her to the point of being sore all the time would create an unhappy partner. Unlike humans, who can understand that working muscle can cause temporary soreness, and it will go away as you get in better shape, a horse does not understand anything beyond something being uncomfortable.

To keep her a willing participant I have intentionally planned a variety of exercises and have been approaching it somewhat like a personal trainer would at a health club. Sets and repetition, and a different muscle group each day. At first more ground work than riding, lunging, piaffe, (beginning) Spanish walk, and long lines. Now we are doing more riding than ground work, but I am continuing to keep both aspects part of the program, and she still meets me at the gate every day, ready to work. It is the right path. She is more light and responsive than she has ever been since I bought her. Her muscle development is growing in places it needs to be, and she is more willing to do an occasional difficult exercise.

The old saying “the cobblers’ children have no shoes” is so fitting here. I have owned this mare for several years, and have always loved her but never really nurtured her growth. I have never given her the dedicated focus she deserves. The 40 stalls, training, teaching, mom thing always taking precedent… until God and the universe forced me to slow down (by hobbling me with torn cartilage). I am once again reminded, that sometimes when things aren’t going the way I want, it is just that I need to slow down, and pay more attention to what I can create with the space I currently occupy.

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Stella…
Playful young horse enjoying her field

Stella…

 

It has been almost 6 months since I brought her home. She was just over 2 years, and a bit unruly. Not in a bad way, just lack of experience or handling. In today’s world, it is common practice to put a young horse out in a group and let them grow, and that was this mares story. I do not disagree to a point. It is good to let them grow, and not expect them to work at a such a young age. But a minimum amount of handling is important as well. Regular farrier care and veterinary care, are an important part of ensuring the young horse will grow up to be a healthy athletic adult. But it also is a teaching opportunity. Left to their own devices, young horses can become pushy or difficult at a time when they have the size to make simple tasks difficult and dangerous. Leading, standing tied, having feet handled, all should be a part of the routine. In a perfect world…

That being said, I do love a blank slate. No baggage, or fear to overcome. So, an unhandled horse can have its benefits. No one else’s ideas have been impressed upon a horse that has little handling. I don’t have to fix or undo anything. I can begin building from the ground up. Working both on the mental and physical fitness as any aspiring athlete would do. And I prefer to go at a pace that creates a horse with confidence and trust. I am not that trainer who will put 30 days on your horse, and call him broke. I am aware that it is a well-regarded method, and I understand the financial need to have young horses going quickly. I think the cost in time and money may seem much better up front. But the result is a horse that has been pushed to exhaustion, and is working from fear, or force, and the owner will be spending the next year in a cycle of one step forward and two steps back. In the end it will take the same amount of time but create a very different result.

There are so many little things often taken for granted, that someone had to teach your horse. How much time and effort goes into the simple everyday things? In 6 months, this little filly has grown 2 inches, gained 75 lbs, learned to like grooming, stand in a cross tie, get her feet trimmed, have a bath, get a haircut, wear a flysheet and fly mask, endure the spray bottle of endless fly repellent and hair conditioners, and eat carrots (surprisingly a new thing for her). She can back, and sidepass in hand, as well as do forhand turns, haunch turns, leg yield and shoulder in, all from the ground. I can ground drive her all over the property because she understands rein aids, and will stop, go, turn, or back up without any fuss. She started 3 weeks ago with a lunging surcingle, and then graduated to a saddle, 2 weeks ago I started working on a mounting block, standing above her, reaching across, then adding weight, then all my weight, and today I stepped in the stirrup, swung a leg over and sat down. I asked her to move away from one leg, and because of all of the work I have done from the ground, she quietly stepped over. By the end of our time today she would walk a small circle. If you ask me, that is a lot of learning, I cannot begin to imagine how anyone could expect a young horse to get that much information in a short time.

This was the first time this horse has had a person sitting fully on her back, in a saddle, and she did not have one single thought of bolting, bucking, or fear. She just stood there as if it was nothing new. She trusts me. I command respect, but am fair, and kind. Because of this she has gone from defensive and pushy, to willing and curious in 6 months. Tomorrow we will walk some more, I do not need to do anything more than that, walking under saddle will be a relaxing no pressure thing. And she will continue to be relaxed and willing, as her back gains the fitness it needs to carry me at a higher work. I am building an athlete, just like any athlete, one step at a time. Soon her back will be strong enough for more time, and more challenging work. And If I am patient, we will be unstoppable. What a great thing to aspire to!

So, to all those who think that it is normal to spend 30 days to get a horse trained…we will see you at the finish line, and I am guessing this little mare will be so much more than anyone could imagine.

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