“So you like ’em stubborn.”
That’s what the first three people who introduced me to Maji had to say. I reckon they were right. I also reckon they knew that “stubborn” isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Here’s how I see it:
When a strong will works against us, we call it stubbornness. When the same, strong will works with us, we call it heart.
My job is to achieve alignment.
You see it at every endurance ride: Riders hopping along with one foot in the stirrup and one hand clutching a bundle of mane, yelling “whoa, dammit!” as their horses prick their ears and start walking. By the time the riders lurch into the saddle, cockeyed and groping for the offside stirrup, the horses are trotting. In most cases, the riders are so relieved to simply be aboard that they stifle their cursing and go along for the ride.
I’ve done it. Haven’t you? It’s so easy to “let it go this time,” because his buddies are going ahead, or we need to make up time, or it’s a race day and he’s distracted. And after all, it’s great to see an eager horse! Unfortunately, it’s almost as tempting to ignore the behavior during conditioning rides, time after regretful time, reinforcing a habit you don’t like but can’t be bothered to break.
The problem is that refusal to stand for mounting is a nuisance at best and a danger at worst. What happens when you need to mount on a narrow trail with a drop-off to one side? When you have a sprained ankle? When you’re at a busy water tank early in a ride? When another horse is out of control? All these situations — and plenty more — also apply to the related behavior of refusal to stand quietly, either in hand or mounted, out on the trail.
I’ve been riding Maji and Jammer for between 4 and 8 weeks now. They’re both young, enthusiastic, and eager to move out — and the same goes for me! But when I noticed their behavior trending toward moving off when mounted, fidgeting during pauses on the trail, and rushing toward home, I knew it was time for a lesson.
Maji, who needed the most work, went first. Here’s what I did:
1. I got my head straight. This involved thinking through my strategy and setting aside several hours specifically for the lesson. Conditioning was temporarily off the table. This was all about training.
2. I checked my toolbox. This meant making sure Maji understood and responded well to the cues I wanted to use for correction. I chose the single-rein stop (SRS: her head to my foot, disengage the hindquarters) because it’s efficient, safe, rewardable (easy to release), scalable (keep pivoting or stop as needed), and easy from the ground or from the saddle.
3. I stacked the deck. It’s always best to set the horse up for success. In Maji’s case, we were coming to the lesson on a crisp, sunny, breezy afternoon after several rest days. I lunged her for 25 minutes before saddling up to take the edge off.
4. I introduced the concept. Though Maji typically stands for mounting when we’re someplace boring, like in the round corral, I started there so she could get the right answer without added stress or distraction. As luck would have it, she did try moving off that day, so I was able to SRS her both from the ground and from the saddle, depending on my position when she moved. We also practiced just standing still with me in the saddle. This gave us plenty of opportunity to establish the rules of the game: Stand still when asked, or SRS and keep disengaging those hindquarters long enough that we pivot a time or two or more, depending on responsiveness and attitude.
5. I upped the ante. Once Maji was standing on a loose rein in the round corral, we moved out to the driveway, then just beyond the horse trailer where I usually mount up and where the other horses are out of sight. Lather, rinse, repeat. We probably spent 20 minutes discussing whether she would stand for mounting, then remain standing as long as I asked, there beyond the trailer.
6. I took the show on the road. Down the hill and along the neighboring farmer’s field, we stopped just to look around or for me to dismount and remount. Much of the time we were pointed toward home. We must have spun in a hundred or more circles, but I never fudged on the rules: I ask once. You obey, on a loose rein. If you move so much as one hoof, one inch, we SRS. There’s no emotion involved. No frustration or kicking of ribs or yanking of reins. Just calm requests and consistent consequences. By the time we quit, about 2 hours from the beginning of the lesson, Maji was standing on a loose rein in a spooky area with her face toward home, for minutes at a time.
7. I reinforced the lesson. Maji is a quick study. She often puts up a real fight during Round 1, but when I stick it out and win, she capitulates pretty thoroughly. Due to a minor hock injury, she spent the week after our lesson resting. When I finally took her out yesterday, it was clear she remembered. We had almost no trouble riding the same route, stopping here and there, dismounting and remounting. We cut our SRS repeats down from 100+ to maybe 5.
Now, all I need to do is remain consistent in enforcing my request during conditioning rides, especially as we find ourselves in ever more stimulating situations, such as riding with other horses, on windy days, and in new locations.
It’s that easy. You just gotta *do* it. Two hours of work for a lifetime of cooperation is a great bargain.
[A brief caution: This post is intended to address situations in which the horse moves off because he is impatient and eager to go. This is not the same thing as a horse that doesn’t want to be mounted! If you’re dealing with a horse that moves sideways or backwards, or even rears(!) to avoid mounting, you probably have a pain issue to address. Consider saddle fit, rider balance, LS/SI/stifle/hock soreness, ulcers, etc.]
I heard on the radio that experts are predicting another dry winter. This is bad in a lot of ways — Idaho could use some precipitation — but purely from a riding perspective, I’m delighted. Since I missed out on most of the summer riding season, a winter in the saddle sounds pretty good. I’m sure I’ll pay for the privilege in hay prices.
Hopefully, I’ll be able to ride enough to have Jammer and Maji ready to ramp up quickly for 50’s come spring. With a full-time work schedule, a long commute, and Daylight Wasting time approaching, reality dictates that each horse will be lucky to get three rides per week. Two is more likely. One and none are bound to happen occasionally.
That, and the fact that both horses (especially Maji) are green, means my conditioning plans are pretty flexible. The most important thing is that I just get them out and ride. Maji needs to experience the world, and both horses’ fitness will benefit from whatever miles I can put on them.
But you know me. I do have a bit more construct in mind than just “go ride.” In an ideal winter world, I’d ride each horse three times weekly: Once for LSD (that’s long, slow distance, for those who were wondering), once for a shorter, speedier ride, and once for arena work or a hack in the hills.
Yesterday was supposed to be Maji’s speed day. Speed is relative, of course, both for the horse and its level of fitness. Right now, Maji’s “speed work” would be about 8 mph for 4 miles on level ground. (Jammer’s is 9-10 mph for 6 miles on level ground.) Just enough to provide some challenge and build fitness, but not enough to beat up their untried legs.
Well. It was early afternoon and gusts of wind herded dark clouds across the sky. Maji didn’t seem bothered by the weather per say, but she was tense as a banjo string from the moment we crunched out of the drive. High-headed and jumpier than I’ve ever seen her, she behaved as though she’d never left the round corral before despite the fact that we were headed down to a canal bank she’s travelled several times in recent weeks. I even dismounted to walk her past the house with 5 hunting dogs in the yard, then a sugar beet field where a farmer’s roaring tractor pushed the giant, lumpy produce up in rows.
I mounted up again when we reached the canal — just in time for Maji to have a complete meltdown at the sight of a 4-wheeler ramp in the back of a farmer’s pickup. (Um, really, Maj?) She leaped sideways to the top of a crumbling bank and flailed around up there, trying to get her footing, turn around to run, and keep her popping eyes on the ramp all at the same time. It took me a minute to break through her mental static enough to help her edge past.
She continued to ogle everything that moved — which was plenty, given the wind. A heron rose from the canal. Cornstalks rattled. The last puddles of irrigation water flashed with minnows. Tree branches waved. Ravens swarmed the fields in billowing murders. Harvesters roared on distant roads. Our shadow slid over mounds of dirt. I rolled my eyes and prepared for a tough go.
The old reminder rhymed in my head: Light in the leg and soft in the hands, ride the horse and not your plans.
Yup. Forget the speed work. This ride needed to be about Maji’s mind.
First, I tried asking her to trot. I find that a tense, spooky horse often responds well to just being put to work. Get them in a rhythm, burn a little energy, and they let go of the mental bugaboos. Maji trotted…sort of…in that awkward, jolting way of very green horses. She raced ahead, responded to seat (sloooower, Horsie), stared sideways instead of watching her feet, trotted on.
She was just beginning to settle when we encountered the Weed. It was, to my eye, exactly like 500 other weeds we had already passed. But what do I know? I am only human. Maji saw a bloodthirsty killer.
She went straight from a brisk trot, right past a stop and into reverse, in half a heartbeat. This wasn’t your average “startle.” Oh no. It was the stiff-legged hit-the-brakes crouch followed by 20 paces of the fastest, lowest backing I’ve ever ridden.
Funniest. Thing. Ever.
Poor Maji. She saved both our lives and all I could do was laugh at her.
We cut a dicey path around the Weed and proceeded another mile before I took a look at the sky and decided to head home. I also decided to try another tactic on the way. Instead of trotting, as the get-to-work method wasn’t helping much, we would try to relax at a walk. Give her more time to absorb the sights. Chill out.
I thought I might have a fight on my hands, keeping her to a walk on the way home, but last week’s No Rushing lessons seemed to have sunk in. She hardly broke gait at all, and instead settled down (mostly) on a long-ish rein. And so, we salvaged a decent trail ride out of the whole mess and she learned that having a baby-brain day doesn’t mean she doesn’t have to pull herself together and behave.
As soon as we got home, I didn’t even pull her tack but snapped a lunge line to her halter and worked her at a brisk trot for 25 minutes. This was not punishment by any means — horses don’t understand that kind of consequence, and besides, she hadn’t done anything wrong — but simply a safer way to burn some of her abundant energy. Lunging isn’t my favorite method because I don’t think all those circles are great for their legs, but I’m not afraid to use it occasionally. This seemed an an appropriate occasion.
By the time we were done, she was sweaty but bright-eyed, happy, and ready for a snack inside the horse trailer.
All’s well that ends well, they say, but I must admit that I hope today’s ride is easier!
The bit I used on Jammer over the weekend was a shade to narrow. I bought him a new one — a sweet iron and copper egg-butt snaffle broken with a chain in the middle where the third link might be. It was a gentle bit, designed to free the tongue from pressure while maintaining communication with the bars.
Jammer hated it.
He mouthed it when first bitted — exploring, I thought. Experimenting. — then carried it quietly as we set off down the road. We hadn’t gone a quarter mile before he began to ask the standard horse question: Could we go home instead? Seat, legs, rein. No, no, and no.
It took all of two minutes for us both to get the point. To me, the bit felt like a gummy worm, squiggly and inconsistent.
To him, it felt insecure. Unclear. Where was he supposed to go, again? Hello? Leader? He expressed his agitation in a raised back, tossed head, and attempts to pivot toward home.
Hmm…not the reaction I’d come to expect from him. But should I head for home, thereby rewarding his behavior but enabling me to switch bits, or persevere at peril of an unpleasant or possibly dangerous ride?
I decided to head home. I lunged him for a few minutes so arriving home wouldn’t be all fun and games, then switched over to a basic, full-cheek snaffle that I had lying around. Time for another decision: arena work or hit the trail? There’s only so much time in a day and I really wanted those miles…
I mounted up in the round corral. Collected a little. Did some lateral work. Practiced single-rein stops.
Then we headed back out. He felt steadier, more confident, in the stronger bit. Unlike with the gummy worm, I scarcely had to touch his mouth. We passed the “trouble spot” with hardly a batted eyelash, and proceeded to have a fabulous conditioning ride. (Really, it was super fun.)
But you know, I’d have given up that ride for just the arena work. In this particular instance, I think equipment rather than training was to blame, but the point stands: It doesn’t matter how fit your horse is if you can’t control him.
On the trail. Headed home. At the start of a race. When he spooks.
Schooling will pay off.
We endurance riders are infamous for our dislike of the ring. I’m no exception. But I’m coming around. It surely is nice to know, in a dicey situation on the trail, that I have a tool bag full of hindquarters and necks and ribs that respond, without thinking, to well-practiced cues.
In the spirit of this post, I followed Jammer’s ride with 30 minutes in the round corral on Maji. We explored headset, a new concept for her, and carried on with softening, softening, bending, bending, giving up her signature head-toss in favor of responding to direction.
Practice, practice, practice.
You never know when you’ll need it.
Go ahead: Teach to the test.
My butt hurts.
You know how it feels when you haven’t ridden a bike in years and then you decide to pedal 10 miles around the state park on Labor Day? Your legs may feel fine, but your tush gets bruised. It just ain’t used to that seat.
Well, that’s what the weekend’s rides did to me. I got so little saddle time over the summer that I lost my anti-butt-bruising “callous.” On the bright side, the bruising means I’m riding!
I took both Majesty and Jammazon out on Saturday, one after the other, for early conditioning rides along the irrigation canal. Garmin came along to help me start assimiling how each horse feels at certain speeds, what kind of pace each adopts most naturally, etc. These will be observations logged over time, of course, but you have to start somewhere.
I clocked 4.3 miles of the 6-mile total trek. The balance of the mileage, spent on warmup and cooldown, was along the paved road between In the Night Farm and the canal. I didn’t want to time that section because it’s harvest season and I knew we’d be interrupted. Sure enough, we were obliged to move well off the shoulder a few times while potato, onion, and sugarbeet trucks roared by.
Jammer had 90 days of training last spring, followed by a couple rides per week all summer, until about the last month when he didn’t get much attention because his trainer’s time was demanded elsewhere. So, his fitness isn’t at its peak. (Okay, okay. He’s fat.) We trotted about 50% of the level route and walked the other 50%. Total time was 37 minutes, so we averaged 6.9 mph.
Maji’s fitness level is similarly low. Over a year ago, she had 60 days of training and was going pretty strong in hilly terrain, but she hasn’t done much since. We took a 6-mile walk/trot along the canal bank last weekend, and have put in some arena time over the past few weeks to soften her up and re-charge her brain cells before heading out. On Saturday, we trotted about 75% of the route and walked 25%. Total time was 44 minutes, for an average of 5.9 mph.
Fascinating. Maji’s walk is perfectly acceptable, and she’s game and speedy at the trot as well. But Jammer brings a whole other level of power to the trail. At 15.1, he has the advantage of size to go with his “go.” He walks out at 5mph easy; according to his trainer, there’s a sustainable 7mph walk in him too, but I haven’t tried that yet. If you look at the walk/trot percentages and total times, you can see how that walk pays off!
Two good horses. Two good rides. One sore butt is a small price to pay.
Site Update: You may have noticed a new page on this site — the Conditioning Log. Way back in the beginning of The Barb Wire, I kept a log of my conditioning rides on the site in the hope that it would be helpful to others getting started in the sport. Indeed, it has proven to be a popular feature. To this day, I receive emails of thanks for it. (Emails like that always make my day.) Now that I’m starting a couple new endurance horses, I reckon it’s time to bring the conditioning log back — hopefully, it’ll be better than before because I’ve learned an awful lot since I started riding Aaruba.