dancing horses

dancing horses

Saturday, August 26, 2023

Black Magic

 Last week I had the opportunity to take both horses to a clinic with a local horsemanship coach, Danique Henderson. I was excited because I have followed her for a few years and really liked her work and philosophy.  When a friend was having her at her stable and invited me I leapt at it. 

this dog kills me- he lost his toy so 
he decided that I could throw hay instead

A really nice thing about this clinic is that it was a 15 minute trailer ride away.  Usually I'm looking at 90 minutes minimum so this felt like a treat. We were in the afternoon so I had time in the morning to do chores ride Carmen and get organised. It was also a good chance to practice loading and unloading all by myself in a low-stress situation.  

I put Carmen on first and then brought Quaid out. It took a little to have him load himself in the trailer. He dithered a bit but was not stressed. My back up was to lead him on and tie him and then put up the butt bar but I didn't need to. With a sigh and some encouragement he walked on. When we arrived I unloaded him and handed him to an unsuspecting young woman who was standing there.  I put them in their stalls and got them settled with water and hay.  Stephanie had stalls that had them separated which was great.  Quaid became obsessed with the pony next door. The pony was less enthused. Carmen's stall was at the end of the aisle and had an elevated floor. She looked huge. 

I was able to watch a couple sessions before it was my turn. I decided to bring Quaid first. 



I'm about to describe the clinic from what I remember and learned. Any errors are not a reflection on Danique- I probably have it wrong


When I brought Quaid in he was quite 'up' and definitely tense. Danique asked about him and I explained that he was 3 and I wanted to improve my groundwork skills with him. I said 'he's quite excited right now'

Danique "this is him wound up?'

Me: yes this is about as excited as he gets. 

D: wow. that's pretty good. 

It took, I dunno, about 3 minutes for her to figure us out. She then asked if she could take him. I answered of course. To summarise: she believed that he didn't really pay attention to me because I was his safe space. So he felt okay with tuning me out while looking at the others watching, sniffing the ground and looking around. All of which was totally fair. 

talking to Danique, see his focus is elsewhere? (PC Stephanie)

She took him and put a little pressure to get him to tune in and respond. She noted that he was definitely not afraid of pressure (the whip) which made him easy to work with. Even when she got after him a little harshly for totally blowing her off he would jump and look at her like 'what the heck lady?' 

Danique then showed me how to use my energy to help him understand when to respond and when to chill. She talked about how horses learn in rhythm so we need to make sure that we do happens in that way. It was a pretty simple exercise but difficult to keep it all together. As humans we don't always pay attention to our energy and how horses are so attuned to it.  The exercise was simply to walk, stop, back up and/or turn. She talked a lot about intention and how I need to match it to my energy. So if I want him to do something I need to tighten my stomach and bring up my energy. To halt I let my energy leak out my feet. To first teach him to back up I was to use my feet and then bring my arm around with the rope in front of his nose so he could see it. It didn't take long for him to tune in. I could tighten my core, pick up the rope and walk toward him and he'd back up. I could pick up the rope and keep my core soft and he'd stay so I could come up and pat him. I am thinking that if you were watching it would be hard to see the difference. 

Another side note: she really really liked Quaid. I told her his breeding and it turned out that a horseman she admires recommended she use the same stud.  She also asked what colour he was and I said 'bay'. But he has this gold sheen. I said he's still bay as far as I knew. But let's just go with he's pretty. But she right, he has these gold hairs so it's so easy for him to shine with a little bit of brushing. 

My takeaways were:

  • be clear in my intention 
  • keep working on making sure he attends to me
  • don't accept him ignoring or being distracted and doing things half-assed
Then it was Carmen's turn. I told her that what I wanted was to get some guidance on doing liberty with her. Danique had me lunge her a little and then take off the halter. After about a minute Carmen looked at me and left to go down to the audience and check it out. I laughed and came down. 

So then Danique told me what she saw in our relationship. She said that Carmen was a talented horse with a strong will. That she chooses whether to listen to me and she's pretty sure that I'm not the one in charge. I had to laugh that it was so obvious to her. Clearly she's a witch like Jane (I mean that in a positive way).  She showed me a light line with a loop on the end. She explained how you can make it into a halter and put it around the neck when you're introducing liberty. Eventually you just tuck it into your waistband and that keeps your hands free. 

The exercise we worked on was to lunge Carmen around in a circle, when her attention shifted from her she would ask for her to yield her hind leg and stop. If she did that but was still attending elsewhere she would up the pressure until she had full attention.  Then it was my turn. The idea was to keep her close and going around me. When she'd shift her attention out I was to bring it in by asking her to move her hind leg. Danique gave me lots of feedback and coaching on how I was holding my whip and line. Also that I was using too much body language and could tone it down a bit. Eventually I could have her go around, lose focus, ask her to bend in with her hind end and then send her back out in one move. Danique told me to think of it like a half-halt. 

I saw a lot of parallels in this work and in my lessons with Jane having her flex to the inside. I do love when things mesh like that. 

I watched another lesson (a riding one) and then cleaned the stalls and loaded the horses to leave. This time both loaded quietly and calmly with no persuasion needed. When I got home I took Quaid out and then Carmen. It all felt very doable all on my own. 

I gave them a day off and then played with them yesterday. Before I rode Carmen I went through the exercises again. When I did ride I found her attentive from the get go- I didn't have to argue about it. It's not like the ride was perfect but it was a productive ride and one that was very encouraging. My groundwork session with Quaid was also really good. None of him trying to graze as I led him to the ring and getting his attention back was pretty easy. 

I know that 'one fine day does not a summer make' (to butcher a proverb) but this felt right to me and I'm going to enjoy continuing to build on it. 

Monday, August 21, 2023


 If there's one thing I've enjoyed all my life it's learning. I truly do enjoy it and it has been a huge part of everything I do. And of course this applies to horses. Which is why I continue to seek to increase my understanding and skills. 

I've had a bit of an unplanned in being able to take lessons. No one reason- one week it was torrential rain and flooding, another time a horse was lame (not mine) and then Ed and I went on a short trip to Prince Edward Island to visit Karen and Jim. If you have a chance to go to PEI you should jump at it. It really is a lovely province. Karen and I fit in some time at the beach. The waves were up and in the water were a bunch of children and us laughing and being bowled over by the waves. It was glorious. 

I love this beach
Karen also told me that she was having a local coach come and give her a lesson on Sunday and did I want to have a lesson on one of her horses? That answer was easy- YES. She didn't care who I rode so I asked for Kalimo. He's advanced in his training and I thought it would be good to ride a 'school master'. I really wanted to learn about asking for flying changes. Yes, true confession- I have never trained or asked a horse for a change. In my hunter days the horses just did it (or not). I really wanted to get a sense of how to move my body. 

Kalimo did not disappoint and neither did Dawn. It was such a fun lesson. The first change was easy because we were riding a counter canter and then Dawn just asked me to change and I didn't have time to think about it. After that I got in my head (shocking I know) and kept overthinking. I would get my legs right but drop him and let him choose where to go rather than keep him straight. Or I would hesitate and be late in my timing. But we got there in the end and I loved every minute of it. 

Kalimo: you are most welcome SeƱora. 
Perhaps it is time for cookies? 

When I got home, Carmen was off and after finding nothing on her legs I figured it was an abscess. Turns out it was- 2 days later it popped out of her frog and she's been fine ever since. Carmen may have a lot of issues but she doesn't fool around with weeks of unsoundness- just 'pop' and we're done.  Which was good because I had a lesson booked for Sunday. To be honest, I was going to keep the lesson regardless, just swap in Quaid for a different sort of lesson (he deserves his own update so we'll save that). 

I have been working in my rides to keep Carmen straight and aligned and it's paying off. Not that it's easy. To be fair I've changed the contract again and she's not so happy that she can't just move all her weight to the inside and keep her head tilted out to look around.  She has been especially spooky up by H and I found out why when I was trying to paint the fence. I started getting stung- there was a hornet nest somewhere in the brush. It took me forever to find it. Interestingly when I found out that there was a nest her spookiness level dropped measurably. I finally located the nest last week by going up during a rain storm and poking about the brush. It was low to the ground under a bush. I went back the next night and took care of it (I would have liked to have peacefully co-existed but they were getting more aggressive and territorial).  Guinness backed me up by sitting way back and watching (he also was stung during the fence painting incident).  

The lesson was the next day so I figured we'd have some issues because Carmen wouldn't know yet that it was gone. I was right but really it was such a good lesson. Jane had us work on getting and maintaining flexion in all three gaits. It turns out that both of us think that flexion falls into the 'nice to have' category but, as Jane pointed out, it was pretty essential for everything. 

Nice warm up trot, no softness in the poll and zero
flexion.  But, hey, she's straight! 

Carmen, it turns out will do all sorts of contortions to fake flexing while still being able to look outside the ring. It was much easier on the side closer to the barn and much harder on the side by the brush (and ex-hornet nest). So it wasn't physical so much as mental.  

Ideally we'd get the flexion by using the inside leg to outside hand and maybe a gentle squeeze with the inside hand. 

We were not ideal. But it was coming. As with most things we'd get it, lose it, get it, lose it. When we have it everything feels soft. But I had to be careful because sometimes I thought we had it but she was just bending her neck and/or tilting her head. Other times she would barge through trying to get me off her back (perhaps literally but I think it was more metaphorical). Some favourite Jane statements this lesson: 
'Get control and get back here' (when my 10 metre canter circle moved from K to A)
'get the outside rein or she's going to have her way with you' (when she got strong going by H)

This work really pays off though. We did some work on medium canter and rather then thinking 'oh god, I'm going to die' or 'I wonder if we can turn at the corner or will we careen through the fence and over the horizon?'  I was thinking 'wheeee'. 

And it helps with the walk pirouettes (or turn on the haunches): 

We also did shoulder in to haunches in. That was hard but when Jane said 'maintain the curve going from one to the other' it really helped. I'll play with that this week. 

When the lesson was over I was exhausted. So was Carmen. But she was sweaty in all the right spots. I don't know if I was sweaty in the right spots because basically everything was sweaty. But it felt good. 

I am sure that some of my friends (and definitely Ed) wonder when I'll stop taking lessons. I don't know that I ever will- it's so much fun to learn and push my boundaries. Even having a few weeks off I could feel myself letting things go in my rides. 

I guess I'll stop when I know it all.