Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Why your super sensitive and athletic horse isn't going to be your best trail horse.

I love my Moony horse.  He's a kick in the pants.  So talented and athletic and I've cultivated his responsiveness so he is feather light and able to respond to the lightest cue.  He's like a ferrari in the arena. 

However, I don't ride in the arena all the time.  I enjoy pleasure trail riding alot and believe that every horse should be able to at least handle a trail ride even if they don't necessarily excel at it.  Well, Moony definitely doesn't excel at it.

First of all water.  Water is the devil in Moony's little Morgan mind.  He has an unrational fear (well, unrational to me, anyway) of water and seems to have always had it.  I've gone from thinking he would grow out of it, to he would get over it in time to believing this will always be a bit of a hang up for him.  He'll go in.  Eventually.  But never without cooersion and him expressing his opinion that going the opposite direction, and quickly would be a better course of action. 

He also believes the woods are inhabited by goblins.  Maybe it's orcs.  Whatever is hiding behind each and every log he is very ready to get us the heck out of there should it become necessary.  While I appreciate his extra high alert and readiness to get us both to safety at the slightest provocation, it doesn't make for a very relaxing trail ride when your horse is thinking that he's going to have to vacate the premesis at any moment.  It's like taking a cruise with somebody that walks around sounding the ship and wearing a life jacket.  Not terribly reassuring.

He doesn't really like to lead (though he will) and he doesn't really like to be in the back (those are the horses that the orcs take out first, obviously!). I can and do trail ride him frequently, but the more we do it, the more I realize he'll probably never be 100% good at it or enjoy it. He is just one of those OCD type personalities that doesn't do leisure activity very well.

Case in point. This past weekend we did a ride at a very wet trail with lots of water crossings.  Always looking for an opportunity to help Moony conquer his irrational fear of water I figured this would be good for him.  He put up his token, let's get out of Dodge arguement at the first crossing and then he was pretty willing for the rest.  He certainly jumped what he was capable of jumping and never went through the water first (better to send the royal water testers first) but all in all I was feeling pretty good about things.

We were on the way back when the fracus occured.  Since I was a participant and not an observer I can only tell you what I think happened.  We were the last in line (otherwise known as the orc bait position) and our dog, Larry was right on our heels.  Something spooked Larry into the back of Moony causing Moony to stand on his head and kick his back feet out in a super defensive orc killing move that I'm sure he has perfected after lots of time in the pasture kicking at raindrops, birds and other things really high up in the air.  I wasn't at all prepared for this defensive move and it popped me out of the saddle and onto his neck.  When all 4 feet hit the ground again he jumped forward incase the orc was still on his tail.  Unfortunately there was another horse right in front of him so his only recourse was to jump into the dense forest on the side of the trail.  We were momentarily caught in lots of branches before he realized this was compromising his defense and he jumped back down onto the trail.  I was attempting to levitate myself back into the saddle without success.  So I reached down between my legs to put my hands on his poll and push myself backwards.  Of cousre, being trained to give to pressure he lowered his head obligingly and I tumbled gracefully right off onto the ground.

After much regrouping we discovered that the orc in the woods was a cyclist that had come swooping down the heavily wooded trail behind us.  I think he had his cloaking device activated and it was only at the last minute that Larry saw him and jumped forward startling Moony. 

Had I been on a dull non-responsive horse, none of this would have happened.  First of all, Larry hitting the heels of a quiet dull horse wouldn't have provided much reaction.  If it had caused a reaction it wouldn't have been so enthusiastic and popped me out of my seat.  And even if I had been popped out of my seat if I'd been sitting on the neck of a dull horse, no amount of pushing would have gotten that head down.  Likely he would have reacted the other way and braced and I would have ended up back in the saddle.

So, if you are a trail rider that enjoys leisurely quiet rides in the woods I encourage you to take the dull quiet horse and leave the super sensitive athletic one at home.  It'd be like taking your ferrari mudding instead of your jeep.  It's possible, and doable, but why would you do such a thing?!

Finding Feel

Oh what a tiny word to mean so much.  Feel emcompasses so many things in the world of horsemanship and like so many things with horses once you start to look for, cultivate and crave feel you will see it in everything that you do.  A horseman that has good feel gets along better in life in general, I think. 

Feel is that amorphous "thing" that connects your intentions to your horse.  With the proper amount of feel you know when your horse is listening to you.  You know when your horse has hooked on and tried.  You know when he's about to spook, or bolt, or buck.  You know when he's about to go from a trot to a canter, or vice versa.  Feel is how you communicate your intentions to your horse. 

Without a dose of feel you assume one of two roles in your relationship with your horse.  Either you rely completely on the horse to get you where you are going like a mere passenger or you become a thoughtless dictator just mindlessly pushing your horse around in the direction you happen to choose to go.  Depending on your personal goals and riding ability, these two options aren't necessarily a bad thing but if you are striving to obtain a higher level of horsemanship these two situations aren't likely to help you advance very much either.

When you cultivate feel in your communication with your horse you can read his intentions and reward those intentions when they are building on something that is moving in the right direction.  You can also help your horse to read your intentions so that his response is appropriate for the level of energy you are putting into your intentions. 

I do an exercise with my horse where I rock them back on their hocks for several steps then rock forward to put them into a canter.  The horse is supposed to step right from the back into the canter allowing for maximum collection to be carried forward into that canter.  We can do this in a way that is a slow measured back then rock forward into a canter or a fast back that rocks forward into a trot or any combination of those things.  My cues to my horse during these exercises really don't change too much, just the energy in my seat and body that communicates to my horse how fast or slow he is being asked to go. 

The best part about feel is that it isn't just in horses.  Feel is what allows you to open your car door just enough to not whack the yahoo that parked too close to you in the parking lot.  It's knowing how much you can crank on that bolt without breaking it.  It's what I use daily in my job to know how hard or soft I need to handle tissue during surgery to avoid damage.  When you are tuned into feel you'll find it in everything you do.  It's a higher sense of awareness between you and your world. 

When you forget to use feel is when your horse is likely to either ignore you completely or overreact to whatever you are doing.  That's what happens in life too when you just kind of blunder along through without paying attention to what's around.  My friend, Ben, calls that a "rolling fracus", and it's a very apt term. 

I had never even heard of the term feel as it applies to horsemanship before I was introduced to it a few years ago.  Maybe somewhere along the line one of my very capable 4-H leaders had tried to introduce it, but I sure didn't get it.  Probably the reason for that is because as a kid and young adult, my main goal with my horses was just to have fun.  As long as we both got where we were going with the minimum of arguement I was pretty dang happy with the ride.  When I started trying to improve my ability to communicate with my horse because the arguements were getting more and more frequent with my new young horse I had to realize that I had spent a great part of my life in one of the two modes of stagnant horsemanship.  I waffled between passenger (on a trail ride) and dictator ( in the show ring). 

I used to do quite a bit of gaming.  My old Morgan was pretty good at it and honestly, all I had to do was sit still and let him run his course.  There was very little communication happening because he just loved to run the patterns and knew them by heart.  When I started trying to introduce the gaming patterns to my new young horse I began to realize how spoiled I had been.  I figured he'd get it eventually and we practied the patterns slowly at home then raced full speed at the gaming events.  Obvisouly we didn't do very well.  I couldn't understand where my steering and stopping kept disappearing to whenever we tried to compete. Many people told me I just needed a bigger bit or spurs to really get him to turn around the corner. 

Luckily for both me and my horse we didn't go that route. What I decided we really needed was better communication and I started seeking that out.  Speed is death on feel.  Not that you can't have feel at speed when you get good, but you have to have it very well cultivated and deeply ingrained in your horse before it sticks at speed. 

You can't cultivate feel without a better understading of your surroundings and everything in them.  When you close the chatter in your brain and tune into the undercurrent of what is going on around you then you can feel.  And your horse will thank you for it.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

R.E.S.P.E.C.T : Find out what it means to me!

In my old horsemanship life, respect was a big deal.  He Who Must Not be Named is all about respect from your horse.  The horse must hop to it when you say go.  Any lagging or anything less than immediate response is interpretted as the horse mentally "flipping you off" and that behavior is dangerous and must be corrected immediately.  Give a horse an inch and he'll take a mile! I embraced this idea whole heartedly and demanded nothing less than immediate respect from my horses.  There are some good things that come of this.  My horses weren't allowed into my space unless invited in.  They couldn't approach me of their own free will or I would forcibly back them out of my space.  It's great for making sure you don't get run over, stepped on, or whacked with a head on purpose or accident.  Of course it makes it hard to give kisses on the nose, but I was doing my best to wean myself from that girlish notion.

In order to get respect from your horse you are taught to act like the boss horse.  You must be the alpha in your herd of two.  Using examples from the horse's social pecking order we can watch the dominant horse in the herd chase the lesser animal from the choice food.  We can see the alpha spin and kick the submissive in the ribs if they don't move fast enough.  This is easy to copy in your horsemanship through a long hard rod.  Obviously we don't beat the horses with the rod with the same pressure a herd mate would.  It's more of a mental tap, so to speak.  It serves to remind the horse if it isn't showing the proper amount of respect through quickly moving his feet that we have "hooves" and "teeth" to back up our alpha claim in the form of this handy stick. 

I am a good and thorough student.  I embraced these concepts whole heartedly and began to teach my horses respect.  My relationship with my horses changed quickly.  They learned I was the absolute alpha and stayed out of my space.  I could make them turn and stop and go again with a simple lifting of my arm.  Of course, sometimes they misinterpretted my lifting arm and jumped out of my space even when I didn't mean for them too.  Ah, but there is a cure for that too.  First we teach the horse to jump and move with a lift of the arm, then through desensitizing them we teach them to ignore that.  How is the horse to ferret out the difference, you might ask?  By intention of your body language, and if they don't immediately figure out the difference there is always the stick!

What I hadn't realized is that I was becoming a bully.  If you are looking at everything your horse does in shades of black and white, either he's respectful or he's not, than you begin to think that those disrespectful things your horse does are a personal affront.   Instead of thinking, "Hey, my horse just rubbed his head on me,  he must be glad to see me." you think, "How dare you disrespect my personal space like that!  Don't you understand who I am?!" and as you ,through aggressive body language, back the horse up out of your space you feel slighted in some way. I would think to myself, "man, my horse was a jerk today!"  Like the horse was not appreciating the relationship you had worked so hard to cultivate.  While a horseman is always supposed to guard his feelings and not act out of anger, human nature naturally channels aggressive body language into anger.  I dare you not feel that anger when you puff out your chest and aggressively chase your horse out of your space.   So, instead of enjoying the companionship of my horses, I was always on the guard for keeping that alpha relationship intact and demanding respect at all times.  Enforcing that respect made me bitter and angry on a level that I didn't fully appreciate until it was gone.   I believe that it channeled into my relationships with my fellow human beings as well.  I think if you carry around that aggressive alpha attitude, you have a hard time shaking free of it. 

Fortunately before I had gone along too long on this course I was suddenly cast adrift and searching for a new way to be with my horses. I had previously been taught to believe that anybody that wasn't demanding immediate respect from their horses was a mamby-pamby tree hugger that babied their horses along. Thank goodness it isn't just two shades of black and white. There are a whole host of shades of grey in between that you can explore and choose from. You can choose what type of relationship you really want with your horse. 

About this time I was introduced to the theory of the Passive Aggressive leader by Mark Rashid.  He proposes another leader in the herd other than the dominant alpha.  This is the lead mare.  Not the lead mare that is pinny eared and kicking everybody all the time, but the other one this is the matriarch that all the other horses take their cues from.  She is the one that can quietly part the herd just by her presence.  She gets the choicest food not because she chases the others off the hay pile but because when she comes in the other move over and make way.  She doesn't back down to challengers but neither does she go seeking them.  If there is trouble and the other horses are looking to know where to go, they will follow her not because she is driving them along but because they know that she will keep them out of harm and trouble.   That's the leader that I choose to be with my horses. 

The other thing that I learned is that respect is a two way street.  That's the key to the passive aggressive leader.  While the other horses will give way and respect the space of their leader the leader also respects them and doesn't pander her dominance by pushing them around when it's not needed.  If they don't move out of her way right away she may wait for just a moment while they take the hint and then walk on in.  She can always defend her rights if needed but it isn't needed so much because the other horses in the herd naturally defer to her standing.

You establish this kind of leadership through trust, not aggressively moving your horse's feet.  Your horses have to learn that when they are with you and listening to you they will stay out of trouble.  You respect their need to be a horse and they learn to respect your need to be in charge.  Most horses are happy to hand that over because they are herd animals that are used to having a responsible leader.  As long as your leadership leads them into a safe and secure environment they will happily follow you anywhere.  

Taking the aggressiveness out of it has helped me with my horses and with my interpersonal relationships.  I don't feel angry when working with my horses anymore.  I feel peace.  It radiates through with everything I do.  Horses are horses and they will challenge you daily, but most of them aren't out to be "jerks" or flip you off.  They are just horses.  Take the personal affront out of it and you will find more peace and less anger when you are working with your horse.  Better yet your horse will learn to be with you and stay with you because he wants to, not because he's afraid of what you'll do to him if he steps out of line. Punishment in any form is murder on try.  Try is the key to keeping a horse learning and growing.  If your horse is afraid to try for fear or retaliation he will mentally shut down. 

I'll still back my horse out of my space from time to time if needed, but if he comes forward seeking a kiss on the nose, he's going to get one before I ask him to quietly back up out of my space again. 

Next time you are working with your horse and you say to yourself, "My horse is being an absolute jerk today!"  take a good hard look at where you are in your relationship with your horse.  There is something there that needs some fixing, I'll wager, and I bet it starts with the rider, not the horse.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Signal vs Cue

Trying to decide where to start in describing what I'm doing has been pretty  hard.  So many abstract ideas to wrap your head around.  Feel, timing, balance and try are all good candidates for where to start too.  Maybe it's because those things are all so much more difficult to explain that I decided to start here.  This was a hard concept for me and it is in reality the basis for alot of the other stuff that I'll end up talking about at some point. 

Everything we do with our horses involves a cue in some form or another.  Whether you are communicating through body language, pressure or voice, you have to give your horse some kind of a cue in order to convey what you are asking them to do.  In most cases with our horses we are giving some type of cue through pressure.  If you pull on the rein, the horse should give and follow that pressure and turn.  If you put your leg on your horse the horse should move off of that pressure and give laterally.  That's cue.

Signal is like a pre-cue.  It's what you do with your body right before you give the cue.  It's like when you are about to say something so you take a deep breath before you speak.  Horses, because they are incredibly adept at reading and responding to the least little nuances of body language can learn to respond to a signal rather than a cue.  So, when I want my horse to back, the signal is I'm taking the slack out of the reins and lifting that heal knot of my bosal off of his chin.  (There is also much and more that I am doing with my body but we'll get to that later. ) The horse has the opportunity to respond to that signal that is followed by direct pressure on the bosal which is the cue to back. 

Of course, in order to teach your horse to listen to the signal and respond to that signal before the cue even comes takes time and alot of patience.  If you don't give the horse the opportunity to respond before the cue comes he'll always wait for the cue.  Why not, it's coming anyway, right?  The key is release and waiting for your horse to attempt even the smallest little try. 

So when teaching a young horse, I might pick up my mecate and take the slack out of the reins.  Get my body in a position to make it more obvious what my intention is.  Then I wait.  And wait.  As soon as I feel the horse shift back towards me in the slightest degree I give.  Then you do it all over again.  Sometimes you may have to help the horse out by going to the cue, especially if he's not searching for the answer.  I can't really tell you when you have to do that, or if your horse doesn't respond by 2 minutes or that you count to three and increase the pressure for every count of three until you get a response.  That's where feel and timing come in and there is no set guide for that. 

Okay, you might be thinking.  Great concept, but if you just end up cueing them anyway, what's the point?  The point is that with enough time and patience your horse can feel like an extension of your body.  When you lightly pick up your reins with just a feather light feel and just set your body back a hair and your horse comes back with you?  Dang, that's a good feeling.  A horse that responds to really light cues is nice, but one that responds before you even cue them?  The best.

Of course, it doesn't always work.  It's like if you were sitting in a quiet room with someone and they take a deep breath in preparation to speak you would already be keyed in and listening to what they were about to say.  While if you were at a party and the music was playing, somebody was dancing on a table and you were looking over the buffett table you're friend might have to tap you on the shoulder in order to get your attention before speaking.  The horse is the same way.  The difference is, in what you do with your friend after they have tapped you on the shoulder.  If this is your very best friend who means the world to you, you would lean in and maybe look them in the eye to be sure you heard every word they said.  If it was that lady that you can't really remember  her name but you think it starts with an S you may only listen with half an ear, not even turning from the smokies in BBQ sauce while she continued to tell you whatever she had to say.   I'll leave you to decide what kind of relationship you are after with your own horse.  Me, I want my horses leaning in and listening intently to what I have to say. 

Signal begins to mean something to the horse through consistency and allowing the horse the time to respond and rewarding him immediately when he does.  When you begin to wait on your horse for a response it changes everything you do.  It makes you stop and breath.  It makes you more accutely aware of what your body language is communicating to the horse.  Your horse can feel a fly land on his back.  Pulling harder to get the response that you need isn't the best way to get something done.  It may be necessary sometimes, especially at a party in front of a buffett line, but when you can get them tuned into you the right way, you'll want to see just how little it takes to get it done.  That's the good stuff right there.


Since it took me about 45 minutes to even get this far on this dang blogging thing I don't know how successful this is going to be but I thought it would be helpful to attempt to journal my horsemanship progression. We'll see!  After I type this one in I may never be able to find the dang thing again!

About a year ago I had a major horsemanship "meltdown" for lack of a better word.  I had been faithfully following a very popular natural horsemanship trainer (that shall remain unnamed and may further be referred to as He Who Must Not Be Named ;) ) when I got a peak behind the curtain so to speak.  I realized that though what I had been doing and accomplishing with my horses was pretty good and a step above where I had been previously, it may not be as good or as soft and light as what I thought I was working towards.   So, I started hunting a different way.

Maybe I should back up a step and tell you what I do with my horses.  I ride Morgans.  Exclusively.  Some may say I'm a bit of a breed snob.  I'm good with that.  Why ride anything other than the best after all?  I've dabbled a little bit into all kinds of things with my Morgans, thoroughly embracing the versitility of my chosen breed.  Because I ride Morgans I feel they and I should be able to do anything.  I've done Western Pleasure, Hunter Pleasure, Saddleseat, barrel racing, jumping, trail riding, a tiny bit of dressage both english and the new western style, and a little bit of basic roping and working cattle and reining.  I love to try new things with my horses and it seems to help keep them fresh.  You might say that I am a doer of all, master of none!  So, I don't have specific goals for my horses other than to be soft, light and responsive and willing to try new things. 

So, when I realized that the things I had been doing and the path of training I had been on was no longer a good fit for me I was a bit lost.  I was in the middle of training my newly started Morgan and was about to start another one.  I needed a plan and a method of working with the horses that would both keep me safe and help my horses to build trust and try and establish a foundation for a good usable horse.

Luckily I married a man that is much smarter than I am and he had already found the style and methodology that I was looking for.  We turned to the original "Father" of natural horsemanship and those that have cultivated his teachings and way with being with horses.  What is now often referred to as the Ray Hunt style of horsemanship takes in a wide range of different folks and different styles all using the same basic tools and means of communicating with their horses.  This also led us to discover the vaquero tradition of starting bridle horses. 

What an amazing tradition of horsemanship.  So many things to learn and discover and teach your horse.  It's an entirely different way of thinking compared to modern horsemanship that has a time frame and set of rules.  There are no rules in vaquero horsemanship other than the horse comes first.  It's an incredibly slow process, especially compaired to what you see out there on the national show circuits.  While it is an incredibly difficult thing to sum up, I will do my best to do so here.  It is my intent to document my journey down this path and the hurdles and difficulties that I have encountered to maybe encourage others to explore this style of riding with their horses.   Be forwarned, though.  There is no DVD package to help you get started.  You won't find "The Complete Guide to Vaquero Horsemanship" at  This journey is a quest.  It's a personal quest for softness between you and your horse.  You have to feel your way along and learn through trial and error.  While there are great horseman out there still knowledgable in how this is done, you won't find them by doing a google search. 

So straighten up your kack, pull your hat down tight and come along on this journey with me if you feel so inclined.  Like the Morgan horse, this style isn't for everybody, but I think everybody can learn from the deeply ingrained traditions and way of thinking.