dancing horses

dancing horses

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

On Tuning In

 I'm going to be honest-way back in the day I never really did a lot of thinking about trying to read what a horse was telling me. Oh, I knew about the big things in terms of ground manners- personal space, lead from the left, etc. But I never really thought about what the horse was telling me before I ever climbed on his (or her) back. 

Of course, once you know better you do better. And I know a lot more than I did even 10 years ago. And in the past 5 years I have learned even more. 

I've learned to pay attention to how the horse responds when I go to halter them. Irish is pretty easy going and you can walk up to him and throw a rope over his neck to lead into the barn. Carmen is a bit trickier. She sometimes walks right up, sometimes hesitates. When she hesitates I don't push because that sends her even further away. And that sets up a dynamic that I do not want. Instead I create a whole 'no big deal' vibe with my body and usually spend some time scratching Irish or even sitting on the ground. I'm trying to not get into chasing her. If she moves away we can get into the game of 'can't catch me' and it's not what I'm looking for. It has happened to me and I have a lot of thoughts as to why it did on that particular day but that's a different blog post. 

In the past I would go up to a horse (barn or field), put the halter on and bring them in. I still do these things but it's different. Now I hold open the halter and wait for Carmen to put her head in. Interestingly enough she does 9/10. Sometimes she puts her head in and then flinches out. I refuse to do it up then- I just wait (now in the field I do have the rope over her neck so that I can keep her close). I do that with the bridle too. I won't let her put it on angrily. 

this is her skeptical face but she's pretty relaxed

During grooming I try to observe carefully to see what she's thinking and feeling. Is she relaxed? tense? distracted? hungry? (often hungry). It helps me understand what I may need to do to support her. Sometimes I realize that I might just be lunging and then making a decision to mount. 

 I've noticed that if I let her push me a bit or act cranky, up in the ring she's also a lot more resistant. If, however, I correct her behaviour in the barn, she responds much better in the ring. It seems that I am establishing the rules of engagement before I climb in the saddle. 

Carmen can be quite dominant at times on the ground. She doesn't push into me at all but she can pin her ears, be snarky and, occasionally, snap her teeth. I need to respond to that clearly and quickly that some things are just not acceptable. I tend to ignore the pinned ears (mare face). If she snaps I make her move around me in the aisle.  I do this until I see a change in her attitude. I am not angry nor am I harsh but I am not soft either. I try to do it to the point to get what I want and then relax everything. Back in the obstacle clinic Mike asked me a really good question (paraphrasing here): 

Mike: When is Carmen the most engaged and willing in her work? 

I thought a few minutes. Then said: 

To be completely honest, it's when I'm really clear about what I want. Even if that means I'm being harsher than I like. 

Exactly! he said (or something like that) horses like things to be clearer more than anything. 

I do groundwork before every ride. Sometimes it's short, other times it's the bulk of our time. Mostly it's in between. I'm looking for her to be engaged in the work and trying to find the answer. She's pretty smart and can start to offer things before I ask so I try to make sure I vary it a bit. Otherwise she can be obedient but tuned out. I'd rather her be less obedient but tuned in. 

Here is Carmen not sure about listening, but she's
really trying (also may change her mind later)

This year I've really started to pay attention to my communication (or interpersonal skills if you like) with Carmen. I've been working really hard to eliminate the thoughts that start with or include things like:  I hope/why can't you/that's too hard/don't. All of those mean that I'm not sure and then how can she be. So if she makes a mistake in our ground work (like ignoring me or overreacting by moving 8 feet when I only asked for 1) I just stick with the plan and keep working. 

I'm trying to make this work for me under saddle. This includes me doing my damndest to eliminate my own tension that my body does independently when it suspects we may be in danger. But also not accepting refusals or doing something different than what I ask. Clearly I also need to look at myself- was my ask appropriate (i.,e does she understand it and did I ask correctly). 

whee- if all else fails go forward

Last week I was in a lesson and Carmen was fixated on the C end of the ring (the day before that was the bestest spot in the world, today it was full of death and despair). We were working away from it but she was becoming more and more obsessed with it making the work pretty shitty. I decided to march us down there to deal with it. It was not pretty but we did it. 

After Shanea was talking to me about working away from the spooky spots and working towards them.  And I agreed with her. Sort of. You see, sometimes when Carmen becomes obsessed with a spot the area in which she can work productively will shrink and shrink and shrink until you are stuck standing at one part of the ring and even then she's not so easy. I have found that when she's like that tackling it head on with 'this is what I want' (mostly bend and not racing like a fool) we can get to a good place. I don't know if Shanea believed me and I'm willing to be wrong but this is my experience. 

Sometimes  I believe I have to tackle things head on. Other times I can be more subtle. 

I see posts of people asking what do when their horse does something and the advice is so varied I'm not sure how they sort it out. The problem is that it depends on so many things that there often is not a simple answer. It depends on the context (windy day, mare in heat or sore, construction next door, etc), the horse's general demeanour (is this totally new or a part of their pattern although perhaps more extreme than typical). I believe that there literally is no one answer for all situations. And that may be where we struggle as a horseperson. I know I do. Now I am far more comfortable to make a decision and then later have to revise. At least I made a decision. 


no desire to be a flat squirrel

I don't know if this post really makes any sense. It does in my head so I hope I was clear. 

relaxed post ride

Thursday, October 22, 2020

October Reset

A few weeks ago   I began to suspect that Carmen's saddle needed adjusting. Carmen is usually quite sensitive to changes in her saddle fit, and will let me know with general crankiness under saddle and resistance to canter. However, it's also not that behaviour from her points specifically to saddle fit vs being in heat, or it's windy or birds are occupying the same space time continuum. 

Nevertheless I was feeling pretty confident that the saddle was creating some issues. It looked to me like it was too big in front. Back in March/April (I really can't remember or have blocked that time), we had to put in a bigger gullet. But she's lost weight since then and I thought that we needed to go down a size. 

Carmen: did you just call me fat? 
Me: who me? Never! 

While I waited for her appointment I put some extra padding under the saddle and we were able to get by. Rachael and Emily from Callan saddlery came Wednesday. Fortunately I was able to take some time first thing in the morning. Turns out I was right. Her saddle gullet was too big so we had to go down a half size. Not, of course, to one i owned so I had a to buy a new one. I think I pretty much have the full collection by now.  Not that I'm complaining, because replacing a gullet is a lot better than buying a new saddle. I did trade in an small one I had for Steele for a discount so that helped. 

After many days of rain, drizzle and fog, today was an unseasonably and warm day - it seemed perfect to ride. I booked a lesson for friday and it seemed a good idea to help Carmen realize that her saddle was comfortable. At first she was pretty sure that trotting was going to hurt but after a few minutes she relaxed and we were able to get some good work in. 

After I put on her rope halter and took her for a walk in the woods. It's all part of my plan to get towards hacking out alone. I wondered if she'd balk but she walked along quite content with this new activity. My plan is to walk her in hand and then as we progress mount her part way through. 
clearly stressed 

I'm hoping to continue to enjoy good weather for a while yet. I don't feel done yet. 


Friday, October 16, 2020

Taking Advantage

 I do enjoy watching Shanea ride Carmen. It opens my eyes to what is possible and shows her how to respond. It was important to me to take full advantage of the work Shanea had done. 

Monday the weather was much calmer.  I rode and Carmen was perfect. She went forward off the leg, was soft and listening. I was quite happy with our performance. 

I caught her spying on me when I was dragging the ring

Tuesday Julia came out to join us and we started with a hack. I've been working on Carmen's bravery out hacking so we started with her leading. At first she didn't want to head down to the woods but I sat up, put my leg on and off we marched. She led through half the hack and then we switched to Irish. Back in the ring I could feel her getting tense but instead of trying to hold her back I put my leg on and sent her forward. I also made use of Irish to draw her to some spots that she was feeling uncertain about. There was a huge blow up (on her part) at one spot in the ring and made her go forward. I am doing my best to not back down these days. During the excitement I felt her saddle shift so I had to hop off and tighten the girth. When I got back on the trouble was done. We finished with some nice canter work 

Autumn sunrises are always beautiful 

Wednesday the weather was windy and rainy and Thursday was a hard day at work and I wasn't feeling it so she had two days off in a row. 

Today was a lesson day (I have no media because I wanted to use my app to record the ride but that's a different post). The weather was beautiful- sunny and warm. We started with getting a swinging walk. It actually was pretty easy to get her into a nice walk. 

From there it was into a trot and it was going pretty nice when she gave a big sideways jump and tried to run off. But I was ready for her, got her stopped after a couple strides and marched her back to the rail to finish out figure. And that was the end. When I felt tension I put on my leg, we moved forward (but not fast). 

We worked on lengthening and shortening her stride and that is improving. As is our half-pass at trot- especially going to the right. She quite likes this work and will sometimes offer it as we come out of a corner. 

The other night I heard a kerfuffle when I was 
in the stall. I looked out to see three very innocent 
creatures who have no idea what I heard. 

We played with our turn on the haunches and those are getting so much better. After that I could feel her getting into a ball so we went from there to canter. The goal was to half-halt to get her to step under and ask for the canter so she'd lift into canter rather then fling her front legs into it. I spent some time in my own head about this making my timing awful. Of course Carmen also gets into her head so we're quite the pair sometimes. Once I stopped overthinking it we were able to make progress and we finished with some great transitions. It was one of those lessons that is just awesome from beginning to end. Not because we were perfect but because it felt like real progress. 
In exciting news we have our first egg from
one of our chickens (this one is Amy). 

Sunday, October 11, 2020


Sorry guys, this is probably going to be a bit of a ramble. 

The weather is getting cooler and the trees are really starting to show their colours. 

I love this old maple at the end of the driveway

Normally, at this time of year I'm really easing back on my riding. We would have had a busy summer of shows, clinics and lessons. Of course, 2020 is different. And yet I find myself easing up.  

I've doing a lot of hacking and not so much schooling. Sometimes I feel guilty but mostly I don't. 

I've even  found myself getting up super early to hack out with Julia. I've been listening a lot to Jane Pike who's been talking about transactional vs transformational relations: 

"At the core of it, riding and horsemanship can be transactional or it can be transformational. Transactional means that we ride in order to experience a specific result; transformational means we recognize the possibilities of practice that exists when we engage with our horses and the possibility for that to elevate us to states of awareness and consciousness that weren’t available to us previously."
Jane Pike

It's an interesting idea to me and one I'm trying to figure out as it relates to Carmen and I. Carmen is not a project for me- she is unlikely to be for sale. I am not against people who do that. We need people who can put excellent training on horses and then sell them to people like me. 

I feel when I switched to focussing on our communication and partnership that the big jump has happened for us. Not that I don't address behaviour- I do. Part of addressing is knowing my own limitations as a rider. And that means sometimes I don't ride. 

Like this weekend. It's been sunny but incredibly windy. Like blow you over windy. I cancelled a lesson on Friday and rebooked for Saturday. Which was also windy, albeit a more southern wind and less bitterly cold.  In the morning I lunged Carmen and she was quite agitated. I did ride her for a short time at the end, focussing on getting her to breathe and relax. I wanted to cancel the afternoon but Shanea didn't want to. Instead we decided that she should ride. 

Before the ride we discussed the goal- I wanted Carmen to develop confidence that she can deal with this stuff. It was so interesting watching Shanea work through this with Carmen. the key is that she is able sit calmly through some shit that, even if I could sit it, would result in me feeling uncomfortable and nervous. 

If Shanea gets nervous it never shows. And she is able to make things super clear and create a path for Carmen to find her calm. 

Not so long ago I might have felt disappointed that I bowed out. But if the goal is to help Carmen, rather than my ego, then the decision was the right one.  The truth is that I'm also okay with possibly making a wrong decision if it's putting up in the right direction. 

In the meantime it's Thanksgiving here in Canada and we've been visiting family ad eating far too much. that may help Carmen be grounded next time I climb on. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

Getting Unstuck But Not Unglued

 I gave Carmen Saturday off. This allowed her teeth to settle after being done on Friday. Ed and I also had plans and headed out for a day trip with friends to a bunch of wineries. It was a beautiful day, full of laughter, food and wine. 

Sunday I had a lesson booked with Shanea. It was a lovely day but by the time my lesson came it had become cloudy and a bit brisk. Carmen was clearly tense. I spent time doing groundwork and she had improved but was still a bit tight. 

Normally I would have that pit in my stomach thinking I was in for a difficult ride. And I did have a wee small pit, but mostly I was sure we could be okay. And we were. I am getting better at not choking her down when she's like this but asking her to go forward. It's a balance to not have her rush but I much prefer the going forward towards things that worry her than her running backwards. 

Forward ho- possibly towards certain death

We worked on her being straight on the outside rein. We did an exercise of leg yields towards and away from the rail. 

leg yield with dramatic sky

Funnily enough when she was on the outside rein and bending she would float sideways. I can feel how this helps her to become supple and to step under herself instead of inverting and flinging her legs out behind. 

We do a lot of shoulder fore to keep her on the aids while still going forward. Seriously, all I need to do is move my seat a little and she does it. While her old habit of putting her haunches in on the right rein is still there is a lot better. 

We worked most of the lesson on adjusting her trot stride- shortening it and pushing it out. This definitely pulled on all my physical ability to ride well. But we're getting there.

I can feel her starting to understand this.  

Carmen had regular breaks throughout the lesson. These help her to level out and rebalance herself. We finished working on walk-canter-walk transitions keeping her hind leg underneath instead of pushing out behind. I'm not great at feeling that- her shoulders are so strong I feel the front legs so I've been trying to pay special attention to this. Shanea said she's seeing improvement so I'll take that. 

It's beginning to feel that we are coming 'unstuck' from our pattern of making rides all about the spooking. Carmen is getting less stuck about going into to the spooky corners. 

Friday, October 2, 2020

Be Prepared

 If you google 'quotes about being prepared' you will get a lot of gems:

"By failing to prepare you are preparing to fail" - Benjamin Frnaklin

"Success is where preparation and opportunity meet"  Bobby Unser

"“The essence of preparation is to position your horse to where the one thing that he’s most likely to do is exactly what you had in mind…which makes it a perfect time to ask him.” Buck Brannon

Preparation is a key thing when riding and training horses. Not that that is new information for anyone who rides/works with horses. That's where we live.  At least that's where I live. I probably shouldn't be speaking about everyone. 

Carmen: I'm not sure what standing on a tarp
is good for but okay

One thing I can thank Carmen about is helping me to be a better, thinking rider.  I have learned that it's not about preparing for every possible circumstance. It's about teaching strategies for thinking and responding to cues so that when the unexpected happens you are ready. 

Like wrangling chickens. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

The truth is that I have had a few failures with Carmen and so, now that I don't always have the confidence in myself that we can deal with stuff. That has lead to me riding more with hope than preparation. 

But, as I like to say,  hope is not a strategy. So I've been trying to dismiss those thoughts (like 'I hope she doesn't spook in the corner') and replace them with positive thoughts ('we're going through the corner with energy and bend) and trust that I have the skills to ride through things if not when things go wrong. 

Expect this

But know how to ride this

Both Karen and Shanea focus on riding with a strong back so that if the horse moves suddenly they can't dislodge the rider but the hands are still following. When I get it right it really helps. Today in my ride Carmen gave a big spook and tried to run away (I think from a butterfly but it could have been a leaf). I was able to get her back within a few feet, I backed her up to where we were and we carried on.  I'm doing much better with not getting frustrated or tight. So go me!

While I was riding I got a text from the vet that she was on her way ( I had arranged for Carmen to have a teeth appointment and I wanted to ride before). Julia and I were pretty happy where we were so we decided to go for a hack back to the barn. I wanted Carmen to lead and she did. She's getting much better at that. It's a step towards my goal of us hacking out alone. 

We were on way out the bottom of the property to head back to the barn. We were strolling along when Carmen's head shot up. 
Carmen: what's that?
Me: um I don't kn-wait, is that the chickens? 

Carmen and stood still and stared. The girls tried to act all casual. 
Chickens:  oh hai. We're just s'ploring. Looking for bugs, you know, chicken business. 
Irish and Julia were behind us wondering what was happening. 
Irish: c'mon, let's get going. *nudges Carmen*

Carmen: now what. 
Me: umm, we need to get them back home. 
chickens: we're good. 
Me: wait, there's only three of you, where's Beth?
Chickens: what? no we counted- 1, 3, 8, 11. See we're all here. 
Me: .......

We all stood in this frozen tableau waiting for someone to make a move. 

I gave a deep sigh and swung out of the saddle. C'mon Carmen we have to herd these girls back. 

I wasn't worried about Carmen but I didn't want the chickens to run into the woods instead of home. I led her forward and the chickens began to walk back. Carmen was a bit wary but I know that if you can get a horse to follow something then their flight response changes to curiosity. We've done this work with flags, tarps and other things. Not with chickens though. 

As we walked, keeping the chickens moving in the right direction. Carmen began to get into it. As the chickens zigged she moved over to block them. It was kind of funny. Her ears were up and she was having fun. 
Carmen: git along little chickies
Chickens: This is an outrage! We demand equal access to the woods. 

I got this equilab app that tracks the ride 
via my phone. The X is where the chickens were, the 
white dot is where their house is. 
(also liking the app)

I never found out where the 4th chicken was so I called Ed to come and look while I put Carmen away. He walked down but couldn't find her. I walked around the house and there were all four chickens in a fight over a grasshopper. So phew. I would have been sad to have lost one of them. 

Things went well and the reason is not luck but all the work I continue to do.  

And now we can add chicken wrangling to our resume. 

A chicken free zone