One of the downsides of blogging is that older articles, no matter how good they are, have a way of getting buried in the archives. The result is that most new readers never see the “golden oldies” that you longtime readers might recall. The obvious solution? Re-post them.
Enter Flashback Friday. At the end of each week, I’ll resurrect an old post that proved popular for one reason or another (or maybe I just liked it!) This week’s Flashback came to mind not only because new reader Tom went on an archive-dive and commented on it, but also because natural horsemanship was a topic of conversation at Canyonlands last week. Enjoy!
CALL ME CRAZY: A WORD ABOUT NATURAL HORSEMANSHIP (orignally posted March 27, 2008)
While chatting with a non-horseperson several weeks ago, I mentioned that I do my own horse training.
Looking impressed, he said, “You must be a really good rider.”
I replied that while I’m certainly competent, there are plenty of better riders warming saddles in this county. It wasn’t until days later that I realized he thought I was a bronc buster…because isn’t bucking part of the process?
In a word, no. I may do many things, but running a private rodeo is not one of them. That style of training is so far from my own that it didn’t occur to me someone would make such an assumption. If I had to put a name to my training technique, I suppose I would — with great reluctance — call it natural horsemanship.
Why the reluctance? Well, for what is described as a gentle, logical training philosophy, natural horsemanship inspires very little polite conversation among horsemen. Next time you want to raise a ruckus in the barnyard, try this:
1) Stand in the middle of group of horsepeople.
2) Shout “Natural horsemanship!”
3) Watch the horsefeathers fly.
Participants in the brawl tend to view each other as being in one of two camps: The Devotees or the Ridiculers.
The Devotees range from pre-teen girls daydreaming about unbridled stallions and Steve Rother’s backside to serious trainers engaged in various certification programs. Some study the spectrum of approaches, while others align themselves as disciples of a particular trainer. Some spend thousands on name-brand tack. Others make a concept work with the equipment they already own.
Meanwhile, the Ridiculers point to seductive marketing of pricy training videos and clinics. They point out the personal failings of well-known trainers. They make YouTube videos like this one and snicker in online forums about attempts at natural horsemanship resulting in loose horses gallivanting around the barn owner’s tennis courts.
I can’t deny that the superstardom achieved by the likes of Monty Roberts, Pat Parelli, and Clinton Anderson — and the accompanying lingo and endorsed products — is irksome. A big ego, including the falsely humble variety, is a big turnoff for me, and I’m happy to steer clear of it.
That said, there is a reason these trainers and many others (Frank Bell, Charles Wilhelm, Chris Irwin, Sylvia Scott, Julie Goodnight, Linda Tellington-Jones, and the list goes on) succeed. It is the same reason I use a compilation of their techniques, which are as ancient as horsemanship itself, with my Barbs. We aren’t doing it because our heads have floated free of our shoulders, or because it’s the “in thing,” or because we were suckered by glitzy advertising.
We’re doing it for one reason: Natural horsemanship works.
Before you bring up the loose horse on the tennis courts again, let me qualify that statement. Natural horsemanship works if you understand the psychology behind it.
You see, natural horsemanship isn’t about tarps or round corrals or whips-by-any-other-name. No more is it about Western, English, New Age, or magical “horse whispering.”
Natural horsemanship is, at heart, nothing more than a way of being. It is expecting the horse to be a horse, not a human, and treating him thus. It is a choice to be the better creature, the wiser partner, the leader who listens. It is being what the horse needs you to be, so he can do what you ask him to do.
Attempted without understanding, the techniques promoted by many famous trainers are indeed silly or even dangerous. Skillfully applied, however, they can open cross-species communication with astonishing results.
Call it what you like, but it’s worth taking the time to understand how equines think and communicate. That’s how I see it.
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No one told Acey she’s tiny.
It was her fiery attitude that caught my attention years ago at Quien Sabe. Among a hundred mares and fillies, her spirit flashed bright as the diagonally matched pairs of white and black legs that named her Alternating Current.
When I started handwalking her out on the roads, she proved the kind of horse that prefers being driven to being led. Oooh, look at that, she seemed to say, marching along. Let’s hurry up and see what’s next! I was pleased to oblige, so long as she remained light and responsive to my hand on the rope.
Under saddle, however, she began tentatively. In the round corral, she was slow to walk forward, and even more unwilling to trot. I chose to bide my time while she gained confidence, focusing on riding her through obstacle courses of cavaletti until I felt she was ready to ride out.
She handled the challenge admirably, and within a few rides of this post, she found her trot. As anticipated, it happened out on the trail, and it was easy. Not just easy, either. Fun! She offered speed! After two years of dealing with Consolation’s more, erm, relaxed personality, I was delighted to ride such an eager and forward horse.
But it’s never quite that easy. In horses, as in people, every positive trait tends to be mirrored by its negative side. Acey was quick and bold and clever…and in one ride, that turned to lithe, resistant, and evasive.
It happened last Sunday. We went for a ride along the irrigation canal, in the opposite direction from Saturday’s ride. On our left ran the canal, a steep six-foot bank falling into running water. To our right stretched acres of wheat and potato fields. Our only company was the occasional snake, rodent, or hawk.
Early in the ride, Acey began pausing, refusing to move. I moved her head back and forth, nudged her forward. A couple times, I dismounted to get her past particularly sticky areas. (Strike one!)
When she threw me a particularly stubborn balk, I asked her to back in an attempt to break her loose. She backed all right. Fast and far, and I had trouble getting her stopped. (Strike two!)
The next time she balked, she started backing before I could ask. She tucked her chin and backed, and backed, and backed… I tried turning her out of it, of course, but if you’ve ever ridden an evasive backer with a flexible neck, you know that doesn’t always work. It didn’t. I ended up dismounting in a hurry to slap her rump and stop her backing right into the canal. (Strike three!)
Why didn’t I smack her rump from the saddle? Because I was alone out there, and I didn’t know what she’d do. I was afraid of bucking, bolting, and injury. As a result, I had a big problem on my hands.
If there’s a problem with the horse, look to the trainer.
Our discussion over continuing down the trail degenerated rapidly. I knew I would lose the war because I hadn’t come properly armed, so I looked for a battle to win instead. I directed Acey’s backing down a farm road leading away from the canal. Carefully, so as not to put rearing into her mind, I kept her backing after she wanted to stop (and believe me, we backed a long distance to get to that point).
Then, I asked her to move forward. She did, because we were no longer pointed directly away from home. When we arrived back at the irrigation road, I directed her toward home. She went willingly, of course. A little too willingly. So willingly that we spent a couple hours getting home because we had to stop frequently and discuss the fact that, yes, I was going to make her stand still when told.
Finally back in the round corral, we worked on leg yields, then spent several minutes free lunging before I turned her loose and went inside to think things over.
The situation didn’t look good. Uncontrolled backing can be a particularly difficult form of evasion with which to contend. It’s dangerous in itself and can lead to the much more serious habit of rearing. Equally alarming was the speed with which Acey had discovered its effectiveness. This problem needed to be nipped in the bud. Immediately. But how?
A horse that gets behind the bit (or bitless bridle, in this case) takes away all your leverage. If the horse refuses to listen to legs and seat, you’re out of luck for turning or stopping. Many people recommend keeping the horse backing after it wants to stop, and that does often work, but Acey had already proved her athleticism and ability to back, very fast, for an extraordinary distance. Furthermore, I felt that attempting that method with such a quick-minded horse would escalate the problem rather than curing it. So, how could I stop her backing?
A hour later, the obvious answer smacked me atop the head. It’s not about what the horse IS doing. It’s about what she’s NOT doing. I don’t need to STOP her backing. I need to START her going forward. Duh.
We began that very evening. I dug out my little-used dressage whip and brought it along to the round corral. We started in hand, with me ground driving Acey through walk-trot transitions until she leaped forward into a trot at the slightest request. (I hardly touched her with the whip; she’s very sensitive and its very presence was sufficient to make my point.)
Next, I mounted up. Still aware that she might panic when I demanded a trot, I chose to leave the whip behind and focus on installing a stronger “go” button using only my voice, seat, and legs. We already had this lesson down at the walk, but Acey’s prior reluctance to trot in the round corral provided the perfect avenue for teaching her that she must move forward when cued.
It wasn’t a hard lesson. Sure, her head went up and her back hollowed with concern. Her steps were uneven and her tail tucked. But here’s the key: Every time she tried to stop, I boosted her onward with as much force as she required — a click, a squeeze, even a kick. I didn’t worry about her headset or collection or anything else. She simply needed to move forward no matter what. And so she did.
We repeated the lesson a couple times in the round corral, establishing consistent, prompt transitions and a steady pace, before I mounted up for a road test. We headed not for the irrigation canal, but for a place where Acey had balked somewhat less vehemently. My intention was to face the issue head-on while still giving her every opportunity to succeed.
As we approached the sticky area, I asked her to trot. The moment she hesitated, I booted her onward. As in the round corral, I took great care to avoid punishing her with a yank on her face when she leaped forward in response to my cue.
It’s harvest time, here in the agricultural countryside surrounding In the Night Farm. Soybeans cluster beneath yellowing leaves. Rows of onions are forced from their beds to lie atop the soil, plundered and baking in the sun. Proud, green cornfields vanish in swaths, their stalks chopped into mounds of fodder.
With harvest come the trucks. Dump trucks mounded high with future silage, tractor-trailers with flapping straps all down their sides, bale wagons groaning under tons of alfalfa, tillers set to churn the pillaged crops back into earth. From dawn ’til dark, our peace is shattered by roaring engines, clattering metal, the stench of diesel and brakes.
Every year, harvest seems to coincide with the “sightseeing phase” for at least one of my equine trainees. This year, it’s Ripple Effect. She turned four in July, and I’ve spent the summer filling her eager mind with preparation for starting under saddle.
One of the largest components of this preparation is extensive handwalking and ground driving along the ditch banks and roads surrounding the farm. I have yet to find a safer or more efficient way to feed a horse’s curiosity and build her confidence while strengthening her hooves and legs for the work ahead.
I gain a great deal from these sightseeing expeditions as well. They open a window to my horse’s mind, through which I may evaluate her maturity and preparedness to be ridden. Mile over mile, I find answers to myriad questions:
How does this horse respond to threat? Will she stand her ground, or run? Does she tend toward curiosity, or fear? Has she the courage to be ground-driven through spooky areas, or am I still obliged to lead her?
What kinds of things concern her? Loose dogs? Pheasant fly-ups? Objects on the ground? Other livestock? Moving water? Sunglare on metal objects? Vehicles?
How long is her attention span? Can she maintain a straight course? Will she give to pressure, turning and stopping on command regardless of our surroundings? Does she enjoy exploring, or would she rather stay home? When confused, does she turn to me for direction?
Perhaps you can see why I don’t mind the trucks. They up the ante. They force real answers from the horse I’m leading…and as I’ve quoted before, the horse you lead is the horse you ride.
Ripple is coming along beautifully. There are moments, out along the road, when I can imagine traveling safely along on her back. For the time being, however, I’m content to drive her along the gravel shoulder, watching her ears flicker as she marches unflinchingly into the roar of an oncoming semi.
I imagine harvest will be winding down by the time I actually ride Ripple on the road. That’s all right by me. It’s safer. For now, we’ll save mounted work for the round corral and we’ll continue our daily walks in hand. There’s no hurry. We’re truckin’ along.
I study a great deal on the subject of horse training, and I’ve a good memory for words. The result is a mental collection of phrases that guide me every time I work with a horse.
“Where you release is what you teach.” (Jeff Spencer)
“If there’s a problem with the horse, look to the trainer.” (Robert Painter)
“Emotional control is crafting cues around the horse’s own flight mechanism.” (Charles Wilhelm)
Lately, the mantra that has surfaced most often is one of my own: “If it isn’t easy, it isn’t time.”
This concept is applicable to almost all horse training situations, but is was tiny, fiery Acey who really drove the message home.
Alternating Current came to me straight from Quien Sabe, completely untouched but nearly mature. She’s seven now. Plenty old enough to be not only under saddle, but out on the endurance trail. She would be, too, except that I made a mistake.
I should have known better. From the earliest stages of gentling, Acey has proven the kind of horse that reacts to new situations with intense emotion. Only through patient, persistent, steady progression was I able to touch her face, halter her, lead her, pick up her feet.
When I first mounted Acey in Summer 2009, she responded with the strongest “freeze” reaction I’d ever experienced. Days passed before she attempted to take a step, and then it was sideways, backwards, any direction but forward.
Eventually, I got Acey to move out. Fine. We spent a couple days walking around the round corral, reversing, circling, and learning to pivot…and then things went wrong.
With most horses, I ask for a trot very early on. They tend to accept this with a moment’s confusion, a lightbulb moment, a hesitant attempt, then success.
Not Acey. In her characteristic fashion, she reacted to my new request with emotion. Her head went up and her back stiffened. And I (fool!) kept asking. In fact, in a classic “training FAIL,” I asked more vigorously. I tapped her sides with my heels (new to her) and even flicked her rump with the rein (also new).
She panicked. Bolted. Bucked. After a couple rounds of the corral with no sign of stopping, I initiated a less-than-graceful dismount before she could manage to do it for me.
And then I spent the evening licking mental wounds that hurt much more than the bruises I incurred.
And then I spent months making it up to her.
You see, I’d asked for something that was too hard. I should have recognized Acey’s obvious signals that she wasn’t prepared to attempt a trot. Had I waited another few days, another week, maybe more…until it was easy…then it would have been time.
The second time around, I remembered. I led Acey back through all her groundwork, and didn’t so much as put a foot in the stirrup until I was sure she was prepared to stand quietly when I did so, despite her bad memory of that last, fateful ride. Then I spent days getting on and off, never asking her to move.
Eventually, when she felt relaxed and balanced beneath me, I requested a pivot. She obliged. We backed a little, sidepassed some. A few days later, she moved forward — just a few steps, and we wrapped up the session there.
The weeks since have seen extraordinary progress. We’ve walked over and among obsticles in the round corral, practiced bending, and reinforced one of my favorite commands: whoa. We’ve even left the round corral for a couple rides along the road, which she has handled with admirable quiet and enthusiasm.
Have I asked for a trot? A few times. Have I gotten it? A few steps. Have I requsted more? No. Because it isn’t easy yet.
Any decent trainer knows to break concepts into bite-sized chunks. But this goes a step further: You don’t introduce the next chunk simply because it’s the next puzzle piece that’s supposed to fit. You wait until it comes naturally.
The day will come when Acey offers to trot. It will feel almost as though we’ve done it a hundred times before. It will be simple, not scary. Fun instead of forced. We’ll wonder why we ever worried.
It will be easy, because it will be time.
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I must apologize for my long absence. The stressful situation to which I’ve alluded in previous posts continues, and it seems that more often than not lately, I arrive home with no energy left to draft a post worth reading.
I’d be lying if I said the same stress hasn’t affected my training; it has. More than once, I’ve given up my weeknight training plans in favor of a few hours’ escape through cooking or a book. Horse training takes a great deal of emotional intensity, and I often feel I have little left to give.
And yet, I have kept on. It’s well past time I updated you on my 2010 plans for the equine residents of In the Night Farm. Mind you, I’ve learned my lesson about setting hard and fast goals when it comes to training and endurance conditioning. Something is bound to go wrong, and having expectations too high only makes the fall too painful.
These, then, are ideals. I’ll work toward them and get as far as I can, and take the pitfalls in stride. Stay tuned for updates on each of the following horses:
Inara — As part of her purchase price, Inara is to go to her new owner with basic groundwork complete. She’ll catch, lead, lunge, pick up feet, deworm, and trailer load.
Alternating Current (aka Acey) — It’s time to start this fiery, little mare under saddle. It would be fantastic to have her ready for her first LD by the end of the season, but I’ll settle for getting well into a foundation of long, slow distance work in preparation for next year.
Ripple Effect — Can you believe she’s four this year? Yes, it’s time to start her under saddle, too. A significant part of the project will be getting her comfortable with leaving the other horses and facing the great, wide world.
Sandstorm — You haven’t seen enough of this fantastic mare. The tallest Barb in my herd, she’s an astonishing mover with a sweet but cautious personality and potential I’m just beginning to tap. I’d like to finish gentling her (she’s another that arrived at In the Night Farm completely untouched) and get plenty of groundwork done so I can start riding her next year.
Consolation — Endurance, of course! We had a setback in mid-June that has taken us out of conditioning for a while (details in an upcoming post), but it’s about time to hit the trail again. Hooray!
Crackerjack — See “Ripple Effect.” These half-siblings were born just a few days apart, but CJ isn’t quite as physically mature as his lookalike sister. Still, it won’t hurt to proceed with his groundwork as soon as I’m done with Inara to free up a time slot. Maybe, by the end of the season, it’ll be time to step aboard.
I must say, it’s nice to come in after a long day in the round corral, pour a tall glass of iced tea, and look out over so many sweat-stained equine backs. I know just how they feel. We’re working hard, the ponies and I. We’ll get there.
By the way, I’m still encountering spam problems despite having enabled the word verification feature for comments. Sadly, this has forced me to take the next step — comment moderation. So, you’ll notice a delay between commenting and seeing your comment posted. I’ll try going back to just word verification after a while, when the Chinese-character blighter decides to give it a rest.
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I’m unusually conservative when it comes to introducing the canter with my horses. It always interests me to see other trainers start a green horse cantering on its tenth or eleventh ride. What, I wonder, is the hurry? No doubt they have their reasons, but I prefer to wait up to a year before asking my greenies to move up from the trot.
I have my reasons, too. Almost as soon as my horses are under saddle, I move their training sessions onto the trail. With endurance as a goal, this makes perfect sense – why not start in on that long, slow distance base while establishing the basics? But, out on the road or trail, without the security of fences or company, mental steadiness is paramount. I’ve no interest in injecting a shot of speed-induced adrenaline to the proceedings. Besides, a young endurance horse can gain nothing but benefit from many months and miles of trotting, trotting, and trotting some more.
That said, the time for cantering does come – and Consolation has arrived. I mentioned in my last post that I’ve added significantly more cantering to her workouts as a means of increasing her fitness and exploring ways to increase her average pace. As with most new requests I make of Consolation, convincing her to canter has required extensive conversation.
We began last year at Owyhee Canyonlands, near the end of her first 50-mile race. I believe in making the right answer easy for my horse to find, and it seemed wise to take advantage of both the pull of the horse ahead (to encourage speed) and the weight of miles behind (to minimize, erm, overzealous expressions of enthusiasm). Sure enough, we got in a few stretches of buck-free cantering – a perfect introduction to the gait.
This spring, I needed to move Consolation’s canter to the conditioning trail. We started with extended canters during her liberty sessions in the round corral, boosting her fitness and balance for the gait. Next, I began asking for a canter under saddle. Because she is prone to slow motion but not to racing home, I found it most appropriate to do so during the latter half of our rides, when we were pointed homeward.
At first, a few strides was plenty. Unsure of her own balance and particularly my desires (a possible argument for introducing the canter earlier), Consolation required substantial urging to continue cantering. After a few sessions, she got the idea, but keeping her in the gait remained difficult due to her general distaste for expending more effort than she deems necessary.
We kept at it, though, and within a few weeks, we’d developed a language that seemed to build her confidence and enthusiasm. I asked her to canter only when she felt energetic and positive, and used as a pre-cue a verbal, “You wanna?”
Depending on her response — slowed trot or gathered quarters — I either desisted or proceeded with the standard canter request. Seat, leg, rein. Voila!
[Digression: I thought long and hard about whether it was a good idea to give Consolation a say in the matter. After all, aren’t our horses supposed to obey our leadership, immediately, at all times? Well now, that depends. In matters of safety, yes. But in our athletic endeavors, Consolation is a full partner and responds best to mutual respect.]
Sure enough, it wasn’t long before she discovered the fun inherent in speed. Now it was her fitness level, rather than her mind, that held her back. She’d falter after a quarter- or half-mile of cantering, dropping to a walk with such abruptness that my seat – already much enhanced by the experience of riding this mare – made additional, rapid improvements.
Still, we kept on. I concentrated on timing my requests so that I asked her to walk or trot moments before she made the decision on her own. I tried never to let her get winded or weary, because if cantering became work instead of fun, we’d find ourselves locked in an everlasting battle.
Finally, the old magic happened. It always does.
After a long series of incremental improvements, Consolation made her great leap into achievement: Two days ago, she cantered over half of a 14-mile ride. She volunteered to canter. She wanted to canter. She asked to carry on even when I directed her to stop. We discussed the matter as partners, co-conspirators there on the sunlit, windblown track, and reached a happy compromise that cut twenty minutes off our usual time.
That’s my girl.
Born in late July, 2009, this Insider x Sandstorm filly reached a generous weaning age in mid-March. The time had come to separate her from Mama and begin the groundwork that will prepare her to go live with her new family in Oregon.
On weaning day, I was alone at In the Night Farm. No problem, I thought. After all, I designed my horse compound specifically for handling ungentled horses:
The round corral sits in the middle of a square enclosure. When swung outward, the round corral gate can be secured to the side of the square, creating a roadblock that funnels a loose horse right into the round corral for training. All my paddocks are arranged around the outside of the square, with gates that open into the square, so that any horse can be driven from paddock to round corral, no haltering required. So, it might take a little patience, but I should be able to separate Inara and Sandstorm without tremendous difficulty.
Well. The Inara-separation project required several steps involving moving Sandstorm to a spare paddock, then Inara to the round corral, then Sandstorm back to her original paddock, and finally, Inara into the spare paddock.
Sandstorm was easy. She knows the ropes.
Inara? A bit more difficult. Not only did she lack experience with the process of being moved from one pen to another, but her emotions skyrocketed the instant she realized Mama was neither by her side nor responding to her calls. Though Sandstorm’s temporary paddock was located near the round corral gate, baby Inara was not excited about going in that direction. Instead, she raced frantically around the square enclosure.
Fortunately, the enclosure is a safe place for frantic racing. Its whole purpose, after all, is to contain wild horses. I waited several minutes for her to settle down, then approached her in a firm but non-threatening manner, asking her to move around the enclosure toward the round corral gate.
Normally, this works beautifully. It’s a simple matter of asking a horse, in horse-language, to move in the desired direction.
But Inara wasn’t listening. She blasted past me, alarmingly close and fast. I worked my way around and tried again, more forcefully, and prepared to back up if she approached so as to lessen the pressure without letting her by again. No dice. She blasted past.
Oh really, I thought. That’s interesting…not to mention a bit disturbing. After all, everything you do with a horse is training, and the last thing you want a horse to learn right out of the gate is that it doesn’t have to surrender space to you.
Thankfully, my third attempt was successful. I closed the round corral gate on Inara, figuring that behind 7-foot, 12-gauge panels was the safest place for her at the moment, and sat down on the ground to study her and think.
Where had I gone wrong? What was happening in her little head? And how could I be sure it wouldn’t happen again?
Slowly, as I watched her fling herself about the round corral — pressing her ears back every time she passed me, which I found both fascinating and alarming since she has no reason for animosity — I formed several conclusions:
1. Part of the problem I’d encountered in attempting to drive Inara had simply been her high emotional level. She was, understandably, panicky and preoccupied with Sandstorm’s absence. However, blowing past me still represented a dramatic and willful move.
2. Inara comes from strong-willed stock. Barbs in general, and her sire in particular, have no shortage of courage or willingness to defend their own interests. An admirable trait, this, but certainly one to channel appropriately, for safety’s sake.
3. Most enlightening of all was this: Inara has spent her entire life in a paddock with only her mama. She’s never had another horse demand that she give way. Like most dams, Sandstorm has docilely tolerated Inara’s youthful whims without reprimand. As far as Inara knows, it’s perfectly acceptable to run roughshod, like a spoiled child, over anybody who gets in her way.
And there was my answer. The best thing I could to for Inara was to recruit a better trainer than myself — another horse.
Consolation struck me as the ideal choice. Calm and confident, dominant but not a bully, firm but fair, I knew she’d put Inara in her place. So, after giving Inara a day to get over the worst of her weaning angst, I moved Consolation into her paddock with her.
Sure enough, Inara spent the next few hours learning that life isn’t all about getting her way. Better than the most expert human trainer, Consolation used as much force as necessary — but not a hint more — to put the filly in her place.
It worked. During Inara’s and my first gentling session a few days later, she tried to get past me…once. My body language — now that Inara could read it and was calm enough to do so — convinced her that the best direction to go was the one in which I sent her. We had a short but productive session, an unquestionable win, simply because she had learned to lose.
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Consolation and I took a walk today. (After work! Imagine having that much daylight!)
It was just a walk. And yet, it was so much more. After a long winter’s nap, it’s nearly time to get serious about conditioning for the 2010 endurance season. I’ve spent some time on the AERC website lately, checking out the ride calendar for the northwest region. It includes a new ride, the Owyhee Spring on May 1, that sounds perfect for Consolation’s first race of the year — the 55, of course, because we know she can do it. And so, this walk was step one in preparing us for what I hope will be the first of many strong, sound completions in 2010.
Though unseasonably warm at 45 degrees, today’s weather also featured blustering wind and all the equine antics that come with it. I set out with several purposes in mind:
- To reintroduce Consolation to the concept of having a career. After several months off, her mind has clearly relaxed into its natural state; she was hard to catch and reluctant to stand for brushing, and our first mile out was filled with silliness that I largely chose to ignore, so long as she abided by the basic rules (no crowding, keep slack in the lead, mimic my pace).
- To reestablish trust and leadership in Consolation’s mind and emotions. I’ve often repeated that “the horse you lead is the horse you ride,” and I want to be sure my willful mare and I are thinking together before I mount up.
- To begin toughening Consolation’s hooves for miles of barefoot travel on gravel and occasional pavement. Though she’s spent the winter on a dry lot of variously frozen, snow-covered, and muddy soil, Consolation has excellent feet and showed no sign of tenderness during today’s 3.5 mile trek.
- To prepare Consolation’s mind for being ridden in windy conditions. For all that we completed several races together last year, she is still a green and powerful mare. Since we’ll need to condition on windy days if we’re to be ready for that 55-miler in May, I figure it’s best to start early on getting her accustomed to the gusty landscape.
Our training session offered benefits for me, as well:
- Walking is remarkably good for human health. For all that I prefer heavy lifting and high intensity interval training, there’s no denying that moving slowly has a remarkably metabolism-boosting hormonal effect on the body.
- Even better, today’s walk offered a simple way to ease back into the habit of horsemanship. I’ve said before that horse training is a discipline, like writing a novel or eating well, that thrives in an environment of commitment. It’s time to buckle down for 2010, and I’m feeling more ready every day.
Yes, it was just a walk. But it was a start. A slow, easy, purposeful start start toward whatever adventures this year in endurance may hold. And out there, leaning hard into the wind that lifted Consolation’s mane and whipped my hair free of its braid, I couldn’t help but recall a quote by Jimmy Dean: “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”
Come what may.
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I woke this morning in the mood to dance.
“I frequently marvel,” I said, “that I can put a bit of string on a 900-pound prey animal and lead it through strange and frightening territory with that string in an open palm, and it will stay with me. This despite the fact that there is nothing, nothing in my power that could stop that horse from leaving if it wanted to. Tell me that isn’t magic.”
“Sounds like trust,” my friend said.
“Trust. Yes. But not blind trust. That is the magic.”
Think of horses in a field. Watch them long enough, and you’ll see that they control each others’ movements with subtle — and occasionally dramatic — bits of body language. Tilt of ear, angle of body, suggestion of raised hip. They have no need of whips or ropes or chains; their language is based on the twin elements of respect and trust.
Respect comes first, every time. Introduce a new horse to the herd, and you’ll see this truth in action. Only when the hierarchy is well established will you see emerge the equine version of friendship; that is, trust. This is the turning of two horses — apparently spontaneous, but actually subtly cued by the dominant horse — to scratch each others’ withers. It is standing head to tail in the shade, flicking flies from one anothers’ faces. It is the magnetic pull of follow-the-leader that moves small societies within the herd from place to place throughout the day.
Horses, clearly, are wired for liberty work. If I am good enough, if I can learn their language thoroughly, I should be able to dispense with the artificial tools I use to compensate for my inferior size and strength. If I have earned the right to lead, my horse and I will move in seamless dance with no physical bond between us. When we fail, it’s my fault every time. The horse already knows her part; it’s my responsibility to learn mine.
A horse at liberty demands clear, consistent, honest leadership. If she doesn’t get it, she rebels.
Proof, yet again, that horses are wiser than men.
Shall We Dance?
Call Me Crazy: A Word about Natural Horsemanship
Twenty Minutes in Photos: Trust-Based Training at Work
Heart in My Hands: Gentling the Unhandled Horse
Shot in the Dark: Liberty
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Consolation has felt different since completing her first Limited Distance race at Old Selam. I hope I’m not anthropomorphizing here, but she seems to have discovered her own athletic ability. (“What? You mean I can go that fast, that far? Cool!”) Always one for conserving energy, resisting haste, and smelling roses, Consolation has recently exhibited an unprecedented level of enthusiasm during our conditioning rides.
Problem is, her newfound energy doesn’t always translate into the much-desired increase in speed. As any rider knows, a horse’s energy most often moves in one of two directions: forward or upward. So. If Consolation ain’t goin‘ forward…
Yes, my little gray mare has decided that conditioning rides are exciting. So exciting that she ought to bounce along at a medium pace, head up and eyes bulging at such formerly uninteresting bits of landscape as rocks, ruts, and tangles of weed. When moving through a particularly nerve-wracking area, she shifts into “suck-back” mode. You know the feeling: it’s visible in the photo below, in which I’m encouraging Consolation to investigate a water trough in ridecamp at Old Selam. The horse is moving forward but thinking backward, torn between curiosity (or duty) and apprehension.
“Sucking back” is all well and good during introductions to new sights. I can hardly expect my young horse, a prey animal through and through, to accept potential hazards without suspicion. However, sucking back while attempting to trot through familiar territory is not only frustrating, but immensely tiring for the rider, whose body must urge forward a horse that refuses to come up beneath it. If you haven’t tried it, just believe me — posting is only comfortable when the horse’s energy fuels the motion.
I don’t like to be uncomfortable. So, I decided to do something about it.
But what? Spooky and “looky” though she was, I had no interest in curbing Consolation’s increased interest in her conditioning rides. My task, therefore, would be to preserve her energy while changing her behavior — that is, to convert her spooks to speed.
Step one was to ensure that Consolation’s “go” button remained firmly installed. Without a clear, mutually-understood set of signals by which to communicate, I had no hope of achieving my goal. Working first from the ground and then from the saddle, I reviewed the familiar progression: think, suggest, ask, tell, demand. (Physically, this translates to: look, lean, click/kiss, squeeze, kick.) After a brief tune-up, she responded well.
Time for step two. We headed out on a stretch of road we’ve covered scores of times during the summer’s conditioning rides. As expected, Consolation’s gait was elevated and her emotions jangling. Almost immediately, she spotted a potential hazard — a fallen tree branch. The instant I felt Consolation begin to check — a tension so subtle that it manifested only in a tiny shift of weight toward her hindquarters — I urged her forward. Her suck-back escalated, and so did my “go” command. It took a moderate knock on the ribs to keep her trotting past the branch, but trot she did, and at a respectable speed.
Step three: repeat as many times as it takes. Obstacle by obstacle, mile after mile, we repeated the process. Hesitate, urge, suck-back, insist. I allowed her to swerve away from dubious objects, but she was not to slow her pace. Gradually, Consolation’s suck-backs transformed into mere elevated trots, and their numbers decreased. Several rides later, she began to exhibit the behavior I wanted: increased speed in the face of increased apprehension.
Instead of stopping to stare, Consolation is learning to charge through or past her fears. In the early miles on a cool morning, when her energy levels and emotions soar, a quick think-suggest-ask progression from me irons her bouncy trot into smooth and speedy extension of the sort I’ve waited months for her to discover. We achieve faster times and better conditioning effect, and I’m looking forward to three LDs at Canyonlands like you wouldn’t believe.
Let me tell you, my friends, it feels fantastic.
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