Tag Archives: horses

Consistency and Clarity with the Aids: Winter Break Tune Ups

The university equine program is just barely back in action after a hiatus of nearly six weeks.  Over the winter break, I took advantage of the quiet arena and more relaxed schedule to work on tuning up a few of our wonderful school horses.  Ironically, it was an “all mare” sort of break, and I found myself working with a rotation of four of my favorite horses:  Marquesa, Whisper, Fiona and Morocco, in addition to my own “girls”.

Marquesa
Spring Hollow Marquesa with her friend Emily.

These four horses couldn’t be more different, at first glance.  What they all have in common is that, for various reasons, they ended the fall semester not going all that well in class, and it was time for a little one on one time with the instructor for a tune up.

Having ridden most of the UNH herd at one point or another, I have firsthand knowledge of what will or will not work for each animal in terms of exercises and applications of the aids. Many of the riders I work with are at the stage of their riding career where they need to learn to modify the use of their aids to suit the individual mount they are sitting on.  The university calls our lessons “labs”, which I joke is because we are “experimenting” with figuring out which recipe of the aids will work best in a given situation.  Riders must learn what ratio to apply their aids in, and the timing, and sometimes the only way to get good at this is to play around, and to mess up a bit.  In this way, the riders are expanding their tool kit.

Fiona is a middle aged, Thoroughbred type mare.  In spite of being chestnut and a former eventer, she is hardly your stereotypical “chestnut TB mare”.  I wouldn’t describe her as hot, but I do consider her to be sensitive and the rider needs to use the aids tactfully. She is one of my most favorite horses that I have ever test ridden for UNH, and when the students started really struggling to get her connected this fall, I was kind of glad for an excuse to get back on her.  Fiona’s main issue is with suppleness—and it is chicken and the egg which she loses first, mental or physical, but once one is gone, so goes the other.

I recently read an old (September 2006) issue of Dressage Today, and there was a great article in there called, “In Search of Trust”, by Tuny Page with Beth Baumert.  I can’t find any access to it online at this point, but in the article Page is basically describing the process she went through to defuse tension in her FEI horse, Wild One.  One of her quotes is especially relevant here:

“I taught Wild One that when he blocked, the pressure from my driving aids would go on and stay on until his back relaxed, his head lowered and he started to breathe, whereupon, my driving leg aids instantly let go.”

What I realized when working with Fiona was that she and her riders had gotten into a vicious cycle of pressure/no response, as Page puts it.  When the rider would ask Fiona to step into the bridle by putting their leg on and taking light contact, Fiona tensed defensively and would raise her neck and drop her back, going almost lateral in the walk and canter and taking hectic and quick steps in the trot.  This highly tense response from the horse then caused the rider to take their leg off and try to force Fiona to lower her neck with the rein aids, which then just caused additional tension, increased hollowness, and less use of the rider’s leg.  Right from the moment the rider picked up contact, Fiona was defending herself against the rider’s aids, and the rider would play into it by removing them.

Fiona
Fiona, with her friend Emily.  A different Emily.  

To modify this response, I found that I had to do just the opposite of what might have instinctively seemed correct—I positioned Fiona to the inside with the bending aids, stayed soft and steady through the connection, and then just quietly waited with my leg on for the energy to come “through”.  There were definitely a few strides of unattractive movement each time, as Fiona processed that I wasn’t going to go away, or change my aids, or pull on her mouth.  But it took fewer and fewer strides each ride for Fiona to realize that she knew what I wanted, and she began to lower her head and neck, relax her topline, and then reach more correctly through her  back and into the bridle.  When she did so, the stride length immediately increased and the tempo stabilized.   The response to my leg, seat and rein aids became positive, and I could apply the aids and ride her from back to front.  Basically, as Page said above, I needed to keep my leg aids on until Fiona started to relax and go forward.  Not kicking or aggressively on—just patiently on, waiting.

Whisper is another of my favorite UNH horses, and it had been years since I sat on her.  She is nearly 19 years old now, and has been with the program for ten years.  In the past few semesters, it has been harder for the students to get Whisper working correctly over her back, and she has become stickier in her transitions, especially trot to canter.  I had attributed this to her advancing age and the fact that she has been a school horse for nearly a decade, but after watching her proceed to ignore most of the aids of a fairly strong rider last semester, I decided that I needed to feel for myself what was going on.

Whisper’s situation was different than Fiona’s, but as I suspected, it required a similar solution.  Left to her own choices, Whisper will travel in a long and flat outline, becoming disconnected by poking her nose out and blocking the hind end through stiffness in the muscles of the back, rather than through hollowness.  This mode of travel of course does her no favors, and when the students go to jump with Whisper, they quickly realize that they now lack the ability to adjust her canter at all. In my opinion, Whisper was a pretty easy horse to get connected—she has good training, and was always pretty willing to work correctly if you asked her to.  I thought that maybe time spent as a schoolie had caused her to become desensitized to the aids, and that this was why the students were struggling.

Whisper2
Whisper waiting to do show jumping at the UNH horse trials with her friend Rachel, an activity which in Whisper’s opinion is WAY more fun than dressage.

I quickly realized that this was not the case.  Within just a few moments on our first ride, Whisper was working willingly in a round and balanced outline, staying freely forward and reaching into the bridle.  She was adjustable laterally and longitudinally, would chew the reins forward and downward, and even easily offered the balance required to counter canter.  Hmm….all of the buttons were clearly still in place and functional.

I came to the conclusion that Whisper has simply gotten very good at teaching riders to accept the “pressure/no response, pressure/no response” approach to riding.  Again, from the Page article:

“Years ago, when I rode event horses, I learned about the dynamics of why kicking a horse doesn’t work…When a rider kicks, for every moment the legs and spurs are on, there’s a moment when they are away and getting ready to kick again.  So the horse experiences pressure/absence of pressure….and so on. ..This is bad training and doesn’t work.”

Page is specifically referring to why this approach is ineffective when trying to get a horse to pass a frightening object.  You cannot force a horse to trust you, and even if you are successful in getting them to go on one occasion, the rider will have done nothing to encourage better harmony or responsiveness to the aids in the future by simply being really aggressive and then letting go.

In Whisper’s case, riders have gotten into a cycle of asking her to do something—flex her neck to the inside, for example—and then being satisfied with a lackluster response.  They put the pressure on in the aids, but then they release it before the horse does.  Whisper has learned that she can just swing her head, wait, and in a second, the rider will most likely give up and let go, and then she can swing her head back to where it was.

It is the same with the leg aids.  If the rider has not developed the ability to isolate their leg and seat, they might apply a driving leg aid, but simultaneously be holding with the seat.  So Whisper only chooses to listen to the “whoa” from the seat.  Meanwhile, the rider is now kicking, and Whisper steadfastly ignores these ever increasingly insistent aids, while both rider and instructor become frustrated with the result.

The key with Whisper is to hold the rein aid just that moment longer, until she gives, and to maintain the soft lower leg with a following seat.  It literally just takes that little bit more of consistency, of the rider really knowing that what they are asking is correct and that it is going to work.  Whisper teaches the rider to be clear and consistent. In Whisper’s case, I need to teach better, to help the students to understand that it is not unfair or incorrect to give a clear, direct aid and expect a response.  In the same issue of Dressage Today, Lisa Wilcox was quoted as saying something along the lines that the “give and take” of a half halt should be more like “take a millimeter, give a millimeter” than anything more significant or dramatic.

UNHnew

Riding these horses was a valuable experience for me as an instructor.  It helped confirm for me that my suspicions regarding the root cause of some of these common challenges was accurate, and that confident, correct riding would resolve the problem.  I look forward to getting started with the semester in earnest so that we can continue to add to the students’ tool boxes.

Innie or Outie…or both?

Those who follow Denny Emerson’s Tamarack Hill Farm Facebook page may have caught his comments a few days back on the “innies” and “outies” of the horse world:

“In the great big world of riding, there are innies and outies, and this has nothing to do with belly buttons. Some riders love open spaces and no boundaries, while others find comfort and security within walls and arenas, with lots of technical requirements.

“And never the twain shall meet,” not quite literally, but how many times have you seen a dressage rider out fox hunting, or a trail rider showing a hunter?

Outie sports like fox hunting, where literally the riders have no idea, at any given moment, where the fox or coyote will lead them, or for how long, are far different from, say, show jumping, which has a specific track, and sequence of fences, and a specific start and finish, and a required time allowed.

It has been postulated that those who gravitate toward outie sports, like trail riding, fox hunting, point to point racing, and (sometimes) eventing have entirely different kinds of psychological profiles than those who prefer innie sports like dressage, show hunters and show jumping.

Outie sports tend to be less precise, exact and meticulous than innie sports. They are also often faster, perhaps more high risk, and less encumbered by rules and regulations.

Of these sports, eventing is perhaps the “swing’ sport, less outie than back in long format days, but still attracting both the innie and outie riders.

Which type of riding draws you in, the more precise, more specific innie sports, or the more “laissez faire” outie ones?”

I had to laugh a little after reading the post…because I seem to be living up to my Gemini nature and enjoy both worlds quite a bit. I have two horses right now—the distance horse that also does a bit of a dressage, and the “event horse who is becoming more of a dressage horse” who focuses much better on dressage days when we have the benefit of time spent outside of the ring in between.

I have successfully competed through 4th level in dressage, and even had the honor of owning a wonderful, big moving and super handsome Hanoverian gelding for five years who helped me finish my USDF Bronze Medal.  But to just ride around and around the arena six days per week, even on a fancy mover who can execute flawless changes, smooth half passes and extravagant lengthenings, for me, starts to become a little repetitive.  Worldly and I always hacked out a little bit—definitely with attention to the footing (wouldn’t want to lose an eggbar) and more frequent spooks at common objects, but I think the escape from the arena did a lot to keep his attention fresh and focus sharp when working on the precision, accuracy and submission that dressage requires.  It also helped us when we showed at Saugerties (NY) and had to hack from the absolute opposite side of the show grounds, over a bridge, through the Marshall and Sterling League Finals, to the dressage arenas where the NEDA Championships were being held.

 

WorldlyatReg8
Worldly (Weltinus, on the left) after winning the 2006 Region 8 Second Level Freestyle championships.  And yes, we were required to put white polos on the horses–I had to go buy a set!

But on the flip side of the coin, I wouldn’t want to always ride out on the trail, either, for several reasons.  It is one thing when a horse is totally retired, and they are basically being ridden to give them attention, companionship and light exercise.  For most riders, though, riding only out of the ring makes it too easy to become sloppy and complacent with position, and to also become accepting of asymmetry in both horse and rider.  Both partners will tend to favor their stronger side and do not have the same opportunity to address tightness, restriction and weakness on the less dominant side that those who work in the ring do. This kind of imbalance can, over time, contribute to uneven muscle development, saddle fit issues, pain and even lameness.   I also genuinely enjoy the process of developing a horse for various arena disciplines; the steady progression of exercises and application of training pyramid concepts appeals to my methodical, organized, intellectual side.

LeeBeach2008
Lee and I on a New Hampshire beach.

As in most things, a balance seems to be required.  Trail and distance horses, and their riders, certainly can benefit from the fundamentals of basic dressage to encourage suppleness, develop strength and improve the quality of communication.  Work over basic cavaletti or even small fences can help improve footwork, coordination, strengthen hindquarters and can also prove helpful when crossing downed trees or other trail obstacles. Arena horses, like hunters and dressage horses, can also improve their level of fitness (both mental and physical) but by spending time OUTSIDE of the ring.  The many balance checks required when going over uneven terrain on the trail can help to strengthen muscles and stabilize joints, hopefully helping to reduce the risk of injury from a misstep in the ring.

And just as one would not expect the trail horse to magically piaffe or clear a four foot spread in the ring, the arena horse would not be expected to handle the more significant terrain or speeds required of the competitive trail horse.  Each has a specialty and is just ‘dabbling’ in the other area.

Kitten and Wentworth Pace May 15 004
Anna and her friend Izzy show U of New Hampshire Wildcat pride at the Wentworth Hunt Hnter Pace in May.

As an instructor and coach, I have been struck by how many students enter our college riding program, many from a hunt seat background, having never ridden out in the open.  We are lucky to have an on campus cross country course, likely the only one of its kind in the country, where we run sanctioned events.  Students riding in the more advanced levels of riding class have the opportunity to go school out on the course, under supervision.  It is probably the most stressful week of riding instruction that I offer each semester, and a lot of what I have to do is manage the deep fear which many of these “arena riders” face in simply crossing the bridge to our course.

headingontocourse
Heading out on the UNH cross country course with two innocent students, hoping to infect them with a love of riding out in the open and the freedom of no boundaries.

Many of these riders have never experienced even basic terrain, and have no knowledge of how to balance their horse going up or downhill, or how to hold their own bodies to stay centered when the ground is not level.  They are not familiar with pulley reins, emergency dismounts or other techniques used to regain control of a fresh mount.  I must constantly remind them that their arena jumping techniques should come with them onto the course, that all of the good practice and methods they have used to control pace, balance and form when jumping in the ring also apply to fences out in the open.

At the end of a school, the riders almost always fall into one of two groups—the ones which have experienced the first adrenalin rush of cross country, hooked, ready to go again, and the ones who (sometimes literally) wipe away their tears, happy to have survived the experience, hoping that they may never have to do it again.  Denny was right—these are the outies and the innies.  I guess we all do sort of have a tendency towards one or the other.

Nevada and Eastern California 2012 582
I rode this cool Quarter Horse, Thunder, on a trip to the White Mountains of Nevada.

In the end, the question is whether you choose to accept your true nature, or whether you get brave, get disciplined, or some combination of the two, and step into the world which is less comfortable.  My guess is that even if you don’t choose to stay there, you will be a better horseman for the experience.

The Goldilocks Principle

The Goldilocks Principle

Or…what a child’s story has to do with horse training

Most of us are familiar with the children’s story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If you can overlook the notion that Goldilocks seems to have little respect for other people’s homes or property, you will notice a theme in her explorations—in any situation regarding choice, neither extreme was quite right.  Taking the middle road always led to the greatest degree of satisfaction.

I have come to embrace the “Goldilocks Principle”, as I have nicknamed it, in teaching riders and training horses.  I have been gratified to recognize that many other accomplished horse trainers subscribe to a similar philosophy.

Goldilocks

Take contact, for example.  In dressage training, it is not correct to pull strongly on the reins, nor is it appropriate to ride with reins which are completely loose and floppy, in most circumstances.  The “ideal” is a length of rein and strength in the weight which allows for a steady, consistent, elastic feel between the bit and the rider’s elbow.  So, you know, something in the middle.

When you are getting ready to jump your horse, Denny Emerson always tells riders to look for the “adjustable jumping canter”—which he also calls the “middle canter”.  The middle canter is not fast, rushed and tense, nor is it lazy, four beated or “tranter-y”.  It has forward intention, and just enough jump.  The rider can ask the horse to change the shape of their stride, but they always have the power available.  Again, it is somewhere in the middle.

If we think about equitation, in its truest sense, we also avoid extremes.  The rider should always remain balanced over the horse’s center, which occurs when the ear/shoulder/hip/heel line is maintained.  The correct position for the rider’s lower leg:  not too far ahead or too far behind center.  Ideal is “somewhere in the middle.”

horse-and-rider

The Goldilocks Principle.  You never knew that the story was about horse training, but Goldilocks got it right.

And while we are talking about training philosophies….

I was reading a fellow blogger’s post, where the author discussed that the training process isn’t always pretty.  This is another concept which I find I consistently come back to in helping riders and horses to improve.  When you try a new skill out—salsa dancing, throwing clay on a wheel, drilling a fence board on straight, whatever—do you typically pick it up effortlessly, or do you sometimes struggle a bit?  I know for me, some new things come easier than others, but in most cases, it is clear that I am a neophyte.  Why should it be any different for our horses? Some new things they will pick up quickly, but others will require a process of trial and error to get right.

The same is true for riders.  Some people seem like naturals; maybe they have an inherent sense of balance, or timing, or “feel”—we kind of hate those people.  Most of us have to experiment, make mistakes and apply aids in different combinations or intensities before we figure out what it is we are trying to do.  It is okay if new skills don’t come easily.  But it is important to know that what we are asking the horse to do is appropriate and fair, and that we are asking them in a manner which makes sense.

Riding horses is a complex, active sport.  Equestrians always laugh when we hear comments such as “the horse does all the work”.  Sure, at the end of the day it is our horse which gets us over the fence, up the mountain or down center line.  However, that can only occur when we have achieved clarity in interspecies communication, combined strength and suppleness in our own bodies such that we appear to be still on an object in motion, and done enough preparation work to set the horse up to successfully complete the task at hand.

What makes riding a partnership is that sometimes they mess up and we help them out.  Sometimes we make the mistake and they save our skin.

And sometimes we get it just right, and things come out somewhere in the middle.  The Goldilocks Principle.

 

 

 

Planning a Sustainable Life

I have just returned from four days in Orlando, FL, during which time I attend the annual meeting of the Board of Directors for the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA).  This group was founded in 1967, and next year will be celebrating its 50th anniversary.  This is of course a significant milestone, and much discussion at the meeting centered around the organization’s history.

My birthday this year will be one which many also consider a milestone, as it closes out another decade.  Although these landmarks are somewhat arbitrary (why do we care more when the number ends in a zero?  Couldn’t we just as joyfully commemorate the 49th anniversary as the 50th?), the tradition of giving them greater attention does provide us with a good opportunity to reflect on where we have come from, where we are at, and where we still hope to go.  Otherwise, as Ferris Bueller was want to say:

Bueller

If organizations such as the IHSA hope to remain relevant over the long term, some degree of calculated evolution is required.  Therefore, these groups tend to define a mission statement, and then create “strategic plans”, which carefully map out their objectives for the near future, the middle range and the long term.  Otherwise, lack of focus or stagnation will result in the loss of members who become drawn to more contemporary opportunities.

I have always sort of wondered in awe at people who have been able to manage their lives with a similar “strategic plan” sort of approach.  In my experience, it has usually seemed like the harder I tried to get to one specific place, the more swiftly the tide carried me elsewhere.  While I have enjoyed (most of) these adventures, back roads and eddies, I sometimes wonder how things would be if I had taken a more focused and precise approach.

Horsememe1

Last winter, I had the opportunity to participate in an online coaching series called “Stirrup Your Life”.  Geared for equestrians and led by my dear friend Jen Verharen of Cadence, Inc., the series led participants through a series of exercises, reflections and readings which allowed each of us to create a vision, to identify our core values and our limiting beliefs, and then to perhaps have the courage to “step into the gap” of discomfort, to stretch out of the known and familiar, in order to take steps towards achieving personal goals which were in keeping with our vision.  It was truly the first time I have ever sat down and really tried to concretely identify what I wanted my life to be like, restrictions, reality or other negatives be damned.

Participating in this coaching series was one of those activities which didn’t seem that significant in the immediate moment, but now, nearly one year later, I have begun to recognize the impact it has had on my way of thinking about goal setting and the pursuit of a contented life.  One of Jen’s main points was that if you are living a life which is out of integrity with your core values, you will likely always feel that something is wrong or missing.   It is all too easy to get caught up in the “must do’s” or “should do’s”, and then to wake up and realize that somehow you are so full of ‘busyness’ that you don’t have the time to do those things which are truly most important to you. We, as individuals, really do have the ability to modify the path we are on.  That is not to say that taking the steps to change the route is easy to do; in fact, usually it is anything but.  However, more of us are prisoners of our own mistaken beliefs, preconceived ideas and bad habits than we care to admit.

Horsememe3

One of my core values is a commitment towards living my life with as much mindfulness towards sustainability as is possible given my current resources.   On several levels, I have not been doing a good enough job in this area, which has certainly contributed to feelings of discontent and frustration. The term “sustainability” is a trendy one right now.  But what is really meant by it?

Merriam Webster defines “sustainability” as:

  • Able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed
  • Involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources
  • Able to last or continue for a long time.

Usually when most of us think of sustainability, we are referring to definition # 2 (which of course relates to # 1 and #3).  But when it comes to career, life goals and personal ambitions, it is becoming abundantly clear to me that definitions # 1 and 3 apply to these areas, as well.

Sustainabilitysgoalmeme

There is a balance in everything.  It is great to have goals, but some goals are exclusive to each other, and so sometimes we have to compromise or shift focus in order to accommodate needs in multiple areas, or prioritize the thing which we cannot live without.   There needs to be a balance between wanting to do EVERYTHING, RIGHT NOW, and pacing yourself.  In order to make the choices which are right for each one of us, we must know where it is we hope to go.

Envisioning a sustainable future for me doesn’t just relate to installing solar panels, composting the manure or eating locally. Sustainability means that the life energy I am putting into an activity is worth the benefit I am getting out of it.  Choosing to live sustainably means that I am deliberately and mindfully putting my time into work (paid or unpaid), relationships and other endeavors which renew and inspire me, not those which leave me feeling drained, depressed or demoralized.

I have learned to check in with my vision regularly—whenever I need to refocus or to consider whether a given commitment is in keeping with my need for a sustainable life.   Visions can be revised or edited as needed but must always accommodate core values, just as an organization returns to its mission statement and edits its strategic plan if it is not working.

Horsememe2

This particular blog post may not seem as “horse related” as some of the others.  For me personally, many components of my vision are about horses and my equine aspirations.  Some of these goals have proven to be exclusive of other ambitions which most people would consider to be more traditional. Most of the time, I am okay with that.  But I would be lying if I said that I never question myself and the path I have chosen.

Many of the concepts of sustainability relate not just to protecting the planet but to living a meaningful life.  And for me right now, this is everything.

LifesJourney

A New Year, a New Focus

 

With the start of a new calendar year, I am taking advantage of shorter days and less motivation to be outside in order to pour greater effort into my writing in general, including more regular attention to this blog.  If you are a new reader, welcome, and if you are a returning reader, welcome back!

If you have landed on Chronicles of a Mini-Pro, then you likely have an interest in the equestrian world.  We share an interest in common. I found myself enamored of horses starting at an early age and have been fortunate enough to parlay this passion into a full time career.  However, the route which I have taken to this point has not been direct and my role within the industry is ever-evolving.  At the end of the day, though, my greatest passion is to simply be on the farm and around my horses.  Any day is a better day if it involves horses.

In this blog, you will read a variety of different types of posts—stories of my own personal experiences with horses, reports from clinics which I have audited or ridden in, reflections, observations and insights from my own riding, teaching or training, book reviews and training tips.   I hope to share the ups and the downs which any equestrian experiences, as well as provide a forum to always reflect back onto what horses mean to me, and the critical relationship I have with them.  I also hope to document the process of turning my Cold Moon Farm into a model of sustainability, marrying these concepts with horse keeping practices.  A healthy planet is a key foundation to healthy farms and horses, as well as a more viable equine industry in the long term.

The longer I have been around horses, the more I feel there is to learn about them.  I hope that you will enjoy reading along with me as I continue to explore all that being intimately involved with these animals has to offer.  I hope that you, as a reader, will feel a degree of connection with the subject matter or perhaps even recognize shades of your own experience which mirror mine. I hope that you can take away a kernel of new information, or inspiration, or comfort, or whatever quality it is you are needing, from the words I write here.

If you will do me the honor, please click on the “follow” tab below.  This will allow you to get a notification as new posts become available.