Thursday, June 5, 2014

Day 3 and 4: Assume the right things

Well y'all know what they say about assume.  It makes...  Well in reality it depends what you assume.  Do you assume things will go wrong?  Or do you assume things will go right?  Do you act tentativley in anticapation of a negative response?  Or do you trust that your horse has confidence in you and that things will go right? 

Around here we set our horses up for success.  We lay the correct foundation, so that we can anticipate a positive outcome to everything we ask of them.  Thus I ASSUME that things will go well.  Don't misunderstand me.  This does not mean that I don't prepare for the worst, and keep in mind that accidents happen. 

The last two days have been big for both Jay and Penny.  Jay had his first bath, and learned to tie so he could dry without rolling in the dirt.  Both of them lunged under surcingles with Penny cantering under tack.  Jay still has some recovery to do, so I'm not pushing him as hard as her. 

Let's talk about introducing water and bathing.  I use one method for every thing I teach a horse to do.  I apply pressure, and release it when the horse offers even a hint of the correct response.  We do not use cross ties here at our house.  Baths happen standing at liberty in the middle of the yard.  Obviously in the case of these two that may seem like a lot to ask; particularly on day 3 of training.  But I assumed after 2 days of leadership establishment Jay would comply with my request and trust that I wouldn't let anything eat him.  With bathing the hose (water) is my pressure.  I do not use the halter or lead to apply pressure, nor stop movement.  I  point the hose at the horse and when they stop moving I take the water away.  If they start to move I use the lead to direct their movement, but it is their decision when to stop moving.  The reward for stopping the movement is me taking the water away, and stop it from touching them.  With each introduction of the water I expect them to stand still a bit longer, until ultimatley the horse learns not to move at all.  In Jay's specific case I had enough leadership established that he didn't try to move at all until I got to his hips.  Then I had to introduce the above pattern of training. 

As for teaching Jay to tie I use the same equipment and method with every horse.  Again I want to use a method that allows for release of pressure.  I don't like to leave them hard tied to fight it out against a rope.  I use a contraption called a tie blocker combined with a long rope.  This device puts tension on the rope if they pull against it, but in the event they sit down HARD it will give and allow the rope to slide through.  Once they stop going backwards I just pull the rope back through the blocker reeling the horse in like a fish right back to the point where we started.  I repeat this as much as needed until they come to the understanding that going backwards ultimatley does not remove the pressure of standing still.  I have had people insist that their horse's tying issues are too extreme.  My answer is a longer rope.  I am yet to find a horse that this method does not work for over time.  Some horses never need more than 12 feet of rope, some need 50 or even 100 feet of rope.  In Jay's case he needed all of 8 feet. He just didn't really question the process.

Penny is doing very well under tack.  She is more accepting of fast moving objects than Jay is.  She is definitley more whoa than go.  I typically like to use no more than a training stick (with no tassle) for lunging.  I simply use it as an extension of my arm either pointing, directing, or blocking their movement.  In the case of Penny I had to step up the energy level in order to get her cantering today.  I had to start spinning a rope and slapping the ground to create enough energy to get her moving.  She really has a nice floaty hunter type trot  when she starts moving out. 

Since I know that these two are destined for other forever homes it is important that they learn to behave the same way for several different people.  Thankfully my family is full of horse trainers at all levels.  My husband is an experienced trainer and is also working on teaching the same skills in very similar methods to myself.  On the flip side my in-laws that live on the property who are very green horse people also interact with these two daily.  They don't receive as much trust as my husband and I, but their interactions with Jay and Penny are crucial for the long term placement of these two.  In the next day or two my daughter and step-son will also start helping with the training process.  My daughter's interaction will be very important, since I anticipate both of these ponies finding careers as youth mounts.   Here are a couple of pictures of her working with her personal pony.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Day 2: Halters go on

Today I was like many of you and had to go out to another job.  So the ponies are only getting one training session today.  Our session started with an evaluation of yesterday's retention.  I did this by repeating the same procedure as yesterday.  I entered their paddock with a pocket full of treats.  Penny was her normal happy self and met me at the gate, but then quickly wandered off.  Sanjay (Jay) was more interested in interaction today.  He hung out for a rub followed by a treat.  I do this and gradually introduce more petting and less treats as rewards for behavior.  I do my best to use positive reinforcement on desirable behaviors and ignore unwanted or negative behaviors.  One thing I never do is pat a horse.  I rub, or pet, but not pat.  Patting is the closest behavior we come to bites or kicks from the ground.  So in my case is reserved for extreme negative behaviors than need quick correction. 

After our initial greeting I wandered off to dump the water tank for cleaning.  Jay was right on my hip looking for attention.  I stopped and rewarded his interest with lots of rubs and a few more treats.  I then quickly walked off ending our interaction before he had a chance to.  This way I left him wanting more.  He and Penny went back to some mutual grooming.  After I was done cleaning the tank I decided to approach with a halter and dragging lead.  I wanted to evaluate if this new object that moved across the ground elicited a flight or tense response from them, or if I have earned enough trust that they would let me approach with it.  Jay not only allowed me to approach, but showed interest and curiosity in this new item.  He allowed me to rub it on his neck and up and down his face.  I was quick to remove it any time I felt tension start in his body.  I always want to remove pressure before they go to leave themselves.  He remained calm enough that I was comfortable putting the rope halter on would not elicit a desire to flee. 

Once the halter was on he led like a champ to the roundpen following a respectable two feet behind me.  He showed a retention of yesterdays lesson stopping when I raised my hand, and walking off as soon as I started motion again.  He quickly learned to yield his haunches at a waggle of my fingers.  He was a little resistant to moving his shoulder in the same fashion, but yielded when I turned his head in the direction I wanted his shoulder to go.  He was more relaxed trotting on the rail today, but continued to start and stop on command at liberty.  I was also able to pick up and hold both front feet today. 

 I repeated the same activity in the same manner with Penny.  She lacks the self confidence that Jay has, so is not as trusting.  She worked well all the same, but requires more snacks than rubs still at this point as reinforcement.  Penny was willing to yield haunches and shoulder on lead, but struggled to change directions at liberty.  She is definitley more whoa than go.  She has excellent light floating movement on the rail.  She is more ambidexterous than Jay and works well from both sides.  She did pick up both front feet, but is going to take more work in this area than Jay. 

Tomorrows goals for Jay will include tying and possibly accepting water for a bath and hydrotherapy for his knees. Penny will be a repeat of today.  I won't move forward with her until she is quietly changing directions at liberty, and comfortable giving me her feet in surrender. 

Monday, June 2, 2014

Introducing Sanjay and Penny

KJ and I picked up two horses from Central Virginia Horse Rescue yesterday.  They will be staying with us for a couple of months to insure a good start on their new lives.  They started their lives as part of a mostly feral (wild) herd with VERY limited human contact.  Sanjay is a characteristic appaloosa.  He is about 14h, and 5 years old.  He was pulled from the herd shortly after an altercation with the herd stallion that resulted in a bone chip in his knee and some significant swelling.  He is sound on the leg, but the we are still working to get the swelling down.  Sanjay has been at the rescue for about three weeks recovering from being gelded, and his knee injury.  He accepts a halter, and will at least go in and out of a stall on lead. 

I worked with him for about 20 minutes today at lunch time.  He still shows a desire to leave if approached with a halter. I have no doubt I could get a halter on him, but I'm not ready to do that yet.  I would like to have a horse seeking out the interaction with his handler, not just tolerating it.  I also like to be able to control his feet forward, backward, start, stop, and turn without needing to touch him before a halter goes on.  My ultimate goal is for him to do these tasks as a reflection of my body language.  I mean if I start forward I want him right there walking with me. If I stop he should. If I back he does, etc.  In order to achieve this goal I started today by reflecting his body language.  When he was moving I was moving right there with him.  When he would stop, I also stop and take my energy level down and my focus off of him.  This is a subtle reward for him stopping and allowing my presence in his space. 

After approaching him in the pasture and rewarding his allowing me to approach with a couple of cookies I was able to move him into the round pen at liberty.  Once in the round pen I was really able to work on controlling his momentum.  Sanjay is a very receptive sensitive horse.  This means I didn't have to put a lot of energy into creating forward motion.  His self confidence shows in his willingness to move off quietley, and when asked to whoa stand confidently and wait for me to approach him.  He and I will continue this work in the round pen until he remains in a relaxed posture while I approach and/or he starts to approach me.  Once he shows an understanding that interacting with me is pleasurable then he'll be ready to halter.  Sanjay is going to do best with a long term owner who is ready to earn his respect, and in return will be given all the try in the world. 

I worked with Penny in much the same way today.   Penny is a bay breeding stock type POA. She does exhibit some characteristics, but is otherwise solid.   She has a much different personality than Sanjay however.  She is looking for leadership from somewhere.  She is more timid, and flightier at this moment.  That tells me she lacks the self confidence that he has.  This is not unusual for a submissive mare in a herd, and is in no way indicative of how she will be once well started under saddle.  Penny has a very low energy drive and is already showing a propensity for more whoa than go.  At an estimated 13 hands I think she will is going to turn into quite a nice youth pony.  She shows a desire to interact with people, and is very soft  and gentle in her manners.  I look forward to bringing her along in a way that will set her up for success in a youth home.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

And the fun begins

Today we took a road trip to Brodnax, Virginia.  Why you ask?  We brought home two foster appaloosas that belong to Central Virginia Horse Rescue.  As my regular followers know I love an appaloosa, not because of their unique and loud coat patterns, but because of their brains.  Appaloosas have an above average intelligences, that equals an intense curiosity, and desire to please.  At least until someone pushes them too far.  The challenge to this brain?  They learn bad habits as easily as they learn the good ones. An appaloosa will always keep you on your toes.  With these new projects comes a chance to revive the blog, and detailed training stories, and suggestions.  If you are new to my blog please by all means back track and read some of my previous posts.  I will do my best to post every few days with lots of visual media to keep it interesting. Thank you for all of your ongoing support, and giving me the opportunity to share.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Classical riding on your to...

One of the tenets of classical instruction is just that it requires instruction.  Even riders at the top levels have trainers that they work with.  Many riders can not afford regular instruction, or have horses at home that make it difficult to get time with a trainer.  So the question becomes how to improve the classical portions of your training.

CAPRIOLE...First we need to discuss why we would want to maintain classical criteria in our program.  With all of this push for natural horsemanship, hunt seat equitation, and increase in western showing options (ranch horse pleasure, western dressage, etc) many of you may ask aren't there "better" methods today than there were a hundred years ago.  Some of you may be asking what is "classical".  Classical training is embodied by the Vienna riding school and the Lippizaner Stallions housed there.  PBS Lippizaner's on Nature  this show aired a couple of weeks ago, and is an amazing documentary of the entire classical process.  The natural horseman out there will notice the emphasis on allowing these horses to grow up as horses, and the importance of the human role in the herd.  Capriole is considered to be the ultimate culmination of years of classical training.  If a trainer among you can explain to me how you would force a horse into this action I'm all ears.  I only see this happening with the development of a quality relationship between horse and handler.    There are many trainers today that have done great research and study using modern day technology to evaluate the biomechanics of riding.  I consider Colleen Kelly to be top in this field. I have had the opportunity to ride in clinics with her twice, and learn each time.  The conclusion that I have come to is that despite technologies impact on how we draw conclusions all it really has served to do is support hundreds of years of time tested methods. 

Now that we've embraced the importance of maintaing classical methods in our training how do we do that when we can't afford or don't have access to classically trained trainers.  This is where technology becomes our friend.  I was about 14 years old when I first realized the significance of technology on riding. Back then technology came in the form of a 35 mm camera.  For several months my instructor had been trying to improve my posture over fences. She would tell me to "arch" my back.  When I would hear the word arch I would think of McDonald's golden arches and would round my back as much like a turtle as I could. I was getting frustrated not understanding why she was still on me about this. 
Then technology came into play. This picture was taken at a schooling show at my home barn.  As soon as I saw myself the light bulb went on.  First I instantly fixed my posture, and realized the importance technology can play.  I make a point of using still photography, but more importantly video with all of clients. The advancement of technology in the last 25 years has sped up this process with the advent of digital photography.  It used to be we took pictures and had to wait a week or more to get the pictures back, and then you were careful to only take a handful of pictures because film and development was expensive. 

The digital age has further improved the equestrian world, as it allows us to connect with trainers and professionals world wide.  We used to be limited to reviewing photos and videos with our local community which significantly limited the knowledge pool.  Many trainers Lynn Palm being one offer online video clinics. 
You have a friend film a video meeting the trainers requirements, and then send it digitally to them paying a fee, and in return you receive all of their commentary and suggestions.  Fees for this service are very reasonable for the level of instructor you gain access to.  Many trainers aren't more than $50 or so. 

Yes Literature majors a conclusion belongs here, but I can't think for the life of me how to close this post.  That's the luxury of technology you see. I get to be real, and don't have to adhere to standards.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Getting back to normal...WDAA

I suppose I shouldn't have mentioned the cold last weekend.  I haven't done much work at all this week. We got hit with an ice storm that lasted three days.  I did get to spend last Monday teaching before it rolled in.  I have a student who has spent the last 10 years raising and training her first horse, a Marsh Tacky that she got as a baby.  She has done a phenomenal job with limited input, and no true formal instruction on a regular basis. Last fall she realized they had hit a plateau in their relationship. She loves trail riding, and he's fairly solid in the woods, but she started on a quest to try something new.  We are on a journey into western dressage together.  She has limited schooling space at her farm, and does most of her work in a 60 foot round pen.  She will be competing at a Middleton schooling show next month.  Dressage (western or classical) is a measure of a horse's willingness, riders communication, mutual suppleness, and dare I say it...GEOMETRY. Yes your middle school math teacher was right, even horse people need geometry. We have spent the last several weeks working on her riding position, his attention, and started flexion work all while trail riding in the woods.  This week it became time to tackle the nitty gritty details that make dressage unique.  This is the first time I have done this in such limited space.  I broke our first lesson down into 4 exercises to introduce the basic concepts. 

The first thing we worked on was maintaining flexion on a circle.  We have introduced the basics of this in a straight line while trail riding, but it is actually far simpler to do with the bend of a circle.  When a horse travels in a true circle with bend through his body the inside hind foot steps not straight forward, but actually up and under the center of their barrel.  This allows them to lift their barrel/rib cage and come round over their top line.  You can experience the drop right now.  As you're reading this hunch your back like a turtle, and feel what is happening through your neck.  You should be experiencing a desire to bring your chin to your chest. 

The second skill we introduced was how to enter on a center line and stop square at "X".  Halting square is a skill that the rider and horse have been working on in hand for several weeks. As I've mentioned before I don't believe in asking for anything from the saddle that hasn't already been mastered in hand.  By working a horse from the ground first you minimize their confusion, as you can be very clear without being thrown off  by their movement.  Once a horse clearly understands a cue and movement, then we start asking from the saddle.  I had to be a bit creative based on our limited space.  I set up 4 corner cones, and we used our imaginations that dead center of the square was "X".  The first couple of times our horse got quite crooked in his hind end when he would halt.  We knew this had to be a result of rider error, as he halts very square in hand.  We talked about what the rider was experiencing, and discovered that she was carrying some tenseness in her seat. This created a tense, sudden halt demonstrated by  the horse's hip flipping out.  We corrected this by working on riding to a halt.  Our rider started planning her halt a few steps earlier allowing her to slow down her 5 word question to a step by step transition.  Her words were "think woah, relax seat to sit deep, soft audible cue, seat getting heavy, and finally  a touch of rein". 

The third skill we worked on was how to ride a circle inside a square.  This pair rides in a round pen regularly, so the rider felt this would be a fairly remedial exercise for them.  However, when you take the rail away, and have to communicate from the saddle size and shape of a circle to your horse rather than the environment dictate it there are other considerations.  We talked about how you can break the circle into 4 quarters and you ride each bend start and stop one cone to the next.  It's important to not allow a bad quarter to carry into the next one.  The first time they attempted a circle I marked the horse's footfall at the peak of the bend.  We observed that they were carrying outside the dimension of the square.  At test time this would result in touching or dare I say stepping over the arena rail.  We worked on riding with more seat and leg with less rein to create a more natural relaxed bend to our circle.  This is a tough skill initially to learn, as it's the first one that has to develop "feel" and awareness of arena presence in the rider.  This is a skill that became part of their homework assignment for the next couple of weeks.

The final skill of the day was riding a diagonal line through the square.  This skill started out very well.  The rider and horse had a nice tight turn right at their marker to head in a beautiful straight line to the opposite corner.  When they hit "X" the horse stared to lose forward momentum, and get crooked throughout his body.  I asked the rider to do it again, but this time halt as soon as she was pointed up the diagonal.  Once halted I asked her to describe what she saw.  She talked about the driveway, the farmhouse, and the pasture in front of her. She then started up the diagonal. I again asked her to halt at "X".  Now what did she see?   Dirt, a cone, and arena rail.  What had happened?  She had dropped her eyes studying her "end point".  Everyone of us has had a trainer tell us "eyes up" or "look ahead".  This is not so much about being aware of obstacles or hazards, but is crucial in how it effects our seat and position.  I do an exercise with every rider.  While at a halt I reach up at their horse's shoulder and have them hold my hand.  I ask them to look straight ahead and try to jerk them out of the saddle.  Low and behold it's near impossible to do.  I then repeat the same motion with them looking down at me maintaining eye contact with them.  The result?  I can unseat just about any rider regardless of body size. Again you can experience this sitting at home.  Sit on a hard surface with your eyes straight ahead.  How do your seat bones feel?  Now drop your eyes.  What do you experience through your spine and seat?  When the rider rode up the diagonal the next time "feeling for the cone" and keeping her eyes up and her head on a swivel approaching the corner they had a beautifully straight line.   (credit to Colleen Kelly for the shared exercise)

I know there is a lot of information in this article. In fact it seems perhaps I should write a book titled "Dressage in a round pen".  If any of this is not clear please jump over to our Facebook Page.  We'd love to answer/discuss any questions you have.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Hours in the day

Sometimes life gets away from us. It seemed I had last posted Wednesday or Thursday, but I just realized it's been almost an entire week.  With the cold chores have slowed down, and sucked up more hours of the day. I also started a new project for a client across town
Allow me to introduce Cody. He is a 17.2h Belgian cross that was home bred by his loving owners Keith and Toby Davis of Ridgeville.  I have the privilege of working with this gentle giant for the next couple of months.  Similar to mustangs, working with drafts requires different approaches than most domestic bred equines.  Cody has already shown me he has a VERY strong flight response which in a 2200lb animal is obviously exponentially more dangerous than a 1000 stock breed.  My first several sessions have worked on developing Cody's confidence and trust in me.   I have the luxury of a covered/indoor arena at this farm, but Cody can still see his herd from the round pen we have set up in the arena.  The first couple of sessions he was more interested in the outside world than what he and I were doing.  Just yesterday we had a break through.  I was making a video for Mr. Keith as a birthday present.  After a few minutes Cody realized I wasn't as able to focus on him as normal.  I ultimately stopped the video in order to correct Cody's independence.  It took me about 10 minutes of asking for heavy work extended trot, canter, and lots of directions changes to get Cody willing to come back and connect with me.  By the end I was rewarded with 10 minutes of him grooming me and playing with the lead rope I was holding.  He was not connected to the lead rope, and had the chance to leave me at any time he chose.  He did eventually wander off to the rail to look at his herd.  Within 10 seconds he was turning and came back to me.  I rewarded this choice by ending our session. 

You can watch the video with full commentary here.
Cody at liberty day 3