Tuesday, September 29, 2015

There is no Drug Like Lightness

This horsemanship journey is such an unusual experience.  I would say that my equine education has been in many ways more difficult and challenging than obtaining my veterinary degree.  Wouldn't it be wonderful, if when confronted with a difficult problem with your horse,  you could just hit the books and find the answer?  Or do a blood test and discover the source of the issue at hand?  Being a vet is easy stuff compared to being a horseman.

If I could pin point the one thing that really kicked me off on this journey or quest for equine zen and the one thing that keeps me striving each and every day to make myself better it would be lightness. In reality I'm likely a shiny newbie when it comes to truly knowing what lightness is.  When I watch master horsemen at work, you can't see them move.  You can't see them touch the reins or cue with their legs. That's lightness.  When the horse and the rider move through space as one body and one mind.  That's lightness.  At the point that I am at in my horsemanship journey I have mediocre lightness that comes and goes.  But every time I get that glimpse of what true lightness and partnership feel like it about makes me cry.  It's that kind of overwhelming feeling that makes you want more, right now, and lots of it. That's the addictive part.

You see, lightness is like a drug.  It's more addictive than cocaine, meth, or any of those other substances that causes folks to lose great parts of their lives in pursuit of their next fix.  For those of us on the quest of true lightness, it defines our journey with our horses.  It's part of everything that we do.  It encompasses every thought that we have about our horses and how we handle them.  For those of us that are truly addicted, it is what we dream about, night after night.

You may think I'm being a bit dramatic or romantic about this, but that is just because you haven't gotten properly addicted yet.  I am at that part of my journey where my addiction is such that it has begun to get in my own way of progress a bit.  I discovered just how crippling my addiction can be this past weekend.

I've made tremendous progress with my horses this summer, most especially with my gelding Chico.  We are finally, after 10 years together beginning to really cultivate lightness.  There are times when I'm riding him that our partnership is such that all I have to do is breathe or think it and it happens.  I can just turn my hips and he bends his body lightly around my inside leg.  He is lighter in the snaffle than he has ever been.  He is soft in the bosal.  Though I haven't put him back into the bridle yet, I think the transition and results are going to be great.

The problem is, that like all horses, Chico's partnership and softness come and go.  I know in my heart of hearts that this is normal for every horse and rider.   But once you have felt the lightness that is there and possible, the absence of it is almost more than I can bear.  Because I am so addicted to the feel of that lightness, when it leaves, it is almost heartbreaking for me.  It is especially bad on those occasions when the loss of lightness is accompanied by the complete loss of partnership.  It feels like every step in the right direction you have made over the past months has just been wrenched away.

It's those moments when lightness leaves that I can really experience the "downer" of coming off the lightness drug.  This past weekend Chico and I participated in a Cowboy Dressage retreat on the beach in Washington.  While it was our first time to the ocean, Chico and I did participate in a group beach ride a few years ago on a reservoir.  At that time, all that open space and horses loping by in the sand completely cooked his goose.  It was all I could do to keep him underneath me and not racing away into the distant horizon.  I had him in the bosal at that time and the best I could do was ride in a series of small circles that acted like a centrifugal sling shot flinging us down the beach until we were back in the trees again and he felt somewhat more like himself.

While I wasn't expecting anything of that sort on this trip, I bring it up to remind myself of how far we have come from that time.  This time I had Chico in the snaffle.  We were able to lope and play in the sand and the surf with only moments of checking out.  It was while I was trying to work on loping 20 m circles that we had the worse downer time.

The other horses in our group are natural lopers.  Chico is not.  I have to work hard to hold him together in the lope.  He wants to get strung out and he blows out on his circles through his shoulders, drops gait into a terrible bone wrenching trot and then throws his head in the air.  Sounds fun, eh?  Well it feels miserable.  I've been mostly able to contain that mess and keep things soft this year, but with the sand, surf, kites, wind, wide open spaces and everything else, our circles were not perfect and soft at all.  Or at least they didn't feel that way to me.

As I struggled to mold my horse back into an semblance of softness and collection beneath me I really began to struggle as an addict of lightness.  Instead of remembering that this is hard for Chico, how far we have come and remembering to go back to those moments where he feels good I continued to fight and struggle for the lightness that wasn't coming.

What's the adage of the insane, "A lunatic is someone who continues to do the same thing but expects different results"?  Yeah, that was me, getting more and more desperate for the lightness I was craving until I couldn't see the waves, or the sand or anything around me anymore but a red haze of frustration.

While my friend and clinician, Dale,  attempted to cheer me up and said things really had looked pretty good out there I knew that the feel of it wasn't what I had been after and all I could do was concentrate on the lack of lightness that I was craving.  Finally, she sent me off to recoup and refocus and regain a little perspective.

I walked off, breathing deeply as my horse attempted to regain some air after loping circle after circle in that beach sand.  Eventually the haze in my head cleared and suddenly I could hear the waves again.  I looked up at that gorgeous sight of blue sky, white waves and blue ocean and remembered I was lucky to be riding in such a beautiful place.  As Chico and I slowly walked off down the beach I suddenly realized that I was quite a ways away from the other horses; something that wouldn't have happened without a mental breakdown for Chico even 6 months ago.   We were on a section of brand new pristine beach.  The perfect place for a fresh start.

I began to create figures in the sand.  First soft 10 m circles at the walk, then jog, then 20m circles at the free jog, keeping my breathing and cues light with Chico's breathing.  He stayed with me in partnership and lightness.  Before I knew it we were loping circles again.  I'm not going to say they were perfect (I'm waaayy to much of a perfectionist for that!) but they sure were improved.  The lightness and partnership were back.

So what did I learn from that?  I learned that lightness is wonderful and is of course our goal, but when it's not there like we really want it to be it's not the end of the world.  Lightness comes and lightness goes.  Our horses can have off days, get distracted, get sore, or just plain decide today isn't the day.  We cannot ride the horse we had yesterday nor can we punish the horse today for not being what we want him to be tomorrow.  All we can do is ride the horse we have today the way he is today in hopes of what he might be tomorrow.  

If any of you have seen Buck the film you've heard his quote about lightness.  I can't remember exactly how he phrased it, but it was something like this:  If you could get even a glimpse of what I'm talking about, you would spend the rest of your life trying to get a piece of it.  I guess my problem this past weekend is I was trying so hard to get a piece of it, I lost the reason for the journey in the first place.  Instead of waiting for my horse and I to go together I tried to force my horse to come back to me, insisting that he get soft and respond like I wanted him to because I wanted that softness so badly.  What I should have done is stopped everything and gone back to place where it felt good and tried again to get him to come along with me.

Leave it to a druggy to be so anxious for another hit he hurts the ones closest to him.  That's what I was doing to my horse.  I wanted so badly to be one with him that I forgot to be the kind of rider that a horse is going to want to have a partnership with.  Next time I will try to remember that this dance takes two.  It takes a leader and a follower in partnership together.  I'll try to remember to lead not only with lightness, but with grace and dignity that any partner would be proud to be a part of.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Independent Thinking

I've been incredibly challenged in my horsemanship this year by my 4 year old Morgan gelding, Kit.  I haven't written very much about my struggles with him because quite frankly I was pretty sure I was failing miserably for much of the year.  I would have moments and glimpses of the greatness within but most of the time I would have to force myself to get up on him and I would get off of him an hour later completely mentally exhausted.

Kit is exceptionally busy minded.  He's like a hyperactive kid with attention deficit disorder.   He is also very intelligent.  There has never been a gate he couldn't open or a knot he couldn't untie.  I don't actually think he is trying to be bad or misbehave, I believe he believes that he's smarter than me and has a higher opinion of his direction and choices in sessions together than he does of my opinions.  If I say we should go this way he automatically disagrees with me and vehemently states his opinion that he is just as sure we should go the opposite direction.

The result of this is that I feel like I am constantly redirecting him.  I feel like I am forever pulling him back onto the trail or back into a straight line or reminding him that when I pull on the inside rein he has to look that direction and not the opposite direction.  One might think, watching me ride him, that he is exceptionally dull, but that isn't the case at all.  He's just constantly arguing about where I'm telling him to go.  He is actually quite sensitive which makes for an interesting amount of over correction and occasionally over reaction when I attempt to redirect him. I tried briefly to ride this horse in the bosal and his favorite activity was to bounce the heal knot on his face in cadence with his walk, so that when I picked up on the bosal it didn't ever mean anything because he had completely desensitized himself.  I don't know if any other folks that ride and train in the bosal have ran into this but for this horse I felt completely and totally handicapped when I had him in the bosal.  Trying to keep him engaged in the snaffle has been difficult enough! As a matter of fact, I hate to admit it but I couldn't even keep him in a McCarty.  The flopping reins and horse hair knot were too distracting for him as well.  I had to keep pulling the slobber straps up so he couldn't get them in his mouth.  

I've never ridden a horse that I had to talk myself into working with.  I had to mentally psych myself up for a session of arguing with him.  I can proudly say that I very rarely (hey, I'm as human as the next guy) lost my temper but there were times when I would have liked nothing more than to just go completely red neck on him and chuck a beer can at his resisting face.  As a matter of fact, the few times that he did push me over the edge of what an average person can tolerate and I lost my temper and (in my opinion anyway) over reacted a bit, he actually would straighten up for awhile.  It was almost like he would roll his eyes at me and say, "Sheesh! Alright already!  I was only pointing out the other options!".  But for awhile he would behave like a kid that had finally had a good scolding and was willing to toe the line for a bit.

He actually reminds me an awful lot of what my younger brother was like.  For most of our young lives, I was ready to strangle my younger brother on a daily basis.  He was also one of those bright, active busy minded kids.  He didn't sit still even when he was sitting still.  He also loved to argue with my mom.  He wasn't a bad kid or even a mischievous one, just busy.  My mom would often have to lose her temper with him before he would meekly go off offended to FINALLY take the garbage out after being asked nicely first about 15 times.  My mother always started each and everyday with extreme patience (like a good horseman will) hoping that each and every day would be a new day and the old arguments would not continue, but my brother just enjoyed pushing her buttons.  She would often say, "If I just woke up and started yelling at you, would you just do what I asked the first time?"  I can tell you answer to that.  As the older sister I didn't wake up with infinite patience.  As a teenage girl with a busy little brother I would get mad at him before I even opened my eyes.  Believe me, it never helped.  All it did was cause me extreme angst and stress (and unending pleasure for my brother) and I missed out on enjoying some great years with that bright young man.  My mom was right, he did eventually grow out if it.  It took awhile for my anger to dissipate and realize that he wasn't that kid anymore.  Had I woke up and treated each day as a new day I would have noticed when it first started to happen.  

Luckily I'm not that angry teenager anymore either.  I've worked hard at keeping my frustration with Kit buried down deep.  I start each day with expectations of greatness.  In a way it's setting myself up for failure but on those occasions that he rises above and meets those expectations it's incredibly gratifying.  

There are two ways to go about dealing with a horse like this.  Well, there are probably a million ways but two distinct camps as I see it.  You can either remove the independence from the horse by making sure that it never gets to make it's own decisions and only moves a foot when you say so; OR you can consistently and constantly redirect the horse so that eventually his idea becomes your idea and vice versa.  There are very good arguments for both methods depending on who you listen to.  

I call the first camp, the "Yes, Ma'am!! Camp".  There is a popular trainer out there that shall remain nameless (his first name starts with Clin and ends with ton) who sells this method to masses of women needing to find some way to establish control over the men and horses in their lives.  Those that believe in this method of training want the horse to ONLY move when they say MOVE and then to MOVE RIGHT NOW!  They want snappy, responses to direction and even snappier consequences to bad reactions.  I can only imagine the hours of aggressive backing and lunging for respect that would have happened with my colt until he was standing there with sides heaving while I repeatedly struck the ground with stick and string.  The problem with this method of training is that it removes all independent thinking from the horse.  

I want my horses thinking.  I want them to be aware of where their feet are, where the wildlife in the forest are and to tell me if they feel a trail or footing or direction is unsafe for one reason or another. Maybe if you are only riding your horse in an arena you would prefer to direct every foot fall but I spend most of my time out of the arena.  Ever been on a trail ride with a horse that had completely disengaged from his rider and his surroundings?  It's neither safe, nor fun.  

I also want to keep the try in my horses.  I don't want snappy huge responses to my cues, I want my horses to feel the energy in my requests and react appropriately.  This is elemental in building softness and partnership in a horse.  I also don't want to have to direct every step my horse takes.  I like forward initiative in my horses and enjoy a forward moving horse.  

So, it's been a long frustrating summer with Kit.  I wasn't always sure that I was doing the right thing, but when I would feel lost, confused or frustrated I would reach out to other more experienced horseman.  Their advice was always the same.  Just keep at it; it'll get better.  You are almost there.  It sounded an awful lot like my mom who used to tell me to just be patient with my brother.  He'd eventually grow up and straighten out.  Just keep treating him like you want to be treated.  

The good news is that I am better at that now than I was as a teenager.  This past week saw 5 good days in a row with Kit.  A virtual record.  Today he walked along quiet and willing on a loose rein staying engaged and with me as we traveled down the trail at a walk, jog and lope.  I know there will be other difficult days ahead.  Just like little boys, colts don't grow up overnight.  But at least I can see light at the end of the tunnel.  I'm so glad I have stayed the course, kept my patience and not changed tactics during this summer.   Sometimes success is just around the corner, you just have to make it there. 

PS  My brother turned out to be an amazing, successful man with a wonderful family too.  My mom was right as well! 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Bending it to keep it straight

It's really quite remarkable how much my riding and my horses have improved since I started learning cowboy dressage.  I can almost look back on my horsemanship journey and see concrete benchmarks marking my steps forward like footprints in unchartered territory.  Each little hard won victory or experience carrying me forward to the next epiphany for me and my horses.  Having difficult to ride horses as well as the opportunity to ride school masters has been instrumental in both my struggle and my growth. 

When I began my horsemanship journey by embracing the traditions and the teachings of the Californio vaquero style with the emphasis on light communication and building your horse slowly I learned patience and the importance of the nuances in try.  My horses were soon much better for it.  I could see them seeking me, hunting the try and getting softer and more responsive each and every time we were together.  With Cowboy Dressage creating a place to showcase the traditional tack, riding, and horsemanship (albeit without cows which to staunch traditionalists means it's NOT traditional at all!) I thought I had found the perfect blend.  I could create and train my traditional bridle horse via the old tradition of jaquima a freno and embrace this new community of softness, lightness, and kindness.  What a perfect world!

Then we got the opportunity to compete at the final gathering last year.  We eagerly signed up to participate in the vaquero division, excited to be with like minded horsemen on the court.  Our test scores, for our first competition, were quite good in partnership, harmony and straightness.  All things we had been working towards through our training in the bosal.  I was riding my Morgan straight up and was pleased with his carriage and finished look.  Reality hit in the form of our scores for bend. 

Both Dan and I had very little bend in our horses.  We could mostly hit our marks on the court, have good transitions, but no bend through the corners, on our circles and our quality of the travel down the long tracks was often counterbent just a hair with our horses often looking to the outside.  Not bad, and not something you would watch from the sidelines and gasp at, but enough that it got us both seeking to improve that in our horses. 

The traditional bridle horse is a very straight horse.  He has lightning fast reflexes and responses to cues and soft from nose to hip but not known for his ability to round laterally.  There are pages and pages of discussions in the social media vaquero groups discussing whether leg cues are even used in creating traditional horses or whether it was all rein cues.  But most of them will agree that you want the horse straight beneath you. 

Let me tell you the story of our Morgan mare Mercy.  We started her as a 3 year old and decided to stick to tradition and training in the bosal with her.  If you've ridden Morgans at all you know they can be a little bendy and squirrely as youngsters.  Dan, thinking this is the very thing he dislikes about Morgans the most decided that with this one he wasn't going to do much lateral flexion.  He was going to keep her pretty straight in the bosal and see if we couldn't keep her from being so squirrely and bendy. 

So, 4 years and lots of miles later we have a great trail horse.  She pretty much goes where you point her.  She is quiet in the bosal and easy to ride.  In a straight line.  Creating bend or softness or any kind of lateral movement other than the leg yield is difficult for her.  Now, for many folks that will never be an issue.  She can head down the trail and do whatever you ask of her, but if you want a little more and want to create softness and eventually move her into the bridle, that's going to be very difficult for her.

So, what we learned from that little experience is that you can't skip the bend.  Creating bend in the bosal is much more difficult in a green horse than it is in a bit.  It's not impossible at all, but takes more time and more feel and it's more difficult to get it working properly.  That's why the Dorrances, and Ray Hunt and other folks that were traditionalists started incorporating the snaffle.  It's the best tool out there for creating the bend and lateral flexion in a young horse. Once you've established lateral flexion it's easier to carry that lesson over to the bosal and work off the previously established muscle memory in the bosal.  If we weren't doing Cowboy Dressage it probably wouldn't be a very big deal.

When we share our passion for Cowboy Dressage with folks they are often under the impression that it is easy.  Straight lines and circles? Pah, anybody can do that.  What's the big deal?  Right? The most frequently asked question is, "Do you have to start with just the walk/jog tests? Aren't the walk/jog tests for beginners and kids?"

Not so much.  While it's true you can and should be able to take any fairly broke horse and ride Walk/Jog 1 and hit most of your marks and stop mostly straight and have good transitions, I doubt most folks can hit the bend the judge at C is looking for.  Most western riders, especially vaquero horseman just don't train that bend, and without it, you won't hit your circles dead on.  Nor will you hit most of the other marks on the court.  The Cowboy Dressage court is based on the 10 m circle.  The transitions from mid-line to the track on the wall all happen on a 10 m bend.  That bend is the only way you can be straight when you hit that mid-line. 

Every time I'm teaching a group of riders and explain that they won't be straight until they bend they look at me like I'm crazy.  It doesn't even make sense that you have to bend to be straight.  But it's the truth.  In order for a horse to be truly straight beneath you, you must have the bend working well on both sides of the horse's body.  Mercy, our straight mare, drifts on her straight lines.  The only thing I can attribute it to is that both sides of the horse are not developed and working evenly. 

Bending is like horse yoga.  It builds muscles and strengthens the body on the lateral sides by shortening the muscles of the inside of the body and lengthening the muscles on the outside of the body on a bend.  Repeatedly changing your bend by altering your 10 m circles is like spending some time in the gym doing crunches and toe touches.  It strengthens the core and allows for muscle development that helps keep the horse straight and even underneath you. 

Bend also helps the horse to develop self carriage, which we are all about in the vaquero tradition.  Vaqueros want a bridle horse with presence that proudly carries that bit straight up.  I hate to say it out loud, but when looking at the pictures of the traditional bridle horses, I abhor their necks.  Most old time vaquero bridle horses had long necked horses that were overdeveloped at the poll due to holding that bridle horse formal self carriage position.  They have large muscles from poll to C2/C3 without concurrent development of the neck at the base. 

Here are some examples of what I'm talking about.
Circa 1900's, a little harder to see but there is more muscle at the dorsal poll than along the more distal vertebrae.

Straight up bridle horse, circa 1800. Easy to see the over developed neck at the poll and first few cervical vertebrae
Here is a more modern working bridle horse.  Beautifully turned out and straight up.  You can see the muscle development at the proximal aspect of his neck without concurrent muscle development more deep in the cervical vertebrae. 
My own horse was beginning to have this look as well.  I rode him proudly straight up in the bridle for most of last year.  I was very pleased with his finished look and formal flexion and willingness.  My heart sang to hear him work that cricket.  But, when I would see pictures of him, I wasn't as thrilled.  I kept thinking it was just a bad moment or that it was a bad angle.  His body had changed so that my saddle wasn't fitting how it should.  His self carriage had developed into something that was hollow through the back even though it was flexed beautifully at the poll. 
Working Straight up in the bridle.  Notice the heavy muscle that ends about about C3.  I can tell by my shoulders that he was jarring me in this jog around the rodear.  To the casual observer he looks round and soft but it's false flexion with no engagement behind.

This picture was the one that really got me thinking.  He looks like somebody else's horse in the this photo.  Really showcases the loss of muscle development at the base of the neck.  This was after 9 months in the bridle.  Here he is wearing his Mylar bit at a CD clinic when I realized I had NO bend in the traditional bridle.

Eitan and Sante Fe showing could muscle development along the entire neck and proper self carriage in traditional gear.
Showing how bend and shortening of the inside of the body on the circle create even full body muscle development.
As a veterinarian, correct muscle development and body use is not just a goal, it's a must.  The very last thing I wish to create while riding and enjoying my horse are changes to his body that are detrimental to his health and longevity.  A very big part of my journey to lightness and soft feel is an attempt to avoid many of the pitfalls and rider induced changes to the horse that we see in so many of the equine disciplines.  Full body health and mental soundness first and foremost. 

So, typical of my journey, I had again missed some steps along the way and poor Chico was paying for it.  God love that horse. He has taught me so much.  Every mistake I have made in training or horsemanship has been made and corrected and made and corrected again with that poor boy.  For those of you that are saying to yourself, "I'm afraid I'm going to make a mistake and ruin my horse", let Chico be your guide.  They are amazingly forgiving animals and as long as you keep the try alive they will keep seeking what you are offering even if you keep changing it up.

So, after CD finals when I realized that sticking just to tradition was not furthering our goals specifically with bend and softness on the CD court I did some soul searching to see where I was going from here.  My journey is not about points, scores or blue ribbons, but the beauty of competition is that it gives you a benchmark and feedback from a bystander (that is not your husband or your cowgirl friends) to help you see if you are meeting your goals.  Obviously I was missing something. 

When we went down to ride with Eitan this April, he put Chico back in a snaffle (EEEK!  My bridle horse!!) but he did it because I had some holes to fix before I could move forward.  When fixing holes in your foundation, you use foundational tools.  If I was better, or my horse not the product of such muddled training I might have been able to go back to the bosal to fix it, but I don't know.  Good full body bend is such a hard thing to find in a bosal. 

I'm proud to say that we are now bending like champions.   We have the bend.  We can create the bend and ride it forward and can change the bend easily from one side to the other.  My horse looks like he's been at the gym.  I have much much better development through the neck, shoulders, and whithers.  And, surprise, surprise, he is also moving straighter through his free gaits. 
Working on counter bend to develop the muscles at the base of the neck and shoulders

Demonstrating 10 m bend and riding the bend forward to complete a circle.  Once the bend is established, you don't even have to look at your markers.  The horse completes the circle by staying on the bend.

I hope that through continuing our callisthenic exercises this summer Chico will be able to go straight up in the bridle eventually.  His path to the bridle horse has been anything but traditional, but I hope that once we both get there we will have all the pieces and parts working in conjunction.  The difference in softness with my horse and body development and quality of movement is all because of developing bend.  We will be straight up in the bridle someday, but we getting there through the bend. 
So, if you ride with me this summer, expect to hear a lot about the bend.  I'm willing to guarantee you don't have it working for you as well as you think you do.  You think you have a good broke bridle horse that can stop a cow and turn on a dime?  Well, I bet you can't ride a 10 m circle at a walk with bend.  Different strokes, for different folks, but I want the horse that can do both! 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Zappy Butt and Your Pancreas

Have you ever noticed how some folks are always on a horse that walks out?  I mean really covers some ground.  You may have also noticed that it doesn't matter what horse that person is riding it will end up in the front of the pack.  I'll admit it; I'm one of those.  Yes, I confess, I have a zappy butt.

Having a horse with a good ground covering walk is an important thing, especially if you are one of those riders who likes to get out and cover a lot of ground.  Some of us that do a lot of trail riding and put long days and lots of miles on their horses look at those slow walking horses with complete exasperation.  But, you can bet that we are also the ones fighting the whoa as well.  We have tons of go and not much whoa.  Our horses are also going to likely be the ones that once you get to scenic overlook they want to take it in for about 10 nanoseconds before returning to moving off down the trail.

During my amazing week with horseman, Eitan Beth-Helachmy this spring, it became painfully obvious that my zappy butt that serves me so well on the trail providing those great ground covering gaits was a complete burden when working on softness and collection, and lord help me if I ask for a free gait.  I have trouble turning my zappy butt off and my horse has learned that the only thing he can rely on my seat to tell him is to move forward, forward, forward like there is a current of electricity running from my cheeks to his back.

Zappy butt shows up in the most inconvenient places.  Do you maybe have a zappy butt?  Here are some tell tale signs:
1. Any time you release rein the speed of the gait increases often breaking into the next gait
2.  Whoa is a process and not an instant transition.
3. Your horse walks forward in the turn on the HQ, Turn on the FQ, Side pass, halt, etc.
4. Your horse has trouble standing still for extended periods of time (such as longer than 2 seconds!)
5. Your horse MUST be in the lead because he can't stand to follow one of those slow moving horses.

I'm sure that's not a complete list, but it gives you the idea of the issues a good old zappy butt can cause.

Part of my journey to softness and creating a bridle horse that responds so well to your body has been to learn to communicate less with your hands and more through all of your other aids.
Learning how to dial down your energy in your zappy butt is so essential to improving the communication between horse and rider.  Eitan spent an entire session with me just having me raise and lower (lots and lots of lowering!) my energy level and letting my horse feel that change in my body and respond.  When I think about all of the great horseman that I have had the priveledge to watch ride I think this is one of the things that helps distinquish a good horseman from a great horseman.  When a great horseman gets on a horse he will spend a minute or two adjusting his energy to the energy of the horse until they are on the same page.  It's really neat to watch, actually, like watching Einstein calculate algorithms or Mozart compose symphonies, or Monet prepare a canvas. There is an art to it when it is really working and you can see when horse and rider are moving as one and ready to begin.

I've begun to incorporate this technique with every horse that I get on.  It helps to teach my horse's patience and it helps us to mentally and physically get our bodies on the same wave length.  After mounting I just sit there, heavy in my seat, relaxed in my legs try to drop my energy down into the horse.  If the horse needs reassurance I'll lean forward and pet them on the neck a little.  If they need a little help standing still and waiting on our energy conversation I might do some lateral flexion until the feet are still and then try to get us on the same page again.

Learning how to control and utilize your zappy butt is only the first step.  Each of us has an energy center that the horse can feel and learn to respond to.  Turning down the forward energy in your zappy butt and then forcusing that energy and directing it allows you to direct changes in how your horse responds to your body.  The horse can follow that directional energy if you learn how to cast it out.   I like to think of my directional energy center in the vicinity of my pancreas.

As I was watching Eitan effortlesly go from a short walk to a stop to a back I couldn't see any change in his hands or seat.  I asked him if he was asking the horse to back with his hands and he said he was backing the horse by shooting his energy backwards.  Sure, sounds easy enough.  I about gave myself a belly ache trying to shoot my energy backwards.

But practice makes perfect and visualization is the key with some of this Zen and the art of Pancreas riding.  When I think of my furnace sitting in my pancreas and mentally shoot my energy backwards (which still is accompanied by an intense grimace of concentration on this horseman's part!) my horse will learn to respond to that feel like he responds to any other feel that I offer.

It comes in so handy to be able to ride with your pancreas.  Is your horse falling in on your circle or leaning on your leg in the free walk or free jog?  Try casting your pancreas out over his outside shoulder.  Is your horse's free jog of poor quality, maybe too fast?  First check your zappy butt and then shoot your pancreas just a touch down and backwards.

Where my pancreas really comes in handy is on those long diagonals.  When teaching your horse to ride a straight line and stay centered without a lot of micromanaging, it's important to direct your energy to where you are going.  In my mind, I cast my pancreas out in front of me where we are going like a blast of Spidey's web pulling us along to our destination.

The free gaits are a great time to get the zappy butt and pancreas working together for you.  The free gaits are tough for a lot of people, especially if you are used to holding onto your horse and directing his every step with your hands.  The transition from working gait to free gait needs to happen right at the letter the gait is called for.  If you are crossing a long diagonal and you don't get into a free walk until you pass 8, you've already donated half your points to the judges.  Instead, your energy should immediately go from working, softened gait to free lengthened gait within one step.  When you step off the track at K to cross to M from the working jog to the free jog, your zappy butt should talk to that right front leg to extend to the free gait.  You drop your hands and lengthen the rein allowing the horse to drop and lenthen the head and neck and the direction should come from the line of energy being shot from your pancreas right at M.

Of course these aren't just techniques that I use on the Cowboy Dressage court.  Cowboy Dressage is how I help train my horses, but the end goal is to create a better partner in the other things I do with my horses as well.  Zappy butt and pancreas are working to help improve my comminication on the trail as well as in the arena.  Most of my time on the trail is spent in the free gaits unless I'm manuevering through obstacles or going down hill.  That means that commuincation and direction must be occuring more through my zappy butt and pancreas directional center than through my hands.  My young colt has had limited trail time with me so far and can get a little nervous and has trouble with his cadence on the trail.  He also gets a little bothered if I am micromanaging with the bit while he is busy exploring the trail.  The best compromise to establish communication for the both of us is if I do more guidance with my body and less with my hands.  It's a great way to explore the dialing up and down of the energy and lengthening and shortening of the stride.

It all sounds kind of silly and maybe not everybody's mind works like mine does (thank goodness!) but it's important to really realize, deep down in your core where real truths lie, that the horse can feel your thoughts through your body.  He may not respond because he's learned not to rely on those body positioning or changes in energy, but you can dang sure bet he can feel them.  We teach our horse to ignore our body by over using our other aids.  When you ask first with your body then reinforce with your hands, or legs, the horse soon learns to trust what your body is doing.  You can never get true softness just through the reins.  It's a full body communication.  Hands, feet, legs, seat, zappy butt and pancreas all working as one.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Fit to Ride

January is the month of resolutions.  Did you know that over 47% of Americans make New Years resolutions with the majority of those Americans putting fitness in the top 10?  With 69% of Americans over age 20 being over weight it's easy to see why fitness goals are in the top 10.  69 percent!!  That number astounds me.  I would like to believe that our numbers in the horse owning public are little below the national average given our fairly active outdoor lifestyle, but I suspect we, as a demographic, suffer a fairly high statistic as well.

As a veterinarian I am daily faced with the task of assigning body condition scores to my patients.  I examine the horse, using my hands as well as a weight tape and give it a score between 1 and 9 to describe it's overall condition.  I like to see most of my patients falling somewhere in the range of 4-6 with 5 being the goal for most recreational horses.  Because there is such a stigma against "fat shaming" in America right now I find that many of my clients are appalled when I flat out say, "your horse is fat".  They may giggle, joke about being an easy keeper or say he "wintered well".  They are often quick to say that he's a good horse anyway or that they love him anyway as if my comments about his weight somehow devalue or belittle the horse.  This is American anthropomorphism at its worst. As a veterinarian I am concerned only with your horse's overall well being and more importantly longevity.  I want  you and your horse to have a long, healthy and productive life.  He can't do that if he isn't kept healthy throughout his life.  There are a multitude of problems that are associated with prolonged obesity in horses including, lipomas, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, arthritis, and laminitis.  Interestingly enough these conditions mirror the most common conditions associated with obesity in humans: diabetes, osteoarthritis, stroke, heart disease, some cancers and gout.  I'm not being "mean" when I tell you your horse is fat. I'm doing my best to help you recognize it, correct it, and make changes so that you can help your horse live a long and healthy life.

Wouldn't it be simpler if it worked this way for us humans?  If our doctor would just look at our "owner" and say, "She's fat.  Cut the grain completely, switch to grass hay only at 18 pounds/day and exercise for 25 minutes 3 times a week.  Muzzle if you need to."

Unfortunately it's not that easy.  We, as horse owners are probably guilty of making poor choices for our health due to our busy schedules with our horses.  While you are busy rushing to the barn and getting ready to ride or mixing the 5 different supplements that your horse gets every evening you may have forgotten to feed yourself properly.  A bag of chips and that extra slice of pizza that somebody left in the fridge will suffice for a lunch on the go.  No time to exercise because you have to get to barn to get your horse his turn out time. There are more excuses than there are bales of hay in your barn.

Luckily our life on the go helps to keep things from getting too out of hand for most of us, but is it enough?  We expect athletic excellence from our horses.  We want our horses to be in top form and able to be at once graceful, athletic, swift, and able to go all day without tiring.  Can we expect less from ourselves?

I think in order to get the most out of your partnership with your horse and the best performance it is important for us to be as fit, flexible and healthy as possible.  For an equestrian, balance, flexibility and fitness improve our feel and timing in the saddle.  By decreasing the weight our horses are forced to carry we can avoid having to ride a 1200# horse.  There is a reason draft crosses are currently enjoying a popularity trend.

This year I made many resolutions (I like to think of them as goals) for my horsemanship.  I want to advance my horsemanship skills and improve my feel and timing and go on to accomplish goals both with my vaquero horsemanship and cowboy dressage.  Among those goals I added working on my own fitness.  As I've aged I have lost flexibility and added pounds.  I can't continue to ask for excellence from my horse without demanding the same excellence from myself.

There are many many programs out there that are designed to target the muscles and areas that most equestrians need to concentrate on the most.  Pilates and yoga are both excellent disciplines for increasing core strength, balance and flexibility which are all important for a balanced rider.  Recent research has even linked some equine lameness with back and balance problems in the rider.  Improving your own balance and flexibility may help your horse to move more balanced beneath you.

For back country riders, fitness is even more important.  While nobody likes to think about the worst case scenario, we have all heard the horror stories of horses becoming injured in an accident in the back country resulting in the rider having to hike out.  If you are not fit enough to hike out as far as your horse has carried you in, you have no business being out there in the first place.

So, I challenge you, my fellow horse friends, to take a real look at both you and your horse's body condition score.  Determine if your horse is at an ideal body condition and make the necessary changes to assure he is.  Your veterinarian can help you with this.  Then take a hard look at your own body condition score.  If you need to make changes there, have a strong talking to your body's owner and start those changes today. I bet if you take at least half as much interest into the quality of diet and exercise you prescribe for your horse as you do for yourself you will make changes for the better.  Do it for your horse.  Do it for your horsemanship.  Do it for yourself.

Here are some resources especially for horse folks.