I had a lesson booked for early Saturday morning. Shanea came for dinner Friday night and and stayed over so we could have an early start. It was nice to have time to chat and catch up. I brought her up to speed on the clinic and what we'd been working on. She was in agreement that I needed to be more clear and that Carmen's issues were behavioural and not physical.
Saturday dawned with blue skies and warm sun with the promise of heat later in the day. I was happy to be riding early. Truth be told, morning rides are my favourite anyway.
Carmen was pretty chill in the barn getting ready. This has been the case since we were away- she's quiet and not being at all pushy. I went through my groundwork checklist and then did some lunging. The task is simple- she's to stay in the gait I set for her and I leave her alone unless she breaks. Carmen has caught on to this pretty quickly. This time, at the canter she started to break and then was 'oh right, keep going' and then self-corrected. That made me happy.
I mounted and, you guys, she was so soft and easy.
screen shot from video
Shanea even commented that she'd never seen her start so soft before. I have to say that Carmen seems to be really liking this new bit. I find I can be a lot more refined in my cues. Also, interestingly, she's not opening her mouth or gaping. Look at how soft and happy she is here.
The lesson itself was nothing earth shattering but it was soooo nice to be working with a forward, happy horse rather than a bolting, spooking mess. Not that she wasn't tense at times- she was, but everything was so much easier.
remember when Carmen couldn't go in this corner without bolting or rearing? yeah, me neither. Carmen has no idea what I'm talking about....
We made sure to give her breaks and rewards for when she was really good and kept working when she was resistant. She's definitely figuring that out.
Shanea focussed on me keeping her underneath of me and stepping from behind. She definitely
felt less heavy. And she wasn't leaning on my hands and trying to steamroll around the ring.
so could I stop leaning forward? but at least my hands are soft....
We did lots of trotting and walking. I didn't hear a lot of Shanea telling me to let go of the inside rein, so that's good. I also found that I was able to not be so heavy in the stirrups.
yup, this corner is good too
It is amazing how much better you can ride when you are not worrying about being lawn darted into the ground.
I just love this photo, everything looks so soft and happy.
We worked on some leg yields with me keeping her on the outside rein. It was fun, even though it was starting to get hot.
We finished up with some canter work. Carmen was starting to tire and began to demonstrate it by being a bit spooky at B. I know that this means she wants a break but I can't give her one for this behaviour. So we worked through it and then gave her a break.
I was so happy with this lesson. It was awesome to be able to go to work and learn things without arguments. I know Shanea was happy and I'm pretty sure that Carmen is too.
I know I have to continue being diligent but it feels wonderful to be on this path.
reaching under with her hind leg and I'm actually sitting up.
It's been really warm the past few days with high humidity.
how to tell if it's humid out......
Carmen and I took Monday off. I used that day to catch up on a ton of chores: emptying the manure cart, cleaning tack, playing with Guinness (clearly the most important thing).
so much joy cannot be contained
I also spent time thinking about the clinic and my conversations with Nikki and Mike. My main take aways were that I needed to be really clear in what I was asking Carmen to do. I couldn't be distracted by other things. Which is easy when you are going over a narrow bridge. When I'm riding in the ring it's easy for my thoughts to wander.
I also need to have expectations that Carmen listen to my aids and follow through. I'm pretty sure that I have been accepting of sloppy answers, which would make everything negotiable.
also gardening- my hollyhocks have started blooming
Tuesday I wanted to ride early to beat the heat. It was still hot but not as much as it was going to be later. I wanted to use some of the advice I had from the weekend. AS always, I started with groundwork and she was so soft and quiet in every spot of the ring. I mounted and she was fine again. We walked around and I made sure that I was being clear with my aids and to have a strong vision in my mind about what I wanted to do (walk the quarter line, bend through a 10 m circle etc).
At the walk all was good. She had one spook in an area and I followed the advice to make that spot a work spot and when she began to try/listen reward and move on. Carmen was clearly a bit unsure about this but it went fine. Then I asked for a slow trot and the wheels began to come off. I won't bore you with the blow by blow but she began to ask me all sort of questions about my intent and whether it was reasonable.
I stayed on task and she began to escalate. I found myself in a full on bolt. She was not scared, nor was she running from anything. I think she was doing what normally works to get me to back off except this time I didn't. It was actually a bit frightening- I had zero control and she was just leaning on the bit and going. Since getting off was not an option I sat up and put my leg on steering her in a circle. I don't know how many circles we did (5? 10? 732?) but finally I pulled her up. I almost hopped off but didn't.
I took a deep breath and went back to work. It was, frankly, a bit of a shit show but I gritted my teeth and was clear that this was what I wanted and that was not the correct answer. The tricky part was to reward when did soften. And over the ride she began to soften again. When Ed asked me how my ride was I said 'great in the beginning, sucky in the middle and great at the end'. Which was accurate.
That night I changed out the bit to one that is a bit thinner although still a broken snaffle with a peanut in the middle. I just need something with a bit more leverage because clearly she has no respect for the Stubben golden wing.
Today I headed out early again. There was a plane circling around us for the whole ride (they were looking for an escaped fugitive but that's a different story. 2020 I am so fucking over you). I started with groundwork, except this time instead of focussing on getting her relaxed I focussed on her working. I wondered if the groundwork was not translating to under saddle because the GW was all about relaxation and the riding was about work. So I asked her to work. Nothing major- just if I put you on a trot or canter on the lunge keep going until I say stop.
This time mounted I felt much more focussed and aware of what I was doing. I made it crystal clear when it was what I wanted and when it wasn't. Listening led to a break (standing with a long rein). If she moved when I asked her to whoa I simply put her back. And then back. And back again until she would stand.
Here's the interesting part- she spooked at nothing. I was paying particular attention to her signals that a spook might be coming and reacted immediately. I'm sure you wondering how I reacted? It depended- it usually starts with a stiffening so I asked her to bend and would not give up until she did. As soon as she bent a teeny bit I released. Timing of the release is so critical. I visualized the straight line I wanted and made sure I got it.
It was a completely different ride. I also noticed that she responded well to the new bit too. If I asked for a downward transition she was much more respectful of it. I was standing at G after doing a walk half-pass giving her a break on a long rein. We heard some children shouting next door and she tensed and lifted her head. I simply picked up the rein lightly and she immediately dropped her head and softened. With that I hopped off and gave her a pat.
Clearly I have been too wishy-washy. Which I forgive myself for because I was worried that there was a physical issue. But now that I know that there is not I need to work on myself.
I didn't take a photo during the ride but she could have cared less bout the plane circling overhead- even when it came quite low over top of us
Last weekend I loaded up my trailer and Carmen and I headed off to a Trail Clinic with Mike and Nikki Porter. I've done one of these every year and LOVED them. Each time I go I leave with some new insights and confidence.
This time was going to be special because my two amazing friends, Paula and Karen, were also coming. I was looking forward to getting some insight into Carmen and what was going on. I was also worried that her behaviour would be off the charts. But I figured that it would be a great time to get their help.
The format of this clinic is pretty straightforward. We all meet early Saturday morning and talk about our horses and our goals. Then we are broken into the two groups. In the morning we all do groundwork. In the afternoon we practice the obstacles in hand and ride if we're ready. Sunday is a mix of in-hand and riding over the obstacles. Everyone gets attention from either Mike or Nikki. I have to say that it's totally worth the money. Not that it's expensive- it's not. Lunch is also provided.
Friday night I wanted to ride. I was a bit worried because the ring can be quite spooky. The far end is covered with a tarp and there is plastic covering windows that also have holes in them. Karen helped me and Carmen to stay on task but I was really tense which was not helping. I have to say that my self-confidence was at a low ebb.
Saturday morning and Carmen was feeling pretty
In the morning 'chat' I shared that I had been having some challenges with Carmen's behaviour and I was looking for insight. We then started our work in hand. I made sure to be at the far 'spooky' end. My groundwork skills are basically solid. Nikki gave me some good pointers to clean things up, which I really appreciated. We were asked to do this one exercise that I absolutely loved:
Mike drew a rectangle about 8-10 feet away from each of us. The goal was to move the horse to that rectangle and have them stand there. Easy enough when you can lead the horse there. But we weren't allowed to change our position. It really made you focus on what you were asking and adjust the cues. It took a few minutes but then TA-DAH!
look at her- like butter wouldn't melt in her mouth (also you can see what I mean about the far end being a spooky place)
Carmen was soft and easy. Not completely but, really she was a doll.
And that was how she was all weekend. Not a hoof out of place. No big explosions, no bolting, no balking.
Standing in the water box: Carmen: my toes are getting wet and this water is dirty Me: just stand here, K? Carmen: okay. Mike: are you sure that this is the mare you described?
celebrating a good day's work on Saturday.
Sunday she was even better than Saturday. Perhaps I was too- definitely my confidence was up.
Here's a video of us riding part of the pattern.
Clearly her issues are not physical- if they were then it would also be present at the clinic. I spent some time over the weekend trying to explain what I was dealing with at home. They listened to me carefully. What they hypothesized is that Carmen is using this behaviour to escape work. And that I should make her work harder where she acts up.
I also think that perhaps my intention is not always clear.
Armed with this knowledge I feel that I can move forward. It's always a worry when you think you are making horse work when they are in pain. Now that that is off the list I can move ahead. I'm also on 2 weeks vacation so I can take as much time as it takes to work through our stuff.
First of all I want to thank all of you who reached out to provide support.
And the reality check that things cannot always be unicorns and rainbows.
I've been riding since my last post and also, some days, just lunging. Goals for the rides have largely been:
1. working towards helping her relax while not backing down from my ask. Which is what I used to do. I would assume I was doing it 'wrong' and maybe I was but really it just taught her to be escalate (not that i did that all the time but should we talk about intermittent reinforcement schedules? Nah, let's just say we did).
2. Being careful with my aids so that I reward when she responds and that I don't nag with my aids or hang with my hands.
3. oh yeah, and work on adjustability in her stride and transitions off my seat. You know, dressage sutff.
And it seems to be working. I am very black and white- this is acceptable. this is not. Some rides it takes a long time for to sigh and then just relax into the work. There is a lot of praise for that. Yesterday she was cranky from the get go and really wanted to hang on the rein and pull me along. We did a lot of 'follow the rein' and 'no, I'm not going to fight'. It becomes like a switch- one minute she's rampaging around and the next minute she gives this big sigh, drops her head and everything relaxes.
turns out you can order this on Amazon. Or buy it life size like I did.....
Sigh. Mares are hard.
The key is very similar to raising teenage girls. Don't get sucked into the drama and do not agree that that bush is highly suspicious. Stay calm and relaxed. Which is easy to say but harder when you are riding 1100+ pounds of mare who's telegraphing that she's about to launch into the next county. But doing so keeps the pot on a simmer and not a roiling boil. And training is often just putting in the miles and on task.
Today I rode and she started tight but was trying really hard to listen. We had some great work at teh walk so we headed out to hack. At first she was tight again but soon was on the buckle. Of course Irish led the whole way. For those who think I should hack more, I'd love to but I only do it with someone. I don't have wide open spaces to deal with a bolt- instead I would be in a tree or down a gully and I don't fancy that.
I think I just need to persevere. I suspect hormones are causing some problems. I don't think it's ulcers because A. I work hard on prevention and B. she gets better in the ride not worse.
Starting tomorrow I'm on 2 weeks vacation which will be wonderful. I am headed off to a trail clinic this weekend and I'm looking forward to getting Mike and Nikki's perspective too.
I know that it's been a long time since I posted. To be honest, like many of you, I am in a bit of a funk. Partly it's simply 2020. The other part has been that there has been a regression in Carmen's behaviour. I wasn't feeling up to writing about it because you will all think I suck. But what's the point of a blog if I can't be honest? So here goes.
She's been quite difficult to ride and we've had a few 'come to jesus' moments.
It's not been fun.
As always, with horses it's a struggle to figure out if something is physical or behavioural. I began her on ulcer meds but it really didn't seem to make a difference.
I won't bore you with details of all my rides. Roughly they consist of good moments with bits that are total shit shows: retracted neck, tight body often followed by a spin and bolt. Or balking with threats to run backwards or go up. Note: Carmen has never reared on me. She has felt light in front and I've reached forward and bopped her on her poll which put the end to that.
After a particularly frustrating ride I was pretty bummed. I did some deep thinking and I realized that I was giving Carmen power over my emotions. I wouldn't let anyone else dictate my feelings in that way. I knew that I couldn't let that continue or else we would continue in our downward spiral. Also, there has also been lots of good things in our training and I can't just focus on the negative (which is totally against my goals).
I took a step back and began to spend some time grooming her. She responded well to that so there may be a bit of pressure related. It is possible that I was focussing too much on work and not enough on relationship stuff.
the weather is getting warm so I braid her mane to help keep her cool
Shanea wanted me to try lunging her in side reins. I had been resistant because it's easy to teach a horse to lean. But what she wanted to do was to get Carmen to learn to reach for the bit without a person on her back. I tried it during a lesson so that Shanea could help me. What we realized was that as soon as the side reins went on Carmen became tight and defensive. Which makes me wonder if she had them in the past. However, we kept them quite long and with some work she began to reach for the bit.
in side reins- see the umbrella? Shanea brought it for sun shade and it caused a kerfuffle. So we did some work with it.
within 5 minutes she went from bolting to being bored with the whole thing. That is one thing I know how to do with her.
The lesson was useful because Shanea was able to see the groundwork I do and how calm Carmen is before I get on. At a spot that was perfectly fine on the ground she flatly refused to go by. I had to get quite harsh with her - pressure on until I felt her think forward and then take it off.
I tried it again today and she started the same. This time I loosened the side reins even more and she began to stretch and reach for the bit. It got me wondering if Carmen really has a good understanding of contact. Which is stupid to be wondering at this point in her training I realize but hey, better late than never.
My ride today was also really good. She had one bobble at the same spot as yesterday but i gave her a squeeze and a tap and she went forward and that was the end of it. The ride was really good and every time she retracted her neck I kept the reins out there and put my leg on (or gave her a kick) to send her to the bit. My defence mechanisms tend to kick in when she gets tight because I'm anticipating a bolt and want to stop it. One day I might be over that tendency.
it was so hot yesterday. But I love this movement- she's so light in front (in a good way)
I still don't know if we're getting through this bobble or it's just a temporary truce. But I feel better about things. To quote John Legend:
"What's going on in that beautiful mind?
I'm on your magical mystery ride And I'm so dizzy, don't know what hit me But I'll be alright
My head's under water But I'm breathing fine You're crazy, and I'm out of my mind
My rides recently have been a bit, well, mercurial.
I've had rides where she's been sweet and calm and rides where you would think her tail was on fire.
Now it's not unusual for Carmen to get a bit anxious when all the grass and leaves are in and start blowing in the breeze.
I also know that her nature is to be reactive and sensitive. I have zero expectations that one day she'll be completely zen and relaxed. To me, that is as unrealistic as expecting an person with anxiety to 'just get over it'.
from my lesson last friday- starting off tight but trying
That said, I also do not put up with her being a completely irrational during our rides. The trick, of course is to find a balance. I try to figure out where she's at and meet her there so we can work through it.
That works the majority of the time.
My riding has improved quite a bit- I say that without arrogance or pride, it's just a fact. So the things that would unseat me or frighten me don't so much now. Shanea tells me to keep my legs on and not back off- that's when she gets me. Carmen has a powerful neck and shoulders and she knows how to use them. It used to be impossible for me to stop her but not so much. Not that she doesn't get away but it's much shorter lived.
This week I had a ride that was lovely and then a ride where she was a complete and utter cow. And I don't say that lightly. She was fixated on the far bushes and everything I asked was just too much. She was hanging on the bit and using that for leverage to cart me all around. I had to get quite harsh at times to get her to stop (like I'm glad there's no media harsh).
not hanging on the bit
Before you start thinking that I was picking on a scared horse, let me stop you. Carmen has three spooks:
#1. genuine startle and frightening. When this happens so looks to me ' OMG, what do we do?' And when I say 'just this' she settles and listening.
#2. I'm tired and want to stop working. This happens because in the past her behaviour made me back off. It doesn't now and this rarely pops up and, when it does, we work through it pretty quickly.
#3. Anticipatory: it's like she comes out looking to worry and then, when something happens (like a goldfinch flying by) she will give a big spook and then bolt. In this mood she can become 100% fixated on an area and becomes quite unrideable.
#3 was what I was dealing with in that ride. I wasn't even trying to get her to go near the area of worry. I was simply riding her in a circle but she was so fixated and I had zero attention. When she couldn't spin and bolt she would hang on the bit.
From our last lesson, working on half-halts
I picked up a canter on a 20 metre circle and every time she became strong and tried to cart me off I would turn her in a 10 metre circle. After numerous circles (omg, so dizzy) she finally breathed and softened and we could ride.
I halted her and she waited for me to dismount. When I didn't right away she began to paw. I took my dressage whip and every time she pawed I snapped her on the leg. She stopped and then began to try to pull the reins from my hands. I bridged the reins and still sat. Finally she sighed and cocked a foot. I sat a little longer and then hopped off.
In the barn I had her ground tied while I got the hose ready. I saw her looking out the open door.
Go ahead I said, if you leave I'm not chasing you. You are welcome to go find someone else who will look after you better than me.
She breathed and then said fine, I guess I'll stay.
What I realized was that our issue was one of attention. Carmen was attending to me when she chose. When she was interested in something else I was far down the list of things to attend to. It was like I wasn't even there anymore.
The next day I took her up to the ring to do a groundwork session. The goal was simple- to have her attend to me and, when distracted to respond to my request to me. I used her ears as my cue. If the nearest ear flicked to me when I asked I would stop my demands. If she didn't respond I upped my ask. As Tristan would say 'ask a question that deserves an answer'.
It was pretty simple, I had her on a circle. when she fixated on something I gently lifted the whip towards her. If her ear flicked, it went back down. If it didn't I immediately stepped towards her, disengaged her hind end and then sent her back.
It was hard work. I had to be really consistent and very very clear. I played with increasing the pressure but that seemed too gray. So I had it very simple- ask soft, ask strong, get response, stop, rest, repeat.
Today, before I rode I repeated the work from Monday. Clearly she remembered- her shift of attention to me was immediate and fast. When I rode I kept my crop with me so when I needed her attention I waved it and her ear flicked back immediately. The one time it didn't I disengaged her hind end and that was that.
The nifty thing was that by the end of the ride I just had to gently squeeze a rein and her ear would flick back. Even when worried about things, by having one ear on me her tightness and stiffness was not as bad. That's because horses are not good multi-taskers. Of course neither am I.
It's nice to know that she realizes I'm up there.
even when watching out for trip hazards
And one more thing: My son returned from the middle east earlier this month. He had to quarantine for 2 weeks but that was over last week. He and Ripley were reunited and it was so sweet.
If this doesn't warm your heart you need to seek help