Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Gone with the Wind

Nothing disrupts my training schedule at In the Night Farm so frequently and thoroughly as wind.

Our location atop a hill surrounded by hundreds of agricultural acres serves to amplify whatever weather conditions are experienced by the surrounding valleys. The prevailing winds -- northwest in summer, southeast in winter -- herald every shift from warm to cold or wet to dry.

Clocking in at more than forty miles per hour, they tear across the land like rampaging beasts, roaring and shrieking. The entire landscape seems to billow. Wheat bends and straightens in waves, windrows of fresh-cut alfalfa scatter. Tree branches lash and clouds roil over one another like sea lions at play. Tarps whip free of their moorings. Entire flakes of hay fly from my arms to plaster themselves like absurd spiders on nearby fences.

And the horses, oh, the horses! They whirl like devils in the dust. Shades of excitement dance with terror in their eyes. Muscles taut, tails wrapped like myriad tentacles around their hocks, they prance a narrow line between exuberance and fear.

Training doesn't happen in winds like this. Even gentled, virtually bomb-proof mounts turn green again, and green horses regress to wild things.

Committed as I am to almost daily training, I refuse to give in to any but the hardest rain, the sharpest hail, the slickest ice and deepest snow. These things can be dealt with, worked around, dressed for, sheltered from.

But wind, merciless wind! It won't be reckoned with. Speak to it in a moment's pause, and your words will hurl away on the next and greater gust. Better to come inside, watch from the window those thundering hooves. A training session fraught with frustration is worse than no session at all.

Let it go, let it blow. Try again tomorrow.


Related Posts
Oh Wind, if Winter Comes

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Backside in the Saddle

Did you notice whose butt that is? (Yes, of course it's mine! I meant the horse.)

Saturday was Consolation's big day. Though I did sit on her once last year, just before winter set in, but we can say she's officially started under saddle.

So far, Consolation has proven an easier subject than Aaruba. I'm always intrigued by how different stimuli affect different horses. Something that sends one into an emotional tailspin may not make another so much as blink.

Aaruba came to me with a few rides on him and a reputation for bolting when mounted. To break the bolting habit, I identified the precise cause of the behavior by breaking the pre-mounting and mounting process into steps. It turned out that he was terrified of seeing a rider's leg swinging over his hindquarters -- so terrified that I used a blue foam swimming pool "noodle" to desensitize him before even trying to climb aboard.

Consolation, on the other hand, had no issues with objects swinging over her back. What set her off was the strangeness of seeing a handler bobbing up and down at her side, and the thump of dismounting feet. So, for the last week, I've been doing a lot of jumping up and down beside her. I started at the end of the leadrope and worked closer until I could bounce around like a maniac while tugging on the saddle and her mane. I'm sure the neighbors were highly amused. (On the bright side, I can now model for the cover of Calves of Steel.)

Before mounting, I reviewed lateral flexion and disengaging the hindquarters.
Once aboard, one of the first things I did was check to be sure that emergency brake still worked, because a horse can't bolt or buck when its hindquarters are disengaged.

And then we were off. I let Consolation choose her direction at first, allowing her to focus on balancing the strange, new weight on her back. She showed an obvious preference for turning to the left, so after a few minutes of wandering around, I asked her to turn right instead. She resisted enough to make me a bit nervous, but gave in when she discovered that the rules with me astride are the same as when I'm on the ground: Give to pressure, and you get instant release.

Back on the ground, I considered the ride. I was a bit disturbed by Consolation's resistant attitude until I remembered that such behavior is very much in keeping with her personality. When something is new and uncomfortable, she tries to take control of the situation. Firm consistency on my part works her through the discomfort and back into compliance.

Sure enough, Sunday's ride was notably better. I'm sure we'll encounter more bumps in the road -- the fourth through seventh rides on a green horse are notorious for being the most eventful because the horse is often a little muscle sore and has gained confidence in her balance under a rider -- but this is, nonetheless, and auspicious beginning.
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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Glory in Motion: Riding at the Speed of Delight

As I drove home from the office yesterday, steely rainclouds pelted my windshield with more water than the wipers could keep at bay. I toyed absentmindedly with the heater and radio knobs, debating whether to ride Aaruba, or just do a bit of liberty work with him, when I got home.

As I dashed from car to house, the idea of half an hour in the round corral seemed much more appealing than that of ninety minutes of trekking along the roadside, drenched with rain and tire spray. On the other hand, our forecast suggested that today might not be any better. So, I whipped up a quick snack, shimmied into my Patagonia's, and grabbed my Wintec Aussie saddle instead of the usual Stonewall.

Light rain dotted the saddle as I tacked up, but by the time I swung astride, the band of clouds had blown eastward. Aaruba and I set off after them...and darn near caught them, too.

Aaruba was brimming with energy after two days spent resting and chowing down on a diet calculated to pack more pounds on his frame. Last fall, a serious impaction colic put him in the hospital for almost a week. He lost 250 pounds and gained a name for himself as one of the most unlikely survivors his team of vets had ever seen. Confined all winter by atrocious weather and worse footing, he regained a respectable amount of weight, but I couldn't put as much food energy into him as I'd have liked to because everything I tried turned him into a frustrated, head-tossing, paddock-pacing beast.

Now that he's on a conditioning program, however, it's time to pad him out a bit more. Unlike human athletes, who perform best with as little body fat as possible, horses rely on stored fat to provide energy during prolonged exercise. Free choice oat hay, supplemental alfalfa, and several pounds of oats dressed with corn oil are doing the trick...but the first ride after a good rest period can be an adventure.

Sure enough, after a mile's warm-up at a walk and jog, Aaruba turned on the turbo. Neck curved in that glorious Arabian arch, he charged along the gravel shoulder, shying at mailboxes and songbirds for the sheer amusement of it. Half laughing, half cursing, I jostled for balance in the unfamiliar saddle with its relatively forward seat, narrow leathers, and standard English irons. (Perhaps next time I want to test a new saddle, I'll do it when the horse is a touch less fresh.)

Three miles down the road, we were still cruising along, all speed and suspension, far exceeding our prescribed 6 mph pace. A familiar mantra played in my mind: Ride the horse and not the plan. Usually, this admonition reminds me to slow down, give the horse time, scrap the plan if the horse isn't ready to follow it. This, however, seemed a rare opportunity to exceed the constraints of my Training Tracker.

"Okay, fella," I told Aaruba. "Let 'er rip."

Though Aaruba would gladly have offered a hand gallop, such an effort would be foolhardy at this stage of conditioning. We agreed instead upon a surging trot. Normally, we jog for miles on a slack rein, but today the lines between us sang with tension.

May I go faster? he said.

If you can do it at a trot, I said.

I can, he said, and pulled his hindquarters deep.

His shoulders pulsed beneath me and the road spun out behind. Heat rose from his skin, engulfing my hands and warming my calves. Having reached a truce with the new saddle, I posted low and steady, my grip firm on the reins, a conduit transmitting energy from haunch to head and back again.

You know the feeling: It's acing the interview for your dream job, kissing someone you hardly know, traversing a high ropes course, rafting the Colorado. It's being a child on the beach, ankle deep in riptide, wondering if it's just you or the whole earth that moves.

It's seeing thousands of training hours turn to gold.

Our sixth and seventh miles took us up a gradual incline. Slowly, Aaruba's neck relaxed out of its arch. He even consented to walk the eighth and final mile, reducing our average speed to 7 mph. Back on the farm, I released him in a grassy pen. He rolled, took a few bites of grass, then leaped and spun on a gust of wind -- clearly, as they say in the endurance world, "fit to continue."


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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Overcoming Fear: Handling Horses with Confidence

Few words are more powerful than those that come from the mouths of a people we respect. What might be a throwaway comment in the mind of the speaker twines itself around the mind of the listener, fortifying or degrading, often lingering for years.

When Travis and I were newly acquainted with the Barb horse, we spent a great deal of time at Quien Sabe Ranch, fountainhead of Robert Painter's efforts to preserve the ancient breed. One of the first things I learned there was how little I knew. My own childhood of lesson stables and country rides paled in comparison to Painter's seventy years among the horses. Not only did he have years on me, he also had countless hours of experience with unhandled horses.

Once recognized as the equine expert among my peers, I found myself utterly unprepared to work with the Painter herd. Oh, I knew how to tack up, pick hooves, sidepass and serpentine, apply splint boots and clip fetlocks. I understood cross-tie safety, stall mats, scratches, and colic symptoms. I could clean stalls, apply linament, post on the correct diagonal, and choose supplements...none of which did me any good amidst a herd of horses as yet untouched by human hands.

Compounding my uncertainty was the increased awareness of mortality that comes with age. Since the horse-keeping days of my youth, I'd suffered enough injuries to be relieved of the notion that "it won't happen to me." Barbs are not large horses, but they are possessed of an indefinable presence, an energy that is at once impressive and intimidating. I shocked myself -- a lifelong horse lover -- by reacting with fear.

Afraid of being stepped on or knocked over by the hot-blooded, unpredictable, nervous horses, I moved timidly in their presence. I stood with my feet well back from their hooves, touched their skins lightly so as not to startle them. Such treatment only served to make them more afraid, so progress was slow.

Most disheartening of all was Robert Painter's declaration that, "Very few people can start these horses."

What little confidence I had left all but dissolved in the wake of those words. After Travis and I left Quien Sabe, I lay awake many nights wondering how I, who had never worked with anything but truely "domestic" horses, could possibly gentle the seven precious, exquisitely sensitive, virtually wild Barbs in my pasture -- let alone train them for endurance competition.

There was nothing for it but to try. I read every website and book I could find about horse training. I attended equine expositions to compile the wisdom of various trainers. More than once, I left these expos in tears of despair. So many horses that couldn't touch my Barbs in quality, but whose training made them fit to present and promote! So I studied longer, harder, and meanwhile Travis and I struggled to scrape together enough cash for a round corral.

We also bought another horse -- a four year old Arabian named Aaruba Sunsette. The idea was to give me a practice horse, a gentled but unfinished project on which to hone my training skills before starting on the higher stakes Barbs that, Painter had convinced me, could be ruined by a single wrong move.

Unfortunately, my confidence was so low that I was anxious even around Aaruba. Though I knew he was accustomed to handling -- I'd seen his previous owner stand behind him and tug on his tail in a bizarre effort to catch him in a small space, an action that didn't seem to disturb Aaruba in the slightest -- fear still choked my efforts to train him. Young and emotional, he came with a thirty day start under saddle and a reputation for bolting when mounted. More than once, I primed myself for a training session with half a shot of vodka.

While I certainly don't recommend mixing alcohol with equestrian activities, I will admit those shots of liquid courage help set me on the road to recovery. They quieted my nerves sufficiently that I could quiet my horse.

You see, it never occurs to a horse that his handler's fear might be of the horse himself. As a prey animal, a horse's response to anxiety among his fellows is critical to survival. When I --the herd leader -- am afraid, I communicate to my horse that his anxiety is justified.

Attempts to conceal nervousness from a horse are rarely effective. Horses are too perceptive, too well attuned to the dilation of pupils and speeding of pulse, to be fooled by false confidence. Fortunately, I find that I can that I can trick my own body into releasing tension. Consciously relaxing my shoulders and sighing deeply goes a long way toward soothing my mind, which in turn soothes my horse. (These actions also work well when I'm not nervous, but my horse is.)

Vodka notwithstanding, the best tonic for handler anxiety is experience. After two years of spending several hours each day among my Barbs, I rarely worry anymore that a horse, even an ungentled one, will step on or into me. I now prefer to stand so close to them that their shoulders warm my chest as I rub their trembling necks, for I know this comforts them. I trust my instincts and have conditioned myself to remain calm regardless of my horse's emotional level.

Ironically, Aaruba has proven the most challenging member of my herd. He's flightier than the Barbs, less practical, more prone to losing focus in moments of stress. Indeed, the Barbs are positively easy to train by comparison.

To be fair, I believe Robert Painter based his discouraging pronouncement that "very few people can start these [Barbs]" on bad experiences with cowboy-style "trainers" who believe dominating a horse is more important that understanding it. It is true that Barbs generally have too much courage to allow themselves to be manhandled. Rather than submitting to rough handling, a Barb will fight back. Fairly treated, however, he will respond with uncommon loyalty and intelligence to match.

But what is so difficult about that? I've done my research, and it has paid off. I understand things now that I never needed to understand back in my days of working with domesticated horses. I've learned how horses think, learned to speak their language rather than waiting on their attempts to learn mine. I've learned that horses are the embodiment of their own emotions, all honesty and prey and will to survive.

Whether that makes me one of the "very few," I don't know. But, I can tell you this: In empathizing with my Barbs, I forget to worry about myself.

...and I can start these horses.


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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Fitting Room: Endurance Tack

As I surf the web and local libraries for information about endurance racing, I am frequently reminded that endurance riders are nothing if not singleminded in their pursuit of ideal equipment. "Ideal" has little to do with appearance, however. Spending up to twenty straight hours in the saddle seems a strong motivator that sends fashion out the window in favor of comfort for horse and rider.

Aaruba and I are early in our journey -- our first 15-mile conditioning ride is scheduled for next Sunday -- but already we've embarked on a quest for the perfect tack. Let me begin by saying that I'm a borderline minimalist. I think it was two-time Tevis Cup winner Potato Richardson who said something to the effect of, "If you can't ride fifty miles without ten pounds of gear in your pack, you're in the wrong sport." All the same, I'm gradually compiling a list of items that work well for me and Aaruba, even if they do earn me a lot of strage looks from passing pleasure riders.

The saddle: Right now, I'm using a Stonewall endurance saddle I picked up at a local garage sale. The centerfire rigging took some getting used to, but I like the extra stability and Aaruba hasn't had a single rub from his neoprene cinch.

The saddle fits me perfectly, but I'm becoming concerned that it doesn't quite fit Aaruba. When I untack after a ride, there's ruffled hair just behind his withers, particularly on the near side. This tells me the saddle isn't quite as stable as it ought to be. Also, after about seven miles, Aaruba tends to start head-tossing at the trot -- a sign of possible back pain. On our next ride, I'm going to see if I can place the saddle slightly further forward to get a better fit without interfering with his shoulders. If that doesn't work, I'll try him in my Wintec aussie instead.

The stirrups: I got a pair of E-Z Ride Nylon Stirrups with Cage for Christmas. They're very lightweight, and the 4-inch width makes miles of posting much easier on my feet. Because I ride in low-heeled, soft leather workboots, I feel safer with the cage to prevent my foot slipping through the stirrup. Many endurance riders hit the trails in tennis shoes, so caged stirrups are a popular choice.

The pad: Before ordering this red 5 Star wool saddle pad, I asked whether it would turn my horse pink. The tack store owner assured me it would not, and he was right...until our first long, sweaty ride of the season. Other than that, however, I've been quite pleased with this product.

The breastcollar: We're currently using a plain, nylon, Y-style breastcollar. I'd like to find red fleece tubes to cover the straps. I know they exist -- I've seen them. Just not for sale. Anywhere.

The bridle: Aaruba's prior owner, while a kind trainer in general, did a poor job of introducing the bit. As a result, Aaruba much prefers to go bitless. I might have chosen that option anyway, considering it's very convenient to simply loosten the noseband of my Dr. Cook's Bitless Bridle so Aaruba can graze on the trail. (Beware: the site is nauseatingly sales-pitchy.) I ride with a 6-foot, very lightweight lead rope snapped to one of the side rings on the bridle. This is handy when I get off to lead Aaruba past fields of terrifying, fanged cows from Planet Horseflesh. I bought my non-split, soft cotton rope reins from a local tack shop.

The boots: Aaruba has never worn steel shoes, and I hope he never will. However, the miles on gravel are adding up, and the time has come for us to experiment with hoof boots. Last weekend, we tested a pair of old-style (50% off!) Easyboot Bares on his front hooves. They were a bit difficult to get on and off -- Travis had to do it for me -- but didn't seem to bother Aaruba at all. He went sound and confident on all surfaces, though he did slip just a little when we descended a steep hill on grass. Even at high speeds and on uneven terrain, the boots never threatened to come off.

After two rides totaling eighteen miles, the gaiters had rubbed a bit of hair off the back of Aaruba's pasterns. Though the instructions say to tighten the gaiters as much as possible, other reviewers say they've eliminated similar rubbing by loostening the gaiter straps. I'll let Aaruba's hair grow back, then give that a try. I'm not nearly as worried about solving a gaiter-rubbing problem as I would be if the boots had rubbed his heel bulbs, but today's minor rub can become tomorrow's nasty sore, so the situation bears careful monitoring.

Miscellaneous: With hot weather coming on, complete with pocket-less tank tops and breeches, I've purchased a neoprene cell phone holster. It's comfortable to wear on the back of my calf, where I hope it won't cause a massive bruise in the event of an unscheduled departure from the saddle.

Another piece of equipment I refuse to ride without is my Tipperary Sportage riding helmet. It's not high fashion, but it's comfortable. I figure that if I'm going to race through unknown territory aboard a high-strung prey animal, the least I can do is put an extra layer of padding between my brain and the nearest boulder.
I've discovered that a thin, knit cap from Target fits under my helmet to protect my ears from the cold. Windproof fleece, fleece riding gloves, and Patagonia long johns also help get me through these chilly spring rides.

The only other item I take along on rides is a hoof pick, which I thread through a strap on Aaruba's breastcollar. With hot weather coming on, however, I'm in the market for a good cantle bag with water bottle holders. I'll also add a few extras like a sponge-on-a-string for lowering into creeks, then squeezing out over Aaruba's forequarters to assist with cooling.

I gather from more experienced riders that this quest for perfect equipment will be endless. If you have favorite items, feel free to comment. Meanwhile, I'll keep you posted.

Follow this link for a tack update!

Related Posts

Back in the Fitting Room: Endurance Tack and Rider Gear

The Stocking Trick (Or, Aaruba Dresses in Drag)

Tack Test: Indian Bosal

New Duds: Interference Boots for a Barefoot Endurance Horse

Upward in the Night


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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Applied Physics

As part of my undergraduate work, I took a course entitled "Conceptual Physics." The point of the course was to introduce and enhance an understanding of physics without the usual trappings of mathematical formulas that look like someone spilled alphabet soup on your textbook. Having always been the writing and literature type, I surprised myself by ranking the course as one of my all-time favorites.

Early in the semester, we reviewed the concepts of inertia and momentum. Inertia is defined as the tendency of an object at rest to remain at rest, or the tendency of an object in motion to remain in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force.

Momentum is a bit more complicated, but it can reasonably be defined as a property of a moving object that determines the length of time and amount of force required to stop the moving object. A particular object's momentum is a product of its mass and velocity.

I find that inertia and momentum affect not only the physical world, but also our mental environments. When we make a commitment to reach a goal -- losing 30 pounds, saving enough money to replace the carpet with hardwood, or training that filly in the back pasture -- we throw ourselves into a surf of conflicting forces that will do all they can to thwart us.

People who know me well call me one of the most committed, goal-oriented people they know. (The term obsessive is applied with some regularity.) Indeed, I do my best to abide by a strict training schedule that obligates me to work with at least two horses every weeknight, and four per day on weekends. I know that, by following this schedule, I will reach my stated, annual training and conditioning goals for each horse.

And yet, inertia comes into play. Though I enjoy my day job and put a lot of effort into it, such work renders me, for horse training purposes, an "object at rest." How easy it is, after a busy day at the office, to look for excuses not to train tonight! I need to go grocery shopping. It's really windy out. I'm still getting over that cold. It's just one day.

But, almost always, I pull on my boots and head out to the round corral anyway. Why? Because an object at rest tends to stay at rest. "Just one day" often turns into "just two days," and suddenly it's Wednesday and a third of my training week is gone, and there isn't time to catch up because each training hour ahead is already booked to another horse. Meanwhile, I'm left feeling frustrated with myself because I know I haven't lived up to my own potential.

Happily, inertia works both ways. When I'm "in motion" and making daily progress with the horses, I remain excited about the next day's lessons. The mass of previous successes builds momentum like a snowball rolling down a hill, getting harder and harder to stop.

This momentum is what propels me through days like today, when it's 40 degrees out, 25 mph winds rage, rain threatens, and I would prefer to skip Aaruba's 12-mile conditioning ride. If I hadn't been consistently conditioning him over the past six weeks, watching his physique change and attitude brighten, it would be all too easy to put off this ride until another day...and chances are, we wouldn't be ready for the Owyhee Fandango next month.

You see, the last part of the definition of inertia is the most critical. An object tends to keep doing what it's doing unless acted upon by an outside force. When it comes to goal-seeking, the outside force is choice -- your choice. No one is going to make you get outdoors and train your horse. That filly isn't likely to complain about another day of loafing. But how are you going to feel about it?

Will you feel the daily twinge of guilt when you head out to feed tonight, glance over at your dusty saddle, and wish you'd pulled away from your housekeeping or blogging or bill paying to put in an hour of training? Or, will you bask in the satisfaction of having made the right choice, begun the journey of a thousand miles, given the snowball a hearty shove? Today, tomorrow, and next week, the choice is yours.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have a horse to ride.


Related Posts

Of Lions and Lambs: Horse Training as a Discipline


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Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Horse I Lead: Starting Horses Under Saddle

I don't recall which trainer said or wrote it, but the line stuck with me: The horse you ride is the horse you lead.

I mentioned to Travis the other day that, according to my Training Tracker, I'm supposed to be riding Consolation by the end of this month.

"Is she ready for that?" he asked.

I assume his raised eyebrow had something to do with one of Consolation's recent handwalks, during which she and I struggled for control.

"Sure," I said. "In the round corral."

In the round corral, Consolation is respectful and quiet, attentive and practical. The basics of handling are ingrained to the point of being automatic. We've done many confidence building exercises (commonly referred to as de-spooking or sacking out). Even under stress, she obeys, and mounting up will be just another confidence-bulider because, in the round corral, Consolation leads like a horse I'd choose to ride.

Outside the round corral, I have a different horse on my hands. Consolation's emotions go up and her attentiveness goes down. She occasionally sways close to the brink of trying to take over control. This is natural for a horse that's only been on a few handwalks, but it doesn't make for a horse I'd want to ride.

The horse you lead is the horse you ride.

So, over the next few weeks, I'll start Consolation under saddle in the round corral, get her bending and stopping, backing and trotting. Meanwhile, we'll continue taking long handwalks across the countryside. Eventually, the horse I lead out there will be the same horse I'm willing to ride in here.

And ride I will.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Outing Stress: Communicating with Horses

Acey's training is at once ahead of and behind Consolation's. Consolation knows more because I've spent more time with her, but her personality is less inclined to trust and submit. Acey, though less experienced, is generally happy to follow me around and explore with new challenges.

Acey also possesses an obvious emotional barometer. All horses are honest, of course, but Acey waves her emotions like a flag. She tightens her chin at onset of the slightest tension, stretches her upper lip when scratched, calmly accepts new but carefully introduced stimuli...and doesn't hesitate to bolt from perceived danger.

This last tendency has resulted in a few incidents in which a panicky Acey pulled the lead from my hands and made a run for it. I really hate for this to happen, not least because I'd prefer a horse never learn that it is capable of escaping its handler. It also makes me quite sure that I need to do more work with Acey before taking her for walks around the fields where our first rides will occur -- hopefully by the end of June.

Problems like this make me glad that I keep careful notes regarding my training sessions. When training four to six horses at any given time, it's easy to forget (or mis-remember) exactly how much time I've spent on a particular lesson with a particular horse. I checked my notes from last year, and sure enough, Acey hasn't done nearly enough direction-change work on the lunge.

This simple exercise is well described in Charles Wilhelm's book Building Your Dream Horse. It involves moving the horse in a circle around the handler and frequently asking the horse to make inside turns to change direction. The benefits of the exercise are myriad:

1) The horse learns to give to pressure.

2) The horse learns to bend.

3) Once learned, the exercise can be used to satisfy a spooked horse's flight instinct while keeping him focused on the handler.

4) Once learned, the exercise can do anything from entertaining a bored horse during a long wait to putting a misbehaving horse to work.

It goes almost without saying that a horse conditioned to turn toward the handler in response to pressure on the halter will be much less likely to break loose in a panic situation.

Normally, I do this exercise using a 10-foot lead rope. Acey, however, seemed to find that method too high-pressure. She pulled against me and sped up so that I couldn't effectively "bump" her back toward me rather than allowing her to continue pulling. Before she could form a bad habit of pulling, I switched to a soft, cotton lunge line instead. Doing so gave her more space and let the round corral keep her from pulling to the outside so we could both focus on direction changes.

At first, she was nervous and resistant. I had to use dramatic body language (backing away and turning my "center" to close the door forward), significant halter pressure, and an occasional flick of the whip to get Acey through the initial direction changes.

After a few repetitions, however, she settled into the exercise and responded to a much lighter touch.

We also reviewed some other give-to- pressure exercises. This one, which I also use to train a horse to tie, involves asking the horse to follow pressure from a long rope looped around a solid object, even though I am moving in a different direction. (Note: Do not attempt this with standard, 16-gauge panels! Our round corral panels are 7 foot high, 12-gauge steel locked together at the top so they cannot be pulled more than about 12 inches inward, even by a panicking horse.)

This exercise, which I normally use to introduce a very green horse to the idea of the handler dis- appearing from one side of his hindquarters and reappearing on the other side, involves looping the lead rope around the hindquarters, standing on the horse's opposite side, and asking the horse to follow the halter pressure around to face me. (Obviously, the horse in question should be comfortable with having ropes around its hind legs before attempting this maneuver.)

Just because Acey is learning responsiveness to the halter in the safe, familiar round corral doesn't mean she'll remain responsive out in the big, scary world. Before taking her out, I need to teach her to respond even under stress. I'll do this by intentionally increasing her emotional level in the round corral, then asking her to work through the stress.

How? By asking her to perform the familiar give-to-pressure exercises with a rope dangling around her gaskins, while trotting over a tarp or poles, with plastic bags tied to her tack, etc.

These are fun lessons that serve to build the horse's confidence and the trainer-trainee relationship. Acey will learn to trust me and respond to my instructions despite being under stress, and I will learn her typical stress responses and how best to mitigate them.

Only then will Acey be ready to really break free.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Miniature Milestone: Endurance Conditioning

On Wednesday evening, Aaruba and I cruised through an intersection, punched our stopwatch, and completed our 100th conditioning mile of 2008.

One hundred miles is nothing when you consider that there are endurance horses with 10,000 competitive miles to their name...not to mention conditioning miles.

But still, after four years of longing to enter the endurance world, there's nothing quite like being on the road at last. Onward and upward, my fuzzy friend!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Driver's Ed: Training Horses to Ground Drive

Ground driving is one of my favorite training tools. It teaches a horse to listen for instructions from behind and builds his confidence as he learns to go straight and steady without the support of a handler at his side. For an endurance prospect, driving is also good preparation for tailing up hills.

Ground driving with a bridle is a familiar training technique many trainers use to teach a young horse to respond to the bit. I do some of that, but I spend much more time on simply driving the horse with a rope halter and ten-foot lead -- first in the round corral, then around the alfalfa fields, and finally along country roads.

Consolation had her second driving lesson a few days ago. Before starting on driving, I made sure she was well grounded in the prerequisites: Lunging, giving to pressure (including turn on the hindquarters, turn on the forehand, and vertical flexion of the poll), and response to a verbal "whoa." Responsiveness is also key -- note that throughout the lesson, my hand doesn't close on the lead rope.

I started the lesson by lunging Consolation at the end of a ten-foot lead.

Gradually, I stepped toward and behind her while asking her to continue moving forward. At first, she was unsure of what I wanted. Searching for the right answer, she offered to stop, turn toward me, and trot. I kept trying, returning her to circling around me when necessary, until she understood that her job was simply to carry on while I walked along near her hindquarters.

Once she was comfortable with our relative positions, I started asking her to turn to the inside (toward the side on which I was walking). I turned my body away from her to "open the door" to the turn. Because we've done liberty work and she is accustomed to responding to my body angle, she turned easily.

We practiced a few circles of various sizes.

Outside turns (away from me) were a bit harder. Again, I used body position, this time angling my center to push her away from me. To Consolation, this seemed a strange request, so I reinforced it with a rouch on her girth, essentially requesting a turn on the on the hindquarters.

After a few tries, she got it.

When asking Consolation to stop, I wanted her to remain facing forward with me by her side. However, she thought she should turn and face me. I simply kept stepping back into position and commanding "whoa" until she stopped and didn't pivot to face me. Her reward was a scratch on the tailhead and a few moments of standing still.

"Walk on" was a simple matter of using body language to make my request clear.

And off we went.

Good girl!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Breaking Free: Training the Herdbound Horse

I've been fortunate with Aaruba in that, for all his nervous tension, he's never hesitated a moment in walking away from the other horses.

Consolation, however, is a different story. She's lead mare in our herd and until recently had never in her life been more than a hundred feet away from her fellows. I discovered late last year that all her attentiveness and respect in the round corral vanished as soon as we stepped outside her comfort zone.

Herdbound behavior is very common, and it can be at its worst when the horse in question is dominent in the herd. Not only does such a horse have an ingrained sense of responsiblity toward the herd, but she is also accustomed to taking control of a situation that frightens her rather than depending on another horse (or human) to provide direction. In Consolation's case, this meant that leading her away from the group resulted in frenzied neighing and struggling for control.

Now that I'm on the verge of starting Consolation under saddle, then conditioning her for endurance, the time has come for Consolation to break free of the herd. I started the process about three weeks ago, after I was confident that several pre-requisites were firmly in place:

1) She understood giving to pressure, particularly halter pressure. This meant that even in frightening situations, she would not "run through" the halter and get loose.

2) She understood lateral and vertical flexion, and could turn on the forehand and hindquarters from either side. These tools would be useful for redirecting her attention and making her work.

3) She understood lunging and direction changes on the lunge. This would provide a safe way to blow off steam if necessary, as well as another means of making her work.

Our first lesson consisted of leading through the gate and stopping at the point Consolation grew nervous -- which was only about 15 feet away. We stood there until she calmed down, then headed back to the round corral, where we practiced flexion for several minutes. Then, we went back out, back in, out and in, lather, rinse, repeat. The principles I was communicating were these:

1) You don't need to worry about leaving. We will always come back.

2) Coming back is not about food and relaxation. We work when we're home, but you get to rest when we're away.

We finished the first lesson having gone no more than 40 feet away from the familiar compound. The next day, we went as far as 100 feet. Within the week, we were able to loop clear around the house -- which briefly blocked the other horses from view -- and back, working each time we returned and relaxing while away.

By the end of the second week, we could go a quarter mile down the road. Whenever she started to lose focus or get panicky, I'd ask for a simple task, such as trotting in hand, circling, or flexing vertically and backing, to recall her attention.

All seemed well, but I often find that just when I think a horse has accepted a lesson, there's one more, big blowup to come. It's as though the horse learns what is expected, then gives it a hard test before accepting it for good.

Consolation's blowup happened last Wednesday. While on our customary jaunt down the road, she grew increasingly agitated in response to the other horses' neighs. My attempts to regain her attention worked for only moments at a time, resulting in further correction and an ensuing battle of wills. As Consolation's frustration grew, and I had to remind myself that my emotions have no place in my training. I need to deal with the issue at hand, calmly and fairly. Any escalation must be at the horse's initiative, not mine.

We made it back home, and I put into action the plan I'd formed during our contentious return journey. I set Consolation to lunging at the end of the ten-foot lead rope. At first, she blasted around me as quickly as possible (but always respecting pressure on the halter), keen to release pent-up energy. Several minutes and multiple direction changes later, however, the effort involved in balancing at speed on a small circle began to sink in.

I kept her going past the point of comfort, then calmly gathered her up and started down the road again. We hadn't gone far when she grew agitated. As soon as I could regain her attention and take a few, calm steps forward, we headed back...and lunged some more.

I didn't time the lesson, but I'd guess we spent almost two hours repeating the going-away-is-easy, coming-home-is-hard pattern. Finally, Consolation remained calm and attentive for a walk away from home and back. I lunged her a few, final rounds, then brushed her sweaty neck and called it good.

That lesson seems to have been the break- through she needed. Whereas a month ago, I couldn't easily lead her out the driveway, we're now taking almost-daily walks out across the valley.

There are few things as bonding as being out with a horse, two mere specks in a vast landscape, with nothing but a little rope and a lot of trust holding you together.

Congratulations on breaking free, M'Lady. Here's to thousands of miles together.


Related Posts

Where To, Ma'am: First Trail Ride on a Green Horse

Thinking it Through: Training Horses as Individuals

Connecting the Dots: Breakthroughs in Horse Training

Moving Out: Increasing Speed and Confidence on the Trail


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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Shot in the Dark: Beauty

Never lose an opportunity of seeing something beautiful,
for beauty is God's handwriting.

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Moment of Silence: Communicating with Horses

After a sleepless night spent trying to save a newborn lamb, followed by a day of urging it to nurse, I was in no mood to train horses on Monday. Exhausted and achey, with frustration bubbling just below the surface, I didn't trust myself with something so permeable as a horse's mind.

The pressure was on. As of April 1, my training schedule hit full swing. Though Aaruba was enjoying a day off from conditioning, I was supposed to work with Consolation and Acey, preparing them to start under saddle. Time was ticking, consistency was key, goals tapped their fingers on my brain. Missing a day was not acceptable.

But, as Robert Painter told me many times, "Everything you do with a horse is training."

Horses don't come with an off switch. I can't tell them I'm sorry to be snappish, it isn't their fault, they shouldn't be offended. Their sense of justice doesn't evaporate because I am in a bad mood. An undeserved jerk of the leadrope could create a rift in our relationship that takes weeks to heal.

If I want to be trusted, I must be trustworthy.

Still, I couldn't stay away from the horses entirely. Leaving all tack behind, I led Aaruba from his pen and let him graze while I groomed him. His coat, still fuzzy from winter, ruffled and gleamed in the sunset breeze. His ears flickered pleasantly, and the smell of spring grass wafted so sweet that I wished I could eat it, too.

I found myself sinking into Aaruba's smaller world, his life that is just this moment. Swishing tail, smooth muscle, warm body, kind eye. Drifting tufts of winter hair. Stomping hoof muffled by earth. His pulse, soft as dusk, that bumps my hand upon his throat. His heartbeat, mine. Together. At peace.


Related Posts

Do You Hear What I See?
Outing Stress
Enough is Enough
Being the Better Horse

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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Being the Better Horse: Communicating with Horses

Every few months, we at In the Night Farm play musical horses. This is a strategy game in which we decide who will live in which paddock, and with whom. There's plenty to consider: some individuals need special feed, others require extra space to move around or must be highly accessible for training purposes, and some just don't get along.

This last factor became a real issue during last Saturday's round of musical horses. We moved Sand- storm, Ripple, and Aaruba into a large paddock together on the theory that Aaruba would be able to defend his grain, and the girls could provide company while all three enjoyed the extra space.

Or not.

The instant I turned him loose, Aaruba proceeded to whip the mares, particularly Sandstorm, into a frenzy. Driving her with neck outstretched and teeth bared, he pinned her in corners and sent her full-tilt at fences. I watched for several minutes, wincing at each narrow escape, in the hope they'd work out their differences and high spirits, then settle to eating hay.

Unfortunately, though Sandstorm and Ripple offered to submit, Aaruba showed no sign of resting on his laurels. One particularly harrowing moment involving a downhill scramble toward a wire mesh fence sent me hustling for the gate.

My Barbs and Arabian may be small compared to most horses in the U.S. today, but I am a whole lot smaller. And yet, I was fully confident as I stepped into the fray. At my shout of "Whoa!" Aaruba slammed to a halt. Sides heaving, lips hoary with a bite of Sandstorm's winter coat, he swung around to face me for instructions. With a hand on his jaw, I led him from the paddock.

What magic is this, that a 900-pound hurricane of hooves and muscle bows to my fingertips, even my voice?

I've read the work of so many trainers that I don't recall whose verbiage I borrowed for the title of this post (Parelli, perhaps?), but experiences like Saturday's remind me that there is nothing so important in my horse-human relationships as establishing that I, the trainer, am the better horse.

No human can be physically superior to an equine, of course. Even a week-old foal's kick can knock a strong man flat. However, creating an illusion of physical superiority is a key component of earning a horse's respect. This is particularly true in the case of strong-willed, young, or ungentled horses.

Twitches and stud chains are not the answer, particularly with courageous, hot-blooded breeds. Such devices work only until the trainer's back is turned, if that long, and they'd have done me no good in halting Aaruba's rampage.

Instead, I use the round corral to convince a horse that I can run longer and faster than he. Then, unlike Aaruba, I acknowledge and reward the bowed head, the attentive ear, the lick and chew that signal submission. Over time, I demonstrate to the horse that I am not only unthreatening, but wise. I provide safety in the face of apparent danger, guidance in new situations. I become his leader.

The magic is simply this: To train not the horse's body, but his mind. True, the training is accomplished through the use of physical motion and pressures because these comprise the equine vocabulary, but it is to the mind that we speak.

Among themselves, my horses will establish a hierarchy as nature intended. But I had better be sure -- for my safety and theirs -- that when I stand among the herd, even the most dominant member knows beyond doubt that I am the better horse.


Related Posts

Do You Hear What I See?: Communicating with Horses
Outing Stress: Communicating with Horses
A Moment of Silence: Communicating with Horses
Enough is Enough: Communicating with Horses


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