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.