Monday, September 16, 2013

Recap of Buster McLaury clinic

Last week Dan and I had the privilege of attending and participating in a horsemanship clinic with Buster McLaury.  While I have the utmost respect for Buster and what he teaches I was wondering just how much I would get out of a Horsemanship 1 clinic with my 6 year old who is supposed to be going into the two rein this fall.   He should be pretty far beyond the horsemanship 1 level, right?  Yeah, that's what I thought.  What I would like to do in this blog is recap what I learned and the lessons I hope to carry forward in my horsemanship.  Dan and I tried to make a list of all the things that really stuck with us from the clinic.  I'm sure we forgot more than we remembered because there is just so many moments that good stuff is happening that sometimes you don't notice it until weeks or months down the road when it suddenly goes off like a big bright light bulb. So, here are snippets of wisdom that I can pass onto you.

Sometimes you gotta be hard to be soft. Always offer as soft as possible then do what is necessary to get a change.   I spend so much time trying to develop light hands that I let my horses get by with not really trying that hard sometimes.  Especially when you know your horse knows the right answer but is just giving you a half-hearted response, firming up on him can drive home the point and make him try a little harder so that next time you can come in even softer.

Human has to change first.  The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  If you truly want change in your horse it has to come from you.  You cannot effect change without changing how you ride.  I find this applies to way more than just horsemanship.

Moving the hindquarters is the key to moving the forequarters.  This is applying specifically to the foundation of the turn around.  If you can't move the hindquarters efficiently and perfect don't even ask for the forequarters.

Build the foundation one perfect piece at a time but don't walk away and forget about it.  You have to check in on that stuff from time to time.  If any piece of your foundation training isn't exact it'll magnify into a bigger whole as you progress.  Get that stuff perfect and don't let it get rusty. A quick run through when you get on your horse is a great opportunity to check on that stuff.  Flex the neck, back up a step, move the hindquarters, move the forequarters, get soft feel.  Viola.  Now your ready to ride.

Soft feel without a change in the feet is not soft feel.  This one sunk in big with me and made a huge change in my horse in a very short time.  I have been told by numerous folks to "drive the horse into his face" by grabbing a hold of the face and driving him into to it create the illusion of softness.  It doesn't work.  Soft feel and true collection is in the feet.  When you pick up on your horse at a walk, trot, lope or stand still and ask him to get soft or collected it should not only change the way he is carrying his head but it should change the way he is moving his feet.  Once I quit driving my horse into his face the collection just came.  It makes sense to the horse that way.

When something you are doing with your horse isn't working you need to go backwards to when it was working and figure out where you missed a step.  For me this was the ever elusive flying lead change.  I have been working on trying to get this for years.  But when I tried to move my horse's hip at the trot I got nothing.  Therefore it wasn't working for me.  Once I went back and fixed it, we got it.  You can't move on until your solid in the parts of the foundation.

If it's not working slow, it'll never work fast.  We spent the entire 4 day horsemanship session working on walk/trot transitions.  We didn't lope once.  We just worked to see how perfect we could get those transitions and how light you could ask for it.  By the final day all I had to do was mentally raise the energy in my body and my horse would transition up.  No bumping, no squeezing, no clucking.  Just a change in my mental state.  You know what?  When I came home and worked on canter transitions it was perfect.  You can get more training done at a walk and a trot without loping than you can ever get schooling at the lope.

The horse knows how to arrange themselves, we just need to get out of their way.  I have spent so much of my riding life learning how to "hold" my horse together.  How to pick up a dropped shoulder, how to push that hip over so he can lope, how to bring his head down and in etc, etc.  When you forget about all of that and just work on getting in time with the feet and learn to get out of the horse's way they are perfectly capable of carrying their own body.  Hard habit to break, but it's immense freedom in your riding when you figure that out.

The horse should feel back to you when it's working right.  When you pick up on the reins, the horse should come along with you.  If he hurries to get off that rein because he's afraid of getting snatched at when he doesn't, that's not softness, that's fear.  If you pick up on the rein and he immediately sets himself with a brace to prepare for your bad hands, that's obviously not softness either.  When it's perfect, it's like holding the hand of a good dance partner.  You feel together.  So, if you pick up a soft feel the horse should hold it there with you as long as you ask.  If you pitch the reins and he's still holding it, he's not feeling back to you, he's posturing.  Does that make sense?

Get in time with the feet.  You can't move a foot when it's on the ground.  We worked on this a ton.  This is the key to lengthening stride, riding your horse in a perfect circle and stopping and backing as well as transitions.  When you are riding in time with their feet you can direct each foot as it moves.  Not because you have to help them move, but like you are dancing with them.  It's really fun to work on as you walk a circle.  You should be able to move the horse's feet along in a perfect circle, without losing the impulsion in the walk just by aligning your hips like you were walking that circle yourself.  You don't need to push the rib cage over, pull the nose in, and lift the inside shoulder.  The horse knows how to do that himself.  If you just move with him and get out if his way he can walk a perfect circle all my himself.  

Next time you ride your horse, pay attention to how little it takes to get your horse on the same page as you.  How little does it take to get your horse to walk.  To stop.  To back.  To trot.  To do a forequarter turn. To do a hindquarter turn.  Can you do it with just a thought?  No?  Me neither.  But that's what I'm after and hopefully someday we'll get close.  We're a lot closer now than we were 2 weeks ago!   None of this stuff is new or ground breaking tenets in horsemanship.  It's all been around a very long time.  It's not until you really challenge yourself to see where you really and truly are in your foundational horsemanship that you realize how badly you need to go back to square one and just fix somethings.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Good horsemanship speaks for itself

I recently saw a discussion on facebook poking fun at the "natural horsemanship" movement.  Loads of folks joined in on the discussion stating how there is nothing natural about riding anyway and what exactly is this natural horsemanship besides just letting the horse do whatever he wants.  Unfortunately because there are lots and lots of green horse people that get drawn to the hoopla surrounding many of the natural horsemanship instructors that are popular on RFDTV, some of the more traditional horse folk have a hard time taking them seriously and thereby reject the natural horsemanship movement out of hand.

It's sad really that it even has that unfortunate moniker.  Many of the folks that are practicing the "original" natural horsemanship don't even like to use the term.  You don't even want to get started on the debate about who made up the term and can claim rights to it.

Basically what "natural horsemanship" means to me is Ray Hunt type of horsemanship.  It has it's foundation in traditions that are much much earlier even than Ray Hunt, but for the sake of discussion, Ray and the Dorrance brothers are generally credited with making this style of horse communication more widely known at least on this continent.  Of course, like most great advances in the human race there were others exploring similar paths at similar times in other places and folks in Australia and Europe can claim "founders" in this style as well.

It's true that there is nothing natural about the way we keep horses.  That's why in general I am somewhat skeptical about any ideology about horse husbandry that has it's foundation in the mustang or other wild horse model.  You really can't compare our domestic horses to wild horses in how we manage them, house them or ride them.  But, if you really understand the way a horse thinks and learns and interacts in a herd setting  you can better your communication with them.  That is the crux of what has become natural horsemanship.  It's getting a horse to understand what we want them to do and even more amazing, getting them to want to do what we want to do.  It's making us all experts in equine behavior patterns.

In the wide range of different approaches to this style of horsemanship you will find everything from the completely unrestricted don't force anything on your horse style to the over the top domineering the horse must absolutely see you as the alpha style.  Like ice cream flavors, it's up to the individual.  I can't tell you which is best for you.  If you are like me and experimenting with finding a better way with your horses you will have to sample a few to find your favorite.

Here are a few hallmarks of a "natural horsemanship" program.

1. Groundwork and/or roundpenning.  A good natural horsemanship program starts with teaching basic communication on the ground.  This is where we establish our leadership with the horse and begin to build trust that we can help the horse find the right answer.  This is also where some form of desensitizing will come in.   The equivalent in a non-natural horsemanship program would be starting them in a 12x12 stall or snubbing them to a post and sacking them out.  Both common practices that are still used today.

2. Riding and training cues. Here is where there is a ton of variation depending on who you listen to, so I'm just going to tell you what is different about the way I ride as I follow the traditions that I have chosen to follow.  We go slow.  You don't prepare a horse for a futurity this way.  It can take until a horse is 5 or 6 before he is even ready to carry a bit.  We teach the horse to carry himself.   That means that we help a horse to develop collection through the entire body with the head being the last thing that we worry about.   Our goal in training our horses if for them to guide by the lightest touch and body positioning.  When I look over my shoulder for a turn and it moves down through my pelvis to my feet my horse should already be mimicking that movement and turning to look that direction.   This isn't rocket science or a completely new way of riding.  There are folks out there that have been riding this way for a long time.  So, you may be riding and training using more "natural horsemanship" techniques than you think you are.  What is not "natural horsemanship" in my way of thinking is anything that forces the horse into a false frame of collection or offers them no out.  Draw reins, martingales, cavasons and other devices that take the feel and timing out of the training are short cuts and have no place in a natural horsemanship program.  But, again, that's a rainbow in the fruit flavors and there are certainly those out there that are using those devices.  

Natural horsemanship isn't a fad.  It's not a touchy-feely "method" of training that requires a 10 DVD training kit.  It doesn't require any special tack or a funny fiberglass rod. It's definitely  NOT just letting the horse do whatever he wants to do.  It's a way of being with your horse and teaching them and trying to get in their heads to make them okay with what you are asking so that you and your horse are one. The horse doesn't do something because he's going to get jabbed with a spur if he doesn't.  The horse does something because he's pretty sure it was his idea to begin with.  That's your goal.  I don't care if you call it "Natural Horsemanship" or not. Call it Equine Buddism or Holistic Horseyness or Pony Pilattes or Cowboy Commonsense.   It doesn't matter.  Just do your best to be the best for your horse so that your horse can be the best he can.

Are you interested in learning more?  Here are a couple of places you can go to check out more information but don't be surprised if none of these folks use the term "natural horsemanship"!